The Finance Bill, the Social Welfare Bill and the budgets should be part of a bigger philosophical debate around what kind of a society we want to live in, now and in the future and about the values and the principles that we need. I believe the principles and values are dignity, equality, inclusiveness and a sufficient income so that everybody can live in dignity. If that is the vision then budgets have to be measured in how they contribute to that vision. The economic, fiscal and tax policies determine the kind of society that we live in. Where do this budget and its measures fit into that vision? The figures for the social welfare allowance payments are going in the right direction, which is upwards, and that makes a really big difference from the downwards direction during the budgets of recent years.
There are aspects of the Bill to be welcomed such as the Christmas bonus which is up to 85% this year, and hopefully it will be 100% next year. That particular cut caused an awful lot of difficulty in the communities I represent especially when people’s only payment is a social welfare payment and they have the additional cost and expense of Christmas to deal with. The €5 increase across the board is better than a €5 decrease. Unfortunately it is not coming until March. Other aspects to be welcomed include extending eligibility for the invalidity pension to the self-employed. I believe that the school meals funding increase is also very valuable. It is vital particularly for those additional numbers of children who are coming from hostels, bed and breakfast accommodation and hotel accommodation. It is good that the measure is also extended to non-DEIS schools because there are children who are disadvantaged but are not exclusively to confined to DEIS schools.
I welcome also the education allowance and the proportionate increase for qualified adult dependants for the self-employed, the benefits for rural Ireland and the protection of the fuel allowance and the free travel for older people. I see the investment in child care such as the early years funding and the affordable child care. I know there are criticisms from the stay-at-home parents and I am sure that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone will take those comments on board, but it should be noted that the Children’s Rights Alliance has said that this measure was a fair attempt to address the needs of children living in poverty. There are also increases in the employment programmes, and I want to mention community employment because it has been so beneficial in communities in Dublin Central, but it has been a struggle in recent years to get people to go on it because of the drastic cut to the financial incentive. For some people, availing of community employment costs more than they received and there is an additional cost for them. It is vital for participants in second chance education, further education, child care and personal development, not to mention the essential services they provide in the communities where they live. Sometimes people and their needs get lost in the statistics on gross national income and GDP.
When speaking on budgets, we constantly make the point there is a need for equality proofing and a need to measure quality of life. The question is whether these budgets will contribute to or take from the quality of life. While all the increases are welcome, particularly after the horrendous budgets of recent years, it will take quite a long time to redress these cuts.
There is a roadmap to 2030, and it is a roadmap to ending poverty, but is also about dignity for adults living in poverty, those living with a disability, mental or physical, those who are homeless, Travellers, the new communities, prisoners, those in addiction and those in recovery from addiction. The measures have been introduced, but there is a need to evaluate and monitor them constantly.
My main criticism is on spreading the net so widely that it will be of minimal impact generally. It is a case of a little for everyone versus a lot for one particular sector. For me, this one sector is those with a mental or physical disability. People tell me the USC cut means they will receive 90 cent extra a week. This will not make any difference and there are similar examples to this.
Before the budget, disability groups told us that more than 70% of people using disability services state it is difficult or very difficult to live on their income. We know people with a disability find it difficult, if not next to impossible, to get employment. They are half as likely to be employed as others. Therefore, they are dependent on social welfare. Many tell us the disability allowance is barely enough to live on. People with disabilities have additional costs because of the disability. We need to look at the fuel allowance, because someone with a physical disability is not be able to move around and spends longer at home in one particular place. The fuel allowance does not take this into account.
The Disability Federation Of Ireland felt there was a real opportunity for a focused impact in the budget on funding for people with disabilities, but this was not taken. Senator John Dolan expressed his criticisms, making the point that 600,000 people and their families are being denied access to basic services and supports or having such access rationed. They called for a €20 increase weekly to meet the extra daily cost, but they did not get it or anything near it. They acknowledged the positives, but the disappointment is with not taking the chance to make a real difference to this group and the chance to kick-start the recovery of those with a disability. I also want to discuss a payment which is not social welfare but is related. This is the grant for housing adaptations, especially for people with a disability. A total of €30 million had been sought. There is a need for more cross-departmental communication and co-operation.
In his speech on 1 November, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, stated that budget and social welfare measures aim to ensure everyone benefits from the recovery and that the ESRI had already shown that budget 2017 contains the greatest benefits for the least well-off, but the ESRI has shown it is the poorest 10% who have paid more than any age group. I do not think this has been addressed in the budget.
Social Justice Ireland indicated a €6.50 increase to all social welfare payments was needed to combat inflation. It also stated there was need to look at the basic payment, vis-à-vis the increases in inflation. I often think with payments, and with requests for pay increases which we see so much of at present, the debate should also be about the cost of living because so many times a pay increase can be given with one hand but the cost of living increases and the pay increase is completely negated. We do not have enough debate on how we can contain our cost of living. Perhaps this is something for the new budget committee.
There have been larger gains for those on the higher incomes compared with those on lower incomes. For example, a single unemployed person will gain approximately €95 yearly while a single employed person gains approximately €1,000. The unemployed couple will gain €157 and the employed couple will gain €1,500. All gains are very welcome, but they must be proportionate to need. To go back to Social Justice Ireland, its figures show a single person earning €25,000 will gain €127 but a single person on €75,000 will gain €352. It suggested that for the same amount of money a tax credit could have been refundable.
The minimum wage increase amounts to 10 cent per hour. We know thousands of people live in poverty. The new hourly minimum wage of €9.25 is almost 25% below the living wage of €11.50. It is very alarming that one in every six people in Ireland, which is 750,000 people, live on an income below the poverty line, and I go back to the point on the cost of living. Of these, 250,000 are children who are either in low-income households or are homeless. The test is whether the budget will see a decrease in these numbers, and perhaps this time next year, if we are all still here, we will be applauding the fact we are seeing these decreases.
I welcome the initiatives, which are going in the right direction. Most people will benefit to some degree, but I must question where the benefit would have made a difference, which is why our budgets must be rooted in human rights.
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