A RAFT of local authorities plan to demand proof that the €100 household charge has been paid before issuing grants to the disabled and people on social welfare, the Irish Independent has learned.
Councils have been ordered to adopt a get-tough approach and at least seven are planning to withhold or dock other payments - including disability grants and rent allowances - if recipients refuse to pay the charge.
The move comes after it emerged yesterday that two local authorities insisted that hundreds of students applying for third-level grants produce proof that the charge has been paid before it will process their applications.
But South Tipperary was forced to row back on an earlier decision not to pay the grants late last night.
Meanwhile Clare Co Council said it would "prioritise" applications from students whose parents have paid.
However, the councils cannot refuse to pay the grants, theDepartment of Education said last night. Rules on payments of third-level grants did not allow payments to be withheld "on foot of non-payment of the household charge", a spokeswoman said.
She added that the department had been neither "consulted nor informed" of the councils' move.
Legal experts said that local authorities could not decide the criteria for payment on a "random basis".
"If they (local authorities) are giving a grant on the basis of parental income, they're entitled to evidence to back that up," said James McDermott SC, from UCD's School of Law.
However, he added: "Local authorities can't decide on a random basis the criteria for payment of grants. I cannot see the relevance of whether the parent has paid the household charge."
The move by the local authorities has been criticised by the Dail's opposition, the Union of Students in Ireland and the Teachers' Union of Ireland. More than 30 students protested outside Clare County Council's office against the move.
However, it was defended by two government ministers, with Education Minister Ruairi Quinn saying it was "reasonable" that people applying for taxpayers' money were asked if they had paid the levy.
Fianna Fail's education spokesman, Charlie McConalogue, said it was "disgraceful" that Mr Quinn would "casually defend a threat to withhold education funding".
But Environment Minister Phil Hogan said the councils were following instructions to increase compliance rates, which currently stand at just over 60pc.
Some 220,000 letters have been sent to households since July, reminding them to pay.
"They are doing what (I have) instructed all local authorities to do -- to ensure that we get a higher level of compliance with the household charge," Mr Hogan told the Dail.
"Otherwise, they will be faced with the consequences of not having the same amount of money in their budget as they had in the earlier part of the year, and they will have to cut their budget."
This newspaper has learned that a raft of local authorities are now planning to demand proof of payment before processing and issuing other grants.
Waterford City Council said it planned to deduct the €100 charge from grants paid to upgrade homes for people with disabilities.
"We do request proof of payment of the household charge in relation to grants to improve houses where (disabled) people require upgrades," a spokesman said.
"We've only done it in the last few weeks, so I'm not aware of any persons being refused. We wouldn't refuse to pay it, we might refuse to give them the full amount. We would have taken legal advice."
Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president John Logue described the threatened withholding of grants as cynical and craven.
"Never have I heard of a grant being refused until proof of payment is offered for a completely unrelated tax owed by another person," he said, adding that students were being punished for the decisions of their parents. The USI is now seeking legal advice on the matter.