Thursday, 29 September 2022
Financial Resolutions 2022 - Financial Resolution No. 6: General (Resumed)
I thank the Ministers for being here this evening for this debate on the budget. I welcome the fact that there is now over €23 billion being set aside in the health budget for 2023. It is extremely important that we continue to grow and develop our healthcare services and that we try to identify the areas where additional funding is required. We have done this in the budget, in the sense that €443 million has been set aside for dealing with waiting lists. It is extremely important that we use that money effectively and that we make every effort to reduce those waiting lists.
Some of that work will have to be done outside of the HSE hospitals, but we also need to make sure we get value for money in relation to the delivery of the healthcare that people require. We also need to look at how we can make the premises of the HSE hospitals and care facilities available to help to reduce those waiting lists. For instance, do we need to look at how we can use some of those facilities at weekends, particularly on Saturdays? How can we have the appropriate number of staff there to be able to provide the care and back-up support for delivering those services in respect of whether it is day care procedures or whatever medical consultation is required?
One of the big challenges we have over the next 12 months is in respect of having an adequate number of staff in all our healthcare facilities. We are competing in a worldwide market for medical care staff. All of the staff who are leaving Ireland are extremely well trained and have experience. No matter where they travel to in the world, they can get employment. We have got to make it attractive to retain the staff that we have here and make sure that they have adequate supports. It is extremely challenging for any person working in the medical area who has a young family and is to trying to do the balancing act of looking after a young family while giving their full commitment to providing healthcare. We need to be far more effective in giving those supports to our healthcare workers. I am not sure that we have done that in the past. We also need to be able to be flexible to take on board the challenges that people who are working in the healthcare sector have when they also have young families.
On healthcare infrastructure, we have much catching up to do. We have already put a huge amount of money into upgrading our facilities for elderly care. It is interesting, and I just got the figures today on the costs of running those facilities. These are community nursing homes across the country. It is now costing more than €550 million per annum. That money is spent wisely, but it is important that we make sure that every one of those facilities is up to modern-day standards and can deliver the care that is required. In the context of healthcare in general, it is important to note that private nursing homes do not have the same financial support that is available to public nursing homes. It has not been upgraded in the past number of years. We now need to make sure that they are adequately funded. We have had a number of private nursing homes close for different reasons. We cannot afford to lose any beds in either public or private nursing homes. It is important that the adequate amount of funding is available.
Likewise, on home care, we also need to bring more people into that area who can provide home care to keep the maximum number of people in their own homes but, at the same time, provide the care that they require. It is interesting that in the Cork-Kerry region, for instance, over 18 months ago we had more than 1,800 people working and providing home care. We lost 400 people in a very short period. We came from 1,800 down to 1,400 providing home care. That is just in the Cork-Kerry region. It is just a difficult challenge to reverse that drop-off in the number of people who are providing that service. Therefore, we need make sure – this applies to all people who are leaving our healthcare sector – that there is an exit survey to make sure we can identify what the issues are, why people are leaving and what we can do to reverse that.
It is important that we continue to provide healthcare support in the community. It is interesting that in this budget there is €138 million for healthcare and social care services, with €29 million out of that for new developments. That is very welcome. Likewise, there is €150 million for older persons and €18 million is in relation to new developments, which is, again, very welcome. The other area where we are putting in extra money in this budget is mental health, with more than €58 million being invested.
I was at the meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts this morning. We had the HSE in before us to discuss dealing with its 2021 budget. We went through the figures and challenges there. Again, like what we faced with the community hospitals, we now face in the mental health facilities as well, where we need to make sure that we invest heavily in infrastructure in this area. It is very difficult for staff to work in a place where up-to-date facilities are not available. Therefore, any place where it is identified that the facility is not up-to-date, we then must make sure that we can upgrade them and, if necessary, in some cases, we might have to build totally new facilities.
I just want to touch on the area of GPs. They form an important part of our healthcare provision. It is interesting that we have a huge commitment by them, but we do not have the same level of support that is in other jurisdictions in relation to back-up support, such as administration and nursing staff. Over the next few months we should engage with the Irish Medical Organisation to work towards having additional support staff put in place in GP surgeries so they can deal with the increased demand.
We are facing huge changes in healthcare over the next eight years. We currently have 760,000 people over 65. Within eight years, that will have risen to 1 million. This is going to be a major challenge. GPs are the first port of call for people who require healthcare. We need, therefore, to put in place an adequate level of supports for those GPs so that they can deliver healthcare and reduce the number of people that they are referring into hospitals where they do not have a choice because they cannot get access to the care that is required.
I touched on the issue of nursing homes. Again, we face challenges there where they are now facing the difficulty of trying to retain staff. We need to work with them to make sure that we can have the required number of staff in each and every healthcare facility across the country, whether it is in hospitals, community hospitals, nursing homes or day care facilities. We now need to look at how we grow the healthcare sector and make working in it attractive. I am not sure that we have done enough of that over the past ten years. As a result, people are leaving that sector and moving into other areas of employment. It is important that we meet the challenges. We have had an increase in population of more than 1.2 million in the past 20 years, which is 60,000 per annum. This year, the population may very well increase by 150,000 if you look at the people who are coming back from abroad, the natural growth in population and also the more than 50,000 people who have now come in from Ukraine. We could have a growth in population of 150,000. That will be more demands on our healthcare sector. We need to respond to that demand in every area, whether it is paediatrics, cancer care or elder care. Right across the board, we need to respond. The way we can respond is by making sure that we have an adequate number of staff in all areas.
Again, I thank the Minister for Health and the both Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform for their commitment to ensuring that we have an adequate budget for healthcare in the coming year.
Regarding the budget, certainly, “the devil is in the detail” rings a bell. One would see that when looking at the commitments around GP care. We know that commitments made previously in relation to under-12s, which has, in fact, been legislated for, has not come to fruition. There is much ambition in relation to that. It is welcome, if it can actually be implemented. In counties such as mine - I presume this is the case in many rural towns, especially - people cannot even access a GP in many cases, or else they will wait two or three weeks for a basic appointment. The roll-out of free GP care is welcome. However, it actually has to be implemented.
It would have been preferable had that been run by GPs before it was announced because it clearly came as news to them.
When it comes to the devil being in the detail, the rent credit is also an issue. Rents have been increasing not just in our cities but also in counties like mine. The average rent per month is now nearly €1,000 in County Roscommon. In the first three months of this year, rents increased by 18% in County Galway alone. I am referring to rural towns where people are really struggling to pay rent. A rent credit is welcome. It is something for which we have called for years, but what is the point in putting in place a rent credit without imposing a pause and or ban on rent increases in the first place? Rents are continuing to rise and there is no sign of them slowing down. Therefore, the tax credit will work regarding rents only if the ban on rent increases comes with it. Rent is one of the issues in respect of which we see young people in particular really struggling. They are finding it impossible to save for a mortgage. They are the very people who are once again being driven out of this country to faraway places. We are definitely losing our best and brightest to emigration once again.
I spoke to a young worker yesterday who is about to take up a job on a salary of €26,000 per year. She will get nothing in the tax package introduced by the Government this week. Someone earning €130,000 will see a benefit of €830 whereas a teacher or nurse on €35,000 will see a benefit of only €190. That is not fair. We have heard a lot about low- and middle-income workers - the squeezed middle – in recent weeks and months. They have not been served in this budget, and they are going to continue to struggle.
With regard to social welfare, it is deeply disappointing that no weekly increase will be seen until January. The lump-sum payments are welcome to some degree but in many cases their equivalent will be spent even before they are received. It is disappointing that we have yet another budget that does not recognise the minimum essential standard of living when it comes to social welfare increases. It is still the case that, at the time of every budget, there is a circus over what an increase will be. It is never linked to anything. The increase is not linked to inflation and does not protect from poverty. It is just a figure plucked out of the air. We are no closer to protecting people from poverty when it comes to social welfare. When we talk about social welfare and social protection, it is important to note that the smallest group of recipients comprises jobseekers, people who have lost work. The majority are carers, including family carers, and also people with a disability and the elderly. These are the people who will see no badly needed increase in their weekly income until January. That was a mistake.
I welcome the moves made on the fuel allowance. I have asked many times for the eligibility criteria to be considered because the scheme has been far too rigid. It is really unfortunate that the extensions as regards eligibility will not come into place until January. That will leave people without support by way of the fuel allowance and locked out of all supports to meet energy costs in the next few months and into the winter.
On the subject of lone parents, the likes of SPARK and One Family Ireland have voiced their disappointment over what the budget does for lone parents. It is deeply disappointing that we have seen no moves on the child maintenance service and the establishment of a proper service to examine child maintenance for lone-parent families, who deserve nothing less. It is disappointing that we did not see a recognition of the cost of disability after the report that we know was furnished to the Minister. There should have been moves on this in the budget. Many other organisations, representing family carers, older people, people with a disability, are disappointed with this budget, so the Government does not have to take it just from Sinn Féin.
On the cost of living, we need clarity on the double payment that will be made in the autumn. The budget book was very clear in stating the double payment in October will be paid to those on long-term social welfare payments. The position on this is similar to that pertaining to the Christmas bonus. It does not include the likes of the illness benefit, yet the Tánaiste said today on the floor of the Dáil that it includes all payments. We need clarity on this because people need to know.
On what is available for rural development, it is disappointing that there is no increase in LEADER funding, which has been sought. This will be detrimental to rural communities. It is also disappointing that funding for the statewide sheds of the Irish Men’s Shed Association and Ireland’s Women’s Sheds across the State was not reinstated. They do wonderful work for people living in rural communities, many of whom are isolated.
The devil is in the detail of this budget. We have much work to do on poverty in this State and getting people through the cost-of-living crisis.
As a Government Deputy, I am proud to be associated with this budget. We have been lobbied a lot over the past couple of months. We have been in an unprecedented crisis given the war in Ukraine. We have made a very serious attempt at addressing the cost-of-living increases for those under the most pressure. At times in politics, we receive a lot of criticism and many issues are raised with us, but since Tuesday we have received many calls from people saying they are delighted with this budget. There has been a serious attempt made to address the cost-of-living crisis people are facing. I am delighted to be a Government Deputy who has lobbied our Ministers for a progressive budget like this. An unprecedented €11 billion has been put into the economy to address the cost-of-living crisis facing us. It really justifies the reasons why we went into government two and a half years ago.
There are two things I would like to see in the Finance Bill. I would like to raise them with the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and then move on to aspects of the budget. The first concerns the means test for the carer’s allowance for parents with incapacitated children. This is a matter I raised in the Dáil a couple of weeks ago. I have a family in my constituency who have been put in financial hardship by the conditions of qualification for the scheme. Since the father of the family got a bonus in his employment this year, the mother’s carer’s allowance has been reduced to less than €50 per week. The couple have a child with serious health needs – a child who cannot talk, walk or swallow. The child was not expected to live beyond 18 months or two years, but, due to the excellent care she has received in her home, she received her first Holy Communion this year. There are not too many of these children in the State. I urge the Minister to remove the means test to qualify for the full carer’s allowance through the Finance Bill. There is a precedent for this. People can qualify for a medical card and the domiciliary care allowance without a means test. Since the number of families in the circumstances I describe is extremely small, I urge the Minister to reconsider this matter through the Finance Bill. For a family with a child in need of care 24-7 and a mother who gave up an extremely good job to look after that child and who is doing so exceptionally well, I urge the Minister to reconsider the matter in the Finance Bill.
The second issue I wish to raise, on which I have been quoted in the media today, is that of the concrete levy. I fully accept the concept of the levy and of recovering money from the industry for mica and pyrite remediation. We now see apartment buildings in Dublin with defects. The bill will continue to grow but the levy needs to be postponed for a period until the cost of concrete returns to a level such as the one that obtained before the war in Ukraine. The price of concrete has risen by 50% in recent months. Next April is just not the time to impose a 10% levy on concrete products. We all want to see the maximum number of houses built and to control the price of houses. I was talking to a concrete provider yesterday who said the levy will add €120 to the cost of each load of ready-mixed concrete. While I fully accept the principle of a levy on concrete and that such a levy has to be imposed, I urge the Government to postpone it until a date later than April 2023 to allow costs to come back into line.
The Minister for Finance gave the example of what a pensioner living alone and in receipt of the fuel allowance will gain from budget 2023. He said it will total €2,374. In my lifetime, I have never seen such a huge increase for people on social welfare. The cost of living and cost of fuel will be enormous this winter, but this is a huge step in alleviating fuel poverty.
The double weekly payment, the Christmas bonus, a once-off fuel allowance payment and living-alone payment, as well as a weekly increase that is permanent, and the three €200 energy credits are a major attempt by this Government to ensure that people stay out of fuel poverty this winter.
We have been inundated with calls from constituents who recognise the unprecedented effort that has been made in this budget. A working family with kids in school or college will gain a total of €5,640 from this budget. That underlines the massive effort being made by the Government to ensure that the impact of the cost of living on families will be neutralised. This shows that the Government is fully getting to grips with the crisis facing the economy and has made a major effort to ensure that families will not be in fuel or food poverty this winter.
Another area this budget addresses, and one which I had pushed for, is a separate targeted agriculture modernisation scheme, TAMS, budget for climate negation measures. As a farmer, I am fed up with being told what we cannot do. At all the forums I have attended I have always stressed that my industry, the agrifood industry, wants to concentrate on producing food sustainably. I judge all climate negation measures by the fact that if they do not impact on our ability to produce food sustainably in this country, then they will be successful. If they impact on our ability to produce food, then they will have failed. This separate budget that has been introduced for TAMS is directed at putting in place solar panels on farm buildings at the moment. I urge that be brought further to include constant aeration of slurry, rubbers on slats, different fertilisers that involve significantly less run-off and production of organic, pelleted fertiliser. There are many things that can be done within the agrifood sector to reduce emissions and meet our emissions targets.
In regard to the €90 million that has been put into this separate TAMS budget relates to a point I made very strongly to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the fact that we have a TAMS budget for infrastructure and that we needed a separate TAMS budget to tackle climate change. I am delighted that this has been recognised in the budget. It is a huge step forward in our task to meet the 25% emissions reduction target that was agreed a couple of months ago. We can build on this and drive forward. A further €3 million is being allocated over the next four years to kick-start farm-based anaerobic digestion. This is hugely welcome. A great deal of technology exists. Farmers around Europe are ahead of us in this regard. Animals on farms throughout Europe typically produce an income. They also produce an energy income. They are a valuable source of income. We can go a long way towards our renewable energy targets inside the farm gate. I am delighted to see these initiatives in the budget. I have worked hard in the parliamentary party to push this agenda and thankfully I got a receptive response. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and now the money has been put in place. We have to continue to build on that.
Yesterday evening, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine visited Lisheen in my constituency visiting the bioeconomy research centre. The technology being produced there is a vehicle that can be used to produce modern technology to allow us to meet our targets in agriculture going forward. We have already seen one project emerging from the research centre where used plastic is turned into a wax in the former Bord na Móna plant in Littleton where used plastic is turned into a valuable commodity that can be used to make glue and for other purposes in the future. That is where we have to go but it can only be done with investment. I am delighted to see that investment in the constituency of Tipperary in this budget. With this kind of investment and these types of initiatives, we will be able to go a long way towards meeting our 25% emissions reduction target. It had to be in budget 2023. In the past we were slow off the mark on such investment but we now have a separate budget for it. While there are many positive things in this budget this initiative on how the agrifood industry will meet its climate change targets is most welcome. I am delighted to be associated with this budget.
I am happy that Deputy Cahill got those phone calls in the first ten or 12 hours because, since then, listening to our local radio station, Tipp FM, there is a great deal of disquiet among our constituents in Tipperary about the gaps that are left by this budget and the number of people who will fall through them. A budget of this size should have given people certainty that they will be able to meet the challenges as we go through the winter. However, to fill the gaps in our public service, the chance is gone. There is no long-term plan in this budget, just a series of once-off measures that leave cohorts of people on the sidelines. Many fixed-income working people are also being left on the sidelines. That is what is coming across on the radio and in the phone calls we are receiving. Take, for example, the fuel allowance. While we welcome the extension of the fuel allowance, there is no doubt that it is too limited. We argued before about working family payment recipients. They should be included in it but they have been locked out again. Even the cost-of-living support package will only be available to long-term welfare recipients. This potentially locks out those on payments such as illness benefit and newly unemployed people’s jobseeker’s benefit. Will the Minister give us more details on that? Deputy Kerrane also raised this issue.
What was behind the decision to allocate an inadequate €12 increase in respect of pensions and core welfare payments that will immediately be eaten up by inflation? These increases are deferred until January. Deputies across the House made an issue of the cost of living and how people are struggling. Now they are being asked to wait for three months or more before many of these increased payments will commence. That does not make sense. Family carers and older people are being forced to wait until January, all the way through the winter. We all expect the weather to start to pick up from January onwards, yet they have to wait until January to get these increased payments.
In regard to tax, there is no denying that the tax package puts the interests of high earners above those on low and middle incomes. Those earning €130,000 will benefit to the tune of €830, while people earning €35,000 will benefit by just €190. I have been contacted by people on disability or invalidity allowance who are due to transfer to the pension shortly and who may not now be entitled to the lump-sum payment. I would like clarity on that for them. Would they not have been better served with the system and the resources instead of giving it to people who are earning €130,000 or more?
Assistance with the cost of home heating oil was left out of the budget. This, again, disregards many rural households.
In regard to those with disabilities, there is €11.7 million to address the backlogs in accessing assessments of need. I realise that many families are in the situation they are in because after all that has happened in this country, it all comes down now to just addressing the backlogs. There is no forward thinking about what is coming down the road; it is just about addressing the backlogs. It is purely a monetary issue with this Government. It does not deal with the systemic or staffing problems that every one of us knows to be the problem. Mental health services got a mere €14 million extra at a time when Sinn Féin had identified a need for, and would have provided, an additional €81 million.
Long-term housing planning is also lacking. What is happening on the report on social housing threshold which has been sitting on the desk for months?
What planning has the Government done to ensure that GPs can handle the welcome increases in medical card eligibility? Any GPs being interviewed on local or national radio will tell you that this was landed on them with no thinking at all and they can see the problems that this is going to create.
There are no additional hospital beds in the health service.
Where is the energy cost certainty for those businesses which called for a cap on the prices? I could go on.
This budget is a missed opportunity again to make a real difference in people's lives especially when the Government is spending so much money, namely €11 billion, as the Government says itself. I was listening to an economist the other day and he reminded people that €7 billion of that is just to stand still, as there is only just €4 billion to go forward.
As far as Sinn Féin is concerned, the Government has no long-term plan but just a series of sticking plasters and they will fall off very shortly.
Sometimes I think we are looking at different budgets. Some €11 billion of a budget is very significant indeed. I remember the days when we were taking figures of €6 billion, and so on, out of the economy. It is a seismic budget. What is the alternative in continuing with existing spending and expanding that, to not doing that? Of course, €7 billion has to be spent doing that, with the remainder to be spent on different measures.
The tax measure is of great significance for so many families because we look at this through a poverty focus and lens. Giving people tax back at every level is about keeping people out of poverty and is about helping them avoid difficulties. These are people who have not faced difficulties in the past but who will this winter and who deserve a break and extra assistance whether through the energy grant or the tax changes. It is so important that we try to address in advance what we know are going to be difficult times for people and the tax changes, therefore, are of great importance.
Changing the band obviously affects everybody over that band but the proportionate benefit to people on lower incomes is much more significant. To say that this measure is targeted at high earners is simply missing the point entirely. We are desperately trying to support people who are in the squeezed middle and who need more money of their own back in their own pockets in order to have better control over their own spending.
The idea being advanced that this is a failed opportunity to have energy cost certainty is made as if such a thing was possible. If we had energy cost certainty, we would know exactly what we needed to do, which is the whole point of what we have been facing which is the very essence of uncertainty. How can one possibly give people certainty with the external threats we have been facing? What measure of certainty can we give to people that they will not have to pay bills beyond a certain level? The taxpayer will have to pick up the cost, however, one way or the other. No matter what one does, there is a measure of uncertainty, whether that is for the State or for the household. One tries at least to be honest about that.
This idea that we are somehow going to give people certainty because a person’s Bill is only going to be whatever number of hundreds of euro and no more, and completely neglect to be honest with people about the fact that the taxpayer themselves will have to pick up the cost no matter what, is a dishonesty. It should not persist any more.
Again, the social welfare package is deliberately targeted. Of course, there is the extra €12 and the measures kicking in after Christmas but that is deliberately balanced by upfront payments between now and Christmas, designed to target people who will need it most. There will be a double payment to all social protection recipients, including pensioners, carers and people on disability payments, in October and in December. There are lump-sum allowances to be paid to those receiving the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance and the working family payment. There is a cost-of-living payment to the carer’s support grant. These are directly identified to try to target people in advance of Christmas, when we know that big bills will be coming, and to then have the longer-term measures in place.
This is a good structure where one faces into each budget year having to address the particular context of that year. We have had Covid-19 over the past number of years and it is obviously the energy crisis now. That is exactly what the Government has to do. It has to look up in front to see what the big challenges are, their timing and how we can address that.
Some of the criticisms are that the Government has done too much in one-off payments and has not brought in enough permanent structural measures, as such. The budget, however, is year-to-year. There are no permanent measures. Everything changes and the budget is addressed every year. The tax changes are never permanent nor are the social welfare changes, as we do not know what situation we will be in this time next year. We do not know how much money we will have this time next year. We think that we will have a solid budget surplus, we hope we will, but we genuinely do not know. There has to be an honesty in how we present the budget to people and tell people that this is the amount of money we have this year. It is more than we thought it was going to be so we can address these different concerns that we know people are going to have.
Next year could be very different, last year it was very different and there has to be a measure of honesty about that.
There are two things I very much want to welcome. First, are the childcare changes which is something that I and so many others in this House have been campaigning for for so long. I believe this is the beginning of a very big structural difference we can make.
The second thing - where I agree with the National Women’s Council - is that this is a big budget for gender equality. There are the steps on childcare, in particular, but also on a whole range of other measures of social welfare and so on, which are big steps towards gender equality and reflect directly the work that we are trying to do in the Committee on Gender Equality in implementing the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.
Last year the Minister for Social Protection very considerably extended the eligibility for carer’s allowance and it will be interesting to see when this kicks in in June how many more people have applied to avail of the carer’s allowance under the new thresholds and how that will work out. I hope that it will work well because the change was so significant.
I also welcome seeing this year the changes to the domiciliary care allowance and to the way in which that is paid. It will now be paid for babies who are born and remain in hospital. We had a vaguely ridiculous scenario in the past where the parent had to go home from the hospital and go back in, which made no sense at all. I am very glad to see that the Minister has changed that and has indeed increased the rate of payment. The last thing that a parent of a child in that situation needs to have to do is to engage with the social welfare office, or engage in that for any reason whatsoever.
I call again on both the Minister for Health and the Minister for Social Protection to take the initiative to establish an Intreo presence in the paediatric and children’s hospitals for the ease of parents to be able to access the additional needs payments that they are entitled to, that they should be able to get easily. They do not need an additional stress in having to get it.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. Níl aon dabht ach go dtarlaíonn an cháinaisnéis seo i gcomhthéacs idirnáisiúnta atá thar a bheith dúshlánach. Chuir cogadh mídhleathach na Rúise san Úcráin ardú ar phraghas an fhuinnimh ar fud na hEorpa agus ar phraghas an bhia ar fud an domhain, agus sa domhan i mbéal forbartha go háirithe. Níl aon amhras orm ach gur iarracht d'aon ghnó í seo chun daonlathais an iarthair a dhíchobhsú agus chun deighilt a chruthú inár dtacaíocht don Úcráin. Tá bia agus fuinneamh á n-úsáid mar airm chogaidh.
Is é an cháinaisnéis seo, go mór mór, freagairt an Rialtais ar an ngéarchéim idirnáisiúnta seo. Is pacáiste suntasach é, a dúradh ar fad atá os cionn €11 billiún. Is cáinaisnéis fhorchéimnitheach é, rud atá thar a bheith tábhachtach domsa. Is iad na daoine sin ar ioncam níos ísle ná ioncam seasta acu a gheobhaidh an tairbhe is mó sa cháinaisnéis seo. Luíonn méaduithe ginearálta leasa sóisialta, taobh le híocaíochtaí spriocdhírithe bónais, chun cabhrú leis na daoine is lú saibhre inár sochaí a chosaint. Go háirithe, fáiltím roimh na harduithe ar na tairseacha don íocaíocht teaghlaigh atá ag obair, a sholáthróidh tacaíocht do theaghlaigh a bhíonn go minic lasmuigh dár gcóras cosanta sóisialta.
Tá roinnt fógraí sa cháinaisnéis seo a bhfuil fáilte mhór rompu maidir le maoiniú na Gaeilge. Ar ndóigh, tá bunú cainéal teilifíse Gaeilge nua dírithe ar pháistí, Cúla4, ina measc siúd. Tacaíocht fhíorluachmhar a bheidh anseo do thuismitheoirí atá ag tógáil clainne le Gaeilge. Cruthóidh sé sin fostaíocht d’ardchaighdeán inár gceantair Ghaeltachta, díreach mar atá déanta ag TG4.
Ach caithfimid infheistíocht a fheiceáil go fóill i dtithíocht inacmhainne sna ceantair Ghaeltachta. Ní féidir le Gaeltacht ar bith maireachtáil mura bhfuil sé d’acmhainn ag a cainteoirí dúchais cónaí ann. Tá obair thábhachtach déanta ag Comhlucht Forbartha na nDéise chun an talamh a réiteach dó seo agus tá a fhios agam go bhfuil Údarás na Gaeltachta ag tacú freisin. Caithfimid bogadh ar aghaidh leis seo chun tithíocht a chur ar fáil inár gceantair Ghaeltachta do pobal na Gaeilge ar chostas réasúnta.
Deirtear, mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. Tá go leor sa cháinaisnéis seo do dhaoine óga agus dá dtuismitheoirí. Molaim go háirithe mo chomhghleacaí den Chomhaontas Glas, an tAire, Teachta Roderic O’Gorman, as an méid a bhain sé amach chun costais cúram leanaí a laghdú suas le 25%. Is leasú bunúsach é seo ar an gcaoi a idirghníomhaíonn an Stát lenár gcóras cúram leanaí, a ghlac freagracht níos mó as an soláthar. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil sé ar intinn ag an Aire leanúint leis an obair seo isteach i gcáinaisnéis na bliana seo chugainn.
Mar an gcéanna, is mar idirghabháil costais mhaireachtála go mbeidh leabhair scoile a dhéanamh saor in aisce ag leibhéal na bunscoile, ach is athrú struchtúrach é seo freisin maidir le freagracht níos mó a ghlacadh ag an Stát as costais an oideachais.
Mar Theachta den Chomhaontas Glas, agus mar iarmhúinteoir bunscoile, tá lúcháir orm a fheiceáil go bhfuil painéil ghréine do scoileanna á bhfógairt, rud a laghdóidh billí fuinnimh do scoileanna agus, go deimhin, a chruthóidh sruth ioncaim do bhoird bhainistíochta a rachaidh i dtreo acmhainní oideachais, geansaithe peile, uirlisí ceoil do pháistí, agus mar sin de.
Mar a dúirt mé níos luaithe, bhí tionchar idirnáisiúnta ag an gcoimhlint san Úcráin, agus tá na tionchair is measa á mbrath sa domhan i mbéal forbartha, agus san Afraic, go háirithe. Tá praghsanna bia atá ag dul i méid ag cur le fadhbanna athraithe san aeráid agus ag brú na milliúin daoine in oirthear na hAfraice go dtí an gorta. Táim bródúil go bhfuil an Rialtas seo ag iarraidh sa bhuiséad seo ár n-oibleagáidí idirnáisiúnta a chomhlíonadh, ag leanúint lenár infheistíocht i gCúnamh Forbartha Thar Lear agus ag cur leis. Ní leor é go fóill, agus ba cheart d’Éirinn leanúint dá glór a úsáid sa phobal idirnáisiúnta chun an tsaoráid caillteanais agus damáiste a bhrú agus a bhrú, go háirithe ag COP27, ach is céim sa treo ceart í.
Mar sin, mar fhocal scoir, is é seo an tríú cáinaisnéis ag an Rialtas seo. Bhí tionchar ag dúshláin ollmhóra idirnáisiúnta ar gach ceann acu, Covid-19 ar an gcéad dul síos, anois ag an gcogadh san oirthear. Táim bródúil as an obair atá déanta againn i ngach ceann acu chun na daoine is leochailí a chosaint ar dhúshláin nach bhfacthas a leithéid riamh cheana. Gabhaim buíochas.
Ba mhaith liom a rá gur buiséad an-mhaith é seo agus molaim an beart atá déanta ag an Aire agus ag an Rialtas. Níl aon dabht ach go raibh dianghá leis na rudaí atá sáite istigh ann.
One thing in particular I have campaigned for in Fine Gael, and I put down a motion on this at the Fine Gael Parliamentary party some time ago, was an empty homes or vacant homes tax. I can think of no better way to have a go at the 160,000 empty homes around the country, in particular the 37,000 empty homes and apartments in Dublin city, and to put pressure on the owners when they lie vacant for a significant period.
As I said, I have campaigned for this and I have worked with the Peter McVerry Trust in Drogheda as I campaigned. They came to Drogheda and I brought them around and showed them homes which were vacant and empty. Some of the homes had birds nesting in the roof spaces for years, flowering shrubs growing out of the windows and, as we all know, rodents dancing and having a merry time in the kitchen, with the doors locked and nobody inside for years. Nobody gives a bloody damn, or that is the truth of it until people like the Peter McVerry Trust say otherwise.
It is about time that this Government woke up to these issues. I had to campaign hard for this and there was significant opposition to this move, as we all know. The reality is that when an empty homes tax was introduced in Vancouver, a major city, the number of vacant homes has dropped 30% since 2017. That is some figure. Imagine if we could do that in Dublin, in Drogheda or right around the country.
There are significant and appropriate exemptions for families or people who own these homes, for example, if somebody is in hospital or in a nursing home. The data show there are many significant and important exemptions. The key thing is not to get the income from the tax; the key thing is to get the house let and to get people living there. There is evidence that we have significant purchasers of properties in the major cities and other significant areas who are very well able to buy these homes, but they buy them to leave, they buy them to appreciate in value, they buy them to make a profit for themselves. Nobody is turning the key to go into those apartments or to use the kitchens or the facilities.
It is time to put an end to that and I believe this is a start. I acknowledge what some of the people on my left are saying, namely, it does not go far enough. Of course, it does not go far enough but, by God, it is a damn good start. As we debate the budget and the legislation that is to back this up, I will be making my submissions on it. If the housing committee meets on this issue, I hope that it takes evidence from people in other countries as to how this can make it tougher on those who are abusing the privilege of owning a home and excluding people from it by virtue of just sitting on it.
The other point I would like to make concerns another campaign in County Louth which is not mentioned in the budget. Nonetheless, it is part of my thinking and Fine Gael has referred to it. This relates to using compulsory purchase orders to release into the community homes that were vacant or abandoned. It was a very active programme in County Louth and over a three-year period more than 100 houses were brought back into commission, with families living in them, for an average cost, including the site cost, of under €200,000. There is progress. There is a way forward. It is time for the Government to follow up further on this. Of the empty homes officers who are dotted around the country, some of them work very hard on empty homes and others, regrettably, do other administrative work, which, to me, is a joke. If they are on the empty homes desk, that is what they should be doing - ringing up, putting pressure on, getting people to respond to queries, finding out who the owners are and if they cannot find them, they should then go through CPO to get the homes occupied.
The Government is serious about housing. The budget for this year is more than €4.5 billion. Let us continue that work. As part of our armour, let use the pressure of this empty homes tax, beginning this year, based on facts and on what has happened in other jurisdictions. Let us increase the tax on these homes if people do not use them and if they do not put them into commission in the first year. In Vancouver, that tax was raised from 3% in the first year to about 5% or 6% now. I welcome that. It is what we need to do. I am not one for shouting about what I do, and not too many other people shout about it either, but I want to say I am very happy with this and I very much support this. I might be sitting on the backbenches but my voice, hopefully, will continue to be heard. Should I have the exalted position that the Minister of State holds in the future, I will be very happy to shout there as well.
We know that health and housing have been the dominant issues in the past two Dáileanna and I would argue they have been the dominant issues over all of the Dáileanna when I have been a Deputy. I would also argue that budget 2023 fails to deal with either of them and just tinkers around the edges.
The big solution for renters in this week's budget is a €500 annual tax credit. Again, it is welcome and better than nothing, but it is a sticking plaster approach and the problem is just getting worse. In the last Daft report, a three-bed house in Dublin 24 that a family might hope to live in was €1,971. This credit is potentially only worth a week's rent to them. If rents go up another 12%, for a family moving into a house down the road next year, fully half of that €500 credit is wiped out in the increase. A tax credit with no control on rents is simply throwing good money down the drain. It will help workers and families in the short term, but will still leave them vulnerable to the long-term spiralling of rents and does nothing for security of tenure. Some suggest it may even fuel inflation in rents. I ask the Tánaiste if one person's tax credit is another person’s tax income.
Sinn Féin would have put a month’s rent back into every renter's pocket and banned rent hikes for the next three years. Renters deserve real action and real relief, not one-off measures that potentially do more harm than good. We must address the root causes of the problems if we are to be fiscally prudent and not simply populist parties, trying to buy the electorate with tax credits and income tax that narrow our tax base further and tie our fate to that of a small number of multinational companies.
This budget is yet another example of how the Government has no real plan to address the fundamental problems facing our health service. There will not be one more acute bed in our capacity after this budget. We consistently hear big numbers being thrown around about the health service.
Every year, we are told that that year's is the biggest budget ever. We have a growing and ageing population. As such, we will spend more on our health service each year just to stand still. The Minister announced that hundreds of thousands of people would have GP care. That is welcome, but it was put forward as if it were some sort of magic wand. Hundreds of thousands of people have no access to a GP because this Government has allowed the retention and recruitment problem in our health service to become a crisis. There has been no mention of additional trainee places for nurses, doctors, radiologists and other key professions where gaps need to be filled. People cannot access the most basic elements of healthcare, namely, GPs, dentists and scans. Even if someone can get on a GP's, dentist's or consultant's books, it can take weeks, months or years to get an appointment, depending on which the person is trying to see. I am tired of these grand ideas when there is not a shred of a plan to implement them. Last year, the Minister announced that there would be 10,000 more staff in our health service. That was welcome, but we have recruited fewer than half of that number. This Government is great at telling people what they want to hear when it does not have the slightest intention of seeing it through.
The Government's commitment to retrofitting has been lacklustre. The current scheme ignores the oldest, coldest and poorest homes and prioritises those with the greatest means rather than the greatest need. According to the response to a recent parliamentary question asked of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, it would take up to ten months just to get a home surveyed for a Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, free energy upgrade. The whole process would take more than two years. We must introduce tiered supports, with deep retrofits for low- and middle-income homes funded by between 65% and 100%, depending on income. This would make retrofits a realistic option for those who remain locked out of the Government's schemes. It is all well and good for the Government to say that it will match people's investment if they happen to have €10,000 lying around, but that is far from the reality for most of those households that I deal with every day. A deep retrofit of the family home is the single greatest way for many families to reduce their carbon output. If the programme is to have meaningful results, we should support those with needs rather than those with means.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. While the budget contains some welcome measures for which Sinn Féin has been advocating for years - I will claim those as a victory on our part - others that the Government is introducing are being implemented in a half-baked way. The failure to implement a rent freeze ensures that renters will continue to face financial uncertainty, given that landlords will use the tax credit to hike rents. We have long advocated for renters to receive a tax credit worth one month's rent and for this to be accompanied by a rent freeze. One cannot be done without the other, but that is the problem with what is in the Government's budget. Students will lose out because they cannot avail of it, nor can the lowest paid workers, given that they are not in the tax bracket. Units are not registered either. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is from the same constituency as me and will know from the people coming to his office that there is a great deal of unregistered rental accommodation. Unfortunately, an opportunity is being missed.
The budget provides no additional social and affordable homes for purchase. The provision of these units is an essential component in resolving the housing crisis. Speaking as a member of a party of affordable home purchase, I am disappointed by this. The Government has written a blank cheque for landlords, increasing rent subsidies by €97 million. These were introduced as a short-term measure. Like me, the Minister of State will remember when they were introduced.
The vacant homes tax is a step in the right direction, but a small one. As the Minister of State knows, the value of many of the properties in question is low. In Laois, they will be rated at €99 per annum. Three times that makes €297. That is not enough of an incentive to get vacant properties back into use. It needs to be stepped up, and I advise the Government to go further.
The lowest paid workers will receive a derisory 80 cent increase in the minimum wage. That does not even keep up with inflation. We called for an increase of €1.40 in line with our plans to reach a living wage by the end of 2023. The Government's income tax changes also fail to benefit lower paid workers. According to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, the medium wage is €36,095, meaning that fewer than 50% of workers will receive a benefit from the higher tax threshold moving from €36,800 to €40,000. We would have reduced USC on a tapered basis so that low- and middle-income workers would benefit more. This measure would have meant an extra €700 for those on €35,000 or less but the Government's means €190. That is a fact.
The budget does not deal with the root cause of the energy price crisis. Instead, the Government has written a blank cheque for energy companies. As previously, the energy credits for households will be pocketed by the energy companies. We wanted a cap on energy prices. The incentive for the companies not to hike up prices would have been the introduction of a windfall tax to ensure that they would be financially penalised for price gouging.
Workers and families face a further increase in the carbon tax in October, yet the Government's retrofit plans do not prioritise low- and middle-income households. Sinn Féin proposed a number of targeted retrofit schemes that would prioritise regions like the midlands in particular, where there is a high dependency on solid fuels. We also proposed a tiered scheme based on household income.
The Government has continued its scheme to subsidise the purchase of large electric vehicles. I do not have a problem with grants for electric vehicles, only large electric vehicles like SUVs and Land Rovers. From the figures we have received over the past year, many of those are in places like south Dublin, where there is adequate public transport. People in Laois-Offaly are subsidising those.
Turning to health, we welcome the decision to adopt our long-advocated proposal to expand the GP visit card. This is a welcome step towards the reformed system under Sláintecare. However, there are no targets to address the crisis in the hospital system. This is disappointing. There are no figures in the budget for additional critical care beds despite Ireland being well below the international average at approximately half the OECD level. Sinn Féin's alternative budget committed to expanding hospital capacity rapidly, including through an extra 37 ICU beds.
While there are some welcome measures in the budget, and despite the fact that the Government is committing large amounts of public money, it has failed to put much of that money where it is most needed, particularly in health and housing. That is disappointing.
I was considering raising a number of points, starting with unfairness. Deputies will know the example of the person on €135,000 who will get a tax break of €830 and the person on €35,000 who will only get €190. I was going to go through each issue individually, but then I said "Maybe not", because what are we doing here? We all accept that we are in the middle of an energy crisis and the EU, in particular the European Commission, is finally getting around to dealing with it, albeit slowly. We know that the geopolitical situation is not going well for Vladimir Putin - I do not mean to take away from the difficulties that the people of Ukraine are facing - but the one thing he seems to have going for him is the financial and energy crises across the western world. We need to get our act together.
Under our proposal on capping prices, people would have short-term clarity until February, letting them know what bills they would be paying. As Deputy Stanley mentioned, we are calling for a windfall tax on energy companies to ensure leverage. This is a legitimate short-term solution. We know that there is a wider problem that needs to be dealt with and the EU should have been on the ball faster. Ireland also needs to play its part. We could have the old argument about how this Government was not going to do anything to decouple gas and electricity prices, but we are in a different place now and we need that decoupling to be delivered. Without decoupling, Ireland and every other country will face economic carnage.
Some of the budget's measures are good. We accept that a cut of €1,000 in the third level fees that someone must pay for his or her kid is a significant measure.
That is accepted. The problem is we have a budget built on a major flaw. We are still dealing with original crises, especially concerning health and housing. We welcome the €500 tax credit for renters, but we do not accept it will do the business. We have all seen the sky-high rents. Everybody here has quoted them, from one end of Ireland to the other. It is an abject failure. I am not sure how people are able to make some of these payments. I do not understand how the system has not fallen apart already. Until we start doing the business, that is, until we start to build enough houses, including council houses, affordable mortgages and cost rental, we will be going nowhere. This is where we really need to do things.
Regarding healthcare, we must deal with the fact of the backlog and the failures which mean we do not have the required positions in community and primary care. We all know the issues existing concerning disability services. Even where people have established rights to services, everything has been granted and assessments of needs successfully gone through, and all the rest of it, they cannot access those services. Until we deal with those aspects, we are an abject failure and there is no point in saying anything different.
As I said, some things are to be welcomed. Then I ask myself what it is we really want here. What is a worthwhile target and project? All I am going to say is that we need a new Ireland. I do not think anybody would find it shocking that a member of Sinn Féin would stand up and espouse Irish unity as a solution. I do not, however, mean it in the sense of a fourth green field. I am talking about the fact that on Saturday, 1 October, at 1 p.m. in the 3Arena, we are having a Together We Can event. It is a conversation on Irish unity, and includes several people who sit in this Chamber, from across all parties. I welcome this fact. The meeting obviously has people from North and South. It even has people like Colm Meaney, who would have acting skills on a similar par to mine.
The point of the event is that we are living on a changed island now. We are in a completely different place. We all know the old Orange state has gone. Beyond that, we now have an opportunity to build something better. When I am talking about doing that, I am talking about an Ireland where we all undertake these pieces of work together. It would be an Ireland where we would build a decent Irish national health service, develop a decent housing system that delivers for all our people and deliver an education system across the board and one where we have a conversation about how we will all live together. There has been a failure at Government level to do these pieces of work. I welcome the cross-party support for this event and I also welcome anyone going along to event in the 3Arena. It is on at 1 p.m. and tickets are still available on Ticketmaster and at the door on the day. We have a genuine opportunity to build something real and better on this island.
I have to reflect on the last contribution because it doubles down on a previous contribution concerning the Sinn Féin reaction to the budget. I am conscious of the Europe we are living in now. Looking at the UK, its economy is going down the tubes because the British people were asked to eat a flag in a Brexit referendum a few years ago. I see that in Italy a party with neo-fascist roots has been elected because people there have been asked to eat a flag. The same thing has happened in Hungary, Poland, Austria, France and the US. It seems to me that the No. 1 response from the main Opposition party has been to encourage Irish people to eat a flag as well and I find this utterly depressing.
When I look at this budget, many parts of it are to be welcomed. It is not possible to look at some of the measures announced this week and not welcome many of them. I am thinking of the education system. For many years, I campaigned on the issue of schoolbooks and on changing the conversation in education from one of money to one of child development. I say that because, as I repeat often, the interaction between a parent and a school, and between school leaders and parents, can often be about money. That is a humiliating relationship if people do not have that money. Therefore, if we delete those conversations by inserting the State, which I think Fine Gael has finally concluded is a good thing, we will unleash the potential of that relationship to be built on something other than money.
Therefore, the announcement of free schoolbooks at primary level is welcome. We should, however, always go further. We should do that at second level as well. We should ban voluntary contributions. We should talk about all those things in the education system that act as barriers to conversations between parents and school staff. Principals do not want to be fundraisers. The Minister of State knows that so many parents' associations become effective fundraisers.
On the capitation announcement, there really was not one. This is where the structural element versus once-off measures comes into clear focus. It was announced that €100 million will be allocated to address how schools will be able to get over the winter. This was not a structural announcement, though, and I wish to see more detail on it. I say this because, inevitably, when a school cannot meet its electricity or other energy bills, and one third of the cost of running a school stems from energy outlays, then that responsibility is going to fall back on the fundraising capacity of a school and parents will again be asked to put their hands in their pockets. Therefore, I want to see more movement in this regard as well.
We are concerned that much of this budget, as my party leader, Deputy Bacik said, is a treadmill budget. It will see us over the next couple of months, but we could well be back here in the new year talking again about these structural issues that have not yet been addressed by this Government. It made an announcement concerning free GP care last year, but that has not yet been introduced for children of a certain age group. Announcements were also made regarding pandemic payments to certain healthcare workers and they have also not been delivered on yet either. Additionally, people in the Construction Defects Alliance are deeply concerned that the Government is suggesting the €80 million to be raised through the levy on concrete blocks will be enough to be able to fund the addressing of retrospective construction issues in future.
Turning to housing, we absolutely could have a more visionary approach in respect of giving people certainty on rents by having a rent freeze and certainty on evictions by having a ban on them. Moving on to the area of SMEs, as the Labour Party's enterprise spokesperson, I would say we are very concerned about the Government's lack of preparedness for a jobs crisis over the winter. We could see many people on reduced hours or, indeed, losing their jobs because of the crisis small businesses are facing. While the Government has made announcements, I do not think they go far enough. I certainly do not think that supporting businesses is going to be enough; there must also be support for jobs. The Government did that during the Covid-19 crisis, and this is the basis on which it should approach this situation as well. There must be investment in programmes and schemes that will support businesses in trying to keep jobs, and this endeavour must be focused on the workers.
I was struck by the last few words of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, when he spoke about families and businesses. It is not, however, just families and businesses that need to survive, but also the workers. It must be ensured that those workers still have jobs to go to in January, when, as I said, we could very well be back here in the new year talking about these issues again. Turning to the issue of childcare, the measures announced for that area are welcome because we had been talking about childcare for some years. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is to be congratulated because he has stuck with this and he has made the difference in this budget. Again, though, we believe that in the context of a cost of €275 million we could have a further intervention for families and a cap on fees of €200. I say this because we again stand apart in this regard as our childcare fees are the highest in Europe. We also pay for schoolbooks when people in other European countries, and in the North, do not. People here also pay for GP visits when nobody in the North or the UK does so.
My final comments will refer to my initial ones. I am proud to be here as a representative of the people of Dublin Bay North to interact with the Government regarding this budget. I have seen what has been happening across Europe, however, and I have also seen the main motivation of speakers from Sinn Féin, the main Opposition party, this week, and it worries me. I say this because for 100 years, or more, we have convinced people that if they could just eat a flag, it would make all of us much better. There must be a different way. The State must be bigger, it must be on people's side and it must support and empower them.
People cannot eat a flag because it will not nourish them or make them happy. Our budget debate needs to be much more profound than that.
I am at risk of repeating much that has been said about this budget this week already. However, I cannot but acknowledge the many good things that have been secured in this budget that will make our society better and fair.
My Green Party colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, secured significant cuts in childcare fees. There is a 25% reduction in fees this year, moving to a 50% cut in two years. Funding for more childcare places and affordable childcare are critically important for our society, for parents, children and employers. It gives stability and security to the sector and was very good news for families throughout Ireland.
I welcome this budget because we are introducing free school books for primary school children and solar panels for every school in the country. I welcome this budget because of the historic €90 million allocation for nature and biodiversity. That is an 83% increase since the formation of this Government. There are energy credits, social welfare increases and a fuel allowance payment in this budget that will help our people through this winter. I welcome the major increases in the retrofitting budget with continued focus on low-income homes that will help insulate our people from high energy prices in the future.
However, in certain areas this budget did not go far enough. In my view, it is not sufficiently aligned with our climate policy. I say so particularly with respect to transport. I acknowledge there are good measures in the area of transport. The 20% cut in public transport fares and the 50% cut in fares for our young people are being extended to the end of 2023, but it has been reported that my party fought hard and expended political capital to get this. This should not have had to be the case. It is a policy that is popular and is right, and I would have expected it would have been enthusiastically supported by our coalition partners. I see the evidence daily, as I use public transport, of the benefit of this measure. There was a step change in usage when it was introduced a few months ago.
I want to talk about gaps that are in this budget and I will begin with vehicle registration tax, VRT. With respect to VRT measures that were implemented a number of years ago which aim to reduce inefficiency in the private transport fleet, to some degree they are succeeding, but I would argue they are not succeeding nearly quickly enough. We must drastically reduce the sale and use of fossil fuel vehicles. Those reforms are also not effective at reducing SUV sales. We can see that such sales are surging. They are a scourge on our roads. They impact on our climate but also on the safety of our people. It is my strongly held view that we have not used VRT to discourage SUV sales sufficiently. This should not be politically difficult. We are talking about the SUVs that have not been purchased yet. The only people who would have been upset are the car dealerships and the motor industry generally. We can and must stand up to them.
We have given generous grants to the taxi industry in recent years to purchase electric vehicles. It was time, in my view, to give supports to other sectors. My own preference was that home help workers would be supported. These are people who must use their own vehicles for their work, who are low paid, who provide a critically important and undervalued service for our elderly and infirm, who for the most part are rurally based, who cannot afford to purchase electric vehicles, yet who often must drive tens of kilometres daily in the course of their duties, thus, through no fault of their own, making a large contribution to our transport emissions.
With respect to active travel, beyond the overarching programme for Government commitments, there is nothing in this budget. It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge those overarching spending commitments. They represent an unprecedented investment in public transport and in walking and cycling infrastructure, and I am seeing the roll-out in my own constituency. I give credit to Limerick City and County Council and its active travel team for being unique among Irish local authorities, I think, in managing to spend their allocation and in developing a pipeline of well-designed projects for the future.
However, there was much more that could have been done with respect to a reduction in VAT on bikes, electric bikes and cargo bikes. With respect to cargo bikes, there is a shortage of drivers in the retail sector and we could have easily addressed that issue with supports for cargo bikes for businesses. The bike-to-work scheme remains limited to the PAYE sector. I believe broader supports are needed to encourage uptake in other cohorts, especially among the retired, the unemployed and those in education. Those are merely examples of where we could have done better in the budget.
It is important to understand that system change is needed in transport. Currently, our policies and our system promote growing car use and we are overly reliant on electric vehicles as a solution. It is not nearly enough that we transition our private fossil fleet to electric vehicles. This is not system change. In many ways, it is bedding in the system we already have, one that is the problem.
From a transport and climate point of view, we did not get it all right in this budget and our policy approach generally is not right either. We should be much more ambitious in the next budget but we have an opportunity now as the climate action plan is being revised to make amends for the gaps in this budget. It is critical, in my view, that we introduce a meaningful vehicle-kilometre reduction target. We simply will not reduce transport emissions by 50% by 2030 and we will not bring about system change unless we do this. Applying a vehicle-kilometre reduction target to all vehicles, not only those that run on petrol and diesel, is meaningful and beneficial to society. Our neighbours in Scotland are doing it and we should too.
I am looking forward to engaging with the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues in respect of the points I have made today.
Dealing with the cost-of-living crisis is the top priority in budget 2023. The Government introduced a very significant €11 billion package on Tuesday to support households and businesses. The budget will continue to invest in public services, particularly our education, health, childcare and housing services, while increasing social protection and pension rates, supporting enterprise and delivering tax relief for working people.
The €4.1 billion cost-of-living package is very welcome and necessary as we face into a challenging winter. In particular, I welcome: the €600 energy credit, which will be paid in three €200 instalments in November, January and March; the €1,000 tax credit for renters, €500 of which can be claimed this year and €500 next year; childcare fees being reduced by up to €2,100 per child; a double payment of child benefit in November; a double payment of welfare payments in October as well as the normal double payment at Christmas; a €500 grant for carers and those with disabilities; a €1,000 reduction in college fees for all students; major expansion of eligibility for the fuel allowance to bring more than 80,000 households into the system in January; fuel allowance to include a €400 lump sum; a working family payment to include a €500 lump sum; and a double SUSI payment in one month, paid in December. All of these are extremely welcome. Many colleagues spoke about them earlier and it is good to hear the members of the Opposition also welcome many of the measures. Of course, I cannot fail but mention the much-needed energy supports for the SMEs which require support over the next number of months, with up to €10,000 per month being offered there.
Working families with one child will save up to €4,500. A working family, for instance, with three children, one of whom is in college, will see a saving of up to €5,640. A pensioner living alone in receipt of the State pension will see savings of up to €2,375, while a person with a disability living alone will see savings of up to €2,460.
It is also recognised that the cost-of-living crisis will impact every household. The €600 electricity credit reflects this. This direct payment will assist households to manage their bills over the winter regardless of whether they use oil, gas or solid fuel to heat their homes. The significant adjustment of tax bands to ensure people earning under €40,000 do not have to pay tax at the higher rate is extremely welcome. This recognises the fact many people earning between €35,000 and €40,000 and above are not eligible for many social supports such as the housing assistance payment, HAP, and social housing. I welcome the permanent increases in social protection payments, such as the broad increase in core rates.
The budget will make a real difference in people's lives. Moving beyond the direct payments, we can see improvements in other areas that will improve lives also. For instance, in education, the Minister, Deputy Foley, is rolling out free school books to all primary level schools. This will benefit 500,000 students and their parents next year.
The reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio to 23:1 recognises the challenges facing children after the disruption of Covid. It should be noted that this is the third year in a row of tackling the pupil-teacher ratio. An additional 686 special education teachers and an additional 1,194 special needs assistants, SNAs, will make a huge difference for children and the learning environment. Parents with children in childcare will see a saving of up to €2,106 per child, a real difference which will help parents.
There is a massive investment in health too, with 6,000 new staff and the removal of hospital inpatient charges for public patients, worth €800 per patient. There is a €443 million package to reduce waiting lists and a €9 million package to reduce oral health waiting lists. Those changes will make a real difference for hundreds of thousands of people in need of such care. There is also investment in mental health.
Students will benefit from the reduction in fees, the bonus SUSI payments, which I have referred to, and the permanent increases in grants from next year.
In the few moments remaining to me, I will touch on just one issue the Opposition has raised, namely, the capping of energy rates. We need only look across the water and at what happened even today to see that borrowing rates are going through the roof and there are serious challenges facing that economy, challenges which could have an impact on our economy too. We have to be conscious that if we follow that route, we too could be impacted in that way.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the budget. It is a huge budget and has been welcomed across the board. I had intended complimenting members of the Opposition on also having acknowledged the tremendous efforts on the part of the Government to support people. Unfortunately, nobody from the Opposition is present at this time as they have left early on a Thursday. This budget should get due debate. We have given over time to do so and Government Deputies are here to speak about it.
I acknowledge the tremendous and unswerving effort of my Green Party colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, on the delivery of a 25% cut in childcare costs for parents and minors. That is probably the most significant State intervention support for parents in respect of the affordability of childcare ever, and we are only at the halfway mark. The intention and objective of the Government and the Minister are to reduce childcare costs by 50%. We will approach that in next year's budget, but the reduction in this budget is massive. My children have just finished childcare but I have been spending on childcare for the past 12 years and the cost is eye-watering. If we can reduce that cost by 50%, it will put money back into the pockets of parents. I note the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in his speech yesterday estimated that that measure represents about €175 per month back in the pockets of parents. That is massive. It takes pressure off. It is not just people with children who will benefit from that; grandparents will as well. Often grandparents are left with childminding. That can be stressful and difficult for grandparents but they feel obliged to do it. We are making childcare affordable, which is hugely important.
To go back a step, the pay agreement for childcare workers has been broadly welcomed by the childcare sector, by SIPTU and across the board, and that is incredibly important. We leave our children with early educators and childminders and they need to be paid properly for the tremendously important work they do for our children, so I welcome that as well. Additional core funding has also been provided in order that we can have extra hours as well as funding for childcare workers.
There are a number of other areas in childcare. We forget sometimes, because of budget day and the big reveal, although most of the budget tends to be in the public domain two or three days beforehand, but earlier this year we expanded and brought forward the school meals programme. We expanded the number of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools. I think up to 60,000 children will get school meals this year because of that Government intervention. I can think of nobody more vulnerable in society than a hungry child in a classroom. I highly commend the Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Foley, on that measure. There are also the solar panels for schools. It makes complete sense to put solar panels on schools. It helps them with their electricity costs and they can sell the excess generated back to the grid. It is a small source of income for schools. We often see schools under pressure for income and then parents feeling under pressure on voluntary contributions. Anything we can do to help schools to accumulate a little money is to be welcomed. This is a really smart move. I welcome it.
In transport, again, because of budget day, we forget what we did in the previous year, when we reduced transport fares for the first time since 1947. Deputy Leddin referred to the transformative changes we have to make in transport and how we get people around and get them to work, school and recreation. It has to be on public transport. Public transport has to be affordable and punctual, and cutting fares is a measure towards that affordability. The 20% reduction in fares was maintained in budget 2023. We had agreed it would continue to the end of 2022, but now it will be extended to 2023. It should continue permanently. That is what we should work towards as a Government.
We have continued to develop transport throughout the country. Significant sums of money have gone into all levels of transport. There are new buses. I live by a new bus route to come from Wicklow up to Bray and Dublin, starting early in the new year. There are train carriages arriving into North Wall this week. They are on the seas at the moment. They will go into service around the country. That is continuous, forward-looking Government investment and an understanding that these things take time. When we go from year to year and people do not know what their budgets are, it is hard to plan. There should therefore be forward thinking, rather than going off cliff edges with budgets, in order that people can plan and transport companies such as CIÉ and Irish Rail can plan to purchase that stock.
Under the DART expansion programme, a large number of electric trains are on order. The largest ever order for electric trains was placed earlier this year or last year. I think it is for up to 750 carriages. That is for the greater Dublin area, but we also have the Connecting Ireland programme and new buses being purchased and new services being rolled out. We have towns that never had a bus service before now being served by buses. It is really making a difference in those towns. Buses are not just for getting to work; they are for getting to school and hospital appointments and for recreation and communities. We often think of transport as a service in the morning and evening for people to get into work, but transport builds community. I could go on about the positives of public transport all day, and I have often done so, so I will cut it short now.
We talk about this budget being a cost-of-living budget. Energy costs are through the roof and gas prices are spiralling because Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and cut off gas supplies. That is the reason energy costs are high. They are high for everybody in Europe, and everybody is suffering as a result of high energy costs. The introduction of the three €200 energy credits, in November, January and March, to coincide with the billing cycles will help people. We do not want anybody to be afraid to turn on the heat or the lights. The energy credits will help. People should know that they are on the way and will come with the billing cycles.
The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, will look with fairness at mounting energy costs for people as bills build up. The moratorium on disconnections is very welcome. People should be assured that the Government is supporting them with the electricity credits, the various double social protection payments, the double childcare payments and the double fuel allowance payments. There are targeted measures as well. There are double payments of children's allowance, which is paid to everybody. That is what we do.
As for the grant system we have, the short-term challenge on energy is, ultimately, to get through this period while gas prices are high and the war is ongoing. We do not know how long that will last, but the Government is committed to helping people through that period. We need to think further into the future about how we never again fall into the problem of this dependency on fossil fuels, the prices of which are going in only one direction. Be that diesel, petrol, oil, gas or whatever other type of fossil fuel, it is running out and it will only go up in value and cost. We therefore need to think to the future and to renewables. I think it was the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, who spoke about the resources to go into MARA, the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority. Ireland's energy future is in renewable energies, our offshore capacity and our massive sea area.
We can become an exporter of energy to Europe. Countries like Holland and Germany are looking at us with jealousy because of the size of the ocean reserve we have, the capacity we have in natural resources and the hydrogen we can develop for export. We can export that renewable energy through copper, through the two electricity interconnectors to England, one of which is under construction and the other of which is in operation, as well as the interconnector to France, or we can export it as hydrogen. We will also be able to use that hydrogen for our own electricity generation. Gas plants will be converted to hydrogen and that is the future. We will retrofit every home so that homeowners can take advantage of the abundance of electricity we are going to have. We will heat our homes with electricity and will have solar panels on every roof. We have talked about free solar panels on schools but we also have the grant that we rolled out this year. A €2,400 grant is available to every home in this country, which makes a lot of sense. If one puts a 2.5 kW solar installation on one's roof, one will probably cover one third of one's electricity needs and at the rates being charged for electricity at the moment - we do not know how long that will last - one will get one's money back in around seven years. That makes a huge amount of sense. More and more people are getting solar panels installed and more and more companies are providing solar equipment. As that ramps up, it will create more jobs. These are clean, green jobs that will last into the future. That is how we will have an economy that is secure in its energy, in the direction it is going in transport, in decarbonisation and in cutting down on our carbon emissions. It provides an economy that is secure so that we can fund health and education and support our people through these really difficult times. That is the future vision that I have for this country. That is the future vision the Green Party has had for a long time and I am so happy to be part of a Government, with our coalition partners, that is putting these things into practice and putting in place the policies from the programme for Government we agreed.
Finally, I want to comment on the vacant homes tax that was introduced, which is a first in this country. This is Ireland saying that it can no longer tolerate vacant homes and that we are going to take action on it. There cannot be so many vacant homes when so many people do not have a home. I welcome the measure and thank the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, for introducing it. We can expand on it, bring more properties into play and make it an activator of houses rather than a revenue generator. I also welcome the Minister for Finance's comments on property and the Commission on Taxation and Welfare. He welcomed the commission's proposals on changes to the local property tax and the site value tax. They require careful consideration and consultation across government and I look forward to same.
It is worth noting that there is literally no Opposition Deputy in the Dáil Chamber right now. As I look across at a phalanx of empty benches, it is a point worth noting.
This is a good budget for families, small and medium enterprises and businesses generally, schools, students, those who police our streets, those who are at the receiving end in terms of need in acute healthcare, public transport users, employees, schoolchildren and the most vulnerable in our society, including those who are addicted and their families. It is also a very prudent budget. For six years I have been a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Budgetary Oversight and at every meeting with previous Ministers for Finance I have raised the issue of corporation tax and the warnings by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, about our over-reliance on corporation tax and our vulnerability with regard to corporation tax as a source of expenditure. This is the first Government in my experience that has taken the advice and warnings of IFAC seriously. It has put a significant sum away and plans to put an even more significant sum away next year to protect and insure against any other shocks that the economy may experience.
The background to this budget is the weaponising of energy by Russia resulting from its invasion of Ukraine. Many of the challenges we are facing right now would not have arisen had energy supply and energy sources not been weaponised in such a way. It is important for the public that this connection continues to be made because it is so easy to lose connection with the reality underpinning some of the incredible measures, particularly around energy, that have been required, including the commitment to pay businesses of a particular size up to €10,000 per month to assist them with their energy bills.
I was out and about at a number of constituency engagements this morning and several constituents asked me what I thought of the budget. I told them that what I think of it is not really important and asked what they thought of it. There was a broad welcome for the budget. That is the impression I am getting. Having spoken to a number of businesspeople in recent weeks in relation to the energy piece, I know that many of them will be breathing a very deep sigh of relief, not just today but in terms of how this budget will assist in the months ahead.
A number of family-friendly measures are worth mentioning. Obviously, the childcare costs measure is a big one for young families and the situation with regard to childcare and crèche fees will be improved again next year and built upon. Things like the energy credits, free primary schoolbooks, reductions in university fees and the retention of reduced public transport fares are welcome, as are the pension increases for older families, couples and individuals.
There is another key measure which I will take some responsibility for, unless someone says I was not the only one to raise it. I raised it at the aforementioned budgetary oversight committee after a constituent of mine raised it with me and pointed out that some businesses are doing extraordinarily well. Last year the Government introduced a measure enabling businesses to give a €500 tax-free gift to their employees. The piece for the employer was that he or she did not have to pay PRSI on it. The constituent I spoke to asked if that could be raised to €1,000 this year because there are employers out there who would like to make that kind of gift to their employees. I raised it with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, who passed it on to the Minister for Finance. Not only has the increase to €1,000 been included in the budget, but provision has also been made for an employer to give that gift twice. Imagine employees receiving a gift certificate or One For All voucher in mid-November or on 1 December. This quite substantial measure has been somewhat overlooked in the reporting of the budget but I would encourage those employers who are doing very well to consider using it.
The budget has been reasonably good for third and fourth level students but I want to highlight the plight of PhD students. This Government is more committed than any previous government to higher education and has the first Cabinet Minister with full responsibility for higher education. However, we are not giving enough to PhD students to enable them to study. Without the resource of PhD students, the country will be poorer in terms of enterprise opportunities that may lie ahead. In particular, I want to mention educational and clinical psychologists. The health service is so short of clinical psychologists and they have campaigned for an increase in the amount they receive to €24,000 per year. I ask the Minister not to focus solely on clinical psychologists because educational psychologists have as important a function in our society. We really need to look at that PhD piece.
Garda resourcing has come very much into focus in the last number of weeks and while I am glad to see the recruitment figures for next year, there are also pretty significant attrition rates in An Garda Síochána. This is not just due, as would traditionally have been the case, to retirements. Some gardaí are leaving because they cannot afford to live in Dublin, while for others the nature of the job is so challenging, including a lack of promotional opportunities, that they have decided to seek alternative employment. That should be a cause of concern for the Minister and the Government.
I would like to see more resources allocated to new technologies which, as the Acting Chair knows, is a subject close to both our hearts. The Road Traffic (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has gone through the Dáil and now has to go to the Seanad, and includes provisions relating to scramblers. Technology, including drone technology, will be needed to police the use of scramblers. I would like the Garda and Minister to have a conversation about that.
The building blocks measure is probably an issue. There are apartments in my constituency that need remediation, and people expected measures in this budget. This is the measure that the Minister for Finance has decided will help to pay for pyrite, mica and defects generally. I have two issues with it. Obviously, it will affect every builder or contractor who buys concrete materials or blocks. The problem is that the people who will ultimately pay for that comprise a much smaller group. They will, more than likely, be first-time buyers or whatever. These measures have to be paid for. They are significant. Social housing construction is outstripping private housing construction. If this was repeated next year, the State would pay itself, through local authorities and approved housing bodies, because they are the ones who would be purchasing materials or paying contractors. That is not what we want.
Ultimately, something dramatic has to happen with the Construction Industry Federation of Ireland in respect of facing up to the reality, in particular in regard to defective apartments and homes in Dublin. I want to assure my constituents and those who have raised this issue in the Construction Defects Alliance that this is an issue that will not be left sit.
We talked about public transport fares. Reducing fares is great, but if there are no buses on routes reduced fares are of little use to anyone. I note the apology by the National Transport Authority, NTA, to commuters yesterday. That is about as useful as reduced fares when there are no buses on routes and young students, in particular young female students, travelling late in the evening, are left stranded at bus stops and do not know until the last minute what is happening until the bus that is due disappears from the schedule. My understanding is that when free school transport was extended in the summer and there were not enough buses, the Department seemed to find buses from everywhere. I would say to the NTA that it has its own public service obligation to commuters. It needs to go out and find buses for these routes until such time as a contractor can supply buses to those routes. An apology is simply not sufficient and flies in the face of Government measures. The Government has taken successive steps in regard to making public transport much more affordable and attractive. The NTA simply cannot provide buses on the routes to supply and meet the demand that is out there.
The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, is present. A number of items relating to acute neurological healthcare are welcome. I welcome the funding for an issue that is close to my heart, namely, Huntington's disease. The Minister of State knows that I served for a number of years on the Tallaght drugs and alcohol task force. There is an additional €10.5 million for the drugs strategy and a further €4 million for the expansion of community and residential addiction services, which are so important. There is almost €1 million for care pathways for high-risk drug and alcohol users. One measure I welcome is the €1 million for monitoring new and emerging drugs. This is a budget that is very broad in its scope and encompasses those who are signed up to the social contract in our society. It has done its very best to meet the challenges that face this country heading into winter 2022 and spring 2023.
I have listened carefully to the previous contributions. I have listened to many contributions on the same subject over many years. The usual clichés used to be trotted out, such as "Too little, too late". Somebody resurrected that phrase again, with some encouragement, in the past few days. The phrase "Opportunities lost" is now a fable. We were told we could have done more and did not do it, and that the budget is a failure. All of those things have been trotted out at various times in the past.
The budget is excellent. It does what is needed now to address the issues that are pertinent and pressing and that are affecting people's livelihoods, their cost of living and their families. It does not resolve everything; no budget ever did. There were always people who said the Government could and should have done more and that if they had been in government, they would have done more. The important thing is that the they are usually the Opposition. They would always do more, until they get the chance to do something and then there is something missing.
All credit is due to Ministers for their presentations and the manner in which they went about addressing the issues that are pertinent and pressing now. In education, that involved school transport and pupil teacher ratios. There are some outstanding issues in the school transport system. I have raised the issue a few times and it is to be hoped it can be resolved relatively easily, in particular students with concessionary tickets.
I want to briefly mention that this was made possible because the country was run well in the past two and half years, even in difficult circumstances and in the face of an international and national economic crash before that. If this country had not stood its ground in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and 2011 and faced up to its responsibilities, we would not able to do anything now. It would not be possible. We would still be going around with begging bowls.
I recall people saying a couple of years ago that money should not be put into what became the rainy day fund on the basis that it was raining heavily outside at the time. If precautions had not been taken then, we would not now have independence and be able to do the things that need to be done. There is always an unforeseen threat coming down the road. That remains the case still, and it may remain the case into the future.
I was on a committee with the now Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications between 2006 and 2008 when the energy industry was being reviewed. The European Union was, correctly, attempting to create an international grid in such a way that there would be some electricity at all times readily available and generated, and Europe would eventually be independent in terms of energy production. That did not happen for many reasons. In this country, we failed to deliver it. I will not mention any names, but an announcement was made to the effect that we had sufficient energy, or even surplus energy, for the foreseeable future and there was nothing to worry about. Of course, that person was speaking against the background of a country that was on its knees in an economic recession. That prediction was completely and absolutely wrong. At the time, EirGrid should have looked much more carefully at the situation that presented.
There is also an issue regarding wind-generated electricity. I have heard an argument, that still continues to this day, about offshore wind generation. Offshore energy generation means that people want it to be away from them in order that they do not have to put up with it. I would warn against too much reliance on offshore wind energy at this stage because it requires at least ten years of heavy investment that has not yet been put in place. We would have to import it and produce more energy onshore. There are still some places where we can produce more onshore.
There were other interruptions such as the undergrounding of all cables. I recall going to Italy some years ago and looking at the cables all over the place. They were up the sides of mountains and so forth. It was good enough for there but we were to go underground in the same way as the Netherlands. There is something of a difference between the terrain in the Netherlands and here. Digging into rock formations takes much more ingenuity than driving across a level plain. Much more needs to be done yet with some urgency.
There is no use in waiting for the lights to go out to take the means that are available and within reach and put them into operation. That is an area on which we need to focus in the future. I agree with my colleagues that the time will come eventually, I hope, when electricity can heat homes and good insulation and energy conservation will do that. It is a good combination.
It is expensive to retrofit houses and so on. It is not easy by a long shot. The biggest contribution that can be made is double or triple glazing of doors and windows. It completely eliminates the escape of heat and noise for those who live in areas where they are concerned about noise such as near motorways or airports. The issue can be, and needs to, be dealt with in a more focused way. We need to examine it and see how and when we can produce the end result, as opposed to saying we have it up and running and it will be done by offshore investment. It will not because it is not there, but it needs to be looked at in a meaningful way.
I could not make this contribution without a mention of housing. Housing remains to be done in an even more meaningful way than it is being done. It is a considerable challenge as it was five or ten years ago. Twenty-seven years ago, I predicted that housing would be the biggest challenge facing the country in the next 20 years. Guys laughed at me in this House and outside it, but I was right. I will make the next prediction now that, sadly, a food shortage will be the next crisis that hits the globe along with the other military challenges we see at present.
That is why we have to balance. I am not chiding my colleagues in the Green Party but we have to challenge those who suggest that we can afford to reduce our food-producing capacity in this country and at the same time survive; we cannot. It does not work that way. We provide food in this country for approximately 50 million people. The knock-on effect of that, if food shortages increase, will be that 50 million people who are barely affected now will be affected by any food shortage in the future. Such a shortage will come rapidly and will be severe. We can think about that because it is a fact.
The budget is tremendous. It addresses the issues as they need to be addressed now and does not overdo it. It holds something in reserve in the event that we have to go again. However, the bit that I have to laugh about is this: the budget has not got through the House and, already, some commentators are asking whether there will be a mini-budget. They do not seem to look across the water to see the result of a mini-budget over there. Even with all the resources it has, the tide can quickly turn into a crisis. We need to talk and act very carefully in a structured way. That is being done.
Suffice it to say that housing and health remain issues. We are not underspending on health, incidentally. Some €22 billion on health is a fair spend. It is a considerable sum and takes a lot of getting. We have to organise it more efficiently than we have in the past and try to ensure that we make the changes that are necessary, long before they become a crisis to cater for the demands that are likely to arise in the future. That is my humble suggestion in that area but I know the Minister and the Government are conscious of that.
I said, years ago, that there was a necessity for an emergency housing programme. I still think that is the case. Even though there has been success, it is efficient to get ahead of where we are to be. If there are 100,000 people on housing waiting lists of all descriptions - both public and private - in a given year, by the time we get to resolving that, there will be 200,000 on the lists, unless we make considerable changes. We have to cater for asylum seekers and, rightly so, and for our indigenous population. Between them, we need to address it in an extra special way.