Friday 21 October 2016

After the carrot of reduced charges comes the stick of direct deductions

Published 07/05/2015 | 02:30

Environment Minister Alan Kelly
Environment Minister Alan Kelly

Labour strategists have by now accepted that usual vote transfers from parties on their further left flank are lost to them. They must now address the working people who do not like water charges, but will at very least acquiesce and pay up.

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"What do you say to the person who has paid their water bill and feels their neighbour, who is refusing to pay, is laughing at them and giving the two fingers to the system?" one Labour backbencher asked rhetorically in recent days.

The answer is that the Government will follow the carrot of water grants and reduced charges, with the stick of direct deductions from wages and welfare. They hope that people get the distinction between treatment of those refusing to pay - and of those who cannot pay.

They couch the measures in a broader scheme to cover the collection of fines and try to extend it to debts other than water charges. Above all, they hope that this initiative looks credible and allows both Government parties safely park this noisome, nasty business this side of a general election.

There is an another considerable virtue which can be used to sell this initiative. It is the vast reduction in use of the pointless threat of jail in cases of non-payment of debt and fines.

This practice has in recent times risked bringing the gardaí, courts and prison services into disrepute. A neglected Law Reform Commission report from 2010 has proved a boon in supporting this political fix.

Of course, the issue has primarily affected Labour and caused tensions between Environment Minister Alan Kelly, in charge of water charges, and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, in charge of welfare. Taking money directly from welfare payments is a tough move for Labour ministers.

Again, the principle of "poverty proofing" may help.

This would place limits on the amounts which would be clawed back from welfare payments which are already modest. As an initiative, it has a lot of moving parts and the potential for many complications. But it also shows a deal of ingenuity and could work.

Both Government parties will hope that this and other developments, such as the arrival of relatively modest water bills, can defuse the problem which has dogged them for a year now.

That is probably a wildly optimistic wish. Already, as the economy picks up and Government revenues recover, both parties are thinking back over their determination in the darker days of 2011 to persist with water charges and the political albatross that Irish Water has turned out to be.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has struggled with his supporting water charges - but not this kind and not now. But he does sting the Government when he says these charges could generate as little as €150m per year.

Irish Independent

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