Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Cowen budget has some positive measures but fails to deliver a fairer, more equal Ireland – Ó Caoláin

6 December, 2006


Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, responding to Minster Cowen's speech on the Budget this afternoon in the Dáil, while welcoming a number of his proposals, said that 'He had the opportunity and the resources to lift many citizens out of poverty but stopped far short of what was possible and what was required'. Deputy Ó Caoláin went on to argue that the Minister could have done much more had he had the political will do so.The Cavan/Monaghan TD said: "This Fianna Fáil/PD Coalition will be ten years in office next year and they need to be judged not on this pre-election but on their record over the past decade. After 10 years we have a health system still mired in crisis, housing is unaffordable for many thousands of families and inequality and poverty are still with us despite the Celtic Tiger.

"For more than a decade now this government has had massive resources at its disposal to transform our health and education systems, to provide housing at an affordable level and to take senior citizens and those on low incomes out of poverty. In the last five years it has had exchequer surpluses of almost €40 billion and in November alone took in €1.7 billion more in taxes than expected.

"Yesterday, I called on Minister Cowen to be bold and imaginative, and to use today's budget to make a real, immediate and significant impact on the lives of those currently struggling to survive. I want to welcome the decision of the Minister to direct his attention towards workers on low wages, senior citizens and those who rely on social welfare. The increases he has set out are welcome but he could have done much, much more if he had chosen to do so. He had the opportunity and the resources to lift many citizens out of poverty but stopped far short of what was possible and what was required. And in some cases in order to appease his partners in government he took poor decisions, which will help those on the higher end of the income scale when those resources could have been used by those in desperate need.

"For example, today the government reduced the top rate of tax by 1% at a cost of €186 million when there was no demand from taxpayers for this. For this same money the government could have dramatically improved the welfare of senior citizens by increasing the state pension by €34.80 a week as we proposed in our pre-budget submission. Or a medical card could have been given to every single child under the age of 18 transforming access to medical care for thousands of families. The government had the resources to do these things but they did not have the political will.

"But the biggest problem with today's budget is that once again this government has shown that they have absolutely no strategy to address the core needs of ordinary people whether it is in health, education or housing. The increase in the mortgage interest relief is welcome - Sinn Fein has asked for this as a targeted measures at those on or below average earnings - but where are the measures to help those who are languishing on social housing waiting list? There is no vision of a different kind of society, one based on equality and ensuring the needs of every person on this island are met. There is no appreciation of the unique opportunities this Government is squandering with monotonous regularity.

"For many people listening to Minister Cowen today the big questions are -

· Will poorer families be substantially better off after today's budget?

· Will it be easier for someone to get access to emergency hospital care?

· Will the families who spoke on Primetime on Monday night still have to wait up to five years for their children to be assessed?

· Will the people of Monaghan, Nenagh, Ennis or Roscommon be assured of essential hospital services?

· Will home ownership be an option for young couples?

· Will countless others get a house at all?

· Will it be easier to get to work or will thousands of people continue to commute huge distances every day with gridlock now a reality in all our major towns and cities?

"The answer to all of these questions I fear is no. The fact is that today's budget will have little or no impact on any of these core issues. In relation to specific measures which the Minister has introduced in today's budget, while there have been some advances, the fact is that those who were in poverty this morning, remain in poverty this evening."

Full text follows:

This Fianna Fáil/PD Coalition will be ten years in office next year and they need to be judged not on this pre-election but on their record over the past decade. After 10 years we have a health system still mired in crisis, housing is unaffordable for many thousands of families and inequality and poverty are still with us despite the Celtic Tiger.

For more than a decade now this government has had massive resources at its disposal to transform our health and education systems, to provide housing at an affordable level and to take senior citizens and those on low incomes out of poverty. In the last five years it has had exchequer surpluses of almost €40 billion and in November alone took in €1.7 billion more in taxes than expected.

But the fact is that despite all of this, the gap between rich and poor has widened. We now have one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, with those reliant on social welfare and the minimum wage hit hardest by rising costs. Many families, even those with two incomes, are struggling to get by due with increases in essential items such as electricity, gas and food, which are far in excess of inflation. There are 44,000 families on housing waiting lists, hundreds left on trolleys every day in our hospital A&E units and families left waiting for years to have their children assessed. And it is children who suffer the most. Unlike most developed states we have no system of state provided pre-schools.

Yesterday, I called on Minister Cowen to be bold and imaginative, and to use today's budget to make a real, immediate and significant impact on the lives of those currently struggling to survive. I want to welcome the decision of the Minister to direct his attention towards workers on low wages, senior citizens and those who rely on social welfare. The increases he has set out are welcome but he could have done much, much more if he had chosen to do so. He had the opportunity and the resources to lift many citizens out of poverty but stopped far short of what was possible and what was required. And in some cases in order to appease his partners in government he took poor decisions, which will help those on the higher end of the income scale when those resources could have been used by those in desperate need.

For example, today the government reduced the top rate of tax by 1% at a cost of approximately €186 million when there was no demand from taxpayers for this. For this same money the government could have dramatically improved the welfare of senior citizens by increasing the state pension by €34.80 a week (€182 million) and the living alone allowance could have been doubled to €15.40 a week (€61.5million), as we proposed in our pre-budget submission. Or a medical card could have been given to every single child under the age of 18 (€223 million) transforming access to medical care for thousands of families. The government had the resources to do these things but they did not have the political will.

I welcome the introduction of the higher rate health levy of 2.5% for high income earners - those on over €100,000. Sinn Féin has long argued for the introduction of a higher rate of income tax for earners on or above €100,000. A higher health levy is a small step in the right direction but it is surprising that the Minister would choose to increase the health levy for higher income earners while failing to remove the PRSI ceiling. The PRSI ceiling means that those above the ceiling pay a smaller proportion of gross income in PRSI than those earning under the ceiling

But the biggest problem with today's budget is that once again this government has shown that they have absolutely no strategy to address the core needs of ordinary people whether it is in health, education or housing. The increase in the mortgage interest relief is welcome - Sinn Fein has asked for this as a targeted measures at those on or below average earnings - but where are the measures to help those who are languishing on social housing waiting list? There is no vision of a different kind of society, one based on equality and ensuring the needs of every person on this island are met. There is no appreciation of the unique opportunities this Government is squandering with monotonous regularity.

For many people listening to Minister Cowen today the big questions are -

Will poorer families be substantially better off after today's budget?

Will it be easier for someone to get access to emergency hospital care?

Will the families who spoke on Primetime on Monday night still have to wait up to five years for their children to be assessed?

Will the people of Monaghan, Nenagh, Ennis or Roscommon be assured of essential hospital services?

Will home ownership be an option for young couples?

Will countless others get a house at all?

Will it be easier to get to work or will thousands of people continue to commute huge distances every day with gridlock now a reality in all our major towns and cities?

The answer to all of these questions I fear is no. The fact is that today's budget will have little or no impact on any of these core issues. In relation to specific measures which the Minister has introduced in today's budget, while there have been some advances, the fact is that those who were in poverty this morning, remain in poverty this evening.

Senior Citizens

Sinn Féin wants to see every senior citizen in this state with enough money for a decent standard of living. We were calling for the pension to be increased in this budget by €34.80, the living alone allowance to be doubled to €15.40 and the fuel allowance increased to €25. There was no increase announced in the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance was raised only to €18 at a time when energy prices have increased dramatically. Today's announcement in relation to the non contributory pension will not keep those pensioners who rely on this out of poverty. There is no acceptable reason in this day and age for any person to be forced to live out their life in poverty. There is no reason why our pensioners, who created the foundation for the economic success we now enjoy, whose sacrifices gave their children the opportunities they never had, should be forced to choose between paying the rent and heating their homes. While the Minister announced an increased €20 million for the Greener Homes (Residential renewable Energy Scheme) there were no specific measures to help low income families move to renewable energy systems. Sinn Féin has called for full cost renewable energy grants for those on low incomes. There was nothing in the budget on the Warmer Homes Scheme - a scheme aimed at improving energy efficiencies in the homes of those on low incomes.

While I welcome the increase in the state pension, the government had the opportunity to ensure that senior citizens in this state would not be forced to live in poverty ever again. They didn't do that. In government Sinn Féin would ensure that each and every senior citizen has a decent standard of living.

Social Welfare

Just under a million people, almost one in four of the population, are in receipt of a weekly social welfare payment and many of these people are living in or at risk of poverty. The decision to increase social welfare payments is welcome but much more should and could have been done. While people have a little more money in their pockets, €20 a week will soon be eaten up with ESB and gas bills and cost of living increases.

Child poverty and low incomes

There are nearly 100,000 children living in consistent poverty in this state at a time when the government has massive resources at its disposal. This is totally unacceptable. The vast majority of these children are in families reliant on social welfare or living on very low incomes. If the government is serious about eliminating child poverty they need to substantially increase child income support, increase the minimum wage and address the issues of spiralling costs in electricity, gas and food.

I would welcome the decision, however overdue, by the Government to increase the Child Dependent Allowance, a demand of children's poverty groups, and a feature of Sinn Féin's budget proposals, for almost a decade. For ten years the value of this allowance, aimed at the children most in need, has been allowed to decline while a succession of Government ministers have stood in this House and fatuously claimed it needed to be kept low to prevent an allowance of €16 a week becoming a disincentive to work. The increase to €22 announced by the Minister is not sufficient. This should have been increased to at least €30 as demanded by Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin is calling for:

- Increase the minimum wage to €9.30 and keep all those on this increased wage out of the tax net

- Keep all those on the average industrial wage within the standard rate tax band of 20% for 2007

- Increase child's dependent allowance to €30 for all recipients

- Increase child benefit by €10

- Reverse recent ESB hikes

Ending poverty for those in employment

The one significant measure to tackle low pay that was introduced in recent years is the minimum wage. When it was first introduced in 2000 it represented 54% of average industrial earnings. By June 2006 this represented just over 50%. Sinn Féin called for the minimum wage to be increased to €9.30 from January 2007 so that it represents 60% of the average industrial wage and for everyone on the minimum wage to be kept out of the tax net. This budget keeps those on the minimum wage out of the tax net and that is welcome. However to increase to €8.65 means that the b3nchmark of 60% of average earnings is not being met. We also called for those on, or below, the average industrial wage to be kept in the standard tax band of 20%. These are measures which would have had a major impact and would have helped these families cope with rising costs. Unfortunately while the Minister did keep those on the minimum wage out of the tax net, his failure to act has ensured that more than 100,000 people will remain in poverty for another year.

The Minister announced record spending of €14.3 billion on health next year. We have had record spending very year during the lifetime of this government but it has failed miserably to deliver efficient and equitable healthcare e services to the people. Money is being poured into a two tier system that discriminates against the patient dependent on the public hospital system. The Health Strategy has been binned. The Health Minister's disgraceful private hospital co-location plan is starting to unravel. The Government and the HSE can't agree how many additional hospital beds we need. Public money should be spent in the public system only with equal access for all based on need alone.

Building an Ireland of equals

I believe that there is widespread support across the island to put the needs of those who are most vulnerable in our society first - our senior citizens, our children, those on low incomes.

Maybe it is idealistic of me, but I believe in the Irish people. I believe the vast majority of the people of this island who are doing well, who have benefited from the economic boom, are also people with a strong social conscience. People who having climbed the ladder to success, are not going to haul it up after them.

They may have been forced to take out private health insurance, but they feel ashamed when they see

their fellow citizens on hospital trolleys. They may be able to ensure their children can attend

university, but they feel sick at the sight of schoolchildren in need. They may be sure of a safe and secure retirement, but they were horrified by what they saw in Leas Cross.

They want to see the resources of the state directed where it is most needed. Not to speculators and developers. Not frittered away on gimmicks like electronic voting machines or subsidising private hospitals and public private partnerships.

They want to see those resources direct to lone parents trying to get back into education, to pensioners living alone, to families working every day of the week and still not able to get out of debt, to tackling the housing crisis and providing hospital beds and providing very especially, a quality, safe and accessible, acute hospital service in all, repeat all, of our existing hospital sites.

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