Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Progressive Book of Estimates in difficult circumstances

Last night I voted in favour of Waterford City Council’s Book of Estimates. I did so against a background of an economic crisis, major job losses and a national budget that robbed the poor to protect the rich. Balancing the books was not easy and difficult decisions had to be made. 2009 was a difficult year for Waterford City Council. We lost 56 members of staff. Council workers over the last two years saw a major reduction in their pay with direct pay cuts, income levies, pension levies and a ban on overtime. And yet despite this many right wing economists, politicians and journalists portray public servants as public enemy number one. These are people who clean our streets, remove our litter, empty our bins, repair our roads, provide and up keep playgrounds and open spaces, deliver keys to homes and much more besides. I commend the staff of the council for their hard work in difficult circumstances this year.

My approach to the estimates was governed by two things

Do they help in stimulating the local economy and assist in creating jobs
Do they support struggling families

On both counts I say yes. The estimates included a freeze on all local charges. That means no increase in commercial rates, no increase in non-domestic water charges, no increase in bin charges, no increase in the bin waiver charge, no increase in housing rents, no increase in parking charges, in fact no increase in any charge of which the council has responsibility. This is good for business and good for householders.

The estimates also include a strong investment in housing maintenance, remedial works and in maintaining open spaces and playgrounds. I proposed in earlier committee meetings an increase in the allocation of funds to the disability grant schemes. As a consequence the budget was amended and €100,000 extra is set aside for this important work.

The estimates also provide funding for the very exciting Waterford Crystal Project. This involves the refurbishment of the old ESB buildings and the construction of an iconic building on the city quays. In short this council took a big step in bringing crystal manufacturing back to Waterford. Funds were also set aside for the development of an historic quarter on the Mall, tourist promotion, festivals and the return to the city of the tall ships. In my view this budget is fair and positions Waterford to benefit economically, culturally and socially. It is economically literate and socially just and as a consequence I was happy to support them.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Budget 2010 - Robbing the poor to protect the rich

Budget 2010 ranks as one of the worst budgets I have seen in my lifetime. It is unfair, deflationary and will serve to exacerbate the economic crisis. The country is at a cross roads and the Government had two options – the road to recovery or the road to a deeper recession. They chose the latter. In doing so they took money out of the pockets of those who could not afford to give and protected those who could afford to give most. They acted like Robin Hood in reverse; they robbed the poor to protect the rich.

Cutting social welfare payments, taking money of the blind, the unemployed, carers, widowers, people with disabilities and young people is despicable. The biggest fraud of all is the Governments claim that they had no choice. This is a lie. They could have introduced a third rate of tax for top earners, they could have standardised tax relief measures or they could have introduced a wealth tax. They did not do any of this. They looked instead at those who had most and left them alone. They looked also at those who had least and took from their already empty pockets.

A sustained campaign by many groups will undoubtedly ensue to reverse the unfair elements of the budget. This is laudable. However what is really required is a general election to remove this Government from office. It is time for more Irish people to reflect on how their vote impacts on their lives. If you feel the Government is making a mess of the economy then vote them out. If you don’t trust the main opposition parties don’t vote for them either. We in Sinn Féin must continue to offer a genuine alternative and convince people that we can and will do things better. There is a fairer way and a better way to sort out the economy. Our pre-budget submission pointed towards the road to recovery. Unfortunately the Government took the turn to deeper recession and in the process have driven more people into poverty. Shame on them!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An alternative to targeting low paid workers is possible

As we approach the end of another year we are facing into one of the toughest budgets in the history of the state. Our public finances are in tatters, 440,000 people are on the dole, more people now live in poverty and those on social welfare find themselves without the Christmas payment. And yet sections of the media, right wing economists and the Government join forces to make public sector workers public enemy number one.

This is wholly unfair and must not be allowed to happen. Workers in the public or private sector are not responsible for the current economic mess. Yet these workers and those who are without jobs are the Governments target as they prepare a savage budget. The Government will claim there is no alterative. This is a lie. Sinn Féin has proven in its pre-budget submission that targeting the low paid and those on social welfare can and should be avoided.

As I type Union leaders are negotiating with the Government ways in which to cut public sector pay. It looks like compulsory unpaid leave is on the cards. This is as unworkable as it is unfair. Many public sector workers earn less then the average industrial wage yet they face the prospect of losing two weeks pay. The Government could cap public sector salaries at €100,000 a year and instantly save €500million but are choosing instead to disproportionatly target the lower paid. It is no surprise that trade union leaders are acquiescing to this but it is still disappointing. There is a fairer way and a more equitable way to approach this budget but it seems the Government are intent on their mission to target the poor and those on low pay.

€8 million taken out of Waterford Economy

Figures presented to me by the Department of Finance show that 36,000 families in Waterford rely on the Social Welfare Christmas bonus. This payment is used to cover extra expenses which occur at this costly time of year and will result in parents turning to money lenders, inevitably compounding existing family money problems and forcing them into further catastrophic debt in the New Year.

This scrooge-like move will deny a lot of children a Christmas. The fact that the Government can seek to cut money from those on just €204 a week while seeking to protect those on over €200,000 a year is reprehensible.

This cut will also see huge pressure being put on parents who have lost their jobs and are living from hand to mouth. This will drive many into the hands of money lenders – both legal and illegal and will have serious repercussions and will send families spiraling into whirlwinds of debt.
This will also cause hardship for those pensioners already struggling to make ends meet. Last year many older people used the bonus to pay for fuel, rather than buy Christmas presents for their grandchildren or to meet their other festive costs. The bonus helped older people get through one of the coldest winters in recent years.

As well as the hardship it will mean for those directly affected, the axing of the Christmas Bonus makes no economic sense. It will result in millions of euros being taken out of local economies putting jobs at further risk. Over €8million will be lost in the local economy in Waterford. This will hurt Waterford retailers already struggling to stay afloat.

Many of the people who will be affected by the removal of the Christmas bonus are as yet not aware of the fact. The people affected don’t have savings to cope with this unexpected reduction in their income – unlike the golden circle that this government panders to; the people affected by this cut don’t have nest eggs tucked away or overseas bank accounts that they can turn to.
We in Sinn Féin have been running a campaign against the withdrawal of the Christmas Bonus over the past number of weeks and have highlighted outside the local social welfare office how this callous move will affect the most vulnerable.

Mary Hanafin on one hand blames striking public sector workers for delays in making payments while on the other hand it is her very own colleagues in government axing completely the Christmas Bonus.

This is a cruel cut which will deny children a Christmas and will mean extra hardship for struggling families. It must be reversed. Sinn Féin in Waterford will step up its campaign over the coming weeks and will do all we can to force the Government to reverse this mean-spirited and counter-productive policy