But whether Budget day itself continues to serve any useful purpose is at best questionable.
Most tax changes these days have already been announced twice before the chancellor even stands up in parliament to give them a proper airing.
Typically, they would have been flagged in the previous year’s Budget and raised again in the pre-Budget statement.
Six days before Gordon Brown even delivers his seventh Budget speech, we already know many of the measures the forthcoming Finance Bill will contain. And we know that when measures announced by him a fortnight ago (R&D tax cuts to CGT relief) are added to the policies flagged in last year’s Budget and pre-Budget reports, we are already looking at a 500-page Finance Bill.
Brown only needs to tinker slightly with the rest of the system (an extension of VAT here, a recasting of the national insurance net there) to ensure this year’s bill is the largest ever.
And that creates another problem.
MPs just aren’t interested in the minutiae of tax. Headline rates, yes.
But secondary legislation bores them. So we have a situation where backbench MPs are co-opted on to committees to examine the Finance Bill and once there they spend most of their time attending to other business. So the bill gets little proper examination. It’s far from an ideal situation.
So why not hand more of the ‘boring’ bits to a committee of professional advisers drawn from across the relevant interest groups?
MPs could continue to debate the headline measures (should income tax/NICs/VAT rise, should inheritance tax be reformed and so on) while tax experts deal with how these measures can be implemented in the most effective way.
Already meetings between Inland Revenue advisers and tax professionals take place at regular intervals under Chatham House rules to discuss the workability of new measures. And thankfully relations are thawing after the cold war of only a few years ago.
Divorcing the detail of tax from the direction would be a dramatic step, but it would benefit all parties. The chancellor would get his time in the sun, MPs would get the chance to engage in proper debate while tax professionals could ensure legislation is workable before implementation.
Improved debate and better thought-out legislation would benefit taxpayers.
And who knows might even help move us towards that other democratic holy grail and improve public faith in the political system itself.
Mark McMullen joins the private client services team from Smith & Williamson
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