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The debate on the annual Finance Bill is an opportune time to reflect on the state of the economy and how it has progressed or otherwise over the preceding 12 months. A statistic that should bring some comfort, albeit not sufficient comfort for those who are unemployed, is that 30,000 more people are at work today than on the same day last year. The scale of the task this Government faces is put into context by the fact that between 2008 and 2010 more than 200,000 people lost their jobs. We are slowly making progress. Some of the debates in this Chamber on this and other matters are too sterile and predictable. We need to acknowledge what has been achieved and face up to the scale of the problem. In regard to the predictable claptrap about the sixth or seventh austerity budget, the budgets are austere because it is difficult to return to a situation where we are cutting our cloth according to our measure. The Government has made some progress in satisfying the markets, which is necessary before it begins to filter down. One of the other significant issues, apart from the number of people back at work compared to last year, is that the markets are showing some confidence in us now. If we had been able to go to the markets when the Government came into office, the cost of borrowing would have been approximately 15%; it is now approximately 5% or less. That is significant progress and, although it does not mean a lot to people out there still searching for jobs, it is a necessary staging post on the road to recovery. The Government is travelling, although perhaps not fast enough, along the road to recovery to meet the needs of many thousands who are still unemployed. It is making progress.
I caution the Government against raising the bar of expectation on the basis of leaving the bailout in December of this year. That does not mean a lot to the individual who finds himself unemployed because we will still not have an enormous amount of money. As we see the troika members booking their flights leaving Ireland, which is welcome, and we regain our economic sovereignty, we will continue to be in a delicate position for many years to come as we struggle to generate wealth and distribute wealth in a fair and equitable way. I agree with Deputy McHugh. The opportunity is now to plan for a balanced, regionally sustainable recovery. That is not always evident. The overwhelming objective of Government is to get the economy right along broad principles but it cannot lose sight of the objective of having it regionally sustainable.
I welcome the provision in the budget to introduce a new suckler cow welfare scheme or something of a similar nature. I would like the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to consider a commission of inquiry into the beef industry. It is profitable for factories, retailers and everyone in the industry except the farmer. It is a multibillion euro industry earning us enormous sums of money in exports, with over 100,000 people involved at farm gate level. However, very few of them make a living and most suckler cow farmers die in debt. We must look at a way to ensure the farmers who are the foundation of the industry can make a reasonable living. I welcome the Minister\’s initiative but a more fundamental appraisal of the industry is necessary.
The Minister for Finance is not known for his timidity but the Government measures on alcohol are timid in the extreme. We have a serious societal problem with alcohol abuse. The stock response is to raise excise duties but we fail to grasp the real problem, which is the imbalance between consumption on licensed premises and through off-licences. That is the real societal problem and we wake up on Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings hearing on the radio about someone being stabbed in a domestic setting because of excess alcohol, perhaps fuelled also by drugs. We must ensure that we encourage alcohol consumption on licensed premises rather than through off-licences. In the former, there is peer group interaction, supervision and intergenerational solidarity. There is a real weakness. I have heard reference to the idea that minimum pricing is not possible because of some issue in Scotland and a review of Scottish legislation. We are a sovereign nation and the only law that has been interpreted in respect of this area upholds the right of states to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. The Minister needs to do so.
The single parent tax credit is the issue on which I have received most representations. We must acknowledge that while some parents may wish to abscond from their parental duties, the majority of people take their parenting responsibilities exceptionally seriously even if their marital circumstances have broken down. It is unfortunate that the Government falls into the response of assuming that most men walk away from parental duties; they do not. The Minister has sent a signal that he will deal with this in some way by apportioning the tax credit to one party or the other where either party may not have a taxable income. Where there is a court agreed apportionment of custody in light of financial circumstances, the credit should also be apportioned on that basis. If there is a 50-50 agreement on parenting, the credit should be apportioned 50-50. It is a significant asset, amounting to approximately €1,600 a year. Hitting someone unilaterally overnight by taking it away is a financial blow that many cannot survive. I welcome the signal sent by the Minister for Finance of some movement but more needs to be done to achieve equity.