Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Joan Burton: I raised this issue yesterday. I pointed out to the Minister that where a woman is undergoing a course of IVF treatment, that treatment is only available privately and it is very expensive. First, there are detailed medical investigations to find out whether a woman is suitable and, second, people undergoing treatment are advised that they will often need three or more courses of treatment. As the cost of each stage can be in excess of €2,000, and even €3,000, it is not unusual for a course of IVF treatment to cost €10,000 and I have heard of cases where the cost was €20,000.
When the Minister flat-rated medical expenses he exempted, correctly, people paying nursing home fees. For the relatively tiny number of people who use IVF as one of their last avenues to have a baby, which they long to have, the Minister’s decision can make the finances of IVF extraordinarily, additionally expensive, especially for people who are in the middle of a course of treatment. For a course of treatment costing €10,000 the tax relief would have been €4,000 but that will now be slashed to €2,000, reducing the relief expected by €2,000, and that is at the cheaper end of the scale.
Even if the Minister does not accept the amendment I urge him to examine the situation to see if the State can do something. I spoke also to the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, who said she might consider some kind of State scheme. The amendment deals with a particular situation.
Yesterday we heard about the situation where children who are committed to undergoing an expensive round of orthodontic treatment cannot opt out once started. Again, that has a particular impact on families who often save to allow their child to undergo such treatment. Up to now the tax relief has been an important element in relieving the overall financial burden.
Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan): We dealt with the amendment in some detail last night. The position is that income tax relief in respect of health expenses will be granted at the standard rate of tax for 2009 with the exception of nursing home fees, which will continue to be granted at the marginal rate.
The changes provided for in the Finance Bill follow on from the changes made in the Finance Act 2007, with the removal of the de minimis threshold for a single individual and a married couple. The 2007 Act also provided for the removal of the requirement that there be a defined relationship between the taxpayer and the person who is the subject of the tax claim.
Standard rating health expenses relief will make the tax system fairer and more equitable for all taxpayers in accordance with Government commitments. The standardising of health expenses relief brings it in line with other reliefs such as rent relief, trade union subscriptions relief, medical insurance relief, third level fees relief and service charges relief.
In addition, the standard rating of health expenses relief will mean better value for money for the Exchequer and will ensure that the relief will benefit the broadest range of taxpayers in a fair and equitable manner.
I beg the Acting Chairman’s pardon. I was momentarily distracted. This matter came up in the Committee Stage debate when we were discussing the remittance tax basis, which is a concession being given by the Minister to certain high earners who come here for a limited period and who significantly add value by their location in Ireland. The Committee Stage debate revolved around the potential of the scheme to be used for purposes for which it was not really intended by the Oireachtas, as we were drafting and as I understood the Minister’s presentation of the proposal.
I have added an additional condition into the requirements of the scheme that would provide that the employee involved would derive income from innovative activities, namely, the development of a new technological, telecommunications, scientific or business process. It is a definition the Minister has used elsewhere in the Bill to ring-fence certain desirable activities he is seeking to promote in the research and development area and it could be similarly applied to the section here where we are trying to delineate the cases where the remittance scheme could apply.
It is a generous concession but at the same time I recognise that if individuals can be attracted to the area of science and development, for example, if one could have a team leader here even for a period of time he or she could be a catalyst from which beneficial activities could be derived. In the amendment I was trying to meet a broad sense of the committee’s deliberations that this should be more targeted than in the existing draft.
Deputy Joan Burton: I am happy to support amendment No. 18. In the course of Committee Stage the Minister spoke on several occasions about how he seemed to see this package as being particularly attractive to people in the financial services sector, such as the IFSC. Given that our economic situation is facing meltdown, does the Minister consider that this is the time to attract more international bankers to the IFSC with schemes, or whether it is time to regulate the IFSC properly?
I question whether this scheme should be concerned with traditional research and development and the improvement of new products and processes, especially where the emphasis is on science, technology and communication — the kind of areas that would employ many people and add real value to exports in terms of the Irish economy — or whether this is to be another string in the packages offered in the IFSC where, effectively, the Financial Regulator has a completely hands-off approach to regulation and where there is a kind of innovation in banking products. Some of this has found a home in the IFSC and has led to the financial ruin the world is facing. Does the Minister really want to attract more of this, or do we want Ireland to get back to work in a decent and sound manner, and forget the type of bubble of speculation that has characterised his party over the last ten years and brought the country close to a perilous economic situation? We shall not now see the brighter side of this for probably two to three years.
The amendment by Deputy Bruton seeks to corral and rein in the Minister’s desire to hand out the remittance basis to anybody who suggests he or she has something to offer. Deputy Bruton’s amendment seeks to corral the definition of who it applies to. It is a very reasonable comprehensive definition. It allows latitude to technology, communications, science and business procedures, and at least reins in latitude on fly-by-nights, who are interested in many cases in using the name of Ireland in a way that is no longer an advantage to us as an economy.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The purpose of section 13 of the Bill is the attraction of individuals from overseas with the necessary high level skills that are required in the current economic climate. These individuals will, in turn, act as potential magnets to attract individual levels of business to Ireland, which will enhance our ability to further develop the sectors within which they work. It will also enable us to benefit from emerging areas of growth in the future. These factors are especially important in light of the current increasing competition Ireland faces from other jurisdictions in attracting high skilled people.
The Deputy’s amendment seeks to restrict the scope of the new remittance basis for foreign employment to individuals working only in certain industries. This would involve obtaining information from a number of Departments as well as substantial cost to the Exchequer. In relation to the high skill sectors, I mentioned specifically on Committee Stage, and I reiterate on the floor of the House, that I only received direct representations from foreign direct investment in Ireland in industry in connection with this particular relief. I referred to a report prepared by a high level group at the Department of the Taoiseach, which has responsibility for the financial services industry and its future.
Deputy Burton should realise that we are dependent not just on domestic banking, but on our international traded banking sector for a substantial proportion of our gross domestic product, so I hope the people involved in that sector are not fly-by-nights, or there will be a considerable loss to the State.
Those which should benefit from the remittance scheme include the ICT sector, where some of the biggest multinationals based here stressed the importance of having such a scheme. They indicate it would help them being the best people in Ireland in roles such as principal investigator for major research and development projects and vice-presidential roles overseeing plant expansion and other product line introduction. In the pharmacam sector it is seen as having particular potential to help attract plant and new process managers. In particular, specific skill sets likely to be attracted include research and development, senior management, quality, project and validation managers. For the medical devices sector, which is seen as very important for research and development, process development and also marketing are vital. Medical devices and marketing are seen to have a low-level capacity in Ireland and need to attract specialist skills.
Deputy Richard Bruton: The Minister coughed at the moment he was saying that my amendment would prove to be of high cost to the Exchequer. My understanding was that restricting it would reduce the cost to the Exchequer, by confining it. I could not quite follow the logic of what the Minister was saying.
In his elaboration of the cases, where he sees opportunities for this scheme, the only deviation I saw from my amendment was that it should, perhaps, be the development and application in Ireland of new technological, telecommunication, scientific or business processes. He envisaged that the management of the installation of new processes would also be strategic. I should be happy, if the Minister is disposed towards broadening it slightly, to say “the development and application in Ireland” or words to that effect, which would catch the import of what he is saying.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I accept the essence of what the Minister is trying to do here. There is no doubt that globally there are many examples of people who come with gifts, for want of a better term, who are gifted and who can bring substantial worth, whatever their industry happens to be. I am instinctively supportive of Deputy Bruton’s amendment, however, because he shares my concern as regards monitoring as he said on Committee Stage. How can one ensure the system is not abused, and that we can keep an edge on it so as to stop the abuse that happened in the past? I suspect that is exactly what Deputy Bruton is doing here, trying to limit the areas where it might apply and in so doing, the potential for abuse.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: I thank Deputy Morgan for his support as regards the general principle of the measure. It is designed to attract people into this country and can play a key role in that regard. It is not being introduced on the same basis as in the past. Revenue will have a far more effective policing system for this relief in a number of ways. First, the relief will be by way of repayment of tax, so all of the salary related to the exercise of the foreign employment in the State will have to be subject to the PAYE system in the first instance. Indeed the levy will be deducted from it in addition to that, as I pointed out yesterday. If Revenue is not satisfied by the information provided by the person making a repayment claim under this section, the official may refuse it and the individual will then have to appeal if he or she is dissatisfied with the ruling. Any abuses of the new arrangements will be reported by the Revenue Commissioners to my officials. In those circumstances I believe that on this occasion, unlike in the past when this relief was enforced, we have ample powers of surveillance of the operation. It would be better to let the relief proceed on that basis, given the welcome it has had, and monitor its operation. If any disturbing trends emerge, we will be in a position to legislate to deal with them at that stage.
I do not believe it is a good idea to narrow it too much at the very initial stage, along the lines suggested by Deputy Bruton, although I cannot rule that out with the passage of time. However, rather than making a prejudiced view about a particular sector of industry or services, we should simply start on the basis that this is a way of attracting a number of individuals into Ireland who can generate economic activity here. If we are concerned about any trend establishing itself, we can immediately move to deal with that in next year’s Finance Act.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I am not really satisfied with the Minister’s response. I can see the “suck it and see” argument and accept that the “surrender and regrant” approach has a long tradition, which goes back into the annals of history. People pay the money, in effect, and the concession is regranted. That gives a better hold, as the original inventors of the scheme thought it would, over their fiefdoms. I am still uneasy, however. While the Minister says Revenue may refuse, it may not do so on grounds that are of concern to people on this side of the House, namely, that this is being used for purposes for which it was not intended. The only grounds on which Revenue could refuse it would be those as set out in the sections. The Revenue Commissioners cannot act unreasonably. They are not courts and cannot invent reasons for challenging a relief of this nature. While they can use these sections, they can only ask whether a claimant was here for a period of three years or whatever. It is a very limited box-ticking exercise. Once claimants comply with these very narrow requirements they will be seen to be in order, even if the purpose is wholly different from that which the Minister has described in his articulation of the scheme. I have no doubt the Minister has the numbers to get his way, but I am not happy about introducing a scheme that is loose in its drafting in the hope that it will work out. We, as an Oireachtas, never get to see these things again. Perhaps in ten years time some expensive consultant will do a report that tells us we got it wrong and defined the scheme too widely when it was originally designed. We will rub our hands sagely and say: “What foolish people the original draftsmen were.” We might as well draft this tightly now and, perhaps, expand it next year if the Minister feels it is not achieving the required results.
Acting Chairman: I have been informed that I should have put amendment No. 16, in the name of Deputy Richard Bruton, to the House already. The amendment arises from Committee Stage proceedings and was discussed with amendment No. 15.
It is one of those delicious ironies of the parliamentary draftsman that the previous amendments concerned the Minister’s decision to reintroduce a remittance scheme for highly paid people coming into this country, where only the first €100,000 of their income would be subject to tax. Any tax they paid over and beyond that is to be refunded. On the other hand, amendment No. 19 attempts to address the situation relating to the pension funds of tens of thousands of people. Following the Minister’s predecessor’s — Charlie McCreevy’s — deregulation of much of the pension regulation here in order to let people make up or invest in their own pension fund and then purchase an annuity, many people followed that process. Many of those pension funds are now in crisis.
A proposal has been made, which I understand has been accepted in principle by the Minister, that people in a defined contribution pension scheme should not be required now, as normally required, to purchase an annuity when they come to retirement age. The Minister must bear in mind that, unfortunately, many of these schemes, as a result of what has happened in capital and investment fund markets, are worth only a fraction of what people reaching retirement age expected them to be worth.
The Government, through the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and all its Ministers for Finance over the years, encouraged people to invest in the private pension fund sector. My amendment seeks to provide some flexibility for these people so they can salvage something from the situation. Many people of relatively modest means who have worked hard all their lives put their money into a pension scheme and were encouraged by the Government to do so. They were encouraged by a Government which has also, through the kind of political economic structure it has developed, encouraged the disappearance of defined benefit schemes. Significant numbers of companies have closed such schemes in favour of defined contribution schemes.
We did not expect that Irish pension funds or funds in which Irish people looking forward to retirement hold their money would be subject to the kind of dramatic fall they have suffered. Therefore, my amendment urges the Minister to announce, as he has indicated he may do, flexible arrangements with regard to the requirement to purchase an annuity. I see no reason the Minister cannot be positive and make this arrangement and announcement now.
With regard to the regulations governing the employers’ side of defined contribution schemes, we know that under technical regulations, many of these schemes will be in default if the stock market continues its current trend, because employers are required by law to top up the contributions to an appropriate level to keep the fund viable. Again, we have suggested that the Government should state clearly the position in this regard.
I am aware that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Hanafin, has suggested on several occasions that she is agreeable to making this change with her colleague, the Minister for Finance. However, there is currently no certainty for people about to retire as to the situation. People who ring up to inquire about their pension funds can get no hard information or advice in this regard. They do not know what will happen if they reach the age of 65 in January or March or whenever. In the normal course of events, these people would, by law, be required to purchase an annuity within a short period of time.
I urge the Minister to accept the principle of this amendment. More importantly, he should set out clearly what will happen with regard to those people who are living in fear and dread. They do not know what has happened to the money they invested in good faith or what will happen them now with regard to their pensions. The Government is going to provide up to €10 billion for bankers who have behaved unbelievably recklessly, but there is much less certainty about what it will do for people on trolleys in accident and emergency units where services will be cut or for people who in good faith put their pension funds into investments. They had no other choice but to do so, because they were required by their employer and encouraged by the State to do it. Will the Minister indicate clearly where they stand now?
Deputy Richard Bruton: That does not seem to be reflected in the Finance Bill as we have seen it. My amendment is a reflection of an amendment I tabled last year and relates to the inequity of the current arrangements whereby people in defined contribution pension schemes are forced to purchase annuities, whereas self-employed people investing money in retirement funds have the flexibility, once they have other income that provides an income to the value of at least the non-contributory old age pension rate, to put their money into a fund and manage it according to different rules. There is clear discrimination, therefore, against people paying into a standard contributory scheme, which is the predominant type of scheme for people currently. People who pay into defined contribution schemes are being discriminated against by being forced to purchase these annuities.
The Government is being forced, due to the collapse of interest rates and the deplorable value in the purchase of an annuity, to make the provision it proposes for two years. However, I raise the wider issue of why it would treat some people as fish and others as flesh. It seems that the former Minister’s, Charlie McCreevy’s, approach towards the self-employed, allowing them flexibility, should be applied equally to people who pay contributions towards pension funds that are equally subject to the vagaries of the market. They should be allowed the flexibility to manage them as best meets their needs. I will be interested to hear the Minister comment on the wider issue, as well as on the two-year moratorium on what I regard as an unfair rule.
Deputy Seán Barrett: I support the principles behind both amendments. There is a simple point about pensions. A person gets tax relief on the amount of money put into a fund. When one takes it out one pays tax. I always felt it was wrong to put too many restrictions on the ways people deal with their pension money. Circumstances are different for different individuals. Some people may need money immediately and others may not.
When one’s pension age, or retirement age, arrives one can take the pension, automatically. However, some people continue in employment, do not need the money and want to allow it increase. The way things are going, people will work beyond the usual retirement ages of 60 or 65. I always fail to see why the State should worry too much about when a person takes his or her benefit. Whenever people take their benefit they will be taxed fully.
Deputy Bruton made a point about the self-employed. I can offer a personal example. My retirement age was 60 and I got the fund but because I was still working I did not need to draw down my money. I spoke on this issue last year. The Minister required that 1% had to be taken last year, 2% this year, 3% next year. My fund has decreased considerably——
Deputy Seán Barrett: ——but I still must take out 2%. My point is that the tax the Minister will get on the 2% is far less than he would get if it were allowed to recover and grow. Taking 2% of a lesser amount means taking less tax. It seems crazy that people in my position are forced to take 2% at a time when it is not required. If my retirement age were 65 it would be a different matter. Flexibility, whether of defined benefit or defined contribution, or for the self-employed, is irrelevant. People should be treated as individuals. The money is theirs and they should be allowed take it when they feel like it. Once they pay their tax, whenever they take the money, the State will not lose anything.
This is a time for radical thinking in the whole area of pensions, particularly given the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I chose where I would invest my money and in what retirement fund I would invest it but everybody does not have that choice. Perhaps it is time we looked at regulations concerning where pension fund moneys should be invested. An employer, or the person advising an employer, can use his or her discretion to invest money in funds without the knowledge or the authority of the individual whose money it is.
I believe we have learned a lesson from what has happened to pension funds. Perhaps we should look at flexibility with regard to where people invest. It is different for the public servant who gets a pension and does not have to worry about the funds. This applies to all of us in the House. However, people outside here, whose retirement age is this year, are devastated. To say that the State will force them to purchase annuity at this——
Deputy Seán Barrett: ——point would be criminal. I am pleased the Minister is making provision in this regard. Perhaps we might have an opportunity to discuss the issue further in respect of next year’s Finance Bill.
There are two parts to section 15, which concerns the assessment of days spent outside the country. The Minister said the change in question will occur as and from 2009. Is it reasonable to expect somebody to change lifestyle from one year to the next? Would the Minister not consider that the appropriate date should be 2010? That would give people a chance to make alternative arrangements. The Minister is changing regimes all of a sudden and this will affect many people. Ultimately, he will lose revenue because of this move. The fewer days a person stays in this country the less money will be spent. To change from one regime to the next on 1 January appears to me somewhat harsh.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: This is a very important issue. We are dealing with people who have just arrived at their pension age. I agree with Deputy Barrett that people should have options. I shall give an example. In recent years I have seen a significant change in attitude in a number of Departments, including the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and also within the Revenue Commissioners. To some degree, personnel are trying to give people what they are entitled to receive. Things could be better but in recent years there has been a considerable improvement.
In similar fashion, we should seek to accommodate people who arrive at pension age in order to get the best possible options for them. That is surely the least we can do for people who have worked all their lives. I support the amendments because they endeavour to give better options to people who have arrived at pension age. Making a simple change of date, from 2009 to 2010, would be an immediate example of a better option, if it were possible to do that.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: Members will be aware I recently announced that the rules relating to the requirement for members of defined contribution occupational pension schemes to purchase an annuity with their pension funds in retirement are to be relaxed by the Revenue Commissioners, on a temporary basis.
These amendments have, therefore, been overtaken by events. The deferral arrangement will be operated on an administrative basis by the Revenue and I understand it has finalised the detailed arrangements of the initiative with the pensions industry since my announcement. Under the arrangement, members of defined contribution occupational pension schemes who retire in the period from 4 December 2008 to 31 December 2010 have the option of taking their tax-free lump sum and purchasing a retirement annuity immediately on retirement, or they can take the lump sum and defer the annuity purchase, subject to agreement with their scheme trustee, up to and including 31 December 2010, by which date the concession will end.
By way of background, my Department was approached by the Irish Association of Pension Funds and others in the pensions industry to look at this issue. They were seeking some flexibility on the timing of annuity purchase in view of the fact that affected defined contribution scheme members retiring at this time will have suffered considerable losses in the value of their pension funds in the past year. The argument was made that in the event of such individuals having to purchase an annuity immediately on retirement these losses would be locked in.
Coupled with more recent falls in interest rates and the likelihood of more interest rate reductions to come, the purchase of an annuity in current market conditions with depleted funds would prove likely to be more costly. It would not provide the same level of guaranteed income as in the recent past. The point was also made to me that the position is even more acute for those who have not yet reached normal retirement age, but who are obliged to retire early due to redundancy. This situation, unfortunately, has been increasingly evident in recent months. This is because the normal shift to a more conservative investment strategy in the years running up to retirement will not have occurred for those individuals as they would not have been planning to retire at this time in the normal course.
In acceding to the request, I was conscious that any decision to defer the requirement for annuity purchase is not a risk-free option for the individuals concerned. As I said in my press statement when I announced this change, in giving individuals the option to purchase the annuity immediately, or within the two year deferral period, there is no guarantee they will get better value if they postpone, for two years, or a later date, the decision to purchase. Those individuals who are retiring now or approaching retirement must take this into account. In this regard, I am happy to note that as part of this initiative, the Pensions Board will publish appropriate risk guidance in this matter in the near future.
I also wish to emphasise that the deferral of annuity purchase announced recently is the result of consultations carried out with the pensions industry and represents what the industry proposed as a means of addressing the immediate issues facing certain individuals coming up to retirement or facing redundancy. In light of the fact that the Revenue Commissioners are facilitating a relaxation of the annuity purchase rules, which largely do what these amendments seek, I do not propose to accept the amendments.
Deputy Bruton asked some wider questions about pension policy in general. He is seeking flexibility for employees to put pensions into an approved retirement fund, ARF, or a personal retirement savings account, PRSA. This is a wider issue to be dealt with in the context of the Green Paper on pensions.
Deputy Joan Burton: Will the Minister make arrangements to have that broadcast fairly widely? People are in fear and trepidation that what they have saved for is literally gone down the Swanee in terms of the money they put into their investment funds. I hope the Minister will be open-minded enough so that if the current falls in the markets continue for more than two years, as it would seem they may do, he will be flexible. There is an opportunity here for the National Treasury Management Agency, for example, to offer a safe vehicle for an annuity at a low cost. The Minister makes friendly references to the pensions industry. The reality of the pensions industry in Ireland is that, among the pensions industries of the world, it has the highest level of charges. Other jurisdictions seek to limit and cap charges but our Government does not.
I would also like the Minister to address an issue which is very important from an employment point of view, namely, how he, as Minister for Finance, proposes to advise his colleagues about the treatment from an employer’s point of view of defined contribution schemes where the current rules are that if the scheme comes into deficit, the deficit must be topped up. If the deficit is not topped up, the scheme technically comes into default. If that issue is not addressed rapidly, that default will become a reason for many companies seeking the protection of receivership if the deficit involved in pensions schemes for which they have a liability becomes excessive. In the time available, I would like the Minister to address his attention to this. It is very important from the point of view of thousands of companies and their continuation through very lean times.
Deputy Richard Bruton: The Minister contends I am raising a wider issue; I am not. In two years time, the Minister will be faced with this same issue. As he rightly says, if the market has not recovered he will again force people to buy at low interest rates annuities that will be wholly unsatisfactory. I raise the point that what is good for the self-employed and has applied to the self-employed for a considerable period is just as good for people in defined contribution schemes which are reaching maturity.
If the Minister did want to raise the wider issue, Deputy Burton has raised it, namely, what happens to people in their 60s who have a pension fund. It is the existing pensioners who have priority. Someone very close to retirement age is no more secure than someone aged 20 in the status of a defined benefit pension scheme that is in difficulty. Those are the wider issues we would like to see addressed. However, I am sticking strictly to the context of the forced purchase of annuities.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The deferral arrangements for annuity purchase which I announced recently are by definition temporary. However, as Deputy Burton suggested, if present conditions persist over an extended period, that issue might have to be revisited. Changing the scope of the existing ARF arrangements is one of a range of issues to be addressed in the long-term pensions policy framework being developed by the Government.
Some speak of extending the ARF option as though it was a panacea for the problems of the pensions area. It is an important issue but not as simple as it is portrayed. There are arguments for and against extending it to pension arrangements where they are not available at present. The arguments are set out in the Green Paper and relate to the whole question of balance.
I was giving Deputy Burton attention when she asked about the accounting treatment of pension funds at present. As I understand the position, and the Deputy will appreciate it is a prudential issue rather than a revenue issue so I am speaking without the benefit of official advice, there is an EU requirement in regard to the accountancy standards that must be observed.
The amendment seeks to delete section 26 because this section facilitates tax exemptions for the private health care sector. I would argue it facilitates a road towards the privatisation of the entire health care system in the State, to which I am clearly opposed.
There are many examples of problems having arisen. The Bill deals specifically with enhancing tax relief for hospice facilities. We all want to see and there is a huge need for the provision of additional hospice services throughout the State. Currently, 12 counties have no hospice facilities. Rather than providing those facilities, a trend for 11 years under this Government has been to hand over that section of the health care service lock, stock and barrel to the private health care industry. This is unacceptable.
I do not disagree in principle with certain tax incentive initiatives. Several years ago, for example, we saw derelict parts of towns which attracted exemptions for a short while — some would argue for far too long — which increased activity in that area of the town and renewed activity. While I am not against such initiatives per se, I am against them with regard to the health service. For example, to take the issue of nursing home beds, since the huge tax incentives were built into that section of the health service, only a very small number of public beds have been provided. It has got to the stage where people are almost wholly dependent on the private sector for nursing home beds, which is a bad situation.
The National Treatment Purchase Fund has a similar effect with regard to the privatisation of health care. Our Lady’s Hospital in Navan, which has been closed since mid-November and will remain closed until mid-January, is the orthopaedic hospital in the region where hip replacements and such treatments occur. The people who would have attended for hip treatments are on the waiting list and will remain there for three months, when they can apply for the National Treatment Purchase Fund scheme. Each of those procedures would cost between €3,500 and €4,500. As the HSE has admitted, the only savings made will be in regard to replacement artificial hips, yet a significant number of these people will be referred through the National Treatment Purchase Fund to private hospitals for that procedure. In that event, the cost of the procedure will be somewhere between €8,000 and €12,000. Clearly, this is not a cost-saving exercise. It is about driving an ideology and driving the privatisation of the health care system, which I totally oppose.
I will give one other example. Although it has not been announced, the ambulance service has recently been subject to significant cutbacks because the operatives are not allowed overtime. Rather than have people working, especially at this time of year when there is increased activity on the roads because of parties, additional home visits etc., the ambulances will be parked. There is a significant increase in the rate of accidents and deaths on the roads at this time of year. The HSE stated its position in the event of someone not being available because overtime could not be facilitated. For example, if an operative is out sick, he or she cannot be replaced by a colleague because overtime would be incurred. In such cases, ambulances from other outlying areas would be required to cover that area. Such an ambulance would require additional time to arrive at the scene of an accident, involving a heart attack victim or whatever the emergency. That is completely unacceptable.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: In addition to being unsafe, it is significantly more costly, because the fallback position is that the HSE will hire private ambulances. Rather than pay some operatives in the local area overtime, it will incur not only the cost of the two operatives in the ambulance, but the cost of the private ambulance itself. It is a substantially increased cost and it makes no sense.
In 2006, the last year for which figures are available, tax exemptions for developers of private hospitals cost the State €10 million. We are all aware of how €10 million could be spent. Such an amount could not be found for the cervical cancer vaccine programme. It was found and then cancelled. However, in this case a preference is given to developers of private hospitals, which is alarming and I am concerned that this is the case.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: We are discussing a scheme for hospices. It was introduced last year at the request of the relevant voluntary groups. Developing hospice care was widely welcomed at the time. Deputy Morgan’s amendment proposes that the new scheme of capital allowances for the construction and refurbishment of buildings to be used as specialist palliative care units does not come into effect. I appreciate Deputy Morgan tabled an earlier amendment which was ruled out of order, and that he spoke to that. However, the scheme Deputy Morgan seeks to repeal was introduced in Finance Act 2008 but has yet to receive EU Commission approval from a State-aid perspective and be commenced by me. It was introduced in response to identified gaps in the supply of and demand for palliative care facilities throughout the country. The scheme has similar terms, conditions and exclusions to those that apply in the case of qualifying private hospitals and qualifying mental health centres. It aims to encourage private sector investment to fill some of those gaps, but only where proposed developments of facilities are in line with the longer term public health policy objectives in this area. For expenditure to qualify for capital allowances, the development of a facility must have pre-approval from the Health Service Executive, with the consent of the Minister for Health and Children, as being in line with national development plans and needs assessments for palliative care facilities.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Finance Bill contains some amendments that will make the scheme more effective when it comes into operation. Since I was persuaded by the arguments made during the debate on the introduction of this scheme in the Bill that the minimum bed capacity requirement of 20 beds could be a significant hurdle for some palliative care units, I am lowering this requirement to eight beds. I am also allowing capital expenditure under the scheme to qualify for capital allowances from the date of the enactment of the Finance Act 2008, because I do not believe it is reasonable that legitimate capital expenditure on qualifying projects should be excluded from benefiting under the scheme in the period pending EU Commission approval.
Tax incentives for similar schemes have proved to be an effective way of attracting the necessary private investment into areas of the economy where investment is needed. This scheme has the potential to make a real contribution to increasing the provision of much needed palliative care facilities and I am, therefore, unable to accept the amendment. As with similar schemes that have been reviewed in recent years, I will keep this scheme under review to ensure that it meets the requirements I have in mind for it.
Deputy Joan Burton: I am unsure if the Minister understands that the financial world as we knew it has changed. Tax-based capital schemes led his predecessor in office, the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, to ruin in respect of the economy. It produced activity which, as it turns out, is unsustainable. The contribution of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, and her party, the Progressive Democrats, now happily deceased, to health services has been ruinous. It has produced several investments backed by groups of private investors. They have established private hospitals, some of which are independent and some of which are proposed for public hospital lands.
The basis of these schemes is the use of leverage, which is made easier by the availability of generous tax breaks. It involves high net worth individuals or groups of such people, lending or, more likely borrowing, large volumes of capital. The borrowings are then used to fund private health care initiatives which are given tax breaks by the State at the top rate of 41%. That form of leverage is over. As in his dealings with the banks, the Minister does not seem capable of appreciating this fact.
Earlier this year, the Minister introduced the scheme for hospices. Initially, those connected with the hospice movement knew nothing of the scheme. It turned out a party colleague of the Minister prevailed upon an institution in Munster to seek this scheme, presumably to assist in an investment by a select group of investors. These high net worth individuals planned to borrow money for the investment and consequently receive a very handsome tax break at the marginal rate of 41%. This year, the Minister announced an amendment to reduce the number of beds required for the scheme. I do not understand why the amendment was necessary.  However, it was probably on the basis of some kind of representation from some individual investor or private project to which the amended scheme would be more attractive.
Unfortunately, instead of representing fairness and universality of treatment, the health service has been driven into a two-part system by the Government, the better and faster treatment privatised. However, there was the case of Ms Susie Long, who became very ill and died. Her colonoscopy was delayed entirely because she was a public patient. She wrote to Mr. Joe Duffy on “Liveline” using the name Rosie, and referred to a person seeking treatment at the same time as her. It turned out that, luckily, the man had private health insurance and consequently could avail of private treatment. As a result, that person was able to get the test in sufficient time to save his life. In her case this was not possible.
I do not understand why the Minister is so determined to extend these schemes when everyone knows that given the current collapse of the financial markets such schemes are as dead as a doornail. No financial adviser worth his or her salt would advise people to proceed with such a scheme. In any event the money is not available in banks. The banks do not have funds to lend for such schemes. These are the banks to which the Minister proposes to give €10 billion of pensioners’ money. He ought to be deeply ashamed.
The Minister’s proposals are little better than the Ponzi scheme that gentleman in New York used to rip off approximately $60 billion. This is the Government’s own version of a Ponzi scheme. I do not understand what the Minister is playing at. Members have never been informed who are the precise beneficiaries of this proposal. However, although the Government introduced the original scheme less than 12 months ago, the Minister already seeks to amend it to favour more intensively a group of unknown investors. The Minister ought to share this information with the Dáil.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I must repeat that I accept the need for palliative care beds. As my constituency in particular has one of the highest rates of cancer on the island, which consistently is 12% or 13% above the national average, I accept such a need completely. In a way, I accept that in respect of occupancy, better efficiency is to be gained, for example, from a ten-bed unit than from a 20-bed unit. Consequently, I see some merit in the Minister’s specific amendment to the scheme. From the perspective of the investor, having full occupancy would be efficient.
However, this should not be about investors. People’s health care should be dealt with by the State and they should not be obliged to enter private hospice care. This is the biggest issue in this regard. Another point worth making is that tax breaks cost taxpayers money. They do so for the simple reason that the cash does not come in. However, the Government appears to be in favour of writing off as many schemes for tax breaks as one wishes, which I consider to be a ridiculous concept. This appears to be the prevailing mentality, with both the present Minister and successive Ministers for Finance, for a considerable time and is particularly lamentable.
In conclusion, I am not opposed to hospice care. I see more than enough of it through visits to the small number of hospice beds that are provided. While I recognise the need for them, they should be provided by the State and we should not be moving in this direction.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: As for palliative services, that is the reason for the introduction of this particular tax incentive. I must refute Deputy Burton’s suggestion that this is a sinister plan involving high net worth individuals, who appear to populate her imagination at regular intervals. First, high earners, whose income is in excess of €250,000, do not obtain marginal rate relief on incentive investments. This restriction on reliefs was introduced by my predecessor, the current Taoiseach.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The crucial point I wished to make, which Deputy Burton did not allow me to complete before interrupting, is that early indications from the Revenue Commissioners suggest the restriction is working as intended, by reducing the effective tax rate to 20% in such cases. The key point is the information I have received from the Revenue Commissioners suggests——
Various other extraneous comments were made about the banking system and alleged arrangements therein. First, had Deputy Burton been responsible as Minister for Finance for the banking system on 30 September last, the banks would have gone over a cliff by now. I certainly will not hazard——
Deputy Richard Bruton: On a point of order, on Committee Stage a contention was circulated to all members of the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service to the effect that this amendment would assist only eight out of 95 of the qualifying types of Seveso investments.
Deputy Richard Bruton: However, the section was not reached on Committee Stage. I tabled an amendment in the expectation that I could speak on the section because there was no opportunity to address the section on Committee Stage. If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s order stands, there will be no opportunity at any stage in the debating procedure to address this issue. Consequently, I move:
Deputy Richard Bruton: My understanding is that this section introduces a concession for urban dockland developments where there is a need to move certain activities from such lands to new sites to free the former for wider development. In principle, I can see the merit in a tax relief. However, the Minister will have had sight of the letters sent to the committee in which it has been presented that this provision, as it has been structured, will disadvantage many investors who are already engaged in such activity. There will not be a level playing field because although there are 95 designated Seveso sites, under this proposal only eight would become eligible for some tax support.
The issue is that this provision will create a non-level playing pitch and the proposal must be reconsidered in some way to make it more broadly based. I understand that those who consider themselves to be adversely affected have submitted an amendment — I presume it has reached the Department as I received it by e-mail — that they believe would create a level playing pitch. A genuine concern exists in this regard, which was shared by all sides on Committee Stage. However, Members were frustrated that the guillotine prevented them from reaching this matter.
Deputy Joan Burton: This is another example of lobbies that have the ear of the Minister for Finance, which gives rise to legislation that results in significant tax advantages to a select few. When the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Brian Cowen, was finally persuaded that the structure of capital-based tax breaks he had introduced was dangerously damaging the property market and creating a property bubble, comprehensive studies were conducted by an independent firm of consultants and studies were carried out by the Department of Finance. Unfortunately, the bubble has burst, leaving many construction workers unemployed and the State coffers heavily depleted. The outcome of such studies was a declaration by the Minister that he would row back on the principle of tax breaks for property development and that where he proposed to introduce other tax breaks, a clear cost-benefit case study analysis would be undertaken that would show exactly what was involved, what were the benefits of the suggested action and what were the costs of the suggested action, in respect of tax forgone.
When the Minister announced this in the budget, it was immediately suggested that this measure would particularly advantage certain developments in the Cork docklands area and, potentially, certain developments in or near the Dublin docklands area, and particular developers, whose investments would be significantly enhanced by these developments, were also named in the media, some of them prominent supporters of the Minister’s political party.
We, along with other Deputies in this House, received representations from developers and investors in other schemes around the country who suggested that, because the developments or locations named by the Minister on budget day would get a specific advantage, they would be heavily disadvantaged. Clearly, the investors concerned in the Finance Bill would have a very attractive way of reducing their exposure to taxation by investing in the Minister’s scheme.
From a public interest point of view, it is really important that the details of this come out. It is, of course, potentially, a state aid to industry and I understand it must be examined by the European Commission with a view to seeing whether it constitutes an unfair illegal state aid to industry to particular groups as opposed to other groups.
There are all around the country dockland areas where, for instance, part of docklands were used to import and hold liquid petroleum gas, oil and other items which give rise to a Seveso-type definition if, subsequently, those sites come to be redeveloped because they are heavily contaminated.
On the additional tax breaks the Minister has put forward for wealthy people to reduce their incidence of taxation, all of the Deputies speaking in this debate have asked for details, for cost-benefit analyses and the identity of the beneficiaries, but we are none the wiser. This is why the business of tax breaks by his Government and the tent at the Galway races have become such bywords for a kind of political corruption, which has plagued this country and which in the end has been one of the reasons for the severity of the economic decline we are now suffering.
The Minister is proposing another one of these tax incentives. There are profound arguments in their favour but they must be done fairly, openly and honestly. The regime of the Minister’s party and Government has been anything but.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: In terms of any tax relief there should be equity. We all received the correspondence from the particular Seveso company and it should be looked at by the Minister in terms of equity.
On the broader issue of docklands development, in the context of my own constituency in Limerick we have a working dock but we would like to see development of the area as an amenity. The Minister needs to look at the overall development of docklands from a sustainability viewpoint and strictly not from the viewpoint of this issue, which is not equitable to all the Seveso sites. In fact, it only applies to eight out of the 95. The Minister might take that on board.
On the section, it is not a tax incentive for property developers. It is a scheme to remove and relocate industrial facilities involved in the regeneration of urban docklands because of health and safety concerns that arise under legislation in the Seveso directive.
The section only applies to Seveso sites which a local authority wants to remove for urban regeneration purposes. That is important. That is written into the section. It is not a question that any developer, any owner of land or any dockland can trigger this relief. It is under local authority control. There must be a proper regeneration scheme.
On the correspondence received by Deputies which I myself read with great care, it must be borne in mind that written into the section is a provision for the clawback of the benefits in cases where there is any element of undue competition. Indeed, Deputy Bruton raised that question. The clawback provision in the section deals with the danger identified in the correspondence of unfair competition. The clawback provision is essential under the state aid provisions applied by the European Commission.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I have not had the chance to study in great detail this clawback provision but I understand that the representatives of those who made the case to the committee that this was discriminatory, had several meetings with officials in advance. The Minister’s officials, or the officials of the relevant Department, have not succeeded in convincing the companies concerned that this represents a level playing pitch.
I am very uneasy about accepting at this very late stage an assurance that there is an adequate clawback provision. My reading of the section led me to table amendments seeking to restrict it because I thought it was broadly phrased.
I realise we are time constrained, but when the Houses are informed that this is discriminatory and that it will apply to only a limited proportion of the sites that have the problems to which the public policy issue accords, we need a more comprehensive statement from the Minister before we would be asked to give our approval of this.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: On the Minister’s comments that the planning here was a matter for the local authorities, I can give him any amount of examples but perhaps the best and most startling example of local authorities’ planning being distorted by one means or another is in east Meath, for example, all around Laytown and Bettystown where an area that used be a lovely countryside and seaside area is now coming down with houses. It is a concrete jungle. There is not a proper road in or a proper road out. There is no school in the area. We all could argue that that planning process was conducted under the auspices of Meath County Council but there are issues involved that require explanation. I would merely suggest that that is what is causing suspicion on this side of the House.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: In reply to Deputy Bruton first, there was one meeting at official level with one company on this matter, not a sequence of meetings. The clawback provision is written into the legislation.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: I will draw the Deputy’s attention to it in a minute. The scheme is, of course, subject to EU approval. It is good that the European Commission will have to test the clawback provision for its robustness.
In response to Deputy Morgan, in this instance we are talking about a regeneration programme specifically drawn up by a local authority. It is not a question of planning around the country, although I appreciate his comments.
There is a problem with the regeneration of dockland areas in the State. There are very onerous obligations imposed under the Seveso directive and it is important that those obligations are complied with. They amount to a substantial disincentive for the regeneration of these areas and the relief is designed to address that issue.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: I will make allowances for that. This section deals with Seveso sites in urban dockland areas which are subject to local area plans. It does not provide for Seveso sites which are located in non-urban dockland areas. That strikes me as anti-competitive. If an operation is required to relocate from a Seveso site in an area other than docklands, it should be given the same tax breaks. That is the essential point being put across in the correspondence we are receiving on the matter. I would like to hear the Minister’s opinion of this straightforward point.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The purpose of the scheme is urban regeneration. There is no requirement in respect of non-urban regeneration. Section 380W states clearly that where the allowance under the sections has been made to any person in respect of expenditure incurred on the provision of machinery or plant or the construction of a building or structure that was sold by the person without the machinery, building or structure having been used for the purpose of the relevant trade within two years from the date on which it began to be so used, then the allowance under those sections will be withdrawn and all such additional assessments and adjustments will be made.
Deputy Richard Bruton: The restrictions to which the Minister adverts mean that if greater capacity is created than the original or if the plant is not used within two years, the relief will be restricted. However, there is no way in which these provisions could be interpreted as dealing with a concern that some sites are being ring-fenced as qualifying for this relief while other similar sites are not. I do not see how an unfair competition element is built into either of the clauses to which the Minister drew my attention.
Deputy Joan Burton: I ask the Minister about section 380R(6), which provides that the market value of the whole or part of establishment land means the price that whole or part might reasonably be expected to fetch on a sale on the open market if the old installation was removed. In the context of current market values, what exactly does that mean? What values and dates are we considering? Some of these developments changed hands at the height of the property bubble and their value could reasonably be expected to be considerably lower.
Deputy Richard Bruton: On the issue of competition which Deputy Bruton raised, the allowances available under the scheme are limited to the net cost of the removal and relocation. This means the benefits from the sale of the land where the industrial facilities were previously located will be deducted. The allowance granted will also be adjusted in the case of productivity gains which may occur when a company constructs a more efficient facility. That is the reason for the sections to which the Deputy referred.
The additional capital allowances for the purchase of new plant and machinery and buildings will be clawed back if they are sold within the two year period. All that is permitted is the replication of the existing facility without any undue advantage to the person making the relocation. Nothing more than that is permitted under the relief. The reason for these provisions is to ensure there is no prejudice against competing providers. The clawbacks and the provisions to net off the benefits from the sale of the land of the initial site ensures that the scheme will be fair and reasonable in only meeting costs necessitated by the removal and relocation of Seveso listed industrial facilities which are hindering the regeneration of an urban dockland area. That is essential in order to comply with EU requirements. In respect of market value, the adjustment is the actual sale price when sold in this context.
Deputy Joan Burton: What are the relevant dates? Can they be carried back to when the property market was at its height or are these values carried forward? It seems obvious that some of the competition issues discussed earlier would arise in lands which are less valuable because they are not in, for example, Dublin 4 or the south Cork docklands. The enhanced market values would be very important in this case.
Deputy Richard Bruton: The relevant expenses that attract capital allowances include both the removal of the old installation and the set up of its replacement. There are two elements. If one does not have this relief, one does not get relief on either element. The Minister stated that the removal is a necessary additional cost. The logic of what he said is that he would restrict the relief to the removal element and would not therefore be offering a competitive advantage. At least in terms of a level playing field, it would seem that confining the relief to the removal element and not allowing it on the new investment would be a fairer way of proceeding.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: Market value is based on the date when the relocation starts but the final adjustment is made by reference to the actual sale price of the lands. It is the actual market price rather than a notion of past market values.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The date on which the relocation starts is the date for fixing the market value. In other words, a notional value is fixed at the start of the relocation but an adjustment is made by reference to the actual sale price agreed.
Deputy Joan Burton: I will make it easier for the Minister. What extent of backdating is included in this provision? How far back does it go in regard to acquisitions? Does it simply provide for future deals and, if so, how are the market values dated and what is the composition of those values?
Deputy Brian Lenihan: On that issue, it is prospective in effect. It is subject to the existence of an urban regeneration plan developed by the relevant local authority. The market values will be determined when the relief is claimed and the relocation is made. The final payment represents the actual market value for the lands in question. Past market values are irrelevant to the measure.
Deputy Joan Burton: Land involved in Seveso type activities may have changed hands several times or a canny developer may have passed it through several companies. It may well be that two years ago the value of this dockland site was potentially very high. Some time later, such as now and into the future, the market value, as I understand it, will have plummeted. How is market value categorised? Is it open market value or fair price at the date or going forward? Is it fair price at arm’s length between a willing buyer and seller as determined by an independent arbitrator? Is it a built-up market value? If we go back to market values of some years ago, they would be far higher.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: As Deputy Burton knows, the market value is always what a willing purchaser will give a willing vendor in an open market. This must be determined. In this context it is not a matter of going back to past values. This is a prospective relief and the market value is fixed by reference to what value is attached at the time of the relocation. There is provision for an adjustment where the market price diverges from that.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: I was going to reply on the matter. It is clear we have restricted the legislation with regard to any suggestion of a productivity gain by the relocating enterprise, any suggestion of an additional benefit from the sale of lands and also in the non-use of the new facilities. We have attempted to deal with those matters.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Before calling the Deputy, I indicate we should make progress on this issue as there are only approximately 35 minutes left to deal with all other amendments. I know Deputies are anxious to make progress.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I will leave it at one point. If we are seeking to provide some assistance to the cost of moving out of an urban dockland, the relief should be confined to the cost of moving from the urban dockland rather than, as this section seeks, include the cost of the establishment in the new location. If the cost of establishing the new location is grant-aided, an uneven playing pitch is being created for others with similar facilities.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: I do not understand how one could incentivise the removal without giving the person providing the service the incentive to replace it with a facility that was of no greater advantage to the enterprise than the pre-existing facility.
The Minister stated very clearly on Committee Stage that he sought to introduce uniformity in the taxation of certain transactions such as capital acquisitions and capital gains. He seemed to lose his way when it came to the treatment of deposit interest retention tax, DIRT, when he applied a 23% rate rather than a 22% rate. I hoped to give him the opportunity on Report Stage to mend this error that he overlooked.
It has been indicated to me that there is an unfair aspect of DIRT in that banks do not provide people with a statement of their deposit interest retention tax, which would give them the opportunity to claim it back. Should there be a legal provision requiring the banks to give a statement? Older people are entirely entitled to claim relief if they are not in a taxable position and such a statement would inform them of the tax they pay in deposit interest and would prompt them with the opportunity to claim it back.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The CGT and CAT rates were increased by 2% and the 1% levy did not apply to deposit interest. The 3% increase as provided for in section 26 was necessitated by general budgetary constraints. I was influenced by the fact that general levels of deposits in banks are very high currently.
Since we debated this I received comments from the taxation division on the possible costs. This related to research and development going back to a baseline of zero. I am not disposed to withdraw the amendment so may I have clarification from the Minister about his intentions regarding other published or discussed concessions relating to research and development, which we hear is part of the Government’s economic recovery strategy? Are these additional concessions and will we have occasion to debate them? Are these the concessions being talked of when the Minister says he will have a research and development package?
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The fiscal elements of the package are contained in the Finance Bill before the House currently, other than those regarding intellectual property. I signalled in my budget speech that I intended to bring forward proposals on that next year.
This amendment, which we did not have the opportunity to discuss on Committee Stage, deals with the capital gains tax threshold, which has been increased from 20% to 22%. The difficulty arises with regard to lands that were the subject of a compulsory purchase order during the periods in question. With one example in Ballaghaderreen in my constituency, An Bord Pleanála confirmed the compulsory purchase order on 26 September. As a result of the way the legislation is currently written, it will be liable for the higher rate of capital gains tax.
In light of the fact that the Department of Finance must provide the funds in the first place to allow for the higher rate of capital gains tax because the compensation must include the tax element, it makes sense to accept this amendment. In the first instance, this means the Department of Finance pays compensation — and the related tax — at the lower rate. It also means the land owners in question are not liable to the higher rate of tax.
There is no financial benefit in this issue. The amendment facilitates streamlining the proposal for everybody involved. There will be an additional cost on the Department of Finance in furnishing the funds in the first instance before having to recoup them through capital gains tax. There would be net saving to the Exchequer so I ask the Minister to accept the amendment.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The general principle, as has always been the practice, is contained in section 542 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 where the compulsory purchase order was confirmed before 15 October but the local authority had not agreed compensation with the owner of the land or entered on the land by that date. That is the case identified.
The general principle, as set out in section 542 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, has always been clear. The time of disposal of land acquired under a compulsory purchase order is either the date when the compensation is agreed or the time when the local authority enters on the land, whichever is earlier. However, where a disposal of farm land is made under a compulsory purchase order for road building or road widening, the CGT liability will not arise until the year of assessment in which the compensation in received. I do not consider that one can have an exception in the rate of tax applicable to disposal on or after 15 October 2008, notwithstanding the Deputy’s generous suggestion.
Deputy Denis Naughten: The Minister has highlighted another problem in that the CGT liability will be paid at the higher rate for landowners or farmers who are paid subsequent to the date of the legislation’s introduction. Therefore, where CPOs were agreed a considerable time ago, the compensation has also been agreed but because of delays, due sometimes to the incompetency of the National Roads Authority, farmers will be liable to a higher rate of tax even though the compensation was agreed at the lower rate. Will that have to be revised due to cost implications for the Department of Finance? Surely it would make sense for everyone if it kicked in at the lower rate.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: Under the arrangement, the landowner who happens to be a farmer is at an advantage in that there is no obligation to pay the CGT when the land is taken. In that sense, there is an extension of a facility to that landowner as against any other class of landowner in the interim period.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: No. It is an entire liability which is deferred under the operation of this section. The fact that the rate increased this year means it is at the higher rate, which can happen in any financial legislation. The fundamental point is that the landowner who happens to be a farmer can defer his liability under this section. I am advised that the rate of tax does not affect the amount of compensation.
On Committee Stage, we discussed this amendment which concerns the concession on VRT to people in the rent-a-car industry. The concern is that the Minister is moving rapidly to withdraw a concession that was designed to promote low-cost access for tourism. In the past, it was deemed to be an important element of the attraction package for the tourism sector. The case against it was not well made by the Minister. On Committee Stage, he indicated he felt the provision was being widely abused. I do not know whether the Minister has had occasion to give the section any further thought having no doubt received further representations on the matter from the industry.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I support this amendment on the basis that it would benefit the tourism sector, which I appreciate is a very important one and is most affected by this measure. In addition, many people who do not need to own cars would be happy to hire them if they were more reasonably priced. That would have a major benefit for CO2 emissions. The amendment goes beyond the tourism sector in that regard, so I strongly support it.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The Finance Act 1993 introduced a VRT repayment system for the short-term car hire sector — that is, cars hired on contracts for 35 days or less. The purpose of the scheme was to address shortages in the supply of cars for hire within the tourism industry at that time. The effect of the repayment scheme is that a car is effectively free of VRT for the period it remains in the car hire fleet.
Arising from Revenue audits, especially in 2007 and 2008, there is strong evidence that the sector has manipulated contracts to ensure that cars used for the provision of services, which were not originally envisaged under the scheme, nonetheless benefit from the VRT relief available. In addition, operators have applied the scheme to cars for use outside the tourism area, including enabling corporate clients to provide a pool of cars to visiting executives or to their own staff, and also allowing VRT-free driving by Irish citizens who hire rather than own a car, while their neighbours who own cars have to pay VRT.
The scheme was amended by section 80 of the Finance Act 2008 to try to limit such abuses. However, the sector raised objections and concerns. The scheme, especially following amendment, necessarily imposes a considerable administrative burden on individual firms, and on Revenue, to ensure that the conditions for the VRT refund are being met and that the scheme is not being abused. A number of meetings were held between Revenue and the sector.
It has been complained that the scheme, if operated correctly, is complex to administer. It was also argued that it not only restricts normal competitiveness between firms, but limits the potential to grow the car rental market outside the tourism sector to other longer term rentals. Some operators have made the point that to continue to qualify for the relief on cars actually used in the provision of cars to tourists, as the scheme intends, they would have to maintain two separate vehicle fleets — one for hire to tourists and another for the domestic market — and this would be uneconomical and unworkable in practice.
Easing further the terms of the scheme, while widening its availability, would not cover everyone currently availing of the scheme, legitimately or otherwise, nor would it significantly reduce the growing administrative burdens. It would also effectively remove any distinction between short and long-term car hire.
The cost effectiveness of the relief is now questionable, as rental prices in Ireland are quite low compared to equivalent prices in other EU member states. In addition, the increasing use of the scheme to support a range of business models, which have little to do with tourism, would indicate that the current supply of vehicles required for the tourist industry in the State more than meets current demand and the excess is therefore being put to other non-tourist related uses.
Given that the scheme is prone to abuse, and the considerable necessary administrative burdens imposed on both Revenue and operators to ensure that the conditions for the VRT refund are being met and that the scheme is not being abused, a decision to phase out the scheme has been taken. I see this as a balanced response to the issues of short-term car-hire repayments.
The retention of existing repayment provisions for 2009 recognises the difficulties being experienced by the car sector generally at present. It also affords the sector further time to make considerable savings on VRT liabilities by switching more of the rental fleet to lower CO2-emitting vehicles in 2009. Abolition of the scheme will remove existing restrictions and allow operators to develop their business models based on the domestic rental market.
While some firms in the sector may resist the phasing out of the scheme, other operators have indicated that they would prefer abolition of the scheme, rather than having its use restricted, as a consequence of which some business models would qualify under the scheme while others would not.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Amendment No. 36 arises from committee proceedings. If the question on this amendment is agreed to, amendment No. 37 cannot be moved. Both amendments will be discussed together.
Deputy Richard Bruton: This amendment deals with the increase in VAT. There is a general sense that this was not the most appropriate move to make at present. It may serve to depress the market, particularly at the present time with Border trade suffering acutely. The gap has widened between the UK’s rate, which has decreased to 15%, and the rate that applies in Ireland. It was not the best move in the budget and seems to be causing problems for traders, particularly those on the Border. There appears to be a sharp fall in retail trade, which may be making matters worse.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: Increasing the VAT rate in the budget was a disaster and had a considerable psychological blow. It is unfortunate in terms of revenue income that the British sought to reduce their VAT rate by 2.5% effectively at or about the same time. The impact was significant. I will not share any more of the incidents from Newry car parks or precincts with the House because the media had a particular interest in those episodes the last time. We will stick with the VAT issue.
Even a marginal reduction would have had a significant positive impact as opposed to the increase’s negative impact. I regard it as ham-fisted and unnecessary. We should be seeking to stimulate the economy and encourage people to get back into spending mode, but the opposite is occurring. Consumption rates are decreasing across all indices.
The increase was wrong because VAT has a disproportionate effect on low income families. For this reason alone, it should not have been increased. Many household goods that those families would seek to purchase have been affected. The additional annual cost to them is approximately €500. Instead of increasing the rate, will the Minister consider reducing it at this late stage?
Deputy Joan Burton: When the Minister sat down at the conclusion of his Budget Statement six weeks ago, the Fianna Fáil, Green Party and Progressive Democrats Members rose to give a standing ovation to a budget that unravelled faster than knitting. Of all the disastrous aspects of the budget, aspects that have not just been unlucky for the Minister, the Government and his party, but also for traders and businesses across the country, the decision to raise the VAT rate by half a point has left unbelievable misfortune in its wake.
The Minister’s argument, to which there is some point, is that the vast wedge between prices North and South is being driven by the failure of importers, British multiples and others to pass on the reductions in the value of sterling. Nonetheless, the psychological hammer blow was struck by his foolish decision to increase the VAT rate from an already high 21% to 21.5%.
Currently in the Chamber there are five Members, not including the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, four departmental officials and a number of other officials. I remember the benches opposite being full of people screaming about the budget’s wonders. It followed the Minister’s call for patriotism. Is there not a Chinese curse to the effect that one should be careful what one wishes for? For a long time, many of us have wanted an all-Ireland economy, following on the patriotic tones of Wolfe Tone and others. We now have that economy, but it is like West Germany after the fall of the wall, in that those in West Germany needed to pay for reintegration.
The Minister has driven shoppers in their tens of thousands north of the Border. Traditionally, people within 20 miles of the Border have shopped on whichever side of it the advantage lay. Perhaps the standing ovation was for this. The Green Party Members would possibly have disapproved on the grounds that driving trade north would lead to greater emissions, unless people were driving hybrid cars. However, the Fianna Fáil and Green Party backbenchers jumped up and applauded until the Minister’s ears rang. It has been the single most disastrous policy in a disastrous budget that also included attacks on the elderly and schools.
A Spanish curse tells people to ask of God what they want, but to then pay. The Minister is paying. It is the 11th hour and only 15 minutes remain until the end of the debate on the Finance Bill. The Minister should withdraw it. While that would not produce a significant immediate change, it would signal that the Government is recovering some element of economic sense. While it would cost the State, it is replaceable by other revenue-raising amendments. The Minster applied a levy that could not be called income tax and he increased VAT so that he could say that he had not increased income tax.
It is a disaster. The Minister has an opportunity in the 11 minutes remaining for an 11th hour convention and to withdraw the measure. I strongly suggest that he do so in the interests of trying to restore some sense of financial rationale to the budget.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: The Minister introduced this provision as a revenue collection measure, but I expect that it will have the opposite effect. He introduced it for the month of December, but the increase of 0.5% will drive down the tax yield. Representatives of the small business sector appeared before the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service yesterday. The sector is struggling to make ends meet. December has been a rough time for it, as the numbers shopping are decreasing. People are conscious of the extra 0.5% in VAT and are going North. The Minister expects traders to adjust everything in the middle of the November-December VAT period because of 0.5%.
The measure is impractical and will drive down revenue for the month of December. The decision should be reversed. Last Thursday, the Minister assured the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service and the House that a report on the impact of the VAT changes in the South and the North has been drafted by his officials. While we wish for the North to do well, we must be competitive and consider our businesses and jobs on this side of the Border. The Minister’s measure will lead to a reduction in taxes and job losses. These are the practicalities.
When will the report be ready? It will hardly be ready before 7 o’clock so that we can make the changes. This is an impractical measure. It will not deliver any additional taxes and will instead result in job losses.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: On Deputy O’Donnell’s question in respect of the inquiry, I have asked the Revenue Commissioners and the Central Statistics Office, CSO, to examine the question of the loss to the Exchequer arising from cross-Border shopping. Officials from Revenue and the CSO met yesterday to consider how best this task can be undertaken. The difficulties involved in trying to accurately estimate the extent of increased cross-Border shopping and the resulting direct cost to the Exchequer from increased levels thereof should not be underestimated. As already stated, there are factors other than taxation differentials at play, most notably the euro-sterling position. The position in respect of the 0.5% is that it is an estimated yield of €227 million in a full year.
Deputy Burton seems to entertain a number of extraordinary economic theories, one of which is that one of my predecessors as Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, is singularly responsible for the collapse in world stock prices.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: The widening differential between sterling and the euro is the fundamental reason people are travelling to shop in Northern Ireland. I never appealed to people’s sense of patriotism in order to encourage them to shop at home. However, I have stated that if they shop at home, they will support their local economy and tax base. I have never made any secret of that. The euro-sterling differential is the major factor responsible for the shopping crusade to Northern Ireland. A second factor, which Deputy Burton acknowledged, is the variable pricing policies employed by the UK multiples.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: If the Government is seeking increased revenues, it would have been far more practical for it to ensure that the depreciation relating to sterling was passed on. This would have brought in additional VAT receipts to the Exchequer and assisted in the retention of jobs. Instead, the Minister has introduced a measure which is driving people north of the Border. When will the report to which the Minister refers be produced?
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I was not particularly upset by Government backbenchers applauding the Minister on budget day. The response of the backbenchers opposite reminded me of what used to happen on Hughie Green’s programme “Opportunity Knocks”— which the Minister may be too young to remember — when someone at the front of the audience would hold up a sign proclaiming “Clap now”, “Cry now” or “Laugh now”. I did not find the response of the Government backbenchers on budget day at all enthusiastic.
I am of the view that it would be more patriotic to develop good public policy in order to assist families on lower incomes and those who need help most. While substantial numbers of shoppers continue to travel north, traditional traders in the North are not really enjoying the benefits of what is happening because their regular customers cannot get to their shops as a result of the traffic from the South. I am sure the major British retailers are enjoying what is happening because it is they who are really benefiting.
The Minister estimated that the loss to the Exchequer will be of the order of €227 million in a full year. I am of the view that this figure understates the position. The Department of Finance has not been entirely accurate in the context of projections it has made in recent times. We must, before it is too late, consider what happened. There is still time to turn matters around, particularly for those low income families who can least afford to be affected. Perhaps the Minister will reconsider the position.
The annual charge for the bank guarantee is €1 billion — calculated at €100 million per annum for ten years — and payable in instalments over a two-year period. The amendment suggests that this should come within the scope of published Exchequer accounts because it will otherwise be floated out as a fund until 2010. If it is not called upon, it will then revert to the Exchequer. While I do not want to attribute any bad intentions to the Minister, if the fund comes to the benefit of the Exchequer after 2010, it would make a nice pot of money for distribution as we move towards a general election at that time. We may, of course, have a general election before then.
Events have shown that, in respect of the fund, the banks got off extraordinarily lightly. The fund is simply payable by way of the provision of monetary amounts and there is no provision for an additional gain to the taxpayer for this extraordinary guarantee which, in the case of some banks, may need to be called upon. Subsequent to the publication of the scheme, the Minister altered the terms in order that the banks will not be obliged to support each other in the first instance. The calls will be on the State guarantee provided on the basis of taxpayers’ money. The amendment will clarify the position in respect of the fund, which could otherwise be used to gain a political advantage by the parties in government.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: In light of our current fiscal and budgetary position, it would be useful to have this sum at my disposal. I am not sure it would be any more useful to have it at my disposal at the end of 2010. The position is that the sums are credited to a designated account maintained by the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland as a reserve for any payments to be made under the scheme. The sum remaining in the account on 30 September 2010 will then be paid to the Exchequer. In the financial year of 2010, it will become a benefit to the Exchequer. I am not sure there is any great difference, in fiscal terms, in allocating approximately €500 million to the Central Fund in 2009 and a similar or slightly greater sum in 2010 or paying it in one lump sum.
The previous Dáil was dissolved in 2007. In the normal course of events, I would not anticipate a dissolution of this Dáil until 2012. In such circumstances, I fail to see the relevance of the amendment.
Deputy Burton made a serious point with regard to the guarantee being called upon. There has been no suggestion that the guarantee will be called upon. The only circumstances in which it could be called upon would be where there was a run of deposits on Irish financial institutions. There has been no evidence whatever of the latter since the guarantee was provided. With the important task of capitalisation under way, the guarantee has given us time to assess the actual deficiencies in the loan books of the banks. The figure identified by the Government in respect of that capitalisation will give us the opportunity to reduce the exposure of the State on foot of the guarantee by ensuring that the capital base of the financial institutions is sound.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: As it is now 7 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: “That Fourth Stage of the Bill is hereby completed and that the Bill is hereby passed.”
Deputy Brian Lenihan: On a point of order, I am obliged to read a note into the record before Fifth Stage of the Bill is taken. There is a closure motion before the House. Perhaps the Leas-Cheann Comhairle could provide guidance on the procedure in this regard.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: I was instructed to read this note prior to Fifth Stage. It relates to an amendment to be made on page 93, line 9 requiring that “or” be replaced with “for”. I understand I must request the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to instruct the Clerk to make the necessary correction.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: With the agreement of the House, I instruct the Clerk to correct the clerical error. Is that agreed? Agreed. I again put the question: “That Fourth Stage of the Bill is hereby completed and that the Bill is hereby passed.”
|Ahern, Dermot.||Ahern, Michael.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Andrews, Barry.|
|Andrews, Chris.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Aylward, Bobby.||Behan, Joe.|
|Blaney, Niall.||Brady, Áine.|
|Brady, Cyprian.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Browne, John.||Byrne, Thomas.|
|Calleary, Dara.||Carey, Pat.|
|Collins, Niall.||Conlon, Margaret.|
|Connick, Seán.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cowen, Brian.||Cregan, John.|
|Cuffe, Ciarán.||Cullen, Martin.|
|Curran, John.||Dempsey, Noel.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Fahey, Frank.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Michael.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Flynn, Beverley.||Gallagher, Pat The Cope.|
|Gogarty, Paul.||Gormley, John.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Harney, Mary.|
|Haughey, Seán.||Healy-Rae, Jackie.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Kelly, Peter.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kennedy, Michael.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|Lowry, Michael.||McEllistrim, Thomas.|
|McGrath, Mattie.||McGrath, Michael.|
|McGuinness, John.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Martin, Micheál.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulcahy, Michael.|
|Nolan, M.J.||Ó Cuív, Éamon.|
|Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.||O’Brien, Darragh.|
|O’Connor, Charlie.||O’Dea, Willie.|
|O’Flynn, Noel.||O’Hanlon, Rory.|
|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Keeffe, Edward.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||O’Sullivan, Christy.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Roche, Dick.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Sargent, Trevor.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Treacy, Noel.|
|Wallace, Mary.||White, Mary Alexandra.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Bannon, James.|
|Barrett, Seán.||Breen, Pat.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Bruton, Richard.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Burton, Joan.|
|Byrne, Catherine.||Clune, Deirdre.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Costello, Joe.|
|Coveney, Simon.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|D’Arcy, Michael.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Ferris, Martin.|
|Flanagan, Charles.||Flanagan, Terence.|
|Gilmore, Eamon.||Hayes, Tom.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Howlin, Brendan.||Kehoe, Paul.|
|Lynch, Ciarán.||Lynch, Kathleen.|
|McCormack, Pádraic.||McEntee, Shane.|
|McGinley, Dinny.||McGrath, Finian.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Naughten, Denis.|
|Neville, Dan.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Donnell, Kieran.||O’Dowd, Fergus.|
|O’Keeffe, Jim.||O’Mahony, John.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Quinn, Ruairí.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Shatter, Alan.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||Sheehan, P.J.|
|Sherlock, Seán.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
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