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Budget Statement 2018 (Continued)

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 960 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary] The plans must focus on allowing local authorities to once again get back into the business of building homes and release funding for an affordable housing programme. Success will not be counted on the Government's balance sheet or in pats on the back from the OECD or IMF. Success will be bricks and mortar on the ground and homes and roofs for people.

  The additional current expenditure of €148 million on HAP and the additional allocation to homelessness organisations are much-needed measures that will be spent many times over unless we address the crucial issue. The development of a carrot-and-stick approach, ramping up the vacant site levy to drive on development, is badly needed and, hopefully, will promote progress in this regard, but capital spending on social and affordable homes is the key to cutting through this crisis. That will be the test by which the Government will be measured.

  For those who own a home and are paying mortgage interest, our insistence on extending the mortgage interest relief will ensure that 420,000 mortgage holders will avoid an effective mortgage payment increase from January onwards.

  Morale in our health services is on the floor and matters of recruitment remain a serious impediment to achieving the personnel levels that we need. More than 680,000 people are languishing on hospital waiting lists. Glib comments about record levels of funding and being the best boy in the OECD class are not the way to address these challenges. Extra resources are needed, as are managerial and HR policy changes, to deliver the necessary reforms. The Oireachtas Sláintecare report has set out a clear ten-year roadmap to a fairer, more effective system.

  The €55 million allocated to the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, must focus on surgeries. It must focus on targeted medical procedures, such as joint replacements and cataract surgeries, to ensure that we reduce the pain suffered by those on waiting lists. The NTPF has a track record of delivery. There are those in this House who seem to want to leave people on waiting lists in pursuit of a certain political model of health care delivery. We would prefer to get people treated, out of pain and off the waiting lists.

  For working families and those with long-term or chronic conditions, the reductions in the drug payment scheme's threshold and the prescription charge are a welcome step towards alleviating daily and weekly health costs. The planned investment in primary health care must result in improvements in delivery in this regard. Rather than aspiring to completing talks on the new GP contract, just finish it and empower GPs to deliver on their talents.

  Boosting personal assistance hours and disability services is crucial to giving people with disabilities a genuine pathway to inclusion. This will be an area that will be the subject of extensive post-budget engagement on our part, and we will aim to ensure that this year's HSE service plan reflects our priorities in that regard.

  Similarly, the cuts in home help hours and home care packages are a key factor for hospitals. The HSE has adopted a penny wise and pound foolish approach to home help hours and home care packages. It seeks to save a pittance by restricting hours, yet it spends millions of euro on emergency measures to alleviate the hospital trolley situation. In Mayo alone, there are 142 families today for whom home help hours have been approved but cannot be allocated. This situation is replicated on the ground across the country.

  There needs to be a focus on addressing the HR challenges in the health service. We have hundreds of vacancies in many areas, including nursing, therapy, surgery, etc. Those working in our health service are doing so under HR practices that belong to a previous era. Pay is one issue preventing people from taking up positions, but by no means is it the only one. The Public Service Pay Commission, PSPC, needs to be robust in addressing not only pay factors, but also HR practices. These vacancies are causing tremendous hardship for patients, and their families, who are dependent on such services.

  In recent years, the gap in many State-provided services was made up by what are known as section 39 organisations. These include disability service providers, hospices and care centres. During the crisis, the grants to these organisations were cut. Like the FEMPI legislation, this was a necessary budgetary measure and the HSE instructed these organisations to pass on the specific cuts to their staff. In other words, employees were to be treated the same as public sector employees in the publicly owned section 38 organisations. We have seen the evidence of this.

  In response to efforts to bring parity to this situation, however, the Government has been dismissive, evasive and, in some cases, downright arrogant. These organisations provide vital services for our communities throughout the country. Without them, the State would have to step in and spend far more on the provision of such services. The Government claims that this is a matter for the HSE and not it. Workers in these organisations deserve better than such financial gymnastics.

  Fully implementing A Vision for Change will demand an extra €35 million next year, which builds on the extra €35 million that was factored into the base from 2017. Our mental health services have long been the Cinderella of our health system. These additional resources are only stepping stones in reaching our goal of implementing A Vision for Change in full. In addition, our securing of extra guidance counsellors for schools will assist in tackling teenage mental health challenges at school level. We will continue to monitor spending and investment in mental health tightly. In mental health awareness week, we in the Oireachtas have a duty to act on, and not just talk about, mental health and mental health services.

  Building up a strong education system is central to equipping the next generation for the challenges of the future. The confidence and supply agreement placed education at its heart. We have made significant progress in some areas. The reduction of the pupil-teacher ratio by one is a welcome step that we prioritised. The broadening out of access to postgraduate grant supports was a key aim for our party. The continued changes in the thresholds are welcome. The additional funding for third level and further education is also welcome, but €47 million of it is being funded by a levy on employment. While employers benefit greatly from our third level and further education system, the Government cannot entirely leave the resolution of the funding challenge for third level to employers. It must step up to the mark itself.

  We also need an outline of how the Government will spend this extra money. Will it be invested in a comprehensive and ambitious apprenticeship scheme? The Government has stated that it is wary of growing the capital budget by too much to avoid pressures on labour costs. An apprenticeship scheme and a retraining scheme will provide the Government with a solution, and properly funded ones will give many opportunities. The continued restoration of ex quota guidance councillors is a positive development that will help schools across the country. We will continue to ensure that these resources are employed properly in each school.

  The education sector in particular has been affected by the disparities in pay for new entrants since 2011. This is a serious point of division within staff rooms across the country and is undermining morale and confidence within our education system on a daily basis. We must have the PSPC report on pay equalisation in advance of budget 2019 to allow us to make headway on this issue.

  We welcome the changes announced in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme in this budget and the extra resources for Tusla. We now need to ensure that the ECCE is achieving what it set out to do without resulting in displacement or price increases for participating families. We will monitor this situation closely.

  It is also time to examine properly issues of pay, including pay levels, for professionals in the early child care sector. The State cannot continue to wash its hands of its responsibilities in this regard. This will be a key focus for us in advance of budget 2019.

  A strong and fair social protection package must be at the heart of a progressive budget. Helping to mend the gaps in the social safety net and giving those who need it most a helping hand are characteristic of a state that places fairness at its heart. We make no apologies to anyone for prioritising this. We are committed to a sustainable social protection policy within the parameters of the fiscal space. The package that we have negotiated today will make a difference, however small, to those who need it the most. It is a clear example of a politics that is delivering for people, not the sterile shouts in the wilderness of parties that talk the talk but, when it comes to walking the walk, decide to run. Ensuring fair budgets that emphasise services and deliver for working people has been our core ethos. The welfare package is a step in that direction that simply would not have happened without Fianna Fáil taking responsibility and fighting our corner in the negotiations.

  Much remains to be done to recover the ground lost in the recession and the regressive budgets that Fine Gael and Labour constantly pursued.

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