Tuesday, 8 October 2019
Budget 2020: Statements
I am happy to correct the record. I expect there will be an announcement pretty soon and at that point I am sure Senator Lawlor would be satisfied to correct the record himself. When I get the opportunity to speak to insurance matters in full, I will put on record exactly the position and where we have come since the passing of the Judicial Council Act 2019 last summer.I remember that nobody believed we would get the legislation through both Houses at that point but we did. We have other aspects to conclude between now and the end of the year. I will be happy to update the House on insurance at that point if Senators give me the opportunity to address them. With the consent of the House, I will not touch on insurance again.
I will go through my notes as best I can but I am sure I will not cover everything. I want to touch on politics and where we are today. I spent a happy term in this Chamber. This Parliament has two great Chambers. Politics in Ireland is fought in the centre. I am a centrist; I am not on the right or left. I treat every issue in a fair and reasonable way, as nearly every Member of both Houses does. Some people bang their chests and say they are lefties or on the right. I do not view politics in Ireland in that manner. Having observed the politics of the left and right, I find it pretty ugly. If one looks at other parliaments and jurisdictions, they are not in a pleasant place. That is not where we are and we should never go there. We see the politics of ideology and I believe Senator Gavan described himself as an ideologist. We are not really ideologists in this country because ideology is pretty ugly. When one allows ideology to take over, one ends up where our friends and cousins, the British people, have ended up. We should remember the generations of Irish people who had to travel to Britain over the decades and centuries. The UK has allowed ideology to take over its political debate, which is pretty ugly right now. I am glad nearly all of us are centrists and fight out issues in the right manner. I am happy to take criticism from any party, whether my own side or the Opposition side, if it is fair and reasonable. Where I find criticism unfair or unreasonable, I will try to logically explain why that is the case.
I started off on this note because we must consider where we are coming from today in the context of Brexit. The numbers are astonishing. We could have a reasonable debate on Brexit and a reasonable and coherent exit by the United Kingdom from the European Union, which is what we all want to see. The potential impact of Brexit on the public finances ranges from the country having a small surplus of a couple of hundred million euro to a deficit of billions. To put that swing in the public finances in context, it could exceed the swing in the public finances before the late Brian Lenihan introduced the 2010 budget. I hope that will not be the case.
As I said, we are preparing for a no-deal Brexit but we have not reached that point and I hope it will not arise. We will find out within the next 12 months. Whichever Minister in the Department of Finance discusses the next budget in the Seanad will have a pretty good idea of the way this will shake out between now and then. I hope it will not be a crazy wild period for which none of us has prepared but we are doing our best. That is the background on which the budget was formulated.
I will address as many areas as I can. The issue of homelessness and housing was raised multiple times. We are spending €2.5 billion on this area, which is a huge sum. People say Fine Gael opposed the building of social housing. That is absolutely not the case. We will spend €1.1 billion on the construction of housing units. Senator McDowell stated it would cost €1.1 billion for 11,000 houses or €100,000 per unit. We will not spend all of that money in a 12-month period. We want to start movement towards the construction of these units. More money will then be provided in next year's budget. The expenditure is multi-annual rather than being spent in a single calendar year.
The housing assistant payment, HAP, scheme was raised. It is not a question of wanting to pay landlords money for HAP. We need houses now and we need people to live in them this week and this month. Not all landlords are jacking up rents, although some are and some are being very unfair to the best of tenants. Jacking up the rent for a super tenant is extremely unwise. It is wrong to demonise all landlords. Approximately 70% of landlords in Ireland have one property. We are spending a lot of money on making sure that people are housed and funded. The figure of 10,000 homeless people is cited all of the time. In fact, about 5,000 people enter homelessness each year. As we move people out of temporary homelessness to a permanent housing solution, another 5,000 people become homeless. It is not that the same people are always homeless. It takes between 14 and 16 months to move people from temporary homelessness to a permanent housing solution. Some of those solutions involve the use of HAP, leases, approved housing bodies, purchases and builds.
We are now spending €18.2 billion on health. When one factors in what is spent on the private health sector, which is around €6 billion, we are spending enough money on health in this jurisdiction to have a very good health sector, both public and private. As I have pointed out many times, the real issue is that nobody gives one inch in health. People have health services in their own area but if services are rationalised or moved 30 or 40 yards up the road, nobody gives an inch because people want to retain services in their towns. I am from County Wexford, which has four county towns. There used to be a hospital in each town that provided all of the services that have been rationalised or moved to Wexford General Hospital. We must put ourselves into a position where enough services are done well enough in each area. However, nobody gives an inch. Not one Member of the Seanad or Dáil will agree to move services from the nearest hospital to a proper structure established 30 miles away that would provide a better service. It may be only a few miles down the road but nobody will give an inch on health.
To respond to Senator Dolan, we are now spending more on disability than we ever. The figure now stands at €1.9 billion. Can or should the figure be higher? It probably should be. Given the year that is in it, we have adopted a holding position in the budget. There will be other years. I hope we can keep the economy in a strong position and on a strong pathway. I hope there will be strong flows of taxes coming in and strong flows of revenue so that we can do more. I dearly hope that will be the case but if we get Brexit wrong, we will slip backwards and rather than doing more, we will potentially do less, which is not what anybody wants.
In terms of local government finance and the local property tax, we have had a couple of conversations about wealth tax. The greatest form of wealth in this jurisdiction by a country mile is property. All of the stocks, shares, cash and everything else combined amount to a fraction of what property is worth. Some people in this Chamber do not support a property tax, even though property is the highest form of wealth. If we want a legitimate wealth tax, we must tax property. Sinn Féin has opposed the property tax from day one and I believe it does so because it is a populist position. Sinn Féin is the only left-wing party in any jurisdiction in the European Union to oppose a property tax. It does so because it is politically expedient and populist. The property tax generates €450 million per annum, which is not a fortune.