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Opinion: Government has squandered an opportunity to make real, balanced, and lasting changes

The Civil Engagement Group senators say the government needs to be fairer and act faster in its budgets.

Alice-Mary Higgins, Lynn Ruane, Frances Black & Eileen Flynn

BUDGET 2022 PRESENTED a unique opportunity to create transformative change in Irish society, the kind of change that is crucial in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU fiscal rules which have in the past been invoked as a block to major public investment and social spending in Ireland have been suspended.

There is an acknowledgement that we need transformational long-term investment in our social fabric and public services that have been weakened by austerity. This is better value in the long-run.

For example, the fiscal rules were the excuse given when local authorities were forced to lease public housing, rather than build or buy it. We know this is a bad deal for the public, yet in Budget 2022 where those rules no longer apply we still see vast sums being spent on leasing 2,620 houses. Pouring more money into investors’ pockets rather than creating long-term public assets.

Another area that needs long-term thinking is mental health and the Civil Engagement Group have been calling for a multi-year budget, so that service provision can be planned in a more strategic way. This is important because we know early intervention leads to better outcomes.

Supporting services to support people

The pandemic has pushed people to the limits of their resilience. Irish mental health support services are reporting significant increases in the number of presentations to their services, and waiting-lists are growing ever longer.

We were hopeful that the mental health budget for the upcoming year would take account of this reality, but it has fallen short of doing so, with only an additional budget of about €37 million, far short of the €85 million recommended by Mental Health Reform.

This is also far short of the Slaintecare recommendation that mental health spending should be 10% of the health budget. The spending announced in the budget will be about 5.6% of the entire health budget, an improvement on the 2021 level of 5.1%, but simply not good enough in the context of a public health emergency.

We note that the €24 million committed to new developments referenced improving services which treat eating disorders and dual-diagnosis, and the provision of early intervention services and community mental health hubs. It is really important that this is additional to and separate from the proper funding and delivery of existing services.

Similarly, we need long-term, multi-year budgets for our Local Drug and Alcohol Task Forces, which require security and sustainability to make meaningful change. These services were in receipt of €20.9 million euro in 2010, by 2020 this figure was just €19.1 million euro.

Costs are rising, compounded by inflation, while supports are overstretched. A recent Health Research Board report showed that from 2012 to 2020 there has been a threefold increase in cases treated for problem cocaine use. The underfunding of these services is resulting in people being turned away and it is creating greater problems down the line.

Spend Better: gender and equality proofing of budget decisions

The inadequate funding to address mental health needs and the failure to properly plan for the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities are just some of the areas that might have been tackled better if this Budget had been subject to proper gender and equality proofing.

In 2017, a commitment was made to gender and equality proofing of future budgets. We were told it would take a while to embed. In Budget 2022, it wasn’t even referenced, and there was no sign either of the promised wellbeing indicators. We know that when financial decisions are considered in terms of their gender and equality impacts, that leads to better outcomes for everyone in society.

Gender proofing, would, for example, have highlighted the need to tackle the long-standing pension inequality women still face today and might have brought attention to the fact that many of the tax reliefs in this Budget disproportionately benefit wealthy men.

Equality proofing might also have helped to address the crisis in Traveller accommodation. This crisis has seen 1,700 Traveller families living in inadequate and unsafe conditions. Only €18 million was allocated for Traveller accommodation in this Budget, and we know that historically, budgets for Traveller accommodation have not been fully spent by local authorities due to a lack of will to address the crisis. Equality proofing of Budgets would make effective allocation of funding for Traveller accommodation a priority.

Where is sustainability?

One of the greatest resources for long-term joined-up thinking we have internationally is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a high point in global common sense. That vision for a more socially and environmentally sustainable future is not reflected in this national budget.

In terms of our climate action, the opportunity for massive transformative investment in retrofitting, subsidised public transport and a just transition has not been seized, and there is a lack of clarity on how Ireland will meet our climate funding commitments to the developing world.

Despite the disappointing short-term thinking in many of the government’s decisions, we will continue to press for a long-term vision for Ireland, one which prioritises transformative public investment for the public good, and one which charts a path towards a sustainable future. We can and should spend better.

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The Civil Engagement Group of Seanad Éireann consists of Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, Senator Lynn Ruane, Senator Frances Black and Senator Eileen Flynn. The Civil Engagement Group is a group of progressive independent Senators within Seanad Éireann, bringing together a diverse group of individuals with expertise gained from careers across the NGO and civil society sectors.

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About the author:

Alice-Mary Higgins, Lynn Ruane, Frances Black & Eileen Flynn

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