I have taken a personal interest in this matter for some time. We should align the tax year with the fiscal year. I announced some years ago that it was my intention to do this, and my original intention was to have it up and running by 1 January 2001. That was not possible, however, and I announced in the middle of last year that the date would be 1 January 2002. The changes that have to be made are fairly significant.
As I recently said, a group was established to consider the date on which we would deliver the budget. Due to a number of factors, I have decided to have this year's budget on the first Wednesday of December, as has been the case since I became Minister for Finance. No matter what date the budget is held on, it would not be possible to pay long-term social welfare recipients earlier. One would need to have the budget in late June or early July to have payments ready. The effective date for social welfare payments and tax changes will be 1 January and the budget will be held on 5 December this year. When I announced the alignment of the tax year with the calendar year, we had to look at a variety of things. The Institute of Taxation and the CCABI came to see me and made representations. I had originally planned on 30 June and 30 December as tax deadlines.
Senator Bonner gave a good exposé of what has happened over the past 13 years or so. I am well aware of the pressure that accountants are under and I know that the Revenue Commissioners appreciate their co-operation. As Senator Bonner said, the commissioners deserve the praise they have received over recent years. It is beyond me how the system did not collapse in the 1970s and 1980s. I have given chapter and verse regarding the funny things that used to happen, but the system had more or less collapsed, as a colleague in the Revenue Commissioners said. The changes that have occurred in tax administration in the past 14 years are astounding for people like Senator Bonner and me who have seen the bad days and the new days.
In 1988, the former Minister for Finance, Mr. Ray MacSharry, announced a special tax amnesty. It was not the same as the amnesty in 1993 as it was an interest amnesty. Other provisions could have been made along the lines of the other amnesty, but he did not want a special kind of once-off payment. The amnesty allowed people to get their VAT, PAYE and income tax affairs in order for once and all. Every time they had tried to give a cheque to the inspector general of the Revenue Commissioners, they took it off the interest, so that the original payment was caught up with.
Either the Department of Finance or the Revenue Commissioners estimated that the measure introduced by Mr. MacSharry might bring in £50 million, at best. It transpired that between £500 million and £750 million was collected by 30 September, which was the date in that year by which all information had to be produced. Most small accountancy practices were involved at that time, not the big ones. Like Senator Bonner, I often think that the ideas of the big practitioners are held in higher esteem by the Revenue Commissioners. Small accountancy practices deal with a myriad of clients while big practitioners deal with big clients who have very efficient systems.
In the year of Mr. MacSharry's amnesty, every accountancy practice was up to its ears in work until 30 September. I remember clips being shown on television of accountants arriving at the offices of the Revenue Commissioners to hand over cheques. In the same year, the system of current year basis of assessment came into practice – as far as I remember, it was on 30 December 1989. By 31 December, a certain amount of money had to be in accounts or there would be a surcharge. Accountants, having worked until September to get accounts in order, ended up working very hard during October, November and December. I remember working until after midnight many nights in November and December, including after Christmas. I worked until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, as did everybody else. The Revenue allowed a few days after 31 December, perhaps the first week of January, until sense prevailed and the closing date was extended to 31 January. That is the background to all this.
I practised as an accountant when not in the Cabinet, even if it was not a very significant amount of work. My partners used to tell me I was there, in any event. When I was realigning the tax year, I was determined to have a single date for the various deadlines. It is desperately confusing, even for tax practitioners, that there are three separate dates, 1 November for preliminary tax, 31 January to begin accounts or returns of income and three further months until 30 April to pay the balance of one's preliminary tax. In my practice, if not in Senator Bonner's, the client often did not have his accounts up to date by 1 November. In that event, preliminary tax would be paid, which involved dragging out a file to send it off. A lot of work took place in January, as a pile of accounts had to be sent in by the end of the month. The amended assessment would then come back and the file would have to be taken out once more. One would ring up the client to say that the balance of tax was due on 30 April, and the whole process would start again.
I thought it would be good to have one date, as the file would only be taken out once, the payment of the balance of tax for the previous year would be made and the accountant would know exactly what the preliminary tax for the following year would be. At least 100% of tax for the preceding year would have to be paid to avoid a surcharge. About 95% of the estimate can be paid, but most people pay 100%. A single date would be simpler and therefore we have come up with 1 October.
When the original proposition was made, all hell broke loose, as usual. I met accountancy bodies and the date of 31 October was agreed. Funnily enough, it is also a date which was in my first Finance Act, although I was not aligning the tax year. The date was put in subject to a commencement order which was not activated. My original intention was not to activate the commencement order, as it was my intention to align the tax year. It would not have made sense to activate the order, so I did not do so.
The Institute of Taxation, the CCABI and I agreed the common deadline of 31 October, which is ten months from the start of the year. Senator Bonner spoke of the problems associated with the transition year, which will have its dead lines on 31 October 2002. I accept the Senator's argument that difficulties will be presented in the first year. Many clients in the Senator's accountancy practice, as well as my own, seem to have year ends of 31 March for the reasons he alluded to. Talks have been going on for some time between the Revenue Commissioners and the Tax Administrative Liaison Committee – TALC. While I do not intend to change legislation, the Revenue Commissioners will try to agree a reasonable period. I will not say what such a period will be, as I know that neither tax practitioners nor clients will operate on that basis. The new deadline will be 31 October and we will try to stick to it.
I do not know what is wrong with Irish people as regards tax, but they seem to leave it to the last minute to file their returns. I assume the situation is the same in Senator Bonner's practice as it is in mine. Even if accounts are done months previously, many people will not sign the tax return and will wait until the last date before they send it in. I do not think that 31 October is an unreasonable date considering that in the United States, whose tax year is synchronised with the calendar year, tax returns must be filed by 15 April. There are headlines in US papers, and sometimes on Irish television, which refer to people queuing at their local tax office all over the US, as their returns have to be in on that date which is not long after the end of the year.
I admit that there will be difficulties in the first year, but my officials tell me that the anticipated liability that Senator Bonner spoke of is not now expected. The Senator won his point with the esteemed inspector of taxes in County Donegal. When the new system is up and running, the calendar year will make everything far simpler. As Senators know, I will eliminate many provisions from previous Finance Acts. In this Finance Act, I have started tax relief at source for medical insurance and mortgage interest, which will eliminate a lot of paper-chasing and filling out of forms. The simpler I make the system, the easier it will be. I accept that there will be difficulties in the first year, but discussions between the Revenue Commissioners and the TALC are ongoing. I am sure they will make some progress and I hope we will come back in two years' time and say this was a great idea.