Deputy Ó Cuív raised an important point in regard to how much money will go to Irish Water in 2016. We need a clear answer from the Minister of State on this. The point was also well made that the Government is just hiding behind smoke and mirrors in saying this provision has nothing to do with Irish Water, because it is a two-stage process. First, the money will be handed from the local government fund to the Exchequer and then the Exchequer subsequently hands over the money to Irish Water. To all intents and purposes, the money comes from the local government fund, including from car tax and other sources, and it goes to the beast that is Irish Water. Who the middleman is and how it is transferred, whether via PayPal, NETELLER, cheque, credit card or cash, does not matter. The essence of the matter is that the money starts somewhere and ends up somewhere else. From our point of view and from that of the public what is important is the transfer that is taking place.
The point about the figures being paid is extremely relevant. The only reason this transfer of money is needed is because Irish Water is not getting money from elsewhere.
That should cause a problem in terms of the EUROSTAT test, if it was applied objectively and fairly. It may not, but regardless of that it causes a problem in terms of Irish Water just having the money to operate as the beast that it is, and so that is the reason we have a further injection of cash which comes from the Exchequer, which comes from the local government fund, which comes from people who pay their taxes. Let us look at the payment figures because it is shocking that everyone by now has received their bill and should have paid their water charges. It was reported that the Cabinet was due to discuss the levels of payment yesterday. We do not know if that happened. We know that Irish Water has the figures but they are not being given out. That is quite incredible at a time when we are having another parliamentary and public debate about water charges. The amendment is directly related to the number of people who have paid yet the Government will not tell us. As a result, it is part and parcel of a process of debate and a method of debate that is fundamentally opaque, non-transparent and undemocratic because the Government has the figures and that can inform its debate and lines of argument, whereas we do not have the figures and the people do not have them.
Let us go back and look at all the different ways we attempted to obtain the figures. The matter was first raised in the Dáil on Leaders’ Questions. If I recall correctly, the response of the Taoiseach was that he was not there to spoon-feed me information but I could toddle along to Irish Water which would answer any question I had. Subsequent to that, he made the point about answering any questions on Leaders’ Questions as fully and completely as possible. Then, later that day, Deputy Ruth Coppinger and I duly toddled along to Irish Water and we asked for the figures. First, we asked how many bills had gone out, how many bills had been paid and if it had the figures. Irish Water confirmed to us that it has the figures for levels of payment, how many bills had gone out, which it told us. Irish Water told us how many bills were due to have been paid at that stage but it refused to tell us how many people have paid on the grounds that it would be unhelpful to do so. That begs the question of unhelpful to whom? It is clearly unhelpful to Irish Water, as opposed to those of us who are campaigning against water charges.
The third attempt to get the information was a freedom of information request which was denied by Irish Water on two grounds, first, that the information is commercially sensitive, which is a joke considering the fact that Irish Water has a monopoly and that it is happy to give out the registration figures and that they are not in any sense considered to be commercially sensitive, and second, because to give those figures would result in an undue disturbance of the ordinary course of business. That perhaps is slightly closer to the truth of why Irish Water did not wish to give the figures.
The fourth attempt was a freedom of information appeal, which goes to the office next door to the guy who answered the first question, and the other Irish Water employee also said Irish Water would not give the figures. An appeal is ongoing to the Information Commissioner.
The fifth attempt was with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, standing in for the Taoiseach. He just refused to answer the question in any way at all and then said that we should direct the question to the relevant Minister. He did not know that we already had directed the question in the form of a written parliamentary question for the following day to the relevant Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. The question did not even ask how many people had paid. The question was whether the Department had discussed the levels of payment with Irish Water. It was ruled out of order on the grounds that it is not the responsibility of the Department. How on earth is who the Minister meets not the responsibility of his Department? It goes to show the extraordinary lengths to which the Government has gone to hide the figures of payment and non-payment.
It is a massive saga that we have gone through that has been going on for seven weeks. It is seven weeks today that I first attempted to get the figures from the Taoiseach. The information is crucial to the debate. We cannot debate the amendment in a fully informed way without having the figures. The Government evidently has something to hide, which is perhaps indicated by the levels of registration, which for some reason it is happy to give out although they are an embarrassment from the point of view of Irish Water and the Government. They claim to have a maximum of 70% registration, which means 30% of people have not registered; almost 100% of them will not have paid, and many of the 70% who have registered have also not paid. Nobody, or very few of those who have not registered will have paid, but many who have registered will also refuse to pay.
The figures also indicate a slow rate of sign-up for registration because the figure being used by Irish Water at the moment is 1.32 million sign-ups, but it was using the figure of 1.23 million about a month and a half ago, and approximately three months ago we had the same figure of 1.23 million. That gives a rate of approximately 30,000 people a month signing up after much advertising. How much is Irish Water spending per person on advertising to get people to sign up, never mind the €100 promised to so-called compliant people? That speaks to a low take-up of registration and a low rate of payment, which results in a situation whereby the Minister has suggested we hand over more money to Irish Water.
Finally, I wish to deal with the quite incredible assertion by the Minister that he has never heard any positive proposals or alternatives to how the system could be run. Let us start very simply. Water charges will not raise any extra money this year, next year or the year after to invest in water services. That is a fact. If everybody pays, Irish Water will raise somewhat less than €100 million but then it will spend that in giving the money back in the conservation grant. No extra money is being raised that will be invested in water infrastructure. The alternative right now is to abolish the water charges.
The Government says it has a great off-balance sheet model – it does not talk about privatisation – and that it can get money for free. Given that the borrowings are off-balance sheet, it is free money and we will be able to invest and we will be able to deal with Ballymore Eustace and all the other problems the Government likes to talk about that it has discovered in the past couple of months. The money, of course, is not free. The money is borrowed at a higher rate of interest than that at which the State is capable of borrowing money directly, and the money will have to be paid for by people. If Irish Water continues, it will be paid for by those people who pay their water charges. It will be more expensive than if the State were to borrow directly.
A very simple alternative is to abolish water charges, abolish Irish Water and bring the responsibility for water back to the councils with an appropriate level of national co-ordination and then have investment, because investment is the answer to all the water problems the Government has discovered. The Government can call it Irish Water and do whatever it wants with it but it does not solve the problem if the Government does not invest money in fixing the pipes and the infrastructure. That is what needs to happen. The Government is not raising any extra money to do that at the moment. That is a fact. It will borrow money through Irish Water at a higher rate. One thing the Government could do, if it were to abolish water charges and abolish Irish Water, would be to borrow money on-balance sheet at a cheaper rate and stay within the Maastricht criteria and the fiscal treaty criteria and invest.
Alternatively, if we grant that the Government would get €100 million a year, which it does not – it gets zero after all the costs are deducted - it might even end up with a negative amount, but if for the sake of argument one were to say the Government would get €100 million the question must be asked whether there are other ways the €100 million could be raised? There are many. One could ask what defines the water charge and what is its main feature. It is a regressive tax which means those who are less well-off pay more as a percentage of their income while the well-off pay less. The bottom 10% in terms of income will pay approximately 2% of their incomes in water charges while the top 10% will pay less than 0.2%.
Is there another, fairer way of raising €100 million that does not punish ordinary, low-paid people? There are many ways, for example, a financial transaction tax, of which the European Commission is a fan, the same European Commission that is bullying the Greek people unmercifully. Even it recommends a very small financial transaction tax of 0.1% on share transactions and 0.01% on derivative transactions. The Government estimates it would raise €500 million, five times the most optimistic estimates of the outturn from the water charges. This option could raise five years' worth of water charges. We could increase the rate of effective corporation tax. Our headline rate of 12.5% is very generous to corporations, which pay approximately 8.5%. Increasing the effective corporation tax rate by 1% would raise slightly more than €500 million, again five times more than the most optimistic estimates of the outturn from the water charges.
We could impose a wealth tax on net assets in excess of €1 million, calculated by adding all an individual's assets, subtracting his or her debts and taxing the portion that exceeds €1 million at 1%. It would raise €600 million, six times the most optimistic estimate of the outturn of the water charges. We could increase by 1% the effective income tax rate paid by those who earn more than €100,000, which would raise €250 million, two and a half times the most generous estimate of what the water charges would raise. We have many alternative ways of funding it, which would provide much more money than water charges. The Government is losing money on the project. The long-term gain will be further regressive taxation and privatisation.
The Government has dropped the talk of conservation. For a while, it was the main issue, until the Government discovered Ballymore Eustace and the state of our water infrastructure, which it had ignored for so long. The Government then discovered the off balance sheet model, and it became the thing. We on the left are serious about water conservation. My colleague, Deputy Joe Higgins, upon first being elected, in the aftermath of a battle that defeated the last water charges proposal, raised and argued for building regulations that would have made grey water harvesting, rain water harvesting and dual flush toilets mandatory in new builds. This was before approximately a quarter of the State's housing stock had been built. If it had happened then, at a tiny cost to the developers, how much more water would have been saved than any amount the Government can achieve by way of water charges?
Even now, the Government is not serious about water conservation, because the small investment would come from the builders, developers and big construction companies, which would lose a tiny percentage of their total profits. The beneficiaries would be the environment and water services. However, this debate is not about conservation, but the further crucifixion of working people through further regressive taxation, the imposition of yet more austerity measures and the preparation for privatisation. The amendment is a crucial part of achieving it, both making up for the non-payment opposition and fattening up Irish Water for the future.