Saturday 19 October 2019

Sean Healy: 'Why we can weather Brexit storm by not repeating past errors'

How do we get Ireland Brexit ready? By protecting communities, jobs and the vulnerable

PLANS: Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will present Budget 2020 next week
PLANS: Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will present Budget 2020 next week

Sean Healy

Given the likely problems for Ireland flowing from Brexit and other international developments, it is essential that we do not repeat the mistakes of a decade ago.

In 2008 we prioritised banks over the vulnerable and over job protection - we must not repeat this mistake again. In the economic upheaval that may well emerge in the period ahead, it is essential that priority be given to protecting the vulnerable, protecting communities and to protecting jobs. In preparing for Budget 2020 and the potential impact of Brexit, Government should prioritise available resources to these areas.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means ensuring that our communities have the necessary supports and infrastructure to enable them to meet the challenges ahead, and to adapt and thrive in a changing social, economic and environmental landscape. It means investing in indigenous enterprise and job protection/job creation across the regions, with a particular focus on the areas that will be most impacted by Brexit. It means ensuring those whose jobs are most at risk have access to training and skills development, income supports if required, and support in finding alternative employment.

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It means promoting and investing in local and regional tourism initiatives. It means investing in rural public transport. It means ensuring there is sufficient funding available to roll out reliable, quality, high-speed broadband - a basic requirement for any home, farm or business, (small or large) in Ireland today.

Brexit is not the only challenge rural Ireland faces. In some regions many of the jobs currently available will be transformed or indeed made redundant in the medium term, either by disruptive technology or by the need to adapt to a low-carbon economy. By initiating and investing in the right policies now, Government can help communities across the country develop sustainable local economies and livelihoods for the people who live there. If we don't prioritise available resources on these areas now, then the people, businesses, farms and communities of rural Ireland will fall further behind.

How do we protect the most vulnerable while preparing for Brexit? We ensure that there is a minimum social floor in our society below which no one falls. Social welfare rates are a vital tool in reducing poverty and social exclusion in Ireland. Without our social welfare system more than four in every 10 people in Ireland would be living in poverty. Just over a decade ago, minimum social welfare rates were benchmarked to 30pc of Gross Average Industrial Earnings. This equates to 27.5pc of average earnings today. At present, there is a significant gap between this level of income and minimum social welfare rates. In Budget 2020 it would take an increase of €9 to close that gap between the current rate and the benchmark to average earnings and to make sure people on social welfare do not fall further behind. This gives an indication of just how important social welfare rates are in protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

We should not lose sight of this as we face into a period of potential economic upheaval.

Life on a low income is the norm for a large number of people in Ireland today. One in every six people in Ireland lives with an income below the poverty line - about 760,000 people. Poverty is a reality for one in every five children in Ireland.

These figures are shocking in a country that is one of the richest and has one of the highest economic growth rates in the European Union. A lesson from past experiences of economic recovery and growth is that the weakest in our society get left behind unless social welfare increases keep track of increases elsewhere in the economy. Poverty will rise if welfare rates do not keep pace with these changes in Budget 2020. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past and leave vulnerable people behind. An increase of €9 in minimum social welfare rates in Budget 2020 is vital to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are not left behind again.

In 'Budget Choices 2020' Social Justice Ireland set out proposals for a €500m investment in rural and regional economies. These proposals are focussed on transforming our communities, villages and towns into thriving and sustainable local economies. We also set out proposals on how to support the most vulnerable in our society, including increasing minimum social welfare rates, increasing the Carer's Support Grant, and increasing investment in Home Support packages. We also outline how Government can raise the revenue to fund these proposals.

In preparing for Brexit and Budget 2020, Government can and should protect communities, jobs and the vulnerable. If it does not do so we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

Dr Sean Healy is CEO, Social Justice Ireland

Sunday Independent

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