Friday 22 November 2019

Maeve Sheehan: Big Phil's late charge ends with a whimper

Hogan's household tax deadline has passed -- and it marked a fitting end to the whole fiasco, writes Maeve Sheehan

PHIL Hogan's last-minute push to persuade 1.6 million homeowners to pay the €100 household charge by last night's deadline failed.

A last-ditch leaflet drop, belated newspaper advertisements and final desperate appeal from the Minister for the Environment resulted in a spurt of on-line payments and a few thousand householders dribbling into local council offices around the country yesterday to pay the tax on time. The late surge he predicted never happened.

By 8pm last night, 776,153 households had registered, generating €59,230,900 of the target of €160m.

The Government is now in the invidious position of having to chase down tens of thousands of householders, and rifle through their wages and social welfare payments for fines and penalties. The Minister promised that no one will go to jail over a €100 charge. But there was no doubt about it: yesterday's result was an ignominious end to the Government's attempt to get the people behind a much reviled property charge in a campaign widely dubbed "chaotic" and "shambolic".

From the moment Phil Hogan announced it in a solo run on RTE News in May last year, the household charge has been mired in confusion. Hogan told RTE News that he was introducing a household charge from January 2012 to pay for local services, but at that stage he didn't know how much it would be. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, disowned it and the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, professed to know nothing about it. Weeks' more confusion followed over what this household charge was actually for. Was it a property tax? Was it a water tax? Was it both rolled into one? The only certainty was that that it was another stealth tax.

Things became clearer when Hogan unveiled the household charge last July: this was an temporary property tax until a valuation-based one comes in next year -- as required under the EU/IMF deal. In the words of Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald, Hogan went on to threaten, frighten and bully the public into paying the charge. But he didn't anticipated the scale of opposition.

From the outset, Hogan's household charge was beset by problems, beginning with exactly how many householders there were. The most comprehensive database in the country was the ESB's and access to it was protected by the Data Protection Act. According to reliable sources, the ESB got a call from the Department of the Environment late last year asking for access to it. The ESB said no. So the Minister introduced a special clause in his legislation including a provision allowing the State to access personal information from utility companies and other public bodies.

The Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, who is paid by the State to safe-guard such things as personal databases, was not consulted. He later told of his "surprise" in being left "out of the loop" and having to play "catch-up" to ensure that only a minimum level of personal information would be accessed. "They don't need to know who hasn't paid their ESB bill," he said.

Some members of the public also felt "out of the loop" as the Government's leaflet campaign imploded. Wood Printcraft was hired to print up 1.8 million leaflets. It completed the job at a cost of €36,000 and subsequently went into receivership. A second company, CityPost, was contracted to deliver them but by last month many householders -- including the Secretary-General of the Department of the Environment -- still had not received one. Amid complaints from the public, CityPost admitted that it could only guarantee reaching 86 to 94 per cent of houses in the country. The Department of Finance has now asked it for an audit to find out how many houses it actually reached.

Questions were asked to why An Post, the semi-state with long experience of public-information leaflet drops, didn't get the gig.

Apparently, Citypost was cheaper. An Post was finally called in last month to print and circulate a second leaflet and to stock the forms in a last-ditch effort to reach all households. That caused more confusion. With one week to go to the deadline, Joan Burton, the Social Protection Minister, reassured us that Phil Hogan was arranging for people to pay over the counter at local post offices.Eamon Gilmore had earlier been similarly confused.

The Department of the Environment said, er, no, over-the-counter payments weren't allowed but they could pick up the registration forms.

There were complaints that people -- particularly the elderly -- didn't know how to pay the charge; the options were cheque or postal order, cash at some council offices, or online. Some councils took cash, others didn't.

As the scale of public resistance became clearer, Hogan announced that local authority workers would be dispatched around the country to knock on doors and remind people to pay up. That backfired when opportunistic con artists saw it as a means of making a fast buck. The Department of the Environment had to issue a warning after complaints to Meath County Council that two people were calling to houses in Kells asking for the €100 household charge.

The trade unions also kicked up, saying it wasn't the job of council workers to be enforcers of the household charge. The Department backed down. Now Phil's Army will only be deployed on those who didn't pay up by the deadline, chasing people down "verbally door-to-door and through written correspondence", according to his Department.

Collection of the household charge now falls to the Local Government Management Agency (LAMA), which provides services to local authorities. The agency will be paid out of the pot of money it collects, although the department could not say how much. Its task in the coming weeks is to clear the backlog of forms, deposit the money and chase up the hundreds of thousands of householders who haven't paid. To do this, LAMA will tap into the ESB's customer database and those held by other agencies as well. Chief executive Paul McSweeney said that the "minimum data necessary will be gathered" to contact those who have not paid.

In another example of misinformation that has dogged the introduction of this tax, the Minister claimed last week that the protocol on sharing databases had been agreed. On Friday, the office of the Data Protection Commissioner said no protocols had been agreed. Even the number of houseowners liable for the charge has been in dispute. The Department first said 1.8 million and then switched to 1.6 million, in what Joe Higgins, the socialist TD, claimed was a "cynical manipulation" of numbers to downplay the level of resistance.

The Department said it wrote off 200,000 households who were entitled to waivers.

Despite acknowledgments that there were "communications difficulties" from cabinet colleagues such as Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton, the Cabinet refused to extend the March 31 deadline. The Government needs the money: "Whether we like it or not there is a gap of €18bn between income and expenditure and we have to get the money from somewhere, " the minister said on Friday.

Householders paying from today will incur an automatic €10 late payment fee and 1 per cent interest, rising to 10 per cent after six months, 20 per cent and 30 per cent after 12 months. Defaulters will be fined up to €2,500. On conviction, they will pay €100 per day for each day of non-payment.

Collecting that money is the next chapter in the ongoing, gaffe-prone saga of the household charge.

Sunday Independent

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