Budget must not betray the most vulnerable
OPINION:If Ministers want fairness, they can tax the wealthy in line with Europe's norms
Budget 2013 must not amount to an act of betrayal and cruelty against our country’s most vulnerable people.
Entire communities that never enjoyed the benefits of the Celtic Tiger are being forced to foot the bill, while many who by their actions or inaction led to our downfall continue to live in privilege.
With just a fortnight to budget day it is time to appeal to the better judgment of our political leaders and ask them to reflect on the course they are about to set for our people.
A fair, balanced and just approach is required. In this context it is important to look at the capacity of each part of society to contribute and look at those who are well positioned to give more.
We live in a time not only of increasing poverty but also of a widening gap between the rich and poor. Social Justice Ireland has documented that the top 10 per cent of the population receives 14 times more disposable income than the poorest 10 per cent.
Not only do the top income earners here have a greater proportion of the national income, they have a greater actual income than their peers in other European countries.
We are all familiar with the endless figures that show the desperate situation facing our country and the daily battle parents, workers, the unemployed, people who cannot afford to retire and many others face to make ends meet.
Their burden is constant.
At Focus Ireland we meet and support people, as other front-line agencies do, for whom there is never a moment of enjoyment and never a reason to smile.
Demand for our help is increasing daily – in the past 12 months we have seen an 18 per cent increase in the use of our prevention services.
For these people every minute of every day is taken up trying to survive.
More than 200,000 of our children are at risk of poverty. Overall, one-fifth of our population is at risk of poverty. Forty per cent of those without jobs are long-term unemployed. One in five of our children goes to bed hungry every night, a stark figure revealed by researchers from NUIG earlier this year.
Since 2008, people have been asked to accept reductions in child benefit, carer’s allowance, disability payment and blind pension, jobseeker’s benefit, jobseeker’s allowance, one-parent family payments, supports for Traveller education and earnings disregard.
There have been increases in gas, electricity and household bills, while hard-pressed householders have also had to contend with cuts in heating and fuel subsidies.
There is an alternative. If Ministers really want fairness, a good starting point would be to recommit to the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016. Its aim was to eliminate consistent poverty by 2016, a goal still attainable.
We can bring between €3 billion and €3.5 billion into the national coffers with a set of measures to bring the top 10 per cent of our society into line with those across Europe.
Is this not fairer than once again going back to our poorest people to ask them to sacrifice even more? There is also a case for benchmarking salaries of senior public servants; those in higher-level educational institutions; and fees paid to consultants contracted by the Civil Service.
It is also important that the high rates of allowances, exemptions and relief on personal tax and corporate tax that benefit the very wealthy are addressed.
As it prepares the budget I ask the Government to widen its focus. Do not turn this into a heartless, clinical, bookbalancing exercise but examine the consequences such actions have on households and those without a home.
There is a palpable sense of anger, disbelief and betrayal felt by many of our people. The relentless assault on the less well off, those with disabilities, pensioners, the working poor and many others must stop.
While all groups must contribute, a sense of fairness must be applied. We cannot continue to increase the burden on those for whom life is now a struggle.
In four years’ time we will remember the sacrifices made in the GPO in 1916. We will reflect on the values outlined in the Proclamation, the vision of a Republic “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”, a principle as relevant today as it was then.
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is a social campaigner and founder of Focus Ireland and the Immigrant Council of Ireland.