Thursday 24 May 2018

Maeve Dineen: All we want for Christmas is an autumn Budget

Maeve Dineen, Business Editor

THESE days it is all about thinking smart. We need to believe that the Government is responding to challenges in an imaginative way.

This is why I was pleased to see that Public Reform Minister Brendan Howlin signalled in his Budget speech that we may have seen the last December Budget ever.

In a press conference later the same evening, Mr Howlin suggested that future Budgets may well be held in October and signalled that he wants a lot more pre-Budget discussion – although he fears we lack the "political maturity".

An October Budget would be music to the ears of almost every retailer in the country, although a spring Budget – like they have in Britain – might be even better.

There are arguments for both an autumn or a spring Budget – but no good arguments for a December announcement that saps consumer morale ahead of the main shopping season.

An autumn Budget would certainly chime better with the financial year (which former finance minister Charlie McCreevy sensibly brought into line with the calendar year).

It would also appear to be closer to the European system of so-called 'semesters', to which we will all have to get used in the years ahead.

The disadvantages are that it would still not be too distant from Christmas.

By the time the Dail reconvened after its lengthy break, we would already be close to Christmas. It is difficult to see how there can be the sort of debate that Mr Howlin says he wants, a full-blown Budget and a decent interval until Christmas.

A spring Budget, on the other hand, would interrupt the peak-selling season. While December remains the most profitable month for retailers, it is followed by the fallow months of January and February. The peak-selling season remains the three-month period from March through to June.

A spring Budget could potentially ruin this, although it seems to work in the UK.

The shape of future Budgets is as interesting as the timing. It seems that there will be fewer surprises and more discussion. That makes sense, although it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.

Powerful lobby groups, such as the pensions industry, already use their financial muscle to campaign endlessly against even the smallest changes to the rules.

Room for more discussion will undoubtedly work against reform in these fields but it will also protect us from some foolish excess as well.

The situation last Wednesday, when Michael Noonan was delivering a Budget without supplying crucial information to the Opposition, was clearly unacceptable and close to an abuse of the Dail.

There was every reason to feel sympathy with Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath as he jumped up and down to complain. Understanding a Budget is difficult enough without having to prepare some sort of response when key information is withheld.

It is all very well for the Government to claim that it wants real debate about budgetary measures, but actions speak louder than words.

That the speech went ahead without the information was an insult to democracy.

Opposition leaders were robbed of the chance to respond when it mattered.

Let's hope it is different next October.

Irish Independent

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