I am sharing time with Deputy McGuinness.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on budget 2020 which was unprecedented and unusual in its nature. It was essentially a no-policy-change budget, mostly uneventful, with little for anybody to be enthused about. It was, as the Minister for Finance outlined, a Brexit budget, meaning that there would be no significant changes to taxation and a modest welfare package, with some minor tweaks elsewhere.
Brexit continues to loom large over the country. As a small open economy, we stand to be severely and significantly affected in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit, which appears to be the most likely outcome. Talks continue today, but the mood music is more sombre. The enthusiasm and optimism displayed among all of the negotiating partners seem to be wearing thin. We are relying on there being a Brexit extension after 31 October. While there may very well be an extension of perhaps three or six months, what then? We may have no agreement, with a no-deal Brexit on the horizon. We appear to be playing a high stakes game and gambling on the outcome of the next British general election. It is a gamble which risks people's jobs and opportunities. It is one that makes me deeply uncomfortable and all of us seriously concerned.
Considering the grave risk the country faces and the extreme challenges facing the economy, it is only right and proper that the budget for next year was framed in that context. It is right that we try as best we can to make provision in the State finances to protect jobs and help the most vulnerable sectors, namely, agriculture and tourism. I note, however, that much of the Brexit support funding announced in budget 2020 will be borrowed. It will not come from the available fiscal space. The borrowing will be in the region of €650 million. Accordingly, instead of running a surplus of 1.4%, we are looking at running a deficit of 0.5% next year. This is despite the fact that the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council advised the Government that Brexit support funding should come from the available fiscal space. This advice has been completely ignored.
The council also gave evidence at the Oireachtas Committee on Budgetary Oversight that surpluses should have been run within the State finances since 2015. When the money was available, we should have put some more aside to leave the State in a better position to deal with the challenges of Brexit and other shocks to the economy.
Unfortunately, the State finances are not in as good a position as they could have been. This is not Fianna Fáil saying it; the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council said it. The €40 million that is to be made available to the tourism sector will not be enough to protect the 10,000 jobs that have been identified by Tourism Ireland as being at risk in the event of a no-deal Brexit. In agrifood, we are looking at potential job losses in the region of 12,500. What is being made available needs to be targeted at those vulnerable sectors and loan schemes, while they have their place, will not be enough. There must be grant aid to smaller operators as they will not be able to afford to borrow to save their business. Across both sectors mentioned, agrifood and tourism, we are facing the prospect of 22,500 job losses, and these are the two biggest employers in rural areas. Agrifood and tourism sustain rural communities right across the country and job losses on this scale would devastate rural areas, in particular the west and north-west region. I see nothing in this budget that focuses on the west and north west, which is worrying and disappointing given that this is the most disadvantaged region in the country.
Leaving Brexit aside, there are a couple of key issues I wish to address in the context of budget 2020. The first is the Defence Forces. The Government only saw fit to allocate €34 million to the defence budget. This is despite all of the Government rhetoric about its commitment to the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann. This amount is paltry and an insult to those who are serving. It is deeply offensive and the reaction from the defence community reflects that. The Minister of State at the Department of Defence has yet again, for another year running, failed to do his job and advocate for the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces are in crisis and haemorrhaging their best talent at an alarming rate, and this is all the Government could manage. "Disappointing" does not even begin to cover it and until we have a change in government, we can expect little else.
Carbon tax remains a contentious issue in this budget. It is the first time we have seen an increase in the carbon tax in many years. People are genuinely concerned about the impact this will have on those vulnerable to fuel poverty. It must be acknowledged that carbon tax is particularly impactful in rural areas. There is no public transport in rural communities and people need their cars to get around. Electric vehicles are nice if one can afford one but they are out of the reach of most people for now and there is no second-hand market to avail of. We need to see transparency in how this tax is collected and in how it is spent. Government policy, forced by Fianna Fáil, is that it must be ring-fenced for green initiatives. People will need to see in their communities where that carbon tax is spent, be it on retrofitting homes, on helping people to make the changes to a low-carbon economy and on green initiatives, such as greenways, across those communities. People will need to see that to know that funding is being well spent. We also need to protect people at risk of fuel poverty. I welcome the €2 increase per week in the fuel allowance. Hopefully, this will go some way towards protecting those at risk of falling into fuel poverty.
We also need to see Government investment in rural transport. We see lots of investment in metro north and in the Luas, lots of funding for transport in the urban centres but nothing in rural areas. People in rural communities want transport too and if we are looking for them to change from using their cars, there needs to be something to change to.
I acknowledge the work done by my colleagues, Deputies Cowen and Michael McGrath, in ensuring that there is a just transition fund for the Bord na Móna workers in the midlands and west. With funding of €6 million for next year amounting to €30 million overall, it should help those communities that will be most affected. Job losses in the thousands for a region like that are a significant threat to the region and the local economy and that was a key focus for Fianna Fáil in this budget.
One of the small positives to take out of this, which again was a key Fianna Fáil policy, was the increase in home help hours of 1 million hours. That sounds like a lot of hours and sounds like significant progress that will go some way towards addressing the genuine hardship being faced by people, but it is worth putting it in context. With over 7,000 people waiting to get home help hours, if one divides out the 1 million extra home help hours being made available next year it works out at merely three hours per person per week. While it is some help, it will not solve the problems we are facing. Those who need and are getting some home help hours are not getting enough. I have seen at first hand people who have had their home help hours taken from them in order that they can be divvied out among others who are waiting. Home help hours allow people to stay in their homes longer. What we do not want is a situation where elderly people who are able to stay in their own homes and in their communities feel as though they are forced into nursing home care before they are ready to go and when they do not need to. Nursing home care costs the State far more. It is penny-wise and pound-foolish to force people towards nursing home care when a few hours per week could be all that is needed to help them stay in their homes. What we are seeing now is people getting half an hour or, perhaps, three quarters of an hour a day, enough barely to get somebody out of bed and make him or her a cup of tea before the home help person has to go. It is such a level of cuts to home help and the small divisions of hours available that create the hardship many face.
I also welcome the increase in Garda numbers, also a key Fianna Fáil policy. We focus on this because crime is becoming an increasing problem in our communities and people see that a visible increase in police presence is the only way that we can tackle this and make people feel safer. The 700 new gardaí announced will go some way towards that. It will not be enough but it is a start. It was a key focus of Fianna Fáil in this budget to deal with community policing and having more police on the street. I note An Garda Síochána appreciates the extra allocation.
There are many other issues to discuss but my time has run out. I focus on this as being a Brexit budget. It was quite a sombre budget, and one with which we all identified and realise that there is a difficult year facing the country ahead.