Deputy O'Donnell is sharing time with Deputy Flaherty.
Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed)
I am delighted to contribute on this debate. In the limited time I have, I will concentrate on a few matters. It did not receive much highlighting in the budget, but I sought it a number of months ago and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, has included it, namely, an increase in the hourly rate of the disability wage subsidy scheme from €5.30 to €6.30. It is for people who are working and have disabilities. The amount now comes to 60% of the minimum wage. I feel strongly about this and campaigned for this increase, and I thank the Minister for following up on my request. It may be a small measure in the overall scheme of things, but it could be of major significance. I encourage employers to avail of this subsidy and to take on people with disabilities. They have a great contribution to make. The increase got lost among the other measures. I worked with Rehab workers in Limerick. This is about real people's lives.
I wish to discuss Shannon Airport. As Chair of the Committee on Transport and Communications, I welcome the appointment of Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh and the management team. There are two measures specific to Shannon in the budget. First, along with Cork Airport, Shannon Airport will now be included in the regional airports support scheme. This will make a considerable difference. Second, €90 million has been set aside by the Government to provide supports for the activation of key strategic routes. The three such routes at Shannon are Heathrow, which is now up and running but which we want to see extended to three daily flights, Boston and New York. All of these routes are flown by Aer Lingus. I want to ensure the funding's allocation is not based purely on a simple measurement of numbers. It has to be about the impact for the region. Dublin is exponentially ahead of the other airports. If we are serious about balanced regional development, the basis on which this funding is allocated must have a weighting that benefits the Shannons and Corks over the Dublins. The first two types have a larger hill to climb, so we must get the strategic routes back.
This is a post-exit budget, as it were. It is a budget that seeks to ensure everyone can come out as undamaged as possible. There is a large income tax measure of €500 million which will ensure workers can at least keep up with the cost of inflation. An increased package of approximately €370 million will provide for increases across all social welfare sectors, including payments for adult children dependants.
I want to see people returning to work. There are categories of people who, through no fault of their own, for example, a disability, are unable to find work and the State must support them. One way of doing that is by ensuring we have jobs. That the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, is being extended to April will be of considerable benefit to businesses. This should not get lost among the budget's main components. However, we must approach this in a way that ensures the economy is sustainable into the future. We must balance the books. It is an old-style term, but for someone who is running a business or even a household, what comes in must meet what goes out. People can borrow for capital purposes, of course. For example, we borrowed €48 billion to get us through the pandemic. That had to be done and the economy is now doing well, but we must return the economy to a trajectory that is sustainable and where we can be honest with people about the long-term future for themselves, their children and the country.
Some €11 billion is being invested as part of the national development plan. These are all very important projects. The M20 project continues. It is a project that I feel strongly about. If we are serious about balanced regional development, it must be done. It will not cost €3 billion. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is putting that figure out there blandly. There is no basis for it. I challenge him to give us the details of where he is getting that €3 billion figure from. It is creating a great deal of confusion but I deal in facts. If we are serious about balanced regional development and there is to be a counterpoint to Dublin, it cannot be the case that the two major cities outside of Dublin are not linked, including up to Galway. It should not be the case that I can drive my car from Limerick to Dublin faster than I can drive to Cork. There must be practicalities. We must have certainty in terms of travel. The M20 has to be a key project. I fought for it to be retained, and it has been, but we must deal in hard facts. This project will not cost €3 billion. That figure is now in the lexicon and out in the media, so we need to hear from the Minister. He must give me the basis for his claim because I do not believe that is the actual figure.
I welcome budget 2022. It is an important first step in many key areas, namely, health, housing, education, social protection and mental health. Budgets by their nature are incremental and, over the coming years, we will start to see the full impact of budget 2022. It will be seen for what it is, that being, a real budget for change and a budget for a better Ireland.
A key request for County Longford in the budget was a continued commitment to compensation for Longford County Council for the loss of €1.3 million in commercial rates arising from the closure of the ESB power station. I thank the Ministers, Deputies Darragh O'Brien, McGrath and Donohoe, for honouring this commitment.
Much has been made of the commitment to climate action in the budget. The commercial rates compensation reflects the Government's commitment to working with a community that has been adversely affected by the rapid decarbonisation of the midlands and the closure of our peat-powered power plants. On the other hand, commitments were given to the people of the midlands and we were assured we would not be forgotten and that and all the necessary measures to compensate the region, local services and economies would be put in place. Yesterday, though, we saw many families affected by the closure of commercial peat production protesting yet again outside the gates of Leinster House with the IFA. When I first sat on the then Committee on Agriculture and the Marine at the start of this Dáil, I was naive enough to believe think a solution to the blanket ban on peat harvesting was imminent. Unfortunately, it seems we are no closer to a solution and thousands of tonnes of peat are now being imported to sustain our beleaguered horticultural industry. We have missed a season of harvesting and all the soundings are that, while a solution might be in the offing, we look set to miss another.
Budget 2022 is an ambitious and laudable statement and the just transition is fine in theory, but at a practical level it simply is not working for the midlands. Groups are battling to draw down their funding and the ESB, arguably the biggest winner in the escalation of decarbonisation with the emergence of its new, slick and clearly very profitable business model, is simply not engaging with or supporting our local communities.
You could go as far as to say it is behaving disingenuously at this point. Through the midlands regional transition team, MRTT, we have asked for a meeting with ESB management to discuss issues with the community compensatory fund. The company has a fund of €1 million to divide between the two most impacted communities, that is, Lanesborough, County Longford and Shannonbridge, County Offaly. A request for this funding can be presented to the ESB board but only at such time as the ESB has developed new projects in each location. This means it is not a compensatory fund but a form of a dividend linked to a semi-State company that is on its way to transitioning successfully to a new activity. In other words, if it does not work for the ESB, the community gets nothing. This was never the proper interpretation of this funding and it breaks a precedent that was set with the closure of plants in Ferbane and Rhode where a compensation fund was provided to the local communities.
The ESB may argue it has already given €5 million to the just transition process but it knows it has an added responsibility to the two most impacted communities and it urgently needs to put in place funding and supports for Lanesborough in County Longford. To continue to leave that on the long finger is an affront to this community, one that has powered the generation of electricity in this country for the past 60 years. It is time for all agencies of the State to start singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to climate action and just transition.
Budgets have always been about priorities and choices. This budget is no different. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil made their choices. It is clear they do not favour working people or families who are overwhelmed by the cost of living crisis. This is the sixth budget under Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, another in a long line of budgets that have not delivered for ordinary people. Instead, the coalition has spread itself thinly and tried to be all things to all people.
Those in need of Government support got crumbs from the table. The Government could have given relief to renters in this budget, but it provided them with nothing. Once again, they have been left behind. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, was scrambling on Tuesday last trying to right the wrongs. People in Dublin Bay North are paying crazy rents. Following on from this budget, they will still be paying crazy rents. The additional couple of euro they will gain from the tax changes will not cover the cost of half a day's rent on their homes. Sinn Féin would introduce a ban on rent increases and we would put money back into the pockets of renters. The choice of this Government was to give tax relief to landlords. It is clear where Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil priorities lie.
The Government could have helped people struggling with the ever-increasing fuel costs they will face this winter. The carbon tax increase will result in more people struggling to heat their homes. The Government could have supported families who are paying through the nose for childcare, but it did not do that. This is another blow to families already smothered by high fees.
This budget is more of the same from the usual suspects. Big business, developers and high earners had smiles on their faces on Tuesday. Sinn Féin's alternative budget would deliver for people. We would deliver for renters, parents, workers and those on hospital waiting lists for years. Sinn Féin would deliver for those struggling to buy a home and for those living on the breadline who do not know where they will get the money from to pay their next bill. A cost of living crisis has been staring Ministers in the face but they decided to turn a blind eye.
The Government may try to ignore the realities of the lives of the people living in my constituency, but I will remind it at every opportunity that it is not a Government that is putting the interests of workers and their families first.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the budget. I want first to compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on her extraordinary work over the past 12 to 15 months in regard to the disability sector. It is fantastic to have a Minister of State with an in-depth knowledge of the sector apply her considerable strengths in that regard to address the challenges within the sector. The budget provides for approximately €135 million in funding for the disability sector. That is desperately needed funding. It comes on top of the €140 million provided in last year's budget to bring the disability sector back into view. The Joint Committee on Disability Matters, which is a cross-party committee, meets weekly to consider issues related to disabilities and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. We hear each week of the challenges and lived experiences of those with disabilities. Each week, new issues come up that need to be tackled.
An issue about which I am passionate and desperately concerned is the lack of speech and language therapists and occupational therapists within the public health system. A number of therapists are leaving that system to set up private practices owing to their frustrations with the public system. This is leading to extreme frustration among parents as they scramble to access services elsewhere for their children who, without them, are hampered in terms of best possible outcomes in their lives. We should be focused on putting in place measures targeted at the recruitment of occupational and speech and language therapists for the public health system. We should be looking across the globe to find them. There is an urgency in this area. It is a huge challenge which, if not dealt with soon, will challenge us into the future. As I said, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has considerable energy in regard to this area. I ask her to look specifically at this issue.
Another area of concern is respite services. Additional funding is provided in the budget for respite but there is need for greater roll-out of respite placements. We have a chicken and egg situation in that respite units have been built but they are awaiting inspection by HIQA under various regulations. We need a co-ordinated approach in getting respite further into the public health system to alleviate the stress and strain on families and the lived experiences of people with disabilities. I have strong views on this matter, which I have spoken many times. If the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, takes away or on board anything from my contribution, I hope it will be the urgent need to recruit occupational and speech and language therapists. I commend her on the work she has done to date.
I welcome the changes to the carer's allowance, in particular the change in regard to the income disregard. Every year at budget time I make the point, and I will continue to make it for as long as the good people of Cork North-West elect me to speak here on their behalf, that the carer's allowance needs to be care tested as opposed to means tested. There are many families wherein one or other partner has given up a job to mind an elderly relative, sibling or child but that partner is not eligible for the carer's allowance because of the income of the other partner. The carer is eligible for carer's benefit for two years but nothing after that. There is a cliff. The care need has to be considered. Family carers save the State a huge amount of money while sacrificing their jobs and careers to look after a parent, sibling or child. We need to make sure that is considered by the Department.
It is the next big challenge we are going to have. It should be in the here and now but not everything happens immediately. We need to look at it and ensure it is in the melting pot.
In budget times past, we would get 20 minutes to talk on any issue of importance to us in it. There are a few issues I am looking at. Deputy O'Donnell spoke about the M20 and the gateway between Cork and Limerick. It is sacrosanct. It is hugely important to open up the south west, the part of the country I am so honoured to represent. We must move at pace to ensure that happens and that strategic piece of infrastructure, which has been delayed for quite some time now, is put in place to open up the entire south west, give connectivity and allow us to grow that part of the country.
Everybody has discussed the last year and a half and how rural Ireland has changed and how the mindset of the public has also. It has changed ahead of the politicians in Leinster House and indeed the policymakers. People are working from home. They have moved out of the cities and found a better quality of life. We must ensure we are providing the digital hubs in the villages and towns across the country. We must ensure they are resourced properly, funded properly and that people can work there on a part-time or blended basis. It is vitally important that the Government, and the Departments especially, take heed. People have been working from home and have been doing an absolutely excellent job in their roles over the past 18 months. The Government should take a number of spaces in the rural digital hubs for its employees. It should take three, four, five, ten or whatever the percentage is of the space in a digital hub and the rest of the space can be used by the private sector. It would give the backup to ensure communities will come on board. A huge number of people are working from home on behalf of the State right across the country and if those digital hubs had a guaranteed income, it would be important. It must be looked at.
I have been dealing with a number of organisations in relation to community employment, CE, schemes, some of which have places available. We must look at that because CE schemes and people working in them are providing a massive service throughout the country in urban and rural areas. They include work in meals on wheels programmes, community centres and GAA clubs. We must look at that to ensure they keep rolling and that the regulation or the challenges there are eased up to ensure there is availability of people. We also should not forget the CE supervisors, whose pension schemes we have discussed and debated at length.
I also wish to address broadband and the importance of our agriculture industry as we go forward. It is the indigenous industry and the backbone of our rural communities. We must ensure we have a vibrant agriculture community as we go into the next decades and ensure we are producing food in an economical and environmentally sustainable way, as we are. Moreover, we must ensure that we can challenge any country in the world in how we are producing it and stand over that, as well as making sure that our place in the markets is secure.
I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on the budget.
As a notice for those Deputies contributing to the Topical Issue Debate, which is scheduled for 6 p.m, we are going to finish these statements considerably earlier than that. To advise the Deputies who are on standby for that debate, I estimate we will finish the statements within 40 minutes at the latest.
The Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, was wondering would Sinn Féin give an honest appraisal of the budget. I am certainly willing to do that. This budget, like somebody who has been in a job too long, has managed to look very busy while not getting very much done at all. Post budget, millions are still waking up to crippling rents, which are the highest in the EU. The cost of living is still spiralling, with every weekly shop and bill that comes in the door costing more. People have no chance of a hospital appointment for themselves or an operation for their children, despite being on waiting lists for months and years. In my own constituency, the outpatient waiting list for Naas General Hospital is enormously long, at 11,292.
Carers saw that what the Government gave them was in direct proportion to how much they feel valued by this Government for their 24-7, 365-days-a-year work. That value is nothing, nada, zilch. In contrast, Sinn Féin would raise the annual carer's support grant to €2,000, increase the threshold for the carer's allowance and at long last provide a long-term carer's pension in line with the State pension. All of that will still be a drop in the ocean, given what all our carers do for the people they love. Their work frees up vital services of nursing, physiotherapy, personal care, education, geriatric care, special care, feeding, cleaning, washing, hoisting, picking up and dropping off. I am exhausted just listing all they do and they are doing it relentlessly every single day. My constituency of Kildare North is heaving with these wonderful carers. They are people all too often forgotten but I remember them today, here in their Dáil.
This budget also did diddly-squat for our renters, including our young people, who wonder if they will ever be able to leave home and get a place of their own. I tell them with Sinn Féin's housing plans and with Deputy Ó Broin in charge of housing, they will. Working couples are camped out in parents' boxrooms with their own children. The plan was to get a deposit together and now there is absolutely nothing they can afford since the Government put the cuckoos, the vultures and the idea of property before the basic human need for a home. We in Sinn Féin have a carefully costed plan to change all that for the better because change is not only about money; change is about priorities. We are getting those priorities right by ensuring people will have a chance at an affordable home, can get public healthcare in a public hospital, can get help with their mental health when they need it and can rely on their Government to give them a hand when they need it, because that is the purpose of Governments. There should be no more abandonment of the people, no more saying "You are on your own pal", sink or swim, shape up because the markets demand it, or ship out. It is time for a better, kinder, bigger and more ambitious Government. Sinn Féin will be that Government and I look forward to that day.
We have no Solidarity-People Before Profit speakers so I call Deputy Durkan.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this budget. I have spoken on a number of budgets over the years and have seen speeches from the Government and from the Opposition. There is a certain similarity. Mr. Denis Reid, a former employee of the Houses of the Oireachtas, used to advise as to what the various spokespersons would say and predict it in advance. Normally, from the Opposition it would be "Too little, too late" or "Opportunities missed". I am sure he is smiling as he looks at these debates.
I do not propose to go over the budget in detail other than to simply say it is a good budget. It touches the right spots. There are issues that still must be dealt with and there will be issues that must be dealt with. We cannot deal with them all at the one time. However, I must remind people of something. This is not personally targeted at the Opposition. They are nice people and I know they mean well but I must remind them they are erring in their ways at this stage. It is simply this: we hear on a regular basis that Fine Gael has been in government for ten years. What has it done? Why has it not done something about these things? Why has it not solved them? I will tell the House why, for those who have a short memory. It is true Fine Gael has been in government for ten years, but not in power. The first seven of those ten years were spent trying to find money to pay the day-to-day requirements of the Government, that is, the current expenditure. After the 2011 general election, the Taoiseach of the day had to go across the globe with begging bowl in hand, calling on various people, including Bill Clinton and everybody else in order to encourage people to come to this country, show an interest in it, invest in it and think of how good we were and how good we would be in the future. At that time, we heard various spokespersons, both inside and outside the House, predict Ireland would have to default on its debts. We had no credit rating anywhere. Nobody wanted to lend money to us except at a very high interest rate. We were then told by various other experts outside the House that not only that, but we would have to have a second bailout. Does the House remember that? It was common knowledge we would have to have a second bailout.
When the then Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and his colleague, the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, predicted that Ireland would get out of the programme much earlier than anticipated, people said it was rubbish, nonsense and palaver coming from the Government side. It was not, because we did. What they had to do then, their parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have paid for since. There was a lot of heavy lifting to be done. Many things had to be done standing up. Some parties not present in the House at the moment actually left this country to advise other countries, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, Iceland and Greece, but, fortunately, they did not take on board the advice they were given. Maybe Venezuela did, and we know where that country is now.
We must differentiate between reality and fiction and acknowledge that we are in a far better place than we were. The three parties in government were in a position to produce a budget that is good and stable. It will create stability in the future. It does not give anything away and serves to remind us that there are inflationary tendencies, which we must recognise. We need to be careful in terms of what we do from here on in. Otherwise, we could find ourselves back in that old spot, looking around and wondering where we are going to go next. It is common for members of the Opposition to say that if they were in government they would do an awful lot better. It is easy to fantasise. It is like the guy sitting outside the boxing ring talking about what he would do if he was in there. Unfortunately, when some of the guys get in there, they make a quick exit. I am not a great boxing fan but I can cite quite a number of cases that ended up in disaster.
I want to warn against making promises, perhaps with the best of intentions, which could lead this country into disaster. If we go down that road, we are going to a very dangerous and lonely place and nobody will come to our aid the next time. Nobody will offer to assist us the next time. It will be on ourselves and we can depend on all the sages and wise people that we want, on all of the people who quote various economists and so on who tell us to listen to what they have to say and we will have no fear. All I have to say about that is that I am long enough around to have seen it all. When we see so much of it over a period of time and see the things that have happened and the things that should not have happened even though the writing was on the wall, then it is good for us to think and make sure that we do not allow these things to happen again. That is what I have to say in general.
Points have been made by colleagues in respect of climate, an issue with which we must deal. Several years ago, I suggested that there would be a serious campaign to develop renewable energy, particularly wind energy. It did not happen at that time and it has not happened yet. It certainly has not happened to the extent required, which is the real problem, but I hope it will. I am looking forward to it and I hope it will happen. There were wild predictions from people who told me at the time that I was ridiculous and stupid, that I did not know what I was talking about and that they knew better. They did not know better and events have since proven it.
As previous speakers stated, there is one thing we can boast about in the context of climate change. On our current carbon footprint, we provide food for almost 50 million people. This does not happen anywhere else across the globe, and it cannot happen. It is due to our climate and our grass-based production of beef and dairy, and we should be given credit for that. Importing peat moss and peat products from other European countries does not make sense. It is very hard to tell our farmers and those in the horticulture sector that this is in accordance with international policy. It is not; it is a pretence to ourselves that we are making a major inroad in that area. We have a lot more to do in that area and we can do it but we must invest now. We must spend money now on providing for renewable energy in the future. We must do that now and while we are doing so to the best of our ability, it must be followed by more and more investment.
A Member from the other side of the House said that the Government had choices. That is right. The Government did have choices and it chose stability and looking after the people as best it could in the circumstances. When Fine Gael went into government in 2011, it had no choices. There was nothing from anywhere or any quarter. There was nothing but misery. When the Cabinet door closed with a clang, the only thing that could be heard was ominous silence and the threat that the future carried. It took a lot to stand up to that and provide for it but at least we were able to come through the economic crisis, Covid and Brexit. We still have more to do. As someone once said, a lot done but more to do.
I do not know if we are living in the same country at all. I have listened to the passionate plea of Deputy Durkan. He is rolled out at the end of debates all of the time. Fair play to him, he is a likeable rogue. Fine Gael puts him out there to defend the Government at the very end but to borrow his boxing analogy about those outside the ring, perhaps it is time for this Government to retire, move out, let us in and judge us on our record.
Spending in budget 2022 is focused on making it seem like the tough issues are being tackled when really the Government has just stuck with the old Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael way of doing things. We see the disastrous results of those policies today. We are in a housing crisis, waiting lists are through the roof and people are faced with a rental market that is either non-existent or overpriced. This budget did nothing at all for renters. Sinn Féin proposed to cut rents through a refundable tax credit and to ban rent increases for three years but the Government chose to continue its old ways by prioritising landlords. However, it does not stop there. The lack of rental properties means that many renters are living in unsuitable accommodation. Of the 765 private rental properties inspected in my own constituency of Tipperary last year - an inspection rate of only 10% - only 91 were compliant with minimum standards. That is the result of the failed policies this Government is intent on continuing to pursue. These people will join countless others struggling with soaring rents and energy prices, as well as the added burden of the increase in carbon tax. There has been barely any expansion of the eligibility criteria for the fuel allowance, leaving many people struggling to heat their homes without support.
This Government is obsessed with the optics rather than the substance of the budget. Instead of benchmarking spending against the cost of living, the Government hopes that we will be duped by increases that will prove worthless in light of the rising cost of living. The €5 increase in core payments for lone parents, jobseekers and carers will not help to meet rising costs. It just keeps those rates well below the poverty line. People need to be able to cover the cost of basics and live life with dignity. Sinn Féin wants to get everybody to at least this level as fast as possible.
I welcome the fact that the carer's allowance income thresholds have been raised, having remained stagnant for 13 years, but where is the increase to the carer's support grant? Where is the introduction of the long-term carer's pension as Sinn Féin had proposed? On the cost of childcare, the Government's plan will only reduce fees for some families. Our proposal would have reduced fees for all parents, while also ensuring a living wage for all workers.
We constantly hear that mental health is a priority for this Government, but the level of increase in this area has actually fallen. Of the €37 million announced in additional funding, only €24 million represents real additional funding. This compares poorly with the additional €113 million that Sinn Féin committed to spending on mental health. That would have been the biggest increase in the history of the State. I am right in saying that the budget only commits the Government to two child and adolescent mental health services next year. This is despite the fact that in April there was no clinic room large enough in the Tyone health centre in Nenagh to allow an occupational therapist to facilitate developmental assessments and interventions. This has only contributed to growing waiting lists. In the overall health budget, I see mention of building up the capacity of our National Ambulance Service. What is the plan in this regard? The term "enhancement" is used in reference to plans for community and rehabilitation beds. What does that mean? Is this the same enhancement that led to the closure of St. Brigid's District Hospital in Carrick-On-Suir and the loss of beds at Roscrea's Dean Maxwell community nursing home?
In the context of agriculture, there are no new supports for suckler farmers, sheep farmers, areas of natural constraint, farmers or recipients of farm assist. Our budget would have provided an increase in spending of 12% as opposed to the Government's meagre 1% increase.
This budget is further confirmation that this Government is totally out of touch with the needs of people in Tipperary and across the country. Earlier today, a Fianna Fáil Deputy said he was happy that Fianna Fáil's hoofprints were all over this budget. Let me remind him that these hoofprints are stamped all over renters and ordinary families who struggle with childcare, health and carbon tax. They have been forgotten again but his hoofprints and those of this Government will not be forgotten at the next election.
I always make the mistake of responding to the debate instead of just reading what I have prepared. Yet I find myself compelled to respond to the debate again.
Do not do it.
On one side of the House we have the Opposition talking about the problem of inflation and spending more in order to tackle the it. Does the Opposition not realise that one of the principal causes of inflation is injecting more money into the economy? The more the Government injects more money into the economy, the more inflation increases. It is about striking a balance between Government spending and inflation increasing. It is a basic economic principle, going back to the French Revolution or the Weimar Republic. Government spending has to be balanced with inflation.
On the other side of the House, we have Deputy Durkan talking about fiscal corrections as a result of too much spending. Of course, he left out the fact that not all of that correction was made by Fine Gael. It was made first and foremost by the Irish people, but two thirds of it was made in advance of Fine Gael ever coming into government. Where Fine Gael went wrong, which shows the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, is with all the small projects that really help people and have a major impact on their lives. They need to be the priority. They are the priority in this budget and have been absent from previous budgets. Despite attempts to suggest that this is a tired, out-of-date, exhausted Government, there is nothing exhausted about the Ministers of State, Deputies Rabbitte and Butler, or the Ministers, Deputies Stephen Donnelly and Norma Foley. For many of us in Fianna Fáil, this is the first real opportunity we have had to inject our priorities and choices into a budget. Last year, we were dealing with Covid, which was understandable.
Education, disadvantage and special needs were my primary priorities and I know they were also the priority of many at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting last week. Speaker after speaker spoke about higher education, special needs, disadvantage and schools. Budget 2022 was a record priority commitment for higher quality and inclusive education. The budget delivered for schools in disadvantaged areas and expanded investment in special education to its highest amount in the history of the State. The DEIS programme received a 20% increase in funding and will be extended to more schools. DEIS urban band 1 schools will also receive further targeted funding. I know the difference that will make to schools in my community. In places like Ballymun and Finglas, DEIS schools do a fantastic job with some of the most disadvantaged children in our country and in some of the most challenging circumstances. Expanding the DEIS programme ensures that as many children as possible who are at risk of educational disadvantage will benefit from targeted supports.
The programme for Government commitment to reduce class sizes continues to be delivered as well, with an extra 350 teachers being provided to further reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. Unlike in previous years, this improvement will also be extended to DEIS schools.
I particularly welcome the investment in special education. Over 900 special education teachers will be provided, alongside nearly 1,100 special needs assistants, SNAs, who will work both in special education and in mainstream schools. That is 2,000 people to give these children the helping hand they need. My area has a shortage of special education and autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes. I regularly speak with the Ministers of State, Deputies Butler and Madigan, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and families who are impacted by those shortages and waiting lists and are travelling long distances to get to those schools. These children deserve a school place in their own community and to go to a school with their siblings and neighbours. The difference it makes to these families when classes and places are available in their local area is huge.
The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, recently met a number of parents in my area who are campaigning for more places and the Minister for Education recently opened a new ASD class in Virgin Mary Girls' National School in Ballymun in my constituency. The benefit of that inclusive approach to education delivers for the whole school community. In fact, it delivers for all of our communities. The funding in the budget for extra teachers, SNAs and administrative principals will allow me schools to open classes with confidence and they will receive that support. I also thank the Minister for Education and the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, for their commitment to this issue and for working with me and the parents concerned. I look forward to more classes opening and more local children receiving a school place nearer their homes. That has to be a priority for this Government as we go forward.
In higher education, student grants have also been increased for the first time in a decade. Not since Fianna Fáil was last in power have higher education grants been increased. The fee contribution for post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses has also been abolished. That will affect 10,000 students, as will the establishment of an apprenticeship office. Students will also benefit from the half-price public transport scheme. That is a very welcome measure to address both the cost of living for them and their families and our climate action targets. Higher and further education will be critical to our recovery from this pandemic in providing the skills we need to tackle the housing crisis. I welcome the wide range of measures in this budget that will help the sector to expand.
This is a budget that supports all sectors of our education system, with a focus on the most disadvantaged communities and on children with special education needs. I make no apologies for that. It continues Fianna Fáil's history as a party that recognises education as the foundation of our success as a country and demonstrates a clear commitment to a system that delivers for all learners. It follows the example of our party set by Donogh O'Malley many years ago, as well as by the many people who have followed him.
That was a nice political broadcast for the Fianna Fáil Party