Public spending priorities: Government not a Good Samaritan

Public spending priorities: Government not a Good Samaritan

Theologians have argued for centuries about the meaning of the Good Samaritan parable, Luke 10:25-29, but most of us, of all religious persuasions and none, are in no doubt about the lesson it conveys. It tells us to help those in need, be they neighbours we know or too often, don’t know or strangers.

In real life, this is easier said than done. We cross to the other side of the street to avoid eye contact with the homeless person huddled in a shop doorway, and look the other way when a beggar asks for coins. We’ll have our own money problems, or other woes; we’ll be pressed for time, and so we pass by. In today’s world, the Samaritan of last resort for those in need and beyond the reach of neighbours and charities, must be government, both central and local. Is ours a Good Samaritan?

In today’s Irish Examiner, we report in uncomfortable detail the plight of a 30-year-old wheelchair-bound woman with cerebral palsy and highly complex medical requirements. The Cork County Council property in which she lives with her mother — her only carer — is, in its condition and location, utterly unsuitable for her needs.

The council has chosen not to waive its housing allocation priorities so this tenant and her carer can be given suitable accommodation closer to the Cork University Hospital clinic she must visit frequently. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal have rejected her pleas supported by her GP for help, the former ruling that the county council’s failure to provide this tenant with the housing she needs did not breach the private and family life rights set down in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Appeal Court could offer only cold comfort. The judges agreed it was of the “utmost importance” for the health and welfare of both tenants that they live in better conditions, but they could find no legal grounds for ordering the council to change its decision. The courts, in short, have not been able to prevent the county council passing by on the other side of the road.

Mental health disabilities are often less visible than physical conditions, which is doubtless one of the reasons why health services and governments tend to let them slide down the list of public spending priorities when decisions about who gets how much have to be made. State spending, ministers never tire of telling us, is about competing demands, and settling on the choices is always a terribly, terribly, difficult business. Of course, it is; that’s why ministers and senior civil servants in this country are paid terribly well.

Could this in some way or other be why €25m of the increased 2019 budget allocation for mental health services remains unspent by the Department of Health? The aim in allocating extra spending was to strengthen mental health services to adults and children. It was a good headline at the time. Now, it looks like the Samaritan who, moved by the beggar’s plight, waves a euro note or two in his hand, only to say that he’ll hand it over, but not quite yet.

Is, then, our government, local and central, a Good Samaritan? The answer, we suggest, is somewhere between a no and the verdict permitted in Scottish courts — not proven.

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