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

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 925 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy James Lawless: Information on James Lawless Zoom on James Lawless] I was struck, in particular, by the performance of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, last week when he devoted most of his allocated speaking time for his Department's brief to engage in scathing invective in respect of my party. His origins are in the Fine Gael Party and perhaps he has gone native or reverted to type with the increased zeal of the convert.

In any event, that episode and the new reality remind me of debates in the early days of democracy, with the gradual realisation that peace was preferable to war and pooling sovereignty delivered better results. Early political philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau rejected the idea that the state of nature is a state of war and moved on from that. They also noted that, in the absence of co-operation, life in the wild is not attractive. Life or, as in this case, ministerial careers or Government terms could, in the word's of Locke, be "poor, nasty, brutish, and short". However, we have moved on.

Turning to the substance of the budget, just one and a half of the 12 minutes for which the Minister, Deputy Ross, spoke on the budget were devoted to his brief. The remainder of his contribution was partisan in nature. Perhaps that is because only three pages of the 207-page public expenditure document contain details on transport issues. The Minister had nothing about which to talk. In the three pages on transport, there are two sections on roads projects, although little detail is provided, and one short section on public transport, which principally consists of re-announcing pre-flagged Luas works that are already under way. Considering the importance of climate action to this House and the world in general and in view of the gridlock which sometimes surrounds this city and which is worsening as the economy - thankfully - begins a slow recovery, the paucity of any big picture, or even a small one, in respect of public transport planning in the budget is shocking.

The greater Dublin area strategy for the next 30 years was announced during the election interregnum but there is no hint of it within the budget. My constituency of Kildare North is the home of the commuter belt, with tens of thousands of people travelling daily from towns such as Sallins, Naas, Clane, Kilcock, Celbridge, Maynooth and Leixlip by multiple modes of transport. However, the infrastructure needed to support them, make their lives easier and commutes shorter and increase their quality of life and work options is not being provided. Where in this budget is there any provision for the interconnector rail tunnel, the much-needed metro, a new circle line, the next Luas extensions, the electrification of rail lines, the extension of quality bus corridors or incentives to promote cycling, pedestrianisation, connectivity and wider forms of sustainable transport? There is none. Despite the Minister sneering during last week's speech about the metro being on the way, it is not happening. If the Minister of State read the detail of the budget, he would see that not a single cent can be spent on the metro - not even on an investigation - in all of 2017. That is not to mention multiple road schemes - such as the critical Sallins bypass, M7 widening in my constituency and many related projects - that are not flagged at all.

There are few new measures in the energy and environmental provisions. Some colleagues on the left have highlighted that there is no apparent money to wind down Irish Water. Apart from the never-ending debate on whether we should pay for water, is it not time for us to decide what to do with Irish Water? There needs to be a little imagination in this regard.

Energy in Ireland is lost wholesale as power plants, factories and many other heat sources literally pump power into nearby watercourses instead of usefully capturing it. So much heat is poured down the drain or pumped into the River Liffey, the temperature of which is 7o Celsius higher than it should be for a river of its size. There are more innovative solutions across Europe. For example, district heating captures excess heat and water and pumps them directly into households as a form of heating, comprising one third of the energy mix. These and many other innovative solutions could and should be explored instead of interminably debating costs and charging. Let us decide what we will do about this situation.

Turning to jobs and enterprise, the greatest challenge facing this island now and for the foreseeable future is Brexit. Many claims were made in advance about how the budget would be Brexit-proof and would contain many measures to address the situation. However, there are precious few. Brexit is the greatest challenge we face. In the coming 12 months, which will be the lifetime of this budget, many decisions will be made in British boardrooms and institutions on whether they will relocate or stay put. With a little bit of creativity, we could have had a Brexit package that included a number of measures to target and attract foreign direct investment to our shores, for example, a work visa programme, office space, fast-tracking inquiries of interest, share ownership packages for employees who were relocating, transport infrastructure and the well-rehearsed arguments on accommodation, energy and quality-of-life issues. Our personal taxation rate is comparable with the rest of Europe, if on the high side, but we do not enjoy the services that other countries do. As to capital gains tax for entrepreneurs, it is 10% under the €1 million threshold. This is welcome, but the UK's 10% threshold is £10 million. This makes it more difficult to relocate capital to Ireland.

Brexit offers opportunities but there has been a lack of imagination in that regard. The same can be said in terms of energy and climate action. I hope that these issues and those relating to transport will be addressed because they are critical.

Deputy Seán Haughey: Information on Seán Haughey Zoom on Seán Haughey In May, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael came to an agreement to enable the formation of a Fine Gael-led minority Government. As part of this arrangement, Fianna Fáil committed to facilitating the passage of three budgets, subject to progress being achieved on a number of our core policy priorities. In taking a responsible approach to government formation, Fianna Fáil, unlike many other political parties in the Dáil, has sought to ensure that the needs of the people who voted for us last February are reflected in the annual budget.

The budgets of the previous Fine Gael-Labour Government were repeatedly found by the ESRI to be regressive. A core objective of Fianna Fáil in entering into the current confidence-and-supply arrangement was to ensure that budgetary policy was reshaped in the direction of fairness. Under this agreement, we secured a commitment that available resources would be allocated on the basis of at least a 2-1 split in favour of public spending over tax cuts. This has been exceeded in budget 2017 with a 3-1 split between spending on services and investing in our citizens at every stage of the life cycle and reduced taxation.

Despite these improvements, this is not a Fianna Fáil budget and we did not get everything we wanted. However, we have secured a major departure from the policies of the previous Fine Gael-Labour Government and considerable progress on a number of our core policy objectives. The confidence and supply agreement has underpinned a shift in budgetary policy by moving away from a policy of tax cuts that result in the greatest gains going to the well-off in favour of a greater emphasis on investment in key public services, increases in social welfare payments and helping families with the cost of living.

Despite the relatively limited scope for increased public spending and reduced taxes, this budget will bring some relief to hard-pressed families. The reduction in the first three rates of USC by 0.5% is consistent with Fianna Fáil's pre-election commitment to reduce the burden of this tax on low and middle-income earners. This will ensure that working people will see some of the benefits of a growing economy reflected in a modest improvement in their disposable incomes.

Self-employed people often find themselves paying more in tax than a PAYE worker earning the same amount in income. The increase in the earned income tax credit for the self-employed to €950 represents an important move towards the eventual equalisation of the tax treatment of the self-employed with PAYE workers. It is to be hoped that further progress towards full equalisation will be realised in future budgets.

Securing greater investment in third level education was a key objective for Fianna Fáil in the budget negotiations. Therefore, we welcome the increase of €36.5 million in funding for higher education in 2017. However, the increased resources provided in the budget can only be seen as first step, particularly as many of those involved in the sector have stated that third level requires an additional €100 million per year in investment and in light of the long-term funding challenges set out in the recent Cassells report.

While the additional funding for social housing announced in the budget is to be welcomed, there is a need to develop a concrete strategy to underpin the significant and necessary expansion in social housing provision. There is a concern as to whether local authorities have the capacity to deliver on social housing targets. In light of the limited output on the part of local authorities in recent years, additional staffing and expertise may be required to drive the substantial increase in output.

The low level of investment in public transport is disappointing, especially in view of the increase in passenger numbers on bus, rail and Luas services owing to increasing numbers of people returning to employment as the economy continues to improve. My colleague, Deputy Lawless, referred to this matter. It is regrettable that budget 2017 does not provide any capital investment to progress key public transport projects such as metro north and the DART expansion programme.


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