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 Finance).

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.

The next speaker is Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice-----

I did not know he was as good at running as that.

-----when he has his breath back.

I am sound. I welcome this opportunity to speak on the budget. I looked at what the Minister said about a responsible, caring and modern Ireland. He used the word "caring". Let us look at the carers throughout the country who give of their time, and some people give up their jobs, but there is nothing in the budget for them, unfortunately. It is something we have highlighted during the year.

I will take the budget stage by stage and look at its vision. With regard to housing, I am sick of saying that we are not able to spend the money we have because of red tape, bureaucracy, planning, objections and incompetency. We can talk about throwing money at whatever we want but in many cases we are not able to spend it on new housing because so many obstacles are put in the way. I welcome the money for affordable and social housing but when we speak about housing we are not speaking about horse stables. I was astounded during the week to see on television that people would not move into a house because they would not have had stables for their horses. If a farmer gets a social house we will put up a slatted shed. We must ensure when giving housing to people that a mockery is not made out of it. The foot has to be put down. People throughout the country are in desperate situations. Many young people are going to work, day in day out, who will not get a mortgage from the bank but if they were lucky enough to get one they would struggle.

With regard to the new tax rules that have been introduced, I rang an accountant this morning to ask whether it paid to go to work in the situation of a teacher in Dublin on €50,000 or €60,000 who had five children and whose partner was not working. According to the statistics he gave me, it is a sad reality that the budget does not incentivise people to go out to work. I am speaking about people who earn between €35,000 to €40,000 and €60,000 to €65,000, which sounds like lot of money, but if someone earning that amount is in trouble with his or her mortgage there is nothing for them. They will not get the housing assistance payment, rent allowance or family income supplement. They are the new poor in Ireland. Does anybody care about them? Of course they do not have a medical card and of course their children will not be looked after when they go to college. While everyone deserves an education the budgets we are bringing in are not incentivising work in this country. We are depriving some youngsters in what I call middle Ireland of the ability to follow their dream or get to college because their parents work. This is a sad reflection on any society.

The agricultural budget this year is a forestry budget. Does the Government want to plant the west of Ireland? Is that the dream? There is €103 million extra for forestry. No matter how the Minister tries to twist and turn it, €73 million has not been spent under the green low-carbon agri-environment or GLAS scheme, the beef genomics scheme and other schemes. According to emails from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform more than €100 million has not been spent over two years. For the next three years, if we look at the figures put in front of us in the Book of Estimates, it will work out the same. Extra grants are being provided for forestry with regard to climate change but it is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that looks after it. Cromwell said to hell or to Connacht but some people want to have trees in Connacht instead of what Cromwell wanted, as bad as he was.

Currently, we have schools with autistic students that are fighting to get special needs assistants because it is now on the school to do so, and one to one services are being removed.

Teachers in school are trying to ensure they give the possible education. Occupational therapy services come under the disability heading. Children are being told they are No. 99 on a list and they will probably be in college before they get the service. Is that the Ireland we want or the budget we need to bring forward?

Related to education, one of the most important elements of schools and rural parts of Ireland in general was not mentioned in the Budget Statement. There was not a word about broadband. A deal was supposed to be done. I am not worried about who is having dinner with whom, to be quite blunt, and I do not care who sits down with whom. There is one person on one side of the fence and one on the other side; it would be different if there were two or three bidders. If there is only one person on a side that will do a job and one person on the other side, I cannot see how too much dilly-dallying can be done. Perhaps mistakes might be made in following the so-called procedures but I am more worried about Kilcroan school nearly Ballymoe. When the children turn on the computers, the system crashes after the fourth child turns on the machine. This is despite the fact that 300 m down the road there is a box with which the problem could be solved. However, apparently we must wait for this great broadband plan, whenever it will come. It is like trying to look into the future.

That is not the way to give a perfect education to children. This is about a child in Kilcroan school near Ballymoe or in Tarmon, which also has broadband problems or a Garda station with no PULSE because there is a deficiency in the broadband. That is crucifying areas. Do the children in those areas not matter or deserve the same as any other child in some other part of the country? The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, might say the Government is providing broadband to X, Y and Z. It is but perhaps the speed is 1 Mbps here while it is 10 Mbps for the rest. If that issue is solved, it would be a help, and that is where the Department of Education and Skills must work. It must bring people into the future. It is what the Minister and this Dáil must be doing instead of talking about who ate with whom.

I understand hotels in the likes of Dublin have been booming. They have done well, as we know because one would almost be thrown out during the week during busier times when the hotels can get good rates. In the smaller hotels in the rural parts of Ireland on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night, there is a problem as there are not enough people there. I do not know the ins and outs of this but I would rather have seen the likes of a bed tax than the VAT increase if it had been workable. I know there is a boom in Dublin and a few other places but, in fairness, there are problems down the country. Do not get me wrong, as I am not saying I do not welcome the money for the Hidden Heartlands, but we must be realistic as well. Not all boats have been lifted by the improving economy.

I am surprised there is no medicine in the budget for working people who are losing their homes. These are people with mortgages who are struggling day in and day out. How are we throwing €110 million more overseas? I know the budget is fairly big currently but are we allowing people to be thrown out of their own houses in this country? Will we leave them on the streets or on trolleys in hospitals while we send money to other countries? We could continue with the existing overseas development aid budget as a further €110 million is fairly substantial.

The agricultural measures are disappointing. The average GLAS payment had been €4,300, with 50,000 farmers in the scheme. There was between €35 million and €37 million per year left over. Only 75% of people brought into the beef genomics schemes have remained, with the rest walking away. We have not introduced an environmental scheme for farmers coming out of the agri-environmental options scheme, AEOS, in the next few years. There will be a gap between now and 2021. One would be delusional to think the €40 to be paid per cow to suckler farmers will save the calf and cow. It would take a hell of a lot more than that.

I welcome the extra €5 per week for pensioners and there are parts of this budget that anybody should welcome. That is not the case with the measures for the self-employed. It is getting to a point that if somebody is seeking to set up a business, I would nearly tell them not to bother. On one side, the other day they got €200 more and there are certain incentives to set up a business. What about the small and medium-sized businesses? I refer to those with one, two or three additional employees. I spoke with a hairdresser the other day who has five girls working for her. I also know people running nursing homes. What have we done for such people with the new system being introduced by the Revenue Commissioners after Christmas? Accountants have told them that it will cost €450 per person employed per year to do the paperwork. I ask the Government to address this. I spoke to a person in the oil business last night who told me that given what is to be introduced, the big guys will be fine but the small fellow will be pushed out. As many Deputies know, in rural parts of Ireland, small businesses with one, two or three employees keep the area surviving. We must ensure we can encourage those businesses.

I know the Government does not listen much to contributions on the budget but there must be something teased out before next January for businesses, especially SMEs. The accountants have said it will cost an additional €450 per person for the paperwork. Some of these people might only be paying €1,000 or €1,500 to an accountant. If those businesses have two or three employees, the cost will be doubled. One might say it might not be that much and the business will get €200 in tax back, etc. One must first make money to be able to pay tax. I ask the Government to consider this

The Government should concentrate on making it attractive to work, which is not the case currently. There are young people out there struggling so we must ensure an affordable home scenario is realised. I know there has been an allocation of additional money but I worry nonetheless. Documents and glossy reports have been done through the years but delivery the problem. If we do not deliver for those young people, there will be people working in what we might see as good jobs who will not be able to sustain a living in Ireland. That is not good. We cannot have a position whereby a person is more enticed to stay at home instead of working if he or she has five or six children.

Debate adjourned.