Tuesday, October 09, 2018

What is the Point in Watching the Budget?

Pascal O'Donoghue, TD, Minister for Finance
Do you plan to watch the budget today, Reader? Will you listen to the Minister, thrill to the analysis, and carefully ponder the responses to the budget from the parties’ various spokespersons on finance when they, too, address Dáil Éireann?

And are you entirely sure that’s wise? All things considered, would you not be better off beating yourself unconscious with a brick instead?

You say that’s crazy talk. No, it’s not. Beating yourself unconscious with a brick is every bit as sensible as listening to the budget and expecting the government to exercise any control over the public finances – insofar as they government can figure out what the public finances are in the first place, of course.

The one reason the country hasn’t sunk beneath the waves – and I thank almighty God for it – is that we must have our budgets signed off in Berlin anymore, even since that time we went crazy buying two-bed apartments with one parking space and thinking they were little goldmines. The majority of the spending is already spent before the Minister got out of bed this morning. What the Minister will actually be talking about is what he’s allowed to spend from the change discovered at the back of the couch, as the big money is only handled by the big boys any more.

And even then, the unhappy man will still make a bags of it. His is an impossible task.

Professor Séamus Coffey, head of the Fiscal Advisory Council, was interviewed on This Week on RTÉ Radio One on Sunday. Professor Coffey noted that every year for the past fifteen years the Department of Health has been unable to calculate its spending correctly.

This is phenomenally bad practice, and what makes it worse is that every time the Department manages to underestimate spending. It’s not that the Department of Health gets its sums wrong, as such. It’s that it always gets them wrong in the same way.

For fifteen years the Department has tried to calculate how much it needs, and each year it’s underestimated its budget and had to be dug out. This is despite always going higher than last year for each of the fifteen years.

This isn’t bad maths. If it were bad maths, they’d have over-estimated at least once. This is something else.

Let’s put that in perspective. Let’s say you’re saving for a mortgage, and you decide to cut down on the pints. You budget yourself a fifty-Euro-a-fortnight pinting allowance, and swear never to break it.

At the end of the fortnight, you do your sums and you find that instead of blowing fifty Euro on porter, you’ve blown eighty. OK. You were unrealistic in your initial calculation. There are few places in Dublin city centre where you can get a pint for less than a fiver, and five pints a week isn’t even half the weekly limit as set out by the killjoy Department of Health. OK. So you recalibrate, and your new fortnightly pinting budget is now eighty Euro.

You examine your spend after this second fortnight and find out you’ve spent one hundred Euro.

This isn’t great. Not only are you still over budget, but you’ve doubled your initial estimate. This is bad. You feel bad. You’re not looking forward to telling your girlfriend, who’s counting on you pulling your weight for this mortgage. But at least you know now what the price of booze is. You budget for a hundred bucks this time, and go again.

That’s three budgets reader. The Department of Health have got this wrong for fifteen budgets in a row. If that were the case where you were saving for your mortgage, it’s safe to say that you could forget about the mortgage. You could forget about the girlfriend too, as she’d long ago have walked out. But you yourself are not bothered about a mortgage now, of course. Why would you need a mortgage when you now live under a bridge, off your cake on a cocktail of Buckfast and dry sherry all the livelong day?

Minister Harris, a man borne down by the sense of his own dignity, is inclined to respond that there is no discretionary spend in Health. If some invalid, some wretched soul, were to call to a hospital, how could the hospital send him or her away?

Such an unfortunate should not be sent away, of course. But your faithful correspondent can tell you who should be sent away. The genius who agreed to pay €6.5 million per year in rent for the new Department of Health offices eighteen months before anybody actually moves into the place could do with sending away.

The only reason whoever is monitoring how well hospital consultants are maintaining their working division between private and public patients while working in public hospitals can’t be sent away because it seems that person doesn’t exist in the first place.

According to last week’s report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, no more than 20% of beds in public hospitals are meant to be set aside for private patients. However, beds are considered plain beds, not public beds or private beds, and “the HSE does not draw comparisons on activity levels between hospitals or individual consultants in order to monitor trends in activity over time.” So that’s bound to be going well.

You may think your faithful correspondent is picking on the Department of Health. Not at all. Consider this shaggy dog story, as reported in yesterday’s Times Ireland:

The Irish Greyhound Board had their old stadium in Harold’s Cross valued in March of last year. Savills' reckoned it was worth twelve million Euro if developed, six million if it remained a dog track.

A few weeks later, the Department of Education asked the Valuation Office to survey the dog track at Harold’s Cross, and see how much it was worth. Harold’s Cross could do with a new school, you see.

Where Savills' considered the site worth €12 million, the Valuation Office thought it worth more €23 million. The Department of Education bought the site for €23 million in May of last year. Did the site more than double in value in two months? What exactly are we missing here? Other than our shirts, of course - we lost those long ago.

Now. Suppose you’re some sort of nut who thinks maybe the country would be in better shape if we spent money wisely, instead of finding new and, frankly, quite astonishing ways to waste it? For whom exactly should you vote in the coming election? Whom can you trust to get a start on that task?

I’ll give you a minute, dear Reader. Then you can go off and find yourself a brick.
a brick.