The Order of Business is No. 1, Taxi Regulation Bill 2012 - Report and Final Stages, amendments from Dáil Éireann, to be taken at 11.45 a.m. and to conclude not later than 2 p.m.; No. 2, County Enterprise Boards (Dissolution) Bill 2013 - Report Stage, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 4.30 p.m.; and No. 3, Statistics (Heritage Amendment) Bill 2011 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6.30 p.m.
Order of Business
Yesterday we debated the provisions of the latest budget brought forward by Fine Gael and the Labour Party. I welcomed some aspects of the budget and pointed out the many which are deeply troubling. We will have an opportunity to debate those provisions further when the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill comes before the House. Can the Leader indicate a provisional timetable for when that Bill will be brought before us? It will require major amendment, containing as it does many provisions that are grossly unfair and which we hope the Government will revisit.
Most colleagues will agree that what happened yesterday in the Department of Health is unprecedented in the history of the State, with the Minister for Health being unable to produce a budget for next year. The Minister is effectively being stood down by the Government, with four other Departments charged with assisting him in putting together a plan for his Department, to be published within the next 21 days. Anybody who examines the health Estimate for next year will observe how incredibly vague it is. We know it will involve €13.2 billion of taxpayers' money, incorporating savings of €666 million, but there is precious little detail. As I said yesterday, the Department of Health is a time bomb waiting to go off.
I am seeking a commitment from the Leader that when those 21 days have passed and the Minister, with the assistance of the Department of the Taoiseach and other Departments, finally produces his service plan for next year, the plan will be debated fully in the House, with the participation of the Minister. For many weeks I have endeavoured to secure a debate on the issue of discretionary medical cards, in a context where, this year alone, more than 22,000 people in severe need have had their cards withdrawn. That amounts to the withdrawal of some 400 cards per week. Yesterday's budget included the announcement that a further €133 million is targeted under what is termed a review of medical card provision. This essentially points to a withdrawal of medical cards and, moreover, it does not relate to the over 70s but to those suffering long-term illness. Here we see the Minister reneging on yet another promise, namely, to introduce medical cards for specified long-term illnesses. We must have a comprehensive debate on this issue when the service plan is published.
I understand the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, will today announce details of the pyrite repair scheme. That is most welcome and I have no reason to believe it will not do what is required for home owners. We await the detail of the legislation with interest. Media reports suggest the Bill will be brought to the Dáil before Christmas. Does the Leader have any information on when it will come before this House? The sooner the pyrite resolution board is established on a statutory basis and can begin accepting applications from home owners, the better for us all. This House has played a major role in seeking a solution for people affected by the issue.
I take this opportunity to clarify that the provision of free GP care will include all children aged five and under, not just those aged under five. There was some confusion in that regard. I asked the Leader yesterday to arrange a debate on universal health insurance provision and the move towards the abolition of the two-tier health system. The budget announcement is a very welcome step in that direction.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on third level education? There was very good news for schools in yesterday's budget in terms of the retention of the pupil-teacher ratio, the recruitment of 1,300 additional teachers, the allocation for the school book scheme and the ring-fencing of €1.3 billion for special needs education. There is concern at third level, however, regarding the slippage by some of the universities in the international rankings and the deferral of the reallocated €25 million in funding to 2015 rather than 2014. A debate on the future of third level education is particularly important given the increased numbers of young people projected to enter college in the context of the Government's very welcome commitment to increase the number of training and education places as part of the youth guarantee. Resources will have to be allocated to ensure third level institutions can meet the challenges of increasing numbers.
In regard to the promised debate on Seanad reform, I welcome the Taoiseach's announcement that legislation will be introduced to extend the franchise for the six university seats to all third level institutions. I hope we will soon have a broad debate on the scope for Seanad reform through legislative change. Our discussion last week followed immediately upon the defeat of the referendum. It would be useful to have another debate in the near future when we have had time to reflect on how best to achieve significant change through legislation.
Five of the Gaeltacht constituencies - Donegal, Meath, Waterford, Galway West and Cork - voted to retain this House in the recent referendum, while the remaining two - Mayo and Kerry - did not. Our debate on democracy and participation began when the democratic elections to Údarás na Gaeltachta were cancelled against the advice of many people in this House. The Leader indicated yesterday that the Taoiseach will be coming to the House to discuss his reform proposals.
In light of the verdict of the people, we should restore to the agenda the extension of democracy to which I refer. I am of the view that - contrary to what was stated on certain posters during the referendum campaign - more democracy and more politicians are going to be required. I look forward to gender quotas coming into operation in Gaeltacht areas in order that the rather powerful mná na hÉireann might express themselves by being elected to an tÚdarás.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, or the Minister of State at his Department, Deputy Perry, to come before the House to discuss the Action Plan for Jobs for next year, which is currently in preparation? Everybody will agree that the budget introduced yesterday is excellent in the context of job creation. I know that Members across the House will welcome the retention of the 9% VAT rate, the abolition of the airport tax, the anti-fraud measures relating to VAT, the start-your-own-business schemes and the changes to capital gains tax to encourage investment. Many of these ideas and initiatives came about as a result of consultation engaged in throughout the country, particularly by the forum for small business established by the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Perry. We are aware that for every person who obtains employment, the State saves €20,000 per year. I welcome the various initiatives to which I refer and I am of the view that we must explore the options which exist in this regard even further.
Senator Darragh O'Brien stated that a review of a person's medical card actually means that it is going to be withdrawn. The reality is that it is just that, a review. Some 1.9 million people have medical cards and reports indicate that more than the figure to which the Government has referred in this regard is being paid to GPs in respect of people who are not using their medical cards. I am sure the Deputy would not advocate paying GPs in respect of a facility which is not being provided to anybody.
The Government is trying to take a further €133 million out of------
Those to whom these cards relate may have left the country or their circumstances may have changed and they do not use them anymore.
Their cards have been taken off them this year.
Senator Clune, without interruption.
I am sure Senator Darragh O'Brien would agree that it is sensible that the Government should review the position with regard to medical cards and ensure that GPs are not paid in respect of cards which are not being used. The evidence shows that this review is necessary. Anybody who is entitled to a medical card will either retain that which he or she already has or will be issued with one.
Later today I will be introducing a Bill which advocates that data from the 1926 census should be made available to the public. I cannot overemphasise the importance of this census, particularly as it was the first to be conducted following the foundation of the State. The usual procedure is to wait 100 years before issuing data relating to a given census. At present, however, we are in the midst of a decade of commemorations in respect of events such as the 1913 Lock-out, the 1916 Easter Rising and the First World War. It is very important for people to understand what happened subsequent to the period to which those commemorations relate and how Ireland reacted.
I have received correspondence from genealogists across the globe and I am aware that they are all waiting for data relating to the 1926 census to be released. In order to complete both family trees and the story of Ireland at that particular time, said data are extremely important. When the 1911 census data was made available online, in a matter of months it had been accessed by millions of individuals. That gives us an idea of what people expect in the context of census data. I hope there will be unanimity when I introduce my Private Members' Bill on the matter later. I am of the view that it would be a very worthwhile exercise if the 1926 census data were made available by 2016.
On a separate issue, I have received a great deal of correspondence from England in respect of the possibility of Irish citizens who reside there obtaining a vote in the next presidential election. There is massive hurt among those to whom I refer at present. Their understanding is that if the Government takes action on this matter, then only those who travelled to England in the past 15 years will be able to vote. Imagine how those who travelled to England to find work during difficult periods prior to the past 15 years and who have been sending money back to their families must feel about this matter? It would be an absolute insult not to give these people the same opportunity as that which may be afforded to those who travelled to England in more recent times. I appeal to the Leader, in the context of whatever might emanate from the Constitutional Convention regarding this matter, to convey to the Government the importance of not snubbing Irish people who have been living and working in England for 30 or 40 years. Those to whom I refer comprise over 80% of Irish citizens living in England at present. I hope the information relating to this matter is wrong but I have a feeling that it is not.
I agree with calls for a debate on employment in the wake of yesterday's budget, which is very progressive for small and medium-sized businesses. Perhaps the relevant Minister might come before the House to discuss the matter.
I met a hotelier from the midlands who is a Fianna Fáil supporter and who indicated that - despite the fact he will not say so publicly - the reports on the budget were good. I informed him that was a good sign, particularly coming from a Fianna Fáil man. He then said that those in the hotel business are grateful to the-----
There are a great many political people involved in that sector.
Yes. The man in question stated that he would not be saying it publicly but that the budget is reasonable.
Will Senator Harte name the man in order that he can-----
I will not name him publicly but I can supply his name in private.
Senator Harte should address his remarks through the Chair. Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?
Perhaps he might give those opposite a good discount if they opt to stay at his hotel.
As already stated, I support the calls for a debate on enterprise and employment with the relevant Minister. I come from a business background and, as a result, I can see the positives in the budget. This budget is progressive for small businesses and towns that are struggling. Such businesses provide the lifeblood of such towns. For all the criticism in respect of it, there are many positives to the budget and the Minister should come before the House to discuss these.
When Governments and Ministers frame budgets, the first thing they should do is to put safety nets in place for the most vulnerable in society and for the different groups and sectors which must be protected. The budget introduced yesterday removed the safety net relating to young people under the age of 26 whose dole is to be reduced. The Government is sending a clear signal to these individuals that it is not serious about job creation and that the best thing they can do is leave the country. Unfortunately, more young people are going to emigrate because there simply will not be any jobs here for them. Reducing their dole is a very cynical way of informing them that they should get out of the country. That is an appalling way to treat young people.
The safety nets relating to the telephone allowance and medical cards for older people are now under threat. I do not believe it is possible to credibly argue that trying to achieve €113 million in savings - as the Government describes them - in respect of medical cards will not have an impact on people in possession of such cards. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that there are families and individuals who have medical cards now but who will not have them when these savings - which in reality are cuts - are imposed. Another aspect of the budget which will affect people is the increase in prescription charges. Many safety nets are being taken away from a large number of families.
I take this opportunity to request a debate on emigration. There have been several calls for a debate on employment and I support these. The House has already discussed this matter on a number of occasions. I am of the view that we should engage in a debate on emigration and on how Government policies are forcing young people - including graduates and other skilled individuals who have finished pursuing courses in our universities and institutes of technology - to leave the country.
Yesterday, we heard a great deal about job creation. For some people such as vintners, retaining jobs is extremely important. Yesterday was not a very good day for vintners. Will the Leader request that the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Alex White, come before the House as soon as possible? The licensed premises sector has been on its knees for several years and we have reached the stage where one public house is closing each week.
We have to contend with the cheap sale of alcohol in supermarkets which is creating a major problem in terms of alcohol abuse. I am getting fed up waiting for something to be done regarding the cheap sale of alcohol. Since we came into this House two years ago, the former Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, came to this House on several occasions. The Minister, Deputy Alex White, has since replaced her and we are still waiting for something to happen. I ask the Leader to request the Minister to come to the House, as a matter of urgency, to let us know when something will be done to address the cheap sale of alcohol.
We have heard a good deal today about the benefits for employment creation in this budget but let us consider some of the specifics. When the retention of the 9% VAT rate is removed, there is very little left. The start-your-own-business scheme provides an income tax exemption of €40,000 per annum for unemployed people who have been unemployed for at least 15 months and who somehow rack up a tax bill of €40,000 in the following year. I wish them the best of luck but I would say they will be few and far between. That is worth €1 million. It will apply to a very small number of people. There is another €1 million allocated in respect of the employment and investment incentive. We should not forget that these provisions are tax breaks that will be taken up by wealthy people. Film relief of €15 million will be given to large film companies. Some €20 million will be allocated for the Living City initiative. That funding should be shared around other towns other than those listed in the budget. The provision is essentially for very wealthy people to live in fine residential properties in our cities. There is an allocation of €20 million between now and 2018 in respect of capital gains tax entrepreneurial relief. Some €1 million has been allocated for capital gains tax retirement relief. All the job incentives being lauded here and the talk of small businesses benefiting from them are small pickings compared to the hardship being expended and that has been caused to many ordinary families around the country.
Allow Deputy Byrne to continue without interruption.
Some 500 houses will be built or renovated in local authority estates this year. That is welcome but it is necessary because any of us who walk into local authority housing estates will know that many of them are boarded up waiting for funding. I suspect those targeted 500 houses will not even cover the number of houses boarded up throughout the country.
An important point was raised by the leader of my party in the Seanad yesterday. Some €2 billion in finances is being allocated by NAMA to purchasers of commercial property in this country. Why are we giving them a break? Why do we not give the ordinary home owner a break? At the time this is being done the Government is fiddling around with local authority houses and abolishing the mortgage interest supplement. That is a dichotomy that is at the heart of matters. I remind the Labour Party Members that this a Fine Gael budget because Fine Gael has got everything that it wants. It got the €3.1 billion, and congratulations to Fine Gael on that-----
I want to talk about fairness and to have a debate on fairness. The Government issued a leaflet on fairness in budgets yesterday. Again this year, the only way it could stack up the fairness claim was to include the Fianna Fáil budgets going back to 2008 or 2009. In its leaflet, it proudly boasted about how fair the budgets were from 2009 to the present because that is the only way it can add up the sums having regard to fairness. The reality is that this Government's budgets have hit the poorest hardest and have let the rich away scot free.
I am sorry to hear that my good friend, the leader of the Opposition, Senator Darragh O'Brien, is troubled by aspects of this budget. I thought it was a very fair and equitable measure designed to grow the economy is the fairest way possible. Given our economic circumstances, I will not go over what happened in the recent past or remind the Senator about the sins of omission and so on.
The Fine Gael-led Government is boasting about Fianna Fáil budgets in its leaflet on fairness on its website. I do not know if the Senator got a copy of that?
I do not follow what the Deputy is saying.
Of course I have. Given our economic circumstances, this is a very fair measure overall.
What is fair?
We are talking about the budget. Senator Byrne is reading too much into his good constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Reilly-----
-----and the absence of some details which, I have no doubt, will follow in due course.
I want to do something special, I want to welcome the contribution of a man Members opposite much like to malign and criticise, although in fairness to Senator Darragh O'Brien, he has praised the Minister, Deputy Hogan. Like him, I look forward to his announcement today regarding the pyrite repair scheme. He has done sterling work in regard to Priory Hall, pyrite issues and the plans we know are in the pipeline. I should end on that happy note. We are in agreement on that.
As a Fianna Fáil man, I welcome the retention of the 9% VAT rate. I advise Senator Harte that it was not I who had that conversation with him. People welcome what is good about the budget. I spoke, on our party's behalf yesterday, and began by acknowledging the good measures. I must agree with a point mentioned by Senator Byrne and also mentioned last night. In the context of the back to work scheme, the analogy I gave last night was that one might as well tell the head of the national lottery to give the winning lottery numbers to the first person to come in with both parents over the age of 105; I predict nobody will qualify for that particular scheme and that an additional €1 million will be saved.
The leader of the Opposition, Senator Darragh O'Brien, mentioned the unique situation regarding health where again an unfortunate number, the number of the beast being €666 million, is predicted to be saved in health and we do not know where any of these cuts are set to fall. That is a matter of concern. I would like Leader to arrange for an early debate on that matter because there are grave concerns about it throughout country. What will these cuts mean? Will there be hospital closures? We have had a budget overrun of nigh on €200 million and now another €666 million is needed and at the same time the Government is able to roll out medical cards for Michael O'Leary's children. There is concern about these issues.
I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills would come to the House because, in respect of third level education, €25 million in savings is earmarked from what the Minister described in his Budget Statement yesterday as the positive cash balances of certain institutes throughout the country. Does that mean that if an institute of technology or a university has managed to secure additional income streams of its own, has been prudent with the resources, saved money and is financing a strategic plan or a capital programme, such as Sligo Institute of Technology, its own strategic plan will be put in jeopardy because it may have resources saved over the years to finance its own capital expenditure? By contrast, the institute in Waterford in the Leader's county needs an additional €10 million that was given to it this year.
I never worry about Labour's fortunes when I hear us being attacked by Fianna Fáil.
We do not mention them at all.
The real Labour Party.
I has been very noteworthy that over the last two days we have been subject of Fianna Fáil ire. I will rest easy tonight knowing that the Labour Party is definitely on the up.
We were never at 6%.
Senator Darragh Byrne asked a very interesting question, namely, what was the Labour Party's contribution to this budget? Its contribution was the fact that there are €2.5 billion in cuts as opposed to €3.1 billion.
It is €3.1 billion.
The Labour Party's contribution-----
The Senator has not read the Minister's Budget Statement yesterday.
-----is the fact that there is no cut to the basic rates of social welfare. There has been no increase in the universal social charge. There have been many measures in this budget-----
-----to protect the weak and the most vulnerable. That is Labour's contribution to this budget.
Senator Hayden to continue without interruption. Has the Senator a question for the Leader?
I call for a debate on this budget. A number of issues were raised last night in statements but we have all had more of an opportunity to digest the budget and its contents and it would be very helpful if we had a more considered debate. A good point was raised by Senator Byrne yesterday in terms of the Living City initiative and he suggested that would-be cities like Drogheda and Dundalk should be included in this initiative. I support him on that. From my perspective, I very much welcome the safeguarding of the homeless budget. However, I am concerned that the home renovation initiative, which will provide a tax credit to homeowners who carry renovations, does not include, for example, rented properties. Four out of ten people in Ireland are living in rented properties, particularly in urban areas. I am concerned about matters of fuel poverty and poor standards in rented housing. I would like to see this type of initiative extended to people in rented housing. I would like if we could have a further debate on the specifics of the budget.
It is important to put on record that last week I and other colleagues pleaded with the Government not to increase the VAT rate from 9% to 13.5% and I am glad it listened to us. As my colleague, Senator Byrne said, other than that, there is very little in the budget for small and medium sized businesses. Some issues covered in the publication, budget 2014, are farcical, one being the trade finance initiative.
The document states, "Work with the European Investment Bank (EIB) in developing a tailored and customised trade finance initiative to support the growth of the export sector." These are the words of the measly bureaucrats in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. They amount to a cover-up, if I may say so. There is no promise of when this will happen other than a reference to discussions and there is no timeline of delivery. It is just hot air and it means nothing.
I wish to put on the record this morning that I would like the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to let us know why he has reduced the budget for Enterprise Ireland. As a small open economy we are totally exposed to trade with other countries. The only way we can earn any income to support the economy is to grow companies that export, but the budget for Enterprise Ireland is significantly down. The devil is in the detail and one must spend time looking at the figures to see what in reality is happening.
The other issue which we should have a debate in the House is the other cut in Enterprise Ireland. The level of staff is down by 16% since 2009. We are dependent on the entrepreneurial staff in Enterprise Ireland - they are certainly that, indeed they are missionaries. We cannot be totally dependent on foreign direct investment or multinationals. We must develop our own indigenous industries. This trade finance initiative is a farce and it is pathetic. The devil is in the detail and the budget for Enterprise Ireland is significantly down.
I have listened to those in the Opposition this morning and if there was a degree course in negativity they would all get A1 grades.
We were listening to it for long enough.
I remind those in Fianna Fáil that in its final three years in government, 7,000 jobs were lost per month. We are now creating 3,000 per month. That is positive and is the way forward. This budget plans to increase that number to over 45,000 jobs per annum and that is what we intend doing.
I wish to comment on the health budget because it is an important issue. When people talk about cuts in the budget they are automatically talking about cuts in services. One of the things we must do in the health budget is create efficiency. One of the problems I have with the health budget at the moment is that of the €13.3 billion total, over €3.4 billion is going out to agencies which are not under the control of the HSE. I have received several calls during the past two to three months from people in respect of these organisations. In one case I was told that a chief executive is earning €340,000 per year in an organisation where there have been no changes made in real terms, whereas all HSE staff were asked to take pay cuts. That is something I want examined. I have the matter before the Joint Committee on Health and Children scheduled for tomorrow morning. This is one area we need to start looking at to ensure we are getting value for money from the organisations to which we are paying out over €3.4 billion from the health budget. It is true that they are providing a very good service but I want to ensure that we are getting value for money. I am keen to ensure that taxpayers' money is used in a proper way and this is something that this budget is, hopefully, able to achieve.
To take €2.5 billion out of the economy in tax and expenditure savings is a very difficult task. To find €1.6 billion in expenditure cuts has also presented difficulties. I suppose it is the job of those in the Opposition to oppose policies by the Government but I wish they could do it with a little honesty. I do not say fairly because we do not expect fairness from the Opposition but we do expect a little honesty from time to time.
I will quote from the Fianna Fáil national recovery plan for 2014. This would be the budget those in Fianna Fáil would introduce if they were in power today - thank God they are not. The national recovery plan from Fianna Fáil proposes to take €1.5 billion out of the social protection budget for 2014. Yet, the entire budget savings in expenditure amounts to €1.5 billion. Fianna Fáil would do it at a stroke and decimate our public services. Yet its party members come to the House this morning with their hang-dog faces shouting about fairness and care for those most vulnerable in our society. We could argue over different things in the budget but if someone criticises a particular measure and that person was in a position to be able to actually do something about it but did not do it, then I contend that amounts to a gross and crass hypocrisy.
Unfortunately, we have found it necessary to reduce jobseeker's allowance for those under 25 years of age but we have created places in training and education, where these people should be. We have reduced one payment to €100 per week. Those in Sinn Féin have been the most vocally critical about this. I point out that where Sinn Féin is in government, in the North, and always has been, the same allowance is actually €67 per week. When people from Sinn Féin come to the House and criticise the €100 per week payment when they are in a position to do something about it in the North but do not, it amounts to hypocrisy.
I call on the Leader to organise a debate on mental health. I welcome the €20 million increase in spending for mental health community development. I call on the Leader to arrange for the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to come to the House to discuss the best use of that resource.
My apologies for missing the initial part of the debate. I trust most of it was a rerun of yesterday's budget debate. It is fair to say that during the course of the finance Bill and the social welfare Bill we will all have ample opportunity to go through the measures in more detail and make whatever suggestions we believe are appropriate. Perhaps in his reply the Leader might indicate to the House whether he knows when the social welfare Bill and the finance Bill will come before the House.
I support what Senator Burke has said in respect of the health budget. All of us know and it is fair to say that there are and have been serious problems in the Department of Health for many years. It is not the current Minister or his immediate predecessor who have the substantial questions to answer because matters started going out of control in the Department more than a decade ago. I supported the establishment of the HSE because I believed the centralisation of administration seemed a good idea at the time. However, it has not worked as effectively as we had thought. Therefore, we need a debate on the Department to which the taxpayer is giving over €13 billion every year but which is not delivering the services that our citizens need. I look forward to that.
The €100 dole money for young people is something on which we will have to reflect seriously during the social welfare debate. I appreciate all of us must try to ensure that a culture or welfare dependency does not keep hold. However, it has taken hold and perhaps this measure is designed in some small way to try to address that. There is some sign of a deportation order for certain categories of young people arising from this €100 payment.
There is another figure we should reflect on. I understand it costs, on average, approximately €100,000 to educate a child to the end of second level, which is a modest cost. Let us ignore third level costs for now. Up to 70,000 or 80,000 of those children or young people emigrate almost on an annual basis. I see this as a net loss to the State of €7 billion per annum. Emigration is not solving the problem or, if it is, it is only doing so in a short-term way. We have invested €7 billion in people who are flocking out of the country on an annual basis. We need a substantive debate about young people, their future in this country and emigration. I am keen to know when the finance and social welfare Bills will be debated.
Generally speaking, the tone and emphasis of the budget has been particularly positive. There are three areas where it is very positive, including the area of job creation. Despite what Senator White has said, most business organisations have welcomed it.
As I have said, the devil is in the detail.
Senator Mullins, without interruption.
They have welcomed the positive job creation measures in the budget.
The devil is in the detail.
The devil is in the Opposition measures as well.
One area that is very positive is the area of tourism. The retention of the 9% VAT rate has been universally welcomed and has the potential to create significant jobs.
The position is likewise in the agricultural sector, where significant investment will be made. I call on the Leader to organise a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, in the near future to see how we can leverage the agri-food sector to create even more jobs in future.
I would also like it if the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport came to the House because we need to look at and build on the successes of The Gathering and see how we can leverage the retention of the 9% rate and the abolition of the air travel tax. It was significant that last night Ryanair announced that it would provide an additional 130,000 seats in and out of the country from Knock international airport this winter. There is a real opportunity for us to market our tourism product in the UK.
One area about which there has been much discussion in the media over the past 24 hours is the threshold for medical cards for over-70s. I would ask whether it is wrong for our wealthier pensioners to contribute a bit more so that the under-fives and vulnerable families can have access to medical cards. I think there is nothing wrong with that and that it is fair and balanced. One thing this Government achieved is a potentially job-rich budget that is fair and balanced and addresses many of the difficulties that have faced this country for a number of years. The real proof of its success will on 15 December when this country exits the bailout and we will stand on our own two feet again still facing many challenges but with a country back in reasonable shape after a very difficult period. We will not attempt to apportion blame this morning.
An international crisis.
Senator Mullins is way over time.
Our international reputation will be restored and, hopefully, people who emigrated during the past five or six years will start to flow back again.
One element of the budget about which I was unhappy was the fact that the cost of a packet of cigarettes went up by only ten cent. The Minister had scope to increase the price of cigarettes significantly. There is a serious public health issue with cigarettes and smoking which is costing a serious amount of money in terms of health care and we must tackle it as if we were in a war with the tobacco industry. I was disappointed that the increase was only ten cent. It should have been €1.
However, all other aspects of the budget were very positive. I am delighted that the Minister took on board the submissions from the hospitality, hotel and tourism industry and retained the VAT rate at 9%. That has certainly given people involved in the tourism industry a significant shot in the arm and will help this country build on what has already been achieved through The Gathering and other important tourism initiatives.
I must also commend the Minister's actions in trying to ensure that the construction industry gets back on its feet. The tax credit system of 13.5% for people who renovate their homes will certainly jump-start the construction industry. That coupled with the fact that people with construction skills on the live register will get a tax holiday for two years if they set up their own businesses will certainly deal with the issues around the black market in the construction industry.
What has been done with the suckler cow scheme for farmers is very welcome. We are now looking at a situation where €40 million will be invested in this area. It is a good budget for tourism and rural Ireland. It is a balanced and fair budget. There are many people who will be disappointed by the fact that it has been such a good budget and that it has been so well received. Even this morning, KPMG, which is one of the leading accountancy firms in the country, wholeheartedly welcomed the various initiatives. Many other businesses and interest groups have come out in support of the budget.
You are always good at protecting the wealthy.
Senator Conway, without interruption. Has Senator Conway a question for the Leader?
What we need to do is get behind this budget. I suggest to the Leader that Seanad Éireann gets behind and promotes this budget and injects the confidence into our economy that this budget is clearly designed to foster.
On a positive note, I commend the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government for the second day in a row for his initiative in respect of the pyrite problem, which has been raised by the leader on this side of the House since this Seanad came into existence. I am glad that this will come to a satisfactory resolution. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the former Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the late Shane McEntee, in respect of this problem and the progress he made.
I did not get an opportunity to speak about the budget last night. The decision to increase the prescription charge fivefold is a mistake and will cause hardship to many people. Travelling to work this morning, I listened to an individual who will find it very difficult to cope as a result of this measure and who is in a desperate state.
The decision to cut €113 million from the budget for medical cards is another retrograde step at a time when we will give free GP care to all children under five years of age. I welcome that measure but it should be means-tested. People who are in a position to pay for medical expenses for their children should pay for them. It should not be at the expense of more vulnerable people, particularly elderly people.
In respect of the decision to remove the bereavement grant, I spoke to an undertaker from the country last night. I was shocked when he told me that a large percentage of the people with whom he deals depend on that grant to pay funeral expenses. I understand that the average funeral down the country costs between €2,500 and €3,000 and that the cost of a funeral in Dublin is far more expensive. At a time when so-called well-to-do families who find themselves in a financial crisis must bury a loved one, the grant of €850 is no longer available to them. This will cause hardship and could cost the State far more because the State will have to subsidise funerals in the future. That is a fact.
I agree with comments from the other side that the devil is often in the detail. There are certainly difficult cuts in this budget. I do not think anyone expected that it would not be a difficult budget. At the end of the day, there were serious cuts to be made and there is no doubt that everyone will be affected in some way.
I welcome many of the positive stimuli, particularly in the area of job creation. VAT is something about which I have campaigned since I was elected. I campaigned to have different businesses in the industry embrace the VAT rate in the first instance. It has been hugely successful. It is an initiative that the Minister for Finance implemented without being lobbied and the industry has responded very positively to it. I am very happy to see that it has been retained.
I also welcome the initiatives in the construction area. This should also have a very positive effect on the construction industry and both the tourism and construction industries have wide-reaching effects. Many people are affected by employment in those two industries so the initiatives are to be greatly welcomed.
Senator Darragh O'Brien, who is the leader of the Opposition, mentioned the social welfare Bill. On my way to the House I had been been informed that the Bill would be debated in the House in mid-November. However, I have now received a note that the Bill will be completed in the other House next week and that we are expected to complete it by the end of October. If that is the situation, it means that the House will sit during the week in which it was supposed to be in recess and during which the Dáil will be in recess. I must find out the exact position as I have only learned about this in the last few minutes.
Senator Darragh O'Brien also mentioned the €13.2 billion budget for health and called for a debate on the service plan once it is published. I will try to arrange such a debate.
Senators Darragh O'Brien, Coghlan and Wilson welcomed the pyrite remediation scheme that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is due to announce. I have asked the Minister to publish the legislation for the scheme as a Seanad Bill. As he is amenable to doing this, I hope the Bill will be introduced in early course.
Senators Bacik and MacSharry called for a debate on third level education and funding. I will request that from the Minister for Education and Skills. I note Senator Barrett's points in regard to the Údarás na Gaeltachta Bill. I will see what we can do in that regard.
Senator Clune and others referred to the budget, and small businesses in particular. Members on this side of the House welcome the many measures introduced to support small businesses and create jobs, whereas Opposition Members claim there are no initiatives in this regard. A tax package of €500 million is being introduced, alongside 25 new measures to support entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprise, and create jobs. All of us unreservedly welcome the retention of the 9% VAT rate on tourism and hospitality products, which also supports small and medium enterprises. We have been told that the reduced VAT rate has created 15,000 jobs and it will continue to create jobs in the future. The Senators opposite do not think this measure is aimed as protecting small businesses but I disagree with them. The air travel tax rate, which the previous Government introduced, is being reduced to zero. That will also support the tourism sector, which is important in terms of attracting finance to this country.
We want to support exporters.
Clearly the Senators opposite do not want to know about the good measures. They want to dwell on the negative. I do not blame them for so doing given that they have little to say about the budget other than picking out negative elements. I will not continue to outline the good measures contained in the budget.
They will not listen.
Senator Ó Murchú referred to this evening's Private Members' business and his Bill on the 1926 census. I cannot at this stage predict the Government's position on the Bill but I am sure we will hear it this evening. I commend the Senator for bringing the Bill before the House.
Senator Harte called for a debate on enterprise and employment. I have asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to come to the House but I have not yet agreed a date with him. I will continue to press him for a debate on jobs and job creation.
Senator Cullinane made a number of points regarding medical cards for the over-70s. Couples with an income of more than €900 per week will lose their medical cards. Senator Gilroy rightly drew our attention to the amount that young jobseekers receive in Ireland. The rate in the North, where Sinn Féin is in power, is €67. Senator Cullinane should put that into perspective and start considering what his party is doing in government in the North. He tends to forget these figures when it is convenient to do so.
Senator Henry spoke about the ongoing difficulties that publicans face and called for a debate with the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy White, on the below cost sale of alcohol. I will try to arrange a debate with the Minister of State, who has indicated that he will come into the House.
Senator Byrne spoke about the budget and the question of social housing. It is the intention to build or refurbish 500 houses for social housing next year. More are needed but we have to start somewhere. Senator Hayden referred to the construction sector and called for the scheme for principle private residences to be extended to houses that are rented. I am sure that point will be made when we debate the issue further. Senator White spoke about the budget and job creation. I have outlined some of the measures that were announced in that regard.
Senator Colm Burke spoke about the health budget and expressed concern about the amount of money being paid to agencies outside the HSE. Certain CEOs are being paid incomes in excess of €300,000 from the health budget. The Senator intends to raise this issue with the Joint Committee on Health and Children. More than €3 billion out of the overall health budget of €13.2 billion is being spent on areas outside the HSE. These areas should come under the same scrutiny as the HSE. I ask Senator Colm Burke to revert to us with the outcome of the joint committee's deliberations on the matter.
Senator Gilroy reminded Opposition Members of their promises and the cuts they introduced to social welfare.
That is a bit rich coming from Senator Gilroy given how the Labour Party broke its promises.
We will not get into it this morning. Senator Bradford spoke about welfare dependancy and the Social Welfare Bill. I have already indicated when that Bill is likely to come before us.
Senator Mullins called for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come to the House. The Minister will come into the House for a debate next Wednesday. The Senator also called for a debate with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on the marketing of tourism and measures such as the air travel tax. I will ask the Minister to come to the House. I remind Members that our economic sovereignty will be restored on 15 December. That is something all Irish people will welcome.
Senator Conway spoke about the tobacco industry. He had hoped that the price of tobacco would increase by more than 10 cent but the Government is also taking steps on the plain packaging of cigarettes and other measures to address the concerns he raised. Senators Conway and Noone referred to measures aimed at supporting the tourism and construction sectors. Senator Wilson spoke about the bereavement grand and the prescription charge, which has increased from €1.50 to €2.50. I understand, however, that a cap of €21 applies to multiple prescriptions. The bereavement grant is being removed but an exceptional means payment is still available.