I addressed a question to-day to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health with regard to the action of his Department in interfering with public bodies, and I asked him did he consider that action to be in the interests of the county councils or to be of assistance to them in collecting the rates and in discharging their obligations. He did not answer the first part of the question, but, like many other Irishmen, he replies to a different point and says that, as regards the last part of the question, it is clear that the action of the council has retarded the collection of rates needed for the maintenance of public services and has been prejudicial to the collection of rates generally. I want to refute that. The facts are that on the 4th December six ratepayers came before a meeting of the county council. Those six men had been summoned for 12 months' rates. They asked for a fortnight's extension so that the person who owed them money, of which we, as local councillors, were aware, would pay them what was owed, and they would then pay the county council in full. The county council decided that that was a reasonable request. These people had promised to fulfil their obligations and were no parties to a no-rates campaign. Within two days of the county council's resolution a letter was sent down by the Department, signed by the Minister's secretary, ordering proceedings to be taken against those six individuals and, during the Christmas period, they were brought into court and decrees were given against them. In some cases an extension was given and in others no extension, but £8 costs were put against them. The county council seemed surprised that the privilege they had already exercised, of extending a period of grace to various ratepayers in the area in order to enable them to pay the rates, should be withdrawn and that at that particular period of the year, of all other times, such an order should be issued contrary to the wishes of a public body. From my own experience, that privilege of extending a period of grace to various ratepayers has been exercised for the last 15 years.
The county council held a special meeting on the 16th January and were more than surprised when they read in the local Press that their resolution had been considered by the Minister's Department as ultra vires. It was no compliment for the county council merely to extend a fortnight's grace when we knew the local situation and when we knew that these honest and hardworking men were willing and were going to pay the rates and were prepared to help the Government in every way to win the economic war. On the 16th January, however, a meeting was held and I maintained that I did not believe it was the policy of the Fianna Fáil Government that these people should be brought into court and decrees given against them. I maintained that that was not the Christian policy I had heard enunciated so often in this House. I believed that was not the policy of the Fianna Fáil Government. It may be the policy of the Department, but, if so, I am certain that policy is contrary to the wishes of the people of Ireland at the present time. I maintained on the 16th January that officials here in departments in Dublin, away from the seat of war and not realising the effects of the economic war, since they are not living amongst the people as we are in the rural areas, did not realise that there is an economic war on. At that meeting we decided that a deputation from the county council should be sent to the Minister to put our views before him and to ask him not to interfere with the discretionary powers which the county council had always exercised and which we have exercised for the past 15 years. That resolution was passed, but what happened? The Minister's Department did not wait to receive the resolution. They did not wait to receive the minutes of the meeting from the county council, but a Press report appeared on the 20th January and the Department acted on that Press report and replied that they were not going to receive the deputation and threatened the county council with the Public Safety Act. Is this the policy of the Government? The council are to be threatened with the Public Safety Act for maintaining that we had the right to extend the period of grace in certain cases. I want the House to remember that one of these cases was that of a poor person in receipt of home relief who was decreed for £1 7s. 6d. Another case was that of a poor woman whose husband died last October and we had to give her son a week's work during Christmas to enable her to pay the rates to prevent sheriff's and solicitor's costs being put against her. Are we to be threatened with the Public Safety Act simply because we used our discretion in such cases? In one case a poor woman, whose daughter is dying of consumption, is brought into court for 12/6. Surely this is not the Christian policy we have heard so much about.
I want it to be understood that, while making this criticism, I am whole-heartedly in support of the Government in their economic policy and prepared to help them in every way to prevent any foreign nation dictating to the people of Ireland, but I am not going to allow a Department to interfere with the discretionary powers of public bodies which they have always exercised. We are threatened with suspension, but I can assure the Minister that there will be a meeting of the county council on Monday and, if that policy is going to be continued, he can take over the charge of the county council, as far as I am aware, from Monday next. If it is going to be the policy of the Government that the county council are not going to be allowed to use the discretion they have always had and that the rate collectors are in the position that they must, according to the orders of the Minister's Department, take proceedings, which will mean that the sheriff adds his costs on to the bill, it may mean that the District Justice will give a longer term than the members of the county council would have given. I maintain that the rate collectors are the officials of the county council, and I also maintain that the Minister has no power to interfere with those rate collectors until they are reported by the county council for neglect of duty. Therefore, I suggest that his action in rushing, within two days, to order proceedings to be taken against these people behind our backs is altogether ultra vires so far as the Minister's powers are concerned. I maintain that until they report to him he has no authority to act in any way whatever. He has to take responsibility for his own officials.
The Minister maintained that our action is retarding the rate collection. What is the position of the rates? We had £18,000 more to collect this year than last year, and I am proud to say, and I congratulate the ratepayers of the county on it, that even with that additional £18,000 on the rates, we are only about 2 per cent. less in the collection of our rates than we were this time last year. If that £18,000 had not been added on we would have been over 5 per cent. more than last year, because we were using our local knowledge in the collection of the rates as regards the members who, we knew, could pay and we were making them pay. Notwithstanding that, the very moment the rate collectors got authority from the Minister they refused to take half the moiety. They issued civil bills and all the rest of it and brought these people into the court and put more expense on them. If the Minister is aware of all this, then he is a party to a policy which, I believe, will bring all parties together at the present time in Wicklow in trying to oppose the taking away of the rights and privileges which the county council always had. I suggest that there is no question of a non-payment of rates campaign in this. In proof of this I can say that out of 975 cottages under our control the arrears amount to only £485.
Can any other county point to that record? Can any other county point to an overdraft amounting only to £20,000? No other body can point to that, and no other county council is receiving the threatening letters from the Department that the County Council of Wicklow is receiving. What I recent is that the Minister or his Department should act on Press reports. That was never heard of before. I never heard of any Government acting on a report in the local Press. The Department replied to that and refused to meet a deputation. Instead, a threat is made of what may happen the members of the county council under the Public Safety Act. I am aware that it is not possible for the Minister to see every letter which issues from his Department, but I conceive it to be my duty to let the Fianna Fáil Party and the Government know of the letters that come from the Department, apparently without their knowledge. I am sure that if the Minister were aware of the true condition of affairs he would not be a party to making scapegoats of the few men who were brought to the courts for the benefit of others.
There were in our area a number of small farmers who grew black oats and who could not get a price for them. There were also labourers out of employment, and these were the men who were sued for rates. People in receipt of home help are having the rates collected by the Civic Guards, out of that home help, each week or fortnight. Surely that is not a policy that the Minister or the Fianna Fáil Government approves of. The Minister should change that, because it is the experience of everybody that it was the co-operation of the public bodies that helped to win the war during the Black and Tan regime. I want that co-operation to continue, but I am going to try to protect the rights and privileges of the public bodies while I am here. I have had experience of every public body in the County Wicklow. We had some pin-pricks from the Minister's predecessors, and we had trouble with the Department in the old days. The only way the Government can win is with the co-operation of the civilian population. If authority is taken out of the hands of local men, who understand the conditions, and placed in the hands of men in the Department in receipt of good salaries, there cannot be co-operation. Of course, we are attacked for mentioning officials.