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Government will be remembered for lacking the will to end poverty - Ferris

7 December, 2006

Sinn Féin's Agriculture and Rural Development spokesperson Martin Ferris TD said in the Dáil today that this Government will be remembered for being the first to have the resources to eliminated poverty and inequality in Ireland, and lacking the will to do so. Referring to areas like food poverty, the carer's means test and the plight of asylum seekers, Deputy Ferris pointed out a range of areas where the Government had said nothing yesterday, before attacking the Budget's proposals on the environment.

The Kerry North TD said:

This Government has been in power for nearly a decade now and must be judged at election time not on this budget alone, but also on all their other previous failures to eradicate poverty in this state. In a period of unprecedented economic growth, the government has failed miserably to redistribute the state's wealth to all those who helped generate it, and those who need it the most.

I watched in disgust yesterday as Fianna Fáil and PD TDs cheered on the Minister for Finance and patted themselves on the back, giving the impression that in this extremely wealthy state there is no poverty. I listened to the Tánaiste give us a lesson on the Constitution earlier this afternoon, reminding us that there is a constitutional obligation on the state to provide for the disadvantaged in Irish society. One hopes that he will one day take a break from his rhetorical pontificating to set about discharging this obligation.

The reality is that this Government continue to reward higher earners. It continues to widen the gap between the hundreds of thousands of Irish workers who produce the wealth of this economy and the tens of thousands who profit from it. The headline in this morning's Irish Times accurately sums it up, 'Highest earners -- biggest winners'. A flurry of social welfare increases that in the context of such a massive surplus cannot be described as anything other than minimalist are not enough, and many major issues were ignored completely

There was nothing in the budget to deal with food poverty for example. In 2004 Combat Poverty, Crosscare and Saint Vincent de Paul published a report entitled 'Food Poverty and Policy' the findings of which suggest that food poverty is a real and significant issue for low-income households. Based on 2003 data, up to 10% of the population in this state, 375,000 people, can be considered at risk of food poverty. This increases to 15% of children, 125,000 of the most vulnerable people in our society. There was no mention of increased funding for meals on wheels despite the findings of recent research that almost one in five older people who are admitted to hospital are undernourished.

Another area ignored by this budget was the plight of some of our newest arrivals to Ireland. I am particularly disappointed that the budget did not abolish the habitual residency requirement for child benefit. The poverty experienced by the low paid migrant workers that are increasingly crucial to this economy, as well as refugee families, has been exasperated by the introduction in May 2004 of the habitual residency conditions which denies child benefit payments to newly-arrived asylum seekers. The requirement is a disgrace. While higher income families get child benefit some of those who most need it are prevented from getting it.

Refugee families were noticeable for their absence from the Budget yesterday. Asylum seekers are forced to depend entirely on the Direct Provision system, which is hostel accommodation, full board and a weekly payment of €19.10 for adults and €9.60 for children. Most galling of all for those people in receipt of Direct Provision, is the fact that they are willing to work, they are able to work. Many of them are educated or skilled people forced to leave their home countries.

Yet the Government insists on seeing them as an unpalatable burden, to be thrown a few coppers and kept in hostels instead of allowing them to work and contribute to this society while a determination is made on their case. This discriminatory system has been described as leading to physical, economic and psychological marginalisation of refugee families. It results these families experiencing poverty and having to cope with difficulties clothing and feeding themselves and their children.

Earlier, Minister Ó Cuív spoke to us very eloquently about how much this Budget has delivered for Carers, reminding the Opposition, when I would suggest it is the Government that needs reminding, of the importance of Carers to Irish society. And while the increase in the Carers Allowance and the Respite Care Grant should be welcomed, the reality is that full-time carers who do not receive the Carers Allowance due to the means test are no better off today than they were before Minister Cowen stood up. Ireland's Carers, who provide 3.5 million unpaid hours of care every week, every single week, and contribute over €2.1 billion to the social economy have been campaigning for an end to the means test for years and have been left bitterly disappointed by this Government.

While pensioners reliant on the non contributory pension get inadequate increases, the better off continue to be able to avail of excessively generous tax breaks for private pensions. Just think what could be done for those pensioners living in poverty if the will existed. The money frittered away on pension tax breaks which disproportionately benefit the wealthy -- €2.75 billion in 2002 - could be re-directed into the provision of a basic state pension for all. A basic state pension system would also deliver equality for women, who are badly serviced by the present system.

The increase of €16 which brings the non-contributory pension to €200 merely means that the Government has complied with its commitment in the National Anti Poverty Strategy (NAPS). It would have been surprising and appalling had it not done so. There is nothing in this increase to boast about.

Minister O'Keefe said today that the Government is playing its part to tackle climate change. It was a frightening thing to say. If this is the Government playing it's part, I would hate to see what it would look like if they sat on their hands.

This state is facing penalties of €120 million per annum because of the failure to achieve our Kyoto targets. Yet the Government's main environmental proposal in this budget, Minister Cowen's solution to the monumental problem of climate change, is to spend €270 million buying carbon allowances. He is seeking to buy the right to generate more pollution for Irish industry. The industrialised north is buying its way out of its commitments to reduce emissions and the expense is being passed on to the consumer. It is environmental imperialism.

Carbon trading is not the answer to climate change. A recently published analysis of carbon trading, Carbon Trading, a critical conversation on climate change, privatisation and power, argues that carbon trading slows the social and technological changed needed to cope with global warming by unnecessarily prolonging the world's dependence on oil, coal and gas.

As many environmental justice organisations have pointed out, carbon trading is nothing more than the proliferation of the free market into environmental policy making.

We welcome the belated conversion of this Government to the importance of biofuels, especially when we are so dependent on imported oil and gas and this Government is so determined to hand our oil and gas rights over to multinational corporations for negligible benefit. The increase in the grants for the growing of energy crops is welcome and was proposed by Sinn Féin and others as a means to attract more farmers to this area, though we are disappointed at the small size and limited vision of the proposals on bio-energy crop production.

Despite this golden opportunity, the Government's attitude has been a hands-off approach, ignoring the possibility of this state becoming not just a producer of ethanol based bio-fuels, but given time, a net exporter of a valuable source of energy.

More needs to be done in this area if the Government is to meet the ambitious targets that have been set. That is possibly even more true of the processing side of the sector.

It is another missed opportunity in a budget of missed opportunities from a Government who will be remembered by future generations as having the resources to end poverty in Ireland, to build a more equal and sustainable society, and for lacking the will to do so.


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