Thursday, 29 September 2022
Financial Resolutions 2022 - Financial Resolution No. 6: General (Resumed)
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle fá choinne na deise labhairt leis an Teach. Guím fáilte roimh an bheirt Airí Stáit go dtí an díospóireacht fosta. Ba mhaith liom cúpla pointe a ardú faoi cháinaisnéis 2023. Tá cúpla ceist agam maidir le hiompar, busanna san áireamh. Eisíodh €100,000 fá choinne na ndúshlán leis an iompar, go háirithe sna ceantair iargúlta. Tá cead de dhíth ag na tuismitheoirí agus ag na páistí le suíochán a fháil, suíocháin a bhí acu anuraidh. Níl sin ceart agus tá sin práinneach. Tá mé ag labhairt maidir leis an €100,000 atá i gceist agus guím fáilte roimhe fosta. Táim ag iarraidh soiléiriú agus sonraí faoin bhriseadh síos a fháil. Tá an t-airgead seo ann fá choinne fadhbanna leis na busanna agus chomh maith leis sin, leis an deontas capitation. Táim ag iarraidh soiléiriú agus sonraí faoi sin a fháil. Cé go bhfuil an t-airgead ag éirí fá choinne 2023, tá imní ar na scoileanna faoi 2024 agus tá mé ag iarraidh na fadhbanna agus na ceisteanna faoi sin a shoiléiriú fosta.
Chomh maith leis sin, ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá faoi mo cheantar agus mo réigiún féin. Tá mé ag labhairt faoin A5 ach go háirithe. Tchím tiomantas faoin A5, an bealach is tábhachtaí san iarthuaisceart. Tá sin ar na cláir ar feadh i bhfad anois. I mo chontae féin fosta, tá mé ag lorg sonraí nó soiléiriú faoin trans-European network for transport, TEN-T, an bealach Bonagee, an bealach ó Leifear go dtí Leitir Ceanainn agus an bealach ó Shrath an Urláir agus Bealach Féich. Tá na tograí sin ar an chlár caipitil do 2040 agus tá na bóithre sin i gContae Dhún na nGall ar an chlár thar na blianta. Tá siad práinneach, go háirithe ós rud é go bhfuil siad ar an phlean náisiúnta. Táim ag lorg deimhniú ó Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, faoin chás sin fosta. Sin mo chúpla pointe as Gaeilge.
I have a few questions on the education side of things. This area was close to the Minister of State's own heart in his previous role, so I know he will still have good channels of communication with his colleague, the senior Minister, Deputy Foley, in the Department of Education. I ask him to raise these questions with her. The Minister mentioned that the mental health pilot would be rolled out following engagement and consultation with stakeholders. Can the timeline for this engagement process be outlined, as well as the thinking regarding when this pilot should be up and running? Teachers' representatives should also be included in those conversations, particularly those from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, which campaigned for its representatives to be included at the beginning. Will the Minister of State also ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, to outline a breakdown of the figures for the new mainstream teachers who are to be provided to special education classes? The Minister flagged an overall number of 686. Will she break this total down by special education teachers, SETs, special class teachers and special schoolteachers at primary level? Undoubtedly, the Minister of State is in no position to be taking note of all these questions in shorthand now. I know he probably does have a very good memory, but no doubt some officials in the Department will also be listening.
Turning to class sizes, in the press conference yesterday where it was announced there would be a reduction of one in class sizes, the Minister also said she would like to see another reduction next year. Will she restate that commitment? Regarding capitation, and I raised this already, schools have warmly welcomed the once-off 40% increase in direct funding for this year. They have also, however, genuine and serious concern that the capitation payment is not increasing from September 2023. Therefore, is there a contingency plan in the event that schools are in financial difficulties next autumn? There are many moving parts in this context in respect of costs, especially energy costs, and global challenges. It is difficult to start projecting as far away as September 2023, but I think there are ways of allaying these fears.
I see my time is coming to an end. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak. I will stick within my allotted time because I am very grateful for the cúpla bomaite chun labhairt inniu. Fáiltím roimh an airgead breise d'achan Roinn ach táim ag coinneál mo shúile ar na tograí caipitil i mo chontae agus réigiún féin. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis an Aire Stáit.
In case there is any confusion, that was the last block of speakers. We are moving on now to the new block. Two slots had not been filled in the last block and that was why Deputy McHugh was there. There are four speakers in this block. I call the Minister of State.
Tá áthas agus bród orm labhairt sa Dáil inniu i bhfabhar agus ar son cháinaisnéis 2023. Tá sé cothrom agus cuireadh le chéile í ar son leasa an phobail. This budget enhances Ireland's reputation for looking after our most vulnerable, for promoting income equality and for encouraging enterprise and job creation. This is a budget that recognises the challenges of today and invests in our future. It is a continuation of the budgets of Fianna Fáil over many years, where it sought to create jobs and wealth and then to distribute tax revenues in the fairest possible way. This endeavour continues with this budget.
In recognising the unique challenges today-----
The €4.1 billion cost-of-living package recognises the challenges that families, workers, businesses and young people face. As a Fianna Fáil Minister in a coalition Government, I am delighted to be supporting this budget. I am very proud that the principles of my party have been put forward in this budget by our Ministers, together with those from the other parties. I am very proud that Fianna Fáil is in government and that we are making real changes that are putting money into people's pockets.
Undoubtedly, people are facing hardships. Therefore, we have put together the largest social protection budget day package in the history of the State. As the old saying goes, we cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust the sails. Ireland is a small, open economy and we cannot always control events, but we can decide how we respond. Thanks to our strong economy and full employment, we can respond aggressively to this crisis. In Ireland today, more than 2.5 million people are in employment. This is the most people who have ever been at work. All we hear, though, day in and day out from the Opposition are complaints and problems to be exploited, with no solutions offered and no recognition that this country is in one of its best places ever and that this situation has enabled us to undertake the redistribution we have in this budget.
I am very proud of the role that Fianna Fáil is playing in this Government by delivering the type of progressive and protective measures we have announced. Yesterday, the Taoiseach said here that there is a divide between those who want to solve problems on this side of the House and those among the extreme left that we have for an Opposition who wish to exploit problems. Many in the Opposition scramble for sound bites. Fianna Fáil is finding solutions to problems people are facing today. As we demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic, we will not shy away from taking decisive actions in the interests of the people, and of all the people.
In primary education, our history demonstrates the transformative effects education can have on our society. I look back to our Constitution in 1937, to Donogh O'Malley and his contribution to education, that of Patrick Hillery in expanding third-level education and even that of Eamon de Valera in bringing Trinity College Dublin, TCD, into the State system. We have much to be proud of in this country. All that history and the progress we have made is continually denigrated by those on the Opposition benches. I am certainly not going to continue to accept that.
The Government is now reducing class sizes and reducing costs for families and there has also been a huge increase in funding at every level in education. We now have a historically-low staffing ratio at primary level. We can see this already when we visit primary schools, with smaller classes than we saw several years ago. This will improve even further next year. Turning to special education, we are doing a great deal in this area. We always need to do more, because, quite frankly, it seems there are more children with diagnoses who need the attention of the State and extra supports in primary and secondary schools. Moving on to third level, I am also glad to see that a significant proportion of those who have got college places this year have got there via the higher education access route, HEAR, or disability access route to education, DARE, schemes. It is great to see that level of inclusivity at third level.
Yesterday, I attended the GradIreland careers fair at the RDS. What I was struck by most was the positive energy to be found among those students, mainly final year students and recent graduates. They are interested in the future. To me, they were inspiring. Notwithstanding the problems that are out there and that must be faced, the aspirations, excitement and interest those students have is never reflected on the Opposition benches. We never hear about creating opportunities in this country. We never hear about what investment we are going to have to undertake to ensure there are jobs for our graduates. We have record numbers of job openings now.
We also have record numbers of young people attending third-level education. I salute them and we will work in every way to support them. This is why the student contribution fee has been reduced this year. There will also be a permanent reduction next year as well for most students. Taking last year's budget, for example, we changed the adjacency rules which means that more people qualify for the non-adjacent grant rate. In Meath East, this decision has meant the grant situation has changed drastically for those students living in Donore, for example, and studying in Dundalk or those living in Dunshaughlin and studying in University College Dublin, UCD.
This is about fairness.
On pensions, budget 2023 delivers for everybody in society. That is what Fianna Fáil has always been about. At the outset, the €12 a week increase is an additional €624 for recipients annually. A once-off double week will be paid to pensioners, at Halloween and at Christmas as well. There will be a lump sum of €400 for those in receipt of fuel allowance. Living alone allowance will involve a lump sum payment as well.
Significantly, the qualification threshold for fuel allowance is being increased from the new year. This will bring over 90,000 pensioners into the fuel allowance scheme. One of the main complaints I get from pensioners who may have a very small pension to put with their State pension is that they do not have fuel allowance. Tens of thousands of those pensioners will now be brought in.
On the EU, we have seen a real positive impact over many decades of EU funding. That continues through the PEACE PLUS programme, which the Government will be contributing to along with the UK and the EU. The Government has received, and it is still distributing, €1 billion of funding from the Brexit adjustment reserve and I am proud to have played my role in helping to negotiate that. That continues. Ireland will receive almost €1 billion in EU funding from the recovery and resilience facility but, more importantly, Irish companies will be able to benefit from that facility all around Europe because we have one of the most export-driven economies.
I look forward to this budget being passed. I am glad of the important assistance in the form of energy supports that has been given to our citizens. We will continue along that path towards income equality that we have worked on for many decades . All of the statistics show that the position in this regard has only been improving in recent years, despite what the Opposition would tell you.
I want to make reference, in the context of my portfolio, to the experience I had in the past month. I visited the Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya and South Sudan, and witnessed first-hand the absolute devastation that is happening there. People are at risk of famine of a scale we have not perhaps seen since the mid-1980s. People are currently dying. There were children suffering from malnutrition, the impact of which I saw first-hand. Mothers, fathers and community leaders talked to me directly. They asked if I would do two things. They asked if, when I returned to Ireland, I would talk about this matter and be their voice. They also asked if I would make sure that the Government continues to support them. Ireland is one of the key providers of support in this area through the work of Irish Aid and through the incredible work of the Irish NGOs that are helping on the ground, day in and day out, along with their UN support colleagues to deal with this situation.
I was incredibly proud that as part of this budget we are doing two key things in respect of the Horn of Africa. First, we are making €30 million of extra funding available immediately. That will make a difference. It will enable those NGOs to continue their work. We need to see other countries come play their part, but we will very much continue to play ours in terms of what we can do. Critically, we have increased our overseas development assistance budget. This will increase to €1.2 billion as part of the budget. That is a 17% increase. Last year was the first year that we crossed the €1 billion threshold. This year the amount involved will increase to €1.2 billion. This represents a steady and significant growth in what we are doing. As we all know from the various other aspects of this budget, there were many calls in respect of the resources we have available. However, in the context of some of the most vulnerable people in the world, we are reaching out and recognising what our role is internationally. That role involves being a country that has a proud aid programme that is admired and recognised for targeting those who are farthest behind and helping them the most. That is something we will continue to do as part of the aid programme, particularly in the Horn of Africa where we will be to the forefront in the next year as we have been in previous years.
We also recognise our commitment to Ukraine and to the impact the unjustified horrible war started by Putin has had on people's lives. We will continue - and we will make extra funding available - to support Ukraine and to respond to that crisis.
I would like to address the other aspect of my Ministry. I am the Minister of State with responsibility for the Irish diaspora. It has been an incredibly rewarding job because the diaspora is at the heart of what is good about Irish people no matter where they are in the world. We have a programme which supports the diaspora. That programme, the emigrant support programme, has supported more than 530 organisations with grants of over €200 million since it started in 2004. It is incredible to see - I have had the opportunity to do so first-hand - the work that Irish organisations do right across the UK, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Anywhere they are, Irish people are willing to come together and work in community-based organisations to help others who left this country, whether it was in the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1950s or more recently. A tremendous aspect of the support and work is there for our culture, for our games and for all that we associate with Ireland as part of the work which we do. We have a €12.5 million programme that we will take into next year. That will enable those organisations to continue to meet the challenges they face on a daily basis in supporting those Irish communities. I look forward to working with them as part of that process.
Those are the two areas of my direct responsibility within the budget. It is an excellent budget that shows clearly the three parties in government working together to deliver. It is a budget which, at its heart, is all about fairness and support and helping our people in communities.
I happy to take the time if the Deputy does not arrive.
This weekend, Fianna Fáil will hold its Ard-Fheis. There will be thousands of members from across the country who will be coming to the Ard-Fheis for the first time since we entered Government. Many of them can be proud of the budget that we have presented to this House. There are many shared goals with our coalition partners, but I can see Fianna Fáil's fingerprints all over this budget. I can also see the values that many of those members of the party have in the detail of the budget. Despite the Opposition trying to present it as a collection of bankers and developers being at the Ard-Fheis, those involved will be people from every community. It is those people who will benefit from this budget. There will be families with young children who will be paying less in childcare. There will be families with children in primary school who will be paying less because they will have free schoolbooks. There will be families with students who will be paying less because of the reduction in student contribution fees. There will be people who need the State's support who will get one of the largest increases in social welfare, including targeted supports. All of those communities right across Ireland, including older people who will have additional access to the fuel allowance and, importantly, the better energy warmer homes scheme, which will allow them to insulate their homes for free, will benefit from this budget.
They will come to the Ard-Fheis this weekend with higher energy bills. In order to resolve that, we have put in place a sustainable, affordable, costed, implementable way of tackling the energy crisis. It will not negate all of the increases that Putin has imposed on the people of Europe and I look forward to seeing the European co-ordinated approach on a windfall tax because that will help fund us.
This Government has managed the economy in a way that we can make an €11 billion intervention without borrowing. That is significant. We do not want to create €11 billion to put into our back pocket. We want to distribute it, support people and tackle some of the issues that have been as problems for more than a decade, particularly those in the area of women's healthcare. We now have free contraception for all women under 30. We will have zero VAT on period products and zero VAT on hormone replacement therapy, HRT, and a new publicly funded IVF model.
These are the many interventions that people have talked about for some time and that had not been addressed but that have now been addressed by this Government. We can vote for the resources in the budget, but the challenge will be for us to actually implement them. In this budget there is more money for people with special needs and more money for SNAs, with provision for more than 20,000 SNAs. The secret and the job of government is to implement such resources. We have managed the economy, protected families, protected incomes and ensured that jobs stay in place. Now we have to get on with the job of delivering these programmes in order that people can benefit from them.
Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to speak.
Delivering a budget - or delivering an alternative budget, as many Opposition parties do - is challenging and onerous, and they are pretty difficult to put together. Therefore, while I do not agree with much of what is in the Government's budget, I wish to state for the record that I recognise that the elements I disagree with are the result of the Government making poor political choices and not the result of any effort on behalf of the officials who work behind the scenes to put the budget together. Similarly, I thank the policy team in our party for putting together our alternative budget document.
Budget 2023 was delivered as Irish households face the biggest drop in living standards since the 2008 financial crisis as earnings from work fail to keep pace with soaring inflation. We have just been treated to a couple of minutes of the greatest hits of Fianna Fáil. However, the party's Deputies left out the economic crash. They left out my poor auntie, who has to talk to her kids on Skype. They left out the fact that Fianna Fáil brought this country to its knees and drove it over a cliff. When they talk about Fianna Fáil and how proud they are of its legacy, let them not forget what that legacy is and how it is felt in every single home the length and breadth of this State. I will not thank anyone in Fianna Fáil for a trip down memory lane with them because the memories for many people, in my family and in other families, are painful. As Deputies pointed out, we see again the icy cold hands of Fianna Fáil all over this budget and, indeed, the hands of their very best friends in Fine Gael. There has never been more than the width of a piece of paper between the two parties when it has come to policy decisions. It is not so much that the Opposition is the hard left, as was described, but, rather, that we face the hard right every day, which I think has its effect on how we appear to the Government.
Many workers have waited all year for this budget. They wanted to see what the State would do to ensure that their work would pay. There are many things the Government can do to influence how we make work pay, but two areas are the national minimum wage and the delivery of collective bargaining for trade unions. Workers are being battered by the cost-of-living crisis. The 80 cent increase in the national minimum wage is far from what was needed to ensure that work pays. Furthermore, the increase is totally inadequate as the first step towards progressing to a living wage. Again we see the contradiction at the heart of some governments. They say they are interested in a living wage, but when the opportunity is presented, as it is every year at the time of the budget, to move meaningfully towards a living wage, that very small step is not taken, which makes me think they are not serious about delivering a living wage at all. In recent months there have been increases in rents and fuel, food and energy costs, to name but a few, which has meant that the cost of living has spiralled out of control for workers. A real and substantial increase in the minimum wage on the journey towards a living wage was what was needed in budget 2023. The recommendation by the Low Pay Commission, which was agreed by the Government, absolutely failed to grasp this. It was no wonder to me that the trade union representatives issued a minority report and dissented from that 80 cent recommendation. I said the same to the chair of the Low Pay Commission at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade, and Employment yesterday. A higher minimum wage could have helped business by driving higher consumer demand. I think we all know that workers on low incomes, when they get money in, spend that money. They spend it locally and in the domestic economy. Increasing the minimum wage and moving meaningfully towards a living wage is an investment in local business. The Government's recommendation of a minimum wage of €11.30 represents a 7.6% increase. It does not keep pace with inflation and, as Government members will know because we have said it to them time and again, if it does not keep pace with inflation, it is effectively a pay cut for the lowest income workers in this State. Yet yesterday and in the run-up to the budget we heard again from big business owners and their representatives that a small increase, a modest increase, in the minimum wage would hit them hard. They should know, however, that that money will go directly into their budget and their coffers.
This is the third budget in a row in which billions of euro in funding and supports have been provided, very rightly, to businesses to keep them afloat, particularly to those businesses that are vulnerable but viable. They absolutely need that. However, they should not be allowed to do what they did after Covid and pay massive dividends to their shareholders. The supports that are there should be for the businesses that need it. When businesses talk about welfare for themselves on the one hand, they need to understand that that is a two-way street and that workers have to benefit as well. Often the people on the business side of the House will say that more money in the economy through wage increases will cause a cost-of-living spiral. Of course it will not, no more than putting money into businesses to keep them afloat will cause an inflationary spiral.
While there is stuff in this budget that one would welcome absolutely, there is an awful lot in it that will not deliver, particularly for low-income workers. That is a shame.
This budget is akin to trying to put out a fire with a watering can. It is a waste of effort. There are billions being spent but spent in favour of high earners, vested interests, golden circles, vulture funds, developers and institutional landlords. It is payback for the Fine Gael core voter, with the odd crumb for the few people who will vote Fianna Fáil and the Greens in the next election. We will be told that trickle-down economics will be the rising tide that raises all boats. However, as our older people, the working poor and anyone living in rural Ireland will tell the Government, trickle-down economics does not exist. The difference between the have-yachts and the have-nots is that the have-yachts have a boat to be risen. Our older people and ordinary workers and their families are left to try to keep their heads above water. It is telling that those earning €100,000 will benefit four times more than those earning €35,000. In reality, those low-income earners and our older people will see meagre increases quickly eroded by inflation, carbon tax and spiralling rents. What is also telling is Fine Gael Deputies' defending single people earning more than €70,000 getting support from the State with their energy bills. It is a damning indictment of the Government's performance that it feels that people on relatively good incomes need support from the State.
There will be no change for teachers struggling to find affordable homes to rent. So much for the hope to reduce pupil-teacher ratios. Unless the Government has plans for robot teachers, I do not know what it is going to do. There will be no change for nurses starting at the bottom of the ladder. They want to stay to try to fix our health service but are being forced to move abroad, where they can afford to live. Of course, that suits the Government as the majority of our young people can see that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are bad for them and bad for this country.
The budget forecasts that the economy will flatline next year at 0.4%. It also predicts that inflation will rise by 16% over this year and next year. There is little in the budget to deal with the fallout from this.
Sinn Féin's fully costed alternative budget favours our older people and ordinary workers and their families. It provides targeted support to those who need it most, not a golden shower for those at the top. Sinn Féin in government will cut childcare costs by two thirds, not the quarter promised in this budget. It will value our older people, people with different abilities and those who care for those people.
Active Retirement Ireland - not Sinn Féin - stated that this budget falls short in protecting older people against the cost-of-living crisis. It stated that the winter fuel allowance will not go far enough for older people after two increases in gas and electricity costs in 2022 alone. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, was patting himself on the back for that a few moments ago. He needs to stop. Active Retirement Ireland goes on to state that the budget does not go far enough for the most vulnerable. We need to see the charge for blood tests and prescription costs scrapped in order to make healthcare more affordable. Budget 2023 is falling short for our older people, who deserve to live with security, independence and dignity. A Sinn Féin government would support households through the winter months by reducing electricity prices, rolling out cost-of-living payments to assist with other energy costs and protecting the most vulnerable.
In 2023, we would deliver an income tax package to put money back into people's pockets, reduce the cost of fuel, support renters and shield lower-and middle-income householders from the impact of inflation. Sinn Féin would give workers and families a break.
In the short time available to me I will raise a number of issues, some of which pertain to my own constituency of Limerick while others relate to the Minister of State's brief of enterprise. I welcome some of the measures in the budget but am really disappointed by others, particularly those relating to rent. While the €500 tax credit will be welcomed by a lot of renters, it will not go far in easing the cost of renting in Limerick and across the State. The Government said previously that a rent tax credit without rent certainty and a rent freeze would be a transfer of Exchequer funds directly to landlords and that is exactly what is going to happen with the new tax credit. For most people, it only amounts to around two weeks' rent, given current rent rates. Rents in my own city have increased by 15.5% in the last year, while the number of properties available to rent continues to decline. There has been no real movement in this area and the renters I have spoken to in the last day or two are really disappointed. They were expecting some sort of bailout.
As the Minister of State knows well, the housing crisis is probably the number one issue we are facing across the State. It is having a huge impact on everything else. FDI companies I met recently told me they are putting projects on hold because they cannot get staff because there is nowhere for them to live. People are stuck in emergency accommodation, those on the social housing waiting lists have no chance of ever getting a house and those renting who want to buy their own homes have no chance of doing so either.
The other issue in my constituency that I have raised consistently since I was elected in 2016 is the chaotic situation in the emergency department at University Hospital Limerick, UHL, but there was no plan in the budget yesterday to address it. The only plan the Government has is to deliver a 96-bed unit which, in effect, will deliver 48 new beds in two years' time. That is simply not enough. In order to bring UHL up to the level of other comparable hospitals, it would need an additional 200 beds but there is no plan from the Government to provide such. It has told the people of Limerick and the mid west to suck oranges. The people have been abandoned but they deserve much better.
The next issue I wish to raise is that of low pay. During the pandemic we were all appreciative of the low-paid workers who kept shops open. We were grateful to the cleaners and others earning the minimum wage or, in some cases, even less. They were expecting some recognition in this budget. If this really was the "give-away" budget some have described, it would not contain a minimum wage increase of only 80 cent. That is pathetic. As Deputy O'Reilly said, the Mandate trade union has said it represents a pay cut once inflation is taken into consideration. The programme for Government contains a commitment to move towards a living wage but there have been no significant increases to the minimum wage in the first three years of this Government's term and this 80 cent increase will not take us much closer to a living wage. This is a missed opportunity.
The final issue I want to raise relates to the enterprise brief and is yet another missed opportunity. In 2019 on behalf of Sinn Féin I launched a policy proposal on the establishment of an Irish enterprise agency. In short that policy seeks to reorganise the 31 individual local enterprise offices, LEOs, into one centrally-led, national jobs agency with the aim of supporting and growing indigenous Irish businesses. The policy recognises the imbalance in our industrial strategy and the State's huge dependence on foreign direct investment, FDI, in terms of both jobs and tax intake. The purpose of the new State jobs agency would be to grow our indigenous business sector to provide balance in our economy, workforce and public finances. The Sinn Féin policy document highlighted our severe over-reliance on FDI for jobs and for the State's tax income without dismissing the hugely positive impact of hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs provided by FDI. We need to refocus the State's attention on domestic business.
The new agency, in addition to providing business supports to SME owners, would encourage good pay and working conditions for employees and develop remote working hubs in regional Ireland, thus helping to address the decline of many of our town centres. The agency would also have a multimillion seed capital investment fund which could be used to take equity stakes in start-ups or existing businesses, similar to what Enterprise Ireland does with exporters. These investments could provide stability to businesses, protect jobs and allow businesses to scale up. In return, dividends on profits would be returned to the Irish enterprise agency and the State for further investment. Companies would be expected to show that all employees have good pay and fair working conditions, including proof that no gender pay gap exists, to be eligible for any State financial support from the agency.
In October 2020, in response to my questions in the Dáil, the Tánaiste gave a commitment to consider the establishment of an Irish enterprise agency specifically focused on helping micro-businesses, co-operatives, and SMEs. In that context, it is disappointing not to see a commitment in budget 2023 to establish such an agency in order to protect our economy going forward. This is a missed opportunity. I urge the Government, having forgotten about it in budget 2023, to act as a matter of urgency and establish an Irish enterprise agency or similar body.
I will focus during my six and a half minute contribution on health and transport. On health, I will focus on three areas that relate to the rights of workers in the health service on which this budget has either been silent or has failed to react appropriately. The first relates to recruitment and retention across all levels of care but in particular in our acute hospitals and across the grades of nursing, midwifery, healthcare assistants and others. We have a story to tell that starts off well when it comes to nursing in this country. We have around 1,800 new nursing graduates every year and immediately after graduating, approximately 96% of them stay to work in Ireland. However, that number quickly evaporates as the harshness of the conditions of working and living in Ireland, in terms of trying to afford housing, build a life and have a good standard of living, begins to bite. We are losing nurses at an unbelievable rate, as well as other grades across the health service. Approximately 6,000 health service employees will be recruited as part of this year's budget but we do not know where they will be recruited from. The vast majority of our nursing staff are now recruited from overseas. They are really well trained and are great workers but we are not able to retain them either because the same housing and cost of living issues impact them as much as they impact the graduates that come through our own education system. We are allowing really great trained staff, irrespective of where they were trained, to slip between our fingers. The staff in our health service are working their fingers to the bone. We applauded them during the pandemic and did everything we could to try to acknowledge them during the crisis. They are still working their fingers to the bone, covering shifts and trying to ensure that we have a health service that functions.
I received a reply to a parliamentary question today on pandemic recognition payments for healthcare staff who do not work in the HSE. Incredibly, the tendering process for a company to administer and process those payments only finished this week. An external company is being brought in to try to find all of the eligible healthcare staff in our hospices, nursing homes, section 39 organisations in the community, and in home help and home care agencies and process their payments. It is an absolute shambles. The chance of these workers getting their payment before Christmas, never mind as part of this budget, is diminishing ever further. That is a failure of the workers in our health service. We are also failing our section 39 workers who have been conducting a 14-years-and-counting campaign for pay restoration and pay increases. Such pay increases are long overdue but these workers remain outside any formal process and are not even being dealt with at arms' length. The trade unions that represent them are not getting a response from Ministers to their letters. These are the workers who work with the most vulnerable in our communities. They need help and support but they are not getting it from their own Government. This budget was silent on all of these issues. The recruitment and retention crisis in our health service is going to continue because it will not be resolved by this budget.
On transport, the Labour Party asked for a radical proposal, namely, a €9 monthly climate card. That would do one of two things, one of which is increase the number of people who would use public transport through vastly reducing the cost. As a follow-on, it would improve Ireland meeting its carbon targets, on which we are way behind. Transport is a key reason for that. The measures announced were continuations of what are good measures, in terms of the fare reductions that have already been put in place, but they are not the radical measures we need to encourage people into public transport or to meet our climate targets.
We have anomalies in those schemes. For example, there is a crazy situation on the north county line where towns like Balbriggan and Skerries are outside of the 90-minute fare, even though people within those towns can get to where they need to go, be that college or work, well within 90 minutes in the morning. However, commuters from Rush, Lusk, Donabate, Malahide and Portmarnock are included in that fare. Throughout the country, in particular in my constituency and constituencies around Dublin, there is a poor or, at times, non-existent service provided by privatised bus services. There is a major problem with the Go-Ahead Ireland service in north county Dublin, North Wicklow, and areas of Kildare. Buses are not turning up in the morning and people are missing work, are late for school or college and are missing hospital appointments which they have to reschedule. We need a transport system that works. When these contracts end, they cannot be renewed. We need a State-owned public transport system, such as Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, which is resourced properly, to run our transport services.
Another Tweet from a constituent of mine this morning thanked Go-Ahead Ireland bus services and said it was another taxi fare for them this morning. Taxi services, another area of our transport system that has been totally ignored over the past number of years, have to step into the breach.
The Labour Party supported a scrappage scheme for cars linked to electric or cargo bikes. They are expensive. A lot of people are driving old cars which are not efficient. They may have a second car in a family. People would be willing to scrap such cars if there was an incentive to buy an electric or cargo bike. We would like to see the Government revisit that.
I am happy with the budget. It is a budget that has Fianna Fáil fingerprints all over it. We have worked really well with our colleagues in government, Fine Gael and the Green Party, to ensure that those in society who are marginalised and the squeezed middle are looked after well in the budget. The Fianna Fáil I joined way back in 2000 was a centre-left party. Parties sometimes deviate from a pathway they are on. This budget rings true to the true causes, aims and aspirations of our party.
There are a lot of good measures in the budget. One is the lowering of childcare costs by 25% per week, a double payment of children's allowances this winter, home energy credit payments being paid in three instalments of €200 each and supports for small and medium-sized businesses. I wish to hone in on some examples of how people will benefit from the budget measures. A person with a disability living on his or her own stands to see a saving of €2,464. A lone parent with two children under the age of 12 could see a saving of €2,288. A home carer caring for a loved one in a home environment who is in receipt of the fuel allowance could stand to benefit to the tune of €2,540. A single renter with an income in the range of €40,000 per annum stands to make a saving this year of €1,330. There is a lot of good in this. I am proud of my party and what it has brought forward in this budget.
I want to comment in particular on the Minister, Deputy Norma Foley. Of all of the measures in the budget, I as a former teacher, was delighted to see a huge budget this year for special education and to make primary school books free. It harked back to 1967 when Donogh O'Malley, of my party, made second level education free. We need to strive and do more. The pupil-teacher ratio for September 2023 will be 23:1. More can be done, but I want to commend the Minister, Deputy Foley, on all of her efforts in this budget.
Regional airports funding is very welcome. I look forward to seeing the final figures being revealed for Shannon Airport in my constituency. Shannon Heritage owns a number of iconic sites in the midwest region, including Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, which were due to transfer from the Department of Transport to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, that is, from the Shannon Group to Clare County Council. There was hope that the budget would have explicitly stated that there was a funding stream for that. It is to be hoped that detail will come out in due course because everyone is waiting with baited breath to hear a funding announcement to make that move successful.
I wish to make the some final quick points. The concrete levy of 10% is something I have a number of concerns about. Just a few weeks ago we passed a massive redress package for home owners with defective mica and pyrite concrete blocks in their buildings. It was right to do so. The detail of that will be stitched into regulations and brought forward in a redress scheme homeowners can apply for very soon - it is to be hoped before Christmas. I do not know if it is fair to put a 10% levy on each person who tries to undertake a building project, be it with concrete blocks or liquid poured concrete, over the coming months. To me it seems that they are being burdened with a levy that the suppliers and manufacturers of these blocks should pay for.
The dogs on the street know who made these blocks. CHR plc, in my constituency, was a major manufacturer and supplier of these blocks. Cassidy Brothers in Donegal is known. We cannot always say that on the street, but we can say it in here. It is those companies we need to go after. The Office of the Attorney General is preparing a landmark legal case to take some companies through the courts system and recoup the costs on behalf of the taxpayer. That needs to be expedited.
Finally, Sinn Féin has spouted for days that we need an electricity cap. We have all seen pigs fly in politics, but I never thought I would see the day where it would follow Tory policy. We have seen the ruination that has brought to the British economy over the past week. It is in turmoil, freefall and tailspin. To hear Sinn Féin talk about a home energy electricity cap is insane. It is costing that at €1.6 billion, but commentators have said it would cost €10 billion. Maybe it is getting advice from Liz Truss. Maybe the famous photograph of Michelle O'Neill shaking hands with King Charles III rubbed off a little bit, because it is coming back with daft ideas from Britain. Maybe it will give up its abstentionist policy in the House of Commons because it is certainly trying to bring forward a suggestion of Tory policies here.
I wish my colleague all the best in his analysis. It is certainly an interesting one. I appreciate the time I have, albeit short, to make a few comments on this budget.
In a budget of €11 billion, it is impossible to give an opinion on every line and detail. I wanted to choose a few select points and offer a few considerations the Minister of State might take back before we get the finance and social welfare Bills in due course. To quote a former Taoiseach, the late Garret FitzGerald, this is a good budget. That has to be recognised. When we consider what member states across the European Union and other countries around western Europe, including our nearest neighbours, have to do to in order have the resources and financial ability to do what this Government is doing in this budget, it makes us the envy of many other member states.
This is a credit, most importantly, and first and foremost, to the hard-working people of this country and the businesses of all shapes and sizes across the country that kept the lights on during the pandemic and made every possible sacrifice to ensure that tax revenues went up so much. This has resulted in an economy with, in effect, full employment and continuous economic growth. These are very important things. The social challenges are great - no one is pretending they are not - but the current position gives us the basis to start addressing the challenges in a way that so many other countries simply cannot.
One area I am particularly enthused by is the fact that the budget clearly puts money back into people's pockets through a genuine income tax package to address USC in a manner that rewards work and gives people the opportunity to continue in their pursuits. One thing I welcome that is not in this budget, but which has been highlighted for consideration, is an effective third rate of income tax. That would be important. It would put us in a far more regular position alongside many other economies. A third rate of tax would be great for employment. I hope that after the assessment is done it is something that we put on the table for consideration for the Government.
A range of payments is very important to deal with the potential and rising cost-of-living and energy crisis we face. None of us can be sure of its sheer magnitude or of what will happen, be it related to the ongoing, brutal war foisted on the people of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs or the extremely worrying situation in the United Kingdom and the reaction on the bond market to the sheer budgetary madness that was announced last week.
The sort of payment we see in order that people have the chance to cope with some of the rising costs is the fact that €1,000 will come off third level fees this year and €500 will come off next year. It will make a tangible difference to families throughout the country who are totting up the costs and seeing where savings can be made, as will the double child support benefit and, indeed, the additional winter and fuel allowance benefit package.
I think we all agree that housing was the biggest issue in the general election of 2020, regardless of constituency. One would have to be a fool to say otherwise. The fact that there is a commitment to build 9,000 extra social homes is welcome in this budget but we have to keep building and address the rising cost of construction and the labour shortage.
After housing, what came up in my own constituency on countless occasions was the issue of childcare, that is, the cost and availability of childcare and, indeed, the ability of childcare providers to simply keep the lights on. That is why I very much welcome the measures announced in this budget. I welcome the Together for Better funding model that was announced prior to the budget, but we can do more in this area.
One area in which I have asked for genuine consideration over the coming weeks is the situation of childminders. Not everybody can put their child into a registered aftercare facility, crèche or Montessori centre. When we look at the funding model of Together for Better, it is a question of why we have 100% take up of childcare providers in Leitrim but only 81% in my own constituency. That area of core funding has to be looked at. There is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to this. Costs are rising. The availability of staff is decreasing. It is an area that absolutely requires a fresh look but that is not to take away from what is extremely welcome in this budget.
The easiest thing to do would be to come into this Chamber, go through an €11 billion budget and pick out the two or three things that are not exactly perfect. However, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to this budget because much is being done for every aspect of society.
I am extremely enthused about the commitment to recruit 1,000 extra members of An Garda Síochána and 400-odd extra civilian staff. That is vitally important to the aims of getting gardaí out on the street, on the beat and in our communities. That is the most important thing. It is not just about addressing crime rates but the genuine perception and concern when it comes to antisocial behaviour, be it on our public transport or in our neighbourhoods. I fundamentally believe that those additional gardaí have to be accompanied by the supports for the gardaí with regard to equipment, vehicles and access to ICT and, parallel to the budget, by a genuine review of our sentencing policy in this State.
We have legislation in this Chamber already. A Private Member's Bill has been introduced by Deputy Griffin, to cite ramming as an offence and the other legislation is from me, which would introduce a mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who would assault a peace officer, be it a member of An Garda Síochána, a firefighter or a paramedic. This is the sort of thing people really want to see. If we have more gardaí on our streets making our communities safer, they need to see that those who attack members of the Garda and the State will go to prison for an extremely long time.
There is much to consider in this budget. I have gone into the WhatsApp groups, houses and neighbourhoods in my community and there is a welcome for this. People are worried about what is around the corner but this budget fundamentally puts the State and, most importantly, our society on the best possible footing to meet those challenges in the coming weeks and months.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this today. I have listened to a good few contributors in between committee meetings this morning and I will say something I have said many times since I came in here: the Government is more reactive than proactive. Let us be honest - we do not always agree on either side of the House - but we are all here to represent the people outside this House.
All the announcements were being drip-fed to the media prior to the budget brought a level of expectation to the people for whom we are supposed to be working. The people in middle- to low-income households were worried about energy costs before the budget and, unfortunately, they are still worried about it after the budget. It was a missed opportunity to cap the energy crisis which, as Sinn Féin said last summer, would have given more certainty. A worrying story was reported last week in a local paper in Cork, about Castlemartyr village, which is an area in my own constituency. A drop-off box had been set up as part of a collection for torches and batteries for old people. Despite us patting ourselves on the back or the Government patting itself on the back, as a fella said to me a long time ago, a pat on the back is only a foot and a half away from a kick on the backside.
I will also touch on investment in mental health. As a former spokesperson on mental health, I was extremely disappointed with the €14 million additional moneys that the Government has set aside. I have been coming in and out of here for the past four years battling over this and even Mental Health Reform is saying a minimum of €35 million should have been the investment. Our budget proposal was to invest in €81.7 million in mental health. Other speakers have mentioned what we are putting into the health service and, yet, we are still closing beds. We are still closing respite beds. Nothing that was promised in the last budget has come to head.
Transport and connectivity was another area. One still cannot get a bus from Youghal to Midleton in County Cork to connect up with the train for connectivity. These areas would assist people because, obviously, energy prices have risen very high. Certainly, the Government should be promoting public transport but those are very simple little things.
I welcome measures regarding schools and school buildings. I will be and always am fair, in that I welcome that moneys have been invested in east Cork because there is a considerable issue in this area. However, we also have a massive issue with school transport, which I will take the opportunity to raise while I am here. I do not know whether there is anything that can be done to alleviate the fact that a person over 70 cannot drive a school bus. I spoke to school bus operators who are willing to do a six-month or 12-month medical on this to speed up and facilitate stuff.
We spoke a while ago about energy costs and retrofitting. There also needs to be urgency when it comes to facilitating businesses that have invested considerable money in solar panels and, yet, cannot sell the excess electricity back to the grid. I was hoping that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, would be here. Good news broke two weeks ago in east Cork about a big hydrogen plant to go on the site of the Whitegate oil refinery. The following week, unfortunately, one of the main players there, Shell, pulled out. However, there is a considerable opportunity for our own wind and hydrogen energy. I spoke to a couple of businessmen. One of them said that we have the potential to be the Dubai of Europe when it comes to wind energy and the associated energy that goes with it. Another businessman told me that one of the by-products of hydrogen is oxygen. He said we will have so much of it that we will be able to give it to the hospitals. The old saying goes that where there is an action, there is an instant reaction. I urge the Government to take that on board with urgency because we do not want to fall behind.
The biggest fear I have when we talk about tax breaks and tax proposals is that more than 1.8 million people will not benefit from this budget when it comes to tax. Those are the people who are struggling.
I will leave the Minister of State with one thought. I hope he can revisit this if it comes to an emergency, which it is. We are coming into the winter months. Old people are absolutely terrified. I would love to see the Government do a U-turn and say we need to cap energy prices and go back to what we were in May last year to give the people certainty.
There is a ritualistic element to the debate.
I have seen many of these debates over the years and you have to be for or against. Those who are for or against make speeches against one another and in many cases read speeches against one another. However, the difference is that in the old days, we got a much longer opportunity to speak. I regret the change and now we all seem to be confined to four, five or six minutes. With the few minutes available to me I do not have the opportunity to go into all the different aspects of the budget. It was a huge budget with €11 billion in expenditure. There are one or two things I would like the Minister of State to address when he is replying to the debate.
The first is that this year, the Government will spend an enormous amount of taxpayers' money, and rightly so, on providing State contributory old age pensions. That sum will be considerably added to as a result of last Tuesday's announcement. As the years go on, the burden will become even greater but we must ensure our elderly population have peace of mind and a sense of security in their twilight years. There is, therefore, an onus on the Government to make this whole system sustainable but what I fail to understand is how the recent announcement of changes in the administration of the pension system is going to make the system more sustainable.
It is my understanding the cornerstone of the proposal was that at the moment, a person who reaches the age of 66 years and has his or her full contributions paid is entitled to a full old-age pension. If there are no contractual difficulties etc., a person can continue to work and receive his or her pension. My understanding of the proposal is if a person forgoes his or her pension until he or she is 70 years of age then he or she will get €70 more per week and there are graduated figures in between. Let us leave out potential or projected inflation as we do not know what they are going to be anyway. Take somebody who is presented with a choice at the moment. The person intends to continue working on at the age of 66 years and is entitled to the old age pension. If the person forgoes the pension for the next four years then according to my arithmetic it will cost him or her €55,000 in today's money. A figure of €70 per week in four years' time to compensate you for the loss of €55,000 between now and the age of 70 years will mean that before you start benefiting in net terms from that change, you will be 83 years of age. What person would, in their sane financial senses, opt for such a system? In my view there will be very few. We are presented with this as a cornerstone of making the whole system more sustainable but so few people will be taking it up, if any, that I cannot understand, quite frankly, how it is going to make it more sustainable.
The other thing that was missing in the recent Government proposal was how we are going to get over this contractual requirement to retire at the age of 65 years. It can be done immediately by legislation and does not require a constitutional referendum but if it does, let us have one. We have arguably had such referendums for much less important matters than giving people security and peace of mind in their twilight years.
Before I conclude, I make brief reference to the proposed levy on concrete products, including concrete blocks, pouring concrete and other such products. I accept the taxpayer is not at fault here; he or she is not responsible for this debacle. I accept the people who are responsible for it should be made pay if that is possible. I also accept that when there is wrongdoing, and clearly there was here, there should be consequences. However, the question is, consequences for whom. The taxpayers are going to have to fork out this €5 billion one way or another and we have a levy that will have to be applied for 50 years before the sum is made up, according to the figures. Would it not be ironic if a subset of taxpayers, namely, people who are going to be hard-pressed because they want to build or purchase houses - and they are hard-pressed indeed - was to be made pay twice over by contributing to the €80 million per year levy? This is going to happen if that levy is passed on, which it inevitably will be. This is due to be discussed on Committee Stage of the Finance Bill and the measure is not due to kick in until 3 April, as I understand it. The Government will have to reflect very carefully indeed between now and the Finance Bill. This should be discussed fully within the Government parties. It will be discussed in committee when that particular section of the Finance Bill is dealt with but I urge the Government to think very carefully about the consequences. It is not that I do not want wrongdoers to suffer, because I do, but I do not want the victims to suffer in an attempt to get at the wrongdoers.
We sought a progressive and decisive budget and one that was mindful of the once-in-a-lifetime challenges facing the country in the form of the energy and cost-of-living crises. The Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, have certainly responded and I thank them both, as well as their staff. Doubtless they spent many long hours over recent months to come up with budget 2023. It is important we also acknowledge that a budget is just a snapshot in time and no one budget will every resolve all the issues in their entirety. We have one party in this House that reckons it will take it ten years to sort out the country yet it expects one budget to effect wholesale and transformative change. What we have seen is a decisive budget focused on the key objective of this Government, which is equality of opportunity for all. We will certainly build on this in subsequent budgets during the lifetime of this Government. What we have seen this week from the Government is a real statement of intent in the areas of housing, health, education and childcare. We will continue to build on that in subsequent budgets as we work towards being one of the most inclusive and progressive societies in modern Europe.
I will address a number of key components of the budget. I thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, for listening to our concerns about the rates issue in County Longford where, following the escalation of decarbonisation and the closure of the ESB power plant, the local authority was faced with a €1.3 million rates shortfall. I am thankful the Government has once again committed to making up the shortfall in rates in County Longford. That is an important component within this budget.
The Government was very inclusive and listened to the recommendations of Members on all sides of the House. In the months leading up to the budget we were all very much aware of the massive energy crisis affecting SMEs throughout the country. To its credit, the Government has responded with the energy rebate scheme, which will be retrospective from September and run until February. It is a massive support to businesses that are struggling and will be rolled out quickly and effectively. The overwhelming message from that community is that it is welcoming this measure and that is important to put on record.
It has been a brave and a bold budget for education and I commend the Minister, Deputy Foley, on her work and on delivering so strongly. We see a commitment to continue with 453 building projects throughout the lifetime of the Government. That is important to us in County Longford in particular as we have a number of notable building projects, including the convent, St. Mel's College, our two secondary schools in Ballymahon and the community college in Lanesborough. This budget is a real statement of intent about education. We have seen that with the abolition of charges for schoolbooks in primary schools. I hope within the lifetime of this Government we will see the elimination of schoolbook costs at second level as well.
There are highs and lows in any political life but Tuesday was one of the good days because we sought to reach out and assist those who have been worst affected in the face of the energy and cost-of-living crisis. Our President has in the past spoken of the need to ensure we have a glass floor within society through which no group is ever allowed to fall and never has the Government of the day's commitment to those who are struggling been more evident than in budget 2023. As I said, a budget is merely a snapshot in time and will not encompass or deal with every issue but we have seen massive expenditure. As previous speakers have said, our budget is in many respects the envy of many of our European peers. That is down to the prudent and effective management of our finances by the Government of the day.
At times it is a difficult, three-party Government. However, we have seen the value of the Government in this budget and we have seen its commitment to those who are worst affected in a time of unprecedented crisis. I am especially proud to be associated with the budget. It delivered on many of the issues that I highlighted to both Ministers. I am delighted that my concerns were taken on board. On the whole, the society that we serve and to which we give so much is in the main pleased, happy and, more importantly, reassured by this budget. People are reassured that they know the Government has taken account of the challenges and difficulties that many families are facing. The Government has responded in kind through budget 2023.
I spoke on the budget on Tuesday night. As I said then, despite lots of highlighted figures and talk of unprecedented expenditure, the net fact about this budget is that the majority of workers, pensioners, social welfare recipients, people with disabilities and vulnerable low and middle-income households will be worse off next year than they were last year. The measures taken have not protected people from the spike in the cost of living or the ongoing housing crisis in terms of extortionate rents and house prices and of course homelessness. That is the net fact, no matter what way the Government tries to dress it up or spin it. People will be worse off. One-off payments that slightly mitigate things for a few months will not hide that fact as we head into the new year.
I want to zone in today on a few more specific issues. How is it acceptable that the much-trumpeted 80,000 new recipients of the fuel allowance will not get the €400 payment before Christmas? That is not acceptable. The Government has been forced to accept that those 80,000 or 90,000 people need fuel allowance because of protests and pressure. Because the Government is not going to actually give them the fuel allowance until January, they will not get the €400 payment. They need it every bit as much as those who are going to get it but they are not going to get it. That is not acceptable. The Government should rethink that one.
The vast majority of those in receipt of jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit, maternity benefit and disablement benefit, in other words people who are not long-term recipients of social welfare payments, get no fuel allowance, will get no lump sum payment and will get no Christmas bonus. How is that acceptable? Where is the help for them to deal with this excruciating cost-of-living crisis as we head into the winter months? They are going to get the bill hikes the same as everybody else but they are not going to get any assistance at all in terms of the payments that are being given out and much-trumpeted by the Government. That is not acceptable.
Another small but important issue for those who are affected is the abolition of the infamous Croke Park hours. The austerity hours imposed on public sector workers are finally abolished. However, I have discovered that, among others, service officers here in the Dáil and, I think, the ushers and similar grades will not get the return of their overtime payments based on the abolition of those hours. Overtime will still be calculated on the same divisor, as it is known technically, as if the Croke Park hours still existed. Very regularly the service officers and ushers in here are asked to accommodate Culture Night or late-night activity in the bar. Is it fair that they are not getting what they are fully entitled to in terms of overtime payments which should have come back with the abolition of the Croke Park hours? I suggest the Government look into that. We often rightly praise the staff who keep this place running. There may be many other public sector workers in similar grades affected by this. If the hours are gone then the overtime payments should be restored.
As I debated with the Minister of State, Deputy English on the radio this morning, the biggest, shocking, disgraceful failing of this budget is in respect of the most severe aspect of the cost-of-living crisis, namely, the ongoing housing and homelessness crisis, the crisis of unaffordable rents and house prices. It is difficult to know where to begin with how this budget has failed. I have highlighted and will continue to highlight the failure to raise the income thresholds for social housing eligibility. This means that people who got a marginal increase, for example those who get €4 extra a week with the tax band changes, may now find a very bitter sting in the tail of this minimal, pathetic increase in their income. They will now be flung off the social housing list, as has been happening to thousands of people over recent years because the Government has not raised those thresholds despite promises. Worse than that, they will not be entitled to the housing assistance payment, HAP, either. They go a few euro over the threshold and now they have no help, even though they have not got a prayer of being able to afford the rents out in the open market or buy their own home. That is outrageous.
It is outrageous that €5 billion has been put in the rainy day fund while at the same time, all the strategic housing developments that are being built, all the apartment blocks, are not being bought up by ordinary purchasers but by investment funds, which then rent them at extortionate rents. Often the State pays anyway through HAP, rental accommodation scheme, RAS and leasing arrangements. Why on earth would the Government not use that money to buy up that property, the vacant and derelict properties and the tenancies of people who are being evicted into homelessness? That would save those people the housing misery and homelessness they are suffering. It would actually save the State money in terms of HAP and RAS payments. Why will the Government not do it? Why will it not impose rent controls and stop the profiteering of the vulture landlords and the energy companies?