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C O N T E N T S
Real progress towards the elimination of poverty and the building of true equality in Irish society.
A fudge of a budget cooked up to please as many sectors of society as possible but once more benefiting the wealthy and leaving the disadvantaged behind.
This is the clear choice to be made in Budget `98 - the first major economic statement of intent by the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government. Never has a government in the 26 Counties had a more favourable economic climate in which to cultivate equity and share prosperity.
Past periods of economic prosperity have seen promises that the ``rising tide would lift all boats''. But it was the big ships which sailed on the tide while the small boats foundered.
While wealth is undoubtedly being created in this state, the reality of the Celtic Tiger is that whole communities both urban and rural still endure entrenched unemployment, low pay poverty, multi-faceted disadvantage, social exclusion and endemic inequalities. This is in the context of a litany of financial scandals that taints both public and private sector business and the major political parties.
If the Celtic Tiger is to be more than a symbol the government must spread its benefits across the lines of economic division which have riven our society for so long. This government has a real opportunity to go beyond the policy of simply attempting - and often failing - to shelter the disadvantaged from the worst effects of inequality. It has the ability to attack inequality itself.
The Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Government has considerable room to use its proposed £12.5 billion of spending to tackle the social and economic inequalities that permeate the 26 Counties. There is a pressing need to divert resources to the disadvantaged throughout our society whether they be:
- Under-resourced schools
- The many thousands on hospital waiting lists
- Those in every region who are on housing waiting lists
- People with disabilities
- Communities who used their own initiative to tackle the drugs scourge and now need funding and resources to free their areas from this crisis
- Border and rural western regions overlooked by the IDA and government development plans
- Small farmers squeezed off their land and those in rural communities who gain little or no benefit from agricultural subsidies.
- Homeless children and adults on our city streets
- Local communities in need of funds for regeneration and economic development.
Taxation and Social Welfare
Despite years of talk of tax reform it is still necessary to demand wholesale reform of a tax system which penalises PAYE workers in favour of large businesses and the top-earning elite. Such reform, in tandem with major improvements in social welfare, can contribute greatly to tackling inequality.
Sinn Fein supports the principle of cutting income tax but believes that the low paid should be the principal beneficiaries of any change.
Sinn Fein calls on the government to:
- Increase the allowances of single people by £1,000 and co-habiting couples by £2,000 annually. This would cost £486 million; inside the £500 million benchmark signalled by the Department of Finance.
- Introduce a minimum wage at a level advocated by the trade union movement.
Sinn Fein believes that now is not the time to implement yet more cuts in already low corporation tax, except perhaps in the case of raising the exemption threshold for small businesses.
Changes in the tax regime cannot be implemented in isolation. There must be parallel development in the social welfare system. In particular action must be taken on the low level of social welfare payments. When in opposition Fianna Fail regularly taunted the Rainbow Coalition about the low level of social welfare increases announced in successive budgets.
Now it is time for Fianna Fail in government to announce a strategy for immediate implementation of a programme of payment increases over the lifetime of the government that would minimise the possibilities of those dependent on social welfare payments having to endure poverty and deprivation.
Sinn Fein calls for:
Increase in single person's unemployment allowance to £75 immediately in 1997 with further increases for the 1998 fiscal year. The £75 rate would bring the allowance up to the level identified by the ESRI Poverty in Ireland report of 1994 as being equivalent to the rate recommended by the landmark 1986 Commission on Social Welfare.
Industrial Development and Job Creation
Total spending in the Department of Employment, Trade and Enterprise will reach nearly £790 million in 1998. Much of this money will be spent on the IDA Ireland and Forbairt.
In 1998 it is proposed by the FF/PD coalition that grants to IDA Ireland will increase by 12% to £134 million, while grants to Forbairt will fall 3% to just over £48 million. This means that for every £1 in invested Irish companies the government invests nearly £3 in foreign companies.
Now more than ever there is a need to prioritise indigenous economic development whether it is Irish companies or local communities developing their local economies. There should at the very least be equality between the funds made available for Irish business and those for foreign companies who have no long-term allegiance to the Irish economy.
Social Housing - a new momentum
A welcome proposal from the government is the plan to increase spending on local authority and social housing programmes by 25% to £223 million in 1998. This is perhaps one of the most positive elements contained in the estimates.
Department of the Environment figures for 1996 show 30,353 households in need of social housing. This is an underestimate since most single people do not bother to register with local authorities. The 1998 budget could significantly impact on these figures.
The momentum needs to kept up. As Focus Ireland has pointed out, additional capital expenditure of £150 million for five years would build an extra 12,500 houses and significantly reduce housing waiting lists for both families and single people.
Central to any new local authority housing programme must be first-class planning. Tenants must be participants in the planning and development of their houses and estates. Community facilities need to be integrated into new housing schemes from the very start of the planning process.
There can be no return to the bleak, sprawling local authority housing estates of the 70s and 80s, starved of facilities and imprisoning their communities. Priority funding needs to be given to refurbishing and upgrading such estates, in tandem with targeted economic development.
In the words of Focus Ireland the current economic prosperity provides ``a unique opportunity'' to tackle the crisis of homelessness. Their five-point plan to eliminate homelessness - both long-term and short term measures - should now be supported by the government:
- Assistance for people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness
- More good quality emergency and temporary accommodation
- More local authority and housing association housing
- A fund for research development and education
- A specific strategy to tackle children's homelessness.
A United Ireland Economy
It is now widely accepted that an all-Ireland economy would bring considerable benefits but it seems that this government has no real plans for the island economy.
There is a need for both an infrastructural development programme and a consultative process to plan the unification of the partitioned economy and the development of a democratic all-Ireland economy.
In the immediate short-term period this government needs to show real intent in tackling the systematic damage done by partition to the border counties and the North West as a region.
These areas are suffering not only from the negative effects of partition which divided up a series of interdependent local economies but also from the policies of successive Dublin Governments who have deliberately overlooked the border regions. Funding needs to be made available now.
Education is a crucial factor in countering social disadvantage in all sectors from pre-school to adult education. The use of education to increase our social wealth will only be successful if it is resourced, targeted, and flexible.
Sinn Fein proposes:
- Priority funding for pre-school schemes such as the ``Early Start'' programme. These initiatives must be available on a state wide basis.
- A large transfer of resources to primary schooling. Given that most people attend primary school, and that attendance diminishes in the secondary and third level sectors, the inequitable situation at present whereby the third level sector receives most state funding must be addressed.
- Immediate funding for the refurbishment and modernisation of the states primary schools. A situation where over 75% of primary schools have to raise funds voluntarily to meet basic needs is unacceptable. Deteriorating school buildings are a factor in the depopulation and demoralisation of many rural communities.
- Expenditure in the secondary sector should address the need for the curriculum to equip our young people to face challenges in their personal and social lives.
- The problem of educational disadvantage, and early school-leaving in particular, must be tackled by the resourcing and extension of programmes such as the Combat Poverty Agency- sponsored Demonstration Programme on Educational Disadvantage.
- The introduction of a realistic maintenance grant for third level students. Without such provision the abolition of fees is merely a subsidy to the better off sectors of our society.
- The abolition of fees for night students at Third Level.
- A full resourcing and implementation of the third level ``Equal Participation Admissions Programme''.
- The Adult Education sector to be recognised as a major provider of educational opportunity, and be resourced accordingly.
- Irish language schools must be treated with equality of funding by the state.
Sinn Fein believes that it is a lack of political will and not a lack of funds which has prevented the government from reversing the ongoing decline of rural Ireland. The objective for rural areas should be a healthy and diverse economic and social environment
Sinn Fein proposes:
- Creation of a Department of Rural Regeneration with real powers to begin to work with local communities to rebuild our towns and villages
- Integrated strategy for rural development through partnerships between government, development agencies, private business and local communities
- Improved transport infrastructure to increase access to rural areas
- Rural investment bank, offering low-interest loans and technical advice to small farmers and local areas starting community enterprises
- Priority to be given to the publishing of the White Paper on rural development
- All areas of the budget, housing, transport, healthcare, education, jobs etc, should include provisions on rural regeneration.
People with Disabilities and Carers
The government is proposing to spend £25 million on the refurbishment and extension of Leinster House. This is the very figure which the National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland identifies as necessary to provide new day and residential services in 1998.
The 1997 Fianna Fáil manifesto stated ``we will make mental handicap a priority area. It is our intention to tackle the crisis''. Now is the time to act.
£25 million in 1998 would frontload the new funds needed to provide residential and day care for the mentally handicapped, and much needed respite for those who care for them in the home.
Full recognition should be given to the role of up to 100,000 carers in the home, 30,000 of them full time. This recognition should be integrated in the tax and social insurance systems.
Sinn Fein supports:
- A Carer's Benefit Scheme for workers taking leave to care at home.
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