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Budget Statement 2019 (Continued)

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 973 No. 2

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  3 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen] We need, expect and want to realise real ambition and energy to build it into a service of which our State can be proud.

In negotiations for the confidence and supply arrangement, Fine Gael bitterly opposed the reactivation of the NTPF. It is because of Fianna Fáil and the confidence and supply agreement that fund is now up and running and having a real impact on the services patients are receiving. We welcome the added investment to the NTPF announced in today’s budget package. We also welcome the reductions in the drugs payment scheme threshold and in the prescription charges rate for older patients, as well as the extension of medical cards. These are drawn from that agreement to reduce medical costs, which was our intention. It is a welcome respite for vulnerable patients struggling to make ends meet.

The Sláintecare report sets out a sustainable pathway forward for our public health service. The Government’s implementation plan, regrettably, fails to include any costings or financial backing. Without such a financial foundation, we fear Sláintecare will simply gather dust and fail to bring the reform our public health service so desperately needs. The money announced today falls far short of the ambition contained in Sláintecare. The recurring overspend in the Department of Health is symptomatic of this lack of focus. This year, that Department will be €700 million over budget and once again, it is the revenue from corporation tax that will be used to fill that hole. For a Government claiming to be prudent and responsible, this is, unfortunately, neither.

With an ageing population we will need to see far more supports for people living at home, with dementia, with a disability or for those who are elderly and infirm. 

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte Hear, hear.

Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen Enabling people to live in their own home, if they choose to, should be and has to be a core goal. We have worked for an increase in funding for home help and home care packages that will have a real impact on carers. We need to see the Health Service Executive, HSE, service plan realise this. We need to see an increase of up to 1 million in home help hours. We need to see up to 2,000 home help packages. We need to see dementia care advisers appointed to meet the deficit and to help assist with that terrible vista that is facing many families across the country today.

Mental healthcare was also a central part of the confidence and supply arrangement and A Vision for Change needs to be fully implemented.  The additional €55 million in this budget is welcome but needs to be matched into the future. The full roll-out of this strategy must remain a key objective for the Government. No healthcare system, public or private, can, of course, function without a fully resourced and motivated workforce. The level of work and care our health professionals provide for patients in their darkest hour cannot and should never be underestimated. The shortage of GPs in Ireland is reaching critical proportions. Across the length and breadth of the country, as I said earlier, GPs provide vital healthcare services to communities. Without them, the entire health system would cease to function. According to the HSE, Ireland is facing a shortage of between 493 and 1,380 GPs by 2025. GPs across the country are closing their practices to new patients, thereby leaving people without this vital element of healthcare. People instead must report to accident and emergency departments where the trolley crisis is already at epidemic levels. Until we start to value our GPs, we will face many similar situations. The Government must commit to a process to restore financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, cuts for GPs if we are to stand any chance of meeting the health requirements of the public.

I want to raise the issue of section 39 workers because it is ongoing. When Fianna Fáil raised this issue time and time again, the Government dismissed the issue, ignored it and ignored the workers. The standard response was that these people were not public sector workers and so did not deserve pay restoration. Aside from being grossly unfair, hospices and other such organisations, which provide vital health services to communities throughout the country, were left in the unenviable position of either leaving workers without restoration or cutting services. We welcome the outcome of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, process in recent weeks but in a wider sense, the funding of voluntary section 39 organisations needs to be and must be addressed. The Government is of the view that the funding is sufficient. We all know hospices provide palliative care to thousands of patients throughout the country. Many of these hospices are facing funding deficits and there is a real prospect that services will need to be cut. Their pleas to the Government to date have fallen on deaf ears.

With a growing number of two-income families in Ireland, additional childcare services and supports are now required more than ever. There simply is not enough capacity at the moment to deal with the demand and costs have exploded. Hardworking families are being placed under ferocious pressure. Loved ones are often needed to fill the gap. Many parents, mostly women, are being forced to curtail their careers to stay at home because childcare is so expensive. That is notwithstanding the increases we have seen today in eligibility. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has been trying to appeal to grannies like a political Dickie Rock. Two for the price of one granny grants does not constitute a childcare policy. This is a key priority for Fianna Fáil.

A Deputy: It is great to be Deputy Ross.

Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen Paid parental leave and subsidy increases must form part of a broader suite of measures, including shared maternity leave, to broaden the capacity of parents to share responsibilities. The additional resources announced are but a drop in the ocean, unfortunately, as well intentioned as they are. The prolonged delays in the roll-out of the affordable childcare scheme, ACS, which seems to be moving further and further away rather than getting closer begs serious questions of the Department. We need a far more radical approach to deliver childcare with the State driving it on.

Fianna Fáil has always believed and continues to believe that a well-functioning public service with appropriately paid public servants is the bedrock of an equal and prosperous society, the bedrock of an Ireland for all. This is why public sector pay and conditions formed a key part of the confidence and supply arrangement. We supported the negotiations between the Government and the unions and the public service stability agreement. We supported and facilitated the enactment of the subsequent legislation. Major issues with public pay and equality were not, however, addressed. The dismissive attitude taken by the Government served to add fuel to the already growing fire. Fianna Fáil called for pay equalisation for post-2011 workers from the very beginning and pushed an amendment to the public service pay legislation forcing the Government to act. The recent agreement represents a sea change in policy for the Government that we welcome. Unions are in the process of considering the agreement and we await the outcome of that process but concerns have already been raised over the length of time it will take to achieve full pay equality.

Many commentators have criticised the amount of pay public servants have received over the last number of years. That commentary is misguided. If public pay was so high, why would there be a shortage of nurses, doctors, consultants, members of our armed forces and, in some cases, a shortage of teachers to teach our children? The fact of the matter is that in key parts of our public service, most notably in health, we have huge shortages in key positions. I welcome that the Government has implemented here today the recommendations from the Public Service Pay Commission but it would be a mistake to think that this in itself will address the significant shortages in key areas of the public service.

A fair society requires a social protection system that provides vital supports to those who need them most. Having a strong social protection package over the last two budgets ensured that the least well-off benefitted the most over the past two budgets. While some look down on those receiving social protection, Fianna Fáil most certainly does not. For this reason, we negotiated for a strong social protection package in this budget. We called for and delivered an increase of €5 in the State pension, as well as similar increases in the disability allowance, unemployment benefit and the carer’s allowance. This brings the total increase under this agreement, across all scales, to €15. When people take the risk of starting their own business they need to be given adequate protection if that business fails or they are forced out of work. We called for pay related social insurance, PRSI, relief to be extended to the self-employed and I welcome that this has been delivered. The social protection package negotiated in this budget is consistent with the previous two and will provide much-needed relief to people on the ground. 

Education is the cornerstone of a prosperous State. It is the ladder of opportunity for every generation. That is why Fianna Fáil has fought to advance it in the confidence and supply arrangement. The pupil-teacher ratio has been successfully reduced, guidance counsellors have been restored and postgraduate grants have been reopened for lower-income students. Far more needs to be done if education is to continue to be a viable path forward for all children, regardless of where they are from. Too often, parents are expected to make voluntary contributions to the running of schools. This is yet another expense for families to stump up. Fianna Fáil believes no parent should be asked to make such contributions and that free education should be free. The increase in the capitation grant of around €10 million for schools in a given year is a welcome step but much more progress is needed.

In respect of justice, the most important function of the State is to provide safety and security to the people in order that communities throughout the country can live in peace. An Garda Síochána is on the front line in that quest. It often provides comfort to those undergoing unimaginable trauma, continuously tackles the violent criminal gangs that are all too common in Ireland today and polices our roads in order that lives can be saved from the carnage of motor accidents.

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