Book of Estimates - Cautious Cowen plays catch-up

THE Book of Estimates which was published yesterday, and broadly outlines what will be contained in next month’s Budget, failed to realise hopes that it might be marked by inventiveness.

Finance Minister Brian Cowen has plenty of scope based on 5% growth for next year.

Mr Cowen announced that the Government will increase spending by 6% to €43.6 billion next year, and the main allocation of €11bn would be allocated to health.

The allocation for education will be €7.1bn and €11.4bn for social and family affairs. He also provided €2.8bn for disability services - an increase of 11% on 2004. A total of €60 million was allocated for Overseas Development Aid next year, although he promised further increases in 2006 and 2007.

Obviously, the Budget will deliver more specifics and more details, but Mr Cowen has signalled a propensity to be overly cautious, pointing to risks such as oil prices, the dollar and a possible weakening of the American economy.

It must also be remembered that consumers were hit by stealth taxes on medical charges, on health insurance, college registration fees, plus hikes in the cost of cigarettes and alcohol - all of which have contributed in a big measure to making this country the most expensive in Europe.

Ireland is consistently over the European average for price rises when compared with the 15 member states which comprised the EU prior to expansion.

It is only natural that taxpayers should be entitled to expect reliefs in the forthcoming Budget

In many ways yesterday’s parameters for the Government’s spending for next year were largely a catch-up exercise, certainly insofar as health services are concerned. Around 230,000 people will be given free GP services, but will have to pay for prescriptions in a doctor-only scheme, while only 30,000 more medical cards will be issued.

Although a €70 million package for A&E services will be introduced, it will also be more expensive to attend them. A 25% increase in charges for private beds, will also mean higher private insurance

The new Disability Bill will be implemented, but it must take into consideration reservations that have already been expressed by various groups concerned about people with disabilities.

As yet, there is no indication what the Government intends to do to allay fears that the programme of infrastructure projects has slowed down.

However, that could show an improvement if the private sector was more enthusiastic about engaging on public projects to a greater extent than it already has.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has promised that people can expect benefits across the board in next month’s budget and it would seem that the Finance Minister has allowed himself the breathing space to deliver.

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