The 26-County government is facing a `winter of discontent' after it signalled its intention to raise 91 Million Euros through new ``stealth taxes'' and cut social welfare schemes by 58 million Euros.
The Irish Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy said the `Celtic Tiger' boom was over. ``If we fail to do this we risk either an early return to higher levels of taxation or excessive levels of borrowing''.
The total spending increase shown in the government's Book of Estimates is 5 per cent, and the politically sensitive areas of health and education receive the highest increases. Total health spending will increase 8 per cent and education spending by 11 per cent over the total forecast for 2003. Spending on roads and infrastructure is up by only 2%.
Pay increases are expected to use up much of these increases, and new services are thought unlikely to be funded.
The cost of attending the casualty department and the hospital bed cost per night for uninsured patients rise from O40 to O45. The increases come after a rise of 26% last year. Meanwhile, rhe amount patients must pay monthly for prescription drugs rises from O70 to O78 per month.
Motor tax will increase by 5 per cent from January 1st raising O34 million.
Meanwhile, the Minister for Social Welfare announced 16 separate reductions in eligibility for various allowances, thus saving some O58 million in 2004. Among the cutbacks were cuts in rent allowance to pay for shelter for the unemployed. Experts have warned that the move could push thousands into poverty at a time when accomodation costs are rising rapidly.
Under the proposed changes, applicants for rent allowance must be renting for at least six months before they can apply for the allowance.
The Threshold organisation said that rent allowance represents the only safety net for large numbers of people, in particular lone parents and single people in unemployment, on the brink of homelessness.
``There are over 60,000 recipients of rent supplement in this country and they are not renting at the bottom end of the sector through choice,'' Threshold director, Mr Patrick Burke said.
``This change will mean that people who need to access rented accommodation as a result of a family or marriage break up, losing a job or those experiencing social or personal difficulties are now out on a limb with no support at their most urgent time of need.
``With no resources of their own they will end up trapped in social and economic poverty becoming more of a burden on the State in the long run, eventually becoming excluded from society,'' he added.
Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain has described as ``disgraceful'' the increase in health service charges.
``It comes at a time when people are on trolleys in A&E units, when the Government is proposing to close such units in local hospitals under the Hanley report where it has not already done so. It comes at a time also when the Primary Care units promised by this Government have not been delivered. Such units would help reduce the numbers of people going to A&E.
``These charges are a further blow to those whose income is just above the limit for the medical card. They will now face higher costs for medicines after another significant increase last year.
``The Government is charging more money for less services.''
Sinn Fein spokesperson on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Arthur Morgan TD, has castigated the lack of commitment and funding for social housing in the proposed estimates.
``The 48,000 people on housing waiting lists and the 6000 homeless people have nothing to celebrate this evening. Any hope they may have had about securing access to housing will have vanished.
``If this is the attitude of the Government there is very little prospect for any resolution to the housing crisis. The Government's continuing failure to act in the interest of the disadvantaged who are worst hit by the housing crisis was the context in which Sinn Fein attempted to enshrine the right to housing in the 1937 Constitution.''