Colm O'Gorman: We do not know where money allocated in the Irish budget goes. We do not know how effective it is, whether it gets to where it is needed, or how its impact is monitored.
A survey carried out for Amnesty International late last year by Lansdowne found that 81 per cent of people felt they did not understand how Government ministers make decisions about how our money is spent. The same number did not believe there were effective systems in place to ensure the money goes where it is supposed to.
A September 2009 report carried out by Indecon Consulants showed the Health Service Executive could not explain how its mental health budget is spent because of flaws in its accounting systems.
At a recent symposium on economics and human rights organised by Amnesty International Ireland, Dr Mícheál Collins of Trinity College explained that, of 131 identified government tax breaks, figures only exist for the cost of 89 of them. And in some cases where there are figures, all we have are the rough estimates that were provided when the tax break was introduced by the Oireachtas.
In bringing together economists and experts in the field of human rights, we were trying to investigate how we can make Ireland’s budget more accountable. It is the first time we have held an event like this; indeed, it’s a first as well for our global organisation.
But why is this a human rights issue at all? Why is an organisation best known for working to free prisoners of conscience or to end the death penalty taking an interest in the labyrinth of the Irish budgeting process?
It is because decisions made around how we spend our money affect our human rights in Ireland. You have a right to health, a right to education, a right to social security. These are not figures of speech or slogans: they are rights laid down in legally binding international human rights treaties signed and ratified by Irish governments.
Under international law, governments are obliged to deliver on these human rights. But the resources available to a country to deliver them must be taken into account.
It is not up to human rights organisations, nor the courts for that matter, to decide how taxpayers’ money is spent. That’s the job of our elected representatives. But in making those decisions, they must fulfil their responsibility to ensure resources are allocated in a transparent way that protects our human rights and grows our economy.
It might seem that talking about these issues at a time of economic recession, when the IMF is effectively in charge, is a luxury we cannot afford. But the current economic climate is also an opportunity to change the old rules. We need better quality standards, more information about how public services are delivered and paid for. Those people using services, and those providing them whether in the public or private sector, need more information from our budget process.
One of the reasons that we, as a nation, have found ourselves in this place is the lack of accountability in our financial and budgetary system. In the middle of such a grave economic crisis, it has never been more important to examine how we allocate scarce resources.
How do we ensure the decisions around our budget are made in a way that protects human rights and is effective, efficient and accountable? How do we decide where we spend our money and ensure we’re getting good value? And how do we do this in a way that ordinary people can understand? Unless we work to restore faith in our budgetary system, we will have failed to learn from this crisis.
And in the discussions about bondholders, banks, interest rates and bailouts, we must focus not only on the numbers, but on the bigger question of the kind of society we want to build. Our vision for Ireland must be of something more than simply a balanced set of accounts.
It must include a society where our government ensures our fundamental human rights. Later this year the United Nations will review the progress made on fulfilling those rights for people living in Ireland. While there have been improvements there is no doubt they will find a lot left undone, so much that could have been accomplished during the boom years had human rights been a priority.
Included in the Programme for Government is the line “we will require all public bodies to take due note of equality and human rights in carrying out their functions”. This must include all government departments, including finance and public expenditure in particular. And yet, how will that happen and how will it work in practice?
There is an extraordinary level of distrust in our budgetary system, but given recent events that’s hardly surprising. Only once we begin to appreciate how the system works can we start to properly investigate how our money is spent and, most importantly, ensure accountability in the allocation of our resources. Political and economic reforms being contemplated by our new government must take this into account.
Human rights activists need to understand more about economics, about how wealth is generated and growth sustained. Economists need to appreciate that human rights is not necessarily about spending more. It is about transparency, about ensuring accountability in how we spend our money and in how we make those decisions. It is from that common ground that we can work together.
Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland. He was previously founder and director of One in Four.