Friday, 29 January 2016

The truth about taxes that you won’t hear during the election: Our taxes aren’t ‘stolen’ from us - they pay for nurses, guards and building schools

Rory Hearne: As part of a debate I took part in on Renua’s ‘Flat Tax’ on the Pat Kenny show on Newstalk, both Pat Kenny and Eddie Hobbs (who made the case for Renua) referred to the situation where “if you are paying over 50% of your income on tax then you are working 6 months for Michael Noonan and the next 6 months you are working for yourself”.  This once more highlights the need for a reshaping of the discussion around tax. Tax is not ‘taken away’ from you, ‘stolen’ or a ‘burden’ – we get our taxes back through the schools our children go to, the roads we drive on, the buses we use, the hospital we go to.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Will the radical cuts in public spending planned by 2021 be abandoned?

Paul Sweeney: Will the plan to greatly cut public spending by 2021 set out in Budget 2016 now be revised?

The question that all political parties should be asked on the doorstep in the election early this year is what kind of society they want to create.  We need to have a clearer vision of what kind of society we want and if it is cohesive, gives a level of security on health, education and minimum income with fair opportunities for all it will have to be paid for in taxes. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

Wrong recovery, wrong investment

James Wickham: According to the Taoiseach before COP21, Ireland needed special consideration because: "We have lost a decade of investment in our country because of what happened”.  Yet in terms of climate change, such talk of Ireland’s lost decade is nonsense.  Given that in Ireland the level of CO2 emissions has been closely tied to economic activity, the crisis reduced Ireland’s own contribution to global warming.  Going back to the earlier form of growth would therefore ensure that Ireland made its own significant contribution to global disaster.  It’s not just a question of more or less investment, it’s a question of what investment.

Moving towards a low carbon economy requires that carbon emissions stop increasing in line with economic growth – that they are decoupled.  During the boom there was absolutely no sign of this happening.  For all the current talk of emissions from agriculture, in the early stages of the boom between 1990 and 2003 these rose by 3.2 percent.  By contrast, as I showed ten years ago, during that period CO2 emissions from transport in Ireland rose by an astonishing 129.4 percent (Wickham 2006). As Figure 1 shows, up until the crisis the number of cars continued to rise faster than the growth in population.  
Figure 1 Cars and population, Ireland 1990-20012
The rise in transport emissions was largely because of the continued expansion of private car ownership and private car usage.  It’s highly unlikely that there was a concerted plan to increase car usage – and so greenhouse gases – in Ireland, but what actually happened with investment was as good as if there had been such a plan.

Firstly, public investment in transport infrastructure was disproportionately in roads.  In particular the motorway building programme ensured the final motorisation of Ireland. Building motorways doesn’t just mean that existing car-based journeys are quicker, safer and more convenient, it encourages more such journeys.  Although most research on such ‘infrastructure induced mobility’ (e.g. Cervero 2009) has focused on urban motorways (think the M50)), the motorway network has made it much easier to reach all parts of Ireland by car – so more people make such journeys.  Because car drivers can travel door to door a motorway network also facilitates suburbanisation – there is no need for those who wish to travel to live near a transport hub.

The motorway programme has made Irish inter-urban rail less competitive and many Irish trains still travel at speeds close to those of the 19th century.  Compared to twenty years ago the public investment plans certainly show some increased investment in public transport, especially of course rail.  Yet the plans and the reality are somewhat different: planned new roads get built, planned new rail systems often don’t.   Political dithering and planning delays hold up rail far more than roads.  The classic example of this is the failure to build DART Underground – the investment that would potentially tie together Dublin’s fragmented public transport ‘system’.   Initial decisions are biased in favour of roads because there is virtually no consideration of the environmental externalities, while there also appears to be a great if usually unspoken reluctance to fund anything that would be operated by the public sector.  So Luas Cross-City gets built, Dart Underground (which would have to be operated by Iarnród Éireann) does not.

The other major investment contribution to Ireland’s greenhouse gases is the particular form of private housing.  The boom showed how ‘urban planning’ in Ireland is really an oxymoron.  Essentially houses were built where developers wanted to build them – this was ‘developer-led development’.  Most new building was on prime agricultural land adjacent to existing towns and cities – especially in the Greater Dublin Area suburban sprawl accelerated.  In particular the new housing areas out beyond the M50 have virtually no public transport and are utterly car dependent (Caulfield and Aherne 2014).  And across the country, as we are now realising, an as yet uncounted number of houses were built on flood plains.

Certainly there has been some investment in public transport.  The Dublin Bus fleet has been modernised and there has been some upgrading of Irish Rail.  Indeed, improvements in the DART and Dublin Suburban services have probably been especially significant, since national and international research shows that such ‘heavy rail’ services are most likely to persuade commuters to leave the car at home (e.g. Commins and Nolan 2010).  There have been infrastructure projects such as the Dublin Port Tunnel - an imaginative and massive investment which has enabled HGVs to be largely excluded from the city centre.  And despite the almost interminable delays, in Dublin the Luas did finally get built and is now being extended. 

All of this has made some difference.  In Dublin, unlike in other Irish cities, the apparently inexorable rise of the private motor car has slowed.  Whereas in cities such as Cork and Galway, travel to work by car increased between 2006 and 2011, in Dublin the modal share is not only lower but constant.

Within the Dublin area there has also been a significant increase in cycling, facilitated by the limited but real investment in cycle lanes and cycle tracks.   Young workers in the internet companies in ‘Silicon Docks’ (Google etc.) seem more likely to cycle to work than travel by car.  Here we can see Ireland’s (or at least Dublin’s) version of ‘peak car’ – the point at which car ownership and car usage starts to decline (Goodwin and Van Dender 2013).

Yet such change is very limited and very localised.  Cycling may even be increasingly concentrated in the central area of the city – in the outer suburbs cycling to work is almost non-existent.  Cycling is also still largely limited to a particular demographic – managers and professionals aged between 35-54; cyclists are also more likely to have switched from another sustainable mobility mode (walking, public transport) than from the private car (Caulfield 214).   Equally, the new growth of apartments could be seen as a counter-balance to suburban sprawl, except that many new apartments are so small that they are hardly an adequate basis for urban living.

Curbing the emissions of the Irish transport sector will require more and different public and private investment.  Within the Dublin area it will require investment in transport that ties the city together rather simply facilitates movement along existing corridors; it will require effective land-use planning to ensure good housing is built in areas that are not only reachable by private car.  In other words, it will involve the opposite of what would have happened if the lost decade hadn’t been lost.

Caulfield, Brian (2014) Recycling a city: examining the growth of cycling in Dublin. Transportation Research A: Policy and Practice 61: 216-226.
Caulfield, Brian and Aoife Aherne (2014) The green fields of Ireland: The legacy of Dublin's housing boom and the impact on commuting.  Case Studies on Transport Policy 2: 20-27
Cervero, Robert (2009) Transport infrastructure and global competitiveness: balancing mobility and livability Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 626.1: 210-225.
Commins,  Nicola and Anne Nolan (2010) Car ownership and mode of transport to work in Ireland.  Economic and Social Review 41.1: 43-75.
Goodwin, Phil and Kurt Van Dender (2013) ‘Peak Car’ – Themes and issues. Transport Reviews 33.3: 243-254.
Wickham, James (2006) Gridlock: Dublin’s transport crisis and the future of the city. TASC at New Island.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Intergenerational inequality in Ireland: younger generations pay the price of austerity and recovery

Rory Hearne: There is a requirement for a greater focus on who paid the highest price in austerity and who continues to be affected by inequality in the recovery. Austerity and the recession disproportionally impacted negatively on younger generations (particularly increases in child poverty, emigration levels and the restructuring of the labour market towards greater levels of precariousness). There are multiple social crises in areas such as housing and health that result from policies pursued during austerity and these crises contradict the narrative of ‘recovery’.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

For richer or poorer: Oxfam's wealth inequality report withstands scrutiny

Oisin Gilmore: A few days ago, Oxfam released a report stating that “the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together” and that “just 62 individuals had the same wealth as 3.6 billion people” (p.2). This has been reported widely and was front page news in the Irish Times. These stats come follow on from previous reports which Oxfam produced last year and the year before that.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Should Ireland’s largest bank should be sold off to foreigners?

Paul Sweeney: Should Ireland's largest bank, AIB, be sold off to a foreign bank or hedge fund? This is the plan. It is not being debated. Why not sell it off to whoever will buy it? All six Irish owned banks collapsed. The bosses were stunningly incompetent. All shares were wiped out and more. They cost the taxpayer €64bn, one and half times total tax revenue in the year of rescue.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Zero-hours legislation?

Alicja Bobek: In 2015 the government commissioned a study on zero hours contracts from the University of Limerick.  In a welcome development it now seems (Irish Times 4 January 2016) that the government is preparing to accept some of the recommendations of the UL study.

In a ‘zero hours’ contract employees agree to make themselves available for employment but are only actually paid if there is work for them.  While such contracts are widespread in the UK – and have become a major issue of public concern – the UL study documents that they hardly exist in Ireland.  Instead there are ‘if and when’ contracts: the employer offers extra hours (at the standard hourly rate) but it is up to the employee whether he or she takes them on. This would be fair enough – if it actually happened.

TASC’s own Working Conditions in Ireland Project also identified the problem of variable hours as discussed in the UL report. This is especially an issue in the hospitality sector.  In the hospitality sector we did background research and interviewed trade union officials.  Crucially we also did in depth interviews with ordinary employees. These interviews highlighted how the reality can be very different to that presented by the employers.

In hospitality overall earnings are low, partly because the hourly wage rates are low, but also because many people work short hours.  Even during the economic boom average working hours in the industry were falling (from 42.3 hours per week in 1992 to 32.9 in 2008) due to a disproportionate increase in part-time work.  Currently more than 40% of all at work in the industry are recorded as part-timers (CSO 2015).  The problem is that while many employees are happy to work these hours, others are working fewer hours than they would wish.

Furthermore, many are often working irregular hours, only knowing their shifts a few days in advance.  As one of our informants said:
You are lucky if you know a week in advance. But more often you would find out, say on… Thursday, that you have to come in on Monday or the Saturday or whatever. So it was all quite short notice. I mean… you couldn't plan for the week ahead. (Fast food worker)

Indeed, given that workers can sometimes be sent at home without pay at literally a moment’s notice the term ‘shift’ is actually a misnomer.  As the same informant reported:
The manager did the thing… Calling people in and then sending them home. He was like ‘oh, we need another member of staff in, on tonight, now!’ So you know, it would be your day off. But you will have the warning that, you know, Thursday might be busy. So then you get the phone call and you go down there and then you are being told: ‘No, no, actually… We thought we needed you, but you can go home now’. (Fast food worker).

As this quote also shows, employees are often asked to work extra hours at very short notice.  All this makes it difficult to plan family and other responsibilities; it makes it impossible for part-timers who want more work to take on a second part-time job.

Our interviews also showed that workers often feel they cannot refuse to work extra hours.  At worst refusal can jeopardise the job, even at best it can mean less chance of being offered more suitable hours in the future.  Employers can use control of hours as a mechanism of control, effectively varying people’s pay in order to ensure good behaviour.

In the hospitality sector – and probably elsewhere too – many Irish employers have fragmented jobs, turning full-time employment into part-time employment (and not quite full-time employment).  Rather than having one full-time employee working regular hours, employers prefer to have two part-time employees whose hours can be adjusted at short notice at the employer’s convenience.  This is certainly ‘flexibility’ as so often praised, but flexibility that suits employers and imposes inflexibility on employees.

The UL recommendations will go some way to tackling these problems.  Especially important is the simple proposal that whenever an employee is required to report for work, they must be offered an absolute minimum of three continuous hours work. Of course many businesses will claim that they have to make their employees work very flexible hours if they are to stay competitive.  However, our research shows that there are businesses in the hospitality industry which are successful without making their employees change their working hours at very short notice.  Unfortunately it will require legislation to ensure that they do not remain unusual.

Dr Alicja Bobek is the researcher on TASC's Working Conditions in Ireland project.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Lobbying transparency register up and running - but vigilance needed for potential loopholes

Nuala Haughey: Ireland’s mandatory lobbying register is now online. But what exactly does it mean? Well, for the first time members of the public are able to go online and search a database to see who is attempting to influence policy or legislation in a range of areas. (

Monday, 4 January 2016

One area of Public Investment: PPPs

Paul Sweeney looks at one area of public investment:  It is worth noting that the Government seems be to a little cooler on Public Private Partnerships than it and its recent predecessors were in the past. Does this mean that a new government might finally undertake a serious study of their effectiveness and cost?