Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Committee on Budgetary Oversight

Pre-Budget 2022 Scrutiny: Irish Fiscal Advisory Council

Mr. Sebastian Barnes:

I will make two points. On the point of medium-term planning in general, one of the extremely encouraging things about the SES was the move to the existing level of service basis for current expenditure. As we have discussed in the past, in previous budgetary exercises, Government spending plans were not sufficient to even provide the current level of spending, taking into account inflation and demographics. We said that was incredible and we were very critical of it. That has been largely addressed through the existing level of service. This is very close to what the council calls a standstill. That is important because it gives one an idea of what the public finances will look like over the next few years, instead of some arbitrary set of numbers. It could also be very important for medium-term planning because that could then feed into the expenditure ceiling. Since 2013, there have been expenditure ceilings in Ireland. These are multi-year ceilings at departmental level for spending. The problem is that every year they are revised. That happens because the overall level of spending in the forecast was too low and, consequently, that trickled down to the expenditure ceilings, which were too low, and so they were revised up as we moved towards reality. This is potentially very useful because with the right top-down expenditure, forecasts like that translate into the ceilings and those can now be kept fixed. There is no reason they should change. That is good in terms of understanding what is happening to the public finances, but it also might be helpful to people in terms of the thinking about how to make the best of that money rather than them always being in a process of just thinking about how they can get their budget up in the following year. There are encouraging signs in relation to medium-term budgetary planning, but the proof of that pudding will be in the eating.

On access to data, this is an issue on which I can only comment in the context of the council. The OECD review of the council from February recommended that the council should have a statutory right to information. As of today, the council has no right to information. We rely on the goodwill of the Government. The Department of Finance provides us with the information that we need. We have a good relationship with that Department, but it does not always have all of the information we ask for - some of it may not even exist - and sometimes getting it takes time. It is not a perfect process but it works. We find that much more difficult in relation to other areas of government. For example, in regard to health, it is very difficult for us to understand what is happening there. We know there have been massive overruns in the pre-Covid period but we cannot understand that because we do not have access to that information. There are some issues on the Revenue side and in all areas of government. As the investment programme ramps up, that may also become more of an issue. The OECD recommended that the council should have a statutory right to information. That would change the nature of the dialogue we have with the Government, with a presumption that if we make reasonable requests for information we would be provided with it in a timely way. We do think that is important. I can only speak for the council. It may be a wider issue.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.