I welcome the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and their officials. We will start with brief opening remarks from the Minister for Finance. We have until approximately 12.30 p.m. I understand that the Minister for Finance must leave a little before that time and I would ask for earlier questions for him from members.
Engagement with Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform
I am pleased to attend the select committee and to help re-engineer the engagement between the Government and the Oireachtas, on fiscal policy in general and on the budget in particular. I am sure that the outcome of the committee's work will be a major improvement on the status quo resulting in better fiscal policy decisions and better outcomes for the State.
I, together with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, forwarded a submission to the committee on behalf of the Government on 2 June which, I assume, we can take as read. The overall objective is to get to a situation where the Dáil has the right information and the time to provide costed proposals for inclusion in the expenditure and revenue plans to be presented by the Government in the budget each October. For this to work as intended, the Dáil's input will need to be supplied as early as possible in September.
There is an inherent conflict between providing the right up-to-date information and providing information early. Aside from common sense, it is also a legal requirement that budgetary planning uses the most up-to-date information. This means that there is a limited window available for the preparation of some documents, such as the stability programme update. Providing earlier drafts would mean using out-of-date forecasts. Taking account of this constraint, we are looking at ways to bring forward the publication of draft documents with the most up-to-date information to give the Dáil time to consider them and make recommendations on the amendments before their final adoption.
Key to this process will be the need for the budget oversight committee to interact with other stakeholders and expert bodies, such as the European Commission, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and the ESRI. A better informed Dáil will be able to consider and adopt ex ante input for Government to consider in the formulation of budgetary plans. A better informed Dáil will be better placed to scrutinise a Government's budgetary plans when they are produced.
That is all I want to say by way of preliminary remarks but I am open to answering any questions.
Are any members offering? I call Deputy Ryan.
I thank the Minister for coming in. During this process we have heard from some of the officials here and others that the key objective, as I understand it, is that we get the Opposition in at a very early stage prior to the completion of the Estimates and the budget process in order that budget day does not descend upon the rest of the Parliament like something from outer space. I have argued during our hearings here that we should, as much as possible, try to implement this initiative in the 2017 budget process and not just wait for the 2018 process. I am particularly interested in how the Minister thinks it would be possible this month and next month to involve the sectoral committees - where I think a lot of the work has to be done, and not just in a budget scrutiny committee whenever it is formally fully established.
I shall outline one of the key objectives that we should strive for. The committees, with their Minister and Department, should be involved in considering some of the bids from Departments for spending or possibly tax raising measures, where that is appropriate, in the summer period rather than waiting for the autumn. A line Minister may have an initiative or idea. As I recall and understand the Estimates process, there would be dialogue between the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform or the Department of Finance and the relevant Department throughout the summer period. This would mean that options could be considered by the committees, particularly sectoral committees, in the summer period rather than waiting for the autumn. We should put a fairly demanding pressure on the committees, as they are set up in the coming weeks, to do just that as part of the 2017 budget process rather than waiting for the autumn period. Is such an initiative possible?
I asked the Taoiseach this question during the Order of Business in the week before last. I got a sense from him that such a goal would meet with the Government's overall objectives of ensuring that politics work in a different way in this period. Is it possible for the sectoral committees, in the Minister's mind, to engage with Ministers and Departments to consider, not just the overall Vote aggregate, but to go down into some of the detailed propositions that Departments or Ministers may have, in the summer period, as part of that dialogue the Minister for Finance mentioned in his submission? He stated that we need to get right and evolve the national economic dialogue and have spring and summer statements, etc. Can we get sectoral committees to look at big proposals this summer rather than this autumn?
First, by way of background, starting from today, the first opportunity that the Dáil will have to discuss the budget will be next week because we are hoping to publish the summer economic statement after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. I understand that it is going into the Dáil on Thursday so there will be a Second Stage-type debate on that and all of the basic data, to date, will be published in that statement. From the point of view of Deputy Ryan's question, that will give us the latest estimate of the scope there will be for the 2017 budget in terms of tax reductions and increased expenditure. In other words, the so-called fiscal space will be identified. On Tuesday, if one thinks of it in sporting terms, the pitch will be lined on which the game will be played so one will know the parameters of what is available going forward. After that the national economic dialogue will take place on 27 and 28 June in Dublin Castle. The intention is that all of the members of this committee will be invited to participate in the dialogue and will act as a link with the rest of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Invitations will also be extended to the interest groups in society, which range from the employers to the unions, the social pillar and to the various organisations that are normally consulted. The event will last two days. We will have plenary sessions and breakout groups to deal with particular topics.
This will give a view of the objectives of the organised interest groups in society in terms of increased spending and we will listen to them very carefully.
The next step is that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, will publish earlier than usual the mid-year expenditure report. I will let him deal with that but the intention is that on a no policy change basis, he will set out his requirements across Departments for 2017. The combination of identifying the fiscal space and the publication of the Minister's document on expenditure will give the line committees sufficient information to debate the adequacy or otherwise of what is available. However, the fiscal rules mean that there are boundaries to what can be done, and it is within those boundaries that the choices will have to be made. That is the way it will go.
On the tax side, it is normal to publish the papers of the tax strategy group, which is comprised of both departmental officials and Revenue staff, which look at the various tax options. Again, those papers provide basic data such as the consequences of an increase in VAT. My intention is to publish those early this year. They were always published after the budget so that one got a rear view mirror look of the tax assessment by the officials who were advising the Minister prior to the budget. This time I would like to publish them in mid or late July and supply them to Members. In that way, Deputies will have an identification of the fiscal space, the first cut at the Estimates from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, together with the tax policy documents that are under consideration by the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance. Again, my aim and that of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is that on the lead-in to the budget, Parliament or the Dáil would have the same information as the Ministers so that if Deputies want to make alternative proposals, they can do so.
How it will work out between the different committees is hard to predict. One possibility is that members of the health committee will want as much money as they can get while the members of the justice or education committees will have a similar approach, but if one interest group takes all, then there is nothing left for the others. This is the position we are in when trying to determine the best policy position. At the end of the day, we are bound by the constitutional position that it is the Government which brings forward the Estimates and the budget, but our commitment is to take the views of the Dáil into account in the formulation of the budget and to give Members all the information they need to decide on one option over another.
We will have the summer economic statement followed by the event in Dublin Castle, to which Members will be invited. That will be followed by the publication of the Estimates, which Deputy Donohoe will deal with, followed by the provision of the tax strategy papers in mid to late July and then the process will run on. In my introductory remarks I said that it is not possible to finalise matters in July or August because the statistics keep moving. The White Paper that is published on the Friday before the budget is the last piece of data that is available and it is only published at the very end of the process because there is a constitutional obligation on the Government to base its budget on the latest available accurate data. If we try to do it in July or August, the numbers will have changed by the time we get to the budget.
There are a number of members who want to ask questions before-----
I wish to respond briefly to what the Minister has said. To get back to the key point, the Minister said that in terms of individual spending proposals there will be space for the Opposition to present alternative proposals. However, what I am saying is that during the period when the issues are being debated between line Departments and Ministers and the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform the process should be more open. In other words, the individual Ministers or Departments who have proposals should be discussing them in sectoral committees in the summer period. Ultimately, that will empower Ministers and empower the process in terms of teasing things out and widening the responsibility because if one is going to spend more in one area, one may have to cut back in another. If it is just a process whereby the Opposition contributes proposals but does not get a chance to debate the Departments' proposals then we are not doing what the OECD suggested, namely engaging with the Departments in an active way. That cannot just be done in September or October. It must be done in the June-July period, as well as the national economic dialogue and all of the other elements to which the Minister referred.
I would prefer the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to deal with that issue. The only expenditure function I have as Minister for Finance is to set the overall expenditure ceiling. That is my legal function and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has to allocate moneys within that ceiling. He has the responsibility for the Estimates campaign with individual Departments and perhaps he would like to address Deputy Ryan's point now.
Yes. We are moving as quickly as we can to publish the mid-year expenditure reports because they offer the platform on which the sectoral engagements that Deputy Ryan envisages can take place. We aim to publish as early in July as possible the starting point for each Department for budget 2017. We will outline where they are from a spending point of view at the moment and issues that will affect their expenditure for next year. In other words, we will outline for example, the effect of the Landsdowne Road agreement on their pay commitments vis-à-vis the starting point for their Estimates for next year. We will make all of that information available and will also offer any indications we can on the 2017 to 2019 period. When the mid-year expenditure report is published it will be made available to sectoral committees which will offer the opportunity for engagement to take place in July. If we can offer any support during the period in which a facility is being set up for the Oireachtas for the costing of proposals from any Member of Dáil Éireann, we will do so.
The OECD said in November that the Government currently has "primacy to the point of dominance" in the budgetary cycle. At the end of his remarks the Minister for Finance touched on one of the things that gives primacy to the Government, namely Article 17.2 of the Constitution. Does the Minister have any views on that article? If this committee took the view that it should be changed in some way to facilitate greater parliamentary involvement in the budgetary cycle, would the Minister support that or is he and the Department of Finance wedded to Article 17.2 as it currently stands?
The Minister said that the tax strategy group papers will be published in mid-July. Will those papers present a sufficient level of detail to allow the various committees to engage or will they provide only broad, macro figures?
First, we have to operate within the Constitution. As Minister for Finance I have to make the budgetary arrangements in accordance with the Constitution. I have no discretion in moving away from that. As we all know, to change the constitutional provisions we would need a referendum but there is no proposal before us in that regard.
I have a legal note here and can read it if the Chairman wishes.
Is it on this particular issue?
Well, we just had a legal discussion earlier so ---
Perhaps the Minister could make a copy available to the committee?
All right, we will make a copy available.
Does the Minister, with his great experience, believe in the primacy of Article 17.2 as it is?
In the absence of any alternative proposal which would make sense, I do but I am always open to hearing alternative proposals.
I ask Deputy Donohoe to address the second point.
I read the OECD report and found it a very helpful input into the work we have been doing. Page 27 of the report, in the section relating to principles guiding parliamentary reform, refers to respect for constitutional restraints and the prerogatives of the Executive.
The same report does acknowledge the role of the Executive which is a consequence of the design of our Constitution. Within that architecture, I will do all I can to work with members on expenditure choices. This is the reason we are working so hard to try to get the mid-year expenditure report ready.
I asked about the tax-----
The tax strategy papers are very detailed. If the Deputy wants to get a flavour of what they are like, the previous tax strategy papers are online. If the Deputy wants an insight he should look at last year's set which were published after the budget. This year we will publish them in July so that members will have access to the information on which the Government will make its decisions on tax, well prior to the budget.
Those existing papers will be circulated also this evening to members. I call Deputy Pearse Doherty.
I have a number of questions. Perhaps I can continue on the tax strategy papers. The Minister said he will publish them sometime in July. Will he give the committee an indication of when in July he expects to publish them?
I expect to publish them from mid to late July.
That means they would not be discussed, given that the House and the committees do not sit in August, by any budgetary committee until September at the earliest which is an issue in terms of eating into the budgetary cycle.
I will publish them as soon as I have them. They are papers that are developed over a period.
I understand. There is no point in the Government's initiative which I view as a number of additional set pieces to already set pieces without a proper cycle of engagement. To say that the tax strategy papers will be published at the end of July will not give the budgetary committee that is to be established enough time to scrutinise those papers and to have a proper input into the formulation of tax proposals for the Government's consideration. The committee will not meet until September to begin that work by which time it will have a logjam of information on issues that will have to be dealt with at that time.
The work has to be done. If we are into new politics where everything is on the table why should the committee not meet in August?
That is fine. That is an option that can be considered by the committee. The question I am putting to the Minister is this - in terms of the timing of information when the House is sitting can the tax strategy papers be presented prior to that time? Last year's two tax strategy meetings for budget 2016 between the officials took place in mid-September. The Minister says the papers will be ready in July but can they not be ready in June?
I will see how early we can produce them. The papers are papers that are developed so that the relevant officials can consider them and advise the Minister who advises the Government. There is a process within the Department which indicates a particular date. The information available to me is that we will be in a position to publish them by mid to late July. I will see if that date can be advanced.
In its review the committee will have a view on what the Government has suggested regarding the tax strategy papers. The 2016 tax strategy papers have still been redacted. There are three papers that have been only partially released. Given that the rest of them were released after the budget, how likely is it that there will be further redactions if the other papers are going to be released prior to the budget?
I cannot predict that in advance of the papers being fully developed. There are valid reasons for redaction. For example, some things are commercially sensitive and could be redacted. I will provide the Deputy with the fullest information I can in accordance with the legal advice I receive.
I have a series of questions but I will try to get through them as quickly as I can.
As quickly as possible, please.
In its proposal, the Government again states that it will be published earlier, which is the start of April. That does not allow sufficient time for consideration by the new budgetary committee to allow it to examine and report on those issues and to have an input into the draft stability programme update. The OECD recommended that it be published a couple of months prior to the Department's publication date. Will the Minister outline the reason he cannot publish it before the start of April? If the budgetary committee requested that the stability programme update, SPU, be brought forward by a month, that would happen. I note some of the arguments are that the March figures are coming in at that time. How long is a piece of string? If a person has to report in February, he or she uses the latest information that is available. The longer it is left, the more information that will be available and the clearer the picture will become, but the real issue is whether, with the information available, it will allow for the SPU to be published some time in March.
In the previous Dáil, the timing of the draft SPU was moved forward to April. April was chosen because a lot of data come in March. In terms of the annual budgetary cycle, the 2017 budget will commence on 1 January 2017. We will see how things are going after the end of the first quarter, which is the end of March, and get the statistics for expenditure and revenue in the normal way. The monthly statistics are a bit jumpy, so to speak. Sometimes they do not make an awful lot of sense on which to base policy. We begin to get the picture once we have quarterly figures. That is the reason we do it in April. If it were to be brought forward, it could be done but we could not vouch for its accuracy. That is the problem.
We will come back to that issue. My view is that I have not heard a valid reason the SPU cannot be brought forward. The spring or, as it is now called, the June statement will update the figures in the SPU so the issue in terms of accurate figures is that they will only be accurate at a point in time. The idea of this engagement process is that we are looking at a continuum of information that becomes more accurate, with the White Paper being the most accurate information that is provided almost on the eve of the budget.
We also have to discuss the SPU with the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council in advance of finalising the figures and publication.
A budgetary committee put on a statutory footing should also have the respect of Government and the Department and information should flow to it alongside the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council which has a specific role in respect of macroeconomic projections but which does not really go beyond that.
I am not arguing with the Deputy; I am just giving him information. Before we publish in April, it has to go to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. I cannot finalise the SPU until I get the opinion of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council on it. If it agrees it, we do not change the figures, but if there is dialogue, there has to be an opportunity to change. If we gave it to the committee at the same time as it goes to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, it would get a draft that could be changed subsequently and it would be less satisfactory. I could not vouch for the accuracy of it or that it would be a final figure. I am open to hearing the Deputy's views.
I will go through some of my questions quickly. The-----
On a point of order, I understood it was to be two questions per Deputy for a full round and then we could come back again to ensure everybody gets a chance to ask a question.
Let me group some of these questions.
A suggestion being put to us is that the national economic dialogue would be taken in charge and led by the budgetary committee and other sectoral committees. I am sure the Minister would be invited to it as he is inviting us to the next one. I would appreciate the Minister's views on that suggestion. Another suggestion is that Parliament would lead the national economic dialogue instead of the Executive. An issue finance spokespersons have raised time and again is the fact the White Paper is presented on the Friday before the budget. That is not a great position. While there is a constitutional requirement for the White Paper to be produced and to be accurate, can provisional White Papers be produced a couple of weeks earlier providing the best guesstimate which would enhance the process?
The budget proposals from the Government do not seem to address the role of the new budgetary committee that is to be established. It refers to sectoral committees. Is there a reason for that?
What role does the Minister think the budgetary committee would or should have? For example, the programme for Government is not costed. Does the Minister believe that the budgetary committee should have a view on or examine why the programme for Government is not costed?
Does the Minister support the idea of an independent parliamentary budget office, which would be a costings unit and would be available to a new budgetary committee, political parties and Independent Deputies in terms of policies, Bills, manifestoes, etc., independently of the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, while drawing on the expertise, experience and information of those two Departments and the Revenue Commissioners?
A White Paper could be produced earlier in the year, perhaps in July. However, a White Paper will still have to be produced just before the budget, because the figures change as the year goes on. In order to provide accurate information before the budget, the practice has been to publish such a paper on the Friday night before the budget, with the Budget Statement envisaged to be delivered on the Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week.
Whatever we do by way of preliminary White Papers, there will still have to be a final White Paper in order to be accurate. That might lead to confusion and quite substantial variations between something that is produced in July and something that is produced on the Friday night before the budget. There is a conflict between providing information early and the accuracy of that information. I am quite prepared to work to see whether we can narrow that conflict as much as possible. However, there is a conflict because the situation develops as the year goes on until the weekend before the budget, and we finalise the details at that stage.
I refer to the budgetary office. I agree with the Deputy that it is a good idea. It should be within the control of the Houses of the Oireachtas and responsible to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. It does not come out of a departmental Vote - I understand the money comes from the Central Fund, and funding arrangements would have to be made on that basis.
We need something in place to ensure that two sets of costings would not be released. If the Deputy tables a parliamentary question to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to ask him what the annual cost of certain decisions would be and a budgetary office came up with a different figure, which is quite possible, we would need some mechanism to reconcile the figures. There would have to be a relationship between the budgetary office and the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance, and perhaps line Departments, to allow the budgetary office to be independent while at the same time having some mechanism for reconciling figures.
We are in the business of doing things differently and having a bigger role for the Dáil and Parliament. I want to co-operate with that, and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has the same approach. We are not claiming any monopoly on wisdom. All we are doing today is outlining to the committee what we have decided, with its agreement, should happen this year. I understand the committee has a mandate as a type of scoping committee. It is not actually a budgetary committee. The committee can carry out exercises and advice can be provided, and we will see where things land. The ultimate objective is that there will be a greater role for the Parliament and more parliamentary input and scrutiny. That is the situation as I understand it.
There could be an economic dialogue led by the Parliament instead of the Executive-----
I do not have an objection in principle. If the Deputy thinks that can be done and the committee thinks it is a good idea, it can be included in the recommendations. We are not wedded to the idea that it will be we who organise it. We really do not mind what way it is done.
Deputy Cullinane. Brief comments, now, and specifically on finance.
The Chairman always uses the word "brief" when it comes to me. I hope I get the same time as everybody else. I thank him for his clarification.
I welcome the Ministers. The Government's submission was helpful in the sense that it set out the new budgetary cycle. We have had discussions on this. As the Minister, Deputy Noonan, put it, we are a scoping or arrangements committee which is considering putting in place a new budgetary scrutiny committee. I want to hear his views on how we can make that committee as empowered as possible. In response to the previous matter, the Minister said he wants greater parliamentary input and scrutiny. There will be no end of scrutiny, but we can differ on input in terms of the powers the committee will have.
Article 17.2 of the Constitution will be crucial because if the Opposition or Members of the Oireachtas in general cannot move money Bills or amendments which include a financial charge, that will limit the ability of the committee to have an input into policy. The Minister said he was open to new ideas. Perhaps he can expand on that. Would he agree that the current constitutional constraints make it difficult for us to have a genuine input?
Deputy Pearse Doherty referred to the relationship between sectoral committees and the new budgetary scrutiny committee that will be established. In the Minister's paper on the circulation of tax strategy group papers, it is stated that such papers would be scrutinised by the relevant sectoral committees which can then consider developing recommendations they might wish to submit to Government. I presume the Minister would want the new budgetary scrutiny committee to examine the same papers and make recommendations. Interestingly, the paper only refers to existing tax measures. One of the things I hope the new budgetary scrutiny committee will be in a position to do is examine not just Government proposals, existing tax measures or even expenditure but also alternatives. It is not all about the Government's ideas. What is the Minister's view on that?
I refer to off-balance-sheet budgeting, which is becoming more of a feature. The Taoiseach wrote to President Juncker on the use of PPPs, for example, in off-balance-sheet budgeting. Would the Minister see a role for the new budgetary scrutiny committee in that area at a macro level? Would it be an area into which we would have more of an input in terms of policy? I would certainly see it in that light.
My final question relates to information flows. Given the new budgetary cycle, there would be no shortage of information. One of the key failings up to now that I have identified - and to which the parliamentary reform committee that gave this committee its mandate referred - is the quality of the information we receive. Sometimes getting information from different Departments can be like pulling teeth. What is the view of the Minister on how we can improve the quality of the information given to the Oireachtas in general?
I refer to costings, which have been mentioned. This has been an issue for a long number of years. There was some confusion about what was in the programme for Government and our terms of reference, and what has been called a parliamentary budget office. How will the Oireachtas have much greater access to having proposals costed? The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform currently provides a very small window of opportunity in that regard, namely, a number of weeks before the budget. A much greater period needs to be provided. What is the view of the Minister on that?
The Deputy asked a lot of questions, but they all relate to the same area. It is not for the Government or Ministers to tell parliamentary committees how they should conduct their business.
I am asking the Minister for his view.
It is a matter for individual committees to decide, within their areas of responsibility, how they will manage their business, the discussions they will have and who they will call before them. I do not have a view because I should not have a view. It is a matter for the committees and I do not want to influence their work in any way. Parliamentary work should be a matter for Parliament.
It is not true to say that Parliament does not have a role in budgetary formation. It has an absolute role. No budget or finance Bill passes without a majority vote of the Dáil.
No social welfare Bill passes without a majority vote of the Dáil so there is absolute control by the Dáil over the budgetary actions of Government. What is being argued about is whether, as well as that absolute control, the Dáil should have an input in the formation of budgetary policy - a hands-on executive role - rather than an advisory role or a scrutiny role. That is fair enough but every democracy needs a parliament and every democracy also needs an executive to do the work on a full-time basis and bring forward proposals. As we attempt to change the balance, I would not favour taking away the functions of the Executive and giving them to a committee of Parliament because we might arrive at a situation where we would have no budget. I know of no country in the world that is governed simply by a parliamentary committee process. There is always an executive and there must be something in the powers of the executive.
I was asked a number of questions about costings. I agree there should be a budgetary committee that would be independent of the Departments and of the Government and responsible to the Dáil. Deputy Pearse Doherty was probably the first person to mention that in recent years and I agreed with him very quickly that it would be a good reform and I am fully supportive of that. I do not indicate that I would support constitutional change. The Constitution has been operating for a long time. Such matters were very carefully considered and a certain role was given to the Executive and to the Parliament. If we were to try to rebalance the situation, which is essentially what we are talking about, we should try to do so in a way that makes the system more effective and accountable, but I do not think we should make radical change without due consideration. This is a scoping committee and it is up to it to do the consideration and to make any proposals it wants about how the respective duties should be rebalanced. That is what the committee is about. At the end of the day my view will not count. It is the view of the Dáil that will count. I would not rush into a referendum.
What about scrutiny of off-balance sheet budgeting?
There is absolute scrutiny at the moment. The finance committee calls in the Central Bank, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the Department and the Revenue Commissioners and there is full scrutiny at various times of the year, not only when the committee is scrutinising the Estimate for the Department of Finance but on a global basis. The committee calls other State agencies in as well, for example, the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, NAMA and other such bodies have appeared before it. The scrutiny has been working pretty well, but I accept that everything can be improved. If there are recommendations for improving scrutiny, I would not have a problem with that.
I have two points to make on costings. I fully concur with and support the setting up of an independent budget office, an economic service for the Oireachtas. My Department will give any help it can to set up such an office and for the duration of the set-up period. If Deputy Cullinane or any Deputy has concerns on costings that need to be done or concerns about the flow of information to this or any other committee, we will endeavour to respond to him or her.
I concur with what the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, said on the constitutional role of the Executive vis-à-vis the Government. I also draw the committee's attention to the OECD report from which I quoted earlier. Another section of the report on new areas of engagement states, "It must be recognised that this can only be done within the limits of the existing constitution." The report also states:
“Enhanced parliamentary engagement” does not entail simply displacing the views of the executive branch with the views of parliamentarians; but rather ensuring that the legitimate views and insights of parliamentarians are brought to bear upon budget deliberations.
That is what we will endeavour to do.
I ask Deputy Donnelly to be brief.
I will speak at twice the pace. The stability programme update, SPU, has become an important document. The Minister's officials very kindly gave me a briefing on this year's SPU. The detail in some of it is incredibly important and one would not get it without quite detailed engagement with the Minister or the officials. Mid-April seems way too late to me. I accept the point on sending the update to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC. The SPU consideration starts once the European Parliament's annual growth survey comes out in November of the previous year. I presume the officials and the Minister are working on the SPU from November. Coming to the committee with a critical and really complex document in mid-April just does not work. It is way too late. Will the Minister speak to his officials about how the SPU could be provided earlier?
Consideration of the document and understanding what is in it takes two weeks. There is a line item in this year's SPU which references the changing of bank shares from preference to ordinary or the other way around, which freed up an unexpected amount of fiscal space, and that is allowing the Vote on health this year, for example. The sum of €500 million can be provided because of that technical change. There is really important stuff in there and coming to the committee or Parliament in mid-April is just too late. We need to get the document and read it in good time. We could probably do with briefings from officials. We need time to discuss the SPU in committee and to form our opinion and then the Minister needs time to take the opinion on board and potentially to change the SPU. I do not see any way that could be done between mid-April and the end of April.
The officials need time to put it together as well.
There are deadlines that cannot be met simply because it is a very complex document. An awful lot of work goes into it.
I am sure there is. We need to find the right balance. Giving the officials from November until mid-April and then giving Parliament ten days does not strike me as a reasonable balance.
To take the example Deputy Donnelly gave of the AIB preference shares, EUROSTAT made a decision totally unexpectedly. I still do not know why. It is one of the problems with European institutions that they do not have to explain themselves. We were not notified until around 20 April and we were fortunate to be able to get the change into the SPU at all. If it had been left for another couple of weeks, it would not even have been included. It did have the effect, for technical reasons, of increasing the potential expenditure ceiling and that allows us now to give the extra money to health in the Estimate about which the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has notified the House. Deputy Donnelly is correct, but on the actual timing of that, if we had brought out the SPU at the end of March, that measure would not have been in it.
That is reasonable but we are operating in an environment where things change all the time and I do not think we can allow the logic of the Minister's argument to prevail if what he is saying is that things change all the time and therefore one should wait as long as one can to get as many of the changes in. Again, it is a question of balance. The Minister is correct. There was a significant change that made a massive difference to the fiscal space. My view is that providing the report in mid-April is not striking the right balance. Perhaps it could be the start of April or in mid-March or we could get it at the same time as IFAC and take it with the understanding that IFAC might change some things and that it is a draft report. I urge the Minister to consider that point if he would.
The next point is relevant to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. Deputy Pearse Doherty referred to the White Paper. The reason the White Paper was so important was because it was the only chance we got to look at the no policy change numbers, and if one is coming up with counter-proposals that is what one needs. To get that information at midnight on a Friday before a Tuesday budget was always too late. There is no policy change in this SPU, which is very useful, but it was done in the context of there being no Government in place. As a parliamentarian seeking to propose budgetary ideas, the most useful piece of information for me in the past five years was the no-change budget, both in terms of revenue and, critically, of expenditure. That information does not come through. In fact, it takes even longer than the White Paper because the White Paper does the revenue. We need some mechanism to ensure the no-change figures are in. If they are in the SPU, that is in plenty of time, and they were this year.
It would be useful if that could happen every year.
I ask the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, on reading-----
While the Deputy can get back in to ask a question of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, must leave. Does the Deputy have anything else to ask of the Minister for Finance as I wish to let in a few more members?
I have just one question, which I guess is for both Ministers. There is a welcome commitment in here on equality proofing, poverty proofing and social impact assessments. I have been seeking equality budgeting for a number of years; when will the Minister revert to the Dáil or to whatever is the correct committee with a solid proposal on the scope of the equality budgeting and social impact assessment?
While I do not have a date in this regard, there is plenty of time for the Deputy to make a submission to the Department if he wishes to have his views taken into account.
I thank the Minister.
In previous years, we did the switch analysis anyway and I believe we finalise it around the time of the Finance Bill.
Is Deputy Noonan the line Minister in this regard? Is his Department responsible?
Deputy Burton may come in briefly if she has points for the Minister, Deputy Noonan.
First, I welcome the statement the Minister, Deputy Noonan, made about the role of the committee and giving due consideration, as well as the opening statement on the historic opportunity to enhance the relationship between the Government and the Oireachtas. The key to this will be the timeliness of information and its adequacy. In that context, I ask the Minister whether certain areas of information, which are standard in the flow of information from Departments to the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, can be published on a timely basis. For instance, each Department prepared extensive notes for each Minister on taking office. They were like doorstoppers in some or perhaps all cases. I never have understood why they should not simply be published in full. They obviously are subject to freedom of information requests by journalists but I do not see why Members of Parliament should be obliged to use freedom of information to get them. In the context of the new politics, could there be an agreement whereby one week or ten days or even three days after the Minister received such briefings, they simply could be published? They would be extremely valuable for the sectoral committees and absolutely essential for this committee. While obviously one would not be able to read them all at once, they would give one a general background on specific areas and would reflect departmental advice.
We did publish them in full.
As did my Department and I completely agree with the Deputy. We published it on our website a short time after I took office because the Deputy is right.
Very well. I have made this point at this committee previously but in terms of ground rules, the timeliness, amount and quality of the information are key to the successful relationship the Ministers envisage in their submission to the committee. A second proposal would be to consider the monthly statements at the end of the month and the subsequent expenditure reports that are produced by each Department. I appreciate absolutely the Minister's observation that earlier in the year in particular, the figures are tentative and the committee acknowledges this. Members are not suggesting someone will come back and eat the Minister if there is a subsequent variation in the figures. Again however, these figures could be made available to the committee within a week to ten days after being made available and brought to the Cabinet. I do not see why they should not be made available if this committee is to do its work properly because without the information, I do not know whether members can be as helpful to the Government as possible.
Is the Deputy talking about the monthly Exchequer figures?
No, they are published. I refer to the expenditure profiles that go to the Cabinet; the detailed reports that go to the Cabinet in respect of each Department, where the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform reports on them. I propose they should be published, say, ten days after going to the Cabinet because they contain key data.
While the information in some cases is tentative and depends on events that may happen later on, that is the way other parliaments do this. They have access to this information that is available to the executive once the executive has made decisions about it.
Does the Deputy have questions that are specifically for the Minister for Finance? I want to let other Members in.
This is to both Ministers because there are tax profiles, which leads me to my next question. On the details of taxation, the most important issue is to have information about the costings and profiles on tax, and this point relates to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. All Departments make bids at various times during the year and continually regarding things they would like to do. Again, that information crystallises as the budget approaches. Does the Minister have a view as to how much of that information can be made available, if this committee is to be able to be involved in a genuine way in the budget discussion?
As for my final question to the Minister for Finance, I have a practical example. While budget discussions of Estimates are taking place in the Dáil today, Members were not able to get the Estimates until approximately one hour ago. As the Ministers are aware, it is quite tricky to have a detailed analysis on a sectoral basis, and today's debate will be on health and education. Will the Minister give an undertaking or explain why there has been such a mess in respect of the Estimates this year?. It is almost six months into the financial year and all that information is available, certainly up to the end of May. Why is this information and the information on the other Estimates not available?
My final question is on the relationship with the European Union and the Minister might talk to members about this matter at a subsequent stage. At present in the European Union, there is a build-up of different rules for different countries. This is because although there is a general EU fiscal framework, to which the Minister referred in his opening remarks, and a fiscal space, it increasingly is being interpreted in different ways for different countries. Does the Minister have a view because with the budgetary oversight committee, the EU fiscal framework obviously is a significant issue? If the rules keep being changed, will the Minister provide a mechanism to update members on his view of the current approach by the EU structures to Ireland, that is, whether we would get the same leeway as or less leeway than France? I do not expect the Minister to answer all of that now, but if this committee is to do its job in the context of budget scrutiny, its members must get a sense of the current position of the EU and ECOFIN, in that France now gets two extra years, Spain certainly got one extra year, I believe Portugal also got an extra year and so on.
I must put the question. If the Minister can briefly-----
I apologise but I must leave as there is something I must do. My officials will remain and while they obviously do not wish to answer policy questions, they will answer any technical question members put to them. If the committee wants me to return at any stage-----
We might want the Minister to come back before next week.
I can do that. Just give me a bit of notice and I will come back. However, I had this appointment before the arrangements were made.
It is unavoidable and I must go.
Does the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, wish to address some of these questions?
I will begin with the question put to me by Deputy Donnelly in respect of his appreciation of the no policy change information. That is what we seek to do in the mid-year report. My objective is to be able to produce for each sectoral committee the best estimate as to what we believe are the no policy change figures in order that Members will know the truest starting point for the framing of the 2017 budget.
The effect of having that information earlier in the year than normal should be positive for the deliberations. The Chairman acknowledged how helpful they were in the past.
Deputy Burton raised questions to which I can respond. The Deputy asked about the sharing of information made available to me regarding the expenditure profiles of individual Departments. I will look to see if we can do that. It is a fair point. I appreciate the recognition of the committee that the information can be lumpy - it can change. The best example of all this is with regard to the profiling of capital expenditure. Deputy Burton and other colleagues will be aware that the profile of capital expenditure changes across the year. For example, the roads budget in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, with which I would have been familiar, was discharged to a significant extent in particular months of the year. As long as the committee is aware that information that we are sharing may change for real, objective reasons beyond our control, we will look to see how we can respond in that regard. The best way we might be able to do so is by having a think about the format in which we would share the information with the committee, which will indicate that the position could change from month to month. We will respond to the Chairman regarding how we will do it.
In relation to the bids that individual Ministers might make to my Department at different points of the year, the best way of handling that would be through engagement with the sectoral committees. I am sure Ministers will use the opportunity to go in front of their sectoral committees to articulate the additional projects they would like to do during the year, which they are talking to me about as well. I hope that the mid-year expenditure report that we will publish in a few weeks' time will go some way towards giving the entire House an awareness of what individual Ministers are trying to do across the year.
In relation to the Estimates, I respectfully would not describe it as a mess, but I wish we had been in a different place to do it. I wish we could have done it earlier on in the year, but that was for reasons beyond our control.
The Minister might explain what the problem was in terms of a good submission by the Government.
I was about to do so. The reason we have had difficulties to date is twofold. First, we have had changes regarding the allocations and set-up of Departments, which, in turn, has had an impact on the Estimates. Second, we had some changes that took place in the spending of individual Departments, as confirmed by the Cabinet last week. I take Deputy Burton's point that the Estimates should be made available to the Members as soon as possible. For the remaining Votes that are in front of the Oireachtas - I note there have been two this week - I will follow up with the individual Departments to see how we can ensure that those Estimates are shared with the Members sooner, because they should have the figures.
One of the questions I asked was whether the Minister would be agreeable to publishing the information that goes to Cabinet in relation to the expenditure profiles and expenditure reports, because they are done regularly. I appreciate that before they go to Cabinet these are confidential, but once they have gone to Cabinet, why would they not be available, particularly for a committee such as this, within a week or ten days?
I answered that. I am in agreement in principle. There is the trade-off, as the Minister, Deputy Noonan, stated already, between the transparency and accuracy of the information. Within that space, however, it is a fair request from the Deputy and I will come back to the committee regarding how we can do that.
I welcome both Ministers and their contributions. I also welcome their acknowledgement of the importance of the independence of the budget office. I have a further question to expand on that. I am interested in the Minister's views on having the budgetary office set up as an independent statutory body. The reason I ask is that in Canada there were controversies about the budgetary office because it was not seen to be independent. We need to be careful not to go down that road here. If we want this to work effectively and we want to be able to scrutinise budgets and, indeed, the Departments of Deputies Noonan and Donohoe, it is critical that the budgetary office be seen to be independent and set up on a statutory basis.
Finally, in the event of the scenario being that there is an independent budgetary office, what would be the most effective role for the fiscal council? Would the Ministers see the role of the council changing or needing to change in any way?
On the budgetary office and whether it should be on a statutory footing, in the spirit of where we are now I would have to say that is a matter for the Oireachtas. I believe it is something that should be considered.
On the timing, I suggest it would be worthwhile getting the body up and running for a period of time on an administrative basis to learn from how it works; that could then be used to inform how it could be made as independent as possible. That is something that should be considered by this committee. The budgetary office must exist and work within the framework of the Constitution, and we have already had a discussion on that.
The role of the fiscal council is very much a matter for the Minister for Finance. There are clear roles that the fiscal council must provide, for example, in relation to the deficit and how we engage with European institutions. Within all of that, there is ample important work that a new independent Oireachtas economics body would be able to perform and I would anticipate little, if any, conflict.
I would welcome the opportunity for the Minister, Deputy Noonan, to return next week, if possible. It would have been good to get the opportunity to ask him a question but I appreciate his time was limited.
The conversations we have had over the last number of meetings have centred around getting information early. It has been the general consensus that if we do not get information earlier, effectively, we will not make any substantial changes in how we conduct the budgetary process. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, outlined that early information may not be totally accurate, that it could lead to confusion and that there could be substantial variance between information received in July come September-October. However, given the weight and importance that this committee is attaching to getting information early, I suggest that while there may be teething problems and difficulties, it is worth trying to do that. If there are problems, let us review that for next year but we should at least endeavour to get that information. Taking on board the possibility that it may be inaccurate and lead to problems, it is worth trying to do it this year given that it has been the main topic for discussion over recent meetings.
I had a question for the Minister, Deputy Noonan, which his officials might relay to him. He felt there would be a serious conflict between getting accurate information and getting information early. If the Minister identifies clear obstacles to providing that information and says he cannot do that, he should tell us why. Perhaps this committee can offer some solutions to overcome that obstacle - that is what we are here for. Similarly, with the tax documents due to come out in mid-July, I would agree with Deputy Pearse Doherty that gives us very little time to digest that information. I appreciate the Minister stated we can sit through August - nobody has any difficulty with that - but changes would need to be made to facilitate us to assess those documents.
The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, stated he envisaged sectoral engagement would happen after the summer economic statement. Deputy Eamon Ryan, I suppose, was trying to make the point that what we are looking to do is engage effectively with the Departments and the proposals they are putting forward. The Minister did not go quite as far as saying we would get the opportunity to do that. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, before Deputy Donohoe spoke, suggested that we would be coming in after the tax strategy papers are produced and we would then get an opportunity to put forward proposals from the Opposition benches. I am merely looking for clarification as to when the Minister sees the sectoral committees engaging. At what point in that itinerary of events and publications does Deputy Donohoe see us coming in and will there be the opportunity for the sectoral committees to effectively engage with the Departments on their proposals, post the summer economic statement but prior to the mid-year expenditure report and the tax strategy papers?
I thank Deputy Chambers for her questions. On information flow, I would hope that we will make a big start on this by the publication of the mid-year expenditure report. We will look to share with the committee where we are for this year and where we believe we will start for next year and will outline in as clear a manner as we can the kinds of factors we think will influence expenditure across next year.
I appreciate the attitude in which this is being framed. It will take a little bit of time, across this year, to understand better the views of the Oireachtas regarding how that information can be presented and figure out how we can best respond. In a few weeks' time we will make all of this information available. The committee will receive us very shortly after the Cabinet does, so that is how we look to respond.
In terms of obstacles to a more continuous information flow, within the expenditure end of the equation I think we will be a bit better able to manage some of the risks that the Minister for Finance will have to deal with. There are more unexpected changes in terms of what can happen with revenue than there are in terms of expenditure. The way I aim to respond is to adopt the proposal made by Deputy Burton. Information comes to the Cabinet on a structured basis about where we are with expenditure. Within a reasonable timeframe after that, I will make that information available to this committee or the sectoral committee. We will need to think through the format, but I will aim to make as much information available as I can.
In terms of the sectoral committees and their engagement, this year I hope engagement will start the week after the mid-year expenditure report is published. The report will give individual committees a lot of information about the starting point for next year and, hopefully, will frame their ability to develop proposals. Across the period in which the independent office is being set up to support the Deputy's work, we will give any help we can in terms of costing proposals or giving impartial feedback on information or ideas that are put forward.
May I comment?
I wish to respond to questions posed by Deputy Chambers.
I want to answer the final question asked by Deputy Chambers about the level of engagement in a normal year. I believe such engagement should be year-long. If we publish a mid-year expenditure report in July 2017 and start the same engagement that we are about to start now, then we will have all collectively missed a trick. I will outline what should happen. As each Department publishes what it aims to do with the available Estimate, on a reasonably regular basis the sectoral committee should engage with the Minister on how Departments deliver on their commitments. I have gone through this process in previous years so I know the information exists. Therefore, it is up to the committee to pull the Minister in and have a dialogue with him or her. The big change that I hope to see is that dialogue takes place across the year as opposed to just from the summer onwards. Such an initiative would benefit the Minister concerned because it would give him or her an opportunity to talk about things that are relevant to his or her Department in a freer space than is traditionally available when standing up in the Dáil to respond to specific questions.
I wish to make a follow-up point. I thank Deputy Donohoe for his very candid response. I have a question about this year. Obviously, six months have elapsed, so there will be a difficulty timewise in terms of engagement this year.
Various members of this committee have made the following point. If we do not make an impact this year and ensure that the public can see that we have engaged in the budgetary process, avoiding the "big bang" announcement in October, then the public will have the perception that we have not done our job. Therefore, we need to do whatever it takes to ensure that we have made an input this year and clearly show that things have been done differently. I appreciate that we will have more time from next year onwards, but we must do whatever is necessary to ensure we make an impact this year.
We could well face simple logistic challenges in that regard.
Yes. I would welcome suggestions to overcome them.
Of critical importance is the fact that Deputy Donohoe has repeatedly made the point that the Government is willing to accept any proposals that the committee or sectoral committees might present. Deputy Bruton has proposed a way to deal with bids from Departments and Deputy Donohoe has just said that he is willing to consider her proposal.
This July, it is vital that Departments present certain of the key bid proposals they want to make as part of the budgetary process. This is happening so it is not as if we are asking Departments for something that they are not doing. We must open that process up in the sectoral committees. Even one or two meetings would empower Parliament. Such an initiative would help Ministers and Government. We do not seek constitutional replacement or to get one over the Executive. We just want to do our scrutiny job. If we do not implement this initiative this July then we are not doing new politics in a different way. The new process must happen in July. The initiative may take us a year to two to get right. If we do not commence doing this in July with Departmental bids or proposals, not Opposition ones, then I do not think we will have done our job properly.
On the same point, it is especially critical that such an initiative is implemented in July because the programme for Government contains commitments worth €650 million and, presumably, each Department and Minister will start to deliver. Publishing everything on a "no change" basis when there has been a change of Government is slightly an academic exercise. Presumably, Ministers will start seeking to deliver on the new commitments and the associated expenditure commitment from this July onwards. Therefore, it is very important that such scrutiny takes place from July onwards.
Will the proposal be implemented in July? Deputy Ryan has consistently made his case from the start.
I also want to be consistent in terms of what I said. I did not say that we would be able to accept every proposal that came from the Oireachtas because different Members will have different views on what should be in the budget.
I proposed that we have a debate.
I am not interested in the-----
In the spirit of new politics I look forward to having the chance to finish off my answer to the question that colleagues have put to me.
Deputy Ryan made a fair point about Ministers coming in and saying what they want to do with this year's budget, which I shall convey to my colleagues. I had envisaged that they would have to do so anyway. It would be very difficult for any Minister to meet, for example, the education committee and not talk about his or her priorities for next year.
From the start Deputy Ryan and others have asked that the process begin as soon as possible. Committees are being formed this week and beginning the process should be the first item that they discuss.
Mr. McCarthy is the chief economist with the Department of Finance. He wishes to respond to one of the questions asked by Deputy Chambers.
Mr. John McCarthy
I thank the Chairman. Deputy Chambers and others referred to the timeliness of the stability programme update and asked what are the obstacles. I think it was Deputy Donnelly who mentioned at the start that the process kicks off in the November with the annual growth survey. The document is very generic and is not really a part of the process. For us, the process really kicks off in mid to late February when we get the Commission's forecasts because all member states are required to base their stability programmes on the Commission's numbers.
Another key obstacle is that we do not have the outturn for the economy for the previous year until mid to late March of the current year. The CSO will only publish to Q4 and hence the full years figures are available towards the end of March. We need that information before we can begin the whole endorsement exercise with the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC. That timeframe is not going to change.
One other final consideration is that we must go through, like all member states, an excessive deficit clarification process or EDP. As part of what we call the Maastricht returns, we have to send figures to EUROSTAT that must be validated. That process only occurs at the end of March each year. Every member state is in the same boat. There are a lot of iterations between EUROSTAT at the centre and the national statistical offices and the finance Ministries on the periphery. All figures have to be checked. We only get final notification from EUROSTAT that the figures are okay in the first or second week of April.
Finally, we have been totally transparent in terms of whether the committee and the Parliament should get the numbers when we give them to IFAC. For the past three years, since IFAC has been given an endorsement function, we have appeared in front of the finance committee and presented the exact same presentation that we have given to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, and we have put that out there in public.
Deputy Doherty can ask a brief final question.
I only questioned the Minister for Finance earlier.
I apologise and realise the Deputy has more questions. I have made a mistake with the order of questioners and wish to advise that Deputy MacSharry is next.
That is fine.
I nearly forgot that I was in the room.
I did not forget the Deputy.
I thank the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for coming, but my questions are not for him or for the Minister for Finance. I am interested in the views of their officials, Mr. Beausang, Ms Swaine, Mr. Palmer and Mr. McCarthy. I am not going to ask them to identify any specific Ministers, but it would be useful for this committee to know from their very substantial cumulative experience if they can recall any case in which a Minister returned to the Department and said, "My God, I have just been at such-and-such a committee, and we are getting it wrong on policy X. We need to do Y, as proposed at that committee." Again, without giving me a specific example or identifying any Minister, could they confidently say that such a scenario has occurred, has never occurred, or regularly occurs? That would be of interest to this committee.
I will be very surprised if the officials answer my second question but I will ask it anyway. Do they see the establishment of the committee that will follow this arrangement committee as an additional layer of superficial window dressing in what is already an extremely difficult process for them in their deliberations with Ministers in Government, or do they genuinely feel that it will add value to the process?
Mr. William Beausang
I will respond to those two questions. The only observation I will make on the Deputy's first question is that I have sat with Ministers as they put through very important legislation on Committee Stage and the committees have engaged with Ministers in a very active and dynamic way to make very important changes to legislation. I do not have any direct experience of the engagement around expenditure proposals, having just recently moved into the area, but my experience over a number of years in terms of the legislative process is that there is a very strong willingness to engage on important issues. I had that experience with the legislation dealing with protected disclosures, lobbying and freedom of information reforms, for example, and I do not see why those principles would not carry across to the particular scenario upon which the Deputy based his question.
In terms of the other question that the Deputy said he does not expect me to answer, officials were very involved in engaging with colleagues in the OECD in the development of the proposals that are contained in that report. While it is the OECD's report, the Deputy can take it as given that there was a lot of dialogue, debate and deliberation on it, and many of the recommendations in the report reflect that. That is as far as I would go in response to the Deputy's second question.
Just to clarify on the budget issue, obviously we all know of hundreds of examples of Governments accepting amendments to legislation on Committee Stage, but the specific question related to budget preparations. Again, not wishing to know the identity of Ministers or even the specific issue, in practice, do Government representatives return from the Dáil or parliamentary committees and say, "God, that was an excellent suggestion. We have to do that and change what we had planned to do."?
I did when I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
This is not for the Minister. His future is ahead of him. I am talking about the practice so far.
Deputy MacSharry was talking about the past, and it happened to me when I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Issues were raised in the Dáil regarding the safety of children in residential estates and that had a direct effect on a decision I made as Minister.
Well done, Minister.
It happens all the time.
Yes, it does. It happened.
This committee has four weeks to do its work. It is not a permanent committee and its purpose is to deal with arrangements for budgetary scrutiny. I am anxious to hear what proposals the Ministers feel could be included in our report. Some of the questions I hoped to pose have already been answered. It is vital that we understand our function, which is solely, after four weeks, to produce a report on how budgetary scrutiny should be pursued through a committee.
I was hoping to hear from both Ministers about the sort of restrictions on them in terms of giving information by certain dates or certain times and about what is practical and what is not. We have already had legal advisors before us this morning and have discovered that in some instances, things that we thought were being refused on a constitutional basis were in fact really a matter for Standing Orders. It is appears that refusals to deal with some amendments or proposed amendments that were ruled out of order - including by me when I was Ceann Comhairle, based on advice given to me - on constitutional grounds could be incorrect and that, in fact, it is just Standing Orders, as interpreted, which are preventing various questions from being replied to.
It is also debatable whether Deputies could or should propose amendments at certain points during the process of dealing with financial legislation. I am interested in any points the Ministers wish to make that would be of assistance to this committee in producing our report.
Does the Minister want to address that now or deal with it in his concluding remarks?
I can cover that in my concluding comments.
I do not want to go over any old ground if possible. In terms of the information that is required, the proposal from Government is that at the six-month point the expenditure data will be released to the Parliament, be discussed and so forth, but we have a problem with timing, in the same way as we do with other data. If the data is only released in the middle or at the end of July, it will not get to the sectoral committees early enough unless we sit through August. While that possibility is up for debate, I cannot imagine there will be a huge appetite for it. There is a problem in that regard, but if the reports are going to be provided on a monthly basis, that will deal with it. I ask the Minister to provide clarity on that point because if there is a monthly report, which would be very welcome, it would take away from the six-monthly report. Obviously we can have a wider discussion on the six-monthly report but the idea of a July information dump is problematic. While we all want information, we also know that information could be dumped on the committee without giving it enough time to scrutinise it. That is what we see with a lot of the information provided. The information in the stability programme update, for example, is excellent, and I commend the officials who put it to together. Equally, the Fiscal Advisory Council's reports are excellent in terms of the level of data and analysis contained therein. However, the problem is that we only have a set piece in which to discuss them; we need a wider opportunity. The same issue will arise with the six-monthly expenditure review. It will be an information dump and we will only scratch the surface of it. We will ask the Minister a question or two and that will be it. That is the reality. That is why I take issue with the assertion by the Minister for Finance that there is detailed scrutiny of all of this data, because there is not. Let us be realistic. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and other committees. Oireachtas committees do not scrutinise proposals adequately. That is the reality. We get five or ten minutes to question officials from the Department of Finance, for example. That is not real information scrutiny. I agree with point made earlier that the best information we got on the stability programme update came from sitting down with officials from the Department and teasing out certain issues, which gave us a much better understanding of the data. I ask the Minister to verify that the month-by-month publication of data will actually occur, instead of just a set piece, six-monthly event.
On the timing of the mid-year expenditure report, the objective of that document is to give us a starting point for the budget for the following year. For that reason, it would be very challenging to provide that information any earlier than July. That said, I will take it away and see if there is any other way of responding to that issue. The idea that I have taken on board, from what Deputy Burton suggested earlier, is that we make available to the committee the same information that comes to Cabinet. I will check the frequency of that, but my recollection or understanding is that such information is available on a quarterly basis. That deals with the problem that I outlined earlier in terms of flows across each month, because a 12-week period will be long enough to allow me to net that out and be confident that I am sharing decent information with Deputies.
All I would say is that I will work to share with the committee 12-week expenditure reports if that is the frequency with which they come to Cabinet. On the Deputy's point regarding the mid-year expenditure report, I am trying to give to him where each Minister is starting from in terms of the discussions for the following year. I am not clear that we will be able to give him accurate answers any earlier than the start of July. However, I will have a look at it. The quarterly expenditure reports will be a help. I am trying to give the Deputy more than the expenditure profile. I am trying to tell him the starting point for the following year.
I am trying to be helpful. I will take it away, discuss it with my officials and see if we can do it.
One can use data and abuse data as much as one wants. Some of the challenges and the frustrations we have are in trying to delve below the headline figures. The officials in the Department will know this - we talk about the fiscal space and the net in gross fiscal space, and it reduces because of demographic pressures. I do not know how many times I have tabled questions seeking a breakdown of the demographic pressure in the Department of Education of Skills or the Department of Health. We have a gross figure for demographic pressure, yet no Department can tell us what is its portion. Further, they cannot tell us what that actually means. For example, if it is €100 million in terms of the Department of Education and Skills, does that equate to, say, 100 teachers or a certain number of schools? What happens in government on budget day, regardless of what Government is in place, is that it has increased the budget by a certain amount and that equates to a certain number of teachers or nurses, but when one delves behind the figure, sometimes it does not even meet the demographic needs. It is important that type of information is provided. Those are my two key concerns - the quality of information and the flow of information.
My last question concerns the budget of the Department of Health. The agreement between the Government and Fianna Fáil states that it would be verifiable. How is it intended to have the expenditure for the Department of Health verified next year given that last year's expenditure was way off the mark? It was interesting that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, said he only found out on 20 April that the AIB transaction was going to be dealt with by expenditure. Therefore, we can only assume that the Government was planning a stability programme update that would have resulted in significant cutbacks for the remainder of the year for the Department of Health because the Minister was not in a position to allocate that amount of money to the Department of Health or, indeed, any other Department had it not been for the luck it got in the EUROSTAT ruling against the State. It is interesting that was happening. To go back to the core issue, how does the Minister intend the information will be verifiable and where does he see the role of a budgetary committee in fulfilling that commitment?
I thank the Deputy. I inform the Chairman that I have to move a motion in the House at 12.50 p.m., immediately after the Order of Business.
Perhaps the Minister would make his concluding remarks.
I want to answer the Deputy's question on the Department of Health. The way we would look to do that is by the HSE national service plan. We are aiming to move to a health budget that will ensure the delivery of existing and new commitments. I expect the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, will deal with the health spokespersons in his own committee in regard to how that will happen. However, the HSE national service plan will be very important for me as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in ensuring we do that. In regard to closing comments-----
Who is verifying the health budget? The HSE always produces a plan based on the budget. That is existing practice. How will this be verified?
Which is what always happened.
As announced, on the additional funding provided to the Department of Health, I want to see a change in how we account for funding to ensure the budget delivers the objectives that Government has set for it and that we verify it. That is what we are going to do.
On a related point, there is a programme for Government that is not costed.
Since the Government is up and running for some time, I presume it has costings for a range of commitments, if not for every Department. Obviously, the Department of Health is a morass but if the costings for most of the other Departments were made available to us, it would ease the process. We want the public to have confidence that the budgetary oversight committee and the report we bring forward will work for everybody's sake.
The Minister has five minutes in which to reply.
We have tried to outline the process by which we are going to respond to what Deputy Barrett said earlier in terms of the mid-year expenditure report and publication of the taxation papers. The main constraint we have is from an input point of view, that if we share that information with the Oireachtas, we want to be confident it will not change. Even in my early weeks in the Department, in trying to look at how we will manage this process with the Oireachtas, that is a key factor, but obviously all this has to take place within the constitutional architecture.
I thank the Minister for his attendance. I thank also the officials from the Department of Finance. I ask members to hold on, if possible. Questions put by Deputies Donnelly, Calleary and Burton are to be answered by the legal adviser in ten minutes. Does Deputy Burton have to be in the Chamber?
Yes. Are we meeting again at 3 p.m.?
Yes. This will take only-----
Will there be a piece of paper?
We will ask for it.