Thursday, 29 September 2022
Financial Resolutions 2022 - Financial Resolution No. 6: General (Resumed)
I have listened carefully to the previous contributions. I have listened to many contributions on the same subject over many years. The usual clichés used to be trotted out, such as "Too little, too late". Somebody resurrected that phrase again, with some encouragement, in the past few days. The phrase "Opportunities lost" is now a fable. We were told we could have done more and did not do it, and that the budget is a failure. All of those things have been trotted out at various times in the past.
The budget is excellent. It does what is needed now to address the issues that are pertinent and pressing and that are affecting people's livelihoods, their cost of living and their families. It does not resolve everything; no budget ever did. There were always people who said the Government could and should have done more and that if they had been in government, they would have done more. The important thing is that the they are usually the Opposition. They would always do more, until they get the chance to do something and then there is something missing.
All credit is due to Ministers for their presentations and the manner in which they went about addressing the issues that are pertinent and pressing now. In education, that involved school transport and pupil teacher ratios. There are some outstanding issues in the school transport system. I have raised the issue a few times and it is to be hoped it can be resolved relatively easily, in particular students with concessionary tickets.
I want to briefly mention that this was made possible because the country was run well in the past two and half years, even in difficult circumstances and in the face of an international and national economic crash before that. If this country had not stood its ground in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and 2011 and faced up to its responsibilities, we would not able to do anything now. It would not be possible. We would still be going around with begging bowls.
I recall people saying a couple of years ago that money should not be put into what became the rainy day fund on the basis that it was raining heavily outside at the time. If precautions had not been taken then, we would not now have independence and be able to do the things that need to be done. There is always an unforeseen threat coming down the road. That remains the case still, and it may remain the case into the future.
I was on a committee with the now Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications between 2006 and 2008 when the energy industry was being reviewed. The European Union was, correctly, attempting to create an international grid in such a way that there would be some electricity at all times readily available and generated, and Europe would eventually be independent in terms of energy production. That did not happen for many reasons. In this country, we failed to deliver it. I will not mention any names, but an announcement was made to the effect that we had sufficient energy, or even surplus energy, for the foreseeable future and there was nothing to worry about. Of course, that person was speaking against the background of a country that was on its knees in an economic recession. That prediction was completely and absolutely wrong. At the time, EirGrid should have looked much more carefully at the situation that presented.
There is also an issue regarding wind-generated electricity. I have heard an argument, that still continues to this day, about offshore wind generation. Offshore energy generation means that people want it to be away from them in order that they do not have to put up with it. I would warn against too much reliance on offshore wind energy at this stage because it requires at least ten years of heavy investment that has not yet been put in place. We would have to import it and produce more energy onshore. There are still some places where we can produce more onshore.
There were other interruptions such as the undergrounding of all cables. I recall going to Italy some years ago and looking at the cables all over the place. They were up the sides of mountains and so forth. It was good enough for there but we were to go underground in the same way as the Netherlands. There is something of a difference between the terrain in the Netherlands and here. Digging into rock formations takes much more ingenuity than driving across a level plain. Much more needs to be done yet with some urgency.
There is no use in waiting for the lights to go out to take the means that are available and within reach and put them into operation. That is an area on which we need to focus in the future. I agree with my colleagues that the time will come eventually, I hope, when electricity can heat homes and good insulation and energy conservation will do that. It is a good combination.
It is expensive to retrofit houses and so on. It is not easy by a long shot. The biggest contribution that can be made is double or triple glazing of doors and windows. It completely eliminates the escape of heat and noise for those who live in areas where they are concerned about noise such as near motorways or airports. The issue can be, and needs to, be dealt with in a more focused way. We need to examine it and see how and when we can produce the end result, as opposed to saying we have it up and running and it will be done by offshore investment. It will not because it is not there, but it needs to be looked at in a meaningful way.
I could not make this contribution without a mention of housing. Housing remains to be done in an even more meaningful way than it is being done. It is a considerable challenge as it was five or ten years ago. Twenty-seven years ago, I predicted that housing would be the biggest challenge facing the country in the next 20 years. Guys laughed at me in this House and outside it, but I was right. I will make the next prediction now that, sadly, a food shortage will be the next crisis that hits the globe along with the other military challenges we see at present.
That is why we have to balance. I am not chiding my colleagues in the Green Party but we have to challenge those who suggest that we can afford to reduce our food-producing capacity in this country and at the same time survive; we cannot. It does not work that way. We provide food in this country for approximately 50 million people. The knock-on effect of that, if food shortages increase, will be that 50 million people who are barely affected now will be affected by any food shortage in the future. Such a shortage will come rapidly and will be severe. We can think about that because it is a fact.
The budget is tremendous. It addresses the issues as they need to be addressed now and does not overdo it. It holds something in reserve in the event that we have to go again. However, the bit that I have to laugh about is this: the budget has not got through the House and, already, some commentators are asking whether there will be a mini-budget. They do not seem to look across the water to see the result of a mini-budget over there. Even with all the resources it has, the tide can quickly turn into a crisis. We need to talk and act very carefully in a structured way. That is being done.
Suffice it to say that housing and health remain issues. We are not underspending on health, incidentally. Some €22 billion on health is a fair spend. It is a considerable sum and takes a lot of getting. We have to organise it more efficiently than we have in the past and try to ensure that we make the changes that are necessary, long before they become a crisis to cater for the demands that are likely to arise in the future. That is my humble suggestion in that area but I know the Minister and the Government are conscious of that.
I said, years ago, that there was a necessity for an emergency housing programme. I still think that is the case. Even though there has been success, it is efficient to get ahead of where we are to be. If there are 100,000 people on housing waiting lists of all descriptions - both public and private - in a given year, by the time we get to resolving that, there will be 200,000 on the lists, unless we make considerable changes. We have to cater for asylum seekers and, rightly so, and for our indigenous population. Between them, we need to address it in an extra special way.