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Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed) (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 924 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin]  I referred to the Labour Party's broad support for the work being done by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, while noting some of our concerns about the weakness of what was announced yesterday, particularly the sum of money attached to that announcement. To propose essentially that child care is the only investment worth making for children is bizarre. Where in the budget was the action promised in a commitment in the programme for Government to reduce class sizes in primary schools? Education is the true mechanism for achieving equality. We know smaller class sizes matter, particularly to young children, children with special needs and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Last year, we emerged from the worst of times and made a start on class sizes. I expected class sizes to continue to fall in a structured manner year after year. Where was the action in the budget to increase funding to schools and reduce reliance on voluntary parental contributions? The word "voluntary" in this context should be placed in parentheses.

Where in the budget was action taken to tackle the appalling waiting lists for access to early intervention teams for children with disabilities? I note the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Finian McGrath, is present. While the extension of medical cards to children who qualify for the domiciliary care allowance is welcome, children with disabilities need more than access to a doctor. They need, at an early age, access to occupational therapy, physiotherapy or speech and language therapy. They need to be supported to reach their potential and the intervention required must be provided at an early age. From examining these issues every year, I know this does not come cheap. For example, to fully staff all early intervention teams would cost €270 million. The Labour Party's alternative budget suggested this should be done over five years, with an additional 780 staff coming on stream each year. While recruiting these staff would be a challenge because we are not training sufficient numbers of the relevant professional groups, we should at least set this as a target. Yesterday's budget, in contrast, appears to have done nothing to begin to address this appalling backlog, which will copperfasten disadvantage in another generation.

Child benefit is a universal payment that helps parents meet the day-to-day expenses of raising a child. Since my election to the Dáil, it has been viewed as a payment to be provided to all families to help them with the important task of rearing children. For some reason, however, the Government decided that child benefit would be the only social welfare payment not to be increased in 2017. In area after area, it is clear that apart from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, not one Minister has chosen to prioritise investment in children in his or her Department. The Government could have made the choice to do so. After a year of reflecting on our past, we could have stepped into the next century with a determination to make Ireland the best country in the world in which to raise children. That, however, was not the choice the Government made yesterday.

Despite what some commentators may suggest, Irish people value much more than a few bob in their pockets. We have a rich culture that is a deep source of national pride, as was evident in much of the celebration manifested in the commemorations of the 1916 Rising. We punch above our weight in sporting arenas all across the globe. We are a generous people who recognise that, as a country, we owe it to others to show solidarity. While we, as a people, recognise the importance of these critical issues, the Government failed yesterday to attach a similar level of importance to them in the budget.

The easiest thing in the world for the Government to do would have been to deliver a real increase in funding for the arts and culture, the reason being that the increase was already in the base. Last year, funding was increased in the Estimates to ensure the arts and cultural sectors fully participated in the 1916 centenary commemorations. All the Government had to do to make an extraordinary difference to communities in the area of the arts was leave this ring-fenced money in the base. However, it refused to take the easy option of bequeathing a legacy to future generations by permanently bedding this additional provision into funding for the arts.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, may develop a complex because I am the third speaker to mention him.

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar Not at all.

Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath Give him a break.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley He will be delighted.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin He must rank as the one of the least effective Ministers the House has ever seen. From arch-critic of Government spending to internal Government commentator and critic of the Taoiseach, he has certainly moved seamlessly from one role to another. Yesterday proved, however, that he has a long way to go to complete the transition to becoming a competent Minister. He did not propose a single new initiative in the transport area. Worse, he is overseeing a substantial reduction in expenditure on sport.

I referred previously to the United Kingdom's response to the British team's performance at the Atlanta Olympics when it secured only one gold medal. Society and government in Britain decided the country could do better and invested heavily in sports, from grassroots clubs up to high performance athletes. This year, the British team took home 27 gold medals. We could do the same, not by investing on the same scale as Britain but by investing in communities, sport and recreation at a level that is appropriate to our needs. Surely we could have been more ambitious in this area and, in doing so, inspire a generation into leading physically active, healthier lives that would have had a positive impact on future health demand. Again, that was not the choice the Government made.

The Irish aid budget has not been increased. The Taoiseach will recall the discussions we had in the previous Government when, even in bad times when we were under considerable pressure to cannibalise our support for overseas aid, we managed to say "no". Deputy Sean Sherlock, who is seated beside me, was the Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid at the time. The country was in dire trouble but we decided we would not solve our problems on the backs of the world's poorest. The overall increase in overseas development aid will be approximately €10 million in 2016, which means expenditure on overseas aid will decline to 0.3% of gross national income. In other words, rather than making progress, we will slip further away from the target we declared to great fanfare at the United Nations when he committed to increasing overseas development aid to 0.7% of gross national income.

Deputy Joe McHugh: Information on Joe McHugh Zoom on Joe McHugh A further €930 million would be required to reach that target.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher Not one speaker has been interrupted in the past hour.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin The Minister of State is not ten seconds in the door and only five minutes in the job.

Deputy Joe McHugh: Information on Joe McHugh Zoom on Joe McHugh I am just being helpful.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley No better man.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock We increased overseas development aid by €40 million last year.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher Please allow Deputy Howlin to continue without interruption.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin In the worst of times, we managed quietly to defend and increase the budget for overseas development aid. The tragedy is that the Government has made such a choice while every household must continue to watch terrible events unfold in Syria. When Ruadhán Mac Cormaic reports that the city of Aleppo is dying while the world watches, every Irish citizen feels a reaction. When we see the bodies of children and adults lying in rubble, it strikes deeply in the Irish psyche. The statistics are even more harrowing than the pictures. There are now 8 million displaced people inside Syria and 4.5 million are under siege or cannot be reached.

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