Saturday 20 July 2019

Emer O'Kelly: How attempting to pay new household charge has pushed my buttons

Emer O'Kelly spent several frustrating hours online trying to do the right thing and pay the tax

IT'S 12.26 on Thursday, January 5. I have been at the computer since 11.02, attempting to pay my household charge. Yesterday, I spent almost an hour trying to "create an account" so I could do just that. I am in a filthy temper.



So, before I tackle the incompetent, ludicrous, inadequate and unsuccessful website that is supposed to be "up and running" for payment, let me tell you a story.

I bought my house in the mid-1980s. Lots of younger people think that those of us who went through that recession actually had it dead easy. Well, we didn't. We were at the pin of our collars, particularly single people and young marrieds with only the husband working (most women hadn't yet grown up enough to believe that they should contribute financially to their own keep and that of their children). The rule of thumb was meant to be that your mortgage repayments ideally should be no more than one-third of your take-home salary. Just like now, anyone who followed that dictum would have been living in rented accommodation forever.

Those of us who wanted houses with character bought places that were close to derelict, and spent years with (in my case) lean-to bathrooms and no central heating. Also in my case, and I wasn't alone, it didn't matter, because I couldn't have afforded to use the heating if I had it. Interest rates were soaring, going up between one and two per cent every few months and, if memory serves me, ultimately they reached 18 per cent. Cue the poverty trap, just like now.

And just like now, a property tax was introduced; again if memory serves me, mine was somewhere between £300 and £400, which represented more than my disposable income for a month. I walked more instead of taking buses, and reduced my food intake further. My overdraft increased exponentially. It was the same story for everyone on a small salary and in the early years of a mortgage. And I was lucky: I was well-educated, with a "career" rather than a job.

But thousands of people, most of them with loud, well-fed voices in large, centrally heated houses cleaned and gardened by staff (who were probably being underpaid), were outraged, and sat tight, refusing to pay. They were the cute-hoor gombeens who had "connections", and were already the cheerleaders for Haughey-ism. And the government, instead of pursuing these loud-mouthed tax cheats, rescinded the tax as "unworkable". But they didn't refund it to those who had obeyed the law and paid it, the people like me who were almost numb with financial despair and in danger of losing the houses we'd striven so hard to buy.

Some people have long memories. I'm one of them, and I still feel a huge sense of injustice at the beginning of 2012, particularly when I see people in responsible positions with incomes well in excess of €100,000 (TDs and county councillors) refusing to pay the current tax, and encouraging others not to pay it even if they can afford it. Yes, I can afford to pay it now, thanks to having worked my backside off for many years.

And I had no intention of behaving irresponsibly. Until Thursday at 12.30.

On Wednesday I logged on to the site I heard about on Morning Ireland. I kept

filling in the boxes to "create an account." I gave them all of the stuff required: contact phones, PPS number, etc. And then I came to some kind of word puzzle, designed to ensure that spam access would be limited. It involved reproducing disguised words. I got it wrong, not once, but many times, because they kept telling me to try another if it didn't work. Each time I failed, I hit the button for "create" just in case, but nothing happened. I tried the "help" button which just told me clever ways to solve the word puzzle -- none of which worked.

After an hour, I exited, as they say, the site. On checking my emails, I discovered that I had, in fact, "created an account", despite the site having stopped dead in mid-flow as it were. Exhausted, I decided to leave it overnight.

I know other people have had similar experiences. One had phoned "the department" to be told -- very politely, apparently -- that they couldn't help or take a credit card payment. The only comfort offered was that "they were having terrible trouble with the system".

Anyway, armed with my shiny new access code, I logged on again. I got directions about providing further details if I wanted to pay by direct debit. They also wanted the security password I'd given them when "creating an account". They've got a bloody short memory: they wouldn't accept it. I kept trying to find the normal alternative of entering a secure site and paying by debit or credit card. Finally, I signed off, and sat down to write this column, reflecting on yet another little item, again thanks to Morning Ireland. And it was a bit scary.

The Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes was being interviewed, and was worried, he said, about "privacy issues" involved in the department's website for paying the household tax. Admittedly, thousands of people have already paid up: at least €1.5m has been collected. And that's a lot of householders at a hundred per household.

But apparently the department plans to invade the details of our utility bills to find out who we are if we fail to pay up within the stated time. This despite gas and electricity providers having been privatised. There's a smack of Big Brother here, and I don't like it, particularly since I've already signed in, even though they've made it impossible for me to pay.

The Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, has stepped in and dismissed any worries we may have: privacy issues have been "resolved". he said confidently.

Yeah?

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