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Budget Statement 2021 (Continued)

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 999 No. 2
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall] It is only at the point where we grasp those fundamental principles for having a proper national health service that we will start to make progress. The Government has signed up to Sláintecare but it is disappointing to see the slow progress as a result of today's budget announcement.

In childcare, Covid-19 has exposed the extreme precariousness of a privatised model of childcare where the State had to step in to pay the wages of staff and subsidise providers during the pandemic. An obvious failing in this budget is that there remains no pathway to the kind of national childcare policy that would guarantee quality, affordability for parents, and decent pay and conditions for childcare workers. We have traditionally completely underinvested in this area. The State stepped in during the pandemic and we should have looked to embed those changes that were made at the height of the pandemic so as to achieve the kind of reform that is so badly needed. Regrettably, the Government has not availed of that opportunity today.

In the area of education we are now counting the cost of having an underfunded education system, leaving us with the highest class numbers in Europe. We know only too well of the inequality in education outcomes and the uneven access to college and to third level education generally, but through the efforts of many, the participation rates have been improving in recent years. In third level, the weakness of a model that relies far too heavily on fees from overseas students has been exposed by the pandemic. The investment in education by this budget is welcome but is not of sufficient quantum to make a very real difference. It falls far short. Someone decided to get the news in early that the Government would introduce funding to bring class sizes down. We have to remind ourselves that within the OECD the average class size is between 21 and 22. An OECD report last year place Ireland in joint last place out of 33 countries ranked in investment in education as a percentage of GDP. Today's budget does not get us very further up that list. We need to view the Government's figures today in the context of a situation where nearly €20 billion is being spent. In that context the allocation to education is very disappointing indeed.

Chronic underfunding of social care and the light-touch regulation of the privatised nursing home sector have clearly failed older people over many years, not only during the Covid crisis when it was at it height. These policy failures have created a very real danger for older people in Ireland and, tragically, have led to many deaths that may otherwise have been preventable. Equally, the underfunding of home care and its deregulation have resulted in long waiting lists for care in the home and ongoing delayed discharges from hospital. While there was some allocation for home care in the winter plan, this will merely help to address the current waiting lists and do nothing to the expected substantial increase in waiting lists throughout 2021. In addition, we urgently need a statutory entitlement to home care.

I turn now to employment. We entered Covid-19 with an economy with high levels of insecurity, a prevalence of low pay and a real lack of certainty for many workers in their working lives. We need to see recognition for our essential workers in this budget, at the very least in access to a proper sick pay scheme and in addressing the low-wage economy. At a bare minimum, all our workers need to be paid a living wage . We also need a sick pay scheme to protect workers and especially those who work in areas where many are at serious risk. These are workers in meat factories, for example, who felt they had no choice but to continue to go into work when they were feeling unwell. This was because they had no guaranteed sick pay scheme. Many care assistants in nursing homes were also living and working in very precarious circumstances, and did not have the luxury of taking time off when they felt unwell because of the absence of a sick pay scheme. We paid a big price for that.

Rather than kicking the can down the road, the Government should bring employers and workers around the table to thrash out a fair sick pay scheme. This is a matter of public health, particularly for those vulnerable workers I have referred to. It is also a matter of justice for them. Everyone should have security in their income if they get sick.

On mental health, the severe adverse impact of Covid-19 on the nation’s physical and mental well-being cannot be overstated. A recent surge in referrals as a result of Covid-19 has put new and extensive demands on mental health services which were already chronically underfunded over recent years. Coupled with long waiting lists to access mental health care, providers have been left completely overwhelmed and people who are in serious need of urgent care have been left waiting even longer. Budget 2021 needed to make a serious investment in mental health services to address the historic shortfalls and to make up for the additional resources now needed to grapple with Covid-19.  A figure of €80 million is required to be invested in mental health services. It is extremely regrettable that the budget has provided for less than half of that figure.

The pandemic has presented challenges across all of our society, but people with disabilities, their carers, and the organisations that provide social care and disability services have felt its affects particularly severely.  We are aware that day care services were very badly affected and are very slowly coming back on stream. Today's announcement of additional funding for disability services is very welcome. I warmly welcome that and it is not before time that this kind of allocation was made. I would raise one particular issue of concern, however, which is the cost of disability payment. It has been a demand by people with disabilities and advocacy groups for a very long time. There are additional costs that result from having a disability, including costs such as heating, special diets, adaption of the person's home and so on. This is why there is a very strong case to be made for a cost of disability payment. Regrettably, people have to wait yet again for consideration of that payment.

My colleague Deputy Cian O'Callaghan will refer to the issue of housing in detail shortly. Nothing illustrates the failings in public policy by successive Governments like this country's approach to housing. Policy has been driven by special interests, not the public interest, and has long been the hallmark of this country's approach to housing. This budget completely fails to address a key issue in housing, which is affordability. It takes no account of that whatsoever for those who rent or those who are purchasing. The tokenistic element provided in the budget of a mere 2,000 affordable homes is derisory. The Government should be setting out very clearly a range of policies to drive down the cost of housing. Yet again, this Government, headed by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and indeed the previous Government, have completely failed to grasp the nettle in this regard. Two measures, help to buy and stamp duty, just reinforce the problems that are there. They are, effectively, subsidies to developers. This exposes what I believe is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the housing problem in Ireland on the part of the Minister and his Government colleagues.

I turn now to income supports and the two big policy responses that were the introduction of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS.


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