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Budget Statement 2021 (Continued)

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 999 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall] These were introduced at great speed, which was the correct policy response at the time. However, there is a clear danger that withdrawing those schemes too early or reducing the rates or terms of same will hurt the very people who availed of them and will also hurt our wider society. At the very least we should have maintained the PUP rate into the future and should not have imposed a time limit on its payment. People need guarantees around their income to have some sense of security and an ability to make plans for the future. The employee wage subsidy scheme needs to be correctly targeted to ensure that workers in the sectors who need it most can avail of it into the future. I am concerned at today's announcement that the extension of that scheme to the end next year will not be on its current terms. I await further detail on what changes the Government is proposing in that area. The wage subsidy scheme has been very successful and we should be continuing it on its current terms at least until the end of 2021.

  Covid-19 has demonstrated clearly that we cannot separate economic policy and the provision of public services. The assumption made by some that public services are funded as some kind of afterthought to economic growth has been totally undermined by the pandemic. Good quality, strong public services underpin the economy and our society. The consequences of decades of underinvestment and separating the economy and public services from society have been laid bare. The importance of positive connections and a robust community where people look out for each other has been clear to see in recent months. The sense of solidarity across society has been essential in responding to Covid-19. The Social Democrats have long insisted that we live not only in an economy but also in a society. This means that we see the economy and society as being inseparable. Strong investment in public services can sustain positive economic benefits and fairness and equality of outcome are the principles which should underpin all our economic policy.

  If the State can intervene to provide certainty to businesses, and it is absolutely right that it should, it must ensure that this process is fair. It should, of course, include the voices of employees in those businesses. We must ensure that the money is spent in targeted, effective ways and not wasted. We await further details on the Government's proposals in this area and my colleague, Deputy Catherine Murphy, will be responding further on business supports tomorrow.

  Another important area in this budget is that of carbon tax and there are parts of this budget that we welcome, undoubtedly. We support the steps being taken to increase carbon tax as a means of changing people's behaviour in respect of the environment. However, a commitment on carbon tax must be accompanied by a commitment that people on low incomes will not be punished financially. The increases in the fuel allowance and the living alone allowance announced in today's budget do not fully offset the €7.50 increase in carbon tax. It is important to bear in mind that the number of people in receipt of one or other of the aforementioned allowances is limited and is likely to be fewer than one in four people. There is a glaring omission in today's announcement in terms of a failure to introduce offsetting measures for working families, many of whom can be described as the working poor. I refer in particular to people on very low incomes, trying to support families with children at a time when the cost of living is increasing. The Government should have introduced a measure to support low-income families because increasing carbon tax should not be about impoverishing those who are least able to carry the burden.

  Budget 2021 includes many measures to support businesses and employment but these must be accompanied by measures to support decent and secure work. That is why, in addition to the basic requirements for a sick pay scheme and a move towards a living wage for all, we must improve people's quality of life in respect of work. Part of that should be the introduction of the legal right to collective bargaining but this and previous Governments have dodged this issue for a long time. In recent times there has been a lot of recognition of and praise for the essential workers who have kept this country going during these most difficult times, but that is hypocrisy unless the Government is prepared to take the next steps to provide secure employment by legislating for collective bargaining and the right to fair representation in the workplace.

  There are other issues that we need to address vis-à-vis the world of work, including the right to flexible work options. Experience over recent months has shown that people would like to have greater access to flexible work options. That is why the Social Democrats have proposed that a commission be established to examine the area and make recommendations on how to move towards the introduction of a statutory right to flexible work options, including a four-day week. Now more than ever, staff working from home need the right to disconnect to prevent overworking and to safeguard their mental health.

  Lessons must be learned from the experience of recent months. We must ensure there is no going back to the kind of dysfunction that we saw pre-Covid-19. We must ensure that our society improves as a result of the lessons learned over recent months. The main lessons relate to the provision of public services and ensuring they are adequately funded, but today's budget does not go far enough in terms of learning those lessons. It does not help with the cost of living either. The main areas that feed into the cost of living are the cost of housing, healthcare and childcare, and these key elements needed to be addressed today but were not, unfortunately. The Government did not avail of the opportunity to do so and there is no excuse for that. We know that there is almost endless borrowing available at very low, even negative interest rates. The Government should have availed of that important opportunity and borrowed more extensively, as well as raised taxes from those areas that can afford to increase their contribution to our society. That would have enabled us to go much further in terms of the reform and extension of our public services. It would have enabled us to do something really meaningful on housing and healthcare. It would also have enabled us to provide the necessary funding for mental health services. Unfortunately, those steps were not taken.

  There is still a mindset in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that is hung up on deficit reduction. I am really concerned by the comments of the Minister for Finance on a return to concentrating on deficit reduction at the end of next year. That is not the mindset or the approach that is required, not only at this difficult time but into the future if we are to develop our economy and society to be inclusive for everyone. People need hope that lessons have been learned and that a better economy and society can emerge. The budget will be judged by whether the Government did that today but I believed it failed to do so.

Deputy Jennifer Whitmore: Information on Jennifer  Whitmore Zoom on Jennifer  Whitmore Covid-19 has brought hardship to many in this country. It has threatened people's physical and mental health as well as their jobs.

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