I will not be hypocritical. The budget introduced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, some weeks ago has been roundly and justifiably condemned by many people and organisations for its inequitable and unjust provisions, especially in so far as they affect the poorest people, namely, the unemployed, the underprivileged and the socially excluded. These are fellow citizens who are the most in need and deserving of social support.
The Minister, when in opposition in 1997, criticised the rainbow coalition Government budget strategy and said that when cutbacks in Government spending are necessary, it is always the poorest who suffer most. He has amply demonstrated his belief and perhaps even his commitment to that principle. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, has the job of introducing the social welfare provisions of the budget. These will spell out in detail the extent of the injustice being inflicted by the Government on the weaker and disadvantaged sections of society.
It was interesting to note the paper presented to the tax strategy group which effectively highlighted the extent of the Government's broken promises. It vindicated some of the points we have made, which have been contradicted. It is a pity some of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers are not present to hear the facts. The paper, presented to the tax strategy group by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, detailed the increases in social welfare required to meet the Government's many commitments under the programme for Government, the revised national antipoverty strategy and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
Comparisons of these figures with the increases announced in the budget show the full extent of the Government's breach of faith. The Department of Social and Family Affairs calculated that the weekly increase for old age pensioners that would have been necessary to have met the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats promise was €13.20. The weekly increase granted was €10, which was the smallest breach in that the extent of the broken promise was about 24%. The increases in the lowest rate of supplementary welfare payment would have to have been between €10.10 and €15.40. The weekly rise granted was €6, which meant the extent of the broken promise was 41% to 61%. The increase in child benefit that would have been necessary to fulfil the commitment and promises given by the Government was €31.59. A weekly increase of €8 was given, which is a breach of promise to the extent of 75%.
These are the facts, the Government's figures, and I do not make them up. The contrast is stark and proves what we have said since budget day and what I said during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill on 10 December 2002, that the Government was making the poor pay for its economic mismanagement, and shows that the revised NAPS, like all the Government's promises, is a dead duck. This is the Government's internal position.
A EUROSTAT document published last week shows Ireland at the bottom of the European Union league in terms of social protection. It states that Ireland's spending on social protection as a share of national income, at 60% of the EU average, is one of the lowest in the EU. If we are at the bottom of the league for caring, we must be at to top of the league for meanness. We live in what is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world, but I am afraid the old Celtic tiger, in which I never had much faith, was battered to death by the Minister, Deputy McCreevy. Our Government spent the least in Europe on social protection even at the height of the boom. The Government will probably now put a tighter squeeze on social spending. It blends in with the view of the Minister, Deputy McCreevy and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, that centre right axis of the Government.
I see the results of the Government's actions every week at my clinic. A widow, who has been caring for her handicapped son for 30 years, rang me today. Her husband died a few years ago and she is getting a pension. As she is in receipt of a widow's pension she cannot get the respite care grant. We have to change the bureaucratic thinking. She should be able to get the respite care grant. Neither can she get the carer's allowance. I heard the Taoiseach this morning spouting on about the carer's allowance. Does he know what it is? Does he know the eligibility criteria to qualify? It would be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than get carer's allowance of €129. It is an absolute scandal and is a great indictment of us all in this House.
Those people are saving millions for this country and we do not recognise it. Many carers are providing 24-hour care for loved ones in the home where they want to be cared for and eventually die. Many people give up work to look after an elderly uncle, aunt or parent. However we want to means test them. We do not provide the necessary homes. The nursing home subvention is in absolute chaos. We will not give them the €129 that would at least give recognition to the carers. We do not even know how many of them are in the country because we do not want to know. The way we have treated them for the past two decades is a shame on us all over and it annoys me. Prosperous country be damned.
If Labour was in Government and did not do something for the carers, I would vote against it and people in the party know that. Maybe that is why they are a bit worried about me. Every day I see the work those people do and yet only 20,000 of them qualify out of about 120,000 and there could be 150,000; we do not know. Figures were gathered at the last census and I hope the Government will act on them. I do not make this as a political point but as one for us all to deliver on. Let us pull together to cut out the bureaucracy that states it is not possible to get two payments. Let us reduce the payments and give some recognition to the carers. There is no use talking about things like income disregards as a way of dealing with it.
When we listen to the carers' association and CORI's report yesterday, it is clear we have not done a good job. The way we make social welfare decisions affecting families, children and older people is not just an abstract matter to be discussed in the sheltered environment of Leinster House. It bears on the lives of ordinary people and particularly the poor and disadvantaged. When we hear of cases such as the one I just mentioned, we realise the importance of ensuring they are protected and recognised for the excellent work they do. They need respite grants, which are very important. A widow who looks after somebody all day, should not be refused the respite grant because of some technical regulation. The attitude should be how can we help, not how can we stop or inhibit the person from getting help. If somebody is looking for something, the first thing we do is to raise the bar instead of lowering it to see if they can be included. This is bureaucratic thinking that should be shaken out for once and for all.
I had to suffer a wry smile when I heard Deputy Andrews because he is right in saying the Minister should do something to help people get houses. I was spokesperson on the environment for a couple of months. There are 50,000 families who will never get a house. That represents about 300,000 people. The Deputy spoke about stamp duties etc., which is all very well, but where was he when the Minister scrapped the first-time house buyer's grant? Taxation relief of €350 given in the budget is not the same as the £3,500 which is about €4,700. Considering the 1% VAT increase, the average house price has increased by €6,000 or €7,000.
Deputy Andrews quite fairly and correctly said that people in his constituency in Dún Laoghaire, particularly young people, some with dual incomes, are not able to buy a house. Deputy Cassidy can confirm it is the same in Westmeath and throughout the country. If we want to help those people the Minister will need to put the money where his mouth is. It was a retrograde step to abolish the first-time house buyer's grant. I know the Government argued that the builders were able to subsume it and it was not as high a percentage of the purchase price as when it was introduced some years ago. It is difficult to tell that to young people, who are trying to buy houses in affordable housing schemes involving local authorities.
The grant often represented a critical deposit to participate in a scheme. I know of people in my county whose names went off that list as soon as that grant was abolished. Those people now go on to the local authority housing list directly and increase the number thereon, reducing the chances of getting a house for everybody. The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, should reconsider that. I applaud the Minister for having his own mind, but he saved peanuts by abolishing that grant.
Deputy Cassidy is a businessman involved in the tourism sector, who knows much more about the area than I do. The 1% increase in VAT seems to have an impact on tourism, hotels and food. It also feeds into inflation. Tourism is very important for the midlands. Westmeath is the lake county of the midlands and we invite everybody to send people there. We hope to have more attractions in the future. Deputy Cassidy lives beside Fore, one of the most beautiful places in the country. We have Clonmacnoise to the south, Belvedere, which we are very proud of as a tourist centre in Mullingar, brilliant equestrian centres, golf clubs and lakes for fishing.
There were 173,000 anglers of all types in 1994. At a time when we are trying to bring tourists in for angling, this has reduced to about 81,000 in 2002. It is critical to develop the angling product, but the Shannon Regional Fisheries Board, which has among its aims to support and develop the angling product and enhance fish stocks, should realise that the customer is king. The information I am getting is there will be a reduction in the numbers of customers coming for course fishing. We need them for our hotels, guesthouses, and bed and breakfasts. Deputy Cassidy is very familiar with Finea. This is critical income. The Deputy shares my view on this matter. Why was a compulsory €30 levy imposed?