Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Budget 2022: Statements (Resumed)
Mark Wall (Labour)
I welcome the Minister of State to the House today. There is no doubt we were all looking forward to a post-Covid Ireland. Many people who have spoken to me do not want to return to what they experienced before. They want a new Ireland where their loved ones can get a hospital appointment within a reasonable time, where they do not have to pay the equivalent of a second mortgage for caring for their children, and where there is the prospect of houses built in their towns and villages that they can afford to rent or even buy as a family home. This budget could have paved the way to this new Ireland, but in many ways, it has failed to deliver for those who need it most.
In County Kildare, where I live, the cost of childcare equates to a second mortgage for many families. Time and again, I receive representations from families who take their young children from their beds in the early morning to avail of the available places in their nearest local childcare facility. This may have stopped to some extent due to Covid as parents had the chance to work from home. However, if one travels on the M9 or M7, as I did this morning, one will realise that parents have returned to travelling by car once again. The M9 and M7 have returned to being akin to car parks. Of course we welcome the efforts to increase the wages of those working in the sector, which is long overdue, but the provisions in the budget announced yesterday will not mean any reduction of the cost equivalent to a second mortgage for many families in south Kildare, who will be put to the pin of their collar in order to afford childcare.
On the issue of commuting, to which my Green Party colleague from Kildare referred earlier, there does not seem to be any attempt to increase the short-hop zones to cover the train stations of south Kildare. My Green Party colleague lives in north Kildare where one can board a train in Sallins and avail of short-hop prices. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of south Kildare, hence the motorways leading into the capital have once again become akin to car parks. We see commuters driving from the likes of Newbridge to avail of short-hop zones, and who can blame them when they can save €200 per month notwithstanding the increase cost of car fuel.
In recent weeks, I highlighted the cost on students to travel to Dublin colleges by train and I welcome the Green Party initiative of the youth travel card. I have seen copies of train tickets that have cost more than €20 per day for students because they cannot use their Leap card in stations such as Monasterevin, Newbridge, Athy, Portarlington and Kildare town. The Leap card system is already set up and could be rolled out without delay. I note the Minister of State said that a combination of both will be used. We should see this new system put into action straightaway with the use of the Leap system. I am told all it requires is a Leap card machine at each station to accommodate that. Students typically have Leap cards already. I hope the Green Party initiative will include that, thereby saving badly needed money for students and their hard-pressed parents. I received many queries this morning as to why this initiative is to begin at the age of 19 years. I note the child fares extend to the age of 18 years but there is much concern from students who are in college, particularly those in their first year, who are 18 years of age and are asking whether they can avail of this new youth travel card. Perhaps the Minister of State will come back to us on that important point.
I wish to raise the issue of the Defence Forces. Yesterday, in a lengthy speech, the Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, stated that he acknowledged "the work of the Defence Forces in supporting the public health strategy over the last 18 months, through contact tracing, logistics and medical support, to name a few examples". He went on to say that he noted "the work of the Commission on the Defence Forces is ongoing and that the commission is due to report by the end of this year." He said that, "[T]he Government will carefully consider any recommendations it makes" and that he is very much looking "forward to engaging positively in this process". These few lines from the Minister will mean nothing to the Defence Forces' families who continue to seek proper pay and conditions. The indication that the Minister will address these issues after the publication of the Commission on the Defence Forces report at the end of the year is just another can-kicking exercise down another road. I have been informed that we may not see that report until at least early next year, which is three months from now. Defence Forces' families should not be forced to rely on social welfare payments, as many are at present, in order to make ends meet. Core pay, as we all know, is a primary cause of the recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces. While we welcome the additional €35 million allocation in the budget, the defence budget is not seeing the investment it needs to bring about the 9,500 serving personnel referred to in the White Paper. There is no specific reference to the post-1994 contracts that could result in hundreds of experienced personnel leave the Defence Forces by the end of next year. There is no specific reference in the Minister’s speech about the investment programme, apart from the proposed development of a cadet school in the Curragh. In a recent Seanad debate, the Minister informed me that he would invest in the Curragh, which he described as the flagship of the Defence Forces. The budget failed completely to address the issue of core pay, which is at the heart of the crisis that is threatening the viability of the forces. The Defence Forces' budget continues to be underfunded.
Many Members here today have referred to the housing crisis. There is no doubt that this issue continues to dominate every representation I receive almost daily. There was a chance to assist renters and address the matter of vacant sites. Unfortunately, the Government has missed the opportunity to do this. It is unbelievable that the budget does not assist renters. The reply we hear time and again is that renters want more houses built to increase supply. For the many renters I deal with, they simply cannot wait for more houses to be built. They are already put to the pin of their collar and need assistance now, not in a surplus-supply dominated market that may, with the greatest respect to my Fianna Fáil colleagues, be a few years away.
I continue to highlight the issues surrounding the housing assistance payment, HAP, that I deal with daily. There was no increase in HAP limits yesterday and no help for single people who have been unable to afford rising rents and are now borrowing to pay top-ups to keep a roof over their heads. There was no standardisation of bands that would allow hard-pressed renters to rent available properties in neighbouring counties. I have raised this issue here on countless occasions. It is a problem that continues for many people in south Kildare.
I raise the case of carers, which has been highlighted by colleagues across the House today. It is welcome that the carers income disregard has increased to €750 a week. However, I received a number of phone calls from carer's families who provide 24-7 care for loved ones who still will not qualify for the allowance. They are asking us why it is a means tested payment and why the care they provide 24-7 is not recognised by this Government? This is an area the Government needs to look at again, notwithstanding that it is welcome more families will be included in that schedule of social welfare payment.
The reality of this budget is to give a little in the hope that it will help a lot.Unfortunately for many of those who contacted me last night and this morning, the giving will not reach their pockets or it will be taken from them by the rising fuel costs and the day-to-day increase in living expenses. The hope of living in a new post-Covid Ireland will unfortunately be lost in the car parks along the M7 and M9.