Saturday 22 October 2016

At work? On the dole? An employer? Better call Saul

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Tom Halliday
Illustration: Tom Halliday

This is insane. When you look at the detail of what happened last week you have to wonder if the Taoiseach and several of his ministers have finally snapped.

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Perhaps they're so obsessed with saving Irish Water they've become detached from reality. Either way, they don't appear to be dealing with a full deck.

First, the threat to take the Water Tax from the wages and dole of those who don't pay. This was supposed to be the 'gotcha' moment, when the Minister for Big Ideas, Alan Kelly, came up with a master plan.

Alan, we were told, has found a way to pick our pockets without threatening us with jail.

In truth, Alan has found a way to ensure that the poison that is Irish Water will spread even further through the organs of State.

Where did Alan's Big Idea come from? From the Report on Personal Debt Management and Debt Enforcement, published by the Law Reform Commission. The LRC brought out three such reports - a consultation paper in September 2009, an interim report in May 2010 and a full report seven months later.

And there it lay, for five years. Until Alan needed a cudgel to hit us with, and someone remembered the LRC report. Yahoo!!! This'll screw 'em!!!

Brendan Howlin said it's about "the local plumber or the local electrician who can't collect his debt". And, almost incidentally, it's about Irish Water.

That LRC report, as it happens, is a thorough document, a 418-page analysis of the need for reform of legislation relating to debt.

For a start, it says that we can't have someone simply asserting that someone else owes them money: "a court order confirming that a debt is actually due to a creditor is required". So, the courts will be bubbling over with Irish Water cases.

And you can't starve children (sorry, Enda, but there has to be some limit to your powers). Therefore, before a cent can be taken from dole payments, the State "must ensure that there is still a minimum standard of living for the debtor and his or her dependants".

This requires the creation of a mechanism to means test debtors, with consequent appeals to the courts. Lawyers! Feel free to order a new sports car!

Employers are already uneasy about acting as debt collectors. Wait 'til they get a load of paragraph 5.103 of the LRC report, which calls for "sanctions for any person who dismisses an employee or injures the employee in his or her employment, or alters the employee's position to his or her prejudice, by reason of the circumstances that an attachment of earnings order has been made".

We can count on many days of costly court assessments of why exactly someone was demoted, moved, fired or made redundant. Saul Goodman! Feel free to order a new yacht!

Here's Paragraph 5.105: "The Commission recommends that legislation should provide that any employer who dismisses an employee or injures the employee in his or her employment, or alters the employee's position to his or her prejudice, by reason of the circumstances that an attachment of earnings order has been made . . . shall be guilty of an offence."

Hi, Boss - welcome to D Wing!

Mind you, there's an upside - when you deduct the Irish Water charge from the employee's wages, says the LRC, you should also be allowed deduct an "administration fee".

That's Enda and his Government, always spreading sweetness and light among the people!

Why do we need all this? We don't. The funding of a water supply through taxation works fine.

However, Irish Water ticked several Fine Gael boxes. It was another tax, part of the austerity programme; the water supply could eventually be privatised, with joyful profits for the usual crowd; the company would provide another revenue stream for large firms of accountants, lawyers and consultants.

As an "independent" company, Irish Water could borrow for investment - the downside was higher borrowing rates; the upside, the money would be nominally borrowed by Irish Water and therefore would be "off the books", so the Government and its EU bosses could pretend the Government wasn't really borrowing the money.

As an afterthought, Irish Water is about providing a water supply.

To make the financial trickery work, Irish Water had to show it was receiving most of its funding from "customers". Unfortunately, the Government had to reduce the charges - temporarily - because of protest pressure. And a lot of people won't pay. All this means Irish Water is unlikely to bring in enough cash to meet the EU criteria that would make its borrowings "off the books".

Alan's brainwave - in which the State acts as a debt collector for Irish Water - abandons all pretence that this is an "independent company".

My suspicion is that the fix is in, already. That the EU will jiggle the figures to get the Government off the hook - and declare that Irish Water meets the "independent" criteria. After all, Enda has done them enough favours.

(Put down that Freedom of Information request, Gavin - there'll be nothing on paper. It'll have been Trichet-ed.)

Meanwhile, in order to keep the Irish Water show on the road, we have to build another procedural and legal bureaucracy - on top of the Irish Water bureaucracy - so Alan can pick the pockets of those who don't pay.

Both Enda Kenny and Joan Burton spoke of distinguishing between those who can't pay and "those who will not pay despite being on comfortable salaries but want everybody else to pay".

Throughout the Irish Water disaster no one has demanded that "everybody else" but them should pay.

We all know Irish Water charges will shoot up, when the coast is clear. There are people who can't pay. There are people who can pay but it will force their families to do without. There are people who won't pay, because they object to paying twice, to privatising the water supply, to further austerity, to funding bonuses and consultant fees for people of very limited ability.

They don't want "everybody else" to pay, they want no one to pay.

They want to end the monstrous growth that Irish Water has become, they want to do that even as Alan Kelly seeks to add further layers of bureaucracy onto the madness.

On the subject of mental clarity, last week, some unemployed people became upset that Michael Noonan insulted them. Not to worry. Michael's like that, lately. However, perhaps someone could have a word with a therapist, before Michael does himself any more damage.

First, Michael linked Alan Dukes with "criminality", a clearly outrageous and defamatory remark. Second, while somewhat agitated, he accused Sean O'Rourke of being party to some kind of year-long RTE cover-up of something or other - again, a clearly outrageous and defamatory remark.

Now, he's delivered a sneering remark about the unemployed. This latest outburst didn't merely reveal an unpleasant personality - it showed an ignorance of economic facts that would be understandable in an internet troll, but is alarming in a Minister for Finance.

One wonders if these days Michael is - to use the vernacular - living "out where the buses don't run".

Sunday Independent

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