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Budget Statement 2021

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Snippet Contents:

We are faced with an absolutely unprecedented crisis in terms of health and the social, economic, political and psychological well-being of this country. Budget 2021 was announced as the European Central Bank, ECB, forecast the sharpest ever decline in the EU's GDP. A contraction of 10% is expected in 2020, with unprecedented job losses and damage to society and enterprises. It is nearly impossible to find the words to express the full extent of the crisis this country faces.
Never have there been so many uncertainties. Ireland is uniquely vulnerable in the short term. The potential for a second wave of Covid-19 and the immediacy of Brexit put us in a terrible position. One would imagine this is the time for a massively bold initiative that would have been unthinkable before. Aontú's principal goals for the 2021 budget were to protect life and health, protect the personally and economically vulnerable, promote and safeguard employment and scale up key public services to meet the onslaught of demand triggered by this crisis.
This Government is in a very strange place. In the previous debate we heard Solidarity-People Before Profit ask who is going to pay for this. It is the first time I have heard those Members ask that question in this kind of debate. This Government knew it was in a different situation. Its members knew that the rules did not apply to them on this occasion. The Government had the opportunity to tackle Covid-19 and Brexit in an enormous way. Never before have the fiscal hawks in society been so favourable towards spending. We had an opportunity which the State will probably never see again. This was an opportunity to tackle Brexit and Covid-19 and to reset our society. It was an opportunity for massive investment. A serious crisis can be a serious catalyst for great change.
Aontú is a socially responsible political movement. We wanted to see this budget tackle the issues of health, housing, transport, regional development and justice. However, we are also a fiscally responsible movement. We want to see citizens' money spent properly and efficiently. A deficit simply means taking money from the future to invest today. As such, it is of key importance that whatever investment we make today benefits tomorrow. How did the Government do on its first budget? I heard many words to the effect that low-paid individuals and younger people were among those most damaged by this crisis. However, low-income families have received very little. Pensioners, people on the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, families renting homes, mortgage holders under pressure, parents with children in childcare, farmers and those living in regional and rural Ireland can simply move along. Budget 2021 is not for them.
I am amazed that the Government could not find a tenner for pensioners in an €18 billion budget increase. Pensioners are the people who are most vulnerable and exposed to the Covid-19 crisis. At a time of serious crisis for pensioners, this country could not find a tenner for them in an €18 billion investment. Changes to sick pay, while obviously an improvement, still leave Ireland as an outlier in Europe. The Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment has remained untouched after its dramatic cut. Anyone looking for a totem of a two-tiered country will find it in the fact that this Government reduced the incomes of those on €18,000 and increased the incomes of those on €80,000, the opposite of what should be done.
This budget was also an opportunity for massive investment in our infrastructure. God knows that Ireland's infrastructure is in rag order. We have probably had more infrastructural depreciation than any other nation in Europe in the past 15 years because of the lack of investment. Ireland was second from the bottom in infrastructural spending for a decade. Only Romania beat us to the bottom. Out of an €18 billion increase, this budget includes an investment of €750 million. That is incredible. We will still be investing less than 3% of GDP. That is much less than we should be investing and far too little to do what we need done in this country. This is a mistake. Ireland needs Keynesian countercyclical investment. By doing this it can achieve obvious efficiencies. If we build houses for our citizens today, the State will get rent in the future. If we end Dublin's shocking record as one of the most congested cities in Europe we will enable business and investment in the future.
We need a balanced Ireland. Right now we have an overheating capital. A third of the country is a commuter belt serving Dublin. Many parts of regional and rural Ireland are being emptied of their young people. I have heard talk of a circuit breaker. Why not introduce a circuit breaker for the lopsided city-state development our island is undergoing? Yes, there is a few bob for rural schemes here and there in this budget, but that type of scheme is like social welfare for rural Ireland. Those schemes are enough to keep rural Ireland ticking over, but they are never enough for systemic change. They are enough for survival but not enough for vibrant regional balance. We have also seen the reheating of previously announced broadband funding and €10 million of investment in remote working hubs. That is €10 million for what was meant to be one of the big headline policies for the redevelopment of rural Ireland, allowing people to work from home safely and not have to commute for two or three hours each day.
Housing is also a real let-down. In 2016 the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government found that we needed to build 10,000 houses a year in this country. After this budget, with its headline figure of €18 billion, the Government's ambition is still below that 2016 number. Indeed, if we take out reheated housing figures we are left with just 600 more true social housing units than were envisioned in the original 2021 targets. There has been no effort to reposition the economy with regard to vulture funds, towards which the UN has said the market is skewed. No effort has been made to reconfigure the vacant sites levy, which raised a mere €800,000 last year.
I am amazed by what has happened to North-South relations. Brexit and Covid-19 both highlight the importance of seamless North-South co-operation in flashing neon lights. Resistance to that all-Ireland co-operation has cost lives. I have listened to the Government articulate that view in recent times.