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Attack on OAPs is unfair, while the rich walk away

It's a sad day when our pensioners are sacrificed in order to balance the books, writes Celia Larkin

ONE law for the rich and powerful, quite another for the meek and modest. Yet again the wealthy walk away while the vulnerable carry the can.

Revenue and the Department of An Taoiseach seem to have no problem looking for arrears in payments from old- age pensioners, while the Department of Finance and the Department of An Taoi-seach shy away from recouping money they wish they had not paid to tribunal lawyers.

Because of a 'typing error' in 2002, two senior counsel, John Coughlan and Jerry Healy, then working on the Moriarty tribunal, received payment of €2,500 per day rather than the paltry sum of €2,250 per day, which was the intended figure. This continued for six years. The result? An extra €1m, over and above what was intended, to two barristers. However, when the error was discovered it was deemed impossible to amend and the difference was never recouped. Between them, Mr Coughlan and Mr Healy received a payment of €16m from the state coffers for their work on the Moriarty tribunal, and it's not possible to recoup the €1m?

Let us be clear about how this happened. In its offer to the lawyers, the Government made a typing mistake. As a result, the lawyers were offered the higher figure and they accepted the work on the basis of the higher figure. When the mistake was discovered and pointed out to the lawyers, they declined to opt for the lower figure on the basis that this was what they had been offered in writing and this was what they had accepted. In other words, the Government had no legal recourse. This was not a legal question, but a moral one based on the way things are and the relativity of shared misery in society. The lawyers chose not to pick the high moral ground. And the Government chose not to pick a fight.

No such luck for old-age pensioners. Here the position was reversed -- the Government may well have certain legal authority in the matter but it lacks a superior moral argument.

Despite the fact that Revenue and the Department of Social Protection have had a legal right, and some would argue a legal obligation, to share information since 2005, and that a failure to deduct tax is effectively an overpayment, the error in overpaying old- age pensioners is recoupable. Nay, pursuable. Where's the fairness in that?

Has our administration, in an effort to balance the books, lost all grip on fairness and compassion? Around 115,000 old-age pensioners were confronted with an accusation of non-compliance with no regard for fair procedure. Mass scare tactics, regardless of age or liability. Let's face it; a letter from Revenue is not for the fainthearted. When one drops through the letterbox unrequested or unexpected, it's enough to put the most regular of heartbeats into palpitation mode. But it was done. It was done.

And when Josephine Feehily, chairwoman of the Revenue Commissioners, gave her cool and authoritative defence of the action, in front of the Dail Public Accounts Committee, she added a significant observation.

"I have no authority to say that I will not pursue a certain category of people for money in relation to recent years."

Remember, the sums the Revenue was seeking tax payments on from pensioners were typically in the range of €2,000 to €17,000.

Of course, some commentators have fair-mindedly said: "You don't get to the age and stage where you have a substantial pension outside the state pension without knowing it's taxable and that it's your job to declare it."

You might equally say that experienced senior counsel don't get to such a position of eminence to be offered this kind of work without realising that €2,500 is a very generous sum for a day's work. Even at this stage, couldn't they volunteer to hand back their accidentally gained bonus?

It's a sad day when compassion, sensitivity and respect for the emotional well-being of our elderly citizens are sacrificed for the sake of a rapid reversal of an accounting error. While Enda Kenny may have made the relevant noises to indicate a slap on the hand for the Revenue Commissioners, there was no mistaking his authoritative tone when outlining the necessity of payment of any outstand-ing debt that a pensioner is liable for.

First it was blame the previous administration, then the troika, now Revenue. One wonders who they'll blame come April 6 when the changes in criteria for pension entitlement kick in. There's a big difference between needing five years of full contributions to qualify for pension and the new requirement of 10 years. That's going to affect a substantial number of unsuspecting retirees come April. Who will Enda point the finger of blame at when that particular problem hits the fan?

Unfortunately for Enda, Minister Bruton let the cat out of the bag in relation to the Government's knowledge of the pursuit of tax payment from pensioners on RTE's The Week in Politics programme, when he said that the Government did "make provision that would bring in revenue", this year. And that it made it clear that Revenue had the power to obtain information from other government departments about payments.

What is it about politicians when they get into power? Enda showed such promise when he made that memorable speech condemning the conduct of the Catholic Church during the abuse investigations. It seemed for once there was a champion of the underdog. It seemed, for once, our politicians would truly stand up for the vulnerable.

As citizens we knew there would be hard times ahead. What we hoped for was an egalitarian approach to fiscal rectitude. Less than a year in office and any notions of a fair and equitable approach have evaporated. Yet again, the more vulnerable are targeted while the wealthy are protected. Of course, the vulnerable are less likely to fight back.

Sunday Independent