Let me be very clear about this, I meet people regularly. Each Thursday morning I meet five people for over an hour from what Deputy McCreevy described as the "real world", from the world of business, professional organisations and anybody else operating within our economy, when I meet the senior management of my Department, a practice I initiated in the Department of Enterprise and Employment and carried on into the Department of Finance. Frequently such discussions refer to economic policy, taxation measures or to specific sectoral interests and, from time to time, include suggestions or ideas subsequently explored in detail at bilateral level between my Department and relevant individuals or organisations. In addition, as any former Minister will know, my diary is permanently full of visits to and meetings with such individuals or organisations. The concept of any Minister for Finance being locked up in Upper Merrion Street, pouring over legislative books, is a myth.
I wish to explain what was in my mind in regard to the suggestion I made which will, ultimately, be determined by the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs. The pre-budgetary practice has exploded in volume terms in recent years with in excess of 250 submissions being lodged. While not all of them are accompanied by a request for a meeting with the Minister, approximately 50 groups would want to meet me, not in the month of June, July or August but some time between the end of November and beginning of January when I or any Minister for Finance will be in the process of formulating the annual budget. In many such cases what individuals or groups want is a photo call, simply to present their shopping list, have their photographs taken without engaging in any dialogue whatsoever. Other deputations present to me in private — as they would have done to my predecessors — a shopping list of their demands from the taxpayer in the budget without indicating what it is they or their organisation propose to offer in return, how the general taxation system should be improved or how taxpayers in general would benefit from accommodating their sectoral interests.
I am of the view that the evolution of our budgetary process inexorably will move in the direction of Parliament having a much greater say in the formulation of the annual Book of Estimates and budget in a manner similar to that which takes place in other continental democracies such as France, Spain and so on. That is a good thing. Anybody seeking a tax break from the budgetary system, through the Finance Bill or the budget, should be accountable to this House. Holding a private meeting behind closed doors with any Minister for Finance — the parties involved, rather than the Department of Finance, issue the relevant press statement to the effect that they made a very strong case on behalf of this or that group to which the Minister is presumed to have acquiesced by his silence — is not in accordance with the spirit of democracy that should obtain in this State. I made the suggestion in my Budget Statement for reasons of democratic accountability, transparency and efficiency because civil servants' involvement at that juncture is enormous. Ultimately it is for the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs to decide whether it wants to engage in this process, whether, a group advocating a change in the tax law should be permitted to present its case and be questioned on it thus giving some idea of the overall economic benefit of any suggested change in the taxation system as distinct from a very articulate presentation on behalf of some lobby group.
Finally, by way of a postscript, of course I will meet pre-budget submission groups from the social partners at any time, subject to diary constraints. The reality is that the bright ideas for budgets seem to come into existence between late November and early January when it is simply impossible for the current system to digest or integrate those ideas, some of which are very good and some of which I have used in budget proposals. The scrappage idea for the car industry, for example, was one such an idea which came from a pre-budget submission. It was an excellent idea, which I was happy to accept and give full credit to the SIMI organisation which promoted it.
The system cannot allow the inexorable growth of pre-budget submissions and the demand for meetings in the time-frame of the period to which I refer.