IN recent weeks, we have been hearing all sorts of pitches being made by various interest groups about how Budget 2016 should be framed, most of them well worthy of consideration. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin have been setting out the budgetary parameters within which they have to operate and it is obvious that things are tight as we are still borrowing, albeit a lot less now, to fund the day-to-day requirements of running the country.
With a general election looming sometime within the next seven months, the focus in the Budget is likely to be on short-term gain – of votes for the government parties as they strive to get re-elected. With further easing of taxes on income, they want to create a feelgood factor in advance of the election by, effectively, buying people’s votes.
Regardless of who gets into government next time around, the parties involved are going to have to focus a lot more on the long-term scenario that is beginning to unfold regarding the care of our increasingly-ageing population over the next three decades. Life expectancy is expected to increase considerably and centenarians will become a lot more commonplace in years to come.
At the moment, there are some 600,000 people over the age of 65 and this figure is expected to be added to at the rate of about 20,000 a year to more than double the numbers by the middle of the 21st century. It will also reduce the ratio of people working to pensioners from 5:1 currently to 2:1 by then, which is clearly unsustainable, given the extra costs of paying pensions and providing for the care and health needs of the elderly.
The prospects of this are frightening, firstly on a human level: All of us are growing older, whether we like it or not, and the years fly by very quickly, but none of us want to end our days trying to survive on paltry pensions and with a poor healthcare service that is incapable of looking after us in a timely fashion. That is what we are going to get unless decisive long-term measures are put in place now to realistically address the costs involved, but the political will to think strategically for the longer term seems to be lacking.
Parties in power tend to just pay lip service to the long-term issues and concentrate on securing the best short-term outcomes to try to make themselves popular. The current Fine Gael-Labour Party government, having had to implement so many unpopular austerity measures in order to get the economy back on track in the first two-thirds of their term of office are now trying to compensate with populist inducements to voters, and the bigger issues, such as looking after our elderly, are being put on the back burner.
They cannot even cope with what they have to deal with in this regard at the moment, which is only a fraction of what is coming down the line, as the Fair Deal scheme for looking after the elderly in nursing homes seems to be perpetually underfunded. This has resulted in older people who should be in these homes occupying acute hospital beds, which has a knock-on effect on a general public health service that is constantly stretched to capacity and struggling to cope with the huge demands on it.
The government’s plans for a universal healthcare system based on medical need has fallen by the wayside, mainly because of a lack of sufficient funding and also because it was too ambitious to be achieved as promised within its term of office. But, that should not stop a properly-costed and realistic healthcare framework being put in place, taking into account the increasing demands that will be placed on services by an increasingly ageing population over the coming decades.
This will need to be paid for, along with a lot more in the way of pensions, and must be factored in at this stage, as it would be impossible to provide for out of current expenditure in the future when there may only be two people working for every pensioner in the country. A mandatory universal pension savings scheme, with contributions from employees, employers and the State, on similar lines to what they have in the UK, should be looked at in order to fund the pensions and care of our older population in the future and to enable people to live out their lives with dignity, safe in the knowledge that their care needs will be looked after.