We must not tolerate cuts deception

DURING the election campaign Charlie McCreevy, the Minister for Finance, denied that the Government was aware of impending cost overruns and was planning to cut back on spending.

He stated baldly in a letter to the Fine Gael leader on May 13 that there were "no significant overruns projected and no cutbacks whatsoever are being planned secretly or otherwise".

The Irish Examiner produces conclusive evidence today that the minister's statement was untrue. Documents just released under the Freedom of Information Act show that as early as February 26, 2002, departments were told to cut 13 million euro from their budgets so that money could be diverted into initiatives of the Departments of Health and Justice for announcements to be made during the general election campaign.

A further decision was taken on April 17 to cut a further 19m euro from departments' budgets to fund the expansion of the primary school building programme that was announced during the election campaign. Thus, a total of 32m euro was cut to facilitate the series of election announcements.

The Office of Public Works was told to cut 3.5m euro to facilitate the election promises, while the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs was stripped of 4m. At no time during the campaign did any government spokesmen indicate these cuts to the budget proposals.

Of course, ordering the cuts was not as easy as obtaining them. The Office of Public Works already looks like overspending around 18m euro. Even the Department of Education, which got some of the extra money, is in trouble. Day-to-day spending on education has gone up by almost 22%, well ahead of the projected 12% increase.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act indicate the Government is already concerned about the ability of some departments to cut back on spending.

"Everything Fianna Fáil did in the run-up to the election was aimed at deceiving the Irish people," according to Brendan Howlin, the Labour Party's spokesman on finance. The Progressive Democrats were in government then, too, so they were also a party to the deception.

People will remember the charges of "creative accounting" and "funny money" that were levelled against Charles Haughey's government of 1981, when most of the money for the year had been spent before the general election.

People did not insist on higher standards then, and we are paying the price ever since. People are now faced with an unpalatable choice either Charlie McCreevy did not know about the secret cuts when he gave his assurance that there were no such plans, or he deliberately sought to mislead the electorate. The latter is actually the preferable explanation, because if the Minister for Finance was not aware of the secret cuts made in February and April, then we are in even more trouble than anybody could have perceived.

What happened involves not just the deliberate deception of the electorate about the expenditure of 32m euro, it was also not only an affront to the members of the Oireachtas, which approved the legislation giving effect to the budget proposals, but it was also a perversion of democracy. If we tolerate such low standards in high places, it will be at our own peril.

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