I beg to move the Second Reading of the Local Government (Collection of Rates) Bill. When I was introducing this Bill I referred to the fact that many local authorities were in a very serious financial condition. Many County Councils are working on heavy overdrafts. For example, in Cork the amount is £150,000; Leitrim, £76,000, and Tirconaill, £60,000. The total amount of overdrafts obtained by local authorities is something like one million pounds. This financial situation is largely the result of the very large amount of arrears of rates still outstanding, amounting to something like three million pounds. If vital local services are to be continued, it is absolutely essential that these arrears should be recovered without delay, and it is for this purpose that we are bringing forward this Bill. The Bill proposes to expedite the collection of rates, by strengthening the law and extending the powers of executive officers, and by providing additional or alternative machinery, namely, by making use of the Post Office where necessary for the collection of the rates.
The Bill also provides, in those cases where the Post Office has been substituted for rate collectors, for the performance of the other functions of the rate collectors by the Civic Guard, and it also makes other provisions of a more or less machinery character. As a result of the general demoralisation in the country, owing to the last few years of turmoil, there has grown up a general indifference on the part of ratepayers to meet their obligations, and it has accordingly been found necessary to introduce very drastic measures in order to bring defaulting ratepayers to a sense of their responsibilities. At the present time rate collectors have two remedies for the collection of the rates. First of all, they can distrain and sell goods under their warrants and, secondly, they can proceed in a Civil Bill court. The first remedy is encumbered by restrictive statutory provisions, and has been practically in abeyance for the last few years, owing to the danger of distraining without military protection. and to the reluctance of rate collectors to look for such protection, and also owing to the large number of young and inexperienced rate collectors who were appointed during the last few years. When summary proceedings are taken, and a warrant of distress is issued by the District Justice, it is practically impossible to have it executed as the Civic Guard are unable to act, and District Justices and rate collectors find it impossible to get any other person to act as special bailiff, owing to the low statutory fee.
With regard to the second power of the rate collectors, namely, to proceed in a Civil Bill court, that remedy is too tedious and too costly to be effective. The power of the rate collector not being adequate to deal with the situation, we have been accordingly thrown back on the sheriff. As the law stands the District Justice cannot direct warrants to sheriffs for execution without their consent and, even if he could, their powers are not sufficiently wide to deal in the drastic manner required with defaulters. This Bill, accordingly, proposes to give power to the Minister for Local Government to issue warrants to under-sheriffs to levy, by seizure, and to sell goods for a period of twelve months in respect of arrears of rates due up to the 31st of March, 1924. The Bill includes the provision of Section 7 of the Finance Act of 1923, and extends that section to include the seizure of all goods found on the rateable property. The rate collectors had this latter power under their warrants. This clause can only be enforced in these districts where a Minister has publicly declared the provision to be in operation. The Bill also secures to a rate collector the same speedy remedy for recovering arrears of rates after the full amount of his warrant is lodged as he had before. As the law stands at present, the rate collector may be obliged to go to very considerable trouble and to incur considerable expense in recovering these sums, as he is obliged to proceed in a county or a higher court.
The Bill also proposes to give power to a tribunal independent of the local authority, namely, the District Justice, to amend the rate book at the request of the local authority, but it restricts his jurisdiction to inserting the name of the individual who should have been rated. There is also a provision in the Bill for serving certain notices by post which, in the ordinary course of events would require to be served by hand. This is necessary owing to the fact that the speed with which this Act can be enforced is the essence of the whole Bill, and also because of the fact that in those districts where the Post Office is being employed instead of the rate collector, there is no other medium for serving these summonses. The provision with regard to collecting the rates through the Post Office is, frankly, experimental, and has been decided on at the request of several local authorities. At the moment it is only intended to apply these provisions in those counties where the ordinary system of rate collecting has broken down.