Budget debate gathers pace - Fix services before we reduce taxes

LAST week’s tax returns, which were below the overall target for the year so far, will inform next week’s summer economic statement, but any restraining influence the figures might have will be outweighed by the political need for yet another something-for-everyone budget at the end of the year.

That temptation to be indulgent, especially for a first-time-over-hurdles Taoiseach and finance minister, may be encouraged by yesterday’s employment figures. 

The number of people signing on the Live Register last month was 259,200, a drop of 1.8% since May. 

This is the lowest number recorded since October, 2008. However, the increase in the number of people at work has had no palpable impact on income-tax returns and many of the new jobs are so poorly paid that tax bills, if any, are minimal.

The justifiable optimism generated by these figures must be set against Brexit and the threat that deepening uncertainty represents.

Those are some of the prevailing conditions, but a range of sectoral demands will be at least as influential. Everything from public-sector pay demands and pension obligations to unresolved issues around third-level funding and EU environmental fines feed into the mix. Soaring health costs that reflect society’s changing demographic must be a factor, too.

There is a consistency to the clamour, though. To paraphrase John F Kennedy, we more often than not ask what our country can do for us than what can we do for our country. 

That question, even in these deeply sceptical times, is still a relevant benchmark of what kind of a society this is. It shows where our real values lie, whether we give priority to social needs or individuals’ expectations.

The answers to that question are all around us. There is hardly one public utility that provides exemplary service. Virtually every one is underfunded. 

There is hardly a regulatory authority in the country, anything from the Garda fraud squad to fishery protections services, that is fit for purpose. Responding to a recent EU report, the Department of Agriculture admitted it did not have the dedicated staff to verify the organic status of food producers, thereby undermining the whole concept.

This morning, we report on the underfunding of mental health services for young people. In Cork (and the same conditions prevail across the country), out-of-hours services for children or adolescents with mental health difficulties have not been available at CUH or the Mercy since April, due to staffing problems. 

That this can so often be a life-or-death issue does not seem to carry enough weight to resolve the crisis, or many more like it.

The Government has proposed a two-to-one ratio, in terms of increased spending, vis-à-vis tax cuts, but even that loading seems insufficient, as some spending may go to improve pay rather than services. 

Every family in the country has, at one time or another, run up against underperforming public services, often with huge consequences.

Surely, it’s time to break this pretend cycle and accept the link between taxation and decent public service? After all, we only get what we pay for.


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