Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Finance Bill 2017: Second Stage (Resumed)
The Bill before us deals with a raft of issues, particularly on the farming side where concessions were made which I welcome. As the food industry, our largest industry, and its exports grow apace, fundamental issues face the farming community. I had discussions this morning with Teagasc and I meet others daily. The dairy industry is powering ahead. It has had a successful year but it depends on the global economic markets. There is great price volatility. Commodity prices this year turned out to be better than predicted. However, many commentators say that the tillage industry is under savage pressure. Indications were given to Guinness in the past couple of weeks that it might not be possible to grow the malting barley in Ireland to produce our internationally famous product. That is fundamental to how we view the different components of the agriculture industry.
I am a beef farmer and the margins are very tight even with the most economical base. That has huge implications for a large area of countryside, particularly the marginal areas where people continue to farm on an off-farm basis. There will be a major shift over the next ten to 15 years because while farmers continue to farm land that their parents derived a full-time income from out of pride the next generation does not have the same pride. They have off-farm income and are not returning to the land. That will lead to people leaving rural Ireland. The former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, set up a beef forum which was a talking shop and has not delivered anything for the farming community or the beef sector. There does not seem to be a clear plan in place for how to protect this industry into the future or to protect those who are willing to get their hands dirty and comply with every single regulation imposed on them to make sure they have a world class product that they can sell in Europe, where the standards are extremely high, or in other parts of the world. My constituency colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is away with a trade delegation this week and I wish him the very best of luck with that. He understands farming and how to protect the small farming units. Many industries in rural Ireland depend on that. The spin-off is enormous.
The pig industry and white meats have moved into huge units. Will the beef industry go the same way? We need a very clear, distinct plan. We have a product we can sell but is the margin being returned to the guy who is willing to work hard, and get his hands dirty to make sure there is a product for people to buy? That is one of the most fundamental issues facing farmers.
How is Ireland going to develop in the next ten, 15 or 20 years as we emerge from recession? The census results from 2011 and 2016 continue to show the east coast growing. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, comes from a western most part of the country. Are we losing population in those places? How will we ensure the population stays there? We need proper broadband services. There are people doing highly skilled high tech jobs in remote parts of the country, for example, Ashgrove Engineering on the Mallow to Killarney road or Avonmore Electrical. Their products compete at the highest level in the European Union. They are far away from the ports in Dublin and on the east coast but their motors are servicing the Scottish wind energy industry and are going to the Continent. They are looking to enter markets in France and elsewhere.
There are people there with fantastic skills who are willing to work and live in those communities. In respect of rural electrification in the 1940s and 1950s and telephone wires to each house in the 1970s and the early 1980s, I was only commenting on rural electrification. We saw the storm last Monday week and the devastation it caused, but by and large the infrastructure that was put in place in the 1940s and 1950s stood the test of time. An awful lot of it withstood the gale-force winds of Storm Ophelia. It was put in with limited resources. Regarding broadband, there was a very coherent plan involving the Vodafone-ESB joint venture to use the infrastructure that is there to bring broadband and fibre-optic cable to every community, no matter how remote, every house and every business because it is fundamental. We will not be able to contain or develop the east coast and have all the industries. If we look at the local elections in 2014 and the boundary changes, we can see that extra seats were given to areas east of Mallow and the seats were taken from areas west because of the population drop. We will not be able to continue or contain the amount of development and we need to look at those places. We have Munster Joinery on the Cork-Kerry border. No planner, IDA official or official in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation or its predecessors would have ever have advised anybody to set up a plant of this magnitude in a remote part near Ballydesmond and Knocknagree. In excess of 1,300 people are employed there at the moment. It is delivering all over Ireland and to Great Britain and on occasion. It has also broken into the US market. It must be complimented but we must take the blinkers off.
We are going to debate the national planning framework here tomorrow before the public consultation concludes. We need to look at the resources available in rural Ireland and putting basic infrastructure into it to ensure we are looking at this as an alternative and to try to persuade young people in particular to stay in and add to their own communities. The infrastructure is there in terms of schools, social infrastructure and family networks. Young people are working and living in Dublin and have moved to where the employment is. I know families where grandparents get on the train in Mallow or maybe further west in Rathmore and go to Dublin to give a helping hand. That is fine when parents are in their late 60s or early 70s, but in ten or 15 years, will we be left with a part of the country with only aged people and no young people? If we look at places where there have been massive housing developments over the years, the people living there are all of the same age group and go through the cycle of life together. Prior to that, there was huge family support.
In respect of the national planning framework, which we will be looking at tomorrow, we must make sure that it is as easy to get planning in rural Ireland as it is in urban areas. Regardless of whether someone is in Cork or any other county, the talk will be about the same difficulties with planning. Between 2008 and 2015, when very little planning was going through, the planning regulations seemed to have been hardened, tightened or made more difficult. People are certainly willing to invest their hard-earned money in communities and build a house of their own. I have seen reasons for refusals of planning such as the applicant not being from the area or he or she had been living outside the country in Australia or elsewhere for one year between 2009 and 2010 and the total did not add up to seven years. They were building on a family landholding and their parents were living in the area. It was all documented. This stipulation regarding someone living continuously in an area is ludicrous. Regarding the regulations relating to settlements and tiny villages, a village with maybe a church, pub and a shop and possibly no detached house but houses scattered in different parts in a cluster is deemed a settlement under the planning regulations. If a person had been living in the village and wanted to move 300 yards either side of where this so-called settlement is marked out on a map, he or she could not do it because it would be deemed to be moving outside an urban area, an area which would have a church, pub, shop and school. That is ludicrous and does not show any imagination in terms of how we implement planning regulations or planning Acts. We must be very careful because every planning application costs thousands of euro. We have situations where people who went to Australia and who have been living there for eight or nine years and now want to come home are being refused because they are not at home. They want to have their planning, build their house and then come home to Ireland but they are refused because they are not physically living in Ireland. That is another ludicrous situation where planners have interpreted matters too severely. They should be more accommodating in terms of how planning permission is granted.
JobPath, which was developed by the former Department of Social Protection at the height of the recession, is certainly not working. What it is doing in practice is depriving people who are long-term on social welfare of the opportunity to go on a community employment scheme, which is much more beneficial to them. The community employment schemes have been brilliant for communities. We have community employment supervisors throughout the country who should be complimented on the pride they take in their communities, for the amount of work they do in terms of improving the environment people are living in and for engaging with and helping people on the schemes. I have seen the work they do in my area. The JobPath scheme seems to be coming up more and more as a barrier. People go onto JobPath and have one or two interviews and are then debarred from going on a community employment scheme. That must be looked at. During the height of the Celtic tiger, they talked about doing away with the community employment schemes, but those schemes must be looked at fundamentally. They talk about it as a labour activation scheme and trying to get people into the workforce. People are being taken off it at 63 and 64 years of age. They have nowhere to turn to and must be on the dole until they reach pension age. The Government and officials must accept once and for all that community employment has made a massive contribution to our society, be it in urban or rural Ireland. Whatever other schemes are there, the Government must make sure this is developed and maintained, and it must look at the applicants coming off it in their 60s to see if they can stay on the schemes and see out their time. They have enhanced a huge number of small villages and communities throughout the country and have done excellent work in urban Ireland. The question of how we develop it must be looked at very seriously.
I will address two issues in the time left to me. One is the tracker mortgages, which was debated here tonight. There is no doubt it is one of the major issues. There is no politician from any constituency who has not met couples that have been adversely affected by bank decisions over the past two or three years in terms of stifling the information on tracker mortgages. We need to be very clear and firm in how we deal with it. We need to make sure we bring this scandal once and for all to a conclusion. Deputy Michael McGrath put forward a motion tonight and he accepted the amendments tabled by the Government and Sinn Féin. There is room for greater debate. Many Members want to make sure there is proper and lengthy debate about how the scandal came about. In 2008 and 2009 the issue was that the regulations were not strong enough. They were strengthened and the Central Bank was looked at to see if it was fit for purpose. New regulations and international best practice were brought in yet this carried on after all the changes and moral outrage eight or nine years ago. The banks continued to do this and take people off tracker mortgages in the intervening years.
Former Deputy Rory O'Hanlon said to me way back that the Finance Act is like an AGM where we review where we are at and the challenges facing us as we go forward. Many families have benefitted extremely well from the family income supplement. However, for those whose employment increased for a specific part of the year, if there is evidence available that it does not represent their average yearly income, the Department should consider that and not just take a payslip that is out of synch with all the other payslips. It should review it thoroughly and properly.
The Department of Social Protection made a decision some time earlier this year that it was going to do away with the practice of sending out PRSI contribution records. Instead people have to go into the online system to get the records. The Department said it will not send out paper records any more. Many accountants, Deputies and people have been helping people who are approaching 60 or 65 years of age to get their records. The Department is saying people have to go online for this. It is retrograde. I raised it with the Taoiseach last week and I have raised it with the Minister. It has to be changed. The more information people have on their PRSI contributions and the earlier they have it, the better it is for them. The more freely available information they have, the better. The Department is obliged to make sure the citizen has top quality information. To say it is online debars people who are not familiar with computers or who are living in places where there is no broadband. It should be rescinded as a matter of complete urgency because they are entitled to information on what they paid in, what they contributed and whether there are changes they have to make. I ask for that to be done.
Beidh deich nóiméad an duine againn. I fully support my colleague in what he said about the Department of Social Protection and Revenue. People are saying it has to be done online. I do not know whether many Deputies carried back with them the experiences of their clinics and try to apply it in the world of bureaucracy up here. It seems to me there are zealots in the system who think the efficiency of the online system is more important than a person's right to do it the way he or she can and grapple with his or her own affairs. I had a call from my office today saying they could not get social welfare contribution records. What does the Minister of State do when he gets somebody in his office who does not have broadband because he or she lives in the back of the mountain and the Government has not brought broadband there? What about people who do not have a computer and do not know how to work a computer because they are 65, 66 or 67 years of age? That is why they want their records because they are coming up to pension age. We have to set the person up on the system but then we have the information and not them. As the Minister of State knows, despite assurance given to the Ceann Comhairle and letters sent by the Data Protection Commissioner we are still having a fair amount of difficulty getting the system to interact with us on behalf of our constituents. More and more, there are people saying they cannot give us the information because it is confidential even though we got a letter stating that as long as there was reasonable evidence we are acting on behalf of a constituent we should be given the information. The issue has to be dealt with because demanding that people who have no experience of computers do things online has become a new form of terrorism for older people or people who just did not have the skills to learn how to work a computer.
I do not know how many Members have ever tried to fill in a tax form. It is hard enough for people to fill in the PAYE tax form. I mainly deal with constituents whose incomes are in the lower bracket. Many do not have any tax liability but they are still required to make a tax return. Most of these would not just have a PAYE income. Many would have a pension and a small farm. Some would have a small PAYE income of maybe €15,000 or €20,000 and a small farm and they have to make a return. There is a 30 page tax form to fill in for these people to prove they have no liability. There are also crinkly little rules in it. I had a rule when I was a Minister that if they were devising a new form in my Department they should go to some section of the Department that had nothing to do with that form and give it to some official in the other side of the Department and see if he or she could fill it in. It was a fair test. If the official could not fill it in, how could ordinary members of the public fill it in? I guarantee the Minister of State that if he took the Revenue forms and went around to public servants, who, like ourselves, deal with paper every day and asked them to fill in the self-employed form, many would throw their hands up in horror and say they cannot. I know I will be told these people should go to an accountant. They will pay €600 proving they have no tax to pay. In many cases, one might have a farm income in the part of the country I live in of €5,000, €6,000 or €7,000. The gross income might not be more than €8,000. If one has a social welfare payment, it is not subject to USC. If the residual income is under €13,000 it is not subject to USC either. Then there are all the rules on PRSI which are quite complicated. Then one has to move on and calculate the income tax in all of this. It is time we simplified the system for the small people. I do not mind if we have a really complicated system for corporate entities or the big people with big incomes and complex lives with pension funds, hedge funds and every other kind of fund. I deal with ordinary people. Some 80% of the people in this country are on small incomes. We have made a hugely complicated system. When we introduced the USC during the crisis it was supposed to be a temporary tax. I fundamentally disagree with it as I did at that stage even though I was in Government. We had to introduce it to take money in fast. The concept of a three tax system is wrong. The USC can be eliminated quite simply by replacing it with adjustments to income tax and PRSI.
There is no technical difficulty in doing it, but the ordinary person does not have a clue as to what they owe and why they owe it. I bet if we had a question-and-answer session we would find many educated people here, who are doing clinics and everything, but would not be able to answer all the questions either. It would be great fun to have a pub quiz on this with only Deputies allowed in. We would then see how much they know about the low end. We will only talk about people earning under €40,000 and we will see how smart people are at dealing with it.
We were part of this, the present Government is part of it and the system is very keen on it. They hate one-income families and tax them highly. In reality most couples with children at some stage are one-income families. They may not be at the beginning. They might be for three, four, five, seven, ten or 12 years and then they go back working. I accept that most of them work at times or they have a very small subsidiary income. The €1,000 or €1,100 does not compensate for the loss. Even this year it is interesting that with regard to the €750 on the band, the two-income family gets the €750 twice on the band, which divided by five is €150. Yet it is €100 for the one-income family. Therefore the two-income family is again winning.
Two families could be earning €70,000, one with twice €35,000 and the other with one income of €70,000. The Minister of State can out get his pen and paper to calculate the difference of the tax they pay. If it goes to €80,000 it gets much worse. The one income of €80,000 pays much more than the two on €40,000. There are the two PRSI allowances as compared with one. In addition, the one-income family will pay much more USC than the two-income family because the two-income will get the double the amount at 2%, double the amount at 4.5% and so on, and therefore pay much less USC. When the figures are stacked up the difference between two families with the same overall income is staggering. We must remember that most families end up in the one-income phase at some time in their lives.
It also works negatively against people with disabilities. In many families that have a child with a disability, one parent will have to give up work and they are hugely penalised in the tax system.
I think I have one minute left. I would like to have another-----
We made another retrograde move in the past 15 years. Again for some reason the system has this absolute hatred of people who own their own houses. They all want us to live in rented flats at the top of things. There would be many different companies charging us massive fees and we would never really own the place where we live. The Government abolished mortgage interest relief. Only that Fianna Fáil saved the relief it would be gone. It is only temporarily reprieved. The death sentence is just commuted, not abolished.
We got rid of the first-time buyer's grant. It is interesting to ask ourselves one simple question. When we had that and when two gardaí, the garda and the nurse, two teachers or whoever could afford to buy a house, often with just one income, did we have a better and more stable society? Did they actually own their houses and was it to the benefit of what we were doing?
I will come back to this another day because it is time we looked fundamentally at things. It is fine to go into the fine print. This country has got some very fundamental decisions wrong. It is time we all looked at them and stopped letting the system run us. We need to start running the system for ourselves.
Deputy Ó Cuív lent me his pen and the Ceann Comhairle acted as witness to the return of the said ballpoint. These are cherished items.
I am a member of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. We had the director of the Office of Budgetary Oversight in today. I am sure the officials will be interested. They have probably read the director's report at this stage. They should not say they have or else they will completely steal my thunder. There were some interesting observations from the office. No more than the novel aspects of your election, a Cheann Comhairle, in this Dáil, the Office of Budgetary Oversight is a new departure. The director is already demonstrating an independence and objectivity. Her comments on the budget as produced by the Government were interesting and I will advert to some of them briefly.
The Government outlined a number of areas of spending and where it proposes to raise revenue in order to cover that spending. Even on the night of the budget, the stamp duty on non-residential property transactions raised a few queries from Deputies, particularly those representing farming interests. The Government expects to raise about €376 million in 2018. The Office of Budgetary Oversight suggests that this is a static estimate and there can be behavioural change as a result of the change in policy to be expected in response to that tax increase. It also points out that any exemptions introduced would reduce the expected yield. The officials and the Minister may have to revise the anticipated revenue from that.
Deputy Ó Cuív already covered the issue of mortgage interest relief. It is relief that is often taken for granted by householders. It will be tapered out. Thanks to those who negotiated the supply and confidence agreement on this side of the House, that has been rescued in the short term.
Another revenue-raising measure the Minister for Finance referred to on budget day was the introduction of a sugar tax and the increase in excise duty on tobacco. The director of the Office of Budgetary Oversight had a few comments to make on this given that the figures are so critical to paying for the increased spending announced in the budget. She outlined how the increase in tobacco excise duty could actually reduce revenue by up to €40 million owing to behavioural change. Have departmental officials factored that in?
When the Minister appeared before the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, I asked him if he was a consumer of fizzy drinks. I think he might have missed the point. I can understand the justification for putting a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, the budgetary oversight director points out what is blindingly obvious to anybody, which is that the estimate of the revenue to be raised by the new sugar-sweetened drinks tax is difficult to assess as it is a new tax and there will likely be a behavioural response to the introduction of that new tax. Has that been factored in? Of course, there is no tax on the alternative.
On the fiscal space and the discretionary measures, the budgetary office suggests that in the interests of proper planning and management consideration could be given in future budgets to having some contingency built into budgetary numbers. There is no space either side of the fiscal space in this budget. There is no wriggle room.
That feeds back to the last point I made. I speak as a layman. I am not a financial expert by any means. The tax-raising measures may not meet the targets the Minister has set. The Office of Budgetary Oversight also highlights that if the rate of increase of staff numbers in the public service continues at 3%, there will be consequences on expenditure.
There are some practical points on the presentation of the budget. One of the reasons I am bringing this to the floor of the House is that it can get lost in committee.
This point relates to budget transparency. The director of the budgetary office suggests that one way of improving parliamentary engagement with the budget process, in other words, improving budgetary scrutiny and accountability, is the simplification of the presentation of complex budget information. I for one echo the director's call for that. She goes on to say that in the context of achieving a more effective level of parliamentary engagement, the budget documentation presented on budget day is unduly lengthy and complex. The final point she outlines is that the information presented within the core 300 pages of the budget is not always set out in a transparent manner and greater emphasis could be placed on presenting the most relevant information in a way which is easier to navigate. That is coming from the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. It has taken three quarters of my speaking time to outline this issue but it is important. It is also important that this information is fed back and I know the Minister of State will get it in a report. I know that the office engages with the Minister, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. It is important this is put on record in the context of this debate.
I now have fewer than three minutes to talk about some issues close to home and from a constituency perspective. I was in the environs of this House, although not a Member of it, for a number of years when debates on the Finance Bill, some might say, went on for weeks, but those debates were guillotined. I do not welcome the guillotining of the debate because there is much to be said and sometimes it is the only opportunity Deputies get to raise particular issues. I will raise a few issues with the Minister of State. One comment I have heard from families who are not in receipt of social welfare is that 1 September, the first day back to school, has become the new Christmas for many families in terms of the expenditure they face in buying school uniforms, school books and materials for school projects. Many people have said that provisions in this regard should be available to a wider range of people and not only people who are availing of social welfare payments. Families who are fortunate enough to afford a holiday head straight back into the back to school season and it is incredibly onerously expensive.
Another matter that has been close to my heart for a number of years is the apprenticeship programme. There are 285,000 students in third level institutions in this country but only 11,500 are apprentices. When Mr. Coffey from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council appeared before the Committee on Budgetary Oversight he said that with unemployment at 5%, there are very few trades left within that 5% cohort. There could have been engagement in terms of those programmes three or four years ago and those apprentices would be graduating now, having come through the programmes. They would be available to build the houses we need to build and engage in the construction programmes we need construct.
I could spend an hour speaking about transport. Major work needs to be done in the area of transport. I am not enthralled by some of the measures provided because they are not being addressed in the budget with sufficient urgency.
As my party's spokesperson for Dublin, I want to highlight the area of tourism and the different attitude of the Government towards tourism and agriculture. It can be seen in the research and development spend of both Departments. If we consider the research and development spend in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, under one of the headings, it is close to €350 million odd and yet during the crash and recession the most resilient product we had in this country was tourism. It was incredibly resilient and we still failed to invest significant amounts in it. Only small amounts were invested in research and development in tourism as an economic product for the country. I agree with what Deputy Ó Cuív said about JobPath.
In terms of our two-tier recovery, a cohort of people are doing well but the Government needs to be aware that there are many people who manage quite okay from month to month but if an unexpected bill arrives, if the fridge breaks down or the car needs a service that the family was not anticipating, it causes havoc in the family finances. We need to take any measures we can to ensure future budgets, like the last two, are progressive and that we do not have regressive budgets like those we had for the previous five years.
Táim an-bhuíoch deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an mBille seo. It is not hard to conclude that we are in an escalating housing and homeless crisis. Effectively, we have an emergency crisis. We are at a point where it is now out of control. The figures speak for themselves. Almost 92,000 families are on the social housing list, which does not include the close to 9,000 housing assistance payment tenancies up to the second quarter of 2017. There is a record number of homeless people. There are more than 5,000 homeless adults and 3,048 children accessing emergency accommodation in the State. Some 46% of all homeless people are under 24 years of age. The statistics, dramatic as they are, do not convey each personal tragedy. Each individual has a personal story of anguish and despair. Behind each of these figures is a father, a mother, a child or a family or an individual who have been failed by this Government.
The most effective way to address the housing crisis is to increase the housing supply. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government currently calculates its housing completion statistics using connections to the ESB network. However, concerns have been raised about the level of accuracy of those figures. When set against other data sets such as stamp duty transactions, building completion certificates and building energy regulation certificates, the Department's figures appear significantly inflated. Central Statistic Office, CSO, statistics confirm that there is a problem with the accuracy of the Government's housing completion figures. These figures get skewed when, for example, a house has been empty for more than two years and the owner must apply for a new ESB connection. This can result in vacant units, refurbished homes and other existing empty properties being classified within the new housing completion figures, thus distorting the true housing completion rates. The figures for completion rates issued by the Department could in reality be exaggerated by more than 50%. However, the Government continues to use ESB connection data as a means of measuring housing completion rates.
The Minister has proposed that 3,800 new social and affordable housing units will be built in 2018. These houses will be built by local authorities and approved housing bodies. However, this will not go anywhere near addressing the current escalating housing and homeless crisis.
Sinn Féin in our submission to the review of Rebuilding Ireland proposed more realistic figures to meet housing requirements. We proposed 10,000 new social houses to be built each year, amounting to 50,000 over a five-year period. We showed that this can be done and financed in our alternative budget. In addition, we believe that the Government should abandon the expensive use of public private partnerships, joint ventures and so on to develop mixed tenure estates and regeneration projects on public land. Such estates should include social and affordable housing, rentable and affordable based on need. They should also have the associated social and economic amenities in parallel with any new housing.
This Government and previous Governments have placed far too much reliance on the private sector. This has led to increased rents and a shortage of long-term rental accommodation. People are finding it increasingly difficult to find rental property and when they do, the rents are often exorbitant. We hear stories each day of how even professionals and families with two incomes are finding it a struggle to pay the rent or even to save money. Many rental properties are beyond the reach of low income families, including those in receipt of the housing assistance payment. That is why Sinn Féin has argued for the introduction of rent controls or, to use the new buzzword we now hear mentioned, "rent certainty". This should be based on the consumer price index and tied to inflation, and not the pressure zone system that the Government now has in place.
Sinn Féin believes that the provision of affordable housing for average income earners should be a priority for this Government.
Various schemes rolled out by the Government such as the affordable rental scheme have yet to be developed, while others such as the help to buy scheme only pushed up housing prices. The planning rebate scheme and the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, have also proved unsuccessful at delivering affordable rental or purchase housing. Sinn Féin has continually argued that affordable rental homes could be provided through existing vacant housing stock. As long as the Government continues to adhere to deeply flawed policies and housing plans, remains over-reliant on the private sector to deliver social housing solutions, and does not provide adequate resources or funding, we will always have a housing and homelessness crisis.
The disastrous changing of our planning laws, whereby under Part V we now get 10% of any new scheme instead of the previous 10% social and 10% affordable, has had a hugely negative impact on the delivery of social housing. It was a disaster and should never have happened. We should have left it at 20%. It just never made any sense.
We do not even have a senior citizens scheme in Dublin City Council. The schemes were open to financial contributions from people. They would give up their house and in return they might have to pay the council a third or a quarter of the money depending on their age. That is another means of getting more money. We are talking about finances. It is also a means to contribute towards new housing and should be ring-fenced for this.
The mortgage-to-rent scheme has delivered fewer than 200 units. What a disaster. It could have been very effective but it has not been pushed by the Government for various reasons. On vacant homes and businesses, all we have seen is empty places left, right and centre throughout the country - businesses newly built in the so-called Celtic tiger era. We have seen them everywhere across the city and the country. The wider use of co-operative housing using local authority lands should be pushed harder. We should be looking at building bigger schemes. This thing of doing small infills is every bit as costly and the whole process is every bit as tedious as going through four, five or six houses in one scheme. We should be looking at increasing the sizes in the local authority areas. Co-operative organisations such as Ó Cualann in Ballymun are examples of how we could use more co-operative housing at a lower price. We can use the structural funds which have been put aside to start using those lands. It is very important that this is done.
There are enough resources to tackle housing and health in this country, the two main areas in which we are failing abysmally. It is not all down to money, however. It is also down to ideology and choices. Money obviously comes into it. It is how we get that money and our approach that form the question. We should also be outlawing the hoarding of land. This practice has set prices at a very high level and we need to stop it. More use should be made of the funds NAMA has raised. We have all met credit unions that have money available. I do not know why we have not figured out a way they could supply the funding that we badly need. The European Structural Fund is available as well as the finance agencies from which we can borrow at low rates. There is no excuse for not being able to raise money on the basis of the housing stock many local authorities have, similar to what is done with the voluntary housing bodies.
This housing crisis could have been resolved. There is no doubt that with the right will and the right mind, it could have been resolved. The budget and the ideology behind it have given senior citizens a rise of €5 instead of looking at the health system or the housing or transport issues, or looking at the structural funding that is required to try to improve life for everyone. We should be looking at that but this is down to mindset in many cases.
Tá mo chroí briste. Tá géarchéim ann i dtaca le tithíocht agus le sláinte. Níl gá dó ach tá sé ann, agus tá slí chun é a shocrú ach níl an toil ann.
It does not. Time is flying. I remember the first Fine Gael budget in 2011. It was certainly a very different time overall for the country. That is not to say we do not have our challenges and problems at the moment; we absolutely do. It is remarkable how far we have come over the past seven years. Long may it continue. We have a long way to go yet. It is not really until every citizen in the country feels the benefit of the improved overall situation that we will be able to say we have come out of the terrible crash that we encountered. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 there were huge negative adjustments to be made and it is brilliant to be in a position not to have to make those cuts and to be able to expand in certain areas. The balanced budget has obvious benefits for the citizens.
I refer to the areas in which I have responsibility, namely, tourism and sport. I am glad to say that we have had some excellent outcomes in both areas in this budget. On the tourism side, we are seeing record figures this year on the back of record figures for 2016 and previous years. That did not happen by accident. When we look back six or seven years, the tourism industry was in a very poor place. That happened for a number of reasons. We lost our competitiveness during the mid-2000s and failed to regain it for a number of years. One of the key catalysts to getting our tourism industry back on its feet again was introducing the 9% VAT rate for certain tourism and hospitality services in the mini-budget of May 2011. That has been a major contributor to the growth levels we have seen in tourism over recent years and has been one of the most pro-rural policies implemented by any Government in the history of the State as it has got into every community in the country. There are critics of the rate. The main criticism is levelled at hotels in Dublin that are benefiting from it and that are, in some cases, charging more than what they should be. I look at the search engines daily to see the prices that are being charged in various parts of the country. The difference is amazing between Dublin and other parts of the country, even at this time of year in the shoulder months, as are the prices that are being charged by certain hotels that are very modest in terms of standards but not in terms of price.
One can get excellent value for money in many parts of the country. While there is value to be had in Dublin, prices remain a problem. As a country, we risk huge reputational damage to our tourism product and offering unless this matter is addressed. Reverting to the 13.5% VAT rate is not the answer. An increase in the rate would only be passed on to the consumer and further erode our ability to compete internationally. Some have argued that the 9% VAT rate has done its job. I make the argument that while it has done so, it has a huge role to play into the future. It was the kick-start we needed in 2011, but it is still a vital lifeline for many enterprises throughout the country, particularly in rural areas off the beaten track. For many enterprises, it is the difference between survival and going under during the many months of the year when they do not experience the seasonality that might be experienced in larger urban centres. I have been very vociferous on this issue and I am prepared to defend it because the sins of a few cannot be rectified by adversely affecting the many, which is what I believe a change in the 9% rate would have done. It is welcome that the 9% rate has been retained and that the Government has recognised that it is a pro-business, pro-tourism, pro-growth, pro-jobs measure and, particularly, a pro-regional rural policy. I know that for many enterprises along the western seaboard or the midlands the 9% VAT rate is vitally important. As I said, I am glad that it has been retained. As far as I can see, there is no appetite within the Government to change it in the foreseeable future.
Prior to the announcement of the budget, it was rumoured that the 9% VAT rate was to be increased to 10%. Any such change would be detrimental to the tourism industry. Also, to make that change in a budget with immediate effect would create huge difficulties for businesses because in many cases tour operators and those booking conferences and weddings which account for a huge amount of business in the hospitality sector book 18 months to two years in advance and prices are agreed. Had the VAT rate been changed it would have created a huge difficulty and poor sentiment between customers and business providers, of which we need to be cognisant also.
I welcome the increase in funding for Tourism Ireland to market the country abroad. The CSO figures produced yesterday show a very healthy increase of 3% in visitor numbers in the first nine months of the year. The work of Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland is important and effective. I acknowledge that the level of funding in this area is not sufficient. We could always do with more, particularly in the context of the UK market where we are experiencing difficulties in bringing visitors to Ireland. One could point to the reason for this being the fluctuation in the currency exchange rate and thus the reduced spending power of people coming here. That said, the marketing power of Tourism Ireland in the United Kingdom versus its competitors, VisitBritain and its Scottish and Welsh counterparts, is seriously reduced and in a much poorer place. Our ability to access television advertising is also seriously diminished and this issue needs to be urgently addressed if there is to be a halt to the reduction in visitor numbers from the United Kingdom and an increase in same. Online, print and modern methods of advertising are important but television advertising enables one's message to be sold in a very effect way. Unfortunately, we are currently not able to do that in the United Kingdom. I would certainly like to have some more funding in that regard. However, I welcome the additional €2 million provided. Coupled with the stimulus that is the retention of the 9% VAT rate which is worth hundreds of millions of euro, it is critically important. Not to be all doom and gloom, visitor numbers from North America are soaring, while visitor numbers from Australia, mainland Europe and the rest of the world are, thankfully, very strong. I compliment those working in the agencies for the great work they are doing on these fronts. I was recently in London to meet Tourism Ireland. Since taking up this portfolio I have been to London twice to meet it to discuss various issues. We have excellent people working in our agencies, whom I compliment on the work they are doing.
I also welcome the increase provided for in the budget in capital expenditure in the tourism area. There is now money available to invest in developing the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East. The roll-out of the Wild Atlantic Way was a positive development for the country. Even though it runs from Malin Head to Kinsale, along the western seaboard, areas in close proximity also benefit. Following on from the progress being made as a result of the roll-out of the Wild Atlantic Way, the decision to roll out Ireland's Ancient East was further progress. It is only getting started. It should be borne in mind that a couple of years ago we did not have the Wild Atlantic Way. We had the Atlantic, the wilderness and many ways, but we did not put them all together. Often the small ideas are best. Following on from the roll-out of the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's Ancient East is a positive development. I recently had the pleasure of attending the launch of the Munster Vales initiative in Lismore Castle in County Waterford. This initiative is a coming together of the region within Ireland's Ancient East to market that part of the country. Included in the initiative are parts of east Limerick, Cork, south Tipperary and Waterford. It is an excellent initiative. The branding of this area is very strong. There is a huge offering, particularly of activities. For example, the Dungarvan greenway forms part of the Munster Vales brand. In terms of improvements in the regions, we need to see more of this happening.
I welcome the additional €2 million provided for the Lakelands initiative in the midlands and northern midlands. This will pay dividends for the people living in these areas. There are 230,000 people directly employed in tourism. It is often forgotten that these 230,000 individuals and families are supported by these jobs. My family depended on employment in tourism. My father was a hotel porter for 36 years, prior to which he worked in a particular hotel in Killarney for two years. He also worked on the film "Ryan's Daughter" which put the Dingle Peninsula on the map.
He was a driver. He did take part in the audition process. He left the acting to his son. As I said, he worked in the industry for almost 40 years and our family benefited hugely from that income from it. I have three brothers. We all got to go to college and progress in life, in part because of that income. The 230,000 people employed in tourism are just like my family. They all individually have hopes, dreams and aspirations. The tourism industry provides a huge chunk of employment in the country. We need to ensure the growth will continue but in a way that is sustainable and beneficial to all communities, society and the environment.
I was in Scattery Island in County Clare yesterday where the winners and finalists of the European Destination of Excellence, EDEN, awards for excellence in tourism sponsored by the European Commission and administered by Fáilte Ireland were recognised. Sustainability is at the heart of that. We must ensure that is at the heart of our tourism industry in order that our children and grandchildren can benefit as much as we do. That is very much at the heart of Government policy.
I am glad that an extra €50 million has been allocated to greenway development, which has sustainability written all over it. There is huge potential for additional greenways. Research shows that every euro spent on greenways has a massive return in terms of economic activity. An example of that is the greenway from Westport to Achill. I was on the route from Newport to Mulranny in 2010 and it was a short, quiet greenway. I went back in 2013 and when I was sitting in a hotel in Achill waiting for a taxi to bring me back to Westport after completing the greenway I wrote a blog entitled "Why greenways should be called goldways". Activity on the route included taxi hire, cafés, bicycle hire and many other little shops doing very well out of it. There is great potential to do even more in that regard. Members know of the Dungarvan greenway, which is going very well, and there is much more potential in terms of canal banks, old railway lines and various other assets. In terms of old railway lines, I am particularly familiar with the south Kerry line from Farranfore to Valentia Harbour and lines from Tralee to Fenit and Kilmorna to Listowel. Not only are those assets available but we have an obligation to those gone before us who built those fantastic feats of engineering by hand to make the most of those resources. Not to do so would be a terrible waste. Those fantastic feats of engineering were put in place in the late 1800s when there was little machinery to assist in their construction. We have an opportunity to make the most of them for this generation and for future generations and need to grasp that opportunity. I am, therefore, glad that €50 million has been allocated for drawdown in 2019, 2020 and 2021 and will be working on that within my Department.
In terms of the sports capital programme I was thrilled, working with the Minister, Deputy Ross, that our budget for the current programme was increased to €60 million from its current level of €30 million. That will give us an excellent opportunity to roll out a very responsive sports capital programme for the needs of local and regional sporting organisations. Considering that we had €155 million worth of applications, €30 million would only hit the tip of the iceberg. Thankfully, €60 million will clear much of the backlog and prevent many volunteer applicants having to again go through the very tedious process of application. It will mean very positive outcomes for applicants. Positive health policy, participation and preventative health measures are at the heart of the programme. It has left excellent footprints around the country. Some €911 million has been invested in sports facilities throughout the country since 1998. If one drives around Ireland one will see the great sporting facilities in various parts of the country. This is a scheme that is working well and needs to continue. I am glad that we hope to be able to roll out an excellent programme in the coming weeks that will help increase participation and will give an extra weighting to the disadvantaged in order that they get more out of it.
There was provision in the budget for €50 million in 2019, 2020 and 2021 for large-scale projects above the threshold of the sports capital programme. There are current thresholds of €150,000 and €200,000 for local and regional sports capital programmes, respectively, and an overall budget of €4 million for the regional programme this year. The large-scale projects will now have €50 million available to them in 2019, 2020 and 2021 and we will be inviting expressions of interest in 2018 for such projects.
I am also glad that provision has been made for phase two of the national indoor arena at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown to be completed. Provision has been made for a velodrome and badminton centre to be built thereafter. Those projects are long awaited but are very positive and even though they will not be in place before the Tokyo Olympics, it is hoped that at Paris 2024 Irish athletes will be in a position to contest medals because of having the benefit of those facilities.
I went to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday. As a Kerryman, it was unusual for me to be there and see a Cork team winning but it was the finals of the Cork county championship. I congratulate Nemo Rangers on its win in the football championship. Páirc Uí Chaoimh is a fantastic facility into which €30 million of State funding has been invested. That was financed by capital spending by my Department and is an example of the positive achievements of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in conjunction with funding from the GAA.
I would like more funding to have been allocated to sporting organisations. However, the Government subsidy to Sport Ireland will be just shy of €50 million this year, which is a slight increase in terms of current expenditure. However, we need to make greater future provision in terms of current spending for our sporting bodies, in particular for the high performance area. They have done extremely well in terms of capital funding but more current funding is needed and I would like that to happen because it is money well spent.
Money spent on national governing bodies trickles into every community in the country and increases participation, which is good for the overall health of the nation. Any money we spend on sport today will lead to long-term savings. It is one of the most positive areas in which money can be spent. It is to be hoped that as the overall situation improves, the Government will be able to do more in that regard.
A 2012 report by Transparency International referring to a national integrity systems, NIS, assessment of Ireland it conducted in 2009 said the following:
The 2009 NIS reported that perceptions of legal corruption in Ireland are higher than perceptions of corruption prohibited in legislation. Legal corruption is facilitated when there are no legal barriers in place to curb undue influence over public policy making, prevent regulatory 'capture' and ensure political accountability. Legal corruption played a role in the poor regulation and weak oversight of financial institutions which led to Ireland's banking crisis. The crisis has been described by a parliamentary committee as 'the greatest challenge to the State since it was founded in 1922'.
Bearing that independent commentary in mind, I want to reflect on the Finance Bill and ask the Minister what oversight is in place through his Department to ensure value for money, transparency and accountability. The Government allocates massive amounts of money to companies such as Iarnród Éireann and similar semi-State bodies that have very little or no accountability to the House. Appropriate measures would be forensic accounting, an examination and audit and a teasing out by Members of Parliament of exactly how the money is spent. If that were done, the Minister might get better value for money, better services and there might be a better understanding of why the school transport system, for example, is not as good as it should be and why it, like many other services, is still in the dark ages. There is little or no accountability for the money the Government gives to semi-State bodies.
At every turn they are back looking for more money, but no one looks at the efficiency or the audit within the companies. The Comptroller and Auditor General is very limited in what he does with the money, the spend, that he can examine. For example, going through the Houses at present is the Water Services Bill, and I praise Deputy Catherine Murphy for tabling an amendment that would empower the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine Irish Water's accounts, report to the House and have the Committee of Public Accounts examine them. There was very little appetite for the amendment, but I hope now that my party and the Government will ensure the safe passage of the amendment. Irish Water received €2.6 billion to the end of 2017 and it is envisaged that the State will give it €1 billion a year onwards. Alongside this, the commercial water charges that are being collected by Irish Water and the rates it now charges for the traps at various fast food outlets, for example, will all go into a pile of money that is not examined by the State but which is currently examined, albeit not very efficiently, by the auditor within local government. If we are really serious about ensuring we get transparency and accountability regarding the money contained in the Finance Bill for every single Department, the changes that are necessary to bring this about need to be driven not by the Opposition but openly by the Government. It is my firm belief that if the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, did this, he would impose on Irish Water the same moral compass and decency he has. That is what is lacking in many of the organisations I am speaking about. They feel they have the right to do what they are doing. They feel they have avoided the transparency that would have been imposed upon them if the political classes in this country had a mind to do so and were awake when legislation was being passed.
There is an awful lot riding on the Minister's shoulders. He was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts and saw how it can make agencies and Departments of State account for themselves. The only regret I have, looking back on my ten years on the committee, is that when the various reports were made available to the line Ministers, they by and large ignored them or paid lip service to them, or the very civil servants on whom one must rely to enforce the law just did not bother to enforce it.
That is essentially what happened to our banks. It has everything to do with the Finance Bill what is allocated to the banks, and there is no regulation. The Central Bank does not examine forensically the activities of the banks. There is almost a reluctance to do so. When we look back on the past ten years, do we think any of them are capable of even understanding what moral suasion is? I visited Capita recently on behalf of clients - I do the same in respect of the banks - and its hard-nosed disrespect and the manner in which it bludgeons its customers is shocking. This is not the senior, older bankers. It is the younger, newer ones coming in. They have now been indoctrinated into that very same culture the Minister spoke about today at the press conference. I was there and I believe his sincerity in dealing with it. However, again coming back to transparency and accountability, until such time as he insists on every single bank having an ethical officer, someone who would oversee what is going on and be able to report directly to the Central Bank and to the Minister, he will not get change. The reason he will not get change is that banks are not driven by ethics or a moral compass. What drives banks is money. As one senior person in Capita said to me recently about a client, "Go to your neighbours, your friends, your mother, your father, your community, the credit union, but what we want is money, money, money."
If that is the thinking that dominates in the banks in a culture that has been passed down to the next generation of bankers, the Minister has a job on his hands. I will support him in every way I can to see that culture broken because that culture has broken the nation. It has broken families beyond repair, made their lives miserable, removed hope from their lives and shown in the most awful way, without any shame on the part of the banks, that they have no compassion, humanity or decency. They believe that they live in a State in which this can go on. I do not think any community in the country wants that kind of State. They look for political leadership, but we have not given that leadership for the past ten or 15 years or more. The Central Bank promised it in 2010 and 2015. Charlie Weston wrote about it in 2009. Nothing has happened. It is the same culture, and we must break it within the Oireachtas by ensuring we do these things in committee and by being open and transparent ourselves.
I wish to move to the issue of financial reporting. I have tried for years, again through the Committee of Public Accounts, to ensure that the HSE and the Garda would have one single financial reporting system. I often asked the Minister about this at the committee meetings. They acknowledged again recently that they still do not have a single financial reporting system. What gets counted gets done. If there is no analysis, it is not possible to know what is going on in an organisation. The Minister increased significantly the money that the health services get, but it is going into the same structure, the same old way of doing business, and some of those senior people within the HSE who manage it are not fit for purpose. There are too many managers. The front line is the Band-Aid that holds it all together, and by the time the money gets down to the front line, the services get so diluted that the citizen, the patient, suffers dramatically.
The same applies to the Garda. We can have all the agencies and all the oversight of those agencies we want, but if the culture that exists is not broken, they will not recognise the fact that they are accountable. Garda, banker or politician, we are all accountable and we as leaders within our communities and at national level must ensure through this Parliament that accountability is first and foremost, that the value for money flag flies over this House and that we are not afraid to root out the people who have caused such distress in the State. This is why citizens say, and I heard it said tonight, that if a person does not pay his or her television licence, he or she will get fined. That lone parent in court today was fined €120. Others were fined €350. The banks look at these fines like parking tickets. It is part of their business. It is what they do. They issue fines. As one banker said to his own staff when they asked what happens if something goes wrong, "We will pay the fine and you will get on with your business." He used much clearer language than I could not use in this House to his staff. That is what they think about it, and we have to change that.
I tried in vain to convince the political system in my own party that the National Housing Co-operative Bill was a runner and that it could be worked on. I will give it to the Minister. He can have it. The legislation was written by a very eminent person. The Minister should take it, work on it and change it, but for God's sake, he should stop what is happening in the courts. That has a huge cost to this State and to families and individuals. In the Taxing Master's court two weeks ago, 138 cases were listed from AIB. The lawyers came in and had most of them postponed to another date, resulting in more hardship and trauma for those involved. They have nowhere to turn because the banks have all the money.
They have the power to deal with them in a way one would never expect in a country like ours, yet it happens. That is why I ask the Minister to ensure, when he meets the banks, that they stop every one of the repossessions.
What have not been touched on tonight are the tracker mortgages that have been passed on to vulture funds, where people are threatened with the loss of their homes. These cases are not being counted. The figures the bankers gave the Minister have been massaged and he should not think they are not capable of it. At the finance committee hearings that was the one single thing that came across: they believe an apology is sufficient and that once they apologise, they will hunker down and the storm will pass. I hope the Minister will not let that happen. I hope he will speak to the Minister for Justice and Equality and that some arrangement, through the Central Bank and the banks, will be found to stop the repossession of homes because the cost to the State of not doing so would be enormous. It would have to house the people concerned; it would displace people in the housing market, while the number on the housing list, currently 120,000, would grow significantly. I am not exaggerating; I have heard these figures talked about at the committee. The Minister must analyse the issue and stop the the banks when they state to him that they have identified 14,400 cases. Yes, they have, but they stopped a significant number because they were not identified.
The Minister of State at the Department spoke to Mr. Kissane who is an expert on this issue. He said that if he was given five minutes to deal with every case in a bank, he would be able to tell whether they had been impacted on, but he has never been asked. The Minister and the Taoiseach should bring him in and have him explain to them the truth about what is going on in the banks. PTSB went to the High Court and lost. There were similar cases which it took to the High Court and which it still refused to declare as having been impacted on. The families in question become homeless and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has to deal with the matter also. It is shocking.
In the registrar's court, for which we are also paying through the Estimates, to be fair to some of them, the registrars will stop the banks from what they are doing. In the registrar's court in Kilkenny Bank of Ireland had the biggest recent number of cases. The manner in which it speaks to customers before the registrar is appalling and shows no sense of decency whatsoever. We are allowing this to happen in the court and I am asking the Minister to, please, stop it.
When I investigated the money available to support the housing co-op Bill, we discovered that in Europe there were ethical funds with anything up to €5 billion which were prepared to take a loot at various debts, that is, take them from the banks, and push them out over 25 years and make their profits on them in an ethical way. When they travelled to America, they established that these funds were available and that they were able to help. Will the Minister consider taking the Bill, examining the prospect of raising the money privately and ensuring the Bill at least would have the stamp of approval from the State and save all of the people who are being queued in the banks or the courts to lose their homes?
The Minister must have seen - certainly Members have - adults crying at the table in his clinics. I have seen adults in court break down and cry. I know of one court case that has continued for 20 years. I have been in the High Court and the appeals court and have to say they would want to pull up their socks because the way they waste time in dealing with cases is a further abuse of taxpayers' money.
Local government expenditure is audited after the spend by the local government audit team. I put it to the Minister that there should be one auditor general with a sufficient number of staff to examine all of the accounts for which the office should be responsible, including local government accounts. Why should they be exempt from proper scrutiny? Yes, they are audited, but does it ever appear that they are? Do senior executives in any of the councils ever appear before the Committee of Public Accounts? No, they do not. Is it easy to have a question about an audit answered by local government? No, it is not. There are many such cases which the local government audit team picks up, parks and includes in a report which gathers dust. That is what happens. Every single party in this House has a responsibility, having examined the culture in the banks, Departments and agencies, to act in a way that will send a very clear message that what happened in the past is in the past and that in the future there will be accountability, transparency and respect for this Parliament, something I have not seen for a long time and I certainly have not seen it from the banks.
The Minister has set a trend in his desire to put this right and he certainly has my support. He should remember that his language is soft about what happens in the boardrooms of the banks. If, as Deputy Michael Noonan said in 2013, the ECB has a role when it comes to Bank of Ireland and AIB which the Minister owns, the Minister should telephone the ECB tomorrow morning to ask it to, please, come as a body which has no vested interest except in terms of regulation to guide the Central Bank and not to ask the banks but to tell them that they will have to comply with regulations or else the Minister will have to introduce legislation to curtail their activities and change their culture.
I will attempt to address as many of the points raised in this wide-ranging debate as possible. However, as I am sure Deputies will appreciate, I will not be able to respond to every point made in the course of the discussion of the Finance Bill on Second Stage.
I want to address the points made by Deputy John McGuinness in two areas, the first being about the comments I have made and the actions I have indicated today on the tracker mortgage issue and all of the hurt that has been caused. My language was not soft in that regard. I have unequivocally described the behaviour I have seen in the handling of this matter as being absolutely unacceptable. I said that today very clearly and I have also said it to all of the banks. I agree with the Deputy that, as powerful as words may be - I believe they do have power - all that is capable of responding to this issue is action. Those waiting for redress or, of whom there are many, recognition need far more than words; they need action. That is why I have indicated that if the actions to which the banks have committed or recommitted do not happen, what I will do about it.
The criticism that has been made by the Deputy and others as we have dealt with these issues in the past is the retort of what we will do about it. As a shareholder in a number of the banks and as Minister for Finance with powers available to me next year, I have outlined what I will do if the Central Bank, which also has power to deal with this matter, reverts to me and indicates that the issue has not progressed in the way it believes it should. This, alas, is a matter that the House and I will have to return to across the coming period. I am certain that this will be the case, but what I have looked to do today is outline how I intend to deal with this matter, and that is what I will be doing.
Regarding other points that have been raised on the Finance Bill, Deputy Michael McGrath welcomed the combined measures on income tax and USC. Deputy Pearse Doherty expressed concern about the impact of these changes, but I should point out to him and his party that I have retained the entry point into USC at €13,000. I have also indicated that this should be the ongoing entry point into that code, particularly if that code is, at a point in the future, integrated into PRSI.
Deputy Shortall queried the progressiveness and fairness of the budget. The budget and its tax changes have been constructed to focus as many benefits as possible on the middle and lower end of taxpayers. Overall, the total amount of funding being made available for tax reform and reduction is €335 million out of a total budget day announcement of €1.2 billion.
Deputy Michael McGrath and others have welcomed the tapered extension of the mortgage interest relief, cognisant of the difficulties that a number of mortgage holders in our State face. This is a response from the Government and the House to many of those challenges. I confirm to Deputy Burton that section 69 of the Finance Bill refers to the modernisation of the PAYE system and the preparatory measures to move to a real-time system from next January. It does not relate to a move to the universal credit system that the Deputy mentioned. Deputy Pearse Doherty raised questions about the effectiveness of the help to buy scheme. It is appropriate to retain that policy measure as it is currently available and I will continue to effect and monitor it.
A number of Deputies raised concerns and questions about the operation of the key employee engagement programme, KEEP. I confirm that my Department continues to engage with the European Commission on the deployment of this scheme. We anticipate that, when it is made available next year, it will be of help to SMEs.
A number of Deputies touched on the value and role of certainty in our corporation tax system. I reconfirm my commitment to that certainty while addressing matters that need to be, and are being, addressed within the OECD base erosion and profit shifting, BEPS, process. This was the subject of criticism from Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy, but I ask them to acknowledge that the tax code, which they have criticised, plays an important role in the retention of jobs for more than 300,000 people by supporting and retaining foreign direct investment.
Deputy Pearse Doherty made the point that there had not been changes to the research and development tax credit scheme. The review that he mentioned, which was published last year by the Department of Finance, concluded that the tax credit provided a reasonable level of additionality and that the rationale for it was not in question. Given this thorough review, I am satisfied that the credit is working as intended.
Comments were made about some of the moves that I have announced regarding capital gains tax. Along with the changes that we have made to stamp duty, these measures are consistent with having a resilient tax base. If we want to change our tax code to create the conditions for a sector to recover, we must use opportunities like this to revert to a more sustainable taxation rate so that we have a tax base in the future that is resilient and capable of dealing with the challenges that we know we will face.
A moment ago, I acknowledged Deputies' concerns about the banking sector. During the Private Members' motion, we touched on the mortgage tracker issue and all the difficulties that it has caused.
A number of Deputies raised concerns about our Brexit preparations. The strongest economic contribution that we can make to our economy's readiness to deal with potential shocks is to close the gap between spending and taxation next year, have a credible path for the future of our national finances and use that as the bedrock for putting in place measures like the Brexit loan scheme and additional resources for various State agencies so that they are allowed to support companies in diversifying and winning business in new markets abroad.
I am aware of the wide variety of challenges that Brexit will pose, but we have put in place measures to strengthen our finances and support State bodies and we are seeking to provide clarity regarding capital investment so that agencies are better aware of the resources that they will have in future and the private sector, including our construction and development companies, can plan for the future and, in so doing, put in place the kind of investment that will be vital if our economy is to rebalance and respond to the opportunities and threats that we know will present.
Many other matters have been raised and I look forward to discussing them with Deputies on Committee Stage.
I commend the Bill to the House.