Leaders’ Questions

It was bad enough that the household tax was pushed through come hell or high water by 31 March, with the result that only half of households have registered for payment. Now the country is faced with the water metering debacle, with headlines in The Sunday Times suggesting that people will have to pay up to €300 to install a meter. This was followed by a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government saying that both the cost of buying and installing water meters would be passed on to households and not paid for by the Exchequer. We then had the Taoiseach stating:

There will not be an installation charge for the householder because that cost will be covered as a loan from the National Pensions Reserve Fund to the Department. There will be a cost for the meter itself.

On RTE Radio's "This Week", the Tánaiste articulated a third position, that no decision had yet been made on how water meters are to be paid for. As if these confused statements were not enough, on Monday the Taoiseach repeated that while there would be no charge for the installation of water meters, somebody will have to pay for them.

The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, added the Government was awaiting proposals on metering from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, stated that no formal decision had been taken but that he saw meters as a friend of householders, businesses and so on. All of this took place on the same day the Irish League of Credit Unions painted a stark picture of more than 47% of households having less than €100 in disposable income per month.

Whose fault is that?

A question, please.

I suggest the Government already is out of touch.

A question please.

It does not have a clear and detailed plan on how water metering is going to work.

At least we know what we voted for.

This has been a shambolic and farcical situation. There are no detailed costings, no detail on exemptions and no details on how the Government expects to put water meters into all households by 2014-----

A question, please.

-----which would require an installation rate of 4,000 per day. Moreover, while the actual cost of meter installation has been quoted as being €800 per house, Professor Gray of Trinity College Dublin has stated that meters can cost anything from €90 to €700.

A question please, Deputy. We are over time.

Can the Taoiseach bring clarity to this issue this morning? How much will this water metering system cost the average householder? Second, what are the job loss implications in the 34 local authorities? I note when this happened in Northern Ireland, more than 800 jobs were lost in local authorities there-----

Thank you Deputy. We are way over time.

-----which would equate to approximately 1,300 jobs in this jurisdiction.

Deputy, we are way over time.

The Deputy is willing harm on us.

Third, will the Taoiseach ensure the appearance in the House today of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan-----

He cannot find him.

-----to make a detailed statement to bring clarity to this issue and to answer questions from Members of this House?

Deputy, please. We are over time.

It is the hapless Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, who always is sent out. Where is the Minister, Deputy Hogan? The Minister, Deputy Hogan, should come into the House to give a detailed statement and answer a few questions on it for the benefit of the House and the public.

Before calling on the Taoiseach, I remind Deputies there are two minutes for asking a question and three minutes for a reply. I ask everyone to adhere to those limits.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, is in Denmark today to attend a meeting of European Union Ministers. The Government made two decisions today. First, it decided that Irish Water would be set up as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann in public ownership, with no intention of privatisation of the Irish water system. Second, the Government made a formal decision that there would be no upfront charges on anyone in respect of the provision of water and that charging for water will not begin until 2014. That deals with the three questions Deputy Martin asked. The Government now has two years in which to work out the detail of what is involved in this regard. There will be no job losses in the 34 local authorities but an additional 2,000 jobs will be created for those men and women who are quantity surveyors, engineers, plumbers and people working in the water system. I repeat the Minister, Deputy Hogan, is in Denmark.

I might point out to Deputy Martin that on his first day back in the House, it ill behoves him to take the opportunistic line he is taking.

I simply asked a question.

I am not in any way commenting on the speculation one always will have regarding issues that arise in politics in the normal course of events. However, I want Deputy Martin to understand that the actions of the Governments of which he was a member have left the Government with this unprecedented mess. The present Administration has the courage to sort it out and is not so doing by perpetrating a scam on the Irish people to the effect that one can run all the country's services with the tax revenues coming in from property speculators. The Government has chosen to not increase income tax. It has chosen to not impose a tax on work, employment and jobs.

It is transferring responsibility in this area to consumers, who will have a choice. Moreover, the Government has built in protections in all things to date for consumers. It intends to change the entire transmission system of the way in which water, which is a precious resource, is dispensed nationwide. Deputy Martin is aware of the impact, economically, personally and socially, of what happened with the cryptosporidium case in Galway. He is familiar with the difficulties that arise when people receive notices that they are obliged to boil water. He is aware of the volumes of high-quality, pristine, safe and clean water that now are demanded in Ireland, where there are high levels of confidence for investment about which I hope to make a further announcement today. We cannot continue in the manner that obtained in the past, whereby 40% of the water from reservoirs never gets to the facilities or to those who are supposed to use it. The Government must deal with this problem and will deal with it in as fair, as equitable and as affordable a way as possible. There will be no charges until 2014. An assessment in respect of the level of investment that will be required in respect of the roll-out of water metering will commence very shortly.

Bord Gáis Éireann has been a public utility company for many years. It has a brilliant record in the context of dealing with consumers, the payment of bills, pipelines, business, enterprise, governance, etc. It and Bord na Móna submitted substantial proposals in respect of this matter in response to the Government's desire to retain Irish Water as a public utility in public ownership. Earlier this morning I heard Deputy Donnelly referring to tenders and contacts with a view to privatising Irish Water.

That is your agenda.

That is not the case nor is it the intention of this Government.

With the greatest respect, I asked the Taoiseach how much this is will cost the average householder and he did not answer my question. In fact, he avoided the question in its entirety.

Did Deputy Martin put that question to Brian Cowen when the Government of which they were members voted in favour of a certain course of action?

Deputy McNamara should calm down.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach stated that there is a large amount of documentation available and that comprehensive submissions have been made by Bord Gáis Éireann. Will the Taoiseach publish such documentation and also the advice the Government received?

The Deputy should ask a supplementary question.

The Taoiseach should publish all of it.

Deputy Martin would not read the information if it was published. He never read such material when he was in government.

(Interruptions).

The real scam that has been pulled off relates to the election commitments made by the Taoiseach and his colleagues last year. I am aware that the Tánaiste was in difficulty on Sunday as a result of the Labour Party conference.

A supplementary question, please.

I took the Tánaiste at his word when he stated that a decision has not been taken. However, I suspect that something else may have been going on. In 2009, the Labour Party had a very clear position on this matter when it indicated that "water is a basic and fundamental need and should not be treated like a market commodity".

I would prefer if we had questions rather than statements.

At that time, Deputy Tuffy stated "Charging for domestic water, in the light of our current taxation system, will only add to inequality, since such charges don't take account of people's ability to pay." She also stated "The Labour Party abolished water charges when Brendan Howlin was Environment Minister in the Rainbow Govt, 1996. We would oppose any attempt to reverse that move."

Has the Ceann Comhairle's clock stopped?

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach obviously brought the Tánaiste into line in respect of this matter prior to today's sitting. How does he propose to ensure that people's capacity to pay will be taken into account?

A Deputy

Deputy Martin needs a drop of holy water.

Get out your pepper spray.

Perhaps it might be possible to have some holy silence.

Deputy Martin quoted the Tánaiste and Deputy Tuffy. He could have used a quote from Éamon de Valera who promised to drain the Shannon many years ago.

(Interruptions).

I was referring to statements made prior to the most recent general election.

What about the comments on Roscommon Hospital?

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Perhaps Deputy Martin might enlighten the Dáil at some stage with regard to what he actually said himself on the night during which the Government of which he was a member-----

What did the Taoiseach say about property tax?

-----lumped €70 billion in debt onto the backs of taxpayers on foot of the debacle in the former Anglo Irish Bank.

(Interruptions).

Answer the question.

Perhaps the Deputy might comment on the matter to which I refer at some point. The position is that the Government made a decision yesterday in respect of-----

How much is it going to cost the average household?

-----allocating responsibility for the establishment of Irish Water to Bord Gáis Éireann. The Government also made a decision that there would be no up-front charge and that charges would not be imposed until 2014. The Government will also make the decision regarding the free allowance consumers will receive in respect of water. However, in accordance with tradition, the regulator will have responsibility for the structure and the detail of what will be involved.

The ESB has been a public utility company for very many years. Neither I nor the Deputy can inform people as to what will be the cost of electricity in five years' time. It is daft to ask what will be the charge for water when the details of the matter have not even been discussed or worked out. The relevant regulator will have responsibility in this area.

There is no hiding behind the regulator.

I met the various regulators last summer and informed them that the primary interest of the Government lies is-----

No hiding behind the regulator.

Fianna Fáil hid behind every regulator it ever appointed.

-----in the protection of consumers and the creation of jobs.

The Taoiseach's time is exhausted.

All regulators must bear in mind the various sensitivities and consequences involved when they make decisions. On a previous occasion the House had discussions and made recommendations in respect of situations where an increase in the price of oil would lead to a corresponding increase in the cost of electricity.

The Government is going to abolish all regulators. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, put forward the proposal in that regard.

The various regulators must bear their responsibilities in mind.

I thank the Taoiseach.

There will be a two-year gap before all of these details will be worked out. There has been speculation across a broad spectrum-----

It was not speculation.

The decisions made were that, first, Irish Water would be set up by Bord Gáis Éireann and-----

The statements came from the Ministers and the Government.

-----second, there would be no upfront charge for anybody.

The Deputy should listen.

It is not speculation

Third, there would be no charge until 2014.

It is not speculation.

Fourth, there will be 2,000 jobs created, and fifth, there will be a transformation in the delivery of Irish water, and there will be no increase in income taxes or taxes on employment, which was a decision made by the Government. All consumers understand that this precious commodity is not free and when this system is in place, the Government will decide the free allocation per person, after which a charge will apply-----

I thought it would come from the regulator.

-----and that charge will be determined by the regulator. One does not go to bed at night and leave on all the electrical appliances in the house because people know electricity must be paid for.

The Government will have pensioners afraid to turn on any appliances.

We cannot have a position where taps could be left running endlessly.

Or turn on the radio.

There has been much leaking from the Government in the past couple of days and weeks.

In many cases where meters apply-----

The Government could turn off a couple of taps.

The Deputy can see them in many places around the country.

The Government is leaking left, right and centre. It is leaking against itself.

The saving in consumption and cost would be serious.

Could I have the co-operation of everybody please? We are way over time.

This will lead to the creation of a whole new level of confidence and competence in the Irish water system, not just for now but for the next 50 years.

What about the jobs?

I remind Deputies that we are now five minutes over time on the first question.

Deputy Martin was good at leaking himself.

I extend sympathies to Deputy Pearse Doherty on the sudden death of his father, who is being laid to rest this morning. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. They say that lightning does not strike twice but the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, seems to be disproving that maxim. May we have a couple of straight answers from the Taoiseach? He has said there will be no upfront charge so is he therefore stating that people will not be charged for the installation of meters? Will he tell us whether this Government is really considering the prospect of cutting off the water supply to houses in the event of a charge not being paid? This is a strategy that was indicated by one of the Ministers. Does he believe that in this day and age that would be any kind of a civilised option?

The Taoiseach has stated there will be a number of years for the details of this scheme to be worked out and that the regulator must have an eye to the consumer and hardships that might ensue. I ask those on the Government benches to in the first instance have that eye to the citizen because the reaction of the public to yet another charge is one of wondering where they will get the money and wherewithal to meet the cost. Substantial numbers of people have not registered and will not register for the household charge for the very simple reason that they cannot afford it. Equally, hardship will ensue-----

Can the Deputy afford it?

-----from this charge.

Is there a question?

The Taoiseach has made a virtue of the fact that he will not touch income tax and it is clearly a matter of doctrine that the Government will not tax the very wealthy. It is fairly gung ho about imposing charge after charge on lower and middle income people. What will the charge be for the installation of meters? Will the Taoiseach give a guarantee that whatever way this scheme works, the Government will not countenance, in any circumstances, cutting off water supply to homes?

Did the Deputy pay her household charge?

Deputy Hayes should calm down.

I am not sure if the Deputy checked with her counterparts in Northern Ireland but the party seems to have a very different philosophy in this part of the island. The position is that there will be no upfront charge and when this system is worked out by the regulator, the cost of the system will be subsumed into the standing charge to be determined by the regulator. The people living in the Deputy's constituency will not be given an upfront bill for payment.

Electricity is a public utility-----

-----and a standing charge is determined by the regulator, as it has been for very many years. With regard to the comment about people being cut off, these are all matters for discussion with regard to how the system will work. If a person does not pay an electricity or phone bill, the service is cut off. Water is fundamental for life and if the Government states that everybody will receive a free allowance, that speaks for itself.

There is no free water; we pay for it through our taxes.

Clearly the system here is for everybody to understand that we cannot go on the way we have been going on, we cannot continue to have 40% of water leaking through systems, we cannot have 30-----

Then fix the bloody pipes.

We will fix the pipes.

Joe the plumber.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Higgins has surrendered his leadership and should stay quiet.

Joe the plumber lost his place and has moved further to the right.

The banshee of Dunquin speaks.

Deputy Buttimer cannot even get his geography right.

For the Deputy's information, he can take it as a given that in the general discussions that take place about this matter, the priority of Government is to see, reflect and understand the difficulties that many people have. However, as I have explained to him on many occasions in the past, troika or no troika, we in this country have to sort out our public finance problems ourselves. Nobody will walk in with a cheque and say it has all been paid for. Everybody is involved in this and the Government understands the burden on those who have real difficulty, which is why we have introduced waivers, exemptions and regulations which lessen that burden.

The question was asked of somebody yesterday whether VAT will be imposed on water. The answer is "No" because, as Deputies know, water is exempt from VAT under European regulations.

The Government is paving the way for privatisation.

On the cost of the installation of water meters, I have seen in today's newspapers reflections of various costs of meters, from €30 to €200 to €300, and the cost of installation in various locations around the country. That is all a matter for discussion and determination by Bord Gáis when it sets up Irish Water together with the regulator. As I stated, the Government will determine what will be the free allocation.

To set the record straight, more than £1 billion has been invested in water improvement in the North where there are no household water charges - we saw to that - and no prospect of the water service being privatised. Those are the facts.

(Interruptions).

Will the Deputy please ask her supplementary question?

I find it astonishing that the Taoiseach states it will be a matter for discussion whether water supply would be cut off to houses and homes across the State.

He did not say that.

To quote him directly, he stated it will be "a matter for discussion". There cannot be any discussion on that issue.

A question, please.

Water, as the Taoiseach conceded, is essential for a decent standard or quality of living. He stated the speculation as regards costs that is doing the rounds in the public arena is just speculation. However, in the absence of any clarity from the Government, there will be such speculation. The Taoiseach has failed this morning to indicate in any substantive way for the citizens of the State what level of charge they will face. It is most astonishing that he will not rule out the prospect of cutting off water supply to homes. That is a disgrace and I ask him, when he gets to his feet again in a moment, to make crystal clear to people who are very worried as they watch this that the water supply to their homes will not be jeopardised.

The Deputy is making people worried.

(Interruptions).

Deputies must allow the Taoiseach to reply.

Let me repeat what I said for Deputy McDonald, as I did for Deputy Martin. What the Government decided yesterday was that Irish Water would be set up as a publicly owned utility.

I heard all of that.

She did not listen.

I ask the Taoiseach to answer my question.

I understand Deputy McDonald's leader is at the socraid of Micheál Doherty and I extend our sympathies to Deputy Pearse Doherty on the loss of his father.

I remind her of the comment made by her leader yesterday that this was about the privatisation of water. It is nothing of the kind. In fact, the legislation will strengthen the position that this is a publicly owned utility. That is why when expressions of interest were sought on who might run and set up Irish Water two existing semi-State bodies responded, not private companies which, in the words of Deputy Donnelly, would have a contract or tender awarded to them for the privatisation of water. This is a universal product. A universal transmission for high quality water is so important for both business and for personal life.

The Deputy should not say in this House that I said people would have their water cut off.

She did not say that.

There will be no bills of any kind for water for two years.

A Deputy

The Taoiseach said it was an option.

We are over time.

As I said to Deputy Martin, the ESB has been a public utility for many years yet we cannot determine the cost of electricity in three years time or five years time because we do not know what the geopolitical effects of events abroad might be.

Privatisation.

If I said to the Deputy that the Cabinet decided yesterday to go ahead with Metro North, she would ask me the cost of the tickets. The detail of these major schemes has to be worked out.

I am asking about the guaranteed supply of water to homes. It is a very simple question.

I want to put people's anxieties at ease here. Bord Gáis Éireann will set up Irish Water as a publicly owned utility. There will be 2,000 jobs for young men and women to install water meters. There will be much more conservative and careful use of a scarce product.

Will people have their water cut off?

We will respect the importance of consumer protection, which is a point I made last year to all of the regulators. The Deputy need not run off now out of the Chamber and make wild statements.

Look at the evidence. Water usage per household-----

Deputy Higgins, will you please stay quiet?

There is no evidence-----

Welcome back, Joe the Plumber.

I call on Deputy Ross.

Thank you Ceann Comhairle. On behalf of the Technical Group, I would like to join with Deputy McDonald and the Taoiseach in expressing our sympathy to Deputy Doherty on the death of his father.

Yesterday the Cabinet moved to end the confusion which had existed about these water charges, following a report in The Sunday Times last Sunday. We should greet that with a certain amount of optimism, but having heard it, to be honest I prefer the confusion to the clarification. We now know a few very limited things about what will happen with water charges. We know that the Government, in its wisdom, has decided to create another State monopoly with a free hand to charge consumers a completely unspecified amount of money at its own discretion.

(Interruptions).

Well if you tell us how much it is, that would be fine.

Through the Chair, please.

The second thing is what the Americans call the known unknown. We know there will be a €40 charge and we know that that voted €40 charge-----

A Deputy

No we do not.

It is a standing charge of €40, more or less. We know that this charge will be used to repay a loan given by the National Pensions Reserve Fund. Why are the people borrowing money from the National Pensions Reserve Fund? We are borrowing our own money when we do that. This contrasts completely with what happened to the National Pensions Reserve Fund when the banks went to it. When the banks went to the NPRF - a great misnomer because no pension will ever be paid from it - they were given money. An equity investment was made and they will never have to repay most of the money, as everybody knows. Why did the Government not direct the NPRF to put this money into the installation costs so that people do not have to borrow it? Why is this fund, which was pillaged by the banks for money which they will not pay back, being loaned to the people, who are going to have to pay back? We could treat the people at least the same as we treat the banks and allow them to take the money, thereby abolishing that €40 charge.

I thank the Deputy for accepting the principle of what is involved here. What is involved is transforming the way in which water, as a valuable, precious entity, has been dealt with in this country.

Over the next 25 to 50 years it will become even more important and it is critical that the Government now sets in place a system and platform by which water can be delivered to homes and businesses for use in an entirely safe, competent and absolutely professional manner. That is why the Government was anxious that this would be retained as a public entity and as a public utility. Otherwise, if one goes the other route of privatisation and competition for the supply of water among private companies, in our view that would have disastrous consequences. That is why we are very clear about this being a utility retained in public ownership.

The reason for the loan being made in the way it will be made is to provide a commercial return for pensions for people for the future. The Government, as the Deputy will be well aware, does not have any pot of free money to allocate as it so wishes. It is all the people's money one way or the other. We want to deal with the question of serious savings having regard to leaks, investment in proper infrastructure for the carrying and the transmission of water, and the large-scale evidence of water leaks between public boundaries and private houses, of which there are many cases. People do not want that to be an issue with which they cannot deal.

What is involved is a clear Government decision about a way to deal in the future with a resource that has been taken for granted in this country for centuries. We cannot continue the way we have gone before. We must deal with it. The Government decision is absolutely clear in that business and the consumer will take responsibility for their contribution to providing a water system that will continue to inspire confidence in this country from abroad.

As the Deputy will be well aware from his business experience and contacts, it is critical and of fundamental importance for business and major investors that we continue to be able to prove and demonstrate that we have a high quality water system that is safe, clean and in which people can absolute confidence to invest. For personal consumers, it is important that they understand and appreciate, which they do, that this is not a resource that is there to be wasted; it is there to be enjoyed and for use in living, but not to be abused.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I do not disagree with a lot of what he said but he did not answer the question. The question is very simple and maybe I could repeat it. I do not believe that the NPRF - to which the Taoiseach said the money will go back to pay for the pensions in the future - will ever pay a pension. It will be used for infrastructure. It has been used for the banks. It is now a kind of a slush fund for the Government at a time of emergency. It has two forms of funds. It has one for direct - what it called directed - investment and one for discretionary investment. This one is for some reason being used for discretionary investment and the other one, into which the great multiple of the NPRF money has gone, is one that is gone down a black hole into the banks. Why can we not use this €450 million as a direct investment, thereby relieving people of this €40 charge annually over 20 years?

As the Deputy will be aware, that decision was made by a previous Government but what we have done here is to supplement the moneys from the NPRF through the PCAR system where we have borrowed to put a foundation in place for banks. The roll-out of this system under Irish Water will provide a unified, unitary, single transmission system of high quality where the exceptional losses through wastage, leakage, broken pipes and different systems operating throughout the local authorities and town councils will be brought under a single high standard and high quality system. That will be good for the consumer, for business and for the country. We recognise the scale of the mess that was left before that was never attended to where, as I said to Deputy Martin earlier, a major scam was perpetrated on the Irish people - that it could be assumed free services could be delivered on the backs of taxes coming from property speculation. When that collapsed, the system collapsed along with it. We must deal with that and will do so in as fair, as equitable and as affordable a way as we can.

It was Fine Gael that abolished water charges in 1996.