Joe Higgins TD on new legislation and water charges

“Householders who refuse to pay water bills will have charges deducted from wages or dole”, screamed the Irish Independent in early May in response, no doubt, to a behind the scenes briefing from Government officials. We are getting used to these types of headlines.

In March, the Irish Times told us: “Irish Water may deduct unpaid bills from wages and welfare” in the headline followed by a claim that, “The introduction of attachment orders in order to increase compliance with water charges marks a step change in the Coalition’s approach to those who do not pay their water bills.”

Nothing to fear…

It is by now a familiar ploy by the government to place stories such as these in the media in an attempt to frighten and isolate the huge cohort of people who are refusing to pay the water charges. They hope to make people feel nervous so that they rush out and pay.

The May headlines were prompted by the realisation that huge numbers were boycotting the water charge. The first bills went out from early April, and by mid-May Irish Water hoped that the massive opposition, visible on the streets at the end of last year and earlier this year, might have dissipated and that this new austerity tax would come rolling in. They have been disappointed as evidenced by the fact that they adamantly refuse to reveal payment and non-payment figures two months after the first bills were sent.

…Irish water is not Revenue

These media stories are predicated on a lie. The impression is being given that Irish Water can simply reach into the pockets of workers and welfare recipients and take the money from those who continue to boycott and demand the abolition of the charge. This cannot be done under present legislation.  Irish Water is not like the Revenue Commissioners with their draconian powers. It is like Electric Ireland or other service providers. There is no question therefore of a simple repeat of the Property Tax situation where the threat by Revenue had, unfortunately, a big impact on defeating that boycott.

Courts will be clogged up

Irish Water has no way around a cumbersome court procedure relating to debt collection if it wishes to take that road. Householders would have to be brought to court for a judge to give an order that they should pay. Most would then go away and continue not to pay. After many more months Irish Water could bring them back again. On a third appearance they might get ‘an attachment order’ which says that the bill would be paid in instalments from their wages and welfare. This procedure would take months and indeed up to a year or more. How on earth could the Courts Service deal with away over half a million households being dragged to court. The whole system would be clogged up.

In in previous water battles  they tried the same tactic – it did not break the boycott campaign and the charges were defeated. Each court case invigorated the campaign and became points of protest and solidarity action, resulting in the court system being blocked up and the charges being defeated. The government’s big stick isn’t so big.
Disgracefully the government is also targeting people who rent their accommodation. They are threatening to bring in legislation to force landlords to legally deduct unpaid water charges from the deposits of the tenants. This course is fraught with danger for the government. It would cause huge anger but its administration would also be a nightmare. No wonder landlords are loudly objecting.

Any course of action to try to make it easier to force water charges from people’s pockets would have to see new legislation brought to the Dáil which would be bitterly fought. The campaign would have to meet such a situation with a strengthening of the boycott and the reigniting of the mass mobilisations that shocked the political establishment over the last nine months.

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