Thursday, December 8, 2022

Opinion: When people’s need is great, government’s response needs to be great too – that’s its primary responsibility

News that a bag of coal is set to increase by €7 in the coming weeks is yet another blow for households across the country.

It follows a leap in the cost of kerosene and home heating oil – a trend that has forced many of us to turn to solid fuels to heat our homes.

It is estimated that around 80,000 homes here rely on coal for their main heat source. There are no statistics that we can find to prove it, but it seems logical that the elderly and vulnerable are strongly represented in those figures, so the €7 increase is hitting those least able to afford any kind of negative impact on their household budget.

Charities, especially those working with older people, say that the imminent increase in coal will cause a rise in fuel poverty; the number of people who can either eat or heat is going to increase.

This, in turn, follows increases in the cost of petrol and diesel at the pumps, increases which have set digits spinning around like some kind of out-of-control slot machine which is never going to pay out. And all of this, as we have seen, is causing increases in the cost of food. All we need now is to be told that the price of bread is going to double.

It’s not a good time to be in government, but daily, government is being called on to ‘do something’ – this really means paying out or subsidising. The promised €200 per household energy bill supplement will begin to pay out soon, but that has already been consumed by further rises in the cost of energy.

Truly, there are times when a government can’t win.

Similarly, the decision last week to reduce excise duty on petrol and diesel, which led to a 20c-per-litre drop at the pumps, was quickly consumed by increases. Truly, there are times when a government can’t win.

Still, organisations are lining up, calling on government to intervene. The Chief Executive Officer of Alone, Mr Seán Moynihan, is included. “Keeping warm is a public health issue for all older people,” he said at the weekend, “more old people use solid fuel and oil and people are having to make really difficult decisions and we don’t think these types of issues can go on without some intervention.” There is no arguing with that.

There are two evidential aspects of the cost of energy increases: firstly, these are out of Ireland’s control and, secondly, as a state, our national debt is so huge that we really need to stop adding to it. But ‘government intervention’ means spending, and Ireland just does not have that kind of money. It never did and it certainly doesn’t now.

Of course, Ireland didn’t have the money to prop up our failed banks during the financial crisis of 2009/2010, yet we managed to borrow €64bn to do that, so surely we can find another, what, €5bn to help people heat their homes and stay on the road (even if we borrowed almost €30bn to help us deal with the Covid-19 pandemic)?

In simple terms, and in terms of fairness, it’s appropriate that government finds the means to intervene, it’s appropriate that it borrows money to help the weakest of us through a difficult time that cannot go on for ever, and it’s appropriate that it further taxes those who are making huge profits, i.e. the multinationals who continue to generate huge surplus revenues but regularly report low levels of taxation payments.

Promises of taxing profit-makers are of little use to people who can’t pay the additional €7 per bag of coal or who can’t find the money to buy kerosene. Any government’s primary duty is to the health and well-being of its people; right now, ours needs to come up with ways of helping those sitting in damp homes, wearing layers of clothing and wondering whether it’s better to add €5 to their electricity meters or buy food.

None of this undermines the appalling suffering of the people in Ukraine or any other war-torn region. Nor does it undermine the suffering of those enduring famine. At a time when people’s need is great, government’s response needs to be great too. In our global village we need to reach out to those most in need, but then, doesn’t charity begin at home?

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