Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage

I move "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to bring the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2016 before the Dáil today and I look forward to hearing contributions from all sides of this House and the Upper House on the issue of our public water services and how they are funded as the Bill progresses through the Oireachtas. The need for an informed, balanced and rational debate on the funding of domestic water services which is respectful of all positions is the context for the legislation before the House today to suspend domestic water charges for nine months.

Quality public water services and the ongoing investment they require are critical for public health, social and economic development and environmental progress. We have important decisions to make in the coming nine months. We must decide whether we want services to be funded by the Exchequer, competing with hospitals, schools, roads and other services for budgetary allocations, or we want a dedicated revenue stream for domestic water services in which those who use water services pay for those services directly.

The legislation provides for a straightforward suspension that does not affect the existing arrears of Irish Water customers or reward those who have not paid thus far. Neither is there a question over how public water and wastewater services are to be delivered into the future. The approach is accepted and Irish Water will remain our national water utility. This Bill simply provides for the necessary space to allow for debate and decisions on the future funding model for this vital service.

Before I outline the content of the Bill, it is important to remind the House of the legacy of underinvestment that left us with so many problems with our public water and wastewater systems. When Irish Water assumed responsibility for water services in January 2014, some 945,000 people were dependent on drinking water supplies which required remedial action while approximately 49% of all water produced was lost through leakage. Dublin, which should have had a spare water capacity of 10% to 15%, like most European capital cities, only had a spare capacity of 1% to 4% while 44 urban areas throughout Ireland saw untreated sewage going into rivers and seas, posing a major risk to public health and the environment. Indeed, this is still the case in some areas.

Why did we have these problems? Put simply, we are guilty of having underinvested in water infrastructure and services for decades. The capital allocations for vital water and wastewater projects and upgrades competed with, and more often than not lost out to, other more pressing and tangible investment requirements such as those for roads, schools and hospitals. We had these problems because 34 local authorities provided services and infrastructure on a sub-national basis, defined as they were by county boundaries and diseconomies of scale in procurement and network and asset management. These problems emerged despite the dedication, commitment and professionalism of local authority staff in often financially constrained circumstances.

A new approach was needed. The last Government established a single, national utility to deliver water services and infrastructure which could plan and invest on a whole-of-asset base and national basis, funded by sustainable revenue sources, so that Ireland could meet the water challenges of an increasing population, a growing economy and a changing climate.

Since Irish Water became the national water utility in January 2014, it has made significant progress in addressing some of the problems to which I have referred. By the end of 2015, Irish Water had delivered 20 new water treatment plants and 49 wastewater treatment plants and 500 km of pipework has been repaired or replaced. For too many people, particularly in County Roscommon, having to boil water before using it for drinking or cleaning had become all too familiar. For the residents of Castlerea, for example, boiling water before use was a regular daily occurrence from November 2009 to June 2013. Last year, 17,300 people in Roscommon no longer had to boil water coming out of their taps.

Five thousand people still have to boil their tap water.

We will have one speaker at a time.

This is real progress, which is making a difference to people's lives, and Irish Water's expertise and work has been instrumental in achieving it. The number of people dependent on water supplies listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's remedial action list of works requiring remediation has reduced significantly, from 945,000 two years ago to slightly more than 804,000 today. Dublin's spare water capacity has increased from between 1% and 4% to approximately 10%, a welcome move towards the 15% target Irish Water must meet.

Through the 840,000 meters installed by Irish Water, the utility has been able to identify customer-side leakage and offer householders repairs under the first fix repair scheme. By the end of February this year, 39.5 million litres of water per day had been saved through this scheme and domestic customers' repairs arising from leakage detection through metering. To put this in context, as I stated in a previous debate, the entire water needs of County Wicklow for one day are 34 million litres. It makes much more sense to save existing water than to build new plants without addressing leakage on the public mains and customer sides.

The metering programme has also been critical in the identification of possible lead piping in householders' properties. Irish Water is helping to implement the Government's strategy in reducing public exposure to lead in drinking water. It has written to approximately 34,000 households informing them of the likely presence of lead piping in their properties and provided them with customer advice on dealing with the issue, including public health advice from the Health Service Executive. Deputies should make no mistake; this response would be much more difficult to co-ordinate if we did not have a single national utility. Irish Water has a vital role to play in helping households remove their exposure to lead in drinking water. I look forward to its public consultation on a draft mitigation plan in the near future.

Some of this progress arises from the innovation and national approach adopted by a public utility. However, increased investment is also crucial. This year, Irish Water expects to invest some €550 million in the network, an 83% increase in investment in just three years. As a result, new water treatment plants are coming on stream and major projects such as the Cork lower harbour project are being delivered. This investment will secure quality drinking water supplies and contribute to ending raw sewage discharge straight into our rivers and seas. Significant progress is being made and this requires capital and current funding at higher levels than those provided heretofore.

In parallel with increased investment, Irish Water plans investment consistently across its asset base, rather than on the basis of the large-scale, one-off investments made in the past. As well as savings on capital projects, Irish Water is reducing day-to-day expenditure. Year on year, Irish Water has reduced operational costs by 7% since 2014. It is standardising the way operations are conducted and implementing new initiatives to bring down costs. Among these savings is an expected €30 million saving in procurement efficiencies between 2014 and 2016.

The challenge now facing the Oireachtas is to decide, at the end of the deliberative process I will shortly outline, how to ensure the future funding model for public water services ensures that our national utility continues to make the progress we all want.

Having outlined the fundamental reasons reform and greater investment are needed and the difference reform is beginning to make, I propose to set out the steps the Government will take to facilitate a comprehensive deliberative process on the future funding of domestic water services. Having published this Bill to provide for the suspension of domestic water charges, I will shortly establish an expert commission to examine and make recommendations on the sustainable long-term funding model for the delivery of domestic water and wastewater services by Irish Water. Earlier this month, I sought applications for membership of the commission and I thank all who responded and expressed an interest. I will announce the membership of the commission very shortly, hopefully, towards the end of next week.

In line with the confidence and supply arrangement agreed between the Government and Fianna Fáil, the draft terms of reference require the commission to make recommendations on the funding of domestic water services and improvements in water quality, taking into account the maintenance and investment needs of the water and waste system on a short, medium and long-term basis; proposals on how the national utility in State ownership would be able to borrow to invest in water infrastructure; the need to encourage water conservation, including through reviewing information campaigns on water conservation in other countries; Ireland's domestic and international environmental standards and obligations; the role of the economic regulator and Commission for Energy Regulation; and submissions from all interested parties.

The expert commission will endeavour to report back within five months. A special Oireachtas committee on the funding of domestic water services will debate the commission's recommendations and endeavour to place its own recommendations before this Oireachtas. This House and the Upper House will then consider and decide on the future funding model. This process should take not longer than nine months from the end of June this year. I ask that the House afford the commission and special Oireachtas committee the space in this nine-month window to independently put the facts, funding issues and their recommendations before the Oireachtas.

Notwithstanding the debate we are having on the future of domestic water charges and funding of domestic water and wastewater services, we recognise the need to improve Irish Water's transparency and accountability both to the Oireachtas and the public it serves. To achieve these objectives, it is the Government's intention to bring forward legislation in the autumn to establish an external advisory board for Irish Water. The board will be tasked with publishing advice to the Government and giving quarterly reports to an Oireachtas committee on Irish Water's performance on implementation of its business plan in the areas of cost reduction and efficiency; procurement; staffing policies; infrastructure delivery and leakage reduction; improvements in water quality; and the need for Irish Water to respond to the needs of communities and enterprise. We want information to flow independently in order that people can see the facts and how Irish Water's goals are being delivered over time.

The board will play an important role in enhancing public confidence in the utility and ensuring it continues to improve the public water and wastewater systems in line with its business plan. Beyond the four walls of the Oireachtas, there is a need for a debate in wider society on the importance of water in our homes, to industry, particularly water intensive industries such as information and communications technology, pharmaceuticals and agrifood, which combined account for more than 200,000 jobs in the economy, and to our natural environment, including the cost of treating our water and wastewater. I hope the decision to have an assessment board and expert commission will help to depoliticise this issue. This is a difficult challenge as I know how political the issue has become. I also hope we will have a rational discussion and debate on a sensible model that we can believe in and that enjoys public trust.

On the basis of the 2011 census, Irish Water's customer base accounts for about four-fifths of households in terms of drinking water supplies and about two-thirds of wastewater supplies. For households with a private well or those that are members of a group water scheme or with a septic tank, the reality of paying for water is certainly nothing new. When one adds the 64% of Irish Water's households that have paid water charges in respect of 2015, this means that some three-quarters of households have paid for water in the past year. Suspending charges will have implications for such households. In line with the confidence and supply arrangement, I intend restoring Exchequer funding to group water schemes to pre-2015 levels for the nine-month period of suspension of domestic water charges. This will restore parity of approach towards group scheme members and Irish Water customers regarding the cost of water services. I intend to revise the grant levels for new group water schemes and the refurbishment of private wells. I will announce details of these measures in due course.

This is a short Bill with the specific purpose of suspending domestic water charges to allow for the deliberative process I have outlined to be undertaken. I will now outline the purpose and operation of each section.

Section 1 sets out the definitions for terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides for the suspension of domestic water charges, except for connection charges, for a period of nine months, commencing on 1 April 2016. The section also provides for a prohibition on Irish Water billing domestic customers for water services between the commencement of the Act and 31 March 2017 - that is, the billing period for 1 April 2016 to 31 December 2016 - or at any future time in respect of the nine-month period of suspension.

I understand there may be some confusion caused by the fact that Irish Water bills for its charging period a quarter in arrears. I refer to the utility bills for the three-month liability incurred for water charges in the following quarter. To deal with the difference between the charging and billing periods, the Bill provides that charging be suspended from 1 April 2016 to 31 December 2016. This is to ensure water services are not billed by Irish Water in the nine-month period from 1 July 2016 to 31 March 2017. To avoid any confusion in relation to this matter, and subject to the advice of the Attorney General, I am willing to bring forward a Government amendment on Committee Stage of the Bill to further clarify the charging suspension period and thereby to allay any concerns that liability for domestic water charges may be reintroduced before the finalisation of the deliberative processes and the Oireachtas decision on the future funding model for public water services.

Let me explain so everybody is clear. Up to now, people pay bills three months after they are incurred. In other words, the bills people are paying now, up until the end of June, are for charges incurred in the first quarter of this year. The initial thinking was that if we suspend charges, we effectively need to suspend bills so as to create space for discussion without the fractious issues that arise in respect of charging and the campaigns against it. To have no billing between 1 July through to the end of March 2017 was the intention. However, to avoid any confusion regarding the difference in time between billing and charging, we will try to parallel the two. In other words, we will be suspending charging and billing, subject to the advice of the Attorney General, through a very brief amendment in this legislation. This will ensure everybody is clear that he or she is not being charged between 1 July 2016 and the end of March next year. If anybody wants further clarification on that, we can give it.

And they will not receive bills for the preceding three months in that period?

Exactly. Otherwise, were we to have had the billing and charging period in the same nine months, we would have had to ask people to pay bills in, say, September that would have been incurred in the second quarter of this year. Clearly, we do not want to do that. We want to try to have a nine-month period in which there is no charging or billing and in which we can put a commission in place that will make recommendations and in which we can have a proper discussion at a meeting of an Oireachtas committee, to which I hope all members will contribute. We can make recommendations after that discussion. I want to create that window without the distraction of charging and billing in the relevant period. I hope people will not try to twist those words, because this is a genuine effort to ensure there is clarity for customers. To be fair, Deputy Cowen raised concerns over this issue when he saw the initial draft we are now debating.

The section also provides that I, as the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, shall extend the nine-month period of suspension by way of ministerial order for a further period if I am satisfied that an Oireachtas committee established to examine the issue of funding of domestic public water services will not conclude its work by 31 March 2017. In this context, and again subject to the advice of the Attorney General, I intend to further clarify this provision on Committee Stage to provide for the Oireachtas committee to request an extension of time in order to facilitate it in the completion of its work. The legislation, as it stands, states that if the Minister is satisfied that the committee needs more time, he or she can extend the period by ministerial order. I will be adding a short amount of extra wording referring to the Minister's having to be satisfied that the committee needs more time to work. If the committee asks for more time, obviously the Minister may have the power to extend the time period.

The Minister may also extend the suspension, by order, to enable the Government to consider the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee. Under the section, Irish Water shall be prohibited from billing domestic customers for water services during any period of extension of the suspension of water charges from the commencement of the Act to 31 March 2017, or at any future time.

The section also provides that Irish Water shall not include the period of suspension of domestic water charges in calculating the time period of unpaid water charges for which a late payment charge applies. I believe this to be a reasonable approach, as the suspension period will be excluded in calculating late-payment charges for those with outstanding bills to be paid. I am anxious to ensure that, if we are freezing charges, we need to be freezing the period during which penalties are calculated. What we do not want is a freezing of charges with a ratcheting up of penalties during the freeze period. This is a freeze period for everything, including billing, charging and penalties. It is an effort by the Government to try to create the space we need to come up with sensible, rational and informed decisions on funding models at the end of the period.

Section 3 is a standard provision to provide for the Short Title of the Act, which is to be cited as the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2016.

There are many pressures and demands on the public purse. This is also the case in respect of our public water and wastewater systems. I have already mentioned those of an increasing population, a growing economy and a changing climate. Various EU directives, such as the Water Framework Directive, place requirements on us to put in place measures to improve water quality in our rivers, lakes, canals and coasts.

These require ongoing investment and new initiatives and approaches to delivery of quality water services. The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, on which there is currently an infringement case against Ireland in respect of more than 70 wastewater issues, demands a significant increase in wastewater infrastructure investment. Fines will follow if we do not respond comprehensively.

To address these pressures and demands to fulfil our EU requirements, we need to invest in infrastructure and improve our systems for delivery, both immediately and continuously in the years ahead. We must commit to comprehensive future investment in water services to ensure our families, communities, farms and businesses have clean, reliable water supplies and the appropriate level of wastewater treatment to protect our water systems. These are essential to improving public health and quality of life and in facilitating economic and demographic growth.

This Bill will suspend domestic water charges for at least nine months to provide the space for a reasoned debate on the future funding of our public water services. We need to use this opportunity to ensure questions as to the sources and levels of investment are answered once and for all. I hope we all want the same ends, which is to ensure we can have a water delivery system and a wastewater treatment system which has the support of the public as well as the majority of this House. It is a challenge to do that because this issue has divided parties and individuals within parties in a significant way in recent years. My efforts over the next nine months will be to try to work on the points on which we can agree rather than focus on those which clearly divided us aggressively. I hope other Members will approach this from the same perspective.

I will not shirk away from supporting the recommendations I believe to be right in terms of providing a quality water supply, appropriate wastewater treatment and the funding models which can deliver that into the future. That is my job as Minister and our job in government. It is also our job, in the context of a different political environment and being a minority Government, to try to create enough consensus on a package of measures, which will be proposed at the end of this process, agreed on the floor of this House. I look forward to that process and working with everybody who is interested in being constructive in those efforts.

I understand Deputy Cowen is sharing time with Deputies Mary Butler and Shane Cassells.

Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill, subject to the clarifying amendments to which the Minister alluded around the date on which the suspension commences and ends and subject to the recommendations of the committee for an extension of time and the potential for the Minister to grant that.

This Bill reflects the first part of the Fianna Fáil agreement in facilitating a minority Government. It will see water charges immediately suspended and their future decided by the Dáil, and no one else. In addition, Irish Water will remain in public ownership. Water charges have failed. In 2015, for example, only 53% of bills were paid, with an annual revenue of €144 million on this basis. Up to €100 million was then spent on the water grant - the conservation grant as it is known - while €41 million is due in interest repayments over the year and another €25 million on administration costs. On this basis, the State will lose €22 million in total on its water charges regime in 2015.

We need to end this failed regime and move on from this issue. Now is the time to give a window of opportunity to create a pathway to the potential ending of water charges, resolve Irish Water and move on to other serious political issues, which need our attention. This Bill allows for that and will help also to ensure a stable Government. Contrary to media reports that the European Commission has not said that Ireland must impose water charges, it actually reaffirms that established practice allows for derogation. Our legal advice on a 2010 reply to the then MEP, Deputy Alan Kelly, indicates this and indicates it refers to 2003 when the directive was first transposed into Irish law.

That is not true.

In any case, all of these issues will be considered by the expert commission and the special Oireachtas committee before the Dáil votes on the issue.

The Bill, as the Minister said, enables a nine-month suspension of water charges with an additional provision for the extension of that period to enable the special Oireachtas committee to complete its work. The suspension period comes into effect from 1 July. The Government, as I have said, will produce further amendments to the Bill, ensuring the suspension period is in tandem with the timeframe for the expert commission and the Oireachtas work on the issue. Our support for the Bill, obviously, is conditional and I accept the Minister's bona fides on this issue.

No new bills will be liable until after 31 March 2017, by which time the Dáil is due to have voted on the future of water charges, having considered the expert commission report and the recommendations of the special Oireachtas committee. In effect, water charges are gone until the Dáil votes on this matter and decides on it. The Minister can extend the suspension period beyond 31 March 2017, if necessary, until the work of the committee is concluded and the Dáil has sufficient time to consider and vote upon its recommendations. Fianna Fáil’s support for the minority Government is contingent on the Minister granting sufficient time for the committee to conclude and a Dáil vote to be held.

Water was only one of several issues before Fianna Fáil agreed to facilitate a minority Government. However, it was necessary to be resolved in detail or else the Government would have immediately collapsed under opposition motions of no confidence from other parties. Under this Bill, water charges will be immediately suspended. In the interim period, an expert commission will report on the best methods to fund services and the Dáil committee will make its recommendations. The Government will facilitate whatever option a majority of the Dáil endorses. The Bill effectively allows for water charges only to come back into the economic and social domain if the Dáil agrees.

What will happen to those who have paid and those who have not paid? There will be an equality of treatment for all bill payers. All overdue bills are a legal charge and should be paid. The issue of what will happen to non-payers must be fully addressed by the Dáil committee in the recommendations for the Government.

What will happen to Irish Water? It will be subjected to a new oversight body and remain in public ownership. This will keep down costs and ensure greater efficiency. The Minister has alluded to the fact that the board it has put in place will be tasked with publishing evidence to the Government. It will also give quarterly reports to an Oireachtas committee on Irish Water’s performance and implementation of its business plan in the areas of cost reduction and efficiency, procurement, staffing policies, infrastructure delivery and leakage reduction, improvements in water quality and the need for Irish Water to respond to the needs of communities and enterprise.

There is no doubt it is a compromise on what we had outlined in our manifesto. However, it is a move forward to ensure our water services are delivered safely and efficiently. Ultimately, this is what people are interested in. They are not interested in new names or reorganisations. We have achieved the central aims of our manifesto, namely, to create a pathway to effectively end water charges and reform how we deliver water services.

If the Oireachtas feels a constitutional amendment is necessary to protect water in public ownership, we will explore it. We need to be clear around the wording of any such amendment with regard to private wells and group water schemes. On the European Commission stance on other charges, in reply to a parliamentary question from Sinn Féin MEP, Lynn Boylan, it stated the flexibility of derogation under article 9 of the 2000 Water Framework Directive applies only to established practice.

The reply confirms the central role of established practice under article 9(4) of the 2000 Water Framework Directive. The former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, asked a question in 2010 about established practice and the Commission replied that it referred to the date on which the framework was put in place. The reply stated, "Article 9(4) provides the possibility for Member States not to apply the provisions of Article 9(1) to a given water-use activity where this is an established practice at the time of the adoption of the directive". In Ireland, the directive was adopted in 2003, when established practice was to pay for water via general taxation. According to our legal advice, this remains a basis on which Ireland can decline to impose water charges.

The flexibility of member states was confirmed on 5 December 2014 in a reply to a parliamentary question by Ms Nessa Childers, MEP. The Commission stated:

The responsibility for implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD)(1) lies with the Member States and there is no obligation to follow particular schemes or methods...There is no specific requirement in Article 9 of the WFD for cost recovery to rely on individual consumption.

In previous court cases taken by the Commission, it has lost in any effort to impose a stringent definition of the directive. This important legal precedent must be recognised. The European Commission took Germany to court for granting relief from water charges to hydroelectric power firms and certain other industries. The European Court of Justice ruled against the Commission, noting that the directive does not seek to achieve complete harmonisation of the rules of member states concerning water. The claim by the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, that the river basin management scheme in 2010 got rid of the derogation is nothing more than a red herring and I confront him to respond here or anywhere else. Our legal advice indicates that "established practice" refers to 2003, not 2010. These issues will be dealt with by the expert commission and the special Oireachtas committee, and the Dáil will consider it and any other relevant information when it votes to end water charges. It will not be considered economic or environmental treason for the Dáil to make this decision, contrary to the comments of the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly.

On a personal note, Deputy Alan Kelly made a statement about a former politician accusing a previous Taoiseach of economic treason. It was never retracted, to my dismay and that of many others. The person who made the allegation does not feel it was the right thing to say, and it has been proven that it was the wrong thing to say. If I expected anyone in the House to bring it up again, it would have been Deputy Alan Kelly.

In contrast to Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit refused to engage in Government formation. They are content to shout from the sidelines and offer no solutions.

We are the only reason water charges are being challenged.

Sinn Féin MEPs voted in favour of water charges in the European Parliament.

Not true. In September 2015, their MEPs voted in favour of "Providing for the application of a progressive charge that is proportional to the amount of water used." What do you call that? Is it not water charges, or are you that detached that you do not know?

It is by way of general taxation.

Direct your remarks through the Chair please, Deputy Cowen.

Sinn Féin's official position when it goes abroad is that it supports water charges.

It is not true at all.

Sinn Féin members say one thing in Europe and another when they come home. Meanwhile, their leaders could not make up their minds whether to pay for water charges in their holiday homes. This is more hypocrisy from Sinn Féin, topped off by its manifesto which falsely claimed that families saved €260 under Sinn Féin's water proposals. From 2007 to 2011, the then Sinn Féin Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, had the opportunity to reverse water metering but made no attempt to do so.

Not true, again.

Under his watch, a comprehensive water metering programme took place across domestic properties in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin Axe the Tax document from September 2014 indicated that, under its proposals, Irish Water would be funded by private equity, which is effectively shareholders or privatisation. Does Deputy Eoin Ó Broin understand that? What does "funded by private equity" relate to? Sinn Féin's policy would maintain the super quango and then privatise it. A private entity would, inevitably, introduce water charges, exposing the hole at the heart of Sinn Féin's water charges proposals.

In recent weeks, Sinn Féin has again been at odds over whether it supports a public utility, with Deputy Eoin Ó Broin saying one thing only to be directly contradicted by Deputy Gerry Adams. Opposition Bills on water charges have had no legal force. It requires a Government-sponsored Bill to get rid of water charges, given that it is a money Bill under the Constitution. Hence the need for this legislation, and this legislation only. Fianna Fáil has secured this in our arrangement with Fine Gael in order to facilitate a minority Government.

Ireland faces a range of issues, not simply the water argument. Dáil Éireann is obliged to confront these matters, many of which have been superseded today in response to the UK's decision to exit the EU. There are many issues to be confronted regarding the health service. We have an emergency on our hands in housing. Others issues are the future of education, how crime is policed and how our force is funded and equipped. They require political commitment. I accept we need to solve the water situation and move on.

Fianna Fáil is committed to giving practical effect to the manifesto we put before the people and the votes that were cast in our favour by those who trusted us to ensure there was a pathway to deliver and resolve the issue, while acknowledging the result of the Irish people in putting its numbers before the House in order for a Government to be formed and facilitating the provision of a stable minority Government to ensure the country is given the leadership it deserves, has sought and requires to tackle the other challenges we face. We are committed to ending the failed water charge regime. The Minister and his colleagues are culpable in it.

The country and the people have spoken on the Government's performance and the configuration of the Dáil. Ultimately, the Dáil has decided to put a Government in place which must tackle the issues I have outlined in addition to this one, and tackle them it will. The new politics that has been spoken about and the responsibility we have must be recognised, not the opportunism on the part of Sinn Féin and others regarding motions put before the House in recent weeks simply to gain politically opportunist rhetoric and nothing else. Nothing has changed in the way Sinn Féin wants to do politics. Sinn Féin wants to give the impression it can get out there again as quickly as possible in order to obtain a majority that would put it in government. However, Sinn Féin would run a mile from Government. All its members have said and done during recent weeks confirms this. Long may Sinn Féin be isolated from Government, as far as I and many of my colleagues are concerned.

We are committed to ending water charges. We have put a clear pathway in place in order for the Dáil to decide, and it is far from what Sinn Féin has put before the Dáil regarding failed entities and the failed legal basis of any motions it has put before the House. We want to ensure the country has a responsible Government that is able to tackle issues other than this one. While it is an important issue, it does not have total or absolute importance. I expect and hope, and put every trust in the committee that has been put in place, subject to the expert commission making recommendations to it, and every faith thereafter in those who have been elected to make a decision on the issue and move on while dealing with other issues.

Ultimately, the people will decide who will form a Government after this one expires. Whether it is stable or not, we will go before the people having taken our responsibilities seriously, adjudged and put preference on issues that need to be resolved, including this one. We have to put the legislation in place in the way in which it is framed in order for other issues to be dealt with. I commend the Bill to the House. I expect, on Committee Stage, the Minister will address the two issues on which we have sought amendment and clarity to ensure the agreement we put in place to facilitate the formation of Government, and the political agreement therein, is recognised in the Bill.

I thank Deputy Cowen for sharing time. While this is far from the most important issue facing our country, when one considers the housing and homelessness crisis, health problems and the decision in the UK referendum last night to exit the EU and the trade repercussions that will have domestically, the handling of water services in recent years represents a dramatic public policy fiasco. It is also one of the few areas on which there was a substantial policy debate during the election and a decisive result in favour of ending current policy. People engaged with politicians, some more boisterously than others. We can all remember the then Tánaiste being captured in her car during a protest. However, the message is loud and clear: Irish Water in its current form is a fiasco. Boil water notices still affect 5,000 homes in County Roscommon while similar notices have been put in place in recent months in Loughrea, County Galway and Whitegate, east Cork. The outgoing Government's policy was to allow Irish Water massive commercial freedom even though it would be funded primarily by direct State subvention and would take many years to bring services to the level it defines as acceptable. Had Irish Water been a State agency, the uncontrolled expansion of management, the bonus culture, the waste, the secrecy, the massive increasing payments for lobbying and many other practices would not have been possible. Equally, the disdain for democratic accountability would never have been allowed.

We need to end this failed regime and move on from this issue once and for all. Water charges have failed miserably. In 2015, only 53% of bills were paid with annual revenue of €144 million. A total of €100 million was spent on the water conservation grant. Where else in the world could people run their taps all night and be rewarded with a €100 conservation grant? That does not add up and I often wonder how many who claimed the grant did not pay charges. When all costs are factored in, namely, €550 million on water meters that are not in use, €172 million on setting up Irish Water and €46 million on running it, the Government's creation of Irish Water will leave the taxpayer €750 million worse off this year than if it had not been set up at all.

I am amazed at the lack of Members in the Chamber. The issue of Irish Water was huge during the election and I am surprised only three Sinn Féin Members are present as we debate the issue, given that they made so much noise about it during the election. The Bill reflects the first part of the Fianna Fáil agreement to facilitate a minority Government, which will result in the immediate suspension of water charges and the future of Irish Water being decided by the House. It is the effective end of water charges and this is the result of our negotiations in facilitating a Fine Gael-led minority Government. While Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance sat on their hands and did not get involved in Government formation, we engaged, debated and gave value for our vote. We represented the voters and made sure water charges would be resigned to the scrapheap. In addition, and most importantly, Irish Water will remain in public ownership.

The hypocrisy of Sinn Féin on water is unbelievable. Deputy Cowen alluded to this but it is worth mentioning again. In September 2015, its MEPs voted in favour of "providing for the application of a progressive charge that is proportional to the amount of water used". It is clear the party's official position is different when its members get on a plane and go abroad - one policy for Europe, one policy at home. In Northern Ireland, when regional development Minister, Conor Murphy, had the opportunity to reverse water metering, a comprehensive water metering programme took place across domestic homes - one policy for Northern Ireland, one policy at home. In recent weeks, the party has been at odds over whether it supports a public utility, with Deputy Eoin Ó Broin saying one thing only to be directly contradicted by party leader, Deputy Gerry Adams - two different policies at home. I refer to the Bill recently tabled by Sinn Féin, which had no legal force. A money Bill is necessary under the Constitution to get rid of water charges and this can only be tabled by the Government. Instead, we witnessed grandstanding and playing to the gallery at its best.

I move on to what we, in Fianna Fáil, have achieved in respect of Irish Water. The suspension of water charges begins next Friday, 1 July, and an expert commission will be established on the same day. On 1 March 2017, a special Oireachtas committee report will be published while on 1 April 2017, the House will vote on the recommendations. In a nutshell, this means water charges in their current form will be at an end. Fianna Fáil is committed to giving practical effect to its manifesto and facilitating a stable minority Government to ensure the country is given the leadership it requires to tackle the challenges it faces. We are committed to ending the failed water charges regime. Now is the time to give a window of opportunity to end water charges, resolve Irish Water and move on the other serious political issues that need our attention.

On a point of order, during the previous contribution, the word "captured" was used. A trial relating to those matters is coming up. The Deputy should withdraw that word.

Yes. She said the former Tánaiste was "captured" in her car. A trial is coming up and Deputies should not try to poison the outcome by using words such as that. The Ceann Comhairle should ask the Deputy to withdraw the remark.

I will withdraw the word and have the record amended to say "surrounded".

I thank the Deputy.

I also thank the Deputy for facilitating us in that way.

Reflecting on the debates in this Chamber over the past week, we started out with the uncertainty around the domestic hot potato of bin charges and we arrived in the House this morning at the end of the week amid the seismic news of Britain's exit from the EU and the massive reverberations being felt. While that news will dominate not only every news cycle and every coffee shop and bar stool conversation in the coming days, water is a topic that has equally dominated conversations in households throughout this country over the past few years. However, certainty is being brought to this contentious issue on a morning of such uncertainty because we are ensuring the elimination of a charge that households did not support and against which people clearly demonstrated their anger. The charge is not just being suspended; it is being lowered into the grave. While Lazarus had Jesus to help him out and bring him back to life, there will be no resurrection for water charges bar the Members of this Chamber voting them back in and considering there is an equal disdain for prayer in this Chamber, there is little hope of divine inspiration for them either.

We now have a period to review the entire system, which was botched in the first instance because of the rushed establishment of this entity without proper debate. The system has no public confidence. As Deputy Cowen stated, only half the bills were paid last year with revenue of €144 million. When the water grant and interest and administration costs are added together, the company suffered a loss. I have listened for a long time to people saying Irish Water was needed because its staff were the only ones who could deliver the water services required. The Minister mentioned that again in his contribution but I have always found that argument disrespectful to the expertise of the local authority water services staff who did such a fantastic job, and in stark contrast to what is happening now, they knew what was happening on the ground.

The results were disastrous.

I have dealt with engineers who know the water systems in towns across their county like the back of their hand but some of the messing I have witnessed over the past two years has been unreal.

An even worse scenario has been developing in the manner in which Irish Water is dealing with the wastewater services across this country. I am glad the Minister alluded to that in his speech this morning. This is not just an issue of money but it also one of attitude and Irish Water's approach, in particular, to housing estates around this country from the start of this year. It is simply abdicating responsibility for issues that are now being faced by households. Hitherto the local authority would help people experiencing problems but they are now being left to fend for themselves. Irish Water will not go into gardens and help in instances where raw sewage has come up on people's lawns, not due to problems created by the households but due to problems experienced somewhere else down the line. Irish Water has simply washed its hands of it, even though the local councils would have helped those households in the past. That is happening in old housing estates throughout the country.

I dealt with a young father on Monday. There is a sewage problem in his estate and he has corresponded with Irish Water to say that he and his neighbours will pay for it to be dealt with but they need Irish Water to help. He is considering leaving his property, along with his wife and young children, and simply let the sewage flow out on to the street to see if someone will help. It has nothing to do with money. It is simply about the attitude of Irish Water in how it is approaching all of these problems.

Public confidence was mentioned but there is none. I have given a prime example of why there is none. There is not even confidence among the 50% of people who paid their bills. For those of us who have paid the bills, there is a very real need, as Deputy Cowen has said, to see that everyone is treated equally and with fairness and that this issue is looked at seriously by the commission. Those who have been compliant need fairness. Everybody involved in the process deserves that. I agree with the Minister when he speaks of the required investment in our water services but the money squandered by Irish Water was not the way to do it. I reiterate that I have the first-hand experience of seeing how local authorities delivered a quality water service in so many areas.

I hope we wisely take the opportunity we now have to look at everything in a calm manner. I hope we reflect on this system which was rushed and botched in the first instance. Now we have the space and time to look at it properly and in depth, to ensure we get a quality service that works for the people and to pray for the soul of water charges.

The next speaker is Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, who is sharing time with Deputies Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Denise Mitchell and John Brady.

In deference to the Minister, I will do my very best to be rational. I cannot guarantee, however, that I will not be political. Deputy Cowen always seems to leave the Chamber just before I start talking. As I was listening to him, I was thinking how it would have been great if Deputy Cowen had been in government in the past and we would not be in the difficulties we are currently in. Then, of course, I remembered that he was a Member of this House when water charges were agreed and the framework that eventually led to Irish Water was put in place.

I thank Deputy Butler for her concern as to the whereabouts of the rest of the Sinn Féin Members. Let me assure the Deputy that they are out in their constituencies doing exactly what they were elected to do, which is to try to make the lives of their constituents in this country better.

On the subject in hand, finally we can see what new politics looks like. In fact, there is nothing new about it at all. It is the old politics of fudge, of kicking difficult issues into touch, of avoiding taking the right decisions, of enabling Fianna Fáil to bide some time until the polls suggest a general election would be more advantageous to them and of allowing Fine Gael to cling on to power for as long as possible. The Bill we are debating is part of - I do not apologise for using this phrase - a grubby little deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It is the glue that binds together what is essentially a coalition between these two parties. It is worth reminding people what that deal contains. It does not propose the abolition of Irish Water nor does it guarantee the end of water charges. All it provides for, as this Bill states and as the Minister outlined, is a temporary suspension of the charge and the establishment of an expert commission.

The gap between that deal and the manifesto commitments of Fianna Fáil is enormous. Irish Water remains despite four explicit manifesto commitments by Fianna Fáil to abolish the entity. Contrary to the claim made by Deputy Cowen today, the expert commission does not provide a clear path for an end to water charges. All the suspension and commission do is buy time.

The Bill suspends the charge from April to December. It suspends billing from June until March and I accept the Minister's outline of that. However, it is silent on arrears from the first year of charges and on bills. Will Irish Water be pursuing these bills? Will it continue, as it is currently doing, to send threatening letters to those who cannot or will not pay? What most people want to hear from the Minister today is that all billing and metering will stop and that charging will only recommence through a vote of this House. If the Minister replies at the end of the Second Stage debate, he can clarify my reading of the Bill. As I read it, after the end of the suspension period as outlined, unless legislation is brought forward to continue the suspension, the charges will automatically return. I would appreciate it if the Minister could clarify that because that is my reading of the text of the Bill.

Despite the fact that Sinn Féin sees this Bill as a fudge, we will support it. However, nobody should be under any misunderstanding that this represents a shift in our position. We want an end to domestic water charges. We want the public ownership of water and water services enshrined in the Constitution. We want water services to be delivered by a democratic and accountable public body. We want water to be delivered on the basis of need and not the ability to pay. We will not rest until these objectives are achieved.

I thank Fianna Fáil for taking such interest in the work of Conor Murphy MLA and the Sinn Féin Assembly team. Let me correct the record because it is important that our colleagues in Fine Gael clearly understand what happens in that part of our country. What Conor Murphy MLA did when he took over the Ministry for regional development was that he stopped the introduction of water charges. Domestic water charges have not been reintroduced since. He stopped the privatisation of the water services. Contrary to the claims of both Fianna Fáil Deputies, he actively sought to stop the metering programme but, unfortunately, his replacement in the relevant Ministry from the Ulster Unionist Party would not bring forward the necessary legislation. Thankfully, due to Sinn Féin pressure and pressure from trade unions and campaign groups on the ground, that metering programme has stopped. To clarify again for Fianna Fáil, Lynn Boylan MEP's water report explicitly references payment regimes, including general taxation or regional taxation as exists, for example, in Scotland and, indeed, the North.

Having said all of that, the Bill before us will pass next week. I have no doubt about that. The focus will then turn to the expert commission. This is another example of so-called "new politics". The Minister published the terms of reference without consultation with the rest of us in this House. I presume there was some consultation with Fianna Fáil. Giving people five working days to express an interest in becoming part of the commission is too short by any reasonable estimation. That period of time should be extended. The more substantive point I wish to make is that the terms of reference are simply too restrictive. They focus solely on the financing of domestic water services in the main. They are clearly directional, particularly the second of the terms of reference, which pushes the commission in the direction of off-balance sheet models of finance which can only be achieved through the reintroduction of water charges.

References to conservation in the terms of reference are minimal. This is not a comprehensive commission to look at the future of water and sanitation services. It is simply a ruse designed to deliver a predetermined outcome. Sinn Féin's view, as I am sure the Minister knows, is that these terms of reference should be expanded. The commission should be tasked to look at the funding and delivery of all water and sanitation services. It should be asked to examine issues of water poverty and poverty-proof any proposals it makes back to the Oireachtas. It should have a greater remit for outlining recommendations for water conservation. It should have an input from professionals with regulatory, operational, management and environmental expertise from water and other utilities. It should have economic and academic expertise, expertise on worker’s rights and consumer interests as well as anti-poverty advocacy and policy expertise. I genuinely urge the Minister to take these points on board and revisit the terms of reference.

In recent weeks there has been much talk about the Water Framework Directive and the exemption from charges in Article 9.4. It is good to know that Deputy Cowen can understand some Sinn Féin documents correctly and I am glad he quoted Lynn Boylan MEP in his comments on the directive. It was the only part of his speech with which I agreed. There has been much spinning by other politicians and off-the-record briefings by unnamed Commission officials from sections of the Commission that have nothing to do with the decisions on the application of the Water Framework Directive. There has also been misreporting by a small number of lazy journalists.

The directive and the on-the-record responses from the relevant section of the Commission on this issue are very clear. The Government can seek to invoke Article 9.4. If it does, it must do so in the context of the second river basin management plan which is currently being drafted and to which we will make a submission. That plan must satisfy the Commission that it can meet the overall objectives of the directive without domestic water charges. If one has the right delivery model and funding model, that is eminently achievable.

We must be careful to ensure we are not misrepresenting the Commission's position.

The Commission's position is very clear and on the record. It is the off-the-record briefings that are causing confusion on this matter.

The Deputy should be careful not to mislead people.

If the letter the Minister recently received from the Commission sheds any light on that, the Minister should lay it before the Dáil so we can all have the benefit of the information the Minister received from the Commission in private.

The central problem of our water and sanitation services is not wasteful domestic usage. In fact, Irish Water says that our domestic usage is low by European standards. It is also not because we do not have water charges. It is the direct result of decades of under-investment by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party in this vital public service. I am glad the Minister acknowledged that in his remarks. Unlike his colleagues in Fianna Fáil, he recognises the past mistakes of his party in government. The environmental treason is the decision of successive Governments to refuse to invest in the service. That problem remains. This year the Government has allocated only approximately €500 million for Irish Water's capital investment programme and not much more for next year. This is the same Government that wishes to deprive the Exchequer of approximately €5 billion in the lifetime of the Government by abolishing the universal social charge, USC.

The crux of the problem is that this Government does not wish to invest directly in water and sanitation services. It has chosen tax cuts over investment not just in this service but in all public services. At the same time the Government, due to its and Fianna Fáil's failure, faces huge potential fines from the European Commission for breaches of water-related directives, so it must get Irish Water off balance sheet to enable it to borrow. That requires water charges so, in turn, hard-pressed families must be forced to pay for the bad decisions of inept politicians.

The Deputy is misinformed. We are not trying to get Irish Water off balance sheet.

Even here, the Government cannot get it right. EUROSTAT's judgment from July last year was a damning indictment of the failures of the last Government, and it will be a long time before EUROSTAT's view changes. If it is Fine Gael's policy to abandon the off-balance-sheet model for Irish Water, it should share that with the House, because it would be news to most Members on these benches.

The alternative to the failed water policy of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party has been outlined by the Right2Water movement: provide water on the basis of need, not ability to pay; fund it through general taxation; deliver it through a democratically accountable and transparent body working with the river basin management groups and local authorities; focus investment in the first instance on reducing the more than 40% wastage in the system; implement an ambitious capital programme to upgrade our water and sewerage system; meet the broad objectives of the Water Framework Directive; and, crucially, remain the only OECD country with zero water poverty.

The reason we are discussing this today is not due to new politics or the practical, pragmatic implementation of the manifestos of the government parties of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. It is due to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people marched, boycotted and voted on this issue over the last number of years. They forced Fianna Fáil, in particular, from its position of supporting the creation of Irish Water and introducing water charges to the current fudge position, which still confuses me each time I hear its members speak on it. It should be clear to Deputies on all sides of the House that this movement still exists. It is watching carefully what is happening in this House. There will be a huge electoral cost for any politician who advocated the abolition of Irish Water and water charges in the last general election and who breaks his or her word when these issues are finally voted on in the House.

Sinn Féin will keep its word. We will maintain the pressure on the Government to scrap the charge and implement a new water policy. We will not rest until we have achieved that end.

It is a pity Deputy Cowen was not present to hear the record being corrected. I enjoy the theatrics of the Fianna Fáil Deputies. There was talk of prayer and I was almost inclined to say an act of contrition for our part in putting water charges in place, or something to that effect.

The Bill before the House is another attempt to kick the can further down the road. Was the voice of the electorate not sufficiently evident? A freeze on charges is far from what the public wants. The majority of the public voted for abolition, not a commission or a suspension. Chaith na daoine vóta le deireadh a chur leis na táillí uisce seo. It is time members of the Government, lucky enough to still be in office, cleaned out their ears and listened to what the public has to say. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have almost been inseparable on this issue since the election. However, what Fianna Fáil is supporting now is a far cry from what it promised voters when its members knocked on doors in January and February.

Irish Water represents all that was wrong with the previous Government - waste, escalating taxes for struggling families and a lack of transparency. This Bill shows scant regard for the public. "Vote us in, and we will ensure things continue as they were," is a far more apt slogan than "Let's keep the recovery going," or "An Ireland for all." Sinn Féin has committed to abolishing water charges if given the mandate to go into government. We put forward a motion, supported by 39 Deputies, to give effect to that. Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael would support the motion as they were happy enough to have statements on the topic eventually. That may have been welcome, albeit an obvious attempt to appease voters. Is mór an díomá a bhí orainn, agus sílim ar dhaoine a chaith vóta do Fhianna Fáil, nár thacaigh Fianna Fáil linn ar an dáta sin.

The Bill does not do much to quell the fears of people who believe that they will be forced to pay twice for their water. Two thirds of motor tax paid in 2015 was pumped into Irish Water, as was much of the property tax, to keep that body afloat. It has been said time and again that Irish Water and water charges were the straw that broke the camel's back, but it bears repeating. Many people saw that when it came to saving money in the recession the cutbacks that occurred affected low and middle-income earners most. The extra taxation levied was focused on flat rates, stealth taxes and charges, affecting the same category of low and middle-income earners most. Many people felt that those at the top were not asked to contribute much extra and they considered that fundamentally unfair. In the meantime, services have been cut to the bone. During and since the election campaign the same mentality has been shown, with cuts to taxation prioritised over investment in services and the wrong taxes and charges being reconsidered. However, people power has ensured that at least this charge is being reconsidered.

People have been to the pin of their collars and they have made their opposition to water charges clear time and again. That should be reflected in how we deal with the issue. A democracy represents the will of the people and their view is that the current situation must change, not by kicking the can down the road but by abolishing the charges. We all agree that our water services are in dire need of investment. Indeed, investment is badly needed in my and the Minister's constituency. I acknowledge the need for the lower harbour main drainage and I welcome it. Tá sé riachtanach agus cuirim fáilte roimh an infheistíocht atá á chur ar fáil. However, people who are hard pressed should not have to suffer for the State's failure in the upkeep of our water system. Tá siad faoi go leor brú cheana féin.

Our party put forward a manifesto which committed to additional investment in water infrastructure as part of an investment plan worth €2.2 billion more than the commitment of the previous Government. This would ensure that additional work could be done and that not only would Irish Water staff have jobs but additional jobs would be created in a new utility.

We in Sinn Féin believe this can only be done by enshrining our water agency in public ownership, rather than it being sold down the river to those who wish to make a profit from it. This point is important. The commodification of water, one of our most fundamental needs since the dawn of time, is happening worldwide so who can possibly blame the Irish people for being concerned about this and for fighting it. We are told of many countries where charges exist, as if we must accept it as a virtue, but we are then asked to ignore that so many of these countries have seen it privatised, whether municipality by municipality or nationally. The issue of water poverty-----

No one is looking for the privatisation of Irish Water.

I am aware of that. The point I am making is that this is the clearest and strongest defence we would have. I am quite sure that in many other countries which have privatised water boards, either municipally or nationally, the same commitment was made, very likely in good faith but subsequently, ten or 15 years down the road, it was reversed as arguments were made that financially it was unsustainable and a drain on the taxpayer.

Local authorities have privatised their services.

The safest way to ensure it remains in public ownership is to ensure there is no profit motive-----

Most of our treatment plants are in private ownership.

Water poverty has become an issue in places, and in the recent debate on our motion Deputy Ó Broin instanced Poland, where 10% suffer from water poverty, and the fact Ireland is the only state in the EU which does not suffer from water poverty. The fact is there are numerous threats from water charges, and the strongest manner of protecting water services is through continued public ownership.

The commission's terms of reference do not go far enough. The terms of reference should rule out the possibility of the reintroduction of water charges. The make up of the commission is also important. It needs to be representative of labour and of the communities which made their voices heard so loudly during the course of the debate and which shaped the debate. As did Deputy Ó Broin, I call on them to ensure the issue of water charges does not return to the agenda at a later date.

When I was elected to represent the people of Dublin Bay North, my first public statement called for the abolition of water charges and not the suspension of water charges. The majority of voters voted for the abolition of the water tax, not its deferment, postponement or suspension, but its abolition. The Right2Water movement was born out of people's frustration with the long line of unfair taxes imposed by the previous Government. Make no mistake, this frustration continues with the Bill.

I stood with my neighbours in the constituency to protest against the metering programme. I watched as fellow protesters were jailed for demonstrating against the meters. I do not recall ever seeing any member of Fianna Fáil at any of these protests. I stood for election on a platform to abolish water charges and to abolish this tax on a very basic amenity.

As charges were introduced through law created by members of the Government, the abolition of charges can be achieved by the Government through passing a law to abolish them and not a law to suspend them. I call on the Government to heed past motions tabled by Sinn Féin and other Members of the House, and to heed and remember what the people have said. It should also remember it is here to represent the people. I take this opportunity to remind other Members of the House of their election promises. I hope they are capable of them, as some are now in power with their Fine Gael brothers and sisters. The electorate made a choice last February, and Fianna Fáil should respect the mandate it was given by the people. It can prove to the people that it keeps its election promises.

The legal provision to set up a committee is just kicking the can down the road.

Why is the Deputy supporting it so?

I will continue. When the work of the group is done, what will happen next? Will we go back to water charges? Is the Government really hoping that during this nine months people will suddenly forget about water charges? We will be back to water charges and ordinary people suffering and facing hike upon hike in the cost of car insurance, child care costs and bin charges, to name but a few. I ask Members to remember the people they were put in here to represent.

Privatisation of water services is a very real concern. It is an issue which Sinn Féin has raised on many occasions. Will the Bill just park this issue down the road, merely to sedate the possible private interests which are all ready to devour this public Irish utility?

The issue of water charges must be put to bed. We need to move on. We have other crises, as the Minister knows, including in housing. We cannot have this coming back down the line in a few months. Water charges must go. The majority of voters voted for this, so let us do what we came here to do, which is to represent the people who put us here.

Last week, I received a phone call from an old age pensioner named Stephen, who is from Arklow in my constituency of Wicklow. The day before he had buried his wife of many years. He had just received a bill from Irish Water demanding €324.64. I have a copy of this bill. The bill is this high not because of Stephen's excessive water usage, but because he simply has not been in a position to pay for water since the outset. This bill followed a series of texts and phone calls from Irish Water. In one week alone he received nine phone calls from Irish Water, pressuring him into giving something he simply did not have.

Stephen is one of the 755,570 people living in poverty in this State. This is an unbelievable rise of 55,000 citizens since Fine Gael came into power in 2011. His plight and the plight of many of the most vulnerable in society have come under constant attack from the Government and its regressive policies. The abolition of the bereavement grant in 2013 was one of the meanest, most ruthless and uncompassionate cuts imposed by the Minister's party. It has made it very difficult, if not impossible, for people such as Stephen to bury their loved ones with dignity.

The elderly have seen the abolition of the telephone allowance, which was a lifeline, especially for those living alone in rural Ireland. They have seen increased prescription charges, which have left many picking and choosing which medication they can and cannot have. They have seen a reduction in household benefits and a cut in the fuel allowance from 32 weeks to 26 weeks, which has had a devastating impact on people such as Stephen throughout the State. At present, Ireland has the largest levels of excess winter mortality in Europe, with an estimated 2,800 excess deaths each winter. The imposition of water charges has compounded the hardship on some of the most vulnerable people in our society and has impacted disproportionately on low income households. While the Government can talk about GDP growth and being the fastest growing economy in Europe, we are also a country where 1.3 million people experience deprivation. According to CSO figures, 750,000 people live in poverty in this State. In research carried out by the trade union, Mandate, one in ten people in the State experience food poverty, which is almost 500,000 citizens.

The terms of reference for the expert commission need to be expanded to include issues such as how best to avoid water poverty. Where water charges have been introduced, water poverty levels have escalated. Almost a quarter of households in England and Wales experience some levels of water poverty due to water charges imposed on people there. Water is a basic human right, not a commodity. Stephen and his recently deceased wife were two of many thousands of people who marched in Wicklow and across the State, not for a suspension of water charges but for their total abolition.

I have a message for Fianna Fáil. Stephen also revealed to me in conversation last week that he felt he was hoodwinked, particularly by Fianna Fáil, as he voted for them in the general election, believing they would follow through on their manifesto promising to scrap water charges.

If in government.

That is something he was very embarrassed to admit to me. It is not too late for those in Fianna Fáil to do the right thing and stand by their election promise to get rid of Irish Water and water charges once and for all.

Many people, through intimidation and coercion, reluctantly paid their water charges, effectively paying a third time for a basic human right. These payments must be repaid to anyone who has paid this tax and I am calling on the Minister to initiate that process with immediate effect. It is also critically important that our water services remain in public ownership to stop water becoming a commodity for the capitalist profiteers. The Minister has said the Government wants to keep our water services in public ownership. I have no faith in his words or the words of the Government. There is no guarantee that the next Government, whoever it is - if it is not Sinn Féin - would do so either. The only way to ensure that our water services remain in public ownership is to set a date for a referendum and enshrine it in our Constitution. There is no reason why a date cannot be set for that now. We do not need the findings of a commission.

People like Stephen need a break. They do not need to be another negative statistic, consigned to live out the rest of their lives in fear and deprivation because of the regressive policies of the Minister's party and the party here on my left. The Minister should do the right thing and abolish the charges with immediate effect and enshrine the right to the ownership of water in our Constitution. That can be done with immediate effect.

The Deputy is eating into Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's time.

I do not mind him eating into my time because I will not need my full amount of time. I regret to say that we are in a bubble here. I am looking at exactly the same old politics in this Chamber. At the very start of the debate I raised the issue of the Brexit decision. I have asked if there will be a debate on it today and I understand we will be told at some stage. We need to be told because that is what is going on outside here. We are in here in this bubble and we are supposed to have new politics. There is absolutely no evidence so far of any new politics in the debate I have been listening to. I have not come in here with a script - I will speak about what I feel about this issue.

I agree with what Deputy Ó Broin said at the start. This is a fudge in order to make all the political parties who have spoken so far comfortable in their position but it is not dealing with the issue. We are in the do-nothing Dáil where everything gets pushed down the road, does not get done or gets vehemently opposed by some people. There is no new politics in it. We have various things put down the road including Bills that I worked on in education on the technological universities and admissions to schools. Those Bills were ready to go but have now been shoved off to the end of the year. They are just two examples that I am aware of. There has been very little legislation, the same kind of views are being expressed and we are not learning anything. One of the lessons of Brexit is that slogans are only slogans but they can lead to the results. We have heard in here that water should be free, that it is a human right and that it falls from the sky. While Deputy Cassells was looking for divine intervention there was actually rain falling on the roof of the bubble we are in.

It is lashing out there.

Rain falls from the sky----

It is raining money.

-----but does not get into taps without a bit of cost.

We already paid for it.

Let us recognise that. I will not interrupt Deputy Kenny.

I do not normally interrupt.

Let Deputy O'Sullivan speak. She has her time and I will let Deputy Kenny in when his time comes.

The Minister asked for rational debate and I would like to supply some if I can. I hope others will do the same. The water that comes into our houses is not free; it has to be stored, collected, treated and brought to our houses. It does not go out free the other end either. Much of it goes and pollutes beaches in north Dublin, rivers and land and we need to do something about that. It all costs money. It pollutes our rivers and streams and is costly and complex. It has to be paid for one way or another - if it is not going to be paid for by a charge, it will be paid for through central taxation. Sinn Féin is honest enough to say that. In response to Deputy Butler, who raised the issue about competition for that central taxation, as the Minister did, it is in competition with building houses for homeless people, schools for children and with our health services which need investment. Let us not pretend-----

It is the reason we did not get investment in the past.

Let us not pretend that we can get it free into our houses. The Deputy can smile if he likes.

It is incredible.

Let us not pretend. It has to be paid for in some way.

They are all in denial.

The Deputy's time will come and we will allow him to speak then.

Let us look at some of the things Irish Water has done. It has invested in 34 new treatment plants, 26 for wastewater and eight for drinking water; and 73 upgrades, 51 for wastewater and 22 for drinking water. A further 47 water conservation projects have been completed with 452 km of pipe remedied. It has made investment to improve water quality including in Roscommon, which the Minister referred to, and general improvements in lead pipes and leaking pipes in our cities. I have witnessed it outside my own door. If I look at my constituency - Deputy Quinlivan is here and is aware of it - towards the end of last year, Irish Water announced €6.5 million investment in the Limerick city water mains rehabilitation project which will save an estimated 11 million litres of water per week in Limerick city when it is completed. The works will see the replacement of 11.1 km of problematic water mains, the decommissioning of 13.4 km of problematic shared lead service pipes and the replacement of 1,914 customer service connections in various locations around the city. When the statement was made, some of that had already been done in Killeely and Ballynanty, areas that Deputy Quinlivan is very familiar with.

The utility has done some good work but we all acknowledge that there were very large mistakes made in terms of its setting up. Nobody seriously thinks we should go back to all the individual local authorities dealing with water services. That did not work; it was not effective. There are works right outside my house to replace lead but which is mainly designed to stop leaks. The local Labour councillor and I have been trying to get that extended to houses that do not have shared services. Ironically, we were belatedly joined by the local Sinn Féin councillor, the same party that does not believe in Irish Water but which at the same time has been asking it to do work, which costs money. We have to be realistic about these things.

We also need to have a rational debate. I am concerned about the amendments that Fianna Fáil will apparently propose to extend further the time regarding the work of the commission and the Oireachtas committee. Deputy Butler read out the timeframes written into the legislation but her colleague, Deputy Cowen, indicated that they will propose to extend the time further.

That is a decision for the Minister only if the committee needs more time to complete its work.

I am concerned about that because that is kicking the can down the road. We need a timeframe for the commission to complete its work, whatever about the Oireachtas committee-----

Yes, five months.

My understanding is that the Minister said the Government will endeavour to report back within five months and the committee will endeavour to do its work within the timeframe. I would like a commitment from the Minister that this will be done speedily and that we will have realistic, sensible proposals regarding how we deal with our water. Pausing the charges, or abolishing them, is transferring the cost to the central taxation, whether we like it or not. It is a political solution to a political problem, a solution with which, ultimately, the main Government party does not agree and does not believe in. If that is new politics, I am not so sure how effective it is.

We recognise the fact, and we have paid the price for it, that the majority of people elected to this House want to abolish water charges, although I am not absolutely sure if that is the case for Fianna Fáil. I share that with Sinn Féin in that I am quite confused about the Fianna Fáil position as well. We will not stop this Bill on Second Stage but we will propose amendments. We agree that there should be a referendum because there is doubt expressed in this Chamber about the utility staying in public ownership. I believe the Minister that there is no intention of it not being in public ownership but if there is doubt among the public, then we should have a referendum. We also believe, however, that we need to protect the environment and I have not heard anything from those who say "no way, we won't pay" about what happens next. If we do not pay, what happens next? How do we protect the environment?

I will tell the Deputy in a minute.

How do we ensure-----


Deputies will have their opportunity in a moment.

I am glad Deputy O'Sullivan is interested.

Sorry, I probably invited that by looking at Deputy Boyd Barrett. I should not have done that.


How do we protect the environment? How do we ensure that there is funding for the ongoing investment and the investment that is needed for the future? How do we ensure that the polluter-pays principle is adhered to? We need to know from the Minister what exactly the EU position is. Again, I must agree with Sinn Féin in that regard. That is confused at the moment. What will the EU reaction be to the Irish position? We need to get the answers to the question of established practice and what exactly the response will be in that regard.

I also agree to some extent about the terms of reference of the commission. We need to ensure that the commission has appropriate terms of reference to ensure that it addresses issues like protecting the environment, ensuring continued investment and the polluter-pays principle. Our position is that there should be a basic free allowance of water but that after that, if people abuse it, if people use more than is appropriate to the size of their family-----

That is scandalous.

It is not particularly scandalous-----

It is something with which many socialists in various parts of Europe agree. Deputy Coppinger might not agree with it but it is the case. Many socialist parties in Europe believe in-----


Could I stop Deputy O'Sullivan for one minute? Deputy O'Sullivan has been in the Chamber all morning and she did not interrupt other Deputies when they were speaking. She should be afforded the same level of respect. All Deputies will have their say. I will ensure that everybody gets fair play, so could Deputies stop making comments, which, by the way, should not be made across the floor, and let Deputy O'Sullivan make her contribution? I would really appreciate that from everybody.

She is right in her last comment.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I am quite used to Deputy Coppinger interrupting everything I say. I have lost my train of thought now, thanks to the Deputy. Socialist parties in various parts of Europe believe in the polluter-pays principle, that people who excessively use any natural resource, any resource available to householders, should pay extra. I do not apologise for that position. We need to have a system whereby there is an appropriate free allowance for families, appropriate to the size and needs of the family, but after that, people pay. We will propose amendments on the other Stages of this legislation but, as I said, we recognise democracy. We recognise the way in which people have been elected to this House and we will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage. We certainly reserve the right to oppose it at a later Stage but I doubt that will make a difference to the outcome. It is quite clear what the outcome will be, namely, that charges will be paused for a period of nine months, according to the Minister. However, I am not so sure about that in view of the position of the other party. What is the name of the arrangement? I cannot remember exactly what it is called.

I also want to speak for the people who have paid. My party published a Bill whereby those people could be paid back and we will keep that Bill available because we believe there must be fair play for everybody, including people who are in group schemes. The Minister has referred to some action that he will take in that regard and we wait to see what it is but there has to be fair play for the people who are genuinely willing to pay a fair charge. They have paid but there are others who have not paid and we do not know what the outcome will be. We do not know what will happen after the nine months. It is not enough to say "scrap the charges". What happens next? That is what we do not know at this stage. As I said, while we will not stop the Bill at this Stage, we will propose amendments to it. We want a rational debate, to which the Irish people are entitled, not the same-old, same-old slogans that they have heard from many Deputies.

I thank the Acting Chairman for his protection and I look forward to engaging in the later Stages of the debate. I also look forward to us at some stage having an opportunity to debate what has just happened in our neighbouring island and in the northern part of our own island. That is real politics and there are real lessons that we all need to take to heart regarding the result.

As far as I know, there will be a debate in the afternoon, subject to a certain agreement. Is that correct, Minister?

I do not have information on that yet but if I get it then, obviously, I will let the House know straightaway.

I will start by making some points about the psychology of the ruling elite on the issue of water charges but also on broader political questions. Again and again, the ruling elite, of which the Minister is part, underestimates-----

I remind the Deputy that we are a democratically elected Government, not a ruling elite.

-----the anger of the people and the mood for change. The Brexit referendum has been a case in point in that regard. The most common question around this place in the last week has been, "What way do you think it will go?" In any conversation I had with a supporter of the Minister's Government, the answer was "Very close but I think it will be a narrow vote to remain." They all thought the vote would be to remain but they were all wrong.

I was on a media programme with one of the Minister's colleagues at the weekend, a Minister who was just back from the UK. He said that having spoken to people there he thought there would be a narrow vote for "Remain".

Deputy, we are dealing with the Water Services (Amendment) Bill, not a debate on Brexit.

I will quickly demonstrate the relevance of this to the issue of water charges.

Please move on and deal with the issue.

On a point of order, Deputy O'Sullivan referred to Brexit in her contribution-----

-----and the Acting Chairman did not interrupt her.

I did not allow her to expand on it.

I wondered about the people he spoke to. Did he go down to the bookies and spend time with men who cannot find steady work and who hang out there to find some company and take their minds off the reality of life? Did he go to the shopping centre and talk to the single mother who is trying to raise her children in a tough estate on her earnings from a part-time job, or did he talk to people like himself, namely, journalists, politicians, civil servants and other people who live and move in his circles? This is the connection with water charges.

The Minister and his Government underestimate the anger of the people and the mood for change in this country also. Nowhere is that mood more evident than on this issue of water charges. People have spoken clearly on this issue already. More than 1 million households have boycotted, in full or in part, the Minister's water charges. Hundreds of thousands of people have marched against his water charges, yet what did we hear from the Government benches? We first heard that it was not getting its message across properly. How patronising is that? In other words, the message is fine but we are just not getting it across to the people properly. It then said it would reduce the prices and people would pay, and when people dug in for a long battle of non-payment, we heard that the numbers on the demonstrations are going down somewhat so it will be okay.

The Minister and the Government were completely blindsided when this issue emerged to punch them on the nose in the general election campaign. Now, despite the fact that the parties in the previous Government, one of which is in this Government, were severely wounded in the campaign, and despite the fact that the previous Government lost half of its Deputies between Fine Gael and the Labour Party, they still do not get it and they cannot let go of their water charges.

I will spell it out for the Minister. He wants to set up a committee. It does not matter if he sets up ten committees. He wants to bring in dozens of experts. It does not matter if he brings in hundreds of experts. He has lost, and as far as the majority of people are concerned, the charges are gone. Working-class people are not going to pay; it is as simple as that. If the Minister and the Government are so arrogant that they are not prepared to learn that lesson today, I am afraid they will be forced to learn it, at twice the cost to them, tomorrow.

We should be debating the abolition of water charges today rather than their suspension, but if the majority in this House - Fine Gael with its new allies in Fianna Fáil - suspend them, we will fight to stitch into that a series of amendments on the need to suspend water metering, write off arrears and so on down the road. My colleague Deputy Paul Murphy will go into that in greater detail.

With the remainder of my time I want to deal with some of the argumentation around the issue of water conservation. Forty-one percent of treated water in the State is unaccounted for. Are the losses coming from housing units - households? In the main they are not, and that is according to Irish Water's own statistics. Irish Water announced recently that, based on the meters already installed, it can extrapolate that for its estimated 1.5 million customers the leak rate is 45 million litres per day, or 30 litres per property per day. That is under 3% of the total water produced. In other words, for every 14 litres lost, less than one litre leaks from a housing unit. It is the general system of pipes that the focus must be on.

For example, we live in Cork city. The Minister is familiar with the big leak in the Fever Hospital Steps on the north side some years ago. When were those pipes installed? Was it in the day of Bertie Ahern, Jack Lynch or Garret FitzGerald? No, it was under the rule of Éamon de Valera. Where I live in Cork city, in Blackpool, many of the pipes underneath the ground were installed when the British were ruling the country. That is where the investment must go, and it can be fixed.

In 1996 in the Dublin region which, for the purpose of this survey included Kildare and Meath, there was a 42.5% unaccounted-for water rate, yet after a Dublin regional conservation plan of State investment, that was reduced by one third to 28%. In the South Dublin County Council area, with district metering and a leak detection crew, that rate was reduced to 16%.

We need a programme of State investment in fixing those pipes and in terms of all public buildings and new developments, with developers paying the price, rainwater harvesting systems to be installed, dual-flush toilets to be installed, recycling of grey water, etc. The Minister's figure of €600 million investment a year is a very conservative figure. It needs to be €1 billion a year, not from water charges but from a progressive taxation system which makes the super-wealthy pay their taxes.

I apologise for interrupting the Deputy earlier but I want to keep Deputies focused on this debate and not Brexit. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett, who has seven and a half minutes.

I, too, want to point out the intersection of these two issues. This Water Services (Amendment) Bill is an arrogant and undemocratic fudge. The arrogance and contempt for democracy that is displayed in this water services Bill is the same arrogance and contempt for democracy that produced the vote to exit in the United Kingdom, which is-----

The Deputy is stretching it.

He is doing his usual, looking for headlines.

Minister, you will have a chance to respond.

The Minister does not get it. The establishment does not get it. There is widespread disaffection and alienation from the political establishment, not just in this country but across Europe. It will be reflected in the Spanish elections that will be held soon. It was reflected in the vote for Syriza. It was reflected in the votes for the radical left in Portugal and, tragically, it is also reflected in darker and more dangerous manifestations of disaffection, with the rise of the vile xenophobes of the UK Independence Party, UKIP, the vile Boris Johnson and the vile far right across Europe. Why are those forces rising? It is precisely because of the failure of the establishment, and the establishment would want to take a long, hard look at itself. It is in absolute panic now over Brexit-----

The political system has to come together, but the Deputy refuses to facilitate that.

-----just as it was in panic faced with a quarter of a million people on the streets. It was panic-stricken by that. That is the truth, and it has rocked the establishment. It has brought the two parties that have dominated this State for its entire history to their lowest ever ebb, and it was close to eliminating the Labour Party-----

-----because it joined that club and got it wrong as well.

The Deputy wishes we were gone.

Who is interrupting now?

It did not deliver too many seats for you guys.

Can we stop the clock?

We are not talking about water.

The speaker has been interrupted twice by Labour and-----

Deputy Coppinger, you are not allowed to make comments across the floor like that. Make them through the Chair if you wish. I ask all Members to respect other Members, please. I want Deputy Boyd Barrett to be allowed conclude his contribution. Minister, you will have an opportunity at the end of the debate to reply-----

-----and if you wish to clarify anything, you can do it then. Please continue, Deputy Boyd Barrett, and stick to the issue.

I am sticking to the issue. It is about honesty and democracy.

That is our main problem with this Bill; the Government just does not believe in democracy. The people have spoken clearly and unequivocally but the Government will not respect their decision. If anything is going to fuel further alienation and disaffection from politics and from the political establishment, it is the contempt the Government is showing. To be honest, even from the Government's point of view, it is utterly self-defeating. If the Government had any sense, it would get this issue off the pitch so that we can move on to other things, because it is just going to keep digging a hole for itself if it does not respect the decision. The reason it will not do that is not just contempt for democracy, it is also because the Government is playing a trick on the people, just as it did with the bin charges. That is part of the reason there was such a revolt about water. People will be fooled once - he is going to do it again-----

The Deputy did not like that, did he?

-----but they are not going to-----

The campaign he was planning failed.

See - the Minister just cannot bear that the Government has been beaten. The people have seen through it. The Government and Fianna Fáil knew when it first proposed the introduction of a €400-per-year water charge that it was going to lead inexorably to privatisation, a fact confirmed by the European Union. It also continued to recycle the lie that it was going to be off-balance-sheet when EUROSTAT exposed that lie and admitted in its ruling that privatisation was always envisaged, just as with the bins. The Government knew that once the charges came in, privatisation was coming. That is what it wanted. The reason the Government will not abolish water charges now is that it wants to come back at this for the same reason: to get hold of this precious resource and make money out of it. It is trying to trick people and that produces disillusionment.

The last point I want to make is that the Government put up spurious opposition to this on the basis that something had to be done about the water infrastructure. We heard it again from Deputy O'Sullivan, asking where we are going to get the money and so on. I will read from the Irish Water business plan. If one wants the facts, just read the plan and compare it with the figures for water investment in previous years. Planned water investment by Irish Water was €343 million in 2014 and €391 million in 2015. It goes up to €522 in 2016 and then €533 million. In 2018, it is going up to €595 million, and so on. The average is €600 million. That sounds good - this is the big water investment plan and the Government is serious about fixing the water infrastructure. However, then one goes back and looks at the previous figures. What was the high water mark, if Members will excuse the pun, of investment in water infrastructure? It was €699 million in 2008. That is higher than any of the figures envisaged by Irish Water. In 2009, courtesy of Fianna Fáil, it dropped to €679 million. Then, in 2010, there was a massive drop in investment to €519 million. In 2011, it dropped again by another €100 million to €467 million, while in 2012 it dropped to €442 million - this is under Fine Gael and the Labour Party. In 2013, it dropped again to €411 million. Who cut the investment in water infrastructure? The answer is Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Fine Gael and Labour.

There was a little thing that happened in 2009.

This is a joke.

It is not going to go back up, because the Government is spending €200 million-----

Deputy, you are-----

The Deputy cannot bear it, can she? The truth hurts. The people will not be fooled.

The Deputy's time is up. I remind all Members to speak through the Chair.

The sensitivity of the establishment party politicians on this issue is extremely instructive. It is instructive of the fact they have been beaten on this core strategic issue for them, the introduction of water charges and a process towards water privatisation. It is a reflection of the fact they have been beaten in the elections, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael below 50%. It is a reflection of and is connected to the crisis for the political establishment right across Europe, which they just do not understand and which is reflected in what we saw in Britain. I understand it is difficult - the Government is trying to grapple with new, difficult realities, whereby it does not have the same control over politics and policies that it had before.

I got a letter a couple of days ago from Irish Water, as I am sure many other people did. The headline, in bold, is "Re: Overdue Account" and it gives my overdue amount. It states:

If you have not made a payment, we ask you to do so as a matter of urgency. It is important that we make you aware that failure to pay water charges will result in future financial penalties.

That is a lie from Irish Water.

The Deputy cannot use that word in this Chamber.

I can about-----

About an organisation.

Of course I can.

It is a corporate entity, for God's sake.

It is a corporate entity. Say it again.

Please just address the issue.

This is a lie. It is a lie that people will face penalties if they do not pay. If water charges are brought back in, then, yes, they will pay, if Fianna Fáil agree to that, but if water charges are suspended, as is proposed by the Government, and are subsequently abolished, which the Minister surely has to agree is at least a possibility, then people will not face penalties.

That is because of-----

The charges have been incurred.

Wrong. Section 2(b) of the Bill the Minister has just brought forward provides that “Neither the first-mentioned period within the meaning of subsection(1A) of section 3 nor any period specified by order under that subsection shall be reckonable for the purpose of calculating the period of 12 months referred to in subsection (1)”. That means the clock stops ticking on the penalties once this applies and therefore the penalties do not apply. Therefore I ask the Minister-----

It is a suspension, not an abolition.

Can I go back to the lie that is contained in the Irish Water threatening letters? They state: "It is important that we make you aware that failure to pay water charges will result in future financial penalties." It may result in penalties, but how can Irish Water state it "will" do so? Charges have been suspended, and then we are going to have a discussion about it. Fianna Fáil is saying it will not allow water charges to come back, in which case penalties will not apply. Can the Minister please clarify the situation? Can he clarify that the clock stops ticking in terms of penalties and that no penalties will apply and can he please talk to Irish Water and clarify to us that the lying, threatening letters are going to stop? It is reminiscent of a soldier left behind in a jungle, fighting a war that has ended and that they have lost. That is parallel to the position of the Government and Fianna Fáil, which are attempting to do the same. It is a ploy to kick the can down the road. Central to that is the retention of Irish Water.

Fianna Fáil gets a great deal of stick, rightly, for having gone for a suspension rather than an abolition of water charges-----

-----but in particular it should be getting a great deal of criticism for its agreement to retain Irish Water. Its manifesto and its posters listed abolishing Irish Water and water charges as a core demand and what did one of their Deputies say today? She said we should end water charges and renew Irish Water. That is a substantial change of position. Irish Water does not exist to provide water infrastructure, it exists as a parcel of infrastructure prepared for privatisation in the future, and as long as it exists, it will be a key part of the mechanism of trying to bring water charges back. The fact that Fianna Fáil is so sensitive and that Deputy Cowen played the role of attack dog for the Government today shows that it feels vulnerable on this issue because it so blatantly broke the promises on which it was elected.

We are saying water charges should be scrapped right now. That is what we should be discussing today and that is what we should be voting on. The arrears should go, and we will put forward amendments to that effect. People should not be pursued for the arrears they have incurred. The threatening letters will hopefully stop. I would like an assurance from the Minister on that. People who were forced to pay should have the money returned to them. If it is going to be suspended, then everything that relates to water charges should be suspended. Surely the Minister can agree to that.

Could I have some water, please?

The central point I am making is that the programme of water metering now has to be halted. It is ongoing. They continue to put water meters in the ground. This is against the will of working class communities - three people recently went to prison for their protests against water meters - but they are continuing. What is the point of water metering? They are a key part of preparation for charges, obviously, because that is their purpose, but also for privatisation. It is about a privatisation of the revenue stream of water charges, at least initially, if water charges were to return. We will put an amendment to this Bill calling for an immediate halt to water metering. The Government should agree to that or it should act independently act to stop water metering.

If water metering is not stopped by the Government, I will tell the Minister and Irish Water very clearly that it will be halted. It will be halted by protesters engaging in peaceful protests in communities, saying they do not want these waters and they have expressed their opinions.

The Deputy will take control, will he?

He will decide who does what.

He is doing it again.

He will decide on the legalities. Is that it, Deputy Murphy?

I suppose the Deputy will take control.

The Minister should listen.

He cannot control himself.

We do not respond to threats.

It is so hard for the Minister to lose.

Address the Chair please, Deputy.

It is so hard for him to lose because he is facing a risen, working class people who have experienced their own power and who have realised that they can say they do not want a water meter in their estate. They can say they will not pay water charges which are unjust austerity taxes. They can say they will vote for parties which are against water charges, and that has become a powerful force.

No matter what the Government comes up with, this is a fudge that will come back. Water charges are a key strategic part of the agenda for the 1% in this country and the European Commission and they intend to come back with them at some stage. The difference now is that they are facing a population which has experienced its ability to hit back and win and these people will meet any attempt to come back with charges with even more force, meaning the Government will be defeated once more.

I do not like the use of the word "lie" from anybody in the Chamber and I pulled people up for this the other day. This is irrespective of whether it is about the issue or about a letter or an individual. I ask all sides to desist from the use of the word "lie".

I respect the opinion of the Acting Chairman but there is no rule on it.

The Minister might wish to leave the Chamber or put his fingers in his ears. What I am going to read out would shock anybody.

I hope the Deputy will keep to the rules of the House.

I will just give the facts. I will remind everybody in this House how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on Irish Water thus far. Some €585 million has been spent on water meter installation and €86 million was spent on consultants by early January 2014. Some 300 Irish Water staff were paid bonuses averaging €7,000 at a total of € 2.1 million. Some €166 million has gone to the water conservation grant and administration costs have been €6 million. In 2014, Irish Water received a State subvention of €439 million and was expected to receive €399 million and €479 million in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Two thirds of this money came from motor tax payments and some 30% of the local property tax revenue collected in 2014 was also diverted to Irish Water. The taxpayer will have given close to €3 billion to Irish Water by the end of 2016.

It gets worse. Some €316,948 has been spent on four public relations firms. The customer service contact centre has cost €17 million and it has cost €820,000 to send Irish Water bills to members of the public. The figures show that the latest billing cycle, covering January, February and March, is costing 61 cent per paper bill. Irish Water paid out more than €3.7 million in fees to external consultants to provide it with expert services between March and August 2015 alone, including €740,748 to legal firm A & L Goodbody, €217,000 to McCann Fitzgerald, €130,000 to Arthur Cox and more than €470,000 to Ernst and Young Ireland, while accounting and consultancy firm KPMG received about €120,000.

To say this has been a complete fiasco is an understatement. The sight of the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, and now EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan, gloating that he would turn non-payers of water to a trickle was as nauseating back then as it now. His arrogance and utter contempt said everything about the former Administration. Thankfully, the contempt and arrogance of Mr. Hogan created a groundswell of popular protest and civil disobedience to create the biggest mass movement of the State's history. Like many elected Deputies in this House, I was extremely proud to be part of this great social movement.

One of the extraordinary aspects of this whole fiasco has been the role of the Labour Party. My family always voted for the Labour Party. I was told growing up that they stood up for the working person and represented their values. The sight of Labour Party Ministers being apologists for Fine Gael policy and acting as the cheerleaders of the debacle of Irish Water was as nauseating and arrogant as Mr. Hogan's comments.

People will ask where they were on 11 October 2014. I know where I was, like 160,000 other people. Everything changed on that day. It may have been an ordinary autumnal Saturday, but this day will go down in Irish history as the day when the people decided they had simply had enough. The Taoiseach was right about one thing during this fiasco, namely, that this was more than just about water. It was about everything that had gone on in the previous six years when working people took the pain and trauma of the greed of the few. The people have spoken and they have utterly rejected not only water charges, but the Government which imposed them. This independent commission is a euphemism for an exit strategy for this Government to save face. The Government has been humiliated by the very people it tried to humiliate over the past five years.

In conclusion, I am reminded of the great slogan, "The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power". How true this is. The political establishment in this country seems to think it has an automatic right to rule. More than ever before, the political establishment has been challenged and questioned not only in this Chamber, but in society as a whole. Things will never be the same again.

I remind speakers that all Members of the House have been democratically elected by the people of the State. They should remember that.

I presume that comment applies to the Minister.

I am sharing time with Deputy Clare Daly. The first couple of sentences of the Minister's contribution were very interesting. He said we were faced with a choice between contributing to the cost of providing water or water having to compete with the likes of roads, schools and hospitals for funding into the future. That shows the mindset behind the creation of Irish Water and the water billing system. In one or two years' time we may have a debate in this House on the privatisation of our health care, in which people say that the choice is between contributing to the cost of providing our health care or letting it compete with roads and schools for funding. The mindset is to ensure we have a water services infrastructure and that people accept the bill coming through their door so that the revenue can be collected locally. This will then facilitate the handing over of the service, ready made, to private operators to deliver. That is the way the debate has been going over the past number of years.

The commission of investigation which the Bill will establish is not about saving face for the Government and enabling them to get out of the process. It is actually about how the Government can save water charges to ensure the service is ripe for privatisation at some stage in the future. The Minister outlined the dire situation for water services across the country and the reasons we have to have Irish Water. It reminds me of how privateers across Europe and the world go about the privatisation of a public service. The trick is to starve the service of funds and run it down so that citizens will expect something better when it is privatised and will accept privatisation. In the past 20 or 30 years here there has been a constant and steady running down of water services. The Government's mantra is that our bad water services are all the fault of local authorities but that was never the situation. The problems were caused by the fact that this and previous Governments have never faced the fact that we must have adequate investment in our water services. Whether they are privatised or in public ownership, we must have investment. In the history of the privatisation of water, one does not see ongoing investment into the infrastructure but profit taking on the part of private companies, for themselves and their shareholders.

This is what we would face if we allow this to continue down the road of privatisation.

The Minister goes on to speak about the great results Irish Water has achieved. To take one aspect, it is interesting that the negative about the councils running the water is that 49% of all water produced was lost in leakage. That is a fact. There is no doubt that that amount of water was lost in leakage. Yet, subsequently, the Minister goes on to outline the success of Irish Water and states that Irish Water through the water metering programme has saved 39 million litres of water daily, which is equivalent to or more than the amount of water used by County Wicklow in one day. This is interesting because the way the Minister uses the figures makes it look impressive. He states that 49% of all water produced is lost in leakage and that 39 million litres are saved through the domestic water metering programme. However, when we break it down, 39 million litres amount to 2.4% of all the water wastage in the country.

After spending €580 million installing water meters throughout the country, what did Irish Water achieve? It has reduced the amount of unaccounted for water in the country to 46.6%. The sum of €580 million was spent to achieve a 2.4% saving in water. How is that water conservation?

That is a total distortion and you know it.

It is not a total distortion. The Minister's figures are the total distortion.

Minister, the Deputy is to speak without interruption, please.

There are set-up costs for a huge new utility.

Minister, I must ask you-----

The cost of the metering is not the set-up cost for a utility. The cost of the metering is the cost of the installation of the meters-----

Those meters will be there for the next 50 years.

----- which the Government sold to us as being a conservation measure. It tried to tell the public that all the water is being lost on domestic connections across the country and that if we put up with this and accept the water meters we will have huge conservation.

It will take time.

Then it produces figures stating that 49% of all water produced is lost on leakage but that we saved 39 million litres on water conservation on the household side through the metering programme which cost €580 million. A total of 39 million litres actually amounts to 2.4% of the unaccounted for water in the country. Why does the Minister not come into this House and state that the Government has achieved a reduction of 2.4% by the installation of water meters throughout the country? It will not state that fact because it is horrific-----

Because it only got started.

Minister, I must ask you-----

I was just answering a direct question.

-----if one looks at it in terms of the cost of metering.

The Minister cannot resist interrupting the Opposition.

That is the actual situation-----

Deputy Pringle, one moment, please. Minister, I must ask you to let Members make their contribution.

You will have an opportunity to come back on those issues, so, without any interruption, I call on Deputy Pringle, please.

The Minister is meant to be listening.

Sorry, Deputy Coppinger-----

I am listening. It is the distortion I am trying to correct.

All comments are to come through the Chair.

Thank you, a Chathaoirligh.

It is not a distortion. I do not know how the Minister can classify it as a distortion when, if one looks at it, it is a fact.

I ask Deputy Pringle to address the issue.

That is the fact. If the Government and Irish Water were serious about water conservation and the targeting of unaccounted for water, that €580 million would have been far better spent on a district metering programme, identifying the mains where the vast bulk and majority of the water being lost is actually lost and carrying out repairs on those mains systems. This is where the problem lies and not in getting people to pay water charges.

That people have accepted and paid their water bills has done nothing to contribute to water conservation throughout the country. That is a fact. If the Minister could come into the House and state that there was a reduction in unaccounted for water of 50% throughout the country, he might have some basis to his argument seeking to justify the metering programme. However, he cannot, and the reason he cannot is that the vast majority of the wastage was never due to domestic connections. I worked for 16 years in water services before being elected to the House in 2011. I worked on leak detection and fixing leaks. I know that the vast majority of water wastage is not and has never been due to domestic connections. That argument goes out the window.

The reason the metering programme is continuing is the Government ultimately wants to privatise water services. This is why it has to get the metering programme in place and citizens to accept the bill coming through the letter box. It has to do that to be able to privatise it in future, which is the long-term goal of the Government's water services programme.

This legislation is about delay. It seeks to freeze the charges and the billing for nine months to allow the expert group to come back with a report, but we all know the expert group will come back and say we have to maintain the charging system. There is no doubt about that. Apart from anything else, he who pays the piper calls the tune. The Government set up this expert group and that is what it will come back with. All one has to do is look at the expert group's terms of reference. It is to take into account the maintenance and investment needs of the public water and waste water system in the short, medium and long-term, proposals on how the national utility in State ownership would be able to borrow to invest in water infrastructure, the need to encourage water conservation including through reviewing information campaigns, Ireland's domestic and international environmental standards, the role of the regulator and that kind of stuff.

Will the Minister include in the terms of reference the proposal which has been suggested by the Right2Water campaign that the expert group would also review the social implications of the funding of water services in the short, medium and long-term, including water poverty, future privatisation and potential water shut-offs for low income families? Then we might get an expert group report that might actually reflect what the majority of the House says it needs to do.

We need to be vigilant throughout this process. Water charges will be suspended for nine months while this body carries out the review and then the Oireachtas committee will carry out a further review. I imagine that will extend out to approximately two years or so while the work is ongoing and then it will come down to a vote in this House. If we are to be certain that we will get that vote in this House, Fianna Fáil will have to live up to what it said it would do in terms of abolishing water charges across the board. It will be interesting to see, when the report comes, what will happen in that regard.

We, the expert group and the Dáil committee - in particular the Dáil committee because the expert group will come back with the report the Government wants - will have to work to ensure that, at the end of the process, we have a public water system which is maintained in public ownership and which is funded through direct taxation to ensure that water services are provided for the good of all our citizens. This is the key outcome to be realised in this process. We need to ensure we end up with a system everyone can accept and buy in to. We are a wealthy country and can, through progressive taxation, continue to fund our water services and ensure we keep our water services in public ownership.

It is interesting that the terms of reference of the group do not include the maintenance of water services in public ownership. The way to do that is to have a referendum on the public ownership of water services and our water resources. That referendum should take place alongside the workings of the group. There are a number of Bills before the House that would deliver a referendum on the public ownership of water. I hope those Bills will come before the House and we can vote on them and ensure that referendum takes place. Then we will be sure that no Government, no matter its ilk, will be able to privatise water in the future.

I will not repeat the points made by other Deputies. I note the Minister got a little restless during the comments of my colleague, Deputy Pringle, which is hardly surprising given that he has spent the majority of his working life working with water and knows what he is talking about in terms of conservation. I thought it was interesting that the Minister seemed to get upset by those points.

It is because he knows that he should have known better.

What we have in the proposition in this legislation and the idea of the commission is a fudge or a sleight of hand. The Government hopes that by putting this in place and leaving it there for a while, it might arrive at a situation where the almighty anger that rocked the streets in every county would somehow have dissipated and that people would forget about it and settle for some middle ground or solution other than the outright abolition of water charges and the enshrining of the idea of water as a public utility. That they would just forget about it will not happen.

Consistently, throughout the past period, the Government and the political establishment has underestimated the level of opposition on this issue. When we speak about a mechanism to decide how our water supply can be funded into the future, if the Government were genuine about it, the only basis and starting point is to say the people have spoken clearly and said that they are not interested in a direct charge for water and that the idea of paying for public services - water being one of them - through progressive taxation is a model that has worked well and one they want to see continue.

Therefore, as we are suspending the charge it would be far simpler to just abolish it outright because kicking the issue down the road is not going to pawn people off or quieten the opposition to the charge. Water is essential for life. We are an island nation. If one was to walk out the door right now one would be absolutely saturated. Of course the water that falls from the sky is not the same as purified drinking water which does cost money to produce, but there are many things we could be doing to enhance and collect that rainwater and improve our supply. We certainly do not need Irish water or a privatised model in order to deliver that. The Government is making a serious miscalculation because once the charges are suspended it is going to be very hard to restart that engine. There are many people already who have not paid and I include myself among them. I have no intention of paying for the next nine months or in any months that will follow this situation. I am quite satisfied that I am with a substantial majority of the population in that regard. That even includes some people who were bullied into paying. I believe the Government is again miscalculating the huge opposition that was harnessed by the Right2Water movement due to all the other austerity cuts experienced by people.

The points which have been made by Deputies highlighting the dangers of privatisation are critical to this discussion. In this age of the Internet, people know what goes on in other countries. Consider, for example, what happened in Detroit. Families who were already in financial difficulties became the victims of water shut-offs and were denied access to a water supply. In Detroit 23,000 homes were cut off from water in 2015 while the flow of water was not cut off to businesses who owed twice as much as domestic water users. This gives a perspective of what privatisation means if private companies are allowed to come in here. Big companies and businesses in Detroit were able to negotiate on their bills and have large portions written off but no such facility was offered to hard-pressed families. That is the future scenario and one of the key reasons why people took to the streets here. It was the honourable position to defend everybody's water supply.

If we are looking at a commission and if it is being said that we are open to anything, that the Government is not in any way interested in privatisation or anything like that, then why in God's name is the Minister continuing with a water metering programme? It does not make any sense whatsoever unless it is linked to a plan of privatisation. Everybody knows that individual water meters is not a conservation measure at all.

The economies of scale do not add up to that. It is a complete and utter waste of money. District water metering has been incredibly successful in detecting leakages etc. but once it gets to an individual household basis that argument carries less weight. Why would the Government bother to spend hundreds of millions of euro installing meters unless it wants to isolate the individual supply and introduce a payment structure which would allow that service to be eventually privatised and profited from? Water metering is about identifying a funding stream, not for fixing the pipes, but for providing dividends for future shareholders be they Veolia, Nestlé, Thames Water or whoever it is. The loser at the end of the day would be Irish families. This is why anything other than a continuation of funding for our water supply through progressive taxation is not going to wash with citizens at the end of the commission process. There is doublespeak in the Government's approach. The fact that meter installations are continuing, and the criminalisation of protest is continuing exposes the sham that has occurred.

Sadly I was not watching the Ireland-Italy football match on Wednesday night as I was in the Chamber when Robbie Brady scored the winning goal for Ireland. It is ironic that here is a young man who, as a result of that game, has been elevated to hero status by the nation and yet his mother Mia Brady is one of the water warriors in the community of Edenmore in north Dublin. To me she is a hero, like many of her colleagues. These are men and women who, in many instances, have raised their families in working class communities around Dublin and the nation. They are people who have given up their time to protect a water supply for their children and their grandchildren. There is an irony in this. We salute working class people's sports' achievements but we wreak havoc in the communities in which they live and we do not recognise it then. I have no doubt that when these men were younger and playing football on the streets of their communities they were probably labelled as gurriers, and now they are translated into heroes. These are the communities that the Government has been trying to criminalise with the unholy alliance between An Garda Síochána, Irish Water and the henchmen and collaborators in Farrans. It is just not good enough. It has brought this State to a completely different place than it has been previously. It has substantially undermined the credibility of An Garda Síochána which has been very regrettable for them according to many senior officers we have spoken with. These are communities where gardaí have spent years trying to build up a proper relationship and have tried to get decent Garda resources into their communities. While this could not be achieved for normal policing work, overtime for the Garda is no object when a water protest is anywhere to be seen.

There are too many of these incidences to mention, but they are relevant in the context of the continuation of the metering programme. Consider the morning when Irish Water lined up dozens of trucks, with a Garda escort, blocking traffic on the Oscar Traynor Road in Coolock. This action completely disrespected the people of that community. Those heavy-handed tactics resulted in 200 women holding a silent protest outside Coolock Garda Station. The incident gave birth to the pink ladies, as they became known. There was also the day when Farrans workers arrived in Stoneybatter wearing balaclavas. There was the disgraceful imprisonment in the last month of two Wicklow pensioners, 66 year old Sean Doyle who suffers from Parkinson's disease and 60 year old Eamon McGrath. These two gentlemen had an excellent relationship with the local Garda and were peacefully protesting at the depot in Wicklow. At the same time that day an assault was carried out on one of the protestors and gardaí did absolutely nothing about that situation. This is happening now in an era when the process is supposed to be frozen to look at how the water supply might be dealt with into the future. Water metering is being unleashed in communities all over the city.

In my constituency - again in the last two weeks - a female public servant was arrested and handcuffed when she was standing on a balcony some way away from a protest and was not actually obstructing anybody. Another woman in my area who is in poor health was in her shower one morning recently when five gardaí broke down her front door with a warrant to search for a red jacket. This woman lives on her own and is in poor health. The gardaí were looking for a red jacket. I do not believe that the Kinahan gang would get treatment like that. It is absolutely reprehensible. It is about intimidating ordinary working class communities and people who are involved in legitimate protest. Protest is not a crime, it is actually a very important part of any democratic society and I believe that protestors are being treated absolutely reprehensibly. Why are these people protesting? Why do people who have never been actively involved in campaigns decide to protest to stop meters being installed in the community? Because they see that the only logic in metering is eventually to privatise that service. These people do not believe the Minister when he stands up in the Chamber and tells us not to be worrying, that there is no intention of privatising water supply and that it will all be grand. They do not believe the Minister because on the ground he is putting in place an infrastructure to facilitate precisely that situation. That is why, as Deputy Pringle said, it is absolutely critical that we move the legislation to protect our water supply. It has been a worldwide failure. Some 180 cities and communities in 35 countries have re-municipalised their water supplies in the past decade. The failure of privatisation is actually accelerating.

In the past five years the failure rate of water and sewerage privatisations has increased to 34% compared with a failure rate of 6% for energy, 3% for telecommunications and 7% for transportation. There is a litany of problems arising from privatisation, from lack of infrastructure investment to tariff hikes to environmental hazards and so on. The public sector model is much better placed to provide access to water, to avoid water poverty, to protect the quality of water and to protect the citizens’ human right to water. That is not to anticipate the outcome of the commission before it meets. It is based on worldwide experience from other jurisdictions and on what has happened here.

The lack of infrastructural investment in water here was not because we did not have Irish Water or because we did not have enough money but because the Government chose not to invest in it. Instead, in the past few budgets it decided to write off hundreds of millions of euro to the wealthiest sections in society, sums which, had they been collected, would have generated far more money for investment in water and other public services than anything else it did. Funding this public service should be done, as in other cases, through progressive central taxation. That is far and away the best model. While I am quite happy that the charges are suspended for nine months, I think it is a fudge and that in nine or 12 months’ time we will be in exactly the position we are in now. The Government needs to face up to that. This issue is not going to go away. People will take solace from the fact that the Government had to suspend charges and that will redouble their intention not to pay.

The damage the Government will do by continuing down this road is immense, not just in terms of the investment in our supply but also in communities all over the country, through its attempts to criminalise legitimate protest in order to facilitate a process whereby a public service will likely be privatised. This will cause huge problems. There is evidence emerging in the courts, where several of these cases are being taken, of high-level collusion between the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, an Garda Síochána, Irish Water and its contractors in trying to criminalise people before any protests took place and people were charged. Meetings took place in order to block and demonise people. It is very sinister that the legislation, under section 12 of the Water Services Act 2013, gives Irish Water’s subcontractors the right to decide whether somebody intends to do something that will block them. It gives them powers akin to those of the Garda Síochána. It creates a situation in which people can be found guilty of an offence even if they did not know they were committing that offence. If a person’s car broke down in front of a water meter installation truck that person could be prosecuted on the basis of the subcontractor’s evidence that the person had intended to commit a criminal act. That is unlawful. It is probably unconstitutional too, yet a significant legal power has been transferred to Irish Water and to Farrans, the subcontractor, although staff from neither organisation are officers of the law. It is a very dangerous precedent and a conflict of interest that the DPP’s office would liaise on these matters in advance of any prosecution and of any charge being brought against any citizen. Garda discretion has been usurped again by senior officers and this has in many instances cut across decent policing. Every section 12 prosecution in the courts is being tried as a summary matter. Until brought to court the offence is indictable. There will be huge legal problems in this regard for the Minister. The best approach would be to adhere to the mandate of the public, to say people have spoken with their feet. They are not interested in direct charges for water. They want the service funded through central taxation and they want it enshrined as a public utility. That is pretty straightforward. In some ways this exercise is a waste of time and we will be back here in a year’s time.

Water is an essential natural resource and needs to be respected. It is essential for human existence. It is a human right to have access to water, as decreed by the United Nations. However, it needs to be used sensibly and to be conserved. Our country has a large amount of water - in fact, during the winter we have too much water, causing flooding. Access to water is not a problem, but we do need to use it wisely and to manage it well. There should be a generous allocation of water free to each citizen, perhaps 100 or 150 litres a day. Above that, there should be a charge for water so that people use it wisely and well. We need to conserve this natural resource. To do that we need to measure and meter it because we need to know what we are using and who is using it. If we are overusing our water there should be a charge. If people are given a generous daily allocation per person it would take a lot of heat out of the debate.

We will build a lot of housing over the next four or five years and we should introduce a system of water conservation for those houses. Taking the water off my garage roof on an average night I can save 400 or 500 litres of water with my collection system. If I were to do that for the house, which has approximately ten times the roof space, I could save a lot of water. That water could be used for non-cooking and drinking purposes, to look after most of the needs of a household.

We also need to upgrade our system and repair leaks. By encouraging water conservation and repairing the leaks we can reduce our water needs by a significant amount, certainly greater than 2%, perhaps closer to 50%. We also need a single utility to look after our water and water resources but this needs to be a transparent and accountable utility. Irish Water needs to meet these criteria to be accepted and respected.

I have been paying for my water for the past 30 years through my group water scheme, while my neighbours pay by sinking and looking after their wells. We have also been paying for our wastewater through our septic tank systems. Paying for water is commonplace in rural Ireland, affecting perhaps one quarter of the population. I have been in this Chamber for only a few months but I have been struck by the passion and time allocated to discussing Irish Water when the main problems facing the country are housing, homelessness, the health system, deficiencies in our infrastructure and in broadband and the huge pressures facing agriculture because of falling prices. Many of these infrastructural deficits are the result of a lack of investment and regional development in rural Ireland.

These are the issues we should be debating in this House and that should be attracting the passion that has been directed towards Irish Water. While Irish Water is important, it is not a main priority given the major problems that face Ireland today.

The Bill is not an ideal compromise but it is a compromise. This compromise is like the sword of Damocles hanging by a hair over the Government. The compromise will be accepted and it has taken the heat out of the debate for the moment - perhaps not this morning. However, I think it will take the heat out of the debate for the months to come. It has allowed a Government to be formed. When we reflect on this time, we will see that while we have to invest in our water infrastructure, it should not dominate our political debate as it has up to now.

I thank Deputy Harty for allowing me to have some of his time.

The debate on water has gone on for the past 14 to 18 months and there are arguments on both sides. When Irish Water was set up, it was not planned out, as it should have been; it was done in a hasty fashion. When I was first elected, legislation was guillotined and we had to go back to it. As the previous Deputy said, in many rural areas, we have paid for water all our lives. When Irish Water was set up, I said that we needed such a utility. Regardless of whether people accept it, we need an overall utility because with 25 or 30 local authorities involved, there is no joined-up thinking.

EU regulation is raising the bar for the quality of water being delivered to people's homes. We need to put in better infrastructure to deliver that water, including UV and other systems to ensure we comply with these regulations. I know that many Deputies pulled out their hair about Irish Water. It was frustrating at the beginning but gradually it got better. For those of us who worked with Irish Water in different areas, we have seen the duration of boil water notices, which previously lasted eight to ten years in some cases, get shorter because of new technology being introduced.

My argument has always been as follows. Should a person, who lives in a house that is cold, knock it down or install insulation? The same applies to Irish Water. While it may not have been efficient at the beginning, we need to make it better. Wherever there is waste, we need to get rid of it. Wherever there are too many people, we need to ensure there will not be too many people and that it runs efficiently. That message needs to be sent out to people because it started on a bad footing. In recent months, it has brought in people from the group water scheme side of things and they have helped to steer the ship forward in a better manner.

I have always said we need to keep Irish Water in the hands of the people. The taxpayer has paid €17 billion or €18 billion on pipes and other infrastructure. We need a referendum to ensure that it does not go to some other entity. The reassurance always needed to be there.

The way forward was to give a certain allowance to people and after that to put it clearly that if people waste water, they need to pay for it. People have a human right to have enough to wash and enough to drink. When the meters were introduced, there was a major row. I am involved in a group water scheme that was using 940 cu. m of water a week. With the help of the local authority and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, we put in meters and because we were able to find the leaks and fix them, we brought that usage down to 250 cu. m, a reduction of about two thirds. It is important that good water is not being lost in the ground. However, we need meters and flow meters to monitor where water is going in the ground.

People who are disabled or sick or on dialysis and who need extra water should be given an extra allowance. Sadly there was conflict over the meters and that became the focus of the whole water debacle. Ironically, they have been a lifesaver for those of us on small group water schemes.

Subvention was taken from the group water schemes because they were getting the token €100. I understand that has now gone. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If it ends up that people no longer pay for water, the €50 should be added to the €50 that was taken away because it will be needed for the group water schemes to survive. Anyone will tell the Minister that it is harder and more expensive to supply water now.

The focus of the debate is on the water we drink. However, on the sewerage side, the infrastructure required to comply with the various regulations affecting our coasts and rivers costs Ireland a lot of money. We can argue over whether we should pay for water or not pay for it but we need to realise that it will either be on the right hand or the left hand if we are to put the infrastructure in place. It has to come from somewhere - either in taxes or in charges - but we cannot put the infrastructure in place without that.

We are having a commission to investigate this. I could nearly outline what it will find. It is straightforward to say that infrastructure costs money and a government will need to decide whether to do it through taxation and budgets every year or through a charge. It will come back to an Oireachtas committee with the elected representatives. We need to realise that most Members elected to the Dáil are opposed to a water charge. We need to respect that; that is what is called democracy.

We need to spend a considerable amount of money in many parts of the country to enable people to drink good water. The day that the tap is turned off and there is no water is when everyone will shout. Some people think the group water schemes run themselves. I accept that technology has improved. We have systems that use mobile phones to inform people how the chlorine is going, how the UV is going and how the pumps are going. However, the day we get the phone call is the day when some household does not have a drop of water when they go to boil the kettle. That is the problem that people must realise.

I spent a day in Williamstown where a new UV system was introduced as a temporary measure where a boil water notice was in operation. I have worked a lot with water throughout my life. However, I learned so much that day. It would benefit every Deputy to go to a sewage treatment plant. I suggest that Irish Water should bring along school children to show them the infrastructure that is required and educate them on the process of water treatment. Many people only know it appears through a tap. It falls from the sky and it is free when it falls from the sky but the treatment required thereafter is unbelievable and the standards are getting higher.

Group water schemes have voluntarily looked after water in villages around the country. People came together and worked to put in pipework in areas where councils did not make such provision in the past. I urge the Minister to ensure they do not become the fall guys in this debacle.

The Minister should be transparent about those in Irish Water who are on huge salaries and he should make sure Irish Water is run efficiently. We must get the message out that the company is being run efficiently and correctly. Whether we opt to fund Irish Water through the budgetary process or otherwise we must ensure funding is provided to do the work. A significant amount of infrastructure around the country is there for up to 40 years and will need to be replaced. Stopcocks, saddles and other aspects of water infrastructure will begin to leak and we must replace it whether we like it or not. That will cost money. I urge the Minister to provide a sufficient allowance to ensure that work is done.

Whether we like it or not, many villages, towns and cities were putting raw sewage into rivers. We are under the cosh of the EU, which the Brits have moved away from today, and we must ensure we comply with it or the next thing is that we will face fines. The Minister must ensure Irish Water does not become a white elephant that is starved of funding. Whichever way we do it, we must budget for it every year. From 2018 on it appears the Minister will have a few more quid to give out in funding. For the benefit of the country, could the Minister ensure Irish Water is not starved of finances to put the infrastructure in place?

Deputies Catherine Murphy and Eamon Ryan are sharing time. Is that agreed? Agreed.

From 2013 on many of us have stood in the Chamber to debate this issue. I was on the committee that debated Irish Water before it ever came into the Chamber. Some of us did not participate in the final report because the announcement was made before the report was published that Irish Water would become a reality. The decision had been made, irrespective of what we did on the committee.

Some of the committee hearings were quite interesting. Some of us refused to participate in the ramming through of the legislation in December 2013. Almost the entire Opposition walked out when an attempt was made to ram the legislation through by way of a guillotine on the Bill. The Government refused to listen and has refused to listen since then on numerous occasions. The result is that we are here again debating the issue because of the omnishambles that is Irish Water and the determination to press ahead with it.

I have repeatedly said that the objection to water charges was about much more than water and Irish Water. It was really the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a dishonest enterprise right from the word go. When one looks at the commitments made in 2011 by Fine Gael in particular in its manifesto, which we know was a very dark and difficult time, there was a commitment not to raise personal taxes. What happened is that in order to reach the 3% deficit and comply with European rules the fairly extensive local government fund was stripped out in favour of introducing property tax and then water charges. People previously paid for water by way of general taxation, because it was paid for previously, and the means of paying for it through that mechanism was taken away under the pretence that it would not impact by way of taxation, but it did and a new Bill was introduced in the Dáil.

It is interesting that when water charges were abolished previously in 1997 the Minister for the environment at the time was Deputy Brendan Howlin and the Government was a rainbow coalition that was led by Fine Gael. His speech is on record as to why the charges were being abolished and how an increase in taxation would fund water charges. What happened is that a block grant to local authorities covered the cost and that is part of what was taken away. It is not surprising that people would feel they were duped. The speech, which is on the record, could not have been more forthright. People began to stand up for themselves by way of demonstrating. Last week we saw the response of the minority Government in that when people raised their head above the parapet there was a very quick response from the Government because people have now got back a great deal more power. The notion that what is being proposed will satisfy people is nonsense. Essentially, there has been a movement off the balance sheet and people understand that very well.

Irish Water has the stated aim of reducing the leakage rate to 30% over a period of 20 years. Kildare was the very first county where the metering programme started. We dealt with the issue of metering at committee level in advance. We considered what would be the best we could achieve in terms of leakage rate. The best rate that has been achieved by other countries is between 18% and 20%. If a cost-benefit analysis is carried out on a proposal to dig up a motorway to find a barrowful of water and then to repair the leak in question, which is a small one, it does not make sense as there is no benefit for the cost involved, which means there will always be a leakage rate of approximately 20%. Let us remember that Irish Water’s target over 20 years was to achieve a 30% leakage rate. The leakage rate in County Kildare was 25% before one meter was put into the ground. That is because there was a very good telemetry system run by Kildare County Council to save water. Because the council bought its water from Dublin it was a means of saving money. It was perfectly possible to have a low leakage rate, way better than Irish Water’s target over 20 years, without one meter being put in the ground. There are good local authorities and there are good examples of local authorities doing well and I wish to highlight the example of County Kildare in particular.

The notion that the system that was previously developed is clapped out and of no value is challenged when one looks at the value of the asset that was proposed to be transferred to Irish Water, which amounted to €11 billion. When that is added to a billing system, a metering system and a compliant citizenry there is the possibility one can go down the route of privatisation and form a company. That is the way it looked to most people and it felt like that might happen. The premise underlying Irish Water is that citizens would be turned into customers despite the fact that taxes had been increased in 1997 to account for the cost of providing water services. People reacted to being turned into customers for the vital service that is water. People fully understand that water is a finite resource that must be respected and that what comes out of one’s tap is not what falls from the sky and that it does need an expensive processing system, modern pipework and treatments plants. People do not need to be told that. They understand it.

However, I believe the resistance is about something much bigger. When there was initial resistance, changes were made to provide for a different allowance and the cost was reduced but people still protested. When I was knocking on doors in my constituency, people certainly raised this issue repeatedly on the doorsteps because they no longer were prepared to sit back and watch what was happening. When I spoke on the implementation of the Water Services Bill 2014, I drew attention to the serious questions regarding the convoluted and curious way in which Denis O'Brien, for example, owned Millington and then secured the purchase of Siteserv. A commission of investigation is under way at present and hopefully legislation will be forthcoming to enable it to proceed in a more complete way within the next few weeks. However, this issue was not disconnected from how people felt about this. Irish people are not fools. They were told the Bord Gáis Éireann partnership was designed to save money and then there was the disclosure that approximately €90 million in fees had been paid to consultants and even though this was to be done on a shoestring, it did not end up being done that way. Moreover, that was at a time when people were really strapped for cash and had been told to tighten their belts and all the rest of it. They then saw this gilt-edged quango being set up, for which there appeared to be no shortage of money to do anything. People thought that being turned into customers was a move too far. If there is one thing about which Irish people have knowledge, it is debt and whatever the Government believes will result as a consequence of this commission, the people know that if this becomes a full cost recovery model, the amount that is being charged to people at present will pale into insignificance to what will be charged. I found, for example, that pensioners were making the point that they felt they were being impoverished by going that step too far. Property tax was a major imposition on them and the introduction of water charges was where the breaking point came. Moreover, it was not necessarily the people who traditionally would have come out on protests who were were making those points.

Despite Fianna Fáil, for example, having campaigned on a platform for the abolition of water charges, Members today are debating a proposal to suspend water charges. This is wasting time unless Fianna Fáil Members intend to deviate from the position on which they campaigned. They would be more honest in stating this, if it is now to be their approach, because a majority of Members of this Dáil were elected on the basis of the abolition of water charges. It was interesting to hear the Taoiseach speaking this morning about respecting democracy when it came to the vote in the Brexit referendum. However, respecting democracy also is about respecting the decision people made in the most recent election in Ireland. I believe the suspension of charges is kicking the can down the road.

Water must be paid for and there was a willingness to pay for it in the mechanism that was introduced in 1997, that is, through general taxation. This is a fact and is on the record. However, if one begins to consider mechanisms for charging for excess water, one still must have a metering system. On considering the cost benefit of such a metering system, one could ask whether that is the best way to use funding or whether one would be better off concentrating on locations where it is known there are leaking Victorian pipes. Were one to examine the rate of leakage in different parts of the country, one could have a more targeted approach where a problem exists, whereas where that leakage rate has been well managed, one would not be obliged to put in the investment. Essentially, the Social Democrats do not have a problem with having an overall national organisation that strategically manages the infrastructure. However, we have a problem with the prospect of it being turned into a privatised company or utility and when the amount of money collected only covers the cost of sending out the bills and collecting that money, that is not the way to proceed. This is part of the reason the Social Democrats have taken the position we have taken on this particular charge. When it came to the question of how one pays for everything during the general election campaign, we had no problem in stating that services must be paid for and we advocated that there would be no erosion of the tax base. However, this is a different proposition and unless the Government listens to what people said, which is that this is much bigger than Irish Water, it will be missing the point completely.

We do indeed have a sad history, going back through that period in the 1990s and 2000s, in which this issue of water charges has been contentious. We have taken a step forward a number of times towards the introduction of some sort of charge and then have taken a step back and this is the latest in a long series where this issue has been deeply politically divisive and contested. I will go back to my own involvement during that period in particular and to the Green Party's time in government because sometimes in the public debate, one hears discussion to the effect that this was introduced by the troika or by someone from outside.

Alternatively, as Deputy Catherine Murphy has just stated, it was merely done because of the revenue-raising instincts of the Department of Finance to get tax and to get items off the balance sheet. There is a certain truth in that, as this would have been the instinct at the time during that crisis. In truth, however, the concept of some sort of charging system on water was brought forward by the Commission on Taxation back in 2008 or 2009 in advance of the crash. It was part of a wider strategic assessment that Ireland's tax system was too narrowly focused on a number of taxes, including VAT, income tax and at the time, on short-term stamp duty taxes. Members subsequently will have seen the difficulty when one's tax system is not broadly based. In addition, from a Green Party perspective within that tax commission, it was looking at a number of areas to ascertain whether it would be possible to tax in a way that helps to reduce the amount of expenditure or to reduce pollution or to use land more efficiently. Consequently, the concept of a site valuation tax was considered and the concept of a carbon tax was introduced, together with viewing water charges or water taxation in a similar way, that is, by using tax as a measure to try to deliver a signal that we must be efficient in the way in which we use natural resources. To my mind, that logic still applies or I would like to hear the arguments against it because while water may be the most difficult one because it rains so much, it is true that it is a scarce natural resource. As the Minister outlined in his speech, it is also true that Ireland has a significant problem of underinvestment in its water and wastewater treatment systems. That tax commission report was not carried out on the basis of some ideological privatisation-seeking crisis management effort by the Department of Finance to try to manage the fiscal crisis Ireland faced; it came from a strategic assessment from within the State as to how in general we should develop our taxation system that delivers other benefits, as well as revenue raising.

The former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Mr. John Gormley, and I included it in a revised programme for Government with Fianna Fáil. While we had contentious debates on many matters, it must be stated that, having been involved in it, to my recollection water charges were not one of them. The former Minister, Mr. Gormley, came forward with various proposals as to what might happen. There are many reports that it was going to be a €500 charge and it is true the Department of Finance and others probably would have been looking and thinking this was the sort of level of revenue they might have wished to get but that was not in the mind of the former Minister, Mr. Gormley. I believe he was first and central in recognising this proposal would be deeply contentious and that it would be necessary to address the issue about potential privatisation mentioned by Deputy Catherine Murphy. He had proposed doing so at the time by having a referendum in order to be certain this would not be a privatised commodity. During the last week of that Government, the Green Party had left office, there was a change in terms. The Pricewaterhouse Coopers consultancy report had been commissioned to look at how a utility-type model might be set up.

It was changed under the Fianna Fáil Administration in the last week of that Government and changed again when the new Government was formed. In my mind, that was the mistake that moved us towards an excessively commercial-oriented type of utility model. We have been paying for that, along with the sad saga that Deputy Murphy set out about how it was debated in the Dáil and subsequently introduced.

That commercial type of utility model implies that water is just like an electricity or telephone bill. I do not believe it is. There is a certain fundamental difference with water in that people have a right to water. We have a right to water because it is a basic commodity for a right to life. It is not a commercial commodity in the same way as electricity or telecommunication systems. It deserves that distinction. Even if a utility is not to be privatised and is to remain in public hands, it could be a standard utility like the ESB. I know from experience that the ESB is very much concerned with, keeps an eye on and is attentive to whatever the bond market thinks of its investment strategy because in large capital-oriented investment businesses, the cost of a company's borrowing has a key effect on a business model. In effect, a standard commercial utility is very much connected to the private bond markets in terms of what it can and cannot do. That is not how we should be running an Irish water company.

The question now is where do we go from here? The Green Party will be supportive of the proposal to establish a commission to look at the options, bring them back to the Oireachtas and form a committee. The commission will have a difficult task. To a certain extent, what it has to do is break the issue down to certain component parts in order that it is not simply a monolithic "Yes" or "No" decision. I do not think anyone has the wisdom to be able to parse out this argument or reach a resolution if it is left as a single "Yes" or "No" decision.

I will briefly discuss some of the issues that the commission must consider. I believe it should look at the ownership issue. It should look at the option put forward by several parties, including the Green Party, of a constitutional referendum in order that the public ownership of the public water supply is absolutely guaranteed. I would like to see if we could go further than that because our Constitution is remarkably weak when it comes to protecting environmental resources. A very good conference was organised by Green Foundation Ireland last year, which recognised that our constitutional law is not in tune with either European legislation or our own national legislation in providing that belt-and-braces protection and respect for our natural environment. I believe the introduction of a constitutional referendum to ensure the public ownership of water could be tied in to a recognition that we have a responsibility to maintain, manage and protect our natural resources and our water supply in particular. That could be done very quickly. It is not easy. We know referendums are always difficult. If this debate is not just about Irish Water, as Deputy Murphy rightly says, then let us address the other issues and bring certainty to them as a way of coming to an agreement on what to do with our water system.

Just as there should be a right to water in a constitutional sense, I believe it makes sense that there should be a basic free allowance if we introduce a charging system for water. The right to water ought to extend such that even if one was in deep financial difficulty, one would still receive a basic free allowance of water which one is not charged for and is one's by right. We ought to extend that concept of the right to water. That is why we have been arguing, as have others such as Mr. Jack O'Connor of SIPTU who have made similar points, that we could introduce a system in which we introduce charges only on the wasteful use of water and in which every citizen - man, woman and child - has the right to a basic allowance which is not charged.

If we can parse out and manage the ownership and basic right to water issues, there are then the issues of how to fund it. We should not look for a funding model that completely removes the role of general taxation. When it comes to how much money we need to spend in updating our water system and wastewater system, the reality is that the bulk of the money is still going to come from our general taxation system. There are those who argue that it should be the only source. First, they fail to acknowledge that we need to increase significantly investment in water. If we are to fund it all via general taxation, it means taking money from other investment requirements that we have. Second, if we do not have a charge of some sort on water, an incentive or a pricing mechanism, I believe that as a State, over time, we will not pursue conservation or the better management of a water supply system. That means that we will pay more in the end. It is a more expensive system if we go back to the old way.

It depends on how the question is put. If we can look at it in the framework of how we can really save money through using less water, managing it wisely, investing for the long term in order that we are not spending money on a treatment of pollution system that is not working, I believe the people will support some sort of additional charge. That raises a certain amount of revenue and helps us to invest. Critically, it helps us to save. That is the cornerstone of the issue of charging. I believe we should have a charging system to provide that incentive for conservation.

It also opens up other funding options to us through going to the EU, the European Investment Bank or other sources of funding to source long-term, low-interest rate borrowing for a system which is not reliant on the bond markets. We do not want to be going over to London or Frankfurt to international banks or private equity firms looking for bond market funding. We should be able to go in a public way to the EU or the European Investment Bank to look for European funding for critical infrastructure to help pay for what we need to do. We will not get that funding or have a leg to stand on if, at the same, we are saying that we do not buy in to the Water Framework Directive and that we are not implementing, like every other country, some sort of system which recognises that water is actually a precious natural resource. We must give some signal to make sure that water is not wasted.

That brings me to the next question of whether we should have metering. I have listened with respect to what Deputy Murphy said about Kildare previously having a leakage rate of only 25%. I had a similar experience in Dublin City Council during my time there. We had a very high leakage rate in the late 1990s and we made a strategic decision to address some of that. It is not perfect and there is still a large amount of leakage, but it was not as if we were doing nothing. Metering is not the be all and end all. Others argue that we could save regardless of metering. I have a number of different points on metering. There are those who say that identifying the leaks and so on and having a price signal with metering might allow people to save 10% to 15%. Even that amount could be critical in a city such as Dublin, which is on a knife edge in terms of having enough water supply.

There is a broader technological aspect to this. The way the world is going is towards managing water supplies and natural resources in a much more co-ordinated way in which the internet of things will lead to a whole range of sensory devices which look at how our natural systems work and how our resources are being used. That is the way the world is going. For us to move away from that and to say that we do not want to be part of the connected, clever management of natural resources using new sensory systems is, in my mind, a step away from where any progressive country is going. I believe we need metering. We need to know. If we are not monitoring, we are not managing. Metering is needed for that reason as well as being a way to help us to save water.

In terms of structure, we need some sort of utility for the central billing, management and planning of the overall system, for raising finance and so on. I believe there is a case, as I said to Irish Water - I know it is recognised in some of its internal structures - to devise a system which is based on more regional recognition that the river catchment systems are a natural regional structure. We should manage our water in connection with those natural geographic structures. The Minister will need a plan to manage flooding, climate change, transport, housing and other systems which are similarly regional in structure.

On an issue such as climate change and flooding, we must go from the mountain top down to the sea and look at land use connected to that with regard to carbon, minimising flood risks and so forth, as well as providing enterprise opportunities for our people. Given that this level of regional planning and regional investment decision-making is required, and I believe freedom should be given to each region to examine how best to manage its resources and regional plan, it makes sense to have a water utility that has separate regional structures beneath it which have real autonomy and strength. We will not achieve that if we return it to county councils, because that is the wrong level. The smaller councils do not have the necessary resources and it does not address the reality that the counties are connected within a wider river catchment system.

I do not know how the Minister's proposal will work, but I hope it does. I hope this Parliament will not fall on this issue a year hence and perhaps prove all the cynics right when they say that it could not organise a new politics or do consensus or collaboration. I am not sure how it would vote ultimately if various calls were put to it that would break down all the issues in a slightly different way from a "Yes" or "No" vote. This is a citizens' democracy and this Parliament is a good representation of the Irish people. The majority of Irish people, in my experience, if one talks to them about this issue in a detailed way, recognise that we must have some type of charging system other than general taxation, as long as it is fair and based on conservation, not just on raising revenue. If we can get a commission to come forward with a mechanism to approach it, there might be a majority in the House similar to the majority of Irish people who are willing to pay. Nobody likes it. It is another bill arriving, God help us, and that is tough. We must also look after those who cannot pay.

Many Deputies say there is an absolute cast-iron majority against any type of charge for water, but I am not so sure that is true. I look forward to a commission that might be able to approach the argument in a way that considers it through a range of questions, not just one "Yes" or "No" question based on slogans rather than on sense.

It is teeming outside so it is apt that we are in the House talking about water. Politicians are regularly accused of having no long-term vision on certain matters, and commentators and opinion writers like to condemn us for having only an interest in the short term. They accuse us of never looking beyond the next election or issue and only telling the public what it wishes to hear. That is untrue. The reality is that governments are obliged to make difficult decisions, particularly decisions that are in the best long-term interest of the people they must serve.

As we have seen in the last number of years on a variety of issues, reform and change are rarely embraced by people and are usually viewed with suspicion. When the change is also the target of scaremongering, often by groups who know that the myths they are telling are baseless, it can be difficult to make progress even if the reform is the right thing to do and will be for the long-term benefit of everybody. The introduction of water charges is an example of that. It is worth remembering that it was the Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government that made the original commitment to introduce domestic charges, because it was the right thing to do. The Fine Gael and Labour Party Government sought to introduce a fair system of water charges. The original system provided a free allowance for households and an additional free allowance for children. It provided the basis for investment in our water services to allow for upgrading of the water infrastructure, the replacement of the Victorian or lead water pipes that keep the water flowing in our towns and cities, a reduction in the number of households on boil water notices and to make the pumping of raw sewage into our rivers and seas a thing of the past.

Charging for domestic water services is the right thing to do. High-quality public water services and the ongoing high cost of the investments they require are vital for public health, protecting the environment and developing our society. Providing treated water to a house and maintaining sanitation services have a cost, and it is fair that those who use the services the most contribute to it. It is wrong and unfair that those who conserve water must pay for those who do not. Those who oppose a fair water charge for services claim that it should be paid through our central taxation system. Why should a family who takes steps to use water in a way that conserves it and is environmentally conscious and aware have to pay to subsidise families who do not and do not give two thoughts to the cost of maintaining our system or of supplying water to our houses?

The Bill will suspend domestic water charges for nine months. It will not affect the existing arrears of people who have not paid or the bills that are outstanding. Those who have tried to avoid water bills to date should not be allowed to walk away without paying them, and those who have acted within the law and paid their water bills to date should be assured that they will not be allowed to be taken advantage of by a minority of people who try to opt out of their legal duty and expect their neighbours and the rest of society to pay for them.

The Bill will allow for an extensive deliberative process to consider the funding of domestic water services. First, the Government will establish an expert commission to review and make recommendations on a sustainable, long-term funding model for the delivery of domestic water and wastewater services. A special Oireachtas committee will be established to consider the recommendations made by the commission and to bring the overall proposals to the Oireachtas. Finally, each Member of the Oireachtas will consider and vote on those recommendations.

The treated water we provide is not a cheap commodity. We must pay for it in some way and it should not be a system whereby people who do not consider the water they use are being subsidised and paid for by neighbours and family and friends of those who do. Our water services should operate under a national structure where upgrades can be planned and delivered in a meaningful way, not smashed into 30 or more independent services with no overall national vision for the country's services. There should be a proper, planned investment structure backed up by the money to make it a reality. There should not be a continuation of what existed in the decades before the system was reformed in 2014, because it is clear that it was not working.

We have a legacy of under investment in our water services. In January 2014, 49% of all water was lost through leakages, 945,000 people were using drinking water that required remedial action and 44 urban areas were releasing untreated sewage into our rivers and seas. It is definitely not something we could have continued. By the end of 2015 the new structure had started to make progress. We had 20 new water treatment plants, 49 new wastewater treatment plants had been delivered and 500 km of pipe work had been either repaired or replaced. It was off to a good start and going in the right direction. By the end of February last, under the first-fix scheme of homeowner repairs, 39.5 million litres of water per day had been saved and thousands of people had been taken off boil water notices.

I accept that the parties elected in the recent general election have very different views on this issue. Obviously, that reflects society in general. Some on the left and far left wish to abolish all charges and return to what I believe was the flawed system of the past. Others wish to suspend charges for a period of time. I wish to retain the system of charging which allows everybody to pay on the basis of what they use and to be recognised and rewarded for what they save and conserve. Deputy Eamon Ryan spoke about new politics. No single view on water has a majority in the House. The Bill facilitates a compromise whereby the charging system can be suspended so the review that will take place can recommend a structure that will give us publicly owned, high quality water services and that also has the funds it requires to carry out the extensive work that will have to be done in coming years. I look forward to hearing the views of the commission and to its recommendations. Obviously, I hope they will be similar to the views I hold, but I am open to listening to all views and to making our consideration when we return to this nine months hence.

This Bill reflects the first part of the Fianna Fáil agreement on facilitating a minority Government that will see water charges immediately suspended and their future decided by the Dáil. It is the effective end of water charges. In addition, Irish Water will remain in public ownership.

It is clear that water charges have failed. In 2015 only 53% of bills were paid, with annual revenue of €144 million.

The water grant accounted for a further €100 million and €41 million is due in interest repayments over the period, with another €25 million for administrative costs. On this basis, the State actually lost a total of €22 million on its water charges regime in 2015. We need to end this failed regime and this process will do just that. We need a window of opportunity when ending water charges to resolve the Irish Water situation and move on to other, more serious political issues, such as education, housing and the hospital crisis.

Contrary to media reports, the European Commission has not said Ireland must impose water charges. It reaffirms the established practice derogation. The legal advice is clear that this has been the case since the directive was first transposed into Irish law. In any case, all of these issues will be considered by the expert commission and special Oireachtas committee before the Dáil votes. All of the key details can be considered with due regard.

The Bill enables a nine-month suspension of water charges, with an additional provision for an extension of the period to enable the special Oireachtas committee to complete its work. The suspension period comes into effect from 1 July 2016. No new bills will be liable until at least after 31 March 2017, by which time the Dáil will have voted on the future of the Irish Water charging regime. This will give sufficient time for the Oireachtas to consider the potential options. Fianna Fáil support for the minority Government is contingent on the Minister granting sufficient time for the committee to conclude and a Dáil vote to be held.

Water was only one of a number of issues to be addressed before Fianna Fáil agreed to facilitate a minority Government. However, it was necessary to be resolved in detail or the Government was threatened with being pulled down at any moment. Under the Bill, water charges will be immediately suspended. In the interim period, an expert commission will report on the best method to fund water services and a Dáil committee will then make recommendations to the Dáil. The Dáil itself will make the final decision and water charges can only be reintroduced if the Dáil votes to do so. The Government will have to facilitate whatever option a majority of the Dáil endorses. The Bill effectively ensures that water charges can only be reintroduced if the Dáil votes for it. As the majority of Deputies are against the reintroduction of water charges, it cannot be envisaged that they will be reintroduced.

Irish Water will be subjected to a new oversight body and will remain in public ownership. This will keep down costs and help ensure greater efficiency. Fianna Fáil is not opposed to a referendum on keeping Irish Water in public ownership but this needs to be thought out very carefully, including the impact of any unintended consequences.

The European Commission has confirmed the central role of established practice in Article 9.4 of the Water Framework Directive of 2000. Our interpretation is that it remains in place. A reply from the Commission to Lynn Boylan, MEP, began with the word "If" and, therefore, was completely subjunctive in its language and only spoke in the abstract. This flexibility of member states was confirmed on 5 December 2014, in a reply to a parliamentary question posed by Nessa Childers, MEP. The Commission stated the responsibility for implementation of the directive lies with member states and there is no obligation to follow particular schemes or methods and that there is no specific requirement in Article 9 of the directive for cost recovery based on individual consumption.

Ireland faces a range of issues, not simply the argument around water, and the Dáil is obliged to confront these matters. As I stated, housing, health, education and our justice system are in crisis and all need careful consideration and reform. Fianna Fáil is committed to giving practical effect to our manifesto and facilitating a stable minority Government to ensure the country is given the leadership it requires. This brings an end to water charges and it cannot be envisaged they will be brought back. It will give time to consider just how our water will be delivered in the coming decades.

I thank my colleagues, Deputies Fleming and Browne, for sharing time. I welcome the fact the Minister has introduced Second Stage of the Bill in the House as well as his contribution this morning. I will not repeat all of what our party's spokesperson, Deputy Barry Cowen, said on this issue but it must be acknowledged throughout the House that, in general, Irish Water was not working. Many people were not paying their water rates. There has been huge public expenditure on Irish Water and we were not getting value for money. This does not mean some good work was not done by Irish Water. It was but in facilitating Fine Gael to form a Government, we were adamant as a party that this issue had to be dealt with. The suspension of water rates means water rates are now gone. We hope when the commission deals with the issue over a nine to 12-month period, there will be a better formula and that it will be protected as a public utility.

I wish to bring to the Minister's attention the need in my constituency to deal with boil water notices. I acknowledge what the Minister has said that there have been vast improvements in parts of County Roscommon in getting rid of 20,000 boiled water notices but in north-east Roscommon, we have boil water notices for more than 5,000 people. The Minister knows what this does to families, restaurants, businesses and schools. It is a huge inconvenience and hindrance to people. This boil water notice has been in place for more than two years. A temporary ultraviolet system to deal with this is supposed to be up and running but there is some difficulty with it. It is absolutely imperative that we get this matter in my constituency sorted out as quickly as possible. Another reason we need a good water policy can be seen in another part of my constituency, Glenamaddy, where I was called to a meeting recently. There is a problem with a group water scheme. I know Irish Water will get involved in this and the necessary works that need to be done will be done.

It is important for me to make these points today. It is significant that we are moving ahead with the Bill and that progress is being made. Perhaps at some stage the Minister, through Irish Water, will come back to me on the issues in my constituency that I have raised.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It is important to recognise and put on the record that everybody supports a good water service. All sensible people would support a national utility to deliver this service and everybody accepts that the system whereby it was done by local authorities on an individual basis was wholly inappropriate, ineffective, not good use of taxpayers' money and did not lead to the delivery of a good service. However, the Bill we are dealing with today, the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2016, is about dealing with the failed financial fiasco which is Irish Water. The tragedy of the past two years is that when we badly needed improvements in our water services, how people went about introducing water rates set back and harmed the delivery of water services in this country. We have had less investment in water services in the past two years since Irish Water was established than previous years. This is because all of the energy and activity was directed towards pursuing customers for their bills. All of the management and executive time was hell-bent on following this agenda rather than the core principle of delivering and improving a water service.

On the financial side, we are here because Irish Water is a failed financial fiasco. EUROSTAT stated this and called the bluff. People thought that by trying to keep the €100 the Department of Social Protection gave to people out of Irish Water's financial accounts in some way it would not be taken into account. EUROSTAT saw through this as did everybody. The emperor had no clothes when it came to this issue and nobody other than those promoting the idea that it would not be taken into account believed it. EUROSTAT called it for what it was. This was the first big financial failure of Irish Water. People at home did not buy it and people in Europe did not buy the financial model that is Irish Water.

Regarding water charges, in 2015 only 53% of bills were paid, with an annual revenue of €144 million. My colleague, Deputy Browne, highlighted this but it needs to be said time and again.

Some €100 million was spent on the water grant, €41 million is due in interest-free payments over the year, and another €25 million went on administrative costs. On that basis, the State lost €22 million by trying to introduce domestic water charges. That has to come to an end.

Fine Gael is wedded to the domestic water system. The Taoiseach has said so, which frightens people, but he is the leader of a party that commands less than a third of Dáil membership. When he makes a statement on this matter, it has to be taken into account. We live in a democracy and not in a situation in which the Government can just put something through, as happened on several occasions in the last Dáil when the Opposition walked out because things were being guillotined and jackbooted through. Thankfully, those days are over. I do not think people appreciate that type of government; they appreciate a more collective and inclusive, consensus-type Government.

We now have to look at various aspects of what will happen. The issue of people who paid the bills that were legally due will possibly surprise people. I do not know if people have said this. When people came to me as an Opposition Deputy in the last Dáil or in recent weeks, because bills will arrive up until 1 July, I told them that it is a legal debt and that they should pay their debt. It is like the TV licence; one should pay it. People might not like it and we do not agree with it, but it is a legal debt and the way to deal with it in future is to try to change the legislation. The people who have paid their bills cannot be made fools of. Given that approximately half of people have paid their bills, the question has to be asked as to what will happen to the others who have not paid. The Government talks about pursuing those people completely to collect that money. On the face of it, that is the right approach, but I will put forward another point of view. What will happen if people who have bills for €260 end up being taken to court, if that is decided? The person will go in, dispute the bill and the case will be adjourned. They will probably have received free legal aid and Irish Water will be paying a solicitor on the other side. Then it will be adjourned for a month and it will come back and people will claim they never received the bill in the post. The judge will adjourn it again and both sides will get their legal fees. Eventually, after several court appearances, which is what happens in our courts, the judge might declare that the bill is to be paid. Some people will be there on a matter of principle waiting for that judgment and will say they will not pay it. What do the State and courts do when court orders are disrespected? It leads to another round of legal disputes and solicitors. If there is approximately €140 million to be collected, it has to be weighed up against the costs of collecting it in legal fees, court appearances and debt collections. The way the system works in Ireland, I cannot see that €140 million being collected for less than €140 million. The time might come when it would be a cheaper option to hand the money back to those who paid, because we would still be here in five years chasing some of that uncollected money. We all know where that will end up. The Comptroller and Auditor General will do a report and say it was done the wrong way. I am not suggesting the money should be handed back but I am saying it is an option that has to be looked at compared to the option of trying to collect what is outstanding. What is outstanding will not be fully collected no matter how long we give it. Ultimately, if there is disobedience of court orders, people will happily do the afternoon in jail rather than pay a bill. The Minister should take that into account.

I ask Irish Water to publish its annual accounts for 2015 because it is now the end of June 2016. Ervia is one of the biggest companies in the country. I consider it unacceptable that six months into the year it has not published its audited accounts for 2015 so that we can have a full examination of them. It will probably happen soon but it should have happened months ago. Most big public companies publish their accounts within a couple of months of the year end, yet six months on we do not have access to those accounts. I look forward to their being published in the near future so people can properly assess them.

There has been much made about the progress made by Irish Water. However, all the plans that came to fruition and the projects that went to tender and construction, which Government Ministers regularly talk about, would have happened if Irish Water did not exist. They were all in the pipeline, to use a famous phrase. Irish Water claims credit for those and says they are happening under its watch.

I agree with Deputy Ryan of the Green Party that water services should be provided on a river catchment basis. In south Leinster, the Barrow, Nore, Suir and Slaney rivers all run down that side of the country. If we do something in Portarlington, Portlaoise, Castletown, Mountrath, Athy or Carlow, it affects what happens in Waterford, because the rivers run down through there, so it needs to be done on a catchment basis. I am talking about the prioritisation of work, not mini-boards, and it should be done on that basis rather than by a local authority. I agree with Deputy Ryan on that and I have put it on record here on several occasions in the past.

The Deputy also talked about the knife-edge supply in the Dublin area and he was right. There is only one reason for the knife-edge supply of water in the Dublin area - almost 50% of it is going to waste. The first thing that should be done is to try to stop the waste, and bringing water from Lough Derg may be required. I have no idea but if even half the waste of water in the public mains, which happens before it goes to people's houses, was eliminated there would be no knife-edge supply issue in the Dublin region or any other region. That has to be looked at. People talk about using our natural resources. The worst use of a natural resource is to go to all the effort of putting in the reservoirs, having the water treated and putting the pipe system in place to deliver it to houses, industries or commercial customers only for much of it to go to waste. It is very important to note that 85% of the waste is in the public domain. Much has been made here about the savings in people's houses since meters went in. That is welcome and is to be appreciated. It is a good thing but the main waste is happening outside people's private properties. That is where Irish Water should be concentrating its efforts first.

What is needed is district and local metering, which some of the local authorities are starting to do. When supply comes out of the reservoir, the pipe network splits off to serve different areas. There should be meters at each of those junctures so we know what came in at the pipe a mile up the road before it was split up. If there is a housing estate of 200 or 300 people they should know what is going into the pipe in that housing estate. If it breaks off into culs-de-sac with ten or 20 houses there should be a meter at that point. They will know very quickly where the wastage is in those estates and might be able to identify the particular private property it is happening on. Most of the waste is in the public domain, so Irish Water cannot blame the customer who does not get the water for the percentage of waste. That needs to be eliminated.

Another issue that has to be looked at is factoring in the financial situation of Irish Water. My knowledge is that we are only in phase 1 of the metering project, which is fewer than 1 million houses. Some 600,000 houses still have not got meters. They are the complicated houses. We know that about 300,000 housing units might never get meters because it might be physically impossible to get up and down through some of the buildings. At the moment, the only metering going on is where there is a single connection from the mains to a single domestic house. Anywhere there are two buildings off the mains, they are not being metered. Anywhere there is a house or a farm with no commercial meter they are not being metered. Phase 2 of the metering project will be a more expensive process per meter than phase 1 because we are dealing with the more complicated cases that were not dealt with in phase 1. The cost of the phase 2 metering project could be another €500 million. This is to get the last 300,000 or 400,000 over the line in terms of public meters. That €500 million would be better spent on fixing the leaks on the public mains. We have to go back and look at that. Deputy Browne has covered the established practice in the EU, which is being misrepresented by many people. The jury is out on that issue.

I have a concern about the movement of responsibility for Irish Water to a new Department of the environment, because now we will have the local authorities involved in delivering the service. We will have the Department involved in delivering the service. We have a regulator in situ; we have Irish Water, the national body, and somebody talks about a new oversight body. It is a recipe for more disaster.

I call on Deputy Ruth Coppinger to move the adjournment of the debate because the time has elapsed.

I move the adjournment of the debate.

She will be in possession on the next occasion. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Debate adjourned.