Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 October 2023

Financial Resolutions 2023 - Financial Resolution No. 4: General (Resumed)


Debate resumed on the following Financial Resolution:

- (Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage)

1:20 pm

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Independent)
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The one-off cost-of-living measures are an example of naked and blatant political opportunism by the Government, serving to highlight how desperate it is to hold on to power. Ireland is now the most expensive country in Europe for food and goods, with prices 46% above the EU average. According to analysis by Social Justice Ireland, the legacy of these measures has been to widen the gap between the better-off and those at the bottom of the scale further. After the previous budget, the rich-poor gap increased by €199 per week to €1,000.

An additional €800 million in core health funding is the lowest increase in recent years. The money granted for new measures is just €100 million, down from €250 million last year. The Government has destroyed healthcare as a career choice and acts removed from a recruitment and retention crisis of its own creation. I question whether this significantly reduced level of funding will allow the HSE to deliver on its urgent and emergency care plan, which centres around emergency department avoidance measures. This is concerning for the people of Clare, as we are about to face into yet another winter of record-breaking trolley numbers at University Hospital Limerick, UHL. During rounds this morning, there were 97 patients on trolleys in UHL. This is a disgrace. If the Government gave one damn about my constituents in Clare, it would have heeded my numerous calls and provided funding to build towards the reinstatement of Ennis Hospital’s accident and emergency department.

Once the one-off measures are gone, they are gone. Unfortunately, this budget is dismantling whatever social cohesion we have left.

1:25 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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2 o’clock

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the budget. I will share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Richmond. We will take roughly ten minutes each.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Who decides what is roughly ten minutes?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I will but it will be ten minutes each. Budget 2024 is primarily a cost-of-living budget. With high energy prices and the ongoing impacts of the war in Ukraine, the measures brought forward in this budget and announced by my colleagues, the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Donohoe, are designed to cushion the impact of continuing high inflation by increasing the amount of money in people's pockets through targeted taxation and related cost-of-living measures. I am conscious of the impact that high inflation can have on the bottom line for businesses and particularly for small and medium-sized indigenous businesses, which are the lifeblood of economic activity across local communities. In that context, it was vital that we delivered a strong enterprise-focused budget, which we have.

I very much welcome the taxation measures announced by the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, which will benefit businesses in sectors across all regions of the country. Specifically, the introduction of a new angel investment scheme will be a catalyst for promoting innovation. The new scheme will provide for a stand-alone relief by way of a reduced capital gains tax rate of 16% and will be targeted at angel investors who invest in innovative SMEs.

The increase in the research and development tax credit from 25% to 30% and the increase in the payment threshold to €50,000 will further encourage investment in research and development by both large and small companies. The increase in the rate will mean that any companies within the scope will retain the value of the tax credit following the implementation of the new minimum effective corporation tax rate from 1 January.

The introduction of the increased cost of business scheme grant payment will help those businesses most impacted by increased costs. The payment will be delivered through local authorities and will be paid to small and medium-sized enterprises that pay commercial rates to their local authority. It is estimated that up to 131,000 businesses will be eligible, which equates to 87% of rated businesses. While the full details of the payment are still being finalised, it is intended that payments of up to half of the rates paid by the businesses concerned in 2023 will be the basis for the grant aid in the first quarter of next year. This will go some way towards helping businesses to meet the increase in the minimum wage to €12.70, which is an important step towards this Government's commitment to introduce a living wage by the end of 2026.

Budget 2024 increases the gross allocation to my Department's Vote to €979 million. This is made up of €395 million in current funding and €584 million in capital funding. When the extraordinary temporary business energy support scheme, TBESS, funding is excluded, this represents an increase of €35 million in our core allocation of €944 million for this year. The capital allocation of €584 million secured for next year represents an increase of €26 million on our 2023 core allocation. Together with the reprioritisation of some existing allocations, this increase will allow for a total of €45 million to be targeted at particular capital programmes next year.

Specifically, an additional €27 million will be provided to the IDA to accelerate its regional property and grant programmes. Of the 300,000 people employed by IDA clients, almost 55% are now based in regional locations outside of Dublin, where the availability of property solutions is a key element in attracting inward investment. This increased funding for the IDA will allow it to take on an extra 50 people or so next year, which is badly needed as we compete for foreign direct investment globally. The IDA has already delivered eight of the 19 properties under the current regional property programme with a further three to be commenced this year. The additional funding secured for this programme in budget 2024 will ensure it can deliver further solutions in regional locations such as Cavan, Letterkenny, Drogheda, Athlone, Tralee, Oranmore, Longford and Castlebar. Increased funding will also be provided for the IDA's grant programme. The IDA continues to build on its impressive performance last year. Some 139 investments were won in the first half of 2023 with an associated employment potential of more than 12,000 jobs. Competition for foreign direct investment continues to intensify and the increase secured in the budget will ensure that this progress in new investments can be maintained into next year.

Enterprise Ireland plays a key role in promoting commercial research and innovation in Irish companies. The increased money provided to Enterprise Ireland in the budget will help to progress the development of modern methods of construction through a demonstration park that will be a model for innovation in the construction sector. I also welcome the launch of Enterprise Ireland's smart regions enterprise innovation scheme. The scheme, which is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, will invest more than €145 million in the period from 2023 to 2027 to support the development of innovative services through local infrastructure, innovation clusters, services to SMEs and early-stage feasibility and priming research. This week, we launched the first fund under the scheme, which consists of €35 million. I hope many projects will be proposed for that money.

The capital allocation for the local enterprise offices, LEOs, is also being increased by 25%, which represents almost €10 million extra. This additional funding will be targeted primarily at helping SMEs and microbusinesses to digitise and decarbonise. The LEO supports such as the energy efficiency grant and the digital for business and green for business programmes are specifically designed to enable small businesses to become more competitive and productive and can directly improve a company's bottom line and capacity for growth as it manages the green and digital transitions.

The current funding allocation of €395 million represents an increase of €9 million on our 2023 core allocation. Together with a reprioritisation of some existing allocations, this increase will allow for a total of €18 million to be directed at current expenditure priorities next year and will be particularly targeted at increasing the resources of our regulatory agencies.

Specifically, I am increasing the budget of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission by 25% next year. The CCPC is the main regulatory authority in Ireland to enforce competition and consumer protection law. In addition to its existing mandate to oversee compliance with more than 40 separate legislative instruments, the commission will take on new responsibilities under the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, enhanced competition Acts and data governance and artificial intelligence Acts. This increase in funding will ensure that it can recruit the additional staff required to carry out these new functions and undertake the related advocacy and information campaigns necessary.

The Digital Services Act established a framework of transparency, accountability and fairness in the provision of digital services through the imposition of specific obligations on service providers. The digital services co-ordinator, DSC, a constituent part of Coimisiún na Meán funded by my Department, is a key component in the enforcement of the Digital Services Act. I am acutely conscious of the importance of properly resourcing the DSC and I have worked closely with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to map out its functions, its tasks and the resources required for next year. The additional €3.3 million being provided to the DSC in the budget will ensure that it has the staff numbers and expertise needed to carry out its important enforcement and regulatory activities.

Since this Government came to office, significant legislation has been enacted in areas such as sick pay, gratuities and tips, the gender pay gap, agency employment and so on. The Workplace Relations Commission has been charged with the enforcement of these rights and an additional €1.7 million is being allocated to facilitate the recruitment of additional inspectors and adjudicators. In addition, €3 million will be provided to the Health and Safety Authority, allowing it to increase the number of inspectors and modernise its technology platforms. An additional €1 million will ensure that the Corporate Enforcement Authority can further increase its staff and develop its digital expertise. The Ministers of State, Deputies Richmond and Calleary, will provide more detail on these and other areas that will benefit from increased funding secured in the budget. In total, across all of the agencies linked to my Department, we are going to be spending an extra €40 million or so next year, which is a significant increase.

In conclusion, the measures announced in budget 2024 are focused on the cost of living.

It is important that the Government continues to provide targeted supports to help citizens and businesses to deal with the impact of continued inflation. From an enterprise perspective, the specific supports that have been introduced will contribute to a supportive business environment and will make a significant impact on further helping businesses to meet increased costs, while continuing to grow, innovate and support communities throughout the country. I commend the budget to the House.

1:35 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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This is, fundamentally, a good budget, one that delivers for families, households and workers across the country, and one that puts money back into people's pockets and helps them deal with the rising cost of living. Importantly, this budget also delivers for business. Without a growing economy, we would not have the resources to fund so many initiatives to improve our society, from childcare and housing, to addressing the climate emergency.

I would first like to touch on the increased cost of business scheme. As the Minister, Deputy Coveney has outlined, this scheme will see businesses, many of them small businesses and microbusinesses, receive a cash injection in the first quarter of next year. Through my work chairing the retail forum and in my travels around the country with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, I meet a lot of businesses, especially smaller retailers, that simply need some help. This grant is a testament to the fact that we are genuinely listening to businesses and responding where we can. Small businesses are at the heart of our local communities and our main streets. They need support, and some need help in getting established. This is where the local enterprise office, LEO, comes in, and why it is so important that they will receive an additional €9 million in this budget, as outlined by the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I have been fortunate enough to visit many and indeed most of the LEOs across the country so far, and I know how important their supports are for small businesses.

Thanks to our State agencies like the LEOs, we have full employment in Ireland at the moment. More women are returning to the workforce, unemployment is at near record low levels, and we want to make Ireland a great and safer place to work. That is why we are giving workers increased rights, increasing their wages, providing paid sick leave, the right to request remote working, the protection of tips in hospitality and bringing in pension auto-enrolment. With increased workers' rights comes the need to protect these rights. An additional €1.7 million for the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to hire ten new inspectors and new adjudicators will ensure that the WRC is well equipped to meet the demands of these new rights and ensure they are enforced.

As well as having more rights, workers have the right to a safe workplace. The Health and Safety Authority, HSA has this week received an increase in funding of €3.1 million. This is a very significant investment in the HSA and will not only allow for more inspectors to be hired but for more information campaigns, and ensuring that if you work in a farm, office, laboratory or on a factory floor, you have a safe place to work.

I will briefly touch on an area of growing importance to Ireland and the Department, which is our membership of the European Space Agency, ESA. The budget saw an additional €3.3 million allocated to the ESA, which already supports 97 Irish companies doing amazing work in the space technology area. This is work that is using satellites and space technology to improve the accessibility of our towns, make farms more efficient and improve transport flows, and it is not only this. Ireland will soon launch our very first satellite, EIRSAT-1, which is something the country can be very proud of. This is a real area where there is investment happening but it is delivering a very clear economic return. From increasing the research and development tax credit to 30%, to incentivising large-scale investment in Ireland, to helping our small businesses, this budget is firmly pro enterprise.

We hear a lot said about the work of Enterprise Ireland, the Industrial Development Authority, IDA Ireland, and our LEOs in both promoting jobs at home and promoting Ireland as a place of business. That is why last year, Enterprise Ireland supported 218,178 jobs, IDA Ireland supported 301,375 jobs, and our LEOs supported 37,863 jobs. These are jobs that have families and households behind them. Our State agencies supported 557,416 jobs in total last year. When we think of funding enterprise, we need to think as well of the thousands of people who will benefit from these jobs. These are people who have been given the opportunity to start their own business and end up with employees of their own, people with really good jobs right across the country, not just in our cities and certainly not just in Dublin, as 80% of the jobs created last year were created outside the capital.

I would like to briefly touch on the work being covered under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Calleary. As has been laid out by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, regarding the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, I am delighted that we have been able to see our Department secure a further increase in funding of €5 million for the commission, increasing its budget by 25% to more than €25 million. The increase in the CCPC's work reflects its ever-growing mandate.

I also want to refer to the Corporate Enforcement Authority, CEA. Since its establishment, the CEA's funding has increased year on year. A further €1.2 million is being provided in budget 2024, which will increase the CEA's allocation to in excess of €10.7 million next year. This increase in funding will allow the authority to hire additional staff, including much-needed specialists to augment its digital capabilities in line with recent advances in technology, to ensure it keeps pace with developments in areas such as artificial intelligence.

As we all know, access to finance is crucial for businesses. The reality for many businesses, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, is that accessing credit facilities for working capital and strategic investment can often be very difficult. Our Department has been at the forefront of rolling out different measures to assist companies in this area. This work has expanded in recent years to respond to particular challenges such as Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's brutal war on Ukraine. We are committed to ensuring viable businesses can continue to have ready access to credit. Budget 2024 commits a further €5 million in funding to support the credit guarantee scheme. The €1.2 billion Ukraine credit guarantee scheme provides low-cost loans from €10,000 to €1 million for businesses. The additional funding being provided in the budget will ensure any claims against the guarantee can be met in 2024. The supports announced this week build upon those we have announced previously.

I would like to touch on the support scheme for businesses that use kerosene, which remains open until the end of the month. Businesses that saw their kerosene costs rise may be eligible for a minimum payment of €500. This scheme is easy to apply for and was called for by many sectors and many representatives in this Dáil. It has been delivered by the Minister, Deputy Coveney and is being implemented in a way that is easily accessible and will provide much-needed relief. I encourage all those eligible to apply by the end of this month.

To sum up, as I said, this is a good budget. It is going to do an awful lot for society and our economy. This Government, unlike alternatives, is genuinely proud to back business. It realises that by backing business and businesspeople, and by creating an Ireland that is a beacon for enterprise, we can generate the sort of tax returns - be they corporate tax or income tax takes - that allow us to spend record amounts in this year's budget. It allows us to give that element of relief to people, be it in the form of €150 or €350 energy credits, or a double child benefit payment just before Christmas, and really targeting those who are less well off. There are so many different measures contained in this budget that are simply going to make life that little bit easier. We are not deaf to the very real concerns of so many people that it is tough out there.

We are in an envious position in this country, and we do not say it enough. I am very lucky that in my role, I get to travel the Continent and speak to ministers from member states all across the EU. As they are dealing with oncoming recessions, they look at the economic model we have in Ireland, and how we can genuinely acknowledge that there are massive challenges on housing, healthcare and meeting the demands of an ever-growing population. We actually have the resources to meet those challenges. We have those resources because, consistently, we have had Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, from the man to my right - the Minister, Deputy Coveney - going all the way back to the former Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, who have put business at the heart of Government policy. They understand that by creating that atmosphere to genuinely allow businesses to grow, we can ensure our society improves. We have an economic model that serves society first, and I hope it will continue to do so.

The measures carried out today are broad, and speaking to a number of representative groups and individual businesses in the past 48 hours since the overall budget was announced, the ongoing refrain is that this is a good budget. This is a pro-business budget, and in fact, it is possibly the most pro-business budget in decades, and that in turn is a pro-societal budget. It is one the Irish people can be proud of, and I absolutely commend this budget to the House.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Regardless of whatever spin might be put on this budget by the benches opposite, the truth is that housing remains the greatest challenge facing Irish society. The Government's message in budget 2024 is that the housing crisis is going to get worse, not better. We also have a crisis in our health services, and the message from Government is that the crisis is going to get worse, not better. The budget delivered no new funding that would, for example, deliver any of the promised 1,500 additional beds. There is no additional funding for mental health services or for new medicines and therapies. The crises we have seen right across our health services will get worse under this Government.

The recruitment and retention crisis that affects so many right across the public sector, from teachers and nurses to gardaí, will get worse as a result of this budget. It will be acute within our Defence Forces. This is the area for which I have responsibility in Sinn Féin. Our Defence Forces stand at a critical juncture, and this week's budget indicates that this challenge will not be met with the type of vision and ambition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Due to the failures of successive Governments comprising those two parties, we are facing a retention and recruitment crisis within our Defence Forces. In every year of the current Government's term, more people have left our Defence Forces than have been recruited.

With regard to capital expenditure, the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces set out very clearly what was required: a capital investment of €250 million every year for ten years. Last year, that target was not met. It was missed to the tune of €70 million by the Government. This year, it has been missed again by a further €70 million. There were no measures in the budget to address why our Defence Forces are at this critical juncture.

To make matters worse, having delivered a pathetic budget that will not meet the needs and objectives of our Defence Forces, the Government, instead of being honest about it, has tried to spin it by saying it has allocated an extra €30 million to our Defence Forces. This in itself is not sufficient. What the Government does not say is that half of the money is going towards pensions. In other words, it is facilitating those who have chosen to leave the Defence Forces. As if it were something the Government should claim credit for, it is providing for pension entitlements that are exactly the same as those that anybody else in the public sector rightly deserves.

Probably the most crass element is the suggestion of the Tánaiste that the Government has spent more money on capital than originally envisaged. The truth is that the amount allocated for capital expenditure in our Defence Forces will be the exact same in 2024 as in 2023. To take €30 million out of one line of the budget and put it into another, pretending it somehow represents an increase, as the Government has attempted to do, is actually an attempt to treat members of our Defence Forces as fools. Well, they are not fools; they know and understand what is required.

We need to ensure that we apply the working time directive for members of the Defence Forces. There was no measure in this budget to do that. The Defence Forces know they need the capital investment that will give them the equipment and resources to do their job, but there has been no additional investment in this regard. They know that they need a sea change in Government thinking. As a result of budget 2024, they can be absolutely sure they will not get that from Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and certainly not from Green Party.

Sinn Féin wants to see Defence Forces that are fit for purpose and can protect our neutrality. It wants to see Defence Forces that can monitor and defend our skies and seas and that can protect Ireland from the modern cyber and hybrid threats that we face. This is our commitment to the Defence Forces and it represents what Sinn Féin would do in government. There is now a very clear choice facing those concerned about the future of the Defence Forces: they can continue with the ongoing neglect under Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael or endorse the change for the better that Sinn Féin represents.

1:45 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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As Sinn Féin spokesperson for older people, I can only say that this budget does little or nothing for the elderly, including pensioners, struggling with huge increases in the cost of living and the costs of energy and food. Figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office show that, under the Government's budget, pensioners will be 5% worse off than in 2021. Does the Government realise that, according to Age Action, one in three are now living in poverty? That means that, for all 52 weeks of the year, their income is not enough to meet their basic needs. The Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, does not have to believe me alone. Age Action has written that Ireland should aim to ensure everyone has an adequate income in older age so they have independence, choice and control over their lives and so that they can meet their basic needs without insecurity or the fear of unexpected expenses or healthcare costs at the end of their lives. It states that while Ireland's ageing demographic has been identified as an important concern by policymakers, the State still needs to improve its strategic approach to meeting the present and future needs of our older people. It hopes its report will help to focus minds on the financial realities facing older people today. It did not focus the Minister of State's mind.

It gets worse. Despite the massive crisis in healthcare waiting lists, no funding was provided for the promised 1,500 beds and additional capacity in acute hospitals, and there was no expansion of the medical card scheme. This will mean more older people waiting on chairs and trolleys again, which is totally inadequate and unacceptable. Sinn Féin proposed an additional €1.3 billion to expand capacity in acute and general hospitals, which would have given older people greater confidence in our health system and ensured they could access services when required. Ms Phil Ní Sheadhgha, whom we in this Chamber all know, has mentioned several times that the longer people are on trolleys, the less their chance of recovery. This is disgraceful.

People have huge energy bills. They do not just arrive three times a year but every week and month. Food bills come every week. While the lump sum payments and energy credits are welcome, they do not change the fact that older people, including pensioners, are struggling to survive. Let us be blunt: the budget has abjectly failed to help older people and to put real money back into their pockets. Years of underexpenditure by the Government are being laid bare by increases, which are decreases in real terms considering what older and vulnerable people actually get into their pockets. This budget was the Government's opportunity to make a real difference for older people, change the landscape for the one in three older people already living in poverty, and stop the slide into poverty among those still at risk. Despite this, what did the Government do? It missed that opportunity. That is a disgrace.

As Sinn Féin spokesperson for older people, I say Sinn Féin's alternative budget would have made real differences so older people would have seen a real change in their living standards and be better off. They would have seen real benefits, real changes and real action, not smoke and mirrors. It is time for change.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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There was much discussion here about innovation, all the benefits that arise through foreign direct investment and taxation, and the wonders that exist regarding enterprise. We all agree on the fabulous work done by the local enterprise offices, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland but we should be absolutely clear that this budget has not brought any solutions regarding the high costs. I am sure all Deputies have got from many businesses the same emails I have got, which state they are still dealing with costs. Even if electricity and energy prices have come down, Ireland is still more expensive than anywhere else across Europe. We have not seen the benefits. The two previous Ministers who spoke could do with having some engagement across government to examine some of the solutions, and even some of those proposed by those on the Opposition benches, based on best practice across Europe in delivering to ensure businesses are sustainable. If the Government members talk to IBEC, IDA Ireland and Irish Small and Medium Employers, ISME, they will hear points similar to those they will hear from the Opposition. These points are about housing, housing, housing and the fact that businesses cannot get housing for their workers. We are talking about inflationary measures and the difficulties we have but we have our own inflationary driver in Ireland, namely the price of housing. To those seeking to find on www.daft.iean affordable house or even an unaffordable rental property, I wish the best of luck. It is an absolute disaster.

We can say what we want about multiple causes and all the rest of it, but at the end of the day the buck stops with the Government. There has been an abject failure for many years in this regard. It started long ago when certain Governments had the notion that the market would look after everything, in the belief that we did not have to invest in council housing. I understand that the current Government realises at this stage how big a disaster this thinking is. This realisation is partly based on poll results, election results and all the rest of it but the fact is that, day in, day out, the members of the Government, like me, encounter people who come to their offices who cannot get a house or afford the rent and who have all the other issues to deal with.

I started by talking about innovation. IBEC, IDA Ireland and ISME say this is the issue.

If we are going to continue talking about enterprise, we will really have to get down to it. There was a time when local authorities, Focus Ireland and others were dealing with homeless services. Those the Minister spoke about having done fabulous work in delivering innovation are saying we need to get a handle on housing. I do not see any proposal in this budget to deal with that. The Government had €2.6 billion to spend on housing last year. It is the same this year. Until we see something that is far more real, we will be talking about Sinn Féin's proposal for 21,000 social and affordable houses and an increase in spending of €1.7 billion.

The Minister, Deputy Coveney, spoke about modern methods of construction. There has been a lot of talk about modern methods of construction in this House. The problem is that they have not often been put into action. That is what we need to see. I assume we have all met firms in our constituencies and people who say that they can ramp up construction and that the technologies are there to make it possible. Some good work has been done but I have not seen it in delivery and in dealing with the fact that no one can get an affordable house, an affordable rental property or a cost-rental property. If the Government will not even set the targets necessary to deliver on this - we all realise it has not delivered on its previous targets - that is accepting failure before we start. There has been much talk of throwing in the towel. That is what it looks like. That is why the term is being used, no matter who does not like it. It is as simple as that. When will we see the use of timber-frame construction to a greater degree, the use of 3D concrete printing or modular homes being built at a level that delivers for those who are suffering at the painful end of the housing crisis? We can talk about it in this House, but at the end of the day most of us are not under pressure or at risk of being evicted. Most of us can afford to pay our mortgages and rents. However, a huge number of people are in a different reality and this budget does not offer them any element of a solution.

On some level we welcome the increase in the tax credit for renters. The only thing is that you only have turn on the radio to hear renters talking about the difficulty of applying for and receiving it. The other thing that was missed in the Sinn Féin proposal - we talked about putting a full month's rent back into renters' pockets up to a maximum of €2,000 - was that we are in a housing crisis, a rental crisis, so the only thing that can be done is to ban rent increases until we deliver supply and the necessary solutions. That is all that will work. Otherwise the money received by those who go through the bureaucracy of applying for it will end up in the pockets of landlords and that is of no addition.

No one would think for a second that this Government would have introduced mortgage interest relief if not for Sinn Féin, and Deputy Doherty in particular, pushing the issue. The problem is that the Government threw a good idea out into the world but removed thousands of people from being able to avail of it. We all know these people are suffering and dealing with issues across the board in respect of the cost-of-living crisis.

I had approximately 16 points to make. It looks as though I will not make many of them.

Health is a disaster. Look at the cost overruns. We see no additional money and no delivery of the promised 1,500 beds. That is before we talk about CAMHS and the €7.5 million increase which, given that we proposed €20 million, is not serious.

I do not see anything for delivering the disability action plan. People will continue to suffer and continue to come into our offices. We will be trying to deal with this client by client and that is not the way to do it.

1:55 pm

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the budget, especially the funding of more than €22.5 billion to be provided in health. An important area in healthcare is the delivery of infrastructure and there is a need to fast-track that area. It is interesting to see that the population has increased by 1.5 million people in the past 23 years. We have gone from 3.8 million people to 5.2 million. That is a 40% increase. It is now important that we deliver the services required to serve that population. It is likely that the population will reach 6 million by 2030. There is therefore an urgent need to fast-track all the areas in healthcare.

I welcome the budget, but we need to change the structures under which we deliver. For instance, while our elective hospitals have been clearly identified as required, they are still only at design stage. They now need to be prioritised. It is also interesting that despite the criticism of our healthcare system, we have the longest life expectancy in Europe. The latest Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures show that we have more than 805,000 people over the age of 66. By 2030, we will have 1 million. One point I keep making is that this means there will be a growing demand for hospital care. At any one time, 50% of hospital beds are occupied by people over the age of 66.

It is also about making sure step-down facilities are available. As we speak today in the Dáil, more than 600 people are in hospital who could be discharged. We need to fast-track the discharge process to ensure people do not wait two or three months in hospital for a suitable location to be identified to transfer them to. It blocks the system if we cannot get the step-down facilities in place. The facilities are available. It is about reorganisation. The Minister has been putting on a lot of pressure to ensure consultants are available at weekends, but discharge is not only about consultants being available; we also need the administrative staff to be there to make sure the discharge is implemented, especially when people are going into step-down facilities. The challenge is that we have more people who do not have familial support. It is a growing problem, especially in rural areas, and we need to see how we can further develop responses to that in the next 12 months. It is even difficult in urban areas. For example in the HSE south-west area, more than 1,500 people were employed by the HSE to provide home care. That dropped by more than 400 people in a short period more than 12 months ago and it has been hard to get the number back up. It is important that we use the money we have in the most efficient way possible. One way to do so is to keep people out of hospital, whether by giving them home support or providing access to step-down facilities if that is what they need. The facilities are there in the public and private sectors.

I need to touch on one other area, the challenges in the building sector. At one stage, the number of people working in that sector made up 12% of the workforce. They now only make up 6% of the workforce. I welcome the money that has been allocated to increasing apprenticeships. The target is that 16,000 people should be brought into apprenticeships in the trades. That is extremely important. There is one message about apprenticeships we need to sell. Young people want to travel and it is important they have a skill and a base to easily get employment if they travel and can come back again. It is interesting that 144,000 Irish people came home in the past five years. Some 138,000 people left in the same five years. Those figures show that Ireland is an attractive place to live, to rear a family and to grow old. We need to continue to encourage that. While we do not have any difficulty with people travelling, we need to ensure that Ireland is a welcoming place for them to come home to.

I welcome the funding that has been made available in the area of apprenticeships and in ensuring we get a sufficient number of people into the building trades so that we continue to build our healthcare infrastructure, our schools, our roads and our housing.

That is a very big contribution in this budget and it is something I very much welcome.

2:05 pm

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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We set out to make this budget about putting money back in people's pockets, protecting children and families and ensuring our climate and environmental challenges can be met head-on. We framed it as a budget for children, your pocket and our planet. To me, the most significant aspect is the €14 billion infrastructure, climate and nature fund. It safeguards continued capital investment to ensure we keep to our commitments to carbon neutrality, to reverse the loss of nature and biodiversity, and to improve water quality, air quality, the natural world and the habitats upon which we rely. Never before has such a forward-thinking commitment been made by any Government for resilience and the means to seriously provide for climate action and the protection of nature. It has been broadly welcomed by the environment and climate NGOs and commentators. It is widely acknowledged as a strong and significant green aspect to this budget.

I highlight my party’s election commitment that if we went into government, we would reduce childcare costs. I thank my Green Party colleague the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, for steadfastly delivering that commitment in this budget. Parents of young children at that very expensive time in life will see a 50% cut in childcare fees delivered within the lifetime of this Government. Those highly trained, brilliant and committed childcare workers will also be supported. I hope to see this expanded soon to registered childminders. It amounts to a very significant saving for parents at, as I have said, what is a very expensive time in life.

Transport is the subject of another key Green Party commitment. When we cut bus and rail fares by 20% for everybody last year, and by 50% for everyone up to 24 years of age, the response was very positive. It has created significant savings for everybody who takes public transport, but particularly for young people. Public transport numbers have bounced back way beyond what they were at pre-Covid levels. Those up to 26 years of age can travel for half-price, which very much to be welcomed, especially if one is lucky enough to be under 26 years of age.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has not only managed to reduce rail fares significantly and thereby increase the use of public transport, but he has also expanded services. There is a new or improved rural bus service delivered at the rate of one per week. In Wicklow, I have seen extra rail services put on. The DART expansion to Wicklow town is progressing very well. I admit that much more needs to be done in transport because we can see it is over capacity. That shows the pent-up demand. We guarantee that we will supply the buses and trains that are needed.

On electricity credits, it is significant that three more payments of €150 will go to homes struggling with electricity costs. We know that gas and electricity suppliers are starting to reduce costs. We are taking money back from those energy suppliers that made excessive profits during the hike in energy costs. We are taking it back in this windfall tax legislation and giving it back to people who need it in the form of energy credits. This is also happening through the Department of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Many people have put up solar panels on their roofs. I believe that up to 60,000 or 70,000 roofs out there have solar panels on them now. As a result of this budget, people can now earn twice as much tax-free from that feed-in tariff and the excess energy they put back into the grid. If one assumes that we are talking about approximately 1,900 kW per household at a tariff of roughly 20 cent, and if one multiplies that out by 70,000 homes, one sees that a great deal of money is being paid to those microgenerators out there. That is happening because we took on the solar opportunities head-on. We got rid of the planning requirements; brought in significant grants, reduced the VAT rate to zero and produced this feed-in tariff. It is working and much more is going to happen out there.

In order to get more of that solar on the roof and to get the energy retrofits, which are also above target, we need the workforce to do it. Workforce constraints are probably the biggest constraints we face at the moment. I am glad to see €6 million to €7 million allocated in this budget to develop 16,000 craft apprenticeships. Having taken the craft apprenticeship route, I highly recommend that people should consider it. It is well paid, there is plenty of work out there and there is a good future in it. It is something that anybody in school can consider, or anybody in any job can go back to. Some of the best apprentices I ever trained were mature apprentices. These are people who had done other jobs and came in and decided to do a craft apprenticeship.

I want to briefly comment on the vacant homes tax. It was introduced at a rate of three times the rate of local property tax, LPT, plus the local property tax itself - so effectively four times the LPT rate. In the Finance Bill last year, I asked the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, if he would raise it to six times. He said he would consider that and review it where necessary. He has come back this year, through the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, to raise it to five times. I consider that to be heading in the right direction.

My opinion of this budget does not really matter, and nor does that of the Opposition. What matters is what the analysis and the evidence show. The simulating welfare and income tax changes, SWITCH, analysis carried out by the Department of Finance and the ESRI is where the evidence of whether this is a progressive budget is to be found. I am proud that the last four budgets which the Green Party has been part of have been shown to be progressive. In other words, they have sought to support as many sectors as possible and have been shown to favour those who need the financial support the most.

I will briefly return to the comments made by Deputy Ó Murchú on housing. He is correct when he says that more needs to be done on housing. I agree that we need greater, further and more rapid action on housing. This year's housing budget of over €5 billion is the highest capital investment budget that is ever going to be seen in housing. The Land Development Agency, LDA, and the Department, are building houses out there in Cork, Galway, Dundrum and Limerick. Sinn Féin voted against the LDA and said that it did not want the LDA to be building houses. It voted against the LDA Act. In Bray, Sinn Féin councillors voted against council-led affordable housing projects. If the Deputy’s party does not want the LDA building houses, if it does not want the council building houses and if it has an issue with investors investing in housing; who does it expect to build these houses?

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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The party’s figures do not add up. It comes back with figures which suggest that it will spend less while providing more housing. As I have clearly outlined, the biggest constraint is not the funding but the capacity to be able to do it. This Government is committed to building more cost rental housing, more affordable housing and more social housing. We have seen the result of that. More social housing is being built than at any time in the past four to five years.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on budget 2024. While some of the measures in the package announced on Tuesday are welcome, it is clear that the budget has short-changed SMEs. The main announcement for business in budget 2024 was a €250 million package of temporary supports to deal with cost-of-living pressures. It is regrettable that two days on from the budget, we still have no detail about what exactly that is going to entail. In issuing a cautious welcome, I want to say that on my reading of it, it falls short. I would not ask the House to take my word for it, however. ISME has said that the supports average out at about €1,923 per business and it remains to be seen if this will be sufficient. This point is reinforced by the fact that the scheme is being funded from the underspend from TBESS, which has spent just 9% of its €1.3 billion budget. As of August 2023, just €117 million in claims have been approved and just €111 million has been paid out. Therefore, SMEs have a right to ask where the rest of that money is, and why it is not being used to support them. Sinn Féin has long called for the full use of the €1.3 billion fund to support SMEs. The money is still on the Department's books. The Minister could have reprofiled and redistributed the funding before the budget. There was no need to wait for the budget. Given that insolvencies increased by 38% across the first three quarters of the year, the Minister should explain why he did not utilise this fund over the past ten months to support businesses which are struggling. That is not to say that every single one of them could have been saved but a good proportion of them could. It seems that the money was sitting there but due to inertia or incompetence, it was not spent. As a result of the Government's failure to design a scheme which businesses could access, this money remained unspent even thought there are areas where it could have been usefully deployed. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment must also explain to the SME sector where the rest of this TBESS underspend of around €850 million is going to go.

SMEs particularly needed support in budget 2024 to help with the transition to green and digital, as well as supports for improving management skills. In this regard, I think they have been left short. We advocated allocating additional funding through Enterprise Ireland and the LEOs to support SMEs. The composite measures we sought were to increase by 50% the funding for Green For Micro, Lean for Micro; for all management development programmes; for the Digital Start initiative; for technical assistance for micro exporters; and for the mentors' work programme. We also looked for €1 million to be allocated to conduct research into the roll-out of a business blue certificate education course between Skillnet and ISME, and for a doubling of the funding for the innovation voucher scheme to bring the voucher value to €10,000 per voucher.

On funding for Enterprise Ireland and exporting SMEs, the budget also come up short.

We had focused on prioritising an increase in the numbers of SMEs that are exporting by increasing by 50% the funding for the Enterprise Ireland market discovery fund and entry to the eurozone programme, as well as by providing €1 million in additional funding for the Enterprise Ireland post-Brexit market growth and diversification grant. The reason for this is that the Irish economy is an open one with a significant trade surplus relative to its size, but that is not necessarily replicated at the level of SMEs. Ireland's direct SME export levels are very low by international standards. Most SMEs are not exporting and a significant percentage of existing SME exporters only trade with the British market. Furthermore, increasing the number of SMEs that export is the best way to dilute the State's over-reliance and economic concentration on a small number of multinational corporations. We need to diversify our enterprise and industrial base and, unfortunately, there is very little in this budget that will assist in that regard. We cannot remain over-reliant on a small group of multinational corporations for corporation tax receipts. We have to be encouraging Irish businesses to expand and grow, and, indeed, to hire people.

I will address the big issue that is facing business. The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment recently held a hearing in respect of the potential for growth. We spoke to representatives of Chambers Ireland, ISME and the Irish Exporters Association. They told us that housing is the greatest challenge that business is facing at the moment. Mr. Ian Talbot from Chambers Ireland said:

The greatest challenge facing small and medium enterprises this year is the lack of available talent, which is driven by affordable and appropriate housing being unavailable across most of the country. With a small number of exceptions, our chambers have housing as the main cause of their businesses’ challenges, which highlights how important it is for us to achieve the goal of sustainable cities [etc.]

Mr. Simon McKeever from the Irish Exporters Association, reflecting the views of his members, said:

Housing has become a significant issue for our members' ability to attract and retain talent. We have consistent engagement with businesses across the country and housing has been a pressing issue for some time, but it is now becoming a greater concern.

Those are the issues that are facing people who are struggling to create jobs in this State. They needed a housing budget but instead got absolutely no comfort from the Government to suggest it is going to be able to solve the housing crisis that it created.

2:15 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to debate and welcome the significant changes that have been made, particularly for married couples, pensioners and single workers. In particular, it is important to point out that if the average wage is somewhere around €40,000 or €45,000, two earners, perhaps a married couple, would have approximately €95,000 between them. There is significant benefit for them in the budget. The changes to tax bands, credits and the USC band rate, the childcare fee reduction, the double child benefit payment, the electricity credits, the free school books and the reduced public transport costs, etc., will put a total of €4,569 in their pockets. That is welcome and to be lauded.

A married couple each with average earnings and with two children in a crèche will be taking home an extra €5,000 per annum. That is of enormous benefit to such people.

I listened to the Sinn Féin spokesperson on older people who clearly, I say respectfully, has not read what the outcome for married pensioners will be. The State pension increases for a couple will, over the course of a year, give them an additional €1,248. The double Christmas bonus will give them €531. The double payment will give them €555. The electricity credit will give them €450. If they are entitled to the fuel allowance, it will be worth an additional €300. That will put more than €3,000 in the pockets of retired pensioners who need it very badly. That is very welcome.

There have been significant changes and benefits. We talk, in particular, about people who are working. Consider a single person earning €22,900 per year, which is half the average salary, and who is renting. With the increase in the minimum wage, tax credits, changes in the USC band, the electricity credit, the rental tax credit and the reduced cost of public transport, such people will have an additional €3,686 per annum. That is a significant advantage to them.

A working single person will end up with €1,200 more in his or her pocket per annum. A married couple with one earner and two children, one in secondary school and the other in college, will have over €3,600 more in their pockets per annum. It is wrong for people to say there are not significant improvements in income. There clearly are such improvements and they are welcome.

I also welcome the additional 1,000 housing adaptation grants in the budget. However, I must say that this does not go far enough. It is time for the Government to publish the report on housing adaptation grants. As I understand it from reading the Alone report on its investigation in this area, there are at least 3,500 older people and people with disabilities who are waiting on the 26 local authority waiting lists. There are different numbers on the waiting lists of different counties. My own county of Louth has the highest number of people who have applied for housing adaptation grants and been accepted by the council but are still waiting. Some 562 people are in that situation. It is a high percentage. That is the number of people recorded as waiting for the grant. Galway County Council, which is in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's county, has 550 on its waiting list. Limerick has 413 such people. There is a significant issue here and considerable change is required. We have not gone far enough and we must look after disabled people.

The Ministers in the relevant Department have not dealt with the issue. I have rarely seen a more obvious injustice and inequality in any Administration. There are people who are living in mobile homes where the energy is supplied by the park owner and they do not have individual electricity meters. They still remain locked out of the €800 electricity credit they should have got and that will remain the situation unless the Government changes its policy. The Minister of State needs to speak to his officials. Fat cats and millionaires in Irish society can get this credit while one of the most vulnerable cohorts in our society, those who live permanently in such accommodation, cannot get it. Part of the issue is that officials claim such people should get proof of engagement with an energy supplier for social welfare but they cannot get that proof because they do not have an energy supplier. They are a part of one group meter. It is important that I do not have to appeal this case to the Information Commissioner because of redacted details that the Department is refusing to release to me about why this policy is being maintained. I will continue to raise this matter. It is time to embarrass the powers that be in the Department to ensure this wrong is addressed.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to examine the main provisions of budget 2024. I commend my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, on the introduction of his first budget as Minister for Finance.

As noted, budget 2024 includes a spending package of €14 billion with a core spending and tax package of €6.4 billion, once-off cost-of-living measures of €2.7 billion and non-core expenditure of €4.75 billion for public services. The budget aims to support working families and people on fixed incomes while also promoting pro-enterprise policies to protect jobs. While inflation has eased since the peak last year, it still represents a challenge, particularly for households and businesses.

I welcome the cost-of-living package to support households and businesses, particularly the provision of three €150 electricity credits and the continuation of the 9% VAT rate on electricity and gas bills. This will help all households. The series of targeted lump sum payments for people in receipt of social welfare payments is particularly welcome. This will help families to meet the increased cost of living. The tax package will put €800 back in the pocket of workers. This is very welcome and necessary, as are the changes to the USC.

3 o’clock

I would like to single out the supports for families, particularly the extension of the free schoolbooks scheme to junior cycle, the double child benefit payments, child benefit being extended to 18-year-olds who are still in education, hot school meals being extended to 900 primary schools, 740 additional teachers and 1,200 special needs assistants, SNAs, and, of course, a 25% reduction in the cost of childcare. I called for many of these before the budget, and they are very welcome. Many young people will welcome the continuing 60% reduction in public transport fares for people aged 19 to 25. This was a policy I suggested back in 2020 and 2021. The increase in the national minimum wage is also significant and will help many younger people deal with cost-of-living challenges as they start out in the workplace.

While many of the measures to support enterprise are welcome, I was disappointed to see the restrictive terms of the increased cost-of-business grant, which was introduced by the Minister, Deputy Coveney. The threshold of €20,000 for commercial rates will hit small businesses that pay high rates, such as smaller supermarkets or hospitality businesses. These businesses have significant payroll costs that are going increase as a result of changes to the minimum wage. They are also being hit by input and energy costs. Many are struggling and some have closed, including at least two recently in my constituency. Up to 60% of pubs in Dublin, and many small supermarkets and shops, will be excluded if the scheme proceeds under the terms suggested. I ask the Minister and his officials to review the terms to ensure these businesses are included. Using the CSO definition of a small business, which is an enterprise with a turnover of less than €10 million and employee count of less than 50, might be a better definition than an arbitrary €20,000 commercial rates limit. SMEs are the backbone of our towns, villages and communities. The Government needs to support them, as it has done, with cost-of-living and inflation challenges over the past number of months.

I welcome the funding allocated for up to 1,000 new gardaí and to increase Garda overtime. Hopefully, this will help ensure more front-line policing and visible policing at that.

2:25 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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One of the key problems with this budget that most people have recognised is the predominance of one-off measures being the way of dealing with particular issues, particularly when it comes to energy and all these things. They are all being presented to the public as one-off measures or payments they are going to get in three instalments, which will be very easy to take away in the future. What is being done is not long term in nature and is not sustainable. That is one of the big issues. I see that with transport in my area. The cut to fares for buses and trains, while it is welcome, has been extended for a year rather than being made permanent. Making it permanent would be a much more appropriate way to deal with the issue.

My colleague a few moments ago mentioned the 1,000 new gardaí being recruited. Every year we hear that and every year it never happens. That it is one of the difficulties we have when we look at our roads. We have had many tragedies on the roads in recent months, and even in the past week. One of the big issues is the absence of road policing, which has been cut by almost one third across the whole State. That is an issue for transport and the safety of people who use the roads. Of course, while there are all kinds of measures to ensure that vehicles are safe to use the roads, many of our roads are not safe. More funding must be provided in order to ensure that we have appropriate procedures for road safety measures to deal with bad bends, dangerous junctions and so forth. Local authorities need that funding but they do not get it almost any time they go looking for it.

The tolls on our main roads and national routes are increasing all the time. Indeed, there are more increases coming down the track. We would like to see that being at least stalled for people. It is a major cost for people who have no other option but to use the roads to travel to and home from work or for commercial vehicles to transport of goods. There is no other way of doing it. We do not have an adequate rail service, which brings me to another issue.

We must recognise that much of the country is being left behind because so much investment is happening in Dublin. We need to relieve Dublin and revive the rest of country. Dublin Airport is almost chock-a-block. We have complaints from residents with regard to noise and all sorts of other issues while other airports in the State do not get the same benefits. That matter needs to be looked.

With regard to the rail network, the all-Ireland rail review recently made a whole lot of recommendations that need to be invested in, particularly in my own part of the world. The western rail corridor is an opportunity for the Government to put funding in place to be able develop that. That has not happened in this budget either. Again, that is very disappointing. In general, the north and the north west have very much been left behind for decades. We have seen in recent reports that it is now recognised as being an area in decline. That needs to change and it will only change with targeted investment, and not just with regard to infrastructure. Infrastructure is, of course, lacking in those areas in the context of health, education, services and everything else. If we draw a line from Dublin to Galway, we can see that north of the line very little in the way of health services is being provided. That is a serious issue for people who live in the north west in particular. Most people who live in my part of the world have to go to Galway for cancer services because they cannot get it anywhere else. They are travelling all the way down from Donegal. Those issues need to be resolved and that will require investment from the Government.

We also need investment in our entire health service across the State. There is a promise from the Government to provide 1,500 additional beds. This is not provided for in the budget. We have had a crisis in CAMHS. We have all discussed and had special debates in this Chamber about the CAMHS crisis in different areas of the country and about our mental health services. Again, we see very little in this budget to try to deal with those issues. There is approximately €7 million in place for the mental health service. We need to see a multiple of that, probably three to four times that, at least, to even make a dent in the issues we have with mental health services.

The other big issue that affects everyone across the country is housing. The issue of housing is the one for which we have seen least ambition when it comes to this Government and, indeed, this budget. We need to see a concentrated effort to provide affordable housing for people. We have a huge issue with people who are, of course, on the social housing list. However, many thousands of people are above that threshold and cannot afford to get a mortgage or pay rent. At the same time, they will never get on the social housing list because their household earnings are in excess of €40,000, which is a paltry sum. The Government needs to recognise that measures have to be put in place to provide housing for those people across the country. The issue we spoke of earlier regarding enterprise is one of the key parts of that. When I meet IBEC representatives in the north west, they tell me they have a whole lot of businesses that want to and are prepared to create more employment but that if they create those jobs, there are no house for the people who take them up to live in. That is a serious issue and it needs to be dealt with.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Deputy Higgins is theoretically sharing time.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Got it. Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Donohoe, who after delivering six budgets as Minister for Finance delivered his first as Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform. This budget is not just about numbers. It is about a reflection of our priorities as a Government. Despite the current cost-of-living challenges, the feedback I have received from constituents, in particular on the one-off measures, has been really positive.

Ahead of last year's budget, I went out and surveyed constituents in Clondalkin, Lucan, Palmerstown, Brittas, Saggart, Rathcoole and Newcastle. I highlighted their feedback to my Government colleagues who made it a point to address their main areas of concern, which were health, housing, energy cost, taxes and childcare. This year's budget was all about building on that progress.

This is the fourth budget for which I have been present in the Chamber. I have never had to sit in this Chamber on a budget day when the Government was increasing taxes, reducing pension rates or cutting expenditure. I am so glad that the days of tax hikes and social welfare reductions are confined to the last decade. I am so glad that budgets now actually give money back to people instead of taking it off them. That is thanks to strong and stable leadership and a well-managed economy. Budgets in this decade are about tax reductions and pension increases, grants for businesses, lump sums for social welfare recipients and supports for householders. I remember those dark days of ten and 12 years ago and I do not ever want to sit in this Chamber when taxes are being increased and pensions are being reduced. That is why I am so glad this Government was formed by competent people who understand the economic realities and understand that we cannot promise everything to everyone because no-one has a magic tree.

This Government and whoever will form the next Government will have a finite amount of money and will have to balance the books with a vision to the future. That is the reality. This Government has balanced the books and done so while helping households, families and businesses meet the increased cost of living and with a responsible view to the future.

These include things like capital projects, the environment and our ageing population. That is a good thing in my book.

Budget 2024 has delivered tax cuts. It provides support for high energy costs. It champions the elderly, carers and the vulnerable. It reduces childcare and education costs. It supports our businesses and rural communities. It establishes funds for a secure future and it shows out commitment to safety and community, which is being reinforced with the recruitment of more gardaí.

I particularly praise the focus on families and older people in this budget. For retired people, there is €450 worth of energy credits, a €624 increase in pension throughout 2024, a double pension payment in January on top of the Christmas bonus, a €200 lump sum for those receiving the living alone allowance and a €300 lump sum for those receiving the fuel allowance. To support families, there are the three €150 energy credits, a double child benefit payment in December and free schoolbooks, not just for primary school children, but also extended to first, second and third years in secondary school. There is a 25% reduction in childcare costs from September. More special needs assistant and special education teacher posts have been funded for our schools. Regarding the tax cut, there is an €813 reduction for those on the average wage. There are also reduced college fees and a €750 tax credit for children who are renting. We are also adding a double week in the cost-of-living support for social welfare recipients, increasing pensions, allowances and benefits. That is our way of telling communities that we hear them and are with them.

Our focus also extends to our businesses, the drivers of our economy, with a €250 million package set to help them navigate the cost-of-living pressures. I hope that the new scheme that was introduced under this budget will be extended to support the likes of pubs and supermarkets in my area, which also need support. The tax package of €1.3 billion means that people will see the impact of this budget in their wages. By introducing a significant €2,000 increase in the standard cut-off rate, bringing it up to €42,000, and through offering substantial tax credits, we are ensuring that people get to retain a larger portion of their hard-earned money. By raising the minimum wage to €12.70, we are not just putting money back into people's pockets but also valuing the hard work of everybody in our economy. The minimum wage was €7.65 last decade. In January, it will be €12.70. That is not just an increase, but a leap forward.

2:35 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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We are increasing the rent credit to €750. We know that renters are not availing of the credit in the way that we had hoped. I encourage anyone renting to draw down the €500 credit for this year and €750 credit for next year.

These measures are more than just numbers on paper. These measures will make a difference to people, families and businesses.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on this, my 14th budget in this House. I heard reference to the fourth of Deputy Higgins. I know the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, and I were here 12 or 13 years ago, in February 2011, and shortly thereafter, we passed two budgets in that year. I am pleased to be able to make another contribution on another budget, which is budget 2024. I believe it will have a serious, positive impact on individuals and families up and down the country. While no budget will ever achieve everything that we would like to do in any one year, it is important to recognise the advancements that have been made in budget 2024, building on successive budgets that have delivered. Despite the naysaying from the Members opposite, a huge number of positive steps have been taken in this budget with relatively finite resources. The economy is booming. We are doing extremely well, but we cannot be flaithiúlach and just throw money at absolutely everything. We have to make choices and I believe we have made some very good choices.

I particularly note the significant changes made with regard to An Garda Síochána, which will allow it to carry out its duties with greater support from both the members of An Garda Síochána and indeed the public. Among these measures, funding has been provided for up to 1,000 new gardaí and 250 civilian staff. That will result, of course, in more gardaí on the beat on our streets, helping to build stronger and safer communities. It is always a challenge, which I think all Members of the House will accept, to recruit public servants when we are at a full economy. We have 4% unemployment. I think it is less than 4% at the moment. A record number of people are in employment, at 2.6 million. It is difficult to recruit individuals. That is why the 66% increase in the Garda training allowance, rising to €305 per week, is an important step that the Government has taken. That is because we want to be able to recruit individuals who may have financial commitments. While they are training for those 32 weeks in Templemore, their accommodation needs and board are met, but they may have bills and families. It is important that we recognise that. I think that is a positive step.

I also wish to acknowledge the 25% increase in the Garda overtime budget, which will allow high-visibility policing in our towns and cities and tackle antisocial behaviour and more. A new national office for community safety and a roll-out of community safety partnerships will be provided, giving local communities a direct say in security measures within their locality. In total, this budget will see a €500 million increase since the Minister, Deputy McEntee, took office in 2020. I believe that should be both mentioned and commended.

Many people are still suffering as a result of inflationary effects, most notably on energy costs, but also on the grocery bill. That is why it is important that the Government invests again in cost-of-living measures. It reaffirms our commitment to helping people to get through not just the winter, but the entire year. This budget will see three energy credits delivered to every household, totalling €450 between the end of the year and April 2024. Pensions and all other core social protection payments will rise by €12. A double payment of child benefit will be paid before Christmas. An extension to this scheme will cover children in full-time education up to the age of 18, which I strongly welcome. Recipients of the fuel allowance will see a one-off payment of €300, while people in receipt of the living alone allowance will see a lump sum of €200, and carers will receive a one-off payment of €400.

I also welcome the announcement that further supports will be provided to fosterers around the country. However, I was a little disappointed that it will not kick in until September of next year. I ask the Government to please reflect on that, because the 5,000 fosterers across the country provide an extraordinary service to this State and the children in their care. While there have been measures relating to inheritance for foster children and their foster parents, it is important that we make a statement to them that we care for them and value them as citizens and as service providers, because they are service providers.

I welcome, as my colleague already has, the extension to the free schoolbooks scheme to cover secondary school for the first time, including first, second and third year.

Regarding work and tax, an increase of €100 to the PAYE tax credit and the higher rate of income tax, which now stands at €42,000, will mean that people will keep more of their hard-earned money each month. It offers a saving of up to €800 for average income earners, which is no small amount.

As my colleague, Deputy Higgins, referred to, the leap in the minimum wage between 2011, when the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, and I started in this House, when it was €7.65, to €12.70 in January of this year, is just that. It is a leap. It is an 85% increase. It is a very significant amount of money and, on this occasion, we are increasing it by 12% to €12.70. It is the tenth increase by Fine Gael while in government over the past 12 years. However, I point out, as I do almost every year when the minimum wage is adjusted, that I do not accept or agree with the sliding scale that is applied to 20-year-olds, 19-year-olds, and 18-year-olds and under. Work is work. The value of that work is reflected in the pay packet, not their potential overheads.

I would like to make that very clear. The rent tax credit has also been increased to €750 in 2024.

The €250 million package for SMEs will help them defray the additional costs of the minimum wage increase and the general cost of doing business. That is an important safety net the Government should provide. It will cover approximately 87% of ratepayers. Given the feedback I have received thus far, further work will need to be done to assure small businesses throughout the country that they will be included in the scheme.

I will raise a couple of other matters. There is an increase, both capital and current, in the Department of Defence for an additional 400 personnel in the Defence Forces. I will use this opportunity to insist that the Government looks again at the retention issue within our Defence Forces.

I also welcome the continued fare reductions in public transport, which are essential in encouraging more people to get out of their cars and onto public transport to reduce their carbon emissions.

On housing, an ambitious target has been set for 9,300 new social homes throughout this State. That is the minimum we should try to achieve in order to drive down the number of people on housing lists. I also recognise that 6,400 affordable and cost-rental homes is a target we should aspire to beat because of the number of individuals who are so desperate to buy their own homes at present but are simply priced out of the market.

I commend the Ministers on all their hard work. I commend the budget.

2:45 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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What I will say can be said in a short period. I, too, commend the budget to the House. It was very well received, judged in part by the reaction to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath.

There are many highlights but there is a continuing theme in some areas, particularly in education. I commend my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, on the work she has done. Quite radical work by the Government has taken place over the past two or three years as regards primary education. Free schoolbooks have now been extended up to junior certificate level, which is very significant. Parents have already contacted me regarding the change in textbooks from year to year so the extension is very significant.

There is a significant improvement in the respite piece in the budget, especially for young adults, adolescents and children with special needs. I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, on that because it is very significant. Respite can sometimes be associated with carers and carers of older people, but this provision is equally important.

On transport, there has been a halving of the price of public transport for working people and young students.

There has once again been a reduction in childcare costs, along with an increase in children's allowance for parents, which will help to mitigate the increasing cost of childcare. That is something the Government and Government parties continue to keep under review.

The continuation of electricity credits and the delay in the reduction and removal of excise duties are all very welcome. We have had an incredibly mild autumn, which I hope does not augur for a particularly cold winter period but, due to the climate, people will have already saved a considerable amount of money.

Almost 300,000 people availed of the rent tax credit in 2022. An increase will be very much welcomed by tenants. The move in respect of particularly small landlords will ensure that people do not have to avail of the tenant in situ scheme and will be secure in their homes for some time to come.

I could speak at length. I am delighted to welcome and commend the budget to the House.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Durkan and Devlin.

It is with immense sadness that we learned last night of the death of Kim Damti. I express my sincere sympathies to the family and friends of Kim, many of whom I know well, including those who live in Ireland, although not her relations in Israel. There is immense sadness in County Laois today following the tragic death of Kim who had her whole life ahead of her. To lose a child in any circumstance is devastating. I pass on my personal sympathies to Kim's family, the Cooper family in Coolrain, which is only a few miles from where I live in Castletown. The family and I know each other. I also pass on my condolences to her many friends and the wider community at this time.

On budget 2024, the Government has been progressive, fair and caring. This will help low- and middle-income families and the people of Ireland. The Government has committed to people who work hard and pay taxes and to the most vulnerable in budget 2024. We are giving direct aid to families, older people and those who are on long-term welfare payments. As in the previous two budgets, we have again prioritised helping those in need and investing in public services. Along with this, the past three years have shown that Fianna Fáil in government is well capable of handling dramatic economic and social challenges. Fianna Fáil has put a big mark on this budget, with families, education, social responsibility, employment and enterprise being at the core.

I compliment the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, on announcing a range of tax reforms that will help all working people. There will be an increase in the net take-home pay for all earners, including an increase of €2,000 in the standard tax rate cut-off point. We have delivered a reduction in the USC, which is the first reduction in five years. There was a core commitment by Fianna Fáil in the programme for Government in this regard. The increase in the minimum wage by €1.40 to €12.70 per hour is also very welcome. Families and households will benefit substantially from the new energy credits, which will be worth €450 over the winter period.

Childcare costs have been cut by 25%. This follows a 25% reduction in such costs in the previous budget. The Government is steadfast in its stance of reducing childcare costs for families. This has been proven in this further reduction of costs, which will come into effect next year. Child benefit has also been extended to 18-year-olds who are still in second level education. Many people have been in contact with us on that over recent years, especially now that so many people and students in their teenage years are doing the transition year. They are taking an extra year before completing their leaving certificate, which would not have been the case if they were not doing transition year. Many families were caught by this issue of child benefit not being payable once a child was over 18, even though he or she was still in second level education. This measure is very good for education and family finances.

Budget 2024 has delivered free schoolbooks for all children up to and including third year in secondary school. The introduction of free schoolbooks for primary school children and junior cycle students has been a remarkable achievement over just two budgets. I look forward to free schoolbooks for all secondary school students at the next available opportunity. The increase of €100 in the back to school allowance will also help families. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has told me that in County Laois alone, the introduction of free schoolbooks for primary school students has relieved the demand for its services when it comes to children returning to school. The society said there was a significant reduction in the number of people who traditionally came to them for support with their back-to-school costs. It also said the fact there were free schoolbooks for primary school children was of enormous benefit to families. As a result, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have not been called into the breach on as many occasions this year as in other years. No doubt, however, many people still struggle with the cost of education. It is hoped that in due course, in the context of the achievement announced yesterday regarding free schoolbooks up to junior cycle, and when we ultimately have an announcement of free schoolbooks up to the leaving certificate, it will be a major benefit to all families. I have no doubt that the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, will continue this good work in making education more accessible for all.

Renters and people who rent houses will now receive a 50% increase in the rent tax credit, which will increase from €500 to €750 per annum. This will make a substantial difference in helping people and families who are renting.

I also welcome the extension of the rental tax credit to families and students who are paying for student accommodation in digs while they are in third-level education. Again, a lot of people came to our party on that particular issue and I am pleased it has been dealt with now. The Government also extended the €1,000 reduction in the student contribution fee for students who are eligible for the free fees initiative. These Government initiatives will make education far more accessible for all, which has always been a key priority for Fianna Fáil.

Budget 2024 will help people with the cost of living. The Government intervened in the previous budget and has done so again in this budget. Every family will benefit from a range of measures, with the vulnerable and people in need benefiting the most. There will be an increase of €12 per week in the weekly State pension and across the board for all people on weekly social welfare payments. This is a very welcome move by the Government to help older people, carers and those with disabilities with the rise in the cost of living and of essential items at this time. A double payment will be made to all people who are in receipt of social welfare payments plus the additional lump sum payments to those receiving the fuel allowance, living alone allowance, care support, disability allowance and invalidity pension will also be a big help to many households this year. I also welcome the €54 increase in the working family payment, plus an additional lump sum payment of €400 for these families. Altogether, these new measures by the Government demonstrate this is a budget for families.

We all acknowledge housing is an issue for many people. The Government is exceeding its targets in building new homes throughout the country. In Portlaoise alone, 700 homes are under construction. Anybody who drives through the town is amazed to see the number of houses under construction. This is in addition to the hundreds of homes that were completed last year and the many more that will commence in the coming year. The Government believes in people owning their own homes, and we are totally committed to delivering and providing social housing.

As with the rising population in Ireland, there has been an increased demand on our health services. The Government has increased capital spending on delivering new projects in our health services to help meet this demand. There is an increase of 22,000 people working in the health service since we came to Government. I want to repeat that. There has been an increase of 22,000 people working in the health service since we came to Government. In Laois, the Midland Regional Hospital received a €14 million investment for the new respiratory assessment unit and an extension to the paediatric unit. Funding has also been allocated for the construction of a specialised unit and the redesign of the maternity ward in Portlaoise. A new diabetic retina screening service is also being set up in Portlaoise and will be up and running early in the new year. Genuine progress is being made by the Government in healthcare. Major investments have been made in the hospital in Abbeyleix, including step-down beds and respite beds being made available in great numbers this year for the first time in at least 20 years. In addition, a considerable capital investment programme is under way at St. Vincent's hospital in Mountmellick. None of these are promises for the future. These are things that are actually happening during this calendar year, and everybody who visits those towns will see them actually happening.

In my own Department of Foreign Affairs we are committed in budget 2024 to reaching out and making people-to-people links with our Irish people abroad. Supporting Irish people abroad remains a key priority for this Government and for me as Minister of State with responsibility for international development and the diaspora. Ireland has a strong tradition of providing funding support to some of the poorest communities in the world, and we continue to do so with this budget. Budget 2024 supports working people and families. It will help our older people, families and people living on their own. This is a good and caring budget. All fair-minded people will see that. The Government has put the people first in this budget.

2:55 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the budget and I thank both the Ministers who presented it and all the other Ministers who made their contributions to it throughout the year. I will not spend too much time talking about the refrains that come from the Opposition at times like this when there is a call for more, and whatever it was, and when would you like it? Now. Of course, it inevitably comes to that. Then there is the question of the missed opportunities. We hear this every year about the missed opportunities - should have done more; should have addressed a number of issues. We all remember the people who called on the Government over the past two or three years, including this year, about the tax reserves for the future, once called a rainy day fund. There were calls for the spending of that fund now because it is raining now. There was an appalling attitude on behalf of some people because it was a clear indication of the failure to understand what could happen and what will be a challenge in the future.

There are many challenges right now and those challenges are coming up fast and are numerous. It was an evenly distributed budget insofar as it could be distributed evenly to every quarter. It was constructive and well placed in the urgent need to meet the urgent calls of people who are squeezed by the cost of living, housing costs and a number of other issues. The Minister did extremely well to cut the budget around the template that was necessary to address the issues that had to be addressed while at the same time recognising there is a responsibility on Government to ensure we do not arrive at a juncture in the future whereby we have no reserves and nothing to call upon. We need to reflect on the time, which is not long ago, when a group of International Monetary Fund, IMF, representatives were in Government Buildings, dictating what could be done, how it could be done and, in particular, how it could not be done and what might never be done. In those situations it is good to remember that, while we have the resources now, they are well placed and put in such a way for the country to be able to fall back on them in the event of an emergency.

I want to speak about that for a couple of moments. An emergency could come quickly because of the numerous events that are happening worldwide. It could be deep and challenging and it could be immediate. It is as well the Government chose the path it did, that it was able to do so and had the resources to do so at this particular time which has its own challenges now that are equal to any challenge we have had. In that situation it was great to be able to rely on the cool hand of Government to judge the situation as it was presented to it, and that it was able to do so in a way that is calculated to ensure the future of the country insofar as we can in any challenge likely to come before us in the future, be it in the distance or immediately.

A number of issues remain such as around the school transport system in some areas in our constituencies. There are still issues relating to health despite the fact a huge budget has been allocated to that area. There are still issues in a number of areas which will need to be attended to gradually with a view to addressing those issues such as school transport that have been dragging on for a number of years, have not gone away and still present themselves. What is important at this stage is to be able to compare the economic performance of this country with those in other European countries, within the European Union in particular, and ascertain, to the extent we have, the ability to survive in a very competitive situation; the ability to do the right thing, when, if and how we can; and the ability to be in control of our own destiny, because we were not in control of our own destiny for a while. Far be it from us to have to go back to that situation again.

I congratulate the Ministers on their efforts and the Government on being able to produce such a budget without proposing cuts in any quarter. There were so many years when it was all we could think about, including the trade unions, who were forced to call on their members to accept cuts and to decide to be able to be constructive in the face of the situation that presented itself. One could not cover it all in five minutes, I am afraid, a Cheann Comhairle, but the rest will come out in due course.

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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That must explain why the Deputy went into my time, but anyway.

The budget was a really important step in the journey. If you think the last time a Fianna Fáil Finance Minister made a budget speech, it was the late Brian Lenihan, and he was in many of our minds when Deputy Michael McGrath stood to propose the finance element of the budget. One of the main reasons was that, as the previous speaker said, there were such difficult decisions the last time a Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance stood up to speak. Those lessons have not been lost on many people across the House, such as an obligation on all of us in proposing measures to ensure they are sustainable and that we never again go back to a situation where we have to make reductions. Whatever about not being able to increase, the idea of making reductions that then lead to service reductions is something we want to avoid and something that was foremost in the minds of both Ministers.

Regarding the economic success of Ireland over recent years, having come out of Brexit and all of its threats, having come out of Covid and to still be growing, and having come through the war in Ukraine, although it is still going on, and the international inflationary crisis, the Irish economy has grown and it has created the resources to allow Ministers and Departments to implement programmes. We should not underestimate the fact that, when we have a Government that is pro-jobs and creates jobs, it allows us the resources to be able to tackle some of the systemic issues such as child poverty. I welcome all of the measures in the budget, but the principal one we have to welcome is that we had a surplus, we did not have to borrow and we could spend where we did.

I also welcome the two elements of the budget that deal with unsustainable taxes, because we remember the previous occasion when there were unsustainable taxes that were spent, we did not put enough money aside, and by spending those unsustainable taxes, it created an imbalance in the national accounts. Coming back to the two funds, the Ireland Future Fund and the infrastructure sustainability fund, never again should a government have to stop a national programme such as the metro programme because these funds will be there now. I call on those in opposition who propose that they would be in government to support these two programmes because these two funds are a commitment to future generations. We are saying to my children, who are 12 and 15, that we are investing now for their future because, for climate action, demographic changes around ageing and a range of other issues, we are investing in the future. I call on the Opposition Members to commit to those funds now and that they will also invest in them so that they deliver the result of €100 billion as indicated by the Ministers.

I will not go through all the measures of the budget. We have already had that repeatedly from many Deputies. However, it is worth commenting on the way we have tackled social welfare payments. It is important we do not exacerbate inflation. We have had increases in the core rate and there were many who doubted we would do that again. Many were fearful that once-off payments would result in us not repeating that. Increasing the core rate alone embeds inflation for a longer period. Using once-off measures gives us the flexibility to change that overall payment over time. Taking all of the payments and dividing them out, the increases in core rates of social welfare are close to €20. That is a very strong statement that we are here to protect some of the most vulnerable, but in a sustainable way that allows us react when inflation comes back, we hope, to 2.9% next year, while at the same time indexing tax rates and prioritising the lowest earners in those tax rates so that we have a fair society.

3:05 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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As my party's junior spokesperson on defence, I will direct most of my budget contribution on the crisis in the Defence Forces. It is fair to say there will be hurt and disbelief in barracks and bases across the State this week because the Defence Forces can be in no doubt that the Government values them by plámás only. If the Government valued the Defence Forces at all, it would not have given them the paltry provision they have. It is so paltry it will leave the Naval Service alone treading water and not at the optimum complement and capacity it needs to be to defend our waters as it wishes to, as it is tasked to do and as it does so well despite all the Government neglect, as we saw recently off the Cork coast.

Seriously, in providing funding in this budget for 400 additional personnel when the Minister knows more people are leaving the Defence Forces each year under the Government than are joining because they do not feel valued, they believe their work is not properly recognised and they feel they would be appreciated in the private sector, the Government has proved them right. The Government has shown them they are not valued and their outstanding work is not properly recognised.

The Government has made the fatal mistake of forgetting that they are living breathing human beings wearing those uniforms with such pride in the name of the State and in the name of us all. It has forgotten their dignity, their pride and their need to make a decent living. The Government has forgotten their families. Where is the honour for them in this budget? The working time directive is crucial for retaining staff and recruiting high-quality candidates, but this budget does not even allow for the data to be collected on it, never mind implement its provisions next year.

The Government took its favoured talking heads on tour in the so-called consultative forum on international security where the Opposition had to make all its contributions from the floor while the Government is effectively starving the Defence Forces of the funding to uphold our neutrality and defend our skies and seas. We face new times and new threats and the Government has offered nothing in this budget to the Defence Forces in defending against those threats, just as the Government has offered nothing in housing or in health, where the crisis is deepening. This should have been a health budget and a housing budget, but by failing to invest and by failing to prioritise in the housing crisis that is a social crisis, the Government has made this the housing budget that never was. There are no proper targets for social or affordable housing and there is no regard for workers, even those who have good jobs and cannot afford to rent or buy a place to life.

The Government has turned the social contract on its head because when hard work and a good job are still not enough for somebody to put a roof over their head, it signals that the social and the political crises really have entered emergency stages. We have 4,000 children without a bed of their own. I am sure the Members all have been on holidays this summer and there is nothing like getting into your own bed. We have 4,000 children for whom the bed they got out of this morning is not necessarily the same bed they will get into this evening and this budget has done nothing to address that. There is something seriously wrong.

The Government has also washed its hands of health so that people will have to wait longer for treatment and healthcare workers will be under even more stress. This is not only a failure; it is a point blank refusal to invest in the essentials that make or break people's lives. Because we are refusing quality of life that depends on quality of services that have nose-dived under this Government, we have people waiting longer for housing, longer for healthcare, longer for assessments for their children and longer for dental appointments, and waiting endlessly for buses in north Kildare to get to work, school or college. We have children without school places in north Kildare in 2023, never mind children who are also waiting for places on the bus. Children cannot get there on a press release; they need buses. It is back to the Victorian times, the Government is taking us. We have families without proper respite and parents despairing over the length of time for assessments for their children with additional needs.

The longer this Government remains in power, the worse things are getting. People are losing some of the best years of their lives waiting for the basics that should be a normal part of modern living in society. It is time for the Government to go. It is time for something new. It is time for something better. It is definitely time for change.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Leddin is sharing time with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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First, I commend the Ministers, Deputies McGrath and Donohoe, the Ministers of State in their respective Departments and the officials in their Department who worked tirelessly to deliver this budget last Tuesday. I commend the leaders of the three parties in government. Everybody on this side of the House would acknowledge that there were very serious and intense negotiations between the three leaders but they would not have been doing their duty if they did not bring those negotiations to the very last evening and get the best they could for the people and for the respective agendas of the different parties.

I think we have landed on an excellent budget. It will stand the test of time and reflect well on the three parties in government and reflect well on this term in government.

I want to speak on transport and how it is provided for in the budget that was announced on Tuesday. One of the main provisions is that we will maintain the 20% cut in public transport fares. It was a temporary cut which was introduced a few years ago and is being maintained for 2024. That is very positive. The 50% cut for young people is not only being maintained, but it is being extended to those aged 24 and 25 years so another cohort will enjoy lower fairs. When these cuts were introduced as a cost-of-living measure two years ago, there was a step change in patronage on our buses and trains. It should be very obvious to any public transport user that we have a huge challenge in the delivery of new services and infrastructure. This Government is doing that in respect of many project and the kinds of projects that do not get announced on budget day but that are announced over the Government’s term of office such as BusConnects, Connecting Ireland, the recent strategic rail review, the town bus services and the western rail corridor which I heard Deputy Kenny mention earlier and which should be a priority project. These are critically important now. It gives the lie to the objective of making public transport free. This narrative that has entered our debate is very unhelpful. Anyone who uses public transport can see that where the effort and energy must go into improving and increasing services and developing infrastructure. Doing so is not easy. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has spoken numerous times about how we have to look to the planning system to speed up the delivery of these key projects. That is happening with the review of the Planning and Development Act. Many speakers have mentioned the infrastructure fund of €14 billion over the next seven years. That will also play a role in delivering this sort of infrastructure, particularly in the event of a down turn in the economy, which we hope will not happen. I have been looking at the public spending code in recent weeks. My view is we should look at this. The amount of hoops a project must jump through between inception and delivery is quite incredible. Each one involves onerous, bureaucratic and administrative tasks on the part of project teams across the country. Invariably, this is a reason why it takes us so long to develop projects. In the context of a climate emergency, we need to look at the key infrastructure projects and the barriers to them. I believe the public spending code is something we need to look at much more closely.

An objective of mine in this Government is to see supports for purchasing electric vehicles being given to those who need electric vehicles most. I am particularly talking about the homecare and home help sector workers. They are generally low paid, utterly car dependent and use their own vehicles for the work they do. They provide very valuable work to our society and through no fault of their own are part of the story of transport carbon emissions. We gave generous supports to taxi drivers in recent years to buy electric vehicles and we should look at giving such supports to our home care workers.

Recently, at the joint committee, members of all parties and none were astounded and aghast at presentations from experts on the vast increasing trend towards sales of heavier and larger vehicles. We heard how not only are these a huge safety concern on streets in our towns and villages and in rural Ireland, as well as our cities, but they are causing congestion and they are a public health hazard. Furthermore, they will make it a lot harder for us to meet our carbon budgets. I think I am out of time. In our next budget, we will have to look to apply whatever financial instrument we can to reverse the trend in heavy vehicle sales.

3:15 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I am sure like many Deputies in this House, the Ceann Comhairle had difficulty getting in to Leinster House on budget day. That was because the Garda had erected cordons all around Leinster House because they feared there would be very large protests here about the budget. As it turned out, there were no protests. I think that says it all in respect of the budget. Maybe in future years, the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform might look at giving the budget to the Garda Commissioner in advance so that he can assess it himself and decide whether he needs to put cordons up.

Look at the response to the budget. Even the NGOs were not critical. In fairness to the Opposition, it cannot be critical. It went off and spoke about other issues. It was clearly a budget that was well received broadly across the board. If there was going to be any opposition to it, if there were going to be any protesters outside, they might have been protestors who supported fiscal conservatives in Ireland. It appears that even if we do not have any fiscal conservatives in Leinster House, we do not have any left in the country either. The Ministers, Deputies McGrath and Donohoe, deserve to be commended for this budget. I think they got the balance right. There was fear from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, or the Central Bank that it might be too inflationary and expansionist. I suppose they have to say that and they uttered some of their concerns after the budget. But in fairness, when a lot of money is coming into the Exchequer there is a responsibility on the part of the Government to ensure it is spread out among those who need it most in the public, particularly at times like this when there are such difficult cost-of-living pressures. It is also the case, however, that two funds have been established which are looking to the long term. Those would appeal to fiscal conservatives and to IFAC and the Central Bank. It recognises that the extraordinary moneys we are getting into the Exchequer at present will not always be there. We have to ensure that we retain money not simply for a rainy day but for younger people and for essential infrastructure projects into the future.

Sometimes it is assumed that we just found ourselves in this position in Ireland where we have these huge Exchequer returns and receipts and vibrant economy and that it happened out of the blue and nobody is responsible for it. It is important that we point out here that the reason why this country has such as successful economy is because of political decisions that have been made recently and in past decades by Irish Governments. We do not automatically become a very successful economy with full employment and huge tax receipts because people like us. It happens because of decisions that have been made. Look at the short run of Irish history. A number of political decisions were made by Governments in the past, mainly Fianna Fáil, I have to say, that have really resulted in this economy booming as it is today.

First, there is the fact that we joined the European Union. That was a transformation for this country when we did it some 50 or so years ago. It opened up this economy. That built on a decision previously made by Seán Lemass to open the Irish economy to the multinational sector and to attract in foreign direct investment. It is important to recall that not everyone in politics agreed with that. There was a lot of opposition to our membership of the EEC. There was a lot of opposition to our campaign to try to attract in foreign direct investment. Many people on the left thought that was an inappropriate route down which to go. It has been shown that it was absolutely the correct thing to do.

Similarly, on lowering our corporation tax, many thought it was a dangerous decision that we were giving preferential benefits to corporations and that we should not be doing it. The reason we could get €22 billion in corporation tax receipts is in part due to the fact that we have a corporation tax rate at the level we do. That was an important political decision. There were other countries, not only around the world but also in the EU that would give their left arm to have the type of foreign direct investment that we have in Ireland. The reason why many are now copying decisions we made in respect of our corporation taxes is because they want to attract them in.

4 o’clock

There are other reasons Ireland is such a booming economy. It goes to issues such as our education system and the rule of law. The Governor of the Central Bank was at the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach a few weeks ago. I asked him what decisions ensured that the Irish economy was on the safe footing it is now. He identified the rule of law and the education system. Let us not fool ourselves and let not the public think that we find ourselves in the economic position we are in now as a result of accident or happenstance. It happened because of political decisions made by previous governments; I am proud to say most of them were made by Fianna Fáil. We should recognise that those who advocated for the Irish economy to be managed on the basis of a hard socialist analysis have been disproved and it has been established that is the wrong way to run an economy. The reason people benefit from the proceeds of this economy and the reason we can support the less well-off is because of those decisions.

3:25 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I understand I am sharing with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who is doing his best to get here on time.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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If he does not get here on time, will the Deputy share with Deputy Murnane O'Connor?

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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Yes. Five and a half minutes each.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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Very good. The first test I run on any budget is a progressivity test. I feel strongly that a budget should do the best to provide the most benefit to those who need it most, so that the money goes to least well-off, rather than the well-heeled. In that respect, rather than taking either my word for it, as a Government backbencher who will surely say it is the best budget ever, or that of Opposition speakers, who will always say the opposite, I am looking at the preliminary review of budget 2024 by the Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO. It is independent and provides an independent overview and analysis of the budget. It is probably more fair-minded because, in any budget, there will be measures that are excellent and those that are less welcome. In terms of a distributional analysis of budget 2024, the PBO tells us:

Overall, direct and indirect tax and welfare measures in budget 2024 are very progressive from a distributional impact perspective, with lower-income households gaining more proportionately than middle- and upper-income households. The increase in core welfare rates and qualified child increases are key drivers of this.

This is not accidental. I must praise my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who commissioned research from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. It told him, and us, more generally, that in terms of tackling child poverty, in particular, the place to make investments is in the increase for a qualified child and in the working family payment. In both of those respects, we have seen increases not only in this budget but in successive budgets. That should not be lost. If I apply that progressivity test to this budget as I have done to the previous three budgets passed by this Government, I will see that each one was progressive. It is not just the investment in this budget, particularly in families and low-income families, that we should consider in terms of progressivity but the trend established by this Government. I very much welcome that. If that is the first test I apply to any given budget, in this instance this Government has passed.

Beart amháin a sheasann amach ón mbuiséad seo domsa, cé go bhfuil sé an-bheag i gcomhthéacs iomlán na cáinaisnéise, ná an maoiniú breise atá ag dul i dtreo scéim DEIS Gaeltachta in 2024, agus an nuacht go gcuirfear €500,000 breise ar fáil chun tacú le cohórt níos leithne daoine óga ar mhian leo freastail ar chúrsa samhraidh sa Ghaeltacht. Ar ndóigh, tá comhthéacs pearsanta ann domsa toisc go gciallaíonn an soláthar seo rud éigin dom féin. Sa bhliain 1991 - Dia linn - bhain mé leas as scoláireacht chuig Coláiste na Rinne a bhuaigh mé ar scoil. D’fhreastail mise ar Choláiste Pobail Naomh Pól i lár chathair Phort Láirge, scoil atá rangaithe anois mar scoil DEIS agus scoil nach raibh traidisiún láidir sa Ghaeilge inti. Ní dóigh liom go mbeadh na hacmhainní ag mo theaghlach nó ag mo thuistí mé a chur chuig an gcoláiste samhraidh murach an scoláireacht seo a bheith ann. Ba é sin an taithí is mó a spreag grá don teanga ionam agus féach ar an dtrioblóid atá curtha orm ó shin dá bharr. Tabharfaidh an maoiniú seo rochtain do pháistí eile ó scoileanna cosúil le Coláiste Pobail Naomh Pól ar an deis céanna agus nach maith an rud é sin?

I was going to say something more detailed about nature funding but I see the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is here, who will no doubt speak to that. I wish to very much welcome the climate and nature fund which this Government is establishing. It is a far-sighted policy direction that will help us to provide the type of projects that will be needed towards the end of this decade and beyond. I join Deputy McAuliffe in asking for people across the House and parties across the House - I understand it is the job of Opposition to stand up and criticise a budget and to find ways to improve it, and I understand they will have to cast a jaundiced eye on the provisions within any given budget - to endorse this counter-cyclical investment in infrastructure and maintaining our economy and this far-sighted attempt to provide for the types of projects that will be needed in the context of a biodiversity and climate crisis. I would like to hear everybody in this House endorse that kind of view and the sovereign wealth funds we are creating in this budget.

I wish to say a quick word about overseas development aid. There is an increase again this year.It is important that we maintain our proud commitment to overseas development aid. There is an increase of 8.4% this year. We should still chase the goal of 0.7% of our gross national income, but it is important that we continue the work that Irish Aid has been doing on our behalf for so many years.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Like previous speakers, I welcome the €96.6 billion budget. I have had a lot of phone calls from people in my area of County Carlow today. The expansion of hot meals to 900 more primary schools is really important, as is the free book scheme for textbooks and workbooks, which will be extended to up to junior certificate in secondary school. These things affect every family. It is welcome. Previous speakers spoke about the energy credit. It will be paid in three instalments of €150. Another long-promised pay-related benefit scheme for people becoming unemployed made it into this year's budget announcement, which is welcome. There will be a rise of €12 in welfare and pension payments from January. I also want to welcome the one-off €400 for people on the working family payment and those receiving the carer's, disability and blind person's allowances and the invalidity pension.

I have concerns as a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters. I believe we could have done more in the budget for disability. Perhaps we need to look at putting more funding into that area.

I also welcome the lump sum payment of €300 on the fuel allowance and €200 for those living alone, which will come before Christmas.

We have done a lot of good work in the budget but I will now outline my concerns. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, about them too. I had a few phone calls today to my constituency office in Carlow - everyone knows that. A lady rang me only this morning whose child is 18. Would you believe that her child turned 18 today? Her child is in leaving certificate. My understanding is that she will not get that payment because the child is in leaving certificate this year but it only starts next September. The child benefit is so important, particularly for schoolgoing children. There cannot be a huge amount of children of that age going to secondary school. Could that be looked at for this year?

I also want to ask about an issue close to my heart, which is the payment scheme for the mother and baby homes. When will that be started? I know that the Minister of State will take a note on these matters and come back to me about them.

I have spoken to many of the people who were in the mother and baby homes. Many of them have grown old and have reached an age where we need to make the payments to which they are entitled as soon as possible. Will the Minister of State revert to me on this point?

I spoke to many people involved in businesses in Carlow today. The €250 million in support for small businesses to meet the challenges of inflation is positive.

I welcome the increase in the minimum wage by €1.40 to €12.70. This poses challenges, though. I spoke to two people today who were on the housing list in Carlow. They both have part-time jobs and can qualify at the moment for Carlow County Council's housing list. If we do not do something to help, they will be taken off the housing list because the increase will put them over the threshold. While I welcome the new rate, we need to consider the knock-on effects for people on Carlow County Council's housing list. I am sure it will put many others barely over the threshold as well. As the Minister of State knows, once the Government provides something that allows people to qualify for a local authority housing list - the income limit is €27,500 for a single person and €30,000 for a family - no leniency is shown. I ask that this issue be addressed.

I wish to ask about the foster carer's payment. I received many phone calls about it. The increase will not be paid until late next year. I have spoken to many foster carers and I know many of them. They are doing a marvellous job. They are not in it for the money, but what about the cost of inflation? Can this matter be considered?

Rural transport in Carlow is a big issue for me. I hope that our capital plans are still on track.

We are lucky because we have a great local authority in Carlow County Council. This morning, I got word that we are losing our homeless housing officer. We will have no full-time homeless housing officer. The good news for Deputy McGuinness and the Minister of State is that he is going to Kilkenny because there is a full-time job there, but we have no full-time job in Carlow. We need to consider this issue. We cannot lose someone who is so important to our area.

A great deal of thought has gone into this budget and there is much that is good in it, but I wished to raise these concerns.

3:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Next are Deputies McGuinness and Pringle and the Minister of State.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the budget, the increases across the various Departments and the introduction of other headings under which a great deal of money will be spent. However, not enough time is afforded by the House to discuss how money is spent, whether it is spent well and whether we get value for it. In the lead-up to budgets, we hear various Departments making plays for the amounts they want. There should be a zero-sum budget where Departments have to provide proof of having achieved value for the money they have already spent. Above all, they would have to give clear explanations as to why money was spent poorly, misspent or not spent at all. How much more could we do if we still had all of the money that had been squandered down the years or was lost the previous year? I suggest that the Comptroller and Auditor General be given full power to investigate all State bodies, including local government and the HSE. We should be spending a great deal of money on beefing up the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and ensuring that it has qualified people and he has sufficient legislative strength and resources to engage and be prepared to examine any line of funding he believes needs to be audited. If that were to happen and all of those who drew down taxpayers' money from the State were aware of their obligations, I have no doubt that we would see greater efficiency in how that money was spent.

I will point to the school bus system as an example. That system is a disgrace and should be put out to public tender. We should get an analysis of what Bus Éireann is providing and how much it actually costs. We should also analyse the service that is not being delivered in certain areas so that we can understand why that is the case. We can then adjust the plan to ensure that local communities are accommodated. For example, 40 students who travel through Mullinavat to the education and training board, ETB, in Waterford are not being accommodated. I have mentioned this case to the Minister for Education. Immediate steps must be taken to provide a bus for that route. This may seem parochial, but it is what we are supposed to be spending the money on. It is not being spent efficiently or properly at the moment. I will not stop making representations for that community until such time as the bus service is provided. The same can be said of those travelling from the Gowran area to Kilkenny city. It is high time that the Minister insisted that the school bus scheme be put out to tender and reorganised and that every student be accommodated, where possible.

I wish to make the case for how the various business supports are accessed. It needs to be simplified and every step needs to be taken to ensure that small businesses can access supports without too much difficulty. Cutting access off at a particular level is wrong, as we need to look beyond the businesses being supported to those small community enterprises that need the Government's direct support but do not have the resources to employ someone to get through the red tape. Many of our small pubs would be affected, as would many other small businesses. The latter is my background, and I am still involved to an extent. I see the serious difficulties that small businesses have in making applications and covering the cost of doing business.

We have increased the hourly rate of the minimum wage. We have increased the cost of diesel and other fuels. One cannot buy a diesel van or truck at an economic price. They are not efficient and do not go far enough in terms of mileage. As such, they are a serious cost. That cost will be passed on by the commercial operation to the consumer. Therefore, we are adding to the cost. I often think it is bizarre that with so much money around, there seems to be so little common sense in government as regards the struggles and difficulties faced by businesses. We need to address the matter.

This may be considered a criticism of the Government, and so be it. The system of speaking time in the Chamber in terms of the parliamentary party structure no longer operates the way it should. Parliamentary parties do not function in the way they did in the past and we as backbenchers do not get sufficient time to contribute. I have often appealed to the Ceann Comhairle to try to ensure that we get time, do not rely on the political parties and instead consider the individuals who want to contribute. It creates a big hole in democracy to have all of that input taken out of it. We have almost reached the point where it does not feel like democracy anymore. It does not feel that all of us, either in opposition or on the back benches like myself, can have a direct input. Everything is left to the three amigos to settle and talk about over the weekend. The backbenchers have a great deal to offer and should be listened to. I appeal to the Government to consider this point.

Have I gone over time?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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No, you are fine.

3:45 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I appeal to the Government to look at that issue. I add my voice to those highlighting the issue of foster care payments. Those families providing foster care need to be supported much more. It is vitally important that they be given the recognition they deserve, which they have not got down through the years. An awful lot of them are struggling and putting their own resources into caring for those they are fostering. If the State has a responsibility in that area, it should be reflected in the payments we make. Until we do that, we are not acknowledging these families' input into the care of others. It is often the case that the HSE or Tusla will allow them to continue to provide that care because it takes the burden off them.

On the HSE itself, a staggering amount of people, young and old, are on waiting lists for all sorts of operations all over the country. I particularly refer to those trying to access mental health services. It is simply wrong that we do not target all of these services and insist that money is spent directly on the patient. No commercial organisation in the world would fund the health service in the way governments have funded it in the past. The budget is some €22 billion-odd yet we read in the Daily Mailor in other newspapers, or hear through other media such as radio or television, of the extraordinary waste that goes on. As a public representative, it is very difficult to explain that to a family waiting for a serious operation or procedure or for supports to be paid. It is not efficient and does not provide value for money. Morale within those services is at an all-time low and I would say the same about the Garda and the Defence Forces.

While it is true we need more gardaí and more people in the Defence Forces, we need to create jobs within those entities that pay well. We need to acknowledge the input of all individuals on the front line of these services and to ensure their pensions are worthwhile. We need to stop paying lip service to their concerns because that is what has been going on, government after government. We have seen the numbers getting involved in those organisations roll downwards. The jobs are simply not attractive. It is not attractive to work in the HSE, where everything is piled on you because you are the last one in line. Our people in the Garda and the Defence Forces are not looked after well but yet, when it gets cold outside and there is a bit of frost on the ground, it is the Defence Forces that are called in. That is not right. We need more investment in what we have. I do not know where the Government is going to get the numbers we are talking about, 1,000 extra for the Garda or 1,000 for the Defence Forces. There is no one out there to employ. We need to look at the market and be realistic.

I appeal to every Minister. They have a good sack of taxpayers' money. There is plenty to be done in their Departments. There is loads of stuff to be sorted out. As politicians, we are elected to give leadership to the bureaucracy, the Civil Service. It is about time that the Ministers did so.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In his comments about speaking time, the Deputy has raised a very valid question. Obviously, we in this Chamber have no input into what happens within parliamentary parties. It is up to the parliamentary parties to organise their own business however they see fit. However, with regard to the contribution of backbenchers here, I would like to think that we have guaranteed backbenchers a right to participate by ensuring that each of the identifiable groups has time allocated to it based on its numerical strength as of the last election. The reality is that we frequently have debates in which Opposition and Government slots are not used. The opportunity to participate exists but, unfortunately, people do not always come forward to take it up.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I will start by echoing Deputy McGuinness's comments on foster parents and how they have been left behind in this budget. Much was made of the fact that they are getting a double payment for Christmas but that is really a drop in the ocean when compared with the costs foster parents pay to look after children, providing a very valuable service for the State. They should be recognised for that and it is symptomatic that they have not been.

I will talk in general about what could change rather than about specifics within the budget. What is most disappointing about this budget is not the budget itself, as unimaginative and predictable as it was, but the complete lack of ambition and creativity of some on the Opposition benches in their responses to the budget since Tuesday. It is clear that the Government and some parties are tying themselves to arbitrary constraints determined by Government and the move to the centre by some parties to meet these arbitrary constraints is particularly disappointing. The reality is that, if we are going to deliver the change that this country so desperately needs, we need to completely break down and restructure entire Departments and entire systems. This is something that cannot be done bit by bit. It requires complete and total reform from local level to national level and all the way to the EU.

In the time I have, I will put forward an alternative for the people of Ireland, many of whom are disappointed with this year’s budget and alternative budgets and are looking for more than a few one-off payments, meagre social welfare increases and low housing targets. People are looking for a functioning society and to feel like they are actually living in the booming economy they are told they are living in, although they see absolutely no proof of it.

This needs to start at local level. Article 28A of the Constitution outlines that the State recognises the role that local government plays in being a democratic representation of the local communities. However, it is vague in what its active purpose is and what powers it has. I propose that a key element of building a new foundation for Ireland will be the enactment of legislation to alter the current dynamic within our local government.

We have one of the weakest local government systems in the world. Within councils themselves, councillors, the democratic representatives of local communities, hold very little decision-making power. Almost all key decisions are made by unelected officials. This needs to change, with the elected councillors being afforded more decision-making power. This would mean that local communities would have more say in the outcomes of local government decisions. We need to empower communities at a grassroots level and I believe that overhauling the current local government system would encourage greater civic engagement.

It is also important that local government is given greater autonomy. Councils are best suited to make important decisions for local communities rather than national governments. Areas such as rural development, housing and the arts should be the responsibility of councils. Issues such as mica are better understood and could be better addressed by councils, and particularly councillors, if they had a bigger role in dealing with local issues.

Additionally, it is naïve to ignore the conversation regarding a united Ireland. Devolving more power from Government to local government would allow local authority areas to address their respective needs and maintain their respective identities. This would allow for a smoother transition into a united Ireland and would make the prospect far more attractive and accommodating for those who are nervous about the idea. We need to be realistic in planning for this.

This devolution of power needs to come hand-in-hand with the creation of State-owned public services. This includes a State-owned construction company to ensure that housing needs are met; a State-owned energy company, similar to the successful Norwegian model; a free universal childcare system, such as exists in Finland; a free transport system, such as that seen in Luxembourg; and a fully functioning public healthcare system, the creation of which would start with collaboration with Cuba to send doctors to Ireland to relieve current pressures on the health service, which the Government has continued to ignore, which would allow us to rebuild that service. Nationalising services like these will create skilled jobs and ample employment, aid the economy and the environment, provide better services for our disabled community and all our citizens and allow Ireland to stand as an international model for other nations.

In order for a totally new and nationalised system to work, we also need to completely overhaul our Civil Service and our Departments. They are clearly inefficient and ineffective. Too much focus on budgets and not enough acknowledgment of the holistic nature of issues means that citizens trying to avail of services and support are left stranded. To take the Department of Justice for example. There is an urgent need for greater independence for both the Prison Service and An Garda Síochána but this cannot happen without significant structural change within the Department and the Civil Service. This cannot happen in a vacuum. Due to the interdepartmental nature of many issues, change needs to occur right across Departments and right to the top. The Attorney General holds an unelected position and, according to the Constitution, is supposed to be independent.

How can a person who is appointed by the Taoiseach and who has no obligation to publish or report the advice given to the Government be independent? We need greater transparency in respect of the Attorney General for a start.

On industry issues such as in fishing and agriculture, these need to be addressed not only at national level, but at EU level too. Addressing issues within the fishing industry and establishing a new foundation for Ireland cannot occur without a conversation around our sovereignty and our position within the EU. We recently saw a threat to our sovereignty posed by the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Many of the policies imposed on us by the EU in the context of fishing have caused stagnation and much harm in these sectors, and on our agricultural and fishing communities. In order to ensure complete structural change, we need to reconsider our position within the EU. I am not suggesting creating a position outside of it, but I am certainly suggesting renegotiating our position within it.

In establishing our new place within Europe, it would also give us an opportunity to re-establish our neutrality and our position internationally. Protecting our neutrality allows Ireland to protect the oppressed, and that is priceless. Ireland could serve as an important link between Europe and the Third World. I was very disappointed when I discovered that the amount allocated for overseas aid in Tuesday’s budget was not as generous as it first seemed, given that it includes money paid to hotels in Ireland that provide accommodation for asylum seekers. We need to do far better on overseas development and our international obligations.

This is my view for an alternative Ireland, outside the arbitrary constraints that this Government has led us to believe are immovable. It is an Ireland that is functioning and fair and a leader in development, sustainability and equality. We are a nation capable of more than our previous Governments have allowed us to believe. The time for the foundation of that Ireland is now.

3:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank Deputy Pringle. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan is next. At the end of his contribution, the Minister of State might propose the adjournment of this debate.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I will. I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I agree with a lot of the points made by Deputy Pringle, particularly with regard to local government.

I want to focus specifically on budget 2024 as it relates to nature. Members may recall that a vote took place here a number of weeks ago that reverberated across Europe, in my view. That was the vote regarding a debate on the nature restoration law, which was overwhelming endorsed by this House. In my view, it made a significant contribution to what happened with the vote in the European Parliament a short time later. That is really significant. Ireland and this Government have shown leadership when it comes to nature. All the way through the discourse - and there has been a lot of heated debate - I have consistently stated that we needed to have in place a strategic fund for nature that would enable us to move on this great big project of restoring nature across this country. This Government has delivered on that. The Green Party has delivered on it in budget 2024, with an infrastructure, climate and nature fund of €3.15 billion from 2026 to 2030. This is significant and marks a watershed in how we collectively treat nature in Ireland, how the Government can lead and how future Governments will be compelled to lead on restoring nature over the next decade and beyond.

Critically important in what this fund will do is that it will give a significant return on investment to rural economies, as a rural economic status, in terms of its multiplier effect and the value it will bring into rural communities. It will involve lots of people. It is what I see as the restoration economy. As we look at the context of the next few weeks, hugely significant is the fact that we will have a new national biodiversity action plan that will reflect this and that will see us embark on the development of our national nature restoration plan next year. For me, it involves everybody. It is going to involve farmers, fishers, foresters and hunters. It will involve community groups and a collective, whole-of-society approach that is led by Government, and which filters right down into State agencies, and collaboration at local authority level.

If we look at our water quality and the challenges around it, again, we secured an 11.5% increase for the water section of our Department. We will move on a new river basin management plan, and that is going to focus on a couple of areas such as removing barriers out of our rivers and having free-flowing rivers for fish migration, improving the quality of vegetation along the rivers, native woodlands, and addressing issues of pollution largely caused by agriculture but also by other sources. It is about protecting rural drinking water. I pay tribute to our group water schemes across the country for the amazing work they do. It is about protecting our marine areas and about the development of our marine protected areas, the legislation relating to which will shortly be brought to this House.

In that context, we felt it essential - the Green Party certainly felt it essential - that we have this fund in place but also that we have the capacity to deliver on such a fund. We are continuing the trajectory that we have been on with regard to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and, in particular, the strategic review of the latter, which, on foot of a Government decision, is fully funded. We are continuing that trajectory through 2024 with a €67.5 million fund, which is up 15% on the figure for 2023 and up 135% since this Government was formed in 2020. Where will this go? It will go to our national parks and nature reserves. With my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I recently announced the seventh national park for Ireland at Brú na Bóinne. We are dealing with European Court of Justice cases on conservation measures in our special areas of conservation and with breeding waders under the European Innovation Partnership project we have with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine and my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett. This is for the conservation of iconic species such as curlew, lapwing, dunlin, redshank, snipe and golden plover. I love to be able to just name those species in this House.

It is something that I felt was important from my own background. I volunteered down at Killarney National Park in removing rhododendron many years ago, and I felt that it was important that we look at and try to develop a nature conservation volunteering pilot programme. There have been several programmes like this down the years but I felt that it was important to try and reintroduce a national programme. That is budgeted for in 2024. It is for our peatlands and our blanket and raised bogs. It is for tackling wildlife crime and fire in our national parks and nature reserves. I am very privileged and honoured that we were able to put this money into the NPWS, for the people on the ground who do the work, from our rangers right down to general operatives in our national parks, to our scientific unit and all of the staff in the NPWS who do incredible work and who for years have been starved of funding to facilitate that work. It is a great privilege to be able to bring those resources.

Overall, our heritage budget is €166 million for 2024, which is up 6.5% on 2023, and 132% on 2020. Again, this shows the value the Government has placed on our built, natural, cultural and archaeological heritage. Funding for the Heritage Council is €16 million in 2024, up 12% on 2023, and up over 110% on 2020, recognising the increasing role that the council has with regard to the reconfiguration of the national biodiversity data centre, rolling out biodiversity officers across every county - which we hope to complete this year - supporting our heritage teams and heritage officers across our local authorities, and administering the ongoing grant schemes. These are really good grant schemes, such as the historic towns initiative that the Heritage Council puts through every year.

On water quality, €35 million has been allocated for 2024. This is about putting more boots on the ground for inspections, working with farmers on fertiliser management, and enforcement. It is hugely important when we look at the trends in water quality and the debates that have taken place in here around nitrates and other issues over the last year or so. It will also support a major new programme around, as I have mentioned, barrier removal in our rivers. There are five pilots already under way. This is about freeing up those barriers in rivers in order to allow fish migration.

On built heritage, we look across the country, and what I see around our built and archaeological heritage has been transformative. We have three funding schemes, the community monuments fund, the built heritage investment scheme and the historic structures fund. These schemes have supported more than 2,000 projects since 2020 in every county, including the Ceann Comhairle's county. They are everywhere. We see the projects, and we see tradespeople and professionals working on conserving our built and archaeological heritage at a time when climate change is having an impact on those structures as well. It is also about protecting our national heritage estate - the master plan for the Boyne Valley national park will commence now that we have the purchase in train - and supporting local authorities to develop the nominations for UNESCO's world heritage tentative list.

Last night in the Seanad, we completed the passage of the Historic and Archaeological Heritage and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill. It is on way to President Higgins to be signed into law. It is very transformative legislation and relates to climate adaptation measures for built and archaeological heritage. Ireland was one of the first countries in Europe to develop a sectoral climate change adaptation plan. That work is ongoing and is really fantastic. In this regard, I should also refer to the maintenance of our world-class heritage research partnerships and the co-ordination of the Heritage Ireland 2030 plan across government.

On the other strand of my portfolio, electoral reform, we have a busy year ahead. The Electoral Commission,An Coimisiún Toghcháin, is now firmly established, and its first task was to prepare a report and make recommendations on electoral boundaries. However, we will have European and local elections next year, in addition to the first-ever election of a directly elected mayor for Limerick. The commission's tasks will include promoting public awareness of elections and referendums, overseeing and modernising the electoral register and carrying out reviews it decides to conduct on the administration of electoral events, the registration of political parties and the annual research programmes. I have asked it to examine several issues, particularly the possibility of reducing the voting age and the use of election posters. These are just a few of the tasks but they are very important given where democracies are going across the world. Now more than ever, the commission will play a vital role in strengthening our great democracy.

Debate adjourned.