Spring statement: Full text of Brendan Howlin’s speech

Minister says cost of pension schemes will increase by €200 million a year until 2026

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times.

 

The purpose of this Spring Statement is to set out our present economic and fiscal situation, and to generate discussion about our nation’s economic priorities over the medium term.

As the Minister for Finance has outlined, we are looking forward to having between €1.2 and €1.5 billion of fiscal space for Budget 2016. We will allocate these resources on an equal basis between additional spending and reducing the tax burden on low and middle income earners. Additional investment may also be possible arising from reduced spending on unemployment payments as the numbers at work grow.

Today is about recognising the point we have reached in our recovery, and then setting out the context for Budget 2016. Today is not an alternative to that Budget; it is a point-in-time assessment of where we stand now and the challenges ahead.

I want to outline some the challenges facing public expenditure as our economy recovers. I will also set out some of the priorities on which we will need to focus over the coming years. I am confident that we can build on the progress achieved if we continue to make the right decisions.

Having come through the worst economic shock in our history as a State, our primary focus must be, and will be, on sustainability. The Minister for Finance and I share one overriding priority. That is to ensure what we endured as a nation over the last seven years cannot happen again. We will not throw away the hard won progress we have made as a country.

Economic and Fiscal Recovery

As a result of the decisions we have taken, the State’s finances are now in a demonstrably better position. The imperative now is to ensure that we act responsibly.

Last year, gross voted expenditure amounted to some €54 billion. This is a reduction of over €9 billion from the 2009 peak. During that period, current spending was reduced by nearly 10% and capital spending by half, albeit from historical highs.

These reductions were made at a time of increased demands on public services. This included significantly increased numbers of people needing unemployment payments, more medical card holders and additional students in the education sector. Unlike the private sector, which in a recession sees falls in demand, the demands on public services actually increase during a recession. In addition, as a nation we are facing demographic changes that present challenges for our health and pension system. A prudent plan for the public finances must prepare for those changes.

Lessons Learnt

The economic crash has taught us that nobody owes Ireland a living. We received emergency funding at a time when the markets stopped lending to us. We owe it to ourselves to ensure we do not allow a return to this position again.

That is why we have sought to broaden the tax base to prevent the overdependence on property and transaction taxes, which contributed to the crisis in the State’s finances.

Expenditure Reforms

On the spending side, we are now planning our expenditure on a multi-annual basis, rather than from year to year. We have implemented a programme of reforms to improve the State’s budgetary architecture.

Today’s Economic Statement forms the newest part of that reformed budgetary process.

Additional reforms include the introduction of multi-annual Expenditure Ceilings; regular comprehensive reviews of public expenditure; the publication of the updated Public Spending Code; the implementation of the performance budgeting initiative; and the establishment of the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service.

We have brought a greater level of transparency and efficiency to the allocation and spending of public money.

None of these reforms is in itself a game changer and while they are yet to embed themselves in the public mind, they do represent a fundamental improvement in the way we do our business.

Ireland’s Economic Model

It became fashionable for a while to decry this country and its potential. But the turnaround that we have achieved in our economy is indicative of its fundamental strengths. We are now the fastest growing economy in Europe. Our recovery from this crisis has been as remarkable as our original descent into it.

Ireland is a small, open, flexible economy with the ability to react fast to changing markets. Our population is comparatively young by European standards. We have developed an ability to attract investment that is the envy of the world.

The days when we could plan our economy in isolation are long gone. We are reactors to, not drivers of, global economic demand. We are dependent on the international market place to sell our goods and services, and are exposed to external developments.

We have learnt just how vulnerable we can be to a global downturn exacerbated by domestic policy mistakes. Our purpose into the future should be to mitigate these threats where we can, to build resilience, and to focus on how we can grow our economy.

Success in these efforts will allow us to build the society that reflects our values. One that is fair, caring and decent. One in which people are rewarded for work. And one where every region and county shares in our progress.

Most in this House know that a fair society cannot be built on the back of a weak economy.

Fiscal Rules

The challenges that come with economic recovery have a context.

Increases in public expenditure must be affordable. That is why the European Union has adopted rules to support stability. Endorsed by the Irish people in 2012, the new fiscal rules serve as a tool to help us to responsibly manage our recovery.

The rules mean that any future growth in public expenditure will not exceed the level of potential economic growth, unless we specifically levy additional taxes. For a country like Ireland, where the national debt is high, this is a lesson we should not need to learn.

These rules are new and hopefully will evolve and be refined over time. But there is no denying the fundamental truth at their heart. Public expenditure must be sustainable.

We must plan carefully, using evidence-based decision-making to ensure that we invest our public money in ways that will be of maximum benefit to the people of Ireland; not just for the next year or two, but over the medium and long term.

Medium Term Expenditure

As I have already indicated, reductions in spending have made a significant contribution to the overall fiscal consolidation.

However, our approach was never to simply apply blanket reductions to all areas of spending. In the context of a poorly performing economy and a weak labour market, we recognised the need to support economic growth and protect our society’s most vulnerable people to the greatest extent possible.

Budget 2015 marked a very welcome point in our recovery. It was the first time since 2009 that reductions in expenditure were not required to meet our fiscal targets.

Now - as outlined in today’s fiscal forecasts - as we prepare for Budget 2016 we will look to increase gross voted current expenditure by an additional €600 to €750 million. This increase will allow Government to deal with underlying demographic pressures in key areas such as Social Protection, Education and Health. It will also allow us to target enhancements in key public services.

Including these additional allocations, General Government Expenditure, excluding debt interest, is forecast at just under 32% of GDP and 37½% of GNP. As a proportion of the overall economy, Government spending is roughly the same size it was in 2001.

Post 2016, the no-policy-change position outlined in this document is an annual increase of €300 million in current expenditure. Given the improvement in the fiscal position set out today, we expect there to be more space to accommodate additional spending.

The extent of this space will depend on pursuing the right policies.

Demographic Challenges

Ireland is changing. Over the last decade, our general population has increased by nearly half a million. We have the highest percentage of people aged under 15 in the European Union and the joint highest fertility rate. Life expectancy has also risen and now almost 13% of our population are over 65 years old. These changes are positive, and the envy of many other countries, but they can present service and resource challenges for our health, pensions and education systems.

On current projections the ratio of working age people to those over 65 is expected to steadily fall, from over 5 to 1 today, to just over 2 to 1 in 2060. By 2021, the number of citizens over the age of 65 will have increased by close to 40% from a decade earlier. This represents an extra 200,000 people. Overall, this portion of the population is projected to increase from 11% in 2010, to 15% in 2020 and to 24% in 2060.

In the health area, demographic changes alone will cost an estimated €200 million per year, over the coming years. This is partly why our focus has been on extending the reach of primary care and taking pressure away from our acute hospital system.

We may be a younger country than many of our European partners, but we too are facing pressures on pensions.

We currently spend over €6.5 billion annually on pension provision.

Over 400,000 people are in receipt of one of the two main State pension schemes, the contributory and non-contributory State pensions. The cost of paying for these two schemes alone is projected to increase by €200 million per year out to 2026.

Let me be clear. There is no threat to the pension. This Government is committed to pension provision and to sustaining the value of those pensions. It is because of this commitment that, in our discussions on spending, it is important to consider future trends.

Not enough of our citizens are planning for the future to supplement State pension entitlements. It is in this context that the Tánaiste has set up a working group to examine the pensions issue.

In education, the number of school children is set to increase every year over the next six years. By 2021, we will need an extra 3,500 teachers at primary and secondary level to provide education to an additional 50,000 pupils. The number of third level students is also projected to increase, by 20,000 in the same period. These are positive developments. Our economic future is bright as our highly educated workforce expands. But we need to plan to ensure our public finances can meet the challenge this represents.

Growing the Economy

Of course, we need to generate resources by growing our economy before we can spend.

On its own, the State cannot create wealth. Instead, it must do all it can to create the right conditions for prosperity, through progressive taxation, appropriate regulation and targeted investment.

Later, I will speak further on a number of the key areas for that investment – employment, education, infrastructure and public services.

But before I do, I should state that an economy is not a society. A functioning society is a fair one, where the fruits of economic growth are shared among all the people. We are committed to continuing to provide necessary welfare and other supports to those who need them. That is why, throughout the crisis, we maintained core social welfare rates. It is also why, in the last Budget, we increased Child Benefit rates and the Living Alone Allowance, as well as increasing spending to address homelessness.

It is worth pointing out that Ireland has one of the most progressive tax and welfare systems in the OECD. Continued investment and growth in our economy will give us the resources to assist those who need it most. This goes to the heart of our economic model.

Employment

We take the view that reducing unemployment remains the best route to recovery. It increases the tax base and allows investment in public services. By continuing to get people back to work we make our recovery sustainable.

Irish people want to work. This has been a central focus of this Government’s efforts. We are now starting to reap the benefits – employment has increased in every quarter for over two years and we expect this trend to continue. Almost 100,000 new jobs have been created since the low-point in mid-2012.

We are achieving success through a range of measures, including the Action Plan for Jobs and investment in key capital projects such as social housing.

Tackling long-term unemployment will remain our key focus. Our Pathways to Work programme supports almost 260,000 places, with 85,000 of these reserved specifically for the long-term unemployed. In Budget 2015, we doubled the number of positions on the JobsPlus scheme to 6,000, encouraging employers to hire the long-term unemployed.

Not only is the headline unemployment rate important. We must also increase employment throughout the country for all groups in our society. With this in mind, we introduced the Back to Work Family Dividend in the last Budget.

A related issue is childcare. A successful childcare policy helps people who wish to do so to participate in the economy. The Minister for Children has established a working group on this issue and I look forward to reviewing the outcome. Obviously, we need to find a balance between the needs of children, parents and the wider economy.

Our investment in Research and Development is also bearing fruit, with an increase in the number of Enterprise Ireland assisted companies involved in this area and an increase in the number of patents from the commercialisation of publically funded research.

All of these initiatives are aimed at providing real opportunities to those in need of work, and allowing those who were forced to leave Ireland to come home.

Education and Skills

This Government has overseen improved outcomes in education. More students are taking higher level maths. There are increasing literacy rates among our 15 year olds and increases in the number of PhDs awarded by Irish universities.

This reflects our belief that the quality of our education system is a key determinant of future living standards.

In the last Budget, we announced 1,700 additional new full-time education posts. In the lifetime of this Government, over 150 new schools will have been built. At under-graduate and post-graduate level we are providing higher education programmes and services for over 164,000 full-time students. We are also providing 270,000 places on Further Education and Training programmes.

We will continue to invest in education. We must embrace the skills revolution, adopting strategies to ensure continuous up-skilling and development of our workforce to allow our citizens to be at the forefront of new technology and the creation of high-value jobs. The potential of our people is enormous. Our aim is to help them realise that potential.

Infrastructure

Thanks to economic recovery, we are now in a position to increase investment in our people and our infrastructure. We will do this in a strategic way, ensuring maximum value for money and with a focus on future needs.

The Capital Review undertaken by my Department will inform a new Capital Plan, which will be published in June. This plan will take our funding horizon out to 2020 and identify priority areas for investment.

Infrastructural constraints can act as a brake on growth, reducing the productive potential of our economy. We also need a proactive approach to dealing with climate change and its future impact. Investment is needed in parts of our school system; road network; public transport; social housing; broadband infrastructure; and flood alleviation. Spending in these areas will increase our capacity for growth, our ability to respond to social needs and enhance our environment.

As I have already indicated, capital expenditure has fallen considerably since the peak. That was the correct thing to do. There is no point in investing to extend one’s house if one can’t pay the grocery bill.

But it is now time to invest again to meet our infrastructural needs and this will be reflected in the Capital Review, particularly in the years from 2018 to 2020.

Public Service Reform

We now have a considerably smaller, less expensive and more productive Public Service. Having served in Government during this crisis, I am proud of how the Public Service has responded to the additional workload and the productivity changes introduced.

These changes, and reductions in pay, have allowed us to minimise the effects of the crisis in essential areas such as Health, Education and Social Protection. Indeed, Public Service Reform has allowed us to provide additional resources to frontline services. I call it the ‘reform dividend’.

We have added over 1,000 nurses since 2014.

We recruited 300 Gardaí last year. This year we will take in 250 more.

We are hiring 920 additional mainstream teachers, 480 resource teachers and 365 special needs assistants.

As well as being more efficient and productive, the new Public Service must be more responsive to the needs of service users and more strategic, focussing on longer-term outcomes. This will involve harnessing the potential of digitalisation and data. It will also involve the use of alternative models of service delivery to better meet the needs of users.

Public Service Pay

Earlier today, the Government agreed to my proposal to enter into discussions with the trade unions on the issue of public service pay.

The pay reductions are governed by financial emergency legislation that requires me to annually review the status of that emergency. As the economy improves, the prospect of a successful legal challenge to the financial emergency increases. It is prudent therefore to plan for an orderly unwinding of the emergency provisions. Not to do so would be foolhardy.

I don’t intend to have those discussions here. But let me say this.

All public servants have had their pay reduced significantly. Over the last two years, they have seen the beginnings of pay awards in the private sector. As the economy recovers, we need to ensure that remuneration and the cost of the Public Service more generally are managed to ensure that they remain sustainable.

Of course, without the productivity gains made in recent years, we would not be in a position to discuss unwinding the FEMPI measures. Given their value to the State, the unwinding of those measures will take time. To do anything else would jeopardise the public finances again – something we will not do.

National Economic Dialogue

In order to meet the challenges that we face, it is essential that we engage with people. This Spring Economic Statement represents the beginning of that process.

Every Government has a duty to engage with its citizens. The Government also has a responsibility to ensure that policy-making is consistent with broader societal and economic objectives. A national economic dialogue between Government and relevant civil society groups will discuss the most effective and equitable way to achieve these objectives.

Those groups have obligations too. We cannot meet all the demands of each and every one. To try to do so would be to bankrupt the State. Proposals for increased expenditure should be matched by genuine attempts to find matching funding, commensurate with the proposal. No party can ignore the general parameters under which public policy has to be made. Our engagement will be firmly rooted within these parameters.

While these discussions will inform the process, it is the Government of the day that is elected to make decisions. It will do so on the basis of what is in the long-term best interest of our people.

Conclusion

In concluding, I want to repeat that we must not allow this country to return to the devastating cycle of boom-and-bust that has been the hallmark of previous governments. We must learn the lessons of the past decade and not repeat the mistakes that brought us to ruin.

Our vision and plans for renewed prosperity will not be built on the sand of short-term and unsustainable increases in Government spending. It will be built on the rock of fiscal responsibility and investment in the productive capacity of our people.

Since 2011, we have provided stable and responsible government. We have stood up for the Irish people and charted a path to recovery.

We cannot and will not throw money at problems. Expenditure growth must continue to be linked to performance and reform. Any increases in expenditure and incomes must be in line with growth and productivity. Decision-making must be evidence-based, with a strategic focus on improved outcomes for citizens.

We have come a long way since the depths of our economic and fiscal crisis. The clear evidence presented today proves this.

Our task now is to map the next phase of our nation’s journey. This will be a country that creates good jobs with secure incomes; a country that provides well run public services; that listens and responds to people’s needs; that builds real communities; and provides real opportunities for all our people.

Thank you.