Is the government telling us the full fiscal story?

The Fiscal Council doesn't seem to think so...

Remember the promise of all that glorious "fiscal space" in the run-up to the general election?

It took a more than a moment for people to grasp what exactly the vague term meant, but pretty soon plenty were warming up to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan's idea that we'd have a good €12 billion in the public coffers just floating around waiting to be spent over the next half a decade.

Naturally, plenty opined said it wasn't so simple.

Our own business editor Vincent Wall forensically broke down the numbers at the time to show just where all that money would likely end up, while the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (IFAC) argued that the space was a lot tighter at just €3bn.

Today, the latter has raised questions again over whether Minister Noonan and his department are painting an accurate picture of our medium and long term fiscal situation for the public.

According to the IFAC's Fiscal Assessment Report: "There is uncertainty about the fiscal position over the coming years owing to a lack of published detail on the commitments in the programme for government."

Indeed, the budgetary watchdog says that the State will require an extra €6 billion over the next five years just to maintain its current spending needs.

The "stand still" requirement to maintain public services and benefits at their current levels owes to the spending pressures of inflation, increases in public sector pay and accounting for an ageing population, and would immediately reduced Minister Noonan's fiscal space by half.

Professor John McHale, chairman of the IFAC, told the Irish Independent: "There is room for new initiatives. 

"But it's not the full fiscal space. A chunk of it is required to keep doing what we're doing."

Assessing the medium-term projections for the next five years in the Stability Programme Update 2016 (SPU 2016), the IFAC says that they "understate" likely future expenditure pressure and do not present an informative picture of the public finances for 2017-2021.

The report reads: "The SPU figures for 2017 to 2021 are technical projections that assume no tax or expenditure policy changes in future budgets.

"The expenditure projections do not make any allowance for inflation or public pay changes after 2018 and as a result significantly understate likely future expenditure pressures.

"The Council’s 'stand-still' estimate of expenditure – maintaining the current level of real public services and benefits given a full accounting for demographic changes and inflation – would result in an additional €6 billion of public expenditure by 2021.

"Future budgetary forecasts should incorporate the major items of expenditure and revenue both on the basis of unchanged (real) policies and in line with the Government’s stated policy objectives. This is required by the EU directive on Medium-Term Budgetary Frameworks (MTBF)."