Seanad debates

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

3:30 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Labour)

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. There is much political theatre on budget day. Members of the Opposition make all sorts of statements about the budgets that is presented and are expected to criticise everything, while the Government criticises everything they state. I earlier stated that, at least on one level, the Irish political establishment is in a happier space than it was seven, eight, nine or ten years ago when budget day was very traumatic for people outside the Houses, as well as, possibly, those inside the Houses, and there were mass protests and much upset, hurt and trauma. Perhaps we have reached a position whereby we can have a reasonable back and forth discussion on budgetary measures. We certainly appear to be in a far better political space than is the case in the United Kingdom, the United States or much of Europe.

My party has been stating for quite some time that the Government should be trying to cut poverty rather than cut taxes. I am relieved that the Government has decided to dispense with the idea of abolishing the USC or implementing the €3 billion worth of tax cuts advocated at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis and in various speeches by the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. It should not be perceived as a weakness for a political party or a politician to change their mind on a matter but, rather, as doing the right thing.

The members of the Independent Alliance walk up to Government Buildings as though they are not in government and advocate for those with inherited wealth but not those with inherited poverty. Rather than advocating for those who need an increase in the State pension, they are advocating for access to medical cards for those with pensions twice as large. So much for being the voice within Government for the small person or the disadvantaged.

On housing policy, I accept that if it were not for HAP, many more people would be homeless. However, the problem is that the Government is doubling down by putting €80 million into a failed policy. That money will end up in the hands of landlords. If it was doing so while overseeing the building by the State of much-needed housing on State lands, there may be an argument that HAP is necessary to fill the gap. However, for reasons I do not understand, the Government refuses to build State housing on State land. The answers to the current crisis lie in the solutions found to the housing problems of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s but, for some reason, Fine Gael and the Government believe that all the solutions can be found in the market. The problem is that the market has no conscience and it is motivated by profit. Landlords and developers are there to make money. Meanwhile, those who need housing will remain on a waiting list or in insecure accommodation.

On education, I am in politics because of a bunch of children who I used to teach in a disadvantaged school. There is nothing in the budget to improve the standard of their education. Nothing has been done on class sizes. It strikes me as very odd that the Government has chosen not to allocate the very small amount of money necessary to reduce class sizes at primary or secondary level, particularly in DEIS schools. The capitation increases provided for in the budget are tiny. There is a suggestion that a book scheme will be brought in and I welcome that because it would be unfair of me not to, having advocated for a free book scheme. However, the scheme laid out in the budget is ill-defined and appears to be a pilot programme. It is lumped in with capitation increases and a measure for small schools in a bracket that is allocated €4 million. If the Government is only spending €4 million on capitation, a book scheme and support for small schools, it is not genuinely prioritising the book scheme.

There are tax changes for those at the higher end of Irish society and eligibility changes for those with better-than-average pensions, but the Minister announced that the increase in the minimum wage increase is to be deferred. It is very difficult to understand how that decision could be defended or justified.

On the funding increases related to justice, people often forget that the Department is responsible for both justice and equality. Part of the Department deals with the sections of our society that need help, support and investment, such as the Traveller and LGBT communities, people with disabilities and, by way of gender equality measures, women. The increased funding for the Department to allow the recruitment of more gardaí is welcome. However, we cannot police our way out of inequality or crime. Rather, we must invest in addressing the causes of crime, which stem from inequality. It has been repeatedly stated that those who are most dispossessed and disconnected and more likely to fall into addiction are members of the communities I outlined, but investment in that area was not addressed in the budget speech, so I can only assume that it is absent.

The issue of Brexit overarches the entire budgetary conversation. We need a budget to be passed and to have a functioning Government rather than political turmoil such as that in the United Kingdom. However, the types of measures that are to be introduced and the ideological decisions that have been taken show that the Government has failed in its endeavour to radically invest in or change how it or society addresses issues affecting those on the lower end of Irish society, such as those in minimum-wage employment, children in DEIS schools or those in insecure accommodation who are in need of housing. I am not accusing any member of the Government of coming from a bad place in terms of the preparation of the budget. I do not believe people in government or politics generally decide to construct budgets in order to entrench inequality or do harm.We come from different political traditions and the Minister has his way of doing things, while we have ours. It is healthy that people have different perspectives on things. The Government has had chances to bring about radical change by investing in things that would have made a significant difference and would have soothed the wounds that are still there, ten years on. This is also a missed opportunity. A small amount of money could have made a big difference. If I was working in a minimum wage job, I would be wondering why my increase is being deferred while those with inherited wealth are being advocated for. That will stick in the craw of many people.

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