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Dublin: 2 °C Sunday 23 November, 2014

Boycotts, warnings and patriotism: A year of the household charge

Just under 70 per cent of eligible households have paid or registered to pay the controversial €100 tax but that is only after a year of much protest and mis-management.

Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive/Press Association Images

IT IS WITHOUT doubt the most contentious measure that the current government introduced in its first budget last December and it continues to draw the ire and anger of people across the country.

The household charge is an issue the government would like to forget. It has already admitted making errors in implementing it and with the property tax coming in next year and the Revenue Commissioners collecting it, the government will be glad to have washed its hands of the €100 tax.

But the biggest single problem that hit the household charge was not the government’s handling of it, it was that people simply refused to pay.

The latest figures from the body charged with administering the tax, the Local Government Management Agency, show that compliance is now at just under 70 per cent with 1,088,597 properties in the State registered for payment. Including waivers and applications waiting for processing or resolution of queries the total number of properties comes to 1,112,521.

Which means that so far the household charge has raised around €111.4 million, short of the €160 million the government had anticipated raising through the charge.

In the region of 1.6 million households across the country became liable for the household charge on 1 January with a deadline of 31 March set for either paying the €100 charge in full or setting up a payment plan.

Phil Hogan with bags of household charge applications at the Local Government Management Agency in Dublin (Pic: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

But the trouble was brewing by 12 January when a poll found that nearly a quarter of people in Ireland did not know if they were liable or not for the charge.

By mid-March just over 250,000 had registered to pay the charge, a fairly low compliance rate that had Environment Minister Phil Hogan – who has borne the brunt of criticism for the tax – suggesting that data protection laws could be changed to allow the government to look at utility bills and such in order to determine whether or not households were liable.

“The vast majority of people want to be legally compliant in this country, that’s always been the case, and I’ll be on their side. The people that will pay will know from me that the people that don’t pay won’t get away with it,” he told RTÉ Radio.

Hogan’s tough-talking and robust style did not endear him to many and he was the main target of angry protests of which there were many including a gathering of over 2,000 people at the National Stadium in Dublin on 24 March which heard from a number of TDs, some of whom had previously said they would not be paying the household charge.

This stance continues with Donegal independent deputy Thomas Pringle on more than one occasion being subjected to barbs from Taoiseach Enda Kenny during Leaders’ Questions over his non-payment of the €100 tax.

Perhaps Pringle didn’t have access to an online payments method. Okay, that’s not likely at all but there were thousands of people across the country who did not which led to complaints from the Irish Postmasters’ Union about being “inundated” with people looking to pay at their local Post Office.

“There is complete confusion and, given the low payment rates so far, it doesn’t make sense to turn people away with cash in their hands,” Brian McGann told TheJournal.ie on 21 March. These comments would eventually lead to one government minister claiming that arrangements were being made for the charge to be paid at your local post office before the 31 March deadline.

Outside AIB Headquarters in Ballsbridge in Dublin Brendan Young of the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes wears a Phil Hogan mask as he acts out intimidating householders into paying the household tax and handing the money straight to AIB’s unsecured bondholders. (Pic: Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland)

But adding to the confusion, this was not the case. The Department of Environment later clarified that you could only pick up forms for payment and not actually make the payment at your local post office.

It was little wonder that Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore later acknowledged “difficulties” with people paying the charge but this contradicted what junior finance minister Brian Hayes had earlier told TheJournal.ie that “there’s no difficulty in paying it. That’s the blunt truth of it.”

Then the deadline came on 31 March with figures on that day showing that a total of 798,957 households - 49.9 per cent of the 1.6 million households which the government believes to be in the country – had registered for the charge or a waiver.

With less than 50 per cent uptake Phil ‘Big Phil’ Hogan had to put on a brave face, saying there had been “genuine patriotism” shown by those that had complied with the “law of the land”. The head of the LGMA, Paul McSweeney noted that he had now become “the most notorious public servant in Ireland”. Indeed.

The non-payment and confusion over how to pay had some people reckoning they could scam members of the public out of €100 with the government warning the public of people who may try to con them. Meath County Council reported that two people had been calling to houses in the Kells area, saying that they were collecting the household charge.

Of those who did pay it emerged in May that over €90,000 in fees had been collected from just three people for between 300 and 400 properties with almost 90,000 people who own up to 50 properties having paid multiple household charges.

But for those who didn’t pay the household charge remained a very live issue throughout much of the year.

In September it emerged that some county councils were delaying the payment of college grants until households could prove they had paid the tax.

Labour’s involvement with the household charge drew some criticism from the left-wing base.

Phil Hogan said that he supported councils that chased the money but one of them, South Tipperary County Council, later said it was abandoning the move having taken legal advice.

Just as well maybe particularly when houses were being sent letters in error, urging them to pay the charge and warning of the consequences even when they had in fact paid it. It transpired that as many as “tens of thousands” of letters had been sent in error.

By the end of October figures showed that households in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown topped the table for compliance with the household charge with 84 per cent registering to pay. Galway City had the second-highest rate, at 75 per cent, while Mayo and Kerry were next, both with 72 per cent.

At the other end of the scale it was no surprise to see typically and traditionally rebellious Donegal as the county with the lowest payment rate – only 34,955 of the 65,331 eligible homes having registered or 54 per cent.

It was followed by Offaly at 57 per cent with Laois on 59 per cent, as was Louth.

The full figures for this year will not be known until January and whether the charge will be levied in the first half of next year before the property tax comes in to effect in June is yet to be determined, the LGMA said this week.

But what does seem likely is that arrears for the household charge will still be applicable and it will be the Revenue – which will administer the property tax – that will be collecting them.

It’s been an eventful year in the life of Ireland’s first tax on property in many years and it has set the tone for what is sure to be more protest and non-compliance in 2013.

Read: Mayo County Council criticised for Household Charge court summonses

Read: Property Tax: Where do the political parties stand?

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