Statements on Budget 2014
Minister of State for Public Service Reform and the Office of Public Works, Brian Hayes TD
Tuesday 15 October 2014
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Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will premise my statement by underscoring the importance of addressing today’s budgetary measures and fiscal adjustment, the sixth in line of extremely difficult budgets since 2008, and the context of their cumulative impact since this is the reality of the way they are being experienced by people.
As a Senator this is the third time I have made a statement on the budget and it is safe to say, and no doubt the feeling is shared by many members of the public, that my sense of disillusionment and powerlessness has been compounded on each occasion. It is a sense that nothing has changed about the way we do our business. I welcome what the Minister said about the European aspect but as far as we do our business, I do not believe anything has changed.
I have said on numerous occasions in previous statements on the budget and in response to various social welfare provisions that Ireland, while on the road to recovery, is still in serious financial difficulty and money must be saved and generated but how this money is saved, be it from cuts to existing provisions and services or exploring alternative revenue-generating measures such as tax increases and against whom the cuts are made, are ultimately political decisions. There is a strong public perception that the decision has been made to persistently target vulnerable groups and re-hit already stretched and hard-pressed families.
Accusations have been made that such decisions are made with political capital considerations in mind. There is a certain class of people that have remained largely unscathed by successive budgets. They are young employed individuals without children and without a mortgage. Effectively, that grouping has remained unscathed. I have spoken with many of those people in the course of my work and I have heard time and again that they are willing to shoulder their share of the burden more fairly. After each budget they are grateful they did not get hit.
I believe it is a mark of a decent and humane society to ensure that those with the lowest income and least resources are protected from further cuts. I recall when dealing in April 2012 with the impact of the provisions on lone parents in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012 feeling that anything I had to say was futile since the relevant decisions had already been made. It almost felt disingenuous to be kicking up a fuss knowing that whatever I said, nothing would change but I spoke to the groups advocating for lone parents on the ground and they convinced me of the importance of ensuring that their voices, and the voices of their constituents, made it on to the record.
The voices of civil society organisations and NGOs on the ground, which witness the impact of the decisions and cuts we debate in these Chambers, must be heard. We need to reconsider our mechanism leading up to the budget, to have a greater engagement with those organisations and not have a showpiece hearing where the relevant decision makers are not present. This is also why I feel so strongly about the move to restrict the access of the NGOs to the AV room to have political briefings. We need to be very careful about our decisions. We should not close off or close down dialogue and open ourselves to accusations that political decisions are being made in a vacuum.
Moving to today’s budget, I very much welcome the decisions made, particularly in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the additional funding of €6.7 million in 2014 to reform child protection. I know that money will go to the new child and family agency. It is really positive that it is being moved into the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I am very concerned at the talk that the new agency will start with a deficit. The agency will be taken out of the HSE and created, and there is talk of transferring a deficit. That will be regressive and I will watch it closely.
I welcome the implementation of the preschool quality agenda for which there is funding of €4.5 million. Additional inspectors will be recruited. There should be nationwide coverage. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of a preschool mentoring service. We need mentoring in that sector to bring quality up to a consistent level and not to see more scenes such as those we saw in the “Prime Time” programme entitled Breach of Trust. We need to support staff training.
I also welcome the initiatives to tackle child poverty at a local area level. A cut of €3 million in youth work funding was projected for 2014, and we are supposed to heave a sigh of relief that it is only €2 million. This sector has been disproportionately cut. We know that for every €1 the State invests in youth work it saves €2.22 in the long run. Youth work organisations around the country are under huge pressure. The youth council proposed the introduction of a 1% social responsibility levy on drinks manufacturers. I notice in the budget that €145 million is saved in the excise duty added to alcohol. Why can youth workers not receive some of that additional money? They do not take funding from drinks companies. All too often we hear it said of the sports organisations “Oh dear, they cannot afford to let go of the drink sponsorship”. Youth organisations say “No” to drinks companies because of the ethos of their organisations. They work with young people, as do the sports organisations. Youth organisations say “No” and I do not see why a measure like that cannot be found for them. I welcome and note the increase in tax on tobacco.
If one is in the 18 to 25 year age category one had no hand in creating the situation in which we now find ourselves yet there is a disproportionate reduction in the jobseeker’s allowance. That is very tough on young people. Yes, they should be encouraged into education and training but the reality is that the places are not available for them.
Minister Hayes: There is a 100% increase as announced today in the budget in places for that age cohort.
Senator van Turnhout: The places are not there. There is an urban-rural divide. I hear all too often that young people are being forced back into the family home. Once again, there is a geographical lottery.
On the tax exemption for starting one’s own business, does someone need to wait to be unemployed for over 15 months? We know most businesses do not make money in the first two years. I wonder what this measure solves.
It is great that the €14 million youth guarantee has been announced. I am however a little concerned about the figures and I will study this more closely. It seems very low. Much of this is based on the Swedish model but the Swedes estimated that it would cost €6,600 per participant. They estimate that it will cost €273 million to implement in Ireland, based on their figures. That is phased over several years but €14 million seems very low, given that we need to spend it before we recoup it from the EU. While it seems like a large sum it is too low to implement the youth guarantee as it is envisaged—–
Minister Hayes: Is it not matching?
Senator van Turnhout: No. The Government must spend it first then recoup it. That is why I am concerned about the €14 million because we must spend it before we recoup.
I warmly welcome the free GP cards for children aged five years and under but we must ask ourselves about the discretionary medical cards. What children will lose out? In the Irish Examiner there is a very good case study profiling some of the cases that have lost out. It is excellent to have a rights-based approach to introducing the free GP card and they should not be confused with one another. I am concerned about this and I am hearing these concerns from parents around the country. I welcome the grant for the protection of the homeless.
I am concerned about the tax credit for the one-parent family. I want to explore it further to see what implications it has for families. I hear that the mental health budget has been reduced. We never seem to be able to spend the money.
Minister Hayes: It has been increased by €20 million.
Senator van Turnhout: I hear that the overseas development aid budget has been reduced by €14.1 million. I have a difficulty with the kind of society we are creating. I have voted for tax increases. I voted for property tax.
Minister Hayes: It is not enough.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: Some 3% on those over €100,000.
Senator van Turnhout: Senator Mary Ann O’Brien and I have put forward ways in which the Department of Health can save a significant amount of money on children with life-limiting conditions. The Minister of State should not talk to me about solutions. I keep putting them forward.
Minister Hayes: It is not enough.
Senator van Turnhout: I keep putting them forward. The Minister of State has not even taken one step in the right direction on that issue. I have concerns about maternity and adoptive benefit. I ask the Minister of State to look at my record. I have put down solutions in this House. I have tried to be fair and equal in what I have said. Some of the measures are hidden. These small cumulative cuts will affect people.