I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Finance Bill. Usually, the Government side of the House compliments the Bill, while we in Opposition criticise it. It has been traditional to do so for many years.
I was listening to the contribution by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, before attending the House. She was replying to concerns over delays in the carer's allowance and tried to fob off questions by stating what would be done. We all realise, however, that the delays in providing carer's disability and domiciliary care allowances are appalling. There is a one-year waiting list for approval for such allowances in the south east, which is far too long. In some cases, people have passed on to their eternal reward before the carer's allowance was approved. This area is affecting less well off people in our communities, so the Minister should take fire brigade action to provide extra staff. In this era of modern technology the system should be run more efficiently, fairly and quickly than it is at present.
Many people are refused the carer's allowance and they then appeal but the process can last so long that it becomes ridiculous. The Minister, Deputy Burton, was not very forthcoming in her reply but Deputies on all sides of the House are finding it difficult to obtain decisions on the provision of carer's, disability and domiciliary care allowances.
The Finance Bill was announced at the same time as the jobs initiative. I welcome any such announcements but this is the fourth or fifth time that a jobs initiative has been unveiled by the coalition Government. I hope there will be meat on the bone this time and that we will see some action being taken. Very few jobs were created on foot of the previous announcements, but hopefully we will see jobs being created this time.
One of the major problems in this country is the lack of job opportunities. The south east region is lacking employment due to the downturn in the building industry where many people previously had jobs. We must examine ways and means of retraining and upskilling, as well as getting young people back to education. We must create such opportunities for young people who may have left school aged 15 or 16 due to the high wages they could get in the building industry at the time. They now find themselves unemployed with little education or skills, so I hope the Minister will encourage as many young people as possible to re-enter the workforce through FÁS and other schemes. The Minister should act as quickly as possible.
I welcomed the national internship scheme when it was introduced but those opting to pursue the JobBridge scheme must fill in a 20-page document. Some people are taking up places on it but I find that many who attend my clinics say the bureaucratic red tape makes it difficult to apply and they lose interest. It is a pity to have such complex documentation because it could be a good scheme. Government Deputies have more influence with the Minister than I do, so they should devise a plan that involves less form filling and more action. A simplified application form is required to encourage more people to apply for the national internship scheme.
Now that county enterprise boards will be based in county councils, there might be a better one-stop-shop system. I do not know who designs the documentation in various Departments but they are clearly hung up about red tape. A person applying for the national internship scheme, however, should not have to deal with such complex bureaucracy as it currently exists. It could be a very good scheme and I complimented the Minister when it was introduced but we should make it easier for people to apply for places on it.
Small businesses are the cornerstone of our economy but the banks are not lending and local authority rates are crippling most small firms. Charges, levies and red tape add to the problem, as do the increased fuel costs in recent months. Rates constitute an issue about which I have serious concerns. Local authorities set rates for businesses, while the Minister does not seem to have any say. Business people are annoyed about the levies and high rates that local authorities have placed on them. Councils say that in the past year they have frozen those rates but that is not worth much to business people at present. They need a reduction in rates. Some time ago, Professor Colm McCarthy's report said there could be savings of up to €500 million in local authorities through more efficiencies. If such savings were achieved, local authorities would be in a position to reduce commercial rates. The Minister should put the boot in to local authorities, pressurising them to reduce rates for business people. In every town in Wexford large numbers of shops and small businesses are closing down, mainly due to high local authority rates and a drop in footfall as people are not spending much. Many of these businesses feel if they got some reduction in rates it would be of help. However, local authorities and councillors do not see that and would rather the businesses and shops close down rather than reduce their rates. That is not good enough. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government should sit down with local authorities to introduce the efficiencies in the local authority system identified by Colm McCarthy, reduce rates and give businesses in towns and rural areas an opportunity to survive.
While it may be more for the social welfare Bill, I would have thought the Minister for Finance should have addressed the cuts in child benefit, fuel allowance, lone parent allowance, jobseeker's benefit, disability allowances and other benefits introduced in the budget, as well as the increase in VAT. These cuts will affect seriously the less well-off. I was amused earlier to hear Deputies on the other side of the House claim the less well-off will be protected by the budget and the Finance Bill. This is certainly not the case when one takes into account the range of the cuts to which I just referred.
Groups involved with lone parents give the example of how a family with four children will lose €432 in child benefit while paying €400 extra in VAT and €144 for the drugs payment scheme. Such a family will be hit with the household charge, although I believe the Minister should defer the charge until the site value tax is set up by 2013. Along with other increased charges such as motor tax and VHI fees, a typical family with four children will lose up to €2,000 a year, €40 a week. That is a substantial loss of income to the less well-off in our society.
I welcome the changes to the mortgage interest relief system and commend the Minister for Finance's good work in this area. However, the Minister for Social Protection has reduced the mortgage interest supplement along with supplementary welfare allowance, a contradiction to the Minister for Finance's efforts to assist those with large mortgages. I hope the two Ministers will reconcile this as the reductions in the mortgage interest supplement and the supplementary welfare allowance will seriously affect many families.
There are some good measures in the Finance Bill 2012 but there are other areas on which the Minister should reflect between now and its passing.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport should re-examine the case for proceeding with the Enniscorthy and New Ross bypasses under public private partnership. Many are prepared to invest in infrastructure projects in this country. The Minister should not cut off the option for public private partnerships in such projects. Not alone would these two worthwhile projects solve the traffic problems in both towns, they would create hundreds of construction jobs.