Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2016: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage

Amendments Nos. 10 to 22, inclusive, not moved.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I am not going to oppose the Bill. I recognise the decision of the vast majority of Members in the Dáil, but there are still questions around what is likely to happen with possible infringement charges against Ireland, particularly in the context of the possible extension of time beyond the nine months in the Bill. We have not got answers. I ask the Minister to keep the Dáil informed of any information in that regard. It could well be a major cost on the public purse. As public representatives elected to the Dáil, we need to have that information on the deliberations of the commission and the Oireachtas committee being set up under the legislation. The timeframe should be kept under review in that regard.

I will address one or two questions, because very genuine comments were made yesterday and before then relating to whether Ireland faces infringements, what the position of the Commission is and so on. Deputy Kelly made some comments yesterday that I want to address. I went to Brussels last week and had quite a lengthy meeting with the Commissioner and his officials. It was a good meeting that went on for about an hour and a half. I was very anxious to explain in some detail the political history of water in Ireland, as well as the challenges we face and how we have come to the point of putting together a confidence and supply agreement with the largest Opposition party, in an effort by both parties to try to put a structure and process in place that can make recommendations that could garner the majority support of this House and, more importantly, of society generally across the country. That is what we are trying to do. It is no more or less than that. There is recognition that the level of division around water issues is such that we need to make an exception in terms of how we go about trying to address this problem and put a pretty unique process in place to try to deal with it, which is what we have done.

There was a lot of confusion last night around the commission, the committee and so on relating to amendments. To reiterate what has been agreed, what we will try to do and what this legislation is facilitating, it is essentially to suspend water charges for a temporary period of nine months. That is why an end date is needed, otherwise it would be open-ended and, essentially, an abolition. It is not that. It is a commitment for a set period of time to allow an expert commission to be set up, which has now been set up. I heard comments yesterday relating to the individuals on that committee that were very unfair. These people are very well informed experts on water, conservation, the legalities relating to water and countries' obligations, and the regulatory and customer issues relating to water.

There is a broad remit of issues that need to be considered without the political heat that has come from this debate over recent years, and this is what we have entrusted it to do. It will make a recommendation after approximately five months, along with a report that will be given to an Oireachtas committee for political consideration. Then, I hope, we will be able, through the Oireachtas committee, to come up with sensible recommendations as to what the next move is, on which we will then democratically vote, recognising that we have a minority Government and that future Governments will also have this issue to address. We must endeavour to create some level of consensus across the majority of Members of the House on how we pay for the most basic of natural resources and needs in people's homes, in terms of safe supplies of water and wastewater treatment.

People may take a hardline position that we must drive through water charges, but this does not recognise the political reality of where we are right now and how people voted. We need a process that attempts to create some new thinking in this area to try to deal with our international and national obligations, which I accept are there and cannot simply be ignored. At the same time, we need to take into account many of the issues raised last night and raised repeatedly every time we debate this issue. This process is now under way and we will vote democratically. I cannot understand why many of the Members opposite, not Fianna Fáil, seem to think the only way to deal with this issue is to vote democratically now and to abolish water charges. Why are they so afraid of the democratic process we have put in train, whereby we will vote on this issue in approximately nine months? What is the big fear, if they believe the vast majority in the House will vote to abolish water charges come what may, of putting in place a process that provides the information and knowledge which need to be contributed to the debate before we make a significant democratic choice as to how we move forward, given some of the disagreements about the legalities that exist which, I hope, the commission will put to bed?

At my meetings with the Commissioner I outlined the process and why we are doing this. He listened, as did many of the experts from his office. He then repeated what the Commission has already said in its responses to MEPs to questions on Ireland's obligations under the Water Framework Directive and the Commission's views on this. There was nothing new there. We finished the meeting with the Commissioner reaffirming he would follow the process with interest and I stated we would get on with it. That is where we left it. The Commissioner said he would probably give me a call again this week, having thought about everything I had said. That was it. It was what I expected of the Commissioner, who understands the politics of this as well as understanding the details and obligations of the Water Framework Directive.

There may, at some point in the future, be action taken by the Commission but we do not know yet. Clearly, the Commission has a very clear view on Ireland's obligations but I will not make a judgment on whether it is right or not. I would like an expert commission to listen to all concerned on these issues and others, including the European Commission, and to come up with an independent judgment on it. The commission has the legal expertise to be able to come up with this judgment. Let us see what it says rather than us dividing as politicians on the legal views we may have one way or the other. In this context, I propose that we pass the Bill so we can send it to the Seanad for it to complete its work.

I second the proposal of the Minister to allow the Bill to pass and move to the Seanad for its approval. I acknowledge the contribution of the Minister and his staff in preparing the Bill. As he stated, it is reflective of an agreement reached after the election with a view to facilitating a Government to find a pathway in the process, as he rightly acknowledged, for experts in various fields in the commission to analyse, scrutinise, debate and, ultimately, make recommendations to an Oireachtas committee which, in turn, will assimilate and digest them and, ultimately, put the question on the various recommendations to the Dáil. A very informed decision will have been made during the course of our discussions and deliberations to arrive at this consensus, in an effort to have this dealt with effectively and appropriately in the full knowledge of all the failings of the past, without saying any more about it but also acknowledging the political reality which exists, and the intention of us all to ensure we can provide a water service that meets the demands of all society, residential and commercial, but which must be paid for. We acknowledge the House must confirm its intention to arrive at a consensus to pay for the service and ensure the service is made fit for purpose and is one of which we can all be proud.

I acknowledge the Minister and his party came from one perspective and I and mine came from another. There had to be compromise and a negotiation. In any negotiation one cannot walk out with the same position as that with which one walked in if one expects to find a resolution. This was the spirit in which we entered the negotiations and the spirit in which we continue to engage to arrive at a consensus with which the House can be happy. I, and those who gave me the privilege to be here, can be sure the decision ultimately taken will be one which is much more informed than the process we left behind the previous Dáil.

I commend all those who took part in the various Stages of the passing of this small piece of legislation over recent weeks. I thank the committee for the manner in which it will have been - I will not say fast tracked - dealt with before we break for the recess. I commend the Bill, as did the Minister.

It is important that the Minister put on the record what he has just said about his meeting with the Commissioner, because we have not had any report back. All we had seen were media reports. I ask that he keep us informed of any information that comes in this regard. It is a factor in the deliberations we will have on this very contentious and difficult issue.

Question put and agreed to.