Nat O'Connor The issue of budget transparency is so important that it deserves special mention.
With the possible exception of elections, there is no other single most influential event in our democracy than the national budget. The budget is where all is revealed in terms of the values and priorities of the current government and it is often when it comes to spending money that promises made in manifestos are fulfilled or broken.
While the Government is moving towards some important reforms, like the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act, there were some major surprises in the dilution of the quality and depth of information provided in the Budget 2013 documentation.
The current Programme for Government agreed by Fine Gael and Labour is full of commitments to openness and transparency. Not least, on page 23, the pledge that “We will open up the Budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny in a way that restores confidence and stability by exposing and cutting failing programmes and pork barrel politics.”
Yet, for the first time in years, we were not given a full break down of spending decisions to the level of expenditure programmes and organisational budgets for a number of Departments. What might have been three or more pages of detail in a previous budget for some of the key departmental blocks of voted expenditure was reduced to just one page per vote block in the Budget 2013 Expenditure Report. The votes affected were: Gardaí; Prisons; Courts; Justice and Equality; the local government fund under Environment, Community and Local Government; Education and Skills; and Agriculture and Food. Only Social Protection and Health provided the same break down of sub-heads as last year.
What this means in effect is that some publicly-funded organisations are no wiser after the budget about what level of change has occurred in their individual budgets for next year, which begin in a few weeks’ time. It also means that policy analysts and journalists cannot give people in Ireland as full a picture on what promises and policies are implemented or not through the decisions made by each Minister on how his or her budget allocations will be spent.
For example, we know that in Vote 24 (Justice and Equality) there will be a 20 per cent reduction in programme expenditure to ‘promote equality and integration’ (line item D). That’s a €5.8 million reduction in that programme.
The equivalent information in Budget 2012 was part of item G: ‘equality, integration and disability’. However, in last year’s document the amount of money going to 10 different line items is shown, such as ‘grants to women’s organisations’, ‘equality proofing’, ‘Traveller initiatives’ and so on, with the specific changes to each area open to scrutiny.
Such missing detail means that people in Ireland have far less clarity on what is being done with their money and in their name. This lack of transparency is a retrograde step from the point of view of Ireland’s democracy.