An bhfuil 20 nóiméad agam?
Financial Resolution No. 4: General (Resumed)
Má's gá duit iad a úsáid. Sin suas duitse.
I thank the House for facilitating this debate and welcome the opportunity to speak. It is important that every Deputy has an opportunity to speak on the annual budget and raise issues about which he or she has genuine concerns, not only in the context of the national budgetary framework but also, from time to time, on more regional and local issues. In that regard, it important that Deputies can convey views from their constituencies.
The budgetary framework is set against a backdrop of grave uncertainty. We all acknowledge the disquiet caused by Brexit and the events that will unfold tonight and tomorrow in Westminster, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast. Any Government would have to take that uncertainty into account when framing a budget. However, other issues are also affecting the broader international economy. The America First policy, for example, has the potential to have a profound impact on the Irish economy because a large number of American anchored multinational companies have located operations here. That is a headwind of which we have to be conscious and which we must take into account in formulating policy.
We have a great dependency on multinational companies. Attracting them to Ireland has been the template for the expansion of the economy for more than 40 years. This approach has been underpinned by the policies of successive Governments, including through our 12.5% corporation tax rate, which has been a critically important factor. Equally important has been our access to the European Union as members of the EU, the fact that we are English speaking and our geographical location between the United States and Europe. We offer many advantages for multinational companies and we have benefitted greatly from the critical mass of such companies located here, be they in the areas of medical devices, pharmaceuticals, financial services, or companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook. All of the major companies that are household names have made large investments here. From that perspective, the America First policy is a critical issue that we must face up to because in the long term, we cannot take for granted that there will be continued expansion of and investment by the multinational scene in this country.
For this reason, it is important that we try to expand indigenous small and medium sized businesses. We talk about Ireland as a great country in which to set up a small business and do business. While it may be a great country to start up a small business, it is not a great country in which to continue to run a business owing to the costs with which businesses are burdened. Those costs undermine the competitiveness of the broader economy and the ability of small and medium sized businesses to grow and operate in our volatile and open economy. While we consistently applaud ourselves for being good in this area, the evidence shows that the contrary is the case.
Access to capital is a serious problem for small and medium sized businesses. Our pillar banks are dysfunctional at this stage when it comes to funding start-up companies. Enterprise Ireland is now in the business of providing soft loans to small and medium sized businesses. Traditionally, it took out equity in companies but it is now providing loans. We could argue about why that is the case but I suspect it is because our pillar banks are no longer able to assess small and medium sized business plans and have become completely risk averse. Lending to the sector has dried up as a result. We will continue to pretend that it has not but all the evidence shows that it has. The credit review group in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is toothless and incapable of dealing with this issue. The Central Bank seems to be moribund and uninterested, to say the least, in trying to establish why our pillar banks are not in the business of lending money. The banks change short-term overdraft facilities to term loans and pretend it is new lending. They are up to every trick in the book, as they have been for a long time. I do not say that lightly or to be alarmist.
I have yet to meet people in business organisations or chambers of commerce who can say with certainty that our banks are on the side of business, helping and supporting businesses, assessing and analysing a business plan, and actually funding it. Our access to capital is a major problem.
Allied to this, we have not been great in incentivising entrepreneurs and giving them seed capital support. It is very challenging for private equity to get involved in start-up businesses in this country for a number of reasons. First, if it does not succeed, there is a loss. If it does succeed, it is hard to capitalise that business at some stage down the road and for the investor to take out their money. There is no incentive for people to invest money with the hope that if the company grows and expands, they will be able to capitalise it at some stage in the future, take their equity and move on. Seed capital entrepreneurs need to be able to do that. That happens in the US, on the west coast and the east coast. It also happens in the UK and elsewhere. However, we do not have that flexibility in this country. We do not seem to have that capacity in terms of policy development and maybe also in terms of our history and tradition of funding; we expect the State to do it all. However, we need to unshackle that element of private equity investing in companies, being able to capitalise at some stage down the road and take out profit. Profit is not a dirty word. We need to look at the issue of capital gains tax for small and medium-sized businesses. We have an opportunity to do that now.
We are obviously obliged to comply with EU budgetary deficit requirements. We also need to be conscious that the economy is facing headwinds. There are also major pinch points in the economy following a lack of investment in infrastructure over a number of years. We can see evidence of that in our public transport systems and roads. Our third level institutions are under enormous pressure in trying to expand their facilities to provide proper education and training. We seem to be eternally incapable of addressing the issue of how we fund third level education. If we want to have the best graduates in the world, we need to have the best universities in the world. If we do not face up to that, we will remain forever moribund and in mediocrity. We should aspire to be ambitious and go well beyond that.
Housing has just been discussed. I know simplistic solutions have been proposed in this House on many occasions. I do not stand here this evening, believing I have any grand answers. We are absolutely failing generations of people with what is happening at the moment. Every day families are traipsing around the capital city awaiting a phone call from emergency accommodation officers advising them where they can sleep that night. Traditionally that would have been for single people with drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health issues and other illnesses. However, the homelessness we traditionally saw has gone beyond that. Families are sleeping in cars and vans, and on couches. Families are sleeping in hotels and bed and breakfasts which they have to vacate at 10 a.m. and traipse the street again until that evening.
I am not criticising; I am just highlighting. The difficulty is that it has gone beyond the issue of traditional homelessness. It is now evident across society and in every region. People in south Dublin are now paying €2,000 a month to put a roof over their heads. People in parts of Cork North Central, the constituency I represent, can pay up to €1,400 for a nice two-bedroom or a three-bedroom house.
All this is taking money out of the family system that they should be investing in themselves. People do not appreciate the impact this will have and the problems it is stirring up because parents do not have surplus cash to invest in their children, such as the child who has reading difficulties where the parents from time to time might get some assistance for that child, the child who is brilliant at music, but they cannot afford piano lessons for that child or the child who would like to play football or hurling, but the pressure is on because they just do not have that money. We are effectively enslaving an entire generation to bricks and mortar again. We have tried it before and it failed; and it will not succeed this time.
It is now necessary to have two middle to high-income earners, living with mam and dad for a number of years before they get the deposit together and before they can even go to the market to contemplate buying a house. From the day they buy that house they are on a treadmill of misery to fund that mortgage for 20 years. That is with historically low interest rates. Even though Ireland has the highest interest rates in the European Union, historically the ECB rate is the lowest it has ever been. That will not stay low for 20 years as otherwise it will show the European Union is failing as an entity because there will have been no economic growth.
We will store up major problems because if they can barely afford to buy a house now with historically low interest rates, what will happen in three, four, five or six years' time when interest rates start to rise across the European Union? They will go from 3.2% to 4.3% or to 5.2%; who knows? However, we know for sure they will not stay at historically low rates forever.
If two-income families cannot afford to buy a house in Dublin with historically low interest rates, what will happen in years to come? It is almost foretold that there will be great major problems. In the meantime there is no surplus money available to families to do the things families should be doing, which is investing in themselves. They should be investing in the social capital of that household, lightening the burden of the State, investing in themselves in order that the State does not have to do it. However, it seems we will enslave them again for another generation.
This is not some ideological view of mine; it is just the harsh reality of economics. We are storing up problem after problem. The Minister of State and I see it every week in our clinics, as does every Deputy in the House. Parents constantly tell me they would pay for it if they had it, but they do not have it and the State cannot give it to them either. That issue must be addressed. Because the Minister of State, Deputy English, is in the House taking the debate tonight, I had written down housing, infrastructure, competitiveness and entrepreneurship as the focus of my budget speech.
We must accept that the changes required in the overall economy are coming too slowly for us to reposition ourselves. I point particularly to the area of competitiveness. Our competitiveness is being continually undermined. The most recent report shows we have dropped to 23rd in the ranking of competitiveness. That should set alarm bells ringing. Once our competitiveness starts to drop, other issues start to roll in. Requirements for wage increases further erode competitiveness. These are wage increases to fund mortgages and rising rents. All these things continually feed into the economy. That is fine when the economy is rising as it is at the moment, but it will not always grow at the rate it is growing.
We know for certain that at some stage it will slow and then the Government will be found out because our competitiveness has been eroded. Competitiveness is a significant issue because we do not know what Brexit will bring. We do not know what it will bring with the United Kingdom, for example. A key issue in terms of what will happen in the negotiations tomorrow in Westminster and here is the common travel area with the United Kingdom. I hope there will be no barriers in trade between the Republic and the United Kingdom. It would mean that an Irish person can still work in the UK unhindered and in the European Union unhindered through the free movement of people. It will mean our labour pool has access to two markets. In view of the fact the United Kingdom may not have access to the European market any more, it will mean our labour pool will primarily see the UK as an area for employment. Our economy could be under significant pressure very quickly in trying to keep skill sets in the economy. If one looks at all the metrics across all the skill sets, we are under pressure in every one of them. Our apprenticeship roll-out has been slow. The training programmes that are required for the economy in key areas of construction, both commercial and residential, are light years behind what we need in terms of ramping up productivity and output. We were very slow to acknowledge the issues. I remember in the House the Government was still talking about knocking ghost estates when everyone else was saying we need houses. We did not ramp up the apprenticeship schemes on time. We do not have enough engineers, architects, planners or construction workers across all the trades and crafts. There is a very long lag. If European labour is cut off from the United Kingdom, this economy and labour pool will be potentially pulled to the United Kingdom. I do not know what is in the text but I detect it would be of concern if the United Kingdom did not have access to the European labour market but had access to the Irish labour market because of the common travel area. The issue of skill sets is a significant impediment to the economy's competitiveness. I have spent the past 18 minutes highlighting the problems. It is important we acknowledge the issues.
In terms of infrastructure, I spoke about the national issues but I also have to talk about local issues. The North Ring Road is not in the national development plan and it should be. The North Ring Road is the road that was envisaged to run from the Glanmire bypass across the northern district of the city joining the south link road in Ballincollig. It is on plans and there was a rough route. It is very important that this road is developed in the short and medium term. I will tell the Minister of State why. It is not because it runs through the constituency I represent but because if anything ever happens to the Jack Lynch Tunnel, which is now the only real link between north and south, we will see serious problems and consequences. It can happen from time to time as a result of flooding or maintenance on the tunnel. That whole region comes to a standstill. The whole region of south Munster, in terms of access to ports, the airport and hospitals is completely and utterly dependent on the Jack Lynch Tunnel. If we had a circuitous orbital route at least if something happened to the tunnel as a result of maintenance, a catastrophic accident or some infrastructural problems, we would have a link around the city to serve it. It would also bring some balance to the city because all the development is on the south side of the city and we do not have enough infrastructure to encourage investment in the north side. From that perspective I urge that the Government looks at it. It would also assist in opening up the area to further housing development, which is something we critically need in the constituency of Cork North-Central.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on the budget. I will refer to some of the concluding remarks my colleague, Deputy Kelleher, made, particularly on Brexit and what might or might not be happening with regard to a possible deal between Britain and the European Union. We sincerely hope there will be a good deal and a good outcome to the negotiations. As I have had the opportunity to say in the House and in committees over the past number of years, a bad deal for Britain will result in a very bad deal for Ireland. I campaigned in Northern Ireland along with the SDLP, Justin McNulty, MLA for Armagh, and my colleagues, Deputy Breathnach and Senator Wilson. We canvassed in Newry and elsewhere prior to the Brexit referendum. At that time, I remember remarking to colleagues here that I had my concerns about whether the referendum would result in a "Leave" or "Remain" vote because people were voting on issues that were not relevant to the question that was being put to them in the referendum. They talked about immigration, hospital waiting lists, difficulties getting children into school and the cost of putting children through third-level education. All the issues of the day were merged into a vote to leave the European Union.
Earlier this evening, I had the opportunity to attend the launch of a book by Donnacha Ó Beacháin of Dublin City University, DCU. It is a very scholarly book entitled From Partition to Brexit in which he gives a great outline of Irish Government policy on Northern Ireland and the different developments over the years. The book was launched by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. All of the contributions by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, the author, Mr. Ó Beacháin, and the president of DCU, Brian MacCraith, were very illuminating and referred to the great progress that has been made on the island since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998. It was very heartening to listen to the president of DCU and his colleagues from the law and government department speak about so many of their students as having no knowledge of the very dark period in our history. They were born after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It is very heartening to know that generation did not live through that troubled era. Hopefully, nobody on this island will live through such a troubled era in the future.
As a person who represents two Border counties, the Good Friday Agreement has been transformative. When the referendum took place and when the decision was made by the British electorate to leave the European Union, it really knocked the stuffing out of Border communities. It was a psychological blow to people like me who grew up in Border communities and saw the change. We did not go to play the underage team in our neighbouring parish in Fermanagh. That ended when the Troubles escalated. Unfortunately, the breakdown in normal living happened. In that era when we did not know our neighbours North of the Border a division occurred as a result of the blowing up of bridges and roads. The security apparatus and infrastructure that was put in place on both sides of the Border created very significant impediments to the movement of people, goods and services. Thankfully since 1998 we, particularly in the Border area but also the entire island and Britain, live in a transformed society. None of us has sufficiently registered in our minds the transformation for the better that occurred until Brexit happened and then we started to realise where we had come from in April 1998 and that thankfully we were living in a new era. It is in that context that I hope there is a satisfactory agreement between the British Government and European Union.
If there is not, our country will suffer greatly.
In my early days in the Oireachtas, working with the late Tánaiste and former Minister, John Wilson, prior to my election to the House, much of my time as a constituency representative was spent dealing with problems on the Border. People who may have had a farm north of the Border, who may have had a child attending a special school in Enniskillen or who may have travelled to bring a family member to a job in Fermanagh, Tyrone or whatever, were hindered while going about their daily business. Every weekend, on Sunday nights and Monday mornings, I could be certain I would receive endless phone calls from people returning to college in Dublin on the express buses, which were held up at the Border by the British Army or the Royal Ulster Constabulary and detained without any reason, leading to people missing appointments or being severely delayed. That irritation with which the Border communities lived was not normal. Thankfully, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement eliminated it from our thinking and psychology, but we sincerely hope that in whatever arrangements are arrived at between the European Union and the British Government there will be no border of any sort on our island. We in the Border community want to continue living in the way we do today. We do not want borders of any type reimposed on our country. That is the way it must be.
Similarly, from an economic and social point of view, the Good Friday Agreement was transformative. So much business and commerce has developed because of the new environment and milieu that were created as a result. The Minister of State will understand because some of the enterprises, such as the food processing companies and the daily co-operatives, serviced his county, and were either Cavan or Monaghan based but are all-Ireland companies today. Lakeland Dairies, for example, has three processing plants in our State and two in Northern Ireland, while LacPatrick, the former Town of Monaghan Co-Op, which will soon merge with Lakeland Dairies, has two processing plants in the North and one in the South. Those companies are all-Ireland companies and the raw material flows freely between North and South, depending on the need for it. Fortunately, that business and commerce has flourished because of the environment in which we lived, but it grew not because of people talking political ideology or waving flags of different colours. Rather, it happened because the political system created the environment for it to grow, benefiting all of us living on this island. I might harp on about it too much, but where I grew up and live, and to the people I represent, Brexit is an issue that concerns us every waking moment.
I have raised with the Minister of State on quite a number of occasions the issue of housing, to which my colleague Deputy Kelleher also referred. The Minister of State may recall that in oral questions I raised the totally unsatisfactory income eligibility limits that apply in regard to social housing. The Cavan-Monaghan area is in the worst possible zone and has the lowest level of income eligibility. On a number of occasions in the House, I cited to the Minister of State people on extremely low incomes who cannot be considered for social housing because their incomes are considered too high. I provided the instance of a one-parent family with the mother rearing three children, two of whom are in primary school and one of whom is in secondary school, while working in a poorly paid factory job for four days a week. She is in receipt of family income supplement but she was denied the opportunity to apply for social housing.
While I know the Minister of State understands the matter, it has not got through to the Minister, the Department, the Housing Agency or whatever that those eligibility limits need to be changed. How can we justify a person getting family income supplement while being unable to be considered for a council house? It defies logic. This evening I spoke to three families on low incomes who cannot get on the council housing list. They do not have a chance in the wide earthly world of getting a mortgage from a financial institution. The review that we discussed, therefore, is extremely important. At the end of May or June, I appealed to the Minister of State in the House to try to complete the review before the middle of July. Unfortunately, that has not happened. The Minister of State will know that people are paying high rents and they do not have a chance of putting a decent deposit together. At the same time, these people are on low incomes and they cannot even be considered for council housing. The people I am talking about want to do a day's work. They are in low-paid jobs but they are going about their daily work, in which they have pride. We cannot allow those people to be condemned to renting a home forever. It is not fair or acceptable. The Minister of State knows the profile of a county like mine or Monaghan, similar to parts of the west or the north of his county, and I appeal to him to try to get the Department moving on this issue.
To return to the local authority house loans, the deposit requirement is much too high. We know there are exorbitant rents in the private sector and a large proportion of people's income is spent on rent, often for inadequate accommodation. They have no chance of putting together the necessary deposit to buy a house. I appeal to the Government to reduce the deposit requirement in respect of local authority loans. I am sure the Ceann Comhairle would agree that in our early days in politics the local authority loan was critical to people getting home ownership. In the past 15 years or so, it has not had the importance it used to have. Week in, week out, in my early days in politics, we assisted and gave some guidance to people in State and non-State jobs whose only hope of getting a home was through a local authority loan. At that time, there were considerable levels of approval in every local authority for people being able to secure a home through sourcing local authority house loans.
In regard to the health sector, if we take as an example my and the Minister of State's region of Louth, Meath, Monaghan and Cavan, there are difficulties for people accessing orthopaedic assessments and follow-up treatment. I remember there were significant difficulties for us years ago but the National Treatment Purchase Fund dramatically reduced the number of people waiting for orthopaedic procedures, such as hip or knee operations. The number of people on waiting lists, however, has risen greatly. So many people in my constituency avail of the cross-Border directive and travel to hospital and clinic facilities in Northern Ireland to have orthopaedic procedures carried out.
I quite regularly read The Irish News, the Belfast newspaper, in which I saw an advertisement from the private hospital sector here looking for patients from Northern Ireland to come to its orthopaedic units in Dublin. A friend of mine, who works less than five minutes from where we are, told me he went through the cross-Border directive to have an assessment for an orthopaedic procedure at a clinic in Belfast. He told me he had spent some hours in the clinic, having scans done and waiting for the results, but he did not meet one person from Northern Ireland.
Everyone he met in the clinic that day was from the South, our State, from as far south as Waterford but also from Munster, Leinster and the Border counties of Ulster in particular.
We have spare capacity in our hospital system and we have private hospitals, with the private hospital sector advertising that it has the capacity to provide orthopaedic procedures for people from Northern Ireland if those people avail of the cross-Border directive. Surely it is within the capacity of the Department of Health and the HSE to ensure that capacity is used for the patients who are local to it and are within our own State. It is farcical that we make people seek these procedures under the cross-Border directive, many miles distant from their homes in the depths of Munster and elsewhere in the State.
On home care packages, it is ludicrous that so many people remain in hospital beds because the home supports are not put in place to enable the discharge of these patients and the freeing up of their hospital beds. It is not consistent throughout the country. In Cavan-Monaghan there are long waiting lists. There are patients who were approved for home support but there is a major time lag between approval and receiving the service, which is not acceptable. There are people in hospital beds who have no family support at home and cannot be discharged because of the lack of home support. Surely that can be addressed. It is not a cost burden on the State, but would be a saving. I appeal to the Minister of State to bring that back to his colleagues in Government.
On infrastructure, I have repeatedly highlighted that in light of the particular challenges that face communities across Cavan-Monaghan and elsewhere in the Border region, we need the best possible investment in our road infrastructure. We do not have railways. Our economy in Cavan-Monaghan is very heavily dependent on three particular sectors, namely, agrifood, construction products and engineering. It is widely accepted through business and studies that those three areas will be most adversely affected by Brexit because these are the three sectors that are most dependent on Northern Ireland and Britain for their export market. By their nature, those products are bulky. They are moved by heavy goods vehicles and we have a road infrastructure that is not adequate to minimise transport costs for business. I have continued to raise with the Minister for Transport the need for the east-west route, from Sligo, through Enniskillen, Cootehill in Cavan, Carrickmacross and on to Dundalk, to be upgraded. It goes right through the central Border region. Some parts have been constructed and upgraded through the building of the Cavan bypass, both stages 1 and 2, the Belturbet bypass and also the Carrickmacross bypass, but we have asked that the other sections of that route would be identified for upgrading because of its central Border location and the fact that, thankfully, we have substantial business and commerce located along that route. We need those roads to be upgraded.
I know that, in the Brexit negotiations and their outcome, there will be many issues over which the Government does have full control and on which we will depend on Europe for assistance. One area in which the Government is in complete control is deciding on infrastructure investment in our own State. I appeal to the Government that the infrastructural needs of the Border region be given priority because of the challenges we face, the nature of the terrain, and the nature of the business and commerce in the region. We need decent roads to transport goods to and from that region to try to minimise the cost.
I can well remember the case of a road that was as significant to the Minister of State's county as mine. When the M3 motorway was being considered for construction, time was lost because of objectors and objections. At the time, Glanbia in Virginia undertook a study of the time lost and the cost to the company from its collection and delivery lorries using the old N3. I was a member of Government at the time. I attended a presentation to the then joint committee on transport and I made the argument about the costs with which the likes of Glanbia were being hit because of an inadequate road infrastructure in the region.
To assist the business and commerce of the Border region, which will face particular challenges, I appeal to the Government to give priority to items such as the east-west route from Sligo to Enniskillen to Cootehill and Shercock in Cavan to Carrickmacross and on to Dundalk, which is particularly important for that part of south Ulster. I appeal to the Minister of State to bring that message back to his Government colleagues.
The Deputy covered a multitude of matters.
I am looking at the clock. I am starting at 10.35 p.m. so I should finish at 10.55 p.m. Is that correct?
Yes. The Deputy may finish earlier should he wish.
I will do my best. I am always fascinated listening to my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, because we represent such contrasting constituencies and his depth of knowledge is always very impressive.
I thank the Minister of State for his patience in sitting through and listening to the budgetary contributions. We all have a lot to say. I have been privileged for the past year and a half to be a member of the new Committee on Budgetary Oversight. It has proven itself to be a very independent committee of the House. The publications and the opinions of the independent director of the Parliamentary Budget Office are making a significant contribution to the budgetary debate in Parliament and beyond. As a person who admits to not having a grasp of complex economics but an interest in it, no more or less than any politician in this House, I have found the contributions, research papers and the speakers and witnesses from the office who have come before the committee to be invaluable in reducing one of the complexities of budget preparations.
In the post-budget analysis, the independent budgetary director, who was appointed by this House and is independent of the Department of Finance and the Minister, has stated that the 2019 budget can be considered a pro-cyclical budget. Consider all we have come through since 2008, all the warnings, and all the lessons that the Government was meant to have learned. The Government talks about never returning to and not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past and learning the lessons of the past, but the independent Parliamentary Budget Office says that this budget is pro-cyclical, it is fanning the flames of growth. That is something that we must watch.
I will refer to one of the budgetary oversight committee's recommendations. The Minister of State's party colleague and my constituency colleague, Deputy Brophy, who is the Chair of the committee, published a report recently on gender equality budgeting. It is a fine document that made some significant recommendations that arose out of a lot of international work.
They suggested a significant cultural change around gender budgeting was required. The international evidence suggests that civil servants and politicians need to recognise that the budget is not a gender-neutral exercise. We can still see evidence of older thinking in some Departments today. For example, many of the chapters in the 2018 tax strategy papers contain a single-line statement regarding the gender and equality implication of various tax measures. Most of these statements read simply, "there are no specific gender or equality implications with regard to measure A, B or C". In one analysis, it transpired that one budgetary measure introduced by the former Minister, Deputy Burton, regarding the provision of State pensions penalised predominantly and significantly more women than men and certainly prejudiced them. One of the recommendations in that report was that the Minister for Finance would produce a gender budgeting statement, which he did not do. He has committed to do that but it is shame that he has not done it. Another recommendation, and I raised this issue when the report came before the House, was that we need to commission a study - one has been done in Scotland - on the economic role of women in society in Ireland. It is a simple task. Such a comprehensive body of work needs to be addressed. Such a study has never been done but it needs to be addressed.
We have discussed the significant overrun in the health budget. Let us be objective in analysing what it must be like to be an employee of the HSE. The Minister of State's Government came into office in 2011 and stated it would abolish the HSE. The following year the then Minister, Senator Reilly, abolished the board which was made up of very talented professional men and women. The Government said it was going to fund the health service and establish universal health insurance. In 2014, the universal health insurance idea was abandoned. In 2015, a decision was taken not to abolish the HSE. The most recent decision regarding the HSE is that it needs a board. I cannot imagine what it must be like working in an organisation where a Government set out to basically disestablish it and abandon it in terms of an efficient organisation to run the health service in the country. We had five years of total uncertainty. I do not know what it must be like to work in an atmosphere like that where a chief executive is not answerable to a board, where a board cannot advise a chief executive regarding some of the critical decisions. I suspect that some of the organisational failures, or perceived failures, that have happened in the HSE in recent years are down to an absence of the oversight of a board that was in position.
In almost every parliamentary question answered regarding funding, the Minister, Deputy Harris, continuously raises the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, and that is what is now rescuing the Government. However, the Government abolished the NTPF and yet those in government speak about it now with such virtue that it is hard to believe that they saw no function for it when it came into government. That fund is bailing people out of chronically long waiting lists. One area in my constituency ran out of home care package funding for the year as early as April. We have chronic lists for such packages, for speech and language therapy and for psychological assessments, and I sure that is replicated throughout the country. The NTPF has a role to play in that respect. Those services are not particularly expensive to fund but there are serious constraints in the ability of the public sector to address those issues. There is capacity in the private sector, however, to address those issues, whether it be speech and language or psychological assessments, through perhaps the use of vouchers. Those are a number of issues with respect to which the Government has had significant failures in recent years.
Being a member of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight has been interesting in informing my view and reaction to the budget. As far as back as April, on foot of the evidence from the different witnesses who came before that committee, whether it was Mr. Seamus Coffey of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the ESRI, the OECD, the Governor of the Central Bank or the Minister for Finance, a number of common themes emerged that an ordinary layman could see as being key ones around which a budget was to be constructed. Those themes were mentioned quite widely in the media. They included carbon tax, in that something would have to be done in that area because of our climate change commitments. They included the equalisation of diesel and petrol, our over-reliance on corporation tax and how some measures needed to be taken to address that, the issue of the VAT rate on tourism and our susceptibility to Brexit and other international trade threats. Those are five basic themes. Objectively, the Government fudged almost every one of them.
I was particularly inspired by President Higgins's inaugural speech on Sunday. He set out quite a political manifesto for the future for any political party in this country of the issues that need to be addressed. He talked about issues such as inter-generational injustice. For someone like me who is 53 years of age, climate change will probably not profoundly impact my life at my age but it will undoubtedly impact on the younger generation and I think of my nieces and nephews in their mid-20s and mid-30s. Yet on the issue of carbon tax, the Minister for Finance failed to grasp the nettle. It is a significant area that needs to be grasped by the Government but it committed instead to developing a schedule between 2020 and 2030 regarding carbon tax, while bottling a major decision this year.
The equalisation of diesel and petrol prices is a difficult decision that must be grasped but the Minister failed to grasp it. Yet he gave a sop to cars that are run on gas, which is also a fossil fuel. We not only have an over-reliance on corporation tax but anybody who has been a local authority member for a number of years will know, as in the case of South Dublin County Council, that ten companies provide the bulk of commercial rates at local authority level. I am sure it is the same in Kildare. About ten companies are responsible for 95% of commercial rates. We are greatly reliant on those. The rainy day fund is a Fianna Fáil idea, but the Government has made a virtue of it and announces it as thought it is its own idea. We got it stitched into the confidence and supply agreement. It is an initiative driven by ourselves and we have a strong track record of devising schemes to put money away. The much maligned former Minister, Charlie McCreevy, apart from having almost cleared the national debt, set up the National Pensions Reserve Fund and but for that, the crash would have been significantly worse. Those nettles that needed to be grasped for future generations were not grasped and have been delayed for another day. That is a pity for this country both economically and in terms of policy.
Another inspiring point the President made in his inaugural speech was that what is emerging in Ireland is the first post-consumer generation, one that is turning its back on consumerism and that rejects it. Such consumerism has manifested itself in the growth in the use of plastic. We are very behind the curve as legislators in this regard, yet there is a huge appetite among the younger generation for innovative and drastic measures to be taken. They are ready to do it. They are prepared to consume less in order to play their part for the planet but as legislators, we are eons behind where they want us to be. That reflects itself in those tough decisions that must be taken regarding carbon tax and the equalisation of diesel and petrol prices.
I will refer to the subject of Dublin, an area for which I am spokesperson.
When Dublin Chamber which represents 300,000 employees and multiple companies carries out opinion surveys of employees, the top three issues tend to be housing - not homelessness because they tend to be employees who, by and large, have reasonable and attractive incomes - rental costs and transport and traffic congestion. The House leaves far too much to quangos such as the National Transport Authority to promulgate policy. Somebody has to have the balls politically to lead on this issue which has manifested itself, in particular, in BusConnects where the cart has been put before the horse. The NTA published the routes before it actually published the infrastructure which it hopes will carry these routes or spines. The publication of the reports is imminent.
One of the problems with the Luas is that everybody wants a Luas line in his or her area. Clearly, we cannot afford to do that. The next best thing is segregated bus routes, with park and ride and other proper facilities. However, no politician has led on the issue by saying Dublin city will come to a standstill unless we make dramatic decisions. No politician has said we will end up having to charge people to cross the canal cordon or ban traffic in the city centre if we do not take dramatic steps now. It has been left to a Government agency because nobody seems to have the courage to say this will be difficult and challenging. Nobody seems to be willing to guarantee, if given the time, the putting in of a transport corridor such as the Luas but on rubber wheels that would be attractive and provide seamless and untrammelled journeys, with zero obstacles. In such a corridor it would not matter if one got on a bus at 7 a.m. or 11 p.m. because the travel time would be exactly the same.
Nobody is leading on the issue because people hate change because they are afraid of it. The only way we will encourage them to leave their car behind is by doing this. We will have to tell them that we will have to break a number of eggs to make the omelette. It will be both difficult and challenging. Some people may have to lose their garden. Where I live, we used to look over a boundary wall into fields, but the M50 has been there for the past 15 years. There are disadvantages, but the main advantage is that when I leave my estate, I do not see traffic lights until I get to Dingle or Wexford town because I am right beside the motorway network. However, nobody is persuading people about the advantages of BusConnects and having transport spines. If we were offering a Luas line to communities, they would properly jump at the opportunity. BusConnects is the next best thing and could be as attractive, efficient, speedy, comfortable and reliable. However, no one - certainly not the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport - is out there selling it. There is absolutely no way we can expect people to make the changes we need in this city if someone is not leading this charge and does not have the courage of his or her convictions, instead leaving it to invisible officials. It is not their job but the job of politicians to drive change.
There are several measures which were mentioned in the budget last year which I would like to see speeded up. Traffic on the M50 is almost at a standstill. When representatives of Transport Infrastructure Ireland attended the Committee on Budgetary Oversight last year, they called for digital signage on all M50 gantries. They maintained that, if implemented, it could get another five years of capacity out of the M50. It is a slow process. There were 1,700 accidents on the M50 last year. I live beside it and know when there has been an accident because the road goes quiet and within four minutes one hears a battery of sirens as fire brigades, ambulances and Garda cars arrive. The gantry signs are important to reduce speed limits and calm traffic at peak times, thereby reducing the possibility of collisions occurring. The slightest collision on the M50 results in traffic backing up for miles and hours, with commerce and business being delayed.
I have been faithful to the time allocated to me in the absence of the digital clock. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to make my contribution.