People in public office need to exercise judgment over public money

The level of trust and confidence in politicians is at an all-time low. That is absolutely true. Any Member who is in contact with people – I am sure that is the case with all of my colleagues – must know that there is an unprecedented level of anger and frustration evident across all levels of society. The question of expenses is but one flashpoint. It is, however, a serious flashpoint. This matter arose earlier in the year in Britain and a debate on the fundamental issues involved came about as a result. That debate went to the very heart of the constitution, no less, of that country.

There is a serious issue with which we must deal. There is no substitute for people in public life exercising their own judgement in respect of both their actions and what they do with public money. If every single person in public life is not prepared to exercise judgment over what he or she is doing in respect of the use of public money, there is no hope with regard to the restoration of public trust and confidence in politics or the political system.

I asked the Leader of the Seanad a question in respect of that matter. The question to which I refer relates to the trust and confidence of the public in the debate in which we will be obliged to engage in the coming months with regard to the overall budgetary situation and the serious difficulties we face. I wish to ask a single, tight question. Has a Government decision been made in respect of the figure of €4 billion required to be obtained in savings in December’s budget? Has the Government decided to change the balance which it indicated would apply in respect of that €4 billion, namely, that there would be €2.5 billion in expenditure cuts and €1.5 billion in taxation measures? When was it decided that the entire €4 billion in savings would be obtained through public expenditure cuts? Was a decision made and when was it made?

Everyone has a view on the correct balance that should apply and we could engage in a debate on the matter. However, in the first instance I wish to know the answer to the question I have posed. As stated last week, during the summer the McCarthy report and the report of the Commission on Taxation were published. In my naivety, I had understood that these reports would form the basis for the debate in which we were going to engage this autumn. The McCarthy report contains much that I do not like but it sets out in stark terms where expenditure is being made and where there may be opportunities for savings. There is much with which I agree and much with which I disagree in the report. However, at least it is a written document. The Commission on Taxation’s report sets out the basis on which we might reform the tax system in the future.

We were, therefore, presented with the McCarthy report on expenditure and the commission report on taxation. I accept that matters are not that simple but at least these reports could provide us with some assistance. However, we have been informed that the report of the Commission on Taxation has been abandoned. In addition, and if we are to believe the newspapers, it appears that rather than going through the detail of the McCarthy report and engaging in the requisite debate, the Government intends to have one or two major whacks, as it were. In other words, it will have a go at either public service pay or social welfare payments. That is just not good enough because it contributes to the lack of trust. If the Government wants the Opposition to put forward proposals for discussion, why then is it not possible to engage in a debate on these reports, which were commissioned in our name, rather than merely jettisoning them?