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Taxing times for the Revenue man

With the referendum over, normal service can resume. One sign of this return to normality is the re-appearance of Environment Minister Phil Hogan who had been missing from political life for several weeks as the Government tried to curry favour with the public. Now we learn that he has instructed local councils to use the ESB database to target the 650,000 homeowners who ignored previous pleas to pay the household charge.

Many citizens do not like the household charge but the truth remains that it was imposed by a Government with a large electoral mandate. Not to pay legitimate taxes simply because they are novel or unfair is anarchy and every bit as illogical as refusing to pay one of the many recent increases in the excise on petrol.

The Government appears to be relying on statistics that show around 40pc of those who do not pay TV licence fees automatically pay once they receive a letter demanding payment. There is something about the printed word, backed up by the threat of legal sanctions, that makes most of us quiver.

It is worth saying that it is extraordinary that a letter was not sent to every homeowner in the State earlier in the year demanding payment. Very few governments around the world rely on advertisements and convoluted websites to introduce taxes, even stop-gap taxes such as the household charge.

A simple letter addressed to a homeowner explaining the charge and requesting payment is really the least one can expect when a new tax is introduced. A payment system that accepts credit cards over the phone and cheques by post is also normal.

If the new letters work their magic, Mr Hogan will be able to boast for the first time that a large majority is now paying the controversial tax.

While that would be good news, it would still leave more than a quarter of householders outside the law. This will present a prickly problem for the Government and the local authorities who will have to decide how to enforce the law.

Efficient and effective tax collection is one of any State's main functions. Greece stands on the abyss in part because her governments have been unable to devise a functioning taxation system over the past three decades. The decision to use councils rather than professional tax officials to collect the household charge was peculiar but cannot easily be reversed. It is important that the councils now impose their will on those who refuse to pay the charge but the councils must not lose sight of the fact that mistakes were made on both sides.

There can be no repetition of the heartless and grubby campaign by the Revenue Commissioners earlier this year when innocent pensioners were threatened by a tax collection agency too lazy or incompetent to determine who had ignored the law and who had obeyed it.

Irish Independent