An open letter to Minister for Finance

I received the following by email yesterday. I’ts an open letter to the Minister for Finance from Justine McCarthy. It’s worth reading.

Dear minister,

You told us not to be frightened. You said you would make the budget “as fair as possible”. You promised us you were going to challenge the vested interests and protect the vulnerable.

Did you mix the two of them up? Have the vested interests so roundly usurped the position of the vulnerable that you can no longer tell them apart?

If the budget is your answer to our problems, I can only say, on behalf of the old, the sick and the handicapped – to use a phrase your own party coined to maximum effect 21 years ago – thanks, but no thanks.

They say it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. Tom Parlon was testament to that truism last Tuesday. After hearing you pledge eight different times in your Dáil speech that you were protecting the vulnerable, the OPW could have illuminated the Rock of Cashel with Parlon’s satisfied grin.

Now there’s a man who is delivering for his generous paymasters, having segued without statutory impedimentfrom managing the state’s property portfolio as junior finance minister to lobbying for the Construction Industry Federation. Parlon’s denies this is a blinding conflict of interest.

Minister, you gave the builders fillip upon financial fillip, using the first-time buyer as a fig-leaf. Their increased tax relief on mortgages, the lowering of stamp duty on commercial buildings, the tax reliefs for decontaminating docklands sites and the new restriction on Housing Finance Agency loans exclusively to new-builds amount to a sedative prescription for nervous property developers and speculators.

Next, you turned your attention to established homeowners and your motto was ‘if it moves, tax it’. It is no coincidence that the rich men who told you how to fashion the budget got their way while the elderly, the ill, the children and the socially marginalised got bled dry.

Seán Fitzpatrick, whose Anglo Irish Bank is a beneficiary of the citizens’ €480bn bank guarantee, said you should terminate universal state pensions. You did.

The financier Derek Quinlan, whose investment consortiums pushed development land and property prices to Monopoly levels during the boom times, said you should announce incentives to kick start the property sector. You did.

Tom Parlon told you to cut stamp duty on commercial buildings. You did.

And they are just the ones we know were bending your ear. You even indirectly acceded to the Small Firms Association’s callous demand that you cut the minimum wage by imposing the 1% levy without exception.

The demarcation between winners and losers that hallmarked the Celtic Tiger as indelibly as the gulf between rich and poor is more pronounced than ever after your budget. The ethic of the survival of the fittest continues to flourish.

It is bad enough that older people are left fearful and fretting about how they will manage to pay the doctor but worse is that ordinary decent citizens who have tried to live responsible lives have been made to feel they are a burden on their country.

An 83-year-old lady, who suffers from two chronic conditions and lives alone but whose income is a paltry sum above the eligibility threshold for the medical card, said: “I think they’re trying to kill us with the stress of it all. That way, they’ll save a few quid.”

It might sound melodramatic to you, minister, but the likelihood is that people will die avoidable deaths as a result of this budget. Not everyone will be lucky enough to live to regret it. Ireland already records a 21% surge in winter deaths; between 1,500 and 2,000 people, or virtually double the incidence they have in Finland.

Most of these deaths are caused by cardiovascular and respiratory illness. After your predecessor introduced the medical card for everyone over 70 in the 2001 budget, an academic study threw up some interesting observations.

One was that possession of a medical card prompted people who were previously reluctant to go to their GP to do so. The other was that it did not make those who had the card go to the doctor more frequently. In other words, they did not abuse the facility.

Unlike, say, members of the medical profession with whom your colleague, the minister for health, negotiated the financial terms of the scheme, conceding such lucrative terms as to make you deem it untenable. So the doctors creamed it, and the elderly got punished.

The medical card provided an entry to a comprehensive community healthcare network for older people who are often intimidated into passivity by fast-paced modernity. It was an encouragement to look after themselves; something invariably absent when someone lives alone and does not want to be a bother to anyone.

According to Age Action Ireland, the people they represent are expert at developing coping mechanisms to deal with their financial situation. They go to bed early and get up late to save money on light and heating. They eat less than they should. They wear inadequate clothing.

There are 121,000 pensioners residing on their own. The living-alone allowance was designed specifically to protect these people from dangerous isolation.

Do you know what the living alone allowance is, minister? It is €7.70 a week. It has not been increased by a minister for finance since 1996, throughout all those years of squandered slap-ourselves-on-the-back prosperity.

There are people in their 70s and their 80s and their 90s, living alone with a small independent income to supplement their state pension who will now pay the 1% emergency levy along with the increased tax on their savings and, having lost their medical card, will be subjected to the €100 A&E charge and the 20% rise in hospital bed fees.

If they have medical insurance, the cost of that will go up 6% because of the hike in hospital charges. If they are admitted to a nursing home for long-term care, the exchequer will take 15% of the price of their house and call it a “Fair Deal”. You know, sometimes it is quite a challenge to feel patriotic love for a country that would do this to its people.

Speaking of patriotism, let’s examine this cherished value. Ireland is supposed to be a republic. That means its principal ethos is equality but, in reality, we gave up pretending a long time ago.

Eight years from now, the state will celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising when Pearse and his compatriots envisaged in the proclamation that all the children of the nation would be treated equally. I can only imagine how mortified our patriots must be in their graves.

One of the most shameful legacies of the Celtic Tiger is Ireland’s 22nd place ranking for child poverty of 26 of the world’s richest countries in an ESRI report from December 2006.

Your solution, minister, was to give no increase whatsoever in child benefit and, moreover, to abolish benefit for 18-year-olds, the age when teenagers are recognised as being most prone to poverty.

These decisions represent a fundamental and seminal shift in Ireland’s attitude to its once cherished children. People are already holding their breath for your announcement that the child benefit that remains is to be taxed.

Your budget was so packed with landmark departures from erstwhile core values that many of them have slipped through almost unheeded. Because of the collective anger over the treatment of older citizens, the total abandonment of the long-articulated commitment on maximum class sizes for primary school children has barely been mentioned. So too with the deferred implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Act.

You might, minister, have hoped that, at this stage, nobody was going to notice the 1% cut you announced in funding for voluntary disability bodies. That, however, isn’t even the half of it.

The HSE already imposed a 1% funding cut on the same organisations this year. When the deficit naturally arising from inflation is added, the true loss to the disability sector is 4-6%.

One of the starkest consequences of your budget is that those who were already treated as voiceless in our society will now become invisible too. The erosion of the Equality Authority and the Combat Poverty Agency, among others, will exacerbate inequality in our already unconscionably unequal society.

Yet, while the establishment is content to dispense with egalitarianism, it cynically uses another pillar of republican ideology – namely, fraternity – as a rallying call.

If you thought the cabinet’s 10% pay cut would shame everyone into following suit, it’s not going to work. Hard lessons have been learned about political cynicism since last we were in this economic hole.

The last time a politician went on television and told us to tighten our belts his name was Charlie Haughey and, unknown to us then, he was living off the beneficence of rich and powerful men.

While he was shopping for monogrammed silk shirts in Paris, we were donning our hairshirts. The last leader of Fianna Fáil, Bertie Ahern, eulogised Haughey’s patriotism at his graveside. Since then, Ahern’s own relationship with his country has come under the microscope in Dublin Castle. So don’t blame the citizens, minister, if you find your call to patriotic duty goes unanswered.

The trust that made us so acquiescent in the 1980s no longer exists. Nor is it about to come rushing back in light of your disingenuous announcement that you and your cabinet colleagues are taking a 10% pay cut.

What you failed to mention was that your €12,000 unvouched expenses – your ‘walking around money’ is not included in that or that your fabulous pension entitlements will continue to be calculated on the basis of the salary you were being paid before the budget.

Perhaps if politicians had vowed to work harder (I mean more than the 90-odd days you turn up in the Dáil in a year), if Enda Kenny had promised to provide an effective opposition and if you had sought ways to make real, lasting economies in the Oireachtas, you might have got a more enthusiastic response to your green-flag clarion call.

Instead of TDs claiming expensive accommodation expenses for attending the Dáil, why not adopt the Swedish model by accommodating deputies and senators in a dedicated Oireachtas hostel. I’m sure one of your builder pals would have a convenient place to sell you at a reasonable price.

One other thing, minister: could you not think of any ways to make the very rich contribute their fair share, having benefited so handsomely from the good times? Why did you not, for instance, impose a 3% levy on people with income exceeding €300,000, 4% for income exceeding €400,000, and so on?

Did you consider reintroducing probate tax on wills worth over a specific value, something on a sliding scale that would reflect the emergence from the Celtic Tiger of an inheritance class? Did any of your advisers recommend closing the ‘Cinderella’ loophole in the tax residency law that deprives the exchequer of millions upon millions of euro?

It would appear not. The solution you came up with was a €10 airport departure tax for Joe Citizen while Mr Moneybags flies out free gratis in his private jet.

You will be relieved to know, minister, that the single most unedifying spectacle of the entire budget was the sight of your backbenchers leaping to their feet at the end of your budget speech to raucously cheer you to the rafters.

Unless they do not read newspapers and listen to radio and television, Fianna Fáil backbenchers will have known as well asthe rest of us that the abolition of the medical card for people over 70 was being floated well in advance of the budget. Not one of them said boo.

It was only when they realised their constituents’ anger might jeopardise the security of their Dáil seats that they manfully revolted. These were the same backbenchers who drooled over the show of macho defiance by your predecessor, Charlie McCreevy, when the ESRI tried to warn him in 2002 that fiscal caution was required. His way of thanking them was to ridicule them as “pinko-liberals”.

You know, minister, if we had seen true patriotism being respected in recent years, we might be better disposed to donning the green jersey. But what we saw was naked cynicism bolstering naked greed.

Last year when, again, the ESRI raised concerns about the direction of the economy, Bertie Ahern, as Taoiseach, made a novel suggestion of his own. He told the economists to go off and kill themselves.

Forgive me if I sound dispirited. I am.

Justine McCarthy