Bad news back on agenda now vote is over

Fri, Jun 1, 2012, 01:00

A RANGE of thorny issues is set to return to the political agenda from next week, now that the referendum has been dealt with.

Having shelved any “bad news” during the referendum campaign, the Government is facing a backlog of tough decisions.

The introduction of property taxes, which could be as high as €3,000, is likely to dominate the agenda, but Ministers will also have to make potentially unpopular decisions in relation to water charges and septic tanks.

Talks on reforms to the public service will enter a crucial stage while a decision on the siting of the proposed national children’s hospital is likely to provoke criticism by those who lose out.

Throughout May, Ministers denied they were putting bad news on the back-burner, but it was clear that Cabinet business was exceptionally light as many senior figures canvassed for a Yes vote. Reviews and decisions that were promised in the spring were delayed until after the treaty vote.

Specific proposals for a property tax were supposed to have been ready by April or May, but the work of the expert group involving Government departments and the Revenue Commissioners has been delayed.

The group, chaired by former senior civil servant Don Thornhill, is expected to report to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan later this month. The central issue is whether to base the tax on the value of a property – which would penalise city-dwellers – or the site, which would be unpopular in rural Ireland.

Then there is the question of the €100 household charge. So far an estimated 945,000 households have registered for the charge, introduced as an interim revenue-raising fee until a gradated property charge was drawn up. Up to now, no action has been taken against the hundreds of thousands of liable householders who haven’t paid.

The department said yesterday local government officials were working through the backlog of applications before deciding on how to pursue defaulters. Most people registered online, but the backlog of paper applications, which once stood at 206,000, is now 28,800. A spokeswoman for the Local Government Management Agency said the backlog would be cleared within three weeks.

The introduction of water charges is certain to prove controversial. The department says it expects Bord Gáis, which is to set up a water metering system, to deliver an implementation report within months. This is likely to give an indication not only of the charge that will be levied but also of the cost of installing meters.

Septic tank registration is another issue that was pushed off the agenda. Last February Hogan announced a reduction in the fee for registering septic tanks from €50 to €5 for those who applied in the first three months.

The Minister promised the registration system would be ready by mid-April but his department said yesterday it was still being built and registration would start “during the summer”.

The remaining rural issue which has been ducked by the Government is turfcutting on protected raised bogs. A minority of turfcutters have been flouting the law during the recent fine weather by extracting turf on some protected sites. There was no way the Government would risk picking a fight during the referendum campaign, but it is eventually going to have to confront illegal activity or suffer fines imposed by Brussels.

In health, Minister James Reilly is on a loser whatever site he picks for the new children’s hospital. Following An Bord Pleanála’s rejection of plans for the Mater site, the choice now is between a reduced-scale project at the Mater or the selection of a new location. The group he appointed to advise on the best location is due to report next Thursday.

The coming weeks will also see crucial talks with unions on the review of allowances for public sector staff, reforms to sick leave in the public service and proposed changes to the way increments are awarded.

In education, schools are waiting to hear about allocations of special needs assistants.