The budget introduced by this Government marks a decisive moment when our country moves forward to rebuild and renew after a once-in-a-century pandemic. It is a progressive budget, which will underpin economic recovery and return 400,000 people to work. It will deliver the largest package of income support in more than a decade. In the face of worldwide rises in costs, it provides assistance to the vast majority of our people. On top of this, it marks a further decisive investment in health, housing, education and a wide range of public services. No single budget could ever address every need for investment or provide all of the support that people would like, but by any objective measure this budget marks a substantial and important investment in Ireland's future and in support for hard-pressed families. It again demonstrates the progressive programme of change agreed as the basis for this coalition Government.
Is cáinaisnéis í seo atá, ag an am céanna, cóir, uaillmhianach agus fadradharcach. Oibríonn an cháinaisnéis go réadúil taobh istigh de na dúshláin gheilleagracha agus bhuiséadacha ach cuireann sí geallúint lárnach an Rialtais os comhair an phobail, ag freagairt d’ábhair mhóra phráinneacha na linne seo atá ag déanamh buartha do mhuintir na hÉireann.
Before going into the detail of the budget, and what it means for our social, economic, cultural and environmental future, it is important to address the scale of the shock our country has experienced in the past year and a half. At a very difficult moment for Ireland and the wider world, the Government has been determined to do everything possible to help our country through an historic pandemic, a major recession and a range of other urgent issues. In forming this Government, we understood the profound nature of the challenges we faced and we gave a shared commitment to charting a new way forward. At every stage since the Government was formed, our focus has been on saving lives and protecting the ability of our economy to restore jobs and return to growth. Every single member of the Government has worked intensively, dealing with a unique and rapidly changing situation. This included the harsh reality of a virus, which itself mutated and became an even bigger threat. Working together with our public servants and people in every part of our society, remarkable things have been achieved.
The impact of the virus has been terrible, but the facts show this to be lower than in most other countries. Unprecedented supports prevented a deep economic shock from being even more devastating and, of course, a world-leading vaccination programme has provided the foundation for the restoration of most elements of social and economic life. It is very rare that a public health initiative is also the most important economic foundation underpinning a budget, but there is no doubt that the increases in public services, social supports and investments we are implementing would have been impossible without the vaccination programme. I again acknowledge the great work of everyone involved in that programme.
Our colleagues in the European Union delivered on the promise they made to me to give Ireland fast and fair access to vaccines on the same basis as even the biggest countries. Given the unfair attacks the EU received at the start of this year, the record needs to be corrected to acknowledge how the rapid purchase and distribution of vaccines by the Union has been a spectacular success. Between my Department, the Department of Health and the HSE, and with the co-operation of every other part of the Government, a plan was put in place with highly ambitious targets for obtaining and distributing vaccines as fast as any country. In partnership with tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, emergency medical technicians, other health professionals and volunteers, this is exactly what has been done. The programme has achieved a level of take-up that stands out internationally and has transformed the possibilities for the year ahead.
However, we must still be vigilant and we must avoid complacency. While our vaccination programme is an undisputed success, there are still too many adults who are not fully vaccinated. Over the course of the past seven days, the rate of infection, the number of hospital admissions and the rate of ICU admissions have all increased. The pandemic has not gone away and it requires all of us to continue to be careful. The pandemic has also created a series of new hurdles to be overcome, including dramatic increases in key waiting lists and nearly 10,000 fewer houses being built but we are, as a nation, now moving forward and taking decisive steps on critical issues.
The most dramatic element of this budget is that it underpins the creation of a total of 400,000 jobs between this year and next, restoring employment at a rate well beyond many predictions. Any honest review of this budget and the Government’s actions must start with this scale and pace of job creation, and the impact it will have on young people, families, our hardest stretched communities and our ability to invest in public services. A dramatic fall in unemployment levels is something that everyone here should welcome and they should also acknowledge the central role that Government action has played in this.
This is an ambitious and progressive budget but it is defined by the sustainable management of the public finances. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, have ensured a balanced approach with no attempt to return immediately to pre-pandemic figures, but a significant and essential move towards a lower deficit will be taken. In particular, given price pressures and signals about interest rates from central banks, significantly higher borrowing or taxation than is proposed in this budget would be manifestly unsustainable. It would also threaten the ability to deliver on critical initiatives which could not be delivered in only one year.
It has already been claimed a number of times during this debate, and in Sinn Féin’s alternative budget, that the pandemic supposedly proved that much higher borrowing can be sustained. Allied to this has been the call for pandemic levels of intervention to be retained. Such an approach is deeply wrong and based on the false premise that emergency interventions are a model for permanent interventions. In 2020 and 2021, Government intervention to respond to the pandemic and support people and businesses has amounted to approximately €31 billion. We have been able to finance this because of Central Bank interventions, historically low interest rates and co-ordinated action across countries.
However, this level of support is manifestly not sustainable and we must now move to the next phase, where the finite resources the Government can deploy are targeted at those who need them most, and expended in a manner that best supports recovery, opportunity and our future prosperity. This means choices have to be made and not every need can be immediately addressed. That is why budget 2022 has been prepared in line with the commitments given in our summer economic statement. We are demonstrating a clear commitment to following through on delivering progress that is sustainable.
The budget prioritises investment that will strengthen the economy, address critical social issues and provide much-needed support for people.
Critically, it also begins delivering on this Government's ambitious series of long-term plans for permanent progress on inclusive economic growth, social infrastructure and tackling the climate crisis. The overall package of measures included in the budget amount to €4.7 billion. That is a major economic stimulus by any measure and it strikes a balance between urgent action and the limits of what is possible to implement and sustain. A critical element in our approach is that should a new and unforeseen crisis hit, or if we encounter another Covid shock, we will be in a much better position to respond.
The Government's absolute focus is on a positive agenda of bringing our country through the pandemic and into a period of growth and renewal. However, the reality is that we must respond to the always escalating and crude attacks of the Opposition parties. This has been repeated again in this debate and it is, therefore, necessary to devote a small portion of this speech to responding. As we saw repeatedly during the most difficult phases of the pandemic, political cynicism and opportunism are the defining characteristics of Sinn Féin's approach to politics. Not only was its policy constantly changing - and, at different points, it was both for and against different policies on the same day - but it really took a new level of cynicism to demand restrictions and attack restrictions, depending on who the audience was. Of course, the often highly personal attacks on the vaccination programme have never been withdrawn. This stands in marked contrast to others here who endeavoured to be constructive. Everyone here has long become used to the fact that Sinn Féin responds to even the most detailed and factual criticism with aggression and abuse. With the media, Sinn Féin's approach has been to work on the hope and expectation that journalists and researchers do not have the time to check its claims or to look at its record in government in the Northern Executive. I hope this budget will be a moment when this approach begins to run out of road.
Sinn Féin has managed to expose itself as promising everything to everybody without the slightest intention to deliver. For most of the past year, the party has angrily attacked any proposal to touch the pandemic unemployment payment. Deputy McDonald said that it represented the bare minimum that anyone could be expected to live on and should be the permanent rate. However, in Sinn Féin's alternative budget, not €1 is provided for retaining the payment and it would take 15 years of their proposed increases to reach the level Deputy McDonald told us was the bare minimum. Many people will be surprised to see that the so-called alternative budget, which Deputy Doherty told us angrily we should step aside and let him implement, provides a tiny fraction of what would be required to meet the demand for 100% redress for every conceivable circumstance relating to mica and pyrite damage. In contrast, my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is undertaking the much harder work of finding out what is required to deal with people's problems and to come forward with comprehensive solutions.
In area after area, there is a contrast between the hard work of Ministers and the Government in developing ambitious and sustainable policies and an Opposition party which has added a new arrogance and presumption to its trademark aggression. Ireland, like the rest of Europe and most of the world, is facing into a number of steep cost increases. I understand the pressure which this is already placing on many families, and also on businesses that are seeing vital supplies rising at an unprecedented rate. That is why a wide series of initiatives to help people with the rising cost of living is being undertaken. Every household will benefit in some way from changes to social supports and taxation with by far the greatest benefit going to those most in need. Those include the largest package of social support increases in over a decade; tax changes weighted to the lowest paid, which will help over 1.8 million people; an increase in the national minimum wage; an extension of free GP care for six- and seven-year-olds; the extension of eligibility for the universal childcare subsidy to all children aged up to 15; and an enhanced funding stream for childcare to improve pay and conditions for those working in the sector, and to prevent fee increases. These and many other initiatives will be of direct financial benefit to people coping with increased costs.
There are also enormous pressures on energy costs due to international developments. We are taking immediate action in response with an increase of €5 per week in the fuel allowance. We have already seen that fuel costs will be a constant attack point for the largest Opposition party. However, its Deputies will now have to cope with the inconvenient fact that the Sinn Féin alternative budget does not mention any increase in the rate of payment and proposes that the payment be extended next year. In contrast, we have implemented an increase which is already in place, less than 24 hours after it was announced. There is no easy fix to rising costs but we are ensuring substantive help and will continue to work to ease key pressures.
Strategic planning to address critical challenges is central to this Government's approach and that has proceeded even during the pandemic. In June, we set out details of our overall recovery plan. We showed how we will drive a jobs-rich recovery, rebuild our economy and get our people back to work. The plan sets out renewed supports, investments and policies for a new stage of economic recovery and transition, with an overarching ambition of a record 2.5 million people in work by 2024. The latest reviews confirm that we are on track to deliver this challenging target.
The strategy also has a focus on young people. A new work placement experience programme is being put in place, providing 10,000 work placements to last for six months for key groups of jobseekers. We are also expanding the JobsPlus scheme with higher incentives for recruitment of young unemployed people and introducing a new youth employment charter for intensive engagement with young jobseekers. The action plan for apprenticeship, launched in April 2021, builds on and seeks to enhance the apprenticeship system in Ireland by increasing the number of registered apprentices per annum by 10,000 by 2025. The Government, as part of its Covid response, has also provided an additional 50,000 education and training places to support the reskilling and upskilling of our workforce for the jobs of tomorrow. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, last night published details of a major package of new funding for higher education and training. The funding crisis in key parts of higher education is being tackled and a range of measures will provide direct financial and service support for students. This includes new funding for access and inclusion. When we are asked about what this budget does for young people, the answer is very clear: we are delivering jobs, training and education, as well as a series of initiatives which will provide direct financial assistance. We can also point to the reduced cost of public transport for young people, an imaginative proposal with a tangible benefit that will make a positive difference to their lives and to the quality of life overall.
Our health system has faced enormous new pressures in the past year and a half. Even today it continues to deal with a significant number of Covid-19 cases. The pandemic directly led to the cancellation of hundreds of thousands of procedures and tackling this backlog has to be added to other essential service developments. This budget will directly enable a major series of initiatives to make health services more accessible and develop new services. Our hospital system will move forward with developing new specialist services as well as implementing an urgent programme to reduce waiting lists from their new pandemic high. A waiting list fund of €350 million will help those waiting longest on public hospital waiting lists. The HSE will be funded to hire an additional 8,000 new full-time and permanent staff. Some 300 new acute hospital beds will be added in 2022, on top of the 800 provided this year, and the development of many more in subsequent years will proceed. By the end of this year, critical care beds will have increased by one quarter since the Government took up office. Next year, we will go further again.
An important feature of this budget is how it provides for important new initiatives developed by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, as well as by the Ministers of State, Deputies Butler and Rabbitte. Over €30 million will go to dedicated women’s health initiatives, including contraception and funding for our national maternity strategy. We will also expand specialist endometriosis services and provide additional specialist referral menopause clinics. Access and affordability will be improved through free GP care for children aged six and seven, a reduced drugs payment threshold, lower hospital charges for children and expanded free dental care. Major new funding is being provided for mental health services, while a range of initiatives to help older people and people with dementia will also be implemented. Building on the huge progress made this year in reducing the disability assessments of need backlog by 91%, next year an extra €55 million will go to tackling the waiting lists for speech and language therapists, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and psychology. Together with many other developments for next year, the budget’s provision for health services ensures we are undertaking one of the most sustained periods of service expansion in our history.
The loss of nearly 10,000 new houses due to the pandemic has added new pressures to an already serious situation, but the reality is that a step change in house building, and the building of public housing in particular, is now under way. The Housing for All strategy which we published recently is a radical, realistic and costed plan, which will open up access to affordable, high-standard housing to purchase or rent.
The largest multi-annual programme with secured funding in the history of Irish housing has been put in place with in excess of €20 billion available in the next five years through the Exchequer, the Land Development Agency, LDA, and the Housing Finance Agency. There are those who attack the fact that our plan also facilitates the development of private housing. We make no apology for this. Ireland needs action on every element of housing and to block private housing and, by extension, private renting would make price pressures much worse.
The plan provides a whole-of-government approach to tackle issues across multiple policy areas, including homelessness, affordable home ownership, public and social housing, the LDA, rent reform and planning. Furthermore, a new tax to activate vacant lands for residential development is being introduced. Overall, more than 11,800 new social housing homes will be available next year.
The Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, has developed and is implementing a range of urgent and ambitious plans that can have a major positive impact on the provision of homes. The attacks on the Minister and his housing plans have been highly predictable and based on the premise, repeated again yesterday by Deputy Doherty, that there are easy and rapid solutions, which would happen tomorrow if only his party were put in charge. The inconvenient truth is that Sinn Féin is in charge of housing in the Northern Ireland Executive and its record is the exact opposite of what it demands here. Sinn Féin took charge of housing policy in January 2020 and, because it is an area of devolved responsibility and is not only about money, it is not an area where it can again blame London for problems. In Dublin, a new Government came in, implemented changes immediately and published a fully costed and radical plan within 12 months. In Belfast, where homelessness, house prices and social housing are also acute issues, Sinn Féin has promised that by the middle of next year it will get around to publishing a housing supply strategy. After two and a half years, it will publish a plan. There is no issue where the attacks we face are more aggressive or where the claims of providing a credible alternative are more arrogant but, if you look beyond the spin, all you find is the emperor’s new housing policy.
In the past year and half, we saw once again just how important our schools are to our society. Supporting our schools is a core priority for me and for this Government. This priority is demonstrated again in this budget. As a result of this budget, classes will be smaller, more school buildings will be renovated and built, schools serving disadvantaged communities will receive extra support and, most importantly, there will be a major increase in the number of teachers and SNAs supporting children with special needs.
Ireland today has one of the highest levels of school completion and third level qualification in Europe. This has been the foundation upon which our economic and social progress has been built over the past five decades. However, we can always do better and do more to release the full potential of children and young people with special needs as well as children facing educational disadvantage. Next year will mark another important step for inclusion and achievement in our schools.
The Government also remains committed to the full implementation of Sláintecare as part of a mission to introduce universal healthcare and to provide the people of Ireland with the right care in the right place at the right time.
There are many other areas where this budget delivers an ambitious and progressive programme. A number of urban regeneration initiatives will proceed and changes that are central to supporting rural communities will be implemented. Between this year and next, the funding for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will have been increased by 13%, enabling both the protection of all key farm schemes and the introduction of new measures. This budget delivers on our promise to establish a national food ombudsman to regulate the sector and to ensure fairness for all producers. The €4 million being provided will ensure this important new office, a long-held demand of farmers, will rapidly get up and running.
Cabhróidh an caiteachas a chuireann an cháinaisnéis seo ar fáil mar bhonn faoi láidreacht leanúnach ár gcultúir agus ár dteanga dhúchais. Tarlóidh sé seo go réadúil lá i ndiaidh lae i suímh chomh héagsúil le seomraí ranga agus imeachtaí oscailte pobail. Tá réimse leathan tionscnamh atá uaillmhianach agus spreagúil curtha chun cinn ag an Aire, an Teachta Catherine Martin, agus cuirfear i bhfeidhm iad i rith na bliana seo chugainn. Ag obair go dlúth le pobal na n-ealaíon, tá faomhadh an Rialtais faighte ag an Aire, ag an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Chambers, agus ag Roinn an Aire le haghaidh bearta a bhfuil sé mar aidhm acu, ní hamháin imeachtaí cultúrtha a atosú i ndiaidh na paindéime, ach dul i bhfad níos faide ná sin . Cuirfidh na bearta nua seo nuálaíocht agus for-rochtain ar fáil.
Accelerating our efforts to tackle the climate emergency is a core mission of this Government. It is shared by all three parties and whole-of-government co-ordination is being ensured by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, as chairperson of the Cabinet subcommittee. The climate challenge will demand fundamental changes in every sector and every community throughout Ireland over the coming years but it also offers us enormous opportunities in our move to a new, more sustainable future, a future where we will be more resilient to the climate change that we know is upon us, more self-reliant in terms of the energy we use and more respectful of the natural world around us. New industries and economic opportunities are there for us to seize as we accept the now undeniable and urgent necessity to find more sustainable ways of working and of living.
Ireland has taken a step forward in tackling the crisis with the enactment this summer of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which sets legally binding emissions reduction targets for Ireland for the first time. Legislation and targets are not enough though. We must proceed with action, innovation and investment. This is not easy and there are choices to be made. No single blueprint is available to every country for taking action in its own social and economic context. However, we will act and we will act with determination.
It is a pity that key elements of this House have chosen the road of cynical political opportunism on climate change. They support it rhetorically and then systematically oppose every concrete action. We cannot and will not let this delay us. In this budget, we are providing the financial investments required to support the next stage of our transition to a low-carbon future. The forthcoming climate action plan 2021 will reflect our first carbon budget programme and outline the specific actions we will take across Government to achieve the emissions reductions necessary for our future well-being.
In keeping with programme for Government commitments, revenues from this year's increase in carbon tax will be used to protect those most vulnerable to fuel poverty through increases in the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance and qualifying child allowance. It will also be used to help fund the retrofitting of homes to reduce energy costs for homeowners. Funding will also be provided to help ensure a just transition for those who are particularly adversely affected by the need to decarbonise our activities. Finally, a significant proportion has been set aside to help farmers address greenhouse gas emissions.
We are committed to pursuing and achieving the transition to a climate-resilient, biodiversity-rich, environmentally sustainable and carbon-neutral economy by 2050. This will be delivered in a just and sustainable manner.
Brexit remains a major economic challenge. The European Commission’s proposal to allocate a very significant share of the Brexit Adjustment Reserve to Ireland is welcome and reflects the extensive engagement we have undertaken to present the unique, adverse and disproportionate impact of Brexit on Ireland. Our work will continue over the period ahead, in particular as checks and controls are brought into effect for imports into Britain.
Commissioner Šefčovič is today outlining the EU’s proposals for dealing with problems in trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. I want to put on the record of this House my very deep and genuine appreciation for the way he has approached this issue and how he has conducted himself. He has dedicated himself to fully understanding all aspects of the issue and has been steadfast in his commitment to problem-solving. He has spent an enormous amount of time listening to people on the ground in Northern Ireland and working on constructive and detailed proposals. At every stage, he has worked in good faith and has epitomised the spirit of the Commission’s consistent strong support for the Good Friday Agreement. If everyone is operating in good faith and if the focus is on addressing disruption in trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, then these proposals will address the problem and respect the treaties we all agreed to. I will leave my comments at that for the moment. I will be further communicating with the British Prime Minister.
Over these past two years, while living with Covid-19 and its toll on human life and well-being, we have all endured hardship and loss. However, we now turn our attention to the challenges and opportunities on the horizon, including addressing housing and climate change, and positioning our economy and society to thrive and achieve sustained progress.
This budget marks the start of that journey.
When speaking to the previous budget, I said that the road ahead will continue to have many turns, challenging us in new ways, but we will reach a time when we can again go about our lives without worrying about this terrible virus and look towards a building a better future for us all. Today, with budget 2022, I am happy to say we can now raise our heads and look towards that better future for us all. I commend this budget to the House.