Thursday, 29 September 2022
Financial Resolutions 2022 - Financial Resolution No. 6: General (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the budget. It is a huge budget and has been welcomed across the board. I had intended complimenting members of the Opposition on also having acknowledged the tremendous efforts on the part of the Government to support people. Unfortunately, nobody from the Opposition is present at this time as they have left early on a Thursday. This budget should get due debate. We have given over time to do so and Government Deputies are here to speak about it.
I acknowledge the tremendous and unswerving effort of my Green Party colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, on the delivery of a 25% cut in childcare costs for parents and minors. That is probably the most significant State intervention support for parents in respect of the affordability of childcare ever, and we are only at the halfway mark. The intention and objective of the Government and the Minister are to reduce childcare costs by 50%. We will approach that in next year's budget, but the reduction in this budget is massive. My children have just finished childcare but I have been spending on childcare for the past 12 years and the cost is eye-watering. If we can reduce that cost by 50%, it will put money back into the pockets of parents. I note the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in his speech yesterday estimated that that measure represents about €175 per month back in the pockets of parents. That is massive. It takes pressure off. It is not just people with children who will benefit from that; grandparents will as well. Often grandparents are left with childminding. That can be stressful and difficult for grandparents but they feel obliged to do it. We are making childcare affordable, which is hugely important.
To go back a step, the pay agreement for childcare workers has been broadly welcomed by the childcare sector, by SIPTU and across the board, and that is incredibly important. We leave our children with early educators and childminders and they need to be paid properly for the tremendously important work they do for our children, so I welcome that as well. Additional core funding has also been provided in order that we can have extra hours as well as funding for childcare workers.
There are a number of other areas in childcare. We forget sometimes, because of budget day and the big reveal, although most of the budget tends to be in the public domain two or three days beforehand, but earlier this year we expanded and brought forward the school meals programme. We expanded the number of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools. I think up to 60,000 children will get school meals this year because of that Government intervention. I can think of nobody more vulnerable in society than a hungry child in a classroom. I highly commend the Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Foley, on that measure. There are also the solar panels for schools. It makes complete sense to put solar panels on schools. It helps them with their electricity costs and they can sell the excess generated back to the grid. It is a small source of income for schools. We often see schools under pressure for income and then parents feeling under pressure on voluntary contributions. Anything we can do to help schools to accumulate a little money is to be welcomed. This is a really smart move. I welcome it.
In transport, again, because of budget day, we forget what we did in the previous year, when we reduced transport fares for the first time since 1947. Deputy Leddin referred to the transformative changes we have to make in transport and how we get people around and get them to work, school and recreation. It has to be on public transport. Public transport has to be affordable and punctual, and cutting fares is a measure towards that affordability. The 20% reduction in fares was maintained in budget 2023. We had agreed it would continue to the end of 2022, but now it will be extended to 2023. It should continue permanently. That is what we should work towards as a Government.
We have continued to develop transport throughout the country. Significant sums of money have gone into all levels of transport. There are new buses. I live by a new bus route to come from Wicklow up to Bray and Dublin, starting early in the new year. There are train carriages arriving into North Wall this week. They are on the seas at the moment. They will go into service around the country. That is continuous, forward-looking Government investment and an understanding that these things take time. When we go from year to year and people do not know what their budgets are, it is hard to plan. There should therefore be forward thinking, rather than going off cliff edges with budgets, in order that people can plan and transport companies such as CIÉ and Irish Rail can plan to purchase that stock.
Under the DART expansion programme, a large number of electric trains are on order. The largest ever order for electric trains was placed earlier this year or last year. I think it is for up to 750 carriages. That is for the greater Dublin area, but we also have the Connecting Ireland programme and new buses being purchased and new services being rolled out. We have towns that never had a bus service before now being served by buses. It is really making a difference in those towns. Buses are not just for getting to work; they are for getting to school and hospital appointments and for recreation and communities. We often think of transport as a service in the morning and evening for people to get into work, but transport builds community. I could go on about the positives of public transport all day, and I have often done so, so I will cut it short now.
We talk about this budget being a cost-of-living budget. Energy costs are through the roof and gas prices are spiralling because Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and cut off gas supplies. That is the reason energy costs are high. They are high for everybody in Europe, and everybody is suffering as a result of high energy costs. The introduction of the three €200 energy credits, in November, January and March, to coincide with the billing cycles will help people. We do not want anybody to be afraid to turn on the heat or the lights. The energy credits will help. People should know that they are on the way and will come with the billing cycles.
The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, will look with fairness at mounting energy costs for people as bills build up. The moratorium on disconnections is very welcome. People should be assured that the Government is supporting them with the electricity credits, the various double social protection payments, the double childcare payments and the double fuel allowance payments. There are targeted measures as well. There are double payments of children's allowance, which is paid to everybody. That is what we do.
As for the grant system we have, the short-term challenge on energy is, ultimately, to get through this period while gas prices are high and the war is ongoing. We do not know how long that will last, but the Government is committed to helping people through that period. We need to think further into the future about how we never again fall into the problem of this dependency on fossil fuels, the prices of which are going in only one direction. Be that diesel, petrol, oil, gas or whatever other type of fossil fuel, it is running out and it will only go up in value and cost. We therefore need to think to the future and to renewables. I think it was the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, who spoke about the resources to go into MARA, the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority. Ireland's energy future is in renewable energies, our offshore capacity and our massive sea area.
We can become an exporter of energy to Europe. Countries like Holland and Germany are looking at us with jealousy because of the size of the ocean reserve we have, the capacity we have in natural resources and the hydrogen we can develop for export. We can export that renewable energy through copper, through the two electricity interconnectors to England, one of which is under construction and the other of which is in operation, as well as the interconnector to France, or we can export it as hydrogen. We will also be able to use that hydrogen for our own electricity generation. Gas plants will be converted to hydrogen and that is the future. We will retrofit every home so that homeowners can take advantage of the abundance of electricity we are going to have. We will heat our homes with electricity and will have solar panels on every roof. We have talked about free solar panels on schools but we also have the grant that we rolled out this year. A €2,400 grant is available to every home in this country, which makes a lot of sense. If one puts a 2.5 kW solar installation on one's roof, one will probably cover one third of one's electricity needs and at the rates being charged for electricity at the moment - we do not know how long that will last - one will get one's money back in around seven years. That makes a huge amount of sense. More and more people are getting solar panels installed and more and more companies are providing solar equipment. As that ramps up, it will create more jobs. These are clean, green jobs that will last into the future. That is how we will have an economy that is secure in its energy, in the direction it is going in transport, in decarbonisation and in cutting down on our carbon emissions. It provides an economy that is secure so that we can fund health and education and support our people through these really difficult times. That is the future vision that I have for this country. That is the future vision the Green Party has had for a long time and I am so happy to be part of a Government, with our coalition partners, that is putting these things into practice and putting in place the policies from the programme for Government we agreed.
Finally, I want to comment on the vacant homes tax that was introduced, which is a first in this country. This is Ireland saying that it can no longer tolerate vacant homes and that we are going to take action on it. There cannot be so many vacant homes when so many people do not have a home. I welcome the measure and thank the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, for introducing it. We can expand on it, bring more properties into play and make it an activator of houses rather than a revenue generator. I also welcome the Minister for Finance's comments on property and the Commission on Taxation and Welfare. He welcomed the commission's proposals on changes to the local property tax and the site value tax. They require careful consideration and consultation across government and I look forward to same.