I wish to ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about his role and that of his Department in respect of the overall book of Estimates for 2014, in view of the largest ever set of expenditure overruns across nine Government Departments.
In his Budget Statement of 15 October 2013, the Minister stated “the two Government parties agreed a strategy for this budget and the Estimates. It involves reducing the tax and spending consolidation from the published €3.1 billion to €2.5 billion, targeting a general government deficit of 4.8% for 2014 and in the process, achieving a primary balance”.
The Minister did this on the basis of a flawed book of Estimates that he read into the record on that same date. He knew they were false when he referred to them. The country knew they were false. Within 24 hours, the then Minister for Health and the chief executive of the HSE, Mr. Tony O’Brien, disowned the budget because they felt it could not be achieved. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, forecast that probity cuts to medical cards would offer savings of €113 million but everyone knew the Estimates were wrong. The proof of that is in the fact that we are now providing for the largest Supplementary Estimate in the history of the State to correct a budget that was flawed from the outset. The figure is now €1.2 billion, €680 million of which pertains to the Department of Health.
Had the Minister factored that €1.2 billion into his budget estimates last year, he would have exceeded the deficit ceiling of 5.1%. He knowingly came to the House to present a figure that came under the target of 4.8% in the hope that the Department of Finance would bail him out with extra tax revenue. Did he do this deliberately?
The Minister skirted around the fact that the 2014 Supplementary Estimate of €1.2 billion is the biggest single Supplementary Estimate in the history of this State. It was nearly matched only by the Supplementary Estimate of €1.1 billion for 2012. The two biggest Supplementary Estimates since the foundation of the State have been presented since the Department of Public and Expenditure and Reform was established. The Minister and his Department have done damage to the Estimates process. Over the last four years, they failed to carry out their basis function of presenting a proper book of Estimates and to live within those Estimates.
The Minister rightly acknowledged that the Department of Finance bailed him out. In hindsight, given the record of the Minister and his Department it might have been a mistake to split the Department of Finance. When that Department was responsible for expenditure as well of taxation, we never had such a gross level of wrong Estimates being presented on budget day.