Times are changing. On Budget Day, the Treasury and HMRC have traditionally published not only the full text of the Budget statement and supporting 'Red Book' but also a wide range of other announcements, explanatory notes and consultations on proposed tax measures.
When I say traditionally, I mean historically. Although the way that tax policy has been developed has changed somewhat over the decades, these arrangements have operated since before the internet era. In those far-off days, everything was published in hard copy. Those of us who wanted to get our hands on the material as it was published had to book a place for somebody – usually the most junior member of the tax department – to join a queue outside the Treasury. When the Chancellor sat down after delivering his Budget statement, large brown envelopes full of erstwhile-embargoed documents would be handed over to everybody in the queue. The recipients then had a simple mission: to get back to the office as fast as they could so that the task of analysis, commentary and advising clients could begin.
While those who had previously queued in the rain outside the Treasury welcomed the dawn of the internet era and the online publication of documents, little else changed on Budget Day: once the Chancellor had made his announcements, the Treasury and HMRC websites were updated with all the documents which anybody could download immediately.
This year, things will be done differently. The Government has decided that only announcements with fiscal implications that need to be captured in the economic and fiscal outlook published by the Office for Budget Responsibility, and measures which will be legislated in the Finance Bill, will be made on Budget Day in the normal way.
Further announcements relating to tax policy, along with many other tax consultations which do not have to be published on Budget Day, will be published on 23 March in what has become known as 'Tax Day'. Some documents which are announced in the Budget and which the Government would usually have published alongside the Finance Bill will also be published on this day. Other tax consultations may be published after Tax Day.
Although the stated intention is 'to give a range of important but less high-profile measures greater visibility among, and opportunity for scrutiny by, Parliamentary colleagues, tax professionals and other stakeholders' this change comes at a time when the Chancellor is under enormous pressure over the immediate and medium-term direction of tax policy. While many argue that tax increases are inevitable, others contend that imposing these too early risks more damage to a fragile economy. Timing is a major factor. Postponing tax increases risks the impact being felt for the first time in the run-up to the next general election, but excessive delay risks charges of mismanagement of the public finances. Once the Chancellor has signalled a direction of travel for taxes in his Budget Statement, Treasury officials and their working groups tasked with producing specific proposals now have an extra 20 days to prepare them for publication. Those 20 days will no doubt be very welcome in Whitehall.