EU Affairs Committee- Report on Response to 2014 Country Specific Recommendations for Ireland: Better Europe Alliance

I welcome our panel of speakers. I apologise for unavoidably missing their initial presentations but I will read their written submission and look forward to hearing their responses later. The speakers are an important part of any debate we have on this issue. Any debate about economics, the future of Europe and so forth needs to be tempered with a focus on building society and on the reality of people’s lives. We need not talk constantly about abstract figures but the real impact on people. In that sense, I welcome the speakers’ input to the debate.

I will raise a few issues which are important to put on record. Not to do so would be negligent because that is what we are elected here to do. On the question of energy, I agree with the basic thesis of my colleague, Deputy Durkan, who is a very experienced parliamentarian and who is very competent, that we have a national interest around agriculture and that involves the lives of people and families. The entire infrastructure of rural Ireland is at issue. For example, in the county in the constituency I represent the main employer is agri-related food processing, and the entire agriculture industry is centred there. We have to work on the green energy agenda. It has to be central, and we have to sustain that. We have made great progress on developing a culture of recycling in this country, and that has resulted in great progress being made in that area. I remember when it first came on the agenda in local government, of which I was a member years ago, it was almost a foreign concept for consumers. That is no longer the case. People have adapted to the different bins very well and to the entire recycling process, but we also need to move on the green energy agenda.

In the light of scientific development and progress, we will have to keep the question of nuclear energy under review. I do not say we must opt for nuclear energy, as such, but science has overtaken a number of the difficulties that surrounded it in the past. The methods for dealing with nuclear waste, for example, have improved. We cannot put nuclear energy off the agenda if we accept the problem that exists with climate change. The UN has left us in no doubt about that. Anecdotal and experiential evidence of climate change exists and that behoves us to examine recycling, energy and conservation and to keep green energy on the agenda. It further behoves us to look fairly and squarely at nuclear energy as an option, if it could be done safely and the waste issue were to be addressed. Considerable progress has been made on waste. I do not wish to misquote the former Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, but if I understood him correctly, he said he had no issue with importing energy from countries that use nuclear energy. We must examine the issue. I do not say we have to develop nuclear energy but we must not shy from examining it. The old arguments no longer hold.

I agree with the basic thesis presented that we should broaden the tax base. I would be the first within my parliamentary party and elsewhere to be critical of many aspects of Irish Water, the delivery of services and related issues. No one can deny, however, that the basic objective of Irish Water and the property tax is to broaden the tax base. There are those who like to parade themselves as champions of social justice, a more equitable and broader tax base, based on taxes other than of the traditional industrial worker and lower paid civil servants who paid everything in the past, but if one wants to champion that cause, one cannot logically do so and not be in favour of broadening the tax base. One cannot logically be against the property tax and water charges, willy-nilly, and then support the proposition that we should have a broader tax base and more equity. That is not sustainable. There is much hypocrisy on the issue.

I welcome the proposal in the submission that we should broaden the tax base. That is precisely what the Government is doing, albeit in a flawed fashion on occasion, and with a need for improvement and the introduction of more consumer-friendly aspects. The purpose of the property tax and water charges is to broaden the tax base. The aim is to take the burden off the backs that traditionally bore the brunt of tax such as industrial workers and lower paid civil servants. There is no equivocation on the matter. One cannot parade oneself on the issue as some seem to do, namely, as a champion of equity, social progress and an egalitarian society where the poor are to the fore. I refer to people in certain political organisations and groups who then say they are against all forms of taxation that would broaden the tax base. That is not a sustainable or honest approach. The two things are incompatible. One would not need a degree in logic to see the positions are mutually incompatible. If one works on the assumption that there is no magic source of money; it is incompatible with social justice to say one should not broaden the tax base.

I say well done to the witnesses in that regard. In their response, could they say that what we are doing with property tax and water charges, flawed and all as they are in their implementation, is the correct economic strategy to look after the poorer sections of society? It behoves people such as they to give leadership in that regard. In this instance there is no avoiding the question. None of us can avoid the issue. One cannot be on both sides of the argument.

I missed the presentation, but if I understood the document correctly, I agree with the stated need for job activation. We should not treat jobseeker’s payments as a paternalistic welfare payment to keep the poor at bay and to keep them fed and leave them in perpetual unemployment. There should be job activation, support, training and education. I am a great believer in that, but a person should be supported when, through human frailty or lack of opportunity due to geography or other factors, he or she cannot get a foot on any ladder. There is no suggestion to the contrary, but where we can introduce job activation measures and training, we should do so and such an approach should be aggressively pursued. I commend the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, who has prioritised such an approach to social welfare. We must deliver more. I would welcome the comments of witnesses in that regard.

The experience of Finland and all empirical evidence to date suggests the Youth Guarantee is the greatest vehicle for tackling potential long-term unemployment, social deprivation and generational unemployment. For that reason the Youth Guarantee should be implemented. We are a bit tardy about it. I understand €6 billion is available. I would welcome a comment on the implementation of the Youth Guarantee, where we stand in regard to it, whether we are making sufficient progress and what more could be done.

Child care was cited as an issue. I accept the point. That is the reason we must broaden the tax net and be straight up about such matters. I am a teacher by profession, and from observation and basic savvy, what is needed in child care is to extend the early childhood year to two years. There is no better piece of social engineering to create equality of opportunity, a fairer society and to rebuild a society that has been torn by recession and austerity that arose from a situation of boom and bust. We should introduce a second year of early childhood education. Many of the people who are posturing on the new forms of taxation aimed at bringing equity and broadness to the tax net should address such a question. If one takes a dysfunctional or difficult family, or even the average family, nothing is better for a family than for children to be able to avail of a few hours in a supported environment with qualified people for education and socialisation. It gives the parents a break and provides them with opportunities for work, to train for a job that they might not otherwise have, to engage in job activation and to make applications for jobs. Thankfully, more job opportunities are coming on stream than was previously the case.

Do the witnesses agree that the greatest piece of social engineering in terms of child care would be a second year of free child care? I have argued for its implementation in every forum available. Do the witnesses also agree with my point on the Youth Guarantee and job activation? Do they further agree with what I said on broadening the tax base and that it is hypocritical to be in favour of social egalitarianism, equality of opportunity and fairness and yet to be against measures to broaden the tax net?

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website