“That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to abolish household water charges and fund investment in water and sanitation infrastructure through progressive taxation.”
Here we are again. It is a little like Groundhog Day. A majority of voters want water charges scrapped. A majority of Deputies in this House also want water charges scrapped and yet the Government's discredited water charges regime continues to limp on. What is it about the 32nd Dáil that it cannot seem to make any real decisions? Is this the face of the new politics that everyone keeps talking about?
Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of people marched through Dublin under the Right2Water banner. The demonstration was a timely reminder to the Government that the issue of water charges has not gone away. The Minister, Deputy Coveney’s desperate attempt to take the heat out of the issue clearly has not worked. How could it have? Contrary to the fine words in the Minister's countermotion, there is no deliberative process on the future of water charges. Last July the Minister, Deputy Coveney, told the Dáil that he wanted to have a reasoned and mature debate on the issue. Unfortunately, what he has given us is a carefully choreographed charade. The terms of reference of the so-called independent commission are restrictive and leading. They exclude any significant examination of the structure and ownership of water services. Neither is the commission tasked to consider substantively issues of water poverty and sustainability.
Constructive proposals from my office to broaden the terms of reference were rejected by the Minister. I was told that as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had already agreed to the terms of reference, they could not be changed. Then came the Joe O'Toole debacle. The former chairperson of the commission let the cat out of the bag. He told us that the commission was a “political exercise”. He said, “People voted a certain way, Leinster House is not prepared to grasp that particular nettle, so we have to find a solution that will have enough sugar on it to make the medicine go down easily.” In return for telling people that the outcome of the commission was pre-determined, he was shown the door, although not by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, but by his effective co-Minister in these matters, Deputy Cowen. To add insult to injury, the commission quietly launched its call for submissions at the height of the holiday season, giving people only four short weeks to make submissions. Was it hoping that the response would be underwhelming? The commission also abandoned an earlier promise to hold public hearings. One wonders whether the commission is scared of what the public might tell it.
This is not a deliberative process. It is a rigged commission, with no real public input, working to a pre-determined outcome. How is that reasoned and mature? The commission will now do its work and forward its recommendations to the Government. A special Oireachtas committee will be formed to consider the recommendations and at some stage early next year the Dáil will be asked to vote on the recommendation of the committee. What an incredible waste of time and money.
We have been debating these issues since the introduction of water charges in 1994 and their abolition in 1997. We have been debating them since the Fianna Fáil Water Services Bill in 2003, the Water Services Act in 2008 and the Fianna Fáil and Green Party programme for Government in 2007 to 2008. We have spent an enormous amount of time debating the issue since 2010. All of the political parties have clear, stated positions on the issue. They are on the record. Let us stop pretending that there is a need for further debate. Let us put an end to the circus, grasp the nettle and scrap this unjust tax for good.
The Right2Water demonstration of two weeks ago was also a reminder to Fianna Fáil that people want that party to put its words into action, to honour its election pledges and to vote for scrapping this unjust charge. Only one Fianna Fáil Deputy is present in the Chamber but Fianna Fáil Deputies have their chance this week. If they want people to trust that their latest position on water charges is the final one, then they should support our motion. I appreciate that many Fianna Fáil backbenchers may be a little confused with their own party’s position on the matter. That is understandable given the somersaults they have had to perform recently. After all, Fianna Fáil has been trying to introduce water charges since 2003. It was a Fianna Fáil Government that signed up to water charges in 2010. Deputy Micheál Martin was in the Government that sought to introduce a charge of up to €500 a year. A few years later it was the same Fianna Fáil which said that it now wanted water charges to be suspended, not abolished mind you, just deferred for a few years, presumably until the heat was taken out of the issue and Fianna Fáil was back in government. Now, under enormous pressure from the Right2Water movement on the streets and in this Dáil, Fianna Fáil has finally come around to our way of thinking. The party now wants the outright abolition of the charge. I say to Deputy Cowen that I am glad he has finally seen the error of his ways. I have his Right2Water membership form here for him to sign. He is more than welcome to march shoulder to shoulder with the rest of us at the next Right2Water demonstration. All he needs to do is to put his promises into action and vote with the Right2Water Deputies on this motion. If he does not, how can anybody trust Deputy Cowen on water? If people cannot trust him on water then how can they trust him on anything else? The problem is that he cannot vote for the motion because Deputy Micheál Martin will not let him.
Apparently, tabling a Private Members' motion to pressurise the Government into action is nothing short of a political stunt. Was the Fianna Fáil motion on motor car insurance a stunt? What about the motion on funding for the arts or last night’s motion on pharmacy fees? The purpose of the Opposition tabling motions such as the one before the House is to put the Government under pressure, to force it to act and to make it respect the democratic will of the people. However, we all know the truth. Fianna Fáil’s refusal to support our motion is for one reason and one reason only - to keep the party's options open. Deputy Micheál Martin's grubby little deal that put the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, back in office is not about new politics. It is not about stability. It is all about buying time until the moment is right to bring down the Government.
It is old-school, dishonest and cynical Fianna Fáil politics at its very worst, and I have no doubt that people will see through this and judge it accordingly.
The cause of the crisis in our water system is not the absence of water charges but the unwillingness of successive Governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to commit significant long-term investment to the upgrading of our water and sanitation system. Delaying a decision on abolition of water charges prolongs this crisis, so here is the alternative: let us scrap the charges, let us bring water services fully into public ownership and let us commit to a ten-year plan of capital investment through general taxation to bring our water and sanitation system into the 21st century. That is what a majority of the electorate wants and that is what a majority of Deputies in this House says it wants. Let us get on and do it.