Thursday, 13 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I am delighted the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, are taking Leaders’ Questions. I note yesterday the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council recommended an adjustment of €4 billion in the budget. Following the general election and with full knowledge of the challenges ahead for the country, the Taoiseach pledged not to increase income tax rates or bands and the Tánaiste promised there would be no cuts to social welfare. After 100 days in office these promises were reiterated. Shortly afterwards the Minister, Deputy Noonan, said he would not rule out tax increases or social welfare reductions. It is now 119 days since that promise. Will the Government take on board the recommendations of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council or reject its advice?
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: The Tánaiste said he would be upfront and outline the challenges ahead. I ask the Minister to tell us for once and for all if the Government will honour the commitment, which was given not once but twice, that there will be no increases in income tax and no reduction in social welfare rates.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin): I will not be announcing the budget today. It is a matter for the Minister for Finance on a date to be determined. As the Taoiseach indicated yesterday, the full layout of the Estimates, reform agenda and budget will be determined by the Cabinet on Tuesday. The Taoiseach will give the House the full information on the process and sequencing of announcements after the Cabinet meets on Tuesday.
As the Deputy knows, the Government established the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council to give independent advice and that is what it has done. Its advice will be listened to, together with all the other factors the Government has to take into account, in determining the scale of adjustment required. The commitment both parties in government have repeatedly given is that we will reduce the deficit to 8.6% of GDP next year. The exact quantum of the adjustment to reach that target is currently being determined. We needed to have a firm determination of the growth rates and the final accounts, in terms of taxation and revenue to the State, before we make a final determination on that.
The Deputy mentioned adjustments in social welfare. He had responsibility in that area when the national recovery plan was signed off on. The former Government left us with a legacy because in the programme it signed off on it left a hole to be filled by social welfare reductions of €1.91 billion.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: The Minister took it upon himself voluntarily to make two budget announcements when he came into government and after 100 days in government. I ask for a simple Yes or No answer. Will he honour the commitments he gave on income tax and social welfare?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: As I said, the contents of the budget will be announced when the Minister for Finance announces it. If the Deputy wants to know what will inform decision-making it will be the programme for Government. I invite the Deputy to read it.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: The former Minister’s Government left us with €2 billion in cuts on the table. That was its legacy. We are doing our best to determine a fair Estimates process, have a comprehensive review of every line of expenditure and examine where waste can be eliminated and where we can amalgamate and change things. All of this will be laid out over a period of time between now and December. Uniquely, there will be a full opportunity for the committees of the House and the House itself, if necessary, to debate this. It will be a different type of Estimates process and will be laid out before the House next week.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: The Minister, Deputy Howlin, told the House the advice from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council is independent and will be weighed up. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, has already accepted at least one piece of its independent advice, namely that the extent of the cuts should be ratcheted up to €4 billion in the forthcoming budget. As the Minister weighs up this matter, do the social costs of this type of brutal austerity feature in his thinking on the comprehensive spending review? The Minister’s colleagues on the Government benches skulked in here last night and refused to support the community and voluntary sector.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: The Minister, Deputy Howlin has been clear on these matters but he cannot tell us definitively as a Minister and member of the Labour Party if he will resist even more savage austerity and if he will stand up for those who are suffering or if he will continue to be the cheerleader for Fine Gael policy.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Yes, the consequences of all our decisions for every citizen are carefully in balance. We must make choices that are difficult, choices we would rather we did not have to make. We will not pretend, however, that there is some magic solution. We are committed to getting our deficit down to 8.6% of GDP next year and there will be difficult choices required to get there. Just as Sinn Féin in the North is cutting £4 billion and scores of schools are going to close——
Deputy Brendan Howlin: ——and is content to live within the parameters if it means closing schools and firing library staff, with 30 library staff axed, that is the reality of reducing a budget. We must face that reality in this jurisdiction as well. I assure the Deputy we will do it in a fair and balanced way.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: I welcome Deputy Howlin’s recently found interest in the North of Ireland and its budgetary circumstances. If he examined what has happened just up the road, he would discover that despite a cut to the block grant, the Executive has worked to ring-fence services and to create new income streams for the most socially disadvantaged.
The Minister says he will not pretend. The great pretence is that everyone is taking the pain together and that the Government will defend the rights of citizens. The greatest pretence is that this Government represents different policies from those pursued by the previous Fianna Fáil Administration. That is the reality.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Is the commitment to protect the social welfare budget still intact or has the Labour Party capitulated to its partners in Government and the EU-IMF troika, whose presence in our country all of us lament?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Deputy McDonald is fully aware of the scale of the problems we face. This Government inherited an economic mess and we are determined to put it right. The step we must take by next year is to reduce our deficit to 8.6%, not because we want to but because we cannot fund anything more than that. The funders of last resort are here and were brought here by the previous Government. We are going to make adjustments to get us to 8.6%. The exact quantum of that has not yet been determined and that is something——
Deputy Brendan Howlin: We will make adjustments across all areas of expenditure and do so in a fair way. We will lay out our decisions for full debate and see where Sinn Féin can find not funny money but real alternatives. If it can provide real alternatives, we will investigate them.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Deputy Ó Cuív has had his chance. The truth is that finding that sort of money is not easy. Deputy McDonald’s Sinn Féin colleagues in Northern Ireland know that finding €4 billion will result in decisions that the party finds unpalatable. The leader of the SDLP has described the decisions made so far by Sinn Féin as punishing low-paid workers, teachers, students, schoolchildren, the construction industry and all those dependent on the health services, has accused the party of crudely dismissing the advice of all independent commentators and has described Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland——
Deputy Brendan Howlin: I will answer the question directly. This Government is determined to restore the economic sovereignty ceded by the previous Administration and will take the steps necessary to do that.
Deputy Finian McGrath: Next Sunday, at 3 p.m., thousands of people will meet at the wooden bridge in Clontarf to protest about the proposed construction of an eight foot high barrier on the seafront. This protest is being organised by Councillor Damian O’Farrell and a number of local residents. I raise this because Dublin Bay is important to the environment, tourism and economy of the city. Is the Minister aware that many people have fought hard for several years to protect and preserve Dublin Bay, particularly the 52 acres, as it is a huge amenity for Clontarf on the north side of Dublin and for the people of Dublin city and county? Thousands of people walk, cycle and jog around this beautiful amenity. Now there is a proposal to ruin it.
I ask the Minister to intervene on this matter. Is he aware of the proposal to build a structure up to eight feet high along the promenade? Does he agree that this could destroy a beautiful scenic amenity and will he ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan to support the residents of Clontarf? Will the Minister urge Dublin City Council, the Minister, Deputy Hogan and the Office of Public Works to consult with local residents and come up with a common-sense plan that prevents flooding but does not destroy a beautiful scenic amenity?
I understand that Dublin City Council is engaging with all the local residents regarding the concerns they have raised, particularly about the height of the proposed flood defences. A balance must be struck. Areas that are prone to flooding must be protected, particularly if global warming is to mean a greater threat of flooding. That balance must be struck. In Enniscorthy, in my own constituency, there is great debate about flood defences which impact on amenity. We need to get that balance right. I understand that the consultations are ongoing. I understand that the Office of Public Works is also involved in reviewing the proposed flood defence scheme to ensure that the proper balance is struck.
The recent conference in Dublin Castle looked at tourism and ways of getting people to visit Ireland. Is the Minister aware that the flood defence plan would have a significant economic, social and environmental impact on the Clontarf area and on the thousands of people who use it? In 2014, for example, we will have celebrations to commemorate the battle of Clontarf.
Does the Minister accept that the Aarhus convention was created to give citizens the right to a say in decision making that affects the environment? Is this proposed plan in breach of that convention? I ask the Minister to check that out. I also ask the Minister to urge all those involved in this proposal to go back to the drawing board and come up with a sensible plan which deals with the issue so that the protection of the environment remains foremost, people are protected from floods and this wonderful amenity in Clontarf can be saved
Deputy Brendan Howlin: I am glad to hear of the plans to commemorate the battle of Clontarf. We need to have as many tourism initiatives as we can. This was central to the discussions on tourism promotion at the recent economic forum.
Balance is the essence of the issue the Deputy raised. If this issue had arisen last February or March, when there was extensive flooding in Dublin city, we might have had a different type of debate. We need to ensure that proper flood protections are put in place with the least environmental impact on the residents involved.
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