Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Budget 2022: Statements (Resumed)

 

10:30 am

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)

The Minister of State is very welcome. It is nice to see him. I will start with housing. It is a shame that our good Senator Casey is not here because I was struck by something he said in his speech. Speaking about housing he said that he could finally see some delivery. Those were his words. That is some statement to make. This is the sixth Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael budget and it raises the question, what have they been doing for the last five years? He can finally see some delivery. I do not agree by the way, about the delivery, but I will get to that point.

There is nothing in this budget for renters. I heard the response from the Government side on the Order of Business this morning. The Government said it is going to improve supply and that that is the only way to deal with this. That is not factually true. What the Government could have done is heeded Sinn Féin's suggestions and put a freeze on rents. Not only that, it could then have reduced rents via a tax credit that would save people one month's rent each per year. That would actually make a huge contribution to the challenge that working families face as regards the cost of living. That was an option the Government had but it is one that has consistently been rejected by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and now, I am afraid to say, by the Green Party in government as well.

As I explained yesterday, I met people in my village of Castleconnell on Monday. They came out to speak to us because they are suffering horrendous rents of €1,300 or €1,400 a month in a small village and they cannot afford it. The truth of the matter is there is nothing in this budget to help them. They cannot afford to save to buy their own house because all their money is going on outrageous rents. I remind my colleagues in Fine Gael in particular that over the last ten years rents have increased by two thirds. That was not on the Minister of State's watch as he has only been in government for the last 18 months but it is a hell of a record and that is why I am often stunned when people in Fine Gael stand up here to give lectures on housing. They have failed on housing, not for one year or two but for a full decade. Housing crises do not arise as some kind of natural phenomenon. They arise as a result of consistent failures of Government policy and in Fine Gael's case its consistent failure to build public housing. Even now, it is still attached to tax breaks for vulture funds. Again I would like the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth's opinion on that as a Green Party Minister of State. Why is he supporting tax breaks for vulture funds? Rather than public authorities buying housing, they lease it. According to this budget, 2,600 houses are going to be leased next year. What an incredible waste of money. Fine Gael, the party of fiscal responsibility, is insisting that councils, rather than building and buying their own housing, lease it so there is nothing left after paying money for 25 years. Is that good economics? I do not think so. There is so much more I could say about housing but I will move on to the other issues.

I am particularly appreciative of having a Green Party Minister of State here because I want to talk to him about the social welfare increase. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, came into the social protection committee earlier this year. He made a good contribution and acknowledged that we needed a significant increase in social welfare rates. As I pointed out before, in 2009 the rate was €197. Here we are 13 years later and it has gone up now by just over €10. That is a huge indictment of Fine Gael and the fact that it is not that bothered about people who are poor. Social Justice Ireland's commentary on the budget is absolutely condemnatory. It states, "Budget 2022 is the second budget produced by this Government and demonstrates a disappointing and worrying trajectory ... Those on the lowest incomes ... are being let fall further behind."

The Government had options. It could have raised money in other ways. I want to ask the Minister of State about the special assignee tax relief programme in particular. That is the tax relief for millionaires, which I have raised here before. Top executives can write off two thirds of their tax up to the value of €1 million for each of their own earnings. It has been in place since Michael Noonan introduced it in 2013. It is a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money, directly subsidising some of the richest people in this State. Some 55 millionaires helped themselves to €110,000 each of taxpayers' money through this scam. That is what this is. When the Government decided not to heed the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien's, call for a significant rise in welfare, why did it not address that issue and say maybe we should not be subsidising the very richest people in this State and could use that money to increase welfare rates? That tax relief was worth €42 million. We do not know what it is worth now because the Department is very reluctant to give figures since 2018 but I would imagine it is upwards of €60 million at this point in time. Equally, the Government could have chosen to put an end to gold-plated pensions and the tax reliefs there. The figures calculated by the Department of Finance tell us that €183 million could have been saved by doing that. That would have been a way to raise funds and build in progressive measures because let us face it, those social welfare rates are appalling. The Minister of State's own colleague acknowledged that. We are talking about a fiver.

Let me talk about tax. As has been pointed out by no less than Patricia King of ICTU yesterday, the decision to implement a package of tax cuts that favours only two out of every ten taxpayers, who are the top end of the scale, is entirely regressive.How can the Government stand over regressive tax measures? Patricia King said it was a retrograde step the Government had allocated one third of the €1.5 billion discretionary package to tax cuts, much of which will go towards increasing the standard rate band. She said that it was a measure that will do nothing for the many low paid essential workers who we have relied upon over the last 18 months. The Government's examples provided in yesterday's budget document confirmed that someone on €30,000 will benefit by €2 per week, whereas someone on €60,000 will benefit by more than €400 per year. Indeed, Ministers will benefit from these measures. Why is the Green Party supporting regressive taxation? I gave my second preference vote to the Greens at the last election because I assumed the party shared certain common values with us. This is a regressive budget and these are regressive measures.

I refer to the cost of living because it is a significant issue for working families. The Government has only made things worse with the carbon taxes which are regressive. They do not improve the situation of, or give other options to, people. Most working families have no choice but to heat their homes using the systems currently installed. They cannot afford the significant retrofits envisaged. I know some money has been allocated for retrofitting but it is not half enough. The Sinn Féin budget signalled a more significant package in that regard.

What will the Government do in regard to the northern distributor road in Limerick and the M20 motorway? I was concerned with comments the Minister of State made last week on that. We need the M20 motorway in order to complete the Atlantic corridor and we need the delivery of the northern distributor road, which was not even mentioned in the national development plan. Will Limerick be left behind again by this Government?

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