I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter on the first Topical Issue debate on 2014. This is a very important topic, particularly in light of the negative attention Irish Water has attracted in recent days. I hope the Minister of State will be very explicit when replying to what I have to say.
Ireland is to start charging for domestic water usage and, in that context, a new system of charges is to be introduced for all homes that are connected to a public water supply. The new charge will be levied by Irish Water, which is the new national water services authority, with the first bills for domestic water usage to be issued in 2015. I am of the view that when new national charges are levied on taxpayers, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be adopted because we are all different and each of our personal circumstances must be taken into account, particularly during the current economic downturn. In these circumstances, there is an affordability factor which must be taken into consideration. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government must impress upon Irish Water that this factor must be taken into account before the charges are calculated. There should be an investigation into the concept of affordability because the introduction of these new charges, combined with other charges and taxes, will undoubtedly give rise to problems for some people. I refer, for example, to those who are on very low incomes or who are in receipt of social welfare benefits.
I am of the view that Irish Water could introduce a free personal allowance scheme for every individual who is liable to pay water charges. Under this scheme, a ceiling level of usage would be put in place and people who do not exceed this would not be liable for any payment. Not only would this be fair and equitable, it would also promote smarter usage of water. The latter is a valuable resource that we often take for granted. A scheme such as that to which I refer would also restore a certain level of control to users. As a result, they could control the amount of water they use and they would not incur any cost until they exceeded their personal free allowances.
According to a study compiled on behalf of Irish Water, the average Irish family uses up to two full bathtubs of water - approximately 150 litres - each day. Most of this is simply wasted by being poured down the drain after use. Some 80% of the people surveyed for the study did not realise the amount of water that they use. An average shower uses approximately 50 litres of water, cleaning one's teeth wastes in the region of six litres every minute and one cycle of a washing machine involves the use of up to 65 litres. This all adds up for the average family of two adults and two children, particularly in circumstances where the children are under a certain age. Put simply, Irish Water estimates that the cost of providing and maintaining water for Ireland runs to approximately €1.2 billion per year. In view of that level of consumption and cost, large families must be granted allowances in order to assist them in meeting their obligations.
I request that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government not only take the suggestions I have made on board but also that he take steps to include an amendment to the Act in respect of this matter in order that what I am recommending be enshrined in law. It is not good enough to state that this is something we would like to include; it must be enshrined in legislation in order that it will work. The only way it will work will be if it is written into law. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.