Friday, 3 July 2015
Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am very pleased to introduce these new measures to the House today and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies. Importantly, the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill provides for the abolition of imprisonment of debtors and fulfils a commitment made in the programme for Government in this regard. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the introduction of additional measures to the existing suite of measures currently available for the enforcement of debts. These new court-based options will provide for the enforcement of debt, within specified upper and lower limits, by means of attachment of earnings or deductions from certain social welfare payments where the debtor has the capacity to repay the moneys owed. Consumer debts owed to financial institutions or licensed moneylenders and arising from loans are excluded from the scope of the Bill.
As Deputies will note, the Bill does not apply to recovery by financial institutions of debts arising from money lent to customers. It applies to creditors such as small or sole traders, sub-contractors and other small businesses that have supplied goods and services and provides them with new avenues to get paid what is owed to them by those who can afford to pay. Equally, it applies to debts that fall within the lower and upper limits, respectively, of €500 to €4,000. Subject to a number of important safeguards, which I will outline shortly, it will enhance our legal system for the recovery of debts.
The provisions in the Bill arise from the recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission in its 2010 report entitled Personal Debt Management and Debt Enforcement. That report made a number of recommendations for reform of the existing personal insolvency and debt enforcement regimes. Key elements of the report were implemented through the enactment of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012.
Deputies will be aware that much of the focus of the reforms implemented to date in the area of civil debt has been centred on personal insolvency and those who cannot pay. However, the LRC report also identified the need to reform the existing debt enforcement regime to ensure balance in the creditor-debtor dynamic and recommended the introduction of a number of reforms specifically aimed at improving the current range of court-based options available to creditors in recovering moneys owed to them. These reforms are aimed at debtors who have capacity to pay their debts but fail to do so - the "won't pay" debtors. This would include Irish Water charges and the charges of energy and telecommunications companies. Measures specific to compliance with Irish Water charges and provisions for eligibility and payment of the water conservation grant after 2015 have been addressed separately, as Deputies are aware, by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015.
As I have said on previous occasions, the most desirable outcome is for creditors and debtors to reach an amicable agreement for the settlement of debt. However, in some cases the debtor, who may actually be in a position to pay the debt, simply refuses to engage with the creditor or does not adhere to the agreed repayment schedule to satisfy an outstanding debt. The creditor has little option in such circumstances but to take legal action to seek repayment of the debt.
Many Members of this House will recognise that scenario and will be acutely aware of circumstances across the country where small suppliers of goods and services - often small or sole traders and other small businesses - simply cannot get paid by individuals whom they have supplied even in circumstances where there is little or no doubt but that they can afford to pay. The Bill gives those creditors, in addition to others where the debts are modest ones between €500 and €4,000, two new court-based options in addition to the suite of options already available to secure payment of a debt.
At present, the position is that once a creditor has obtained a judgment order from the court, the judgment can be enforced. The creditor has 12 years from the date of the judgment to look for an enforcement order. However, if the judgment order was issued six or more years earlier, the creditor may have to apply to court for leave to issue execution. Once issued, enforcement orders are generally valid for a year and may then be renewed.
The main ways of enforcing judgments for civil debt are by registration of the judgment first, followed by execution against goods, garnishee order, instalment order or judgment mortgage. For smaller debts instalment orders or execution against goods are the most common methods of enforcement.
Along with the economic reality of serious indebtedness and the need to provide for legislative options for those who are insolvent and bankrupt, it is equally an economic reality that creditors must have options available to them to recover money owed to them, particularly where the debtor has the capacity to repay and will not do so. Those who provide goods and services are entitled to seek repayment from their customers. If this were not the case, businesses would simply not survive. Indeed, many small businesses will have failed because they have not been able to collect money owed to them. However, I am mindful that in introducing new measures in regard to the enforcement of debt, there is a need to protect vulnerable debtors from the aggressive actions of certain creditors. The Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill provides for a number of important safeguards which will ensure that debtors are given adequate protections in this regard. It is important that I outline to the House the safeguards in the Bill.
First, the debtor will be offered an opportunity to make representations to the court on his or her behalf before the court may make a decision on the matter. Second, and importantly, in making a decision the court will be required to take into account the debtor's capacity to repay the debt in terms of the amount of the attachment or deduction that would be ordered. The proposals provide that the debtor's circumstances must be assessed by the court deciding on enforceability so the attachment of earnings or deduction from social welfare cannot cause him or her undue hardship or encroach on basic income sustainability to ensure basic living costs can still be met by the debtor. The debtor will be obliged to provide a statement of means to the court which will then be examined by the court in assessing his or her capacity to pay. Where the debtor is not an employee but is on social welfare payments, this statement of means will have attached to it a verification statement from the Department of Social Protection setting out exactly what payments are being made to the debtor and the deductions, if any, already being made from them. The court will be thus in a position to make a fully informed assessment of what the debtor can or cannot afford to pay.
Third, provision is made for variation or termination of the order if the debtor's circumstances change materially.
It is another very important provision. Finally, the court may adjourn proceedings for such period or periods as the court thinks reasonable if it appears to the court that the judgment debtor is likely to be able to pay the debt within a reasonable period.
I have a number of comments on the provisions of the Bill which allow the court to order appropriate deductions from payments to a social welfare recipient in satisfaction of a debt. Affordability is absolutely critical here and will be judged by the court on the basis of accurate information provided to it by the Department of Social Protection. Deductions may be ordered only from net scheme payments. These are payments which are prescribed by the Minister for Social Protection as being suitable for deductions on the basis of their being stable payments to long-term recipients and taking into account any deductions which are already being made. Deductions may be also ordered only from a recipient's personal rate, which is the portion of the person's social welfare payment which does not include payments or elements of payments which might relate to dependants. The Minister for Social Protection will be in a position to designate those benefits to which a deduction order may be applied and it is expected that these would be broadly similar to those from which deductions in respect of local property tax may be deducted at present. It may be that in assessing affordability a court will be in a position to order only very small deductions from the payments of social welfare recipients or indeed in some cases none at all. As I have illustrated, there is a strong set of safeguards in place to ensure balance and fairness in these situations.
Before I move on to the content of the Bill itself, I briefly mention some of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, or LRC, which have influenced the development of the policy in relation to the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill. The relevant LRC report acknowledged the need for creditors to recover their debts, particularly where the debtor has capacity to repay but refuses to engage meaningfully with the creditor. The report also made a number of recommendations for wide-scale reform of the current debt enforcement regime, including the setting up of a debt enforcement office. The Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill does not propose to implement this particular recommendation, rather it focuses on improving the existing court-based enforcement measures. During the LRC consultation process conducted prior to the publication of the report, it was noted that there is general dissatisfaction in relation to the operation of the instalment order procedure, both from the point of view of debtors and creditors. The LRC acknowledged that while the most serious deficiencies in the procedure were remedied by the Enforcement of Court Orders (Amendment) Act 2009, which was introduced on foot of the High Court judgment in McCann v.Judge of Monaghan District Court and Others, some difficulties remained to be addressed and other mechanisms introduced to the existing debt enforcement regime.
Debt enforcement by means of attachment of earnings orders was examined by the LRC and its report noted that in Ireland attachment of earnings orders are mainly used in the enforcement of judgments except in the context of family law where they are used by enforcing court rulings. The LRC received a number of submissions on the subject during the consultation process. The majority of respondents supported the introduction of an attachment of earnings order mechanism. It was noted that future income is often the single most reliable source of funds to satisfy proven debts, particularly in the case of consumer debtors. Potential efficiency was also cited as an argument for the introduction of such a mechanism. As part of the consultation process, the LRC sought views on this issue and found that the introduction of such a measure was widely supported. The LRC also noted that this method is used to enforce judgment debts in a large majority of the systems surveyed in other jurisdictions.
The LRC also looked at the possibility of making deductions from social welfare payments as a means of debt enforcement but was of the view that this was a policy matter which lay outside the scope of its review. However, the LRC identified a number of principles which it considered to be important in the development of any policy in this area. I have addressed some of these issues by highlighting the protections in the Bill. According to the LRC, the principle of enforcement should be appropriate and proportionate in all cases; decisions on the enforcement of a judgment must be based on an accurate and comprehensive assessment of the debtor's capacity to repay the money owed; and, while the creditor's right to have judgment debts satisfied must be vindicated and respected, there should be safeguards to ensure that the debtor's standard of living is not reduced below a basic level. These principles have been taken well into account in the development of the Bill and I will deal with them in more detail in a few moments.
One of the key recommendations of the LRC in this area is the abolition of imprisonment of debtors. Under existing law, arrest and imprisonment remains a possibility as an enforcement mechanism of last resort, which is clearly not appropriate at this time, in cases where a creditor has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the judgment debtor has failed to comply with an instalment order due to his or her wilful refusal or culpable neglect. There have long been calls for the legislation provided for in the Bill so that we do not imprison people in these circumstances. At a policy level and within legislation, the Bill does away with the concept of imprisonment for debtors in this situation. The LRC noted that the role of imprisonment in the system for the enforcement of judgments was been considerably curtailed following a change to the law in 2009 arising from the High Court decision in the McCann case. Recourse to imprisonment may now only be had after all other less restrictive enforcement mechanisms have been attempted or found to be inappropriate. However, before the implementation of the Bill, the possibility of imprisonment for nonpayment of debt still remains. The LRC also noted that the removal of imprisonment for failure to comply with a judgment debt in ordinary civil proceedings could be without prejudice to the retention of imprisonment in other scenarios such as the enforcement of family maintenance orders.
Due to the extensive consultation process conducted by the LRC and the fact that its report entitled "Personal Debt Management and Debt Enforcement" has been in the public domain for almost five years and its content well known, I have not asked for pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. Before turning to outline in more detail the provisions of this Bill, I remind Deputies that what the Government is proposing here is straightforward legislation built from long-standing analysis and recommendations of the LRC to provide two key enhancements for suppliers of goods and services to recover modest debts in the courts. While it will be open to be used by utilities such as energy or telecoms providers or, indeed, Irish Water, it will also be available for use by small businesses and traders around Ireland. It will not be directed at those who cannot pay but rather at those who can pay but choose not to. It will not be directed at anyone unless the court decides that it is within that person's capacity to pay. The Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill seeks to implement further recommendations of the LRC report aimed at enforcement and recovery of debts which could be developed to streamline existing enforcement procedures. The Bill provides that creditors, having first sought a judgment in respect of the debt, may apply to the court for an order enabling either attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments, as appropriate, for the purpose of enforcement of debts to which the legislation will apply. Attachment of earnings would arise where a court orders the debtor's employer to deduct specified sums from the debtor's earnings to pay over to the creditor. Deduction from social welfare payments would arise where the court orders the Department of Social Protection to deduct specified sums from the debtor's social welfare payments to pay over to the creditor. However, these provisions are subject to a number of safeguards for debtors, which I have already outlined in detail, and the court will be required to have regard to the debtor's capacity to repay the amount owed. The debtor will be offered an opportunity to make representations to the court and will have his or her capacity to repay taken into account.
I will now outline the contents of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the definitions used in the Bill. Among the terms defined is "net scheme payments" which is required for the purposes of dealing with deductions from certain social welfare payments.
"Debt" is defined as not including debts arising from the repayment of loans to a debtor made by a bank, credit union, moneylender or credit card debt. The reason for this exclusion is that such debts are based on a loan where credit has been extended to a debtor and risk has been factored into the interest charged on the loan. I am mindful that banks and other financial entities already have a range of mechanisms for recovering unpaid loans. However, it is important to point out that the exclusion in this Bill does not apply to the other enforcement mechanisms already available, nor would it preclude an application under the provisions of this Bill related to non-lending related activity.
Sections 2, 3 and 5 are standard provisions. Section 4 deals with the fact that this legislation will be dealt with within the District Court. Section 6 provides that a creditor, having first obtained a judgment against a debtor in respect of a debt, may make the application needed to the court for the attachment of earnings order or a deduction where a debt is not less than €500 but no greater than €4,000. The requirements relating to the information to be provided to the court by the judgment debtor on his or her financial circumstances are set out in section 7. I have already given quite a bit of detail about that section and the role of the employer or Department, as well as the need for absolutely accurate information in the debtor position being provided to the court. All the mechanisms are there to ensure the decision is made on the basis of accurate information.
I have touched on section 8 as well, which allows for the adjournment of the court proceedings for such period or periods as the court believes reasonable if it appears to the court that the judgment debtor is likely to be able to pay the debt within a reasonable period. If the person who owes the money is making a case, they can put that to the court, which has the option of an adjournment. Section 9 provides that an attachment of earnings order and a deduction from social welfare payments order cannot be in effect concurrently in respect of the same judgment debt. In section 10 we make it clear that the court can make an order directing the employer of the judgment debtor to make deductions from the debtor's earnings and to pay the sums deducted to the creditor in accordance with the terms of the court order. The section also provides that the court can give the judgment debtor an opportunity to make representations. In addition, it provides that in specifying the amount of deductions to be made, the court shall have regard to the "normal deduction rate", which is the rate which the court considers reasonable that the earnings to which the order should be applied in satisfying the debt and the "protected earnings rate", which is the rate below which the debtor's earnings should not be reduced, having regard to the needs of the judgment debtor and his or her particular circumstances. The court shall not make an attachment of earnings order unless it is satisfied that the judgment debtor is a person to whom earnings fall to be paid and that regard has been given to his or her particular circumstances, including financial circumstances.
Section 11 deals with attachment of earnings and section 12 deals with compliance with an attachment order. Section 13 deals with the details of the notification to the employer. Section 14 empowers the court, on application by the employer concerned, the judgment debtor or the judgment creditor to rule on whether certain types of payments are earnings for the purpose of an attachment of earnings order in force. That gives the kind of flexibility that would be needed where somebody would want to make a case on earnings and payments that should be taken into account. The provisions which are to apply in relation to debtors who are in the service of the State or local authorities are set out in section 15. Section 16 deals with the arrangements that apply for deductions from social welfare payments and the details applying to the Minister for Social Protection. The scope of the payments that come within the Bill will be decided by the Minister for Social Protection. The method of service of the deduction from payments orders from a Minister are set out in section 17.
Section 18 deals with compliance with a deduction from payments order and describes how it would be implemented. Section 20 allows the court to vary an attachment of earnings order or a deduction from payments order, and I have already spoken about that. Section 21 goes into more detail about the attachment of earnings. Section 24 provides for a number of penalties in respect of false or misleading statements and section 25 provides for the repeals of Parts I and IV of the Debtors Act (Ireland) 1872. These repeals effectively remove the sanction of imprisonment of debtors from the Statute Book. I should mention here that I will be introducing amendments on Committee Stage that seek to amend the imprisonment provisions of the Enforcement of Court Orders Acts. Section 27 is a standard provision regarding the commencement of the Act.
I am sure that Deputies will agree that there is a need for a balanced approach to civil debt to ensure the protection of creditor rights by making available a range of legal mechanisms that compel payment by "won't pay" debtors who knowingly refuse to pay their obligations. Therefore it is important that any legislative initiatives in this area should support and protect those who simply cannot pay their debts while dealing appropriately with those who have capacity to pay but simply refuse to do so. The Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill provides that balance in the enforcement of debts owed to providers of goods and services through attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments and I look forward to the Deputies' comments on the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.
Fianna Fáil opposes this debt enforcement bill. We believe this Bill forms part of the new legislative measures that the Government has been forced to introduce to shore up Irish Water and convince European officials of the financial viability of that company. For the first time, the Bill will allow attachment orders being made against social welfare payments and regular earnings for Irish Water bills and other outstanding debts. We know that currently, Irish Water will not release statistics on the number of households that have not paid their Irish Water bills. It is estimated that more than 400,000 people are still refusing to pay their water charges. This legislation could herald the beginning of an unprecedented number of households being brought before the District Court to enforce payment of Irish Water bills, with the potential to clog up the court lists and create further social unrest.
It is clear that the establishment of the Irish Water super-quango has been a complete debacle. It has already lost the support and confidence of the Irish public. The Government will struggle to raise the net €140 million in new charges and it will not invest an extra cent in infrastructure. There has been €540 million wasted on water meters that will not be used and €172 million has been spent establishing a bloated quango. The accountancy trick of taking Irish Water off the national balance sheet has backfired badly. It is this party's position that it is time to suspend water charges and abolish Irish Water.
Yes. We see in this legislation a measure being hailed as reform by the Minister but it is a Trojan horse, providing another legal support to prevent the collapse of Irish Water.
The programme for Government of Fine Gael and Labour states that they will endeavour to enact legislation to "end the practice of imprisoning people who cannot pay fines and debts and introduce a system which takes a small amount of money from wages or social welfare by 'attachment order' to pay off a fine or debt over time, as an alternative to imprisonment for people who refuse to pay".
This is a laudable commitment and one my party can certainly support. As we are all aware, Article 1 of Protocol No. 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights provides, "No one shall be deprived of his liberty merely on the ground of inability to fulfil a contractual obligation". It has been outlined that this fundamental right is additionally protected by Article 11 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states, "No one shall be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfil a contractual obligation". Both statements are quite clear in their impact, and the logical conclusion chimes with the Law Reform Commission's report in this area. The recommendations most relevant to the provisions contained in the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015 include that a mechanism for the attachment of earnings be introduced for the enforcement of all judgment debts against individuals receiving regular income subject to the debtor having sufficient means to maintain a reasonable standard of living, and procedures for the imprisonment of debtors for failure to repay a judgment debt should be abolished subject to the implementation of the Law Reform Commission's other recommendations on the efficiency of the enforcement system.
In 2009, the Free Legal Advice Centres reported in its document, To No one's Credit, that Ireland's compliance with these international obligations had come to the attention of the UN Human Rights Committee on more than one occasion as a result of the failure to legislate to prevent individuals' liberties being taken away due to the failure to pay fines. None the less, let us not be naive about the situation in which many judges find themselves. It is often the case that judges have little option other than imprisonment for certain individuals who have a long string of more serious offences along with non-payment of fines. In these situations the statistics can be misleading as it may appear their incarceration arose from non-payment when the story is much more complex.
It was shown in the Irish Prison Service's annual report for 2014 that the number of debtors committed to prison as a consequence of the non-payment of a debt during 2014 was 23, with 22 male and one female. This should be distinguished from the numbers committed for failure to pay a court-ordered fine, which increased by 10.6% on the 2013 figure, from 8,121 in 2013 to 8,979 in 2014. Of this, 2,334 were female while 6,645 were male.
The failure to pay a court fine is as a result of a previous offence being committed. The failure to pay a debt is not. This is an important distinction. Will the Minister to clarify how the legislation still permits the imprisonment of debtors who have the means to pay but who refuse or neglect to obey a court order in respect of debt? I understand the maximum committal period under the proposals is six weeks. In any case, I welcome the changes surrounding the reduction in the options of imprisonment in the Bill as, frankly, it makes sense.
As part of the legislation mentioned, the Government announced in May that households which refused to pay Irish Water bills would be pursued through the courts with attachment orders being placed on their earnings or social welfare benefits. This measure was announced in light of the increasing expectation that a large percentage of households will refuse to pay their Irish Water bills. We still do not have any statistics in this regard and Irish Water still refuses to state how many households remain liable for outstanding bills issued to them. It is important when discussing the Bill that the Minister should outline to the House how many people may be liable specifically for Irish Water bills under this legislation when it is commenced.
More than 1.7 million bills totalling €70 million have been sent to households since May. Irish Water will submit bills to the tune of €271 million over the next year. A significant number of people have been billed but we do not know what will be the compliance rate. The secrecy surrounding the Irish Water project has brought Government policy into significant disrepute. It has also seen a colossal waste of money occur in the establishment of Irish Water and in the installation of water meters. A total of €540 million is rotting in the ground thanks to the Government. This is one of the great legacies of Fine Gael and the Labour Party in office.
The Bill relates directly to gross mismanagement in the creation and implementation of the Irish Water system, which has been Fine Gael policy since 2009. It is unfortunate the Government has seen fit to defend its policy positions by referring to the Law Reform Commission's report when defending the more significant debt mechanism which is directly inspired by the Irish Water crisis. This is a cowardly approach from the Government and one which will not wash with the public.
I urge the Minister to consider the further enhancement of the Money Advice & Budgeting Service which has a strong track record of supporting families in financial distress. Any expansion of its role is welcome. Fianna Fáil has consistently called for the establishment of a system of State and creditor-funded insolvency practitioners. These would take on cases where the debtor's payment capacity is so impaired that existing personal insolvency practitioners are unwilling or unable to do so. This system could be extended to the debt proceedings being proposed in the Bill. This could make a dramatic impact on those most vulnerable in our society who face difficulty with their debts and I hope this will be considered.
It is time for the Government to stop what is to my mind a charade, and I am not going to stand here for the next ten minutes and ignore the real reason behind the Bill. The Minister and I both know the Government's interest in this Bill is to give what I can only describe as bully-boy power to Irish Water. It is that plain and it is that simple. Although the Government may seek to justify this ruthless legislation by claiming the reforms have come off the back of recommendations from the Law Reform Commission, it does not take a genius to figure out the only reason the Government is seeking to push through this legislation at this point is to give tyrannical power to the shambles that is Irish Water.
This Bill goes hand in hand with the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that was rushed through the Chamber without proper scrutiny earlier this week. The Government is clearly desperate to deal with the Irish Water mess before the recess in order that come the autumn, Irish Water is not the subject of Dáil debate before a possible general election. My answer to that is "dream on".
A draft copy of the Bill was only sent to Deputies last Friday. This draft was changed by the beginning of the week without a note explaining the reasoning behind the changes or the effects of such. This is, yet again, another example of the Government showing disregard for how democratic business should be carried out in this institution.
It goes without saying Sinn Féin does not support the primary objective of the Bill. While we welcome the abolition of imprisonment for debtors who cannot pay, the other provisions are Thatcher-like. The Bill reads like a stereotypical school canteen bully sketch. It conjures up the image of a big bully boy coming along and turning a smaller child upside down to shake every last cent of lunch money from his or her pocket. With these proposals, the Government is helping creditors, including large utility companies and multinationals, to empty the pockets of citizens through aggressive and adversarial methods before the courts.
The legislation, effectively, has two purposes. The first is to allow creditors, including Irish Water, to apply to court for an order enabling an attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments for the purpose of the enforcement of debt. This will disproportionately target those on low pay and persons in receipt of social welfare payments. It is important to be absolutely clear on this matter. Sinn Féin in government post the general election will abolish Irish Water; there are no ifs or buts about this. In regard to other civil debts, although the Government offers the vague assurance that an attachment of earnings and deductions from social welfare payments are merely options to be used by creditors if they so decide, there is no requirement that a creditor first exhaust other avenues before resorting to the courts. That is procedurally unsound. Adversarial proceedings should not be available as a first option in such scenarios.
The process as outlined in the Bill means that a creditor will first have to obtain a judgment against a debtor in respect of a debt and may then make an application to the District Court for an attachment of earnings order or deductions from payments where the judgment concerned is for a liquidated sum of not less than €500 and not greater than €4,000. The debtor will then have to furnish the court with a statement of means and dependant and liability information in order for it to determine the protected earning rate of the debtor. Preparation of a statement of means is an obvious burden for debtors. On top of the worry of such debt, it is unreasonable to impose on debtors the further burden of producing such a detailed document for the court. The possibility of the details provided being inaccurate as a result of the sheer volume of information sought is high. The provision of misinformation would, through no fault of the debtor, undermine the protected earning rate to be determined by the court. Furthermore, the protected earning rate safeguard is inadequate. The bottom line is that the Bill creates a situation where companies can use the courts to take money from the pockets of people who, in the grand scheme of things, owe a relatively small debt. Whatever little safety net a debtor and his or her family may have to rely on after liabilities are accounted for will be taken from under them.
In regard to the €500 minimum debt in respect of which an attachment of earnings order can be made, an unpaid water charge debt would take only two years to accumulate to this amount. Such debtors will be dragged before a judge with no recourse to appeal. How does this differentiate, as the Government claims it does, between those who cannot pay and those who will not pay? What is being proposed amounts to intimidation by the Government. It is galling, as is the cynicism of the Administration in general. If the Minister and her colleagues are serious about protecting those facing fines and debts from imprisonment for non-repayment, why, more than one year since it was passed, has the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill not been enacted? Surely that is the appropriate vehicle to address matters that are a part of the intent of the Bill before us?
Attachment of earnings orders, as a permissible first resort for creditors, are a very severe way to deal with issues that have alternative resolutions. Has any consideration been given to how they will impact on employer-employee relations? Strong two-way employment relationships should be encouraged. Instead, the Bill is placing an unfair onus on the employer to do the dirty work of the creditor companies, including Irish Water, and the courts. This will damage employment relationships and is an extra burden employers definitely do not need.
Sinn Féin does support the second purpose of the Bill. We agree with the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission to provide for the abolition of imprisonment of debtors except in the case of maintenance arising from family law. That is in line with international best practice and human rights. However, the sneaky inclusion of this provision in one section at the very end of the Bill is cynical. Moreover, to disguise the entire Bill as a step forward in dealing with civil debt in a modern way is despicable and far from laudable. That has, however, been the approach of the Government from the start. We have seen legislation rushed through, debate guillotined and sections slipped into Bills here, there and everywhere. We have had ample evidence of this during the past four days of sittings.
Sinn Féin does not support the Bill as presented and will be submitting amendments on Committee Stage. The legislation must be amended to delete all sections which advocate a flawed adversarial approach to the recovery of debt. That is not the way forward. The only provisions of merit in the entire Bill are those which abolish the imprisonment of debtors. The rest of it misses the bigger picture. To allow companies, including Irish Water, to use bully tactics to recover debt is unnecessary and ruthless and, moreover, is out of line with the direction in which legal resolutions are heading. There is plenty of evidence to show that the courts, for the most part, are heading down a path of mediation and dispute resolution. To allow creditors to use the courts as a first option in the way the Bill proposes undermines the direction the courts are taking. It is not an acceptable way for this or any Government to deal with the issue of the unjust and unfair water tax, which is what the legislation is really all about. The answer to that problem is to abolish water charges. We in Sinn Féin will absolutely stand over our commitment to do so, if given the opportunity by voters. They will soon have their chance to pass judgment on the Government's record in recent years.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Copies of the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015 were issued to Members in draft form last Friday afternoon and we were informed last Monday that it was to be debated this week. That is an inadequate amount of time in which to analyse the proposals fairly. The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has indicated that the new options provided for in the Bill will be primarily of use to small businesses, tradespeople and the self-employed in seeking to recover debts from those who can afford to pay but will not do so. There is no reference from the other side of the House to the implications of these provisions for utility companies such as Irish Water. In truth, this legislation is an underhand attempt to give Irish Water power to bully debtors. The Government may claim its provisions are open to all creditors to use, but, in fact, these proposals are part of a wider Fine Gael-Labour Party agenda to continue pushing water charges legislation through the House.
As my colleague, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, noted, the Bill will do two things. The first is to allow creditors, including Irish Water and other utility companies and multinationals, to apply to the court for an order enabling an attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments for the purpose of the enforcement of a debt of between €500 and €4,000.
This will clearly affect low-income households and people who cannot afford to pay the debt. In the case of a debt as small as €500 it is likely that the debtor cannot afford to pay, which tells us much about who the Bill targets.
The introduction of an option of making attachment orders will also attack those on low pay and social welfare most. There is no provision that requires creditors to resolve the issue outside of adversarial court proceedings, nor does the Bill provide a means of appealing an attachment order. While an order can be varied, it cannot be appealed on the grounds that is unfair or unjust, which clearly favours creditors and limits debtors' rights.
The minimum amount for which a creditor may take a case to court is a debt of €500. Given the Government's commitment to water charges and the increased arrears that will inevitably accrue to those with unpaid water bills, it will take only two years for the outstanding payment to reach the €500 threshold. This will have a serious impact on households in which €500 amounts to a large proportion of income and create considerable stress. While the sums in question may not be significant for many of the Members present, I assure the House that, for the majority of the constituents I meet every week, they are the difference between paying the rent, filling a petrol tank to bring children to school and putting food on the table.
The day-to-day realities of struggling families are acutely real and I find it scandalous, as do many of my colleagues on this side of the House, that the Labour Party chooses to play down the hardship being imposed on already struggling citizens and families. The party is making the wrong choices by implementing measures such as those provided for in this Bill.
The statement of means to be provided by a debtor is a burden given the volume of information required. How many hard-pressed households will be in a position to provide this information? This requirement will come at a cost to such families.
The protected earnings rate is not by any means a sufficiently strong safeguard as it does not take account of any small income surplus a family and people in receipt of social welfare payments will need as a safety net to survive.
The provision of sufficient water and sanitation is an essential public service and a human right recognised by the United Nations. It should be freely available to all regardless of wealth or income. All citizens need clean drinking water and quality sanitation. Sinn Féin is with all those who are calling on the Government to recognise and legislate for access to water as a human right, rather than imposing crippling sanctions on those who cannot afford to pay, as is provided for in the Bill.
Water charges will discriminate against working people and the unemployed. They are a regressive tax dressed up as an effort to improve the water system. It is abundantly clear that this is not the purpose of water charges. The public water system is paid for through a progressive system of general taxation and that should continue to be the position. The Government has given a temporary commitment to provide a free annual allowance of 30,000 litres of water, with a further free annual allowance of 38,000 litres per child. These allowances, which are insufficient in any case, will almost certainly be reduced in the years ahead. Given that a typical shower uses approximately 80 litres of water, a person who showers once per day will use his or her entire annual allowance before using any water to drink, wash dishes and clothes or flush toilets.
All the points I am raising are relevant.
While the expected average water bill per household will be €240 per year in 2015, this figure is expected to increase over time. As with bin charges, there is no doubt that water charges will increase every year. As has been noted elsewhere, Irish Water will ultimately be sold off as a State asset making it a for-profit essential service, as has occurred in many other countries.
Water conservation is not the real reason for the introduction of water charges. If the Government was genuinely concerned about the conservation of water, it would invest in fixing and upgrading water infrastructure. The real reason for water charges is to turn an essential service into a profit-making commodity.
In his previous role as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and chief aide to the Taoiseach, the current European Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr. Phil Hogan, publicly stated:
Everybody will pay based on water usage. For people who do not pay, their water pressure will be turned down to a trickle for basic human reasons and that won't be too attractive for them.Once water supply falls into the hands of corporations or for-profit enterprises, the obvious next step is to cut or eradicate all allowances or credits, leading to increasing prices and deteriorating services. The privatisation of industries such as waste management provides clear evidence of what happens when corporations take control of public services. Water charges will increase in the coming years as a result of the introduction of economic charging, as the Government itself has admitted. With poverty and deprivation rates approaching an all-time high, the homelessness crisis growing and households in mortgage arrears across the State, the introduction of water charges will tip many people over the edge.
Low income families who cannot pay their bills will suffer most and are most at risk. Does the Government not realise the financial and psychological effects increasing debts will have? It is particularly disturbing to see the Labour Party weigh in so forcefully behind proposals to implement further measures that will attack the lives of the most vulnerable. We have only recently witnessed ambivalence and ignorance being shown when calls were made to halt cuts in the one-parent family payment which will affect 12,000 families.
This Bill is yet another measure in the long line of draconian proposals presented by this Government. Its consequences, it is argued, are the result of bad and irresponsible personal choices. A person who chooses not to pay the charge will be found and penalised, while anyone who chooses not to get a job will have his or her payments cut. It is as if the struggles people are facing to survive were about choice.
As Sinn Féin's spokesperson on children and youth affairs, it is my duty to point out the obvious and uncomfortable point the Government does not want to acknowledge. It is continuing to impact on the lives of children in low income families with its resolute commitment to austerity and decisions and choices it has made, including in this Bill. It is hindering the lives of those who are experiencing hardship by continuing a never-ending cycle of poverty creation. We live in a society in which the shameful reality is that 138,000 children are living in persistent poverty, 1,000 minors are living in emergency accommodation and the housing crisis is worsening daily. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of children living both at risk of poverty and in consistent poverty jumped from 6% to 12%. This means one in eight children is experiencing material deprivation on a daily basis. In addition, 63% of one-parent families are living without basic necessities, one-parent families are at heightened risk of homelessness and 60% of households seeking urgent housing assistance are one-parent families. This is the context in which the Government, including the Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Joan Burton, wishes to introduce savage cuts to payments for one-parent families and in which we are being told that financially strapped citizens and families must pay water charge debts.
On the one hand, we have the imposition of cuts, while, on the other, we have the imposition of debts. In only one week, we have seen the culmination of two incredibly short-sighted dangerous decisions from a child poverty perspective. It is irresponsible of the Government to implement these decisions as it does not require a genius to figure out where the equation, cuts plus debts, leads us. We are told the cuts are being introduced to encourage lone parents to enter employment or education. Almost 12,000 parents, many of them already in employment, will lose up to €86 per week under the cuts to the one-parent family payment.
I am aware of that. The issues I am raising go hand in hand with the Bill.
The Government has targets in place to reduce child poverty. The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, commits it to lifting more than 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020, which would constitute a reduction of at least two thirds on the 2011 level.
Despite this, rates of child poverty have risen sharply in recent years, particularly for poor children in one-parent families. While the Department of Social Protection is moving parents onto payments that will cut their incomes, another section is working to lower child poverty rates. You could not make it up.
The Minister for Social Protection recently attacked Sinn Féin during the debate on our opposition to those cuts. The Minister claimed our party did not have any policies. What kind of policy is it to promise that affordable child care and after-school care would be made available to families, and then do little to nothing to implement that promise while steamrolling ahead with said cuts? We live in a society that has some of the highest child care costs, second only to those in the United States. Already 9,000 lone parents have lost their payment. These changes arrive without the delivery of the Minister's promised Scandinavian child care system. Last month we heard the Labour Party, quite rightly, calling for equality and for fairness, yet when it comes to fairness and equality for children, many of them already experiencing poverty or deprivation, that call rings hollow.
The added burden of the repayment of water charges debt, as outlined in the proposed measures in this Bill, follows the long line of previous measures aimed at the people who can afford the least. The cuts in rent allowance and back-to-school allowance and the loss of the Christmas bonus proceed today. On the Minister's watch we have also witnessed cuts to community employment schemes and student third level grants.
Working part-time for many parents was an option which allowed them to parent their children while avoiding child care costs by working while their children were in school. This is no longer the case for many. As special rapporteur for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children's committee on child care, I am acutely aware of the lack of affordable, quality child care in this State. One of the big problems for all parents, but most especially lone parents, is this issue. For a person parenting alone, there is just one income available to meet all household, accommodation and child care costs. It explains why so many one-parent families are merely surviving and face the constant threat and fear of homelessness. Most families in emergency accommodation today are one-parent families. Without affordable, quality child care and out-of-school care, the cuts in the one-parent family payment will force those families into further crisis. That we have the shameful figure of 138,000 children living in consistent poverty is evidence that child poverty reduction targets are not working. Measures such as these cuts are not working.
There are more than 215,000 one-parent families in Ireland today of varying backgrounds and circumstances. As One Family has correctly stated, men and women can become lone parents because of separation, divorce or abandonment. Many may have experienced domestic violence, abuse and bereavement and, as I have pointed out, years of cuts have led to one-parent families being those with the highest levels of consistent poverty, with 63% of individuals from these households experiencing one or more forms of deprivation.
One Family also rightly highlighted the critical fact that although the Government's supposed reform process is to connect parents to the labour market and to move them from a passive reliance on social welfare to independence, the reality is that many will have to give up their part-time jobs as they will lose money due to different criteria on their new payment. This will inevitably cause thousands of children to live in deeper levels of poverty.
Since 2008, just before the economic crash, 6.8% of Irish children were living in consistent poverty, a shameful figure in itself. By 2013, that proportion had almost doubled to 11.7%. As some have commented, that adds up to Galway city plus an entire Limerick city of poor children. It is unbelievable and horrific.
Studies have shown that taking a child out of poverty is the single most productive investment a government can make, saving at least seven times what it costs. Child poverty has doubled on the watch of the Government and it is a national scandal, nothing less. The Government has an official target of reducing consistent poverty among children by two thirds by 2020, but what do the current numbers tell us? The child poverty reduction measures are failing. It is time to think again. It is time to rethink the political choices being made. If Government is in any way authentic or serious about reducing this shameful figure of children living in consistent poverty in this State, it should reconsider immediately the measures being introduced in the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015 before us. Sinn Féin will not support this Bill and will bring forward amendments on Committee Stage.
Anyone would welcome the fact the Minister for Justice and Equality has abolished imprisonment of people for relatively small debts. People should never have gone to prison for not being able to pay a television licence. There was the ridiculous case last year of a woman from Donegal driven to Dublin in a taxi to be jailed in Dublin. This debate is not being held on a normal sitting day. The Bill is focused on the debts of the little people, €500 to €4,000. When will the Government bring forward a Bill to deal with the debts of the big people? Do they just get write-downs, for example, the developers in the National Asset Management Agency, which the previous regime told us would never happen? Denis O’Brien and others in the 1% also get write-downs from banks and Government.
This Bill has been talked about for many years. It has been brought forward to coincide with a mass boycott of the water charges. It will not and cannot deal with a mass boycott campaign. It cannot deal with hundreds of thousands of people refusing on principle to pay a debt and it will not deal with that. The Government hopes the publicity will be enough to give the impression it will, but it is to be hoped the real message will get out. The Minister was somewhat disingenuous in her speech when she referred to the water charges being at quite an early stage because the debt has to be more than €500 and up to €4,000. That would mean it would be at least three years before a single person could be brought to court to have an attachment order granted for non-payment of water charges. For a family it would be more than two years. The earliest anyone could be caught under this Bill for boycotting water charges would be between 2017 and 2019, well after a general election when a new Government will be in place. It is to be hoped water charges will have been abolished at that stage if the campaign is successful.
The Bill makes clear too that water charges cannot be deducted at source. I am glad that possibility is being nailed on the head. They cannot be taken directly from people’s incomes and social welfare. There must be a court process first and every case must be individually heard. A person is entitled to have representations made and his or her finances must be examined and an assessment of affordability must be made. Hundreds of thousands of people are boycotting the water charges. Some day soon we will get the figures. We do not have them yet but we know it has to be hundreds of thousands, on the basis that 30% have not registered and many more who have registered will not pay. They do this as a protest against privatisation, austerity and a political betrayal and broken promise, in particular by the Labour Party. The process set out in this Bill is very clunky. There is no fast-tracking of water charges cases as has been reported in the media. There will be no way to segregate and streamline people and bring them to court. Solicitors have been sending us e-mails and complaints saying there is no way they can deal with this issue. Every case has to be heard in court before an attachment order can be granted. There is no guarantee it will be granted. A judge has discretion to distinguish and not impose an attachment order.
Under section 9, representations can be made and there is a protected earnings rate. The Minister assures us the proposals provide that the debtor’s situation must be assessed by the court deciding on enforceability in order that the attachment of earnings or deduction from social welfare cannot cause him or her undue hardship or encroach on basic income sustainability to ensure basic living costs can still be met by the debtor. I hope this will come to pass. We know the Government has a very stringent interpretation of what people can live on because it decreed this week that people can lose €50, €80 and €100 a week without causing undue hardship. Women in particular will feel this because 96% of lone parents are women.
Every single case involving people taking part in a massive campaign to boycott water charges must be heard; all of their finances must be looked at and they can also appeal. This will be an extremely long drawn out process. There is, therefore, no way that this instrument can deal with a mass campaign of non-payment.
I wish to correct something that was said by a previous speaker. There are no longer water allowances; they were done away with. We now have a flat-rate water charge and water pressure cannot be reduced. It is important that, as Deputies, we give people the correct information. This measure was done away with under pressure of the campaign. As a result, a millionaire will pay the same amount in water charges as a low paid worker, but how can this be just or fair? As a result of fear and the knowledge that people knew that the campaign was going to escalate, the Government had to bring in that measure. However, those engaging in a campaign against water charges have nothing to fear from this legislation, as mass non-payment can sink Irish Water and force a future Government to abolish it.
It will render the process set out in the Bill inoperable. There is no way hundreds of thousands of people - 500,000 or more - can be brought to court, as the courts would not be able to cope. It would be at least two to three years before anybody would face it. There will be a mass campaign that will bring down Irish Water and this Bill certainly will not deal with those boycotting the charges.
The Law Reform Commission presented its proposals on this issue in 2010, long before Irish Water was even conceived and before the last general election. What was proposed was not the same as that being presented which is being presented in tandem with other legislation this week to create a connection between the two.
I am in favour of jailing people who are a threat to society. There must be sanctions, but where people are not a threat to society, they should not be in prison. There are people who are a threat to society for whom there are no sanctions. Maintaining prisons is very expensive. The Irish Penal Reform Trust calculated that the average cost of an available staffed prison space in 2014 was €69,000. It is, therefore, a very expensive option, particularly when one is looking at relatively small personal debts such as a television licence fee. Deputy Ruth Coppinger reminded us of the case last year of a woman in County Donegal who had to abandon her children and have them minded when she was sent to prison. I think they were minded by a social worker, which added to the cost. The woman in question had to be driven by taxi to the Dóchas Centre because of a failure to pay her television licence fee. People were outraged by this. It was not that they were saying there should be no sanction but that the sanction was not balanced, correct or civilised.
We see individuals who have done untold damage to this society and directly damaged people's lives, the economy and available public services and who are walking away scot-free because of the lack of the sanctions we need at the other end of the scale. Where there are sanctions provided for, one wonders about the ability to enforce them. Look at the number of staff in the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement or the Competition Authority. Significant white collar crimes are not being prosecuted. I tried to make a complaint about possible insider trading. I wrote to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Central Bank and the Irish Stock Exchange, but it seems that none of them was required to sanction or even consider what was I saying and we wonder why there has never been a prosecution for insider trading. Effectively, there is no one to whom one can complain. This demonstrates very clearly that there are two sets of rules.
We know that the courts are unable to cope. Funding for the Courts Service has been cut by 25% since 2008. The service has shed about 160 staff and case loads are enormous. I know that there have been some changes and that we now have a Court of Appeal, but the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, said last year that any further cut would do great and lasting harm to the administration of justice. It is one thing to cut the budgets and ability of the courts to deal with things, but it is another to put through a significant number of additional cases. That is where Irish Water enters the picture. When the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government spoke about the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015 this week, he said:
In tandem with these amendments, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, published the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill yesterday. The Bill seeks to implement the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission's report on the enforcement of debt, principally around the streamlining of existing enforcement procedures. Under the Bill, creditors will be able to apply to the court for an order enabling either attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments, as appropriate, for the purpose of enforcement of debt. This important change will be accompanied by a crucial safeguard: the abolition of imprisonment of debtors, except in the case of maintenance arising from family law proceedings. This, I believe, represents a balanced approach to the recovery of civil debt so that creditor rights are protected with a range of legal mechanisms which compel payment by those debtors who will not pay, while removing the outdated threat of imprisonment in such cases. The legislation supports the distinction between the "can pay but won't pay" debtors and those who are willing to pay but are in financial difficulty, a distinction that is crucial in implementing the underlying fairness aspect of domestic water charges.It is clearly linking it with Irish Water. In many ways, it is giving the impression that there is an immediate sanction through this Bill that bypasses the courts when that is not the case. A Government that does not command the authority of citizens does not have the right to govern. The Government will tell us otherwise, but a significant campaign of civil disobedience is taking place in respect of Irish Water. This is not the way to deal with it. Something has been said about the limits to which people have been pushed. Even though there are good elements in this legislation, I cannot see myself being in a position to support it because of the link with Irish Water that it creates.
I want to raise the issue of orders attached to social welfare payments.
I recall a constituent who came to my office who wanted to pay the household charge but did not have a credit card. He was trying to find the cheapest way to pay and wanted to pay through the post office. However, he found if he paid it on a monthly basis through the post office, it would cost him an extra €12 because of the €1 fee for each transaction. He thought then that he would go to the Department of Social Protection and ask it to deduct the charge. The Department's response was that the customer should note that the Department would apply provisions under social welfare legislation to ensure a person's basic means are sufficient and would not, therefore, make deductions that would bring a payment below the personal rate of supplementary welfare allowance, currently set at €186 per week. Therefore, the Department would not deduct the household charge because that would reduce his payment to below €186 per week, yet an attachment order can be made in regard to an Irish Water debt. Is there a paradox there? The Departments seem to be tripping each other up on this point, that there is a requirement for a basic income.
We need to get real on whether a basic income is needed and guaranteed and this must be factored into the legislation as a certainty. A similar situation occurs in regard to maintenance payments where the payment can be deducted from a welfare payment or where there is a requirement to pay it that brings people below the bare minimum required for existence. These issues are very real for people living in a marginal situation and they have not been properly thought through.
On the campaign of civil disobedience in regard to the water charges, I have said on numerous occasions that what is going on in regard to Irish Water-----
Absolutely, I know that. The campaign of civil disobedience is about more than water. It is about concerns about not having enough money to live on and about being pushed too far. We have seen what the credit unions have to say about the level of disposable monthly income. This must be factored in when considering the debt issue. The Government may not want to be seen to backtrack because it has invested so much in Irish Water. Essentially, to backtrack would be about losing face in advance of a general election. It is linking these issues together although they should not be linked. While there are positive proposals in this legislation, the Government has undermined it by creating this connection.
I agree with Deputy Murphy that the fewer people we have in prison, the better. There are many good reasons for keeping people out of prison, if possible. Most people accept that prisons do not really work and that putting people in prison because they have not paid a fine of one sort or another makes little sense.
The Government says it is trying to differentiate between those who can pay, but will not pay. That is a hard call to make. Most people who cannot pay might find themselves thrown into the category of being among the people who will not pay. It is difficult for any of us to determine, and for whoever must make that decision it will be very challenging to get it right all the time. The draconian aspect of this Bill is the fact that money will be taken from people eventually, after a court process and after the amount owing has reached a certain amount. That money will be taken from people who are already struggling and in a difficult position.
I suggest we should use the community service element more, although I know it would not be easy to set this up and that it would require significant work. This idea is used a lot more in other countries and I believe it has significant merit. If money is taken from people who genuinely cannot afford to pay bills, they may find themselves cutting down on what they provide for their children in some way. Children will suffer if money is taken from these families. Community service would be a much fairer system to deal with non-payment of money owed.
We kind of accept the fact that water is a human right. If it is a human right, how can a state force people to pay for it? It has been pointed out that structures whereby people pay directly for water are in place in many countries, but many of the things in place in many countries are not necessarily in place here. We do not accept that philosophy. For example, we often point out that rent control is prominent in many parts of the world but there is no appetite for it here. When we point out it works in other places, that still cuts no ice here.
It is not as if water has never been paid for through our taxation system. Of course it has. We have had water and wastewater infrastructure in place and this has been paid for through central taxation, so obviously the people pay for the water services indirectly. I believe this is a fair way of providing water services. In Piemonte in Italy, there is a charge for water, but the cost is not high. There, the state controls the system at local level. I have seen how it works there. I have seen the tanks in the mountains, seen how the water is gathered there and delivered. I have seen how it is measured and how the money is collected.
I thank the Chair for her guidance. I will keep it in mind.
How Irish Water has been structured is very disappointing and to use this Bill as a way to get money from the people to pay Irish Water for its services leaves a bad taste in the mouth because of the nature of Irish Water and the flaws in its structure to date.
It is hardly surprising that there is such civic resistance to money going to the organisation and it is not going to go away. Although many such issues settle down eventually, this one will not. Whoever is in government after the general election will face many problems with it and anything connected with Irish Water will remain poisoned. Every time people are dragged through the courts to have money for water bills extracted from them, it will create a bad atmosphere and major unrest.
Sometimes I try to put myself in the positions of the Ministers who are trying to make decisions in these areas and I only look stupid. It is difficult to make calls and come up with the right answers. Having to come up with the answers and make the right decisions is very challenging. If I were Taoiseach, I would say to myself that Irish Water had been a disaster and that we had spent a lot of money, but that although doing a U-turn would go down badly, going ahead with it would not be good either. Although it would be a difficult decision to make, the Government should scrap Irish Water. Introducing a system whereby we supplied water through the local authorities again, or on a regional basis rather than county by county, or a system like the one that functions in Italy would be a good decision.
Regarding the Bill, we need to seriously consider the idea of a community service structure. For a person who has a €100,000 car and likes to speed on the motorway, paying fines is not very troublesome. I would like such a person to do community service rather than pay a fine. Community service is very educational. I have had the privilege of doing it and learned much from the experience. I learned things about myself, which was very interesting.
Community service is therapeutic, good for the State, has a very strong punitive effect, is a humbling experience and saves the State a fortune. The cost of keeping a person in prison is outrageous at €1,700 per week. It is mad. All of the research shows prisons do not work. I had a script which I was going to present. It was pretty good and I compliment Rachel Ann Hynes in my office who helped me to put it together and did such a good job on it, but I will have to keep it for another day.
I welcome the Bill which will make a long-sought change from the use of imprisonment for the failure to pay debts. The Law Reform Commission has long asked for a move away from the punitive to a more coercive approach to debt settlement which the Bill introduces through the attachment of earnings mechanism and deductions from social welfare payments. The Bill is being introduced in the context of water charges and the campaign to resist them and it is necessary. While opposing a charge or tax by voting or campaigning against it is a perfectly legitimate activity, a campaign which seeks to encourage people not to pay a tax or charge is not legitimate. Encouraging them to break the law, however much we might resent that law, is never acceptable.
When it is done by Members of Parliament, people elected to make laws and ensure they are implemented, it is utterly reprehensible. I do not say this lightly. In all my years in this House I have never made it a practice to criticise individuals or the positions they take; I have tried to criticise the policy rather than the person. In a representative democracy, no matter how diverse our views, we all agree to be bound by and submit to the decisions of the majority. That is what we mean by the rule of law. We agree, even when we lose an election, to be bound by the laws put in place by the elected majority. This is fundamental to democracy. I utterly condemn a campaign to tell people to break the law, particularly when it is driven by law makers. Some members of the Opposition, none of whom is present, do not see the irony of their remarks when they criticise us for a lack of democracy.
I fully support and laud these measures which have been designed to enforce validly made laws. The Bill is an appropriate, timely and proportionate response to the need to ensure the laws of the land are enforceable and enforced. The attachment of earnings and welfare payment deduction measures are part of a suite of measures to ensure payments. They add to measures which we voted in yesterday which make outstanding water charges a lien on properties. Those who oppose water charges seem to think the measures are so weak they will not damage their non-payment campaign or, given that the first cases will not come before the courts until 2017, that they can be ignored. While they are entitled to make this judgment, they are wrong. Nobody wants to appear before a court, either next year or next week, and incur the attendant expense. People do not want their employers to know that they do not pay their bills or to carry the notoriety of being a non-payer with them when they try to change jobs. They do not want their neighbours to know that they are not paying their bills.
While I worry that the enforcement tools may be tortuous, time consuming and expensive, they will and must work. If a country is to be governable, the laws of the land must be enforced and seen to be enforced. I paid the water charges introduced during the 1980s, while many others did not pay. They were abolished in the 1990s owing to political pressure. To this day, I speak to people who paid and who bitterly resent the failure on the part of the Dublin local authorities to collect outstanding charges. I do not blame them because I, too, resent it and it must never happen again. This time, everybody who can pay must pay. The many people who will pay and who pay for everything demand that we ensure all those who can pay will pay and we cannot contemplate anything else. We owe it to all compliant citizens to ensure they will not pay for the water of those who think, just because they do not like new charges, they can somehow opt out of them. Democracy does not work on a system of opting in and opting out. Those who lecture us about democracy would do well to remember that it is part of democracy.
It is out of the question that we turn a blind eye to collecting charges or take it easy on non-payers. We cannot allow a situation where half of the population will spend the rest of their lives conserving water and trying to minimise their bills, while the other half can daily water their lawns, run their taps, wash their cars and ignore leaks safe in the knowledge that their neighbours will pay for the water used. Compliant citizens will not tolerate this. We owe it to those who pay to ensure everybody who can will pay. There will be cases of people who genuinely cannot pay. The legislation caters for such cases by ensuring nobody will have to pay more than they are able. The vast majority will pay, but the rest must be subject to enforcement proceedings. If, for some reason, the measures do not work or prove too cumbersome, we must make it clear that further draconian measures of enforcement will be put in place.
I am concerned that certain people might fall through the system. The measures contained in the Bill deal specifically with employed and unemployed persons who refuse to pay. What will happen to self-employed persons if they do not pay? The only enforcement measure for this group is the default option of putting a lien on their houses. We need a more immediate method for collecting debts because otherwise non-payers may be carried for their entire lives. One option that could be considered in such cases is seizure of assets.
I am concerned about the provision to make tenants' outstanding water bills the responsibility of the vendor when a house is being sold. If a landlord fulfils his or her responsibility by notifying Irish Water about a tenant, it is up to Irish Water to pursue the tenant for the charges. The vendor should be out of the equation at that stage. I acknowledge that deposit retention might compensate in some cases, but it will not always be sufficient because people who do not pay their bills tend not to be careful tenants. It may be the case that the deposits do not go far enough. We should be conscious of the responsibilities we are putting on the rental sector. We need a thriving rental sector and making life more difficult for those who rent premises is not in our interests in dealing with a housing shortage.
I welcome the water conservation grant. I have seen several advertisements for conservation equipment and services for sale on a commercial basis, but the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Irish Water should develop a public information campaign on how citizens can reduce water consumption, minimise bills and, by extension, reduce their exposure to debt collection.
Once Irish Water is well established and leaks are repaired, I hope the unit cost of water can be reduced. The rates initially proposed were on the high side by international standards, but as new investment is made in the sector, it should be possible to reduce the unit cost. Those who oppose charges often make the claim that we have always paid for water. However, we did not pay enough for it. If the local authority delivery system was efficient and adequately funded, we would not face a water crisis every time we had a few dry days. Without Irish Water, we would not be able to cater for the many major industries which invest here on the basis of a clean, plentiful and reliable water supply. We would continue to have the wasteful and inefficient duplication of schemes on either side of county boundaries. We are dealing with years of under-investment in collection, treatment, storage and distribution, with the result that people in large swathes of the country are unable to drink the water from their taps. We must accept that the old system did not work. Notwithstanding all of the county engineers who did the best they could within the council system, the under-investment in water services in the various counties prevented the system from working. We need to introduce charges to pay for the new investment and incentivise conservation, both domestically and by water providers, by ensuring they will have the funds to carry out repairs and invest in new water sources.
The Bill will not penalise those who genuinely cannot pay their debts. It deals with those who can pay but refuse to do so by offering a relatively cheap way of recovering debts through attachment of earnings orders from the District Court. It will also be useful for small businesses. We already have other legal routes for recovering moneys and this is just another option. It will be useful in the enforcement of water charges because it is relatively inexpensive and straightforward. That message must go out to all those gullible people who believed the promises of the anti-payment campaign that charges would be abolished or not pursued. They must pay. The law will catch up with them and the penalties will be much more painful than if they had paid up-front. Charges were abolished in the past, but this is not the 1980s. The population has expanded and will continue to grow and our demand for water will grow alongside it. People are now better informed and more conscious of the need for conservation. They are aware that every developing country charges for water. Deputy Mick Wallace referred to Italy, but in every country we visit people are charged for water. Nobody wants to pay more for services, but we accept that if we demand more, we must pay for it. What people will not tolerate, however, is the notion that some can get away without paying. Those who tell people they do not have to pay are doing them a grave disservice.
I note that Deputy Bernard J. Durkan has a huge script from which he will no doubt make his contribution.
I welcome the opportunity to support the Bill. I did not hear much of Deputy Mick Wallace's contribution, but I listened to most of the other speakers in the debate. During my time as a Member of the Oireachtas which has been longer than I care to remember at this juncture the system of imprisoning people for non-payment of debts and fines has been criticised by Members on both sides of the House. The Bill ensures people will no longer go to prison for non-payment of fines by providing for attachment of earnings orders. As Deputy Catherine Murphy noted, those who are a menace to society should be behind bars, but those who pose no threat should not be. I agree with the broad principle that nobody should end up in jail over a small amount of money. It does not make sense from the point of view of the State or the individual concerned.
The Bill implements a number of recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission which the Minister outlined.
The legislation's provisions allow the courts to judge each circumstance independently, as the suitable level of attachment could differ significantly from person to person. I welcome these provisions.
That the Bill will give small and not-so-small business owners an avenue through which to recover payment for goods and services that they have provided is to be welcomed. I was astounded that an Opposition Deputy who read a lengthy script into the record listed a number of items that, by implication of her comments, she believed should be free, including petrol and food. In an ideal world, perhaps they should be free, but the majority of people live in a world where they must pay for them. Thankfully, most do pay. This legislation should probably have been passed years ago. The matter has been discussed many times in my 14 years - God help us - as a Member of the Oireachtas.
I strenuously object to the commonly held view raised by several Deputies that legislators can stand up in Parliament and elsewhere and tell the general public to disobey the law because they do not like it. We live in a democracy, thankfully. The payment of water charges came about through unhappy circumstances for the State, but the reality is that a significant proportion of the population has been paying for water for many years. Most live in rural areas and provide their own water, be it through private wells or group schemes. Not only do they not understand, but they object to the idea that others who can pay for water choose not to and that representatives in this House would stand up and claim that it is okay for people to act like that.
I agree with Deputy Mitchell that there should be provision for people who find it difficult to pay because of their circumstances. We should not be heartless in determining how Irish Water bills are paid in future. Situations may arise that cause people to be unable to pay. Such provision is allowed for under this Bill, but what is not allowed for is the notion that people will not follow a law simply because they disagree with it. That is not what people are elected to this House to achieve.
Deputy Mitchell referred to the new provisions in respect of the rental sector. A significant imposition is being placed on landlords. I have not been lobbied by any landlord, but once landlords provide their tenants' details, any comeback on the landlords thereafter for the payment of water is not desirable. Relative to other European countries, we have a small rental sector, but it is significant in certain parts of the country, not least this city. Even the amended provision could do with a further change.
This legislation is a welcome step. For the past 14 years, Deputies from all political parties and none have sought to have the law changed so that people would not end up in prison for the non-payment of small fines and debts. I welcome the fact that this Bill contains such workable provisions, in that each case will be considered on its merits by a judge before such an order is granted.
The personal debt crisis is fraught with economic, financial and, most important, social consequences. The Government has failed to address the issue of mortgage debt. Today, it has even failed to tackle the banks on their gouging of customers with interest rates that are well above the European average. Fianna Fáil has proposed constructive and workable solutions to the issues of mortgage debt and interest rates, but these have been ignored by the Government. Consequently, a significant number of families and individuals have been left struggling with debts in a state of stress and discomfort. Fine Gael's instinct in particular is for people to be punished for their debts. They must be paid no matter the consequences for the individual, family or society. Recently, Fine Gael extended this approach to Ireland's foreign policy, with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, all too eager to act as Germany's boot boys in respect of the crisis in Greece.
The Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014, a Bill that was suggested to be of variable purpose, was rammed through the House. As with it, the manner of this Bill's introduction and the lack of proper oversight are to be deplored. One would imagine that a Bill that deals with aspects of personal debt crisis would be published, with interested groups, civic society and organisations that work with debt on the front line invited to participate in the pre-legislative process, but they were ignored. One would also imagine that the Legislature would be given a decent amount of time to scrutinise the Bill, seek and remove its defects, identify unintended consequences and endeavour to improve it. The Government is intent on treating it almost as emergency legislation and plans on ramming it through the Oireachtas before the recess.
We know the cause of the Government's significant haste in this respect and of its undemocratic determination in its manoeuvring on the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, namely, Irish Water and the need to pass the EUROSTAT test regardless of whatever ludicrous steps are required to do so.
The hastily written explanatory memorandum makes clear that much of the inspiration for this Bill came from a Law Reform Commission, LRC, report published in 2010 on personal debt management and debt enforcement. The removal of imprisonment of debtors, or at least for most categories of debtor, is welcome, but imprisonment, particularly where other solutions exist, is not a suitable method for addressing civil debt issues.
This debt enforcement Bill forms part of a new suite of legislative measures that the Government has been forced to introduce as a mechanism to shore up against the inadequacies of Irish Water. These measures are aimed at convincing European officials of the financial viability of the company. The real appeal of this Bill for Fine Gael and Labour is that it will allow attachment orders to be made against wages, salaries and social welfare payments to cover Irish Water bills. The Bill will permit Irish Water to dip its hand into the pockets of citizens and remove whatever deposit money they may have, given the Government's intention to pursue the Irish Water super quango. This measure has been expected since last May when the Government indicated that households that refused to pay Irish Water bills would be pursued through the courts, with attachment orders placed on their earnings and social welfare benefits. This measure was announced in light of the increasing expectation that a large percentage of households would refuse to pay their bills.
We do not know how many households have refused to pay, as the Government has refused to provide such data or information for the House. It is estimated, however, that over 400,000 households are refusing to pay. Some are refusing to pay because of a flat objection to water charges, while others are doing so because water services are substandard. There are, however, many people who have no objection in principle to paying water charges but do object to paying charges to a wasteful, bloated and bungling super quango.
The problems with Irish Water cannot be laid at the door of its management or staff but relate to the manner of its creation and the subsequent U-turns and inconsistencies in the Government’s policy. The blame rests with the Government. The establishment of Irish Water has been a shambolic debacle and embarrassment. The public have little confidence in it, as evidenced by the numbers who are still refusing to register or pay. In my experience, many who paid did so out of respect for or fear of the law and did so through gritted teeth. It would be a mistake for the Government to see the numbers who have signed up and paid as a significant vote of confidence. It most emphatically is not.
So far, not one extra cent has been spent on improving water infrastructure. So far the Government has failed to match the investment made by previous Governments. Over €540 million has now been spent on the installation of water meters which sit spinning uselessly in the ground. While water conservation was one of the stated objectives of Irish Water, the decision not to meter the charge flatly contradicts that aim. Meanwhile, the meters rust. Over €172 million has been spent on setting up Irish Water, with a running cost of €46 million a year. The so-called water conservation grant, paid for in part by cuts to lone-parent allowances, will cost the State €165 million, all to raise €140 million a year. It will not even raise that much, as the sums simply do not add up. Alongside all of the above, money is being sucked out of local authority services into Irish Water. Even though it is a so-called stand-alone company, it is exempt from local authority rates, despite the fact that it is a company which benefits from taking over local authority assets and whose workers and staff will benefit from local authority services just as any other company would. In all of this, not one extra cent of capital investment in the infrastructure will be generated.
The Government has become so distracted in cooking the books to meet the EUROSTAT test and keep the borrowings off-balance sheet that it has forgotten the purpose of a water utility, namely, to provide water services for households and businesses. It is a three-card trick with respect to Irish Water’s commercial viability. With the, frankly, terrifying financial cost of Irish Water, there are also the significant levels of civil disobedience and degradation of the citizens’ relationship with the State. This is not a democratic revolution. This is government in spite of and against the people. The Bill, serving as it does to extend Irish Water’s reach into people's wages and social welfare payments, is yet another extension of that government in spite of the people. The Government must reflect on what it is doing and why. Will it, at least, consider it might be wrong and seek a better way? To go on with the project in a financially imprudent manner is damaging the quality of our democracy and the relationship with citizens.
Like other Members, I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak about this legislation. There are several principles involved. First, there is the need to establish some culture which recognises that at all levels of society in which we incur debt, we must do so in the knowledge that somehow, somewhere or sometime it may be necessary to repay it. While it is all very fine for politicians and political wannabes to go forward for election, claiming they are opposed to this imposition, it should not be done. In my early days in politics the main Opposition party, Fianna Fáil, launched such a proposal in an election campaign in which it called for the abolishment of rates which included water charges. It is interesting that rates were abolished on the basis that we were already paying for them in our taxes. I often wondered about this. Later in my parliamentary career I tabled a parliamentary question, asking the Minister to indicate the precise amount in taxes levied against the consumer in various local charges and whether it included water or refuse collection services. I received a reply from the Minister from the same party which had proposed the abolition of rates in the first place that there was no specific allocation in respect of water charges, refuse charges, electricity charges or any other utility charge, most of which services were provided by the State or semi-State agencies at the time.
During elections some politicians and parties claim that if one votes for them, people will not have to pay for X, Y or Z. There will always be massive support for a political party or candidate who seeks election on that basis. Everyone is in favour of not having to pay a debt of any description. I would love if that were possible in the case of all debt because I hate paying for anything. However, I am somehow morally bound or in some way expected to pay. Some will argue politicians are okay because we have plenty of money. I do not accept that old argument. Everyone has a proportion of his or her disposable income that is deemed to be available to him or her to live on in the first instance and to pay basic utility payments, on the other hand. That is why we have a social welfaren system. I agree entirely that social welfare payments are meant to be an integral part of the system to enable those people who are, unfortunately, dependent on that income to discharge their household and other debts in so far as they can. It is not and was never going to be easy and it has not been for anybody in this country in the past seven or eight years, but neither has it been easy for many across Europe.
When I see people pointing to the situation in Greece, telling the public that we should the support Greek system and civil disobedience to bring everything to a halt to prove that the Greek system is right, they are wrong. What they need to do in those circumstances is go to Greece to find out what it is like and what has happened there in the past five years. At the same time, they need to recognise that they might have to put their hands in their pockets to pay for other countries across Europe which might not wish to take full responsibility for their outgoings.
It did not surprise me that the main Opposition party, in its opening statement this morning, stated, in the first instance, that it was opposed to this legislation. The Bill does not involve the imposition of a tax or liability; it is merely a provision to try to ensure we recognise the importance of trying to meet our commitments in so far as we can. I agree that this should be done with compassion. I am one of the most forthright Members in urging the application of compassion in all such circumstances. I say this because, like everybody else in the House in the past seven or eight years, I have dealt with the most shocking cases of disadvantaged people who find themselves very heavily challenged in the society in which we live. We must recognise their circumstances and what worries them most in these challenging times. We must be open-minded and recognise that everything is not always easy for everybody else. It is easy to make sweeping statements on one side or the other of an argument.
The purpose of the Bill encompasses creditors. There are those who say that while they bought a car or a service worth a couple of hundred euro from a creditor, they are not going to pay for it, although they believe they should. This argument is self-serving, but I do not believe sending people to prison is appropriate, as it causes really serious problems. It has happened several times that women were committed to prison for failing to pay a television licence fee. That is absolutely ridiculous. In one case I dealt with the children of a woman had to be taken into care while she was in prison serving a two-week sentence. That is absolutely outrageous.
I compliment the Minister on introducing the Bill. It is not to be used as a lethal weapon but as a means of alleviating the pressure on the borrower or debtor in particular circumstances. Properly handled, it will work well and I hope it will.
Incidentally, I have made reference in passing to the small business sector, shopkeepers and service providers who may be self-employed. I ask the Government to bear in mind the activities of the Irish Credit Bureau which nowadays controls many people's lives, particularly those who fell into financial difficulties in recent years. Such persons are automatically banned from conducting any business, obtaining any credit or loan and from working their way out of the system for five years flat. That is not acceptable and is not the function of the bureau. If we are to have a caring society, this issue needs to be addressed. We need to have a system whereby, after one year, any impediment that the bureau has created for a household, sole trader or self-employed individual would be revised as a matter of urgency. I have monitored the progress of the bureau during the years and noted that it does not at all reassure me as time passes. Ironically, it is now in the business of adjudicating on who should be given a local authority loan to buy a house. That is an amazing performance and is totally beyond its remit in that it has nothing to do with it whatsoever. I would like the Minister to bear this in mind in so far as it applies to her Department or others. It should be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
It has become very popular for wannabe politicians to campaign against services provided by local authorities. I refer to hospitals and local authorities, in particular. Several people have said local authorities should provide a wide range of services. I agree. It would be much more democratic to use the local authorities which are much better places in which to offer a personal service and adjudicate on the merits of particular cases. What has happened is that politicians, in order to be elected, decided to mount campaigns, collectively and individually, with the result that local authorities could no longer collect what was due to them. The first thing to go, of course, was the water service. The refuse collection services are another case in point. In my local authority area the only people who were left with the local authority were those who were entitled to a waiver of refuse service charges. It costs €4 million per year just for the privilege of dealing with this system. How cynical can we become as a society? It has to be clear to everybody that that kind of thing could not go on and that the local authority was actually subsidising the private sector, which is now collecting refuse. Nobody believed it was wrong; everybody said it was really outrageous when there was complete disengagement from the service. However, that is what happens and what will happen to other services. There are those who believe it is legitimate to campaign for the abolition of services knowing that somebody has to pay for their provision and meet associated costs. The only thing they can say is that somebody should pay for it. If it comes to that, somebody else should pay for everything. I am sure I would like somebody else to pay all of my debts if that were possible, but I have not yet noted great enthusiasm to do this on the part of anybody else. Some smart guy might correctly say the public pays my salary, but he should note that while we are all paid in the public service and appreciate this, we also offer a service and do our best not to mislead the people.
I heard it mentioned earlier in the campaign this morning that the Government had no mandate. This is a very serious charge. It does have a mandate. In a democracy the government receives a mandate from the people that carries from one election to the next. It should be clearly recognised that this mandate is absolute and that the government can and must govern. Its job is to govern in keeping with what has been established as being fair and equitable. Failure to do so would be an abdication of responsibility. The Government could very easily decide to lift its stakes, walk out and state we are all opposed to everything. Governments in some countries have done this, but it does not work as it brings society to a halt and everything breaks down. Nothing would work and no one would be paid. That is what has happened in some other jurisdictions.
There is a tendency to say only certain people in society have had to carry the burden of the difficulties of recent years. Sadly, we have heard this many times in the House. It is no harm to reiterate that everybody has paid proportionately. It is true that all penalties or burdens hit the poorer in society more particularly, but everybody has had to pay. Everybody has had to stump up and make a proportionate contribution. I hope that, as time passes, we will see benefits accruing to the people, be they rich, poor or otherwise. I hope some of the lessons now evident in the public arena have been learned by us. I also hope we have learned adequately and that, as a result, we can have a better society. I further hope society will become more responsible and that the politicians elected by it will be more responsible. It is very easy for those who sit across the floor of the House to say the Government has not delivered on its promises. What promises? The Government was handed a country that was debt ridden and had been beaten to the ground with debt. In asking it to deliver where were we going and what was to happen? Did we expect that the desired outcome would be achieved painlessly or with ease? Did we expect it to be achieved through the abolition of various taxes that had been imposed on us? The old adage is then heard that what was done was to appease the Germans. We had better get it right. If in this country we believe there is somebody who will ensure, in return for recognising how wonderful and great our society is, we will receive a payment every year without having to pay it back, we are codding ourselves.
Furthermore, if more people throughout the globe picked up that agenda, which they might, they would find that the whole of society became poorer.
A number of speakers have mentioned campaigns of disobedience and tried to legitimise their observance. When I was younger than I am now, I was involved in campaigns of disobedience and ended up imprisoned for it.
I have no complaints about that. I did not go to anybody to protest or to say it was unfair. I recognised fully where that was heading. Why do we not recognise here and now that if we want to do that, there are consequences? In fact, I was proud of the consequences notwithstanding that they were not very nice. There were no plush surroundings like there are nowadays. I have no doubt about what was in my mind at the time. I knew it was a serious matter and that no one would listen to me anyway and what happens happened. I did not spend the rest of my life moaning about it, saying it was unfair or criticising those who were in power at the time. I did not bother doing that because I had decided deliberately to break the law. Now, politicians are elected to the House on the basis that they have set an example that they want to break the law and who call on everyone else to do the same thing. What they do not do, however, is accept responsibility for what happens to those who take their advice. Over the past number of years, I and many other Members have had occasion to advise people getting into various situations. I advised someone about that this morning. When they take the wrong advice, there may be consequences above and beyond their control which they do not envisage. They would be well advised to think about those things. Families may have impositions placed on them which they are not capable of handling because they took the advice of people whose only pursuit was the advancement of their own political gain and nothing else. It is sad to see people used in that fashion. I assure the House that if people allow themselves to be used in that fashion, they will get hurt. There is no doubt about that. Our society will be hurt and damaged. The people who allow themselves to be used will be damaged.
As I come near a conclusion, I note that several references were made to Irish Water and I do not propose to go there other than in passing. It is unfortunate that such an awkward, clumsy system had to be introduced to ensure that there was some recognition that a service exists for which someone has to pay. It is either the Europeans, the Germans, the French, the Italians, or someone else. It does not come free. Anyone who wants to try that out should bore an artesian well in his or her garden. If he or she goes down far enough, he or she will get water. The first part of the bore will cost €150 per foot as the drill goes down. An electric motor will have to be installed at the top costing approximately €1,000. That person should then ask someone else to pay for it. I do not think his or her neighbour or the fellow down the road will want to pay for it. The poor unfortunate fellow in the local authority house who is already paying if he is in a certain part of the country will not want to pay for it. He should not have to. If that guy wants to continue with an artesian bore in his garden, he will have to pay for a pump and the electricity to run it thereafter. He will more than likely have to install a purification system, which will also cost money. It will probably cost all in all approximately €3,000 to €4,000 per year. I am not suggesting that should be applied across the board to everyone. It would not be fair. However, I remind those who think it is a bed of roses that it is not.
I hope the legislation will be applied in a compassionate way. If it becomes obvious that the rougher edges that are in all legislation become the leading edges, I ask the Minister to make amendments to address that at an early stage. The Minister has already said she intends to introduce amendments on Committee Stage and we will consider them, hopefully, with enthusiasm.
I do not know how many speakers Sinn Féin has, but Deputy Stanley was next and is not here. I was offering the slot to Deputy Colreavy in substitution, but he is surrendering it to Deputy Ó Cuív. As such, let us get on with it.
This, in relation to an important reform, is a classic case of facing an open goal but managing to kick the ball wide. For many years, I have felt that the habit of sending people to prison for unpaid civil debts is mad. Many of those who wound up in prison in these situations were people who were generally not very well up on the law. On the other hand, it was also a fact that if people were owed civil debts, the procedure for trying to get one's money was totally convoluted and in favour of those who knew how to operate the system. I know that, having run a co-operative business in respect of which there were a small number of people who owed it money and could have paid. Eventually, one had to seek a committal order. The work done by the Law Reform Commission is, therefore, very welcome and it would have been a very welcome change to introduce this law under normal circumstances. I notice that the Government has been no more successful than we were in getting an even spread of legislation across the session. Notwithstanding Haddington Road and other agreements, the system seems incapable of providing legislation until we get into the last four weeks of every Dáil term. As such, while we need a change in the law, we suddenly find at the end of the term that we are faced with a rush of legislation being put through by way of bad procedure.
Yesterday, we debated a Bill but it was not possible to make any changes to very substantial amendments on Report Stage that were not discussed on Committee Stage. That is what this House is meant to be about. Some of the Minister's colleagues have been good at operating this House as it is meant to in the taking of amendments to Bills. Today we have reforming legislation that should be good news but it is being hidden away on a Friday because the real purpose of the Bill is being changed from reform to dealing primarily with the Irish Water debacle.
Returning to the beginning of the problem, water charges were introduced to the country and, in the 1990s, the majority of people accepted the principle of such charges. However, a Government took fright and decided it would be a good idea to abolish those charges and did so. There is an argument in favour of water charges in that it is ridiculous that the system means taxation must pay for water sooner or later. We are paying for people who are wasting massive amounts of water. It was decided or agreed to introduce water charges but what the Government has done is very different from what we proposed in the four-year plan. It has introduced water and sewerage charges, or so-called water in and water out charges. That had never been intended in the four-year plan, which stipulated only water charges. In the old iteration in the 1990s, the charges were purely for water going in rather than water going out.
Irish Water was set up at a massive cost and with much bureaucracy. People are afraid they are getting a super-quango, and that has done much damage to the credibility of the Government and undermined the confidence of how we do our business. Instead of recognising that this company was set up in a shambles with enormous overhead costs, the Government is continuing on regardless. Many people have decided not to register as a form of protest, and they will not pay their bills. Yesterday, when I spoke during the debate on the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, I argued that many poorer people are becoming the ham in a sandwich between the belligerent attitude of the Government in carrying on regardless and the bad advice being given by people who say that people should not register, claim the €100 or pay the bill. The people who do not watch the small print or who have other things in their lives than watching the niceties of the procedures we follow in this House have been led to believe that if they do not register, nothing will happen to them.
It will not be the few politicians and other people who know what is going - they are the ones leading protests - who will be big losers in this. It will be the very ordinary, decent people, who have been led to believe that the best way of objecting to the Government's actions is refusing to register or pay water charges, who will suffer. My understanding is that if people have not registered by 30 June, they will not be eligible for the water conservation grant. Allowing that the grant lasts for two years, some of the most marginalised people living in the most marginalised communities will have already lost €200, thinking they are making some great protest.
I understand there is a provision in the Bill that these orders can be given on a debt of €500 or more, which is convenient. The charge for water over a year is €264, so we can multiply this by two, add penalties and, hey presto, we are over the €500. That is very convenient for the Government. It can sit on its hands for two years, send out bills and chalk up liabilities. It will ensure it is the other side of an election before the solicitors' letters start rolling out. The people who have been telling others not to pay may be right in that they probably have no problem going into a court but my experience in my constituency office over many years is that when a solicitor's letter rolls in, many ordinary people of very limited means take fright. They have never been in a court in their life and do not want to have to go to court. They would not be confident going to court and defending their position. There would be examination of means. In such cases, many people would pay as they would see it as the lesser of two evils. As I stated yesterday, the Government will hit from one side with legislation and the people who are telling others not to pay the bills will not be writing cheques for the €200 lost in losing the water conservation grant, the penalties for non-payment of bills or any other cost associated with defending a case.
Looking at the profile of a large number of people who have not paid their bills, one would find that many are in local authority housing estates and have very limited means. This would allow the taking of a few euro from their social welfare if these people get more than the basic rate. I know there is a clause that forbids taking more than a certain level but that always existed when a court order was made with respect to payment. In those cases, people of very limited means will suffer most under this legislation. We should stand back from this.
Can we not build up a consensus in society on water charges? Alternatively, could we have options on how we as citizens pay for water? One thing that is absolutely true is sooner or later we the citizens will pay for all the water services.
It is also a truism that if tax on the wealthy were increased, a Government might or might not decide the elimination of water charges was the best way to spend the money. If the Government found €2 billion extra tomorrow I have no doubt there would be a great debate in the public mind and among the Cabinet as to whether it should be spent on giving the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, the extra billion he needs for the health service or on the extra special needs assistants needed. I am sure the Minister would say she could improve conditions in the prisons or that she needs more gardaí. I am sure the Minister for Social Protection would say she would like to roll back the severe and unfair cuts imposed on lone parents or on women who took time off from their careers to care for either children or elderly people and who have been totally unfairly penalised by the Government with regard to their pensions. There would be no problem spending the €2 billion ten times over. Irrespective of who was sitting at the Cabinet table, if they had the €2 billion on the desk which priority would they put first? We should have this debate before we debate the Bill.
The adage that one can rule only with the consent of the ruled is true. I notice a massive difference between rural and urban areas with regard to this matter. Having water is incredibly important and many rural areas have experienced operating with wells and incredibly expensive private systems which make the water charges look small. Therefore, rural areas generally take the view much more, although Deputy Pringle's constituency tends to be slightly different, that if one uses water one should pay for it and if one does not one should not pay for it. We must also admit that, if car taxes were paying for water until now, for the first time rural areas are paying the same taxes as everybody. We were all paying car tax but most of us at best were getting only half the service and many people in rural Ireland were getting no service because they were on private waste water and water systems, which was unfair. This has been overlooked in the argument that we have paid for it. Yes, we have paid for it, if one wants to make that argument, but we got nothing as a result.
One of the ways the Government could have tried to get buy-in was to say charging for water and collecting the charge would be a matter for each local authority to decide on, so long as the service was financed. We need finance to run a water system. Irish Water is not very efficient at present, and its establishment was certainly incredibly inefficient as it involved taking on all of the existing staff, adding many new staff and massive consultancy fees. Even if Irish Water were efficient it costs money to run. Sewerage systems are incredibly expensive to run. The money has to come from somewhere.
Rather than going around with a big hammer at the late end of the term to add to all of the woes and the divisions in society the Government has heaped upon the people, what we need to do is stand back. This will not come into effect for two years because the bills will not have amounted to much. Rather than rushing through the legislation, starting on a Friday, I suggest we all stand back and find out what people in the communities believe are the best taxation systems. Let us find out what they believe is the priority for collecting and disbursing money, and whether it is to reduce taxes or to provide more services. Let us be patient and build a consensus.
The one thing the Government does not seem to want to do is have a mature debate on these issues. These are difficult issues and there are no easy answers. There is no free money. Those who say we should spend and spend must face up to the fact that all money spent comes from either borrowing, which inevitably must be repaid with interest, or from taxation. There is no other source of money for our services. This is part of the big debate society needs to have. It would be much better for the Government to engage in this debate rather than bludgeoning legislation through the House, believing if it does so everything will be right on the day and there will not be very vulnerable casualties along the way. I believe in the case of this Bill there will be very vulnerable casualties along the way if the Minister implements this as she proposes to do.
The heralding of the Bill as a planned progressive step to stop people being imprisoned for non-payment of debt is a sleight of hand. As other Deputies have pointed out, the reason we are here today, on a non-sitting day, is that the Government has lost the battle to convince Irish citizens they should pay water charges and buy in to the Irish Water project. What we have seen in the past year is a succession of various stages when the Government tried to change tack to deal with this popular rebellion. At every stage the Government has been caught out. No one believed the propaganda that this was a charge to bring in water conservation. Nobody trusted the Government with PPS numbers. Nobody believed the registration figures being bandied about when every postal worker in the country knew about the return to sender registration forms being stockpiled in post offices. Having not fallen for the carrot the Government put forward the people are now being treated to a little bit of a stick, or an attempt at a stick.
The idea of legislation to deal with not imprisoning people for non-payment of debt has been already discussed in the House. That there, of course, should be alternatives to prison is broadly supported by everybody across the board. The idea that attachment orders to earnings is the solution to this is short-sighted and a nonsense, particularly when one of the main reasons for non-payment of fines and debts is poverty and a lack of income in the first place. The idea we would enact legislation to enable people's details to be seen by their employers and have their pay packets or social welfare ransacked is reprehensible. I do not have Deputy Wallace's direct experience of community service but I certainly support the points he made on it being a much better and cheaper alternative for society which has a better impact on citizens.
None of us objects to the fact people would not be imprisoned for debt. To be honest, we need an overall discussion on people being imprisoned at all.
On a whole range of measures, it is a costly and unworkable system that causes greater problems for society instead of alleviating them. However, let us be honest, that is not what these proposals are about. The Bill, in its current form, will introduce a system that is hugely complex and unworkable in many ways. The idea that an employee's personal details would be made available to his or employer sets a very dangerous precedent. Whatever about that happening in the case of an isolated incident such as a person's failure to pay a court fine, television licence fee or something like that, the notion that the employers of Ireland should turn themselves into debt collectors on behalf of Irish Water is completely unworkable in the context of what we know will be a mass non-payment of water charges. It is not about Deputies in this House or mythical leaders inciting people to break the law. Many of our citizens cannot pay the charge and many others are taking the stance of not paying because they do not believe in handing over their hard-earned money to an institution that was set up to raise money to cover its own costs and will not in any way deal with the problems relating to our water infrastructure.
How will the proposals to have employers operate as debt collectors work in a large company with large-scale non-payment by employees of water charges? It could well be that many of those workers are on low wages and with part-time hours. Who will oversee the implementation of attachment orders? Will employers have to take on additional staff in human resources departments? The Minister tells us the courts will, under the legislation, set an amount to be deducted periodically from a debtor's wages. That might have been okay in the old days when people had steady, permanent and pensionable employment with a regular wage coming in. In the modern economy, however, many workers are in situations far removed from that, with flexible hours, unpredictable working arrangements and so on. In fact, Ireland has the second worst record in the EU when it comes to underpayment of employees. If a debtor's wages fluctuate, will it be necessary to go back to the courts every second week to deal with the attachment order? Not only workers but many employers, I suspect, will object to such an arrangement. There is a particular objection to the fact that punitive measures are being brought in to deal with the small debts of citizens while the debts of the banks are being pushed onto the shoulders of the same citizens and are the reason they are struggling to pay their bills in the first place.
It is very clear why the Government is pushing through this legislation. It wants to create the impression that water charges will, like the property tax, be immediately deducted from people's wages. In fact, this measure is merely a stunt designed to demoralise and intimidate citizens who have made clear their strenuous objection to those charges. The Government is trying to create the impression it will have greater power than it actually does to compel people to pay up. What is being proposed is that if householders do not pay their water charges - I, like many others, certainly will not be paying them - they run the risk of being brought to court. In instances where people are brought to court and a judgment is obtained against them, and if their debt is more than €500, they could be brought to court again and an attachment order sought to have the moneys deducted from their wages, depending on their incomes, outgoings and so on. As other speakers have pointed out, this will affect no one for two years and will not, therefore, be a problem for this Government. Those currently in office will not be here to deal with it. One might wonder whether Irish Water itself will still be around in two years time. That certainly is a question that is up for debate.
Above all, the idea that the courts will be able to deal with the citizens who refuse to pay water charges is simply laughable. If householders decide to contest orders made against them, as I expect they will, the courts will be clogged up for years. I had direct experience of this situation in the 1990s when water charges were introduced in the three Dublin local authority areas. The councils could not combat the resistance of the population to paying the charges, with the result that the law was changed to prevent water supplies from being disconnected. The only power the councils had to collect that debt was to bring people to court. That was the only remedy available to them.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív is right that ordinary people do not like being brought to court because it is an intimidating experience and generally something to which they are unaccustomed. However, when the attempt was made to reintroduce water charges in the 1990s, when court summonses were being issued to households on practically every street in Dublin, those people went into court with their heads held high as representatives of their community who were making a stand on behalf of others. Days in court became days of defiance where people celebrated their resistance and stood behind their neighbours. Hundreds of people were brought before the courts and the process went on for two to three years. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of non-payers continued not to pay. That was what happened when this was an issue only in the three Dublin local authority areas. How different will a nationwide campaign be, with hundreds of thousands of people refusing to pay? It would take thousands of years for the courts to process all those cases if they are challenged, as I expect they will be. The system is simply unworkable.
The Government must acknowledge that citizens have a legitimate concern in their objection to Irish Water. This is not protest for the sake of it but very much a reaction to what people see as the last straw. There is a widely held view in this country that access to water is a human right and should be on the basis of need and not material well-being. Objection to water charges is based on the fact that people are being asked to pay for it by way of one of the most regressive forms of taxation in Europe. If we want to fund public services properly, a more progressive form of taxation should be introduced. This Bill is ill-timed and will prove unworkable in the context of water charges. Indeed, it will probably see an inflaming of the resistance to those charges.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Bill before us today needs to be considered in two separate contexts. There is no doubt that the principle of not confining people to prison for non-payment of debt is laudable and one we all support. However, one cannot divorce this legislation from the second context in which it must be considered, namely, the ongoing campaign against water charges. As the Minister noted, the Bill arises from the 2010 report of the Law Reform Commission and the commitment in the programme for Government in 2011. In July 2015, four and half years later, the Bill is being presented to us on a non-regular sitting day in a rushed fashion because the Government wants to create a sense of urgency about the necessity of having it passed before the summer recess.
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, in pushing through the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 yesterday, essentially outlined how that legislation is part of a suite of measures being taken by the Government to impose water charges on the citizens of this country. We are in the middle of a mass boycott of Irish Water, with the introduction of water charges seen as the culmination of years of austerity budgets. People have finally said they cannot and will not take any more. They have campaigned against the charges in their hundreds of thousands, many of them joining the various campaign groups. In Donegal, an organisation called Can't Pay Won't Pay has fought tirelessly against the household charge, property tax and water charges. The Donegal Water Warriors have campaigned hard against the installation of water meters in Letterkenny and Inishowen. Those groups and others like them are fighting on behalf of the many citizens who simply cannot afford to pay and the many other citizens who have stood in solidarity with them by refusing to pay. People are simply not prepared to pay twice for a vital service. That is the most important factor in this whole thing, that people are being asked to pay twice for water. Citizens of this country have always funded water services, but the Government is trying to impose a double charge.
This Bill is part of that suite of measures to which the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government referred and part of a campaign by the Government to intimidate and put pressure on citizens by putting forth the message that if they do not sign up to Irish Water, they will be hauled before the courts.
It will be 12 months and possibly two years before any citizen appears in court under the provisions of this Bill or the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which was passed yesterday. People can continue to fight and campaign against Irish Water and I believe they will do so. I am encouraged in this view by the refusal of Irish Water to release accurate figures on the number of people who have paid water bills. The reason for this refusal is that people are not paying. I have no doubt that if there was a trend towards payment, Irish Water would release a weekly press release lauding the number of people who had paid their water bills, the success of its campaign and the great work it is doing to try to build momentum and force people to pay. Citizens need to continue to stand together as they have an opportunity to defeat the Government on Irish Water and avoid paying twice for a vital public service.
A number of other issues arise from the Bill, including an issue to which Deputy Clare Daly alluded, which, from my reading of the text, does not appear to have been addressed. If a citizen receives an attachment order to his or her wages for non-payment of a debt, how will he or she be protected from penalisation by his or her employer? If a person experiences particular financial difficulties at a specific time and subsequently has an attachment order made to his or her wages, will an employer be able to use the attachment order against him or her if he or she seeks promotion or a pay rise? What protection is provided or envisaged to ensure attachment orders are not used against workers at a subsequent date?
The legislation does not impose on creditors an obligation to offer debtors a payment plan or require them to enter into a payment plan with a debtor before seeking to secure a payment order for a debt in court. The absence of such a requirement is a major flaw. It is clear from my dealings with utility providers that some of them are better than others in dealing with customers who get into difficulty. One company, in particular, is quick to threaten court action and disconnect services when customers fall behind on bills, while others are willing to discuss payment plans and similar arrangements to ensure customers do not lose a service. The legislation should provide such protection by requiring creditors, particularly utility companies, to ensure services are not withdrawn from people who fall into arrears that could lead to the making of an attachment order. People must be afforded an opportunity to enter into a payment plan to allow them to reduce their debt without having to go before the courts.
On attachment orders for people in receipt of social welfare payments, the Bill is unclear about the level at which attachment orders may be made against social welfare payments. It provides that attachment orders may be made only against an individual's primary payment and may not be made against subsequent payments, for example, for dependent children. In the case of local property taxes, attachment orders may not reduce a payment to an amount lower than the minimum supplementary welfare allowance rate of €186 per week. Will this provision also apply in the case of attachment orders awarded by the courts? Without such a threshold, the courts may place people in even greater financial difficulty by allowing attachment orders to be made which would reduce a social welfare payment to an amount below the level required to survive. Why should the courts be required to adjudicate on the issue of whether a person cannot or will not pay, to use a term favoured by the Government? The system of payment plans and orders must be strengthened to enable citizens to deal with creditors or suppliers prior to the matter ending up in the courts. This should be provided for in the legislation.
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution on the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015. I welcome the provision to abolish imprisonment for non-payment of fines, which has been a particularly problematic issue for the Prison Service in the case of smaller fines. The legislation repeals sections of the Debtors (Ireland) Act 1872 on imprisonment for non-payment. When the Law Reform Commission reported in 2010, attachment of earnings orders were primarily used to enforce maintenance orders in family law cases. Since then, however, they have been sanctioned for other matters a number of times in legislation, including in the Finance Act 2012 for local property tax, in the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014, which has not yet been commenced, for unpaid fines, and in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2013 for social welfare overpayments. This legislation is, if one likes, part of the panorama of austerity the Government has inflicted on citizens.
I note the Government has not adopted the Law Reform Commission's recommendation that an employer who dismisses an employee or acts prejudicially towards him or her based on an attachment of orders should be guilty of an offence. I ask the Government to urgently address this absence from the Bill.
The Oireachtas Library and Research Service, which is always very helpful to Deputies in providing research on complex legal issues, has produced a digest on the Bill which outlines the longstanding legal mechanisms in place to enforce judgment debts and the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in this regard. The commission invokes Article 1 of the fourth protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides that "No one shall be deprived of his liberty merely on the ground of inability to fulfil a contractual obligation." The amendment of the Debtors (Ireland) Act 1872 removing references to the imprisonment of debtors for non-payment of debt in section 26 is, therefore, a progressive development. However, a debtor may be still imprisoned under the court enforcement measures provided for in the Enforcement of Court Orders (Amendment) Act 2009.
The clear linkage of much of the Bill - at least as far as section 26 - to the campaign to impose water taxes on an unwilling population is deplorable and obscures the other serious impacts the legislation may have on hard-pressed, low-income citizens and families. I have repeatedly asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, and his predecessor in that portfolio, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, to address the issue of energy poverty and the spiralling costs of gas and electricity for low-income families. The payment of bills for these vital services and a wide range of other household necessities will come within the ambit of this Bill. Will the current arrangements to assist poor households in accessing these services be replaced by recourse to this legislation by service providers? This is one of the key concerns about the wider implications of this Bill.
As I indicated, I welcome the provisions in respect of the 1872 Act. However, the attachment of a debtor's earnings and deductions from his or her social welfare payments open up a new vista of pressure on the poorest citizens in society. The overall context of this Bill is a further turning of the screw of austerity on the poorest citizens. This is the reason I oppose the Bill and will vote against it next week. I also categorically oppose the deplorable manner in which the Government has conducted itself in attempting to force people to pay for its farcical quango, Irish Water, which is the real purpose of the Bill.
The report by the Law Reform Commission was published in 2010, one year before the current conservative Government came to power. It is only now that 500,000 households or 45% of all households with a mains water supply have refused to even register for the water tax that the Government is acting on this so-called reform measure. This is the only reason we are seeing movement on the suite of options the Law Reform Commission proposed. The nub of the Bill is to bully people into paying twice for a service from Irish Water and dress it up as a modernising initiative. In that regard, the Bill is dishonest and misleading.
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and his Fine Gael-Labour Party colleagues are targeting almost half of all households on the spurious grounds that all those who do not pay the water tax are "will not pay" citizens and these households will be forced to pay water taxes. Surely there are many hundreds of thousands of these households for which the water taxes are the straw that broke the camel's back. People simply do not have the resources to pay these taxes and they will not do so.
Throughout the Bill there are seemingly reasonable but which are in reality useless safeguards to protect debtors on the minimum wage, very low incomes or social welfare benefits and allowances. Thus the amount of a liquidated sum in section 6 is set at between €500 and €4,000, while section 7 lays out detailed guidelines for a judgment on debtors’ earnings and a statement of means, including social welfare benefits but excluding child benefit. The Minister in her speech which I read carefully spoke at length about how fair the statement of means could be for people under pressure to pay debts of this kind.
Under section 9 a court may not make a concurrent attachment of earnings order and a deduction from payments order, while section 10(4)(b) lays down that compliance with the order will leave a sufficient amount to "the judgment debtor to maintain himself or herself and anyone dependant [sic] on him or her". That is a problematic part of the Bill. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, knows from his work with our constituents that people are often trying desperately to survive, not even from week to week but from day to day. We deal with people who are under massive pressure in the private rental sector who do not put food on the table in order to keep a roof over their heads. Perhaps 200 families in our constituency are homeless this very day.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is given a key role in determining the employer of judgment debtors in the service of the State, including us. The Minister for Social Protection has a smaller key role under sections 16 to 19, inclusive, for judgment debtors who have been beneficiaries of net scheme payments. The Government should have studied net scheme payments in greater detail. I read in some of the interesting research compiled for us that the Minister of State’s colleague, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, from County Louth had said an attachment order against social welfare payment could only be for €2 a week because the net payment was the supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, limit. We find from experience that people pay more than this. How does this square with the lofty ideals in some sections of the Bill? The deductions from social welfare payments must have regard to the particular circumstances of the judgment debtor and leave a sufficient amount to him or her "to maintain himself or herself and anyone dependant [sic] on him or her". That does not happen. That is one of the problems with this legislation which is part of the panorama of austerity.
The same weasel words are repeated in section 20 where the variation of a relevant order “will not leave a sufficient amount to him or her to maintain himself or herself and anyone dependant [sic] on him or her”. When the Minister of State reports to his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, he might ask for clarification about the SWA limit which is, I think, €186 per week. I say this in respect of the real lives of the people we see in tears every weekend and when we walk around our constituency who are desperately trying to exist from day to day.
The events of this week in Dáil Éireann have marked another disgraceful milestone in the demise of the Labour Party. The savage cuts imposed on one-parent families this week by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton; the imposition of the guillotine in the debate on the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 under the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and this Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015 represent a assault on the poorest sections of Irish society and the total abandonment of the century-old egalitarian economic ideals of the founders of the Irish Labour Party. I look around at some of the senior Labour Party Deputies, people to whom, sadly, I sometimes refer as extinct volcanoes. In times past, in recent decades, some of these colleagues who still take the Labour Party Whip would have fulminated and savagely, remorselessly condemned this Bill, the disgraceful Bill that was before the House yesterday and what happened to lone parents on Thursday. They would have said that was directly opposed to the part of the political spectrum for which any workers’ party should stand. They have not done this. They have gone, gently, quietly, into the good night of oblivion which will happen to them, sadly, in the coming general election, instead of condemning these measures, as they should have done, before the Rabbitte-Gilmore leadership eviscerated and destroyed the heart and mission of the Labour Party as those gentlemen and their colleagues tried so hard and so desperately and in a hand to hand way to do but signally failed to do before 1999. Deputy Eamon Gilmore had the effrontery to stand up in this Chamber a couple of weeks ago and talk about the political cost to himself of his appalling betrayal of the independent Labour Party programme developed until 1997 by generations of the Labour Party. Nowhere did he recognise the intense suffering and the real economic and social cost visited on citizens by his cowardly surrender to the vicious Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael austerity project from 2009. It is a project that, unfortunately, the Minister of State has also embraced.
Like the so-called environment legislation debated in the past few days, this Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015 is another sleveen and sinister law designed to intimidate the huge portion of the nation which remains steadfastly opposed to water taxes. We are in a clear majority. We know this from walking the streets and attending meetings in our constituency, organised by valiant groups such as Clarehall Says No and it does say no to this imposition, as do Marino, Donnycarney, Clontarf, Raheny, Coolock and Howth. It is the straw that broke the camel’s back. As the Acting Chairman, Deputy Derek Keating, knows, being a Dublin Deputy, the levels of property tax we pay are so immense that this issue was the final straw for many. Those citizens have continued their courageous, stubborn resistance to the additional imposition of water taxes on top of property tax and all the earlier cuts and tax impositions.
This legislation may prove a hopeless and useless device to cow and intimidate the millions of people who, like me, have steadfastly refused to register for this new poll tax. I asked the Taoiseach two years ago to hold a general election as a referendum on this issue, as our Greek colleagues are doing. I asked him to put it to the people to see what they would say. It will be put to them in the next six or seven months at the earliest, whenever Fine Gael decides to pull the plug on the Labour Party. That referendum will effectively be held. It should have been held two years ago as we should have given the people an input into the troika austerity measures. When the Government was unable to get the deal that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, said he had got in 2012, the deal that was somehow on the table and then disappeared off it, we coat-tailed on our valiant Greek colleagues and received a much lower interest rate on our remaining debt, we should have put a referendum to the people on how to move forward. I know that the Acting Chairman is a student of economics and notice the Department of Finance has presented us with figures which show clearly that this year and every year between 2016 and 2020 we will pay €8 billion in interest if we are lucky, if there is no increase in interest rates on the stupendous debt we have gained by bailing out the bankers. It amounts to €2,500 a year for every man, woman and child in the State. The total is €42 billion, the size of an Irish budget for a whole year, or the education budget for every year. That is what we must send to the banksters in order to rescue the German and French banks. That is what the Government has left us with. In that context, it brings forward miserable legislation to inflict further pain and restriction on the poorest people in the country.
Looking through the Bill, I agree with Deputy Clare Daly and wonder how sections such as section 5, the service of documents for an attachment of earnings order, will work in practice. It refers to “leaving it at the address at which the person ordinarily resides” or “sending it by post to the address at which the person ordinarily resides” and so on. I am very familiar with some of the issues that have arisen in respect of traffic offences and the difficulty in trying to make contact with people who are liable for penalty points. The existing long-standing legislation on personal debt refers to registered letters and letters of credit and bills going through the courts. This is a highly specialised legal area.
This seems totally farcical in terms of the main purpose of this Bill. It also says that the service of notice of the attachment order to the employer may be effected by leaving the order or a copy of it at the employer's residence or place of business in the State. To whom will that be addressed? What level of management will be involved? What provisions will be made for small and medium-sized business owners? The Minister of State spoke recently about bringing in non-discriminatory legislation relating to tenants. He has been talking about it for the past six months but we still have not seen anything. How will he protect employees on whom an attachment order is served if their employers are browned off with it and might victimise them? The Bill is gravely deficient in this regard. There are data protection and privacy serious issues relating to sharing information with a person's employer or the Department of Social Protection. What consideration was given to those issues in this Bill? I believe none was given.
It is set out extensively in section 7 that it will be an offence not to furnish the court with the necessary statement of means. Section 11 concerns the court's responsibility in respect of attachment orders on the person in question and the person's employer. I am very familiar with our overworked and under-resourced Courts Service in respect of traffic offences. How can attachment orders be made for 500,000 households through the Courts Service? It clearly will not happen and is something that, one hopes, the general election will resolve.
Like the Minister of State, every week, I meet and represent Irish citizens struggling to make ends meet after years of austerity and cuts. Many of these people are single mothers and often go without food to feed their children. The latest EU-SILC survey from 2013 showed us that 12% of our children live in consistent poverty, which is double the number since 2008 when the figure stood at 6%. According to Barnardos, a leading children's advocacy group and charity, this figure equates to almost one in eight children. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government likes to talk about his legacy. Here is a legacy - one child in eight living in extreme poverty. The Government is bringing in a Bill to turn the screws on them even further. Like other Labour Deputies, the Minister of State has the choice not to do this. Barnardos says:
Consistent poverty means that these children are living in households with incomes below 60% of the national median income and experiencing deprivation based on the agreed 11 deprivation indicators. This can mean going 24 hours without a substantial meal or being cold because parents are unable to afford to heat the home.Barnardos says that nearly two-thirds of lone parents with one or more children experience deprivation. This was a very sad week in the history of the State in respect of its treatment of lone parents. It is particularly sad for people who come from the labour movement because it was Labour Party Ministers who first brought forward a benefit for lone parents and secondary benefits. The Tánaiste's new changes to the one-parent family payment are pushing more and more single parents deeper into poverty. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government's lack of action on the housing crisis means that more than 1,000 children will be living in hotel rooms tonight. This Bill, which is being rushed through along with the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, will punish people on low incomes and social welfare payments for not paying their water bills.
It is very sad. It is unworkable legislation. The Law Reform Commission in 2010 sought to reform this area. The section relating to the repeal of the 1872 Act is a valuable step forward but everyone knows the purpose of the rest of the Bill. This will fail. We will have the full discussion on all these matters relating to the entire austerity programme of the Government over the next number of months. I believe that in the next general election, as we have seen in other countries such as Greece and Scotland, people will have to make a choice about austerity. Are they with the parties of austerity - the Fine Gael-Labour coalition and Fianna Fáil - or they with people who have opposed austerity from day one? That is the choice when the election comes. I believe the majority of the people will choose to move away from austerity and this Bill will be changed drastically in the next Dáil.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It has been a very eventful week in the Dáil. The explanatory memorandum to this Bill refers to the 2010 report on personal debt and debt enforcement by the Law Reform Commission. This was an attempt to address the serious and long-standing problems that have been associated with the issue of personal debt. These issues were, of course, made far worse by the fact that many people were left with unmanageable personal debts, especially mortgage debt, in the wake of the collapse of the property market and house prices. This was magnified for many people. My county has one of the highest levels of mortgage distress in the State. Many of those people found themselves out of work and many households where two people had been working ended up being households where no one worked. The value of the house contracted significantly.
The explanatory memorandum to the Bill claims that the substance of that Law Reform Commission's report was implemented in the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 and claims that this legislation is being guided by the report's recommendations on debt recovery. I strongly take issue with that claim. Indeed, I suspect that as with other references to reports from NGOs and others in respect of contentious legislation, the Government is misusing the Law Reform Commission's report. The commission's report is being used as a fig leaf for the Government's failure to address adequately the issue of personal debt and to justify the draconian measures that are being proposed in this legislation.
In any event, the personal insolvency legislation does not go as far as the Law Reform Commission report recommended. The minuscule number of people applying under its terms which can be vetoed by the banks and other lenders and the even smaller number emerging at the far end would indicate that it is nowhere close to being a solution. The Government is always looking for proposals. We told it what to do in respect of this three or four years ago. We said that an independent agency was needed and that the Government could not let the banks have a veto, but this is what it did. The small numbers of people coming out the other end with solutions indicate that it is not within a hair's breadth of a solution. In particular, the Personal Insolvency Act does very little to address the most pressing issue of mortgage debt which continues to hang over thousands of people. The interests of the banks and other lending institutions which caused the financial crisis in the first instance were given priority over those of people with distressed mortgages. The same pattern can be seen in this Bill.
The manner in which the personal debt of most mortgage holders and others with problems repaying loans is treated stands in sharp contrast to the massive bailout that was extended to the banks and other lending institutions and the lenient manner in which some of the architects of and participants in the property bubble and the financial collapse are still being treated by the legal and political system in this State. We have seen how Mr. Donncha Ó Bríain fared far better than those people in mortgage distress in County Laois and other counties. A claim was made yesterday in the House by Deputy Wallace. If it is true, and he has a good record on these matters, it means that developers and speculators are still getting favourable treatment from State institutions that are supposed to be looking after the interests of the people. NAMA has refused to sell land to community and other organisations while selling off assets at knock-down prices to US vulture funds of the type who are already involved in hiking up property prices and rents.
With regard to the report’s recommendations on enforcement, while it is true the commission refers to attachment orders enforced by a debt enforcement office, it is only as a last resort and not as an early option, as is proposed here. That is a key problem with this Bill. Under the Law Reform Commission recommendations, prior to any such step being taken to secure an attachment order, creditors and debtors would have had to exhaust all other channels for settlement of claims. That would involve an independent arbitrator mediating an arrangement suitable for both parties.
Surely that would have been a more practical way to tackle the problem of personal debt. If people can come to a reasonable arrangement with their creditors, this can benefit both parties and be a sustainable solution. Creditors will get at least some, if not all, of what they are owed, although perhaps over a longer period. This would save them the expense of bringing the issue to court. I cannot fathom how or where the Minister will find the courts to deal with these attachment orders. Courts have been centralised and are now located in each county town and are already chock-a-block. If any Deputy attends and watches what goes on for an hour, he or she will see that the process is like a conveyor belt, with cases being put back, adjourned or dealt with. Judges are already working at speed to try to get through their workload and adding more would make it impossible. I fail to see how the Minister will deal with the courts having to deal with attachment orders in addition. Perhaps there is a plan to set up a lot of new courts or have a super court to deal with all of them.
Debtors, on the other hand, would at least be given some certainty if they knew exactly what they had to pay over a period. It would provide enormous relief if they were not forced by the courts but were able to put a working agreement in place without an immediate threat of prison hanging over them or the debt being taken from their wages. Set repayments over a certain timeframe would bring relief to many of those in debt. Under the Law Reform Commission's report recommendations, debtors would be able to agree to pay creditors a sum to be arranged over a period of three to five years and recognition would be given to the fact that some debts could never be paid. That is regularly done in the case of some bankruptcies but not for smaller debtors.
Account would have to be taken of the need to ensure debtors were not deprived of the means for a minimum standard of living for themselves and their dependents. Section 7 of the Bill refers to a "statement of means". This is interesting because the Minister sets out that the person must also set out his or her outgoing financial commitments. He or she must reveal all. Section 12 then deals with taking payments from his or her wages. If a person has received an increase of anything over €50, an attempt can be made to review the payment and take more.
Employers will be able to learn more about the private business of their employees. Mention was made of privacy issues. When we give power to one person, we take it away from someone else. We have seen how little power employees have, particularly the employees about whom we are talking. We have seen how little power even the unionised employees in Dunnes Stores have. Employees in shops who are not unionised are on the ropes day and night. We have gone back 100 years and are creating another weight to hang over them and another stick with which to beat them. They are already being crucified and now they will have something else to fret over.
There is an issue with regard to whether employers will have the bother of dealing with attachment orders, particularly if they have somebody who is constantly in debt and trying to muddle through as best he or she can. Will an employer want the hassle of adjusting wages up and down to accommodate the institution owed money? Reference is made in the Bill to assessing the effect of this, but the measures do not seem to provide sufficient safeguards to ensure people do not find themselves in poverty if attachment orders are made against their earnings. Attachment orders also impose huge restrictions in people planning their household budgets. Therefore, the LRC proposal for agreed repayments to be made by direct debit over five years would represent a fairer arrangement. It would also remove the indignity of people having money taken at source, especially when it would mean, as proposed, that their employer would be responsible for enforcing the attachment order. A person would face the indignity of the court and then the indignity of facing his or her employer. In a small workplace one can imagine what it would be like for the debtor if other employees knew more about his or her private affairs. People working in the office would know the business of others on the shop floor. We face that appalling situation.
The Bill appears to be a much cruder device than what is proposed in the Law Reform Commission's report. While Sinn Féin supports the provision under which people would no longer be sent to prison over debts, we cannot support the Bill in its totality, given the implications that it will have for people who are genuinely struggling to meet utility and other relatively minor costs. The Bill is a crude measure rather than offering a more balanced approach.
We are already aware of how quickly public utility companies and others threaten action over relatively small arrears. They are quick to make threats, even to long-standing customers who for whatever reason might have missed one or two bill payments. This legislation will encourage them to go to court to secure attachment orders. That facility will also be available to private companies. Therefore, people could find themselves with attachment orders on foot of arrears on a mobile phone or cable television bill. One clear objective of the Bill is to frighten people into paying their water charges, charges they have already paid via other taxes. Irish Water, with other creditors as defined under the legislation, will be able to seek an attachment order for bills owed over €500. As has been pointed out in regard to the changes being introduced in the context of charges on householders and tenants, this is a clear indication that the Government is acting out of desperation. It wants to frighten the people to get the numbers of compliant customers up in order that it can then reveal in a few months that so many hundreds of thousands have paid. We do not know how many have paid up to now. This is one of the great mysteries and nobody knows how many people have paid their bills to this public company. Neither the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, nor Irish Water will reveal that information. We can only assume this is because the numbers who have paid are well below what were forecast and well below what is required if Irish Water is to become financially viable under the current pricing structure. It will soon have to undergo a EUROSTAT test on its finances and it will be interesting to learn whether the measures taken this week against non-paying households are designed to bolster the argument that it will be able to cover its costs from what it takes in from commercial and domestic water charges. We know, of course, that the Government is planning to make the case for the billed amount to be the sum assessed by EUROSTAT, a sum of €271 million. We will live on the fiction for the rest of the year that €271 million will be brought in through domestic water charges. However, when we deduct the pathetic water conservation grant from what is brought in, we will see how close the Government is to the figure of €271 million.
As things stand, it will take years for enough to be collected in water charges to cover costs. This year enough will probably be collected to cover the costs of administration and collection of the money, but this takes no account of consultancy and legal costs, the cost of the corporate monster that is Irish Water and all of the other waste around it. On top of this is the huge amount of money Irish Water has been given from the Exchequer, almost €600 million. This money was taken from the Exchequer and replaced by motor taxation moneys. This was done so as to be able to say the motor tax money did not go to Irish Water because it was not done in one fell swoop. It was done in two moves in order that it did not look as if it was being done that way and that the Government would be able to state it did not hand the motor tax cheque directly to Irish Water. That is technically correct because what happened was it gave the money and left a €600 million hole which it then filled with the motor tax money. That money should have gone to pay for road repairs and to local authorities the budgets of wich have been drastically reduced in the past five years.
The argument could be made that the Bill is a cynical move on the part of the Government, as it sets the minimum debt at which an attachment order can be granted at €500. Under the current Irish Water rates charged, this is equivalent to two years of missed charges. That means there will be little sweat or flak on the doorsteps until after the general election, while at the same time the Government can tell EUROSTAT it has the mechanisms in place to enforce this double taxation. That is what this is about. The Government will be able to state this and then hope to glide through the general election and come out the other end okay. It will then raise the charges and turn up the heat in using this mechanism to enforce the attachment orders and collect the money owed.
People face no penalty under the measure, given that it cannot be enforced for two years. In the meantime, if the Bill passes, it will act as a threat to induce some people to pay their charges, alongside the measures that are being introduced to attach liability for unpaid water charges to people's homes when they are being sold and to pressure local authorities and private landlords to act as debt enforcers. If nothing else, it is a mission on the part of the Government to bully and cajole a huge portion of the population to pay what is clearly an unpopular and unjust charge, even for those who feel they have no other choice but to pay.
For a time, the Government favoured the carrot rather than the stick, and set aside the prices approved by the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, in favour of a lower flat charge. This time last year, the CER was to set the price. However, in the autumn, the Government could not sell what was being proposed to the electorate, so it swept aside the CER with a bulldozer, lowered the charges yet again and tried to make it more palatable. Then the Government introduced the ridiculous so-called water conservation grant, which includes no encouragement to control water usage. The millionaires can fill their swimming pools, sprinkle their extensive lawns and use irrigation systems to water exotic trees in their gardens, and it will cost them not a penny more. All these concessions are due to expire in a few years, after which water charges will soar to twice and three times what households are being billed for under the current flat rate.
After the concessionary approach failed, the Government has resorted to the stick, contained in the two pieces of legislation - this Bill, and the water charge provisions which were stitched onto yesterday's Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Only by sleight of hand was the Government able to pass the measures directed at people's homes, including, effectively, a new water services Bill and a new waste management Bill, by including them in a small miscellaneous provisions Bill that otherwise relates to dogs, fuel and a park in Kerry. The legislation before us is the second part of the offensive. It remains to be seen whether it will be effective. The large number of people who are likely to be subject to the punitive measures proposed will not look kindly on the Government parties when the election is called. People will continue to refuse to pay and will find themselves in court, or will be forced to pay on pain of losing their rented accommodation. This is hardly the way to win hearts and minds. It will leave a legacy that will hang over the Government parties, particularly the Labour Party, for many years.
I have no objection to paying tax once and seeing where it goes. I try to pay as much as I can to the local authorities on time for the few commitments I have to them. We should do so, particularly when one can see the money being used well. We have no problem paying tax. The issue is how the Government is doing this. If passed, this legislation will mean that people who cannot pay their utility bills, and who have other small debts, will have what they owe taken out of their wages and social welfare payments. The poorest of the poor will be pilfered. These powers will extend beyond Irish Water to many other bodies and will have serious implications. While Sinn Féin supports the setting aside of prison sentences, we cannot support the Bill.
Last week and the week before, we had reports on how the mighty are doing. They are doing very well. I was flabbergasted to see how well some people are doing, particularly the likes of the gentleman I mentioned previously, as Gaeilge. However, the little person is always caught. It is the job of the Minister of State, the people in the Labour Party, whatever about Fine Gael, and us to stand up for those people in our communities. Yesterday, I mentioned a lone parent who has four children and receives €306. How has this person - most likely a woman - fared this week? Between this legislation and the Government's actions yesterday - stitching a water Bill onto another Bill and ramming it through the House using the guillotine - as well as the cuts to the lone parent allowance, it is a shameful week in the history of the Dáil and the Labour Party. I appeal to the Government, even at this late hour, to try to row back on some of it. The opportunity will arise in the Seanad, and I will carefully watch how the Labour Party Senators vote on it.
This week has been about smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand by the Government. For the second time this week, the Government is engaging in a desperate attempt to ram through a piece of legislation, crudely trying to ensure all the t's are crossed and the i's dotted on all the outstanding issues relating to the water charge debacle. This rush to legislate before the summer recess is no way to govern. As my colleague, Deputy Stanley, has said, we oppose the Bill as strongly as we oppose Irish Water. The legislation contains many flaws which have not been considered, and this has wider implications for society that those on the Government benches, particularly those in the Labour Party, do seem not to appreciate or, perhaps, are turning a blind eye to.
The use of attachment orders or deductions from social welfare payments opens up a new can of worms, not least for those in receipt of social welfare or in work, but also for businesses. Attachment orders on earnings are not conducive to good employer-employee relationships. While the Government claims we are coming out of austerity, small businesses have been subject to the tremendous stresses and incredible difficulties trying to survive one of the worst recessions the State has ever experienced. Employers are struggling to keep businesses going and continue to give employment to a loyal and dedicated workforce. In these circumstances, the normal delicate balance of the employer-employee relationship has already been strained. Throughout the recession, people have worked harder than ever before - for longer hours and less reward, and on lower incomes - to try to keep businesses going, often in impossible circumstances, and to keep their jobs. It does not take a great leap of imagination to realise that an attachment order on earnings imposed by a court which an employer is obliged to enforce against a long-standing and loyal employee will put a major additional stress on this crucial and delicate relationship.
Attachment orders to earnings will probably cause resentment. It is only human that such resentments and bad feelings will arise between the employee and employer. Employers have better things to do than to chase down debts on behalf of others. In this fragile economy, with the burdens faced by small businesses that are trying to survive - existing levels of bureaucracy, fighting market forces and trying not to lose their customer bases - a breakdown in the employee-employer relationship will have a knock-on effect on the stability of many small businesses. It will, potentially, make the workplace a very awkward and difficult environment for all concerned. It might ultimately result in the loss of employees' jobs. If the relationship between the employee-debtor and the employer-enforcer has broken down irrevocably in the case of an attachment on earnings, the continued employment of the employee-debtor may be untenable.
How does putting this type of burden on the employer help the economy? How does it help business? As with nearly everything else this Government has done, it will impact on those who are already in precarious employment, on low pay or in zero-hour contracts. The majority of workers on low pay and zero-hour contracts are women. It is no surprise the Government is implementing legislation that will impact disproportionately on women. It has a track record in this regard, as was writ large this week in its despicable decision to cut the lone parent payment.
I will return to the issue of surviving on a social welfare payment but do I need to spell out to the Government how hard it is to find employment in this economy? It is particularly difficult for young people looking for their first employment or older workers who were made redundant through no fault of their own after the firm in which they worked for most of their lives closed without notice. It would be understandable if such individuals fell into debt. The debts do not need to be large because the legislation has a minimum threshold of €500 for court orders for attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments. Take the case of an unemployed young person with limited work experience who in the normal run of things will already struggle to find secure employment. How much harder will it be for that person to get a job if the first question in the interview is whether he or she has a court order that may require attachment of earnings to clear a civil debt? I imagine such a question would dampen the young person's enthusiasm and blunt his or her willingness to learn. The question may render meaningless his or her qualifications or admirable references because of the simple fact that he or she built up a modest debt. As it is difficult to repay even modest debts when one is unemployed, an order may have been made to deduct the repayments from his or her welfare payments. What chance will individuals have of securing their first job with attachment orders hanging over their heads? An older person who becomes unemployed already faces certain obstacles in finding a new job. Sadly, age in itself becomes an obstacle in some cases. Employers may consider those who are highly qualified as overly skilled for the position, while others worked for 20 or 30 years in a trade or job for which there is no longer a demand. The longer they stay unemployed, the older they get and the less relevant their qualifications become. It is not difficult to imagine such citizens falling into debt. As deduction orders made from their social welfare would translate into attachment of earnings orders, if they are lucky enough to get a job, how realistic are their chances of finding gainful employment? Would employers want the hassle of dealing with that scenario? I do not think the Government has given serious thought to the way in which these orders could impede future employment prospects.
These measures, which are being introduced in order that Irish Water can get its money irrespective of the cost, could have a severe impact on jobseekers. Is there no end to the Government's shameless disregard for the vulnerable? I have asked that question repeatedly. We have had a litany of appalling measures and cuts from a Government of which, shamefully, the Labour Party is a member. In the real world, these measures target those who can barely keep their heads above the water and who struggle daily to stretch their meagre incomes. The choice for families often comes down to paying a utility bill or putting food on the table for the children. This is not some dramatic invention on my part. It is a reality for thousands of carers, lone parent families, those in mortgage distress, the unemployed and those whose only source of income is a welfare payment. The people who struggle to survive on a daily or even an hourly basis are the most vulnerable to falling into debt because they are the least likely to have the parachute of a savings account or a few euro to put away for a rainy day. It does not take much for hundreds of thousands of people across the State to fall into debt. It could happen because of Christmas, back to school time, a broken washing machine or an electricity bill. The cycle of constant indebtedness is a real possibility when, in paying off one debt, a person falls into another. It is entirely possible that lone parents could face multiple orders for deductions from social welfare. I am struck by the contrast between the treatment of such individuals and the debt relief given to the toxic banks and golden circles whose financial recklessness caused the recession and the austerity which weighs so heavily on the most vulnerable. It is the vulnerable who are most likely to fall into debt and, thus, are captured by the measures in this Bill. The Government may be tired of hearing that message but it is the truth.
How are vulnerable people going to be represented in the courts? Will they be dependent on the free legal aid system which is already contending with a huge backlog in cases? The legislation does not provide for a proper appeals process or alternative remedies to the court. Far from being measured and considered, the Bill's provisions are weighted against the poor and vulnerable. This Bill impacts on women, the unemployed and the vulnerable. It is a fitting epitaph for this Government and its deep contempt for those who struggle.
The real purpose of this Bill is no secret. It is making sure Irish water gets its 30 pieces of silver. Last year the Taoiseach brazenly and unambiguously stated that Irish Water will be fully transparent and accountable to the Dáil and a national flagship of high quality and integrity. He promised that Oireachtas committees and Deputies on all sides and none would have the opportunity to hold Irish Water to account. How has that worked out? The Taoiseach's unambiguous statement now lies in the dustbin of broken promises, alongside his much vaunted democratic revolution. The events of this week and the devious way in which the Government introduced these last remnants of the legislation for Irish Water fly in the face of everything the Taoiseach promised.
Today is just another chapter in the calamity that is water charges and Irish Water. The story of Irish Water is one of indecision, incompetence and arrogance. From the moment it was proposed and set up to these final Bills, it has been a case study in incompetence: outrageous start-up costs; appalling consultancy fees; bewilderment in government all the way up to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste as the Government tried to figure out what people would be charged for the privilege of having water; and the fiasco of squandering vast public moneys on installing meters that are not used while lead pipes are left criss-crossing the land, with all of the health implications that this entails.
The manner of legislation's introduction in the Dáil has been nothing short of contemptible, so why should today's farce be any different? It is in keeping with the contempt that the Government has for procedures, established practice, the democratic process and the tens of thousands of people who marched on the streets of Dublin and elsewhere in large, State-wide demonstrations and in local demonstrations and who have told the Government that this austerity tax is as popular as an oil spill along the Atlantic coast. It might prove just as dangerous.
Why should the Government care for the inequity that this Bill underpins? Why should it care that it is always those at the bottom who take the hit for the elites and the golden circles? Why should it care about the hardships that families will face under these new austerity taxes? Why should it be in the least bit embarrassed about acting like a thief in the night and picking the pockets of the poor? That is what it is doing. This Bill is just the latest phase.
The Minister lauded the Bill as a mechanism to spare people from imprisonment due to debt. That is her cover story, but we see through it. She is fooling no one. This Bill is only about water charges and Irish Water. While the Minister suggests that the Government is sparing people from imprisonment, the Bill actually facilitates their imprisonment in ongoing debt.
It might interest the Minister and Minister of State to know that I have spoken to people. How people react to measures such as this Bill is interesting. No one supports the idea of imprisonment for the non-payment of fines. Clearly, it is costly, inequitable and unjust. No matter how loudly the Government bangs that drum and offers up that cover story, though, it will not convince me or many others that this Bill is anything other than the latest armament for the State and Irish Water to force the issue of water charges with the population. The Government failed to win people over or win the argument politically and financially, so it is now using these laws to put upon people and ensure that they have no real choice. If they do not pay, the Government will confiscate from them.
The Minister stated that this was straightforward legislation and cited analysis and recommendations from the Law Reform Commission, LRC, which she is hiding behind. The Bill provides enhancements for the suppliers of goods and services to recover modest debts and will be open for use by utilities such as energy and telecom providers and Irish Water. This is not good news for anyone listening to our debate. The Minister stated that the Bill: "will also be available for use by small businesses and traders around Ireland. It will not be directed at those who cannot pay but rather at those who can pay but choose not to." This point cuts to the quick of the issue. In the view of Fine Gael and, sadly, the Labour Party, people on fixed social welfare incomes or pensions are well able to pay for something as basic as domestic water. The two parties continue insisting on this despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That evidence is not just available to the Government by way of statistical analyses, indices of poverty, want and at risk of poverty and so on that weigh down the shelves of libraries everywhere. The evidence is more directly available to the Government, if it cares to view it, in communities across the State. People living on such incomes tell of how they cannot afford another bill, deduction or attachment order, as they are struggling even now to make ends meet. The Government is tired-----
I will finish on this. The Government is probably weary of this refrain and finds it tedious and trying, but I am repeating it because the Government has not heard and understood the message. It is targeting people. They see through it and this Bill. This is all about the water charges and strong-arming people. It is the Labour and Fine Gael way, but it is not the way of anything that might be called a democratic revolution.
We have heard a lengthy, exaggerated and scaremongering attempt to focus the tenets of this Bill purely on Irish Water. It is not just about Irish Water, though. It is about compliancy and fairness. The Opposition is trying to skew the Bill's benefits, which many of Opposition members' constituents will welcome. I know of several small businesses and self-employed people in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire who are struggling to make ends meet and will welcome the new measures contained in this Bill. It will give them a new type of access to the courts to get badly needed repayments of their modest debts from those who can afford to pay but will not. This is the point that we should be focusing on, namely, retrieving modest debts from those who owe money to small businesses and the self-employed.
It is not as if the Government just thought up these measures without obtaining extensive research and recommendations, including the LRC report published in 2010 on personal debt management and debt enforcement. We are acting in the best interests of small businesses, trades people, subcontractors and the self-employed. While it is always more favourable for creditors and debtors to reach an amicable agreement on the settlement of debt, it is not always possible. Therefore, it is only fair that a balanced approach to civil debt be taken so as to ensure the protection of creditors' rights and support and protect those who cannot pay their debts while dealing appropriately with those who have the capacity to pay but refuse to do so. Why should a small, hard-working business owner in Blackrock who is owed €3,000 not have every means possible available to him or her to secure the repayment of debt, including through attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments? Business owners are fully entitled to seek this repayment and I support them and this Bill.
I welcome the fact that we are fulfilling our commitment made in the programme for Government by providing for the abolition of the imprisonment of debtors. Under existing law, arrest and imprisonment remain possibilities as an enforcement mechanism.
Recourse to imprisonment may now only be had after all other less restrictive enforcement mechanisms have been attempted or found to be inappropriate. That is a fair and welcome move.
I welcome the Bill and look forward to seeing its positive impact on tradespeople and business owners in the constituency of Dún Laoghaire.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about this Bill. For those involved in small businesses, it is a welcome addition to the legislative programme. It provides an opportunity for those small businesses that have been wrongfully done and not received payments. Instead of sending debtors to prison, there will be an opportunity to make attachment orders to the some income they may have.
It is interesting that most of the whingeing from the Opposition benches centres on the fact that this legislation is associated with the Irish Water legislation that passed through the House yesterday. This Bill will have wide-ranging application. It is not just for those who refuse to pay their Irish Water bills as Sinn Féin has encouraged people to do. It has been out marching against paying water charges. It probably had some of its people on the street outside Leinster House on Wednesday, preventing law-abiding citizens from going about their daily business
Most certainly Sinn Féin-IRA did that in the North of Ireland and places in Dublin before. This is an easy legal way to attach debt to the income of people who refuse to pay.
It is unfair that a landlord has to pay a debt when a tenant does not pay it. We must ensure the courts will follow the tenant rather than the landlord. For several years landlords have had a variety of additional charges put on them. We should look at attaching the utility company's debt to the income of the tenant rather than the landlord’s property or the landlord himself or herself.
Much of the Construction Contracts Act 2013, as initiated by Senator Feargal Quinn, has not yet been implemented. Subcontractors in the construction industry were hit very badly after the boom and we need to move on to protect them. Some of the developers responsible for putting many subcontractors out of business are up and running again. There is one, in particular, who is working on St. Stephen’s Green. We need to protect small subcontractors.
I am glad that is the case.
Seven out of ten people have signed up to Irish Water and are willing to pay their bills. We owe it to these law-abiding citizens who do pay to make sure those who will not, even though they have the ability to pay, are dealt with.
This obnoxious legislation is, in effect, a form of collective punishment on all citizens for daring to voice their opposition through civil disobedience to the water charges. We have experienced at first hand the disintegration of the social democratic values hard won by the peoples of Europe. We are watching it again, this time in slow motion, in Greece because of the debt hard-liners in the Irish Government.
The Government has failed to win the political, social, fiscal and even moral argument on water charges. If it has done anything well, it is this. Irish Water has become the most productive and efficient fiasco factory any Government has managed to create in a long time. I cannot recall any other initiative which a Government has created that has produced so many problems and revisions, as well as difficulties for the citizen. Clearly, citizens are not paying up in sufficient numbers and the Government is looking for some big stick to get as many on board as possible.
Some may describe this as the Government literally putting its hands in peoples' pockets. It is an attack on those who have difficulty in surviving in this society.
Interestingly, the last two Members spoke about small businesses and employers. This legislation is an attack on them. Employers, like landlords, are to become the State’s debt collectors. The legislation empowers the courts to make an order directing an employer to deduct certain specified amounts from a debtor's earnings and to pay the sums deducted in a manner specified to the creditor. For example, an employer with seven or eight employees, two of whom have not been able to pay their water charges-----
The Government is asking employers to become debt collectors against their employees. The good relationship employers have nurtured with their employees to create a productive and decent working environment will come to an end because of this.
We have over 345,000 people signing on, with 80,000 more participating in job activation schemes. Outside the public sector, 70% of those working are employed by small and micro businesses. Many of these companies do not have the administrative payroll infrastructure to deal with this. Week after week, the jobs committee hears from employer groups that their members are already overburdened and living on the edge of existence. Now, the Government wants them to become both debtor and creditor in respect of their employees' unpaid debts. It is giving them extra tasks to perform.
Some of this debt will go unpaid in certain cases because workers cannot afford to pay it.
Under the Government, low pay has become a byword. Ireland is the second worst in the OECD when it comes to low pay. Under-employment is also entrenched in this society as a result of the divisive anti-social democratic values that Fine Gael and the Labour Party have pursued in government and which have intensified since the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, took over the leadership of the Labour Party.
I just cannot go on listening to this.
The legislation sets out the requirement of the employer to comply with a court order to collect and pay out the debt, and it states the employer is not liable for non-compliance during the first ten days. After ten days, that employer is now liable for the employee’s non-compliance. Under the legislation, that employer can now also be fined up to €4,000. Deputy Lawlor’s solution for the hard-pressed employer is that the latter needs to get in the middle of the row the Deputy is having with the citizen. The Deputy believes the employer needs to become the boot boy and take the money out of the employee's pocket.
Excuse me, there are to be no interruptions. This applies to everyone. It would be helpful if Deputy Tóibín directed his comments through the Chair and not across the floor to another Deputy. There is to be fairness on both sides.
The point I am making is that the employer has to smash the relationship he has had with the employee and collect the money. If he does not, the party opposite will fine him. Not satisfied with burdening employers with the role of debt collector, the Government is stipulating employers will have to go to the courts as part of normal employment behaviour. For an employer to determine whether particular payments are earnings, he or she has to make an application to the court under the legislation. He may also be required to provide to the court a statement of specified particulars of his or her employee's earnings and expected earnings. As if employers had not enough to do already, they must now deal with court documents and procedures.
Where an employee against whom an attachment order has been made changes employment, the new employer must notify the court in writing that the person is now his or her employee and include in such notification a statement of the debtor's earnings and expected earnings from the relevant employment. Both the existing employer and also the future employer must submit a notification. If a future employer were looking for staff to join his team and a prospective employee had an attachment order, that employer would be sucked into a bureaucratic nightmare when enforcing the Government’s policy. Would the employer choose a potential staff member with an attachment order or someone else? A staff member with an attachment order becomes less employable under the legislation. The attachment order probably arises through poverty, and the Minister has actually reduced the affected individual’s ability to earn in the future.
Where an employee against whom an attachment order has been made changes employment, the new employer must notify the court. Setting aside for a moment the excessive administrative burden the Government is imposing on employers, imagine the impact of this measure on an employee-employer relationship. In a difficult economic environment, many such relationships are already fraught and difficult because both sides of the employment contract are being pulled in different directions. This will no doubt cause more difficulty for both the employee and employer.
It must be asked whether the Government consulted any employers on this legislation. I rang the Small Firms Association last night and learned my call was the first it had on this matter. It has never been discussed at committee level by the committee of which Deputy Lawlor and I are members. None of the employers has been broached on this issue, as far as I know, yet they now have a new role under the Government’s proposal.
Any Minister who has actually owned and run a micro-business or small business will know this legislative arrangement is not acceptable to employers and their employees. It is intrusive and it will colour the relationship to a detrimental degree.
Landlords have been vocal in their concern over their new role as debt collectors for Irish Water. The Government has admitted recent legislative amendments will allow landlords to evict tenants who fail to pay water charges. Not happy with roping landlords into the deal, the Minister is now roping employers into the same process. The Government has extended the misery to families who cannot pay their electricity, gas or telephone bills, or their TV licence fees. Nowhere in this Bill does the Government state attachment orders are an option of last resort. It may be that any of the organisations will implement this extreme measure from the get-go.
This legislation encourages utility companies and others to apply to the court for an order enabling the attachment of earnings from employers or social welfare payment to enforce a debt between €500 and €4,000. One should juxtapose this measure with the treatment of Denis O'Brien and the other multimillionaires who have not only benefited from debt write-down but who have also, we are led to believe, enjoyed interest rates on debt that are at least a third of the average mortgage holder’s interest rate. Mortgage holders have been treated in the opposite manner. The Government said 1 July would be a deadline for banks to step up to the mark. This deadline has come and gone and the results have been very poor. Many of the banks could be seen to be giving the two fingers to the Minister for Finance. There is no rushed legislation for hard-pressed mortgage holders and no tough action, just mealy words from the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, who has become Margaret Thatcher on steroids.
The Government tells us jobs are its number one priority. It has put paid to that myth here today. This Bill is an attack on employers, just as it is an attack on employees. If this legislation is passed, the Government will be placing an astonishing burden on employers and potentially undermining hundreds of thousands of future workplace relationships. A significantly greater administrative and industrial relations burden will be imposed on small businesses. If a small business is on the edge, it is easy for it to be tipped.
Iarraim ar Teachtaí an Rialtais smaoineamh a dhéanamh ar an méid atá déanta sa Bhille seo. Tá sé soiléir nach bhfuil an Bille léite acu go huile agus go hiomlán, ná na forálacha deacra a bhaineann le fostóirí ann. Tá an Rialtas ag iarraidh go mbeidh ar fostóirí dul isteach i bpócaí na bhfostaithe agus airgead a ghoid uathu. Muna bhfuil siad in ann é sin a dhéanamh nó muna bhfuil siad ag iarraidh sin a dhéanamh, tá an Rialtas breá sásta pionós a ghearradh ar na fostóirí sin. Mar sin, beidh orthu níos mó airgid agus ama a chaitheamh chun a rialacha agus a gcóras a athrú. Beidh orthu dul go dtí na cúirteanna agus na doiciméid a thabhairt leo ann. Beidh i bhfad níos mó oibre le déanamh acu. Chomh maith le sin, má theastaíonn ó fostóir duine a earcú, beidh air dul i mbun an riaracháin a bhaineann leis an fhadhb seo.
Smaoinigh go cúramach ar cad atá á dhéanamh anseo. Ná bí mar caoirigh. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil taithí maith ag an Teachta Lawlor maidir le caoirigh agus go dtuigeann sé go leanann na caoirigh gach caora eile atá sa pháirc. Más féidir leis, iarraim ar seasamh suas agus seasamh ar son fostóirí agus fostaithe.
Having listened to the contributions from approximately 1 p.m. - I did not hear any of the earlier ones - I believe the week ending today is rather shameful at both macro and micro levels. It is shameful in the macro sense because our Government abandoned the Greek people and stood in the background in the shadows of Europe when the great attachment order of €32 billion in losses was attached to Irish citizens by way of losses converted into debt.
That debt was then converted into official national debt. It is parallel to what is happening the Greek people at the moment where impossible debts and losses have been racked up.
Of course I am. The great stupidity of this Government, which has the largest majority of any in the history of the State, is that it looks in the wrong areas to try to rectify the great wrongs that have occurred in society. Civility has gone out the door and this week single parents have had their social protection ripped from under their feet. The people of Greece have been told to take on more debt when it is obvious they cannot deal with the debt that is already on their shoulders. That is the great lack of civility. Bringing in the legislation that is under discussion is another example of how to tighten the handcuffs on people where it is identified that they will end up in financial prison on small debts. As Deputy McDonald said, they face attachment orders and having permanent credit failure written all over their CVs. There is no need for the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin to frown and sigh just because his agenda is being upset. It is the small print of a pathetic agenda. A young man like you should be capable of analysing the situation correctly as to where this country-----
Thank you. At least you have admitted you were not listening. That has been the problem since March 2011. The Government had an agenda then and has stuck by it. This is part of the agenda. It is all linked, through the Chair.
And the Bill. The Bill is a symptom in the same way the measles come out on the skin. It is a rash. The body politic and society is still ill and diseased. It is very easy to see it. As was said only a few minutes ago, small businesses have not been consulted. I am not getting telephone calls about small businesses not being paid, but I am getting phone calls about social protection, mortgage interest rates and mortgage loans that are impossible to repay and on which the Bank of Ireland will not engage meaningfully. They are the phone calls. It is not the stuff that the Ministers have dreamed up in their great imaginations as being important. They are not the things that matter. If one actually takes stock of what the big problems are------
I am setting the context for the detail that is in the Bill. We know there will be an abolition of prison sentences for situations that are not even arising. This is "The Truman Show". The Government is imagining that things are happening which are not. It is ignoring things that are happening and not addressing them. That is why neither the Minister nor the Minister of State opposite can even look the speaker in the eye. It is very simple. A 92 year old man was in the EU Parliament on Wednesday morning who was one a few people who removed the Nazi flag in the final days of the German occupation of Greece in the Second World War. He spoke to the point about what is happening this week in the so-called partnership, family and community of Europe.
When a doctor sees a rash on the body, he knows there is a possibility of measles. We are seeing the rash all over Europe, but our Government thinks because the establishment has said so that the solution lies in the direction of imposing more pain on people who are already vulnerable. It does not. If one wants to stop the disease, one must stop what one is doing that is adding to it. Shuffling around at this late stage before the Dáil rises on Thursday, 16 July, is not the way to address the problems.
As earlier speakers have said, Irish Water is a fiasco of incapability. I know it myself because our own house has not even been connected up to a meter as it should have been. It was missed. It is simple stuff. It beggars belief how bad the whole thing has been, yet the Government simply churns on like a train. I am using this opportunity because of low demand for speaking slots today on the Bill.
There is not. There are speakers waiting who were down on the list long before Deputy Mathews arrived in the place. Deputy Colreavy has been here for at least two hours. Please, stick to the Bill before the House.
The point is this; there has been an abject failure to deal with the disease in our society and economy on a descending order of priority. There are 100,000 mortgages in deep distress, which is far larger scale stuff than is being addressed in the Bill under discussion.
Single parents are being deprived this week of money to put food on their tables. It is all connected. It is joining up the dots, as they say. Approximately 100,000 mortgages are in deep distress, which is about 400,000 human beings in deep and unnecessary distress for four years.
If Standing Orders accommodate stupidity, that is not a good idea. Standing Orders should be here so we can address the problems and serve the people who elected us to the House. I get annoyed, angered and exercised that people who want to help others are removed from committees.
The Ceann Comhairle was not present for my opening remarks, which is fair enough, but I indicated that I wanted to distinguish between the macro and micro view. This is a micro matter that should not have been rushed in the way that it has. The reasons were outlined by the previous speakers, who spoke very well. I am just trying to get a helicopter view of what is going on in here. Some of the comments of Opposition speakers, including Deputies Mary Lou McDonald and Peadar Tóibín, have been sound stuff.
We have brought this Bill here in the form in which it has been presented and the detail I have heard from others, as well as the context of the way it has been rushed through and what has happened this week. There are 11 million people in Greece who have been treated as if they can be airbrushed out of the community by our Government. All of that is wrong. That is my point.
I have a certain sympathy for Deputy Mathews because last night, when I was thinking about what I would say today, I remembered that I would normally look for a theme in speaking to a Bill before the House. I would examine the specifics of legislation. I found, going through the Bill, that the context within which the Bill is being brought forward and its potential outcome are, to a certain extent, more important than the provisions of the Bill itself. It is the thought process behind the Bill.
The Bill before the House is entitled:
Bill entitled an Act to provide for the enforcement of court judgments in relation to certain debts; to provide for the making by the District Court of attachment of earnings orders and deduction from payments orders in certain circumstances; to amend the Debtors Act (Ireland) 1872 to remove references to the imprisonment of debtors for non-payment of debt; and to provide for related matters.
Thank you, that is most helpful. In my thought process on a theme last night, Walter Scott was the only person who could come to my aid. He wrote: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!"
I feel a certain sympathy for the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, as she introduces the Bill today. It was always going to be a difficult idea to sell to the Dáil and, more importantly, to the people when the Bill is effectively providing that the Government can sequester money from people, many, if not most, of whom are living on or below the poverty line. That is what the Bill entails. Is it good that people will not have to go to jail for owing small amounts of money? Yes, it is, and that is the good element. The difficult element is there is not nearly enough detail in how the Government, and society through Government, can distinguish and make different arrangements for those who cannot pay, as distinct from those who will not pay. It is informative that the limits in the Bill make it clear the legislation is aimed generally at people who cannot pay. Most people will try to ensure they do not fall into arrears, however small. It will be a difficult sell in the Dáil, and more importantly, to the people because the Bill will essentially facilitate the taking of money from people, most of whom are living on or below the poverty line.
That is not the Minister's only difficulty with this Bill. In any examination of the legislation, there are two words that are not in it, yet they scream loudly from it. They are "water charges", and I will deal with that in a moment. I have thought about where this fits in the overall picture. I did not go as far off the field as Deputy Mathews but I did think about the start of water charges. Would people stand by if a lone parent with a couple of children, who may have had €100 taken from him or her by the events this week, was fined and had money sequestered by an employer or the Government through the Department of Social Protection under this legislation? Irish people have always displayed decency and humanity that is sometimes absent from the Government's policy and legislation, and they would not tolerate that scenario. No matter what we say or do in here, Irish people will feel the consequences of this Bill.
With regard to the wider context of water charges, let us hark back to the beginnings. Scene one starred such luminaries as Fianna Fáil, which is currently in opposition, the European Union, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various golden circles. They were vultures, hovering to see if there were any dead bodies on which to feed. They decided to introduce a savage tax on water but it would not be called a tax. Instead, it would be called a water charge. They could blame the troika, which would be sweet; some nice work. In any case, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, while in opposition, would not notice or only put up token resistance. They knew that if they were in government, they would do exactly the same.
Scene two saw the new Fine Gael and Labour Party Government, with a Taoiseach promising a new way of governance and a democratic revolution, no less. Enter, stage right, the former Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, who dusted off the previous Government's proposals. He appointed and paid a people's ransom to management consultants, and he assumed that people would meekly accept the imposition of the tax called water charges. When it finally dawned on the Minister that his legislation might not get an easy ride through the Dáil and Seanad, he pushed it through and wondered why the pesky Opposition did not behave like Fine Gael and Labour did when they were in opposition. There were late-night debates and guillotines, which heightened the dramatic effect.
When the people took to the streets and loudly shouted "No", former Minister Phil Hogan said he was out of here and was going to a place where his skills would be better appreciated and where he did not have to deal directly with the populace, and that just as well he had a good pension plan.
In scene three the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, a new broom and an action man who gets things done, entered stage centre-right. He spoke about water losses, the disgraceful water supply and people nearly being poisoned by lead pipes. He articulated his vision of an Ireland with perpetual fresh, cool and unpolluted drinking water for this and future generations, but did not mention fracking and how it might poison the water forever if it is allowed. He reduced the tax and is always careful never ever to mention the word "privatisation". The final sweetener is the €100 bribe- sorry, conservation grant - and we cross our fingers and hope the EU's competition authority does not examine it too closely, and we continue never to mention privatisation. This is why I have a certain sympathy for the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and her Bill. It has been hijacked by the water tax implementation gang. This is the context as I see it.
The Bill allows creditors, including Irish Water as well as other utility companies and multinationals, to apply to the courts for an order enabling the attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments for the purpose of the enforcement of a debt of between €500 and €4,000. Generally speaking, a person owing such a debt would most likely not be paying it simply because he or she could not afford to pay.
The Bill has been brought into effect because the Government has been rattled by the hundreds of thousands of people who have mobilised against Irish Water. I would go so far as to say were it not for the Irish Water protests, it is unlikely the Bill would be before us today. The Government seems determined to draw blood from the stone that is the Irish people. Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, the previous Government, continued by the current Government, adopted a policy of targeting those worst-off in society as a means of alleviating the national debt. Perhaps I am naive, but I am prepared to think that perhaps this was not an intentional policy and that on setting out, no one foresaw the results and consequences of the decisions and choices made. I do not know. What is clear is that the choices, decisions and policies attack those on the bottom rung of society rather than tax the elites. This is very clear. Thankfully, we are beginning to discover at last some of the elites and parts of the golden circle. We hear names and we hear of those who used to make large contributions to the political parties. As a result, the Government has adopted what could be seen as a policy of enforced poverty because it is Government choices and decisions bringing it about. This poverty is not created by personal circumstance, bad luck or falling on hard times, it is poverty directly related to the policies of the State. The Government has introduced a series of measures during its term in office that directly impacts on the living standards of ordinary people. It introduced a tax on the family home which sought to raise funds to replace money it had cut from local councils. The Government portrayed this as a measure to provide funding for local authorities. In reality it was a tax on families to replace what the Government had stolen from local authority funding to pay off banking debt. This was the circle and it is very clear for everyone to see.
The Government then decided to introduce a water charge to squeeze money out of families for something for which they had already paid through general taxation. In doing so it embarked on a craze of installing water meters throughout the country, spending public funds to dig up footpaths and people's driveways, not to mention the extensive and very expensive consultants' reports. One would question whether the reasoning for introducing water charges was to improve water conservation or the water network.
It is the context. It was part of the deal struck with the troika for the receipt of bailout funds. This is why the Bill is before us today.
The introduction of the water charge has seen a massive reaction from ordinary people throughout the country. People who had never attended a protest in their lives have been organising in their communities. There have been protests on every street corner and village throughout the country and people have travelled in their hundreds of thousands to attend massive public demonstrations. It has not gone away.
The Labour Party, most of all, needs to look at its conscience and consider what it is doing. The Labour Party claims a proud heritage from James Connolly and sees itself as being born out of the 1913 strike and Lock-out. It is the party of Tom Johnson, the author of the democratic programme of the first Dáil. That democratic programme stated: "We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all, which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people." What a noble statement. The Labour Party in particular, as part of the Government, needs to take a look at itself, its actions and the consequences of its choices and ask whether it has complied with the ethos of the democratic programme. Perhaps it would like to look across the Irish Sea to Britain and examine the government of Clement Attlee elected in 1945. Now there was a government that embarked on an ambitious programme of eradicating poverty and nationalising industry. That is probably a statement the House never expected to hear coming from a Sinn Féin spokesperson.
I could say much more about the context. The Bill is attempting to streamline and make it much easier for the Government to get its hands into the pockets of poor folk. That is what it is all about. Will the lawyers be rubbing their hands with glee at this legislation? What about employers who are fair-minded and who will say if the Government wants to do so it can, but they will not put their hands into their employees' pockets to take money? It is totally unfair to do so.
The Government, through this Bill, is saying to citizens they have no choice, that it no longer needs to worry about their not paying because it will be able to get the money from them in any case. That is the fundamental consequence of these proposals and why this is a very poor Bill. It is why I will oppose the legislation strenuously. Have people not had to endure enough? Has the Government not taken enough from citizens already? Ministers talk about all the great jobs that are coming on stream, but the evidence shows many of them are of the lower-paid variety. Now, the Government wants to create a streamlined system which allows agents working on its behalf to put their hands into citizens' pockets and take out the small change.
We all welcome the provisions that will ensure people do not go to prison for non-payment of small fines. That makes obvious sense. Why, then, must the Bill include a provision whereby the Government and friends of the Government will be able seamlessly to impoverish the already impoverished? We are talking about essential, basic services which people need to keep them alive. Does the Minister not see anything wrong with that? I see a great deal wrong with it and that the people of this country deserve an awful lot better. If there had been proper debate and an open mind on the part of the Government, a far better Bill would have been produced. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.
The Ceann Comhairle has indicated my time is up. Before he calls the next speaker, I wish to call a quorum.
Having listened to the debate in my office, I hope my contribution will be helpful in so far as it adds an element of fairness and balance. We live in what we all wish to be a civilised and civic society. This Bill is an important step towards achieving that end by ensuring people who have small debts do not end up in prison. It is wrong that people should be imprisoned in those circumstances, whether for 24 hours, 48 hours or any other length of time, and there is a cost to society when it is done.
This legislation might be summed up by saying it is based on the principle that people in society have a civic responsibility to pay their way. I was reared in a household where that principle always held sway. At that time, whether one worked or not, if one did not pay monetarily, one paid in some other way. People come to me regularly to complain about other people who do not pay their television licence fee or who, instead of paying waste charges, put their rubbish in their neighbours' bins. I am always asked the same question, namely, why these people are allowed to get away with it. The reason they get away with it is that some people in our society and some people in opposition in this House believe everything should be free. I do not believe that and nor, I am convinced, do the majority of people in this country.
I do, however, believe in fairness and balance. There are people in our society from a range of different backgrounds who find themselves struggling because of various things that have happened in the recent years of recession. The previous Government chose to borrow money from everywhere without a concern as to how it would be repaid. My mother had a simple task to do in order to manage her home and family. Every Friday night she received from my father the brown envelope containing his wages. The money was divided up to pay for electricity, gas, groceries and so on, with ten shillings returned to my father to take with him to work at the docks, to which he cycled every morning. That is what I call fairness and balance. Moreover, despite what some Members on the other side of the House are saying, I know they, too, recognise the importance of having that fairness and balance in society.
Deputies who find fault with the Bill are doing so for political reasons.
While I do not normally speak off the cuff, I must respond to some of the cruel accusations made by previous speakers on the issue of lone parents. I do not wish to stray far from the Bill as I listened to the debate veer from one issue to another while in the Chair yesterday. The facts are simple. For far too long, this country did not have proper social welfare arrangements. For the first time, we have a Minister for Social Protection who has the guts to make tough decisions. As I pointed out yesterday, a single parent with one child who returns to work for 19 hours per week will have an income of €400 per week. That is a fact. I have a young daughter living with me who works in a shop for the minimum wage of €8.65 per hour. She gets out of bed at 7 a.m. and makes her way to Blanchardstown on the Luas and bus. She works hard for her few bob, which adds up to much less than €400 per week. I see in my family someone who has made a life-changing decision. She did not have children or sit at home but went out and acquired an education and then went out to work.
Like many other young, single people, my daughter did her junior and leaving certificate examinations and took whatever job she could find when the country was in deep recession. When others would not work in McDonald's, my kids and those of my neighbours worked in it.
This debate calls for fairness and balance. It has not sunk in that we have a Minister for Social Protection who is prepared to change the social welfare system. I do not have anything against lone parents. Many of my friends and my children's friends have young children. Single parents are being given an opportunity to step back into the real world by re-entering the education system and becoming independent. People have reasons for having children at a young age and I do not hold that against them. However, a door has been opened and they are being given an opportunity to return to education. I know many lone parents who never had that opportunity because they had to stay at home to mind babies. The Opposition needs to wake up and realise that these young people are, for the first time, being offered a new beginning and new experiences.
I will not dwell on the TV3 programme in which I was involved a couple of months ago when I met a fine young woman, Laura Spencer from Marrowbone Lane. Laura had children at a young age and when her partner left, she got herself together and applied to go back to college in Cathal Brugha Street. I spoke to her two weeks ago and she had achieved excellent results. These are the outcomes we want to see. We should have less farce in this debate. Instead of giving out, the Deputies opposite should see the real world in which young people such as Laura are given encouragement.
Three weeks ago I stopped a fellow who was filling every bin on Bulfin Road with his waste. I will not repeat the words he used when I spoke to him. While his elderly neighbours pay their waste charges, he goes out and fills bins with his waste. As a result of this encounter, I asked Dublin City Council to remove every litter bin on Bulfin Road where there was a line of people every morning filling the bins with waste. The Deputies opposite can say what they like, but the Bill is about people taking civic responsibility.
I apologise in advance to the Ceann Comhairle as I will stray a little from the Bill before I conclude.
Like most people, I visit the shopping centre at weekends and try my best to buy what I need within my budget. Like many other parents, I put extra items in my shopping trolley for my children, all of whom are in negative equity on their homes. I see people stacking trolleys full with drink and wine. I guarantee that some of them should not be doing this.
A family with two children will have their water bill capped at €260 and be eligible to apply for a conservation grant of €100. This means that they will pay €3.07 per week to have clean water in which to shower, wash vegetables, bathe children or fill a baby's bottle. Is that not value for money for those who can afford to stack their trolleys with beer and other items, including water, every weekend?
Water is a precious gift. Two weeks ago I met a man who was on holidays here. He told me that one of the greatest pleasures he experienced on his visits to Ireland was being able to turn on the tap at his sister's house and pour himself a glass of water.
Deputies have raised the case of old age pensioners who must pay €60 per annum in water charges. My sister pays her local property tax and water and waste charges from the basic old age pension, which is her only income. She told me recently that her annual water bill of €60 would amounts to only €1.15 per week. When I see people queueing up in a shop to buy 60 or 80 cigarettes at €10 per pack, I must ask for fairness and balance.
I commend the Minister for the Bill, which is an important step. While many people cannot afford to pay bills, the Government has provided payment options for water and waste charges and the property tax. The post office can be used for this purpose. Most of our parents paid weekly to get by and things have not changed in that regard for many in the past 20 or 30 years. Money is the same.
I will raise one other issue that galls me. This week protestors outside Leinster House attacked civil society when they threw cones and missiles at people who were trying to uphold the law. Having served with them on Dublin City Council, I am sure Deputies Dessie Ellis and Aengus Ó Snodaigh will remember a certain Deputy going door to door telling people not to pay waste charges. The Deputy in question still holds a weekly protest on Davitt Road at which protestors leave bags of waste for the residents of Bulfin Road to clean up. I remind the House that the poor people who did not pay the waste charge ended up having to pay €1,700. I met many of them during the local elections campaign and they told me they would never again listen to the Deputy and his colleagues. They were told not to pay waste charges because they would be scrapped.
Deputies should view the images of poor people in Greece crying because they cannot withdraw money from ATMs. For those who seek fairness and balance, the Bill is a step in the right direction. I apologise again, a Cheann Comhairle, for straying a little from the Bill.
I was sorry to hear the previous speech because I had a different speech laid out. Deputy Catherine Byrnehas reminded me that we are here to deal with legislation on civil debt. She spoke a great deal about fairness and is correct that people need to budget. Many families who are now in debt budgeted on the basis of their income. They took out a mortgage and tried to pay the cost of putting their children through school or university in our free education system. Under this and the previous Government, however, they were lumbered out of the blue with new taxes and then had to try to make ends meet.
I am no different from any other Deputy. I know the people about whom Deputy Catherine Byrne was talking. We are in the same constituency. I know many more beyond that who write to me every day saying they do not have the money, so even if they did manage to budget they would not have the extra hours. If they are working they must pay the universal social charge or the pension related deduction which make it very difficult to budget. That leads to debt, whether to a utility company such as the ESB or, in the future, to Irish Water. For many of those people there is a spiral of debt. It is continuous because some of them, maybe foolishly, used a credit card to pay off one debt, which brought a lot of other problems. They might have taken out a bank loan to pay off the credit union loan or a credit card bill and end up paying more interest than people in any country in the European Union bar, probably, Greece. The mortgage rate here is 2% higher than in Britain. This Government has been in charge for four years and the previous Government made a bags of things before that. This all led to problems for people who are trying to budget. No one denies that in a fair society everyone should pay their own way. There are people, however, who will end up in court under this legislation who literally cannot afford to pay.
I received an e-mail this morning from a woman with a five month old child who has been told by Irish Water and an independent consultant not to drink the water in her house because there is lead in it. She managed to scrape together the money to test the water. When she asked Irish Water what it would do about this, it told her that is her hard luck, it is on her premises and she has to pay for it. The cost for her to fix that water is in the region of €3,000 to €5,000. I know this because some time ago I lived for many years in a council house and decided to do the same. I changed the pipe from the road to the door and the main pipe in the house. There was lead in the pipes and they were buckling. Part of this legislation is for utility companies. Irish Water could charge this woman in the future even though she did not get proper water. It says it is not responsible but that it is her fault because she cannot come up with the money to fix a problem in the house, which is the same in many local authority houses in this city.
We need to bear in mind that people get into debt for various reasons. They do not have the luxury that some of the top bankers or speculators have who have managed to get their debts written down. There is no write-down for these people in major debt. Under this legislation they will be told hard luck. Granted, they are not going to jail. I have argued for many years that they should not go to jail. There has to be another way for people in debt to utility companies to pay or make some kind of recompense or for the companies' balance sheets to have a mechanism for writing down bad debtors.
We are making sure that there will be no provision made in the annual accounts for bad debtors because they can chase them. That is what the Bill allows. As Deputy Catherine Byrne said, the companies will apply, as the waste management companies did, to sell the debt. That is even more galling. They will sell the debt to a private company and tell it to recover it in whatever way it wants. It might be owed €10 million and sell that debt for €3 million or €4 million, telling the buyer to pursue these people through the courts and get whatever it can out of them. There is no provision in the Bill to prevent that happening.
I did not say it was millions. The Minister heard Deputy Catherine Byrne say this about the waste management debt that Dublin City Council sold to Legal and Trade Collections and other legal firms to pursue and recuperate as much of that debt as it could. They are still trying to do that. That is why it is still an issue. I have not said people should not pay but that people need to understand the consequences if they do not pay.
I said that about Irish Water and the waste management companies. I did not raise the issue of waste management and people with €1,500, or whatever, left over. That debt is sold. That is what companies do. They will make a provision in their annual accounts to write it off after two or three years. It is not worth the time of most of these companies chasing the €500 or the €4,000. They will give it to someone else, the vultures which go around chasing money. That is where the problem lies. These companies exist and for a few short pounds will try to turn a profit.
We need to find alternatives to prison, whether community service orders or something else. I do not have a problem with them. We have not used them enough. A great deal of change has happened in recent years. I recall arguing this in 2002 with the then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, saying the Law Reform Commission and others needed to do much more. It is good that this proposal came from a report of the Law Reform Commission. It is not new but it is new in the way it was presented to us this week. This dates back to 2010. We had an idea of some of the proposals the commission made but Law Reform Commission reports have been published and have been left on the shelf. At one stage I had 20 years’ worth of them on a shelf in the office. Thankfully most of them are now online, which makes it a little easier to find information.
That this was produced on a Monday, just after another Bill, which we dealt with yesterday, was introduced, shows the rush to get it through before the summer recess. That is why people associated this with Irish Water. I heard some of the debate earlier and will not go into that issue.
I made an interesting point to the Minister for Social Protection about these orders. In the Department of Social Protection if there is an overpayment it can be deducted at a rate of 15%. I have dealt with the case of a woman who received €188 a week from the Department but got €60 a week in maintenance payments. A reasonable person would deduct the €60 and then apply the 15% deduction. That makes a big difference to the final figure. If the 15% is deducted in that way, the final figure is €109.20. If it is taken the other way, from the total social welfare payment and then the €60 is deducted the final amount is €99. That is a difference of €10 because the calculation is made in the wrong place. That needs to be borne in mind. That woman, who is upfront about her maintenance payment, is being doubly penalised. I hope that on Committee Stage we will be able to deal with practical issues such as this to make sure that any other deductions are made before the courts grant any attachment order or deduction.
The supplementary welfare allowance is supposedly the minimum amount necessary to keep a person out of poverty.
It is set currently at €186. The argument in the past was that the maximum that could be taken off the full rate of €188 was €2. This has changed to 15%. Once attachment orders are made to €188 or €186, if it is the supplementary welfare allowance a person could fall into poverty. I know a statement of means is allowed for. I am not 100% sure how strong that will be or what standing a judge will give it. There are sometimes practical difficulties involved in getting a statement of means together. A person needs to be given enough time to put together such a statement. It is important that people understand it because nearly 20% of people are functionally illiterate, which goes back to fairness and balance. These people do not engage with forms or understand these types of documents. To most people, the legislation is gobbledegook because it is not written in plain English, or plain Irish for that matter.
I was put out by Deputy Catherine Byrne's idea that it is all down to budgeting skills. There is a lot more behind this. Everybody should be able to afford to live. If a person is not entitled to a payment, it should be taken from them. People are entitled to little luxuries once in a while. We do not know what is behind those who have an addiction to cigarettes. I think it is madness but I do not have an addiction. Others have an addiction, be it to alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. Cigarettes are a craving that needs to be satisfied and people have gone into huge debt as a result. It is very easy to say "grow up and stop spending money on them" but that does not work. If it worked, we would have the best health system in the world. We cannot just tell people to stop smoking and stop drinking. The Deputy made the point that some people are spending too much on drink and cigarettes and that they should be poor, basically wear sackcloth and pay off every single debt. People should pay their debts. Nobody is denying that but we must be careful that the provisions we create in here are not too onerous. We are supposed to be citizens and equal. Society is not equal and that is part of what we are addressing.
If we are to implement this type of provision, we need to make sure the Government is not making laws that allow the rich to get off scot-free when it comes to debt. That is the problem. People have read in the media how huge debts have been written off. One of the major press barons in the country who is a multibillionaire had €300 million written off while somebody else will not get €500 written off. They are two separate messages. Fairness requires that we go after all debt. These debts are being written off by banks that belong to the State and a mixed message is being sent out. We can sit here and try to rush through this legislation but legislation to ensure that banks controlled by the Irish taxpayer recover all of the debt owed by those who took on that debt and gambled is not being rushed through. They are no different from a person who spent an extra €5 or €10 on electricity to ensure their baby had hot water or to boil water for a bottle, as was the case with a woman who wrote to me this morning. She said she now has to boil every drop of water or ask her neighbours whether their water has the same problem and if not, whether she can share their water. That is how concerned she is that the lead in her pipes will poison her five-month-old child.
If this legislation were introduced in the normal fashion promised by this Government, which involves passing the heads of the Bill and having a pre-legislative stage where the committee would have been able to hear from stakeholders like FLAC, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy and Fr. Peter McVerry who all work with the very people who will be hammered by this legislation, we might have had different legislation. It might have been expanded to give additional protections to the poorest. I have major concerns about how this legislation was produced. We are supposed to have two weeks between the publication of a Bill and its first hearing in here. I know the intention is to have this legislation go through Committee Stage next Friday and come back to the Dáil the following week. This is madness, particularly for such a substantial change in the way we approach civil debt and the onerous mechanisms we are heaping upon the Courts Service and for whose benefit? Most of the beneficiaries will be private companies who can well afford to write down debt for which they have already made provision in their annual accounts. I am perturbed that once again we are approaching the end of a session and the Government rushes through legislation which could be good if the time and effort were taken to ensure it addressed all of the problems, which have been addressed by other spokespersons before us.
A number of recent court cases mentioned that there needs to be an appeals mechanism for everything. I do not see a provision for an appeals mechanism in this legislation if the full order is made. I might be wrong and am subject to correction in that regard. Such a provision needs to be in any type of legal case. We found some cases where there is no appeals mechanism. This needs to be looked at to ensure a person can appeal an attachment order.
I am also concerned about the fact that an employer could find out what an attachment order is about. A lot of people do not like discussing their financial details with their employers yet the court will be able to let the employer know how much has to be deducted from the person's wages. I wish to call a quorum.
Táim glan i gcoinne an Bhille seo. Is ionsaí mór é i gcoinne an gnáth duine, go háirithe duine ar phá íseal nó ar social welfare.
Sinn Féin opposes this Bill and the people of Ireland have made clear they oppose it, by coming out on the streets in protest in their tens of thousands to say "No" to the unfair and unacceptable burden of water charges. People have gone to jail and protested daily against austerity and these unjust charges. It is clear that many people have paid enough and can pay no more. Although the Government does not admit it, it is ramming through this Bill with the sole intention of killing off the anti-water charges movement, by forcing people to pay and leaving them with no option for resistance.
The reality, however, is that this is a massive victory for the anti-water charges movement, despite presenting a new and considerable challenge. With this Bill, the Government has admitted defeat on a number of fronts. Most starkly, it has utterly failed to bully and scare the people into paying the water charges. It has also failed to dampen down the massive opposition to this Government which has flowed from the water charges protests into a wider anti-austerity movement. Having failed with its bullying tactics, the Government now seeks to force people to pay through the courts. The Government may think this is a victory for it, but it has only managed to damage itself more by its lack of respect for the views of the public. The people have spoken with their feet time and again to show opposition to these water charges. Soon they will vote with ballot papers to send this Government packing and this grubby and underhanded legislation with it.
The Government has been smart enough to set the base level of money owed on which an attachment order can be made at €500, giving it some time to scare people into complying before being faced with having to bring them through a court system that is already under resourced and overworked and which is failing to deal adequately with serious crime as a result. This will buy the Government time, but that is not worth much to it. The small amounts this Bill deals with make clear that the Bill is about railroading and pick pocketing the people who will not pay because they cannot pay.
The Government has a history of taking more from those who have less and that continues in this Bill, while the wealthy elite go untouched and Denis O'Brien gets sweet deals and write-downs.
Gabh mo leithscéal. While much of the focus has been on water charges, this Bill presents major concerns for low paid people regarding their ability to maintain the most basic domestic services. With the increase of private companies involved in the provision of electricity, gas and refuse services, we will see this legislation being used aggressively against people who are struggling to survive. While the ESB and Bord Gáis are more likely to work with people in arrears, I fear that private energy and waste companies will see this legislation as a tool to wring dry their customers, who are falling behind in their payments simply because they are living in poverty. There is no doubt there is a lack of procedures in the Bill for the resolution of such issues outside of court. There is also no fair appeals mechanism. Debtors can only seek to have orders altered.
I also want to address the wider move by the Government to create an environment of fear and uncertainty among tenants to bully them into paying the water charges. The Government has not only done nothing to help private residential tenants, but has taken a number of steps that have severely hurt this group of people, leaving some homeless. It has cut rent supplement to a level well below the market rates, forcing tenants to pay under the table or lose their homes. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, wants us all to believe working class people are welfare fraudsters, but the biggest and most widespread form of welfare fraud is encouraged and ignored by the Government, namely, the additional payments made by tenants to landlords above rent supplement levels. The Government solution to the problem was to introduce the housing assistance payment, HAP, which pays landlords less, but makes it harder for tenants to supplement the payment. At the same time, it removes these tenants from social housing lists and claims that as a victory, despite the fact the only change in the tenant's circumstances being increased instability.
The Government has also completely failed to tackle the issue of high rents, promising rent certainty. However, with less than a fortnight to go to the recess, no Bill has been produced. Rents are increasing month on month and tenants are struggling. Now they will have to pay the water charges or face the possibility of being evicted or of losing out on their security deposit. The Government's message is clear. If people do not want to be thrown on the scrap heap, as happened to so many other tenants in the past four years, they better comply. Legislation that will take these unfair water charges from tenants who are already struggling with astronomical rents and high bills will cause further hardship and suffering for low paid workers and the unemployed.
Maybe if the Government had tried to tackle the problems which are bleeding the poor dry, sought rent certainty four years ago or built social housing, the low-paid workers and unemployed people would have the money to think about paying water charges. To think otherwise is to accept that the people know the charges are unfair and unacceptable or to admit those who will not pay mostly do so because they cannot pay. Maybe the Government could have spent a little more time dealing with the nearly 250,000 children in poverty rather than toing and froing about when it would finally try to force people to pay unfair charges by taking money from source.
It is contemptible how the Government has approached the Bill so late in the day and put it forward so hastily under the cover of Law Reform Commission recommendations when the truth is that it is a grubby attempt to push through water charges which have failed the test of public opinion so miserably. Government Deputies may go home today thinking they have got one over on the people, that they have struck a blow against the anti-austerity movement, but they would be fooling themselves. In every community throughout the State, people have stood up and organised. They have worked with political parties and independently to oppose the meters and charges and expose the unfairness of the scheme and the corrupt nature of the affair. They have marched in every town. They have filled the broad streets of Dublin and their cries have risen above the gates of Leinster House, unavoidable by those inside. They will not be beaten by legislation. They will put paid to the Government, water charges and the entire austerity agenda.
A Rubicon has been crossed. We have never gone down this road before. The Labour Party said it would never go down this road. Many Labour Party Deputies told me in conversation they would never go down this road. It opens the door for utility companies and multinationals to apply for court orders enabling the attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare for enforcement of a debt between €500 and €4,000. The protected earnings rate does not take into account the percentage that can be taken from people's wages. It could apply to old people and those in receipt of social welfare. The rules were clearly laid out by the Government in the past. How will it overcome this? It will place attachment orders on senior citizens who have bought their homes and who live in their communities. How will it do this?
While the abolition of the imprisonment of debtors is welcome, it does not take away from the effects of the Bill. The Government is afraid of a protest as we approach the general election. It is afraid of people marching on the streets. The anti-water charges movement in my area, Dublin North-West, is very strong, the people are very strong and many of them are not paying. Many of them cannot pay, and there are those who support them. It does not matter whether I can pay. People are already paying for water through other charges.
I remind Deputy Catherine Byrne about her history in the council. When she and her Fine Gael colleagues voted to privatise the waste charges in Dublin City Council, they promised senior citizens would be protected. It did not last very long.
The campaign will continue in my area and throughout the country and the numbers on the streets will increase. This is what the Government fears. We have political policing as a result of the campaign.
It is my job to point out the problems. There will be more people out on the streets. The Government has called people spongers. People are not spongers. They want to pay their own way, but in a fair way, namely, through taxation, which is the way they have always done it. Other issues are coming down the road regarding water.