Topical Issue Debate

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan.

Water Meters Installation

I congratulate Deputy Farrell on his elevation to the Chair and wish him well in his new role. I am disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Kelly, is not available today. Obviously, it is not always possible for Ministers to be present when certain issues come up in their Departments. I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for the opportunity to bring my concerns regarding access to water meters to the floor of the Dáil. This important matter has been raised by a substantial number of people throughout the country, particularly in recent times as the installation of water meters has gathered pace. It has become a fairly controversial issue in certain parts of Dublin. Many of the people who are protesting have rejected the contention that meters are needed in the first instance. There is some uncertainty at the moment regarding the actual charge. I understand the regulator will make an announcement on the water charges and the allowances in the next week or so. Obviously, that will bring some certainty to the situation.

There has been some speculation about the allowances that will be provided for, particularly in the cases of people with disabilities who might need to use more water. Equally, many elderly people have become scared and anxious as a consequence of the uncertainty and the lack of information at this time. It is in this context that I am raising the question of access to water meters. We know that the meters are installed at the stopcock at the boundary of a property on the publicly accessible land. A person who wishes to access and look at a water meter will need a flat-headed screwdriver to force up the lid. That is difficult enough for able-bodied people, but those with disabilities will not have any opportunity or any way of measuring the amount of water being used in their households. They will not be able to budge the lid to find out where they stand. People are able to read the electricity and gas meters in their homes to learn where they stand. The difficulty that this uncertainty is posing is very extreme.

When I raised this issue previously with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, he assured me his Department would conform with all directives, particularly the measuring instruments directive. I am concerned that this might not be the case, however. The European measuring instruments directive provides that "whether or not a measuring instrument intended for utility measurement purposes can be remotely read it shall in any case be fitted with a metrologically controlled display accessible without tools to the consumer". The most important part of that clause is the provision that the consumer should be able to access a measuring instrument without having to use tools. As I have said, in this case one will have to use a screwdriver to lift the lid of the shore in which the meter is contained. I suggest this demonstrates not only that there was a lack of thought when these meters were being installed, but also that the European directive is not being complied with at present. We have been told by the Department that the meters will be read automatically, that information will be provided directly to customers in their bills and that any unusual usage patterns can be discussed directly with Irish Water. It really worries me that people who do not have a relative or friend to open and read these water meters will have to rely on Irish Water to check the level of water usage independently. Perhaps the Minister of State can respond directly to that concern.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly. I thank Deputy Terence Flanagan for raising this very topical issue. The Water Services Act 2013, which provided for the establishment of Irish Water as an independent subsidiary within the Bord Gáis Éireann group, assigned the company the necessary powers to allow it to undertake the metering programme. The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 provides that Irish Water can collect charges from its customers who are in receipt of water services provided by it. Water meters used for domestic billing must comply with the EU measuring instrument directive, which sets standards of accuracy. This directive is implemented in Ireland by means of the 2007 legal metrology regulations. The legal metrology service of the National Standards Authority of Ireland is the statutory body responsible for regulating and supervising weights and measures, including meters, in Ireland.

Irish Water has confirmed to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government that all the water meters in use by Irish Water comply with the Measuring Instruments Directive. It has also confirmed that the meters being installed as part of the metering programme are designed so it will be possible for the householder to read the meter.

Most meters for public utilities are located at the point where the connection enters the household. In the case of water services, under the provisions of the Water Services Act 2007, households' pipes internal to the boundary of a property are considered the responsibility of the householder and thus water meters are generally fitted at the stopcock at the boundary of the property. As this is located on publicly accessible land, it minimises disruption during both the installation and the reading of meters as access to people's homes is not required.

Meters will be read automatically and the information will be provided directly to customers in their bills. Each water meter has a low-power radio unit fixed to the top which enables it to be read periodically from a passing van. This is what is known as automatic meter reading or AMR. The metering technology being employed by Irish Water also includes a constant flow alarm which will alert Irish Water where there appears to be a leak on a property. Irish Water in turn will alert the affected household of the possible leak. Householders with a meter installed will be provided with a reading of their meter as part of their bill and any unusual usage patterns can be discussed with Irish Water if the householder is concerned. As such, it is not anticipated that the householder will need to read the meter. However, as the meter boxes are not sealed it will be possible for a customer to access the meter to verify readings or to monitor consumption.

Irish Water is putting in place a number of facilities for customers who require special or priority services. This includes the compilation of a confidential special services register for customers who prefer to have some of the services adapted to suit their needs and a confidential priority services register for domestic customers who have a critical medical dependency on water. The special arrangements put in place for the visually impaired have been developed in consultation with the National Disability Association. Information on how to read the meter has been included in customer communications. Irish Water has also contacted all of its customers and asked that householders with disability, mobility or medical concerns contact its call centre in advance of the meter installation so any additional support or advice can be arranged.

It is also important to note that the Government has established the Commission for Energy Regulation, the CER, as the independent economic regulator for Irish Water. In addition to approving the charges levied by Irish Water, the CER has a wider role in protecting and representing the interests of Irish Waters' customers. The Water Services (No. 2) Act provides that the CER must perform its functions in a manner that best serves the interests of customers of Irish Water.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am very concerned that Irish Water may not be fully complying with the EU Measuring Instruments Directive. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that the Department has checked and ensured that we are in full compliance. The aforementioned directive states that no tools should be needed in order to be able to read the meter but one needs a screwdriver to access the meter in the first instance. That is a major concern. It is also worrying that the digits on the meters are very small. I have been reliably informed that one would need a pair of binoculars to read the numbers, particularly the last two digits. These issues are of concern because homeowners will have difficulty determining how much water they are using in order to estimate the size of their bills.

There has been some talk about the possibility of house display units being made available to homeowners, allowing them to read their water meters inside their homes. I ask that such units be provided free of charge to those who have a disability who are not in a position to go outside to interfere with and try to read their water meters. I have been told that the cost of such units could be substantial but I believe that technology should be rolled out and made available to those homeowners who wish to keep an eye on their consumption, particularly in the context of tight household budgets.

Another issue of concern is the fact that householders are being asked by Irish Water to provide their PPS numbers. Many Deputies have had queries from constituents in that regard. Can the Minister of State tell the House what database is currently being used by Irish Water to contact customers? It has come to my attention that Irish Water has written to the wrong people at the wrong addresses in some instances. I ask for clarification on that question.

Deputy Flanagan has raised a number of logistical, procedural and operational issues which I will convey to the Minister. I will seek clarification for the Deputy on the various issues he has raised. I am sure officials in the Department are listening to the Deputy right now. I will ensure that the matters he raised, which are of concern to all Members in the House, will be clarified. I thank the Deputy again for raising this very topical issue at this time. Water charges will be introduced very soon and for that reason, many people are interested in these issues.

Property Tax Collection

I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his new role. I sat beside Deputy Kevin Humphreys on many occasions and engaged in good banter with him on the backbenches. I am delighted to see someone who was up here with me - where the pigeons cannot fly - being elevated to a lower level in the Dáil Chamber. I wish him the best of luck in his new role and hope that he will be able to help me today.

A number of constituents have approached me about this issue and I will relay the story of one such constituent to the Minister of State. This concerns a person who wants to pay the local property tax on a weekly basis. She, like many other citizens, wanted to set up a standing order or have the payment deducted from her social welfare payment. She receives a social welfare payment of €188 per week and her local property tax works out at roughly €4 per week. The Department of Social Protection will not allow her to take the payment out on a weekly basis because her income will then drop below the critical threshold of €186.

This is a person who is budgeting on limited funds. She has been asked why she does not pay it on a weekly basis. If she pays it on a weekly basis in cash through the post office, she will be charged a service provider charge of €1, which is an additional €52 per year.

This is a person who would find it difficult to put money aside, as has been suggested. Come the end of the year, in particular last year when only €2 was taken off her on a weekly basis, she has to come up with an additional amount. She gets an additional living alone allowance of €7, which brings her total payment up to €195. If she is allowed pay the €4 off that, she would be above the threshold of €186.

These are situations where recipients are trying to do their best to live within their means and they do not want to be a burden on the State with regard to the local property tax. It is an anomaly within the system. What we should look at is the total payment being given to this person and other such individuals which would bring them way above the threshold of €186 so that they could have a deduction taken directly out of their social welfare payment. They pay their ESB bill and gas bill by direct debit when they come in where none of this seems to come into effect, but social welfare has dictated the €186 threshold. Claimants receive a living alone allowance which brings them way above it. We should look at the total payment from a social welfare perspective that they receive rather than the individual payment that may put them in the difficulty that they are in at present. The Minister should allow that supplementary payments be taken into consideration when calculating the supplementary welfare allowance which, in this and other cases, would allow them to pay directly their local property tax from their social welfare payment without having to make alternative arrangements.

I thank Deputy Lawlor for his kind words. I am sure we will see him down in these low elevations as well at some stage.

The Deputy will be aware that the Finance (Local Property Tax) Bill 2012 allows for a person who is liable for the local property tax, and who is in receipt of certain social protection payments, to have local property tax deducted from their payments. The Revenue Commissioners have agreed with the Department of Social Protection a number of schemes from which the deduction at source facility for this tax can be made.

Deductions of local property tax, LPT, from social protection payments commenced in July 2013. With effect from 5 September 2014, there are 23,562 customers having deductions for local property tax from social protection schemes.

In order to maintain statutory minimum incomes and in order to ensure that a customer is left with enough resources to live on, the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012 provides that deductions from social welfare payments in relation to the local property tax will not breach the statutory minimum income guarantee as set out in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. That rate is currently set at €186 per week. The maximum personal rate of pension for someone under age 66 on a widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's (contributory) pension is currently €193.50, thus only €7.50 per week can legally be taken from this payment in order not to bring the recipient below the basic social assistance personal rate of €186 per week. For those aged 66 and above, with a maximum pension of €230.30 per week, the total amount that can be deducted is €44.30. This amount is calculated after any deduction is made for recovery of any existing court orders or social protection overpayments and is based on the primary personal rate only.

Secondary payments which cover specific benefits are not taken into account in determining whether a claimant's scheme payment is greater or less than €186 per week. This is provided for in section 92(2) of the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012. Where a customer is not eligible for the deduction at source facility or where the deduction level allowable will not meet the customers LPT liability in full, he or she will be contacted by the Revenue Commissioners so that an alternative payment arrangement can be made from the payment options available.

The Minister for Social Protection appreciates the convenience for social welfare recipients of having the deduction facility in place but her overriding obligation is to have safeguards which ensure that a customer is not left without sufficient income. The Minister is reviewing the implications of allowing customers to have deductions made from their welfare payment on a voluntary basis which has the effect of bringing their payment below the basic rate in some clearly defined instances. This is a complex area with intertwined policy and legal implications and it requires careful consideration before any final decision is made in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I reiterate the basic payment that this person and others receive is €188 and from the perspective of the €186 threshold, they are snookered.

I take comfort from a sentence of the Minister of State's reply that, "The Minister is reviewing the implications of allowing customers to have deductions made from their welfare payment on a voluntary basis." If they were allowed do it on a voluntary basis, and go into the Department of Social Protection and make the case, whether through me or themselves, would the Minister accept that being taken into consideration instead of having to go through legislation? It is commonsense. Where someone goes in there voluntarily to make the payment, would the Minister take that into consideration?

I thank Deputy Lawlor. I am happy to engage further with him on this after the debate to see if we can come to some resolution. As I outlined in the reply, it is quite complex and there are clear guidelines in relation to it. We will have to look at it extremely carefully because we do not want to push recipients below a minimum rate.

As I stated, the Minister indicated that she will review this. I will certainly take Deputy Lawlor's concerns and suggestions to the Minister and I will talk to him further after the debate to see can we work out a satisfactory resolution. In saying that, I am not making any promises because, as I outlined in the reply, this is extremely complex. I am happy to take this to a further discussion with Deputy Lawlor and I hope he will be happy with that.

Broadband Service Provision

I welcome that the Minister is here for the debate because this is a reflection on every community, not only those in rural areas.

There has been an issue with the broadband services provided through the Eircom exchange in Banteer in County Cork over the past couple of months and I am dealing with a number of businesses and consumers who are looking for broadband.

At the outset, broadband is as important to the community in Banteer or any other community in north Cork as electricity was in the 1950s. The Government should accept the need to make it a priority to ensure the broadband services are delivered.

There has been an issue in relation to this community over the past number of months and the community council has been active in trying to engage and liaise with Eircom to get a response on the issue. There has been a number of issues. Eircom has come back with issues in relation to the modem and other matters, and the community council has quite clearly come back and stated that on these issues what Eircom has been telling it is completely untrue and that we are without proper broadband services. Everybody within the community is using the Internet no more than those in urban centres and they need it at this stage.

In Banteer, there have been numerous commitments in relation to Eircom's exchange. It simply is not happening there.

Back in July, it became apparent that the quality of the service had deteriorated enormously. Several employers in the community have been on to Eircom about the broadband services in the area but have been fobbed off. However, it is now clear Eircom has not taken control of the issue or repaired the service. Will the Minister intervene in this case? It will take a whole-of-government intervention to deal with this broadband crisis in rural areas. Many of the communities with which I deal with tell me their main issue is with the poor provision of broadband services.

Since market liberalisation in 1999, broadband services are delivered through private sector operators. The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband services, is primarily a matter for the service providers concerned which operate in a fully liberalised market regulated by the independent regulator, the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. Details of broadband services available in each county can be found on several websites, including ComReg's website at www.callcosts.ie, as well as the websites of individual commercial operators. Decisions by private operators, including Eircom, relating to investment in infrastructure to provide broadband services are taken purely on commercial grounds, having regard to the cost of service provision and the anticipated revenue returns from any such investment.

Eircom has made public announcements concerning its plans for a roll-out of advanced fibre networks in a large number of towns and cities. This is part of a major commercial investment by Eircom in which it intends to roll out an advanced high speed broadband network to almost 1.6 million houses and businesses across the country. In this regard, I would direct the Deputy to the Eircom press announcement on 29 November 2013 when the company listed all the areas it has plans to upgrade.

The area of Banteer, County Cork, is on this published list and Eircom plans to upgrade this exchange in the coming months. Decisions such as this are strictly commercial in nature. The Deputy will, accordingly, appreciate I do not have a statutory authority to direct commercial companies such as Eircom in this regard.

The Government welcomes the investment by the commercial sector of some €2.5 billion in new infrastructure and services and is strongly supportive of a robust and competitive telecoms market. Examples of this significant investment are the accelerated investment by Eircom. In 2012, when we first published the national broadband plan, Eircom was committed to addressing 1 million homes with its e-fibre service. It launched this service just over a year ago and has already passed 1 million premises. It has committed to passing 1.6 million homes by mid-2016. This investment programme represents a major advancement in the availability of high-speed broadband services. The exchange at Banteer is part of this programme.

In 2012, when the national broadband plan was launched, UPC committed to services of 25 Mbps to 100 Mbps. Two years on, over 700,000 homes can already access minimum broadband speeds of 120 Mbps and up to 200 Mbps. Businesses can access speeds of 500 Mbps. The ESB and Vodafone have established a joint venture company which will invest €450 million to deliver fibre-based broadband services off the ESB distribution network offering speeds from 200 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps. The first phase of this project will reach 500,000 premises in 50 towns.

Mobile telephone operators are now rolling out 4G services nationwide, as well as enhancing the quality and availability of 3G services. However, operators have made it clear to the Government that there are large parts of the country which they cannot address commercially. The Government's statement of priorities for 2014 to 2016 reaffirms our commitment to delivering a State-led broadband intervention in the areas where commercial investment is not forthcoming. Through the national broadband plan, the Government aims to ensure high-speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses. In 2012, we predicted the need for the State to address 1.3 million of Ireland's 2.3 million premises. Thanks to investment by Eircom and others, that area has now reduced to 900,000 premises, a 30% reduction. This could reduce further with the proposals by the ESB and others in the industry.

My Department, in conjunction with the industry, is finalising a mapping exercise which will identify the precise areas of commercial investment, as well as those areas that require a State-led intervention. The maps will be published later this year for public consultation. They will be dynamic and subject to change as new commercial investments are announced or rolled out in the future. This is an important milestone in the overall project which will feed into the project implementation strategy which we will publish in 2015 for consultation.

Consumers can be assured that through the combination of commercial and State-led investment, the Government intends to ensure everyone can access high-quality broadband services, regardless of where they live or work.

There is a major issue here with the Government accepting there is a crisis in broadband provision in some rural communities which needs to be addressed forthwith. When will the Banteer exchange be upgraded? What are those reliant on the service who have had a complaint about it for the past several months to do in the meantime? It is high time there was a crisis meeting between the Minister, his Department and ComReg to address this problem because the machinery in place to address complaints about broadband provision is not delivering results.

I understand all the schemes and initiatives for broadband roll-out that have been announced. However, there is a crisis on the ground in broadband provision for rural communities. I fear for their future if nothing is done about it. When will the promised upgrade of the Banteer exchange happen? Will the Minister and his officials explain to Eircom that this issue was raised on the floor of the House and how dissatisfied those affected in Banteer are with the way their complaint has been handled over the past several months? Eircom has claimed it is not its fault but it is high time it accepted there is an issue there. It is making money on the backs of consumers but has not satisfactorily dealt with the complaint by the people of Banteer.

Eircom is a private company and, as I indicated earlier, I do not have the statutory authority, as the Deputy is aware, to direct any commercial company, Eircom or otherwise, in any particular regard. However, I agree with him on the provision of quality broadband service in towns and rural areas. Services have improved immensely in recent years due to the input of several commercial operators, including, in fairness, Eircom. Earlier, I detailed its investment in the system. I also agree with the Deputy that there are areas where the service is still short of what people are entitled to expect. I have no difficulty in communicating to Eircom what the Deputy raised in the House this afternoon.

I would not like anyone to have the impression, however, that the Government does not see the importance of broadband. It does. I am actively engaged in bringing forward the national broadband plan, which I regard as critical.

There are parts of the country where the commercial sector will never make money on broadband, which is why the State will have to intervene. That is the reason the State has a critical role in this vital infrastructure to which the Deputy referred. I agree with him that broadband provision is important for businesses, communities, families and in a whole host of different ways to which he alluded.

I will continue to regard the extension of broadband as an absolute priority for me, as a relatively new Minister, and the Department. I hope to work with the Deputy and other Deputies to advance this important project. I look forward to the support of colleagues across the House for the project. In the meantime, while I do not have any statutory role in respect of any of the individual providers, I will certainly undertake to communicate to Eircom the points the Deputy raised.

The Dáil adjourned at 3.30 p.m. until 2 p.m on Tuesday, 30 September 2014.