Independents' Day: Programme for Government promises more than it can feasibly deliver

Odran Flynn analyses the main promises made to get the deal over the line

Enda Kenny, Dail, program for government,

Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews

After the, at times, farcical events of the past 70 days, it was no surprise that the Government of the 32nd Dáil should be formed in the manner that it was on Friday.

The deadline for the vote to elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach had to be pushed back so far that the consenting Independents' moment in the sun became so long that they needed an emergency supply of sun block to prevent them looking as if they had just stepped off the plane from Barbados.

However, the prospect of being in Government was always going to trump the possibility of another election, especially for those Independents who will have ministerial positions.

We have subsequently witnessed the announcement on Twitter by Shane Ross that he is to become Minister for Transport, thus undermining the constitutional right of the Taoiseach to inform the Dáil. Few would be surprised if this is the shape of the way things will now be done, with the important decisions communicated by those with the fastest fingers on a smartphone.

 

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The Taoiseach was able to retain all of his outgoing Fine Gael Ministers, with the exception of James Reilly who lost his seat at the General Election. However, the reassignment of many portfolios suggests a change in the pecking order of the largest party.

Of the main challengers for the leadership, only Frances Fitzgerald has kept her current position and will also be Tánaiste. In 2011, Joan Burton railed at being appointed to Social Protection and now that position has been bestowed on Leo Varadkar, while his rival Simon Coveney has the new position of Housing and Planning.

Despite promises to the contrary, Enda Kenny named just four women in his cabinet, while attempting to camouflage this by appointing Regina Doherty as Chief Whip and retaining Maire Whelan as Attorney General.

From here on in, every day has the potential for drama, although they are so drained that they are taking another ten days off.

So what does this new administration have in store for the good people of Ireland?

Judging by the draft Programme for Government, it is a case of Little House on the Prairie meets the Waltons, or in terms more familiar to us “there's something for everyone in the audience”.

Whether or not the range of proposals are feasible in terms of cost, or indeed can be legally enforced given that some may infringe EU fiscal rules, is another question entirely.

Fiscal Space

Brendan Howlin, the outgoing Minister for Public Expenditure, has warned the money available to the Government may be severely curtailed due to a decision by Eurostat, the EU statistics agency, to change the interpretation of the rules regarding Public Private Partnerships (PPP).

Existing PPP projects are worth some €4 billion, and are off the State balance sheet. These projects are primarily infrastructural and include schools and roads.

However, Eurostat is now saying that the previous requirement that major changes needed to be made to a PPP contract for it to be reviewed no longer holds. It will now only require a “non-negligible” change, a much lower bar, to effectively force the value of the PPP back onto the State balance sheet.

The new interpretation is also going to be applied retrospectively, and the European Commission has warned that this could mean that those existing projects, as well as future contracts, would absorb a significant portion of the fiscal space.

Of course, one of the difficulties is that the 160 pages of proposals in the Programme for Government contain very little in the way of costings. Although it is effectively an aspirational document, it would require many billions should they actually try and implement it.

Unfortunately this is the consequence when the prime purpose of the Programme is to encourage sufficient Independents to vote to re-elect a Fine Gael Taoiseach for the first time. It is a mash up of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil manifestos, over-seasoned with the demands of individual TDs.

School class sizes

For example, in terms of class sizes, Fine Gael proposals have won out compared to the outlandishly expensive promises in the other main party’s manifesto. However, as we highlighted a week before the election, even the Fine Gael proposals would require a significant cost.

 

Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews

“On the 11th February, Fine Gael issued a press release saying that they were going to propose reducing class sizes in primary schools to 18-1 without any qualification.

"By the time the manifesto had been published on the following Sunday, possibly as the realisation dawned of how ridiculous it was, this had been qualified to apply to Junior and Senior infants only.

"There are some 145,000 children in these classes and to reduce their class sizes to 18-1 would require an additional 2,800 teachers.

"The total minimum cost of the entire proposal amounts to €770 million. There is no direct costing for this in the manifesto. There is also the issue that children, having been used to an 18-1 ratio, would then have to cope with a 50% increase to 27-1.”

The costings presented here do not take account of classroom assistants, special needs teachers and other functions that will add to the total. Neither do they account for additional site costs where they would be required.

Housing

The proposals to deal with the critical shortfall in the supply of houses both for the private sector and for social housing will eat up another significant chunk of the available capital.

As the draft document outlines, “the new Government will accelerate the delivery of the committed €3.8 billion Social Housing Strategy which targets the delivery of 35,000 new social housing units. The local authorities will deliver new houses in two phases: (1) 18,000 additional housing units by end of 2017, and (2) 17,000 additional housing units by end of 2020. Local authorities will be provided with the resources and the power to implement this.”

This would suggest that some €2 billion will be front loaded over the next 18 months. Even if the money is available in this foreshortened period, there is no account taken of where the houses are needed and if it is really feasible to go through the planning procedures and potential compulsory purchase orders required to even contemplate meeting this deadline.

There would of course be the significant cost of engaging contractors to build the houses within the available budgets. The new Minister for Housing and Planning Simon Coveney has plenty on his plate.

As the Minister for Regional Development and Rural Development , Heather Humphreys will be charged with overseeing the creation of 135,000 new jobs by 2020 that have been promised for the regions outside of Dublin.

 

Image: Mark Stedman/RollingNews

€500 million has been promised to accelerate this growth. There is also a commitment to increasing the “local and regional roads budget by circa 50% in the years ahead as the national finances are repaired”.

The Minister has also been tasked with developing an improved Town and Village Renewal scheme with input from the Oireachtas in time for Budget 2017, which is only a few months away. Additional funding will be committed to ensuring that the key priority of reviving rural Ireland is realised.

The delivery of quality broadband is also seen as a priority for the regions under the National Broadband Plan. The proposal to bridge the rural/urban digital divide contains the promise to “guarantee the delivery of next-generation broadband to every business and household in the country. Once the contract is awarded, the roll out phase will begin immediately and, in conjunction with commercial investment, 85% of premises in Ireland will have access to high speed broadband within two years, with 100% access as soon as possible up to at most five years.”

The problem is when will the contract be awarded, and how much is it going to cost with such an accelerated delivery schedule? The answer to that question will determine how much more of the fiscal space has been devoured.

Plans to revitalise the Post Office network and the role of local Credit Unions are also seen as vital components in the strategy to address the perceived difficulties in rural Ireland.

There will also be a report within six months examining how best to improve integration of services in the rural bus network within regions.

Health

In health, there is a promise to increase the number of GP training places by 100 per year over the next five years to 259 annually. There will be reductions in the cost to the public of the Drug Payment Scheme too, and to the prescription charges for medical card holders.

There is also a promise to increase funding for home care packages and home help support each year.

Approximately 10,000 children who are in receipt of the Domiciliary Care Allowance will be able to obtain a medical card, while every child aged 12 and under will be entitled to a comprehensive preventative dental health programme.

There are a number of proposals designed to help those with disabilities

None of the above proposals have been costed.

In relation to mental health, you can read an excellent analysis by Joseph Conroy of the new Government’s proposals here.

Crime

The key element of proposals to combat crime is the promise to bring Garda numbers up to 15,000, which is extraordinarily ambitious given the capacity of Templemore College and the rate of attrition of Garda leaving the force.

There are many other proposals including a raft of largely un-costed items on agriculture, the elderly and climate change.

There are also promises on political and constitutional reform, which includes the suggestion that Town and Borough Councils may return.

All of these and more will be subject to intensive scrutiny over the next period of time.

Perhaps the influence of the Independent TDs can be summed up by the confirmation that the deal to go into Government had been done when Finian McGrath came into the Dáil and smilingly played air guitar. Perhaps he was playing 'Glory Days'.

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