Two changes define the difference between the 2014 budget and those of recent years. While the tax and spending contents may be broadly similar in theme and tone, both the timeframe for producing the budget, and implementing its proposals via the annual finance bill are very different.
The budget exercise has become much more demanding for those involved: department officials who prepare the budget, and politicians who pass the legislation. This year, a change in EU rules requires all euro zone member states to present their annual budgets in October, and to pass these into law by December 31st.
The tight timeframe presents the Department of Finance with two tough challenges. First, the need to make accurate estimates of next year’s revenue and spending, and do so three months before the outturn for this year’s budget is known.
Second, the need to prepare a budget, while at the same drafting a finance Bill, which the law requires to be enacted within 120 days of the budget statement. In the past that parliamentary deadline has often come close to being breached. Now, under the new dispensation, the Oireachtas must pass the legislation – 100 pages – in just half that time.
However, as less time elapses between the financial statement delivered on budget day and publication of the legislation – days rather than months – this should have one good effect. It should allow less time for private lobbying by interest groups to achieve changes by stealth and in secret. Amendments and additions to the finance bill are often slipped in at the later stages of its parliamentary passage.
But equally, the tight deadline imposed for completion of discussion also puts pressure on the Oireachtas to ensure the legislation is adequately scrutinised. Regrettably, in recent years, the passage of large sections of the finance Bill has been done without any discussion, as the guillotine is applied to expedite progress. Dáil reform might well start with detailed and close scrutiny of all of this year’s Bill.