09 February 2011

Three weeks according to the Treasury website. Next time the Treasury invites public input, it needs to give them a real deadline to enable their ideas to be examined seriously.

Last Friday the Chancellor launched the Treasury’s first on-line Budget portal.

On the face of it, this appears to be taking democracy to a new level by opening up the closed budget process for public input. In fact, it is no more than the Treasury putting the existing budget representation process online – which will make dealing with the welter of representations much easier.

But the interesting point in the detailed guidance is that it asks people to make representations as early as possible, but no later than three weeks before the Budget.

To quote John McEnroe, they cannot be serious. The idea that a proposal can go from entry onto a Treasury website to full scale budget announcement in less than three weeks is heroic – or worrying and misleading.

Actual decisions have to be locked down before the preceding weekend to let the Office for Budget Responsibility do their stuff and to get the press notices and Financial Statement and Budget Report printed. So even if the idea is spotted instantly by the Treasury portal watchers, it would need to be worked up and agreed in 17 days.

But, having put its toe in the water of inviting public engagement, the Treasury needs to do it for real. As former Treasury adviser, Chris Wales pointed out in his annex to the Institute for Fiscal Studies' Mirrlees report last year, one of the problems in British tax policy is that the Treasury and HMRC unhealthily monopolise thinking.

Opening up the process is a good thing - but it needs to be a genuine exercise.  So later this year, the Treasury should relaunch their website – not in February, but in August – and set a deadline of November – to enable it to give serious propositions the consideration they deserve.

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