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  • Freezing to death? The Government has its ear muffs on

    November 28, 2010 @ 9:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    You may have noticed it’s a little cold outside. And in. Sub-zero temperatures are sending the country into a blue freeze as severe as our economic stasis. But if you’re feeling it, then you are, by comparison, lucky. In the advanced stages of hypothermia, its victims become unaware of how cold their bodies are. The shivering stops.

    Age Action, which has made a special plea to people to look out for their elderly neighbours during this wintry spell, estimates that 2,000 older people die each winter from cold-related illnesses. These are deaths that could be avoided were they not living in fuel poverty – typically defined as spending more than 10 per cent of your income on fuel needs (including a satisfactory heating regime). It’s three years now since an Institute of Public Health report found that Ireland has one of the highest rates of excess winter mortality in Europe. Fuel poverty, the institute said, was “unacceptably high” in Ireland, with no systematic monitoring.

    Age Action’s Eamon Timmins, who calls Ireland’s chilling record in this area “a matter of national shame”, was duly unimpressed by the Four-Year Plan’s announcement of increased carbon taxes on fuel. “The Government cannot add to [the] suffering by further intervening to increase the price of energy, without taking some action to protect these people,” he said. But it seems they can. In fact, Government policy whenever anyone raises the issue of fuel poverty is to put its ear muffs on and disappear somewhere snug.

    When carbon taxes were first introduced in the 2010 budget, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan and Minister for the Environment John Gormley claimed the funds would be used in part to alleviate fuel poverty through a compensation voucher scheme. Now, as of last Wednesday, the carbon tax is officially designed to contribute €330 million to the “overall correction”. Earlier this month, Minister for Social Protection Eamon Ó Cuív ruled out introducing the voucher scheme, giving the excuse that “insulation, insulation, insulation” was the more efficient long-term approach. He also lamented that there was too much of an administrative burden associated with such a scheme.

    Indeed, keeping people alive can be such a chore.

    The least administratively burdensome way to provide what the Commission on Taxation called “adequate safeguards” to prevent fuel poverty would be to increase the fuel allowance. But even if this were to happen in next week’s Budget, it wouldn’t immediately heat up the nation. As Labour spokeswoman Róisín Shortall has pointed out, “working poor” families don’t qualify for the payment because they’re not in the social welfare loop. As a result, they’re also left out of the warmer homes’ scheme favoured by Ó Cuív, unless they make a special case. Meanwhile, Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan told the Dáil in October that this scheme is due to make structural improvements to 22,500 low-income homes by the end of 2010. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that the number of households living in persistent fuel poverty is almost three times that amount at 60,000, with a further 160,000 suffering from it intermittently.

    Two years ago, the boss of British energy giant Centrica made a mask-slipping gaffe when he advised customers struggling with rising heating bills to lower their thermostats and endure a “two jumpers instead of one” winter. That now seems like a relatively sensible plan, given this Government’s approach is to say one jumper will be just fine, because we’ll be along with a lagging jacket later.

  • The red line in corporate communications

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:16 pm | by Laura Slattery

    After two years of cuts and cut-threats; after a week of high-level Government stuttering, evasiveness and alleged ”pejorative terms”; after days of being left in the dark, finally the nation’s parents, pensioners, students and long-term sick have the reasurrance that they and their fellow citizens have been crying out for. Yes, the Government has promised us that the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate will remain intact.

    Batt O’Keeffe sent out a press release saying the Government was “not for turning”. (This instantly made me think that it will be.) Mary Coughlan told the Dáil it was non-negotiable. (I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to think it is.) And Brian Lenihan told RTÉ that the sacred corporation tax rate was an “absolute red line” (that’s beginning to blur).

    Notwithstanding all this collective defiance, the front page of The Financial Times tomorrow asserts that “Ireland faces tax showdown”. And despite the complaint by the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, on the BBC’s Question Time that Ireland is “undercutting” the UK corporate tax rate – “I want them to be a good neighbour to us and stop trying to nick companies out of this country” – it is, of course, the Germans and the French, and not the British, who would like Ireland’s corporation tax to kowtow less to transatlantic business interests.

    The American Chamber of Commerce, which next Thursday will feed Brian Lenihan a Thanksgiving lunch in exchange for more supportive words, was quick to reiterate its belief that any increase in the corporation tax rate would damage the economy and result in an exodus of job-providing US entities, some of which are quite adept at utilising tax avoidance schemes to bypass the 12.5 per cent rate anyway. But not everyone agrees that this precise rate is an economic saviour to be protected at all costs. Last month, Don DeGrazia, the US-based former chairman of global accountancy network Integra International, helpfully quantified matters by noting if Ireland’s corporate tax rate was increased to 15 or 16 per cent, “Ireland would still be competitive and thus attractive” to inward investors.

    Never mind all that for the moment. The 12.5 per cent rate, despite its sharp ideological edge, has become a sticking point – a symbol of our sovereignty, behind which Ireland’s ministers will unite, on-message, for the day, as it plays what The Guardian dubs “geo-political hardball”. Its posturing is also, presumably, aimed at any multinationals that, right at this exact moment, happen to be deciding where they should plump a job-spinning factory.

    But regardless of how vital the 12.5 per cent rate is, or isn’t, to employment, it is curious that the Government is less willing and able to make a similarly concerted, Cabinet-wide attempt to soothe the fears and anger of Irish citizens worried about the safety of their deposits, the status of their mortgage arrears, the future level of their pensions and the state of their schools and hospitals. On balance, I think I preferred it when it was still considered worth the Government’s while to make (even obviously empty) promises to the Irish people. The alternative is that we’re no longer worth lying to, as it, the IMF and European officials just thrash it out amongst themselves.

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