Debate of the week: citizen’s budget
Apathy and disdain are two of the major characteristics of the public relationship with the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Polling – for that that is worth – shows that people feel the House on the Hill does not work for them and is a place removed from their everyday lives.
One solution, which is being driven by members of the public, is for more open government, with both greater involvement and transparency in decision making. Scope has spoken previously with the Open Government Network (OGN) about their desire for a more two-way relationship between politicians and the people they represent.
During Question Time with Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir this week, he was asked what plans he had for a key part of this, a citizen’s budget. The query was tabled by Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan.
The minister was quick to get on the front foot, saying: “I am committed to open and transparent government, and I am convinced that the production of a citizens’ budget would be a positive development for all of us.
“I have asked my officials in the open government team to work with the Open Government Network to determine what a citizens’ budget might look like and to progress this work at pace to allow its publication to become standard practice over this mandate.”
How would this work?
Mr McGuigan followed up with a question about what plans the minister has to simplify budget information. Mr Ó Muilleoir said the interesting thing about this issue is the fact that most people who pay rates, pay tax or are the recipients of services generally do not know where the money comes from or how it is allocated.
“To encourage not only compliance but engagement with our citizens, it would be helpful if we could publish, after the upcoming Budget, for example, a summary, hopefully on the website but also in other formats as well, to let people know how the money is divided up.
“It lets them know the amount that we raise on their behalf but also how the money is allocated between Departments. Sometimes, the confusion around what taxation is paid and how it is delivered back into the communities would be clarified by such a system.”
Ulster Unionist Philip Smith asked if the minister accepted that what we have at the minute – “namely, secret monitoring rounds, no longer any public consultation on annual Budgets and absolutely no transparency on how Department's baselines are generated or altered” – was the exact opposite of a citizen’s budget.
Mr Ó Muilleoir told Mr Smith to speak with the Chancellor, saying “the dog’s dinner, the mess and the shambles” that is the UK Government is the reason there were significant budget delays at Stormont.
“Unfortunately, due to those difficulties and the crisis in London, our ability to bring forward a three-year resource Budget has been hampered. On the other hand, I will speak to the Chief Secretary tonight and we will see the outworkings of the autumn statement tomorrow. We will move expeditiously to bring a Budget in front of the House. I believe that I will recall the House to do that before Christmas. I hope that we will have as long, or longer, than we had to review the Budget last year.
“As the British Government settles, Philip, that will enable us to bring forward a Budget system that, in fairness to some of my colleagues in other parties and in particular to Mrs Hanna of the SDLP, lets us simplify the entire process. There is a complicated Budget process. Let us simplify it internally, but also let us make sure that people outside understand what is being delivered and how it is being delivered.”
Importance of openness
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford welcomed the idea of providing the public with an “itemised receipt” before asking the minister if he agreed that it is important people can see a simple record of how their rates bill is calculated so they can understand why they are paying what they pay, particularly in areas where there have been big increases.
Mr Ó Muilleoir said this is an important area and some beginning attempts have been made, via issued rates bills, but there needs to be something clearer for people to understand where their money is going.
“I found it interesting when a deputation came here from the Basque Country a month or two ago. We met the group in Newry, and one of the points that they made was that they collect all their taxation and duty. They said that people really understand what they are getting for their money.
“They do not let the Government away with anything but have great engagement with them. Very importantly, compliance — the willingness to pay taxes — has increased.”
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