There must be a better way to solve rates problem

THERE is not as much work about as there used to be so sometimes a man gets to daydreaming.

Imagine that our Finance Minister is submerged in a swimming pool and only I can rescue him from drowning. I save the day. Its actually remarkably easy. I take my foot off his head.

According to figures released last week arrears of rates in Northern Ireland for 2011/12 were £160.8 million. That is double what the figure was five years ago.

£3.6 million of the debt belongs to Banbridge. That is a huge amount of money. Five years ago before the economy collapsed most people could probably afford to pay their rates. Unpaid rates would have arisen largely because some people simply wouldn’t pay.

Over the five intervening years when the figure of rates arrears has doubled I doubt if there are many more people who simply won’t pay.

Chances are that the huge increase in arrears comes about because people can’t pay. They simply don’t have the money. Its not that they are being frivolous or spending their money on luxuries they simply don’t have the money coming in in the first place.

As I have pointed out in a column previously the rating system is a fundamentally unfair system. It takes no account of money which flows through anyone’s hands. It is an amount which has to be paid regardless of income, turnover, cashflow or profit.

The Public Accounts Committee at Stormont is concerned. That’s good to know as Committee members certainly should be concerned. Unfortunately their concern focuses on the debt collection process.

The Committee would favour making it easier for people to pay off their arrears. What is the point? If people can’t pay the rates in the first place how are they going to pay off arrears and at the same time pay the ongoing current rates which they are facing.

In effect what the Committee is saying that they have no plans to stop the torture but they will make it slower.

People are drowning in debt and costs. They can choose to cut back on food, heat, light, travel and the many other things that, up to a point, they have a choice about to try to cope. Without becoming homeless or without closing down their business the unfortunate truth is that people can’t choose what their rates liability will be. The drowning people could be saved if Sammy Wilson and his Stormont colleagues took their feet off their heads. 
For years we have been able to send rockets and satellites into space and navigate through our solar system. We carry devices in our pockets which do things that would have been witchcraft when I was a child.

If we can do all that surely we can come up with a system to collect money from people at a rate which they can actually afford. Surely we can recognise that the current system is not fit for purpose and is adding to people’s pressures and disadvantage. Science, technology and philosophy constantly progress through the work of clever people.

There must be some clever people left over somewhere who can dream up a better way.