The health system needs more than the €500 million that was taken from the health budget. To meet demographic demands in health, the system needs an additional €300 million to deal with a growing and aging population. This has not been provided. The Government has decided to stand still, keep the budget the way it is and not deal with demographic demands. This is particularly evident in the Budget Statement, in which the Government provides for only a 1% increase for the HSE in the west and other regions, which in turn means there will be real cuts there. Last year, Sinn Féin warned about cutting €666 million from the health budget. We said it would harm patients and that suitable areas for cuts could not be found. However, Fine Gael and the Labour Party carried on regardless. What did they do? They withdrew thousands of medical cards from the most vulnerable in society. People with life-limiting conditions had their medical cards torn from them.
Today's budget does not mark an end of austerity in health. Indeed, we will see more of the same in the coming year. Our hospitals and health services will once again be forced to do more with less. The consequences will felt in inpatient care and well-being throughout the State. Today's total voted expenditure for health is €13.1 billion. In plain English, today's budget allocation means a further reduction in health spending when increased demand is taken into account. What will be the consequence be? On budget day we deal with high-level figures, as was the case last year. What will be the real effect of the failure of the Government to invest in health? It will be a two-tier health system that continues to stumble along. Public patients will continue to wait far longer for crucial diagnoses and procedures than those who can afford private health insurance. Waiting lists and trolley waits will continue. Ní hamháin go mbeidh daoine ag fulaingt, ach beidh siad ag fáil bháis toisc gur theip ar an Rialtas géarchéim na seirbhísí sláinte a thuiscint.
The mismanagement of housing policy by the Government played a central part in our economic collapse in 2007. Almost four years since Fine Gael and the Labour Party took office, the housing crisis continues. The private rental market is in crisis. Rent supplement caps introduced by the Tánaiste have forced hundreds of families into homelessness. Local authorities are being forced to house these families in hotels at considerable cost to the State as well as the families involved. Can the Taoiseach imagine for one moment what it must be like to be forced out of his home because he could no longer afford the rising market rents and because the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, capped the rent supplement payments while refusing to introduce rent caps? Does the Taoiseach have any idea of what it must feel like to move night after night with his children from emergency accommodation to hotel rooms? These people have to be up and out by 11 a.m. There is nowhere to keep their possessions and they are unable to prepare breakfast for their families. This is not simply theory or fiction. This is the reality in this city for hundreds of homeless families who find themselves in this situation. Why? Because, like Fianna Fáil before them, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have slashed the capital spend on social housing. Since taking office, the Government has cut €270 million from the housing budget, reducing the spend on social housing by almost 50% in three years.
I welcome the Government's commitment to invest in social housing. Any increase in the capital budget for social housing is to be welcomed. However, we need to get real. What the Government has referred to today is €400 million in total for 2015, an increase of €180 million. It is simply not good enough, big enough, bold enough or ambitious enough. This is an out-of-touch Government that does not realise the major crisis in housing in this city and throughout the State. We hear the Government is slowly waking up to the problem, but clearly it does not grasp the full scale of the crisis. What is needed - Sinn Féin has shown as much - is an immediate investment by the State of €1 billion, rather than an additional €180 million, to start to get to grips with the social housing and homelessness crisis in the State. This is the type of urgent response the housing and homeless crises need. Once again, it is a case of too little, too late from Fine Gael and the Labour Party. The increase in the homeless budget is to be welcomed, although it is questionable whether it will even cover the recent increase in demand for emergency accommodation, let alone contribute to the ending of long-term homelessness.
Today, the Government announced several measures which, the Taoiseach maintains, are aimed at helping people with the cost of water charges. No doubt the Government will try to pitch this off as a generous measure born out of concern for the vulnerable, but let us consider it more closely. When the Government introduced water charges, the initial average annual bill was expected to be €278. Since taking office, the Government has reduced the household benefits package by €367. When we add the cuts to the household benefits package to the cost of the water charges we can see that pensioners and people with disabilities are already hundreds of euro worse off. The idea that €100 in any way compensates for what the Government has done to these people is an insult. The extension of the €100 to recipients of the fuel allowance, an allowance already cut by €120, still leaves almost 200,000 people on the live register with zero support towards the cost of water. As winter approaches, older people in particular, living with the reality of fuel poverty, will not only be forced to go to bed early to save on heating bills but will now be worried about the cost of a cup of tea or a warm bath.
Any increase in child benefit is to be welcomed. However, let us put the €5 rise in child benefit in context. The Government has cut child benefit by €47 for the fourth child and €10 for other children. The Government cut the annual back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance for poor families by €100. All the while, the cost of living and education has been rising, pushing more and more families into debt. The Government cut maternity benefit by €32 per week and the lone parent income disregard was cut from €146 to €90, as a consequence of which a working lone mother is down €28. Against this backdrop, struggling families will barely notice the €5 per month increase in child benefit announced by the Government today. A sum of €5 would not even buy a pack of nappies, let alone make up for the hardship caused by all the cuts the Government has already made to child income supports. The so-called Christmas bonus amounts to a one-off payment. The members of the Government did not even have it in them to commit to it for the next year. It is a one-off payment of between €25 and €57.50. People are struggling all year round, not only at Christmas. Many are still in debt as a result of the bill from last Christmas and they need far more than this miserly festive pittance.
As with housing and social welfare, the announcements of the Minister for Finance on education will leave many people bitterly disappointed. While the additional teachers, resource teachers and SNAs are to be welcomed, they will simply meet the increasing demand for services. There will be no change in any of our schools as a result. It is simply a case of dealing with demographic demands. Worse, in 2015 - this is something the Government did not announce; it is the case every year - the Government will increase student fees by a further €250. They kept that quiet on the Dáil floor. Furthermore, it will reduce the capitation grant for every school in the State by a further 1%. The Government was told that any further cuts in capitation grants would mean some schools would no longer be in a position to pay basic utility bills, yet it is ploughing ahead.
Is it really the policy of Fine Gael and the Labour Party to force the closure of schools as a result of this budget?
Last week, I and my colleagues launched our alternative budget. It set out a fairer and more sustainable way of meeting the State's deficit targets. It sought to put €800 million back into the pockets of ordinary workers through the abolition of the property tax and scrapping the introduction of water charges. It outlined investment in disability services and supports. We prioritised investment in health and education and we sought to stem the tide of youth emigration. It was a budget that would help rebuild our economy, renew our society and repair our communities. Unfortunately, the Government once again failed to listen.
In addition to scrapping property tax and water charges, Sinn Féin committed to exempting 296,000 low paid workers from the universal social charge. While the removal of 80,000 of those workers from the USC announced today is welcome, it simply does not go far enough. Cutting the lower rate of USC by 0.5% is simply no substitute for removing the remaining 210,000 of the lowest-paid workers from the tax net. Taken together, these three measures would significantly reduce the risk of poverty among society's lowest-income households while at the same time stimulate domestic demand.
In turn, we would place the burden of new tax measures on those most able to pay. We would have introduced a third rate of income tax of 48% on incomes over €100,000, raising €448 million. We would reintroduce the second home charge at €400 per year, along with other tax measures such as an increase in the betting tax. In total, the costed measures in our alternative budget would raise additional taxes of €1.7 billion. Crucially, however, over €1 billion of this would be put back into the pockets of ordinary working people. This would have reversed the growing inequality and poverty in society. It would also help the local economy by stimulating demand and saving jobs.
In our alternative proposals for 2015 we focused on raising the living standards of the most vulnerable, increasing investment in disability services, reversing the crisis in front-line health care and making education more affordable. There was no mention today of increasing family income supplement, FIS, payments by 10%, as Sinn Féin suggested, which would put an extra €18.50 into the pockets of the 47,000 families who rely on it. This is a measure the Government could have introduced but chose not to. People with disabilities and one-parent families need a break. Sinn Féin prioritised them in its alternative budget. We would have reversed the cut in the respite care grant that the Government introduced when it took €325 from those families, and increased the income disregard for one-parent families.
These are measures the Government could have introduced but decided not to. Instead, it wanted to reduce the tax burden on the most wealthy in society. I am sure the Taoiseach will delight in conjuring up ways to spend the extra €670 he will receive through his tax reduction, but the Taoiseach is not hard-pressed. He is not the person going to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS. His is not one of the thousands of families that are struggling to keep a roof over their heads or to make ends meet. The focus of this Government should have been on the most vulnerable in society. It should have been on investment in public services and on fixing our broken services in health and education.
At the end of 2010, public anger was at fever pitch. The incompetence and corruption of the Fianna Fáil Government made people realise the need for change. On the streets and in the polling booths, people voted for that change. Fine Gael and the Labour Party promised a democratic revolution; they promised investment in jobs and services and they promised fairness. What did we get? It was the same old economic incompetence and political cronyism that had occurred previously. With each Fine Gael and Labour Party budget there is a growing sense that nothing has changed.
That is the reason 100,000 people marched for the right to water in Dublin last Saturday. That is why support for Sinn Féin and other progressive candidates reached 60% in Dublin South West and Roscommon-South Leitrim last Friday. It is the reason the Government, with an in-built majority, could not even win a Seanad by-election. It appeared that after six years of harsh austerity people's expectations had been lowered; we were just too accustomed to the harsh reality of crippling austerity, endless bank bailouts and the same old politics as usual. However, something is changing. The more people hear about economic recovery, the more it jars with the reality that their lives are not getting better. The more the Government spins the line that we have finally turned the corner, the more people ask why they have less money in their pockets at the end of the week.
There is a recovery taking place, and the figures show that, but it is a recovery for the few, not the many. It is a two-tier, two-speed recovery, just as today's budget is a two-tier budget. There are tax cuts that benefit the better off, while the rest are left to rot. The budget is about far more than balancing the books, and the debate today is about more than listing the tax and spend measures. This is a debate about the type of society we wish to build and the type of future we want for our children. Sinn Féin believes that a better, fairer, more equal and prosperous Ireland is possible. However, there is no chance that it can be achieved on the basis of the policies outlined today. The troika will be happy with what has been announced, but Irish society will continue to privilege the few over the many. It will continue as a society for the elites, not for citizens. Poverty, homelessness, health and education inequalities, unemployment and emigration will still be the daily reality for tens of thousands of people.
The Minister, the Taoiseach and their colleagues lack vision. A century after the Easter Rising of 1916, when the women and men of this country dared to dream of a better future, the comparison with today's political class could not be starker. The disillusionment of W. B. Yeats with the lack of vision among his generation springs to mind:
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence...
However, Yeats could also remember a different generation who had the courage to imagine a better society:
Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind...
Ireland is crying out for a new generation who have the courage to lift their horizons above the greasy till, a generation who believe that a better Ireland is possible.
The winds of change are once again blowing and the failure of the Government to live up to the promises made in 2011 will be its undoing. The budget lacks ambition. It does not deal with the unemployment crisis, the housing crisis or the crisis in health. Once again, the Taoiseach is giving tax breaks to the rich while giving nothing to low and middle income earners. Even the modest measures outlined today protect the privilege and poverty in our society. For those reasons, I and my Sinn Féin colleagues will not support this budget.