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Budget 2014: Government spin and waffle can’t hide harsh austerity budget

16 October, 2013 - by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD


Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, responding on behalf of the party to Budget 2014, said that despite government spin, it is an austerity budget.

“This Fine Gael/Labour Coalition has spun its way through Budget 2014 but all the spinning cannot deceive the Irish people who know the reality of austerity. And make no mistake, this was an austerity budget.”

He emphasised the health aspect of the proposals, saying:

“We in Sinn Féin said the extension of free GP care to children under five would be a welcome start to universal access for all – but not at the expense of taking medical cards from other sections of the population who need them. This is not universality –it is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“This government’s idea of universal healthcare is to give out GP-only cards with one hand and take back full medical cards with the other.

“Under a mysterious heading called ‘Medical Card Probity’ Health Minister Reilly and Minister of State Alex White have targeted a massive so-called saving of €113 million. When questioned at their press conference about this yesterday the two Ministers were unable to account for this figure.”

Slamming the Labour Party for its role in government, Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

“The Labour Party has long abandoned the principles they once claimed to hold and which they claimed to honour in this centenary year of the Great Lockout –Solidarity, Social Justice and the belief that ‘An Injury to One is the Concern of All.’

“Ministers Noonan and Howlin spoke much about ‘exiting the bailout’. There is an ‘Exit’ sign over this budget alright, but it is the ‘Exit’ sign to the airport and emigration for tens of thousands of our young people.”

Full text of Deputy Ó Caoláin’s contribution follows:


Government spin and waffle can’t hide harsh Austerity Budget

There is an old saying and a true one – “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”.

This Fine Gael/Labour Coalition have spun their way through Budget 2014 but all their spinning cannot deceive the Irish people who know the reality of austerity. And make no mistake, this was an Austerity Budget.

Behind the waffle and the spin that we got from Ministers Noonan and Howlin yesterday and from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste this morning, are the hard facts, the details of the myriad of cuts imposed in Budget 2014.

In their speeches they invoked William Butler Yeats; they invoked Mother Ireland and her stolen purse; they even invoked the starving victims of the Great Hunger. But they set out very few of the real details of the Budget, the full details that expose the fraudulent nature of this Coalition’s public relations spin.

Nowhere is this cynical spin exposed more starkly than in Health.

The public relations headline is, of course, the extension of free GP care to children of 5 and under.

But the reality is that spending on medical cards is being cut and tens of thousands of people who currently have medical cards or who, up to this, would have been entitled to cards, are now set to lose them.

€37 million is to be spent on the under-5s GP card but €149 million is to be taken out of the medical card budget. That will mean more people currently in need losing their medical cards.

We in Sinn Féin said the extension of free GP care to children under 5 would be a welcome start to universal access for all – but not at the expense of taking medical cards from other sections of the population who need them. This is not universality – it is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In our comprehensive, fair and costed Alternative Budget Sinn Féin provided for the extension of free GP care to all children under 5 without depriving anyone else of medical cards.

This is not universal healthcare - it is a shameless attempt at the universal hoodwinking of the public. It is the Labour Party trying to appear to be the giving left hand while attempting to conceal the robbing right hand of Fine Gael. They are both thieves and as thick as thieves.

This Government’s idea of universal healthcare is to give out GP-only cards with one hand and take back full medical cards with the other.

Under a mysterious heading called ‘Medical Card Probity’ Health Minister Reilly and Minister of State Alex White have targeted a massive so-called saving of €113 million. When questioned at their press conference about this yesterday the two Ministers were unable to account for this figure.

Minister of State White suggested that most of it would come from cancelling or not renewing inappropriately held medical cards. But there is no evidence to support this.

Where did the figure come from? We do not know. But we can safely assume that this was a figure cooked up to provide a sizeable chunk of the at least €666 million reduction in the Health budget in 2014.

James Reilly who, in Opposition, raised the roof of this Dáil chamber in protest at Mary Harney’s imposition of prescription charges for medical card holders has now raised those charges again. His increase this year amounts to a five-fold increase on Mary Harney’s charge to which he was so vehemently opposed – from 50 cents per item then to €2.50 per item now.

And for the second year in a row the Minister has lowered the income threshold for the over-70s medical card.

When the Fianna Fáil/Green Government introduced the present over-70s medical card scheme based on an income limit, Deputy Reilly said it was a “desperate climbdown” and that their “tinkering with income limits is nowhere near good enough”.

Minister Reilly championed Fine Gael’s Fair Care health policy with its promise of universal primary care. Fine Gael and Labour achieved their record mandate in the General Election of 2011 on the basis of manifestos which promised to greatly extend and, indeed, make universal, entitlements to free primary care.

In the Fine Gael-Labour Programme for Government we are told that Universal Primary Care will remove fees for GP care and will be introduced within this Government’s term of office.

We are also told:

“Access to primary care without fees will be extended in the first year to claimants of free drugs under the Long-Term Illness scheme at a cost of €17 million. Access to primary care without fees will be extended in the second year to claimants of free drugs under the High-Tech Drugs scheme at a cost of €15 million. Access to subsidised care will be extended to all in the next phase. Access to care without fees will be extended to all in the final phase.”

Minister Reilly promised that the first phase, the extension of free primary care to claimants of free drugs under the Long-Term Illness Scheme would be in place in summer 2012. It wasn’t. There were supposed to be drafting difficulties because of the change from entitlement based on income to entitlement based on forms of illness. In the autumn of last year we were told by the Minister that it was still on track and there would be a bill. Now the direction has switched once more and with still no clear road ahead to universal access.

Again and again, in Opposition, Deputy Reilly quite rightly pointed out that restricting access to primary care was penny wise and pound foolish because older people would suffer poorer health outcomes and require more hospital visits, in-patient care and residential nursing home care. Yet now, in the very same manner as his Fianna Fáil predecessors he brings forward further restrictions to medical card access, a so-called savings measure, that will adversely affect the health of our older citizens.

We know that the HSE has been tightening up on the issuing of discretionary medical cards. This was debated here in the Dáil last week and every Deputy has experience from his or her own constituency of the reality of those restrictions. With the further €113 million cut targeted at medical card spending under the so-called ‘Probity’ heading it is safe to say that discretionary medical cards in 2014 will become as rare as hen’s teeth.

This Government’s claimed commitment to transforming mental health services under ‘A Vision for Change’ is belied by their allocation of an additional €20 million in 2014 – down from €35 million in 2013. The Oireachtas All-Party Mental Health Group called for €35 million in 2014 and for this to be ring-fenced after the poaching of the additional mental health budget in 2012. Minister of State Lynch has failed to deliver.

We heard the usual waffle about reform from the three Health ministers yesterday but they have still not published their long promised White Paper on Financing Universal Health Insurance.

Instead we have the same piecemeal approach to our inequitable two-tier health system and the now perennial cuts to the Health budget, again damaging our hard-pressed public health services. In the weeks ahead we will see the full extent of those cuts as the HSE Service Plan for 2014 is put together.

The Government’s cut of at least €666 million to the Health budget in 2014 will leave huge gaps in services, on top of the billions more cut from Health in recent years.

Rather than make the wealthy pay their fair share to fund better access to healthcare and other social services, this Government robs pensioners, unemployed young people and a huge swathe of people on low incomes.

The over-70s hit with medical card cuts will also be among those pensioners losing out with the abolition of the free telephone allowance. No Government that claims to be serious about tackling the isolation of many of our older citizens, especially in rural areas, and which claims to want to support older people in their own homes, would have imposed such a cut.

This Budget also is unquestionably anti-young people.

The further cut to Jobseekers Allowance and Supplementary Welfare Allowance for 18-25 year olds is a disgrace. It gives the lie to the government’s claim that core social welfare rates have been protected.

A cut from €144 per week to €100 per week for under 25s, and from €188 to €144 for those aged 25 can only be described as savage.

When Fianna Fáil first cut the Jobseekers Allowance rate for the under 25s back in Budget 2010 the Labour Party opposed the cut. They called it what it was. Back then Labour said: ‘It is abundantly clear that the real purpose of these reforms is to promote emigration.’ They rightly accused the Government of hypocrisy for using the brain drain excuse not to tax high earners, while cutting back for those under 25.

Now the Labour Party and Fine Gael are kicking our young people in the teeth once again and this time they are kicking them even harder, giving them the choice of suffering even more hardship and poverty at home or taking the boat or plane.

But the social welfare cuts do not stop there.

The Government is cutting social insurance benefits including maternity, illness, invalidity pension and bereavement grants with a view to saving €74 million. These are people’s hard earned benefits.

The Government do not have to do this. These cuts are entirely avoidable. They could instead shore up the Social Insurance Fund with a small increase in contributions from those employers that can afford to pay more. Sinn Féin’s proposal to introduce a new employer’s rate of PRSI of 15.75% on wages in excess of €100,000 would raise €119.1 million.

By cutting Maternity Benefit and abolishing the Bereavement Grant this Government is picking people’s pockets from the cradle to the grave. The latest cut to maternity benefit comes on the back of reduced maternity benefits from July of this year when it was subjected to tax.

The Bereavement Grant is a small assistance towards the cost of funerals for workers with a solid contributions record. The cut to invalidity pension means 65 year old disabled pensioners are looking at a cut of €36.80 per week.

The Government continues to insist they have protected core weekly payments but that is simply not true. The Government talks about ‘discontinuing rates and introducing new rates’ – how can you say that is not a rate cut?

Mortgage Interest Supplement is being abolished in the absence of effective action to tackle the mortgage arrears crisis.

The contribution of rent supplement recipients is being hiked with no sign of the long promised housing assistance payment. Once again the Minister makes lazy and mean cuts instead of reforming the system, rent supplement will remain the long acknowledged poverty trap it has come to be.

And of course the rent supplement changes will only make the housing crisis worse for people dependent on this payment, people who are being squeezed between increasing rents and rent supplement restrictions.

In another prime example of spin, Minister Howlin announced what he claimed a €30 million allocation for re-commencing the development of social and affordable housing.
What he didn’t tell us was that the local authority housing budget is being cut from €55.336m in 2013 to €40m in 2014.

He didn’t tell us that voluntary and co-operative housing is cut from €55.5m in 2013 to €40.92m in 2014.

He held back also on the news that regeneration and private housing grants are cut as well.

Housing has been cut by €1 billion in the last 5 years. There are 112,000 people on housing waiting lists and homelessness is at an all-time high.

And into this ocean of housing need Ministers Howlin and Hogan drop their pathetic little promise of 500 social housing units.

The overall 10% cut to housing in Budget 2014 represents €58 million. This money is desperately needed not just to build new homes but to maintain social housing already in place.

Instead of providing actual housing this Government restates stale promises of housing yet undelivered and they move funding around to cover up their cuts. The massive shortage in affordable, appropriate housing will not be solved with empty rhetoric or headline grabbing gimmicks which do nothing for the people who are suffering in overcrowded, unsafe and insecure housing – or no housing at all - every day.

Like Minister Hogan last weekend, Minister Howlin in his Budget speech, had the gall to claim credit for what we hope will be the final resolution of the Priory Hall scandal. Neither he nor Minister Hogan admitted that the resolution process now arrived at could have been put in place by this Government two years ago when the residents were evacuated.

It took the tragic death of one of the residents, a television interview with his grieving partner and her direct appeal to the Taoiseach to finally shame the intransigent Minister Hogan and the intransigent banks into doing what they should have done in the first place.

It is a perfect illustration of how the banks can be confronted and forced to back down if the political will is there.

Of course the political will to confront the banks as well as the other privileged sections of Irish society is not present in this Government. Budget 2014 is a further illustration of that.
We are repeatedly told by this Coalition that jobs are the number one priority. We have endless spin from Government about job creation.

However the reality is that the Government has cut both the current and capital budget of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation by €28.5 million. A recent report into Enterprise Ireland found that the staff had been cut so far as to undermine the ability of the body to fully achieve its objectives.

We have the ludicrous position of the Minister for Jobs claiming that this is a pro-jobs and pro-enterprise budget yet failing to acknowledge that his own budget has been cut and the key agency for indigenous companies, Enterprise Ireland is under severe stress.

We hear much of ‘activation’ measures to encourage people into work. What then are we to make of the decision that when people with a medical card return to work they will not retain the full medical card for up to three years as heretofore, but will receive the GP-only card instead. This is supposed to yield a paltry saving of €11 million but at what cost in terms of helping people out of poverty and into jobs?

Another anti-young people measure is the decision to cut the €20 per week bonus for people who have been out of work for more than a year and who enrol in FÁS, VTOS and Youthreach courses. And young people are hit again as the Student Contribution fee will rise by €250 to €2,750 next year, and then to €3,000 the following year, while apprentices will now be required to make a student contribution.

Ag am nuair ba chóir go mbeifí ag infheistiú breis airgid maidir le cruthú fostaíochta sa Ghaeltacht tá gearradh siar eile déanta ar chistí Údarás na Gaeltachta chuige sin.
Le roinnt blianta anuas tá an maoiniú atá ag an Údarás le fostaíocht a chruthú gearrtha ó €26milliún go dtí €5.8m i mbliana. De réir tuairisc Indecon tamall siar theastaigh ar a laghad €12m in aghaidh na bliana leis na jabanna atá ann a chaomhnú, gan trácht ar jabanna nua a chruthú.

Tá gearradh €1.3m le gearradh ó na heagrais Ghaeilge agus na scéimeanna a riarann siad, chomh maith le €2.1m gearrtha ó na heagrais Thuaidh Theas freisin.

Is maith an rud go bhfuil leath mhilliúin euro curtha i leataobh don Straitéis Fiche Bliain, ach is í an cheist atá ann ná le ciorrú ginearálta de 5% sa Roinn cé as a dtarraingeofar an t-airgead sin agus cé bheidh thíos leis?

Ba mhór an náire don Rialtas é áfach, nár cuireadh leagan Gaeilge de na cáipéisí buiséid ar fáil ag an am céanna leis na cinn i mBéarla agus freisin gur dhiúltaigh Páirtí an Lucht Oibre urlabhraí le Gaeilge a chuir ar fáil ar chlár anailíse Raidió na Gaeltachta ar an gcáinfháisnéis. Is léíriú eile é seo ar an drochmheas atá ag an Rialtas seo ar an nGaeilge agus an bpobal a labhrann í.

It was Minister Howlin who invoked what he called “the Famine victims of old” who had to seek aid overseas. This was in his effort to excuse the Labour Party for its shameful role in continuing the failed and futile austerity regime begun by Fianna Fáil and continued by this Government. Well, if he must cite the Great Hunger, let the Minister and his colleagues remember this.

Millions in this country were sacrificed on the altar of a doctrine called laissez faire capitalism. That doctrine dictated that nothing must be done to interfere with the almighty market, even at the cost of mass starvation.

The same mentality lies behind the austerity regimes that have increased poverty and unemployment and deepened social divisions not only in Ireland but across Europe and across the world. This philosophy demands that bondholders and banks and multinational corporations and the super-rich must be protected, whatever the cost to the mass of the people.

That is what the Labour Party signed up to when they went into Government with Fine Gael. That is what austerity means and that’s what they have given us now in three budgets in a row.

The Labour Party has long abandoned the principles they once claimed to hold and which they claimed to honour in this Centenary Year of the Great Lockout – Solidarity, Social Justice and the belief that ‘An Injury to One is the Concern of All.’

Ministers Noonan and Howlin spoke much about ‘exiting the bailout’. There is an ‘Exit’ sign over this Budget alright, but it is the ‘Exit’ sign to the airport and emigration for tens of thousands of our young people.

Minister Noonan spoke about reinforcing policies that grow the economy. The opposite is the case. They are reinforcing policies that have paralysed the Irish economy. Ask the 415,000 people on the live register; ask the 300,000 people who have emigrated in the past four years; ask the 180,000 households in mortgage distress; ask the 110,000 people on the housing waiting lists; ask the full-time workers whose jobs have been lost and the part-time workers on low pay and punitive contracts.

I deny in the strongest terms the contention of the Labour and Fine Gael Ministers in this Government that there was no other way.

There is another way, a fairer way, which some of them even proposed when in Opposition. There is a fairer way to address the budget deficit, to protect the vulnerable, to give back to those who have suffered pain and to stimulate the economy and foster job creation.

This was set out in costed detail in Sinn Féin’s Alternative Budget, the only real alternative budget produced by any party in the Oireachtas.

We in Sinn Féin will continue to advocate fearlessly for fairness, to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are suffering under austerity and to build a political force that will sweep aside this austerity regime and bring about genuine democratic change and a truly New Republic.

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