Beyond the headlines we have gone through and analysed Budget 2016 to give you the Good, the Bad and the Ugly details contained and what this means to you and what you care about. If you are undecided about the current Government please give this a read first and then make your own decision.
Inequality effects all of society not just the poor. Inequality has detrimental effects on many aspects of society ranging from crime, housing, education, health and our mental health, from economic growth to general well-being. It is a fact that deprivation has doubled since 2008 and at the same time the top 1% has gotten richer. Previously, in a Leaders’ Question, I put it to the Taoiseach that ‘some members of society would not have known we had a recession’ and now it’s clear that those same people are riding high in the ‘recovery’ while the people who have been crippled by water charges, property tax, USC and hidden taxes & charges left, right and center are the people who are being left behind in the so called ‘recovery’… That is down to the Government policy and budgetary decisions, they chose to maintain the system of corporate tax avoidance, give tax breaks to the middle income (describing 70k a year as middle income when it is far from) and a few crumbs for unemployed, low income families and people with disabilities. It is shameful.
There are many disconnects like the one between Leinster house and the real world. There is a massive disconnect between the contribution from multinational corporations and society. Another disconnect arising from the budget is that single unemployed people will gain €95 a year. Single people earning €75,000 a year will gain almost ten times that, approximately €900. An unemployed couple gain €157 a year, whereas a couple with two earners on €125,000 a year get almost €1,500. I am in favour of everybody getting an increase but it must be proportionate. The increase to the minimum wage is welcome but is still 25% below the living wage, which means that is another big disconnect.
The Government say they have made good progress. The reality is that right now there are many people in Ireland who are very badly off. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity and income inequality undermines the fairness of the economic system itself, meaning that some children will enter the workforce much less prepared than others making it difficult, if not impossible, to give everyone a level playing field from the beginning. So the cycle continues. The bottom line is if wealth is very unevenly distributed in a society, wealthy people often end up in control of many aspects of the lives of poorer citizens which breeds more inequality. For me good progress will be when the inequality gap narrows and when those with low incomes and those with disabilities do better. The Government will say they have brought the country back from the brink but many people are still on the brink. One is told the Government will keep the recovery going but to me, it is not a recovery unless it is a recovery for all and the reality is that 376,000 people live in consistent poverty, which is double the number in 2008.. Moreover, there has been an increase in the number of those experiencing deprivation and being at risk of poverty. When these issues are addressed through equality-proofing of budgets (which is a motion I brought to the house only to be voted down by Government) then I believe we will see a good budget. If this Government are allowed to continue their policy of keeping the elevated elevated and those at the bottom at the bottom then inequality and the severe social consequences will continue to have a huge effect on society.
I found it incredulous to hear the Minister flat out deny the fact that inequality had risen especially when the people who have been suffering the most because of recent budgets are children and vulnerable people. We have the facts to show that inequality has increased.
Those with the most have not given the most. All the NGOs working with those in vulnerable situations are aware of that and tell us so. It would have been more admirable if the Government had acknowledged that and to have said that the driving force behind the budget was to address those inequalities. The overall feeling by the experts we’ve talked to about the budget is that the tax cuts still benefit the top one third of income earners more than those on lower wages in cash terms.
There is a diversity in reactions from organisations. The restoration of 75% of the Christmas bonus of course is welcome because we know the impact of its abolition, in particular on elderly people on the State pension, especially grandparents. It is obvious that resources have not been targeted at the poorest. The European Anti Poverty Network Ireland put it succinctly in saying that the resource measures are welcome but they are not nearly enough to undo the damage of eight years of policies. The ESRI has shown that the poorest 10% have paid more than any other group.
Recently some Independent TDs including myself tabled a Private Members’ motion on tax justice. It was not a very radical approach. All it sought was full financial transparency from multinational companies in terms of making annual country-by-country reporting public and closing the tax loopholes. Work has been done on the double Irish but can the Government guarantee that the knowledge box will not become another mechanism for large-scale tax avoidance and tax evasion by multinationals? We know the increase in the tax take from such companies recently, so let us imagine if they all paid the full 12.5% tax and if there was even a 1% increase. I attended a Social Justice Ireland briefing last week. It produced the figure that a minimum effective tax rate of 6% for corporations would bring in an additional €1 billion in tax revenue annually.
Disability & Mental Health Funding
One group of which we are particularly mindful when it comes to the budget is those with a disability. Apart from housing, this is an area of great disappointment. Their reaction is one of bitter disappointment and deep concern. The Disability Federation of Ireland reminds us that when the Government came to power, its commitment to disability was its first social justice priority. There are some long-awaited reliefs for people with disabilities and their families but the budget does not go sufficiently far to show a real commitment to people with a disability.
An employment strategy was launched for people with disabilities but one could ask whether it is just words. The feeling among people with disability is that inequality will rise for them. Poverty and exclusion are part of their daily lives. At meetings we have attended, it has been heartbreaking to listen to their stories of how difficult it is for them and the additional stress coming up to budgets because they feel they will be again targeted. I am a member of the Oireachtas group on mental health which agreed to a pre-budget submission. We sought additional funding for suicide prevention, at this time it is still unclear whether is was granted. We hear about the magic sum of €35 million each year but there is no monitoring system to see what is being done with that money. My personal focus is on the area of intellectual disability nursing. The Government hasn’t guaranteed that the course will continue. There is a need for such nurses in accident and emergency departments.
We visited a project in the north inner city recently which works with women in treatment for addiction and their children. While it appears that the budget for this type of work has stayed the same, it does not take into account the growing needs. For example, those responsible for the project and community employment scheme tell me that younger women are presenting with more complex issues such as poly-drug use and with children in need of child care. However, they need special child care that can be provided by those who understand addiction. I also am aware that community employment schemes are not getting other people into them, namely, those for whom CE initially was set up. The staff of projects are assisting those women in addiction to get the children into school and the pattern is being set for children to continue into school. Even if the addiction continues, the children have the pattern and the habit of going to school and they will bring along younger brothers and sisters. As for the child care aspect, it is vital to get this right and to have quality child care right from the outset.
Free GP Care
While I am all for a functioning, professional free health care scheme for everyone, in its absence I do not see the rationale for providing free health care to healthy people when others in ill-health are waiting for medical treatment and it appears as though the lists for hip and knee replacements are getting longer.
A topic in which I take a personal interest is animal welfare; there is another disconnect here in that although the Minister funds animal welfare organisations that work with animals, which is great, we continue to allow cases and so-called pastimes in which cruelty to animals is involved and I am referring to coursing, the badger cull, the fur farms and the digging out of foxes.
The 50 cent increase in the price of a packet of cigarettes will not stop those who are addicted but what it will affect is the local retailer because smokers will again turn to illegal traders and pay between €3.50 and €5 for a packet. The sale of illegal cigarettes is rampant in the inner city. I acknowledge the work of Customs and Excise, Revenue and the Garda have done to intercept illicit tobacco products but there is a loss to the Exchequer. A recent reply to a parliamentary question indicated that in 2014, the loss was €210 million. It is a dilemma that we are making money out of something that is harmful to people’s health. That begs the question of the lack of a tax on other unhealthy products such as fast food and drinks that are high in sugar. Small local retailers have no difficulty with a complete ban on cigarettes and they are supportive of any initiative to promote further healthy options. As I indicated, the 50 cent increase in the price of cigarettes is adding to the black market trade. We have enough young people who turn to the black market to make money. I would like to think the extra 50 cent would stop people from smoking, but all it will do is encourage more people into the illegal trade where they will not know the tar content of the cigarettes they smoke.
The most pressing and urgent issue for this country is housing and homelessness. It is almost a year since the death of Jonathan Corrie across the road from the Dáil and there have been two other deaths since then. For many, living on the streets, in emergency accommodation in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation or staying on couches in the houses of relatives and friends, it is almost like a slow death for them. It completely and utterly takes their dignity away.
We have examples of people with a disability who have waited two to three years in order to get the grant for an extension which will make a difference to them. One such case is currently on my desk. I thought the situation was improving. I was waiting to see what the budget would do about the housing situation. Unfortunately, it was the same rhetoric. The Minister said last year the Government announced a €2.2 billion package to begin to deal with legacy, but one could ask where is the action following those words. I was told local authorities have the funding to clear the voids but still it’s not happening.
In 2008 the Peter McVerry Trust worked with 383 participants but by 2014 the number had risen to 4,460 and that is just one organisation. We are told that 20,000 units are guaranteed by 2020 but that is not a comfort to children staying in emergency accommodation which is not suitable for them to do their homework and does not provide facilities for families to cook and do their laundry, not to mention the mental strain on parents who have to live with the possibility of having to move.
The housing lists are increasing all the time. One of the contributing factors is the private rented sector. Rent is being sought in this landlord’s market that cannot be matched or reached by those renting, whether they are on rent allowance or paying the rent from their income. When rent is increased for those on rent allowance and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, they have the option of seeking assistance from the community welfare system. The Minister keeps telling me that and I know good work is going on to increase the allowance. I am not into lining the pockets of landlords who can increase rent at will, with no additional improvements or additions, by between €100 and €400 a month. Therefore, it is vital that there is rent certainty. Nobody wants to use the term “rent control”, but many cities in Europe have many people living in rented accommodation and they do not have the crisis we have. Those who rent privately who are not on an allowance have nowhere to turn when faced with a rent increase. We all want to see people in employment but if those who are employed cannot afford the increase in rent that adds to the numbers on the homeless list, which will interfere with their ability to work and result in them needing emergency accommodation. I get such calls every day from lone parents who work and who pay their rent but when it is increased, which can happen at any time, it jeopardises their employment and the contribution they make to society.
Concerning people who are living in overcrowded accommodation; the situation could be alleviated if the Government introduced grants for extensions and that could reduce the number of people on the housing lists. People could be taken off the list who previously had no room to stay in their accommodation. The Government say NAMA could provide the answer but we all know very serious issues arise in that regard.