Financial Resolution No. 4: General (Resumed)

Debate resumed on the following motion:
THAT it is expedient to amend the law relating to inland revenue (including value-added tax and excise) and to make further provision in connection with finance.
-(Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan)

I wish to share time with Deputy Fergus O'Dowd.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House. As has already been advised by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, Tuesday's budget will for the first time in ten years balance the national books and it does so while primarily supporting young families, improving people’s lives, safeguarding our national finances and investing in our country's future. This milestone should not be overlooked when considering where we have come from in terms of the levels of borrowing needed to run our country. In many ways, it really is the end of the forgotten decade of cuts, forced emigration and austerity which followed the economic crash in 2008.

Overall, this budget is a safe and modest expansionary budget which will see €1.2 billion in spending and tax cuts being implemented. We will spend €60.5 billion as a country in 2018 but we are sticking to the careful approach we have taken with regard to public spending since 2011. This careful approach has helped us to reduce the risk of future financial crises being homemade. It has helped us to regain our feet following the crash and I am glad to see it continue in this budget. The boom to bust policies of the past have wrecked this country time and again and we do not want to see them return.

On the ground in my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, this budget will have a wide range of benefits across local communities. For example, social welfare spending is up by €260 million, which means there will be a €260 a year increase across the board for all weekly payments from March 2018, including for carers, pensioners, jobseekers and the disabled in Sligo, Leitrim, south Donegal and north Roscommon. The Christmas bonus has also been retained at 85%.

With regard to personal taxation and rewarding work, this budget will ensure that middle income workers are modestly rewarded by ensuring that the point at which an income earner will pay the higher rate of tax is increased by €750 to €34,550. We will also reduce the rates of USC and increase the subsequent bands to ensure that all workers who will receive the increased minimum wage of €9.65 from January will not pay increased USC as a result. This is the fourth budget under Fine Gael in which the marginal rate of taxation has been reduced and it will continue to drop under our stewardship.

In health, we will see more nurses hired to work on the front line of our hospitals in Sligo, Leitrim and south Donegal. Some 1,800 will be hired nationally, with the health budget to be increased by €685 million to €15.3 billion. Prescription charges for the over-70s will be reduced from €2.50 to €2 and a new telephone support of €104 per year will also be introduced. There will also be a reduction in the threshold for the drugs payment scheme from €144 to €134.

In housing, additional resources are being allocated to fast-track the building of the local authority housing stock nationally and, in particular, in Sligo and Leitrim. This has further been supported by an increase in the funding for the housing assistance payment.

In education, this budget will deliver an additional 1,300 teaching posts in schools in 2018, along with an additional 1,000 special needs assistants in time for September 2018, bringing the total number of SNAs to over 15,000. This measure will ensure that the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level in schools in Sligo, Leitrim and south Donegal will be reduced to 26:1 for the first time in the history of the State.

The budget will also see the recruitment of a further 800 gardaí and 500 civilian staff in 2018, which will mean more gardaí on our streets and villages. Funding has also been ring-fenced for large Garda infrastructural projects, such as the new Sligo regional Garda headquarters, with a site location expected to be disclosed shortly by the OPW.

The N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin road upgrade, mentioned on page 135 of the expenditure report, will continue to be funded, with an overall tender expected to be ready to go by the end of 2018. I await the statements from the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, in this regard.

The earned income tax credit will be increased by €200 to further support our SMEs.

There is a new €300 million Brexit loan scheme to support SMEs in accessing finance during the difficulties which Brexit will present.

In agriculture, a major industry in my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, there will be a comprehensive €50 million Brexit response package announced for 2018, along with a specific €25 million agrifood loan scheme to assist with Brexit related issues.

I was also lobbied hard by farmers from the region about the areas of natural constraint scheme, ANC, and I am glad to learn that this fund will be increased by €25 million 2018. I am, however, quite concerned about the fact that, as it stands, the 6% stamp duty for agriculture land sales applies and I believe that this needs to be changed in the Finance Bill. I welcome this safe and modest budget for 2018 and I also welcome the ever improving financial situation which we have faced since Fine Gael has taken power and I look forward to more positive budgets in this regard.

I must say that I am unhappy with the time allocation. I respect everyone here but backbenchers like me would like to speak for longer than the four minutes and five seconds that I have left, notwithstanding the fact that most of my speaking will be praising the Government.

Significant changes have been made in Ireland's unemployment figures, especially in Louth where there has been a 16% drop in the last year. This is very welcome indeed. Lots more families are working and family income is going up. Older people will have an increase in their pensions. Disability allowances and benefits will increase.

There is increasing confidence in Ireland. Having come through the roughest of times and the most difficult of times, particularly for poorer families and those who lost their jobs, there is confidence that Ireland is undeniably and absolutely on the right course. I very much welcome the decisions that the Government has made in the budget. It is a sign of the times and is the way things are moving forward incrementally.

In education, I welcome the reduction in the pupil teacher ratio, especially as it relates to younger students. They will learn more and learn better if classes are smaller.

I welcome the commitment made in the budget to the Laytown-Bettystown link road, approval for which was given in 2016. This will commence as soon as the approvals are sought. I am disappointed that the Ardee bypass has not been announced, and Deputy Breathnach had better back me on this. It is very badly needed. The town of Ardee is expected to double in size. The capacity of the sewerage system there has been increased from 5,000 to 10,000 population equivalents. Over the next years Ardee town is going to grow phenomenally. If we do not have the western bypass of Ardee then the town will come to a shuddering and unacceptable halt. I want to make it clear that people are very unhappy with this. It is the view of my constituents and it is my view and, as everybody knows, Councillor Dolores Minogue will be very cross until this bypass is announced. She is a very active campaigner who lives in the town.

The biggest need in the State is housing. I welcome the significant increase in the budget for housing. I am, however, disappointed that the empty homes tax was not included in the budget. It ought to have been included and it is essential that it happens, even though there might be a dispute over the numbers of houses that may or may not be vacant. There is undeniably a significant number of houses in rent pressure zone areas that are empty, have been empty for more than one year and are not principal private residences. We are definitely encouraging the owners to let the houses through an additional allowance in the budget relating to pre-letting costs. More pressure could be put on those who do not need the homes for themselves so the houses could be put on the market and made available for families who are living in hostels and hotels.

The Ardee bypass and the empty homes tax are the key minuses I see in this budget. They should have been included. I do, however, welcome the progress that has been made. County Louth has benefitted significantly from the return to economic prosperity. My concerns about the Border and about Brexit are shared by the Government and by all Deputies in the House. I hope that the impact of Brexit, no matter how soft it might be, will not have a negative impact on our local economy. I welcome the Government's line that it is up to the British Government to define and defend its proposals. It is not Ireland's job to find the solution for them. The answer is that there must be no Border. For our economy North and South to continue to grow, Northern Ireland must remain part of the common travel area and must remain part of the customs union.

This could be called the Mary Poppins budget. Mary dons the umbrella with the rainy day fund while the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, sings "A Spoonful of Sugar" makes the less popular measures go down.

Many of the measures in the budget are positive, such as an increase in the number of teachers, gardaí and additional guidance counsellors for secondary schools, further funding for social housing and trebling of the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to tackle hospital waiting lists. Many of these measures are testament to Fianna Fáil's input.

I am, however, disappointed that the Government has overlooked the issues facing people with disabilities and their families. Fianna Fáil pushed for increased investment to assist those with disabilities but, when we look under the cover of the budget, unfortunately the Government has only allocated a measly €15 million in additional spending in this area out of a total available funding of €1 billion. Additional funding is going to be needed in this area. Both of the Ministers have been informed on many occasions in the House of the severe hardship endured by families in Louth and across the State about severe shortages or non-existent respite care places. Funding must be found for this. I am aware that this area can be engaged in further during post budget talks. Fianna Fáil will aim to ensure that this year’s HSE service plan will reflect our priorities in this area.

Consider occupational therapy in Louth where there is a severe staffing problem. Three therapists are on maternity leave and there have been no replacements. Severe staffing shortages in critical areas right across all sectors, be it education, health or the local authority, will inflict damage in trying to create what the economy needs across these sectors.

I welcome the extra funding for the NTPF and that it is being greatly increased to try to deal with the severe numbers of people on hospital waiting lists. I ask the Government and the Department of Health to examine further the cross Border health care initiative. I believe this is not promoted properly and that many people in doctors' surgeries are not even aware of it or that they can avail of it.

Many people will say they are happy with the price increase on cigarettes. I have no difficulty with that because it is a good health measure. I have been working with Retailers Against Smuggling and any further increases in the price of tobacco products will further exacerbate the increasing smuggling problem and cross Border trade. This will impact on retailers and small shops south of the Border and in the major city areas where there is widespread sale of illegal cigarettes. Ireland already has the most expensive alcohol and tobacco products in the EU and further increases in excise will only serve to drive trade across the Border where they are likely to buy other products besides cigarettes such as alcohol. This will detract from the trade of our business people right along the spine of the Border. In this context I encourage the Government to bring forward the Sale of Illicit Goods Bill 2017, which I introduced on First Stage in the Dáil. It is more important than ever that this Bill would go to Second Stage and be teased out, especially in the light of Brexit.

As I said yesterday when speaking on the financial measures in the budget, its shaky cornerstone is stamp duty on commercial property. While I recognise in particular that there are concessions for young farmers in the consanguinity rights on transactions, small to medium farmers buying lands to expand their farms should get a concession in any discussion post budget. All one has to do is look at the Irish Farmers' Journal today to see the angst and concern arising from this issue.

The housing measures which have been announced are repetitive. We heard about many of them before the budget, in which they are simply contained. In that context, I commend Fianna Fáil's Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill 2017. I am concerned that we have in excess of 2,500 civil parishes in rural Ireland in which there are up to ten rural properties, respectively, which could be brought back into use. There are thousands of properties out there that could be brought into use through a little bit of concession in county development plans. It should be possible to explore the technological solutions in particular for properties on less than half an acre. My experience in a local authority context is that one cannot build unless one has a half-acre site, but most of these properties could be brought back into use with a little bit of ingenuity around technology.

The reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio to 26:1 is most welcome. However, we have to be straight up with parents and acknowledge that this includes resource teachers. There will still be classes of up to 30 pupils at any one time.

Increased funding for low-income farmers through the areas of natural constraint scheme and low-interest loan packages is welcome but the increase in the earned-income tax credit does not go far enough and continues to discriminate against self-employed workers as against PAYE workers.

I ask the Government to ring-fence a percentage of funds for tertiary or third class roads. In many counties, including my own, not one penny has been spent on local authority roads which are culs-de-sac. While we have introduced an LIS scheme which is most welcome, it is only for non-county roads. As such, we need to deal with it.

Fianna Fáil's input has made this a fairer budget. We would like to see greater spending, but there are many in the House who hurl on the ditch while failing to participate in government. They will promise the sun, moon and stars, but one will have to go up for those.

Debate adjourned.