24 November 2005 Edition
Fianna Fáil election hype starts here
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
Budget '06 - Spending increases fail to tackle real issues
With over €48 billion to spend in 2006, and another €3 billion of Budget Day sweeteners still to come, the Fianna Fáil message seems momentarily credible. Finance Minister Brian Cowen, launching next year's budget estimates last week used the occasion to present an unrecognisable vista of the Irish economy after nine years of coalition with the Progressive Democrats.
Cowen's view of nine Fianna Fáil budgets is rooted in claims of prudent economic management, significant investment, lowering unemployment, economic growth and radically reduced taxes.
Blots on record
There was no mention of the blots on the record such as: €200 million spent in Abbotstown yet no national stadium delivered; cost overruns on the LUAS running into hundreds of millions; delayed Port Tunnel with still no completion date and no final cost figure; the ongoing crises in the health service; public private partnership fiasco with Jarvis; broken promises on new school buildings; broken promises on child benefit; unequal tax cuts to favour the wealthy; exploitative toll road deals, the list could go on.
This is a forgotten past. Another election beckons and Fianna Fáil are on the case. Across the board there are increases in government spending, a 7% increase overall but higher in some areas such as the Justice Department which gets a 14% increase in day-to-day spending and a 44% increase in capital spending. Alongside this is a 9% increase for the Gardaí and 8% for prisons but only 4% for capital spending in the education sector. So it seems that we might get Michael McDowell's 2,000 new Gardaí, the need for which has never been really established, but we won't get any speeding up of the refurbishment of hundreds of substandard primary schools around the state.
Half of total government spending, over €24 billion, is allocated to the health and social-welfare sectors. There is no doubt that there have been substantial increases in spending. However, in the case of health spending they are coming after years of starving the sector's funds and social welfare spending has barely kept pace with inflation as shown by unchanged poverty rates over the lifetime of this government and an increase in the number of pensioners and children suffering deprivation.
There is also a lack of any real attempt to guarantee that money is spent efficiently. And then there is the creeping impact of privatisation and public private partnerships being used to fund projects and provide services.
Then there are the examples of muddled thinking and failure to face up to the truth. Take the transport budget, it runs to €2.2 billion with €750 million oroclamation of the Irish Republic. It means "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" in practice. But the FF/PD Government has failed that test.
Published in 2005, the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions shows that one in seven children in the 26 Counties — almost 150,000 — are living in consistent poverty. They suffer economic hardship on a weekly basis that excludes them from the quality of life and the opportunities for their future enjoyed by a majority of children.
A further significant minority of 242,000 children — some 23.9% of young people in the State — are at risk of poverty (otherwise known as relative income poverty). They live in households which have less than 60% of the State-wide median income.
The National Anti-Poverty Strategy set the year 2007 as the target date for consistent child poverty to be reduced to below 2% and eliminated altogether if possible. Clearly, with some 14% of children in consistent poverty, the target is far from being reached in 2007.
This confirms that despite the unprecedented prosperity in the Irish economy, it is one of the most inequitable in the developed world.
In the United Nations Human Development Index for 2005 this State comes third last in a league of 18 OECD countries in terms of poverty. Only the United States and Italy, among the developed countries, have worse levels of poverty and inequality. It should be noted that the 'United Kingdom' is fourth from the bottom in this league and that included in its figures are the Six Counties where child poverty levels are worse than in the 26 Counties, adding to the total of avoidable hardship for children in Ireland.
This level of poverty is inexcusable given the affluent Irish economy of the 21st Century. Record budget surpluses have been achieved year after year, yet the opportunity to move towards an Ireland of Equals has been squandered.
The priorities that Sinn Féin presents for Budget 2006 are designed to tackle immediate needs and the most extreme inequalities. A much more comprehensive approach will be required to move towards an Ireland of Equals. In this Budget we again urge prioritisation of those most in need — the children of the nation.
Summary of Sinn Féin proposals
• Major early childhood care and education programme, including:
Universal pre-school session of 3.5 hours per day, five days a week for all children in year before they go to school;
Increase maternity leave to 26 weeks paid, 26 weeks unpaid;
Increase revenue for Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme;
Improved standards and inspection of childcare facilities and national pay scale for childcare workers;
• Increase Child Benefit to €155.92 per month for first and second child and €192.85 for third and subsequent children.
• Extend Medical Card cover to all under 18.
• Range of measures to address educational disadvantage and ensure equality of access.
• Funding and strategy to help prevent anti-social behaviour by young people.
• Tax reform including abolition of speculator-friendly/property-based tax breaks.