Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Budget 2022: Statements (Resumed)
Ossian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
I thank all the Members who made contributions. I found them interesting and informative and I will try and address some of them for a start.
Starting with Senator Casey. I agree it is important to have a credible economic policy. One of the reasons for that is that if we do not have it we cannot borrow on international markets and we cannot get the money that we need at the price that we need to supply the services that we need when we are in a difficult situation, as we have been for the past two years. It is also true that a lot of work was done during the preparation of the budget to see where the redistribution of the money would go, who would be better off as a result of the budget, to divide the population into ten sections or deciles, and to see for each tenth of the population, from the poorest to the richest, who would do best. It is true, and the ESRI will verify this, that the bottom three deciles, the poorest 30% of society, are the ones who have seen the largest increase in their net income as a result of the changes to tax and social protection.
The social protection budget has been increased by €550 million. It is, I believe, the largest social protection package in the history of the State. It is three times the amount of the carbon tax increase. It is not only on fuel allowance. It is also on the living alone allowance, carer's allowance, disability allowance and right across the spectrum. It will be felt by many people.
Senator Boyhan praised the budget. The Senator said a lot of work had gone into it and he acknowledged that there was progress in that regard.
Similar to Senator Casey, Senator Kyne pointed out that the national reputation has been sustained and that this puts us in a situation where we are able to maintain our borrowing.
In response to Senator Gavan on the point of the carbon tax, I did look at the Sinn Féin alternative budget and I was pleased to see that Sinn Féin is not proposing to abolish carbon tax. I am also pleased that Sinn Féin supported the climate Act, made constructive contributions at Oireachtas committee level and ultimately supported the goal of reaching a 50% reduction in emissions. For all the details of political insults, slagging, etc., at the core there is a consensus across all parties, including the major Opposition party, that climate change is real, that it is caused by humans and that we need to take massive actions all across society to deal with it. I welcome that constructive opposition.
Senator Martin pointed out that €9 out of every €10 being spent in this budget is going on improving public services. I suppose it is another way of saying that only one tenth of this is going on income tax relief. Income tax reductions would not have been my first choice for how to spend money in a budget. It is only a tenth of it. We did agree to it in the programme for Government and it is true that we have inflation at present. Inflation means that if we do not do anything on income tax, working people will get poorer. It was important to provide an enormous package of social welfare increases but there was also a very large package for income tax reductions.
I hear some people saying that it was spread too thinly - that seems to be an emerging narrative - but it was targeted. Young people did well out of this budget and women's health did well out of this budget. Older people suffering from energy poverty also did well out of this budget. There was targeting.
A number of Senators welcomed the youth travel card and asked if it could be extended and if it applied to somebody who is 17. I understand there are child fares as well. In general, the whole fare structure of public transport needs to be simplified. It is being reviewed. It needs to be straightforward, simple and rational. Absolutely, there is room for reform across the board. It will attract more people on to public transport.
As Senators have said, the number of people who are driving has come back to where it was previously and yet public transport has not. People have a residual fear of being inside a bus or they have changed their habit over the period of time. We need to take some actions to get people to change back and to come back.
Senator Ruane made a heartfelt contribution and talked about the effect on drug treatment and in deprived areas or areas where people lost hope for years. Senator Ruane is absolutely right. A budget is about allocating money. It is about slicing up a pie. It is about cash but one also has to think of the effect from previous budgets. That is what performance budgeting is about. If somebody comes to you and asks if he or she can have an extra €50 million for whatever, you have to ask what that person has been doing last year. Performance budgeting is a part of the budgeting process. One needs to go back and see what is the effect, are we missing certain areas and are there places that are not getting this. I can say there is €550 million extra for social protection or there is a €22 billion budget for health but if it is not reaching the people who need it, that is a problem.
One also needs equality budgeting. One needs to make sure that everybody is being reached and not just certain groups that are favoured in society. There is a whole process around equality budgeting. There are reports that will be published in the spring, etc., on that. It is an annual process. It is to make sure that people are not left out. I am happy to talk to Senator Ruane outside of the Chamber on any of those issues, to engage with her or to invite her to take part in the budgeting process if she thinks that things could be done better or that there are things that are wrong in it or that are being missed. The Senator knows that is not by intention. For example, the mental health budget has been increased a lot, this year and last year, but what is the root cause of long-term addiction problems?
Senator Crowe asked about the VAT rate on hospitality. It has been extended and can it extended further. There will be a lot of lobbying from the Restaurant Association of Ireland and from the hotel sector, etc., on that issue. That sector has been greatly damaged during the pandemic. No decision has been made on that.
Senator Conway asked what we can do for additional capacity on waiting lists. Waiting lists, after the pandemic, are emerging as the primary concern in healthcare after Covid. A lot of it is caused by Covid. We already had a problem but it was made worse because many people could not attend their appointments for whatever reason and the HSE was distracted by the pandemic. I welcome the significant increase in funding to tackle waiting lists. We will see progress on that issue.
There was a question about the fairness or equality of public transport fares across the country. Why does it cost a different amount to travel between Ennis and Limerick than between Maynooth and Dublin when they are similar distances? This comes back to rationalising the fare structure and making sure that it is fair, simple and straightforward.
The details of the contraception roll-out were requested. I can get those for Senator Conway. I would say to any Member that if he or she contacts my office, I will help him or her. If a Senator wants to meet me in person I will, of course, always meet anybody.
Senator Ardagh is somebody who I met before the election last year when I was meeting with a group of parents with special needs children to advocate for their education. The Senator can see in this budget that there is a huge allocation towards new special needs assistants, SNAs, towards special needs teachers and towards the capital for special classes. What really came to the fore at the start of last year was that, particularly in certain areas of the country, we are under provided for when it comes to special needs education. At the start of the year, after the Covid wave around Christmas time, special needs education came into focus again. There is a huge body of work being done to tackle it. I trust in the efforts of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in that regard.
Can I keep going?