Wednesday, 24 July 1935
Dáil Éireann Debate
The Minister's amendment would mean that no credit would be given in respect of credit notes which related to the second moiety of the rates, except the rates were paid by the 30th April next, that is one month after the close of the financial year. The Minister must be aware of the difficulties generally which local authorities were in at the end of last year, and that those difficulties have increased by reason of the fact that a very large sum has been withheld from them in respect of the Land Commission annuities—£718,000. He must have in his office at the present time a number of appeals from various counties asking him to extend the period in respect of which the credit note would be realisable beyond even recent dates. I think that at the last meeting of the North Tipperary Co. Council they discussed the fact that a number of rates had come in recently in respect of last year, and that credit notes had been submitted by the rate collectors with them.  After discussion at the county council meeting they sent in an appeal to the Minister asking him to extend the date to, I think, 1st of August in respect of those particular credit notes. North Tipperary is not as badly off as some of the other counties. Nevertheless, the Minister is, no doubt, aware that there were £29,000 outstanding of the rates in North Tipperary at the end of this financial year. They are being hit at the present time by reason of the fact that £27,000 is being withheld for Land Commission annuities unpaid. In the previous year there was £16,000, and so far from any impression being made on the recovery of that £16,000, they find themselves with £27,000 added. I mention the case of North Tipperary because of the fact that I know the Minister has this matter before him. There are many other counties throughout the country which give the same picture.
The Minister was unable to tell us at the beginning of this month how many counties had actually completed their warrant. In a recent communication from the Minister, arising out of that question put to him, the fact transpired that at the present moment the Minister knows only six counties in the whole country in respect of which the assessment has been completed, the arrears carried forward settled, and the warrant made. If the position of the local bodies throughout the country is that only six of them up to the present time, when we are well into the financial year, have fixed their warrant, I do not know what the position of the collection is going to be. Certainly there was a very strong case for the Minister's first amendment. That is welcome, and I think it is perfectly adequate. But I think the Minister is creating a situation which will be very difficult for himself and for the county councils, and which will bear very heavily on a large number of ratepayers in the country, if it is going to happen that a man who has not paid his rates completely within one month after the closing of the financial year is going to lose the grants to which he is really very much entitled. I think  the Minister will be well advised to accept this amendment, or it would be perfectly easy for him, I am sure, to phrase another amendment which would suit him, and which would give him power at any rate to extend the date.
As his amendment stands at the present moment he has cut himself off from any power to extend the date. The Minister might find a difficulty in having that power given to him, but he has it in respect of the past year. I think the Minister should bear whatever trouble it gives himself and his Department to exercise this discretion, by taking the same powers this year that they had last year. Otherwise he can leave it entirely to the council, as this amendment would have the effect of doing. If this amendment is accepted the position would be that credit notes would be, without any further move, available up to the end of the financial year, and, where the council itself decides, the credit notes could be extended further. If the Minister wants to leave it to the council he can do so, but I do not think the Minister should cut himself and the council off from exercising discretion, when we consider the position with regard to local finance.
Mr. Brennan: Might we appeal with hope to the Minister to accept this amendment? It seems manifestly unfair that the Minister should tie his own hands in this way. If the Minister would agree to the omission of those particular words, and insert such words as “with the consent of the Minister” it would meet the whole situation. After all, the Minister must realise that the fact that credit notes are not acceptable after a particular date hits the very poorest people. Personally I have no faith in the system, and never had. I always thought that the people were honest enough to pay, and they have been honest enough to pay. That was always our experience of local government in this country, and I see no reason why we should depart from it. I believe that the people would pay  up if they got that reduction in the ordinary way, rather than by credit note. If you take a county where the credit note system was used to a very large extent, and compare it with a county where there was no credit note system, you will find that there has not been any advantage in the county where it is used to a large extent. It is certainly very hard on members of a county council, when they come to consider the list prepared by their collector and find that the very poorest of people are returned as being unable to pay their rates. They go into the case and say: “Yes, those people are unable to pay.” They must carry forward those rates and must not, according to law, allow credit notes. The poor people are hit hardest, and I do not think that Deputy Mulcahy is asking too much. I consider that the Minister is making a very great mistake in tying his own hands in that way.
General Mulcahy: I want to say that I am really anxious to help the Minister in the matter. As I see it, there are three alternatives before him. The first is to leave it as the Bill stands at present, that is that they must be paid at the end of the financial year, there being no appeal from that, and no discretion. The next is that they must be paid by the end of the financial year, or such later date as the council shall fix, which would be my amendment as it stands. The third alternative is that suggested by Deputy Brennan, which would mean that the rates would have to be paid by the end of the financial year, or such later date as the council, with the consent of the Minister, shall fix. Those are the three alternatives before the Minister, and I think he ought to select either the second or the third, because I think that the first is really unfair to a number of people; it will be unfair to certain councils, and will create a situation which neither the Minister nor the councils would wish to see created.
Mr. O Ceallaigh: I have no view personally on the credit note system one  way or the other. I am quite prepared to leave to the county council themselves to decide whether they will use the credit note system or not. There are some councils who are enthusiastic about it. There are others who are sceptical as to its utility. I would be prepared to leave it to them to use the credit note system or not just as they please, but where the council does decide to use the credit note system I think that for the second moiety that system should not be available beyond a month. I said here the last day that I should like it to end with the end of the financial year, but considering what Deputy Mulcahy and others opposite put forward on the subject I said: “All right; we will meet them to the extent of leaving it to one month after the end of the financial year, in the case of the second moiety.” I think that is going far enough.
Some counties hold, and I think it is Deputy Brennan's view, that the credit note system is not a good system and is unfair to the poorest section of the community who are unable to pay in time. They lose a certain amount. I think the most that anybody could lose this year is £1 with regard to each moiety. However, that might be a considerable sum in the case of very poor people. But a county council, if it wishes to use the credit note system, surely cannot hold that it is of any value if the limit of time up to which it can be availed of does not approach very near to the end of the financial year. If it is to go on, as was suggested in an amendment last week, without any limit, there is no value in it and the council ought not to adopt it. The suggestion made by Deputy Mulcahy that it should be extended with the consent of the Minister amounts almost to giving an unlimited extension. It is no trouble to the Minister to be asked to give his consent to an extension of the credit note system, but it takes the good out of it.
Mr. O Ceallaigh: I do not see what good it is to them, because, if they are asked, they will extend it to almost  any period the rate collectors ask. That is our experience. In that way the value of it is lost and if they were logical they should do away with it altogether. If you have not some limit that will encourage them to get the rates paid within some reasonable time after the end of the financial year, if it is not possible to do it by the end of the financial year, by giving them the advantage of the £1 or so, so far as the second moiety is concerned, the credit note system is of no value to the county council or to anybody. The Minister and the officials of the Department are usually agreeable when the local authorities make a request in a matter of that kind. They do not often raise objections in connection with a matter purely of administration if the council press very strongly and are refused at first and again state that it is their view that it ought to be extended for another month, or two months, or three months. That is what happened in the last year. Most of the councils that have used the credit note system have asked for an extension and they have got it. But the further the extension was given, the less the value of the credit note system was, so that if it goes on to the month of August, or anything like as far as that, there is no value whatever in having the system.
I appreciate that Deputy Mulcahy is speaking purely in the interests of having the rates collected. I am not suggesting that he has anything but the highest motive in what he is putting forward. I put it to him, however, that the credit note system is of no value if it is not used as a means of gentle pressure, if you like, on the people to get them to pay their rates within a reasonable time, at any rate, after the end of the financial year, if not within the financial year itself.
Mr. Dillon: I understand the Deputy is not pressing this. Might I put this case to the Minister? Very frequently when a scheme of this character, which is designed to induce people to pay rates promptly, becomes a matter of habit, its existence very largely ceases to be recollected by the people at large. If the modified  scheme suggested by Deputy Brennan were adopted, what would certainly happen would be that at the first meeting of the council after the rate collection should have been closed a discussion would take place. The rate collectors would come forward and say: “So much of the rates are outstanding and these comprise a considerable number of credit notes which are now useless and the people are left to pay the rates in full. We therefore suggest that the council should ask the Minister to consent to an extension of the credit note for, say, a calendar month from to-day, so that any persons paying their rates within the next month will get the benefit of the credit note.” The Minister gives his consent to that, and it creates a local publicity and brings an urgent pressure on all who want to benefit by the credit note to roll in with their rates promptly. Whereas if they once lost the credit note, a good many will be inclined to say: “We have lost the credit note; the best thing to do is to postpone paying the rates until we get the civil bill from the rate collector.” It does leave some inducement in the hands of the rate collector to bring a final pressure to bear on the ratepayer to pay, short of issuing a civil bill against him.
I quite agree with the Minister that, unless there is some kind of a check on the local authority, local pressure might induce them to extend the credit note indefinitely. That is why I think Deputy Brennan's suggestion is a good one—that it should be subject to the Minister's confirmation. Suppose a county council proposed to extend the credit note for six months, the Minister might say that that was too long, but that he would allow them to do it for two months. In fact all the ratepayers in the county would be fairly dealt with if they got two months' grace in which to pay, if it were possible to pay.
Mr. Dillon: I quite agree that they ought not to do it. At the same time you might have a situation arising in which such a proposal would be made if you left it to the absolute discretion of the council without making the thing subject to the Minister's approval. Once you make it subject to his approval there is no danger of abuse arising. It gives the rate collector an additional weapon to bring moderate pressure upon the ratepayers to meet their liability, short of bringing them to court. Possibly the Minister might prefer turning the matter over in his mind between this and a later stage, but I suggest to him that he has, in the suggestion of Deputy Mulcahy, as modified by that of Deputy Brennan, a valuable additional weapon for hurrying up the slowcoaches in the matter of rate payments.
General Mulcahy: I should like to say that I prefer the suggestion of Deputy Brennan and I should like to see the Minister accepting it with a firm policy in his mind. It is quite easy for the Minister, with the assistance of his Department, to be quite firm. But he ought to wait until he sees the actual situation before he gets really firm. I should like to see him at this stage approach it by saying that he saw no reason why it should not be extended to more than a month, but to allow himself a discretion so that when the situation actually arises he would deal with the various county councils entirely on the merits of the way in which they dealt with the rate collection. When he saw a county council had worked systematically to get rates in and that there was some slight hardship, he should extend it in the case of that efficiently-run county council. But where the county council were to blame for the situation, he should not extend his discretion to make things easier for them.
I think if the Minister's attitude in the matter was thoroughly understood by the county councils, the councils would be glad to have a little discretion at the end of the year, and that there would be no danger, after consultation  with the officials of his Department, in being perfectly fair and rigid where it was necessary to be so in taking a decision at the end of the year. The credit note system is a comparatively recent one. He has the experience of county councils who like it but who are, nevertheless, asking him for a little relaxation this year. The circumstances financially of local bodies are not easy, as is indicated by the fact that a large number have not made up their warrants yet.
Mr. O Ceallaigh: We have had the experience that probably the best county council—certainly one of the best and most efficiently-run in the country—which had a credit note system in operation, protested very strongly against a provision of this kind. The officials of that county council protested very strongly when we introduced into last year's Bill a provision in which power was given to the Minister to extend the period. They protested strongly and said that whatever value was in the credit note system, we were abolishing it by giving anybody power to extend it. That council is probably the best in the country for getting in rates. That is the County Mayo.
Mr. Cosgrave: There is this point that the Minister ought to bear in mind. While it may be all right from the point of view of efficiency, the fact that a poor person is deprived of this power through circumstances over which he has no control, is a consideration which he should not exclude from his observation.
When the Minister was concluding a debate on a similar Bill in 1934 he stated that the case of tenants who owned land in urban areas and who derived no benefit from the agricultural grant was a very special one, but that it was not easy of solution. Then he went on to state that “the present Bill”—that is the 1934 Bill—“was a temporary one, and that the Dáil would have an opportunity of considering a permanent measure which he hoped to be able to present early next year.” By implication, at least, he created the impression that when he introduced the permanent measure he would provide for some of those tenants in those urban areas who are not deriving any benefit from the agricultural grant at the present moment. The present Bill has been introduced since, and the Minister had not a word to say about the permanent measure which he contemplated in 1934.
I am interested especially in the case of a number of farmers who own land inside an urban area—Sligo—and in the Schedule of this Bill there is one urban area in which the conditions are identical with the conditions of those farmers in the urban area of Sligo. I refer to the urban area of Ballina, which is situated only a short distance from the town of Sligo. Farmers who own land inside the urban area of Ballina enjoy all the advantages and the disadvantages of the farmers who own land inside the urban area of Sligo. Their conditions are almost identical in every respect, and I cannot see why the Minister, in pursuit of a purely arbitrary formula, should exclude Sligo and include an area such as Ballina. It seems to me that, quite apart from the formula which guided the Minister in his determination of the urban areas that are at present benefitting by the agricultural grant, he should have taken into consideration as well the conditions under which land owned by  farmers inside all the other areas is managed. The rates paid by the farmers inside the urban area of Sligo are at least four times higher than the rates paid on agricultural land outside that urban area.
It is true that some of the officials in the Minister's Department did in the course of a letter on one occasion to a representative of these farmers in the Borough of Sligo refer to the double proximity value which was fixed many years ago, but that double proximity value has not at all the significance, or anything approaching the significance, now which it bore at the time it was fixed. As a matter of fact, the Minister knows just as well as I do that, owing to the amazing developments that have taken place in transport facilities in recent years, land inside an urban area is not of very much greater value than land outside that urban area. From the standpoint of site values the tendency nowadays, for people who can afford to buy sites, is to go outside the urban area so that, from that point of view, the idea of quoting the double proximity value is purely nonsensical under existing conditions.
I should like to know from the Minister when he proposes to introduce this permanent measure, and if it is his intention when that measure is introduced to include, at least, a number of those urban areas that are excluded from the benefits of the agricultural grant at the present time. The Minister is fully aware of the circumstances existing in Sligo and also of the circumstances existing in many other urban areas because he has met a deputation from these areas. I understand that on more than one occasion he met a deputation representing farmers in those areas and they represented to him very fully, very concisely and very clearly the nature of their situation. I am also given to understand that the Minister on one occasion did give them at least what was tantamount to an undertaking that he would avail of the first opportunity to redress some of their grievances. I urge on the Minister, if he can do anything in this  Bill, to remedy the grievances of some of these people, to do so and, if not, that he should at least give an undertaking that in the permanent measure he will do something practical towards redressing the major grievances of farmers who own land inside a number of urban areas and who derive no benefit from the agricultural grant at the present time.
Mr. O Ceallaigh: I am afraid that I cannot possibly offer any comfort to Deputy Roddy or to the farmers in Sligo or other urban areas on whose behalf he speaks. It is true that I received a deputation who spoke on behalf of farmers owning land within urban areas and some of whom own land partly within and partly outside urban areas and who claimed that they were not being fairly treated especially in regard to the way in which the agricultural grant was distributed. The first time I received them and heard their case I had not any previous knowledge of it. It seemed to me there was something in the case they put up, and I later asked for any file there was on the subject and any information the Department had on it. I got all the information the Department had. I went through it thoroughly and I was asked to receive another deputation on which, I think, Deputy Roddy's Sligo informant was the most vocal. I told them, as he said, plainly, clearly and concisely what I thought and what I could do for them, and that was nothing. I said that I did not think the case they put up to me was a good one and that I did not believe they were entitled to any special treatment.
They put their case, as the Deputy stated quite rightly, clearly and concisely. The gentleman from Sligo was an able man who knew the subject and had correspondence with the Department over a long period of years. He had been in correspondence also with a variety of other persons similarly situated to himself in other towns. He knew his subject and he put his case well. I told the deputation what I am telling Deputy Roddy, that I did not think that the case put forward by these gentlemen who represented certain people—various occupiers of land,  in various urban areas, with grievances real or imaginary—was a good one and that I did not think they were entitled to any further relief. People who have agricultural land in urban areas are getting certain relief. In point of fact I know that while they claim and can put forward a good case on how proximity value has disappeared and how the change in transport conditions has upset values in various ways, this much is also true, that when we go to look for land for housing inside the boundary of these urban areas or a short distance outside, we know the value they place on their land.
Mr. O Ceallaigh: I could read out a long list to the Deputy of lands and of sites that have been bought in the last three years for housing, and I doubt if we got in any area land at less than £120 per acre, even in small towns in the West of Ireland. While it is correct to state that the proximity value has, owing to transport developments, disappeared to a large extent, other things have come along to compensate for it. Another reason why I could not do anything for Sligo is that there are altogether 61 urban areas that might be affected. Twenty-two of these under the 1898 Local Government Act were specially treated for special reasons; their cases were specially considered under the 1898 Act. There was no question of prejudice or influence for any one town more than another. There was an underlying principle. These 22 urban areas were selected and got certain advantages because they were incorporated or extended as urban areas after the 1898 Act. Probably the Deputy knows the history.
There are 39 other towns that did not get this advantage, and of course if you  deal with one we shall have to deal with the lot. I think there is no case for dealing with them. I told the deputation that waited on me a year and a half ago what I thought at that time. We wrote to others not present who wanted information and told them definitely what the position was and that the Minister did not propose to alter the law as it stood so far as urban areas were concerned. Those interested are fairly well acquainted with my ideas on the subject. The permanent legislation I refer to is being prepared, and with these smaller Bills necessary next year it will come in in permanent form rather than the form in which it is now.
Mr. Roddy: Does the Minister agree that there is no difference between the conditions in Sligo and Ballina, and in these circumstances does he think that Sligo should be deprived of the benefit of the Agricultural Grant indefinitely?
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