Dáil debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Financial Resolutions 2022 - Financial Resolution No. 6: General: Financial Resolution (Resumed)


7:15 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance) | Oireachtas source

As the dust settles on this massive spin operation from the Government in regard to this year's budget, a few things have become clearer. According to many commentators, the next year will see people's living standards decline. Inflation will run at more than 8% for the coming year and living standards will fall by 3% this year and 2% in the following year. The budget electricity grants and the various once-off payments have one common theme, namely, they will attempt to deal with the effects of the crisis but not with its causes. What the Government is offering is breathing space to people who are drowning in a sea of rising prices and the rising cost of living, and while payments are welcome, the process of drowning will continue. The €600 energy grants will move quickly into the profit margins of the energy companies, while the €500 renters’ tax credit will barely register but will be gratefully accepted by real estate investment trusts and various corporate and other landlords.

That is why we in People Before Profit have argued for price controls, rent reductions and rent freezes. Price controls, it was argued by the Government, are just another way of subsidising energy companies, but they are not so if the State refuses to subsidise them. If price controls were allied with a policy of renationalising our energy system, that would allow the State to deal not only with the current crisis but with the looming and ever-larger climate crisis. Like the weather, it seems everyone wants to talk about the broken market in energy, but few will do anything about it. We need to reverse the Thatcherite and Reagan-era reforms that totally deregulated our energy system. Only a publicly owned, controlled and operated energy system can address this crisis and, ultimately, achieve a move away from fossil fuels.

In the past week, yet another giant corporation, Shell, withdrew from the offshore energy projects, just as Equinor did before it. Leaving the unrolling of offshore energy to private, for-profit companies will lead us to the same disaster it did when we relied on private companies for broadband or hospital provision, except that the consequences for our climate targets will be even more profound.

One of the Government's own research papers estimated that in 2016, 475,000 people were living in energy poverty, and we know that the recent price hikes will have driven many more thousands into it. Up to this budget, 370,000 people were receiving the fuel allowance. The various criteria and means-test rules that applied prevented many thousands in energy poverty from receiving the much-needed help from this scheme. I welcome the fact, therefore, that the 80,000-plus pensioners who have been locked out of this scheme will, I hope, now get this allowance, but there are two problems. The 80,000 will not get this help until January, and that means they will lose the €400 bonus that was promised.

Winter is coming, and it is unconscionable that we recognise a problem and a dire need here but defer dealing with it for three months in the middle of a dire energy crisis. The wider problem, of course, is that many thousands more will remain in energy poverty, barred from accessing the fuel allowance. This crisis should be a wake-up call for how we administer this allowance and the payments. We are rightly changing the means test for many pensioners who have been locked out because they had a small private pension that may have pushed them over the limit, but this also applies to many other categories of households, and if we cannot address it in the middle of a crisis, we never will.

Lastly, on the budget for climate and the environment, People Before Profit has consistently pointed out that the crises in energy and climate are intimately linked, and so are the solutions to both. It is ironic the climate received so little attention or comment in this budget. You would be hard pressed to know the Green Party was in government if it were not called out every now and again to justify carbon taxes on ordinary people. The low-key silence on climate in this budget is astonishing, especially when we consider that, as I said, the energy and the climate crises are so intrinsically linked.

According to the headline figures in this budget, the funding for climate, amazingly, is 17% below last year's spend, driven by a 35% cut in the energy transformation heading. A 35% cut in energy transformation during a worsening climate crisis is decidedly odd. That fall in the spend of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications seems to be accounted for this year by the spend on emergency gas-fired generation and electricity grants, but in both cases, as I understand it, large sums, of €128 million and €40 million, respectively, were taken from the retrofitting programme to fund them. Despite the spin regarding the announced targets of 37,000 homes to be retrofitted, we are well behind the existing targets and falling further behind each day.

Like our emission reduction targets, our retrofitting targets are weighted heavily towards the latter years heading to 2030 - mañana, mañana. It is revealing that €128 million is being taken from the retrofitting funding to pay for emergency gas-fired generators. Regardless of the Minister's reasoning for the 17% cut in the budget this year, the Green Party should have argued to retain the funding total and use it to push for greater retrofitting programmes or to trial free public transport. Instead, unbelievably, we are hiring an emergency gas-fired plant to keep data centres running.

Just two weeks ago, the Fine Gael Party and the Tánaiste went into a rage against the report of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare, calling its members Marxists and Shinners, all because the commission had dared to suggest we look at taxing wealth to fund public services we will need in the future. The truth is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil cannot bear the idea of taxing wealth or profits. This budget is about leaving intact a system that is overseeing growing inequality, leaving profits and wealth untaxed, leaving market delivery of key public services unchallenged and not addressing systemic reasons behind the energy crisis and the wider crisis in society.

It could not be otherwise because these two parties have dominated Irish politics and society for the past 100 years. Winter is coming, but I am afraid so is change for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.


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