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Budget Statement 2021

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Snippet Contents:

In any budget, the relevant Ministers make decisions as to how they and their Government will spend the taxes that each and every one of us will pay over the next 12 months. They will also decide how much to borrow to fund their policies and programmes, again safe in the knowledge that it will be the taxpayer or their descendants who will, in time, foot the bill. It is important to say that it is not Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Green Party putting their hand in their pocket and allocating moneys. They are actually putting their hand in the taxpayer's pocket and allocating that money. That is fine. That is how it is. With that comes significant responsibility in spending the nation's taxes and borrowing in the most efficient way. Any budget should provide a framework for economic development and ensure social solidarity. It should provide a safety net to those who need it. It should fund our essential public services and it should provide incentives and supports to businesses across all sectors. It should ensure progressive taxation systems to underpin its investments. We as a people need to have hope that its framework is sufficiently robust to withstand the impact of a disorderly Brexit and to deal with both Covid and non-Covid healthcare issues.
With regard to the overall spend, we can borrow at negative interest rates right now. Today was the day to pump-prime the economy and ensure that that safety net is in place for all who need it. We should have used it to support family carers properly. We should have used it to provide our Defence Forces with a decent salary. We should have used it to provide greater supports to those who largely, but not exclusively, live in rural areas and are negatively affected by carbon taxes, with no alternatives for public transport, and, of course, increased costs to farmers. We should have used it to reinstate pandemic unemployment payments to their previous tiered levels, with €350 as the highest payment. I am genuinely disappointed that the Government could not see its way to do this. We should have used it to invest further in capital projects. While there is a review of the national development plan next year, it should have happened sooner and those projects should be up and running in 2021, because money is available now at a cost that it may not be in 12 months. We should have used it to kick-start more ambitious carbon efficiency schemes that will deliver for the environment, for farmers and for householders. We should have used it to invest in the early childhood sector, where we still languish at the bottom of the European scale of spending. We should have used it to be more ambitious in additional spending as some of the figures are simply a rehash or reheating of already announced projects.
This budget has many positive points. I accept that real improvements have been put in place for businesses, healthcare provision and the tourism and arts sectors. I welcome the 9% VAT rate and the rates waiver. My focus is to look at the gaps and suggest how they can be bridged.
If there is one area that I am particularly disappointed about, it is that many family carers are worse off after this budget than before. There is a €150 increase in the carer's support grant, but that will not be in place until June 2021, and most family carers do not receive this payment. The fuel allowance is being increased but carer's allowance is not a qualifying payment, so most family carers will not receive that benefit. There are 5 million additional home care hours, which is important, but only 40% of day services for adults with disability have been reinstated. The plans are to increase that to 60%, but think about it. It still means that many families will experience a 40% reduction in their supports in the foreseeable future. The income disregard for carer's allowance has not increased in 13 years. This year was the year to do it.
I look at the budget through the lens of balanced regional development. In its 2020 country-specific reports, the European Commission notes that regional disparities in Ireland are among the highest in the European Union. What is more frightening is that the gap is widening yearly. It is difficult to assess regional impact as it is only when the programmes are rolled out that we can see the regional spend. One thing is for sure and that is the need for a significant change in the planning and expenditure mindset. The most recent Northern and Western Regional Assembly report details significant underspends in that region across health, education, national roads, local roads, housing, disposable income, and the list goes on. One or two things jumped out at me. I heard my colleague, Deputy Fitzmaurice, talk about the N4 and N5. Much of this spending has already been allocated. He also mentioned that there are just two ports. Nothing else is mentioned in this budget. The budget talks about support for Cork and Shannon airports, which I fully support, but I did not see Ireland West Airport Knock mentioned. I see money for broadband, but is this new money? Finally, on agri and rural development, it is largely a case of where one works, with the roll-over of schemes such as GLAS, areas of natural constraint and sheep welfare. I will come back to that tomorrow when I have another few minutes to address this House.
Has the budget delivered? Efficiency can only be decided this time next year. It has provided a safety net but there are holes for carers, early childhood provision, the Defence Forces and our pandemic unemployment recipients. Regarding big ticket items, the Government has gone part of the way, but greater ambition should have been shown.