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Politicians must share the blame

Politicians like to urge citizens to "pull together" as the means of extricating ourselves from our dreadful economic situation. But do they understand that they themselves must provide the context in which we can pull together?

High on the list of citizens' aspirations and expectations is the need to be persuaded of efficiency and equity in the system of government. The affair of the pensioners' tax arrears does nothing for this cause.

The Department of Social Protection sent records relating to 560,000 pensioners to the Revenue Commissioners. The Revenue then sent demands for payment of income tax arrears to 115,000 people. These were persons in receipt of a private pension or other income in addition to the state pension.

Some notices were evidently sent in error. The same is clearly the case with a handful of those sent to residents of nursing homes.

It is more than a little dismaying that the Social Protection Department or the Revenue Commissioners, or both, should possess inaccurate information. Something more grotesque emerges in the case of nursing home residents. Some of these, it seems, were also receiving a fuel allowance or a "living alone" allowance.

For errors like these, a simple and obvious explanation offers itself.

Over a period of decades, more and more changes have been piled on top of one another in various parts of the bureaucracy. Social Protection is a prime example. The system is complex, and it becomes almost unmanageable when the changes cause replication or outright contradiction.

Blame must fall on those close to the top of civil service departments, both for current failings and for resistance to necessary reform. But at the end of the day, the chief responsibility must be borne by their political "masters".

A nadir of maladministration was reached under the last two governments. But the baton passed last March to the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition with its enormous Dail majority. This Government must now accept its responsibility and establish its authority on everything from macro-level planning to the small but vital details.

And it must do this with humanity.

The people now suffering in the affair of the pensioners' arrears are not tax dodgers like the many fat cats who find it so easy to avoid detection.

Most are as baffled by official forms as they are hurt and angered by the tax demands. And most have little financial reserves, or none.

They must have reassurance -- of two kinds. Fairness demands that those who can afford it must pay. But humanity demands that all should be treated gently.

Irish Independent