The purpose of this motion is to persuade the Government to introduce a national waiver scheme for domestic waste charges, to apply to households with low income.
Tens of thousands of households have refuse collection bills they simply cannot afford to pay. These include pensioners, the widowed, people dependent on social welfare, workers on low wages, large families or parents of children with special needs. The widow who contacted me yesterday is a typical case in point. She is the full-time carer of her paralysed adult daughter. Her income is €179 per week. She has just received a waste charges bill from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for €350. The maximum waiver for which she will qualify is €80, leaving her with a bill which is almost twice her weekly income. She cannot pay it, and there is no case to justify her having to pay it. She is not alone. There are many like her in every part of the country. Theirs is the need the Labour Party is highlighting with this motion tonight. Their need is urgent. They have waste charges bills they cannot afford to pay. In some cases they are facing imminent non-collection. In most cases they are worried sick about it. These people cannot be left waiting while political parties argue over the idea of charging for waste, or the role of waste charges in environmental taxation.
The Government should introduce a national waiver scheme to address the financial hardship waste charges are now causing for low income households and families. The collection of domestic waste is now charged for in every part of the country, whether the local authority or a private operator provides the service. In preparation for this debate the Labour Party conducted a survey of the waste collection arrangements and charges in 30 of the larger local authorities. Although there are some similarities, the charging system is different in every one of the 30 local authorities surveyed.
In some counties and towns there are still flat weekly, monthly or annual charges for collection of household waste. Some charge by the bag or bin, some charge by weight, and others have a combination of weight, volume and flat charging. The amounts charged per bag, per lift or per kilogram vary from one county or town to another. No two charging systems are the same.
The stated annual amounts range from €90 in County Leitrim to €590 in County Mayo. The charge per bag ranges from €3.50 in County Limerick to €9 in County Donegal. It is difficult to estimate an average charge for areas which have a pay-by-weight system, but from the information supplied to the Labour Party the annual average appears to be around €350 to €400. The charges are higher than this in some areas.
Some people in our society can pay €350 or €400 without even noticing it. The Labour Party does not subscribe to the argument that waste charges should be abolished for everyone, so that those who can manifestly afford to pay can benefit. Many in our country, including me, are prepared to pay a reasonable charge for the waste collection service. We ask only that the service is efficient and that recycling and recovery facilities are improved so that we can reduce the amounts of waste we generate.
For many households and families the present level of charges is an unfair and unacceptable financial hardship. The sum of €350 or €400 represents more than two weeks income for a pensioner dependent on the non-contributory social welfare pension. That sum is up to €70 more than the weekly income for a couple with four children where the breadwinner is ill and the family is dependent on the disability allowance. It represents between 50 and 60 hours of work for a worker on the national minimum wage of €7 per hour and it is nearly twice the income threshold for a medical card for a couple which is currently €222. It is also above the income limit at which a family begins to qualify for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance.
Even by the restricted criteria used by the State for its various social welfare and supplementary welfare schemes, the current levels of domestic waste charges are unaffordable for low income households. However, these charges are demanded from them and their waste will not be collected if they cannot pay. That is the official position enshrined in legislation. Only a minority of low income households qualify at present for any kind of waiver for their waste charges.
The survey undertaken by the Labour Party shows that in 21 of the 30 larger local authorities, private companies now collect domestic waste. In the vast majority of these areas, there is no waiver scheme at all. It is now the case in 18 of the 30 councils surveyed that the householder must pay up or keep his or her waste. The survey suggests that 60% of householders who cannot afford the waste charges have no access at all to a waiver scheme, even an inadequate one.
In a small number of cases — three, according to the Labour Party survey — local authorities have made some arrangement with their private contractors for some kind of waiver. However, the legal basis for this appears to be in some doubt. At the end of last year the Attorney General wrote to the manager of Limerick City Council informing him that the continuation of the waiver system was illegal because the service there was private and not run by the council itself. That advice was subsequently amended and I understand there is now some court action in regard to the scheme in that area.
Even where waiver schemes exist, and these are mostly in the one third of services still run by local authorities, the terms of the waivers are varied, inconsistent and in many cases inadequate. Some councils give waivers to old age pensioners but not to other social welfare recipients. In my constituency, the county manager has changed the waiver scheme so that only a small proportion of the charge is now waived. In none of the areas surveyed is there a waiver for households where the breadwinner is working and is on low income or where there are large family responsibilities.
The Labour Party is proposing to Dáil Éireann that the Government should introduce a national waiver scheme for waste charges that would apply uniformly across the country. The scheme could easily be administered through the social welfare system and through the tax system. The waste waiver could be added as an additional free scheme for pensioners. For others on social welfare and for pensioners who would not qualify for free schemes, the waiver could be paid as an additional payment like the living-alone allowance or the fuel scheme. For workers on low incomes the waiver could come as a tax credit.
The scheme should be designed to take into account the needs of differing family and household circumstances. A family with a large number of children would inevitably have more waste than a single-person household. Large families should not be financially penalised by higher levels of waste charge. Account should also be taken of households with special needs, such as a family member with a medical condition which might give rise to extra or heavier waste.
There are several advantages to the introduction of a national waiver scheme along these lines. First, it can be done quickly and thereby provide immediate relief now to those whose needs are greatest, rather than obliging them to wait until all issues relating to waste charges and waste management are resolved. Second, it would be easy to administer and would reduce the cost in local authorities of having to duplicate means testing which existing waiver schemes require. Third, the Government could introduce the waiver scheme without having to unravel its current waste management strategy, even though the Labour Party believes there is a clear need to change the Government's approach to the waste issue. Fourth, the national waiver scheme would not be vulnerable to a challenge that it infringes European regulations on charging for waste since it is confined to the "ability to pay" principle. Finally and most importantly, a national waiver scheme would be fair and would at least ensure that the poorest households do not have to bear a disproportionate share of the country's waste problem.
In any event, the Government has a particular responsibility to those who cannot afford to pay the current waste charges because it was the present Government which introduced these charges in their present form. The current waste charges arise directly from legislation which was introduced and argued for by the present Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government. The so-called Protection of the Environment Act 2003 was pushed and rushed through this House by former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen.
The inappropriately-titled legislation, which should perhaps be better called "Cullen's law", made five major changes. It removed from elected councillors the power to decide on waste charges and waiver schemes and it transferred that power to unelected city and county managers. Section 52(8) of the Act states: "Notwithstanding the provisions of any order made under any other enactment, the making of a charge in respect of the provision of a waste service and any exercise of the power of waiver under subsection (3) shall each be an executive function". As we all know, in local government, an executive function is performed by the manager, not by the elected council.
Cullen's law prohibits elected councillors from having any hand, act or part in the making of waste charges or waiver schemes. Section 52(9) states: "A local authority shall not by resolution under section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 give a direction or require any act, matter or thing to be done or effected, where the effect of such direction or requirement would be contrary to or inconsistent with this section and any such resolution purporting to be passed under the said section 140 which contravenes this subsection shall be void".
Cullen's law goes on to oblige county managers and other waste operators to charge the full economic cost of the waste service. Section 43 of the Protection of the Environment Act 2003 legally obliges the operators of landfill facilities to impose charges and makes it clear that they must charge the full economic cost. Section 43(4) states: "The aggregate amount of charges imposed by the operator, in relation to the facility concerned, during the relevant period will be not less than the amount which would meet the total of the following costs (irrespective of whether these costs or any of them have been or will be met from any other financial measures available to the operator". The costs are then listed as: "the acquisition and development of the facility"; "the operating costs"; and "the estimated costs for a period of 30 years after the closure of the facility of the costs of closure, restoration, remediation and after-care".
A financial resolution which the Government introduced in this House on 18 June 2003 and which, by a vote of 70 to 57, it insisted be passed without debate, gives the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the power to order charges for waste services. Cullen's Law also gives local authorities and other waste operators the power to refuse collection of waste from any householder who has not paid his or her charges.
It is necessary to remind the House and the public of the provisions of Cullen's law of 2003 because since the last local elections, when Fianna Fáil lost control of most councils, party members and some of their fellow travellers have been busily putting it about that the new waste charging regimes are the work of the Opposition parties which now hold the chairs of local authorities. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Cullen's law gives the councillors no say whatever over waste charges, it gives the power to managers, it forces managers to charge the full economic cost and if any manager fails to do that, it gives the Minister the power to "order" the charges and anyone who does not pay the charges will not have his or her bin collected. When that legislation was moved in this House, it was vigorously opposed by the Labour Party.
I encourage any person who is seriously interested in the politics of waste charges to read the Dáil debates on this legislation. They are available on the Oireachtas website at www.oireachtas.ie. Second Stage debate was taken on 29 May and 13 and 17 June 2003, Committee Stage took place in the Select Committee on the Environment and Local Government on 19, 20, 24, and 25 June and Report Stage was taken on 1 July 2003.
The Labour Party argued that the main purpose of the legislation was to increase waste charges to perhaps €700 per annum. We are now well on the way to that figure. We also predicted that the waste charging regime being set up in Cullen's law would result in financial hardship for many households and an increase in illegal dumping and waste burning, and that there would be public health problems arising from uncollected waste. However, the proposals put forward by the Labour Party and other Opposition parties were voted down by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats majority in the House and in the committee.
It is little comfort to us that we have been proved right in our predictions. However, we are determined to change Cullen's law when the Labour Party is returned to Government. In the meantime, our priority is with those who are on low incomes, whether from work, pensions or social welfare, and who are finding it extremely painful and sometimes impossible to pay the waste charges which were prescribed in Cullen's law.
That is why the Labour Party proposes the national waiver scheme. I ask the Government, no matter how wedded it is to waste charges, to at least release those who cannot pay. I ask every Member of this House, no matter what his or her views on waste charges or waste management, to at least agree that those who are least able to pay should get some relief now and not have to wait until some undetermined time in the future.
There are many households in this country which are struggling to get by, which the new economic fortunes have passed by and for which the waste charges represent a bill too far. Among them are people who have always paid their way and who worry about being in debt. These people need relief, and they need it soon. I ask the Government to agree to the Labour Party proposal for a national waiver scheme and I call on all Members of this House to support the Labour Party motion.