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Committee on Budgetary Oversight debate -
Wednesday, 3 Nov 2021

Remit, Terms of Reference and Priorities: Commission on Taxation and Welfare

We have a quorum and the committee is now in public session. No apologies have been received. Members in attendance are asked to exercise personal responsibility in protecting themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. They are strongly advised to practice good hand hygiene and leave at least one vacant seat between them and others attending. They should also always maintain an appropriate level of social distance during and after the meeting. Masks, preferably of medical grade, should be worn at all times during the meeting except when speaking. I ask for the full co-operation of members in this regard. I have been encouraging our members to dial in remotely if possible considering the high Covid numbers at present.

On behalf of the committee I welcome from the Commission on Taxation and Welfare, Professor Niamh Moloney, chair, Mr. Colm O'Reardon, secretary, and Ms Sinead Ryan and Mr. Gary Hynds, principal officers of the secretariat. I thank them all for attending today. The purpose of today's meeting is to meet the newly formed commission. The committee would also like to discuss the commission's remit, terms of reference and priorities for the coming year.

Before we begin I wish to explain some limitations to parliamentary privilege and the practice of the Houses as regards references witnesses may make to other persons in their evidence. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected, pursuant to the Constitution and by statute, by absolute privilege. However, the witnesses today are giving evidence remotely from a place outside the parliamentary precincts. As such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. They are again reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory regarding an identifiable person or entity the witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present in the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House and in some cases this year the Convention Centre Dublin, in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit members to participate where they are not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, members who attempt to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting.

With that, we will begin our session. There is huge interest in the work of the commission and I am sure there will be over the coming years. I thank the witnesses for their attendance today. I ask Professor Moloney to make her opening statement.

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Chair and members. I am delighted to have this opportunity to come before the committee. I thank the committee for the invitation to appear on behalf of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare. As per the invitation, my opening remarks will focus on the remit of the commission, its terms of reference and our priorities for the coming year.

The commission was established by Government and commenced its work in June 2021, with the objective, as set out in our terms of reference, to "independently consider how best the taxation and welfare systems can support economic activity and promote increased employment and prosperity, while ensuring that there are sufficient resources available to meet the costs of public services and supports in the medium and longer term". The Government has asked us to report by July of next year. As I will outline in a moment, the terms of reference for the commission are extensive. While the commission got off to a good start and has held nine meetings so far with our tenth on Friday, we are still in the early stages of our deliberations. I hope committee members will appreciate that we are a long way from reaching conclusions at this point in time.

The commission’s remit covers both taxation and welfare but its outlook is firmly of a medium to long-term nature. Our role is to stand back from the day-to-day debates on taxation and welfare and look at how well the tax and welfare systems are likely to fit the country’s needs over the next ten to 20 years. In doing so, we have been asked to consider factors such as the impact of the Covid-19 emergency, ageing demographics, digital disruption and automation, and the long-term strategic commitments of Government regarding health, housing and climate. Members of the commission are drawn from a broad cross-section of relevant backgrounds, including taxation, welfare, economics, law and broader civil society, each bringing a mix of applicable skillsets and backgrounds to the table. We are undertaking this work as an independent body, unencumbered by political pressures, stepping back and with a long-term perspective.

As well as this overall remit, as committee members will see from our terms of reference, the commission has been asked to look at a number of specific issues. These include: ensuring there are sufficient resources available to meet the costs of public services into the future; supporting economic activity and income redistribution while promoting increased employment and prosperity; and examining what changes, if any, should be made to the social insurance system. Also included is examining how welfare policy can work in tandem with the taxation system to support economic activity while continuing to support those most vulnerable in our society in a fair and equitable way. The terms of reference also include examining how the taxation system can be used to help Ireland move to a low carbon economy, the appropriate role for the taxation and welfare system in achieving housing policy objectives including an examination of the merits of a site value tax. The commission's terms of reference also include: examining Ireland’s attractiveness to foreign direct investment; the taxation environment for SMEs and entrepreneurs; the role of taxation and welfare in promoting good public health; the process for reviewing taxation measures and expenditures; and tax administration. As members know, and as provided for in the terms of reference, we are also being asked to look at some of the revenue-raising proposals as set out in the recent report of the Commission on Pensions.

As committee members can see, this is a challenging agenda but it is an important one. Our terms of reference reflect the central role that taxation and welfare play in our society. The taxation and welfare systems make up some of the most significant and regular interactions between individuals and the State and define, in large part, the nature of the relationship between the State and the individual. The tax and welfare systems are, accordingly, at the crux of the relationship between the State and the individual. They are part but not the totality of the wider social contract, which is the set of rights and mutual obligations that come with living in Ireland.

Put simply, the taxation system provides the investment we make as individuals and as businesses for the public services we use, from our roads and bridges to our hospitals and schools. For those of us at working age, our social welfare system serves to temporarily replace income lost to periods of unemployment, injury, disability, sickness or maternity. Where earnings from employment are insufficient to avoid poverty or social exclusion, our system intervenes to provide a floor below which income will not fall and, of course, the social welfare system provides a core income for those in retirement. Together, these are the most important instruments that we have to provide a safety net, to provide income redistribution and to pay for the needs of our society. We have all seen over the course of the pandemic how crucial the tax and welfare systems have been in supporting families and businesses that have been so badly affected by the public health measures that had to be taken.

Our role, as I said, is to take a medium to long-term view. This is, in essence, a strategic exercise in that we are being asked to stand back and look at systems as they are, the challenges ahead and to consider what changes are needed for the future.

Not least among these challenges is that of fiscal sustainability. The primary function of the tax system is to fund Government expenditure at a level determined by the democratic system. While the fiscal position will improve as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, the public finances will face significant structural challenges in the medium to long term. Of these, costs associated with demographic change are the most certain, with an ageing population putting pressure on pension and health costs. While there are currently four working age people to support every person above 65, in 2050 the equivalent ratio will be 2:1. This will place significant pressure on the public finances, even if just to provide the existing level of services. Costs associated with the climate and digital transitions will also need to be funded. It is vital therefore, that we think strategically now about the changes that might be needed to the tax and welfare systems in the future so that we can rise to these challenges and begin to prepare.

Each of the elements of the terms of reference represents an important issue which must be borne in mind when thinking about how the tax and welfare systems should be structured into the future. What is crucially important, however, is that we think about these systems as systems. How well do these systems as a whole hang together and meet the needs of our country? The commission will examine each of these items in turn but that holistic viewpoint is also central to our work.

I mention our public consultation. This engagement, which I value greatly, is particularly timely as the commission launched its public consultation entitled Your Vision, Our Future on 20 October. This public consultation differs in a number of important ways from previous such exercises. It is hosted on, which is an online platform used by hundreds of government bodies worldwide. This is a truly accessible, sophisticated and in-depth public consultation which complies with the web content accessibility guidelines. In order to ensure we cast our net widely we have advertised on print, social and outdoor advertising platforms, ensuring that as many people as possible have an opportunity to make a submission. Since the launch of the consultation we have already received 24 submissions. This level of interest, even at this early stage of our work, is most heartening, as is the invitation to attend the committee to discuss this important undertaking. Following the public consultation, the commission plans to undertake further stakeholder engagement events early next year to further explore themes and matters arising. All of us have a stake in the taxation and welfare systems. The committee members, as public representatives have unique insights into the views of the people they represent. I greatly value the opportunity to meet members and I look forward to a fruitful and positive exchange over the course of the session.

I take Professor Moloney's point that the commission is at an early stage. It was not by accident that we asked to meet with it at this point because we would like to engage with the commission as much as possible throughout the process.

I thank Professor Moloney for his presentation. There is a broad task ahead and I appreciate that a huge volume of work is involved. I understand that the commission has met up to nine times already and that it is aiming to report in July. Is Professor Moloney satisfied that the commission is still on target for that July deadline with the volume of work that is ahead? I mention the submissions the commission is receiving and the public consultation. The interest groups will find whatever way they can to express their views to the commission whereas Professor Moloney mentioned 24 submissions to the public consultation. Who is the commission getting the submissions from? Are they from the general public or from those interest groups? What level of engagement is the commission expecting to get from the general public? They are the reason for the commission to be in place so is the commission getting engagement and input from the public? How long has that engagement been run for up to now?

Professor Moloney referred to rights and obligations that come with living in Ireland. Is she confining her terms of reference to those who are living here or is she looking beyond to those who might be trading through here or conducting business here? Those people are also generating income through Ireland.

I mention the commission's outlook for the next ten to 20 years and Professor Moloney refers to demographics and other factors that might have an influence. Is the commission confining itself to a 26-county republic when it looks to the 20 years ahead or is it looking at possibilities beyond that, including a 32-county republic? I take the point that the commission is not wearing any political colours but is it looking at the possibilities that are out there?

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Deputy and it is a great pleasure to meet him, even virtually. I appreciate his comments and questions. I thank the Deputy for acknowledging the scale of the task. We have big, demanding and challenging terms of reference. All of us on the commission have a sense of excitement and serious endeavour. Commissions do not come along too often; we are the fourth that has come about over a long period of time and so we feel a strong sense of moment. We have had an extraordinary year and a half by any measure in what the nation has been through and the different jobs the tax and welfare systems did in that time. It is a key moment to have this chance to stand back and take a strategic look at those systems.

We have clear terms of reference, which is always helpful. We have an overarching objective in what we are doing to ensure the tax and welfare systems effectively promote economic activity, support prosperity and employment and do so in a way that is resilient, stable and sustainable in supporting the public service. We have a clear framework for that and within that we have the different elements of the terms of reference. From the outset we have been conscious of this privilege, charge and responsibility. A lot of thought has gone into work planning and we are clear about what we need to do, by when we need to get there and we are fortunate to have an excellent secretariat that supports us in doing that. We are meeting every fortnight or so, which is keeping a good sense of momentum for our work going. I feel a strong sense of confidence that we will deliver and it is my expectation that we will do so. We want a credible, serious and practical report that we can deliver to the Minister by next July. It is great to have an opportunity like we have this evening to have a preliminary discussion with the committee about how the terms of reference work.

I thank the Deputy for his interest in our consultation. We are very excited about this and it is a key part of what we are doing. As chair of the commission, I feel that tax and welfare are the two critical points that we interact with all of the time as households and businesses and as a society. These are the two big vectors through which we interact with the State. It is fundamental that we carry out a serious consultation that reaches beyond the more usual engagements and gets out to speak to people. The 24 submissions we have received so far are from members of the general public, which is great. We will keep an eye on this and continue to watch the consultation submissions that come through.

We will do another round of reminding the public as it goes through. The consultation process is being promoted on bus shelters, social media and print media. We want to hear from everybody. Social welfare and taxation affects us all very heavily. Of course, there is a role for our major stakeholders, our major constituencies, and they will be feeding into our consultation. However, we view this consultation as fundamental. Hence, our online platform is organised to be accessible and easy to navigate for the wider world at large.

I thank the Deputy for his helpful observations on our wider framework and the areas we might be examining. We are looking at the tax and welfare systems as they support economic activity, public services and welfare in Ireland. Tax is an extremely complex matter. It involves all those international interactions and engagement. We have seen in recent months just how important that international interaction is. We are aware of tax as a very dynamic complex system that interacts in many different ways, internationally, domestically and with the EU, across different kinds of tax bases. That is the great value of a stand-back review. One can look at the system with all its different interactions internationally, domestically and so on.

One aspect that is perhaps different for our commission compared to others are issues related to different ways of working. As a consequence of the pandemic, people are working in all sorts of different ways. That is a wider frame, which is part of what a commission of our nature would find useful to examine.

In looking towards the future, it behoves a commission like ours to think around corners as it were, whatever those corners may be, internationally, domestically or regionally. I do not think any of us could have predicted 20 years ago the major disruption to the nature of work that has occurred. National tax might have evolved. We take very seriously an element of foresight to how we think. The commission at the start of its deliberations was very concerned to equip itself fully to think around corners. We are very anxious to think consistently and strategically about the future. For example, how do we think about the future, how do we recognise opportunities and how we recognise threats and challenges and so on? We are taking a very wide-angle lens when it comes to all the different variables that might shape our tax and welfare systems into the future. I very much appreciate the Deputy's interest and thank him for his comments, which are helpful to us in thinking about our work.

I thank Professor Moloney for that response. Our next speaker is Deputy Doherty.

I welcome Professor Moloney to the committee. I am sorry I missed her opening statement, which I read earlier. Second Stage of the Finance Bill is being dealt with at the same time as this meeting and I am trying to be in a number of locations at the same time. I welcome Professor Moloney's opening statement and the commission's broad terms of reference, which are broader than those of previous commissions given the issues of welfare that come under its remit which it needs to consider.

I apologise if any of my questions have already been answered. If so, Professor Moloney can bypass them and I will read the transcript of the proceedings later. The commission has a wider remit than previous commissions. How will that remit be dealt with by the commission? The commission is to report by 1 July next year. Does it expect to meet that deadline? I am sure Professor Moloney will say it does at this stage. More importantly, will the report be just given to the Minister or will the commission publish it at that stage? The previous commission's report, which extended to 600 pages and contained much detail and analysis, was quite significant.

I have another question on the public consultation exercise and the user-friendly platform the commission has used, which I have not used but I will have a look at it. How does Professor Moloney expect the public consultation exercise will shape the priorities of the commission as it carries out its work? That brings me to my next question on the wide remit of the commission covering areas, such as the climate challenge we face, which were not under consideration when the previous commission reported. We had a different crisis in terms of housing at that time; there was possibly an oversupply then but now there is a major undersupply. The commission has to deal with issues in terms of tax expenditure, public health and the social welfare system. How does Professor Moloney define the priorities in all of that as the commission carries out its work over the coming months?

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Deputy and all members of the committee for giving of their time. I am very conscious of how busy their schedule is, particularly this evening. I thank Deputy Doherty for his questions. I will reply to them in the order in which he asked them. Regarding the commission's wide remit, it has very extensive terms of reference. I am appreciative to the Deputy for noticing that. When we stand back and think strategically about something as fundamental and significant as the tax and welfare systems and how they interact, we need a big canvas. We need to be able to stand back and see this as a system and how it all interacts together. While in some respects, it is very big and almost even somewhat daunting, in other respects it reminds us of the scale of the canvas it operates on and the number of ways in which it interacts back into society. This is not just tax in terms of a code; it is tax and welfare. It impacts the environment, health, incentives to work and the smallest of SMEs. The very scale of it reminds us of just how fundamental this kind of exercise is. We all welcome it. We welcome the scale of it and the picture it is requiring us to paint in terms of how the tax and welfare systems work together.

We really feel a sense of responsibility. It is a big exercise to set up a commission, resource it and have a secretariat. Governments do not do it very often. We feel this is a very serious opportunity to stand back. It is the fourth time there has been this kind of exercise. We aim to do a serious, strategic, evidenced-based piece of work that lives up to this. My hope and expectation is that we will report by July. To do that, we need to be organised, systematic and serious about what we are doing and that is how we are operating. We have a fantastic commission, comprising 14 members, who bring with them a great deal of experience and expertise and great enthusiasm and energy as well as a terrific secretariat. We meet roughly every two weeks. We will have our 10th meeting on Friday and we will try to keep that momentum up. Our work is focusing us very closely. I agree with the Deputy that we have a big challenge. We have a responsibility to make sure we do this as effectively as possible.

The report will go the Minister and then it will be published. Part of our job as a commission is to think seriously and deeply and come up with practical and useful recommendations, but there is an element in which it is helpful to outline and communicate what tax and welfare do, why the systems are set up the way they are and what shaped them. It is very important there is publication of a report of this nature.

That brings me to the Deputy’s second question on the consultation exercise and the platform we have used. We view this as very important for a number of reasons. The last year and a half has shown us the importance of the way we support each other and what we owe each other, and how the tax and welfare systems work together to make that happen. That has been one of the significant lessons for us during the past year and half. Even during the past ten years, there has been so much change in our society and economy.

This is a real moment. We have a reason, a context and resources, as an independent body, to talk to people. That is very important because this is a key vector through which individuals interact with tax and welfare, hence the platform. With regard to the feedback, the commission members and I strongly believe there must be feedback when people take the time to speak to us and work their way through the consultation questions, whether just one - which is absolutely fine - or all of them. It is iterative. That will be coming through. We will look at the reaction we are getting. It is very important that the consultation reaches as widely as possible. It is our job, as a commission, to feed that into our deliberations, to get a sense of what is coming through and what people are worried about and to determine how that can shape our work. We are planning some kind of stakeholder event for early in the new year, perhaps in January or February. That will be a useful point. We will be further advanced in our deliberations and the public consultation will be closing in January. This will be a useful staging point to take stock. We see it as absolutely fundamental.

On the width of the remit and how things have changed, Deputy Doherty mentioned the housing crisis, prioritisation and how we frame our work. I will offer a few reflections on these matters. It is a good time to stand back and take this strategic long-term view because one thing is absolutely clear, namely, that the constant dynamic challenge faced by tax and welfare systems is enormous and has been over the last ten years. The Deputy rightly mentioned the housing crisis. This is a very significant issue. Going back ten years, we had other crises. We now have the pandemic. That is the nature of the modern economy. It is not static. There is always something shaping circumstances that we need to react to. This is a chance to stand back and take a systemic strategic look at the system to ensure it is best equipped for the future. My academic work is in the area of financial regulation and I often fall into the notion of stress-testing. Who knows what challenges may arise? We know what some of them are but we must think about the system to ensure it is best equipped to deal with them.

With regard to our priorities, we have terms of reference which closely guide what we do. My overall priority is to ensure we produce a report that is coherent, evidence-based and strategic and which responds to what the Government has asked us to consider.

Thanks a million for that. I wish Professor Moloney really well on her work. While we may not agree with some of the recommendations and may be delighted with others, the important thing is that we have evidence-based research. I have a couple of final questions before my time runs out.

Deputy Doherty is welcome to come in with a couple of questions but he is well over time so I ask him to keep them short.

I will keep them very short. Is the commission going to look at international experience? For example, employers' PRSI here is way below what is required. That brings me to my second question. The commission has been asked to look at long-term commitments from the Government but governments change. Some parties want to see a bigger State and greater State involvement while others want to see more of the lifting done by the private sector. Will the commission look beyond current Government commitments?

My third and final question relates to the expert group on childcare which has been established. The Department is publishing papers as it goes along. The final report will consider recommendations and so on but research papers are being published to inform the debate and discussion as we go along. I looked at the minutes of one of the commission's meetings and they indicated that the commissioning of a number of papers on tax expenditures and tax levers for public health was being considered. It is really important that those papers be published as the commission goes along with its work. Obviously, there would still be a final report which would cover the commission's analysis and final recommendations.

Professor Niamh Moloney

I will be as quick as I can in responding. I thank the Deputy for noting the international context. There is value for this kind of exercise in looking at what other international systems are doing. I will make a couple of observations in that regard. The extent to which there are great debates about very similar issues and questions in so many places internationally right now is interesting. It behoves us to look at these international debates. We must always be very conscious of context. Debates, particularly debates on tax and welfare, happen in very distinct local, cultural and institutional contexts. In drawing and learning from international experience, we have always been very careful about how it is imported and about learning the right kind of lessons. Considering the international context is the kind of value a commission like this can bring.

The Deputy's second point related to interacting with different governmental perspectives about the role of the State and so on. Our view is that we are a technocratic commission and that it is our job to stand back, think about the systems and take a ten, 15 or 20-year perspective. That is our job. Once we have delivered on that, the political and democratic system steps in. We hope and aim for our report to be a credible and resilient resource over the long term. We want it to be something that can be used by the people of Ireland over a good timeframe and a resilient resource for the future.

With regard to the papers, at the moment, we are publishing our minutes because it is very important that the public has a good sense of how we are approaching matters. Along with our consultation document, we prepared a primer document with data and discussion on different tax bases. That aimed to support our consultation. The research papers will feed into our ultimate report in different ways. The data and so on we will be using will be available in the report in due course. That will form part of the report in July.

I thank Professor Moloney. I am sorry for hesitating; I was just making sure I was giving her the correct title. I also thank her team and wish the commission good luck. It is welcome. I apologise that I will also have to run over and speak in the debate on the Finance Bill. It is an interesting contrast in a way because the Finance Bill comprises lots of individual measures relating to different headings such as income tax, USC, corporation tax, property-based taxes and so on. It comprises lots of individual measures. It might be argued that there is no strategic debate going on in respect of the Finance Bill and the taxation measures it contains. That happens to some degree in a budget but in the context of a particular year and particular political pressures. Some questions never get discussed having stood back from those things, so this is a good initiative.

I would like to quiz Professor Moloney a little bit more about how she sees the commission doing that and the extent to which she thinks it is possible to have evidence-based views when many of the issues are heavily contested, not least by the people they affect. The submissions of the people are evidence in and of themselves. With the best will in the world, it strikes me that great numbers of those who are most economically disadvantaged are among those least likely to even know this is happening and will not be terribly well-equipped to engage with it. Does Professor Moloney accept that is a concern and that it is something we must address? How do we get the voices of those who are generally not heard on issues like taxation and what taxation should be there for and welfare and what welfare should achieve heard when it will tend to be - for want of a better word - the political nerds and the people who know about these things who make submissions?

One thing I said about public consultations in a slightly different context is that we should advertise these public consultations. There should be radio advertisements to the effect that a serious look is being taken at tax and welfare in this country, what they are for, how fair they are and whether members of the public think they are working for them. We should be advertising those public consultations. Of course, if we did that, we probably would get many submissions. There would be many more than a couple of hundred. Then, there would be even more work on the hands of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare. I want to run that by Professor Moloney because there is a danger in any public consultation that the voices that are often not heard will not be heard again, even with the best will in the world.

Will Professor Moloney quickly state what she sees as the role of the committee in this process? Is today the day for us to give suggestions as to what we think? I do not think we have time today. However, most people in our committee and possibly some other committees would like to have a discussion about the big strategic questions on tax and welfare that need to be addressed, as well as on our views about how they should be addressed. Professor Moloney might say a word about that. To give a couple of examples, wealth taxes need to be discussed. They happen in some places. They have generally been resisted in this country. However, there is a real debate about them. It is a debate that is also relevant to the climate debate at the moment. To give a big bold statement, unless you deal with the gross and growing inequality in wealth and income across the world, you will not address the climate emergency. I put it up as bluntly as that. Not everybody shares that opinion but I am convinced of that. It is a pretty undisputed fact that the 1%, as they are famously called, although you could call them the 10%, own 50% or 60% of the wealth in this country. Those figures are generally repeated around the world. The bottom 50% have 2% or less of the wealth between them. Unless you address that, I cannot see how you could address the climate emergency. Will the commission look at that sort of thing? What are the serious arguments? Does Professor Moloney feel that at the end of the process, the commission will be able take a position on things like that?

To give another example, I looked at the Commission on Taxation and Welfare's survey. The witnesses might respond to my belief that it is a little bit loaded in respect of the local property tax and the site value tax. First, I still struggle to fully understand what a site value tax is, in comparison with the local property tax. I imagine that many other people would too. There are also other options that are not considered in that binary question the commission is asking. I favour a multiple property tax for the non-principal private residences. I bet that were people asked whether those with multiple properties should be taxed on their property wealth, as against those who just have the family home, a majority would probably state that would be fairer. Why is that question not asked? Should it be asked or will the Commission on Taxation and Welfare ask it? That is just another example. There are some things that might not even occur to people unless one puts the facts in front of them.

One thing that greatly struck me, when looking at tax in the run-up to the most recent budget, particularly in the aftermath of Covid-19, is that corporate profits went through the roof. This followed a consistent pattern over recent years, although it seemed to be even be more pronounced during Covid-19. I believe this year pre-tax corporate profits were €203 billion. That is approximately 127% more than they were a decade ago. They pay approximately €11 billion in tax. All of the workers in this country together earn €127 billion. This figure is a little bit more than half of what the corporations earned. However, the workers paid €27 billion in tax. To me, that is a radical disparity between the corporate sector making huge profits and making much smaller tax contributions relative to its profit income, as against workers who have less income between all of them but who pay a much higher proportion in tax in both absolute and relative terms. Are those sorts of issues going to be addressed, discussed and put to people? There are a few questions there. I can think of a lot more.

Professor Moloney has lots to address there. I think we will all pass by the fact that the Deputy has called us all political nerds.

I include myself in that, by the way.

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Deputy. Again, we appreciate the engagement of the committee with us this evening. I thank the Deputy for his rich observations. I will take them in order as best I can.

The first point the Deputy mentioned was on evidence base. To be sure I was clear on this issue, we will be producing papers as we go along and we will publish all of those at the end. Once our final report is published, we will also publish the different papers that have informed our work. We are keen to take an evidence-based approach and to show colleagues, as well as to everybody affected, how we went about our decision-making.

The Deputy makes a good point about consultations. They are tricky things. On the one hand, we do them to try to engage as many voices as possible, including small businesses, households and individuals. We do this to try to capture as diverse a range of opinions as possible. When one considers that the last time this exercise was done, which was ten or 12 years ago, we did not have these kinds of tools. It was difficult to get wide-ranging public consultations. Digitalisation has made all of this so much more possible. However, I take the Deputy’s point about how to engage with as wide a group of people as possible. On a purely functional level, we are using all different kinds of outreach and different kinds of media.

A point I should mention is that we have all sorts of expertise and experience around the table at the commission. There is a strong, collective commitment to ensure that systems of tax and welfare are fair and equitable to the most vulnerable in society. That is expressly called out in our terms of reference. Additionally, as a group, we are all deeply conscious of the importance of the two systems of tax and welfare and how they interact. That interaction is particularly important for those who are most vulnerable in our society. We are hoping to have as broad an outreach as possible. We as a commission hold that close in our deliberations, as well as in how we approach these different issues. We are conscious of that.

Our engagement with the Deputy is hugely valuable, as is this whole exercise this evening. From my perspective, and I am sure I am speaking on behalf of the commission, this interaction with the committee is extremely valuable. We would be hugely appreciative if Deputies were available to respond to our consultation and, of course, in respect of any bilateral engagement. Were Deputies able to write into the commission, we would be delighted to learn from submissions they and their colleagues may make. We value that greatly.

I take the Deputy’s point about the scale of the issues, as well as the great debate that is necessary about some of these big questions. The Deputy mentioned wealth tax and the link between inequality, the just transition and the huge carbon challenge that we are all facing. He mentioned property tax and site value tax. In some ways, that shows the scale of what we are dealing with. On the one hand, there are huge choices about how one designs a tax system. What bases does one use? Who is taxed, depending on what those bases are? The bases could be income, consumption, or different sources of wealth. Then one devolves right into the seemingly technical but really important questions about how local property tax is designed. How is something like a site value tax designed? How is some other tax designed?

Our job is to stand back and try to make sure the technical design choices fit within a coherent system that supports economic activity, prosperity and employment while also ensuring we are protecting the most vulnerable through the big decisions we make about how the tax and welfare systems work. These are big debates that are happening internationally. Even in recent weeks, the Biden Administration had a very big debate on the role of a wealth tax and how it might be designed. There are big debates in the UK right now. The UK has a commission on wealth taxation. There are big debates on the role of public health and taxation. For our commission, these are big questions but we are in the right place at the right time. There are very big debates internationally – generational debates – on what we owe one another in society and how we express what we owe one another, whether it is through paying our taxes or supporting those who are vulnerable through a welfare system. We very much embraced the opportunity to stand back and have a serious debate on the role of the various taxes and how they support welfare and interact and to examine strategically the technical components of the system. If they are not working together correctly, it feeds back into the overall design of the system.

We very much welcome the engagement of the Deputy and all his colleagues on the committee. By way of making a small footnote, we have already found significantly helpful the committee's 2019 report on the review of tax expenditure, for example. We will very much welcome further engagement by members and thank them in advance for it.

I am delighted Professor Moloney has highlighted our tax expenditure work and that it is great that we are looking into the matter.

I have one more question. To what extent does the commission envisage itself making recommendations on what should be adopted after it has considered the climate crisis and various taxes, such as wealth tax, property-based taxes and corporate tax, and having examined the evidence and listened to the public? Does Professor Moloney envisage the commission recommending a wealth tax or saying the corporations are paying too little or too much? I hope the commission will not argue they are paying too much.

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Deputy for his question, which I can be completely unequivocal in answering. We are absolutely in the business of making serious, practical, evidence-based recommendations that we very much hope will stand the test of time and be sustainable over ten, 15 or 20 years. We absolutely want to make a serious contribution to how public policy works in this country as regards tax and welfare. Our mission is to produce specific recommendations. We are aiming to have recommendations that are credible, coherent and evidence based. We are animated by the sense that we can make a serious contribution and make recommendations for the political process to work with. We take this with the utmost seriousness.

May I ask a specific question on that because I am interested in it? Will the commission be considering wealth taxes specifically?

Professor Niamh Moloney

Our terms of reference require us to stand back and examine the overall tax system. One of our terms of reference requires us to consider the balance of taxation in respect of earned income, consumption and wealth. The question of how the various bases work together forms a logical part of any stand-back analysis of a tax system. One of the points that is important when examining a tax system as a whole concerns all the various sources of income, wealth and consumption. There are different ways of thinking about taxes on sources of wealth, such as property tax, capital gains tax, capital acquisitions tax and DIRT. It is a matter of thinking about the various sources through which tax operates, about whether taxes are operating effectively as possible and about whether the right levers are being pulled in the right place, having learned from international experience. There are very big debates internationally on all this right now. We will absolutely be taking seriously the big questions on how tax systems should be designed.

I thank the professor and all her team. There are very interesting conversations going on. I want to concentrate on a few principles. Professor Moloney talked about social welfare and taxation. The main challenge I see in our country is ensuring that work pays. It needs to be the case that people are better off when working so they can pay for whatever is required, be it childcare or otherwise, rather than having circumstances in which the difference between going to work and staying at home and not working is marginal. Work that pays is a vital cog in the economy. If we are to have a sustainable economy, we need to make it attractive for people to go to work. The margins are too thin now. Increasing pay might be an obvious approach but that decreases our competitiveness. It is in the area of taxation that we need to consider this.

Let me address the other areas I am concerned about. We tax people. We must do the analysis to see whether we are extracting tax from people, businesses and other sources – it is all coming from people – in a fair way, and whether we are allocating the revenue, through social payments, in a fair and reasonable way.

One of my bones of contention is business premises having to pay rates regardless of whether they are profitable. I am not talking about multinational companies but ordinary people in towns and villages. We have got into circumstances in which local authorities are relying heavily on rates. They are a tax on business as opposed to a tax on profit or turnover. They are paid in accordance with the size of one's premises. It is very much a draconian approach in that when somebody sets up a business, the tax is foisted on that business. In many cases, businesses say they do not get a return for paying rates.

When taxing people, be they the super wealthy, business people or others, there is always a tipping point beyond which they would be overtaxed. How can that be managed? What are the commission's comments on that and my other views? It is time that a commission examined taxation and social welfare. We should not be waiting for this; it should be done regularly, such as every five years, to inform politicians and policy on how we perform.

I like Professor Moloney's freshness. She is clear in her mind on what she is going to be dealing with and recommending. I like that and compliment her on it.

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank Deputy Canney. It is very helpful for me to have this interaction with the Deputy and all his colleagues. I appreciate it, particularly because I am aware that the committee has a very busy schedule this evening.

I thank the Deputy for raising a very distinct part of the job of the 2021 Commission on Taxation and Welfare. A distinctive feature that has not been a feature of other commissions so far is the focus on the interaction between the tax system, incentives that make it worthwhile to work, the welfare system and all the various incentives along that chain.

Our terms of reference bring us right back to supporting economic activity, and prosperity and employment, while also being very cognisant of those who are most vulnerable in society and taking a fair and equitable approach. This is something that is novel and we embrace it. As the Deputy said, it is in that interaction that we are at the crux of the issues of prosperity, economic incentives and supporting people in the best possible way. It is something we are looking at and taking very seriously.

There are many different facets to this, including the points of interaction between when it is worthwhile to work, given the return from work, the different forms of tax charge and the point at which they activate. These are technical issues but they are very important. For someone who is going to work and moving from one threshold or rate to another, it is very important we have the mandate to look at that, the impact it has, how those different rates, bands and thresholds all fit together and how they feed back into our terms of reference of supporting our prosperity and the economy. I very much welcome that part of our terms of reference. The comments the Deputy made in that regard are very valuable and I thank him for them.

Regarding the issues of business premises and rates, one of the themes undercutting our terms of reference, alongside the interaction between tax and welfare, is the interaction between much of the tax code and smaller businesses and SMEs because we run the gamut on that. On tax administration, for example, it is very important for small businesses that the tax system is navigable and not overly complex and that the administration of it works effectively. Equally, and some of the statistics are very stark for small businesses, 91% of all businesses employ fewer than ten people. That is the absolute beating heart of our economy so it is very important the tax system is cognisant of that and reflects those sorts of challenges in allowing small businesses to grow in scale and to start.

A whole ecosystem sits around that, from corporation tax through to income tax, different reliefs and the commercial rates system and how it works. Again, it is this sense that, for a small business and the system within which it sits, whether it is the tax wedge that applies as it pays its employees, how the commercial rates system works or the administration of the tax system as it engages with it, these are all very important matters for us to look at holistically. We need to stand back and ensure, especially for smaller businesses and entrepreneurs, that all this is working effectively. I thank the Deputy for his comments. They are well noted and will be very helpful for us as we go forward.

I welcome that there is serious recognition for the small business and the fact that it may not have the resources or capacity to deal with a very sophisticated tax system, year-on-year, whereas bigger companies have in-house experts in that particular area. We sometimes bring in systems that do not always suit everybody and we need to be able to tailor them. Even at the moment, I see individuals trying to pay the local property tax and if there is a glitch in the system, they just cannot move with it.

To give an example, we have set up very sophisticated ways of dealing with procurement to try to save money. Sometimes I believe we have created an industry called procurement without actually saving money. We have just transferred costs from the base price of the product to the procurement system. The cost of procurement is such now that smaller companies, if they are to compete, have to have in-house expertise in procurement or they have to buy it in. That is something that gets lost when we bring in systems. What is the cost of running these systems within small companies? It is just another part of it. I wish the commission well and I look forward to working with it over the coming months.

I am on another meeting so I am juggling this evening. I thank Professor Moloney and her team for everything they have been doing. We are very aware that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030. Will the commission consider other ways of replacing the inevitable loss of revenue? What are Professor Moloney's early thoughts on how we would best do this?

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Deputy. I am very conscious that all the Deputies have a very busy evening so I very much appreciate them being with us. I thank them for that. The Deputy has asked a very important and interesting question. Over the past ten years or so, there has been a real concern, globally, not just in Ireland, to address the enormous generational challenge of climate change. We see it this week with COP26 but there has also been a long slow burn in that our tax system has been adjusting to reflect this and to better nudge our behaviour. Sustainability issues then arise regarding the revenue streams coming through from certain forms of tax base. This is called out specifically in our terms of reference. We are very glad to have that because this is a key issue. It feeds back into our overall terms of reference, which are ultimately there to make sure the State has sufficient revenue to provide the public services and supports that are fundamental to us as a nation.

On some of the numbers, if the rate of electric car uptake, for example, continues as one hopes, we are looking at a revenue hole in the region of €1.5 billion by 2030. On the one hand, the incentives are doing a very good job but, on the other hand, they are opening up a sustainability issue. We are very conscious of that in our terms of reference. It is too early in our deliberations to say how we might specifically address this, but we have a sense that it is important, ultimately, that public services in this country are funded not just for now but in the context of all the challenges we will face into the future. We have a sustainability issue as regards certain taxation bases. Looking into the future, we see the ageing demographic, which is one of the very big issues. If we operate using our current services in terms of health, pensions and so on, something like €17 billion extra will be needed by 2050. We are acutely conscious of the sustainability question that arises on revenue. Our job is to stand back, look at the system as a whole, check it is all working in the best possible way and as effectively as it should be, but to do this with a medium or long-term lens to see what best specific recommendations we can make in this regard.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue because it is one that is particular to where we are at this moment in time, having had this period during which we have been adjusting to a new way of using taxes. It is now very important, as taxes become more effective, to consider how they loop and feed back into the wider sustainability question.

I apologise if somebody has asked this question and for juggling meetings. Will our current inflation rate have a bearing on the work the commission does? If it does, how will it impact on that work?

Professor Niamh Moloney

This really is one of the questions of the hour. For the past number of weeks, there has been a debate on inflation, which has been important. I will again go to the sense that our commission is looking at these questions at this moment in time, because five years ago inflation was not so much of an issue in considering how fiscal sustainability was to be addressed.

It is a very good reminder, and I thank the Deputy for it, of the scale of the certain and uncertain challenges that lie ahead. It is very difficult to predict how inflation is going to go. There are all sorts of different discussions and narratives around that. It is part of a very dynamic picture that our tax and welfare systems are currently grappling with. Our job is to factor that in and to be aware of all of the different headwinds that are coming over the medium to long term. There is a difference between the immediate yearly budgetary cycle and the immediate pressures and the fluctuating odds, which is about five, ten or 15 years out. The value of one's salary when taken home is fundamental to how tax and welfare works. That is part of the framework within which we will be operating. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue this evening.

I thank Professor Moloney.

That concludes the first round of questions. The floor is now open to anybody who would like to come in a second time. Members can indicate if they wish to speak by raising a hand. While they are thinking about, I have some questions for Professor Moloney.

My first question is on an issue that has come up previously at this committee and at the Joint Committee on Health. We have talked a little today about health. I note in the work of the committee thus far a discussion around the demographics challenge of providing suitable services into the future. Does the commission have enough access to suitable data in terms of its work? As a committee, we are aware that sometimes Ireland falls short on the provision of disaggregated data for the purposes of, for example, health service planning. Has the commission come across that yet?

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Chairman for that very good question. It goes to something we are very conscious of doing, which is having an evidence base. One of our challenges relates to longitudinal evidence. We are trying to look out to 2030, 2040, 2050 in order to get a sense of the long-term pressures and so we are looking around corners. We are benefiting from much of the Government evidence that is out there and we are drawing on international evidence. For example, one of our terms of reference calls out good public health policy. While this is an enormous challenge in some respects, particularly as regards poor diet and the challenges that creates, it is an issue that many of the major advanced economies are grappling with and so we are able to access policy debates from across Europe. There are many debates going on about how different forms of welfare tax support might be structured to respond to public health challenges. We are very conscious of having a strong evidence base. We are lucky in that we have a very strong secretariat, that is very effective and nimble. We would be very grateful for support across the Civil Service and Government for the type of data that would feed our discussions. We are very thankful for the level of support we have received thus far, but it is something we are very conscious of. We would be anxious to make sure that when we are making our recommendations we can support why we are going in certain directions.

That sounds very encouraging. I am mindful that the commission represents a group of experts in their field. It no secret that during the negotiations there some issues that the coalition could not reach consensus on, including for the Green Party, a site value tax and a wealth tax. That is, in part, the reason the commission was established and tasked with discussion of those issues. In terms of the process, how easy is it for the commission, as experts, to bring forth particular issues? Are all of the points of debate or the issues with which the commission will be dealing coming from the public consultation, the terms of reference as set out by the Government or is the commission easily able to table issues that it believes are important?

Professor Niamh Moloney

I value the opportunity to reflect on the commission and how it sees itself. There are a couple of reflections I would make. We are very conscious of working within our mandate. It is a privilege to have been set up. The commission's terms of reference guide its work, which we take with the utmost seriousness. It is a very wide terms of reference. That has great strengths in that it allows us, as a commission, to reflect widely and deeply and to challenge each other on how we think about tax and welfare from all of our different perspectives. We certainly do not see it as limiting us. It is very helpful in terms of setting our direction and framework and in ensuring we are looking in the right directions and producing something that will be of use to Governments into the future. It allow us to have very productive and engaged discussions.

I feel very lucky to be working with the group of people who are on the commission. We meet every two weeks, which is great. We are working very closely and there is a wide range of expertise and experience around the table. There is something else as well, namely, a great willingness on the part of everybody to engage regardless of the question. This is a function of the fact of our terms of reference. There is very important language therein about a fair and equitable approach, looking after the most vulnerable, supporting SMEs and bringing us back into the big framework about how tax and welfare supports economic activity, funds prosperity and ensures that we can support our public services. Whatever our experience and background - there is a great deal of experience on the commission from all different areas - there is a common, collective sense that we all have a responsibility and stake as regards those very big issues. To go to the question, that prompts wide and expansive debates. We are discussing a very wide range of issues.

My follow-up question is also on the process. We have had a great deal of discussion today about the content of the commission and various types of taxes. Will the commission also address the timing of taxes, the budgetary cycle and how it interacts with tax and welfare?

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the Chairman for the question. Tax and welfare operate at two levels in some respects. The budgetary cycle, which is an annual cycle, is a really important political process. It debates and adopts the budget for the year and makes the choices for that year around spending, borrowing and how tax and welfare are going to work. That is fundamental and critical to ourselves as a nation. There is also that wider debate and discussion and choice about the bigger system, standing back from the immediate pressures that the Government or Parliament face in any given year and the short-term choices that have to be made about particular issues. In terms of where we come in, cognisant of the types of issues, pressures, changes and dynamics that are out there, we put all of that into a melting pot and try to come up with menus, recommendations and options that will be resilient in ten, 15 or 20 years and that are there to be used by the political process in accordance with the needs and pressures that arise and the choices that need to be made at any given time. We are very cognisant of it and we are conscious of what is going on in any particular budgetary cycle, but we come in at that wider point.

I take Professor Moloney's point. I do think that sometimes the budgetary cycle has an impact on the manner in which tax is implemented. I would like to put that out there. I am hopeful that in this Government cycle there will be significant progress on issues such as equality budgeting and well-being indicators.

I am thinking in particular of gender and diversity issues and considering them in terms of the impact tax has on particular groups. Will that be part of the commission's remit?

Professor Niamh Moloney

When one thinks about tax and welfare and how they interact together, ultimately, it boils down a lot of the time to impact and distributional consequences and how different groups with different characteristics, features and long-term journeys through life, and different needs interact with the two systems. In our kind of exercise where you are standing back and looking at the system, that is part of what we are doing. We are looking at how different constituencies and cohorts are supported and protected by the tax member systems. Society has evolved, and where we are now in 2021 is somewhat different from where other commissions on tax and welfare would have been over earlier periods. It is very important for us to have that kind of lens on the society we are in and the society we are becoming, as it changes and as we look at how tax and welfare operate.

I thank Professor Moloney.

I welcome the witnesses. I must apologise to them as I was in the Chamber for the past hour and a half, and I have missed the discussion up to now. I will ask the questions I had prepared but I may be repeating what has been said. As I do not like people repeating themselves, the witnesses should feel free to say if they have already covered an issue.

One of the issues I am interested in is the analysis of taxation in this State and how the weight of taxation is broken down by taxes falling on labour versus capital. In the former category, I refer to income tax, universal social charge, USC, etc., and in terms of tax on capital, there is corporation tax, capital gains tax, etc. Globally, over the past 40 years, taxes on capital have been falling while tax on labour has been rising. This kind of analysis in an Irish context could be very valuable. The distribution of taxation is a pull-policy issue. Legislators having such information would be really helpful in informing the debate. Is that something the commission is looking at?

Professor Niamh Moloney

I am acutely conscious of the busy evening members have so I thank them for their time. I appreciate it very much. I thank Deputy Farrell for her reflections. She raises a very important question. It is exactly the kind of question that a commission like ours is best positioned to look at. To do that kind of assessment, we need to stand back and take a longitudinal perspective. We also need to look at other systems. As Deputy Farrell mentioned, there are big debates around this right now. In 2021, in terms of where we are right now, if you look around most advanced economies, they are debating how tax systems work and, as Deputy Farrell mentioned, what is the balance between current income and consumption and different sources of capital and wealth. UCD does a huge amount of work in this area and it is coming out of the other universities also. There is a very rich source of debate about this. It is a great debate as to how we organise tax. This is the kind of thing that it is appropriate for a body like ours to look at, in particular because we are the stand-back for the ten, 15 to 20 years, where the stress-testing body is not working. Do we need to look here or there? If we look there, how does that interact with what is sitting over there so the whole system is working sustainably?

Even though we have a broad term of reference, the timing at which we are looking at this is interesting. We have seen huge debates in the US in the past two weeks. The Biden Administration is looking at a very distinct form of tax on income levels that were stratospheric. That is the kind of debate they are having. It is important to be aware of the debate and why it is happening and what we can learn from it. It is important that a commission of our nature looks across the different bases of taxation and how effectively they are working together.

That is very interesting. I am annoyed that I missed the meeting up to now because it sounds like the committee had a very interesting debate. I will probably look back on it. Professor Moloney is correct that it is very interesting to see. I love to look at how things are developing internationally and how the conversation is going.

Deputy Boyd Barrett may have already mentioned this, because it is something he raises a lot. He often says that tax expenditures act like a shadow budget. It would be interesting to see what we spend every year on tax expenditures versus actual spending. Will the commission be looking at that kind of analysis as well?

Professor Niamh Moloney

Absolutely. Tax expenditures are a really important part of a tax system. Since we are taking a systemic view, in my head I think of all these clocks that are interacting with each other, in terms of bases and expenditures and so on, and what we end up with as all the clocks are moving together. Our terms of reference calls this out specifically, that we look at the process around which tax expenditures are reviewed. This is a very important analysis for us.

It is striking that we have in the region of 180 tax expenditures. They cost somewhere in the region of €7 billion. This is a core part of our tax system in the same way that the different bases are a core part of the tax system. It is important that we stand back and look at the system for doing this, in terms of the data that feed into tax expenditures, the process through which they are reviewed, what objectives they are designed to achieve and what metrics we use to assess those objectives. These are big questions.

I acknowledge the importance of the committee's work on this. It is very useful for us to have the committee's 2019 report into the tax expenditure process, which made eight recommendations on how one could think about tax expenditures. We are very grateful to have that. This is a really important area. In some respects, tax expenditures are very technical and specific, but what we need to do is to stand back and look at that as a system and how we can review and test them. We will be looking at tax expenditures. We are very grateful for the work done by the Committee on Budgetary Oversight in this regard, and we look forward to reflecting on it very seriously.

I thank Professor Moloney. That is it from me in terms of questions. I had a number of things on. I will definitely look back on the committee proceedings as it sounds like it was a very interesting debate.

I do not see any other hands going up. I agree that it has been a very interesting session. I commend the commission on publishing the minutes and it is great to hear that it will publish the papers as it goes along. That is something on which we would like to keep in contact with the commission and hopefully have another session at an interim stage. It is fascinating work. I can see Professor Moloney's enthusiasm for the subject. I do not blame her. She has an interesting project ahead of her. It will be no mean feat, as it is huge and serious in its scope. We wish her every good luck with that. I thank Professor Moloney and the commission for their attendance and their assistance to the committee. The committee welcomes the establishment of the commission and we look forward to future engagements.

Professor Niamh Moloney

I thank the committee so much. It has been hugely helpful for me this evening and for my colleagues who are with me to have this initial engagement been with the committee. We very much appreciate the committee's support of the commission. We are already learning from the committee through the 2019 report, and even more so this evening. We will be very happy to engage with the committee in our ongoing work. I am very grateful to the committee for its engagement with the commission, especially given the night that is in it. This has been a hugely informative and helpful exercise for me as chair, and I am very grateful for it.

I thank Professor Moloney. The committee will begin a series of meetings to examine inflation pressures.

On Wednesday, 10 November, at 5.30 p.m. the committee will meet Dr. Ella Kavanagh from University College Cork and Professor Karl Whelan of University College Dublin to discuss the drivers of inflation and potential policy responses to it.

The select committee adjourned at 7 p.m. until 5.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 10 November 2021.