(Cavan): As has been stated by the Minister, the objects of the Bill are two-fold. First of all there is the proposition to put on a formal basis the payment of rates by instalments and also the proposition to waive rates levied on certain necessitous classes. For the purpose of remarks I shall make later, I wish to emphasise that this is, as the Minister has stated, an enabling Bill. It may be implemented or adopted by local authorities or it may be ignored, and it is very important in view of the proposed method of financing this Bill and the schemes to be worked out under it that we should bear that in mind.
I do not think we need to waste much time with the second objective of this Bill, namely payment of rates by instalments. Most local authorities, and in particular most rate collectors, have always acted in a reasonable way in this respect and have accepted rates by instalments where there is an obvious hardship on the ratepayer to pay in two moieties. I agree that the putting of this system of payment of rates by instalment on a formal basis is a good thing because people on not very large fixed incomes will find it easier to pay by monthly instalments than twice yearly. They will not be subject to the temptation of spending the money on something else and then finding, when March and September come, that they have not the money available. I agree that this would probably add something to the expense of collecting rates but it is worthwhile.
The main purpose of this Bill is to grant relief to necessitous ratepayers, to exempt them from rates, and this will enable local authorities to bring into operation schemes which will relieve those needy people of payment of rates. I was quite pleased early this year when, in ignorance of the fact that such a measure was contemplated, I put down a question asking the Minister if he would exempt social welfare classes from rates and I was informed by the Minister that he was introducing such a measure and that it would be open to local authorities to operate it during their current financial year.
I was pleased to hear this because in my capacity as a public representative I have learned in the last years that this question of rates is a genuine hardship on people living on small incomes. I knew, for example, that people living on old age pensions and widows' pensions had to contribute as much as 10/- weekly for rates. I had to make representations about the rent of a county council cottage occupied by a person living on an income of just over £7 weekly and I was amazed to find out that out of a rent of just over £1, approximately 10/- was attributable to rates. This I regard as unjust and unfair. Therefore, I welcome the promise by the Minister to introduce legislation to enable relief from payment of rates to be given to these classes.
I must say that I am thoroughly disappointed with the measure as it stands. It will not achieve even the limited objects which it sets out to achieve. That is the principal objection I have to it. It will not achieve the very limited but desirable objects which it sets out to achieve. If it does, it will impose hardship on other categories of ratepayers who are already feeling the pinch and finding it very severe.
In his opening statement the Minister referred to the social welfare beneficiaries of the means test categories. That is, broadly speaking, the type or category of person who is to be exempt from rates if the local authorities implement this measure. Added to that class will be cases of special hardship. Before I go on to the point I want to make in particular, I want to say that I sometimes find it hard to see why the Minister, in granting a relief such as this, differentiates between the social welfare classes of the means test section and the contributory section. Take two old age pensioners, one in receipt of a contributory pension and one in receipt of a non-contributory pension. Assume that neither of these pensioners has any other income or any other assets. I think the difference in their income is so little that it does not matter. It is only a matter of shillings. Yet, in this measure the Minister proposes that the exemption shall apply to the means test category only and cases of special hardship.
I would welcome this measure so far as it goes, and I would welcome it even if it only applied to this very limited class of people, if the Minister were providing the money to pay for it, but he is not, and that is my principal objection to this measure. Deputy Dowling who has just spoken agrees that the present rating system is outdated and out-moded. Although he did not use the expressions, I am sure he would also agree that it is unjust and inequitable because it does not have any regard to the capacity of the ratepayer to pay. I have been riding this hobby horse in the House for some time. Even the Minister for Health, speaking on the Health Estimate earlier this year, or speaking on some of his estimates or some measure he introduced, conceded that there was a lot to be said for and against making the health charges a national charge. He said that the principal argument in favour of that was that it fell on a broader back and was a more equitable way of getting money.
I say that the present rating system is unjust and inequitable because it does not have any regard to the capacity of people to pay and that, if it were shifted to the national Exchequer, it would fall on a far broader back. Section 2 of the Bill enables the local authorities to make schemes providing for the waiver by the authorities of all or portion of the rates due to them by ratepayers or classes of ratepayers or in respect of hereditaments of a class or classes specified in the scheme. That is provided in subsection (1). Subsection (4) of the same section provides that the cost of implementing the scheme shall be borne by the other ratepayers of the county. In effect, that is what it says, according to my reading and understanding of it.
The people in the classes proposed to be covered by the proposed scheme will be relieved of rates if the local authorities prepare a scheme, but the cost will be passed on to the other ratepayers who will not fall within these classes. I want to go on record as saying that the payment of rates by a great many of these other ratepayers is already an extreme hardship. There are many small business people in the towns of this country who, due to the change in the system of distribution of goods and the coming into operation of the supermarkets and that sort of thing, find themselves with little or no business. Many of them are advanced in years. They are living in houses with valuations of £20, £25 or £30 and they are paying rates of from £80 to £100 each year on those houses.
These people are to be asked by the Minister in this measure to defray what, in effect, is a social service, because I regard the provisions of that section of this Bill, the waiver of rates in the case of necessitous people, as a social welfare service, as something the same as an old age pension, children's allowances, or a widow's pension. These people who are already finding it extremely difficult to pay their rates and are feeling the pinch of the increase in rates—and they are increasing year by year by something to the tune of 10/- in the £—are to have this additional burden imposed on them.
When the Minister was introducing a measure like this he should have availed of the opportunity to start phasing out the rating system. He should have said that the Exchequer would pay the amount of money involved in this relief. Perhaps it is only right that we should ask ourselves: is there any precedent on the Statute Book for granting a relief from rates? Of course there is. The farming community have enjoyed partial relief from rates and for a few years back the farming community, within certain valuation limits, have been totally exempt from rates, but the other ratepayers in the country, the other farmers in the country, are not asked to foot the bill. No, the Exchequer foots it; the Exchequer pays by way of additional agricultural grant or under some other heading the amount involved in granting exemption to the category of farmers who enjoy either partial or total exemption from rates. Why are we adopting a different approach here? Why are we asking the other ratepayers to carry this burden when we do not do it in the case of the relief granted to farmers?
I should like to ask the Minister when replying to tell us how many county councils have so far acted on his circular and prepared a scheme for exemption from rates in respect of this year. I would also ask him to tell us how many local authorities have either refused point blank to prepare such a scheme or have adjourned consideration of it until such time as the Minister is prepared to undertake the cost involved. I think many county councils have either refused altogether to implement the scheme because of the cost involved or have adjourned consideration of it until such time as the Minister decides to accept responsibility for the cost.
The Minister has, in the closing sentence or two of his speech, asked the House for suggestions not only in relation to the terms of the Bill but also in relation to its implementation. I think the Minister will have the unanimous support of this House, including his own Party, too, if he at this stage is agreeable to make this a national charge. I want to emphasise that if he does not, two things are likely to happen. Local authorities will not avail of this enabling measure at all, and that would be a great pity, because so far as it goes it is a highly desirable measure; it is a move in the right direction. However, I am convinced that many local authorities will not implement it simply and solely because the rates in their own functional areas have already reached saturation point: £4 in the £ now is commonplace and, as we know, in some county council areas the rates are more than £5 in the £. That is point No. 1.
Point No. 2 is: if the local authorities to decide to go ahead and implement the scheme they will be imposing a very severe burden, indeed, on the categories of persons I have mentioned, that is, the people living in polite poverty in houses in respect of which they have to pay £80 or £100 a year rates. As I have said previouslythe present rating system is so outrageously unjust that you may have side by side two semi-detached houses each of them with a rateable valuation of £20, one house occupied by a family with a total income of £40 a week and the other house occupied by somebody with an income of £8 or £9 a week. The people in both of those houses are going to be asked to pay £80 a year rates and both of them are going to have their rates increased under this measure, if it goes through, to defray what is really a social obligation on every man, woman and child in this country who is earning. Surely the provision of houses for the people is a social obligation and what is involved in this measure is a measure of social welfare, a discharge of a social obligation of the community to these people in poor circumstances.
It might have been said that when local government was first introduced, I suppose, nearly 100 years ago and when rates were first introduced, only people with property, only people who occupied houses or owned land, had money and could afford to finance schemes such as this, but surely that is not the position now. We all know that money is being spent freely; we all know that many people who are not married, who are living in digs or who are living at home with their people are in receipt of good salaries. A scheme like this should fall on the broadest possible shoulders.
I am not firing the measure back in the Minister's teeth and saying it is an insult. I am saying that what the Bill sets out to do is a move in the right direction, the relief or the exemption from rates of people in necessitous circumstances. I am emphasising to the Minister that it will not achieve that object because the local authority will not implement it. I am also saying that this is the wrong way to finance it. The Minister and the Government concede that the present rating system is unjust but they are saying it will take time, and I suppose a long time, to find a better scheme. That is the argument the Minister will put up and that the Government have been putting up. If that is the position, surely it is wrong to keep adding charges to the rates which are more properly defrayed otherwise. I accept, therefore, the Minister's invitation to offer suggestions for the implementation of this measure, and I appeal to him even at this late stage to have second thoughts about it and to make it a national charge.
In the course of his speech the Minister says that the amount involved in implementing the proposed scheme will be very small indeed. I think there is an error. It is very hard to read that section of the Minister's speech, but I think he meant to say it is only about the equivalent of what is written off each year as irrecoverable. We have been told by our county manager that the amount involved in this could be substantial. However, if what the Minister says is right, that it will take a very insignificant sum of money to implement it, is that not the best argument in favour of making it a national charge and dealing with it in the same way as the exemption from rates in respect of farmers on agricultural holdings is dealt with?
I do not think there is any answer to the case I am making. I trust the Minister, between now and the Committee Stage, will see fit to delete subsection (4) of section 2 and substitute another section for it. If Deputy Hogan or any other Deputy on this side of the House puts down an amendment to do that I know it will be ruled out of order as imposing a charge on the Exchequer; but the Minister can bring in such a measure and if he is genuine and sincere in granting relief to this necessitous class of people he will do that.