The Deputy had his chance to speak. People could stand up and say about that amnesty, as it was called, that every taxpayer who availed of it paid up to date every halfpenny in tax that he or she owed. That was the principle of that amnesty and it was a principle based on fairness, justice and equity. It was based on the fact that no person was excused their legal responsibility, a principle whereby the pound paid by the poor working man who has enough pressure on his family budget by way of tax every week was no better or no worse than the pound paid by the people who availed of that amnesty. It was an amnesty available to everybody, put in place on the basis of a principle of fairness, an amnesty which shamed nobody and which brought no political, media or public condemnation. It was essentially different from the theft being sanctioned by the present Government.
The Minister for Finance, Deputy Ahern, should have at least the honour to stand up for the integrity of the tax system and the Revenue Commissioners, to abide by the advice given to him by his best advisers. He should have the honour and integrity to say that he will not be the Minister responsible for the destruction of faith that is implicit in this proposed amnesty, the destruction of faith in our institutions, politicians and our system. If he had any honour and decency, Deputy Ahern would say to the Taoiseach: "Go ahead with this amnesty, but go ahead without me". The Taoiseach's bluff can be called if a sufficient number of members of the Cabinet have the moral courage to stand up and say it is unfair and wrong. Everybody in the country knows it is wrong to say to a working class woman in Ballyfermot earning less than the average industrial wage: "Give us 48 per cent of your extra earnings in income tax and 7.5 or 8 per cent in levies of various kinds — more than half of every extra penny you earn". That is what the Minister is saying to that person, but what is he saying to the fat cat friends of the Taoiseach who are going to repatriate hundreds of millions of pounds under this system? He is saying "give me 15 per cent of the total". How abject a proposal that is.
The 15 per cent flat rate tax is shameful because it means that the longer the money is out and the more tax evaded, the better off one is. If one had the money out for 15 years one would pay 1 per cent per annum on this illegal fund held abroad. If one had it out for two years one would pay 7.5 per cent on the capital fund. The more one has cheated, the more one has abandoned the economy which the Taoiseach now claims one is supposed to help by bringing back this money, the more damage one has done, the more one has shirked his social responsibility, the more the Minister, Deputy Ahern, will give by way of reward. That is what the 15 per cent flat rate means. Nobody in the western world would consider it anything but shameful. Can the Government side show me any civilised country which has said to the people who cheat, "Give us 1 per cent per annum of your money and we will be happy", but which says to the ordinary working class girl in Ballyfermot "Give me 48 per cent or 55 per cent of your extra earnings".
How can Fianna Fáil, which is supposed to be a party representing the "have-nots" in Irish society and which trumpeted its left of centre origins recently while courting the Labour Party in order to form this iniquitous Government, stand up for that? How can the Labour Party which is supposed to be the party of workers become the party of evaders, cheaters and multi-millionaires who want to launder their cash in this country?
There is no point in the Minister sitting silently or saying that this is not his decision. This is a decision which has been pushed through the Cabinet at the behest of the Taoiseach. Phrases have been used in this House which do justice to the kind of morality which this represents. This suggestion is bankrupt in moral terms. It stinks. It damages people's faith in institutions and it tramples their sense of hope. Does anybody on that side of the House know what it is like when one cannot afford to feed one's kids and send them to school, or to pay a mortgage, to hand up more than half of every extra pound earned? Does anybody really understand what it is like for someome who is doing that week in and week out to see people who have brought their money to Jersey, to the Cayman Islands or to the Isle of Man or who have secreted it in building societies here being told that they can pay 1 per cent each year on the capital sum and that no further questions will be asked. It is a shameful proposal and it is about time that the people responsible stood up and justified it in this House.
Deputy Cox in his contribution said that the Taoiseach had in some way dignified the very people who are about to repatriate these moneys as latter day heros who are coming to our economic rescue in times of difficulty. They are no such thing. They are quislings, people who opted out and decided to take no part in the fight to get Ireland's economy back on its feet. These are the people who took the money out when Deputy Ahern's party in 1987 was making hard decisions to try to get the economy back on its feet. These people betrayed the Government and now the Government is rewarding them. The worse the betrayal, the greater the reward. It is a shameful act which should not be permitted.
The wording in Deputy Cox's amendment brings to mind the fact that this is also wrong in terms of justice. It is a measure which in the last analysis will have to be looked at by the courts. Any proposal from the State which discriminates between individuals or classes of individuals in any way must be justified by reference to what is either a difference in social function or a difference in moral capacity. That is what the Constitution says. The State, when it brings in a law cannot say that all those with red hair should pay tax at the rate of 10 per cent and all those with black hair must pay at the rate of 20 per cent. Every differentiation must be rationally based. What is the rationale for the differentation in relation to people who will be offered a 15 per cent flat rate if this amnesty is passed? The only difference is that they cheated.
Both the Minister and I know of many taxpayers who had to borrow to pay capital acquisitions tax, people who made mistakes doing that and whose livelihoods were destroyed because they over borrowed to pay tax. People who have complied with their tax obligations have been ruined by having done so. I know many families who have gone without for years while their better off neighbours apparently had access to offshore funds or building society accounts and had no moral qualms. Those families scrimped and saved to pay the taxes and the Minister is now delivering them an insult and a slap in the face of unprecedented proportions.
The point about the differentiation proposed in this revenue amnesty is that it amounts to something which the Constitution does not permit. The Constitution does not permit the State to make one person pay 40 per cent tax or 45 per cent tax and another person pay 1 per cent per annum during the period when that person kept money abroad. Because the Constitution does not permit that, the Minister will find that more and more people will queue up to impugn any such amnesty before the courts of this land. They will queue with relish in order to bring the Government to heel and force it to comply with the Constitution. Because of that, I predict that this amnesty will be an abject failure. Nobody will bring money back when there is a case before the courts, the gist of which is a claim that the amnesty is unconstitutional. Nobody will bring money back in the shadow of legal question mark over the measure the Minister has been forced to introduce by the Taoiseach against his own wishes.
Deputy Cowen had the effrontery to suggest that I was engaged in sabotage in pointing out the obvious. Nobody in their right minds would repatriate money to avail of this amnesty because it offends against every person's sense of decency and against the Constitution. The small handful of naive people who will repatriate their funds, who think that this represents justice and who think that they are safe, will find that they have been duped into bringing back money into this country in circumstances where an apparent amnesty turned out to be a puff of smoke because it infringed the basic concept of justice and the Constitution. It is not sabotage to point out the obvious about such a measure, that the State has no right to discriminate between compliant and non-compliant people so as to punish the law abiding citizen and subsidise the cheats, the frauds and the robbers who put their money aside in circumstances where they knew they were committing crimes against our system.
Deputy O'Malley asked in this House the other day a very opportune question as to how many crimes one had to commit to avail of this amnesty. He asked whether one was enough or whether there must be two. His question was prescient because it slowly emerged that the Taoiseach also has in mind that money left under false names in building society accounts, in foreign accounts, external accounts or the like will also be covered by the amnesty. That is what the Taoiseach has in mind. Somebody used the phrase that this is cute hoorism at its worst. It represents a low point in social morality and a shameful departure from any sense of fairness. People who are being hounded by Revenue sheriffs to comply with penal tax rates know that the Taoiseach's rich friends will be able to avail of a money laundering operation of unprecedented dimensions and get away with a 1 per cent levy on their hot money. How can they justify that before the bar of public opinion? They cannot. Every working man and woman who has spent the past few weeks wondering whether this could truly be Government policy must know that this Government is not on their side in this mindless pursuit of the quick fix. This Government is determined to do anything it can to get its hands on any money.
The Taoiseach said in his bad-tempered interview with the media at Dublin Airport last evening that there could be no losers in this operation. Will the Minister for Finance tell him that we are all the losers because of the damage to our tax system and our taxpayers will become more resentful. What is happening in every corner of this land every day of the week will intensify. There is virtually nowhere that employers are not being asked by employees for under-the-counter payments, £10 for expenses or whatever. There is virtually no building contractor who is not propositioned in that way by his employees. There is virtually no shopkeeper who finds it easy to pay the full whack of tax to keep his shop open on Saturday mornings and at nighttime. There is virtually no publican who can get lounge staff to work on a fully taxed basis at night.
Those are the people who will realise there is no such thing as an underlying basis of morality in our tax system. The reaction of very many people, selfemployed, employees, employers will be: "If the rich can get away with it, why should not I?" The answer they will give is: "I am a sucker, whereas they have politically influential friends". That is the only difference. A proposal emanating from Deputy Davern, which appears to have been adopted by the Taoiseach — pushed through cowardly by a totally abject Cabinet, none of whom apparently would stand up for principles in this matter — deserves to be rejected.
I might remind the House that Article 40.1 of the Constitution states:
All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law. This shall not be held to mean that the State shall not in its enactments have due regard to differences of capacity, physical and moral, and of social function.
The second clause of the Article says that the only permissible exceptions to that proposition are differentiations based on social function. There is no social function difference between a tax evader and a tax complier, or differentiation on the basis of moral capacity, but there is a huge differentiation in terms of moral capacity between those who scrimped and saved to pay the sheriff and those fat cats who kept their money abroad.
The Minister had better take on board the fact there will be litigation about this. It will be challenged in the courts. As the implications of what is proposed sink into the minds of ordinary people, and the better they are explained to the courts system when the time comes, the more obvious it will become that what the Taoiseach, Deputy Davern and a few other people who are practising this cult of cute hoor politics are actually doing offends against everybody's basic sense of decency and, above all, offends the Constitution itself. Once it becomes clear to the people on whom the Taoiseach is relying to repatriate their ill-gotten gains from abroad that they will not get away with it, that they will be challenged and harried, as they deserve to be, and that the tax inspector will keep an eye on them in the future, this amnesty will turn out to be a total failure.
I am asking the Minister for Finance to stand up, as he should do, for his Department, for the Revenue Commissioners, for the integrity of the tax system, indeed for what people in his constituency would believe is basically fair. If he and his colleagues in Government had the elementary courage to do it, they should tell the Taoiseach to go ahead but without them. If the Minister had the courage to stand up to the Taoiseach, as some in his party, including Deputy Power, stood up to a former Leader of their party, this proposal would cease to be a runner.
With the exception of one member of the Labour Party, I have not seen here since this debate began any of the people who have been prating on about ethics in Government. I do not see the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald, who has been talking at great length about a new set of standards in public life. She can tear up her Bill if she votes against this amendment this evening. Every member of the Labour Party who talks in public about improving standards in public life can tear up the programme for a partnership Government and stop talking about a different approach to standards in Irish public life, if none of them will stand up to vindicate basic standards of decency. Where are they now? They are skulking in their rooms. Why are they not here listening to a debate on a matter to do with standards which really affect working class people?