Updated: 16/12/11 : 08:16:56
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A Christmas Carol

By Jim O'Sullivan

(A “fair” tax fairytale of our time)

The opening dialogue in the Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, has Ebenezer Scrooge cantankerously rebuff those collecting alms to help the poor by asking, “Are there no prisons. And the union workhouses-are they full?” When the collectors reply that there are plenty of prisons and the workhouses thrive, Scrooge responds, “Oh, from what you said at first I was afraid that something had happened to stop them in their useful course.”

The response from Scrooge might appear today to be odd but at the dawn of Victorian times in England being money poor was actually a crime and prison, and the workhouse, was the preferred establishment response to the grinding poverty that abounded.

The Industrial Revolution, which had started in the late 18th century, brought with it an environment in which small groups could become very wealthy while those doing the work on the factory floor were maintained in poverty.  In this first era of unregulated capitalism, once people became disconnected from the land, failure to get work meant immediate hardship and worse. The only relief was to be found in the workhouse under the Poor Laws.

These laws operated under two guiding principles, 1) conditions in the workhouse must be worse than that experienced by the poorest worker outside (and that was stark); 2) All relief must only be accessible in the workhouse. Conditions in the workhouses were appalling and many tried to avoid being detained there but the Vagrancy Act was used by magistrates to imprison any such persons. Under this Act a vagrant was any person without money. So we can see that putting those with little in jail is nothing new.

Minister Phil Hogan actually has a passing resemblance to the commonly held perception of what Scrooge looked like. A wig and a little make-up would produce a credible image of the Dickens miser. (Of course the irritating incessant grin would have to go)  It must also be said here that Joan Burton would not require much make-up to get into character either. Her capacity to bah-humbug those that have called for the savage cuts such as those to fuel allowance and lone parent incomes to be reversed would send a shiver down the spine of any curmudgeon. ( It must be regarded as nothing less than astonishing to the political neutral that the Labour Party helped vote into existence a bill to levy a flat tax which carries the potential to not only further impoverish the most vulnerable but to criminalise them as well)

As Mr Hogan spelled out the details of his Household Charge in the Dail, with the stress and emphasis on fines and punishment for non-payment, it became worrying that the failure to relate liability for the new tax to “ability to pay” will expose many to the rigours of those same draconian enforcement plans. We are now back to Victorian times were a government sits easy with a scenario whereby a person could end up in prison for having no money. (Or is the intention to take people’s homes?) There are many lone parents, pensioners and those dependent on other welfare payments living in houses that they bought years ago when their circumstances were different and who have seen their incomes cut to the bone in recent times, for a range of reasons, and who will simply not be able to pay the €100 charge. The most incompetent politician should have no difficulty seeing that and the crude disingenuous attempts to minimise the impact on those with little by describing the charge as “only €2 a week” is an indictment on their capacity to understand what living on the breadline is actually like.

It is hard to know which the worst is; a government that cannot empathise with those who have little or one who cannot anticipate the utter despair that will be created by the vista of pensioners and others of little means filing through the courts answering summonses for failure to pay a charge they cannot afford. Is this even a remote possibility? Or maybe the government is merely engaged in blackguardism deliberately creating concerns and worries for the most vulnerable to taunt the opposition or for the want of knowing what else to do. Fine Gael, with their tendency to regard the people as an enemy to be cowered and beaten down, are well and truly back. As for the mudguard, all that can be said is, et tu Labour?

Dickens’s works became the conscience of Victorian England and by persistently articulating the injustices that were all around, the powers that be were eventually abashed into taking action. Dickens also laid out clear warnings of what social breakdown in the industrialised world could bring. Although “A Christmas Carol” is an early work this theme is raised in the exchange between Scrooge and the “Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come”. Becoming concerned that Scrooge had failed to get the message the spirit draws back his robe to show two starving children. Scrooge enquires “Are they yours?” to which the spirit replies, “They are Man’s. The boy is Ignorance, the girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all, beware the boy.” .Profound and sound advice. (Destined, I fear, to float well over the heads of the self-absorbed leadership of the current government)

In the spirit of the writings of Dickens we must proceed on the basis that those that govern have the capacity to see injustice and have the courage to change decisions that are clearly wrong and dangerously so. Maybe the “Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come”, if in earshot, will dust down the robe and pay a few much needed visits over this Christmastide just in case this optimism is misplaced.

As you go about your affairs this season, look out for those that are having trouble keeping up.

Oh, and Merry Christmas to one and all. (Including Minister Hogan et al)