22 March 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Decision day is fast looming for many people on the contentious €100 household charge.
The comparatively paltry rate of payment thus far does not, we believe, indicate that the vociferous campaign of opposition mounted against the imposition has – yet – secured the major groundswell of support that its advocates are claiming for it.
Rather, we imagine, those who have not yet discharged their unlooked for but unavoidable indebtedness in this regard fall into a variegated category of “Don’t Knows”.
Some, we imagine, are confused or unclear about their liability for the charge or how they go about paying it – for in both respects the Government’s attempts to disseminate clarifying information has been appallingly insufficient.
Others are in the grip of a more moral dilemma – whether to register righteous anger at the burden by refusing to meet it, or whether to concede to the natural instinct of right-thinking persons to stay in accord with the law regardless as to their personal feelings about its equity or propriety.
For the conflicted, there is no shortage of advice – although the tug of war created by the appeals to the conscience of the charge’s advocates, and the exhortations to defiance of its detractors, serve largely to elaborate the dilemma rather than to dissolve it.
While it might seem appropriate for a provincial newspaper at the service of the communities in its circulation area to advocate compliance with the provision, in this instance we deem it more editorially appropriate to advise our readers to make a determination on the issue in accord with the approach we advocate at times of elections or referenda – to weigh the issues carefully and make a decision to pay or not to pay that will sit best with their own beliefs, attitudes and instincts.
We adopt this neutral stance, however, with the strong caveat that those who decide not to pay the household charge should be totally aware of the expected consequences.
People who do not pay are liable for a 10% late payment charge for the first six months of arrears, which will rise to 20% for the following six months and 30% for arrears over a year, with a late payment interest charge of 1% applying to arrears.
The Government has signalled its unwavering determination to pursue all outstanding charges, and while it has eschewed custodial penalties there are strong indications that a new Fines Act will facilitate the imposition by the courts of attachment orders which can be used to enforce statutory reductions from one’s wages or social welfare income.
Full cognisance of these consequences will undoubtedly harden further the stance of some of those opposed to the charge – who will derive resonance from pronouncements such as those made at Tuesday night’s meeting of Monaghan Town Council by Sinn Féin’s Donal Sherry: “There is no way I’m paying and they can take whatever the hell they like off me.”
Colr Sherry was, as he emphasised, speaking only for himself and was not advocating others to follow his lead – although others of his party and of the other political elements of the Opposition left have not refrained from the encouragement of non-payment.
But his comments embody emotions that will be common to the majority of people on this issue, even those who do not share the councillor’s political credo or are inclined to follow his defiant stance – the emotions of frustration and grievance, and the anger stemming from a rising impatience with the manner in which the burdens for the country’s chronic indebtedness are being apportioned.
Of the many things wrong with the household charge, the most objectionable is perhaps the misleading way its rationale has been presented.
The Government would have us believe that it is designed to generate money that will be distributed through local authorities for expenditure on local services – but surely we are already paying for that through existing taxation?
It does not require political acumen of any great insight to see the household charge for what it is – a “stalking horse” whose primary purpose is to establish an information base that will facilitate the imposition in future years of a much more punitive and all embracing system of property taxation and service charges.
The equity of such a system of taxation can be argued – can even be justified if it is part of a reform of existing taxation policies and not merely an addition to them.
But at least the Government should come clean about the household charge’s raison d’etre.
By attempting to blithely pass the charge off as something else, and even prick the consciences of those liable for it by equating its payment with the continuation of vital strands of local authority service provision, the Government have done a good deal of its opponents’ work for them.
Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan might see himself as a pathfinder for reform in the generation of Exchequer revenue – but the image he has created for himself is more in keeping with the inglorious lineage of medieval monarchs who, faced with an Exchequer crisis or a new war to prosecute, generated revenue by afflicting the population with ingenious new taxes.
Minister Hogan and the Government should have at least called a spade a spade – by not doing so, they might need a very large such implement to dig themselves out of an embarrassing difficulty.
The call made at Tuesday night’s Monaghan Council meeting on foot of a motion from Fianna Fáil’s Robbie Gallagher for the operation of the charge to be suspended is a sensible one, and the many causes of confusion delineated by Colr Gallagher should provide the Minister with food for thought on the folly of embarking so hastily on such a measure, even if the appeal that he now “stall the wagons” will almost certainly go unheeded.
A proposal by Sinn Féin’s Sean Conlon at the meeting, defeated on the casting vote of Fine Gael Cathaoireach David Maxwell, which urged the Council not to avail of powers to access information on individual households for purposes of identifying liability for the charge, was unenforceable in practice but raised issues of merit with regard to data protection that also serve to highlight the rather desperate haste with which this measure was conceived and implemented.
Whether those liable for the household charge decide to pay or not to pay is a matter for their own conscience, a determination that should be reached by careful weighing of the issues involved in the light of their own personal convictions and circumstances.
But the Government should do its own soul searching on the manner in which this dubious duty was conceived, implemented and presented to the public, and try not to make the same mistakes when the more all-encompassing and most likely much more penal system of liabilities that the household charge presages are burdened upon the people.

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