Finance Bill – 2008

February 6th, 2008 - Pat Breen

^ Finance Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed). ^

6th February, 2008

Deputy Pat Breen: I wish to share time with Deputy Terence Flanagan.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Finance Bill. Although the Bill has a green tinge it represents another missed opportunity on the Government’s part to address Ireland’s deteriorating competitiveness. It fails to address some of the key problems facing our economy and to heed warnings, including those from the Central Bank, that growth will halve this year. The housing market is edgy, the latest information shows that prices fell by 7.3% in 2007 and a further drop of 5% is forecast for this year. The numbers on the live register are expected to rise by 26,000 due to the slowing of the economy. The numbers in work are set to grow by only 0.8% with spending to increase by only 1.5%. Faced with these challenges this Finance Bill lacks imagination. Investors looking to Ireland need reassurance but the Government is failing to take heed of the changed economic climate and to put in place any ideas to cushion the country during this bumpy period.

According to one of the national newspapers yesterday the Health Service Executive, HSE, is to receive approximately €370 million less in Government funding this year. This is not enough to sustain the level of our health service. As a Deputy from County Clare I am concerned about the implications this shortfall would have for the hospital in Ennis which is already facing serious challenges as revealed late last year following HSE cutbacks. Ennis General Hospital faces a shortfall of €3.5 million in 2008. Last week I read in another newspaper that the HSE in the north west drafted a list of cost saving proposals which would reduce the delivery of services. Will the Minister of State ask the Ministers for Finance and for Health and Children whether the services at Ennis hospital will be further reduced following the cut in funding for the HSE?

The uncertainty around the redevelopment of the hospital causes serious concerns. When will the proposed €30 million worth of work commence there? It is already behind schedule and I understand that work on the planning process has not progressed because of last year’s budget shortfall. My constituents will suffer if there is no proper health service in the county. Health services must be patient-centred but if the Government fails to provide sufficient funding for the HSE or the HSE has to trim its budgets patients will suffer.

The funding arrangements for Clare County Council are inadequate to deliver basic services especially in respect of water and sewerage. No sewerage system has been started in Clare in the past five years. There was good news for Feakle and the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, in his former role in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government visited Clare several times to examine these schemes. Work has commenced in Feakle and Mullagh and is about to commence in Scariff but there are problems there too. The schemes have been cut back and areas just outside the towns have not been included.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will have to face up to these problems particularly in Ennis when the schemes commence. Only last week Clare County Council avoided being axed when it accepted a revised budget as a result of the shortfall in funding from the Department. I have tabled a question for the Minister urging him to meet the council officials, councillors and Oireachtas Members to consider the shortfall in the council’s budget. If he has extra money in the water service budget, which runs to approximately €24 million, he should allocate some of it to Clare County Council particularly to deal with the crisis regarding the water filtration problem in Ennis. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, was also aware of the inadequate temporary supply in his former capacity. I hope the Minister will see fit to meet the delegation as I suggest in my parliamentary question.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Environment, Deputy Tony Killeen informs me he will look after Clare well.

Deputy Pat Breen: He has not done so. He says he is constrained in what he can do because he is in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He is taking a very cautious approach.

Deputy Pat Breen: Clare County Council received €15.6 million whereas other county councils received more, for example Laois, €18.3 million and Waterford almost €23 million, which shows that Ministers are delivering to their own counties. I do not wish to say anything about the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, at this stage but let us hope that he will deliver to Clare in future budgets. Clare was sixth from the bottom in the Department of Finance’s funding league.

The Bill also falls short in respect of Shannon Airport. Over the past 18 months I have heard many statements from Ministers for Transport about a major tourism and economic plan for the region to cushion the blow from the introduction of open skies. The region has a history of innovation and with the proper Government support can play a pivotal role in its development. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, admitted in an interview on local radio last week that there was nothing new in the plan announced then but that it was a restatement of commitments already announced. The plan is about as exciting as a reheated lunch. It offers nothing and lacks imagination. Much of the money the Minister allocated had already been allocated in the budget in 2008 and it falls well short of the €53 million envisaged by the mid-west regional authority. The Government has failed the mid-west. It ran away from the problem caused by the ending of the Shannon-Heathrow service last year.

The delays in the construction of the extension of the US customs and border protection facility at the airport should be resolved as quickly as possible. I welcome the announcement yesterday by Zimmer of 250 jobs for the region over the next two years, and its €50 million investment. The Shannon duty free zone has been crying out for investment for many years. The good news however should not deflect from the serious blows to the area in recent months. Jobs were lost at John Crane, Aer Lingus, Tyco Electronics and yesterday Shannon Community Group closed with a loss of 22 full-time jobs for people with special needs. I hope those jobs can be reinstated in another area because these people find it hard to get jobs. I would like to see the development of more new companies throughout the county, particularly in my area, west Clare where it could play a major role in sustaining rural communities.

The provisions of the Finance Bill do not go far enough in extending tax credits for research and development. It does not introduce the necessary measures to enhance Ireland’s position as a destination for foreign direct investment. I urge the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance to rethink and address these concerns.

I refer to the issue of schools, for which funding is completely inadequate. I welcome the announcement last week by the Minister for Education and Science on funding to Ballyea national school in Ennis, County Clare. Although Government Deputies will disagree, as an Opposition Deputy I played a role in embarrassing the Minister into delivering on this project. However, other schools throughout the county have infrastructural problems including St. Michael’s community college in Kilmihil and the primary school at Inch, which awaits an extension. Moreover, three schools in Ennistymon are awaiting the go-ahead for amalgamation. The provision of education for young people constitutes a test of the Government, which it has failed.

I pay tribute to a great visionary, Dr. Brendan O’Regan, who died last week. Given the challenges the economy faces, we need a vision for the future and it is up to the Government to provide it. While Fine Gael also will provide vision, urgent investment is required in roads, railways, airports and sewerage schemes, as well as the infrastructure for towns and villages. The Finance Bill is a major disappointment. The Government has no long-term vision, lacks imagination and has passed its sell-by date.

ENDS.