Budget Statement 6 December 2006
Growth is running at 5%, its ideal, sustainable level, and more than 2 million people are at work. We are making unprecedented investment in our infrastructure and this will enhance our competitiveness and improve our quality of life for years to come.
Our public services are being expanded, improved and reformed, and more doctors, teachers, nurses and gardaí are employed than ever before. At the same time, the public finances have never been in better shape. The success we enjoy now has been brought about by the hard work of our people, responding to the policies of this Government. The purpose of this budget is to use that success as a platform on which we will continue to build a fairer and stronger Ireland.
In 2007, our country will extend its record of outstanding economic progress. The economy will grow by 5.25%; we estimate that 72,000 new jobs will be created next year, representing a 3.5% increase in the numbers at work; unemployment will remain low at 4.4%, among the lowest in the EU; and inflation, as measured on the harmonised EU basis, will moderate from 2.7% on average in 2006, to 2.6% in 2007.
Of course these projections are subject to some degree of risk from international factors. These include a possible sharper than expected downturn in the US economy; a slower growth rate than is currently forecast in Europe; further ECB interest rate increases; and the ever present unpredictability of oil prices and exchange rates. There are also domestic risks of losing competitiveness and from unbalanced economic growth. This budget addresses those risks by taking a long-term, sustainable approach to our economic management.
The Government's primary economic aim has been to create more jobs and facilitate more business being done. The additional revenues generated by such a strong economy enable us to sustain ongoing improvements in our public services year in, year out. The success of our policies is best highlighted by the hundreds of thousands of new jobs created, and the changes to our tax policies which have rewarded work and allowed people take home a greater share of their pay. We have also been able to provide for the less well-off in ways which no Government has ever achieved before. We have built up the productive capacity of the country by investing in capital spending; thereby helping us to compete better in the long term also.
At the same time that we have been doing all this, we have more than halved the national debt burden, an example of responsible Government at work. Our strategy has been remarkably successful by any measure and is the firm foundation on which we can build in the future.
The year 2006 has been an exceptional year for the public finances. It is true that although tax revenues are well ahead, some of the buoyancy is due to one-off windfall gains. Against this backdrop, we must firstly ensure any increase in spending is used efficiently and effectively. We must continue to insist on value for money in public spending and we must be careful not to inject so much spending that we create additional inflationary pressures, and in so doing reduce the impact of additional expenditure.
I am not proposing that because we have extra resources we should spend it all now. That would be irresponsible and short-sighted. Responsible Government involves finding the balance between meeting immediate priorities and making provision for future uncertainties. Of the additional resources at my disposal this year, I am returning some to the taxpayer and committing some to additional support in the social welfare and health areas, in care of the elderly and in improving services for the disabled. I am also using some of the additional revenue to run a very substantial budget surplus. In the event of a global slowdown, we will be able to use some of this flexibility generated during the good times to protect jobs and public services at home.
For these reasons, I will provide for the following fiscal targets in 2007: a projected general Government surplus of 1.2%; an increase in gross current spending of 11.5%; an increase in capital spending of 13%; and a gross debt to GDP ratio of under 25%, one of the lowest in Europe.
Balancing responsibility with ambition has brought us to our present position of economic strength and this Government is determined to maintain that approach. It is the only means of prolonging and extending the best period of sustained economic growth in our country's history.
Regarding rewarding work, as I stated, Ireland's economic success is driven by the hard work and collective efforts of the people. There is no doubt in my mind that our national economic potential has been boosted through a transformation of our tax system generally and our income tax system in particular which has dramatically increased the rewards of work.
During our ten years in office so far, we have made our income tax system fundamentally fairer by introducing tax credits, widening tax bands and cutting tax rates. We lifted hundreds of thousands of people out of the tax net. We introduced and increased the minimum wage and ensured that people on it do not pay income tax. We cut the income tax burden on average earners by more than half. We removed the average wage from the higher tax rate. We reached our target of 80% paying an effective tax rate of no more than 20%.
We abolished many property-based and other tax relief schemes and introduced restrictions on the reliefs available to high earners as part of our continuing tax reform measures. We will continue to assess the role time-limited tax relief schemes can play in supporting public policy objectives. In short, this Government has achieved a fairer, more progressive and more rewarding income tax system. Thanks to the strength of our economic performance, we can now go further.
I wish to announce the following income tax changes to the House. Today, I am increasing the personal tax credit by €130 to €1,760 each year for single people and by €260 to €3,520 for married couples. I am increasing the employee tax credit by €270 to €1,760 per year. The entry point at which people will start paying income tax is being increased to €17,600 per year-----
Mr. Cowen: -----equivalent to more than €8.65 per hour. The employee PRSI entry point is also being increased to that level. These measures will remove around 88,000 from the tax net altogether. Once again, in 2007 we will meet our commitment to keep those on the minimum wage completely out of the tax net.
Mr. Cowen: This means that almost two out of every five earners, or 846,000 persons, will be outside the tax net in 2007 compared to one third, or 677,000 persons, in 2004 and one quarter, or 380,000 persons, when we took office in 1997. This is a highly significant development.
The 20% standard income tax band will be widened by €2,000 per year to €34,000 single and €43,000 married one earner couples. The projected average industrial wage for 2007 is just over €33,000. Again, we have ensured that workers on such earnings will not be liable to pay tax at the higher tax rate. This measure will cost €268 million in 2007 and €365 million in a full year. These increases in credits and bands mean that 80% of income earners will continue to pay an effective tax rate of no more than 20%.
Mr. Cowen: I am also increasing the threshold for the payments of the health levy from €440 per week to €480 per week, or just under €25,000 per year. This means that all workers earning €480 or less per week will be exempt from the health levy.
The income tax exemption limits for senior citizens aged 65 and over are being raised from €17,000 and €34,000 to €19,000 and €38,000 per year respectively for single and married persons, removing a further 9,000 from the tax net. This means our senior citizens will be exempt from income tax if they earn less than €19,000 single or €38,000 married per year.
I propose to increase a number of other tax credits which affect certain people because of their particular circumstances. Widowed persons currently receive an additional tax credit of €500 per year. I am increasing it by 10% to €550 in 2007. A special tax credit is also given to widowed parents in each of the five years following the year of bereavement. I believe that widowed parents deserve greater support during these difficult years and I am increasing the credit by €650 in each of the five years after the year of bereavement. The increased tax credit will range from €1,750 in year five to €3,750 in year one.
Mr. Cowen: The blind person's tax credit will go up by €260 single and €520 married to €1,760 single and €3,520 married per year, respectively. Alongside the income tax age exemption limits, those aged 65 and over receive an extra tax credit. This extra tax credit will increase by 10% to €275 single and €550 married per year. These measures relating to exemptions and special credits will cost more than €88 million in a full year.
With regard to tax rates, when we came into office, we made a commitment to the Irish people to reduce the marginal rate of income tax from the then 48% to 42%. We delivered on that. We also said we would reduce the top rate further to 40% if economic circumstances permitted. We believe that the economic circumstances are sufficiently buoyant now to enable me to reduce the top rate of tax from 42% to 41% today.
Mr. Cowen: This rate cut will cost a net €125 million in 2007 and a net €186 million in a full year. If this Government is returned to office, and is honoured with a further term, then on the basis of our current economic strength being maintained, it is our shared intention to complete the commitment to cut the top income tax rate to 40% in next year's budget.
Mr. Cowen: I propose to increase the health levy from 2% to 2.5% on income exceeding €1,925 per week or just over €100,000 per year. This extra money will help fund services such as long-term care initiatives for the elderly. We need to act now to secure such funds and I believe it is only right that those best able to afford it make an increased contribution. This will raise €34 million in a full year.
Taken together, these changes will reward work and increase disposable income. They will help workers, most obviously those on low and middle incomes, and will, I believe, be welcomed by all. The full year cost of all these income tax measures is estimated at just over €1.25 billion.
It is not just a matter of providing additional tax reliefs for the ordinary taxpayer. The taxpayer must also be helped by making it as easy as possible to access tax reliefs. We already made strides in this regard by giving mortgage interest relief and medical insurance relief at source via the banks, building societies and health insurers. However, there are other areas where getting access to reliefs can be improved, especially in the area of various expenses reliefs. Accordingly, the Revenue Commissioners will put in place measures specifically to help the taxpayer, in addition to the major publicity campaigns already undertaken to make taxpayers more aware of their entitlements.
In 2007, all age-related tax credits will, where possible, be credited automatically to the taxpayer, where a verified date of birth can be established through Revenue and social welfare records. Credit institutions will be enabled to operate DIRT-free accounts for those aged 65 and over and for those who are permanently incapacitated where their income falls below the relevant income tax limits. At the moment, both categories of depositor have to reclaim the DIRT paid in such cases.
In 2007, Revenue will also implement a system to credit tax relief on trade union subscriptions automatically, based on trade union membership lists, and will be engaging with the unions to make the necessary arrangements in respect of their members.
For 2008, Revenue plans to move, where possible, to automatic repayments in respect of certain hospital and other expenses that qualify for tax relief. Tax relief due on medical insurance paid by employers that has been subject to benefit-in-kind taxation will be automatically included in the employee tax credit. I have asked Revenue to progress work on applying similar procedures in due course to nursing home and other medical expenses that qualify for tax relief.
Revenue will explain the details of these simplification measures later this week. The Government is determined to make it easier for ordinary taxpayers to claim and receive their rightful entitlements.
Ireland has become one of the world's most enterprising economies to the benefit of all. More jobs, better opportunities, improving prospects and greater tax resources have been the results so far. I want to see that development continuing so that the people of this country can face with confidence an increasingly competitive global marketplace. I want to see the State encouraging Irish businesses to work smarter, to pursue excellence and to invest in innovation and creativity for the future.
The budget measures I am announcing today will encourage enterprise, incentivise innovation and promote competitiveness in Irish industry. They will help position our businesses for long-term success.
In the past ten years, we have refocused the business expansion scheme and the seed capital scheme to ensure that they channel funds to help transform and modernise our small business sector and improve our national competitiveness. These schemes are due to expire on 31 December and have been specifically reviewed at my request. Hundreds of small businesses using these schemes were consulted and asked for data and for their views on the schemes. Many of these firms using BES are ordinary small to medium-sized manufacturing companies in every part of the country. They make a vital contribution to job creation and to maintaining our competitiveness.
On foot of this review and the suggestions of groups such as the Small Business Forum, I am announcing an extension of these schemes for a further seven years and I am raising the ceiling per company on total BES investment from €1 million to €2 million. The annual limit on BES investment per investor, which has not been increased since 1984, is being raised from €31,750 to €150,000.
Mr. Cowen: In the case of the seed capital scheme, the annual investor limit is being increased to €100,000. I am increasing these limits in order to bring vital risk capital to the small business sector. As these schemes are approved State aids, their continuation and the changes proposed will require the approval of the European Commission. The full year cost of these measures is estimated at just over €25 million.
With a view to fostering new companies and entrepreneurs, during the course of this year, I approved a proposal for a new round of seed and venture capital funding announced by my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin. This will involve a €175 million State investment through Enterprise Ireland over a period of ten years.
It is often pointed out that much of the dynamism of an economy comes from small firms and there is a real need for small companies to make use of innovation and modern technology to maintain competitiveness. To help bring that about, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has announced a provision of €5 million in 2007 for innovation vouchers, knowledge acquisition grants and ICT audits, all of which were recommended by the Small Business Forum.
Small businesses are a major source of employment and growth in this country. Small businesses are big business. There are approximately 250,000 small businesses in Ireland today, employing almost 800,000 people, or 40% of the workforce. Recognising their important contribution and their development potential, I am pleased to announce the following package of measures aimed at reducing the administrative burden on this important sector. Small companies whose corporation tax liability is currently less than €50,000 can pay preliminary tax based on their previous year's final tax liability. This removes the need for small businesses to forecast their projected full-year performance prior to the end of their accounting year. To alleviate further the burden on small business, I am increasing the small company liability threshold from €50,000 to €150,000.
Mr. Cowen: Over 97% of Irish companies will have the benefit of this simpler and more straightforward system. It will help them to get on with their business without putting the State's cash flow at risk. I am also introducing measures proposed by Revenue whereby new start-up companies will not have to pay preliminary tax in respect of their first accounting period. In addition, I have asked Revenue to explore further opportunities to reduce the tax compliance burden on all firms, large and small.
The annual VAT cash accounting threshold for small firms is being raised from €635,000 to €1 million from 1 March 2007 to simplify administration and reduce working capital requirements. This allows smaller firms to pay VAT on receipt of payment rather than at the time a sale is made. The small business VAT registration turnover thresholds are being increased from €27,500 per year for services and €55,000 per year for goods to €35,000 and €70,000, respectively, from 1 March 2007. This measure could take up to 8,000 businesses out of the VAT system and will considerably reduce their administrative burden. The frequency of VAT payments for smaller firms is being reduced from six VAT returns to three each year in some cases and to two each year in other cases. This will provide a cash flow boost to firms and significantly reduce compliance costs. The transaction threshold which triggers the requirement for a tax clearance certificate is being increased from the current €6,500 to €10,000.
The details of all these measures are contained in the Summary of Budget Measures. The full year cost of these measures is €53 million, with an additional once-off cash flow cost in 2007 of €124 million. This will reduce the regulatory burden and enhance the competitiveness of companies whose well-being is critical to our continued success.
I am also enhancing the existing research and development tax credit for firms so as to promote research and development spending in our manufacturing sector. Details are in the Summary of Budget Measures. We must act now to promote as many jobs as possible in the productive sector throughout the State. Investment in research and development is a key factor in retaining our manufacturing base. The special research and development tax credit seeks to encourage this and the changes I am making will further incentivise firms to engage in research and development. These improvements will cost €70 million in a full year and will complement Government spending on science, technology and innovation, which will increase from €800 million in 2006 to €900 million in 2007.
In recent years, hotel and tourism bodies have made a strong case to introduce a VAT measure specifically for conferences, which will allow deductibility of accommodation expenses on a ring-fenced basis to be competitive in this sector. I am now bringing in such a measure which should greatly help that sector to promote growth in the important conference business and benefit the entire country. This is in recognition of the importance of tourism, one of the country's largest indigenous industries. Details of the scheme will be set out in the Finance Bill.
Sport plays a major role in all aspects of Irish life, commercial and social. In recognition of this, there are specific income tax and capital gains tax exemptions in the tax code for sporting bodies. I propose to include in the Finance Bill 2007 a similar exemption from stamp duty where such sporting bodies purchase land for the purpose of promoting sports.
The environment is a concern for us all, but this concern is not addressed merely by announcing policies. It is a matter of practical measures, targets and actions that have a real effect. It is also a matter of achieving a balanced impact on society. Our economic success in recent years has brought with it environmental pressures through increased consumption levels, waste and energy demands. However, we have been working to minimise the impact of these measures and enhance the quality of our environment.
The recent Stern review in the UK highlighted that climate change is one of the most pressing global economic and environmental challenges we face. Ireland supports the international effort to address this challenge and is playing its part in the co-ordinated global response. We will meet our Kyoto target, mainly through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in our economy, but also through contributing to the cost of projects to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world.
The Government has indicated its intention to purchase up to 18 million tonnes of carbon allowances in respect of the Kyoto commitment period from 2008 to 2012. I provided an initial €20 million in last year's budget and just recently the Dáil approved the investment of this money in emission-reduction projects in the emerging economies in eastern Europe.
Mr. Cowen: A further €270 million will be provided to fund a programme of purchases up to 2013 and this will be reflected in the Government's medium-term investment programme to be set out in the forthcoming national development plan.
Mr. Cowen: This provision will be kept under review. The purchase of carbon allowances is just one part of the overall strategy. We will shortly complete an updated version of the national climate change strategy.
Mr. Cowen: In more general terms, on the environment we have made progress on many fronts, including enhancing public transport facilities under Transport 21; setting an ambitious target of 30% electricity generation from renewable sources; making rapid improvements in drinking water quality; significantly increasing high-quality waste water treatment capacity resulting in 90% compliance with EU standards this year from 25% in 2000 - as a result, pollutant loads to our waters have been reduced by 45,000 metric tonnes per year; increasing municipal waste recycling rates from 9% in 1998 to over 34%, which figure is increasing; introducing a major excise relief scheme for bio-fuels, costing in excess of €200 million over five years-----
Mr. Cowen: We have allocated €328 million in 2007 for the rural environment protection scheme. This includes provision for a new REPS 4 scheme, which will go to Brussels shortly for approval as part of Ireland's rural development programme for the period 2007 to 2013. The new scheme will include additional biodiversity elements and new supplementary measures designed to deliver further benefits to water quality and the wider environment. Here again, we have the opportunity to translate our concern for the environment into practical action, in partnership with farmers.
I am allocating an additional €10 million to the local government fund in 2007 in order to alleviate the pressure on certain local authorities most affected by the additional operational costs associated with new water services infrastructure.
We depend on cleaner technologies to minimise our environmental footprint. Furthermore, eco-industries are big business. They employ more than 2 million people in the European Union and comprise one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Union. Environmental protection and economic progress can go hand in hand.
In the case of vehicle registration tax, I intend to change the current rating system to relate it more closely to environmental policy objectives, in this case reducing carbon dioxide emissions. I intend that there should be some reward in the VRT system for choosing lower-emission vehicles, and that those choosing higher-emission vehicles should pay more.
Mr. Cowen: For that reason, I am setting out a range of options in the budget booklet for making such a move. My Department will carry out a public consultation process on these proposals before coming back to Government. Any changes will have effect from a target date of 1 January 2008.
At the same time, my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will consult on his proposals for a complementary rebalancing of annual motor taxation. This would provide a further incentive through the motor tax system for the motoring public to drive cleaner cars and would impose some additional cost in respect of cars with higher carbon dioxide emission levels. This would apply to vehicles registered on or after 1 January 2008. Underpinning both of these initiatives will be a new mandatory labelling system for cars based on CO2 emission levels.
In my last budget, I announced an excise relief scheme for bio-fuels in the energy area. The relief is worth more than €200 million over five years. This initiative helps reduce our dependence on conventional fossil fuels, lowers CO2 emissions and stimulates new activity in the agriculture sector. In addition, the Government has also introduced grant schemes for new energy technologies at both the domestic and the commercial levels amounting to €65 million in the period 2006 to 2010. Building on the renewable energy package I introduced last year, I am making a number of further changes today.
The greener homes scheme has had a very positive response from the public. The scheme provides grants for the installation of new energy technologies such as bio-mass burners, heat pumps and solar panels. There have been about 10,000 applications so far. I am increasing the planned spend in this area by €20 million between now and the end of 2009.
Mr. Cowen: In the commercial area, we introduced a bio-heat scheme for grant-aiding, for example, wood pellet burners. I am extending this scheme to cover the installation of other technologies such as solar panels. I am also extending it to buildings in the non-commercial sector such as community centres, and sports facilities so that they will also be able to avail of the grants. The planned additional spending for the next year is €4 million, partly funded by a reallocation of resources within the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
Better energy efficiency and demand management and initiatives pay significant dividends for business as well as households. I am providing additional funding to Sustainable Energy Ireland of €3 million in 2007 to develop pilot programmes to support small and medium enterprises in assessing their energy usage and measures to enhance energy efficiency. Impacts of the pilot scheme will be reviewed during 2007.
On renewable energy, a scheme of tax relief is in place in the form of a deduction from a company's profits for corporate investment in renewable energy products in the solar, wind, hydro or biomass technology categories. This scheme was due to end this year. I propose to continue this corporation tax incentive for investment in renewable energy projects for a further five years, subject to EU approval.
I am conscious that we are trying to establish a national bio-fuels supply chain, almost from scratch, and it is appropriate that we offer assistance at the various stages from crop establishment onwards.
The Minister for Agriculture and Food will shortly announce, subject to any necessary EU approval, grant aid for the production of energy crops in three stages from establishment to harvesting. First, establishment grants will be introduced for willow and miscanthus where costs of establishment are very high and there is a wait of several years before harvesting can begin.
Second, there will be a national top-up of €80 per hectare, in addition to the existing EU premium of €45 per hectare. Finally, there will be grant aid for the purchase of the expensive, specialised harvesting machinery needed. The cost of these three measures will rise to €6 million in 2009.
A competitive farming sector is the key to developing a sustainable rural community. It is important that as farmers are increasingly freed from the constraints of production quota and price supports, they be given the necessary assistance to enable them to invest and innovate and by so doing to be in a better position to compete in an increasingly globalised market for farming produce. It is also important that such assistance is prioritised to young farmers and to those farmers who have risen to the challenges posed by changes arising from the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the World Trade Organisation negotiations.
The package of rural development measures recently agreed with the farming organisations as part of Towards 2016 has been widely welcomed. It means that Government support for farming will more than double in the next rural development period compared to the present one.
This is a time of great change in farming. New schemes of aid for restructuring in the food processing sector, while not directly involving farmers, provide an essential underpinning to adapting our agriculture and food sector to the new realities in EU and world farming.
Increases of 15% in forestry premiums and 17% in REPS payments, as well as substantial support for on-farm investment to help meet the requirements of the nitrates directive, reflect our growing concerns about the environment and our awareness of the important role that farmers now play in protecting our environment.
Mr. Cowen: In line with the changes announced in my previous two budgets and arising from the conclusion of the latest social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, I am renewing and extending a series of farm tax reliefs in the areas of income tax and capital taxes, at a cost of €14 million in a full year. The two farm stock reliefs are being renewed. The general stock relief allows 25% of any increase in stock values in a year to be allowed as a trading expense. For young trained farmers, the relief is set at 100%. The stamp duty relief for farm consolidation, where two farmers exchange land, will now apply where only one farmer meets the consolidation criteria.
Mr. Cowen: The tax exemption for long-term leases of farmland is being increased to €20,000 per annum for leases of ten years or more in duration. An exemption from capital gains tax applies to disposals of farmland outside the immediate family on retirement. The present threshold for the exemption is €500,000 and this is being increased to €750,000 from 1 January 2007. In addition, where farmland that has been owned and worked by a farmer for over ten years is leased for fewer than five years, and is subsequently disposed of to the person leasing the land, the present retirement relief will also apply.
The last three changes are aimed in particular at encouraging the transfer of farm assets to younger and more progressive farmers. The various measures are detailed in the summary of budget measures and some will require EU state-aid approval before they are implemented.
In addition, the farmers' flat rate of VAT is being increased from 4.8% to 5.2% with effect from 1 January 2007, at a full year cost of €16 million. This flat rate is designed to recoup non-VAT registered farmers for the VAT they pay on their inputs. This increase reflects a number of changes in the method of calculating this refund rate following consultations with the farming bodies.
When it comes to supporting those in need one of the measures of a true republic is the strength of its support for those on low incomes. Throughout its term in office, the Government has ensured that the less well-off have shared in Ireland's growing prosperity and 2007 will see further, significant progress. Today, I am pleased to announce the biggest package of support for those on low incomes in the history of the State.
The Government does not see economic growth as an end in itself. Rather, sustainable economic growth is the only way to generate the resources required to meet society's needs. The Government is determined to ensure the fruits of that growth are used to assist those who need support. Already, of course, enormous efforts have been made by the Government in this regard and we are fully intent on continuing the progress made. I am therefore providing for a social welfare package which will cost over €1.4 billion in a full year. This will leave total social welfare expenditure in 2007 at €15.3 billion-----
Mr. Cowen: In the good times we enjoy, we owe it to them to make their lives a little more comfortable. We had a headline commitment to raise the old age pension to at least €200 per week during our term of office. I wish to confirm today, that by raising the contributory old age pension by €16 per week and the non-contributory pension by €18 per week, we have fulfilled this commitment. The new rates will be €209.30 per week for the contributory old age pension and €200 per week-----
In the Sustaining Progress Partnership Agreement, we also undertook to increase significantly the lowest rates of social welfare. In my first budget, I increased the lowest rate by €14 a week and, in my second budget, the increase was €17. In today's budget I am happy to announce an increase of €20, bringing the lowest adult rate to €185.80 a week.
Mr. Cowen: These rate changes are all significantly higher than inflation and show that the Government has met its commitments in the programme for Government and the social partnership agreements. The total cost of all the increases in the social welfare rates that I have just announced is €973 million in a full year.
In addition to providing for these very substantial general increases, the Government is introducing a wide range of other social welfare improvements, the full details of which will be announced by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.
To recognise the role of carers in our society in helping the old and infirm within their own homes, I have agreed to pay a half rate carer's allowance to certain recipients of other social welfare payments.
Mr. Cowen: I am also increasing the annual respite care grant by €300 to €1,500. We are increasing the back to school clothing and footwear allowance to €180 and €285. We are increasing the free fuel allowance to €18 per week and increasing the income threshold for eligibility to €100 per week. This means we will have doubled this allowance in the past two years.
Mr. Cowen: For people of working age, the reckonable earnings threshold for maternity benefit will be increased to €350, and we are improving the position of qualified adults of pension age. These are mainly women who, because of their commitment to home-making, may not have a record of social insurance contribution. Accordingly, I am raising the rate for the qualified adult payment to €173 per week.
The Government's national disability strategy is a comprehensive and wide-ranging approach to improve the quality of life for disabled persons and to underpin their participation in society. The strategy, backed by considerable levels of investment, also promotes greater co-operation between Departments in the planning and delivery of services for the disabled.
Today's budget acknowledges and reinforces this valuable work. I have already announced tax measures to assist certain disabled persons and their families. In 2006, we allocated €3.3 billion for disability-specific services across Departments. In the 2007 Estimates, I announced an increase of 10% on the current year. Most of this money is already allocated to the health sector.
Today, I am providing a further €100 million for health-related disability and mental health services. This continues and expands the Government's €900 million multi-annual investment programme which I announced in budget 2005. This extra €100 million will provide additional residential, respite and day places, and other service improvements. The funding will also support the introduction of Part 2 of the Disability Act, which provides for assessments of need and service statements for people with disabilities. These important provisions will start for children under five years with effect from 1 June next. The funding will also support the continued implementation of the plan for mental health services, A Vision for Change.
I am announcing a number of grants for organisations working for the benefit of communities throughout Ireland, including the disabled. The package includes a once-off grant of €2 million for Special Olympics Ireland. Details of the other grants are set out in the summary of budget measures.
The Government is investing to improve the level and quality of services for older people. Last year, I allocated €150 million for service improvements in this area. Today I am announcing an additional €255 million in full year terms to augment that enhanced spend next year. The measures include 2,000 more home care packages, providing a total of over 5,000 packages, further increases in home help hours, and an increase in the number of day and respite places. There will also be improvements in palliative care. The Government is also funding an increase in the number of residential care places.
There will be significant improvements to the nursing home subvention scheme to improve the basic level of support provided and to tackle anomalies in the scheme. Details of these various measures will be announced by the Minister for Health and Children. The Government's care policy will continue to focus on helping older people to stay in their own homes for as long as possible. For those who can no longer live at home, we will progressively improve long-stay residential services.
Mr. Cowen: The number of elderly citizens is increasing and we must prepare for this. The Government has already given considerable thought to how people needing long-term residential care should be supported. The Minister for Health and Children will be announcing plans in the very near future which will build on the measures I have announced today.
Mr. Cowen: This increase is in line with Government policy since 1999, that the full economic costs of private beds should be charged and will raise €50 million in a full year. As I stated earlier, the proceeds of the 0.5% increase in the health levy on earnings over €100,000 will also contribute to the cost of these service improvements in the care of our elderly.
Furthermore, in the health area, I am allocating funds for the further development of primary care teams, where health professionals work together to provide an integrated service for the community. Where these have already been established, they are making a real difference in terms of the availability of quality, around the clock services. There will also be a range of measures to improve the health and personal social services available to certain marginalised groups in our society. The Minister for Health and Children will announce the detailed initiatives, which will cost €40 million in full year terms.
On top of the €14.6 billion already allocated for next year, the extra funding I am providing today will bring overall spending in the Department of Health and Children to almost €15 billion next year. This is an unequivocal demonstration of the Government's commitment to improving the health status of our population. Equally, however, the Government, on behalf of the taxpayer, will be insistent that full value for money be received for this unprecedented level of investment and we will be seeking positive co-operation from all sides in achieving our health reform programme.
Mr. Cowen: -----inclusive of VAT and by corresponding amounts on other tobacco products. This increase serves to underline the desire of us all to curtail the consumption of tobacco, particularly among young people where price sensitivities are greatest. It will raise €112 million in a full year.
believe we should plan for further increases in tobacco excises for a period ahead so as to keep the level of tax increasing in real terms. I am discussing such a formula with the Minister for Health and Children. These steps are being taken as a health promotion measure and it would be helpful if in that spirit the social partners were to agree to discount some or all of the effect of such price increases in fixing on the relevant inflation benchmark.
Mr. Cowen: Ireland has led the world by successfully introducing the workplace ban on smoking and it is important to build on this. The Minister for Health and Children will announce measures in the near future to restrict the sale of cigarette pack sizes containing less than 20 cigarettes.
Mr. Cowen: The best way to do this is by way of mortgage interest relief. The Government therefore proposes to double the ceiling on mortgage interest relief for first-time buyers from €4,000 per year for single people and €8,000 per year for married or widowed people to €8,000 and €16,000, respectively.
Mr. Cowen: This increased support will be available to all those currently in receipt of first-time buyer's relief who are in the first seven years of their mortgage. About 125,000 first-time buyers will benefit directly as a result of this measure, at a cost of €60 million in a full year.
Mr. Cowen: As a result of this initiative for first-time buyers, a couple with a joint mortgage of up to €379,000 over 33 years, at an interest rate of 4.25%, will be able to claim interest relief on the full amount of the interest on their loan. Such a couple will now gain up to €1,600 extra per year, or €133 per month, in mortgage interest relief directly credited against their mortgage bill.
Mr. Cowen: Single people will gain up to €800 per year, or over €66 each month. This will help existing first-time buyers who are already in their first home, as well as potential first-time buyers, without acting to inflate house prices further.
Mr. Cowen: I am also raising the ceiling on interest relief for non-first-time buyers from €2,540 for single people and €5,080 for married people to €3,000 and €6,000, respectively. In addition, I propose to increase the rent relief for those living in private rented accommodation by more than the rate of inflation to assist those facing increased rental costs. The total cost of all these measures together is €74 million in a full year.
Mr. Cowen: In recent years, the Government has channelled considerable resources into child income support and child care generally. This is highlighted by the fact that the monthly rate of child benefit for the first two children, which in 1997 was €38 per child, now stands at €150, or nearly four times higher. Today, I am announcing a further increase in child benefit of €10 per month for all children.
Mr. Cowen: While this increase will benefit all children, I want to see additional support being given to those most in need. That is why I have agreed with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to increase the back to school clothing and footwear allowance payments and to replace the existing three rates of child dependant allowance by a new standard rate of €22 per child per week. This is targeted at all families with children who depend on social welfare for support. The total cost of the child related increases will be almost €244 million in a full year.
Mr. Cowen: In last year's budget, I announced a major new Government child care strategy. Since then, investment in child care facilities has intensified. The EU co-funded equal opportunities child care programme has exceeded all targets and has generated over 56,500 child care places to date. More than 32,000 new places have been created and a further 24,500 places have been supported with grant aid allocations amounting to almost €500 million over the past six years.
There has also been a strong response to the new five-year national child care investment programme which I announced as part of the strategy last year and which is funded exclusively by the Exchequer. To date, over 900 capital grant applications, amounting to more than €170 million, have been received.
As part of the Government's strategy to increase the supply of child care, I introduced an income tax exemption last year for income of up to €10,000 per year from childminding where individuals mind up to three children, who are not their own, in the minder's own home.
Mr. Cowen: In response to recent representations received from the childminding sector and indications from the Office of the Minister for Children that the uptake of the scheme may be slow, I have decided to increase the exemption limit in 2007 from €10,000 to €15,000 per year.
Mr. Cowen: This brings the total amount of paid maternity leave to 26 weeks. Unpaid leave is also being increased by four weeks, to 16 weeks. With the changes in maternity benefit I announced earlier, these changes will help to ease the burden on working families.
Another key element of the child care strategy was the introduction of the early child care supplement of €250 per quarter for all children under six years. This benefits more than 280,000 families. This year, I have provided an additional €100 million to cover the full-year cost of the payment, bringing the funding for this payment to almost €400 million in 2007. I am also allocating €1 million per year on an ongoing basis to support young parents through the teen parent support programme.
Mr. Cowen: These payments are designed to assist parents in the choices they make for the care of their children in the early years. When we came to office, a family in similar circumstances received direct payments from the Exchequer of €914 in a full year.
The composition of this amount reflects the priority attached by the Government to social welfare, health and education. These three areas comprise 77% of the 2007 current expenditure provision. The allocation for social welfare is €15.3 billion, for health it is €14.3 billion and for education it is €7.9 billion.
We make no apology for attaching priority to these areas. The cumulative investment we have made has brought real improvements in the well-being of so many of our citizens. When account is taken of the social welfare increases I am announcing today we will have provided increases since 2002 of 42% in social insurance pensions, 56% in the lowest social welfare rate and 36% in child benefit at a time when the rate of inflation in the same period was 17%.
Mr. Cowen: We are making provision for a gross capital spend of €7.6 billion next year, an increase of 13% over 2006. This will enable further roll-out of our ambitious investment programme currently running at about twice the European average. The medium-term investment envelope will be presented in the National Development Plan 2007-2013, to be published next month.
The national development plan will set out the strategic direction for investment in this country for the next seven years. It will be founded on a commitment to social justice and economic development that is both environmentally sustainable and internationally competitive. The best way of meeting the key social challenges ahead is by putting the individual citizen at the centre of our concerns where the common good must come first, above and beyond strong organisational interests.