Leaders’ Questions

Last week in this House, the Tánaiste acknowledged that there have been difficulties, including communications difficulties, with the payment of the household charge. On reflection, he will have to agree that what he said probably represents one of the understatements of the year. Unfortunately, the entire project has been a bit of a debacle. It has rightly been described today in a number of editorials as a "fiasco". The Tánaiste also said last week that it is possible to make this payment at a post office. Of course, it was not possible to make the payment at a post office and it is still not possible. Forms are available, but people have to write to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department. To compound that and add insult to injury, the Minister, Deputy Burton, repeated that error on an RTE programme on Sunday. She had to be corrected by the Minister, Deputy Hogan, later that afternoon. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, is not making it easy for people to pay this household charge. He has steadfastly refused to extend the 31 March deadline, even though just 23% of the 1.8 million people who are obliged to register have done so. As I said last week, the Minister has taken an "Orwellian" approach. Big Phil is intent on marching on.

He is not that big any more.

It is not just utility bills. It is not just the kind of sense that "we are watching you and we are going to get you". It is not just the "you can run but you can't hide" approach. He has added to that now. This week, we were told that local authority officials would be knocking on doors to collect the charge. No one really or seriously believes that is a good idea. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, she came out quickly last evening, with her commendable common sense approach, to say that was never a prospect and could never be a prospect.

It took someone from Cork to show some common sense.

All of this is undermining the credibility of the household charge in the public mind. Does the Tánaiste really believe there will be such a rush to comply with the requirement to pay the charge that up to 1.5 million people will register to do so before next Saturday?

It will have to be some rush.

The Minister, Deputy Howlin, basically put his hands up this morning and said this has not been handled well. I ask the Tánaiste whether he thinks this is fair.

I did not say any such thing.

The Minister said it on "Morning Ireland".

I did not say that.

The Minister was hung out to dry.

Deputy Martin only hears what he wants to hear, just like with the Mahon report.

Is it fair that fines will automatically apply to those who do not pay the charge by 31 March, even though they have yet to receive a leaflet explaining how to pay the charge and Labour Party Ministers agree that it has been badly handled? Will the Government reconsider the matter? Will the Tánaiste confirm to the House that the timeframe within which people have to pay the household charge will be extended?

Deputy Lyons is very upset.

I doubt there is anybody in the country at this stage who does not know about the household charge and the fact that it must be paid by 31 March.

I got my leaflet only yesterday.

When the charge was introduced, the deadline set for payment was 31 March. That remains the deadline. The charge can be paid online at www.householdcharge.ie.

Not in the post office.

It can also be paid by post to post office box No. 1268. It can also be paid through the local authority. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has asked local authorities to extend the range of offices at which the charge can be paid. It can be paid by postal order or other means on getting a form in the post office and forwarding it from there.

It is important at this stage that there be no misinformation or confusion among the public.

There is no information at all.

The charge is payable by 31 March. There has been quite a degree of public awareness of the charge over the course over the past couple of weeks. At this stage, the best advice any Member of this House can give to a member of the public is that he or she is liable to the charge and that it must be paid.

That does not really answer the question. The matter has not been handled well. People should simply be able to go to their post office to pay the charge. Many people cannot pay online and some are being penalised because they cannot pay online, as we heard this morning. The Government should have broadened the exemptions from the outset, as my party proposed. We suggested a number of amendments affecting welfare recipients and those in mortgage arrears and others with significant difficulties.

The bottom line is that the matter has not been well handled. The Tánaiste may talk about it being in the public consciousness but people have not been well informed. Leaflets are still coming in the door in the last week before the deadline.

Could we have the Deputy's question please?

There clearly has not been a proactive, energetic, committed campaign by the Government to communicate to the people and get an effective response on the charge.

A last-minute drop.

We are on supplementary questions.

Last evening, Ursula Halligan reported on TV3 that she was being briefed by very authoritative Fine Gael Ministers and sources that there would be an extension.

Could the Deputy please put a supplementary question?

It may not be announced, we were told, but that it would kind of seep into the public consciousness again, such that we will somehow discover-----

The Deputy has exceeded his time; I ask him to put his question.

(Interruptions).

Is that the case? Is the Tánaiste aware that Ministers are briefing RTE and TV3 journalists and senior political correspondents, who have their sources? The Government has been very good at spinning and media management and I suspect this is another clever game at media management.

If the Tánaiste is not prepared to make an admission today, will he state whether it is his view that the deadline should be extended or whether the Cabinet is now contemplating this? Does he honestly believe it is fair-----

Will the Deputy please put his supplementary question? He has exceeded his time.

-----that people will have to pay fines despite his acknowledgement and that of many Ministers of the bungled nature of the management of the household charge?

As Deputy Martin said, I acknowledged last week and repeat that there have been difficulties associated with people making arrangements to pay the charge. It must also be said that nobody likes paying a tax or charge, particularly if it is new. In this case, as Deputy Martin knows, the charge has been introduced because the agreement his Government made with the troika provided for the introduction of a property tax in 2012. It would not have been possible to introduce a property tax in 2012 because of the preparatory work that must be done to establish the basis on which it would be charged. The Government's intention is that this household charge will be replaced by a property tax. In the meantime, it must be paid. The deadline set is 31 March. That deadline has not been changed. The best advice anybody can give to households is that the charge must be paid, before the deadline of 31 March.

Will it be changed?

(Interruptions).

I am waiting to see which way Deputy Finian McGrath will go. The way he goes will swing it.

I am with the people.

The Tánaiste said that one is liable to the household charge, it is due and must be paid. Many Labour Party and Fine Gael Party members have acknowledged that the charge is unjust. It is another aggressive tax from the Labour Party and Fine Gael. It punishes citizens for the failure of government and the greed of bankers, developers and corrupt politicians. It targets especially those who are disadvantaged and those on low and middle incomes who are struggling to make ends meet.

It is very clear, just four days before the deadline, that the majority of citizens reject the financial and legal threats and the moral blackmail of this Government. The Government will not stand firm against the payment of the €3.1 billion promissory note but can impose a succession of new taxes and charges on those who can least afford them while the rates of unemployment and emigration continue to increase. Is this the role of the Labour Party in government? Will it pursue tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of citizens considering that not one banker-----

These are Sinn Féin's partitionist policies.

-----or crooked politician has faced due process? Is the Labour Party so bereft of ideas that it cannot conceive a reasonable alternative to the household charge?

Let me give the Government one suggestion.

It should abandon the household charge and introduce a cap on wages in the public sector at €100,000. That would raise €265 million, €100 million more than it is envisaged will accrue from the household charge.

Deputy Adams shows up here only the odd time-----

More often than the Taoiseach.

-----so he has probably missed the statement made by the Minister for Finance here last week in which he made it clear that the Government intends to settle the promissory note issue by way of a long-term Government bond. That is a matter we will be returning to.

Deputy Adams describes the household charge as unfair but it is not quite as unfair as the household charge his party and Ministers in Northern Ireland charge. The average annual household charge in Northern Ireland is £1,259.

How much does Deputy Adams pay himself? He should stand up and tell us how much he pays on his house-----

Members should speak through the Chair.

-----not to mention the one up in Gortahork.

He has more houses than Pádraig Flynn.

That, in the currency that Deputy Adams would like to put at risk, is €1,428. It was increased by 2.5% by the Deputy's colleagues in the budget they voted through. In February 2012, there was another round of increases, some as high as 5.9%. Deputy Adams is very quick to draw attention to what my party colleagues have to say about the household charge. When his colleagues in Northern Ireland bring the charge there down to the level in this State, he may come in here and feel free to accuse us of being unfair.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

I see the Tánaiste totally avoided the question.

Deputy Adams is going to avoid the answer now.

The Government is going to pay the promissory note, although it might take longer, because it has not got the wherewithal to stand against it.

The Deputy wishes the country ill.

The Tánaiste knows all about currency, including the printing of currency.

A Deputy

Deputy Adams knows all about sterling.

What about Northern Bank?

In terms of the Tánaiste's new found interest in the North - he knows he is not comparing like with like - it is a great boost to citizens there. He would be better off dealing with issues about which he might know something such as breaches of Government policy by the Government. The Tánaiste may have noticed-----

He may have noticed nothing. This is a supplementary question. Will the Deputy please put it?

(Interruptions).

He has one minute and two seconds left. We are not here for statements.

If only the Tánaiste answered the question in the first place.

According to the outgoing head of resources in the HSE, up to 500 hospital consultants are earning substantially more than the €200,000 pay ceiling the Government imposed last year on public service salaries.

That was part of the Croke Park agreement.

Will the Deputy co-operate?

Some senior doctors take home as much as €400,000 of taxpayers' money. What will the Taoiseach, I mean the Tánaiste - I know he wanted to be Taoiseach but the people had a different view. Will he apply Government policy?

What did the people say about Deputy Adams?

Only one question can be asked on Leaders' Questions.

That is a different question.

By applying Government policy in this area, it will save over €50 million a year. Will the Government pursue these consultants with the same------

That is an entirely different issue.

-----aggression as it will those who cannot afford the €100 household charge?

I ask Deputy Adams to respect the Chair. I call on the Tánaiste and he has one minute.

I am not quite sure which of the many questions Deputy Adams has asked or the different issues he has raised-----

Will the Tánaiste try and answer one anyway?

He could start by answering the one about the printing machines.

The Hewlett Packard ones?

The Government has introduced a cap on public service pay of €200,000. It is the first Government to have done so and naturally it wants to have it retained.

Is there a deadline?

As I have said previously, no one likes paying taxes, particularly new taxes. The household charge had to be introduced because the previous Government gave a commitment that it would introduce a property tax in 2012.

The big boys beat the Government to it. Bertie beat it to it.

No. The household charge has been introduced by the Government as an interim measure. It will be replaced by a property tax. The Government is working on its proposals for the property tax as to how it will be calculated, what sizes of property will be taken into account, arrangements on ability to pay and so on.

At some stage when Deputy Adams gets around to it, I would be very interested to hear Sinn Féin's proposals on a property tax.

We have proposed a wealth tax.

Does it agree with the introduction of a property tax? If so, at what level should it be set? It would be useful for Sinn Féin and for reasoned debate in the House for it to put on the table where it actually stands on the issue of property tax.

While Deputy Adams is at it, he might also tell us where he actually stands on advising people whether they should pay the household charge.

Will Deputy Adams say that in the North as well as in the South?

We are over time.

There is a considerable degree of ambiguity in Sinn Féin's position on this. One day it is running with the hounds and chasing with the hare - I mean running with the hare and chasing with the hounds.

The Tánaiste mixed that one up.

That is the Tánaiste's game.

That is very clear. The Tánaiste is still running with the rabbits.

Sinn Féin is running with the hare and chasing with the hounds as to whether it will advise people to pay the charge or not. What does Deputy Adams say to people when they attend his constituency office to ask him whether they should pay the charge?

The Tánaiste should sit back there with the mongrel foxes and he will be grand.

Deputy Ó Caoláin will have to come back as Sinn Féin leader. He is so good.

To give other Deputies a chance, I ask both sides of the House to respect the time limits set by the House on Leaders' Questions. I am only applying those limits. I call on Deputy Higgins. He has two minutes.

The conclusion of the planning tribunal found that corruption in Irish political life was both endemic and systemic. Does the Tánaiste understand that this has enormously increased the anger and sense of aggrievement of the majority of ordinary decent people? Is he aware that it has also enormously strengthened the boycott of the regressive household tax this week? Is he aware that those boycotting see the hold developers had over the previous Government, the very hold which allowed the racketeering that blew up the property bubble that brought the crash and that in turn led to the disastrous austerity policy that this Government is implementing which is destroying living standards and services? Is he aware this new raft of taxation is being put on the shoulders of the innocent majority to bail out the failed property gamblers? Does he see the connection?

Did the Tánaiste see reports of a major rally of thousands of ordinary people from across the country in Dublin on Saturday last demanding the Government withdraw the household tax? Is he aware further thousands will also protest this Saturday at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis in a peaceful and disciplined display of people power?

Can I have the Deputy's question?

Does the Tánaiste understand that a fully fledged revolt of people power is under way? Does he understand that this day, four days from the deadline, 1,400,000 households out of 1,800,000 still have not registered, not for the reasons his backbenchers trotted out on the radio this morning but because a fully fledged revolt is underway?

Thank you, Deputy.

When will we hear an end to the excuses and have an acceptance that this tax is not acceptable to the majority of people? They know it will go to €1,000 and beyond which they cannot afford. They are also demanding a change in the Government's disastrous policy of austerity. Will the Tánaiste withdraw the tax and listen to them for a change?

What is the Deputy's view on the tax?

He must be the first socialist who is against a property tax. He used to say property was theft.

I agree with Deputy Higgins that what we read in the report of the Mahon tribunal, which described the corruption in the planning system as systemic, was absolutely disgusting. We will have the opportunity to have a debate on the report later today when we can set out what needs to be done.

The Government is committed to acting on the Mahon tribunal report. We have already referred it to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Revenue Commissioners, the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Garda Síochána. The Garda Commissioner has, in turn, referred the report to the head of the Criminal Assets Bureau. Just as the Government committed itself to implementing the measures and recommendations contained in the Moriarty tribunal report, today the Cabinet discussed the Mahon report's recommendations. It was agreed the various Ministers with responsibility for bringing forward these recommendations will come back by the end of April with the actions that need to be taken. The Government will then bring forward the recommendations that need to be progressed.

Looking at the reports of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals and all that happened over the period they were investigating, the biggest casualty in politics was truth. People were clearly on the take, lying about it, as well as not giving honest information to the Mahon tribunal. If there is a parallel to be drawn, then it is that public representatives need to be straight with the public. Deputy Higgins going around telling people that they will pay €1,000 in the household charge is not telling the people the truth. The household charge is €100 and is due by 31 March. Everyone in this House should tell the public the truth about it.

Does the Tánaiste know the Commission on Taxation recommends a charge of €560 per household for the ordinary person's house? Does he know the ESRI wants a water tax of €500?

That is a half-truth.

They are not in government.

Well, €500 and €560 comes to €1,060. That is what is down the line and what people see. When the Tánaiste is threatening people with court action, they ask why he invited to his global economic forum as a guest of honour a billionaire which the Moriarty tribunal said acted disgracefully in being facilitated by a Fine Gael Minister-----

Sorry, Deputy, but will you please stick to the question?

-----in getting privileged information to command a massively lucrative licence. In view of that, does the Tánaiste think he can, with any credibility, threaten the ordinary decent people who form the backbone of this country to drag them before the District Courts, the very people who paid their taxes for decades while the elites salted theirs away in Ansbacher and other offshore accounts? The Tánaiste must understand the anger that is out there, but he does not. Those who crashed our economy are swanning around the world on pensions of €150,000.

They can make homemade bread with the Deputy.

On behalf of the Labour Party at least, will the Tánaiste withdraw and condemn the disgraceful suggestion that local authority workers be abused by sending them out to hound pensioners, the unemployed and decent, compliant taxpayers-----

The Deputy has gone over time.

-----for this regressive household tax?

(Interruptions).

The Government should stop its bullying and listen to the people.

Will Deputy Higgins listen to himself?

Democracy needs the consent of the governed, but the Government does not have it. The Government should withdraw the suggestion.

It was the Deputy's pals who made them redundant.

I am not bullying or threatening anyone. I am stating what is a fact, namely, the Government introduced a household charge of €100. This was not recommended by the ESRI or any other body cited by the Deputy. It was the Government's decision to impose a household charge of €100 and to introduce a deadline for payment. No value is gained by bullying, threatening or exaggerating, as the Deputy has been doing in terms of the size of the charge.

The guest of honour at the Global Irish Economic Forum was President Bill Clinton. Subsequently, he organised a successful investment event for this country to attempt to bring jobs-----

He would not have been here if not for Denis O'Brien.

-----and investment to Ireland so that our economy might recover.

I did not realise that giving over information-----

At the end of the day, what really matters is that we get our economy to recover.

What about honest politics?

We will do that by attracting investment and getting the jobs that are required. In the meantime, we have a difficult road to travel to bring about economic recovery. Part of this difficult road is the introduction of the household charge. No one likes additional charges and we would all prefer if we did not need to introduce or pay this one, but it is a reality and must be paid by 31 March.