Thursday, 29 September 2022
Financial Resolutions 2022 - Financial Resolution No. 6: General (Resumed)
It is worth noting that there is literally no Opposition Deputy in the Dáil Chamber right now. As I look across at a phalanx of empty benches, it is a point worth noting.
This is a good budget for families, small and medium enterprises and businesses generally, schools, students, those who police our streets, those who are at the receiving end in terms of need in acute healthcare, public transport users, employees, schoolchildren and the most vulnerable in our society, including those who are addicted and their families. It is also a very prudent budget. For six years I have been a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Budgetary Oversight and at every meeting with previous Ministers for Finance I have raised the issue of corporation tax and the warnings by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, about our over-reliance on corporation tax and our vulnerability with regard to corporation tax as a source of expenditure. This is the first Government in my experience that has taken the advice and warnings of IFAC seriously. It has put a significant sum away and plans to put an even more significant sum away next year to protect and insure against any other shocks that the economy may experience.
The background to this budget is the weaponising of energy by Russia resulting from its invasion of Ukraine. Many of the challenges we are facing right now would not have arisen had energy supply and energy sources not been weaponised in such a way. It is important for the public that this connection continues to be made because it is so easy to lose connection with the reality underpinning some of the incredible measures, particularly around energy, that have been required, including the commitment to pay businesses of a particular size up to €10,000 per month to assist them with their energy bills.
I was out and about at a number of constituency engagements this morning and several constituents asked me what I thought of the budget. I told them that what I think of it is not really important and asked what they thought of it. There was a broad welcome for the budget. That is the impression I am getting. Having spoken to a number of businesspeople in recent weeks in relation to the energy piece, I know that many of them will be breathing a very deep sigh of relief, not just today but in terms of how this budget will assist in the months ahead.
A number of family-friendly measures are worth mentioning. Obviously, the childcare costs measure is a big one for young families and the situation with regard to childcare and crèche fees will be improved again next year and built upon. Things like the energy credits, free primary schoolbooks, reductions in university fees and the retention of reduced public transport fares are welcome, as are the pension increases for older families, couples and individuals.
There is another key measure which I will take some responsibility for, unless someone says I was not the only one to raise it. I raised it at the aforementioned budgetary oversight committee after a constituent of mine raised it with me and pointed out that some businesses are doing extraordinarily well. Last year the Government introduced a measure enabling businesses to give a €500 tax-free gift to their employees. The piece for the employer was that he or she did not have to pay PRSI on it. The constituent I spoke to asked if that could be raised to €1,000 this year because there are employers out there who would like to make that kind of gift to their employees. I raised it with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, who passed it on to the Minister for Finance. Not only has the increase to €1,000 been included in the budget, but provision has also been made for an employer to give that gift twice. Imagine employees receiving a gift certificate or One For All voucher in mid-November or on 1 December. This quite substantial measure has been somewhat overlooked in the reporting of the budget but I would encourage those employers who are doing very well to consider using it.
The budget has been reasonably good for third and fourth level students but I want to highlight the plight of PhD students. This Government is more committed than any previous government to higher education and has the first Cabinet Minister with full responsibility for higher education. However, we are not giving enough to PhD students to enable them to study. Without the resource of PhD students, the country will be poorer in terms of enterprise opportunities that may lie ahead. In particular, I want to mention educational and clinical psychologists. The health service is so short of clinical psychologists and they have campaigned for an increase in the amount they receive to €24,000 per year. I ask the Minister not to focus solely on clinical psychologists because educational psychologists have as important a function in our society. We really need to look at that PhD piece.
Garda resourcing has come very much into focus in the last number of weeks and while I am glad to see the recruitment figures for next year, there are also pretty significant attrition rates in An Garda Síochána. This is not just due, as would traditionally have been the case, to retirements. Some gardaí are leaving because they cannot afford to live in Dublin, while for others the nature of the job is so challenging, including a lack of promotional opportunities, that they have decided to seek alternative employment. That should be a cause of concern for the Minister and the Government.
I would like to see more resources allocated to new technologies which, as the Acting Chair knows, is a subject close to both our hearts. The Road Traffic (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has gone through the Dáil and now has to go to the Seanad, and includes provisions relating to scramblers. Technology, including drone technology, will be needed to police the use of scramblers. I would like the Garda and Minister to have a conversation about that.
The building blocks measure is probably an issue. There are apartments in my constituency that need remediation, and people expected measures in this budget. This is the measure that the Minister for Finance has decided will help to pay for pyrite, mica and defects generally. I have two issues with it. Obviously, it will affect every builder or contractor who buys concrete materials or blocks. The problem is that the people who will ultimately pay for that comprise a much smaller group. They will, more than likely, be first-time buyers or whatever. These measures have to be paid for. They are significant. Social housing construction is outstripping private housing construction. If this was repeated next year, the State would pay itself, through local authorities and approved housing bodies, because they are the ones who would be purchasing materials or paying contractors. That is not what we want.
Ultimately, something dramatic has to happen with the Construction Industry Federation of Ireland in respect of facing up to the reality, in particular in regard to defective apartments and homes in Dublin. I want to assure my constituents and those who have raised this issue in the Construction Defects Alliance that this is an issue that will not be left sit.
We talked about public transport fares. Reducing fares is great, but if there are no buses on routes reduced fares are of little use to anyone. I note the apology by the National Transport Authority, NTA, to commuters yesterday. That is about as useful as reduced fares when there are no buses on routes and young students, in particular young female students, travelling late in the evening, are left stranded at bus stops and do not know until the last minute what is happening until the bus that is due disappears from the schedule. My understanding is that when free school transport was extended in the summer and there were not enough buses, the Department seemed to find buses from everywhere. I would say to the NTA that it has its own public service obligation to commuters. It needs to go out and find buses for these routes until such time as a contractor can supply buses to those routes. An apology is simply not sufficient and flies in the face of Government measures. The Government has taken successive steps in regard to making public transport much more affordable and attractive. The NTA simply cannot provide buses on the routes to supply and meet the demand that is out there.
The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, is present. A number of items relating to acute neurological healthcare are welcome. I welcome the funding for an issue that is close to my heart, namely, Huntington's disease. The Minister of State knows that I served for a number of years on the Tallaght drugs and alcohol task force. There is an additional €10.5 million for the drugs strategy and a further €4 million for the expansion of community and residential addiction services, which are so important. There is almost €1 million for care pathways for high-risk drug and alcohol users. One measure I welcome is the €1 million for monitoring new and emerging drugs. This is a budget that is very broad in its scope and encompasses those who are signed up to the social contract in our society. It has done its very best to meet the challenges that face this country heading into winter 2022 and spring 2023.