Seanad debates

Friday, 16 July 2021

Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

9:30 am

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 18, to delete lines 24 to 27.

This amendment concerns the discussion we had in the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach concerning a tax on vacant properties. The Minister told us then that was almost the information gathering stage and perhaps the introduction of such a measure would come later. In the text of this Bill, though, I am concerned about the constraints placed on that information gathering process. It is framed in a way which will make it very difficult for this information gathering process to translate into action concerning a tax on vacant properties.

The Minister made a strong case for his perspective, but I believe we should be bringing in such a tax, with certain caveats and exemptions, on vacant properties now. However, even accepting the Minister’s argument that we should have an information gathering stage and assessment in this respect first, I am concerned by the framing of the provision dealing with whether a house is in use as a dwelling. Subsection 2 of the proposed new section 39A of the principal Act states that information "shall not be used for any purpose other than the compiling of statistical information in relation to residential properties in the State which are not in use...".

Effectively, therefore, a caveat is being introduced stating that the information collected will not be usefully available in respect of the potential introduction of a vacant property tax perhaps until we have another revaluation in three years' time. We have a crisis in housing now. We have been told that every tool must be used and that they are all necessary, including all kinds of things about which I have many concerns, such as the use of public lands. Vacant properties, however, are also a concern. If it does emerge that there are many such properties in Ireland, then we cannot afford to and nor should we wait for three years until the next revaluation to ask owners if their properties may be vacant in respect of a levy. The Minister talked about the difficulty of introducing these systems. It would also be an unnecessary and laborious process to have to introduce a brand new system at some stage between now and the revaluation in three years to again ask everyone in this State who owns property whether those properties are vacant.

The opportunity to gather that information for the purpose of the introduction of a vacant property tax exists in this revaluation process, albeit the Minister is not using it for that purpose now and it is not in this legislation. Mention was made previously of difficulties with the general data protection regulation, GDPR, in this regard. There is nothing in the GDPR which states this cannot be done, but the situation is being created where the information gathered for the purposes of a vacant property tax could now be constrained under that regulation. However, people are already being asked to share a great a deal of information on foot of this legislation which could be used for revenue purposes. GDPR is very clear. Things are done based on consent or legislation. We have legislation being proposed here and there is absolutely no reason why we cannot undertake my proposed measure within it.

I suggest the removal, therefore, of what is an unnecessary caveat. If it is to be inserted though, a clear other purpose should be included as well. The main point in this regard is that information must be given for clear purposes. I have suggested in my amendment No. 5 that such a clear purpose could be defined as “such use by the Revenue Commissioners as may be required in respect of a levy or tax”. If we wanted to be more specific, then we could describe the clear purpose as meaning “such use by the Revenue Commissioners as may be required in respect of a levy or tax on vacant residential properties or a certain category of vacant residential properties”, as set out in my amendment No. 6. Those are clear purposes and there is absolutely nothing stopping the Minister putting such purposes in the Bill to enable the information collected under the auspices of this legislation to be shared for the purposes of the collection of the local property tax as it stands and for such related purposes by the Revenue Commissioners.

It would be really useful to do so and we are already asking people to include many different types of information in their local property tax returns. We may discover from those returns that there is a pattern of large-scale property vacancy and that many such properties have been vacant for long periods of time, for example. This is one aspect of market logic, but that may be a discussion to have another day with a different Minister. Of course, situations exist where artificial scarcity drives up prices and has value. We have seen it being done, and being done in apartment buildings right here in Dublin. It is not a nefarious plan, but market logic. It is how the market works. If there is such a pattern of large-scale property vacancy, as we have heard there is, then this is the chance to get the information to enable us to act in that regard.

My later amendment, which I am not sure we will get to, is concerned with instituting special measures for those property owners with perhaps 100 or 1,000 properties and it suggests they should pay a little more. A new calculation mechanism may be needed for the local property tax in those circumstances. However, even including a signal regarding the potential intention to introduce a tax on vacant properties under this legislation could itself have a positive impact. It would encourage people to consider not retaining a pile of vacant properties and to ensure such properties are being used as homes. A positive signal could be sent through this legislation regarding the potential introduction of a vacant property tax and that could have a positive impact on the market. I am worried that subsection (2) of the proposed new section 39A sends the opposite message, however, that we are not going to do anything about this situation for three years.

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