The policy for dealing with those who have paid water charges is sending confusing messages.

The report of the Commission on Domestic Public Water Services was published this week.

It said only those who use excessive amounts of water should have to pay. All other use would be funded from general taxation.

What was left unanswered was what should happen with the charges which have been collected.

The report says: “The necessary measures should be put in place to give effect to the commitment that those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably than those who have not.”

On Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 Minister for State Damien English said he and Ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar favoured collecting the outstanding water charges instead of simply returning the charges paid to date.

Given the public opposition to the levies and the fact payment has stalled since the outcome of coalition talks, it seems improbable that the Government would have the political capital to mount a new campaign to collect the outstanding charges.

In those circumstances it would only be equitable that the charges paid to date should be returned.

This is important for a number of reasons. If any future administration decides to implement any new charge or tax there is a strong possibility people will anticipate the new levy could be scrapped in the face of public opposition.

There has to be confidence if any future charge is abandoned those who pay will be refunded otherwise there is little incentive to pay.

It is equitable that those who pay are refunded if a significant amount of outstanding charges remain uncollected.

If they aren’t reimbursed, it effectively rewards those who refused to pay while punishing those who did.

In those circumstances it undermines the credibility of the authorities to collect taxes.

The water charges debacle has already badly undermined the ability of any future government to broaden the tax base, as countless administrations have been advised to do by bodies such as the IMF and European Commission.

It is politically expedient to support the recommendation the expert group and scrap charges for everyone except excessive users.

But to punish those who did pay will make it virtually impossible to modernise the tax system for the broader benefit of Irish society in years to come. 

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