`Smoke and mirrors' budget criticised

The Dublin Finance Minister's budget for the 26-County economy in 2004 has received a broadly hostile response.

Charlie McCreevy's budget speech on Wednesday was dominated by an announcement of the decentralization of several government departments and agencies out of Dublin.

Clearly intended to hog the headlines, the announcement masked the unpopular aspects of an unambitious budget ahead and appealed to narrow regional interests ahead of local and European elections next year.

It was announced that eight government departments will leave Dublin. They are those of Agriculture & Food; Arts, Sport and Tourism; Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Community, Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs; Defence; Education and Science; Environment, Heritage and Local Government; and Social and Family Affairs.

Two more, Foreign Affairs and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, will move hundreds of support staff, as will semi-State companies reporting to transport, such as Bus Eireann and the National Roads Authority.

But the plan to move over 10,000 civil and public servants out of Dublin will be hindered by the opposition of both unions and top civil servants and is expected to be scaled back significantly in the months and years ahead.

Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Social and Community Affairs Sean Crowe TD, speaking during the Budget debate in the Dail, said: ``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.''

Sinn Féin Dail leader and Finance spokesperson Caoimhghin O Caolain TD has described the overall Budget 2004 as a ``Budget of Inequality'' and an ``empty package wrapped in tinsel paper marked `decentralisation'``.

He said the government had broken its promises to deliver substantive increases in Child Benefit and old age pensions to levels that will meet the National Anti-Poverty Strategy targets.

``The social welfare increases in this Budget are inadequate and are already undermined by stealth taxes such as local authority charges, the savage 16 cuts to welfare entitlements and the cuts in CE schemes.

``It is disgraceful that the government did not use its increased revenue to reverse these cuts, especially the miserly and dangerous Rent Allowance cut.''

Mr O Caolain added that the budget had failed to address ``the gross inequality of our taxation system. Last year top Irish executives awarded themselves 50% pay increases yet the highest earners still pay tax at the same rates as ordinary PAYE workers.''

The Labour Party Finance spokeswoman, Ms Joan Burton, told the Dail Budget debate on the speech that ministers were ``getting bright new Mercedes'' but it was a ``pity that the policies are driven by the same old clapped-out PD banger that seems to be driving this Government''.

The Government had squandered the boom and now looked set to ``fritter away the chances offered by an international recovery''.

Ms Burton said the Minister never mentioned ``one big item of news''. By freezing the standard rate tax band, ``he has ensured that tens of thousands of workers will be moved back to the higher tax rate, a third of all taxpayers next year''.

The Fine Gael spokesman on finance, Mr Richard Bruton, said that nobody would benefit from the Budget.

``The issue is: who benefits from this Budget? Who gains? Whose quality of life is going to be markedly improved by this Budget? The answer is nobody's,'' he said.

``This Budget is not about people. It is just about keeping the system going, farming it along and feeding it just to mark time.''

The Budget had done nothing for the people who were most in need, the Green Party spokesman on finance, Mr Dan Boyle, said.

The decentralisation programme showed that ministers had carved out between them who would benefit from it. The proposal, he said, was a scam, adding that it amounted to no more than office relocation.

Father Sean Healy, Cori's Justice Commission spokesman, said the approach of the Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, to the poor was ``unjust, unfair, unacceptable and unsustainable''.

``Since coming to power, this Government has widened the rich-poor gap by O294 per week (O15,341 a year).''

Meanwhile, the Carers Association said that it was very disappointed that the means test for the Carers Allowance remained in place, despite promises to abolish it.

The Simon Communities said it was ``extremely disappointing that Minister McCreevy delivered an entire Budget speech without once mentioning the housing and homelessness crisis''.

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