Dear Michael Noonan: can you spare us the budget blues?

Five years of austerity budgets have reduced disposable income for average families by €300 a month and doubled the tax they pay

Michael Noonan outside the Dáil before delivering last year’s budget. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Michael Noonan outside the Dáil before delivering last year’s budget. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Dear Michael,

Not long to go now and, while it would be a lie to say we were looking forward to it, we hope your third budget goes well for you. More than that, we hope it goes well for us.

Thanks for moving your big day to early October – our summer holidays and all that unseasonal sunniness in September meant we could ignore most of the blackest kites sent up by your ministerial colleagues about dire cuts to social welfare, pensions, education funding and the rest.

The switch from early December should also give us a couple of extra weeks to digest your cuts before Santa starts loading his sleigh. The promise last week by Enda that there would be no new taxes is good news too, although forgive us a little scepticism, as official definitions of what amounts to a tax are quite loose – one man’s universal social charge is another man’s penal tax after all.

We know all the austerity angles have already been agreed by our overlords in Frankfurt and Brussels, but is there any chance you could give us a couple of breaks this time out? After all, we have had to bear five years of horrendous news from your department already, and many of us have nothing left to give.

You may have seen just how little a lot of people have, from a survey last month that showed almost 40 per cent of Irish adults have less than €25 to spend per week once all essential bills are taken care of. A good chunk of the 40 per cent have nothing left.

Is it any wonder? Six horror-show budgets on the spin have cost us dearly.

Last year you cut children’s allowance by €10 to €130 a month. Remember when it was €166 a month per child? Good times.

The most recent cut took €240 out of the pockets of a household with two qualifying children. The property tax was rolled out in July, and, over the course of a year that household, living in a modest home, will be worse off by about €250 a year. Car tax changes announced last December took about another €120 from this typical household. PRSI changes meant another fiver a week was taken from them if they were lucky enough to have a job. That amounts to €254 a year. All told, these changes are just shy of a grand, Minister.

It was well over a grand for people who had a child in college, as they had to come up with an additional €250 to cover registration fees. Anyone who drank two bottles of wine a week was hit with another €104 in tax a year. And your last budget was supposed to be one of the good ones – an “easy” year without any tax increases for PAYE workers.

Reduction in child benefit

And yes, Michael, we know you said last year that you didn’t accept this figure and you suggested it wasn’t “typical”, but a family of two adults and two kids doesn’t seem extraordinary.

Your first budget in December 2011 – actually it was a double-header between you and Brendan Howlin – wasn’t great either. Among the highlights were reductions in child benefit payable to families with three or more children; reductions in the amounts payable under the rent supplement scheme; restriction of the fuel allowance to 26 weeks; reduction in the amount of earnings “disregarded” in the means test for one-parent family benefit; reductions in the amounts payable under the back-to-school scheme. All these combined led to a fall of between 2 per cent and 2.5 per cent for the poorest 40 per cent of households. The household charge was also introduced and set at €100.

It was bad in budget 2011 too. That was before your time admittedly. In December 2010, the late Brian Lenihan rolled out a very tough budget. A married couple with three children earning a combined total of €75,000 saw their net income fall by at least €2,200 a year – or €190 a month – when tax changes and reduced children’s allowance payments were totted up.

So how much have five years of austerity budgets cost us? Well, that depends on who you are, but they have reduced disposable income for average families by more than €300 a month and doubled the amount of tax they pay since 2008, according to pre-budget analysis released last week by Grant Thornton. Its research calculated the impact of new taxes – such as the universal social charge and the property tax – and the reduction in child benefit on a range of income scenarios.

A family with only one parent earning €40,000 has seen its tax bill increase by 125 per cent, which has led to the €300 per month decline in disposable income. A couple both earning €40,000 a year, with two children, and a house valued at €200,000, have seen their tax bill rise by 54 per cent and their monthly disposable income fall by €511 since 2008. That is more than €5,000 a year, Minister. And that is disposable income, which means they would have to earn twice that amount to make up the shortfall.

Of course, it is not only in the areas directly controlled by you where consumers have suffered. Utility bills have climbed by about €400 a year per household since you took office, while health insurance premiums for the dwindling numbers who can still afford them have climbed by about €600 for a family of four.

Mortgage arrears crisis

While consumers have taken the pain, they have patiently waited for any gain. You promised that you would fix the mortgage arrears crisis but that hasn’t really worked out yet.

There are still more than 100,000 people well behind in their payments and the problem is, if anything, worse than it was when you took office.

The insolvency service that you said would pull people out of the “debt swamp” has only just started accepting applications, and already it appears that most people will be too poor to avail of its services. Can you imagine anything more ridiculous?

Anything you could do to make us not much poorer would be most appreciated.

All the best, Pricewatch.