Senator Katherine Zappone called on Government to evaluate the gender impact of their policies and invest in services that will provide better standard of living and more equality for everyone. In her budget statement yesterday, Tuesday October 14th, she stated that it was the women - across all classes and backgrounds - who had been hardest hit by social disinvestment.
People are tired of the daily discourse of austerity they have endured for the past seven years. They are angry and are protesting in their thousands and I do not believe this is merely about water charges. Ireland pursued a policy of massive social disinvestment during the austere period. During this time, Ireland knocked back the possibility of a good life for everyone, especially those hardest hit from increased taxation and decreased public service provision.
Moreover, it is women across all classes and backgrounds who have been hardest hit to varying degrees and, consequently, people are angry.
Am I alone in feeling a profound disconnect between the self-congratulatory discourse in these Chambers and the anger and disillusionment resounding in the streets? I will outline my questions.
Has the shape of this budget been rooted in deliberative problem-solving conversations within communities, the results of which were placed in dialogue with Oireachtas Members and Government? There is no evidence of this.
Should the budget be about recovery? Recovery means returning to a normal state. Where is the creativity and imagination? Should the people not expect more than normality, especially if that simply means returning to the way things were?
Do the measures announced today by Government equally benefit all in Ireland? Does investment target society as a whole - social investment versus economic investment? Is the budget creating better living conditions for everyone in an equivalent fashion? Are resources being used in an efficient manner that invests in public services, both in the short term and in the long term?
Let us begin by looking at taxation. The 41% top rate of income tax is being reduced to 40% in the budget, but only one in six adults or one in three workers will benefit from this cut. Many will only receive a marginal benefit and only the top earners - those who need it least - will receive the largest tax relief from this reduction. Half of Irish women who earn less than €20,000 a year are not eligible for that cut.
Additionally, the Government is proposing to raise the threshold for the high tax rate. This change only impacts 607,000 tax cases whose incomes above €33,800 qualify for the full tax relief. Those with incomes between €32,800 and €33,800 will only gain a fraction of the benefit. Those beneath the threshold - much of the population - receive no benefit from the change.
With regard to taxation, only the universal social charge gives something back for the low income earners and takes something away from those earning more than €70,000. I commend the Government on including this in the budget. However, I ask the Government why has it failed to implement more progressive reforms in this budget. Progressivity of direct taxation is counterbalanced with the regressively of indirect taxes such as VAT. Everyone will benefit from the tax changes, as the Minister, Deputy Noonan, stated, but will they benefit in an equivalent manner?
Income tax is not the only source of Government revenue. Costly loopholes ought to be closed and gaps filled in the existing tax system. Social Justice Ireland estimates that the removal of the taxed refund element for unused research and development credits would generate €112 million annually. Enforcement of the minimum effective corporate tax rate of 6% would bring in an estimated €500 million yearly. Increasing gambling taxes would provide €100 million annually in revenue. A financial transaction tax implementation would raise €150 million each year. These four measures alone would generate an estimated €862 million in revenue. Why has the Government failed to raise revenue through these reasonable measures? A lack of robust rationale to taxation persists as a result of the undue power of the business lobbying on Government.
Beyond taxation, what should have been done in this budget to reinvest in society? How could we as a society spend the estimated €862 million in additional revenue, which I outlined earlier and which I picked out as a couple of additional measures that the Government has not proposed?
The first group hit hard by public disinvestment consists of women and their children. Women are more vulnerable than men to these public cuts. Women are employed in public sector jobs more than men. Women also avail of public services more often than men. Women are also much more likely to be lone parents than men. Government cutbacks on social spending affected women much more than men.
There is a massive deficit in social housing, especially for women.
I am happy to see the Government addressing some of the nation's social housing needs in the budget. The Government does not go far enough, however, to implement policies that benefit women in light of employment opportunities. While measures to increase available housing provide jobs, less than 6% of women hold construction jobs in Ireland and we need equivalent forms of investment in employment sectors where women will benefit. What are these sectors? Women are the primary providers of care in Ireland. Much of this caring role is unpaid or low-paid work.
I hear families describe their struggle with their costs of child care every day, as I am sure do most Senators. Government policy must support women in the workforce. Child care costs approximately €10,000 per year per child. The cost is debilitating, especially for low and middle income women, and we need to structure support to make child care more affordable for working families. I have worked closely with education throughout my career, and in Tallaght and neighbouring communities, 55% of women leave education by secondary school.
Child care would not only help with returning to work but also with returning to education. Moreover, to assist working mothers while improving education, the Government should provide an additional year of early childhood education, costing an estimated €175 million annually. Of equal importance, increasing education funding would provide women, who comprise 75% of education staff, with increased employment opportunities.
The money spent to raise child benefit, which benefits those with high and low incomes, should have been used instead to invest in early years and publicly subsidised child care places.
Not only must social spending guarantee a living wage, social welfare should be restructured to support people moving from welfare to employment. Increasing social payment rates by €5 per week to adjust for rising living costs would cost an estimated €231 million per year.
Many people unemployed due to illness and disabilities struggle to earn a living wage. They have five times the risk of poverty and have low disposable incomes. Since 2008, HSE funding has dropped by €159 million, despite rising service demand and €100 million is needed in the budget to address service gaps for people with disabilities. Continuing education can also provide people with skills for work. Again, in Tallaght and neighbouring communities over 11% of people are identified as being unskilled or semi-skilled. Efforts such as increasing funding to adult literacy programmes at a cost of €50 million per year would benefit not only individuals but also society.
The final group I would like to highlight that has significantly suffered under public spending cuts is lone parents. Lone parents experienced eight cumulative cuts since 2009. In Tallaght and surrounding areas, 89% of the lone parents are women. Given that 41% of one-parent families receive the one-parent family benefit, more support is needed. Reversing changes to the one-parent family payment would annually cost €89 million. We could invest €50 million annually in preventive health measures in local communities such as increasing primary care teams, or €35 million in mental health service support.
If we add up the few extra changes I have identified, which focus on social investment, it would cost €722 million per year, drastically improving the lives of many. The cost would be more than offset by the four revenue measures I suggested, which total €862 million annually. We should use this opportunity to invest in public services, especially in a community context. Above all, social investment should drive economic investment, not the other way around. Now, more than ever, women should insist that the gender impact of policies be evaluated.