Speaking after the publication of the Estimates a few weeks ago, Father Peter McVerry said that the poor in society had been shown the two fingers by the Government. Any hope the Government might have had a change of heart between then and now disappeared as Minister McCreevy made his budget statement. The Government has not just given the poor and the disadvantaged the two fingers a second time it is asking it to be grateful for the abuse. The seventh in a seemingly endless sustained and vicious assault on working class people in Ireland.
The most regrettable aspect of it is that the Minister had an alternative. He had many alternatives and they were outlined for him in alternative budgets and pre-Budget submissions made by a range of organisations, including Sinn Féin. He chose not to use them and in doing so I have no doubt his name will become a curse for hundreds of thousands of people across this state.
This is a minimalist budget designed to placate backbenchers in the run-up to elections next year. It has done nothing to address the gross inequality that exists in Irish society.
His miserly increases in social welfare, barely keeping above inflation, have already been wiped out with other cuts in social welfare already announced in the Book of Estimates and through the introduction of numerous stealth taxes during the last year.
Again, on Taxation, Charlie McCreevy has left his big business buddies and high flying executives untouched.
However, unfortunately for those on low incomes, the Minister again failed to take minimum wage earners out of the tax net. He had an opportunity to take everybody on the minimum wage out of the tax net with little extra cost in relative terms yet he flunked it once again.
Sinn Féin in principle welcomes the move towards the decentralisation of Government Departments but wonders about the timing of such an announcement considering that it has been on the cards for over four years. I will reserve judgement until we see the detail because my fear is that this is being done at this time to impact on next year's local elections and to allow Fianna Fail and PD councillors to make grandiose claims about job opportunities in there particularly constituencies.
At the end of the day this is yet again another failed opportunity. Charlie McCreevy had tinkered at the edges of our taxation system when fundamental and real reform was required. He has not done anything to end inequality.
It is the children living in poverty in Ireland who have been most betrayed by this Government. Despite 300,000 children living in poverty in this state Minister McCreevy has shown contempt, where he should have shown compassion. The Government promised the people that Child Benefit would be increased to -149.50 and -185.40 by Budget 2003. They broke that promise. They then renewed it, saying they would achieve those figures in Budgets 2004 and 2005 under Sustaining Progress. The increases announced today fall far short of coming close to those figures; -16 short for the lower rate and -20 short for the higher rate. These are the increases the Government must deliver next year in order to make good their promise a mere two years late, but at the current rate of spending they will fall well short.
While Sinn Féin welcomes the increase in the amount of money provided for school buildings in this Budget, we are aware that it is far below what is needed. The move to multi-annual funding is welcomed but -200 million a year is -100 million less than what INTO and the Department of Education agree is needed over a five year period. That is what is needed to eliminate the school building waiting list. That is what is needed to ensure our children are educated in safe and secure environments.
We also need more support to get children into those schools. The National Education Welfare Board received little joy in the Budget Estimates. It can currently only cater to 26% of schools, despite the recommendation of an independent consultancy that they need a staff of 363 people to fulfil its legal obligations, by the end of this year, the new staff the Government is providing leave it with less than a third of that number. The Minister has failed to provide sufficient funding to meet the needs of the NEWB, to meet the demands of the Education Welfare Act, and the children who fall through the cracks in our schools every year will pay the price. Young people have a tendency to pay the price at the hands of this Government. The urgent need for a mere -5 million for funding for youth work, outlined by the National Youth Council of Ireland, has also been ignored by the Minister.
The Minister has often spoken of how prosperous this State has been over the last five or six years, the success of the Celtic Tiger, and he has not been slow in taking credit for it. Such statements show a basic lack of understanding of economic theory. Almost a hundred years ago James Connolly, (a man I quote often in the hope the Labour party might recognise the name), pointed out that such economic growth ...is purely capitalistic prosperity-that is to say, prosperity gauged merely by the volume of wealth produced, and entirely ignoring the manner in which the wealth is distributed amongst the workers who produce it.
Talking about the wealth produced in society without looking at how it is distributed is the kind of shallow, childish economic thinking that Minister McCreevy is capable of. If the economy is growing but the workers and the poor are not benefiting from it, they might even be worse off and certainly the rapid increases in relative poverty indicate this is so, can the Government truly claim that the growth is benefiting the people?
In conclusion, this Budget, like last year's and the one before it, represents a failure by this Government to tackle inequality in Irish society that will have implications for many years to come. This Government has failed the working class, it has failed the poor, the disadvantaged, the vulnerable and the voiceless. As long as it remains in power, inequality and poverty are inevitable as the Government pursues the interests of the business class.