A budget with no answers

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The following is the full text of the speech delivered by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in response the annual Budget plans for the 26 County state set out by the coalition government in Dublin.

 

The budget comes at a time when people are crying out for change. The past two years have been extremely tough for workers, families and businesses. The pandemic has tested us all to our very limits. It has been a time of heartache and hardship and of lost lives and lost livelihoods. It literally stopped our way of life in its tracks. It created a watershed moment when it became painfully apparent just how broken the system is and how exposed and vulnerable we have been left by decades of bad government priorities, bad government choices and a system created by a century of rule by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in power. The shock of Covid-19 laid bare the dangers and consequences for every one of the frailties in housing, healthcare and our social protection systems. A widespread consensus emerged during the crisis that as a country we needed different priorities and we needed to move heaven and earth to ensure that never again were we left in such a vulnerable position.

Now, it is budget time. The question that needs to be answered is whether the Government has listened and responded to the appetite for real change. Budget 2022 could have and should have been a budget for change. It should have been a budget that put workers and families first. It should have responded to the very real problems they face in their daily lives by targeting resources where they are most needed. Budget 2022 should have been a budget to get the basics right and get a grip on the housing crisis. It should have arrested extortionate rents and given working people chance to buy a home they can afford. It should have taken people off waiting lists and into treatment. It should have started building a health service that works for patients and staff. It should have met the cost of living crisis head-on by tackling the massive hike in energy bills and slashing the cost of childcare for parents who are forking out the equivalent of a second mortgage in fees.

This was an opportunity for the Government to show workers and families that it sees them and hears them and will act on the things that really matter to them. Sadly, what the people got yesterday was a budget with no answers to those big questions in housing, health and the cost of living. Now we know that all three of the emperors have no clothes. This is a do-nothing budget authored by parties that are out of touch and out of ideas. It is authored by a government treading water, and trying to distract people from its failures with the promise of tax cuts. Never has a government spent so much to achieve so very little. It has no answers, it has no urgency and it has no leadership. Energy prices are out of control yet the Government has increased carbon taxes further. Rents are out of control and the Government has done nothing. There are almost 1 million people on hospital waiting lists but there is no real step change. We needed a budget that put workers and families first. We needed a budget to target resources where they are most badly needed. This is what we in Sinn Féin would have done.

This is the sixth budget the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil partnership has introduced and by God does it show. The budget, just like the previous five, will come and go and nothing will really change for ordinary people. This is a budget of big numbers but with very little substance. It is a budget that throws money left, right and centre but does not solve anything. Is é seo an séú cáinaisnéis atá curtha le chéile ag comhpháirtíocht Fhianna Fáil agus Fine Gael agus dar Dia tá sí soiléir. Níor chaith aon rialtas riamh an oiread sin chun a laghad sin a bhaint amach. Cáinaisnéis le líon mór figiúir ach le heaspa substaint atá ann inar caitheadh airgead ar chlé, ar dheis agus ar lár ach ní réitíonn sí rud ar bith do ghnáthdhaoine.

The budget fails to address the big issues that affect people’s lives. The Government is clearly in denial of the scale of the challenges that face us. It looks away from people desperately seeking to put an affordable roof over their heads. It looks away from parents weighed down with massive childcare fees. It refuses to hear the voices of those living in agony trying to access vital hospital treatment. It does not hear the voices of families who count on every euro to make it to the end of the week. If the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, really understood the impact on people’s lives they would have made far better choices in the budget. The budget cements and continues the policies that brought us the crises in housing and healthcare, that have created the sky-high cost of living and childcare costs, and that maintain a social protection system that skirts below the poverty line, keeping people down instead of lifting them up.

After decades of serving the vested interests and golden circles, this was the Government’s chance to finally put workers and families first. Yet again, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have not heard the call of the people and they have missed the moment. After everything our people have been through in the past year and a half, and after all the reflection, the realisations, the claps on the back and the articulations of the bright future we could have, the Government delivered a budget of more of the same. It is a budget drafted by claustrophobic thinking and jaded policies, destined to take us no further than the shore we have crashed against time and again on their watch. It is a budget that perpetuates the lie that it is impossible to fix what is broken, that tells people a housing crisis, crumbling hospitals and a crushing cost of living are just how it is and how it will always be, and that says that children with scoliosis or MS crying themselves to sleep in pain are just how it is. I reject their cynical stifling politics. I do not accept that things cannot be fixed and made better. I do not believe the people accept this either.

Sinn Féin’s budget proposals showed what should be done, what could be done and what would be done if we had a government for change. The problem is the Government makes bad choices because it has the wrong priorities. It governs on behalf of those at the top. It really cannot see beyond developers, wealthy investors and big landlords. With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, workers and families are always pushed to the back of the queue. It is as simple as that.

The crisis in housing has defined life in Ireland for more than a decade. Rents are sky-high and the average rent in this city is €1,800 per month. People hand over a huge chunk of their wages to landlords and really have no chance of getting a deposit together. Yet the Government included absolutely nothing in the budget to relieve this pressure on renters. There is nothing to cut rents or bring them under control. The Government has, however, managed to extend tax breaks for landlords and institutional investors, the very people who are charging these extortionate rents. What a surprise. So out of touch and blinkered is the Government to the damage it is doing that even members of the billionaire class are calling it out.

I never thought I would find myself quoting Dermot Desmond on the floor of the Dáil, but I can assure the House that I never thought I would be quoting him and agreeing with him. He is completely correct when he says that international investment funds are having a laugh at Ireland’s housing policy, that it is utterly insane in terms of the economy and that it “is a shocking mismanagement of public funds”. It is, of course, no laughing matter. It should not take a billionaire to break this news to the Government because the ordinary people of Ireland have been screaming this at it for more than ten years.

Sinn Féin will always show up for renters. We would have cut rents and banned rent increases for three years. To be very clear, we would have shut down these tax breaks and sweetheart arrangements for vulture funds, cuckoo funds and institutional investors. That is what a government worthy of the name in these times would have done but the Government turned a blind eye and took no action. It has left renters to fend for themselves.

This budget reiterates the failures of the plan set out by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and does nothing to make homes more affordable, nothing to get families off council waiting lists and nothing to make things better for the locked-out generation. It is a rehash of the policy which will see this Government deliver only eight affordable homes this year. It is the same recipe that will ensure the housing crisis will continue and worsen. To hear the Minister laud a zoned-land tax at 3% with a two-year lead-in demonstrates how bereft of ideas and constructive thinking he is.

It does not have to be this way because we can fix housing and we can deliver homes that people can afford to buy and rent, but it will require a fundamental change from the policies dictated by developers and landlords. Sinn Féin would have doubled State investment to deliver 12,000 social homes and 8,000 genuinely affordable homes. This is the kind of action and urgency that is needed to deal with this crisis and to give people hope for the future.

Sinn Féin also made a substantial first allocation to ensure that those whose homes have been affected and devastated by mica and pyrite, who are victims of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael light regulation, get full 100% redress and nothing less than that will do.

Workers and families are being hammered. The cost of living is now at crisis levels. Families pay very significant fees for childcare. Yet all the Government has done is to freeze those fees, if it has even managed that. Sinn Féin would have slashed those fees by two thirds over two budgets. The Government, incidentally, could have done that too but it has chosen not to. Instead, it has unveiled a plan that will have very little impact and mean nothing for parents with children under the age of three. Families will continue to pay the most expensive childcare costs in Europe with no additional help or support and no change. Another real opportunity to make a big difference has been squandered.

We would provide affordable childcare for parents and deliver decent pay and secure employment for childcare workers who for too long have been left behind by successive administrations composed of the parties currently on the Government benches.

Households have endured a litany of hikes in energy bills in the last year alone. Many of them will now see their bills shoot up by between €400 and €500 in the coming months. I know that people now absolutely dread their winter energy bills coming through the letter box in December and January.

What was the Government’s response to this pressure that people are under? It was another hike in carbon tax. This is a move that will pull push up energy and fuel costs even further. This was a perverse reaction to this crisis. Carbon tax increases over the past 12 months mean a €40 increase for a fill of oil and a €3 increase for a tank of petrol. The Government proceeds with this hike without putting alternatives in place that allow people to transition to a low-carbon lifestyle. That is the nub of it. The truth is that under this Government vulnerable people and low-wage workers will foot the bill for this hike. This is not a climate measure - get off the stage - because it will not change people’s behaviour. It is a con job. This carbon tax hike will make poor people poorer and will mean particular hardship for older people and for the people of rural Ireland. That is the truth.

The Government has made a big play on the increase in fuel allowance as a means of tackling sky-high energy bills but the reality is that many of those hit with these massive bills will not even qualify for this payment, even with the expanded eligibility criteria. The biggest kick in the teeth is that any benefit from the fuel allowance increase will be all but cancelled out by the Government’s punitive carbon tax hike. What it is giving with one hand it is taking back with the other. This is another ruse pulled from the Paschal and Michael little box of budget tricks designed to con people. It will not work because people are now very wise to the hoodwink way that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do business.

The Government has also peddled its tax cuts as a boost for working people. Again, the truth is that this cut will disproportionately benefit higher earners. For example, someone earning €30,000 can look forward to an additional €2 a week, which might be the price of a cup of coffee and, as they say, it is better in your pocket than in someone else’s pocket. This will not make a dent in the cost of living, however. It is the very worst and cheapest form of gesture politics. People know that public money is better spent on fixing housing, tackling the crisis in healthcare, improving our schools and strengthening the public services because what good is a tax cut if a child cannot get the operation he or she so badly needs, when people are paying the equivalent of a second mortgage for childcare, when classrooms are overcrowded and when people are being fleeced for rent and energy bills?

This is the wrong approach, especially at a time when strengthening our public infrastructure has never been more important. We cannot remain wedded to the old ways of doing things in terms of economic and industrial development. The change in our rate of corporation tax confirms this reality. While it is essential that the 12.5% rate is kept for SMEs, when it comes to attracting inward investment we can no longer be a one-trick pony. There will have to be a big change in how we strengthen Ireland’s competitiveness, resilience and sustainability. We have to invest in the right areas to ensure growth into the future. This means getting housing right. It means building a world-class health service. It means sorting childcare and getting the cost of living under control. These are the areas neglected for far too long by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil governments.

If we are to progress, we have to undo the legacy of these bad decisions. Anybody who thinks we stand a chance of progressing economically in this new landscape while allowing these crises to continue is deluded. The requirements of economic prosperity and advancement and the imperative of the happiness of our people align now on these matters.

Brexit also compels us to look forward to the possibilities of new approaches. Capitalising on the increase in North-South trade and building the all-island economy is the very best response to the sabre-rattling from Tory Brexiteers. We will progress, succeed and overcome the challenge of Brexit by unleashing the economic potential of our entire island.

Agriculture is very important to this goal. This budget shows again that the Government has no plan, no ambition and no vision for family farms. All they got was a simple rollover of existing schemes, with minimalistic measures that will not come close to meeting the needs of farmers. Budget 2022 will mark the moment when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael gave up any pretence they were on the side of Ireland’s family farmers.

The all-Ireland dynamic is moving towards unification. We now have to prepare for constitutional change and a referendum and the Government must lead that national conversation. That is why Sinn Féin made provision for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly on Irish unity in our budgetary arithmetic. Change is in the air, and everyone who has a stake in this transformation, from throughout our island, must be involved in designing what shape that takes, yet the budget of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Ministers provides nothing to prepare for this future. That is short-sighted and irresponsible and it is a dereliction of their duty as the Government.

The dangerous frailties in our health service were exposed during the height of the pandemic. The heroics of our front-line workers protected our people and we will never forget that fact. Our health system was broken long before we had ever heard of Covid-19. This was the result of decades of bad Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policy pushing privatisation over the public interest. The consequence is that almost 1 million people are now on waiting lists, locked out of vital treatment. This is the most immediate challenge in health today, namely, sorting out these waiting lists, yet nothing of substance in the budget will really deal with it. A total of 450 people were on trolleys yesterday. In the middle of a health emergency, the Government will not deliver one additional acute bed next year. In many cases, the waits we talk about relate to children living in agony with scoliosis and other conditions. It is absolutely scandalous that the Government has not prioritised tackling waiting lists. The message now to those waiting is that their wait will go on.

The Government also asked people to celebrate what is in fact a complete failure. In 2016, free GP care was to be extended to children under the age of 12. Does the Taoiseach recall that? Yesterday, six years on, the Government announced it will be extended to under-eights. At the rate the Government is going, the children who are supposed to be covered under this plan will have children of their own before any of this materialises.

There is also nothing for student nurses and midwives. These are some of the very people who risked their lives to keep our health service going through Covid but they were not recognised or valued, and well the Taoiseach knows it. The Government has, however, managed to maintain a tax break for millionaire executives to the tune of double what it would take to provide for student nurses and midwives. I do not know how anyone in government stands over this. Is it any wonder our young medical professionals feel so undervalued and do not see a future here at home? We need a health service that works for everyone. That is why Sinn Féin provided the finance for an additional 600 beds and a plan and the resources to tackle waiting lists. This level of ambition is needed to deliver the single-tier public health system our people and our health workers deserve. It is clear from the Government’s budget that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not up to this challenge and that it will be up to a Sinn Féin government to get this job done.

The core purpose of social protection is to prevent poverty. However, the €5 increase does not go far enough, especially when we consider the rate at which the cost of living is increasing. Social welfare payments in this State fall below the poverty line and the meagre increases the Government announced yesterday do little to change that reality. We would have taken a different approach. We provided for an increase of €10 for all working-age payments and provided a real safety net for people who need additional support. While the increase in the State pension is, of course, welcome, the bigger issue is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael remain wedded to increasing the pension age. Sinn Féin has opposed this and will continue to do so. We believe that when people have reached the age of 65, they have done their shift, worked hard, paid their dues - some for more than four decades - and they must have a right to retire on a State pension at that age of 65 if that is their wish. A Sinn Féin government will guarantee the right of workers to retire on a pension at 65 years of age because it is the right, correct and decent thing to do.

I want to make special mention of those who are often marginalised in society and forgotten by the Government, namely, communities crying out for mental health supports, citizens with disabilities and our heroic carers. Even before the pandemic, there was a mental health crisis. That is why in this budget, Sinn Féin committed to the largest investment in mental health services in the history of the State. The Government’s commitment, by contrast, to €24 million for new measures is not enough. Even with this increase, mental health will remain chronically underfunded and will fail to meet the tsunami of mental health needs we undoubtedly face.

Sinn Féin also provided for significant investment to support our citizens with disabilities to live a fully inclusive life as equal citizens. This included additional personal assistance hours and support packages, a €10 increase in the disability allowance and the recruitment of 1,900 specialist staff to improve services, including early intervention for children with disabilities. Sadly, the Government’s budget is a continuation of the long failure of citizens with disabilities by the State. It could have done better, but another lesson of the pandemic, it seems, has gone unlearned by the Government.

Our family carers are heroes. They do incredible work to fill the gaps left by successive governments in caring for vulnerable people, and they do this work with great love, compassion and selflessness. We welcome the decision to relax the means test for the carer’s allowance, something we have campaigned for, but the Government again falls short. It has postponed the move until June and allocated just €10 million for the purpose. A Sinn Féin budget would have opened the payment to many more carers by allocating €50 million to relax the means test, further addressed inheritance issues and introduced a pension for long-term carers. We would also have increased the annual carer’s support grant to €2,000; the Government did not make provision for that. Much more needs to be done to change the status of carers as Ireland’s forgotten front-line workers and to prevent their burnout.

In this budget, people were looking for leadership. They were looking for ambition and urgency to implement solutions to the problems they face every day. They were looking for a Government that has all too often been chaotic to step up to the mark and deliver, just for once. Instead, they got a budget with no direction from a Government with no vision. People were looking for hope, for a plan that would help them to believe that things will get better and that the Government gets what is happening in their lives, even just a little, but they have been left badly disappointed again because it turns out the Government does not get it at all. Instead of leadership and ambition, we get another stale budget from Ministers who seem to think the crises our people face are a figment of their imagination, and one presided over by a Taoiseach who is content to stand idly by while a generation see their aspirations wasted. People are not fooled by the Government’s budget. It is just the latest chapter in Fianna Fail’s and Fine Gael’s effort to delay change.

They may delay it, but they cannot stop it. I am not giving up. Many of us are united by the desire for change expressed during the election and by the togetherness that has sustained our people during the Covid-19 crisis. D’fhéadfadh athrú agus Éire níos fearr a bheith i bhfad ó Fhianna Fáil agus ó Fhine Gael, ach níl na daoine i bhfad uaithi.

We can have a better, fairer, united Ireland and a Government that will truly pursue those goals. Change and a better Ireland might be beyond Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but they are not beyond the people. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael want to hold us back. They want people to believe that change is not possible, but it is possible. Change is coming because that is what we want and need and what the people demand.

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