Dáil debates

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Financial Resolutions 2020 - Financial Resolution No. 7: General (Resumed)


Debate resumed on the following Financial Resolution:

-(Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation)

1:10 pm

Photo of Colm BrophyColm Brophy (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Budget 2021 is the largest investment in the history of the State, at a time when we need it most. It is about allowing the Government to respond to the challenges and opportunities we face both at home and abroad. In budget 2021, I have worked with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs to secure funding that will help those suffering from the effects of conflict, poverty, climate change and now a pandemic.

We will allocate an additional €30 million in overseas development aid funding next year. This increase underlines the priority that the Government and I attach to meeting our aid targets. The budget allocation will stand at €868 million and bring us a further step towards achieving our UN target of 0.7% of GNI* to overseas development aid by 2030. Specifically, this will enable us to respond to the needs of those most affected by Covid-19, to contribute to global efforts not just to develop a vaccine but also to ensure it will be available to people irrespective of income or where they are from. We will continue to invest in global public health because, as the World Health Organization's Dr. Mike Ryan continually reminds us, no one is safe until everyone is safe. Given the scale of the crisis, a coherent, system-wide international response is necessary. The leadership of the United Nations, and in particular of the World Health Organization, has never been more necessary. I will continue to encourage the multinational system to deliver as one and work with our EU partners to maximise the co-ordination, coherence, effectiveness and visibility of our European Union response.

The increased budget allocation for Irish Aid will allow us to step up our work on climate action, to continue to help those most vulnerable to adapt to the effects of climate change. I am very conscious that many of those on the front line of climate change have done the least to contribute to the problem, which is why I have established a dedicated climate unit within Irish Aid, as provided for in the programme for Government. I have asked it to develop a strategy for climate finance and to build on Ireland's emerging climate diplomacy, including as we prepare for the COP26 summit in Glasgow next year. Our climate diplomacy has an explicit focus on least developed countries and the small island developing states, strengthening their capacity to plan and budget for the impacts of climate change, including their ability to access international finance. I anticipate that the links between climate and security will resonate throughout Ireland's work once we take our seat on the Security Council in January.

On the other side of my junior ministerial responsibility, Ireland's global diaspora, I will publish in the coming weeks a new diaspora strategy in line with our commitments under the programme for Government. This will ensure that the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our diaspora will remain at the heart of our policy. The new strategy will also recognise the diversity of the contemporary diaspora and reflect the values of modern Ireland. I very much welcome in budget 2021 the increased funding for the emigrant support programme, bringing the annual allocation to more than €13 million. The programme and a new targeted Covid-19 response fund have supported Irish communities and organisations throughout the world during these difficult times and will continue to do so. The emigrant support programme will always prioritise the welfare of our people abroad.

On a personal level, I have been struck by the dedication and determination of the volunteers within the Irish diaspora communities as they have tackled the challenges of Covid-19 head on and are a great source pride for this country. They have worked quietly and effectively, with the support of our embassy network and through the emigrant support programme we have provided, to have a real impact on people's lives. This vital work will continue in the coming weeks, months and years. As Minister of State with responsibility for the issue, I will support Irish efforts to develop new markets and increase Ireland's worldwide engagement to position Ireland for economic recovery. We are well on our way to achieving our goal of doubling Ireland's global footprint by 2025 but, in these complicated times, we must be equipped to respond to global developments. Budget 2021 will ensure we continue to provide essential services to those most in need throughout the world, whatever the scenario.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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This week I presented my first budget as both Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Minister for Rural and Community Development. The budget of Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for 2021 will be €25.1 billion. This is the largest ever annual allocation and is more than €4 billion larger than the Department's allocation in last year's budget. Much of that spending will be required to meet the ongoing costs of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and an increased volume of jobseeker's payments.

I am pleased, however, even in difficult times, to have been able to secure almost €300 million for a series of targeted measures that will protect some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. We have helped our most vulnerable older people with a €5 increase in the living alone allowance, a €3.50 increase in the fuel allowance and a 100% Christmas bonus for all pensioners, while the eligible age for the State pension will remain at 66 years, at a cost of €220 million. We have supported low-income families with a €5 increase in the qualified child payment for over-12s and a €2 increase for under-12s, benefiting some 420,000 children. There will be an additional €5.5 million for the hot school meals programme and we have made positive changes to income thresholds for the one-parent family payment and the working family payment.

We are supporting people with a disability with an increase in the earnings disregard on disability allowance from €120 per week to €140 per week. In addition, I am extending the training support grant of €1,000 to jobseekers with disabilities who are supported through the employability service. We have also increased the carer's support grant to €1,850, the highest ever rate, benefiting more than 130,000 carers throughout the country.

We have made changes to the PUP so that the self-employed can earn up to €480 per month without it impacting that payment. That change is effective immediately, so people on the PUP can avail of it today. I can confirm that the €480 relates to income from self-employment before tax but after business expenses have been deducted. We are also providing an additional €12 million for the €1,000 enterprise support grant for the self-employed. My Department is here to support and assist anybody who has lost his or her job. We have secured an additional €10 million on top of the €112 million secured as part of the July stimulus package to extend and enhance our suite of employment support measures and I will work alongside the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, Deputy Harris, in that regard.

The Christmas bonus recognises the need of people who are long-term financially dependent on their social welfare payment. Jobseekers have to be on a payment for 15 months or longer before qualifying for the Christmas bonus. In recognition of these unprecedented times, I am reducing the eligibility period to four months for people on the PUP and jobseeker's payments. The total cost of the Christmas bonus this year is expected to be €350 million, which is far in excess of the €279 million paid last year.

As Minister for Rural and Community Development, I am pleased to have secured a record budget allocation of €341 million. This represents a €23 million or 7% increase in funding year-on-year. Funding has been increased for all our rural schemes across the board. I am particularly pleased to have secured an additional €5 million in funding for an enhanced town and village renewal scheme in 2021, which will see a major focus on the development of remote working facilities in our rural towns and villages.

We have much to do across Government and society in building our economy back up and providing people, businesses and communities across the country with the support they need to get through this pandemic. I believe the unprecedented scale of the budget package announced by Government this week is a strong statement of our intent in that regard.

1:20 pm

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the budget debate and I welcome the measures of the budget. There is a number of issues I would like to raise.

On the agricultural side, the long-promised food ombudsman was a commitment going back many years but we particularly zoned in on this over recent years to try and resolve issues in relation to food, especially what the food processor and producer get for their product and what is paid by the consumer for the end product. There has always been a major debate about it and the food ombudsman will bring clarity to that. It is important that we accept there is an issue there in relation to farming. Satire sometimes reflects what is happening in society and the cartoon in theIrish Farmers' Journaldepicted very well how the beef price is going up but not the price being paid to the primary producer. That caption alone shows what work needs to be done by the food ombudsman. I welcome that initiative and I welcome the initiative to ensure there is a targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, programme for 2021 and a number of other agricultural schemes that are there between the end of this year and the commencement of the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, programme in 2022.

In the Department of Education and Skills, the pupil-teacher ratio has long been debated by all sides of the House but it is a welcome development that we reduce that ratio this year. It is vitally important that we give as many resources as possible to the early years of education, particularly primary schools right across the board, because the international evidence and research has shown that when somebody is given a good start in education, it is the foundation from which he or she continues and goes forward. I welcome that initiative.

There is something we have to look at carefully as we go forward. There is a commitment to special needs assistants and there needs to be a discussion on that issue. The scheme has evolved over the past 20 years or so and there needs to be thought given to how we are going to implement that to make sure it is fit for purpose as we go into the next decade.

On disability, €100 million has been given to that area. I hope this will be directed to opening the day services, tackling the waiting lists for needs assessments and occupational and speech therapy, and ending the practice within the HSE currently so that people with huge training, such as occupational and speech therapists, are taken away from contact tracing and put back into the jobs that are needed in the disability sector.

Following the court decision in June on the primary medical certificates, it is vitally important we get clarification from the Department of Finance and the Department of Health to get that scheme up and running. There will be a backlog created in terms of this primary medical certificate and I have been arguing for years that there is a need to broaden the scope of the certificate. While it was brought in in good faith back in the day, it needs to be looked at in terms of the challenges in society at the moment and where it needs to be tailored. I will be talking to Government at all times to make sure there is clarity on that.

An extra €20 million was brought in for the section 39 organisations, which are predominantly providing services on behalf of the State. We need to have a proper discussion about them, especially on the health and education side but right across such organisations. A section was put into the Act that has allowed many organisations to be categorised under it, but it has always been the ammunition of Government to be able to say they are not State organisations but rather organisations providing services for the State by grant aid. We need to look at some of the organisations under section 39 that are providing State services exclusively and the insurance costs they have. We should be looking at bringing them under the State Claims Agency because there is only one underwriter providing insurance for those, particularly on the health side, and there have been rising costs over the years.

The Minister spoke about CLÁR, and the CLÁR funding needs to be expanded and brought forward. We also need to ensure there is CLÁR funding available going forward.

As the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is here, I will speak on forestry and the wonderful initiative there, the NeighbourWood Scheme. There should be a real target in that scheme, and community groups as well as farmers and others should be targeted to make sure it brings a benefit to the whole community as we go forward. That needs to be looked at and enhanced.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Kerrane. The crisis in health at the moment is a battle on a number of different fronts: dealing with Covid care, non-Covid care and all the missed care across a whole range of specialties. This has resulted in 613,000 patients today in this State waiting to see a hospital consultant and 850,000 patients waiting either to see a consultant or for an inpatient procedure or medical support. As context or background, we also have a decade of underinvestment from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. What we needed in the budget was a response and action on all fronts. If I was Minister for Health, I would have made sure we had at least 100 additional ICU beds and at least 1,100 new inpatient beds.

As always with the Government's budget, the devil is in the detail. Going under the bonnet of what it says in the budget and the reality of the ground, it is very different. Regarding the 1,100 acute beds that we were told are additional, in fact they are not. It is 1,100 additional beds over two years, and not one year. It is only 500 additional beds on top of what was there at the end of last year and, in fact, it will only be 197 additional beds on top of what would have been there at the end of this year compared with what will be there at the end of next year. That falls far short of what is required and will not enable our healthcare system to deal with the real challenges that it faces.

The Minister for Health and the Government made great play about the fact that this is a spectacular health budget of €4 billion. It is a lot of money, of course, but it has to be pointed out that most of this money is one-off funding to deal with Covid.

Some of it is to deal with demographics and pay but an enormous amount of that money is to deal with personal protective equipment, testing and tracing and infection control measures. All of that must happen and we provided for it in our budget. When one looks at the core additional supports, services, staff and beds, the budget is less ambitious than the headline figures would have one believe.

It is also the case that there is double counting and smoke and mirrors applied to the deliverables and what has been said. I spoke to a number of hospital managers over the course of the past few days who told me that the 1,100 magic beds that the Minister has talked about cannot come unless there is capital funding and additional physical space. The additional capital funding for health in the budget was €25 million. It is not possible to deliver all the beds that the Minister says he wants to deliver. The plan is even less ambitious than he was trying to portray in the Budget Statement. This budget will fall short of what is needed to make sure that our front-line staff and health services are equipped to deal with the battle on all fronts about which I spoke earlier.

There are some welcome investments in health that I acknowledge, some of which relates to national strategies. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will remember that we had a Private Members' motion in this House on cancer care. I worked closely with the Minister for Health and others to ensure that we secured additional funding for cancer services. I am pleased that €32 million of additional funding has been given to the area, €20 million of which will go to support the national cancer strategy with the remaining €12 million to kick-start cancer services. It is short of what we in Sinn Féin proposed, but it is a significant increase. There was also additional funding for the national maternity strategy and other national strategies. That can and should be supported.

I must also point out that there was some cut-and-paste and copy-and-paste in the Government's plan, based on last year's budget. The Government again wants to take credit this year for reducing prescription charges and expanding the medical card for the over-70s. Those measures were in last year's budget, were funded and not delivered. The exact same measures were in this year's budget. They have been funded this time but let us see if they are delivered.

What we got from the Minister for Health is not a plan that is detailed, worked out and shows that he knows where the beds are and where the additional staff are going to come from. This is a plan to develop a plan and that is not what a budget should be. A budget should be a plan that will deliver.

At the heart of all of this are patients and people. The reality is that 613,000 people are waiting to see a consultant. Some 850,000 people are waiting either to see a consultant or to get a hospital procedure. Those are the facts and realities of a decade of underinvestment by previous Governments. The three-card trick that the Government has played here by putting all of the Covid expenditure into the Department of Health and claiming it is all new money in the health service when, in fact, most of it is one-off funding will be rapidly exposed for what it is. If I were the Minister for Health, I would have made sure that the 100 intensive care unit, ICU, beds that are needed would be there. The Minister knows that there are fewer ICU beds in our acute hospitals today than there were ten years ago. We are in the middle of a pandemic where the virus attacks people's respiratory systems and they need to be treated in an ICU. That has happened on the watch of Fine Gael, Deputy Varadkar and the Taoiseach. They allowed that to happen and have not put enough beds into the system.

I am not interested in wish lists, magic numbers or the smoke and mirrors we have got in this budget. I am interested in real plans and strategies that work and deliver for patients and front-line staff.

1:30 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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Earlier today, I re-read more than 300 comments left by almost 500 people who participated in my online survey on household debt last month. One of those who left a comment was a mother who has been crying herself to sleep so her husband and son do not see her. Another was a person who is living alone and in constant pain but cannot afford to go to the dentist for the major dental work she needs. There was also a father who has contemplated suicide and picked a spot in the house to do it but who has been kept going by his son. Those are the real life experiences of the impact of Covid on workers and families across the State. Many have lost their jobs and others are on reduced incomes even though their outgoings remain unchanged. In many cases, people's outgoings have increased because they are spending more time at home. That means higher electricity bills, more groceries and higher heating bills while rents and mortgages still must be paid. The basic protections, including bans on disconnections and evictions, and mortgage breaks, are all gone. The Government stood idly by and allowed those protections to be taken away even though people continue to lose their jobs and businesses continue to close, as is happening even today.

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, has warned of the tsunami of household debt that is coming, to which there is not even a reference in this budget. This budget should have reversed the cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and reinstated the higher rate of €350. It could have sent a message to workers who have lost their jobs, through no fault of their own, that their income supports should not have been cut and that they would be protected. Instead, those workers have to continue to live on less and not only that, but they will also face further cuts to come next year.

For the second year in a row, core weekly social welfare payments remain unchanged. This is a time when the current rates are already set below the poverty line and far below any minimum basic standard of living. This budget shows no weekly increase for carers, older people, people living with a disability, jobseekers, including those aged 18 to 24 who are expected to live on €112 a week, or the majority of lone parents at a time when, only last month, we had yet another report from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, showing that half of lone-parent families are experiencing enforced deprivation. Enforced deprivation levels in Ireland increased in 2019 before we ever heard of Covid.

The Minister made reference to the removal of the 15-month rule for jobseekers and those on the PUP to allow them to qualify for the Christmas bonus and that is welcome, but the same 15-month rule applies for jobseekers when it comes to qualifying for the fuel allowance. That means that anyone who has lost their job and are now on jobseeker's allowance cannot and will not be able to get assistance with their fuel allowance this winter. The fuel allowance increase of €3.50 per week would be welcome if it did not pale in comparison with increases in costs, the public service obligation levy, PSO, and Electric Ireland rates this month. There has also been yet another increase in the carbon tax, a measure that shows this Government's indifference to people who live in rural Ireland where alternatives simply are not there. This Government has put this charge on the backs of people knowing they can neither afford it nor avoid it. The report on the impact of these carbon tax increases on low-income households still has not been published.

The deferral of the increase of the pension age to 67 is welcome and is something for which Sinn Féin has long campaigned. We need to see the legislation quickly. We also need to see the make-up of the pension commission.

The three-week increase to parents' benefit has led to utter confusion and we need clarity from the Department on what those three weeks mean and when parents will be able to take them because they need them now.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Often in these speeches, Opposition Deputies come into the House to make speeches and there is a feeling that we are going through the motions. I want to appeal to the Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration, Deputy O'Gorman, particularly as a member of the Green Party, to deal with one issue in the budget that needs to be rectified.

We are living through a great sense of hopelessness at the moment but if anyone ever wants to get a sense of hope, they should walk into an average disadvantaged DEIS school and look at what those schools are achieving with infants. The average three-year-old in a DEIS school has one third the oral language capacity of an average mainstream three-year-old. The former has 400 words while the latter has 1,200. The gap in oral language is significant, even at the age of three. What disadvantaged schools are achieving with infants, young boys and girls, is huge and transformational, as the Minister knows because the Green Party is committed to education. The Labour Party has advocated for increased capitation for disadvantaged schools etc. The Government announced a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, from 26:1 to 25:1, which was welcome. That was something for which we advocated. DEIS schools are on a different staffing schedule and will not automatically get that PTR reduction.

2 o’clock

The situation now is that the only schools that will not benefit from the reduction in pupil-teacher ratios are disadvantaged schools that have infants. Every other primary school in the country is getting a reduction in pupil-teacher ratios. That is justifiable and welcome, and I am not suggesting it should not happen. In a pandemic it is important that we reduce what are the largest class sizes in Europe. I think the Minister of State will agree with me that it is utterly unfair that the only schools that will not receive a reduction in pupil-teacher ratios are those disadvantaged schools that have infants.

I can make speeches about all that is wrong with the budget, rehearse all of the lines and do mock anger like anybody else can. This is something that is within the gift of the Government to fix with the stroke of a pen. I will not say it will cost nothing, but it will not cost an awful lot considering the Department of Education and Skills has a budget of €10 billion. There is a list of hurt, disappointment and point-scoring opportunities that I am foregoing. I ask that disadvantaged schools with infant classes be included.

I got a kind of "Let them eat cake" response from the Minister of State's Cabinet colleague earlier today. I was told by the Tánaiste that most disadvantaged students do not attend disadvantaged schools, and that is fine. I felt that comment utterly missed the point because most people would understand that the vast majority of children who attend disadvantaged schools are acutely disadvantaged. Education is their one chance to get out of poverty. In many instances, it is their only chance to get out of grinding and spirit-crushing poverty. Education is the great liberator. If the Department of Education and Skills is making the gesture of reducing class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios, one would have thought it would have front-loaded that for infants in disadvantaged schools. Yet, it is infants in disadvantaged schools who will not benefit from this at all.

After all of the discussion and debate from Ministers who sat where the Minister of State is now sitting, it would be gratifying if my simple five-minute contribution was to lead to this one change so that every school in the country and, in particular, infants in disadvantaged schools would benefit from the reduction in pupil-teacher ratios. The announcement could be made at any stage over the next period of time and would be graciously received by me, my party and those who are teaching and whose children attend schools in the system. It is my one ask. I am not trying to score political points, but I think the Minister of State will agree that it is a valid point and should be recognised.

1:40 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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It might come as a surprise to some people here, but before this budget I had every confidence that the Government would get something right. Instead, it put developers, vulture funds, landlords and big businesses before our older people, carers, the working poor and those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. I am not against big business, but if workers must pay their fair share, that burden should be spread among employers. I received a message from a constituent yesterday which read, "This must have been the most honest budget ever. At least they had the decency to wear masks when they were robbing us".

As the Sinn Féin spokesperson for older people, I am looking at the budget from their point of view. I will not give the usual Opposition speech which tells the Government how bad the budget is. I will leave that up to the impartial bodies advocating for our older people. I will outline a flavour of their opinion.

Seán Moynihan, CEO of ALONE, has, welcomed as I did, the increased investment in home care supports and support hours, something it and other organisations have advocated for over recent years. However, he expressed his concern that older people are not mentioned enough in this budget and said the measures did not adequately reflect the pre-existing and exasperating challenges faced by older people in today's world. He was also disheartened to see that the Government had failed to set the State pension at the average weekly wage agreed in the Government's roadmap for pensions reform. He was not alone in that. I, too, share his sentiments.

Maureen Kavanagh, CEO of Active Retirement Ireland, said Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party committed in the programme for Government to build a society that properly values older people and one in which older people can live full and active lives in their communities. However, in her opinion budget 2021 falls short of delivering that society. She went on to say that the budget was an opportunity to ensure the supports older people need are properly resourced. She is disappointed in the Government and thinks it is a missed opportunity. She is especially disappointed that the Government did not increase the State pension. Older people are spending more time at home as a result of the pandemic, which is leading to an increase in heating bills. An increase in the State pension would have helped older people to deal with the rise in the cost of living.

Age Action Ireland said budget 2021 did not offer the majority of older people the support they need to meet the rising cost of living. Covid-19, the carbon tax and Brexit will have an impact, but the budget did not contain adequate measures to support older people.

The top rate of all current State pension contributions remains substantially below the at risk of poverty rate. Budget 2021 saw no increase in the core State pension rate. It did not allow for any increase in the cost of living nor did it support people who have to withstand economic shocks. Incomes for those who are living with others have stood still since 2019. This is totally and wholly unacceptable and should be changed.

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome some of the positive announcements in the budget in the areas of climate action and transport. Investing in our public transport system, active travel options and improving the quality of our roads and rail lines are all vitally important in addressing our emissions obligations and improving the quality of life of our citizens. Unsurprisingly, I also want to address a number of the areas where we believe the Government has failed and set out why we believe these issues should be approached differently.

Sinn Féin's position on a carbon tax is well known. It is not that we do not want to address the use of fossil fuels in our homes and cars, but we believe targeting people with a punitive tax is not a fair or just approach and it will not actually help. In fact, it will do the opposite. The carbon tax applies to all the things people cannot do without, such as petrol to get them to work, gas to cook their dinner and home heating oil to keep them warm.

The 29% increase announced is inherently unfair as the richer a person is, the easier this tax is to avoid. Those who have the money can buy electric cars, install a fleet of solar panels on their roofs and retrofit their homes, thereby avoiding the tax increase in all of these areas. Most people simply cannot do this. Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said the carbon tax will help people to choose the right thing. The Labour Party said the carbon tax is the litmus test of our commitment to our climate obligations. That reflects the starting position for individuals. I was genuinely astonished by those statements.

Many people would love to choose an electric car and have their homes retrofitted so their heating bills would not be sky high. They would love to choose to have solar panels on their roofs or take a train or a dependable bus instead of sitting for hours in traffic. Most people do not have a spare €50,000 to buy a larger vehicle or retrofit their home and get a heat pump.

By pushing up their bills through a carbon tax, they will have less money tomorrow to do all these things. The Government is punishing people for not being able to afford the cost of upgrading to greener alternatives. That is a punitive and brutal approach that will hamper our transition to a low carbon society and will really hurt people in the process. The people who are being targeted are the most vulnerable and will bear the most significant burden.

The carbon tax increase is already going to impact some of the industries already on the floor due to Covid-19. Taxi drivers and bus operators are going to be hit with significant additional fuel costs all while their businesses have been decimated. Again, these industries want to transition to cleaner and greener alternatives but affordable, realistic alternatives are simply not there yet. Punishing them with higher bills now will make their precarious financial situation worse and will not actually help the environment. As my time is limited I will conclude on that point.

I look forward to the Government and the Ministers publishing more details on their budget proposals, particularly in the area of retrofitting which was light on detail. We know that there are very significant delays and waiting lists and the figures in the budget need significantly more scrutiny which I look forward to giving.

1:50 pm

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Senator Pippa Hackett):

This year’s budget comes at a difficult time for us all. As we cope with Covid-19 and face the possibility of a hard Brexit, we must ensure that our recovery, when it comes, focuses on sustainability and on the environmental commitments contained within the programme for Government. The EU Green Deal and its recent strategies on farm to fork and biodiversity copperfasten this resolve. As Minister of State with responsibility for land use and biodiversity, I am particularly proud to see that so many important measures provided for in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s budgetary allocation will stimulate nature-friendly farming practices and will encourage and incentivise farmers to do what they can to enhance their land while also producing high quality food.

Farmers know more than anyone that climate change and biodiversity loss have a direct impact on their farms' viability. They know that the future of food production depends on having a healthy environment in which to farm. I am delighted that the ring-fenced €23 million from the carbon tax along with additional funding which has been announced by the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, will be allocated to a range of new pilot environmental measures which will include aspects such as habitat creation, pasture management for biodiversity, and re-wetting. This funding will contribute to the development of a pilot scheme to encourage environmental action from farmers who are not currently part of GLAS and to a number of pilot environmental actions that will be available to farmers on a broader basis. Importantly, these pilot actions will inform the development of a major new flagship environmental scheme for agriculture following on from the GLAS scheme.

In addition, I have secured more than €100 million for forestry. This is a sector we simply must get moving again. I know that 2020 has been a disappointing year in reaching our afforestation targets. Much of this was related to delays in issuing licences which we are addressing. I am conscious that the Department has invested heavily in additional resources to work systematically through the backlog of forestry applications. We are now well-placed to accept new applications.

This budget also provides funding for a range of other actions which will mobilise the private timber resource, promote timber products, and support the role of Teagasc in advising forest owners. However, I want to emphasise that I am ambitious for forestry and for a new and better way of doing it. I want to see many more farmers getting involved and thinking “tree” and I intend that the transitional measures which we will roll out in advance of a new forestry programme will encourage them to do so. My vision is for a forestry programme which will encourage planting diversity, action on climate, and improvements in environmental and biodiversity outcomes while also supporting a healthy industry. I intend that the funding in this budget will support the schemes and incentives which put us on that path.

It is also significant to see progress in funding for horticulture which has seen an increase of 50% to €9 million. The potential in this sector from import substitution and exploring new markets is immense. This allocation will support current producers and I hope will attract many more new growers.

I am also delighted to announce a 33% increase in the budget for the organic farming scheme. Funding for this scheme has been increased to almost €16 million, up from €12 million last year. Other supports for the organic sector include €1.2 million provided for investment in organic processing and a €1 million development fund for the organic sector itself, bringing the overall investment in the budget for the sector to €18.2 million. This funding will allow us to reopen the organic farming scheme which will increase the number of organic farmers in Ireland by more than 30% by the end of next year. This is a major milestone and a real vote of confidence by this Government in the implementation of our national organic strategy. It is also a significant first step in our commitment to increase the area of land under organic production.

European innovation partnership, EIP, schemes have been a great success and I want to see some smaller scaled versions focusing largely on biodiversity. As such, I am pleased to announce €1.25 million for initiatives where land is managed or farmed using nature-based processes. I am also very happy with the €14 million allocation for biodiversity training along with the health and safety training for farmers.

Finally, if we are going to make real progress, farmers and policymakers will need a full understanding of what we have to work with and of what is possible. That is why the €10 million funding for a national soil-sampling programme and the €5 million for a study on farm biodiversity are so important. As important are the allocations for a national land use review and a feasibility study on the markets for wool products. All of these measures are programme for Government commitments and I look forward to engaging with farmers, NGOs, environmentalists and with communities as through them we will design a better, nature-friendly future for farming.

Finally, I congratulate the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, for his work in securing this budgetary allocation for 2021 and I am confident that together with Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, we can deliver a programme of activities in 2021 which will meet our commitments. We look forward to utilising this funding to its fullest potential. I commend this budget to the House.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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If one takes away all of the headlines over the past number of days, because an immense amount of money has been thrown at the economy due to Covid-19, one sector that this pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on are services such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and psychology. Of these services, most people were waiting for 12 months or more prior to the pandemic and it has exacerbated the whole situation. Even before Covid-19 we had many debates in this House about people with disabilities who faced great challenges around poverty, discrimination and low unemployment levels. Historically, the State has always underfunded disability services.

The evidence of that is that over the past number of weeks St. John of God, a voluntary organisation that I used to work for, will cease its disability services activities in the next 12 months. That is very worrying for that sector.

To put this in context, the €150 increase in the respite grant will equate to €2.80 per week. That is a very small amount for a person dependent on that. The €100 million announced for the disability-related Covid-19 costs is welcome without doubt, but this will only keep existing services, which are under serious pressure, up and running.

Another factor in all the grimness of Covid-19 is to do with fundraising for voluntary bodies, which is down at least by 80%. That is having a detrimental effect on revenue for disability services. This will be the second year running where there has not been an increase in the disability allowance. All of that points to funding and resources for the disability sector. Many people, who do an incredible job, rely on those services. Service users and their families who have that outlet that is disability services have been under huge pressure, particularly in the past six months, and the stress and anxiety that brings is incalculable. I am not trying to underplay that but there is a great deal of anxiety about the next six months and where all of this will go, especially for families with challenging needs both in respect of the service and in the home environment. We need to ensure that the people who rely on services such as these are funded, whether it is the voluntary or non-voluntary sector. That should be done with a view to providing more resources to disability services in the coming six months and over the next five years. That is very important for everybody who uses the services in the State.

2:00 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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Budget 2021 is the biggest investment in the history of our State and it is coming at a time when we need to protect the lives and the livelihood of our people. I welcome the allocation of an additional €50 million for mental health services in this year's budget, which comprises €38 million for policy and operational development and €12 million to underpin the cost of existing services. This brings the total HSE mental health allocation to €1.076 billion, which is the biggest ever mental health budget.

The challenges facing our mental health services are well documented. Even prior to this year, demand for services was increasing while the turbulence of 2020 has added to that. I acknowledge that extra funding alone will not solve all problems. With that in mind, we recently launched the new mental health policy, Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Policy for Everyone. This plots a new way forward with an increased emphasis on community and primary care services to complement the work already being done in our specialist services. I would also like to inform the House that last Saturday, which was World Mental Health Day, I launched the implementation and monitoring committee to oversee A Vision for Change.

As we move forward with implementation the new policy will enable us to deal with mental health issues at an early stage, which is very important for each person, and we all know that early intervention is key, thus reducing the pressure on the specialist services such as child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. I am pleased to announce that €5 million of the spend has been allocated to CAMHS, which will result in 29 whole-time equivalent staff members. I am acutely aware of the waiting list currently for CAMHS.

The policy also places a greater focus on mental health promotion and the prevention of mental health difficulties, which is of critical importance in the context of the new challenges posed by Covid-19. Some €23 million of this new funding will enable us to commence the implementation of a number of short-term recommendations contained in the policy. These include the expansion of clinical programmes, adult crisis resolution services, increased supports in employment, additional peer support workers, bereavement co-ordinators, dialectical behaviour therapy, and additional mental health beds. Enhanced mental health community teams will also be delivered and developed. That will amount to 34 or 35 additional mental health beds next year.

The additional €15 million will reinforce our response to the additional challenges set by Covid-19. As part of this response, we will make use of more step-down beds and extra community mental health teams. The former will help to free up space in our acute mental health system while the latter will provide supports to those outside the acute system. The remaining €12 million will help to cover the rising cost of existing service provision, including placements for those patients whose needs cannot be met within the mental health public system.

The substantial funding increase in this year's budget will help us to ensure that our mental health services can meet the challenges of these extraordinary times. A range of HSE-funded psychosocial supports are already in place, mostly through NGO providers such as Jigsaw, MyMind, SpunOut, Pieta House and many more. They are providing online and telephone supports for those most directly affected by the personal challenges being experienced during the pandemic. I thank all of those organisations that have worked with the HSE and the Department of Health in the past seven months. Ninety per cent of all mental health supports were retained during the Covid lockdown. That is hugely important. Many of the groups moved very quickly towards a blended approach that included telephone, video and e-conference. That has worked very well. In my role as Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, I am wholly committed to enhancing mental health services to ensure that all individuals living in Ireland can get the support they need when they need it.

Moving on to my remit as Minister of State with responsibility for older people, I welcome the ambitious budget announced today, which includes unparalleled investment to support and enable older people to continue to live in their own homes and in their communities for as long as possible. The budget extra allocation was €367 million, which was a phenomenal amount. Central to this budget is a considerable investment in the enhancement of home care to deliver 5 million additional hours in 2021 while building the HSE's capacity to deliver its share of those services.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I remind the Minister of State that she is sharing with Deputy Hourigan.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I am sorry; I was not aware of that. I will finish very quickly.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That is what I have on my note.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I am sorry; I was not informed. There will also be significant investment in community beds, which will provide intermediate care, including more than 600 new rehabilitation beds.

We are bringing a renewed focus on dementia care in this budget to address the challenges faced by people living with this condition and for those who care for them. I am pleased to announce that €12.9 million has been allocated across the 2021 budget to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia and their families to assist them to live well in their communities. This includes 11 new dementia advisers to ensure a full team of 30 advisers are in place throughout the country by the end of 2021.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am going to hold the time for a minute. Deputy Hourigan will not lose time. There has been some confusion among parties as to who is speaking. Perhaps the Whips could get together on that. I want to clarify for the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, that there is a slot available. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has already spoken so there will be a slot available in 20 minutes. The Minister is part of a group of three people for 15 minutes. I hope that clarifies things for the Minister.

Photo of Neasa HouriganNeasa Hourigan (Dublin Central, Green Party)
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Some of the items I will be focusing on as part of my work in the Committee on Budgetary Oversight are performance metrics, results and transparency. Is it clear what each Department is trying to accomplish with the taxpayers' money and is the Department achieving those goals? In the ten days before the budget, both the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure gave a little information to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight on the measures that would be contained in budget 2021, and the spending overall seems to have been underestimated by a few billion euro.

The level of oversight being afforded to each Member of this House on decision-making, metrics and results in the budget is somewhat lacking. I will look at three areas in the housing budget as an example. Between the housing assistance payment, HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and the long-term leasing of houses, we are now spending €941 million, which is 30% of the housing budget, with regard to private landlords. That is current, not capital, expenditure that the taxpayer will need to fund every year. While there may always be a need for the State to rent housing privately, the rationale for such a large percentage of the budget going on rent as opposed to a greater investment in publicly delivered social housing is not presented.

Similarly, we have spent €310 million on the help to buy schemes since July 2016. Is that actually helping or are we simply pushing up property prices and putting this money into the pockets of property developers?

I would like more clarity on where the €218 million allocated to the delivery of homeless services is actually going. That money is very welcome and very much needed in my constituency but how many organisations are in receipt of this funding and what services are covered? How many of those organisations are for profit, which is a worrying development we are now beginning to see?

Housing is just one example. Presenting a budget just with high-level numbers that obscure the detail and year-on-year spending trends is not good enough in terms of a thorough evaluation of the budget's effectiveness.

2:10 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy for her brevity.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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On the surface, the budget allocation for mental health is to be welcomed but, as they say, the devil is in the details. I appreciate the additional details the Minister of State announced in the speech today. I will examine them when I get a chance. Of the €50 million she tweeted about on Tuesday, €12 million is for the continuation and management of existing services. My understanding is that the HSE may need much more for the continuation of these services.

I have a couple of questions, although I acknowledge the Minister of State cannot answer them now. If she does, it will be fantastic. Is the €12 million new money or is it money that was previously allocated for mental health services? Can the Minister of State guarantee that if the €12 million is not sufficient to continue to resource existing mental health services, she will not dip into the remaining €38 million set aside for the new initiatives she mentioned, such as funding the implementation of Sharing the Vision and providing resources for a Covid response? If this happens, it will have been a Department decision and not a HSE decision. The buck stops with the Minister of State.

I welcome the announcement of the setting up of the independent monitoring committee to oversee the implementation of Sharing the Vision. This is paramount if Sharing the Vision is to be successful. The committee needs to be able to engage in budgetary oversight and report, even on a quarterly basis, on the progress or lack thereof. It needs to ensure that the €20 million set aside to implement the first aspect of Sharing the Vision achieves exactly that and does not go elsewhere to shore up the systemic shortfalls in mental health services. This needs to happen now. The short-term goals in Sharing the Vision are the foundation blocks on which the mental health policy is built. If the foundations are weak, the whole policy could collapse.

This budget will have a genuine impact if waiting lists are reduced. I heard the Minister of State mention a couple of measures in this regard. Years of underinvestment have resulted in 10,000 people waiting for primary care psychological treatment. That number needs to be reduced.

Could the Minister of State guarantee that the mental health budget will be released to services by the Department of Health in January 2021 and not released in a piecemeal way throughout the year? The moneys should be available at the start of the year and services should not be playing catch-up in seeking to spend them. For example, €12 million was withheld from the HSE by the Department of Health in 2019.

If Sinn Féin were in government, it would have recognised that mental health issues do not just arise between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., nor do they take the weekend off. We would have increased investment in 24-7 crisis mental health services. Our alternative budget would introduce free counselling on GP referral. This would break down barriers that exist in accessing health services when and where needed.

Mental health issues do not take a break during a pandemic. The new restrictions imposed last night have added to anxiety and stress, particularly among those who live alone and who are now not permitted to visit other households or to allow members of other households to visit them. This measure could lead to isolation and worsen the impact on people's mental health. In the North of this island, the authorities have introduced a support bubble, which is a close support network involving a household with one adult in the home, known as a single-adult household, and other households of any size. Isolation does not just affect older people; it also affects single parents, other single people, parents with children, and adult children with disabilities, among others. Will the Government consider a measure similar to the support bubble measure in this part of the island over the coming weeks? It would help to meet the objective of an all-island approach to this pandemic.

Photo of Noel GrealishNoel Grealish (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome many of the extensive measures announced in the budget on Tuesday, especially those aimed at helping SMEs that have suffered from the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there are some aspects that I found lacking. Maybe these could be addressed before the publication of the finance Bill, which will give legal effect to most of the measures announced. When a vaccine against the virus arrives - I hope it will be sooner rather than later - we will need our airlines up and running without delay and ready to facilitate an influx of foreign visitors. This is an economic imperative.

This country is greatly dependent on international tourism. No increase in the domestic holidaymaker market will go anywhere near filling the gap left by the absence of overseas visitors. I hope many of the measures to support businesses in trouble that were announced on Tuesday will help many of those in the tourism and hospitality sectors to become fully operational when a time of new hope arrives, hopefully early in the new year.

The €10 million allocation to be shared by Cork and Shannon airports is obviously welcome but, with the decision this morning by Ryanair to close its bases at these airports for the winter, it will not be enough. Both airports were already struggling before this hammer blow. Shannon Airport, for instance, is losing millions of euro because of the pandemic. It is extremely important to the economy of the west but there is a major worry over its future and the future of the businesses and families that depend on it. Last summer, an average of almost 6,000 passengers flew in and out of Shannon Airport every day. One day this summer, just 65 passengers went through the very same airport. On Tuesday, the day the budget was announced, there were just two flights in and out of the airport, both operated by Ryanair. Today, there is just one flight, and now Ryanair is pulling out for the winter. There have been no transatlantic services operating out of Shannon Airport since March, and both United Airlines and Delta have said they will not resume these services until 2022, at the earliest. Aer Lingus has also suspended its transatlantic and Heathrow services. It will be 2024 before the airport can get back to the passenger levels of the past year. It urgently needs help to keep afloat during the difficult period until then.

The big fear among the people in Shannon now is that everything might end up moving to Dublin. While Shannon Airport is a major contributor to the economy of the west, having had a throughput of almost 1.9 million passengers last year, Knock Airport also plays a major role, having handled more than 800,000 passengers in 2019. It, too, has suffered a devastating slump in activity, with September seeing just one tenth of the usual passenger volumes to and from the United Kingdom. The numbers to and from other European airports had decreased by 98%. I am disappointed that Knock Airport, considering its critical importance to the west in providing connectivity to global markets for the region's businesses and in attracting so many thousands of visitors from abroad, has not got a special injection of aid.

With regard to the new Covid restrictions support scheme for SMEs that must close as a result of the restrictions imposed under level 3, I would like the Government to clarify that travel agencies will be included. One could say they have effectively been under level 5 for the past seven months, having had to close their doors in mid-March due to the Government's advice on travel. It is unlikely that they will be reopening until well into the new year, at best. It would be extremely unfair if an industry that has played its part in bringing tourists to our country and that will be needed when times are better were to be shut out of this most welcome scheme.

The chauffeur industry does not feel it has been helped by the supports announced in the July stimulus package. Chauffeurs play an important role in ferrying tourists around the country. The budget has dealt chauffeurs a severe blow, with increases in fuel costs and vehicle registration tax. Since the chauffeur business is largely seasonal, and since the work season of many of the drivers had not resumed by March, they have not been able to avail of the pandemic unemployment payment. I urge the Government to make amends for this sector.

I spoke in this House last week about the plight of those in the arts and entertainment community, and I am pleased some steps have been taken to address their concerns. I am delighted that the Minister for Finance announced in his budget speech the maintenance of the section 481 regional uplift for the film industry at its peak rate, 5%, for another year.

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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When my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, addressed the House yesterday, he outlined the planned investment of €3.5 billion to fund projects and programmes under the Department's transport remit in 2021. An increase of €617 million, or 33%, in capital will allow the Department to continue with its investment in capital expenditure under the national development plan, despite the major challenges created by Covid-19. Today, I wish to outline in more detail how this investment will impact the road, maritime and aviation sectors. The impact of Covid-19 is still evident on our road network. Road traffic volumes fell dramatically in spring due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. The volumes fell to around one third of the 2019 levels during April. The volumes recovered significantly as restrictions eased and appear to have plateaued recently at around 80% of 2019 levels.

Road construction works were also suspended during the peak Covid-19 restrictions before recommencing in May. Despite the above Covid-19 impacts, I am pleased to inform the House that there have been no significant delays to investment in the roads programme arising from Covid-19. In 2021, we will invest €1.3 billion in our road network, with a national roads budget of €799 million. We will continue the extensive roads programme, with the following projects all at construction stage: the N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin in Sligo; the N22 Ballyvourney to Macroom upgrade scheme; the N5 Westport to Turlough Road; the N56 Dungloe to Glenties; M8-N40-N25 Dunkettle interchange upgrade; and the M50 enhancing motorway operations by introducing variable speed limits.

To ensure that our road network is of the highest standard, an additional €15 million has been provided towards the maintenance of the regional and local roads network. This will assist in progressing towards a steady state level of investment in the network to ensure that the necessary expenditure required to hold the network in its existing condition and avoid further deterioration is provided. This brings the total maintenance and investment budget for regional and local roads to €555 million. Construction work on a number of important regional local road projects will be progressed, including the Sallins bypass; Bettystown to Laytown link road; Coonagh to Knockalisheen distributor road; and the Tralee northern relief road.

In 2021, allocation includes funding to re-seal and strengthen roads across the network. Funding will also be provided for safety improvement works, bridge rehabilitation works, maintenance of former national roads and community involvement schemes. This will assist in the sustainable use of our roads by the wider community for walking, cycling, as well as cars, buses and road haulage. The Department appreciates that within the overall parameters set for the grant programme, local authorities might need to target funding at particular problem areas and there is sufficient flexibility in the structure of the grant programme to allow for this. Apart from a requirement that a minimum of 15% of the restoration and improvement grant is spent on the more heavily trafficked regional roads, each local authority has the discretion to decide on allocations to other categories of road. It is also open to each local authority to allocate its own resources to priority areas.

One key area that I wish to progress is improving safety for children and families who wish to cycle to school. A few weeks ago, I met the National Transport Authority to discuss how best to deliver on the programme for Government commitment in this area. I am delighted that budget 2021 provides the funding required to allow us to develop a safe routes to school programme and see it commenced next year. Budget 2021 provides for a spend of approximately €1 million per day to support walking and cycling infrastructure. Those allocations can deliver real change in terms of how our children get to and from their schools. As part of this change, safe routes to school will see enhancements and improvements to the front of school environments to better promote sustainable and safe entry to and exit from school grounds, expanded provision for bicycle parking at all schools across the country and delivery of improved walking and cycling infrastructure to schools. The benefits of this investment will not only improve facilities for walking and cycling, it will mean better physical health, improved air quality, less congestion and betters places to live.

The sum of €108 million has been allocated to ensure the safety and competitiveness of maritime transport services and the productive and safe use of our seas. My Department is responsible for the survey, certification, licensing and inspection of vessels, certification of seafarers and also the inspection and approval of ports and port facilities. This also includes an additional €2.8 million in capital funding for the Irish Coast Guard and Commissioner of Irish Lights, which will also ensure that the provision of an effective emergency response service for marine search and rescue through the Irish Coast Guard.

There is also funding of €31.3 million for the aviation sector, €21.3 million for the regional airports programme and an additional €10 million in capital support for Cork and Shannon Airports.

2:20 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased with the content of the budget. I commend the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and, in particular, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, on the excellent work they did in presenting the budget. As a Fianna Fáil Deputy it was a great honour for me to see the Minister, Deputy McGrath, present what was a very expansionist budget. It is what the country requires at this time. We are going through a period of significant economic turbulence and uncertainty. The appropriate way to respond to that economically is through borrowing. I thank and commend the Minister, Deputy McGrath, on his contribution to that budgetary policy that I believe everyone in this House recognises is correct.

It is important to point out that the budget does provide supports for businesses, companies and individuals who are experiencing significant financial distress as a result of this extraordinary pandemic going through all of our lives. It is important to also point out that Government can control issues pertaining to economics and financial responses to these events but it cannot provide a response to every issue. As politicians, and as a House, we need to recognise our limitations, particularly when it comes to naturally occurring events. If a hurricane or a major weather event occurs, all we can do is try to put in place measures to protect citizens from the severity of that natural weather event. Similarly, when it comes to a pandemic, it is such an unusual event all we can do in terms of trying to protect the public is to try to suppress the impact of the pandemic on the Irish public. We are never, I regret to say, going to be able to control this event, in the same way as we cannot control another natural event such as a hurricane.

I have previously spoken in this House, as far back as 6 May last, about my concern regarding the impact of the pandemic and the restrictions being imposed on young people, in particular people between the age of 16 and 25. I am more concerned today about this. As a political system, we must try to develop some policies to protect young people and to enable them to try to live their lives in as normal a way as possible. It is regrettably the case that the restrictions that we are imposing, and that have to be imposed, are having an extremely negative impact on young people. They have interfered with their education, employment, entertainment, past-times and relationships. As a body, we need to come up with some policies and proposals to protect them.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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Two days ago, the International Monetary Fund, IMF, published its first medium-term forecast since the onset of the coronavirus in which it states that the pandemic will leave significant scars on the global economy and that in the short-term countries able to borrow, such as Ireland, should borrow as much as needed to protect the public from the impact of the virus and limit the extent of the financial contractions. It also mentions that in the longer term we need to look at our debt burdens and states that the focus now must be on mitigating the impact of Covid-19. That is the context of budget 2021. While there are many positives in the budget, and I am happy to acknowledge that, I believe Government should have been more ambitious, in particular in two areas. First, we needed a more ambitious investment programme, especially in the regions, to act as a catalyst for a balance of development between the regions. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, mentioned the N4. We have been hearing about that for about five years. It is welcome. The Collooney-Castlebaldwin road is, thankfully, almost finished.

The Tánaiste said this morning that rural broadband will be delivered in five years rather than in six or seven years. That is too long because the digital economy will move on and the regions will be left behind. We need more urgency here. There are areas where I believe Government should have been a little more ambitious. I am speaking not of multiple billions of euro investment but of a modest investment in a few key areas which would have made a difference in terms of the safety net that a number of sectors need. The Government provides a safety net in budget 2021 but there are a few holes in it. In regard to early childcare, the budget did nothing to address the chronic capital under-funding and the low salaries that are prevalent in this industry. It is a front-line service but it was not treated it as such in the budget.

I also believe we should have maintained the tiered pandemic unemployment payment with €350 as the highest payment. The arguments in favour are overwhelming. The truth is that €50 per week could mean the difference between a family simply existing and falling through the cracks.

As for falling through the cracks, I had a look at the defence budget. It is the case that moneys are available, mainly for buying new equipment, but my question is: who will operate this new equipment? Many people are leaving the Defence Forces. We have several ships in Haulbowline in Cork. I know some of them are in for renovation but we do not have the trained staff to operate some of our naval vessels. Members of the Defence Forces are on family income supplement and others are not much above the minimum wage. We should have looked at that on Tuesday.

Finally, I want to speak about carers. I am heartbroken to say they are worse off after Tuesday's budget. The carer's allowance was greater in 2009 than it is today. I realise most people will not believe that but they should check the figures because it is true. The income disregard for carer's allowance was cut in 2007 and in 13 years it has never been increased. Many of us are, rightly, getting pay restoration but carers are not. There was a €150 increase in the annual carer's support grant. That is an extra €3 per week to cover the worst effects of the pandemic. In all honesty, €3 per week will do little and it will not be in place until June 2021, when most of us expect that we will be well on the way out of this pandemic. The fuel allowance increased by €3.50. Yet, carer's allowance is not a qualifying payment for fuel allowance and most carers will not get it. The living alone allowance does not apply because carers, by definition, do not live alone. They will be unable to access this allowance. While there are 5 million additional home care hours, and these are welcome, nonetheless they will not even cover the shortfall in adult day care services. What carers are asking in respect of their need for support is, if not now, then when?

2:30 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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In the line of business, there are some good things in the budget. It is welcome. We need to keep people employed in this country. However, I hope it is not cumbersome. That is the one thing I hope for, because if we make it cumbersome the reality is that we will lose many jobs.

I love the way figures are done. I have just come from the agriculture committee. Voted expenditure last year was €1.76 billion. We were told the other day that some €179 million extra would be provided for agriculture. Funnily enough, €1.8 billion is what the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, read out in his Dáil speech. The figure was €1.76 billion the year before. That means €40 million extra even though €30 million will go to Bord Bía and €4 million extra will go for infrastructure for Brexit.

The reality is that figures can look good at times but the agricultural sector has not got anything extra. We need to put things in place for Brexit and ensure there is an easy passage for our meat in the ports. If there is a tariff, who will pay it? Are we going to see farmers face what they faced in 1974, when cattle were left on the side of the road? Are we going to put something in place to ensure these farmers can continue to supply meat?

Ironically enough, it is unusual to see that before we got protected geographical indication status for beef, they were promoting our grass-fed beef in England, the same as we are doing under the PGI scheme. I imagine a horse dealer would get PGI status up and running and then promote his produce to try to get it to a higher level. Ironically enough, we are not doing that at the moment.

The one thing that will cripple the people in rural Ireland is the carbon tax. Many here come from a farming background. Whether it is making silage or topping, no matter what the farmer is doing on the farm, he needs a tractor. We will hear the story traipsed out by many a Minister telling us that there is double taxation for the farmer, and they are right to say it. However, the reality is that 90% of the work is done. I read an article in AgriLand. One contractor who cuts silage said that over the next ten years, the cost would be €130,000 or €150,000 extra. I know Tesla is talking about something that is electric, but no alternative is available. The Government has decided, because it is playing ball with the Green Party and licking up to that party, we are going to cripple those in the farming community with this carbon tax. This applies not only to them but to every young couple. Show me a politician who can say that if a person gets over €25,000, he or she will get something. What do they get in this country? What do they get when they fill in any form? Unfortunately, they will be told in counties Galway or Roscommon that if they earn more than €25,500 they are above the social housing threshold and they will be sent away. If parents have children going to school, they will be sent away without a back-to-school allowance. Let us suppose a husband and wife are working, have a mortgage and children going to college and they are on €25,000 or €30,000 each. It is over the threshold and they do not get anything. These are the people who are paying everything and getting nothing. No one seems to be bothered about them, only they get more medicine and hardship. These are the people who have brought the country right up to where it is today since 2010. These are the people who have worked hard. What do we do? What do we do with their home heating oil, which might keep them warm when they get home at night? We take another €100 off them this year. What do we do with their cars? We knock another €90 or €100 in carbon tax from them. For good measure, we make them pay more tax on the car. That is more tax on the car from the same people who were in government - those in the Green Party - when Mr. Gormley was in office in 2009 or 2010. Back then he decided to bring in these bands of tax. He told everyone to go and buy diesel. Now, at the press of a button or the stroke of a pen, it has changed. To make it even smarter and more cunning, the Government has put into legislation that people are shafted forever and a day. The rural Deputies will not have the embarrassment of voting with their Government to shaft the people in middle Ireland. If that is justice, then I do not know what politics is about. We are supposed to try to look after people.

I have no wish to be critical. There are good things in the budget. There are things that will help business. Yet, my God, we have an agricultural sector worth €14 billion that exports. We have 300,000 people directly or indirectly employed in it and we have decided to kick them in the goolies. We have also decided to knock some more money from the people in middle Ireland, the people who get up early in the morning and go out to work, as a Taoiseach once said. Show me what people earning more than €25,000 will get? They will not get retrofitting. They may if they have €30,000 more to match it, but this is living in reality and not the cuckoo world that some of the Green Party decide to live in, where they have buses and Luas vehicles and all these other things up their asses in Dublin. When a person goes down the country, he almost has to take a photo of a bus to see one. It is not what is in Dublin.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and Deputy Higgins. As Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for new market development, farm safety and research and innovation I welcome the measures that have come about this week in budget 2021.

Given that fatal incidents on farms account for almost 50% of all workplace fatal incidents every year but agriculture accounts for only 6% of the overall workforce, it is simply not good enough to carry on as we have done to now. As the first Minister of State with specific responsibility for farm safety I want to put safety at the heart of our farms and I want farmers to be centrally involved in how we do that.

3 o’clock

Specific provision within the 2021 budgetary allocation for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will allow me to launch a call under the locally led European innovation partnership model that will be dedicated to farm safety. This will see the provision of €1 million in funding supports in a competitive locally led call for farm safety initiatives. I see this as a significant step to driving a cultural change among farmers and I look forward to seeing the positive proposals that will drive that cultural change. I am delighted with a €14 million allocation for this project and to be able to announce that farm safety training will be an integral part of it. The project will reach up to 50,000 farmers in the coming years. The training will cover farm safety initiatives as well as the area of biodiversity. This programme will be of a great benefit and will build on the 14,600 farmers who have already received significant farm safety training as part of their applications for support under the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS.

I also particularly welcome the provision of €18 million for TAMS, which will allow the delivery of commitments made under the scheme, including for specific farm safety measures such as: external agitation points for slurry tanks, sliding doors, handling equipment, rewiring and safety cages. It should be remembered that the construction of new farm buildings also leads to improvements in farm safety in the farmyard as a wide range of safety measures must be incorporated while building a new animal house. These include individual access to pens, securing pens and good ventilation and lighting, to name but a few. Our farms and farmyards are working environments and we must continue to work together to make them safer. Reductions in the rates of fatal and serious incidents on farms will only happen through changing behaviours, increasing awareness, training and investment in key farm safety measures.

In addition, I welcome the increased budget allocation for the continued operation of the Department's competitive research funding programmes. This will help to build and maintain research capacity and capability in research performing institutions, thereby enabling them to marshal the multidisciplinary expertise needed to undertake collaborative projects aimed at generating technology to tackle the climate, biodiversity and other challenges facing the agrifood and fisheries sector at this time. The Department's research funding programme also plays a vital role in mobilising the expertise and skills needed to build Ireland's emerging bioeconomy to develop innovative bio-based alternatives to fossil derived products, often from waste products and by-products from conventional agriculture. We will hear much more about that next week during Bioeconomy Ireland Week, in which I intend to play a central part because this is such a critical area which has major opportunities for the economy and the agriculture sector.

I am announcing an increased allocation to Teagasc, the State agency providing research, advisory services and education on agriculture, horticulture, food and rural development. The extra €4 million for Teagasc will enable it to develop and roll out research to ensure our farmers are ready to answer the challenges of tomorrow's food markets. That brings the total supports for Teagasc to €147 million in 2021. These increases bring the combined investment in research and innovation by the Department, Teagasc and the Marine Institute to over €60 million annually, underlining the investment this Government is making in the future of the agrifood industry.

I also highlight the provisions that have been made to tackle the challenges of Brexit, climate change and farm safety. With the threat of Brexit hanging over everything, this budget provides the funding to enable us to further invest in the State agencies which support our agrifood industry, while also delivering for farm safety and allowing for extensive research into how we can best meet the challenges of biodiversity and the farm to fork strategy. Food and beverage exports are worth €14.5 billion annually to our economy. They are a key driver of our agriculture sector and underpin our wider rural community and economy. However, further and future success will depend on delivering premium markets in which we can build on our reputation for innovation, food safety and sustainability measures. I am announcing an additional €4 million for Bord Bia, which will bring its total grant to €52.25 million. We must continue to invest in establishing a premium position for our food and beverages in all markets across the world, as well as in the UK and Europe. My ministerial colleagues and I are only too aware that we cannot currently travel to meet potential buyers but that extra allocation to Bord Bia will ensure we can continue to focus on gaining new market access for our key exports, as well as enhancing and retaining access to existing international markets.

I will touch on the broad section of the Vote for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, for which my colleagues, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, have fought. In particular, I mention the €96 million allocation for Horse Racing Ireland and Rásaíocht Con Éireann, driving badly needed investment into key employers throughout rural Ireland. There will also be significant welfare measures, and the funding will address the significant impact that Covid-19 and Brexit have had on the horse and greyhound sectors. I welcome the €1.5 million for the Irish Equine Centre, which badly needs an upgrade. This was a commitment in the programme for Government. I welcome the 25% increase in funding for Horse Sport Ireland, bringing the total allocation to €5 million.

I join my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, in congratulating the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, on budgetary allocation secured for 2021. Together, we will tackle the challenges that we expect 2021 will bring by investing in our future and in ourselves and by strengthening our export markets, all while preparing for a new Common Agricultural Policy and a greener future. I commend this budget to the House.

2:40 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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On Tuesday, we announced an additional €4 billion in health spending. It is the largest health budget increase in the history of the State and a clear signal of how seriously this Government takes public healthcare. My three main priorities are improving access for patients, improving the healthcare experience for patients, and improving outcomes for patients. The budget delivers on all three of those priorities.

I will start with patient access. I am allocating €467 million to fund new hospital and community beds. This includes increasing permanent critical care beds by 25% next year. In our hospitals, I am allocating funding for an additional 1,146 acute and 135 sub-acute beds. I am allocating funding for an additional 1,250 community care beds. These are the biggest increases in modern times in critical care beds, acute beds and community care beds in one year. Funding is being provided for an additional 16,000 healthcare workers. This includes making permanent several thousand staff who were hired in response to Covid-19. It also funds 7,000 staff in community settings and 4,000 staff in acute hospitals. Acute beds will be staffed in accordance with the agreed safe staffing framework for nursing.

The impact of this pandemic on levels of unmet need is a major concern for me. For this reason, I have established an access to care fund of €240 million. Together with the funding for the National Treatment Purchase Fund, this will mean total funding of €340 million will be available to tackle waiting lists next year. Other funding includes access to diagnostics for GPs and I have allocated €50 million for access to new drugs for patients.

What of the patient experience? I am allocating €425 million for enhanced community and social care services. The funding includes provision for a number of community care initiatives. There will be an additional 5 million hours of home support next year to support hospital avoidance services and delayed discharges. I am allocating an additional €100 million to disability services. This is the biggest single increase in allocation to the disability sector ever. It is much needed and deserved and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will be leading this work. We are investing heavily in public health. I have allocated funding to double the public health workforce, with an additional €20 million for Healthy Ireland and €15 million for the national drugs strategy, including homelessness. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, will be leading the work in these critical areas.

My third priority is improving patient outcomes. I have allocated €159 million for nearly 2,000 additional staff to work directly in cancer services; maternity services; trauma care; paediatrics; ambulance services; fertility services; dementia care; and organ donation. This includes advancing the national strategies in these areas. We have fantastic clinical services and our clinicians have plans to make them even better. This requires funding. Cancer services will receive an additional €32 million, including €20 million for the national cancer strategy and €12 million to help restart cancer services. There is an allocation of €6 million for trauma care, which will ensure that phase 1 of the development of a major trauma care centre in Dublin will commence.

Women’s health and our maternity services must get more attention. In that context, I am delighted to announce an investment of €12 million in our maternity strategy for next year. This will be used to fund community-based midwifery services, specialist services and better access to allied health professional services and supports. We will also open two new regional fertility hubs in Galway and Cork. In addition, €5 million is being allocated to the women’s health task force. I have also allocated €50 million in funding to mental health services. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will lead this vital work.

Budget 2021 also responds to Covid-19. Some €1.3 billion has been allocated to ensure personal protective equipment is available for those working across the health system and to continue to operate a comprehensive and nationwide testing and tracing system. A further €409 million is being provided for the extension of ongoing Covid-19 supports through next year.

This year has been difficult, trying and, at times, heartbreaking for every individual and family in this country, none more so than for our healthcare workers, those working on the front line and those working behind the front line supporting what front-line workers do every day.

Our doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, porters, cooks and everybody else working right across the system have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic. While Covid-19 has highlighted major challenges in our health service, it has also highlighted our strengths, including the resilience, professionalism, courage and innovative spirit of our healthcare workers. It has fast-tracked innovation across the system. E-prescribing was rolled out in a few weeks. Community assessment hubs were established. The use of telemedicine has soared. Times of huge challenge can also be times of opportunity. While not the same issue and certainly not of the same scale, let us not forget that Britain's National Health Service was born out of the ashes of the Second World War. Budget 2021 funds our Covid response. It is also about building capacity, hiring staff and bringing positive, permanent change to our health service. The investments made will mean that when the pandemic ends, Ireland will have a better and more resilient public healthcare system. Budget 2021 is a big step on the road to universal healthcare, to our Sláintecare vision, an Ireland where everyone can get the care they need when they need it. I commend the budget to the House.

2:50 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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This time last year we were facing into a very different economic future. Business was thriving, cafés were full and a ticket for a concert or a GAA final could not be got for love nor money. What a difference a year makes. Today there are no concerts, no bustling cafés and in mid-October we still have not had a 2020 all-Ireland final.

There is hope, however, and this budget provides hope, security and stability for those who need it. The wage subsidy scheme has been extended throughout 2021, giving people the comfort of knowing there is no cliff edge looming on the horizon. The €222 million rescue package for arts, tourism and sports means that our musicians, artists and sports clubs will be able to weather this storm. The new reduced VAT rate will help stimulate spending in pubs and restaurants such as Kenny's and the Lord Lucan, which I know have been feeling the full impact of Covid-19. This budget delivers more jobs and better services, more healthcare workers, gardaí and SNAs.

The focus on climate change is a response to the reality of this grave threat ahead of us. It is also a response to how people voted in the general election earlier this year. The focus on housing is a response to the reality in which many families find themselves, and I am so pleased to see such a strong emphasis on delivering housing. I welcome the historic investment in our healthcare service and am particularly pleased that new funding is not just in respect of Covid-19 but will deliver long-term change. It means more hospital beds, healthcare workers and supports for carers, a groundbreaking €100 million for disability services and an historic €38 million investment in our mental health services at a time when we need it most.

In just 77 days, the UK will leave the EU Single Market and customs union, and this budget prepares us for that. Brexit supports worth €350 million show how forward-thinking we have been in Brexit-proofing Ireland. The budget protects lives and livelihoods. However, last night's announcement of further restrictions for the country has come as a shock to many, and in light of that news we need to remain positive and have hope that the outcome will far outweigh our struggles. We need hope that one day we will be back inside a bustling café, we will get to go to another music festival and we Dubliners will get to hear the roar on Hill 16 again. Without hope we have nothing, and this budget gives us that hope. I commend it to the House.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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What we have witnessed in the budget is an attempt to pay lip service to the effort that is required to address the single biggest issue affecting the Defence Forces, that is, the retention of personnel, many of whom have been subjected to intensive and expensive training programmes to high levels of skill. The loss of even one of these skilled personnel can have a significant effect. Witness the recent inability of the LÉ Eithneto conduct a patrol due to the illness of one single communications officer. Amid the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, when we will rightly applaud the service, sacrifice and selflessness of our front-line heroes, let us not forget that the rank and file of our Defence Forces will be on that front line, primed, ready and willing, like all our front-line staff, to serve in the interests of the citizens of the State.

The Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has previously indicated in the House that he is open-minded on the issue of association with ICTU. I ask and encourage him to proceed to lay the groundwork for that to occur and to offer the members of our Defence Forces a meaningful gesture to show that gratitude can mean more than platitude. The pay and allowances outlined in Tuesday's budget were scheduled increases under existing agreements. While I welcome the extension and increase of the seagoing naval personnel tax credit from €1,270 to €1,500, this goes nowhere near the need that must be met in order to retain personnel.

Although the extra funding for capital spending is inadequate to meet the totality of the needs of the Defence Forces, I welcome the increase in capital spending. It is fair to say there are some types of military equipment more in need of repair and replacement than others. The citizens of this country have enough to cope with at the minute without having to dodge falling helicopter doors. We are left with the inescapable feeling in the aftermath of this budget that the Government concerns itself more with the durability of military equipment than with the welfare of the men and women who make up the ranks of the Defence Forces.

Again the Government has completely failed to live up to its responsibilities to members of the Defence Forces on the issue of exposure to dangerous chemicals, including Lariam. The continuing failure of the Department to furnish former members of the Defence Forces with documentation relating to the issue, which it has been ordered to do by the courts, raises serious questions. I put the Minister for Defence on notice that I will make sure that this issue is not allowed to be swept under the carpet.

I welcome the additional €30 million being allocated in the budget to overseas development aid. The work to bring our ODA budget towards the target of 0.7% of gross national income by 2030 must continue and that target must be met. A combination of Covid-19, the continuing effects of climate change and political instability has disproportionately impacted many poorer nations. Ireland's upcoming role on the UN Security Council behoves our nation to provide an example of moral leadership in the world. The Government must back its financial commitment to ODA with the kind of political action the global stage demands of it.

The Government must recognise the State of Palestine.

I call on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman, to outline the detail of how he will proceed to utilise the extra funding he has received in the budget to fulfil Ireland's moral obligation to offer assistance to the victims of the fire at the Moria refugee camp. Up until this point we have failed to live up to our obligations and commitments, particularly in bringing over unaccompanied minors. In 2015, we committed to bring over 36 unaccompanied minors and to date we have brought over a mere nine. This funding is therefore welcome but, more important, it must be spent to ensure that those vulnerable citizens who are caught in refugee camps like Moria are brought here, something to which we have already committed.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the budget. We face the double whammy, indeed we are in the middle of it, of Covid-19 and Brexit, possibly a no-deal Brexit, but the budget falls short of what is needed to respond to this double whammy.

While there are some positive measures which Sinn Féin has looked for over the years, such as the equalisation of tax measures for the self-employed, funding for deep retrofitting of homes and extra money for health, it simply did not address many key areas sufficiently.

A massive increase in the capacity of our health services was needed. The big spend on it is welcome but health services and hospitals are under capacity, not just to deal with the pandemic but also to improve non-Covid services. We in Sinn Féin put forward the case for a minimum of 100 extra ICU beds and €38 million for extra home care hours. Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise has two permanent ICU beds. Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore has six beds for a population of 200,000. That just does not do it. We have only half of the EU average across the State and in that part of the country we have approximately one sixth of the EU average. Only 60 extra ICU beds are promised.

Critically, we set out to improve mental health services at this time and looked for an additional €49 million. Only €38 million, however, was allocated. If I heard him correctly, the Minister of State with responsibility for agriculture said more than €90 million has been allocated for racehorse owners but €38 million was allocated for mental health.

Sustaining businesses and workers during the crisis and expanding employment as we emerge from it is crucial. Many workers, however, face income cuts and hardship and reduced rates of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and wage subsidy scheme. We in Sinn Féin want restoration of the top rate of that payment for those earning over €300. That is absolutely crucial.

We also wanted special measures to tackle youth unemployment, including an additional €74 million to expand the national apprenticeship training scheme, which we welcome is there. Over one third of our young people are unemployed. We also need to develop their skills for rebuilding the economy as we emerge from this. It is very important and I urge the Minister of State to bring this back to Government. We need to ramp up the number of apprentices we have so that we can build that economic recovery.

The rates waiver for businesses should have been extended until next June. Instead, it ends on 31 December. We need significant grants for SMEs. Radical measures are also needed to support the hospitality sector and we proposed a straightforward voucher scheme of €200 for every adult and €100 for children. This has worked well in some other jurisdictions and we should learn from the best practice in those.

The Government failed to grasp the housing crisis. It is with regret I say this to the Minister of State. The Government allocated only €110 million in total for affordable housing to rent and buy. We put forward a package for €1.1 billion to provide 4,000 affordable homes and 4,000 cost rental homes. In Laois-Offaly and its outlier, for example, a couple or family who earn more than €500 cannot get on the housing waiting list, and if they earn less than €800 or €850, they cannot get a mortgage. These people are trapped in private rented accommodation until thy kingdom come. Approximately 140 years after the Land League, these people have no security of tenure and no security on rent. People have not got fixed rent, no security of tenure and no hope of ever owning. Those were the three demands of Michael Davitt and the Land League 140 years ago, yet here we are today, in what is supposed to be the national Parliament, and I am saying this to the Minister of State. The situation as it is only suits big landlords. This is very important. We need cost rentals in south Kildare and the Minister of State knows this. He should try to rent in Monasterevin. We need cost rentals in Laois, Mountmellick, Rathdowney and Portlaoise and in towns like Tullamore, Birr, Edenderry and Clara. We need those cost rentals because a whole cohort of families are absolutely nailed to the cross trying to meet the cost of private rented accommodation out of one weeks' wages every week. These people have no security of tenure and no security on rent. This has been raised consistently here over the past five years and we cannot continue ignoring it.

We welcome some of the positive measures in the budget. Overall, however, it was a missed opportunity by the Government to sustain workers and families in employment and address those crucial issues in housing but also to address the issue of ICU beds. I fear for this going into the winter. We simply do not have enough of them. We welcome the 60 extra beds but that will not do it. We need more than that. We also need to address the areas of childcare and disability.

3:00 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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On Tuesday, we all listened to the budget speech. Many things were said and some of us are still poring over what it all means. It means finally, we as a Government are making policies which strengthen businesses, encourage personal climate action and safeguard the status of the most vulnerable. After years of austerity, it is heartening to see budget 2021 become the largest investment in the history of the State. It might have surprised people but it is the right thing to do. We need to make sure we can face the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit by giving people hope based on realism and a plan. I am heartened to see massive investment in health, housing and education.

The 9% VAT rate will help hotels, pubs, restaurants and other businesses in the entertainment, tourism and hospitality sectors. That was something I actively lobbied for and am delighted to see in County Carlow. I have brought it up several times with Ministers. I received hundreds of representations on it and I am delighted to see this now has been committed to and done. We are delighted that commitment has been given.

The extension of the commercial rates will help reduce the fixed cost of doing business. It was an issue I also brought to Ministers running up to the budget. I especially welcome the €10 million set aside for the IDA to develop advance factories in industrial estates for companies seeking to invest in Ireland, especially outside of Dublin, and the €30 million ring-fenced for a call to regional enterprise centres for initiatives to create jobs in every region in the country. This is important for me and for counties Carlow and Kilkenny. I always said as a councillor and a Senator that I believe rural Ireland and the smaller towns like Carlow need visits from the IDA. We now have a chance. We can now bring investment to the rural towns such as Carlow and Kilkenny. We can now give people jobs they really want. I will work on this for my constituents and the people I represent to do my best to ensure I create jobs in my area.

The news that €38 million will be allocated under Sharing the Vision, our national mental health strategy, is important. I am aware the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, spoke earlier. Mental health, now more than ever, is important and we need to make sure we deliver on and increase the existing services. We also want to make sure they are easier to access and that families who need them can do so.

This budget is the definition of housing for all. With a €3.3 billion spend on housing, it is the highest investment in housing by any Government in a single year. The €65 million to facilitate energy efficient improvements to social housing homes and the €60 million to adapt the homes of up to 10,700 older people and people with a disability are important. I face these issues every day with people coming into my offices or ringing. People are living longer. We need to make sure they get these grants quickly, that they are not waiting for a long time and that there is no red tape, as I would say.

The main thing about this budget and the one I must focus on is that all this money we have, which is great to see, is easily accessible. Therefore, no matter what area a person is in, he or she should be able to access this money for whatever reason, be it for housing, a business or through the HSE. If people are looking for funding in whatever areas we work on, we need to make sure we can get the money to those areas as quickly as possible.

Another area that has been spoken about, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, is domestic abuse. I welcome €400,000 extra funding for organisations and groups responding to the increased service and demand. Again, getting the money into these areas quickly is important.

I welcome preserving the qualifying age of 66 for the State pension with the legislation that will be implemented in January. I have been contacted by and spoken to many pensioners who have expressed disappointment that they did not get an increase. We need to look at that going forward as they felt they had been forgotten in this budget. I also welcome the €5 increase in the living alone allowance, which I feel is a great help.

The €50 million in the live entertainment supports and the Arts Council funding, an increase of up to €130 million, again, is important.

I am aware previous contributors have spoken about farmers. They are a priority and we must always remember that during recessions, farmers play a huge role in keeping our country going.

They play a massive part in getting us through recessions and it is so important now that we look after our farmers. I welcome the creation of the role of food ombudsman. We need to ensure we look after those who have looked after us, our farming sector in particular. We need to ensure funding gets to all of the different areas.

Another area on which I spoke to people was the childcare sector. Again, there was a little bit of disappointment on their part because they felt they had been forgotten. We need to ensure we look at our childcare sector and see what we can do to help those involved in it. With Covid-19 it is a different time, so all of us working together need to ensure we support our childcare sector and I have said that to them.

I have spoken to some third level students. They are absolutely delighted with the €250 once-off payment. That is important because students have not been able to work during the summer and they have not had any work. This gives them a little boost and it is a boost for their families. I will have to get the times when they are going to get their payment. Working with the Minister, Deputy Harris, I will make sure I do that.

In the health sector, I compliment NPHET, the Ministers and everyone who has played a great part. Covid-19 has been exceptional for all of us. We are all listening to the news and the figures are rising and we are all concerned. Today there are more restrictions. It is a case of all of us working together. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, spoke about testing. Testing and tracing and the quickness of it is so important. All of us need to play our part and work together. With this exceptional budget we can make a change to people's lives. All of us working together, no matter what parties we are in, can ensure that in the next few months we will, we hope, be back to what we call normality and our normal lives as soon as possible.

A lady who rang me today about a grant said that, since Covid, she has seen that families have grown closer together. Things are changing and life is changing. No one could ever have thought Covid was coming and none of us was ready for it, but a lot of us have seen changes in some ways. We can see the good in the Irish people coming out. It is great that we are all trying to play our part and this budget will make huge changes to people's lives, and that is what we need to do. We need to ensure we give everyone we can the best quality of life they deserve.

Debate adjourned.