Saturday, 29 January 2011
Finance Bill 2011 (Certified Money Bill): Committee Stage
I move recommendation No. 1:
In page 7, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"PART 1 COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS OF TAX EXPENDITURES
1. -The Minister shall within one month from the passing of this Act prepare and lay before Dáil Éireann a report on a cost-benefit analysis of tax expenditures provided for by this Act, setting out the costs of tax foregone, and the benefits in terms of job creation or otherwise.".
It was interesting last night to hear the Minister say that even he was surprised to discover, with regard to the so-called section 23 relief which has been the subject of so much debate, the breadth or extent of rental income that an individual could rely on in claiming that relief and that it was not just rental income in respect of the particular property but all rental income across the board from all property held by that individual taxpayer. It was interesting not that the Minister was surprised but that, perhaps, it was something that had only come to light in his and many other people's minds recently when there was far more scrutiny and public debate about these various reliefs. It raises a number of interesting questions, not least the desirability of having these reliefs in terms of policy and also the way we do business in these Houses and in public.
There is little or no debate about them, and this is not a criticism directed necessarily at this Government although it is culpable in many ways in respect of these reliefs. However, my point is not directed purely against the Minister but relates to the system of public debate about tax reliefs. Tax reliefs equate to income forgone by the Exchequer and, as the Minister has correctly pointed out on more than one occasion this week, if one reduces taxes or one's income in one respect, one must look to another source to balance it. We must move towards a more mature public debate about taxation and the link between it and public services. We have not had a satisfactory debate on those issues for many years in this country but I believe we are returning to that now. People have a much keener understanding of taxation, the different types of taxes that are put in place in legislation and what it means if the State does not have sufficient income for the Exchequer to fund public services. That is at the heart of the current crisis.
There must be a deeper and more meaningful debate continually on these matters, not just once or twice a year at budget time or when there is a crisis. It should continue at a certain level across the board in our public discussion. However, we cannot do that unless we have information, and the public cannot do it without information. The Minister and his officials obviously develop a level of expertise on these matters but any Minister can only develop a certain level of expertise given all the things he or she must do. He or she must rely on expertise. We know from what we have observed in recent years that there is great ingenuity available to some citizens and taxpayers with regard to these schemes. Great imagination, to put it benignly, is applied to the issue of how people can use and maximise these schemes to their advantage. Often the expertise that is brought to bear in that regard is not always matched by the same fire power in the public management of our affairs, and that is not to reflect on the professions of the people in the Department of Finance, in terms of what is available to people for getting their way around and maximising these schemes.
It would greatly help the public and deepen the level of debate we can have in public if the Minister was required to publish a cost benefit analysis of all these schemes, certainly the more important and prominent ones which have a higher yield. It may not be something everybody would want to wake up to in the morning, but at least it would be available to the people in order that the debate could be enhanced and the level of information would be increased.
Deputy Burton said in the other House that there was essentially a democratic gap in these schemes. We know they are there and have a vague debate about them every year. We probably think there is a justification for them somewhere, as we remember something about a time when an attempt was made to incentivise people to develop particular parts of the country, be it along the River Shannon or parts of our inner cities and so on. We know there was a general public dividend at one stage that made it important to have these schemes in place, but many are not sure about the rationale for their continuation. Rather than simply say we will put an end to them, let us take the opportunity to have a better debate on what they mean. We should do this to deepen the level of public understanding about what is going on and, ultimately, avoid the abuse of these schemes, which clearly has occurred at various stages.
I commend my colleagues in the Labour Party for tabling this recommendation. It illustrates how seriously Seanad Éireann is taking the Bill. I can imagine no other reason for sitting on a Saturday, if we did not take it seriously. This is a well thought out recommendation which I am happy to support. However, I have a minor reservation which is that one month might be a little short. While I support the principle very strongly and I am happy to second the recommendation, I will be happy to listen to what the Minister has to say on the subject of whether this could practically be done. One thing we really need in this country right now is prudent supervision of the economy. This is an instrument that would allow us to do this. It is very important we provide for it for that reason.
We should not be ideological about tax reliefs, although I am not suggesting for one minute that Senator White is being ideological about the recommendation. I am here long enough to remember tax reliefs being introduced for various matters such as trying to ensure the redevelopment of deprived areas of the inner city. These are socially constructive because they will lead to investment by the private market in areas of deprivation. However, they need to be examined to see if they are working and ensure they are not being massaged by clever accountants in order to do things that the Legislature did not intend them to do. While we need to be sensitive to these matters and not be ideological, we need to make sure they are not being abused.
We are here on a Saturday to try to pass a finance Bill that contains many difficult measures that will cause pain for the people. When discussions were taking place about how the Bill would be approached, the Minister claimed that there were immense logistical difficulties, yet it seems to have been done. One thing that worries me is that the Minister indicated that if the Bill was rushed through, it might leave scope for very clever accountants to come in and find methods of engaging in legal tax evasion. That is another point that needs to be borne in mind.
The recommendation refers to tax forgone. I am also interested in the question of tax yields. I know that is a projection and the Department of Finance has had a difficulty in the past in making accurate predictions. Sometimes it was too miserly in its predictions. During the boom years I remember the surprise expressed when its predictions had been extraordinarily exceeded, but it has also got it wrong the other way around. A degree of information on this would be helpful. Forecasts can only be made in looking at tax yields and we simply would not know in one month, but the principle of prudent governance comes into play. In order to be able to budget we need to know the likely tax yield from these various measures.
I am very glad that the question of job creation has been put before the House in the first recommendation. That is absolutely essential. We know that there are many very encouraging positive signs within the economy and it is important that we celebrate them. On the other hand, it is not a full victory if we have increased statistics for exports, various subtle yields for the IFSC and so on but still leave 440,000 people unemployed. That indicates we are dealing with an economy, not a society.
My final point-----
I am aware of that and it is precisely what I am addressing. I really want to make this final point. The recommendation refers to the benefits of job creation, but there is also the possibility of job losses. I would like to put this point to the Minister right from the beginning of the debate which I am taking very seriously, a Chathaoirligh, as you will appreciate from the tone I am employing and the serious matters I am addressing.
Self-employed persons and others not in the PAYE system who are required to make a projection for the next year do so in October, but the date has been brought back one month. I have been listening to people who represent the backbone of the economy by providing employment through their investment in their small companies. They have to make this projection and this payment. They are on the margins and barely able to survive. If they are to be required to make this tax payment one month earlier, they will find it impossible to do so and may go out of business. That would be a job loss and related directly to the tax provisions of this Bill. The Minister should take a look at this issue to see if there is flexibility. If they do not have the money from their own resources, they will have to apply to the banks for a loan to get them through this period and they might find it impossible to do so. Therefore, they might go out of business.
In an effort to give the other side of the story on tax relief schemes, as outlined, the State is the beneficiary by up to 40% even before the schemes are completed. That they are costing the State so much money is not actually true. There are urgently needed PAYE, PRSI, income tax and VAT returns through the provision of nursing homes, leisure facilities and so on which provide opportunities for people to find employment in their locality. The Government correctly recognised this. It indicated to the people who wanted to invest in their parishes and communities that these tax relief schemes were put in place as an incentive. The Irish people responded like never before because we had become members of the Economic and Monetary Union, EMU, we had low interest rates and people invested in their local areas.
The current difficulty is that a myth has been created that this measure has cost the Irish Exchequer. Before the doors of a nursing home or a hotel have even opened, the Exchequer has already received 40% of the total investment. If an investment of €10 million is put into a scheme, our Exchequer receives €4 million in hard cash up front before the doors open on the scheme. That must be taken into account.
If an investor, families or other people invest in schemes and give the Irish State 40% of that, it is unfair for the Irish State to break its word, its trust and the contract in which all these proposals came forward and which were passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas at that time and for the myth to be created, in our name as Members of the Oireachtas, that these schemes are costing the taxpayer an absolute fortune. They are doing no such thing.
The review that is taking place, as correctly stated by Senator Alex White earlier, if of the huge number of people employed in all of these areas. It is a high service sector area which is providing sustainable jobs across the Twenty-six Counties, not just on the east coast. It is providing sustainable jobs in Athlone, Ballinasloe and every part of our country that urgently needs jobs, particularly when we all know that 70% of our jobs currently are in the services sector.
I make the case in the first few hours of this Committee Stage debate on the Finance Bill the Minister and his officials must consider striking a balance regarding their schemes and the investment Irish people have made in the interest of keeping investment in their own local areas in particular.
I accept what the Leader of the House stated regarding some of these tax reliefs. It is difficult to generalise but some of these schemes have been allowed continue long beyond their usefulness to the economy. Some of them are useful and as the Minister would have realised over the course of recent weeks, there is a great input into certain sections of society as a result of these tax reliefs but they must be targeted at every part of the country to maximise the social as well as the economic benefit.
An issue arises if a relief is stopped retrospectively. In the period since the budget contact was made with me by people who wanted to invest in business expansion schemes in the future. There was a concern that if the Minister cut reliefs now unilaterally, it would stop people investing in BES schemes in the future because they might feel the next Minister for Finance might do something similar. There is a concern that we must be careful about the way we handle these reliefs but we must also be careful because some of these reliefs were clearly abused and have no discernible input to the economy. I accept the Minister must give a good deal of thought to the way he will handle this measure.
I concur with much of what has been said by Senator Cassidy on this matter. It is an interesting proposition but doing a cost benefit analysis subsequent to the introduction of the schemes does not appear to be the most logical approach. I assume that when these schemes are being introduced they are analysed and evaluated prior to being set up. What is required is an economic analysis in addition to an analysis of its effect on property price increases, given our experience.
Section 23 reliefs have been in place for approximately 30 years but one of the schemes that was introduced, I believe by Deputy Enda Kenny when he was Minister for Tourism and Trade, was the seaside resort scheme. That had the effect of bringing about an immediate regeneration of seaside resorts but it succeeded also in increasing the price of residential property in those areas by approximately 75%. There was a huge increase because of the tax breaks, and that is the kind of approach that must be considered and planned in advance.
As Senator Cassidy said, there has been tremendous economic benefit from the hotel schemes, the urban renewal schemes and even the business expansion schemes but a cap should have been put on the number of units that could have been built under them. That has led to a huge escalation in prices but underlying this recommendation, and on the comment by Senator Alex White along the lines that we needed to extract more taxes from the people who are working, and he identified the lack of tax revenues as being the source of the problem, that is an ill-advised evaluation of where we are now.
Most economic analysts and people with accounting backgrounds would say that our public expenditure is too high. The Labour Party wants to bridge that deficit gap by roughly taking 50% from an increase in taxes and 50% by way of public expenditure savings. The Minister has outlined that two thirds should be from a reduction in public expenditure and one third from an increase in taxes. That is a fundamental issue that must be debated. It goes to the core of the way we will handle our fiscal deficit but it also goes to the core of the way our economy will get back on the road to growth. Does the Minister feel as I do about this matter? I have examined some of these taxation increases. The universal social charge, which will be debated later, is 7% but if we take the fact that people will pay tax on that, it is the equivalent of a 12.73% reduction in gross pay.
I would have thought we have now gone to the limits of what we can do vis-À-vis taxation increases. I realise it is essential to bridge the gap I referred to, and it is the quickest way of reducing the deficit, but there must be increased emphasis on bringing back public expenditure to sustainable levels for the future. That should be the key element of the debate in the coming weeks. Will the Minister concur with the view that there is very little, if any, scope for further tax increases on the public and that it is a matter of achieving greater efficiencies and savings within our public expenditure as the primary target as we move forward?
I do not know how people can manage to turn logic on its head to such a degree but having listened to the two speakers on the Government side, and Senator Cassidy in particular, I agree with everything they said but I thought they were making the argument in favour of the recommendation. Everything they said is an argument in favour of the recommendation. It is the reason I am supportive of the recommendation so that I would know that 40% or 60% came back and that we would see the way this operates. That is hugely important.
Senator Cassidy said we should remember that all of this money is back in the Exchequer even before the doors of the hotel, nursing home or whatever are opened. I do not want to put words in Senator Alex White's mouth but is that not the reason he has put forward this recommendation? Everybody thinks in a simplistic way in terms of money in, money out but it is not like that. The money is churning around, so to speak, and that is the importance of it.
People have asked whether this is too much pressure to put on a Department in one month. Many things become clear in these kind of discussions but I assumed, perhaps naively and incorrectly, that before Government took a decision on the tax breaks or tax changes, the Cabinet papers supporting those proposals from the Department of Finance to the other members of the Government would state exactly that for which Senator Alex White has asked. In other words, this is simply a cut and paste of the argument that has been made because if somebody tells me this has not been done already, I will be appalled.
Surely it cannot be the case that decisions are taken without making available to the Cabinet and the Department the data, the outcomes, the consequences and the plans sought in the recommendation. I cannot see how this is a difficulty. This is about open government. This is about outlining how the Government came to deal with it. There are all sorts of reasons for it.
Quite correctly, Senator Walsh made comment on the seaside resort scheme that was brought in by Deputy Kenny when he was in the then Department of Tourism and Trade 11 years ago. I recall arguing with Deputy Kenny on this matter at the time. I asked him to justify, taking an example in his own constituency, why Belmullet was not included in the seaside resort scheme as I felt it should have been. Deputy Kenny may have had a good reason, but he could not give me a reason and I could not find a reason. These matters should be self-explanatory. We need to know the decisions taken and the thinking and reasoning behind them. The point raised by Senator Norris is correct. We might disagree with the decisions but we would learn something. We would learn the basis on which the decisions were made and we could point to the fundamental errors in the reasoning that led to their making.
Is there any argument against the proposed recommendation? If I were a member of a board and somebody brought forward game-changing proposals to the way we do our business, I would insist that the back-up papers for the members of the board - in this case, the Cabinet members - be made available. I would want to know exactly the points that were made by Senator Cassidy, namely, how much, if we do this, would come back to the Exchequer and how much would churn around. We do not get that information now; we get it from certain outsiders. For instance, the argumentation for and against metro north has done precisely that. Some say it would create a certain number of jobs and that there would be a number of jobs attaching to it because of the money that would churn around once it starts. The money would go from one person to another, it would be spent in the corner shop or wherever, it would then go back into the Government coffers and come back out in salaries, grants or whatever. These are the issues we need to examine so that the people know the gains and the losses. It would also clarify whether it would be a good idea infrastructurally to have all of those hotels, houses or whatever in a small county or area. City estates have been lobbed into beautiful towns and areas, such as Courtown and Westport. That may have been the Government's plan, but I will not go into that now. I would have liked to have heard at the time whether a limit could have been put on such developments. In such situations we tended to get a time-bound limit - Senator Cassidy made a reference to that - where the Minister in the budget stated the scheme would be in play for a period, for instance, two years, but surely that was hardly the limit that was needed. The limit has to do with the number of houses, hotels, or level of infrustructure required in an area.
Nobody on either side of the House has given any case so far against this recommendation. In fact, nobody has put forward any argumentation or case as to why we should not support this recommendation. I will be strongly in support of it and I hope the Minister would see his way to conceding the point.
As an apprentice to the Minister's late father,I was well trained.
In the budget the Minister provided for the provision on section 23 relief and he has re-examined it. I welcome that. That is productive. He did not bulldoze through this provision. He could have, because it would have gone through the House, but he listened to the views on the effect of removing this without a cost-benefit analysis. That is very positive.
On the recommendation itself, I am sure Deputies Bruton and Noonan hope the Minister does not accept this amendment today because the Senators Opposite will get some shock if he does. Within a month they will not have this prepared.
I want to make this clear too. I do not have a vested interest in this. I do not claim section 23 relief. I want everybody in this House when they get up to clearly state whether they have availed of section 23 relief, "Yes" or "No". I never have.
On the Shannon corridor, which enjoyed section 23 relief, the benefits that relief brought to Longford, Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Sligo are evident. One need only go to Carrick-on-Shannon and walk along the Shannon to see the result. The removal of this relief without a full cost-benefit analysis would leave these ghost estates impossible to sell. When one visits Tarmonbarry - I am sure the Minister visited to see the development carried out by a councillor -----
I welcomed the extension of the seaside resort scheme by the then Minister for Tourism and Trade, Deputy Kenny. That will be evaluated, but let us see what was achieved in that regard as well.
In summary, the background was that in 1992, when my party was in Opposition, we came up with this concept, TDs, candidates and councillors went along with this, and we got a tremendous result. To remove it would be detrimental.
The Minister for Finance must be somewhat relieved at the news overnight from the World Economic Forum at Davos that almost certainly there will be changes made in the coming months, particularly to Ireland's debt burden. As this section, like many others, has been included in the Finance Bill to raise revenue, maybe the incoming Government will be now able to examine a new financial environment of the debt burden on Ireland, which all of us will agree is unsustainable. It is now being suggested that the debt could be spread over not seven, but 30 years, which would relieve considerably the Irish debt burden. I hope that such will come to pass in the interests of the country. I think all of us agree the EU/IMF package, despite the best efforts of all involved to conclude a successful package, has placed an unsustainable debt burden on this country.
References have been made to the coastal resort scheme, which was, most certainly, as Senator O'Toole and others have said, introduced by Deputy Kenny in 1994. At the time that was an excellent scheme. When it became apparent that there would be a drive towards the Shannon corridor tax scheme to which Senator Leyden referred, which was initially discussed by Deputy Killeen, then Fianna Fáil spokesperson on tourism and who came to visit that corridor at the time, I spoke to several officials in the Department of Finance. I could not help but reflect that we were being watched from outside as we went through this, and I am sure people were learning a great deal. It was also proposed that the scheme was about repopulating counties such as Leitrim which had experienced a severe haemorrhage of population. The conditions imposed at that time on the tax reliefs that would be gained, particularly from the private residential sector and from the commercial sector, were quite severe. Unfortunately, I must say in the dying days of this Administration that the building lobby got behind public representatives in my party and managed to dilute the original intention, which was to repopulate those counties. They managed to dilute the restrictions in terms of who would buy the houses and the tax relief for those purchasing the houses. Moreover, because of what had happened under the coastal resorts scheme in places such as Kilkee, County Clare, where it had resulted in over-development that was referred to at the time as "bungalow blitz", the restrictions even went so far as to ensure this would not happen along the River Shannon corridor. Sadly, however, it did. I agree with Senator Leyden on one aspect with reference to Carrick-on-Shannon. The commercial tax breaks proved not only to be essential but were also the foundations for the economic regeneration of the River Shannon corridor counties and unquestionably have worked really well. However, I am afraid that one can see ghost estates in my home town of Drumshanbo. I look out my window at empty estates that have been taken over by banks because the developers involved were no longer able to sustain their interest payments. Consequently, properties such as four-bedroomed houses that were valued at €320,000 in the small town of Drumshanbo with a population of 800 in the heart of rural County Leitrim have been sold off in recent months for €140,000 and €150,000. As I believe Senator O'Toole noted, the trickle-down impact on other properties within the area has been to depress the market.
That is the background to and context for this debate on section 23. I suggest to the Minister that it is inevitable, once all Members, particularly those of us on the Fianna Fáil side who have been tainted by this spurious link with building developers-----
It is essential that any analysis of the section 23 relief consider its economic impact and spell out the various professions of those who have purchased section 23 properties. One will find that they are not major, medium or even small-time developers but ordinary working men and women in the public sector, as well as those who had the money to be able to purchase such a property. As Senator Cassidy has stated repeatedly in this House, many such persons are now caught in a debt trap. While they were able to pay the interest on these properties heretofore, they are now being loaded with the principal sum after a period of four or five years because many of them were bought between 2005 and 2007.
In addition, they are in negative equity and, as all Members are aware, the rental income they were gaining to pay off their mortgages has been reduced in both town and country. Consequently, in the interests of transparency, I seek both an economic impact assessment of the devastating effect this section will have on all those concerned and, for the benefit of the media and the public, that the Department of Finance also categorise the persons who have purchased a section 23 property and are gaining tax relief thereon. I believe one will find that the overwhelming majority are ordinary individuals or groups of people such as nurses who have come together or other professionals who purchased the properties to live and work in them. My plea to the Minister is within the context of this economic impact assessment. Moreover, the Revenue Commissioners could supply the categories and data protection concerns would not arise as this has nothing to do with naming individuals. The proposal is to categorise recipients in order that the public will know the debate in this House is about the efforts being made to dilute the financial impact on those caught in a debt trap.
I will revert to the content of this recommendation which refers to the carrying out and publication of a cost-benefit analysis. One needs to be familiar with the information behind such schemes. People are entitled to know what are the benefits, if any; what is coming in and what is going out and to be aware of revenue or income forgone. The making public of such information would be helpful in the construction of a balanced debate on this entire issue. Second, in the current climate any tax incentive scheme or any scheme of this nature should be considered in the context of stimulating growth and job creation because this is the single biggest issue facing the country. As Members are aware, the outlook on the unemployment crisis is bleak. Third, when legislation such as this is being framed, many of the terms used are beyond the technical expertise of many parliamentarians in both Houses. The legislation is constructed in a manner that only lawyers and tax consultants can understand. There is also an issue in respect of how the information and the associated terminology can be simplified to make a connection with the ordinary Joe Soap.
This recommendation makes eminent sense. It proposes a cost-benefit analysis of tax expenditure and the benefits gained in respect of job creation; the latter must be the first priority. This is completely in line with the Minister's own impact assessment of some of the other matters dealt with in the Bill, as well as the schemes commented upon widely. Some schemes may have been extended too far or have gone too far, but I completely agree that there is a need for an economic impact assessment and a cost-benefit analysis as proposed. I am sure the Minister will agree that this must be a sine qua non. As Senator O'Toole noted, the Minister would not make any decisions with his senior officials without this information. It is fundamental to have such an analysis. With regard to the schemes in place in a general sense, the reason I agree there should be an economic impact assessment is that from henceforth two arms of the State effectively will be competing for diminishing resources. The banks, now largely nationalised or in majority State ownership, will be competing with the Revenue Commissioners for funds. Consequently, I completely agree with the thrust of this measure, as well as the recommendation, because job creation must be foremost in all of our considerations.
I thank Senator Alex White for tabling this recommendation which I would have thought was self-evidently necessary. The elephant in the room in considering such tax incentives is that they have been abused in the past. They have been used to put things in various areas for political preference, as Members have just heard in this Chamber, as speakers have commented on how they have done a great job for County Leitrim or other areas and that such incentives have been used nakedly for electoral and political gain. That is the reason it is absolutely-----
In that case, let us have a cost-benefit analysis. Senator Mary White should note that a cost-benefit analysis has been conducted of such incentives. The Minister or his officials will be aware that both Indecon and Goodbody Economic Consultants examined all of these tax benefits in the raw and the round some years ago and came up with some startling conclusions. They concluded that some of them were okay and of benefit to the economy and employment but that a lot of them were a complete waste of money and utterly counter-productive and benefited builders and developers. In the round, however, they stated all of them put together were of very little benefit to either the economy or the people. Consequently, it is only reasonable for Members to call for an examination to ascertain whether such incentives make sense economically, environmentally and in every other way. It is staggering to even think more such incentive schemes are being introduced without knowing whether they will be beneficial. I accept they are introduced in a hurry and that some of them have been beneficial, but why can we not have in place an independent outside body, outside the Department of Finance which is suspect in its analysis of everything at this point, to decide whether such incentives will benefit the people for whom they have supposedly been introduced? Whatever Senators Mooney and Walsh may say, many of them were introduced for builders and the people who benefited. Moreover, were a cost-benefit analysis to be carried out of many of the aforementioned property schemes, they would be even worse overall because ordinary people are suffering as a result of falling for the bait. Consequently, it is only reasonable that such analysis be made in advance, not afterwards. If the Minister could look at what Indecon and Goodbody found, they found all these schemes should not have been introduced at all.