I personally am not opposed in any way to offences under the Betting Act being treated seriously. I am, however, opposed to giving any further powers to the Revenue Commissioners having regard to the public experience in connection with the manner in which their present powers have been administered. I am supporting this amendment on two grounds, apart from the grounds of our personal experience on the matter of excise penalties, which have been considered very carefully by the Committee appointed under the presidency of Deputy Morrissey, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
In that report there comes from a committee, comprised of every section of this House and every section of the Seanad, a unanimous declaration that the law as regards excise penalties should be amended. As a member of that committee who agreed to that recommendation, I am bound by their findings, and I am not going back on any findings of which I approved. Apart from any other reason, by reason of the findings of the committee being in favour of the amendment and against the imposition of further penalties by the Inland Revenue Commissioners, I am in favour of it. The excise penalties which existed in England up to 1879 were then modified, as they were found to be very oppressive but, at the end of more than fifty years, we have the Minister for Finance and the Revenue Commissioners here doing all they can to hang on to a power which, at best, is a relic of barbaric antiquity, as it allows the Government to send a man to jail for an unlimited period, at the pleasure of the Revenue Commissioners and other officials, and without giving his case a fair and impartial judicial hearing. The Minister for Finance said, at least twice, that the Commissioners of Inland Revenue are better judges as to the necessity for the remission of penalties than the district justices. I beg respectfully to disagree with that, and I trust that he will not take me disrespectfully when I say that it is present to the mind of every schoolboy, that a district justice, knowing the district, having the man before him, and being able to inquire into both sides of the case, the case presented by the Inland Revenue and that presented by the defendant, is a better judge of a suitable penalty than a clerk in the office of the Commissioners, or even one of the Commissioners themselves sitting in Dublin.
Very painful have been my experiences, which are the very opposite to what the Minister for Finance says occurs. I have seen instances, over and over again, of harshness and cruelty on the part of the Commissioners, which would have been entirely avoided if the district justices were given the same discretion as that given to the justices in England. The Minister for Finance appears to me to throw a slur on the district justices. Ordinarily he must admit that a Commissioner of Inland Revenue, if allowed to sit in a district court, would be better than a Commissioner sitting in an office in Dublin. I have experience of many district justice and I found them very satisfactory. They perform their duties intelligently and impartially, and do them fairly as between the State and individuals and between individuals themselves. I think that when you have the chief District Justice of Dublin, who has brought credit to the Bench, to himself and to the country, coming in and giving evidence of complaints which he individually had to make against the way in which his recommendations were turned down by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, he ought to be met in a fairer spirit than that in which he was met by the Commissioners.
The chief District Justice made a specific charge to which there is not, and cannot be, an answer. He charged the Commissioners with having consistently turned down the recommendations of District Justices before whom cases were heard. That is the charge that was made, but from that day to this, no attempt has been, or can be, made to answer it. What happened? It appears that the chief District Justice made a slip in the individual instance he quoted and then down comes the Minister for Finance hot foot, escorted by a horde of Revenue Officials and says, "Oh, look at this; we have caught the chief District Justice out. He gave the wrong instance." The Minister for Finance though loud in his denunciation, made no attempt to answer the complaints of the chief District Justice and only pointed out that the one example which he gave was inaccurate. Not content with that, the same officials— this is a matter of public record— though six months had elapsed, did not think that the public had been sufficiently deceived by the answer which they instructed the Minister to make, and sent another official before another Committee to repeat the denunciation which the Committee had before them six months previously.
I gave the Minister some instances and in one case, at all events, he was good enough to point out in the strongest possible manner how inaccurate I was. On information supplied to him by officials of the Revenue Department—he could have got it from no other source—he denied the case which I had given him and said it was inaccurate on three separate grounds. I had put before this House the case of an unemployed workman who had been sent to jail for non-payment of income tax despite the fact that the Inland Revenue Commissioners had before them at the time full knowledge of the fact that they were dealing with an unemployed man who, during the six months which he had been working, had paid a sum of £26 towards his arrears of income tax. He was a law-abiding citizen and was prepared to carry out the law. What was the answer? The Minister for Finance rained down ridicule on me. First, he said that this man was the owner of the house in which he lived; secondly, that the poor law valuation of the house was £42, and, thirdly, that the man had £500 in British War Loan. I knew that the first part of the story was a concoction and so did a great many people in the City of Cork. The matter did not arise in my constituency, but it had been published in the Press and I knew something about it. I inquired into the other two points and I ask the Minister who was the official who gave him the information. Take the question of valuation. I hold that an official is not fit to be in his position if he does not know the valuation of a house in regard to which he is collecting income tax. Knowing that the valuation of the house is £18 he comes here and instructs the Minister for Finance to state that the valuation was £42 and that it is this man's property. Well he knows that he has no interest in it and that it was as an act of charity that his wife was able to start on her own.
The conduct of the officials of the Inland Revenue Commission must meet with the approval of those above them as otherwise it would not be allowed to continue. I could give other instances showing that what the chief District Justice complained of is absolutely and literally true. I was present one day in the District Court when a man was fined £25. The facts as set out by the defendant, if true, constituted a complete defence. The District Justice stated that he was satisfied with the facts as put up by the defendant as being true, but he thought that they did not constitute a defence and imposed a penalty of £25. On looking into the matter subsequently he ascertained that the facts as set out by the defendant were true and that the man was not guilty.
He sent up a recommendation to the Revenue Commissioners showing the facts, and to his credit be it said, the facts are as stated in the petition. The facts show that the defendant was not guilty, but he thought that under all the circumstances a technical offence had been committed and he recommended that the penalty he imposed be mitigated to £5. What was the answer? "The law must take its course." Is it any wonder you have the District Justice protesting against this imposition by the Revenue Commissioners who are unable and unfit to adjudicate or to discriminate between a poor man and a rich man, between a serious offence and a minor offence? Believing as I do, that to give further powers to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue would be to add further scandal to the administration of law, I support this amendment.