Sinn Féin - On Your Side

As expected Budget contains hidden cuts and changes – Ó Caoláin

6 December, 2007

Speaking during this afternoon's Dáil debate on Budget 2008 Sinn Féin TD and Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said:

"This Budget will be a bitter disappointment to those who were promised by this Government that more families would be entitled to the medical card. In the Programme for Government they promised to double the income limit eligibility for parents of children under 6 and treble it for parents of children with a disability. They have reneged on that commitment.

"To try to cover this broken promise the Minister for Health is supposed to be reviewing eligibility for the medical card. Why is a review needed to implement the commitment made in the Programme for Government? If such a review is needed why was the commitment made in the first place? The Programme for Government promises firstly to index income thresholds for medical cards to increases in the average industrial wage, secondly to double income limit eligibility for parents of children under 6, and thirdly to treble the limit for parents of children with intellectual disability under 18. None of those things have been done. In fact the medical card threshold is now lower than lowest rate of social welfare.

"The Minister for Finance and the Minister for Health and Children did not need a further study to cost these commitments. In October 2005 the Minister for Health and Children was able to tell me in answer to a Dáil Question that it would cost €223 million to extend the medical card to everyone under 18. That has been Sinn Féin's demand for a number of years, as a first step towards universal, single-tier healthcare. But guess who else demanded this in their 2007 pre-Budget submission. Yes, it was the Green Party. They called for the introduction of medical cards for all under-18s, rolled out to children of six years and under first. They also demanded the restoration of medical cards to their former 35-38% of the population, with eligibility levels index-linked to median pay. The symbol of the Green Party is a tree and their policies are blowing away like autumn leaves.

"Sinn Féin warned that the Budget would contain hidden cuts and charges. We did not have long to wait. The Tánaiste was hardly off his feet before the Health Minister was over in Government Buildings announcing a package that will further penalise health service users.

"The 10% increase in hospital charges is disgraceful. The change in the Drugs Payment Scheme will mean that non-medical card holders will have to pay over €90, an increase from €85, per month, for medicines before benefiting under the scheme.

"Once again low to middle income families have been let down and are bearing the brunt of the inequity in our health services.

"There is nothing in the Budget to help create greater equity in healthcare and it does nothing to address the health crisis. The cap on the number of people employed in the public service remains, a cap that hits the health services badly, especially in front-line care.

"There is no special additional allocation to phase in the 3,000 extra hospital beds required. There is no special allocation to provide additional single rooms and isolation units in our hospitals to combat the spread of MRSA and other virulent hospital-based infections.

"Minister Cowen left tax breaks for developers of private for-profit hospitals in place and the shameful 'co-location' scheme will go ahead, funded by taxpayers' money and reinforcing the two-tier system. The Government claims that it will provide 1,000 public beds through the co-location scheme but they can't or won't tell us how many per hospital. And we know that this figure is a fiction anyway because many of the private patients they hope to transfer to the co-located hospitals will not be suitable for transfer or for initial admission to private hospitals because those facilities will not be able to provide the full range of care they require.

"The biggest percentage increases in health spending are 146% for inquiries, legal fees and settlements and 42% to the State Claims Agency for payouts in cases of clinical negligence. This reflects the crisis in our health services and its cost in monetary terms - let alone the massive human cost.

"As my colleague Sinn Féin Finance spokesperson Arthur Morgan said yesterday evening this is a minimalist budget. The Government is hoping that successful lowering of public expectations will allow them to present this budget in a positive light.

"But the public will not be fooled.

"It is plain for all to see that this Budget bares little or no relation to the promises made by Fianna Fáil in advance of the election. What has been given with one hand has been taken away with the other. It will make little difference to the vast majority of people struggling with increased costs of living.

"When Fianna Fáil promised to increase spending while cutting taxes Sinn Féin argued that this could not be done. We pointed out that there was every reason to believe that the slowdown in the property and construction sector would result in a significant drop in the tax take. We highlighted the fact that this concern had been raised in the Tax Strategy papers presented to the Minister for Finance in advance of Budget 2007.

"This Government has a bad record of managing the public finances. They have a bad record of planning for the future needs of the people of the state - in terms of the increased capacity in public services that are needed and the revenue required to meet those demands. They have abdicated their responsibility to manage the economy - they have allowed it to develop in an unsustainable manner.

"There are a lot of reasons to be disappointed by this budget:

- The increase in stealth charges
- The failure to increase the qualifying adult social welfare rate to make it equal to 100% of the claimant's rate
- The failure to increase the fuel allowance - all we have is a paltry increase of one week in the period for which fuel allowance is paid!
- The absence of a focus on retraining and up-skilling workers
- The failure to introduce a cost of disability payment
- The failure to introduce a universal pre-school session of 3.5 hours per day, five days a week for all children in the year before they go to school.

"There are many things in this budget that deserve to be criticised. What has been gained from the widening of the standard rate tax band, while welcome, will be lost again as stealth charges are increased - as the limit for the Drugs Payments Refund Scheme is increased - as A&E charges are increased. Cash strapped local authorities across the state will inevitably seek to increase service charges, and fail to take estates in charge, leaving new residents with the additional burden of management charges.

"The Government is seeking to give the impression that this Budget is delivering on housing. But let's look at the facts - look at what is actually new within this budget. This budget included the allocation of an additional €124 million for social housing. If you consider that the Department of Environment has indicated that the average unit cost of constructing a 3 bedroom unit of social housing is €137,278 this means that the additional allocation announced in this budget for social housing would deliver approximately an additional 903 units of social housing. Therefore this additional allocation is hardly something to boast about?

"The Government claims that 9000 new social housing units will be commenced or acquired in 2008. In the first instance the government has never to date actually met it own social housing delivery targets - secondly what is needed is more in the order of the delivery and completion of 12,000 units of social housing annually. It is opportune to point out at this time that had the Government not emasculated Part V of the Planning and Development much headway could have been made in housing the 43,600 families who are still on housing waiting lists.

"Families with children have not done well out of this budget - I have already spoken of the abject failure of the Minister for Finance to address the issue of childcare.

"The Programme for Government emphatically states that it "will increase in Budget 2008 the ceiling on mortgage interest relief for first-time buyers and those who bought a house in the past seven years, from €8,000 to €10,000 for single people and from €16,000 to €20,000 for couples or widowed persons."

"Mortgage interest relief has been increased for first time house buyers - but not for 'recent purchasers' - not for those people who have traded up to a family home from a starter home for example. This is anomaly. It fails to address the serious difficulties faced by such families in the face of a string of mortgage interest hikes.

* * *

"In terms of the social welfare element of the budget the Government kept to the bare minimum in terms of what could be done. Yes, it honoured its commitment to benchmarking payments, but it failed to do anything innovative to bring about the eradication of the poverty that countless thousands in this state live in.

"€14 per week may seem like a good increase for pensioners but Ireland is one of the most expensive places in the world to live in. What would €14 buy you these days? Compare this yearly increase to the increase Minister Cowen has given himself.

"The paltry increases in Children's Allowance and the Early Childcare supplement do not go far enough for struggling families. The only way of solving childhood poverty is to expand the school meals, free book schemes and to increase dependent child payments. The only way to solve the childcare crisis is to build an accessible and affordable model akin to what's offered in many other European states, starting with free pre-school." ENDS

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