Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Budget 2022: Statements (Resumed)
Vincent P Martin (Green Party)
I welcome the Minister of State. There are many different tests that can be applied when assessing and measuring the impact, be it positive or adverse, of budgets. For the commentariat, an initial preliminary test is whether there is a banana skin in the budget. Perhaps this dates back to the budget introduced by the then Minister for Finance, John Bruton, in 1982 - which members may recall - whereby an 18% VAT increase was imposed in respect of footwear and clothing. An inadvertent and unintended consequence of that was the collapse of the Government of the day. It is still not clear from history whether it was collapsed by the now deceased Jim Kemmy or Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus. Ever since, there has almost been a preoccupation with banana skins. There are many expert groups that will parse the budget forensically in order to give their views, and they have given their views. Many of the people of Ireland, however, would consider the test to be, first of all, if the budget has some credibility. Is the budget prudent? Then there is the vexed question of whether it is fair. The latter is so difficult to measure because a balancing act must be struck, with countervailing rights between how far one can go - and the Government loves to do as much as possible - and still retain and maintain credibility, stability, and financial prudence.
I have detected in this budget a clear step change, which is the buzzword of the week. In the EU Parliament 30 years ago, the buzzword would have been "subsidiarity". The term "step change" has definitely come up quite a lot this week. There is a continuance of the step change for significant investment in key public services. This should be music to the ears of some members of the Opposition. As has been stated previously, there has been investment in housing, healthcare and childcare. In reality, according to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, €9 out of every €10 being made available in this budget is going towards improving public services. The context provided by the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and McGrath, was also important. It is very difficult to escape the context, which is that last year Ireland had an €18 billion deficit - it is expected to be bigger this year - but the Tánaiste was correct when he said that the economy was taking off like a rocket, because it the deficit is down to €13 billion. I remember the late Brian Lenihan, as the Minister for Finance of the day, coming in for sharp criticism when he said that the building industry was about to come to a shuddering halt. He was right, however. The Tánaiste is also right when he says that the economy is taking off like a rocket. The deficit has decreased from €18 billion to €13 billion. The biggest and most glaring figure of all is that which indicates that the national debt will stand at €240 billion by the end of the year. There could never be giveaway budget if we are going to be kind, thoughtful and forward-looking to the next generation, whereby we do not want to labour them with the debt of this generation. Of course we would love to do more but that has not been possible.
The biggest investment, which has been well flagged, is the €4 billion for public housing. This level of investment is unprecedented in the history of the State, with more than €3 billion to be spent over the course of the next year. That includes funding for 9,000 social houses. Notwithstanding the obstacles that have held us back, namely, Covid and last year's shutdown, according to the Government these houses will be built next year, along with 4,000 cost-rental and affordable homes.
The Green Party is particularly happy with the youth travel card and the 50% discount. Members are here, as parliamentarians, on this day and at this time when this departure for the better happened. I hope we will revisit the matter next year and that these provisions will be incremental. Just as there was a willingness in bringing the doctors with us for the free GP surgery services for under fives and the medical card, this budget makes provision for children aged six and seven. If the Green Party has anything to do with it and if the finances allow, next year we will be opening that out further. We would love to have covered a greater age cohort in the context of the reduced travel costs, but, in a sense, it is revolutionary, especially when one considers the amount that students spend on public transport as a result of the impact of the housing crisis.That is one step in the right direction. The free contraception for women aged 17 to 25 is to be welcomed. I have heard people say the Government could have done so much more and they are right. It could have but, again, it is a change. The Green Party does not claim sole credit for any of these measures but it is a step in the right direction that we can build on that for future years.
The Green Party is particularly pleased about the €350 million, or €1 million per day, for active travel such as walking and cycling. I would like to see a translation of that, see it measured and see the actual roll-out of those projects. The retrofitting of homes is particularly pleasing for the Green Party. Some €202 million will be spent on retrofitting, which is 22,000 houses to be done in 2022. That is part of the just transition. It cannot just be meaningless words. We have to translate words into actions and while that is not a complete action, it is a step in the right direction because under the programme for Government 500,000 homes have to be retrofitted by 2030. The €50 million for the shared island unit will please many people but again we can do more. We have to get more links between North and South, including a railway line connecting the north west, Donegal and the Ulster canals. Much more can be done there.
The electric car grant is included in the budget but it has been flagged that it will not be there forever. The €5,000 grant has just been extended to 2023. That is good but even if everyone had an electric car in the morning we still have congestion and that will not help quality of life. It is a step in the right direction but there is an affordability issue with buying new cars for many and that will have to be addressed in the coming years if we are to realise our goal of changing the fleet from fossil fuel to electric power. The 165 new electric buses is to be welcomed, as are the 24 hybrid buses, 81 new regional buses and 41 more carriages. The MetroLink, BusConnects and DART+ are all set to proceed next year with planning.
I commend the Government on compiling a budget. There are many other issues I could mention but I do not have time. It is not perfectly fair but it is a step in the right direction which keeps at its heart prudence, financial stability and making sure we get Ireland up and running and restore its reputation as a place that is financially prudent. It is very hard to do that and be as fair as you would love to be.