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Estimates for Public Services 2015 (Continued)

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 870 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin]  The improved economic outlook has had a favourable impact on the Government's fiscal position. Tax revenues increased by €3.5 billion in year-on-year terms and came in €1.2 billion above the target set for last year. The increases seen in income tax, which increased by €1.4 billion from 2013 levels, and VAT, which increased by over €800 million, were particularly encouraging. This afforded the Government a degree of fiscal space to accommodate increased demand and bring forward a number of vital infrastructure and capital investment projects, while meeting the demanding fiscal targets it had set in budget 2014.

After successive years of expenditure reductions and tax increases, budget 2015 represents the first time that the Government has been able to ease the burden of fiscal adjustment since the crisis began. The Government has approved modest increases in aggregate expenditure and reduced taxes for the first time in seven years. The fiscal target we have set for this year is a general Government deficit of 2.7% which, when achieved, will ensure Ireland's exit from the excessive deficit procedure. Fiscal policy from 2016 onwards will operate within the strictures set out under the preventive arm of the Stability and Growth Pact.

I can confirm that the expenditure allocations set out for 2015 represent a significant milestone for fiscal policy in Ireland, as we have moved away from a period of successive annual expenditure reductions. Our broader economic policies are clearly working as the labour market continues its recovery and more and more people are finding work. We will redouble our efforts in this area to ensure the objective of providing jobs for all our citizens is achieved. While we can be satisfied that progress has been made, real challenges remain. I refer not least to Ireland's continued need to reduce the deficit and the public sector debt. This means we cannot lose our focus on the need to continue to develop and implement sustainable and well-formulated fiscal policies over the coming years.

Deputy Sean Fleming: Information on Seán Fleming Zoom on Seán Fleming I am pleased to have a brief opportunity to speak on the 2015 public service Estimates, which the Minister published a few days before Christmas. This is the first debate in the Dáil on this Book of Estimates. No proper debate on these issues has taken place anywhere. I object to the contemptuous manner in which the Government reacted to the request for a full three-hour debate on the Government's Book of Estimates for this year. We spent hours discussing the Finance Bill in this Chamber on Second, Report and Final Stages. For some reason, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform did not want a debate on his half of last October's budget day announcement. There were very detailed discussions at many of the individual committees about matters relating to their respective line Departments. These were debates in silos. There was no overall discussion on the shape of the Estimates. That has not happened. The Minister might not like to have a debate on the overall shape of the Estimates, which reflect the choices made by the Government as one half of what was announced on budget day last October.

The Minister, Deputy Howlin, is right when he says that there were debates. The Tánaiste indicated this as well. I remind them that no Dáil committee approved the Estimates for any of the line Departments. The Standing Orders of the House do not allow a Dáil committee to vote on the Estimates. Such a committee can say it has considered the Estimates, but it cannot pass a view on whether it agrees or disagrees with them. People outside this House might have the impression that there was a detailed discussion. As a result of a Government diktat, Standing Orders prevent every committee from voting on the Estimates. No vote has taken place on this Book of Estimates, which relates to expenditure of €53 billion, anywhere in the Oireachtas. I accept that we will have a vote today. If people are happy with the choices the Government is making in running the country, if they are happy that vulnerable people are having to suffer more than necessary, they should support these Estimates. I know Fine Gael will do it happily. The Labour Party will probably be equally happy to do it. I put it to other Opposition Deputies that if they do not oppose these Estimates, they are saying they acquiesce to every cut this Government is making this year. I ask them to stand up.

The Government announced an adjustment of €1 billion on budget day. Some €600 million of that was accounted for by tax cuts that will basically benefit people on the top tax rate. The other €400 million is accounted for by expenditure adjustments. This is the fourth time the Government has introduced a regressive budget to hit people at the lowest end of the income spectrum, who rely on public services more than people at the top end. All four budgets have been characterised by decisions to look after people on higher incomes, with the most severe cuts affecting people who require services from the State. The Government's actions in taking this approach, which involve the use of limited and scarce resources to introduce tax cuts rather than to improve services, are creating a divided society.

We believe the Government, in the first instance, should have used the €1 billion that was available for 2015 to improve the services provided to and the quality of life enjoyed by citizens. The tax cuts could have waited until next year and the following year. They should not have been introduced in the first instance at the expense of people on hospital trolleys. Many people are waiting for unacceptable periods. They cannot get hospital appointments. They cannot get off hospital trolleys. This Government decided it was far better to give high earners a tax cut than to deal with the accident and emergency crisis in hospitals. The Government decided to prioritise giving money to people on the top tax rate, rather than assisting children in crowded classrooms, people waiting for medical cards and people who really need the support of suicide agencies. The Government's approach is to hope the trickle-down economic benefit of its tax break will lead to the people I have mentioned getting a few crumbs off the table in a few years' time if they are still alive and around.

Many press announcements have been made about the homeless situation. There are plans to build houses for 2020. Everything these days is a plan for five years' time, but nothing serious is happening in the short term. Essentially, I am opposed to the choices this Government has made. It should have allocated more money to increased expenditure and less money to tax cuts in the recent budget. The Government's priorities and choices are unfair on those who most rely on services. The Labour Party has fallen into the Fine Gael trap of looking after the people on the top tax rate the most. I will conclude by referring to the three-year health expenditure ceiling that has been announced. It is an indictment of the Government that it is providing for an increase of just 0.5% in health expenditure over the next three years. I reject the philosophy behind this Book of Estimates.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett In a similar vein, I wish to oppose these Estimates and the overall philosophy that lies behind them. I agree with Fianna Fáil that it is suspicious and problematic that we are not having a proper discussion on these Estimates, which are being rushed through in a very short amount of time. We spent a great deal of time talking about tax changes when we debated the budget, but it seems that the Government does not want to discuss spending. This is pretty symptomatic of the Government's neoliberal approach, which might be expected of Fine Gael but is extraordinarily disappointing from the Labour Party. I remind the House that the neoliberal philosophy, having led us to a disastrous pass by generating an unprecedented economic crisis, was singularly unable to steer Europe out of that crisis by moving away from the neoliberal model of low taxes and privatisation towards a model that recognises the need to invest and spend in order to generate the sustainable employment, public services and infrastructure that can form the basis of a decent, civilised and fair society.

I could use the short amount of time available to me to talk about many specific aspects of these Estimates, such as the need to increase health spending radically way beyond the marginal bare increase that has been much trumpeted but is hardly significant at a time when the health service is crumbling. Rather than going into that, I will focus on the extraordinary trumpeting by the Government of what is supposed to be the biggest ever package for social housing. Some of us have been trying to drill beneath the fanfare and the announcements in order to debate the substance of this issue. I found something in the Estimates that completely belies the Government's claim that it has embarked on a major new social housing programme.


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