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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 Jennifer Whitmore: Information on Jennifer  Whitmore Zoom on Jennifer  Whitmore] Families have been stretched financially, materially and mentally, and they are really looking for some hope and for a helping hand to get them across the line. That is what our Government should be about.

  Young people in particular have had a difficult time. At a time in their lives when they should be carefree, their needs have largely been forgotten and they have been met with unnatural constraints and a lot of negative criticism. As party spokesperson for children, I am acutely aware that it is children and vulnerable families who have borne the brunt of the effects of the current pandemic, and I believe it is they who should get the most support in this budget.

  A total of €70.75 billion was allocated in this budget today, which will be the largest of any budget in Irish history. We are borrowing at a record rate and at least cost, which should mean no one is left behind, no sector is overlooked and no issue is sidelined. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Some key sectors have been largely overlooked by this record spend, which I believe will make it harder for children, young people and families to navigate the current pandemic. This approach will not deliver on the much-sought-after hope and support for those children and young people who are looking to visualise the end of their struggle.

  As an example, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has seen only a 6% increase in its budget compared with 2020 figures. The budget document was particularly stark in that it said the 2021 budget allocation for early learning and care remains at the 2020 level. The Social Democrats believe this was a missed opportunity not only to address the chronic underinvestment in the sector, the issue of quality of childcare and the crisis of low pay in the sector, but also to close the gap in funding which makes Ireland one of the worst performers when it comes to early years investment. It also means the vision for a move towards a more public model of childcare and early years provision will not be met. Interestingly, early in the pandemic, in March, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, indicated in the Dáil that he shared this vision, when he said:

When it comes to childcare, our plan always had been to expand ECCE, early childhood care and education, and to expand the national childcare scheme incrementally, thereby reducing the amount parents have to pay. In some ways we have done that in one fell swoop, an incremental measure done very quickly. The House might decide not to roll that back entirely.

Unfortunately, that roll-back has happened and the vision of a move to a public childcare system was not upheld. That particular kite has not had the wind of this budget to keep it afloat. This is despite the fact that childcare was and is the cornerstone of the return of our economy after the lockdown. How can we expect childcare providers and staff to continue to work within the current dysfunctional system? How can we expect stretched families to continue to carry the weight of those childcare costs on their shoulders?

  I welcome the extra funding for Tusla, which does incredibly important work, and the additional funding for families in direct provision. Vulnerable children will certainly benefit from this, but the systemic failings of direct provision will remain, so I hope to see swift movement in rectifying those fundamental failings of the system.

  In regard to young people, while I welcome the additional €5 million for youth services, I believe much more is needed to help young people navigate both the current crisis and the period coming down the road. The crisis has had an enormous effect on the young population, and this has not received the attention it deserves to date. I will continue my work on this issue in my position on the committee on children.

  The Social Democrats recently put forward a Dáil motion calling for an end to child poverty. While there are a number of anti-poverty initiatives in this budget document, including an increase in the school meals programme, which I welcome, it will not be the systemic change we need to address child poverty in this country. While the expansion of the children's meals programme will reach an additional 35,000 schoolchildren, other initiatives, such as the fuel allowance increase of €3.50, are tokenistic and will be absorbed primarily by the cost of living and fuel increases. As highlighted in my motion, there is a need to introduce systemic change in how we approach poverty in this country, and marginal increases in income will not do much to address this.

  Some of the initiatives in the budget are almost insulting to struggling parents. For example, there is an increase in the qualified child income rate to €2 for children under 12 and to €5 for children over 12. A family may notice an extra sliced pan or a carton of milk but they will certainly not get any sense of hope with regard to any of the financial difficulties they may face. Shamefully, these measures will not do anything to lift 90,000 children out of consistent poverty. At the time we put forward the motion, I was hoping that perhaps the Government would use the opportunity to put a higher target on the number of children it would expect to lift out of consistent poverty, and I was surprised it did not take that opportunity. Perhaps I can see why, in that the Government realised it was not going to make significant inroads into addressing consistent child poverty.

  Budget 2021 was also an opportunity to support parents as we navigate the Covid crisis. As my party’s spokesperson on children, I have spoken about the need to increase paid support so parents can be with their babies for the first year of their child's life, in line with best international standards. I welcome the fact there is an additional three weeks' parents' benefit, and I ask that this be introduced early in 2021 rather than leaving it to the latter part of that year.

  As spokesperson on climate change, I want to touch on a few of the measures that have been introduced in this budget. I welcome the announcement on investment in retrofitting and transport. We are at a very important environmental juncture in this country and we need to invest significantly in a sustainable future. However, the speed at which we are capable of implementing these measures is something we need to address. To date, investment in retrofitting and electric vehicle, EV, infrastructure has not kept pace with what is needed, and the Government will need to ensure this is achieved more speedily.

  Covid-19 has challenged the way we think about our lives. Budget 2021 has failed to acknowledge that people are rethinking how they work, the way they live in their local communities and the time they spend with family. It is making us all think about what we really appreciate in life. Budget 2021 is an opportunity to reflect on what we value now and what we want for the future.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan: Information on Cian O'Callaghan Zoom on Cian O'Callaghan One of the biggest challenges we face as a country is to ensure that people can access housing that is affordable and secure. The peace of mind that comes from having somewhere people can call home, where they are not living in constant fear of the next rent rise or an eviction notice, is invaluable. Having a place that is home allows families to plan ahead and provides the stability and security that enables communities to thrive.

The lessons from Covid are clear. We need high-quality housing and sustainable communities with good infrastructure, amenities, parks, open spaces, schools and public transport. There must be no going back to the failed policies of subsidising private developers, which have been an abject failure. We must build public housing that is affordable to buy and rent on public land.

Let us be very clear. A housing crisis is exactly what we have. Almost 9,000 people have become homeless and are living in emergency accommodation. More than 2,500 children are living without the security of a place they call home, often in cramped conditions in hotel rooms. We are now spending €4 million every week on emergency accommodation for people who have become homeless. Increasingly, the Government is relying on private operators to provide emergency accommodation, where making a profit rather than providing support is the main objective. People who have become homeless are met by private security guards instead of qualified support staff and are subjected to dehumanising rules, including, in some instances, not being allowed to speak to other residents. There is a complete lack of independent inspection and regulation of these private operators. This budget continues the failed policy of putting millions of euro into the hands of private operators of emergency accommodation.

Renters in Ireland have faced some of the highest levels of rent increases in the European Union. Rents have increased by over 40% in the past 13 years, which is double the European average.

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