Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Vol. 858 No. 1
Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I understand Deputy Stanley is sharing his time with Deputies Adams, Ó Caoláin, McLellan, Colreavy and Mac Lochlainn.
In moving the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 3) Bill 2014, we seek to ensure that water services will not be privatised. I raised this issue during the debate last year when the legislation to establish Irish Water was rammed through the House, particularly the fear of future privatisation down the line. We were told at the time that there was a clause in the Bill - there is - which meant Irish Water could not be privatised unless there was a change in the law and a new Bill was brought before the Dáil. A new Government could do that, as could the current Government in a year or ten years' time.
Given that one of the Government parties promised during the general election campaign that it would not allow the introduction of water charges, neither I nor the public are filled with confidence by any such guarantee in regard to the threat of privatisation. The Labour Party ran Tesco-style advertisements during the campaign, attacking its current partners in government on their proposal to introduce water charges. That was a factor in the good showing by the Labour Party in the election, just as its support for austerity and its U-turn on water charges are responsible for its poor electoral showing since 2011.
We propose to amend Article 40 and insert a new section, which reads:
The State recognises the right of all persons to sufficient, safe and accessible water and as guardian of the common good shall defend and vindicate this right and ensure that water services and infrastructure remain in public ownership.
In doing this, we choose to amend Article 40 rather than Article 10, which was another option, as we think the recognition of access to water as a right is more fundamental than any economic argument. This is central to the global debate on water, which has only in recent decades become a target for corporate vultures and adventurers seeking to control basic services which have traditionally been recognised as public services, even by conservative governments. The Bill we are putting forward will give back ownership and control of the basic infrastructure and services to the public. A key point also is that this Bill is a guarantee that our water can never come under the control of vulture capitalists unless the Irish people decide to change that.
The move towards privatisation of water services is a recent development in countries throughout the world. Privatisation of water services has taken place in many countries as part of the promotion of the neoliberal economic agenda over the past 15 years and, sometimes, under pressure from agencies such as the IMF and ECB, which have used the leverage of so-called financial aid programmes to force client states such as Ireland to introduce wide-ranging privatisation of public services. In most cases, the privatisation agenda was initiated by creating new companies which were more fit for the purpose of being sold off. A good example of this was the Thames Valley water authority in Britain, which was later sold off.
The move towards preparing for a sale of State assets was clearly underwritten in the memorandum of understanding signed by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government as part of the bailout of the banks and bondholders, which the current Government has adhered to. However, so far the Government has been limited in the scale of privatisation it has been able to carry out. It had targeted Coillte, for example, but due primarily to the fact that the public was made aware of what was being planned for 7% of State land, that plan was reversed. While the privatisation of water is not an immediate item on the agenda, there is every likelihood that the Government, if it engineers a miracle and manages to cling to power in the next election, or any future conservative government made up of some variation of Fine Gael, the Labour Party or Fianna Fáil, could proceed in that direction.
It is no coincidence that one of the likely interested parties, Mr. Denis O’Brien, who has already established a growing foothold in the media, has already secured a substantial contract for the installation of water meters for his company Siteserv, now Sierra, which he acquired specifically in order to secure these contracts. If privatisation is planned, obviously any company that has been installing meters on such a wide scale would be in prime position to take over the water company itself. While this is not an immediate prospect, not least because of the escalating costs of establishing Irish Water, no private company is going to want to buy any State company that carries a substantial debt burden. Therefore, nothing will happen in this regard until taxpayers have paid the cost of establishing Irish Water and are paying for domestic water, generating a cashflow. This is the plan, but it has not worked out too well to date. When the infrastructure is upgraded - costing billions of euro in public moneys - and when the beast has been fattened at the expense of householders and taxpayers, Irish Water can then be sold off, just as happened with Telecom Éireann in the 1980s. Irish taxpayers and householders fattened that company. We had a very poor service up to the early 1980s, but the service was modernised at public expense and then sold off. We are aware of the succession of companies that have owned it since.
While I do not believe the Government is planning any privatisation of Irish Water in the near future, the only fair way to prevent this from happening is for a guarantee to be written into the Constitution, as our legislation proposes. Our proposal has won wide-ranging support across the political and civic spectrum, with even some Labour Party Members expressing their support for it. Just two weeks ago, the Labour Party Members of the Seanad voted for a Fianna Fáil motion to support our position. Was that a cynical stunt - just a ploy and political play-acting - or is the Labour Party serious about this? It will have the opportunity in the next two days to show us which it was.
I urge the Labour Party Members to put their money where their mouth is and support this Bill so that it can move to Committee Stage, where the practicalities of organising a referendum can be dealt with quickly before the next general election so that we can remove the threat of any future privatisation of the water service hanging over us. We will have the opportunity to have this referendum next year, because the Government is planning a number of referendums. It would be easy to have this referendum on the same day.
It is worth noting that across Europe the tide seems to have turned against privatisation. The Government here privatised a large part of Bord Gáis, and of course the water service is attached to that company. However, across Europe, the trend in favour of privatisation has run aground in the face of public opposition. While this would appear to contradict the neoliberal claim that the private sector is a more efficient and cost-effective supplier of goods, including public goods and utilities, it confirms the historical experience of states across the world where water services have been established and retained as a public service - that the very reason for this is that the private sector was either uninterested or unable to provide a universal and efficient service. This lesson seems to have been re-learned in many European countries, where almost 200 privatisations have been reversed over the past 20 years, with control reverting, as in the case of Paris, for example, to the local authority. Therefore, it would be the height of stupidity on the part of any Irish government to reject the lessons of failed privatisation in other countries and to leave open that possibility here. The only way to prevent that is to enshrine public ownership of the resources and services of Ireland through a constitutional amendment.
Other Sinn Féin speakers will cover in detail all aspects of the current debacle surrounding Irish Water, particularly from the past week. Before I close, however, I want to make one or two points that need to be made. The first is that all the promises that were made about Irish Water replacing the old system with a more cost-effective and efficient body have been shown to be ludicrous. The whole thing was put together at enormous and growing cost to the taxpayer, including more than €80 million spent so far on consultants. What the consultants have been doing is a bit of a mystery and we have seen the cock-up around getting the most basic things right, including the billing of apartments and of tenants, who pays for leaks and so on. That is not something dreamed up by Sinn Féin or propaganda from this side of the House. Several backbenchers from the Fine Gael and Labour side have complained about this in recent weeks, and many have spoken about the failed system and incompetent record of Irish Water to date.
The second issue is the question of why people have become so annoyed with the water charges. Why, after all of the austerity of the past six years and the escalating taxes and cuts in wages, have people become so annoyed with this? The Government obviously regarded this as a minor charge and thought that, as people had swallowed all of the bitter pills so far, this would be another easy pill to swallow. However, while the Government has attempted in the past year to talk up a recovery and boast about growth and new jobs, many people in our communities have not seen this. In addition, people view this as a charge that can be beaten through peaceful popular mobilisation.
To have had the water debacle alongside this so-called recovery has had the opposite effect on people. A huge number continue to struggle, including those who have taken up work in recent months. I am aware of several people who took up work in recent months but who are no better off, unfortunately, than they were when they were jobless a year ago, which is sad to say. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. Those people are struggling to keep their heads above water, if the House will pardon the pun, struggling to pay bills and bringing home small wages of €250 to €300 a week. The Government needs to recognise this. It will come in here tomorrow with some concessions, hoping that whatever it announces will provide it with more breathing space. However, there is a growing feeling that the game is up and that the Government needs to go back to the drawing board.
The two key messages with which I want to leave the Government are these. First, the infrastructure has to be kept in public ownership. We must give the people that right and give control of this service back to the people. Second, we need to scrap the domestic charges, and scrap them for good. I urge Deputies on all sides of the House to use the opportunity to correct this mistake. The Government has gone down the wrong road. It should stop before it goes any further, support this Bill and put this back into the hands of the people.
I want to commend Teachta Stanley for bringing forward this very important and timely Bill. Citizens are sick to the teeth of the Government’s agenda of relentless austerity and endless list of taxes and charges aimed at those on low and middle incomes. This water tax is the final straw for many families. People who would never have thought of protesting have joined tens of thousands of others and taken to the streets against the Government. Rather than listen, however, the Government has dismissed their concerns.
Part of the anger and rejection of the Government proposals around water tax, which was initially a Fianna Fáil idea, comes from the instinctive understanding among Irish people that water is the most basic of resources. Many rural dwellers, who have to sink their own wells and pay for that, or who are part of group schemes, have paid for water for a very long time. They understand, as do urban dwellers, that water is a very basic need and that we use it to cook, to wash and to drink.
In the history of this State, successive Governments have abjectly failed to properly manage or exploit natural resources for the benefit of Irish citizens. They have either been under-utilised or sold off to private and foreign interests, the most notorious recent example of this being the disgraceful squandering of our natural gas rights.
There is a deep and widespread view, which I share, that the metering of domestic water, the imposition of water charges and the establishment of Uisce Éireann is all about setting up the State’s water services for privatisation. The belief is that the ultimate aim is to eventually privatise water supply. This process has already unfolded with Eircom and, more recently, the establishment of Bord Gáis, which was simply the precursor to selling off that important public asset. In Sinn Féin's view, and in the view of an increasing number of thinking people, it makes no sense to throw away decades of State investment through this type of sell-off. Any move to privatise water would, one assumes, ensure even higher water charges for consumers than those the Government is already contemplating. In the North, Sinn Féin has prevented the introduction of water charges and the privatisation of the water services, and we did that in the face of a British Tory party diktat.
This constitutional amendment Bill allows for a referendum to retain control of water services in public ownership. Why should the Government be afraid of that? Why not give the citizens - the people - their say? The Bill seeks to enshrine access to clean water in the Constitution and to protect this for future generations. The European Commission has already received the European citizens initiative on the right to water, which contained 2 million signatures urging the EU to implement the human right to water and sanitation. More than 90% of citizens in both Italy and Greece voted in referendums to ensure that water privatisation systems would not be implemented. The Netherlands passed a law in 2004 banning private sector provision of water supply.
I listened to the Taoiseach but he has not given a satisfactory explanation of the Government's reluctance to hold a referendum on water ownership. As Teachta Stanley said, Labour Deputies are on record as supporting this principle and Labour Senators voted for this in the Seanad. If, as the Government says, there are no plans for the privatisation of Irish Water, then why does it not fully support this Bill? The Taoiseach, interestingly, in response to a question from me earlier today, said he would reject the Bill and that the Government is against it, and he said it had implications for private property rights. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, is aware of the words of Pádraig Mac Piarais in The Sovereign People, when he wrote, “...no private right to property is good as against the public right of the nation”. Surely, there is no more appropriate application of that sentiment than to the right of citizens to guaranteed access to something as basic as water. This Sinn Féin Bill is about making the import of Pearse’s words a reality. I urge all Deputies to support it.
We propose a straightforward amendment to the Constitution that would require a decision of the people by referendum. It would read, "The State recognises the right of all persons to sufficient, safe and accessible water and as guardian of the common good shall defend and vindicate this right and ensure that water services and infrastructure remain in public ownership." Some would say that such an amendment should not be necessary. Unfortunately, the fiasco that has been Uisce Éireann, and the pro-privatisation outlook of the Government, means we can be sure of nothing.
Clean, safe drinking water is a fundamental right. We in Sinn Féin believe all public water supplies should be paid for by fair and progressive general taxation. It is vital that our water services remain in public ownership. We have been accused of not being able to lay out how we would provide water without these charges but we need only look at our track record. Sinn Féin has blocked the introduction of domestic water charges in the North. Uisce Éireann's now sweetened water tax - or water tax light - represents a foot in the door, a way to ensure that people sign up. Once it has that foot across the threshold, it will not be long before it steps boldly inside their houses.
As we have seen before, these charges will also go up and up. The fact that the Government has made some concessions shows that they can be reversed. We now need to go further and ensure that the charges are abolished altogether. We call for a referendum to be held on the issue of the ownership of our public water services. Such a referendum would provide the necessary concrete reassurance to citizens that our water services will be protected and maintained in public ownership.
Labhair an Taoiseach cheana ar uisce faoi thalamh. An t-aon uisce faoi thalamh atá i gceist ná ceann i gcoinne an ghnáth Éireannaigh. Is linne an t-uisce, d'íocamar as cheana, ní féidir aon bhaol a bheith ann go mbeadh comhlachtaí príobháideacha á úsáid ar mhaithe leis an mbrabús.
Fine Gael tells us that water "doesn’t just fall out of the sky". Fortunately, we did not come down with the last shower. We recognise that water has to be purified, stored and delivered to the public. It would have been more prudent of this Government and former Governments to invest in the infrastructure to ensure that water that has been treated at great expense does not simply leak away. We cannot trust the pro-privatisation agenda of Fine Gael or its newfound friends in Labour in respect of an important resource. We know that Fianna Fáil also supported introducing water charges. It originally agreed with the troika to introduce them.
There has been also an attempt to de-legitimise and vilify those who have protested against the water charges. The peaceful protesters are to be commended. Sinn Féin has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with trade unionists and other progressives in the Right2Water campaign. We are proud that this campaign has been able to mobilise some 150,000 people on to the streets. The establishment parties have decided to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the protestors have been peaceful. Most people see Government commentary of recent days as an ill-disguised attempt to frighten people away from exercising their right to protest. Let us make no mistake. We are calling for the largest possible mobilisation on 10 December to demonstrate the people's continued widespread opposition to water charges. We want it to be a dignified and peaceful mobilisation - one that will deliver a clear message to this Government.
Before concluding my contribution, I want to pose an unanswered question to the Minister of State and his colleagues in Government. What about the very many people who have to use increased amounts of water directly related to medical conditions they or family members suffer from? As Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on health, I am disappointed that there is, as yet, no clarification on the issue of subsidised or exempt bills for those with certain medical conditions. Is it true that this list will not issue until 2017, as has been reported? The increased burden of bathing and washing of clothes can be very onerous in itself not to mention adding the stress of very expensive water charges.
I ask the Minister of State again to look favourably on our proposed amendment to the Constitution contained in the Bill presented by Deputy Stanley - An Bille um an gCeathrú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Uimh. 3), 2014. The Irish people cannot accept the water tax because we are already paying for our water supply. The Irish people cannot accept the water tax because it will go in part to fund an unaccountable and clearly extravagant organisation. The Irish people cannot accept the water tax as it is anything but what the Government describes it as. It is yet another austerity tax necessitated by Fianna Fáil and brought into being by Fine Gael and Labour. I call on every Teachta Dála regardless of their party or political outlook to do the right thing and support this legislation which guarantees the Irish people a say in the future of water services in our country. Molaim an rún.
I begin by commending the work of my party colleague, Deputy Stanley, and his office for the publishing of this Bill. Sinn Féin has a proven track record of opposition to water charges after the abolishment of such in Northern Ireland and the consistent campaigning against their introduction in this State. It is time for this Government to start listening to the chorus of voices speaking and chanting together against Irish Water and water charges. It is time for a referendum. We are not fooled. We believe strongly that the setting up of Irish Water is a step towards the privatisation of our water services. This cannot be allowed to happen. Water is a human right, not a commodity to be sold off for competitive enterprise. If the Government is claiming that no such privatisation will take place, it will have no qualms about holding a referendum in order to enshrine it under public ownership in our Constitution.
The people of this State have been pushed too far and have suffered as a result of Ireland's reckless banking system. They have given far more than they can afford. Water charges are but another burden adding to the litany of charges imposed upon hard-pressed citizens who face each week with financial uncertainty and insecurity. The Government seems to conveniently ignore the fact that not only is charging for water immoral but at a time when the economy has stalled, jobs have been lost, workers' rights have been eroded and families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, it is simply not affordable.
In rural Ireland, thousands of people use group water schemes to provide clean and drinkable water for themselves and their community. Some own private wells that are built and maintained by private individuals. They are responsible for the installation, upkeep and maintenance at a cost. Water has already been paid for through centralised tax increases but because the last Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government gave a blank cheque to our failing banks, this money has been diverted to patch over the cracks of a severely broken financial system. Not only that but after promises of not "one red cent" going back into banks after the 2011 general election, Fine Gael and Labour have carried on with the Fianna Fáil agenda. They have reneged on many promises to the people of Ireland. Those in rural areas forced to seek their own drinkable water have already been paying twice for many years. This is outrageous. Water should be a public service that provides for all of the public.
Where does rural Ireland fit into Irish Water's plans? The taxpayer has been subventing Irish Water through the diversion of public funds to set up the corporate entity. This money could have been used to fix leaks and to provide drinkable water to rural and urban dwellers. We should have left this with local authorities. There was no need for call centres, no need for a supra-management structure and no need for the corporate monster that is Irish Water because reformed local authorities were capable of providing the services. Sinn Féin will, if in Government, dismantle Irish Water and replace it with a more efficient and democratically accountable public service body with strong input from local authorities. We believe that we have the solution to the disastrous mess created by this current Government.
From its conception, Irish Water has been marred by controversy. It comes as no surprise that now there is widespread opposition to Irish Water. The people have taken to the streets in their hundreds and thousands. Has the Government chosen to ignore them for fear of facing up to the fact that it is in its dying days? Does this Government conveniently forget that it sits in this Chamber, across this floor, representing the very people who are marching against its policies? Fine Gael and Labour have tried to tactically divide Irish society by pitting the private sector against the public sector, the employed against the unemployed and the well-off against the working poor. This issue, however, has visibly united people in opposition to the Government's attempt to introduce water charges. It must listen. Democracy is in action. Giving the people of this State a vote on retaining water is vital and that time is now.
Water is not a commodity. It is essential for every living thing on this planet. Without it, there would be no life on this earth. Access to water has been fundamental to how our societies have been organised since prehistoric times. The growth of our cities, indeed that of this very city, was centred on access to water.
The privatisation of water would be a betrayal of the Irish people. Not only is water necessary to every person in this country, it is a fundamental right. The notion that the water in this State, to which everybody should have free access, could be sold off is a sure sign of a State in disorder. The privatisation of water would go against the global trend of remunicipalisation, whereby countries and localities have transferred water out of private control and back into the hands of citizens through their governments. The path this Government is taking is more akin to countries in the developing world which rely heavily on international loans for finance and are obligated to privatise water supplies to stay on-side with their lenders.
We should not forget that Irish Governments have a history of privatising State assets and utility companies. I remind the House of Eircom and, more recently, the Gas Regulation Bill 2013, which resulted in the sale of Bord Gáis Energy, a semi-State business established in 1975. The Government claims that the sale of the company was part of the deal with the troika but it is also part of a wider liberalisation and privatisation agenda that continues to sweep Europe. Energy companies often fall victim to privatisation, with consequences for the consumer and the State. The sale of Bord Gáis Energy to a multinational consortium had an important impact on the economy due to the fact that profits were transferred out of the company. When the energy supplier is domestically owned, some of the profits are transferred back to the consumer in the form of dividends. Conversely, when the energy supply is owned by a foreign multinational, those profits are usually moved out of the country.
The privatisation of electricity networks has a direct correlation with increasing energy costs for consumers. An example of this can be seen in the recent attempts in Germany to take the electricity grid serving Berlin back into public ownership. The grid network was fully privatised in 2009 and was sold to a multinational company, with the result that electricity bills for consumers in the state of Berlin increased by 21%. In Britain, an oligopoly of the six biggest private energy companies, which are known as the big six, dominate the market. This has resulted in tacit co-ordination between the companies to ensure the savings they make are not passed onto the consumer. The intensity of competition between the big six decreased and price announcements were subsequently aligned so that energy prices far outweighed the cost to the supplier. In Britain, where the energy market is fully privatised, energy retail profits increased from €223 million in 2009 to €1.1 billion in 2012, with no clear evidence of suppliers becoming more efficient in reducing their own costs. Moreover, average dual fuel, that is, electricity and gas prices, increased by 24% between 2009 and 2013, nearly double the inflation rate of 13.8%. It is not without worry that I note Irish Water is under the auspices of Ervia, which was formerly known as Bord Gáis. What is to say that the current Government or some future Government will not take a fancy to privatising Irish Water in the same way as it privatised Bord Gáis? Energy would be a means of raining cash. What if the Government's EU or IMF paymasters insist on this? The Government says "trust us, this will never happen" but when Sinn Féin proposed that the Water Services Bill incorporate a section that would ensure public ownership of water, it refused to accept the proposal because it has every intention of leaving water services open to privatisation. I may be dismissed as being cynical or politically motivated in making that suggestion. The problem for the Government, however, is that the public also believes it to be true.
One of the remarkable outcomes of the economic crisis which was inflicted on the Irish people, as well as on the people of several countries in Europe, has been that those who caused the crisis by adhering to the bible of deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation, and who followed the diatribes of Reagan and Thatcher, won even though they failed our people because their huge gambles in Las Vegas banks were paid back by citizens across Europe. Assets which belonged to the people of Europe were privatised or made ripe for privatisation.
That is the environment in which the Irish people are expected to trust Fine Gael, which shares the world view of political parties that have implemented these right-wing policies and associates with these parties within the European People's Party. We are expected to accept Fine Gael's assurances that it will be grand because it is in the legislation. The reason people seek to enshrine matters of immense importance in the Constitution is because only the people can undo such provisions. The best way to reassure the Irish people that there is no plan to privatise their water is to agree to a referendum on this amendment. I have no doubt it would be overwhelmingly passed and public ownership of water would thereby be protected. Given that the Government is in such a crisis, I do not understand why it is not availing of the opportunity provided by this Bill to reassure people. This leads me to have doubts about the Government's intention. In its approach to Europe wide policies, Fine Gael is closely aligned in ideology, word and deed to its colleagues across the EU.
There has been resistance across the world to the privatisation of water, most heroically in Bolivia, where it was literally a matter of life and death. The attempt to privatise water led to a popular uprising. Uprisings are taking place across the countries in Europe that have been betrayed by their own political leaders and the right-wing ideology of greed and inequality. In Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland there is a noticeable swing to genuine parties of the left which believe in equality. These parties have shown solidarity internationally. Sinn Féin is proud to work in partnership with political parties, particularly in Spain and Greece, which share a common platform and to present to people in Ireland and, because we have a bigger picture view, in Europe and across the world, the fight back and popular resistance against that which has failed them.
How can this famous 1% have so much control over our lives? Why do we fear to ask the very wealthy - I am not speaking about the middle classes or the upper middle classes - to pay their fair share? We do not begrudge them the big house, the big car or the big lifestyle. All we ask is that they pay their fair share, that they do not have tax avoidance schemes, travel to exotic places or move their companies here, there and all around. Whenever Sinn Féin proposes commonsense economic policies which ask the very wealthy to pay their fair share to take the pressure off the squeezed middle and the vulnerable, we hear the bleeding hearts defending them.
It is for these reasons that people do not trust the Government when its members tell them not to worry, this is all covered in the legislation and everything will be grand. Legislation can be changed overnight, but the Constitution cannot be changed unless the people sign off on that change by way of a referendum. If the Minister of State and his Fine Gael Party colleagues are sincere in their assurance that privatisation of water supply is not their plan - albeit it is the shared objective of their right-wing colleagues in Europe - then they should back this Bill and thereby answer the people's demand for a referendum on the matter.
The Government is opposed to the Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill before the House this evening. I never cease to be amazed by that party's capacity to repeatedly table ill-judged and badly-timed motions and Bills. Its members' collective amnesia is quite astounding. Have those sitting opposite not been listening to the recent statements from the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and other Ministers and Deputies regarding the imminent announcement on water charges? Are they concerned that if they wait until tomorrow, their thunder will be stolen? Is this another attempt, in line with their deputy leader's stunt in this House last Thursday, to deflect attention from the real issues facing their party?
Having said all that, I thank the Sinn Féin Party for the opportunity it has provided me to detail the significant reform programme under way in the water sector. While an extra 24 hours would have allowed us to debate the water charges package the Minister will bring to Government tomorrow morning for its approval, it is no harm to place on the record the actions this Government has taken to ensure security of supply and improve the quality of drinking water for future generations in this country.
Before doing so, however, I will first address the disgraceful events that transpired over the weekend and last night. I absolutely condemn this deplorable behaviour. I acknowledge that people have concerns and some feel driven to protest. It is perfectly acceptable to protest in an effective and peaceful manner. However, persons involved in recent events have sought to undermine and disrespect the democratic process and the opportunity to have an open discussion and debate on all the issues involved. Their actions amount to targeted intimidation of public representatives and those working with them. As such, they are absolutely unacceptable. The office in Nenagh of the Minister, Deputy Kelly, was contacted yesterday and a bomb threat was made. That is totally unacceptable in any mature democracy. I expect every public representative, from all parties and none, to condemn strongly any such threats. On Saturday, what should have been a happy and celebratory event at Jobstown turned into a terrifying ordeal for all those involved. Were the rights of those graduates and their families even considered? It was a very special day for them but it turned into a horrible scene for all involved. I have seen no remorse or apology from Deputy Paul Murphy in regard to what happened on Saturday. In fact, in an interview today he suggested that it would have amounted to peaceful action to keep the Tánaiste trapped in a car for more than 12 hours.
There is no place in a democracy for what happened in Jobstown at the weekend or in Sligo yesterday evening. The majority of people living in those places are decent law-abiding citizens and would agree with me on that. In recent weeks we have seen attacks and veiled threats against public representatives, editors of national newspapers and members of the Garda Síochána. These targets represent some of the fundamental pillars of our democracy. As democratically elected Members of Parliament, we must ensure those pillars are protected and their members allowed to operate without fear or intimidation. I say to each Member of this House who acts from a sense of decency and goodwill that we can have no à la carte democrats in Dáil Éireann. We have had a glimpse of anarchy on our streets and it was not a welcome sight. There is a place for peaceful protest in a democracy but, ultimately, it is for the people to judge us at the ballot box and decide whom they wish to elect.
I will shortly address the specifics of the Sinn Féin proposal. Before doing so, I draw Members' attention to one of the many untold aspects of the Irish Water story, namely, that group of people who have been affected in an extreme way by this controversy. Regardless of one's position on water charges, it is important to highlight their story, which has been drowned out by the wider noise around this issue. I am referring to the workers contracted with Irish Water to install meters, people who are just trying to earn a living. I call on all Members of this House to condemn the unacceptable behaviour these workers have had to endure.
I accept that the majority of protests are carried out in a peaceful manner and most people would be horrified by the prospect of some of what has occurred. However, before coming to the House this evening, I asked people at Irish Water to tell me the types of incidents that have occurred. What I was told makes for a harrowing and horrifying tale. For example, meter installers have been followed home and, in one case, this led to an assault that involved a worker being bitten. In fact, in the region of 50 assaults have been reported, with workers being punched, kicked and headbutted. Hot water has been thrown on some installers. Tyres have been slashed on a number of work vehicles, including at the homes of team members. Some protesters have driven their cars at metering staff and at barriers behind which staff are working or while they have been operating heavy machinery. Workers have been spat at, had objects hurled at them from glass to stones, and been hit with hammers and shovels. There has been verbal abuse and threats of violence. There has been a heavy and persistent level of online intimidation and encouragement of cyberbullying and physical abuse towards team members. Social media have been used to find the names and addresses of workers. We have instances where workers have been intimidated by the use of false firearms. In one case, installers were held in a van for more than 12 hours without access to food, water or toilet facilities.
What form of protest is that? To deny someone the right to food and water for 12 hours is not a protest; it is a form of thuggery. I accept that people are angry and frustrated, but there is no justification whatsoever for this type of behaviour in a democratic society. I ask colleagues to join me in condemning this behaviour in the strongest terms. More than 1,300 people are employed on the water metering programme and the social inclusion commitment means that some 400 of these are people who were previously on the live register.
Let me remind Deputies of the purpose and benefits of installing meters. They help households to monitor their consumption, give vital consumption data for planning purposes and, most important, help us to identify leaks. In recent months, Members of the Opposition, including the authors of this motion, have declared repeatedly in this House that they would fix the leaks first before metering. What they have never explained, however, is how they would find these leaks without water meters. Given that a huge number of leaks are invisible and approximately 11% of all households are finding leaks, how would Sinn Féin propose to identify such leaks without meters? Are Members opposite really saying they would spend money running cameras through the country's pipework in an effort to identify leaks? That is not realistic. There are 20 households in Ireland leaking over 1 million of litres a day into their driveway. That is enough per household to serve the town of Gorey with water for a day. Sinn Féin Members, however, say they know where all the leaks are and will fix them without meters. Let me be absolutely clear - it is impossible to find, identify and fix such leaks without meters.
Moreover, that is not the only aspect of its water policy that Sinn Féin has backwards. The party's Deputies believe in paying their bills until they lose a by-election. Deputy Gerry Adams was enjoying the moral high ground, saying he would pay his water bill, before conveniently changing tack following the Dublin South-West by-election. This was an effort to outflank the fragmented far left of the Irish political spectrum. As we all know, Deputy Adams has no problem changing his tune to get himself out of trouble.
I will now set out the background to the water charges package the Minister plans to announce tomorrow. It is a package that will deliver the certainty the public has been seeking regarding the affordability of water charges. I look forward to debating our proposals during the course of the week. I acknowledge that mistakes have been made as we have attempted to roll out the reforms at a pace unprecedented anywhere in the world. The scale of the endeavour to set up a new water utility is enormous. While the memorandum of understanding agreed with the troika was the context for the speed in passing water services legislation last December, it is now accepted that the guillotining of the Bill did not best serve any of our purposes. Put simply, the timelines for the full establishment and operation of Irish Water were too ambitious and the charging structure has proved to be too complex. This has led to confusion, uncertainty and dissatisfaction among the public.
The Government has listened to people's concerns and they will be addressed in the water charges package to be announced tomorrow. This will bring the necessary certainty by introducing a charging system that is clear and affordable. Householders will know exactly how much they will be required to pay.
There will be adequate supports for all and payment options will be flexible.
The Government has a clear vision for the reform of water services in this country. The central planks of the water reform programme, namely, a new national water utility, a sustainable funding model and independent economic regulation, have been considerably advanced. The objectives of the programme are to protect public health, increase economic competitiveness and conserve our environment. Ireland needs a clean, reliable drinking water supply and coastal waters, rivers and lakes that are free of pollution.
As water resources become more critical, due to economic recovery, population growth and climate change, increased infrastructural investment and improved service delivery are needed. Future challenges also make the need for a more cost-effective, efficient, national-oriented system imperative. Our population is growing, and is forecast to continue growing in the coming decades. Our economy is recovering, bringing with it added water demand for industry and agriculture. Clean water is expensive both to produce and manage. There is a complex process involved in turning raw water into clean drinking water and treating waste water so that it can be reintroduced back into our environment. The traditional water services system was deficient, inadequate and in need of fundamental change. Ireland's previous funding model was unsustainable. Despite the good work of the local authorities, decades of underinvestment in water services has resulted in many significant issues in the system. The ever rising standards in water and wastewater quality have required a radical transition from relatively low-technology, labour-intensive plants to much more complex technologies requiring increasingly advanced operational control.
The answer lies in more aggregated service delivery giving economies of scale, the required specialisation, standardisation and cost efficiencies in procurement and capital delivery. All citizens deserve the same quality water service, and we need particularly to address the situation of people who are on boil water notices. The only way deficiencies could be rectified, the infrastructure deficit removed, quality problems addressed and inefficiencies tackled was by creating a single, national utility and a new funding model. The single utility model, with local and regional structures, will deliver these changes. This is one of the most ambitious reform programmes undertaken in the history of State and will deliver significant benefits for customers in the medium to long term.
Historical underinvestment means we have a water services system which is failing both customers and taxpayers, and this is no longer tenable. The level of investment required to bring our systems up to date runs to billions of euro. The Government has agreed on a funding model that will allow subvention of Irish Water to help the public offset some of the direct cost of funding water services, while designing the model in a way that allows Irish Water to operate commercially. The new funding model, which includes domestic water charges, allows us to address these legacy issues and provide new infrastructure for the future. As a commercial utility, Irish Water can borrow from the markets in a similar way to the ESB and Bord Gáis. In broad terms, if Government support is not more than 50% of Irish Water's operational revenue, it will be considered under EUROSTAT rules to be a commercial undertaking. This will mean debt raised by Irish Water to fund capital will not count as Government debt and will be more favourable in terms of our general Government deficit than funding through direct Exchequer funding.
The Commission for Energy Regulation has permitted Irish Water to spend up to €1.77 billion on its capital programme over the period ahead if funding can be accessed. We could not afford this level of investment through the traditional model without significant budget impacts in terms of taxation or cuts to other areas of spending. As in other OECD countries, domestic water charges form an important part of the funding model for water services. For this reason, we need to move to a system where funding comes directly from those who use it, thus creating a real emphasis on sustainable use of this precious, expensive resource. Already through the domestic metering programme, we are seeing an emphasis on identifying customer-side leakage, which accounts for some 5% of the national leakage rate of up to 49%. This is an emphasis on reducing leakage never seen before in Ireland, and will be accompanied by a customer focus on conservation and sustainable usage in the long term that should bring consumption down by an estimated 10% to 15%.
The Government's reforming vision has meant challenges for all involved, but there are also significant benefits from the reforms. With the new funding model for the sector, we will see the increased infrastructural investment needed to improve water quality in areas where it does not meet the desired standards. Other priority objectives will also be achievable as a result of the new funding model. These include reducing the unacceptably high levels of leakage, ensuring our wastewater treatment plants meet the required effluent standards and increasing water supply capacity to meet future demands to support population and economic growth. It is only with increased capital investment, which will have to double in the coming years from this year's level of €310 million, and new approaches to service delivery and planning that we can achieve these objectives. I have already mentioned the critical need to ensure security of supply. This is particularly important for sectors that rely on large supplies of water such as the food and drinks industry, the IT sector and the pharmaceutical sector, among others. Securing our water supplies is also critical for the protection of our environment and to safeguard public health.
An independent assessment published in 2012 reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of the delivery of water services through 34 local authorities, and concluded that there was a fragmentation of leadership and co-ordination, difficulty in attaining economies of scale, difficulty in delivering projects of national importance and an aging and poor quality network. The report concluded that the best way of ensuring increasing efficiency and effectiveness of operations and capital investment and accessing new finances for the water sector was to establish Irish Water as a public utility. The establishment of Irish Water is a critical long-term project for this country and of absolute economic necessity. It will become among the largest utilities in the history of the State and is absolutely necessary for a safe and secure supply of water into the future.
I will now turn to the subject of the Sinn Féin Bill. While I have acknowledged that mistakes were made, the establishment of Irish Water was not one of them. The water system needs a national utility to manage it, finance its upgrade and deliver a water system that is fit for purpose. The transformation programme under way is significant and involves both funding and organisational changes. Each of these would be significant undertakings in their own right. The public has the right to honest debate. There is no evidence to support the propaganda of a privatisation agenda. Devoid of any substantive arguments, Opposition politicians have resorted to propagating this myth. As evidenced from a recent debate in the Seanad on Irish Water, it is clear that all parties in both Houses support public ownership of water infrastructure. Everyone should acknowledge this and put the public at ease.
This Bill proposed by Sinn Féin is flawed in a number of ways. First, the proposed amendment of the Constitution would create a constitutional right to water without taking any account of costs or implications for private property rights and without any specific requirement for people to pay for water. This runs counter to the United Nations policy which seeks to guarantee people the right to "affordable" water. These issues need to be properly considered and thought through. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where we have damaged the rights of owners of private property.
Second, the latter part of the amendment would create a constitutional requirement that water services and infrastructure remain in public ownership. Existing legislation already provides a statutory prohibition on the disposal of Irish Water and its water services infrastructure. I would not consider it an appropriate approach to amend the Constitution to provide for a prohibition on the privatisation of a utility company. I agree in principle that everyone, wherever located, should have access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. However, enshrining individual rights in the Constitution is extremely complex and would require detailed legal analysis before it could be supported. The costs to the State and individual citizens of providing for such a right would need to be examined. The effect on property rights of individual citizens and the effect on privately owned group water schemes would also need consideration. There are more than 500 private group water schemes in the State and more than 1,500 small private supplies and private wells that service almost 12% of the population. These matters would all have to be carefully analysed before any proposal could be considered. I would also like to point out to Deputies that the last time we were bounced into a rushed constitutional change, we ended up with the Eighth amendment of the Constitution in the 1980s, and nobody wants to go back there.
The Water Services Act 2013 provides for the establishment of Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann, conforming to the conditions contained in the Act and registered under the Companies Acts.
Section 5 of the Act provides that one share in Irish Water shall be issued to Bord Gáis Éireann, now Ervia, with the remaining shares allocated equally between the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Finance. As Ervia is a fully State-owned company, Irish Water is accordingly in full State ownership.
Section 5(6) of the Act, as amended by section 46 of the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013, prohibits each of the three shareholders from disposing of their shareholding in Irish Water and thus places a statutory prohibition on the privatisation of Irish Water.
There is a further statutory provision which safeguards water services infrastructure in public ownership. Section 31(12) of the Water Services Act 2007 prevents Irish Water from entering into any agreement or arrangement with another person which involves, or may involve, the transfer of assets and infrastructure from Irish Water to that person.
Irish Water was established as a public utility under the Water Services Act 2013 to ensure that public water services would be provided in an efficient and sustainable manner. There was no intention to establish this company in order to make the privatisation of public water services an option in the future. The legislation is clear on the Government's intention to keep Irish Water in public ownership and accountable to the Oireachtas.
The commitment to public ownership of water services was enshrined in 2007 legislation and then reaffirmed in the legislation passed before the end of 2013. Yet the myths about privatisation continue. All parties in both Houses support public ownership of water infrastructure. Once again, I would like to state categorically that Irish Water is, and will remain, in full State ownership.
Furthermore at EU policy level, the European Commission stated in January 2013 that imposing privatisations on public authorities in member states would be contrary to the principles of the EU treaty and case law. Moreover, the Government's water sector reform programme has advanced in the context of an agreed memorandum of understanding with the troika.
Public ownership of water services is the will of the Irish people. As part of a Government package of water measures to be finalised this week, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, will propose to bring forward measures - through primary legislation rather than a constitutional amendment - which would bolster the existing legislative prohibition on privatisation.
It is critical that Irish Water performs as the Oireachtas and the public expect. The Government recognises that a number of concerns have arisen in the context of getting Irish Water fully up and running. There is a way to go before we have the world-class water system the public deserves, but we have already achieved much progress during this ambitious programme for reform.
For example, by Christmas of this year, boil water notices will be removed for the first time in 12 years in parts of Roscommon as a result of the creation of Irish Water. Next year, there will be an increase of €100 million in investment in water services infrastructure in the State.
The utility has already adopted a new approach towards asset management and capital projects planning. Evidence of this is the targeted €170 million saving through the proposed Ringsend waste water treatment plant upgrade as an alternative to plant extension. That is the cost of Irish Water's establishment saved in one strategic decision. Let me repeat that in one project Irish Water will save the entirety of its start-up costs.
I acknowledge that there have been failures in communication, in communicating key objectives and the benefits of the utility model to our people. Irish Water has acknowledged this also and has specifically apologised to customers and elected Members for these failings. I am ensuring that steps are being taken to remedy this.
Following legislation passed in 2013, the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, assumed responsibility for the independent economic regulation of public water services. The commission's work to date has demonstrated the importance and impact of independent, economic regulation. In the area of setting performance standards for the utility, the CER has already announced that it will conduct a partial, overall performance assessment of Irish Water to incentivise the utility to improve its performance in areas like service delivery. Irish Water will be required to publish the performance results. This will incentivise the company to improve its performance around a set of key metrics - for example, customer service scores, drinking water standards and environmental compliance. An overall performance assessment will commence from the beginning of the first full revenue review period in 2017.
The CER has also shown its independence in its examination of Irish Water's establishment and operational costs, as well as its capital plans. As outlined earlier, it rejected 5% of proposed establishment costs, 13.5% of operational costs and has set an overall reduction in costs of 8.2%. Operational costs will have to come down by 7% per annum and the same level of efficiency will be required in relation to non-committed capital costs. These cost reductions are aimed at ensuring that Irish Water's customers only pay charges to cover reasonable costs on the system.
Public engagement is a key component of economic regulation and, to date, the CER has held several public consultations on the issues of an economic regulatory framework, domestic and non-domestic tariff structures, a customer handbook, and a proposed water charges plan. A number of important public consultations lie ahead, not least on the proposed first fix policy, which will see customers' first leaks being fixed free of charge and consultation on all aspects of non-domestic charges.
The establishment of the CER as the independent economic regulator for Irish Water is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to ensure that the interests of customers are well represented. The CER has a statutory role in protecting the interests of customers of Irish Water. Ensuring measures are in place to safeguard and protect these interests is, and will remain, a high priority. The implementation of the comprehensive water services legislation enacted in 2013 will be kept under ongoing and active review to ensure that the CER has the necessary powers to protect the interests of customers.
Similar to the approach it has taken in the electricity and gas industries, the CER has required Irish Water to submit a customer handbook outlining the minimum requirements of customer service standards they will provide to their customers. The customer handbook comprises Irish Water's customer charter, codes of practice, and the terms and conditions of supply. These include standards in relation to the performance by Irish Water of its functions; the provision of information to customers of Irish Water for the purposes of enabling customers to communicate with Irish Water; methods of payment of water charges; and any other matters that the commission considers necessary and appropriate to securethe interests of customers of Irish Water.
Furthermore, the CER and Irish Water have also agreed to enter into a voluntary dispute resolution agreement which will set out agreed working arrangements and processes to deal with customer disputes. In addition, the CER will engage with both Irish Water and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to develop complementary complaints processes to ensure customers are directed in an efficient manner to the appropriate organisation with their complaint or query.
Independent regulation is the key element of this model, as it ensures that Irish Water's costs are scrutinised and that challenging efficiency targets are set. The Commission for Energy Regulation, taking account of international benchmarks and the experience of startups of other utilities, has set a challenging target of a 7% reduction per annum in Irish Water's overall operational costs.
The citizens of Ireland deserve a high quality, reliable water supply. The European Union has set quality standards to which we are obliged to adhere. The European Communities (Drinking Water) Regulations 2014 detail the chemical and microbiological parameters that must be met by suppliers of drinking water, including Irish Water.
The EPA is the supervisory authority with responsibility for monitoring Irish Water's compliance with the regulations. The procedures to be followed where there is non-compliance with parameter values are clearly laid out in the regulations.
In parallel with the Government's work on water charges, Irish Water is working to improve its engagement with customers and public representatives. Already it has adjusted resources in its customer call centre so that the public receives quicker response times when calling to register or seek information. This reallocation of resources has already resulted in a more positive initial engagement and average customer response times have dropped to below 20 seconds.
Irish Water is also strengthening its engagement with elected representatives. It has opened dedicated telephone lines for Oireachtas Members and councillors, and provides a fortnightly newsletter and weekly clinics for Oireachtas Members. This is an important outlet for Members to receive information on behalf of constituents about issues such as capital improvements, drinking water quality or customer interactions with the utility.
The establishment of a unified Ervia/Irish Water Board presents an opportunity to reinvigorate the organisation so that it becomes significantly more customer-focused in its operations and communications. The Ervia Group and Irish Water are actively reviewing their communication strategy to better reflect the needs of all stakeholders, including elected Members.
The Government's vision is for a country in which every household and business connected to the public water system has a high quality, reliable water supply. To achieve this we must invest heavily in our infrastructure, reduce leakage levels and address deficiencies in our waste water treatment systems. The Irish economy of today needs certainty of supply for its recovery, but the economy of tomorrow can be even stronger if we position Ireland as a water-secure economy for water-intensive industries, an advantage that will become more important as other countries struggle with their supplies.
There is global desperation about water and we must work hard to avoid experiencing this danger. Through the reform vision we are implementing, new thinking and partnerships between those with ideas and expertise, we can make Ireland a shining example of sustainable water management, bringing with it greater environmental and economic security.
I have outlined to the House the details of the Government's actions within the short period it has been at the helm and its focus on the development of a sustainable water supply system into the future. The Government will continue to keep all matters relating to water sector reform firmly at the top of the agenda. The ineptitude of previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments in the management of our water infrastructure and supply placed many communities and businesses in unenviable positions. The Government will not be found wanting in dealing with their plight. For the reasons detailed, without hesitation I oppose the Bill before the House.
I was listening to the Minister of State express his outrage about what had happened at the weekend. I agree that it was outrageous, but sometimes it is important for the Government to look at the mote in its eye. When members of the Government were in opposition, I remember the total character assassination, day in and day out, of the Government at the time. They impugned our motives to the point that they inflamed passions. They might remember the incident when paint was thrown over Mary Harney, then a Minister. At the time they did not seem to be too concerned about the results of the lies they were telling about this incident. Do Deputies opposite think I acted in anyway other than in what I thought was the interest of the people? Do they think I acted for bankers, builders or any other vested interest? If I did, they are doing the same because they are following the same policies. The vast majority of Members work honestly and to the best of their ability. We might believe in different things and take a different approach, but, unless I had good grounds for saying so, I never impugned the integrity of someone in this House who had devoted his or her life to public service. It is important to realise that what we must do in Ireland is debate the issues. The way members of the Government tackled matters when in opposition did not allow for debate or any teasing out of the different options we faced because of the collapse of the world banking system.
Members of the Government should get a copy of the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014, also known as the four-year plan. They should stop using the troika, the four-year plan and Fianna Fáil as the excuse for everything. It is worth reading what was included in the four-year plan about the local property tax:
The Plan commits to a funding platform for local Government on a phased basis. An interim Site Value Tax will be introduced in 2012, applicable to all land other than agricultural land and land subject to commercial rates. The interim measure will involve a fixed local service contribution of about €100 per annum (€2 per week) which will raise €180 million from households. The final Site Value Tax will be introduced in 2013 when valuations have been completed.
It is estimated that Site Value Tax will apply to 1.8 million households and zoned lands that would equate to an estimated further 700,000 houses. At an average of just over €200 per dwelling (or site) this would raises the €530 million full year amount targeted for the Plan period.
For full implementation of the tax, commercial rates will be moved to a site value basis also.
All that was going to be raised from dwelling houses was an average of €200 per house, not the figures we are getting in Dublin, Galway and other urban areas, where the average local property tax amount will be much higher than the site value tax. It is amazing that the Government was able to drop the site value tax for the much more expensive local property tax which is more sensitive to rising house prices. It does not state the troika had any problem with these changes. It is amazing that it does not have any difficulty with the total failure to deliver reforms in some of the closed professions, particularly the legal profession. Deputy Alan Shatter was interested in reform of the legal profession, but vested interests in the Law Library were going to make sure that did not take place. The Government has chosen not to do a lot of things included in the plan, many of which would be good reforms that would be timely and are badly needed. It is time it stood on its own feet and stated it believes in water charges and will continue with the programme.
The second thing we hear is that there was no investment in water infrastructure during the period of the previous Government. In my constituency I can name scheme after scheme and area after area that benefited. The figures speak for themselves, with over €3 billion invested in wastewater services and €2 billion in the provision of a water supply. There is hardly an area in the country that has not seen an improved water supply. One of the programmes the previous Government was completing, to which the current Government put an end, involved bringing water to those who did not have access to a public supply through a group scheme or the public supply provided by a local authority. People living in marginal areas are not very important to the Government.
Another issue escapes attention because the detail can be embarrassing. We are not just talking about water charges; the Government is also charging for wastewater and the provision of wastewater services is much more expensive than the provision of water services. Much of the wastewater does not come from private households but from the public street or wherever water accumulates, particularly in urban areas. It must be disposed of, which adds hugely to the cost of the so-called water service. It is obvious, when we look at the figures for the 500,000 houses that do not have access to a public wastewater service under the Government's regime, that a two-person household was to be charged €149, while a single person household was to be charged €88. This was something that was never contemplated. I remember debating the septic tank Bill as we called it, or the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011, and the then Minister was categoric that people would not be charged for water out of a household because I asked that question on Committee Stage. He was categoric, but something has changed since.
The Minister of State says there is no question of selling the water service. I am glad to hear it. Do I believe it? The answer is not really.
It is a little like Eircom.
That was a mistake.
The difference between us and the current Government is that we learned from our mistakes.
The Deputy's party did it. That is the difference.
There was general agreement at the time that it should have been done.
That is why we have no broadband in rural areas.
By the way, I was not in the Government at the time, any more than-----
It is why there is no broadband in the west of Ireland.
The Deputy without interruption.
It is not.
The Government could decide tomorrow-----
The Deputy should take responsibility.
The Deputy without interruption, please.
-----to bring broadband to rural Ireland. It is its choice. This Government proposed to sell 25% of the electricity network within this Government period.
That referred to generating stations.
The Deputy without interruption.
I did not interrupt the Deputies.
The Deputy is not putting facts on the record.
I am, and the Deputies can check it out. I was spokesperson on matters of communications and energy at the time. The proposal was to sell 25% of the equity in the ESB, including the network.
It referred to generating stations.
The Deputy must speak without interruption. When the Minister of State spoke, he was given respect.
This is part of the system in which the Government lives. It never checks its facts-----
Like Eircom and Aer Lingus.
-----and tells total lies and untruths in the House. When it is caught out because evidence is produced-----
The Deputy cannot call somebody a liar. He is around here long enough to know that.
Whom did I accuse of lying?
The Deputy just stated the Government had lied.
It is lying.
The Deputy cannot say that.
The Deputy is aware that the word "lie" is not meant to be used.
Withdraw the remark.
It tells total untruths.
I thank the Deputy.
Is bealach eile é le bréag a rá.
Deputy Ó Cuív should not be interrupted. There is no point apologising if the Deputy is going to continue interrupting.
Tá sé bréagach. The Government was going to sell it off.
Sinn Féin was right to have this debate tonight. The debate on water proposals should have taken place over the past week. There is no point in the Government's coming to the House tomorrow, putting a proposal and stating that we can debate it all we like but not as much as a full stop will be changed. That is a stupid way of doing business. The debate should happen first and, after everybody has been listened to, proposals should be put forward in a way that is open to flexibility and change if good arguments are put forward. The Government has decided to listen to nobody, as those opposite have indicated their belief that tonight's debate is a waste of time.
I can put a challenge to the Minister of State. There is an easy way to put the water issue beyond doubt. For example, the Government could pass legislation stipulating that it would take an 80% majority of the House to pass a proposal to privatise any part of water services now in public ownership. It is easily done, but let us see if the Government will do it. To be honest, the Government is telling us that because something is in law the company cannot be privatised, but on any day a majority of Deputies can be told to dance and will do so. That means there is still no protection for the people. Do I trust the Government? No, I do not. It spoke about privatising Coillte or the forest crop but we managed to put it off that as well.
The Deputy is taking credit for that?
It will be interesting to see what the next idea on privatisation will be. The Government should put its money where its mouth is. If it does not do so, we will have to cement a provision in the Constitution, although it might be difficult enough to find the proper wording. It can be done none the less. We should agree tonight to support the thrust of the Sinn Féin Bill, as Second Stage is about the principle of the Bill. It seems the Government is in favour of the principle of it, as were the Labour Party Senators who voted to ensure the water services of this country would stay in public ownership.
Does that include private wells?
No; I am referring to publicly owned water services. That is why I stated that finding the wording could be difficult. I would argue with the wording of the proposed amendment but not the principle. We all know the principle, and if we could agree on it we could find a suitable way of wording the amendment.
The challenge has been left to the Minister. Tomorrow the Government will do a patching-up job, and that will not satisfy the Irish people. At this stage, the level of distrust is so high on this issue that it is time for the Government to rethink it on a fundamental level so as to recognise that time moves on. In a year when the Government had €1 billion to give away in the budget, it could have put this issue to bed in a very effective and efficient way.
Deputies Pringle and Healy are sharing time equally.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this evening's debate on the Private Members' Bill put forward by Sinn Féin, which proposes to call a referendum to seek the enshrining in the Constitution of the right to a water service. I fully support the Bill, and the Government should not oppose it. We should go further and amend Article 10 rather than Article 40 of the Constitution so as to enshrine the right of the Irish people to retain ownership of all our natural resources, including minerals or water.
The Government has stated that it is listening to what the people want, and it is making much of the package to be announced tomorrow. It believes it will help the issue go away. The news for the Minister of State and his colleagues is that it will not go away and whatever the Government does tomorrow will not satisfy the Irish people. If the Government was serious about trying to allay the fears of Irish people, it would accept the Bill and have a referendum on the protection of water services for citizens. It is a small step in helping the Irish people come to terms with the Government's goals. It is not interested in that course of action as, ultimately, it wants to privatise the water service. There is no doubt about it.
The Taoiseach and the Minister of State today made much of the fact that section 46 of the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 ensures that privatisation cannot happen. It would be the simplest thing in the world for a future Minister for the environment to table a very short amending Bill to change that section of the 2013 Act and use a majority in the House to ensure it went through. That will happen, although it will not happen now or in the next year. It will happen before 2025, when the service level agreements with local authorities start to run out. The Government has assigned ComReg to deal with billings and it was established with the sole aim of liberalising the electricity market in the country. It did so and opened it for privatisation. When ComReg looks to renew service level agreements, it will demand that the sector be opened to competition and the local authorities will have to compete with the likes of Veolia, Severn Trent Water and Celtic Anglian Water for the right to provide water services. That is the type of legislation that will be unleashed on the Irish people.
The views of Professor Kathleen Lynch, head of the UCD school of social justice, are appropriate in this discussion. She has argued that water is a public good that cannot and should not be commodified, commercialised or privatised, and it is the duty of the State to protect people's right to safe, secure, accessible and affordable water. She has argued that what is a public good cannot and must not be turned into a profit-making opportunity for multinational corporations. In that context, I welcome the proposal for a referendum.
This proposal first saw life as a smoke screen to divert attention from the central issue of the day, the abolition of hated water charges, which is what the public wants. The calls came from the likes of Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Green Party, who was responsible, along with Fianna Fáil, for putting water charges on the agenda, as well as Labour Party backbenchers who were chasing any fig leaf behind which they could hide their broken promises. Their 2011 manifesto opposed water charges and they had a spoof advertisement lambasting Fine Gael for proposing such a charge.
Calls also came from Labour Senators involved in internecine party strife on convenient issues. The SIPTU leader, Jack O'Connor, is a Government supporter who is completely out of touch with the union's members and he and assorted others are in favour of these hated water charges.
A huge number of the risen people have taken to the streets and they should not be regarded as fools. They will not be taken in by a smokescreen or cynical tricks on referendums and allowances. They will not be sold a pup again, as they were by the Labour Party in 2011. The public will not accept a referendum as a quid pro quo for accepting water charges for families, whatever the rate charged and whatever the period of charge restrictions. The people know that if water charges are put in place they will rise to the full cost of recovery under EU law. They also know that the abolition of water charges must go hand in hand with a referendum. Only people power can secure such an abolition of charges and the most important task for the risen people is to turn out in huge numbers for the national demonstration on 10 December in Dublin. They must support their local protests too and I call on people in Tipperary to do so next Saturday in Nenagh and on Saturday, 29 November in Clonmel.