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Budget Statement 2021

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Deputy Michael McNamara

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Snippet Contents:

I agree with the previous speaker that this budget and the Government's approach to it have been all over the place. It is a little bit like the "Late Late Show" in that there is something for everyone in the audience but, at the end of the show, one thinks back and realises that what was in it was utterly forgettable. That is, unfortunately, the approach being taken. Perhaps this is, in part, a matter of necessity but one could take the view that, as a result of Covid-19, direction is a necessity and that direction is markedly absent from this budget, with the exception of some measures towards the green agenda and improving the environment.
I will focus on a couple of points before returning to general matters. One is the announcement of funding for mental health. Some €38 million is provided for additional services. On the face of it, this is very welcome and badly needed. This is, however, to be matched with €12 million for the existing level of services, ELS. Anybody who has anything to do with mental health provision would accept that the existing level of services, as paltry and deficient as it is, cannot be provided for €12 million. What then is the additional mental health budget announced today? To say that it is €38 million is, frankly, deceitful because it is not. There is a total package of €50 million, which I welcome. It is certainly more than it was but to say that it is €38 million more than it was is untrue and is simply playing with statistics. What is it that Churchill said? Everyone wants to quote statesmen at the moment. I suppose that is inevitable when we speak in terms of a war. He spoke of lies, damned lies and statistics. I welcome the additional funding for mental health but it is nowhere near €38 million and I would welcome clarity in that respect.
We also need clarity as to whether that budget is ring-fenced. The last Minister of State with responsibility for mental health who had a ring-fenced budget, as far as I am aware, was Kathleen Lynch. That was a long time ago and even that budget was not quite as ring-fenced as it appeared. It was, perhaps, something like this €38 million. We need a ring-fenced budget and all of the €50 million must go to mental health services. If it is not ring-fenced, it will inevitably fall victim to the apparent view of the Department of Health that mental health is not really health but something else. It seems to believe that acute hospitals are health and that nothing else really matters. This is an approach which has served us ill over recent years.
There are a couple of other things on which I want to focus. Crèches and the lack of funding for childcare services was one of the issues to dominate the last election. It has now become even more onerous to provide childcare because of the necessary guidelines to help prevent the transmission of Covid-19. There is, however, no additional funding to take account of this. The area was already under considerable financial pressure. The State was expecting various voluntary groups and small businesses to provide what is essentially a State service while not funding them. This budget has not done anything to address that.
The issue of family carers is similar. They are under great pressure. Even now, only 35% to 40% of the services normally available to people carers look after are open. The Government hopes to get that figure up to 60%, which is a decidedly unambitious target. They say, "Show me your budget and I will show you your values." I say, "Show me how you treat the most vulnerable in society and I will show you your values." To suggest that 60% of the services that were available to the most vulnerable and those who look after them will be adequate or is the best we can aim for is disappointing to say the least.
There is one other issue on which I would like to focus and that is the issue of broadband. This has been mentioned by various Deputies. There are two major problems with broadband in Ireland. One is that, in many areas, we do not have it. I noticed one of our celebrity epidemiologists saying on the radio when retail outlets were being shut down that they could sell their products on the Internet. This person should tell that to the many shopkeepers and small business owners across rural Ireland who simply do not have access to Internet service of any quality. There was an opportunity in this regard. Youth unemployment is now a massive issue. The lack of opportunities available to young people, who cannot emigrate as they could heretofore, is a massive issue facing the State. I welcome the expenditure on capital projects which the Government has announced but surely this is the big capital project of our times. It could have been accelerated and it could have created employment opportunities.
The second problem with telecommunication providers is the appalling level of customer service provided by existing telcos. ComReg is mentioned three times in the programme for Government. I see no additional funding announced for ComReg to allow it to keep pressure on the existing telecommunications companies to provide adequate customer service, which they have not, to date, provided. They are in a race to the bottom.
The general backdrop to the budget is bizarre. I agree with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae about the number of members of An Garda Síochána who were ordered to go out and sabotage the economy last week. They were ordered to go out and hold people with children and people trying to get the ferries on motorways. This was happening in places nowhere near county boundaries just as a demonstration that the State exists. I appreciate that restrictions are required as a result of Covid-19. Of course they are but to sabotage the economy deliberately in that way and to jettison sectors of the economy deliberately while borrowing money to compensate people partly for their losses is truly bizarre.