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Financial Resolutions 2017

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Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed)

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Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed)

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Snippet Contents:

I understand I am sharing time with Deputy John McGuinness. This is a new and unusual situation for our party to be in based on the outcome of the last election, the position we found ourselves in of not being able to form a Government and yet being absolutely conscious that the people had given everybody in this House a mandate to form a Government and to govern. Our position was to support and facilitate a minority Government. This budget comes from part of that process specifically based on the confidence and supply agreement.
To be fair, this budget is different from last year's budget. The budgetary process was somewhat more transparent. However, I want to put it on the record that if we are to go forward and facilitate future budgets, there needs to be greater transparency. My party had its normal parliamentary party meeting last Tuesday week, at which stage we were talking about an anticipated budget of in or around €1 billion. Later that week it became €1.2 billion, and on budget day it became €1.3 billion. The confidence and supply agreement set out our key principles and objectives and what our policy areas were. However, that was not a fair position to have left us in, that €200 million or €300 million of additional funding was going to come up in the budget at short notice. The processes need to be better than that if we are to have a meaningful input in the future. I took it badly personally because I was interested in contributing in a meaningful way, in particular having been involved in the housing committee and so forth. I want to say that at the outset. The process for future budgets needs to improve significantly.
I want to acknowledge that this budget is different and its emphasis is different. We set out in the confidence and supply arrangement that expenditure in comparison to tax cuts would be at a ratio of at least 2:1. That has been surpassed in this budget. We talked about the whole area of fairness. Budget 2016 last year was a budget of €1.5 billion. This year's is somewhat less, as a budget of €1.3 billion. From the point of view of fairness, I want to put this on the record because it matters. In budget 2016, a pensioner received an extra €3 a week, which was about €150 per annum. Somebody who was on disability allowance, carer's allowance or other payments received nothing extra. However, if one was on a salary of €70,000, the USC cuts were worth almost €900 a year. If that is compared with this year's budget, the pensioner receives a fiver a week, which is about €250 extra a year. The disability allowance and carer's allowance received €250 extra a year. The person on €70,000 a year is receiving an improvement this year of about €350. It is a much fairer outcome. That is not to say that the increases are huge, but there is an element of fairness in this budget that was not in the last budget. The people on lower incomes, whether they are dependent on social welfare or lower incomes, are doing somewhat better than they had done in previous budgets.
When I talk about fairness and the confidence and supply agreement, there was an element in it that there was supposed to be no shocks, surprises or so forth. Yesterday, the leader of the Labour Party asked the Taoiseach when the social welfare increases would come in and actually be paid. I was quite surprised to hear that there was no specific answer given. We have been led to believe in our party as part of the agreement and discussions that those payments would commence in the first week in March. I think that is unfair. If somebody is a worker, they are going to see their benefits, no matter how small they are and whether it is USC or so forth, from 1 January. They will see it from the beginning of the year and yet the Government is asking other categories of people to wait until March. There is an inherent unfairness in that and I believe that should be reviewed. I say that before the Social Welfare Bill is published and before we get into the depth and discussion that will go with it. In one week, between last week and budget day, the budget increased from €1 billion to €1.3 billion and I believe the additional funding should be looked at again to commence those payments on 1 January. I will refer to that a little further along as I go.
Obviously the budget is underpinned by and based on economic growth. Targets are set out quite clearly in it. One of the biggest challenges and risks is around Brexit. Much talk has been made about it. Much talk has been made about Article 50 being triggered next March and a couple of years of negotiations. However, we need to get real. Brexit is happening today. Companies up and down this country, whether they are small companies, large companies or foreign direct investments, are making their decisions now. They are not waiting on this to be triggered in March and two years of negotiations. I listened to the news and sort of laughed at it this morning. It is the first tangible sign of Brexit in the UK as there is no Marmite on the shelves of Tesco because of a dispute over increases.
In the real world out there, the issues around Brexit are happening and companies are making their decisions. There are opportunities to attract new companies and to secure the ones we have. My concern with the budget was that I would have liked to have seen additional resources made available to our State companies over the next couple of years, both to attract further direct investment that might be considering relocating out of the UK and to make sure that we secure the companies we have for all the right reasons.
Yesterday, in the Taoiseach's speech, he stated: I understand from the previous day that this is to be done through the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland. I am not a farmer so I reflected on it and thought of two things. Because this is an intervention targeted at one cohort, is that fair within the State aid rules? If we think it is important and imperative to do so for farmers, should we not be doing exactly the same for our SME sector? I would like that to be further explored. I believe there is merit in having a look at it.
The whole issue of housing is something that I and other colleagues have been very involved in. Before the formation of Government, there was an all-party committee and we looked at things in some detail. I am not going to have an awful lot of time, so I want to refer specifically to just a couple of issues. The first issue is the grant available in terms of a tax rebate. The issue has to be looked at and the concern is whether it simply drives up prices. The aim all along was to assist a particular cohort of individuals who are working and have the capacity to repay a mortgage, but because they are in the rental sector at the moment, cannot save for the deposit. While the measure might address that element, it seems to be a very broad brush stroke and has the real capacity to increase the cost of housing. In my view, I am disappointed that there was not further detail on supply-side measures in the programme.
There are two things that I wish to respond to specifically. We have met and had presentations from the Irish League of Credit Unions. It has been in negotiations with the Central Bank and the Department of Finance to make funding available through special purpose vehicles that would allow off-balance sheet funding for the construction of houses by approved housing bodies and local authorities. There was no mention of that in the budget or in the attached documents from the Minister. That is a key component that we need upfront. I was disappointed that it did not materialise in the budget.
There was one element that really took me aback from the point of view of underachieving and not setting the bar high enough. I do not know if any of the Deputies present have looked at this, but CSO figures published earlier in the year show that up and down the country, there are hundreds of thousands of vacant properties. I am not suggesting for a moment that every one of them is suitable for occupation or whatever. However, based on this year's budget, the plan for the Minister and the Department is that funding of €6 million will be provided in 2017 to deliver 150 units under a new repair and leasing initiative, which will allow local authorities to provide grant funding to property owners to bring vacant properties up to a standard which can be leased for social housing. At a time of crisis when we need to front-load our initiatives, 150 properties are inadequate in my view.