Life on low income is the norm for a large proportion of our society. One in every six people in Ireland lives with an income below the poverty line. That is 15.7% of the population. As highlighted in a number of studies, this corresponds to approximately 760,000 people. Poverty levels reached their lowest point in Ireland in 2009 when 14.1% of the population was classified as poor. Since then the rate has increased, although in recent years budgetary policies increasing core payments have helped to bring it back down again.
However, the budget lacked any serious initiative to significantly reduce poverty. At rates of near full employment, the simple policy solution to creating more jobs no longer stands, especially with approximately 110,000 people experiencing poverty despite being in employment. The Labour Party often comes out with the mantra that people with a job have a better standard of living. We know that is not the case. Many of the jobs available are low paid, minimum wage and low hours. The Minister has met many of the employees of the Ivy Restaurant who were being abused by their employer. Workers are getting the minimum wage with the contracted wage they signed up to when they started the job being made up by the tips that were being handed to the company, which it was stealing from the workers and still is.
It was a failure not to increase social welfare payments across the board. I agree with SJI that those increases should have been €9 to €10 a week. The Government is very protective of industry over the possible impact of Brexit with a hard border or an agreement covering customs only. However, for those on the lowest incomes, who are most vulnerable to increases in food prices that could happen as a result, the Government has done very little to respond to that. None of the speeches by the Minister and her colleagues since the budget has indicated that the Government is watching this very closely. If there is a hard border with World Trade Organization, WTO, tariffs kicking in, resulting in food price increases, there has been no mention of intervening to protect our pensioners, carers and social welfare recipients.
The only thing the Minister has done is to say that she will not implement the minimum wage increase proposed by the Low Pay Commission. To put that into perspective, the proposed increase is 30 cent an hour. Someone lucky enough to work 40 hours a week on the minimum wage would get an additional €12 per week or €624 per year. That is what we are talking about and yet we were able to give €28 million to SARP. While I did not take it, the Government was able to grant in increase of €1,600 annually to Deputies, Senators and higher public servants. That is all no problem at all. Everybody at the top benefits and is protected. However, those on the minimum wage, who most need it, are told they can wait until the Government decides whether Brexit will affect businesses. I agree we need to protect businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses, which are the backbone of the country.
The feedback I got from old-age pensioners, carers and people with disabilities was that they were absolutely disgusted with the budget. They were particularly angry over the lack of protections for them when they are probably the most vulnerable to food price increases. The CSO household budget survey illustrates the exposure of households across the income distribution to changes in food prices. It shows that the proportion of total household expenditure on food. On average, households spend 14.7% of their total expenditure on food. However, food represents a much larger proportion of all spending among the households in the bottom 40% of the income distribution, standing between 17% and 19% of total expenditure. A sudden increase in food prices, which will be unavoidable following a hard Brexit, will hit these households hardest. They are also the households with the lowest capacity to absorb such impacts on their living costs.
Even with a negotiated departure of the UK from the EU, the absence of a customs agreement may push food prices higher and have a less severe but similarly distributed effect. The households that are worst positioned, again, to absorb the impact of these potential price increases will be impacted most. The Government has not even thought about how it might intervene particularly through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to help protect this cohort of people.
Other speakers raised the issue relating to 18 to 24 year olds. It is welcome that if they are independent and receive household supports they will receive the full rate of jobseeker’s payment. However, only 300 such young people are affected. The Minister is saying that cohort of young people should be given the full jobseeker’s payment. However, when they buy a pair of shoes, pay their bus, Luas or DART fare, buy a shirt and a nice jacket to attend an interview, they do not get a discount because they under 25. They are not told they will get a 25% discount because they are only receiving so much on social welfare. They are living in the real world that everybody else lives in. They pay the same prices for clothes, transport, etc. I agree with my colleagues that this is age discrimination and should end. Everyone in receipt of jobseeker’s payment should earn the same amount so that they can live.
I made the point about the minimum wage. We should increase it to the recommended €12.30 an hour living wage. It would even be hard to live on that. That would be €492 a week for someone on a 40-hour week.
There are some positive provisions in the Bill. I welcome the extension of the school hot meals scheme, in which I have a particular interest. My final point is on the fuel allowance increase.
I agree with other Deputies that a €2 increase compared with the €6 increase in the carbon tax does not deal with how the people concerned will pay their bills. The cohort of industries that created the CO2 and climate crisis should be paying the carbon tax, not ordinary people. When the Government states it wants to move away from fossil fuels and offer people an alternative that they can install in their homes within a year and pay a grant to do it, it can start by charging those who do not move to an energy source that is carbon neutral a carbon tax. Increasing it now is an absolute disgrace. It will be hard for the people who depend on the fuel allowance and those on low incomes to deal with it.