I welcome the opportunity to speak today. As a former member of the Government party, I acknowledge the progress made in improving the country's finances since the economic crash. We are now in a position where the finances are in a very healthy state and we should be in a position to pay back some of the burden carried by the Irish people during the austerity years.
We are also in a position where money is available to improve our public services. We must be careful not to go back to the boom-and-bust polices of previous Governments.
Regarding budget 2019, I welcome the widening of the tax and universal social charge, USC, bands and the increase in the minium wage. The health budget has been increased by more than €1 billion to reach €17 billion. I welcome any increases in the budget for health services and delivery, but I have a major problem with the returns we are getting on this investment. Despite being allocated its largest budget ever, the Department of Health is still not delivering on targets. Waiting lists are increasing and people are still lying on beds in accident and emergency departments for days on end. In my own town of Dundalk we saw our hospital continuously downgraded by previous Governments to the point that we feared it would be closed completely. Since my election in 2011 I have fought to have Louth County Hospital restored and while services have been increased, we must do more for the hospital.
A fully functioning accident and emergency department must be restored to Louth County Hospital. As an Independent representative for the people of Louth and east Meath I will fight for improved services in Louth County Hospital and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda.
We cannot have a situation where money is simply being pumped into the Department of Health but we do not see positive results. Coming from a business background I know that if the health service was being run as a commercial company it would be closed down as not fit for purpose. Simply throwing money at this is not a solution. We need real action on the ground to ensure the money being spent is spent wisely to the benefit of patients. We are spending billions of euro on health services. It is time that we saw real results from this massive investment of taxpayers' money.
With regard to housing, I welcome the announcement of the €2.3 billion investment. What I want to see is a real plan put in place to ensure the money allocated is invested in the most efficient way possible to deliver much needed social housing. My constituency office, which is one of the busiest in the country, is inundated with constituents who are having difficulty sourcing affordable housing. We are being told that affordable houses will be available at a cost of €320,000. This is not realistic. For someone to be able to afford a house at this price he or she would probably need a minimum deposit of €32,000 and an income of between €75,000 and €85,000. Is this affordable housing?
Louth County Council has been one of the most progressive in the country in developing houses that were in a state of disrepair but it is now in a position where it cannot develop any more in 2018 due to a lack of money being made available by the Government. Will the Government clarify this and make a commitment to local authorities, such as Louth County Council, that money will be made available to them to develop their housing stock? I appeal to the Minister to look at including Dundalk in the rent pressure zone. Rents in the town are increasing at an alarming level and putting houses out of the reach of many. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss this with the Minister as a matter of urgency.
Overall, I feel the budget was a missed opportunity. We have employers now faced with increased PRSI contributions for their employees, which will be a disincentive to create new jobs. We have the squeezed middle only benefitting by an average of €5 per week, which will be offset in increases elsewhere. We must not forget that it was the squeezed middle who carried most of the burden during the austerity years. The Government is not doing enough for them. The budget should have done more for the less well off, our pensioners and, of course, the squeezed middle.
As I have already stated this week, I was shocked at the decision to increase the VAT on the hospitality sector. My constituency of Louth-East Meath relies heavily on the tourism sector and with the coming threat of Brexit the sector needs every support to overcome the challenges it will undoubtedly bring. I do not accept the Minister's explanation that this measure allowed him to protect our corporation tax rate at its current low level. This is a measure I want to be addressed as a matter of urgency and with proposals brought forward to help the tourism sector, particularly along the Border areas.
The budget was a missed opportunity. We have not done enough for our pensioners, our less well off and the squeezed middle. The self-employed are still not treated the same as their PAYE counterparts. The tourism sector will be crippled with the VAT increase at a time when it needs all the support it can get. With regard to health, we are throwing money at a problem without a real plan in place to improve the service and we are hoping the problem will go away. Housing needs a more targeted approach. We have the money now to develop housing and what we need is a realistic plan of action to build and develop the houses that are badly needed.