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Mick Wallace: It’s time for the government to equality-proof budgets

Why should the Irish people not have some say with regard to how public resources – their resources – are allocated? Equality budgeting is successful in other jurisdictions, writes Mick Wallce TD.

Mick Wallace

NEXT WEEK, the Government is set to unveil another austerity budget, taking €2.5 billion out of the Irish economy. The details on where the cuts are to be made will be presented to us as a fait accompli on Tuesday, although plenty of kite-flying has already happened in the media, leading to considerable anxiety among an already worried and distressed populace.

Again the budgetary process will be shrouded in secrecy, with a self-appointed Economic Management Council unilaterally taking decisions that critically affect all of us; and again there will be no regard for the impact of those decisions on disadvantaged members of our society.

Research by a number of bodies, including the ESRI and Grant Thornton, shows that successive budgets have been regressive and have had a disproportionate impact on lower and middle income households. In a study released last week, Grant Thornton found that a family with one parent earning €40,000 experienced increases in taxes of 125 per cent, while a family with both parents earning €40,000 saw a 54 per cent rise in taxes, and a family with income of €190,000 witnessed a 29 per cent increase in their tax bill. Evidently, then, the burden of austerity is being shouldered by those who have less.

Budgetary measures introduced in recent years have also hit specific social groups particularly hard. For instance, the Department of Social Protection’s own analysis found that lone parents, the majority of whom are women, have been especially negatively affected by the last budget.

Gender and equality

In 2011, I asked the Minister for Finance whether he would publish a gender audit of the budget to ensure measures introduced in Budget 2012 wouldn’t have a disproportionate impact on women. The Minister responded that he did not have any plans to undertake a gender audit, but that there was a commitment in the Programme for Government “to require all public bodies to take due note of equality and human rights in carrying out their functions.” Given that we have since had another two budgets with adverse effects on women, it stands to reason that taking “due note of equality and human rights” is either not being done, or is not enough to guarantee equitable outcomes for all of the members of our society.

Other jurisdictions, such as Scotland, have long recognised the need for proactive measures to ensure budgets do not further disadvantage particular social groups. The process is far more open than it is here, with an Equality Budget Advisory Group, consisting of civil society representatives, civil servants and politicians, working together to undertake analysis with a particular focus on the equality outcomes of decisions concerning public expenditure and income. When the draft budget is published, an Equality Statement, that is, a full analysis of the impact of the budget on different social groups, is presented alongside it. The budget is then debated for several months before it is finalised.

Why should the Irish public be left in the dark?

Why is it that Ireland cannot introduce a model similar to this? Why should the Irish public be left in the dark with regard to decisions that have such an overwhelming – sometimes even devastating – effect on their lives? Why should we not have some say with regard to how public resources, our resources, are allocated? If there are any lessons to be drawn from the recent Seanad abolition referendum debacle, then it is surely that members of the public want greater engagement from government, not less. This demand for greater scrutiny and transparency extends to the budgetary process, which in Ireland is a highly secretive affair lying beyond the realms of democratic oversight.

The great advantage of opening up the budgetary process, and of undertaking analysis of budget measure before they are introduced, is that greater transparency and more information, particularly with regard to potential equality outcomes, leads to better decisions. For this reason, I believe that all of the government’s proposals for tax increases and cuts should be subject to public scrutiny and to equality-proofing before decisions are made.

Five years into austerity, we surely must do better to ensure we do not exacerbate poverty and inequality even further – as the effects of this will be felt for generations to come.

Mick Wallace is a TD for Co Wexford.

Read: Employers worried about rising pay expectations
Read: Irish business ‘nervous about unpleasant budget surprises’
Read: Fiscal Advisory Council clarifies Spring’s Prime Time Budget comments

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