Deputy John McGuinness was in possession but had only three minutes remaining and is not present. The next speaker is Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy who is sharing time with Deputies Noel Harrington, Áine Collins, Eoghan Murphy and Frank Feighan.
Water Services Bill 2013 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this historic Bill which provides for the establishment of Uisce Éireann, Ireland's first water utility. This is a reforming Government and a key reform in the programme for Government was the identification of the need to establish such a utility. It was recognised that our people deserve a world-class water service that would be sustainable and of high quality, thereby providing us with safe drinking water in sufficient quantities for our home needs and to meet the needs of both small business and large industry. Widespread consultation took place. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht also produced a report and a number of its recommendations have been taken into account in this Bill, most notably that Uisce Éireann would remain in public ownership and be accountable to the Oireachtas.
At present our water supply is delivered by disparate providers. The establishment of Uisce Éireann will provide an opportunity for more cohesive management and supply of this most essential resource. In Ireland we take water for granted because it is so much a part of our lives, as a rain-soaked nation. Globally we see the hardship caused because so many nations have no water, yet our having too much at certain times causes us so many problems. Only yesterday, the Oireachtas environment committee heard from the IFA about the terrible problems caused by flooding of the River Shannon to many who live, work and farm in the Shannon catchment area. I am familiar with this situation, having grown up in the area. The IFA outlined in great detail the hardship caused when too much water floods lands and even properties.
During our many committee hearings on this issue the role of the expertise of local authorities was highlighted. I am delighted to note that Uisce Éireann intends to build on that expertise and that the transition of functions will be phased over time. It is important to ensure that the strengths inherent in the local authority water management system are not lost in this transfer. In addition, a key function of Uisce Éireann will be to work with the local authorities in the greater Dublin area to achieve a sustainable water supply. I am keen to see the proposal by Bord na Móna to abstract and bring water from the River Shannon to a reservoir in Garryhinch, County Offaly, progressed as soon as possible. I see the development of the reservoir as an opportunity for people in Offaly, an area badly in need of new employment. It will be also a great opportunity for sustainability of supply, not only for our entire population but also for industry. Foreign direct investment is lured not only by our favourable corporation tax rate, our educated and employable people, and our charm but also because we have a sustainable and high quality water supply.
While at times there is flooding in some parts of our island, we must also focus on conservation. Leakage is a problem which must be addressed as soon as possible. I see the installation of water meters immediately helping in that quest with charges being based on usage. This, in itself, will be an incentive to reduce consumption.
This new public utility, Uisce Éireann, will bring new employment opportunities. I hope that indigenous manufacturing companies will obtain contracts for supply of the infrastructure and that there will be other opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises at the installation phase, giving local and regional contractors who have been struggling a new lease of life. Later on, I understand that 400 billing staff will be needed.
There are other recommendations that the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht of which I am a member made that I am keen to see implemented when Uisce Éireann is up and running, for example, that there would be a national tariff for water as is the case for other utilities and that a waiver system would be put in place to protect low-income households.
Accountability was of great concern to the committee members and we recommended that there should be a strong consumer voice, such as in the approach in taken in Scotland. Rain water harvesting was also highlighted as having great potential for homes and public spaces.
Ultimately, I believe that we are taking the right step in the establishment of Uisce Éireann. Who knows? Perhaps, when it is well established, it might start to examine the potential that I believe we have as a people to provide other countries with our surplus water. As I stated, there are many in need of a safe and sustainable supply and perhaps we should start to think of our water not only as a resource, but as a commodity.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Water Services Bill. It is vitally important legislation. While I recognise that it will introduce charges for domestic consumers of water, that is necessary for many reasons: fairness, water conservation, future investment and the continuing safe provision of water. It must be noted that, globally, wars are fought over adequate, secure water supplies. It is crucially important.
This Bill is before the House as it was one of the codicils in the last will and testament of the previous Fianna Fáil Government. This codicil states that the programme of financial support for Ireland with the EU/IMF/ECB contains a commitment to prepare proposals for implementation of the recommendations of an independent assessment of the transfer of responsibility for water service provision to a water utility and that water charges would be introduced, and they signed that.
In this country, over 1 million households are connected to public mains. This represent 77% of households. A further 126,609 households are connected to group water schemes. Approximately 86% of all households are provided with drinking water from public resources. Providing this water for all of those connected to these schemes cost over €1.2 billion in 2010, of which operational costs amounted to some €715 million, with capital costs of over €500 million. Water is not free. It falls from the sky, needs to be treated and must be paid for.
With revenue of over €200 million from the non-domestic or business sector, the balance of €1 billion is largely funded by the taxpayers, even if they are not connected to a public water scheme. I challenge those who speak of equality and fairness to tell me why is it fair that somebody who does not get a public water supply must pay for somebody else's? Some 584 billion litres of water are treated and produced annually, which works out at approximately €2 per 1,000 litres or tonne.
From an environmental and conservation point of view, the best way to conserve water is to provide incentives to consumers to use less. International experience suggests the introduction of water meters can achieve a reduction in consumption of at least 10%. We all acknowledge that there are municipal water leaks in every town and city in this country, but most will not admit to leakage from the meter or on the private property side. The installation of meters will deal largely with many of those problems.
Using the national average house occupancy rate of 2.8 from the 2006 Census, the surprising figure on water consumption is that an average household uses 148 cu. m per annum. When one breaks that down, drinking water accounts for only 3%. We only drink 3% of our drinking water. We shower and bath with 32% of it. We flush 28% of treated drinking water down the toilets. We use drinking water for which we have paid for washing machines, sinks and dishwashers and external use such as watering the garden and washing the car. It is daft and it needs a different approach.
I was a member of a local authority for 12 years and the funding model for water was fundamentally flawed. It is broken and we must fix it.
I am well aware that there has been significant under investment in the water network infrastructure in recent years and some of the income raised from these charges will need to be invested in the infrastructure for the next century. I am aware that the new body, Irish Water, will come under the remit of the energy regulator on behalf of the consumer.
As this is a new body, I appeal to the Minister that it should not carry on as before. This new water company must make the consumer a priority in everything it does and in all transactions. I want to see the most up-to-date technology and mobile phone applications and computer software being provided to the customer so that when they view the picture of their entire relationship with Irish Water, they will see an improved service. There is definitely a need for the customer to have the ability to read the meter or request a reading when he or she wishes. For example, it would be unfair if a customer who has a leak a month after his or her meter is read would be forced to wait five months before he or she even realises there was a leak. As Irish Water is being set up, it is not beyond the technology to provide applications and computer software, or the facility for customers to access their meters on a regular basis.
People have no problem in paying for water but they have a huge problem in paying for water of poor quality where they get a poor service. I urge the Minister to make Irish Water the best it can be and put the consumer at the top of its priorities.
The introduction of domestic water charges is a significant change for Ireland. For many years, because of our rainfall, there was a general perception that water was so plentiful that the necessity for conservation of water was a step too far. As a result, the general population became used to having free water. Every other country has long recognised the need for conversation, as well as the need to provide capital to upgrade the basic water infrastructure. Because of this situation, successive Governments have underfunded the water services. The national pipe network is old and poorly maintained. This results in a great deal of costly treated water being wasted.
As a nation, we should have long since recognised the importance of ensuring a clean, reliable supply of quality water, not only for domestic customers but for agricultural and industrial needs too. From an agricultural point of view, good quality water is necessary to maintain our reputation as an environmentally green nation that maintains the highest standards. A clean supply of water is also most important in attracting industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry. The cost of water to industry must be constantly reviewed as many jobs are at stake if these industries cannot maintain competitiveness.
Up to now, only farmers and industries paid for water. Consequently, there was insufficient funding available to upgrade the infrastructure. Treating water to an acceptable standard is a most expensive job and we can no longer afford to allow millions of gallons to be wasted through leaking pipes all over the country.
The introduction of domestic water charges is a difficult political choice, but conservation is now a necessity. Water quality must be improved and money must be found for this work. It has been established worldwide that charging for water is by far the most effective way of conserving it.
As the economic crisis developed and we were forced into a bailout, one of the conditions of the bailout was that we would have to introduce water charges. This is not only as a revenue raising exercise. It will, more importantly, provide funding to ensure that the water delivered to households and industry is of the highest quality.
Having said that, I realise that many households are under severe financial difficulty and any new charge will be a significant burden. Charging based on usage is the fairest way of dealing with this burden and that is to be eventually the end game.
The Minister has asked various bodies to come up with an interim solution, and I am confident that will result in a recognition that at least a minimum amount of water will be made available to the households experiencing the most financial difficulty.
The ability to provide high-quality water is essential for our households, our industries and our people. I commend the Bill to the House.
I call Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who is sharing time with Deputy Frank Feighan. The Deputies have seven minutes between them.
I welcome the Bill for two reasons, the first of which concerns Dublin, which for too long has had an inadequate water supply. We do not have sufficient supply in the system or sufficient treatment facilities. The pipes in the capital are old. They break too easily in bad weather and there is general leakage. We do not have a good wastewater treatment facility in the capital and because the water supply for the capital is on a knife-edge, when it does slip it has a major impact on a large area of the city. In recent years we saw families who did not have any water for showers, for toilets or for drinking for upwards of ten days in some parts of the city, and that cannot be allowed to happen. Apart from the discomfort it causes for people living in the city - and it is the most densely populated area in the country - it causes difficulties for people who are trying to do business or those who want to invest in the capital, which is the economic engine of the country. Our water supply has come up in conversations in this regard.
The establishment of Irish Water and the work we are doing in this Bill as a first step is incredibly important for all those reasons. It is also welcome because it is a key strand of the NewERA strategy, which was being drafted when I came into politics and which I thought had a good vision in terms of the kind of work that should have been done in the boom years, when we had the money, but was not done. It is welcome to see that work finally beginning.
The case for introducing water charges and water metering was made very well by Deputy Noel Harrington when he spoke about the different ways we use water, and waste it, and the different ways bringing in water metering and water charges could help us conserve it, bringing about greater efficiency in our lives and in the amount of money we spend on this vital resource.
The establishment of Irish Water is a positive action. It will bring about greater accountability. A patchwork of local authorities are responsible for water services at the moment, often not working together, and as a result, the overall system breaks down at those key interfaces between local authorities. However, with one public body responsible for the area we will see greater accountability and, as a result, we will have a better system, greater efficiencies in that system, and an improvement in the quality of the water we all use. The changeover period will be bumpy and we should prepare people for that, but it should not be too protracted. Otherwise, we might find ourselves picking up bad practices that will remain in the system for a number of years. Regarding the construction phase, I hope we will see small and medium-sized Irish enterprises being successful in their tendering and that Irish jobs will be created as a result.
Dealing with leakage must be the first priority of the new authority in order to reduce waste, improve the service and, ultimately, make it cheaper for everyone. I believe we will have difficulty in levying high charges in areas where there is a high degree of leakage because people living in those areas are paying for water that is wasted. That is something the regulator will need to examine.
The metering phase will take time, and not all homes will come online at once. I caution against introducing a flat charge until such time as the metering phase is complete. Instead, I would defer any water charges until all homes are metered and can be charged on a per-usage basis rather than levying an indiscriminate flat charge for all, or on a staggered basis. Flat charges on utilities are not fair. There is some concern as to whether individual apartments can be metered, and there is talk of installing a single meter for an apartment complex and dividing the cost of usage in the complex by the number of apartments. I would caution against that as well, because it is unfair. Problems will arise in the future if we are not careful. Even if it means delaying the introduction of the charge until later in 2014 or renegotiating the agreement in some way, we should pursue that avenue, because we do not want to introduce a charge that is necessary but may be perceived as unfair because of the manner in which we introduce it. That could seriously undermine what we are trying to achieve and reduce buy-in among the population, who, I believe, once the meters are in place and they can see the way in which this improves the system and saves them money, will fully support this initiative.
Those are my comments on what I believe will be a hugely important and positive development for the country. I commend the Minister on his introduction of the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Whether people like it or not, water is not free. To produce drinking water is costing this State vast amounts of money. Once again, the previous Government passed the parcel to this Government on the introduction of water charges. It is very disappointing that only 3% of the water produced is drunk, and that many households will face great difficulty in paying the charge. I hope the Commission for Energy Regulation, which will set the prices, will keep that in mind.
I pay tribute to the group water schemes and the local authorities for the work they have done over the years. There would not be any water services in many rural areas but for the group water schemes. They are the unsung heroes in that regard.
The local authorities introduced charges for agricultural pipes, which has proved to be a success. The farmers did not want to pay money for that at the time but many people realised that when something is free it can be taken advantage of. In some areas pipes were knowingly left running, which caused major problems for the system. The introduction of the charges has helped the council regulate the level of wastage, but has also put more funding into the water supply network. A nationwide approach is the right one to take and I hope Bord Gáis, along with the Ministers, will consider the plight of people who have to pay for this water.
I have never bought bottled water. I trust the quality of our water. I drink pints of water from my tap and other taps throughout the country and it has not done me any harm.
I call Deputy Sandra McLellan, who is sharing time with Deputies Michael Colreavy and Aengus Ó Snodaigh.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. This is flawed legislation that clearly has not been properly thought through. From an environmental, social and economic point of view it is a deeply problematic item of legislation and, yet again, we see the hand of Fianna Fáil all over its pages. It was Fianna Fáil which initially dreamt up the idea to charge households for water by installing water meters in every house in Ireland. Now the Government has jumped on the bandwagon, and hence we have this legislation before the House.
The plan is to establish Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann, a company, according to the Government's own pronouncements, that it plans to sell off some time in the near future. That new company will in turn be given the power to install water meters in every dwelling in the country and then to charge families for the water they use.
Sinn Féin is opposed to this legislation for a number of reasons. We do not believe that the installation of a meter in every home in the country has been properly costed. For example, various experts, including the local authority professional officers' association, estimate the cost of such installation to be at least €1.2 billion. That is an exorbitant amount of money which one can only assume will eventually be passed on to the consumer.
Even more alarming is the fact that charging for water effectively means that people will be paying three times for the water they drink. First, the public will pay by way of general taxes; second, they will pay through the new charge; and third, they will pay through the National Pensions Reserve Fund, which is being used to fund the installation of the water meters.
This proposal will serve merely to place an added burden on the shoulders of already hard-pressed families. Is this Government not aware that, as we speak, people are already at their wits' end in an effort to put food on the table and pay their mortgages? Is the Government so out of touch with reality that it believes it is acceptable and fair that a family, a single person or the working poor should, according to this legislation, be obliged to pay the same amount for their water as the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan? That is bizarre and displays a total disregard for or lack of consciousness about even the most basic form of environmental justice.
Before my party is accused of being woolly-headed about the issue of water conservation I will make it clear that Sinn Féin is very much in favour of a sustainable and co-ordinated approach to the management of the country's water. Key to that, however, is the related issue of sustainability and environmental justice. We must not under any circumstances return to an era in which poor children and adults have to go around unwashed in soiled and dirty clothes because they cannot afford to pay their water charges.
The Bill, in its current form, would produce these very circumstances.
With regard to sustainability, Sinn Féin proposes investing money from the National Pensions Reserve Fund to create real jobs for some of the almost 500,000 people who are currently unemployed. Instead of wasting money on water meters, as currently proposed, Sinn Féin urges the Government to invest money in upgrading our current distribution system, which is both ageing and leaking.
International evidence, from the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, shows clearly that metering is simply not a good idea. It is not good for families or the poor, and it is not good from an environmental perspective. Rather, it is merely an ill-conceived idea proposed and supported by a Government which, yet again, is quite willing to make the ordinary people pay for the economic maelstrom in which we now find ourselves.
Sinn Féin is opposing this Bill, which we regard as unjust and unnecessary. Its intent is to provide another form of collecting money from the taxpayer for the Government through stealth taxes. It is not an attempt to improve the source and supply of water to homes, nor does it tackle the pipeline structure problem or set out how problems such as flooding may be dealt with.
I find it particularly unnerving that this legislation intends to establish Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis. This Government is hell-bent on privatising State assets. The valuable infrastructure in which the State has invested and should continue to invest is at risk of being sold off. It is unnerving that Bord Gáis, and subsequently Irish Water, could be sold off. Water, being the most valuable natural resource to which any State, nation or civilisation could have access, is at risk. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The State has had a poor record in the sale of its natural resources. We have given away our oil and gas for practically nothing. The Fianna Fáil Government sold off Telecom Éireann, which resulted in Ireland having the most backward telecommunications service in the European Union. To understand my point, we have only to look across the Irish Sea to Britain where private companies are still introducing water meters 20 years after water meters were first introduced.
It is disturbing that Mr. John Mullins, the project chief executive, was unable to tell the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht the full cost of the installation of the meters. We are basically being asked to hand over a blank cheque to Bord Gáis. If we have learned anything from the past week, and from the last Government, it is that handing over a blank cheque will lead to disaster down the line.
When the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, was introducing his infamous household charge, he stated it amounted to less than €2 per week. In this regard, let me refer to a real man, whose real name I will not use but whom I will call Paddy. He is a real person living in the real economy. He is in his mid-40s, single and lives alone in a rural council house. He is recovering from drink and drug addiction. He has been drug, cigarette and alcohol free for over ten years. He will not even take prescribed medication now as he feels the antipsychotic drugs he had been taking nearly destroyed him. He does not visit a general practitioner but obtains great relief and support from Tai Chi and acupuncture. In fairness to the HSE, it supports him in getting acupuncture. He has special dietary and exceptional heating needs.
Paddy is on €188 per week. Without the help of the local Society of St. Vincent de Paul, he would not be able to exist on this sum. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has stated that, because of the number of people seeking help from it, it cannot afford to maintain the existing level of support. Paddy calculates that the increase in fuel costs, the reduction in the telephone and electricity allowances, rent increases due to the household charge or family home tax, water services charges and fuel and tax increases for his Honda 90 will cost him an additional €21.20 per week. Where now is the €2 per week about which the Minister spoke? If the State cannot afford to pay the cost of treating and supplying water, where does the Minister suggest that Paddy should get the additional money from?
According to a major report carried out by the British Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, a household that spends over 3% of income on water charges is at risk of water poverty. This Bill does nothing to protect low-income families who could be at risk from water poverty.
There is a terrible irony to this Bill. Capital investment in water was cut from almost €435 million in 2011 to €331 million in 2012. That is a cut of €100 million, or almost 25%. It is a cut of nearly €200 million on the 2010 allocation, with more cuts planned until the budget is reduced to €266 million. Irish people must pay for water so that the Government can continue to pay off reckless speculators, financial gamblers and bankers.
I have a straight question to which I would like a straight "Yes" or "No" answer: when the water charge and family home tax income starts to stream in, will the rates and water charges currently being paid by businesses and farmers be reduced to reflect the additional revenue that will accrue on foot of this Bill and the family home tax legislation?
What is being proposed today is a travesty. I say this because there is nothing in the Bill to suggest the Government will reduce income tax, a proportion of the revenue from which goes to local authorities to fund the very utility for which the Minister is to double the charge. There is nothing in the Bill to state the taxpayers' money being set aside from the National Pensions Reserve Fund will ever be recovered from the private companies that will run Uisce Éireann. What the Government is proposing is privatisation by stealth. In the Bill, Uisce Éireann, or Irish Water, is being set up as a sub-company of a company that the Government has already indicated it wants to flog.
That is not true.
That is true. It is the intention of the Government to flog as many as possible of the semi-State companies that have made a profit for the State for many years. The same logic applies to sub-companies. It may not be espoused by the Minister of State today but it is the policy, and it is in line with a trend that has obtained since the Progressive Democrats were in power. They jumped into bed with Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party embraced fully the need to charge full whack for Irish water. Now the Fine Gael Government is continuing the trend. Regrettably, a party that in the past called itself left wing is jumping on the right-wing bandwagon in the belief that every utility must be paid for in full by a direct charge rather than through central taxation.
This charge will be a significant burden on many. The Minister of State may say the rate will be set quite low. We do not know what the charge per litre will be. At this stage, however, any extra euro taken from the income of many households is significant. More than 700,000 households are living in poverty, yet the Government is to heap upon them another utility charge. They have already paid for the utility but they will be charged again. The people are already struggling to make ends meet. I refer not only to those depending on social welfare because quite a number of those on low-paid jobs and some who were once in high-paid jobs are also struggling to make ends meet and cope with the fact that the Government has cut child benefit and increased VAT. They will be struggling if the property tax is imposed upon them. This tax takes no account of ability to pay. People are struggling to deal with the universal social charge. The affected families are the ones we think of when we note the great number of gas and electricity disconnections. These are the families in mortgage distress. On top of their existing charges, the Government will impose another charge, a charge for water, which they are already paying for through general taxation.
If the Minister applies the same logic that is being applied to the property tax, it will not be based on the ability to pay. I urge the Government to pull back from the brink on this. Water charges were introduced in the past and they were defeated by the public, for the same reason or logic that applies today. It is wrong and would be a form of double, if not treble, taxation. It is especially wrong now since the intention is to move towards privatisation.
When this concept was originally raised it was said it was a water conservation measure. I recall the Green Party saying how great it would be because we would save so much water. In fact, most of the leaks are not due to households. It is not households that are wasting water. Over the years a legacy has been built up of under-investment in the network of pipes and water treatment. Millions of litres are lost by local authorities because they do not have the money to invest. They have been starved of funds, especially those in Dublin city. Time and again they have asked for an increase in funding to ensure that the antiquated water pipe system in the city is brought up to standard, but they have not received it. Even though some other local authorities have not been able to spend their allocations, they have not been transferred to Dublin.
At present, the entire water system in Dublin could collapse. If the Vartry tunnel collapses, and it is now 200 years old and in need of immediate repair, Dublin city, the biggest population centre in the country, could be without water very quickly. That issue is not being addressed by the local authorities because the necessary investment has not been made over the years. Even if we address the Vartry tunnel problem as well as the failure to increase the capacity of the reservoirs around Dublin, that will not deal with water quality in the rest of the country or low water pressure, which is a problem for businesses and households. We still have lead pipes that are swollen and ready to burst, regardless of whether it is warm or cold.
These issues will not be addressed because the Minister will privatise the water and use the money he will extract from poor people in this country to fund the private system for the installation of water meters. His first port of call will be to install the water meters, spending the money on something that is not required at present. What is required is an immediate investment in the network. If the money was invested in that, it would pay dividends. Water would not be lost, people would have the required water pressure and they would not be running their taps. I do not deny that there is a need for conservation. There is a need for education in the schools. That could be done without any cost to the State by ensuring that local authority water conservation officers visit schools and teach the children about this. Some of that work has taken place because the local authorities have no other money to invest and it is their last resort. All of this should have been done for years. It should have been done by the last Government and every Fianna Fáil Government since the foundation of the State. Fine Gael and Labour Party Governments over the years have also not invested properly in the water treatment and water delivery systems.
Many aspects of water delivery to homes are not addressed. My colleague mentioned that 20 years later the British are still trying to grapple with how to install water meters in some homes. In Dublin, there are many instances of pipes being shared by houses. How is it to be decided which house will be metered and which will not? If I recall correctly, there is no intention of going onto private land. Not every house has its own feed from the public system. It is often a couple that gets the same feed. How will that be addressed?
At present, between 30% and 50% of the water is leaking out of the system.
The national average is 44%.
In some places it is even more than that, but 44% is the average. That shows the scale of the problem.
Nobody denies that. If the Government invests in plugging those leaks, money will be saved in the long run. It is preferable to investing in meters. Meters are a distraction; it is moving public resources in the wrong direction. I urge the Minister not to proceed with metering but instead to divert that money immediately into major projects to ensure that in the future we will have a proper public water system that will have an across-the-board standard and pressure.
Otherwise, one can see from recent years what will happen. If, for example, my water is supplied by this new body, Uisce Éireann, and it is not of good quality, will it refund the money it charged me? I do not think so. It has never happened previously. What if the water from my tap is brown or contains E.coli or whatever, as has happened on many occasions? At present, people get their water as a public service and they have no recourse to compensation. However, if it is privatised or is supplied through the system proposed by the Minister, there must be one standard and level of pressure across the board and if that is not delivered, people would be entitled to recompense or some type of credit. Given the state of the public water system at present, the Minister will be paying out a great deal more to the public than he will ever recoup from the water charge he intends to impose on poor people.
Deputy Robert Dowds is sharing time with Deputies Anne Ferris, Paudie Coffey and Joe O'Reilly.
Am I correct in thinking that Uisce Éireann will be a semi-State body? That is my understanding of what it will be, but that does not appear to have been understood in some places.
Given our growing population and our need for huge quantities of water in both agriculture and industry, it is vital that we secure our water requirements for the future. The Dublin area, for example, is approaching a knife edge in terms of water supply. When there are dry spells, as occurred this time last year, reservoirs such as Poulaphouca reach dangerously low levels. Along with that, there have been water restrictions from time to time due to inability to process sufficient quantities of treated water. The Dublin region has been more fortunate than many other parts of the country. Not far from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's constituency, for example, Galway city has experienced severe problems, as have other places. It is important that we have a decent standard overall.
To ensure an efficient supply of clean, treated water on a national basis, the creation of Uisce Éireann is a welcome and far-reaching development. As some people are aware, there are plans to bring water from Lough Derg on the Shannon to Dublin. This is clearly a vital project which must be ready for the early 2020s if there is not to be a serious crisis. Driving this project forward will be a mark of how well Uisce Éireann is operating.
One of the first functions of Uisce Éireann will be to install water meters. To reduce costs for consumers it is important that Uisce Éireann gets value of money in terms of contracts established with companies doing this work. It is also important that there is demonstrated competence in the jobs these companies do. I hope the meters will be tamper proof and capable of being read by Uisce Éireann without requiring access to a property. This will clearly be more of a problem in apartment complexes, but I hope that best practice in this regard can be imported from other countries.
I hope the installation of meters will give Uisce Éireann a better picture of whether water leaks are on or off a person's premises. The fact that people will be paying for water will encourage them to tackle leaks in their premises as soon as possible.
While the Bill does not indicate what the water charges will be, it amends section 105 of the Water Services Act 2007 to provide for the introduction of such charges not before 1 January 2014. Given the great financial pressures on so many Irish families and the level of waste of water, it is important to ensure people receive a certain proportion of their water for free. Is the Minister in a position to tell the House what the free allowance of water will be per capita and what the specific allowance will be for the most financially deprived? Can he set out also the cost per excess litre?
I am concerned to ensure that we make good use of our water. Consider the use of our toilets. The Internet suggests the average toilet uses between eight and 13 litres per flush. With the reduced-flush of more modern toilets, one gets away with just four litres. In other countries, there are such contraptions as waterless urinals. As part of the roll-out of the new regime, it is very important that people are encouraged to use less water to avoid excessive bills. I ask for the provision of an education element to the work of Uisce Éireann to ensure that people can be directed towards using as little water as possible while avoiding inconvenience to their lives.
The move to Irish Water will be a good one if it provides adequate, clean and safe water, modernises our system, including our leaking pipes, and encourages people to conserve a valuable resource. If we get to that position, the establishment of Uisce Éireann will have been a fine piece of work.
The Bill that is before the House is being put in place to address a number of complex issues including the need for greater investment in water and waste water services and to meet obligations arising from our current economic situation. Overall, it is intended to ensure our future by securing our water supply. Specific issues include climate change, population growth, investment in enterprise, the conditions set out in the water framework directive and obligations arising from the EU-IMF-ECB agreement. It is clear that these matters can no longer be ignored and that the Government must act to address them. In doing so, it must strike a balance of fairness.
It is worthwhile to discuss the detail of the issues I have just mentioned briefly to gain greater clarity on why a Bill like this is being brought before the House. The consequences of climate change continue to be felt around the world. The effects should not be underestimated and it is important, given changing wet-weather patterns, that the Irish water network is not compromised. This network is needed to address a huge growth in our population. Just as the Minister for Education and Skills is securing our educational infrastructure to meet this growth, we must likewise secure our water infrastructure. If we are to attract companies to this island and encourage our small and medium enterprises, we have to meet the service needs of companies. We should be doing everything we can to increase job numbers and this investment in water will do just that. The water framework directive is another matter that we are legislatively obliged to adhere to. It obliges the State to ensure that our groundwater has good quantitative status and good chemical status. This must be achieved by 2015. The last and perhaps most immediately pressing matter is the troika agreement with the State.
Water services cost approximately €1.2 billion in 2010. Revenue to meet this cost was achieved through non-domestic charges which yielded €200 million. The remaining €1 billion was funded by the State through a combination of Exchequer grants and local authority resources, including the local government fund. It is important to note that Ireland is the only country in the OECD that does not charge for the use of water. It is clearly an unusual and unsustainable situation. While the need for the Bill is demonstrable, its direct effects must be assessed carefully to meet the requirements of equity and fairness. I understand that the introduction of metering is to take place over a couple of years but that not every household will be metered due to high cost or technical difficulty. It is important that as fair a system as possible is established so that these households are not unfairly burdened. I call for measures to be introduced to address affordability so that low-income households are not forced to pay when they can ill afford to do so. People with medical conditions who may require a higher usage of water must not be punitively targeted with higher bills. The Commission for Energy Regulation is to set standards and protect the interests of the customer which is welcome but it is vitally important that the regulator takes affordability and need into account. To do otherwise would be unjust.
While I welcome the fact that the company is to remain in State ownership, I worry about the position of local authority staff. Greater certainty must be given to them so they know where they stand into the future. It is important to note that this investment in water metering coupled with consumption-based charges will reduce water demand at several times the rate which could be achieved through a similar level of investment in the replacement of public water mains. The Bill will, I hope, achieve what it is meant to. The security of our water supply is vital. While we must do what we can to secure it, we must do so in a manner which does not unduly burden those who can ill-afford it.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage debate on this reforming legislation. It will be responsible for the establishment of a new national utility, Irish Water. It is important to note that the new national utility is being established as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis, which is a national utility of experience and expertise which is used to dealing with service delivery. It was a good move to place the responsibility with Bord Gáis.
There are opportunities in this area for the State to create an efficient national water system. I acknowledge the role of local authorities and their staff which established various water systems and networks in their areas over the years. These were established on an ad hoc basis without an overall co-ordinating and efficient plan. When the other great semi-State utility, the ESB, was established in the 1920s, the record shows there was a great deal of opposition from people who were unsure and unaware of the benefits a semi-State utility could bring to society and the economy.
The overriding principle of the Bill is the need to place a value on a valuable asset and resource. We can learn a great deal from our own children who, in various green school initiatives, undertake magnificent projects on sustainability which place real value on the valuable resource of water. Their projects include rain harvesting, water conservation and protection of natural resources. In my town a couple of years ago, cryptosporidiosis took hold of the water system. I need not tell the House the damage it did to the area. People were at a loss due to the unavailability of good quality water. We saw in Galway city the damage that was done to businesses during the outbreak. It is important that we make a serious capital investment in our water networks to ensure that good quality water is available.
I am disappointed to hear Sinn Féin spread misinformation and scaremongering to score cheap political points. Sinn Féin is always looking for the problem and never the solution.
The Minister has made it clear that water networks will remain in State ownership. Irish Water will be a semi-State company. Sinn Féin representatives will always look at the county manager or the Department for investment at local level but will never tell us where the money will come from. Sinn Féin should stand up and be counted and responsible. If the party wants investment in the water network, it should be prepared to put its shoulder to the wheel to back reforming legislation.
We must increase the level of investment and maintenance in a fair way. A rate of leakage of 44% tells me we have a dysfunctional and broken system.
Where there is leakage it will be quickly stopped because there will be a charge on it. I suspect that when water metres are installed, there will be a vast reduction in leakages. People will know from the outset that water is leaking because it will cost them. We must ensure households will have an adequate free threshold of water. In accordance with the polluter pays policy, it is important that, in principle, we charge those who use water to excess, inappropriately or wastefully. We will have public buy-in if the Minister provides for an adequate free threshold for normal domestic usage. That is only fair and right.
This is reforming legislation and there are huge challenges ahead. We are taking over a badly broken and unco-ordinated system. It is a national asset that will be co-ordinated and regulated, which is the way it should be done. I wish the Minister well.
In welcoming the legislation to establish Uisce Éireann under Bord Gáis to replace the 34 existing authorities dealing with water provision I acknowledge the good work done by local authorities and the professional expertise of their staff and members' commitment. I also acknowledge the work of the group water schemes across the country. I support the establishment of Uisce Éireann as a way to achieve economies of scale, have joined-up activity, access funding and investment and, because of the particular expertise of Bord Gáis, implement a national charging system which is unavoidable to provide sustainable funding. The state of the public finances has left us with no option but to reduce the capital outlay on water provision in the coming years and this will remain the case into 2014. This vehicle will address that need.
I support charging for water and agree with the previous speaker on the fantasy economics proposed by Sinn Féin. One cannot avoid realities. One has to find the money somewhere and cannot provide services without it. Sinn Féin will have to give us costings and figures to show how it would achieve its proposals. We will avoid waste and reduce the extraordinary 44% level of leakage. Charging will make for more intelligent use of water. This fits with education in schools.
I am a firm believer in the domestic allowance and suggest it is important to put a sensible, not extravagant, domestic allowance in place to ensure everybody will have access to the basic supply of water, after which it is reasonable to charge. People will accept this. Under the new arrangement, we will have a better chance of attracting inward investment to the country, maintaining existing industries and so on because it makes a real national commitment to the provision of high quality water. The independent regulator will ensure reasonable costs. It is expected that the metering process will create 2,000 jobs.
Speaking on this issue a few days ago my colleague, Deputy McLoughlin, mentioned the need to maintain the involvement of local councillors. I support that view. In his closing contribution will the Minister of State respond to the suggestion of putting in place regional fora, like the health fora, to involve county councillors and local authority representatives in an advisory capacity because their input in the past was good? They would need to meet only periodically. Will he also respond to the question about staff? In its report suggesting the establishment of Uisce Éireann PricewaterhouseCoopers stated 2,500 staff would be needed. Some projections suggest that when contractors are brought in, the number will reduce. What does the Minister of State envisage in terms of voluntary redundancies? How will local government continue to pay staff if the grants go directly to Uisce Éireann? I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could answer the question about staff comprehensively. I would also like the point about local government involvement to be addressed. The transition will last until 2017. Council staff will continue to be involved until then and some will move over to Uisce Éireann. I am concerned about their long-term position.
We have a duty to provide quality water nationally, with security of supply for an expanding population. This cannot be done without investment and no representative should address this question without saying from where that will come. We owe it to the electorate to suggest we believe in the process to supply the best water and say where we would find the money if we do not believe in charging directly.
I am concerned that the debate on Second Stage of the Bill is to be guillotined. Whether it is needed, is another matter. When we deal with substantial issues such as this and the property tax that will have a direct impact on the people, the guillotine seems to be used but not when we deal with matters of less significance. That is not the way to proceed.
I do not have a principled objection to water metering, but that is not to say I am happy with the Bill. Metering can only happen where there is an absolute guarantee that the object is resource management and targeting waste. It makes sense to do this because it is very costly to provide wastewater treatment plants and keep on upgrading plants to make sure there are no leaks in the system. The public should not, however, be targeted for essential water supplies. The Minister has to find a fair and equitable formula. This applies also to wastewater.
There is a perception that there is a great deal of water in this country and there is, more in the west than in the east but it is very expensive to treat and harvest. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht. At one of its meetings strong points were made about the River Shannon. I pointed out that I lived where the River Liffey predominated, 66% of the river flows through County Kildare. It is the major source of water for the eastern region - Dublin, parts of Kildare, Wicklow and Meath. It is a managed river and it is perfectly possible to deal in the same way with the issues that cause concern on the River Shannon. It is a resource that needs to be used in a productive way to deal with its flooding problems and provide a water supply for parts of the country that are under-resourced.
The way in which the population has been settled poses particular challenges. It makes the system very expensive because pipes extend to small settlements, 88% of the population obtains its drinking water from sources treated by a local authority and 6% from sources treated by private and individual group wells. As these figures come from the Environmental Protection Agency, I presume no one will dispute their accuracy. Some local authorities are better than others at managing the resource.
Kerry has a leakage rate of 66% when the national average is 42%. We have to deal with this infrastructure problem before people will buy into this initiative. The Consumers Association of Ireland also raised this matter with the environment committee and the need to have a reliable supply. It stated disruption to supply during either hot or freezing weather, along with climate change, is a problem that needs to be factored into any consideration of water supply. I agree with the association's argument that a flat-rate charge will completely alienate people and not be about resource management. There has to be a reasonable water allowance and factoring in of different types of family or household types.
I am convinced water supply is on a knife edge in the east. In my town, Leixlip, Intel is a wet industry which is very important to the town's population of 16,000 as well as to the national economy. If we are to continue to attract that kind of investment, we need to have a secure supply of water.
I am also concerned about the privatisation of Irish Water. I know it has been said that this will not happen. However, I feel there will be an attempt to privatise it. The committee heard of cases in some countries, including France, where the water companies were privatised but had to be re-nationalised like in the case of the West Link toll bridge on the M50. I regret the committee had not fully deliberated on the issue of Irish Water when it was formally announced that the agency would be set up. I do not know why the committee was asked to do this work when it was not allowed to conclude it or have some of its deliberations taken into consideration when the legislation was drawn up.
I have seen some fantastic examples of people trying to minimise their own use of water. I have also seen great efficiencies in water use by public bodies. My local authority, Kildare County Council, has been extraordinarily good in managing waste water, providing a modern supply to Leixlip and managing the upgrade of Osberstown. It is essential the leaking pipes issue is dealt with. Local authority staff will be well-placed to identify the location of many of these leaks. Metering will show areas where there is waste both in public and private water supplies. People should not be penalised for this, so long as they put it right in a timely way.
We have been told leaflets, 2 million overall, will be delivered to every household. When I checked the census, it stated there are 2 million households. However, it is interesting - and annoying - that we are told there are 1.8 million households when it comes to the property tax. What happened to the other 200,000 households? It does matter that we have accurate figures for these situations.
I will be putting down an amendment for a free allowance based on the British figures for consumption. However, its example of privatisation is one we should not follow. In principle, I am not opposed to metering but I am concerned with flat-rate charges which will be resisted if introduced. I am also totally opposed to the privatisation of the water supply.
Measaim go bhfuil rud amháin maith sa Bhille seo agus is é sin an t-ainm, Uisce Éireann. The only positive part of this Bill is the name of the proposed agency which is as Gaeilge. I have very little faith in the way the agency has been proposed listening to Deputy Catherine Murphy describe how the environment committee was treated and how the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Big Phil, introduced the legislation. He was belligerent and would not allow time for amendments. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, who is taking this Bill today and who I welcomed in media debates, is the softer face of the Department. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, used bully-boy tactics, however, and I have no faith whatsoever in his capability to deliver on these issues.
I have less faith in the fact that the proposed agency is going to Bord Gáis, particularly with its recent carry-on in its arrangements with Balfour Beatty and how it treated its own service people. Bord Gáis is actually treating its network in a reckless way which is highly dangerous. Uisce Éireann is going to be handed over to this company in a cosy deal to manage our water services.
I salute the pioneers, both in urban and rural areas, who set up private water schemes over the years and for their hard work in making them successful. In many cases, they had to fight the councils rather than get support from them. I recall when a buachaill óg at school how the pipes were laid in my area for its private group scheme. Many of these were handed over to the local councils which they then shut down. I have been fighting with my local authority to take back these schemes because they were perfect supplies being much better and safer.
I acknowledge the excellent service provided by the water service engineers, officials, outdoor staff in South Tipperary County Council and Waterford County Council. Over the years I have dealt with them, they have always been helpful to me and have endeavoured to repair services and keep water supplies running out-of-hours and on Christmas day.
However, I have no faith in this. When will we learn? The country seems to be inept at doing many things. There was the debacle with medical card centralisation and the debacle with Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, which was an unmitigated disaster. Following an invitation, I went to visit the SUSI offices last week. I blame the Department officials and the Minister, but mainly the Department officials, who interviewed the people for the organisation. It is probably the same in Bord Gáis Éireann. I would like to know the criteria used to appoint those in Bord Gáis. If it was not a nod and a wink I would be very keen to know what criteria it was based on. We have experienced the medical card fiasco, the PPARS health service system, the voting machines and SUSI. It has been a case of disaster after unmitigated disaster and has cost hundreds of millions of euro of Irish taxpayers' money. For the life of me I cannot understand why the troika does not go into those Departments to find out what is going on. How can they be so incompetent and have so much money and ministerial nods as well? I imagine the Minister did not buy the voting machines; he probably sent officials to check them out. We got a product that was unfit for purpose and should have been sent back. What kind of inept people - that is all one could call them - signed the contract to buy something like that? They did not care because it was taxpayers' money. I do not want this to happen with water because it is too valuable a resource and has been pioneered in many cases by members of the community in many areas. I salute them.
I am sick and tired of hearing that big is beautiful and that it is wonderful for Bord Gáis. Bord Gáis had a good name but the name has slipped drastically in recent years since it has hived off its businesses. It has treated reputable customers and long-standing suppliers and maintenance people, including MP Ryan in my town, Clonmel, appallingly. Bord Gáis made agreements with trade unions and others about taking over staff, but it was a race to the bottom. It brought in suppliers with no knowledge of the network and in many cases they could not find a pipeline. Frankly, it is not carrying out maintenance to the gas network which it should be doing in the interests of health and safety, and I wish to put as much on the record categorically. The company has abused and walked over the rights of people, including employment rights. Deputy Ferris raised this issue in the Dáil before me, but I have raised it as well with regard to a company in Clonmel, MP Ryan, which gave sterling service and had excellent employees but was simply cast aside. Its service was worth nothing. Now we will hand the water network over to these chancers. I use the term because the company is not fit to do the job, although those involved can make the right moves and sounds if there is an interview or tender process.
Was it the same last week when the Government finally closed down IBRC and appointed receivers on the spot with no tender process? The receivers will be allowed to charge what they like. On the same day the Government was tendering for receivers, the receivers were appointed. The firm appointed was the same firm that advised Mr. Fingleton and his company and did the books for them. Where is its credibility? It has no credibility whatsoever.
Let us make haste slowly. Much good effort is under way in the community, especially among our young people. I cannot understand why the planning units of local authorities have not had more of a role in water issues, especially in the case of new houses over the past 20 years. Enough houses have been built. Roof water should be collected and stored in a tank underneath the house to be used for everything except drinking water, including washing the car and watering the lawns. It is a simple thing. Planning authorities can put all manner of silly conditions in place, as well as requirements relating to money and charges. I have in mind a simple tank underneath the house. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, is the same age as myself. I imagine we can all remember the barrel under the chute in the corner of the house. That is where we got water from when I was a ladeen. Thankfully, I can remember drawing water from a hand pump with a horse and cart. I knew the value of that water. Rural people know the value of water and that is why they were so incensed to be attacked by the Department and the Minister when it came to wastewater and septic tanks. They have more interest in preserving water because they have memories of having no water and of bringing it in to the house in a barrel or bucket. They respect water, but I do not believe the gurus in Departments or some Ministers or those in Bord Gáis know anything about water. The company should stick to what it is good at rather than trying to hijack this and extract more money for the Government. Deputy Catherine Murphy suggested the company could sign up to a deal whereby we may have to pay back money in years to come.
I salute the those involved in education and the children involved in the green schools initiative and so on who have done wonderful projects. I fought with the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, for some years to try to introduce a retrofit grant for schools, especially small national schools. There was a man in my constituency who wanted to do the work and could do it for between €2,000 and €3,000. However, the Minister was more interested in the big issues such as banning fox hunting and stag hunting and whatever else. He was not interested in small, basic education initiatives that ordinary young people wanted to get involved in to show us the lead. They will show us how to do it, how to retrofit and how to spare water and change various taps and so on. These are small initiatives, but the Minister was only interested in the big issues. He said afterwards that he had got out of the asylum, but he made it the asylum because he would not go after the simple things we should have gone after.
I have no wish to see Bord Gáis getting this project. I am opposed to it and I will table amendments. I know the Government will guillotine the Bill and push it through. To what end? Have we not learned? The Minister of State can blame the last Government for the mess with PPARS and voting machines and so on, but the current Government is in charge now. The medical card fiasco and SUSI are the creations of this Government and they have been unmitigated disasters.
Local knowledge is a valuable thing. The local caretakers of private schemes and council caretakers know every pipe, inlet and outlet and they know where water is being siphoned off. I am not fundamentally opposed to charging for water. Farmers and business people are already charged and in the case of business people, they are charged for water in and water out. We must respect this scarce commodity and we should not allow any private company, whether it is Bord Gáis or any other company, to hijack it simply because it is ripe to be hijacked and raped and plundered, although I am loth to use those words. However, that is what Bord Gáis will do. It had an excellent record in gas but now it has thrown it all to waste and cut corners. There are companies from all over the world working for Bord Gáis with no credibility while our workers, suppliers and subcontractors are cast aside and their knowledge and experience is neglected and ignored.
I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to speak on the Water Services Bill 2013. The Bill is a reforming measure and is long overdue - even the Deputy who spoke before me would agree to that much. A Bill with reforms of this nature was needed a long time ago and could have saved the State a great deal of money.
Water is everywhere in Ireland. It is often a curse, coming endlessly from the sky, swelling rivers, flooding land, and, sadly, often flooding people's homes. Despite the frequency of its appearance here and the fact that it is a source of complaint in almost every Irish conversation, it is also a precious resource, and sometimes we forget this. Water is vital to life. Around 80% of our bodies are water. Hydration is important to good health. Clean water is important to sanitation.
Water is a vital input in farming and in certain industries, including the pharmaceutical and chemical industries and food processing, all of which are key exporting sectors. Quality and consistency of supply are important to all these sectors, but our ageing and under-pressure delivery systems are challenged by these demands. Climate change and our still-growing population are other risk factors. The recent cold weather spells of 2009 and 2010 dramatically highlighted the pressures the system was under and did further damage to them. Average leakage levels are as high as 40%. We would not tolerate such losses in any other sector, whether oil, electricity or money.
At issue is not normal rainwater but clean, highly treated water, which costs the State, through 34 local authorities, more than €1.2 billion to collect, treat and distribute. Only our business community contributes to the cost of this resource, with €200 million coming in from metering in this sector. A further €1 billion must be sought from other budgets and services. Often at local authority level this falls back on ratepayers and, therefore, businesses are hit again. These are the same people we expect to create jobs. This is hardly fair. Those who suggest domestic water metering is an example of unfairness should reflect on this. I accept that we must get the balance right and ensure that water remains affordable and that a certain amount is made available at a reasonable price, but we must spread the cost of water along with changing people's attitude to water.
When we speak about fairness we should also reflect that nearly 150,000 homes in this State rely on private water sources. These are generally rural dwellings supplied by wells which require the homeowner to pay for pumping and treatment. This morning I listened to a debate on "Today with Pat Kenny" on domestic services and water infrastructure which gave the impression that it costs no money to live in rural areas. That is not the case, however. There are benefits to life in both urban and rural areas but sometimes higher costs are incurred by living in certain areas. When it comes to harvesting and treating water and operating septic tanks, there is a high cost to living in a rural area. We must bear that in mind when we discuss rates.
More than 170,000 people in rural Ireland are in group water schemes. These people understand what water metering involves and they often have experience of being levied for capital investments in their schemes. These realities cannot be ignored if we want to prevent another economic boom and bust cycle. Meanwhile, more than 1 million homes are washing cars, watering gardens and flushing toilets with highly treated water that costs €1 billion to produce. I agree with the previous speaker that we have to encourage water harvesting. It is regrettable that it was not a condition of planning many moons ago, although water conservation and harvesting is now a condition in all commercial and industrial projects. Increasing numbers of people are installing systems to collect water, whether the simple barrel under the gutters or the more sophisticated system of underground tanks. If we need to encourage this behaviour through incentives and grants we should consider ways of doing so. As people learn to respect water more they might decide to invest in collecting water for other uses.
The leakage rates indicate that water is not always getting to its destination. Our distribution system has serious leakage problems due to the age of pipes and other infrastructure in many towns. This can be fixed only through capital investment by the Government. Sadly, however, we do not have easy access to the money we need to upgrade the system and prevent leakage. Given that public investment is in such short supply, the proposal to make Irish Water a subsidiary makes sense. Deputy Mattie McGrath might not realise this idea was not taken directly from the Minister's head. A proper procedure was followed in terms of research and debate among experts to decide which was the best State body to manage our water resources. Several speakers argued that Bord Gáis may not be the most suitable body to manage the system but I note with interest that when that company sought to raise €500 million last November it was swamped with offers totalling €6.5 billion. The markets are generally right when they invest their money. I recognise that specific issues will have to be ironed out but Bord Gáis is seen as a body that can spend this money properly. This debt issuance also shows that the markets are confident about Ireland's infrastructure and, by extension, the potential for growth in the economy. It is positive news that people are willing to invest in this country.
When I started out in politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s the phrase, "Celtic tiger" cropped up so often that I began to despise it. It appeared in every debate and conversation irrespective of whether it was relevant to the topic. I was probably guilty of this myself. Now, however, we refer to the troika in every debate. The impression has been given that the troika is forcing people to pay water charges. That is not necessarily the case. Reform of our water system is long overdue. It is not right to pour €500 million of treated water down the Suwannee every year. The need for reform was recognised by Fine Gael while we were in opposition and this is why we developed the NewERA policy, which includes proposals for investing in water infrastructure in order to save the State money in the long term.
It is not sensible to provide a water service that costs €1.2 billion if only €200 million is received in return and up to 40% of the treated product is seeping into the ground. Ireland is the last EU or OECD country to introduce domestic water metering. There is no point in pretending water costs nothing when somebody else is paying dearly for it. Once we realise every resource has a cost we will respect it and care for it appropriately. Investment in our public water system has the potential to create 2,000 jobs in the metering phase over two years. I recognise these are not permanent jobs but they will keep people going until investments in services and infrastructure can create long-term and sustainable employment. Every effort should be made to ensure small contractors with local knowledge and expertise are employed during the installation phase. Questions remain about who will be asked to do this work.
I acknowledge the involvement of the water services staff of our county councils through service level agreements and secondments lasting until 2017 at the earliest. They will probably be involved beyond that date given that they possess the skills we require. Many local authorities, including Meath County Council and Westmeath County Council in my area, are leaders in this sector. They know how to spend resources to best effect in constructing infrastructure but in many cases they lacked the money to do so. They also have the local knowledge and expertise needed to turn Irish Water into a success story. In light of the doubts expressed by Deputy Mattie McGrath and others about the new role of State bodies in providing water services, it is important that local authorities in which people have confidence are also involved. The right blend will guarantee a proper service. The needs of small communities in rural areas like counties Meath, Westmeath and Cavan should not be forgotten or overlooked by a national entity focused on the so-called bigger picture. The national entity will be able to deliver efficiencies of scale but it is important that we do not neglect smaller areas. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, recently cleared the way for €2.2 million to be spent on the Kells-Oldcastle water supply scheme. It is important that schemes like this do not fall by the wayside when a bigger entity takes over to concentrate on urban centres. Local authorities can play a role in this regard and the representative voice of local councillors should not be ignored.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and thank the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Dowd, for being in the Chamber to listen to my contribution. As the line manager with responsibility for water services, he is working extremely hard in this area. I wish him well in his efforts.
This Bill provides for the establishment of Irish Water, a new State service that will help to ensure water is delivered more effectively. There are significant problems with the current water delivery system in Ireland, with 40% of water going to waste. The objective of establishing Irish Water and the water metering programme is to install water meters in all homes that are connected to the public mains in order to put in place a charging system based on usage above a free allowance. It is important that large families get a large free allowance so that they are not penalised. If people use large volumes of water, however, they should be charged accordingly.
According to a report on Irish water produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers, there is under investment in water infrastructure in this country and poor quality facilities still exist in some areas.
In addition, our EU obligations under the water framework directive, a continued projected increase in population and an increase in demand for water services mean a proper framework for the provision of water must be established in the State.
Ireland clearly needs a long-term plan for the management and provision of water to ensure a steady and clean supply for future generations. Failure to act on this will have substantial consequences for the future supply. As Deputies, we are all aware of areas in our constituencies where there are difficulties with supply from time to time, particularly during hot weather. We must take this into account when projecting demand for the years ahead.
Water services cost over €1.2 billion to operate in 2010. We use the same quality water to flush our toilets as we use to clean our teeth. This is wrong and wasteful in this day and age, the economic situation being as it is. Approximately €1 billion of the cost of water services is provided by the State. Therefore, the introduction of water charges will help to reduce the burden on the Exchequer and local authorities, which are cash starved at this time. It must be acknowledged that the ability to fund and maintain water services at the current level is growing increasingly more difficult. A new cashflow stream is required, hence the introduction of water charges.
It is a concern that there is currently no economic regulation of the Irish water sector and that it operates at a loss. The introduction of water charges will bring us in line with other countries in Europe and with OECD countries, which charge households for water consumed. The programme of financial support with the troika included a commitment to undertake an independent assessment of the transfer of responsibility for water services provision from the current 34 local authorities to one main authority. This is important in the context of economy of scale and will make it easier for us to manage and regulate the system.
It is welcome that any revenue generated by Irish Water will be reinvested in infrastructure, which is significantly dated, in our cities, in particular where the pipework is Victorian and needs updating and repair on an ongoing basis. The extra cashflow will ensure there is faster upgrading of our leaky infrastructure and will help provide new infrastructure and treatment plants in the future. Irish Water will manage the provision of drinking water, the treatment of wastewater and sludge disposal. It will be responsible for sourcing private finance for investment in capital projects, the roll-out of the national water metering programme, customer service and billing, conservation of water supplies and water resource management.
The Bill also provides for the Commission for Energy Regulation to determine the cost of water services for the consumer. It is crucial the regulator tries to keep the cost low because of the economic demands being made on the people at the current time. The metering system will ensure that people do not unnecessarily waste water and that consumers will be more careful in ensuring that taps and pipes are not leaking water. We have often heard of taps being left running, particularly during cold spells. This is a shocking waste of water. It is terrible that people think it is necessary to act in this manner at such times.
As a result of water metering, people will become more aware of the need to conserve water, as there will be a financial impact on them the less they conserve. The system will also have positive knock-on effects for the environment and will cause consumers to become more environmentally aware. The metering system is also useful for showing the demand for water in certain areas. It will help Irish Water to determine future needs and to pinpoint where there are leaks and ensure repairs are carried out. In the UK, metered households have steadily used less water per person than those that are unmetered and since 1998 the amount has decreased from 8.1% less to 15.3% less in 2009. International figures indicate the introduction of water meters can lead to a reduction in water consumption of at least 10%. This is welcome.
Local authorities will continue to manage water services until 2014 when the three year transition phase will take place and Irish Water will take over full responsibility for the system. By 2017 it is hoped that Irish Water will be up and running and the full transfer of responsibilities will have taken place.
John Tierney, who until recently was the Dublin City Council manager, which manages a large part of my constituency, has been appointed as managing director of the Irish Water company and I have every faith in him doing a good job in that role. Dublin City Council is the largest council in the country and the experience that Mr. Tierney has gained in managing a large part of the capital city means he will bring valuable expertise to his role. The fact that the company will be set up under the established company Bord Gáis will also be beneficial, as there is existing management experience and expertise to ensure the smooth operating of the company. A substantial number of jobs will be created, with an estimated up to 2,000 jobs being provided as a result of the metering programme, including much needed employment generation in the construction sector. This is welcome.
I fully support this Bill and its purpose, which is to support the centralisation of the provision of water services in Ireland. This new system will not only be more efficient, it will ensure that more water is conserved and it will address the current funding gap, largely met by the Exchequer, which currently exists. I also welcome that the utility will be established under Bord Gáis Éireann, which has an excellent track record, and I have confidence that company will fully meet its responsibilities in this regard.
I will share my time with Deputy Brendan Smith.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It was interesting to read the Bill, which covers issues relating to the establishment of the company. However, it does not cover at all how the company will or should operate or the costs and implications for citizens. I will not go into the details of the legislation, but it is all about membership of boards, conflicts of interest of staff and ensuring Members of the Oireachtas are not on the board. The Bill is taken up with those kinds of issues rather than dealing with the substance of what the legislation should be about, the provision of water. It is all about the establishment of a legal, corporate identity.
Bord Gáis is a good organisation and it of all organisations should be the one to do this job. I give it credit for being the only organisation I know of that can dig up a public road, put down a pipeline and repair the road and return it to the condition it was in before it started. It is the only organisation in Ireland, inclusive of the 34 local authorities, with the ability to do that. When local authorities dig up a road and lay a pipe, we can be sure there will be a hollow or a hump.
They might fix it the following year, but it will eventually sink. The Bord Gáis network serves some of the towns in County Laois. I am talking about other counties as well. There is a line that runs for miles across the county, from Athy through Stradbally to Portlaoise and other places. The roads in such areas are impeccable. The line goes around the edges of Portlaoise and through Portlaoise. No other organisation in the country is able to leave a road in its proper condition after doing construction work. Bord Gáis always restores the roads well. The person who is in charge of that programme should give lessons on how to do this job to engineers in all local authority roads departments. After over 100 years in existence, the local authorities have not yet learnt how to do it.
I wish to give some more praise before I mention some of my criticisms. The managing director of the new agency, Mr. John Tierney, is an excellent person. When I was the Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the last Dáil, he attended a meeting of the committee to discuss the Poolbeg issue, which was the subject of a great deal of criticism at the time. On behalf of the Dublin local authority managers, he went through every step that had been taken in that regard in chronological order. While I have met him on just one or two occasions, I have to say I am highly impressed with him. He is a very capable individual. If anyone is able to do a good job in this regard, I do not doubt that he is an excellent choice for this role. That is all I have to say about the structure.
I object to the decision to give this task to Bord Gáis. The Government is in the process of privatising part of Bord Gáis. At the same time, it is establishing a new subsidiary of Bord Gáis called Irish Water. If the Government is selling one part of the activity of Bord Gáis today, it is not too much of a leap to assume it could sell another part of its activity a number of years down the road. Nobody could be blamed for coming to the conclusion that the Government's decision to give this task to a company that it is in the process of partially privatising will open the door for the future privatisation of water services.
The Minister might say that privatisation is not the plan or the intention, that it is not going to happen, or that it cannot happen without a vote of the Oireachtas. We all know that. Many things happen in that way, however. It is a small step from doing what the Government is currently proposing to do with parts of Bord Gáis to doing the same thing with the Irish Water subsidiary of Bord Gáis in a number of years' time. The Minister's assurance is only good for today. It will not hold water five or ten years from now, when a different Minister might be in place or a different attitude might be prevailing. All I am saying is that the Government is making the process of privatising Irish Water very simple by giving responsibility for it, as a separate subsidiary, to Bord Gáis.
Bord Gáis has an aggressive track record of cutting off customers who are in arrears or in the process of defaulting on their accounts. I know from various ESB operators that it does not have a great record in this regard. One of the reasons the job was given to Bord Gáis rather than Bord na Móna or the NRA - I do not know who else was looking for the job at the time - was that it has a customer database and has been praised for knowing how to deal with customers.
This is about the broader issue of water, rather than simply being about the corporate structure of the company. I have examined the big reports that were done by PricewaterhouseCoopers and others a while ago. I do not have the figures in front of me, but my recollection is that the average rate of water loss across the country is approximately 40%, with significant variations across various local authority areas. I think the rate was as high as 60% in Limerick and as low as 20% in south Dublin. I would say the customer should not have to pay more than 60% of the entire cost of this process. There is no reason the customer should have to pay for the 40% of water that is lost through waste and inefficiency. It will be fundamentally wrong if it is built into the cost structure of the new authority that the paying customer will have to carry the can for the 40% of sourced water that is lost to the system through leaks and incompetence. One pays for one's usage of one's telephone. One does not pay for the electricity that is lost in transmission up and down the country. It is inevitable that some of it is lost in transmission. The customer only pays for what shows up on his or her meter as having come into his or her house.
We do not disagree with the idea that people should pay for water over the next couple of years, but we think every house should be guaranteed a minimum amount of free water to meet essential needs. Of course those who use water to fill their pools, wash their cars or water their lawns should pay for the use of that water. There is no doubt about that. Those who are frugal with their water and only use it for basic household essentials like cleaning and cooking should not have to pay more, however, given that they are already making payments through the tax system.
For its first three, four or five years in operation, Irish Water should focus on fixing this country's water mains and pipes. When that has been done and a system that is fit for purpose is in place, Irish Water will be entitled to charge consumers for their usage of water. No charges should be imposed until all of that is in place. Nobody knows yet whether a charge of €300 or €400 per house will be levied. Part of the problem with this legislation is that we are writing a blank cheque for this organisation. We are giving it permission to send bills to this country's unfortunate consumers in respect of its costs, its waste and its overheads. The poor Irish consumer will have to pay. It is not satisfactory that this legislation is set up in such a way.
I am worried about the future development of Irish Water, particularly in light of what happened with Eircom before it was privatised. A certain level of investment took place when Eircom was being run by the Government and financed by the taxpayer. I am afraid the same thing that happened when Eircom became an independent company will happen to this subsidiary of Bord Gáis. In such circumstances, who will do the work needed to find new water sources and supplies? I appreciate that Irish Water is putting various arrangements and service agreements in place with local authorities. If local authorities can carry out all of these functions, why are we putting another superstructure over them? Why is it not possible for local authorities, which are already doing the billing and metering for non-domestic water supplies, to continue that arrangement and extend it to domestic supplies?
I wish to comment briefly on staff issues. The construction jobs that will be created during this process have been mentioned. What will happen to the local authority staff? I presume the Government feels there is a saving to be made in this regard. That cannot happen unless staff numbers are cut. What arrangements will be put in place in local authorities if staff numbers are reduced? What will happen to the rights and entitlements of employees in such cases? Local authority employees who happen to be allocated to the water services section should not be singled out for redundancy if the same thing is not to apply to their colleagues in the roads department, who are essentially doing the same work.
I would like to raise another issue pertaining to Irish Water that does not seem to be dealt with in this legislation. My understanding in this regard has been confirmed. An advertisement that was placed in newspapers a number of weeks ago, when the chief executive was being recruited, referred to water and wastewater. Under the system that is being introduced, the intention is to charge for the water coming into a house. I understand that Irish Water intends to charge for water leaving a house and going to a sewage treatment plant. Water services deal with water coming in and water going out. It seems that an extra charge will be imposed in this respect.
I will set out my understanding of how the charging system will work. A person in an area where water is received from the public supply whose sewage is discharged into the public mains will have to pay a double charge to cover water going in and water going out. A person in an area with a public water supply who has a septic tank cannot be charged the same amount as the person whose water comes in from, and is taken away by, the public utility. As we all know, a person with a septic tank must register it and pay the cost associated with it privately. There has to be a reduced charge for the person who is only getting the water in. There may be some cases in which a house with a private water supply is connected to the main sewer in the local village for some reason. The owner of such a house should have to pay a different charge. Obviously, there are people with their own private sources of water and their own wastewater treatment systems in the house or garden. They should not come in under this charge at all. All of these issues need to be teased out.
Who will own the wastewater treatment plants that local authorities have invested in by way of development charges over the last couple of years? All of them were grant aided by the Irish taxpayer through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the local authorities. The construction of a water treatment plant near Graiguecullen in County Laois, near the border with County Carlow, was funded from development levies. Is a facility that was constructed after money was raised from the private sector locally, as a result of houses being built, to be handed to this new body?
What of the major design, build and operate, DBO, plants at locations such as Portlaoise and several other towns? Who will take over the annual payment to the PPP operator? Up to now, it has been made through the council, but will Irish Water take it over and will it be happy with the charges?
A big issue I have not heard anyone discuss and which applies to many towns is where there is only one drainage system in a town. This means sewage goes to the treatment plant, while the water from houses and that runs off streets goes into the same pipe and on into the same plant. Very few towns have separate drainage systems for wastewater and the water to the sewage treatment plant. The majority of towns I know of have only one drainage system. This means that, following heavy rainfall, a lot of water goes into the sewage treatment plant which, as we all know, causes problems and leads to water flooding into rivers. It is also often the cause of a backup because the tanks cannot take the volume of water coming off public roads, which means there is flooding on roads. Will Irish Water have responsibility for dealing with flooding on the streets of towns when gullies and pipes are blocked between the grate on the public road and the treatment plant? Where will Irish Water's responsibility start and where will the local authorities' responsibility end in dealing with flooding? It is an issue that needs to be dealt with.
The legislation makes no reference to Irish Water being included in freedom of information, FOI, legislation. I expect the Minister will correct this before the Bill is completed in the Dáil. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and the Government have brought forward new freedom of information legislation and stated it is Government policy that every new organisation being established will be covered from day one. We asked the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, about this at a recent committee meeting and, while the Water Services Bill seems to have got out of the traps ahead of his legislation, essentially he saw no reason not to include it. I expect this to happen.
The meters will be owned by Irish Water and I ask that the most sophisticated meter be introduced. We do not want staff, as in the case of the ESB, to physically have to call to homes, even with an electronic meter reader. It should be similar telephone metering at an exchange or central point. Nobody should have to drive around and search for a meter. I ask that it be done in a sophisticated manner because it must be done efficiently to avoid adding extra cost to the system.
With regard to the installation of meters on pipes, I praised Bord Gáis and hope there will be work for its subcontractors. I ask the Minister to ensure Irish Water will give contracts to allow small local contractors to do work on a regional basis. We do not want two or three major contracts for which only the biggest operators in Ireland will be eligible and where it would be for them to decide whether work should trickle down to local subcontractors. The Minister should ensure contracts are given out in discreet amounts. This is one way to ensure contracts will stay in Ireland and with small business and local contractors. While I am not talking about very small contractors, there are many people with competence doing such work and they should be given the opportunity to obtain it.
What about the position of projects in the system? I think of the Laois group sewerage scheme both in terms of the sewage treatment plant and the network improvements in Mountrath, Abbeyleix, Durrow, Rathdowney and Stradbally which are at finalised tender stage or thereabouts, with construction ready to proceed. At what stage will Irish Water take over responsibility for projects under construction? What transitional arrangements will be made for projects already included in the water services investment programme for the next couple of years, particularly those in the planning process but which will not proceed to construction for a couple of years? Is there a commitment that these projects will continue and that Irish Water will be forced to carry on with what is already included in the programme? We hope some of these projects will not drop off the page.
The legislation will have to deal with the issue of meter reading in apartments, which could number 300,000 units. This will pose difficulties and the readings will have to be estimated. We want to know how this work will be done. There is also a need to address the issue of future planning in small towns and villages, particularly where housing developments will not be possible owing to the lack of water. Will Irish Water have a veto on the question of which villages and towns in which houses can be built in the future? This matter must be dealt with.
What body will be responsible for ensuring water quality and dealing with EU regulations? Will this task still fall to the Government or will it be given to Irish Water? Our rivers are not just an outflow from sewage treatment plants; they are also the source of water for human consumption.
In listening to the Minister of State's speech it was obvious there were still many outstanding issues in regard to existing staff of local authorities and that a considerable period of time was envisaged for the transfer of functions to Uisce Éireann and its establishment in the period 2014-17. Moreover, there is no provision for political accountability on the part of Uisce Éireann to the Oireachtas. In the past 18 months in particular there has been much confusion in comments of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and other Ministers on the costs that will accrue to each household following the installation of meters, including the annual costs.
A major concern of mine which has been articulated by other Deputies and Senators from my party relates to the possible privatisation of Uisce Éireann in the future. What would happen in sparsely populated areas which are deserving of a proper water supply, as is every citizen, regardless of location, if we were to have a private company operating on the basis of generating profits and not interested in providing a public utility? I remain to be convinced that the proposed configuration will secure this very important utility in public ownership for the future. It must remain in public ownership. The possible dismantling of Uisce Éireann as a State-owned company would be disastrous for all consumers, particularly so for less populated areas.
It is unfortunate that no consideration was given to the establishment of Irish Water on the basis of best practice in local authorities throughout the country. While the Minister and his officials are more familiar with them than I am, the councils in my own county of Cavan and in Kilkenny, which was cited, are good examples of local authorities that provide an excellent water service. Consideration could have been given to the new entity being owned nationally by the local authorities, which might have offered some protection in preventing possible privatisation in the future.
The Minister and his colleague in the Department published a document on local government reform which contained aspirations in regard to giving more powers to local authorities. However, in effect, the very opposite is happening because we are dismantling their powers. The provision of a water supply is one of the major roles and responsibilities of local authorities, but that power is being taken from them.
I am glad the Minister of State referred to the success of group water schemes. He cited Monaghan as an example where there was a huge reduction in usage when the scheme was upgraded. As he knows, I represent the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan which has seen huge investment from the late 1990s in upgrading group water schemes and the public water supply. There has been a huge buy-in among the local community in so many parishes, villages and towns to a partnership with the local authorities and also the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. In the early days, when it was envisaged that existing group water schemes would merge and work together, I attended many meetings in parish halls, with other public representatives, officials from the local authorities and even officials from the Department, in an effort to have schemes merge and work together. In west Cavan there is one scheme following the merger of 13 schemes which stretches from outside Belturbet to Dowra and Blacklion. As I know the Minister of State is reasonably familiar with the geography, that will give him a picture of the huge level of co-operation between local communities, local voluntary committees and the local authority, assisted very much by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the very substantial funding provided by the previous Government to upgrade and fund new group water schemes.
Where do the group water schemes stand in this legislation? We have those unique partnerships. I will cite two examples. The group water scheme in Blacklion sells water to the county council for the village of Blacklion. In my home parish of Templeport, the village bound by the public water supply is merged with what was an old group water scheme. There is a significant and very successful fusion of public and private elements working together. Where do the group water schemes stand when this legislation is enacted? A subsidy is being provided to group water schemes at the moment and that is necessary because of the costs involved in traversing wide geographical areas that lack a critical mass of population. They need that subsidy to maintain that supply. How will those schemes operate in the future?
Not enough thinking has gone into the preparation of this legislation. One thing we have seen is that community work and partnership is being totally ignored to the detriment of the best interests of rural Ireland. The issues surrounding the commitment, expertise, diligence and work that so many people have done on a voluntary basis to ensure their local communities, assisted by the State, had an adequate supply of good-quality water to their homes have not been fleshed out, which is a serious source of concern for me. I compliment the many members of committees of group water schemes throughout this country who give valiantly of their time in ensuring that their own communities had a proper supply of top-quality water. That supply could not have been provided in so many rural areas were it not for that dedication and commitment, the partnership forged since the late 1990s and the funding made available to upgrade and build new group water schemes. That partnership will be lost with the new structures proposed in this legislation.
Is Deputy Wallace sharing time with Deputy Finian McGrath?
I heard he was not coming.
Then Deputy Wallace has more time.
He is probably out on the plinth.
My first worry is that Irish Water is being set up to be fit for sale. The Minister of State is shaking his head. I hope this is not the case because I firmly believe utilities such as water need to be kept under State control. It is a public service and I would fear for it if it went into private hands. It goes without saying that if a private company owns it, its main priority will be making money. That is what it does, which is understandable, whereas the primary objective in utilities kept in State ownership is to provide a good service and take good care of the consumer. There are no shareholders to be looked after at the end of the year when money is going out of the system to keep other people happy. If the Minister of State is being honest about it not being set up for privatisation, is it possible to insert something into the Bill that makes it impossible to privatise it in the future? That would be really worthwhile. Even if the Government does not want it privatised, there could be a change of Government in 12 or 24 months' time and the next Government might like to privatise it. The notion that Irish Water remains a not-for-profit enterprise that works in the interest of people and businesses in Ireland, and of the environment, is crucial.
I am wary about water being taken out of the hands of the local authorities. I am a believer in local government but for about 40 years, we have seen a gradual watering down of it and now we are taking one more power away from local government, which is worrying. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government talks about reforming local government but it looks more like another form of watering down of what local government has to offer rather than reform.
Will Irish Water link up with the local authorities? Approximately 3,000 people work with water in local authorities. Will Irish Water tap into this pool? I am sure it would not want it all lock, stock and barrel because that might defeat the purpose of it. Surely it should be looking at the pool of expertise in respect of water in Ireland and availing of the best talent and local knowledge that is there? There is much disquiet among people who work in the water industry about the silence from Irish Water. At this stage, the only person in local government who has probably heard from Irish Water is John Tierney. Was that post advertised? I know some senior engineers in the water business who did not see it advertised, but the Minister of State says it was. I do not know the man in question but I know he has no experience in water and is not an engineer, so it did seem a strange choice, but if the Minister of State assures me it was advertised-----
He runs Dublin City Council and is the top man in local government in the country.
That does not make him an expert in water. I would have thought it a good idea to give the post to an engineer. Perhaps the Minister of State thinks otherwise. We could disagree on that but my preference would have been for a top-class engineer with, of course, administrative skills. How many people applied for the job?
It was advertised on publicjobs.ie. We will get the details for the Deputy later.
I thank the Minister of State.
There are 3,000 people working in water services. Local authorities have funding for water services through commercial rates in particular, but they will not have this funding anymore. They still have their staff and I presume the Croke Park agreement protects their jobs so there will be no forced redundancies. How will this balance out? If the local authorities do not have the money coming in from water, how can they afford to keep all those people on their books? Has the Government worked that out?
There is a service level agreement between Irish Water and local authorities so they will be paid for the services they provide to Irish Water.
Will there be contracts between Irish Water and local authorities to provide services?
They are service level agreements. Agreements must be reached which will cover all the issues.
Does the Minister of State see many of the approximately 3,000 people who work in water services in local authorities being involved in Irish Water?
I can respond to that question when I wrap up if the Deputy wishes.
I realise it is not Question Time.
I appreciate they are very important questions and I will answer them.
I thank the Minister of State. The Aer Lingus scenario is probably in the background for many of these people. It would be a concern that they might end up in the same place and that there may be an impact on their pensions in the long term. I do not have enough information to comment but I know that people are concerned.
That Irish Water will not be subject to freedom of information legislation has been raised by other speakers but this will be addressed. It is generally agreed that transparency and accountability are in short supply in all aspects of Irish life and it would be good to have a more widespread application of freedom of information legislation.
The Bill will remove the requirement to obtain the consent of roads authorities to carry out works. I spent time as a civil engineer working on the roads. This provision could cause problems. I know that obtaining permission to open a road requires significant co-ordination between different sections of the local authority as the body which holds the information on what lies beneath. Anyone who has had the pleasure of digging a hole in Dublin will know it is like spaghetti junction down there. Before laying a pipe of any nature we were required to read the drawings for all the different services. Very often the information on the drawings is not sufficiently accurate which means a contractor must depend on a clerk of works giving an exact location under the ground otherwise there could be a discrepancy of up to 1.5 metres in the location of the pipe. It is essential that the local authority is closely involved. I would be concerned if a private company were to be in charge of this service and was not required to have the consent of the local authority to carry out the work. It is dangerous enough allowing private companies to carry out this work unsupervised.
The week before last I raised a case with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte. A high pressure gas pipe is being installed to run from the North Wall to Coolock in Dublin. It is supposed to be laid 2 metres underground but it is only being laid at 1 metre. The engineering company carrying out the work has not priced the work to include laying the pipe to the correct depth. An attempt is being made to justify the fact that this pipe is being laid at 1 metre or 1.2 metre depth. Best practice decrees that the pipe should be laid at a depth of 2 metres. Dublin City Council has queried why the pipe is not being laid at 2 metres but the contractor is working for Bord Gáis and the city council does not seem to have a say. I hope it does not happen but I can say that one of these days other contractors will be digging down to work on cabling or pipework and they will come across this gas pipe. No harm happens if everyone is careful but that is not the way it works down there. The man on the digger will not know about the pipe and there will be problems. This large pipe is being laid on top of other utilities and it is vital that it is not damaged. It is not the end of the world if a water pipe is damaged because water leaks but a high pressure gas main is no joke. It will be more expensive to access the other utilities which are below this pipe. If I was being asked to lay PVC cable or communications cables or a water feed for houses along the route of this pipe I would look for more money to do the work because it would involve more work. The local authority should have more control over the private company working for Bord Gáis in this instance. I asked a question last week in the House and perhaps the Minister concerned will come back with more information. It is interesting that the mainstream media are not remotely interested in this story. They will probably not be interested until someone is injured. This story is obviously not sexy enough for them. Gas pipes do not sell newspapers. This is just an example of the local authority not being able to exercise as much authority over a private company as would be desirable. It is a concern, in my view.
The formation of Irish Water was discussed in the House last year. I asked the Minister, Deputy Howlin, whether he agreed that fixing the leakage in the water pipes would be a good idea before the installation of water meters. There is more than 40% of water leaking out of Dublin's pipes. The state of much of the pipework is unbelievable, through no fault of anyone in particular. They have not been replaced. For example, four inch steel pipes are all over the city but the bore in the centre is approximately two inches wide, not four inches. Corrosion has narrowed the bore to two inches. This is a significant problem.
My firm did work in the city centre for Dublin City Council. We came across these pipes and the water was flowing out of them. We begged the council to allow us to replace them but the council said it did not have the money to replace them. Those pipes are there still. I could bring the Minister of State for a walk all over the city centre and show him the location of leaking pipes which have not been touched. There is significant work to be done to fix the pipes in Dublin. Many pipes are laid very deep down. At a guess, the work could cost half a billion euro to fix the pipes in Dublin. That is a lot of money but there is significant work involved. It is very problematic and other services are in the way. It is a nightmare of a job. The notion of putting water meters on the houses before the pipes are fixed is poor economy.
Other speakers have complained about the waste of water and they are correct. Apart from the leakage level of 40%, I wonder if retrofitting has gone out of fashion. I ask how many toilet systems have a dual flush mechanism. I believe it is still a small number. Those systems need to be changed and that work could provide employment. God knows, we need to create work at the moment. My company was obliged to set up water harvesting systems in the housing developments we built and that was proper order. It is a brilliant idea whereby the rainwater is captured and reused through the toilets. This system could be put in place all over Ireland. It can be installed in any dwelling house. It is just a case of using a small pump. The water is fed into a storage tank and it is pumped back up into the attic water tank. This water can be used for flushing toilets, washing machines, car washing, for example. It can provide a massive saving of water. Not only would it be a great investment for the future, it is also environmentally friendly, it would create work and it would save money. The day is coming when water will not be cheap. The installation of such systems would be a very good long-term initiative.
There are so many matters which arise in the context of this legislation that I am obliged to wonder about the degree to which it has been thought out. Concerns have been expressed about the fact that the establishment of Irish Water will make it more difficult for Ireland to comply with EU environmental directives as a result of the fragmentation of management structures. The EPA will retain responsibility for water policy from a technical and environmental perspective and the Commission for Energy Regulation will deal with costings. I accept that this could work but I am not 100% sure it will do so. Obviously, ensuring a high level of co-ordination will present its own challenge. I take it that water industry assets will be transferred to Irish Water. Will this have an impact on local authority finances? Will there be a transfer of assets?
Whatever outstanding liability lies with a local authority at the time of transfer will be passed on to Irish water. In other words, local authorities will not be obliged to continue to make repayments on loans that-----
So the assets of the local authorities will be just diminished from the time of transfer.
We will introduce a further Bill later in the year which will deal with practically all of the issues to which the Deputy refers.
I look forward to that.
I am sure the Deputy will have an important contribution to make in respect of it.
The decision to transfer water service functions away from local authorities was based on an independent assessment carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a view to improving efficiency of delivery. If the Government is really interested in efficiency, the retrofitting of pipes should be the first job of work to be completed. I say this because so many people, as a result of their personal difficulties, will not be in a position to pay water charges. I look forward to the Committee Stage debate.
I wish to share time with Deputy Joan Collins.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The State is rapidly centralising the provision of essential services. County and town councils previously held responsibility for the provision of such services. In the past, local authorities were responsible for administration in the areas of education, health and transport. Now, another of their core responsibilities, namely, the provision of quality water and the treatment and disposal of wastewater, is to be taken away. As a former councillor, I am in a position to state that the local authorities in my county did an excellent job at all times. Those authorities have a great track record and their staff are extremely dedicated. In addition, they have in place very good administrative structures to assist in the delivery of services. I am sorry the responsibility for the provision of water is to be removed from local authorities and I am obliged to wonder what will happen in my county.
There are many reasons local authorities should retain responsibility for water. In the first instance, they are close to the consumer base, they are accountable and in time of need or emergency they can mobilise the necessary staff and resources to cope with disruptions to supply or whatever. The latter was illustrated when we experienced freezing weather during the winters of 2010 and 2011, when they ensured that households and communities continued to have access to water supplies on a round-the-clock basis. The staff of the local authorities displayed their flexibility by maintaining supplies to communities, hospitals, etc. During these prolonged periods of freezing weather, maintenance crews carried out what was more or less a fire-brigade action. When public water mains burst, in many cases they accessed supplies directly via the gate valves of those mains and members of the public were then able to fill up their containers and bring them home. That was a wonderful example of the role local authorities and their experienced and flexible staff play in their areas.
During the spells of weather to which I refer, some 80,000 houses just over the Border from the Minister of State's constituency of Louth were left without water as a result of burst mains and depleted reservoirs. Northern Ireland Water was obliged to import supplies from County Louth. Tankers loaded with water were sent across the Border from Drogheda and Dundalk. The Northern communities to which I refer experienced serious disruption as a result of what happened. The level of public outrage was such that the then chief executive of Northern Ireland Water, Mr. Lawrence MacKenzie, who had been in the position for only 12 months, was forced to step down. The catastrophe to which I refer was attributed to the fact that Northern Ireland Water lacked the necessary resources or personnel. In most, if not all, counties on this side of the Border, adequate services were provided during the period in question. This was due to the efficiency and flexibility of highly experienced local authority staff. As stated, these people worked around the clock and ensured that essential services were maintained to the best possible degree in the extremely harsh conditions which obtained.
In the region of 1.3 million eligible properties are to be fitted with water meters. Until those meters are installed, there will be an assessed charge and this will be based on average usage. The final figure is still to be decided and I presume responsibility in this regard will fall to the regulator. Irish Water is expected to have a charging mechanism in place by January 2014. At that stage, only 160,000 to 200,000 houses will have had meters installed. I urge the Government to request that Bord Gáis and Irish Water source the water meters and boundary boxes to be installed from manufacturers in the Republic of Ireland. This would give rise to huge spin-off benefits and would lead to the creation of thousands of badly needed jobs. The latter would be additional to those of the 1,000 employees of Irish Water who will install these meters and boundary boxes.
Several categories of customer will experience difficulties in meeting the cost of water charges. Such charges were scrapped in 1997. I presume it is at the behest of the troika that they are being reintroduced. This is happening at the worst possible time for members of the general public who are being asked to cope will all sorts of additional costs. Many citizens find the going tough and it is unfortunate that water charges are being reintroduced. If anything, these charges are just a further austerity measure. The Government should urge Irish Water - I do not know whether the regulator could take a hand in this regard - to be humane, fair and lenient in its dealings with customers.
I hope the free water allowance, which is available in the commercial sector, will be substantial because that will be a help to people. That matter should be given priority.
The legislation should provide for exceptional circumstances to ensure there will be waivers or reductions for householders on low incomes, people with health problems, those experiencing mortgage difficulties etc. In the past local authorities successfully implemented waiver charges for the many services they provided.
The leakage rates are at 42%, which is twice the OECD average. There should be provision in the Bill for Irish Water to tackle that huge drainage of available resources, in conjunction with the fitting of the meters. Where installers detect problems of leakage in the vicinity of the meters they should rectify those and replacements should be put in place while the work is ongoing and in a timely fashion.
With the envisaged prolonged timeframe for meter installation by Irish Water at a cost of €1 billion, householders should be given the option to install their own meters. Any householder who opts for such an arrangement would have to work to a specification in terms of the quality and type of meter etc. and adhere to guidelines. That could be worked out, and when completed the householders could be reimbursed over a number of years by way of a reduction in their water bills.
Regarding the replacement of lead piping, there is great concern among those in the medical profession and householders about deficient lead pipes both in terms of the major leakage they cause and the chemicals present in them.
I presume small sewerage schemes will come under Irish Water. In County Kerry alone there are about 40 villages waiting on treatment plants and sewerage schemes to be provided and I ask that that would be expedited. There are some in my locality including the villages of Scartaglin, Curra, Kilcummin and several others. Castleisland needs a spur addition to its existing sewerage scheme because only septic tanks are available in those extended areas on the outskirts of the town including College Road and in Tullig. A plan must be put in place at an early date for the new extension to the scheme to address that problem for the householders, particularly before the introduction of septic tank charges and inspections.
Following on from what Deputy Wallace said about privatisation, there are not enough safeguards in the legislation to prevent that happening. The experience in recent years is that once charges for essential public services are introduced, privatisation follows. That has been the natural order in terms of European policy etc. Unless something is written into the Bill to the effect that there can be no privatisation in the future I do not know if that can be challenged under competition laws in Europe. That is why I believe setting up a single company will lead to that.
Another reason I believe Irish Water will be privatised is the proposal in the Bill to allow Irish Water borrow from private investors using its assets, namely, water and infrastructure, as collateral. That can lead to private investors having a claim on Irish Water's assets, and I believe that is a clear indication that privatisation of Irish Water is on course. Irish Water's assets - the infrastructure, water etc. - belong to the Irish people and despite the problem with under-funding by the State in recent years, the State has played a key role in developing that water and infrastructure.
I pay tribute to the engineers and the workers in the water sections of the local authorities. In my dealings with those authorities in Dublin City Council they have been second to none in terms of their experience, knowledge and hand-on approach. In the last big freeze in 2010 the knowledge of the inspectors and engineers in dealing with that was incredible, and it would be very damaging to lose that experience. The Minister might clarify if there has been an agreement with SIPTU to do transfer of undertakings in terms of a number of engineers from Dublin City Council to Bord Gáis or from Bord Gáis to the new company, Irish Water. It would be good to know if that is the case.
The Victorians understood that, despite the limits of science and medicine at the time, clean drinking water, the management of sewerage systems and the collection and disposal of household waste were essential to public health. That was the reason we had a public system to provide water and to manage waste and sewerage systems in the past century. Turning these services that are essential to public health into simple commercial transactions between a private company and consumers is a retrograde step and something we must address.
Other TDs spoke about the privatisation of water services in other countries. Water services in France were privatised since the time of Napoleon but that has been reversed and taken back into public control. Water services in a number of cities in Germany were privatised but as a result of voting in the local authority areas they have been taken back under public control. The major problems in Northern Ireland are a clear indication of the difficulties private companies experience in trying to deal with severe problems that may arise. The big freeze in 2010 was referred to by a number of Deputies. It is important that we keep the water services in public control.
It would be useful to get clear answers from the Government on its plans for water metering and charges. Is it the case that approximately 300,000 houses cannot be metered? What does it propose to do in those cases? Is it true that it is proposed that apartment blocks will have one meter to assess the block, with the bill to be shared by all the residents? Is it true that the Government plans to bring in assessed charges for water in 2014? Was that agreed with the troika last year? Is it the case that the water metering programme will not be completed for a number of years?
Bord Gáis initiated a programme of replacement of gas meters in the Dublin area only and it took years to complete. For how long does the Government believe water metering will take place? What is the position on the assessment that is proposed in the meantime?
This water tax is not based on ability to pay, and it will not be based on use because metering will not take place for a number of years due to the existing problems. Having spoken to people, and from listening to the debate, it appears it is another smash and grab exercise similar to the one in which the Minister's fellow TDs in Government engaged regarding the property tax to get €500 million and to bend to the nod of the troika. It is clear from its manifesto that Labour was opposed to the introduction of a water tax, yet it is now setting up the company and discussing assessment of water charges on people's homes.
It further demonstrates the contempt of the Labour Party for the people it asked to vote for them in the general election.
I heard Labour Party backbenchers state charging for water will make people think about water consumption and use. Some asked what will happen in the case of those with swimming pools, who use a lot of water. The point is that water is precious and expensive, particularly the water we require in our taps in our homes. It is crucial that we have the necessary infrastructure to provide the required amount of water. We have seen the dire consequences of water contamination in other parts of the country in recent years.
Domestic use accounts for only 16%, or almost one sixth, of the potable water produced in Ireland in a year. Unaccounted-for water accounts for 36%, or approximately one third. The world-class figure for unaccounted-for water is approximately 16%. Unaccounted-for water in the greater Dublin area reduced from 42.5% to 30% in 15 years, generally because of the development of housing estates in the Dublin area and the need to try to fix pipes over that period.
A graph I saw recently shows a breakdown of figures for Britain, where domestic metering is in place. Toilet flushing accounts for 51 litres per head per day, whereas the Danish figure is 30 litres per head per day. This points to a difference of 21 litres per head per day, representing a potential 12% saving over the figure in Britain. There is no national building code in Ireland that makes dual-flush systems mandatory such that the figure could apply here. In Denmark, under the building code, almost every house was retrofitted in the 1990s, and there was an education programme. This measure alone resulted in a consumption reduction of 21 litres per person per day.
Deputy Wallace referred to retrofitting, dual-flush mechanisms and rainwater harvesting. Only treated water should come through our taps and this would greatly reduce demand on the water system. This would greatly assist with our climate change policy and with the protection of good, clean water, which is expensive.
I welcome the chance to speak on this Bill. As mentioned by previous speakers in my party, we are not in a position to support it because there is a lack of clarity over the Government's plans for the implementation of water metering nationally. There has been a lack of detail on how much metering would cost the consumer. There is uncertainty among water management employees in local authorities, and decision-making in the Oireachtas has been rushed in terms of this Bill and the outlining of the water policy. There has been confusion at Cabinet level in regard to the total cost involved, and there is no guarantee forthcoming from the Government on water conservation or investment in water infrastructure as part of the changes it is planning to make.
Local authority staff have done a very good job over the years in keeping the water system up and running. There has definitely been under-investment in infrastructure. Local authority staff, who work by and large in their local areas, know the system very well and have ensured it has been tended to and developed, despite their not having had the required budget. They have maintained the system very well over the years.
The Government's plan for the water staff is unclear. It is obvious that the Government is going down the line of water metering. There is no debate anymore about whether Irish Water will be established. This Bill, which will be passed, will achieve that. However, the Minister must ensure that the maintenance of the current system will continue to be carried out by staff who know it well and who have done quite a good job over the years. There is still no clarity in this area. I ask that the Government provide assurance in this regard quickly.
Over the years, the laying of pipes has been carried out in many cases by agreement between water services staff and landowners. Informal agreements have been made in many cases because of the relationships that existed between local authority staff and the landowners with whom they were communicating. There was trust. Owing to the transfer of the pipes going through property to Irish Water, these relationships and agreements will no longer be remembered. The new entity may have little regard for local arrangements and knowledge and the communication that has been central to the operation of water systems over the years.
The Minister needs to ensure that the system will continue to operate at local level. He also needs to clarify how water metering will take place. It is essential that the permanent water staff working for local authorities be very closely involved in water metering. If they are not, outside contractors who will not have knowledge of the location of pipes or junctions will put meters in the wrong locations. We have witnessed this in many counties, including mine, where water meters were installed for non-domestic operations. Local authority staff who were not part of the process ended up having to tidy up afterwards and ensure the job was done properly, at great cost to the State.
What will happen to the domestic households and non-domestic entities that have water meters already? The meters that are currently installed need to be used as the basis for future metering. Under no circumstances should they be ripped up only to install new ones. It is important that local operators are afforded the opportunity to learn how to install meters so they can be employed. In my area, courses in this have been run in recent years. Former construction workers have been trained in the installation of water meters. It will be unacceptable if their skills are not utilised and if, instead, a national contractor is used that does not try to ensure each area gains from potential employment opportunities.
It ought to be concretely clear that the establishment of Irish Water will in no way be the forerunner of privatisation. Unfortunately, we have seen mistakes in the past in this regard. The privatisation of Eircom was a total disaster. My party was in government at the time and I disagreed with the decision. We must learn the lessons that can be learned and ensure there will be no chance whatsoever that the water system will be privatised as a result of the establishment of Irish Water.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill.
It amazes me that there will be no more Government speakers on the Bill, even though the Government has the vast majority of Teachtaí Dála in the House. One would think that this side of the House would run out of speakers much more quickly than the Government. It shows a lack of enthusiasm, if one could call it that, for Government policy. That is understandable. I will read a quote to the House:
I'm against water charging. Water is a necessity, I've always believed essential services like water should be delivered as a public service. A flat household charge would be unfair and does not discriminate between houses with five bathrooms or none, and metering is unworkable.
I would expect every Labour Party Member of the Dáil, including the Minister of State who is present, Deputy Alex White, to support their leader in that statement, which he made on 28 June 2010. It is no surprise that, other than the Minister of State, who must be present, there is no Labour Party Deputy in sight or offering to speak. This is another of the classic Labour Party U-turns in government. What is more serious, however, is that it has done the U-turn without even giving the details of it, because it has not worked this out and does not know what it is doing.
I am delighted that the Minister of State responsible for NewERA has returned.
I was only out for five minutes.
Fear a bhfuil Gaeilge aige. Can the Minister confirm the name by which this utility will be known? Will it be Uisce Éireann or Irish Water? Do not tell me it will be both. Obviously, if one is speaking Irish it will be Uisce Éireann, but there has been a tradition of enforcing our identity as a nation by giving the Irish name as the general name used by the public, as in the case of Bord Gáis, Córas Iompair Éireann, Bus Éireann, Íarnród Éireann and Bord Iascaigh Mhara. The idea that people born in Ireland or those who come to live within our shores have a difficulty with this is nonsense.
Those who have come to live here adapt to the Irish names and use them, just as we use words such as "sauna", which is a Finnish word, and "boutique". Most people can adapt to given names. I seek a firm commitment from the Minister that when this legislation passes there will be one name for this company, Uisce Éireann, which is to be used by all whether they are speaking the first or second official language.
As my colleague Deputy McConalogue said, we do not support this Bill. Unlike many Deputies, I did not favour the abolition of water charges many years ago. I considered it a mistake. Ultimately, as I have often pointed out, if diesel or petrol were free, a great deal of diesel or petrol would end up on the forecourts of garages rather than in vehicles. I believe people should pay for excessive use of water. If somebody has the luxury of having a swimming pool, it should not be filled with drinking water at the expense of taxpayers - people who generally do not have that type of resource. However, I also believe in the concept of a free allowance. If a free allowance is to be provided, it must be provided for in the legislation. As we debate this legislation we should know that there will be a provision for a free allowance based on the occupancy of houses. It should be given as a statutory right.
However, if the Minister does that, the basis of the Bill falls apart. This company is being established as an independent commercial subsidiary of Bord Gáis. If the Minister is going to give a free allowance and is not going to provide a significant Exchequer subsidy, which was always given for water because it was seen as a basic necessity that should be paid for from general Government expenditure, he will find himself in a contradictory situation. The figures speak for themselves. Aside from the €500 million in capital costs, there is an operational cost of €750 million, of which €200 million is recouped at present. Even if the Minister were to save €100 million or so by reducing waste, there is still a big gap that cannot be filled by charging for domestic water.
We must have clarity. Is the Government committing itself to continuing to fund, out of the taxes we pay, the people who are careful with the water they use, so they will get water for free? This is particularly important for people living in urban areas, who do not have the same opportunities to provide themselves with alternative sources of water. People living in rural areas, particularly those living in one-off houses, have many opportunities to provide themselves with rainwater or other sources of water for use in toilets and so forth. They could decide to use the water that comes from the mains only as drinking water. The free water allowance is critically important, therefore, for people in urban areas.
I accept it is attractive to borrow money to invest in infrastructure. I also accept that there are people who would be happy to see money borrowed for such investment because the quality of their water is so poor that they are anxious for the provision of water to be expedited. However, I am not convinced we would advance far beyond the major mains under this policy. I suspect that the concentration of Uisce Éireann for a long time to come will be on providing water mains in the main urban areas. That will hit rural areas. Under the old system, rural areas were guaranteed some type of fair play, because every local authority, including those in Mayo, Leitrim, Sligo, Kerry and west Cork, was entitled to a share of the money provided. Very little consideration has been given to this issue in the Bill.
I favour a national water grid. The idea of not having every small water scheme as a free-standing scheme but having schemes progressively linked across the country makes a great deal of sense. If there is a breakdown in the system, it will be possible to back-flow the water to compensate for the problem. We saw what happened in Galway when there was a problem with Cryptosporidium. It is a naturally occurring event, but the problem was caused by the failure of one of the filters to take it out of the system. The delay in resolving the problem was largely due to the fact that a final full connection had not been made between the county systems and the city system, something that has since taken place. It is now a great deal quicker to change the supply and bring in alternative supplies. There is sense, therefore, in each system becoming part of a national grid over time.
While there is a certain amount of sense in placing responsibility for the national grid of pipes under a new company, I am very worried about giving a national company responsibility for maintaining and upgrading the small pipes serving small clusters of houses in very rural areas such as Malin Head at the far end of Donegal. We will be told that the company will get around to these pipes, but not quite yet because there are greater priorities involving services to greater numbers of people. There would have been a great deal of sense in following the example of the roads network and placing the national grid under a national water services company while leaving the local grid under local authority supervision. Local authorities are much more likely to see the importance of the small cluster of houses. I am thinking of places in the north west of the Cavan-Monaghan constituency of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Joe O'Reilly, Cavan, which will not be in his constituency soon.
They will miss him.
They will find it difficult to have a voice at a national level with an unelected agency ensuring water supplies.
I note the absence of any mention in the Bill of the 145,000 households which do not have either a group water scheme or a mains water supply. I was making huge progress to deal with that issue when I was Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. With the CLÁR top-ups, we were rapidly ticking off the remaining parts of the country which remained dependent on wells of varying quality and quantity. If the Government had continued with the CLÁR programme of top-ups for group water schemes, every house, within reason, would have had access to either a good quality group scheme or the public supply. The Government does not care about the 10% again. They are not on the agenda at any time. They can fend for themselves. These are people who traditionally have been very willing to pay a reasonable contribution for their water supply.
Most of them want to stay independent.
I listened to Deputy Joan Collins's contribution and share her concern. I do not have an objection in principle to the provision of quality services by semi-State bodies. The ESB has served the country well from its inception, particularly in the work it carried out between 1946 and 1958 to provide electricity in every village and every townland in rural Ireland. I do not object in principle to the control of water mains by a similar semi-State body but I think of the Government's desire to sell the forest crop, which is opposed by every interest with any knowledge of forestry, and its intention, now pulled back from, to sell the ESB. The Government intended to bring in private money, not by borrowing whereby the State controls the funds, but by introducing private shareholders. Financial return would have become the god. It is a significant worry that we will come back here within two or three years to be told that to raise further money, the Government must privatise Uisce Éireann. There are too many unanswered questions. The Bill should be withdrawn. The Government should think about it again and come back with valid answers to the many questions raised by Deputies.
That is for Committee Stage.
Deputy Fergus O'Dowd and his colleagues, excepting the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, have a habit of bulldozing on Committee Stage and refusing to listen to reasonable amendments put forward by the Opposition.
That is not true at all.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett has 20 minutes.
Will the Chair give me a five minute warning?
Like a number of other speakers, I protest in the strongest terms about the fact that the debate has been guillotined.
That is not fair.
There is a credible, consistent pattern from the Government that promised a democratic revolution-----
-----and a new level of transparency in Irish politics-----
You were to speak today and you withdrew.
The Minister should allow the Deputy to speak.
As if the Government does not get enough time, it has to heckle Opposition speakers. Do you not get enough time?
Is it not good enough now?
Minister, allow the speaker to continue without interruption.
Go on. Let us hear you be constructive.
Show a bit of dignity for your office. There is a consistent pattern of the Government allowing Bills which are not unimportant - but which would not be the most important for the public or Members of the Opposition - to drag on for weeks on end. When it comes to important issues like the potential privatisation of water and the certainty of imposing charges however, the Government wants to impose guillotines to close off debate. It has been done again and again by the Government which promised a new type of politics.
There is a reason it is being done with this particular Bill. The legislation gets to the heart of the agenda of the Government and the troika and the sinister desire to loot public resources and State enterprises under the cover of the current economic crisis. We have had consistent dishonesty from the Government side throughout the debate. There have been red herrings about how the Bill is about water conservation and improving the water infrastructure. These things are said to justify the necessity for water charges and the establishment of the new water company. It is all nonsense and deliberate deceit. We are discussing the establishment of this company, water metering across the country and the introduction of water charges because it was agreed with the troika. The reason we agree anything with the troika, including this proposal, is because this and the last Government decided that the country should pay any price to bail out banks and financial institutions here and in Europe. That is the only reason we are discussing this. That is why it is in the programme for Government. It is a commitment to which the Government is tied because it has continued with the programme of bailing out the banks just as the last Government did. Spare us, therefore, the drivel about concern for water conservation or improving the water infrastructure. I am a fan of the writer James Joyce, Minister.
I hope you read Dubliners. That is all about water.
I am making a point.
I went to school too.
Writing in his most famous novel Ulysses between 1914 and 1921, he complains about the failure of the authorities to rehabilitate the country's decrepit water infrastructure. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been in power ever since and we have the same decrepit water infrastructure as we had when Joyce was writing about it at the beginning of the last century. Spare us the nonsense.
You spare us. You are preaching.
Spare us the nonsense of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who have had the power to rehabilitate a water infrastructure which has been utterly decrepit for the last 70 years but have done nothing to the point that 50% of the water supply leaks out of our pipes and mains.
It is 44%.
You guys are responsible for that and you did nothing about it. Now, under the auspices of the troika deal, the Government is moving to introduce charges and metering and to establish this company.
The agenda is very simple because Fine Gael has had it for a long time. It tried to introduce water charges before and was defeated by mass public opposition. Its agenda is the same as that of the European Union and the IMF. Everywhere the IMF has gone it has demanded the privatisation of water services and the introduction of water charges and always the results have been the same, massively increased costs for ordinary citizens and a massive bonanza of profits for private corporations and multinational companies. That is the agenda being pursued - the privatisation of public resources for private profit. Once the Bill is passed, as sure as night follows day, our water resources will be on the road towards privatisation. I am not the only one saying this. I have been trumpeting this for a while and I hope the media will pick up on it. We will be required to privatise our water resources once the Government begins charging for them because EU law demands it. It is as simple as that.
I see the Minister of State's officials shaking their heads. I will read from the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Article 106, which the Minister of State can read it afterwards: "Undertakings entrusted with the operation of services of general economic interest or having the character of a revenue-producing monopoly shall be subject to the rules contained in the Treaties, in particular to the rules on competition". That will be legally enforceable once we start to charge. Irish Water will be a "revenue-producing monopoly" subject to the rules of competition, which means any private corporation that wants to get into the market will have the legal right to a level playing field. We will have market competition in the water sector and privatisation will follow, just as it did once we began to charge for waste collection. Other private companies began to complain to local authorities that there had to be a level playing field and it led inexorably to privatisation, as those of us who opposed the introduction of bin charges said it would. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at the time denied it, saying it would not lead to privatisation and that actually charging would prevent privatisation. It did not, rather it led inexorably to privatisation and so will this. That is the real agenda and the troika, the IMF, and the European Commission are well aware of it. They want to plunder our water resources to the benefit of the same corporate interests that helped to bankrupt this country in the first place.
The consequences of privatisation have been disastrous everywhere. A recent report by Corporate Accountability International, Shutting the Spigot on Private Water, the Case for the World Bank to Divest, points out that 34% of all water contracts market-wide entered between 2000 and 2010 have failed or are in distress, four times the failure rate of comparable infrastructural projects in the electric and transportation sectors. The report, published on the tenth anniversary of what I am glad to say was the failed attempt to privatise water services in Bolivia where it was defeated by a mass movement of the Bolivian people, goes on to state, "public investment in infrastructure has proven time and again to be the only viable means of delivering broad and equitable access to water". The UN world water report in 2006 noted something very important: "There is enough water for everyone". It added that water insufficiency was often due to "mismanagement, corruption, lack of appropriate institutions, bureaucratic inertia and a shortage of new investments in building human capacity and physical infrastructure". That is certainly right. In a country where it pours down day in and day out we have water shortages because of the gross failure of the political and State authorities to make the necessary investment in water infrastructure. There is no objective shortage of water, but private interests have it in their interest that people see it that way to justify charging for water.
The Minister of State will say charging, which will lead to privatisation, will improve matters, but the experience has been terrible absolutely everywhere. In our nearest neighbour, Britain, the facts are clear. Margaret Thatcher privatised water services and prices increased dramatically year on year. Profits for the private corporations went through the roof. Companies exaggerated the level of investment they would make but failed to deliver that investment and instead used it to increase shareholder dividends. There was a massive concentration of ownership in the hands of multinationals, mostly American, French and British. There were executive pay bonanzas as the amount executives paid themselves went through the roof. Jobs were lost everywhere and disconnections of water supply increased. Public health deteriorated and the level of investment in water infrastructure fell overall, with the result that water quality deteriorated. Incredible droughts occurred in parts of Britain and public cynicism about the conservation of water reached all-time highs because people knew that private companies did not give a damn about conservation but cared only about profit. People were turned off the green agenda for water conservation because they knew that the only beneficiaries were the private companies.
Private water companies have also been some of the biggest culprits in big pollution scandals; 205 major pollution occurrences in Britain were caused by private water companies. I do not have time to go through all the statistics, but they are shocking. After the first four years of privatisation prices increased by 50% and by a further 18% in the five years after that. Meanwhile profits went through the roof. The pre-tax profits of private water companies doubled in the first year of privatisation and rose by 142% in real terms over eight years. Between 1990-1 and 1997-8 the pre-tax profits of the ten water and sewerage companies rose by 140%, with sewerage and water prices rising respectively by 42% and 36%, a direct correlation between increased profits for the private companies and shareholders and increased prices for the poor domestic user of water. That is what has happened everywhere and the investment in infrastructure has not happened. In fact, the percentage of the British water system now considered to be completely substandard has increased since water services privatisation. The idea that involving the private sector will be in any way beneficial is rubbish. There is no evidence to back it up. It will be a profits bonanza because the private companies will have a captive market which needs water and the Government is going to help them legally to get money from people for a resource that is necessary for human life.
The cross-over between the financial crisis in the State, Fine Gael's and the troika's privatisation agenda and the injustice facing ordinary citizens is exposed when we consider that one of the companies in the offing for water meter installation is owned by the billionaire Mr. Denis O'Brien who has bought out Siteserv.
The Deputy should not name individuals not in the House.
I will not mention his name again. Anyway, we all know who it is.
Siteserv will provide contracting services for Bord Gáis. When this company was taken over, it had €110 million written off a €150 million debt owed to Anglo Irish Bank when the bank was under State control. To my mind, that says it all about what is going on. The corporate vultures in this country and elsewhere in Europe know that if one gets hold of a water company, it is a money bonanza forever and a day. The same corporate interests which have grabbed control of our media and money-making services that ordinary people need are moving into water services because this is the first step in the privatisation of that infrastructure. Ordinary people will end up paying for this.
Fine Gael has long supported the introduction of water charges and privatisation. It is sickening in the extreme that the Labour Party is now complicit in this agenda. I have a leaflet produced by the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, for his constituency in the early 1990s. It reads: “Water charges are just another tax on workers on top of PAYE, PRSI and levies”. How right he was. It goes on to boast about the fact that Democratic Left, under his leadership and others, had successfully defeated the agenda of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to introduce water charges. Some other lines are absolutely priceless. For example, he attacked the Fianna Fáil-Labour Party Government for demanding more from the PAYE taxpayer, while cutting mortgage interest relief, VHI relief and imposing a residential property tax. The leaflet then declares, “Now, they want to make us pay for water”. How right he was to condemn this and resist it, as people did successfully. How sickening it is that he is now a party to imposing that injustice on citizens who are in a far greater state of financial distress than when he wrote that leaflet.
The only answer to this agenda of piling austerity measures and charges on ordinary citizens is for them to do what the people of Bolivia did. They must get out on the streets to resist and mobilise against this attempt to rifle our natural resources, whether it is water, forests which the Government is now planning to sell off, or our oil and gas given away to multinational corporations. These are the very tools that could be used to generate economic recovery and provide employment. However, they are being given away to profiteers and the country will pay a terrible price if the Government gets away with it. We will be resisting it every step of the way.
The Water Services Bill 2013 has serious implications for the future of a major infrastructure in our society. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the first step in a strategy to achieve the privatisation of the water supply network and infrastructure in the Republic. It is simply the beginning of a process of putting in place all the infrastructure on which a later privatisation will be built. We can have no trust whatsoever in the words of senior figures in the Government who deny this has anything to do with privatisation.
When first elected in 1997, I was only a few months in the Dáil when I spoke on the issue of Team Aer Lingus which was then being readied for what was its eventual privatisation. Not because of any brilliance on my part but because of the understanding of socialists of how the capitalist economy and politicians worked, I pointed out how Team Aer Lingus would be put through various stages and eventually finish up in the hands of international venture capitalists who would not give one whit for the needs of the workers in Team Aer Lingus or the communities which depended on the important employment the company provided. The Government at the time, of course, denied this, but who was proved correct? What is the verdict of history on that particular debate? Team Aer Lingus was handed over lock, stock and barrel to venture capitalists who, at a certain stage when it suited their international operations, devastated a premier aircraft engineering company and crushed a crucial part of our infrastructure, as well as the skills available in it. If Governments of a similar philosophy continue to be elected, which we dearly hope will change and I believe will, this will be the plan for our water infrastructure.
The Bill has the fingerprints of the troika all over it. The right-wing neoliberal philosophy that has dictated and driven policy in the European Union and the International Monetary Fund is evident in the diktat from the troika that a national water company be set up and that home owners be charged for water. In other areas of the European Union there is much talk about subsidiarity, which means keeping local control of as many of the functions of society as possible. The Bill is a diktat to move in the opposite direction and begin the process, whereby charging will become part and parcel of the water regime. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report on water services for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government published in 2011 gives the agenda away.
The company, driven entirely by the values of private capitalism, expressed the real feelings of big business in this country and of the major private water multinationals. The report states: "PwC suggest that once Irish Water is well established as a self-funding utility the Government and Regulators may wish to assess international experience of the introduction of competition in water and sewerage services to identify whether Ireland could benefit from competitive markets in the water sector at a later date." Naturally, the company believes strongly that it would be greatly beneficial to privatise our water services. It would be beneficial for big business but not beneficial for ordinary people or communities.
We hear glib pronouncements from the politicians of the right to the effect that people must pay for their water. They ask how people can expect to get these crucial services free. The water infrastructure was put into this State by the taxes and tributes taken from the pockets of working-class people over many generations. Water services are maintained by central taxation and indirect taxation levied on our people. It is utterly false to suggest that water is free in any sense. It is paid for by taxpayers, who have always maintained the system of water supply. It is crucial that we maintain, develop and improve the water infrastructure such that we have absolutely guaranteed to every home a supply of pristine, clean drinking water, as well as water for industrial needs and so on.
The aim is to set up a charging regime and when it is set up then privatisation comes into play. No doubt EU law will be invoked to the effect that water is a commodity, commodities must be traded in the marketplace and private capitalists must be allowed in, as has happened with electricity, gas and others. This is entirely the reason for the strategy of the Government to attempt to put water meters into more than 1 million homes.
We do not know what figure the Government will finally set aside over a period for metering throughout the State. Figures of hundreds of millions of euro have been mentioned, perhaps €500 million or more, but we have not seen a definitive figure. This is done on the basis of the argument that water meters in every home will help to make people more conscious of or force them to cut down on water usage. In the first instance, international studies show that after a period the amount of water that would be saved in this way is not significant as against the entire amount of water used by industry, domestic houses, etc. In fact, if is true that usage would fall somewhat, some of that fall in usage would be down to people not using water when they should because of fear of the cost. An education awareness programme and a social awareness programme on the importance of water would conserve the minor amount that is at play.
If the Government was really serious about the hundreds of millions of euro that it intends to devote to water metering - which I believe will be opposed strenuously by communities throughout the country, because they know the agenda - and if instead that funding went into correcting and renewing the dilapidated and ancient water infrastructure in many parts of the country to fix the leaks and replace the open pipes, then far more water would be conserved. It is incredible that in local authority areas up to the present day more than 50% of expensively treated water is leaking into the ground. It beggars belief that this is the case. This is where the hundreds of millions of euro should be applied immediately. Further, that initiative should be used as a major infrastructural project to take from the disastrous dole queues hundreds or thousands of construction workers, engineers and plumbers. They should be given employment in the upgrading of the national water infrastructure. In this way, not only would we get a much better infrastructure, but we would begin to make up for the disastrous losses in employment that austerity has caused in the country. This is where the investment should go instead.
Another point that strikes me in this debate is the utter hypocrisy of the establishment when it comes to the issue of water conservation. When I came to the Dáil first in 1997 it was after a major and successful battle against water taxes. I spoke often in the Dáil about the need for a change to the building by-laws such that homes could be geared to save treated water through simple changes, such as dual-flush toilet systems and the development of other internal systems within homes, that would obviate the need for clean drinking water to be used for chores which did not need it. Not one finger was lifted to achieve this, yet billions of litres of pristine, clean drinking water could have been saved in Dublin alone on a yearly basis, let alone throughout the country. Despite this, establishment politicians still have the neck to stand up and lecture us on the necessity of water charges for conservation. Unfortunately, this belies their record in this regard.
It is ironic in many ways that a Labour Party and Fine Gael Government is attempting to reintroduce double charging for water. I say double charging because taxpayers pay for water through central taxation. It was a Labour Party and Fine Gael Government that was forced to abolish water charges in December 1996. I use the term "forced" because that did not arise from its kindness towards or understanding of hard-pressed working people or a recognition of the double taxation that the charges represented. Rather, it was after a major three-year campaign of people power. I was privileged to be the chairman of the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaigns, which led the campaign in Dublin, from 1994 to the end of 1996. It involved tens of thousands of householders rightly boycotting, resisting and fighting the charge in every way possible.
The fear of persisting because of the consequences forced the Government to abolish water charges in December 1996. This resulted in a substantial saving for millions of taxpayers in the subsequent 16 years. Does anybody believe water charges would be less than €600 or €700 per year if this had not happened? It was an important achievement in terms of people power.
The Government will face an even bigger and broader battle on its odious property tax because this time it will be a national movement. As the letters start to drop next month demanding hundreds of euro from up to 2 million homes for the simple right to have a home on which no money is earned but which costs a lot to keep, it will face mass revolt, a mass boycott, mass mobilisation and massive political pressure until it relents and abolishes the odious proposal to impose this new tax.
The Labour Party is particularly culpable in all of this. Its betrayal is even more clear in view of the expensive advertisements it placed in the national press during the course of the general election campaign to the effect that people should vote for it instead of Fine Gael because the latter planned to introduce water charges. If the Minister of State has any consideration for having honest partners in government, he should insist on it upholding its promise to oppose water charges, rather than allow it to shamelessly betray the people once again.
The alternative to the Government's proposal is a modern water infrastructure properly resourced from taxation on the super wealthy. For example, the top 5% of income earners could contribute additional billions of euro in taxes that could be used to fund infrastructure development. Mar focal scoir, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil mé glan in aghaidh an Bhille um Sheirbhísí Uisce, 2013. Níl aon dabht go bhfuil plean i gceist chun príobháidiú an chórais uisce a chur i gcrích sa tír seo. Is é sin plean an troika, atá ag cur iallach ar an Rialtas an reachtaíocht seo a thabhairt isteach, an córas a athrú agus taillí uisce a chur ar gach teaghlach sa tír seo. Tá sé soiléir ón méid atá tar éis tarlú timpeall na hEorpa gurb é seo polasaí an Aontais Eorpaigh - polasaí nualiobrálach chun infreastruchtúr tábhachtach den tsaghas seo a chur isteach i lámha príobháideacha na gcomhlachtaí móra uisce idirnáisiúnta. Dá bhrí sin, caithfear cur in aghaidh an Bhille seo go tréan. Má leanann an Rialtas ar aghaidh leis, measaim go mbeidh feachtas ollmhór in aghaidh an pholasaí seo - in aghaidh príobháidiú ár n-uisce agus in aghaidh táillí a thabhairt isteach. Níl sé ceart nó cóir cáin nua den tsaghas seo a ghearradh ar ár ndaoine, atá faoin oiread sin brú cheana féin maidir leis na polasaithe déine atá á gcur i bhfeidhm ag an Rialtas chun boic mhóra na hEorpa a shábháil ón spéacláireacht, srl., a bhí ar siúl acu le deich mbliana anuas.
Is mór an onóir dom é, bheith i láthair chun éisteacht leis an díospóireacht seo. Caithfidh mé a rá i dtús báire nár cuireadh aon ghilitín ar an mBille seo ar chor ar bith. Tugadh cead cainte do gach éinne a chur a ainm nó a hainm síos chun caint ar an reachtaíocht seo. Tá roinnt nóiméad fágtha nár tógadh suas. Is é sin an fáth go dtosnóidh an vóta roimh a seacht a chlog.
Cá bhfuil siad?
Is í sin an cheist. Cá bhfuil siad? Tá mé ag éisteacht leis an sórt seo cainte ó teachtaí an eite chlé, mar a ghlaonn siad orthu féin, le fada an lá. Tá sé soiléir go bhfuil dhá rud ag titim amach sa tSín, an tír ar domhan ina bhfuil an eite chlé is láidre - tá universal metering acu agus caithfidh gach teaghlach universal charges a íoc. Tá na Teachtaí ag caint ráiméise.
Níor chuir mé isteach ar an Teachta. Ba cheart dó éisteacht liom le foighne agus dea-bhéasaí.
This is an important debate and I welcome the constructive comments from all sides of the House. Every Deputy who wished to speak had an opportunity to do so. That is important to those of us who sit on this side of the House and speakers on all sides made excellent contributions.
I was incorrect in referring to Dubliners when Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett quoted James Joyce. I should have quoted Finnegan's Wake because the first and last sentences of that book are exactly the same. It is a cyclical novel, unlike Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett's speeches which are recyclable from start to finish. One hears the same content all day every day. I challenge him to propose constructive amendments on Committee Stage in order that we can deal with the issues arising in a practical way.
China is a country which, as the two previous speakers would acknowledge, is seen as having practised communism or socialism.
For God's sake, China is not a communist country.
China which is deemed to be a communist country has a universal metering system in which there are universal charges for households.
The Government is friendly with the Chinese dictators, but they are our enemies.
I am drawing on an example from the perspective of left-wing thinking. We need to have an honest debate that allows us to examine the facts.
I would welcome as many amendments on Committee Stage as Deputies care to table in order that we can fully debate the issues involved. When we finally pass the Bill, I want to ensure there will be clarity on all of the issues raised. While I will not be able to reply to every Deputy this evening, I expect to have a full debate on Committee Stage. A second Bill will be introduced before the summer recess to deal with many of the issues raised by Deputies Catherine Murphy, Mick Wallace and Joan Collins, among others. We are not avoiding or obfuscating on the issues involved. We are providing for absolute clarity on our plans.
We need total transparency because if we cannot ensure everybody understands why we introducing the Bill, it will not be successful. We have to get people on side. I was impressed by Deputy Catherine Murphy's contribution. She set out not only her personal views but also the issues that were important to her as a member of the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, including those of the environment, conservation and jobs.
Deputy Murphy mentioned an industrial user of high volumes of water in Kildare who is making a significant contribution to water infrastructure. We want to ensure that in future, whether people live north, south, east or west, they will have a good, healthy supply of water. We want to ensure that if people want to create employment, the right quality water will be there. That is what this Bill is about. It is about ensuring our environment is protected, health is protected and that we have a proper supply everywhere. Therefore, we must ensure we get everybody on board.
I wish to refer to two major issues. First is the question of local government officials and workers. It is critical that local government workers and Irish Water work together hand in hand. This process will take place over a number of years and there will be service level agreements between local authorities and Irish Water between now and 2017 so as to ensure joined-up thinking between local authorities, their workers and their union representatives and Irish Water. In that regard, unions, local government officials and Irish Water are at idem on a specific industrial relations forum to deal with issues. The forum has an independent chairman and any issues that arise will be dealt within the forum, which is working extremely well. We do not suggest there will be no difficulties nor problems. Of course there will be. However, the forum is there to make the process work and I believe it will. The only way it will work is by getting the workers to buy into it.
Many Deputies raised the issue of privatisation and I understand the concerns expressed. I wish to refer to the current legal situation, notwithstanding this legislation. The Water Services Act 2007 already precludes the sale or disposal into private hands of any water service infrastructure. That is not changed by this Bill. We on this side of the House are committed to ensuring that Uisce Éireann remains in public ownership.
What about the European treaties?
There is no issue about this. On Committee Stage, I will be happy to listen to arguments on this and I do not see a problem in this regard if we include what is in the 2007 Act in this Bill. I will be happy to take seriously the issues raised and to deal with them then.
Deputy Murphy raised an important point with regard to flat rate charges. There will not be a flat rate charge. It is true that all houses will not be metered before charges commence. However, before charging commences, we will ensure in a transparent, accountable manner in the House that clarity is provided on the charge. It will be based on occupancy, volumetric use and best international practice. The system will not work unless it is fair and seen to be fair.
The job for the chief executive of Irish Water was advertised by Bord Gáis independently of publicjobs.ie and the competition was open and transparent. The man who got the job, John Tierney, is the current Dublin City Council manager. He has a lifetime of experience in working with local government and in dealing with water infrastructure, specifically in Dublin which faces serious issues with regard to water. I believe a better person could not have been appointed by public competition for the serious and important job of head of Irish Water. I welcome his appointment and see it as an important step. With regard to concerns about local government employment, Mr. Tierney is from and is part of local government and has worked in it all his life.
An important issue raised by many Deputies is the question of planning. If Donegal County Council, Kerry County Council or some other council want development, we must ensure there is joined-up thinking between local authorities' decisions on planning and development and between regional and national planning. We must ensure that when any conflicts arise, there will be proper accountability. We must have a fair and sensible structure we can all sign off on so that a development plan and Uisce Éireann plans will link into each other and make sense. If there are disputes, we must ensure we can resolve them. It is important we know how they can be resolved before they arise.
With regard to the role of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, they have important plans that must be considered. However, a developer might want to build an industry in a place a county council or the Department never considered for development. We must be able to deal with these issues. We must be able to provide the resources for improving the water structure in those areas.
One of the important issues for many people concerns what happens outside their doors. Deputy Wallace raised significant points in this regard. We will be happy to go through the practical issues on Committee Stage concerning how this will operate and the protocols that exist between Uisce Éireann and local authorities. The restoration of footpaths and roadways is critical. We will ensure there is certainty with regard to how this will be done right across the country. We will have protocols in place and there will be no cowboys involved. There will be a direct line of responsibility, from the local contractor to the regional contractor and to Irish Water.
Members have raised the issue of water supply being cut off. I see no eventuality where people's water will be cut off. However, there is a difference with regard to people who can afford to pay but will not. I was in the UK recently and looked at a strategy for dealing with that situation. There are people who can well afford to pay but do not and there are ways to deal with that so that they will pay. With regard to those with issues relating to income, poverty or unemployment, the Government will make a decision on that. Currently, the Departments of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Social Protection and so on are debating and examining these issues. We will have transparency and accountability on those issues in the Oireachtas before everything is finalised. The role of the independent regulator will be critical and its powers and how it will operate must be dealt with clearly.
With regard to accountability to the Oireachtas, the legislation states an annual report must be laid before the Dáil. In the past such a provision has led at least to a debate in committee. A committee discusses the report and debates it. Obviously, there are serious issues with regard to water and water strategy and these may warrant more than just an annual report. Therefore, on Committee Stage of this Bill, we need to tease out how we can ensure there will greater accountability to the Oireachtas. We must tease out the important issues for Members, the public and local government. It is important local councillors who currently can query and access water infrastructure issues will be able to get answers. Therefore the accountability of Irish Water to the Oireachtas and to regional assemblies is important in terms of planning and local accountability.
One good thing we can say about Bord Gáis, which will obviously extend to Irish Water, is that its customer service is second to none. It is fantastic. If customers have a problem, they ring up and get the facts and action is taken.
I want to make sure Irish Water is an accountable and transparent body. In that context, I note the recent comments by the Minister, Deputy Howlin, on the application of the freedom of information regime to Irish Water. Obviously, he will have to bring that matter before the House. It is an important issue for me.
I do not wish to strike a note of discord when I say that the former Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, must have been taking a water break when Fianna Fáil's national recovery plan was published in November 2010. Under the plan, it was agreed to borrow from the National Pensions Reserve Fund for water metering. The Deputy must have a serious problem with his memory, because he said he has no recollection of Fianna Fáil agreeing with the EU, the ECB and the IMF that a single water utility should be established. I say that as a political point. I know I do not have much time left-----
The Minister of State is right in that regard.
-----but I want to go back over the key issues.
I will agree with him on that one.
I am happy to stand before the people at any time. I am quite confident that I have their confidence after today's announcement of the creation of 450 jobs in County Louth. That is pretty good, baby. I would not say "No" to that.
The Minister of State is straying.
By the way, we want them to come back tomorrow with another 450 jobs.
Perhaps we can return to the Bill.
If Deputy Boyd Barrett played ball, we would get on. The issues with regard to group water schemes are very clear. There will be no change in the status of such schemes. They will continue to have the facilities and relationships they enjoy at present. One of the key things about group water schemes is that rural dwellers buy into them. One of the major developments in this area has been that group water schemes allow people to save and conserve a great deal of water. I know of a group water scheme in County Cavan or County Monaghan that saved almost 80% of the water it had been using before it installed meters. There are massive savings to be made in this respect.
Ultimately, this is about putting our country on the road to recovery and having an income that will meet our future water needs. Many people have mentioned that our water services cost €1.2 billion per annum. That is the sum of the operational costs and the amount of money set aside for capital investment. While we are participating in the troika programme, we have to look to the future and make sure money is available to improve our water infrastructure. Approximately 2,000 jobs will be created over the next three years as a result of the establishment of Irish Water. I hope many local people will be working as part of its operations. Between 300 and 400 of the jobs in questions will be based at a call centre.
This effort to improve our infrastructure, reduce the amount of water that is wasted nationally and save on capital infrastructure in the years to come will bring about an immediate bonus for local employment. It is unbelievable and unacceptable that over 40% of our treated water is wasted. When Irish Water changes that absolutely, it will make a significant difference to our future capital programme. We are intent on ensuring that happens. It is very important for the general public to understand and buy into what we are doing. I am conscious that Uisce Éireann will have a major communications programme. Now that the first leaflet has been sent to every house in the country, we must continue to communicate with people to ensure our message is sold soundly and well. Uisce Éireann is charged with that task, which is in hand, and I am confident that it will be accomplished.
One or two Deputies spoke about education. We all know that An Taisce runs fantastic environmental programmes. We have all been invited to primary schools to see the green flags that have been put up outside them. Children in local national schools have bought into these programmes. A module on treating and understanding water resources is at the heart of one of An Taisce's programmes. Practical examples of programmes relating to recycling can be seen in every school in the country. That is the way forward. It is important to introduce a new model of educating children about water into the school curriculum. It should deal with issues like water conservation and protection, health, animal life and plant life. That is the future. It is what we are buying into. This legislation will establish Uisce Éireann, which will not be privatised, as a semi-State company. It will be transparent, accountable and efficient. It will meet this country's future need for good and healthy water.
Many countries in Europe have a water shortage right now. When I was in the UK last September, I learned that there was a water shortage in the Anglian Water area. The UK is running short of water. We have an excess of water in this country. We are water-rich. We can attract jobs in industries like agriculture, pharmaceuticals and information and communications technology. Ireland is at the heart of this as the major European and one of the major international sources of water. Anyone who wants to invest in a water-rich industry should come to Ireland. Irish Water is about making sure the infrastructure is in place to meet such needs. I believe this will absolutely succeed. I thank everybody for their contributions. I repeat that I look forward to a Committee Stage debate that is as long as anyone in this House wants so that we get this legislation right.
- Barry, Tom.
- Breen, Pat.
- Burton, Joan.
- Butler, Ray.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Catherine.
- Byrne, Eric.
- Carey, Joe.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Collins, Áine.
- Conlan, Seán.
- Conway, Ciara.
- Coonan, Noel.
- Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
- Costello, Joe.
- Daly, Jim.
- Deasy, John.
- Deenihan, Jimmy.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Dowds, Robert.
- Doyle, Andrew.
- Durkan, Bernard J.
- English, Damien.
- Farrell, Alan.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Ferris, Anne.
- Fitzpatrick, Peter.
- Flanagan, Terence.
- Gilmore, Eamon.
- Griffin, Brendan.
- Harris, Simon.
- Hayes, Tom.
- Heydon, Martin.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Humphreys, Heather.
- Humphreys, Kevin.
- Keating, Derek.
- Kehoe, Paul.
- Kenny, Seán.
- Kyne, Seán.
- Lawlor, Anthony.
- Lynch, Ciarán.
- Lyons, John.
- Maloney, Eamonn.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- McGinley, Dinny.
- McHugh, Joe.
- McNamara, Michael.
- Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
- Mulherin, Michelle.
- Murphy, Dara.
- Murphy, Eoghan.
- Neville, Dan.
- Nolan, Derek.
- Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Donovan, Patrick.
- O'Dowd, Fergus.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- Perry, John.
- Phelan, Ann.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Rabbitte, Pat.
- Reilly, James.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Spring, Arthur.
- Stagg, Emmet.
- Timmins, Billy.
- Tuffy, Joanna.
- Wall, Jack.
- White, Alex.
- Boyd Barrett, Richard.
- Broughan, Thomas P.
- Calleary, Dara.
- Collins, Joan.
- Colreavy, Michael.
- Cowen, Barry.
- Daly, Clare.
- Doherty, Pearse.
- Ellis, Dessie.
- Flanagan, Luke 'Ming'.
- Fleming, Sean.
- Fleming, Tom.
- Grealish, Noel.
- Higgins, Joe.
- Kelleher, Billy.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- McConalogue, Charlie.
- McDonald, Mary Lou.
- McGrath, Finian.
- McGrath, Mattie.
- McLellan, Sandra.
- Murphy, Catherine.
- Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
- Ó Cuív, Éamon.
- Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
- Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
- O'Brien, Jonathan.
- O'Sullivan, Maureen.
- Ross, Shane.
- Smith, Brendan.
- Stanley, Brian.
- Tóibín, Peadar.
- Wallace, Mick.