That Dáil Éireann accepts the Report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 12th April, 2017.
Vol. 947 No. 1
That Dáil Éireann accepts the Report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 12th April, 2017.
Turn on the tap.
I recognise and respect the spectrum of views that people have in this House and across the country on the provision of domestic water and how we fund it. This is a very political and emotive issue for many people. However, as a country, we have allowed ourselves to be convulsed by a negative and divisive debate in respect of it for far too long. My focus on water since taking office as Minister almost a year ago has been to put a process in place that could move us on from political division and uncertainty and to achieve a majority consensus to progress a new approach which responds to the various political viewpoints while delivering a water service infrastructure that meets the needs of our society, our growing economy and fulfils our environmental obligations. Therefore, I welcome the report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. It provides a sound basis for Ireland to move forward on this issue in a sustainable way.
Let us remind ourselves of the process by which the committee reached this point.
The terms of reference for the special Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services were quite clear: it was tasked with considering and making recommendations on the report of the expert commission which was published in November last year. It is also worth reminding ourselves what the independent expert commission recommended. It proposed that the funding of water services for normal domestic and personal use should be out of taxation. It also recommended that excessive or wasteful use of water should be paid for directly by the user at tariffs determined by Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. It recommended that excessive or wasteful use of water should be discouraged by charging for such use and, therefore, be consistent with the polluter pays principle, and it recommended that measurement by meter is the optimal approach to managing consumption.
The expert commission argued that this model would provide for clarity around long-term investment, support the application of the polluter pays principle and meet the requirements of basic equity and fairness and to ensure Ireland complies with EU Water Framework Directive.
I believe the expert commission's report was correct and has provided the basis for what has now been agreed in the committee report. I thank Mr. Kevin Duffy, in particular, but also everybody else who played a part in the expert commission.
The European Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, in his latest letter to me on 12 January this year, also emphasised the central importance of cost recovery and encouraging sustainable consumption through metering to our future funding model. The final paragraph of the Commissioner’s letter is worth quoting for the record for clarity purposes. It states:
The European Commission encourages therefore the Irish authorities to give particular attention to the following key issues which, taking into account the specific circumstances of Ireland, and at the same time striking a fair balance between the interests of the consumers and the needs of the water sector, are indispensable for an outcome that complies with the Directive:
- the recovery of costs must ensure that the Irish water sector meets its serious needs in terms of both maintenance and investment in water and waste infrastructure
- in order for the charge on excessive or wasteful use of water to attain its purpose, the consumption of water for normal use should be set at a reasonable level, and the charge for excessive or wasteful use of water should be dissuasive [which is a term used in the report]. The completion of metering will be instrumental to this effect.
Since it began its deliberations in December, the discussions at the committee have been wide ranging. It has had the benefit of inputs from regulators from other jurisdictions, our own policy makers and regulatory bodies and other stakeholders from across the water sector. As the work of the committee moved towards conclusion and draft text was presented for discussion there have been robust and, on occasions, quite fraught exchanges.
Fine Gael and the Government have come to this process willing to engage constructively and to seek a compromise outcome that respected people’s differing perspectives while meeting certain fundamental requirements and obligations. What Fine Gael members of the committee have been trying to do for the past four months of intensive discussions at the committee is ensure that the final report clearly reflects these fundamental requirements. They did this for a number of reasons, not least to make it clear to the European Commission precisely how Ireland intends to go about meeting our EU obligations. However, more importantly, the Fine Gael members want to be clear with the Oireachtas and with the people, in an upfront and honest manner, how the changed water funding model will work for families and their households.
Early drafts of the report last week raised significant concerns for the Fine Gael members of the committee and, more broadly, for me and the Government. I believe, on the basis of legal advice available to me, that last week's amended report would have clearly failed to satisfy our EU obligations with a significant consequence in terms of potential EU fines which the Irish taxpayer would ultimately have to fund.
I am very pleased that the report has come back on track with the benefit of further committee legal advice around certain key aspects of that report. The committee has now agreed that households responsible for the wastage or excess usage of water would be required to pay but that a generous allowance would apply for households consuming normal volumes of water, paid for through taxation. It has agreed that average consumption would be determined independently by the Commission for Energy Regulation and that only households using 70% more than average consumption would pay an excess usage levy.
It has also agreed that the basis for measuring consumption would be the existing meters, both domestic as well as district meters, and that all new homes or refurbishments would be required to be fitted with meters. It has also agreed that all apartment complexes would be metered through bulk metering. This is particularly welcome given the number of apartments to now come under that new metering objective.
There are a number of facts from which we cannot hide. We require significant investment in our water infrastructure to address years of under-investment and support the modern economy we are trying to build. We cannot walk away from our obligations, including those we face under the Water Framework Directive. The European Commission will not tolerate continued non-compliance by Ireland and has indicated a willingness to go the distance to force Ireland into compliance through the European Court of Justice. We will face significant penalties should this happen and if we do not put an arguable case in place. We have an opportunity now to make responsible, long-term, sustainable decisions around how we fund our domestic water services.
Taking account of these, Fine Gael and I have always had five priorities from the outset of this process that we wanted to deliver: first and foremost, maintaining Irish Water as a single utility structure for the delivery of water services - I believe it is proving its worth now in that regard; second, increased funding certainty for future investment in water infrastructure; third, a conservation-based approach using meters; fourth, a charging system that is fair for households and that encourages sustainable consumption patterns; and, fifth, equitable treatment for people who currently pay for their domestic water through group water schemes as well as for those households who have already paid water bills.
I believe the report of the committee delivers on these in a reasonable and coherent way that will not only enable us to demonstrate compliance with our environmental obligations but will also secure a sound future for the delivery of high-quality water services to households throughout Ireland.
I have a serious responsibility to lead and to legislate for a responsible package that gets Ireland to where we need to be. Following the Oireachtas vote, my Department will then commence the drafting of a Bill on the basis of the report and will engage with the Office of the Attorney General as part of this process as I have committed to do.
I sincerely thank all the members of the committee for their input to the deliberations. I thank Fianna Fáil, in particular, for its willingness to commit to a process nine months ago and following through on that process. I think it is a victory for sensible politics.
I thank my Fine Gael members specifically for their resolve during the negotiations. Above all, I thank the Chairman, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, for undertaking this role with calm authority and grace under pressure.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the work of the special Oireachtas committee on water. This has been a deeply contentious and politically divisive issue for the past few years. I understand the deep frustration of the public around a debate that never quite seems to end. When so many other pressing concerns such as the escalating housing crisis or the threat of Brexit are knocking on the door, water charges continue to suck up an inordinate amount of time and energy.
Now is the time to settle this issue once and for all. It is time to get to grips with the other challenges that face us all. I believe the report of the committee forms a basis for us to do that.
It is important to give this discussion its proper context, which has often been neglected in coverage and discussion in the past few weeks. The water charges regime introduced by Fine Gael and the Labour Party was a complete and utter failure. By any metric, it had failed to achieve its objectives. After a dizzying series of over 12 U-turns, the Government actually lost money on domestic water tariffs. In 2015, only 53% of bills due were paid while €100 million was spent on the water grant, €41 million is due in interest repayments over the year and another €25 million was spent on administration costs. On this basis, the State actually lost €22 million in total on its water charges regime in 2015 so water charges have actually cost the State money. This policy debacle combined with the failure to pass the EUROSTAT test meant that the very reason Irish Water and water charges were introduced was completely lost. No additional revenue was available for investment in the water infrastructure due to domestic water charges. No wonder the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Regina Doherty, admitted last Saturday that the water charges regime introduced by the last Government was a "catastrophe [...] a cock up". Their impact on struggling households and communities across the country was very real.
It is incumbent on all Deputies to address those very real concerns and confront the scale of the failure of the previous Government's water charges system. However, some are shirking that responsibility. Deputy Alan Kelly who is still spinning from the number of U-turns he introduced as Minister continues to suffer from an angry form of Stockholm syndrome - a political Patty Hearst if you will. However, he has failed to admit that it was his own Government that ended the EU derogation in 2013, that being the established practice model, and not as he has previously stated and continues to state, the 2010 river basin management plan. That was confirmed in the independent legal advice given to the committee and it was worth noting and was noted by me and others. Neither has he admitted that the water meters the previous Government spent an enormous €500 million on installing were rendered redundant by the flat rate he himself introduced, nor has he taken responsibility for the €110 million water conservation grant bribe, which was to sweeten a rotten deal. Where is the honesty he speaks about in sticking with a regime that was turned inside out by U-turns and has failed abysmally?
It is against that backdrop that Fianna Fáil entered into a confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael. While other parties were content to take a ten-week holiday, we sought to lead and then help facilitate a Government. The country did not want another election that would resolve nothing. We stood up to the mark and in a spirit of compromise, set out a path to achieve our core policy aims. Ending the failed water charges regime was foremost among those objectives.
This brings us to the report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. The committee has met 22 times since December 2016 and drawn from a wide range of experts. There has been give and take on all sides to reach a viable and legally sound outcome. The central outcome for Fianna Fáil is that the water charges regime is abolished and over 92% of households will not pay for water. The remaining 8%, or 70,000 households, will be given an opportunity to apply for extraordinary circumstances exemption such as a large family or medical conditions. People who waste water will be penalised under the Water Services Act 2007.
It is important to highlight the summary of what is contained in the report. The existing water charges regime will be abolished. The Labour Party, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit or anybody else who wishes to do so, will be rejecting the report by voting against it. The definition of excessive use will be set at 70% above average usage, which is 133 litres per day per person. That is 1.7 times that rate. Those rejecting this report will be rejecting that threshold. Any remaining households above this will be given an opportunity to fix leaks and reduce usage before being subject to fines. If they waste water, they will be penalised.
In rejecting the report the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and anybody else who wants to vote against it are rejecting that process. Water services will be funded through Exchequer funding. In rejecting the report the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and anybody else who opposes it are saying it should not be paid for out of general taxation. Households that have paid their bills will be refunded. Those rejecting this report are rejecting that fact. A detailed report on ensuring equal funding for rural and urban dwellers will be published and used for future budgeting. In rejecting the report the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and anybody else who votes against it do not think this is the right thing to do. A referendum to enshrine Irish Water in public ownership will be held. In rejecting the report the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and anybody else who rejects it are saying they do not want a referendum on ownership of public water to be held. Independent advice indicates this and all the recommendations contained with it will satisfy EU legal requirements.
Much attention focused on the argument over the report between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the past fortnight. I am confident that what we have now agreed is essentially the same deal that was settled two weeks ago. The agreement saw Deputy Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin and the Minister clamouring over each other to claim victory on the airwaves and social media. That should hold true today but, of course, it will not. Our fear in the past two weeks was that Fine Gael was shifting the goalposts around the threshold level and creating a gap to allow water charges through the back door to the amount of 20% to 25%. That was the fundamental basis for the dispute. The agreed report closes off such a back channel for water charges by specifying the threshold levels and clarifies the average use per person. Despite the spin that has been prevalent today, it will ensure all household types are fairly accommodated in the amendment put forward by Deputy Noel Grealish and agreed by other parties.
We have showed a willingness to compromise on such areas as water meters on new builds based on the 2008 building regulations and the best practice initiatives that are contained within them that allow water meters to be inserted across the country in many local authorities, including my own, for the past seven years, which nobody will admit has been happening. In the future, water meters will be based on conservation, not on a charging regime. I am now satisfied that the Water Services Act 2007 put forward by Fianna Fáil will be used as the basis for legislation. Fianna Fáil has continually advocated this as the best way to abolish charges, satisfy our EU obligations and tackle wastage. Now we need to turn the report into actual legislation and we will fully engage in the legislative process as it progresses.
Regardless of whether one likes it or will admit it, ending water charges is an achievement of constructive politics. The confidence and supply arrangement, the expert commission, the special Oireachtas committee and forthcoming legislation are the product of hard work. They are not the product of shouting from the sidelines. Fianna Fáil has always been the party of the centre ground. We have taken a practical approach to address this serious problem and come forward with a viable solution that will end charges and secure future investment in the water network. Others have promised or continue to promise, we have delivered.
Many people from all perspectives on water charges, be they urban dwellers or people on group water schemes, are no doubt deeply frustrated by the time it has taken to reach this point. I understand their annoyance. I assure them that Fianna Fáil is committed to settling this issue and moving on to address the mounting risks we face as a country. Now is the time to settle this issue and heal the divisive wounds that opened up. The country faces uncertain times. Choppy seas await us in respect of Brexit. The housing crisis demands real leadership. We need to show that the political maturity and sense that has prevailed on this issue can agree a new framework for water, for example.
We will face greater challenges in the months and years ahead but the House must rise to that task and I have no doubt that a constructive House that recognises the opportunities contained within it can play a part in effecting change and real policy initiatives that can determine positive outcomes.
That is the job that was given to us when we were elected and given the privilege of doing so. We have taken that seriously and want to work seriously to ensure it happens across many other areas.
Three years ago the Right2Water movement hit the streets. It was a mass movement of communities, trade unions and political parties. It was a reaction to the austerity assault of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. It was about much more than water, but at its heart it was always about water. Just like housing and health, decades of under-investment left people with a crumbling public service. Almost half of all treated water was being wasted by the State. Raw sewage was being pumped into our seas and rivers. Rather than invest in fixing the system, the Ministers at the time, former Deputy Phil Hogan and then Deputy Alan Kelly, had better ideas. This was to commodify water, turning it into a produce that could be bought and sold, and to financialise water services by taking them off the books and running them like a corporation that was buried in debt. Just as night follows day, the next move was always going to be privatisation. We were told that people would get the water service they deserved. This was a shortcut for delivering where past governments had failed. The truth, of course, was very different. All that people would get would be meters, bills, water poverty and the guarantee of rising prices in the future. Three years of hard campaigning had hundreds of thousands of people marching, boycotting and voting. The sheer strength of the campaign forced Fianna Fáil, the party that introduced water charges, to change its position. That party's election manifesto in 2016 had clear commitments to abolish the water charges and, I remind Deputy Barry Cowen, to abolish Irish Water.
We all know that a majority of Deputies elected to this Dáil gave clear commitments to abolish water charges and the utility. When it came to the deal, however, to put the Taoiseach back into government, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could not agree on the water issue. They bought some time with an expert commission and a water committee, and here we are today with the end product of the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney’s unwanted and utterly unnecessary process.
The Right2Water movement can rightly be proud of the impact we have had on the water debate. The Frankenstein water charge regime of former Ministers Phil Hogan and Deputy Alan Kelly is dead. This is probably the only matter on which I agree with Deputy Barry Cowen. The principle that domestic water services should be funded through general taxation and Government investment has been accepted, with Denis O’Brien’s metering programme stopped in its tracks. People who were bullied into paying water charges will get refunds and people in group water schemes will finally be treated equally. Crucially, a referendum enshrining the public ownership of water and water services has been promised. This is the only way to ensure that water services will not be privatised in the future. I look forward to the Minister's support for the Bill brought forward by Deputy Joan Collins, which calls for a referendum on water ownership and which is currently with the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, as well as a commitment to legislate to reform the Water Services Act 2007.
None of this would have happened without the broad Right2Water movement. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have blindly dragged us down the road of commodification, financialisation and eventually privatisation. They have not got their way. The Right2Water movement is not finished yet and the final report agreed by the committee falls far short of what the majority of people want. Irish Water remains in place and thanks to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, we were not even allowed to discuss in the committee whether it was the best entity for delivering water services. Mandatory metering in new builds and refurbishments is there and will continue, but contrary to what Deputy Barry Cowen said, a back door has been left open for universal metered water charges in the future through the so-called excessive use charges.
Last week, things looked very different. For once it seemed that Fianna Fáil was going to keep its election promise on water charges. Fianna Fáil joined with the five Right2Water Deputies and two Independents in closing any back door to water charges and by opposing mandatory metering. Then, however, the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, issued a last minute diktat at 11 p.m. last Friday.
My party does not go in for diktats.
The subtext of the letter which was clearly a threat to his colleagues in Fianna Fáil was that he must get his way at the committee or he would force a general election. He said: "Give me my meters and give me my excess charge or we will go to the polls." What happened then was that, as he has just done here, Deputy Barry Cowen huffed and puffed and threatened to block the Minister's bid for Taoiseach. Deputy Barry Cowen did what has become his habit when the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, stands up to him - he backed down. Fine Gael got its meters, got its charge for so-called excessive use and even got a lower threshold based on household rather than individual average usage.
The Deputy is wrong. He should read the amendment.
It is interesting to note the wide divergence between the Minister and Deputy Barry Cowen on that particular point. It will be an interesting battle when we come to the legislation to see how those two are going to square that circle. I must say that this week I almost felt sorry for Deputy Barry Cowen. It must be hard when one's party, fearing a general election, throws one to the wolves. I also felt sorry for the Fianna Fáil members of the Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. In the space of four weeks, they had four different positions on charging for so-called excess use and mandatory metering. Last week, they voted against both and on Tuesday they voted for both. They must have whiplash with the speed of their U-turns in that committee. Of course, they will hide behind the legal advice to the committee-----
The Deputy does not have any time for the legals.
In fact, they almost sound like the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, on this issue. The decisions, however, on charges and meters have nothing to do with EU law. The Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services received nine separate pieces of legal opinion from six different legal sources, each of which gave conflicting legal advice. One senior counsel on mature reflection gave two conflicting sets of advice on the final draft report within a matter of days. The only conclusion that any reasonable person can draw from all of this is that there is no legal consensus on the matter.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this fake legal debate is that Ministers - past and present - who presided over flagrant breaches of EU water and environmental law that will result in hefty fines for the taxpayers of the State have a cheek to lecture the rest of us on legal compliance. I have no doubt that the State can be fully compliant with the environmental objectives of the Water Framework Directive without metered domestic water charges. They do it in Scotland and in Northern Ireland and there is simply no reason that we cannot do it here.
Fine Gael’s victory is not really a victory at all. The distance the party has been dragged, kicking and screaming, by the Right2Water movement since 2014 is enormous. Fine Gael's failed efforts to introduce some kind of water charge regime is on its very last legs. Any attempt to use the room granted this week - by the grace of Fianna Fáil - to introduce water charges through the back door will be met with the same mass campaign that dogged and ultimately put a halt to the political careers of the Minister's predecessors. We will be watching the progress of the legislation arising from the water committee’s report very closely and we will continue to hold Fianna Fáil to its election commitments. Having spoken with the other pillars of the Right2Water movement - the communities, trade unions and other political parties and independents - we are giving a commitment here today that we will continue to mobilise on the streets and through every possible means until our goal of a publicly owned and funded water and sanitation service, delivered on the basis of need and not ability to pay, is in place to meet the needs of the entire community.
We have heard much about an agreement between the two parties. The more I read the crucial amendment to the report agreed by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the more I realise that they have not resolved the core tensions that led to the heated debate - ten hours this week and seven hours last week - between the two parties. The legislation will be very interesting. Many of the arguments we had in the committee will be replayed on the floor of the House when the legislation is published. There is no agreement, for example, on what is the proper metric for the threshold for excessive use.
Crucially, that will only be able to be applied to households that have meters. What the two parties are proposing is an excess use charge that will apply to 60% of the population only. That may or may not be constitutional and it certainly will not be fair or popular, including with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voters.
I will begin by paying tribute to the Chairman of the Oireachtas committee, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh. In his foreword to the report he talks about the importance of water for us as human beings and the environment, as well as in protecting the country in not polluting rivers and streams. It is important that we include these issues in this debate. This is not about political point scoring but about an essential commodity that we all need. It costs a lot of money to treat water and remove wastewater. The European Commission and the Water Framework Directive are not in place to impose a penalty on the Irish people but to ensure we look after our water resource and do not pollute the environment. It is important to set the debate in that context.
I am not sure how much we have done in the committee to further this debate, having read the report of the Duffy Commission and the clear recommendations read out by the Minister. It is stated at the end, for example, that excessive or wasteful use of water should be paid for directly by the user by tariffs determined by the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. Excessive or wasteful use of water will be discouraged by charging for such use and is, therefore, consistent with the polluter pays principle. The report the committee has come up with has, unfortunately, taken us backwards rather than forwards in addressing this issue. I wish the Minister well on the road he is going to have to take. In effect, in setting up the Duffy Commission and then the committee another can has been kicked down the road, where they are now sitting and waiting for somebody to set up an incinerator. The difference between the other cans and this one is that the Minister is obliged to take this one down a very perilous legislative route in complying with the Water Framework Directive and being fair to taxpayers and those who are careful in their use of water.
One would think from the debate so far that somehow or other no one is going to have to pay for water. If it is paid for through general taxation, it will be in competition with other items such as housing, to which Deputy Eoin Ó Broin referred, hospitals, schools and so on. I know that we said in the report that such funding should be ring-fenced, but it will be paid for by the ordinary taxpayer. The Labour Party agrees that there should be a free allowance for normal use in households. We do not agree that the taxpayer should pay for the excessive and wasteful use of water. We believe it should be paid for by those who are wasting it. Nor do we believe the 2007 Act is the way to do it. That is why we voted against the report. We do not believe it should be done through the criminal law but through straightforward charges, as recommended by the Duffy Commission and the European Commission, as well as by Professor Gavin Barrett, the Jean Monnet chair of European constitutional and economic law at UCD. He has also stated very clearly that there is a need for metering and that we do need to charge for excessive use. In the written advice he gave to the committee he said it should be noted that political difficulties concerning the acceptability of metering would not be an acceptable defence in such a prosecution under Article 258. The man is an expert on European law.
There is no point in pretending that what exists does not exist. There is no point in pretending that water is free. It has to be paid for through taxation. We have heard different interpretations of the same wording used in the report from different speakers. That is why I call it a fudge. People can read into it what they want. I wish the Minister well in trying to produce legislation from it.
I want to refer to Deputy Barry Cowen's contribution. He has gone back to the past, although I thought we were to focus on the future. He clearly decided to have a go again. I remind him that the first reference to introducing water charges in recent times was when the Government of which his party was part told the troika that it was going to introduce charges and at a much higher rate than was subsequently proposed. Cabinet papers recently published under the new freedom of information laws which my party also introduced in government with Fine Gael make it very clear that the then Fianna Fáil Government signalled its intention to introduce charges. That was when we lost the derogation.
We did not introduce them, though.
Pull the other one.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan should have a word with Deputy Alan Kelly.
I did not intend to say any of that, but if the Deputy is going to make political charges, I am going to defend my party. We brought forward legislation to ensure water would be kept in public ownership. I absolutely reject any intention to privatise. We also published a Bill which would have required the holding of a referendum to keep water in public ownership, with other infrastructure, including gas and electricity, as did other parties. There are three pieces of legislation in train in that regard. We are quite clear that we support the holding of a referendum to maintain water in public ownership.
I absolutely reject the Deputy's assertion that because we voted against the report, we reject everything contained in it. We support fairness for those who have paid and a number of other elements with regard to conservation, etc.
You are voting against it.
The central issue in all of this is the charge for excess use which we absolutely believe is right. There should be free household allowances, including for illness and other specific reasons. However, those who waste water should not have the rest of general taxpayers paying for it.
I have had a day to reflect on all of this. I also reject the idea frequently expressed on the airwaves - it was also an element of Deputy Eoin Ó Broin's contribution - that somehow or other, because all households in Scotland and Wales are not metered, they do not satisfy the directive and that, therefore, we can get away with not metering households. In Wales 53% of people have a meter. I am citing the evidence we received from Welsh Water. The others pay based on rateable valuation. People pay for water in Wales and Scotland which have largely addressed the problems of pollution and fixed many of the problems we have not fixed. In Wales someone who has a meter can apply to participate in the social schemes which allow for a reduced charge. For households which are metered, average usage is 110 litres per day, while the figure is 140 litres for households which are not metered. People chose to have meters because it allowed them to benefit from social clauses and schemes. Specific reference is made to poorer families in the evidence we received from Welsh Water. They go on to use less water. Using the examples of Wales and Scotland in a very selective way is not an accurate way of representing the situation here. There are also charges in Scotland which are collected by the local councils. The portion of the charge for water is sent to Scottish Water. It is not as simple as saying most people in Scotland and Wales do not have meters and that, therefore, we do not need them. They tick two of the boxes. They have addressed the issues we are only now beginning to address in terms of pollution, fixing leaks and so on.
There is an attempt to try to ignore the reality of what is in front of us. We have to comply with European law. If we do not, we will be charged excessive fines.
Again, the evidence of Professor Barrett suggests that we will be charged those fines unless we charge for excessive use.
I wish the Minister well. I believe it will be a difficult job for him because he is obliged to use the 2007 Act, which is an Act of criminal law, rather than simply bringing in a charging regime.
The Labour Party position is clear. We support a referendum to keep the utility in public ownership. We are absolutely against privatisation. We support equal treatment for those who have already paid. They should be refunded because it is not feasible to collect from those who have not paid. Ultimately, we do not agree with the idea that the Government can somehow fudge the issue of excessive use by purporting to use criminal legislation instead of simply charging people. That is simpler than having the rest of us who pay our taxes - people struggle to pay high taxes on relatively low incomes - paying for the person who keeps the sprinkler on in the lawn all day, who washes three or four cars or who lets the tap run. We do not believe that is the right thing to do. We believe people should have a fair household allowance that deals with normal use. Then, if they use excessively, they should pay.
I understand Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett is sharing time with Deputy Mick Barry.
Those in Fianna Fáil have exposed their true colours. They are for water charges. They sign up with the troika for water charges. They commission reports from PwC detailing the plan for water charges. Then, a mass movement is mobilised on the streets against the charges. Then, they are against water charges. Then, the pressure comes on from Fine Gael and they want to leave back doors open for the return of water charges. By the way, that is the definition of the much misused term "populism". That is what populism actually means.
The Deputy wrote the book.
It means saying what suits people when it suits them, as opposed to the words of people who are accused of being populist and who have a consistent principled position of opposition to water charges. I am referring to people who stick to that position and who build movements to vindicate that position. The same people have forced at least some of that position on a reluctant and resistant political establishment made up of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
Every concession that has been wrought reluctantly from the twisting, turning and back-sliding Fianna Fáil or from Fine Gael which has at least been consistent as it has always wanted water charges and privatisation and has been pushing for these for at least a decade has been wrought because of the mass popular movement. Of course, that is what both those parties are afraid of. They are fearful of the example it could set for other battles on housing, health and the support of Bus Éireann workers. Hence, the need to go after the people of Jobstown and criminalise them. This was done to ensure there is a bitter taste on the victory of the movement of people power. People power has humiliated the Government and forced it into abolishing water charges, at least for now. The Government desperately wants to leave the back door open.
Let us be clear that the decision to meter new-build houses has nothing whatsoever to do with EU obligations. It does nothing to assist or advance compliance with the charges. Furthermore, the EU directives do not require domestic water charges, as has been suggested. If the Minister does not believe me - I do not care what Gavin Barrett says – I need only utter one word, namely, "Scotland". There are no domestic water charges there. There are no EU enforcement obligations or actions against the Scots.
I am keen to ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, about his new-found concern for EU environment regulations. Does the Minister even know how many cases are currently being taken against Ireland on environmental matters? I am referring to cases in respect of which we will be fined because we are flagrantly in breach of EU environmental directives. We do not hear the Minister or Fianna Fáil talking about these. There are 15 such cases. Five are at the second stage of enforcement. Of itself, this is another revealing fact about the process that the Minister says will lead to certain penalties. These cases have been in train for years. Five of them are at the second enforcement stage but the Government is not saying anything about them, yet it is still flagrantly in breach of them. Interestingly, we still have not been fined.
We do not believe for a minute that the doors the Government has left open have anything to do with compliance with EU directives. They have everything to do with giving the Government the opportunity to come back and restore water charges at some point in the future. That is what the Government is about. At least Fine Gael is more honest in stating it wants water charges. Those from Fianna Fáil simply say whatever suits them at whatever time.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will not get away with it. At every point in this journey the movement of people has trumped them and it will continue to do so. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil need not think they are going to fool the people because the people will be back on the streets if there is any attempt to restore these unjust regressive charges.
The anti-water charges movement has won a victory over the charges and the political establishment that backed the charges. The victory has been won by hundreds of thousands of people who marched as well as by the 1 million households who refused to pay either in full or in part. It has been won by the masses of people who voted against the charges and for change in the general election of 2016. However, the victory has been sold short by the U-turn executed by the Fianna Fáil Party when it came around to the Fine Gael position at the water committee last night.
People power has won the following gains. First, 90% of households will not pay charges for water next year. Second, households that have paid, many of which paid under duress, will be compensated in full. Third, a referendum to keep water in public ownership will be held. We will ensure it will be held. We will keep the pressure on. Fourth, there will be an increased subsidy for group water schemes in order that the participants need not pay more than their urban counterparts.
None of these gains would have been conceded without the actions of the anti-water charges movement and its hundreds of thousands of followers nationwide. People were sold short last night by Fianna Fáil. The Fianna Fáil Party signed up to a plan to meter all new houses and apartments. This plan will delight those who want to introduce water charges down the road. Those in Fianna Fáil have signed up to support a crazy situation whereby half the country has meters, the other half has none and new-build dwellings will now be metered. Where is the equity in that? I have no doubt that resistance to the Irish Water metering programme will continue.
The Fianna Fáil Party supported the excessive use charge. In doing so it has built a back door for the return of charges down the road. Everyone knows that an excessive use charge threshold means 10% can continue to be charged today. However, the threshold can be lowered and lowered again such that 20%, 30%, 40% or a majority can be charged in future. Fianna Fáil Members may well get this through the Dáil with their allies in Fine Gael but they will not get it through in society. If they attempt to go down that road, people will be back on the streets in vast numbers.
The Government has set the excessive use rate at a relatively low level. It is 588 litres of water per day per household. That is 133 litres by 1.7 times the average household use by 2.6.
That is incorrect.
Those in Fianna Fáil shake their heads but those in Fine Gael are not shaking their heads.
That does not even add up.
Those in Fianna Fáil are shaking their heads but those in Fine Gael are not.
What is the Deputy doing?
Fine Gael is introducing the legislation.
What is the Deputy doing? He is doing nothing with his head.
Fine Gael is introducing the legislation so we will see what happens in a month's time. A five-person household, using an average of 133 litres per person, comes to 665 litres. That is above 588 litres.
The Deputy is wrong.
A six-person household using 798 litres is well above 588 litres. This is discriminating-----
For the record, there will be allowances for large households. That has been agreed.
Yes, but what it says in the deal that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil cobbled together yesterday is that there will be some allowances. Will there be full 100% allowances to bridge the gap? I do not see any heads nodding on that one.
Per household of more than two people per person-----
I do not see any heads nodding on that one. They are discriminating against larger households and if they deny it today, we will see what the reality-----
It is not discriminating. The Deputy is scaremongering.
Deputy Mick Barry to continue, without interruption.
We will see what the reality is.
The Deputy is clinging to a straw.
Let us have a civil debate.
The Deputy is a drowning man clinging to a straw.
For those who disagree, there are other opportunities to come in.
I am not a drowning man. I am on the winning side that forced Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to concede. I suspect that there is discrimination here against larger households.
That is wrong.
We will see the colour of their money on that when the legislation is tabled in a month's time.
The anti-water charges campaign has given street politics a massively increased credibility in Irish society. Governments are now nervous of the people rather than the people being nervous of the Government. That is the way it should be. The aftershock of the anti-water charges protest will last for many years to come. Already, the spirit of the protests is evident in the workplaces where workers campaigning for pay justice are taking a stand and fuelling the strikes of recent times. Politically, this movement has increased opposition and suspicion of the big two, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It has boosted the rise of the radical left and it clearly shows the need for a far bigger level of real representation for working people in this House.
Here we are again three years on from the initial introduction of unprogressive water tax. Who would have guessed a political somersault by the soldiers of destiny; surely not? New politics has yet again shown to be the same old business: a war of words in public and a shabby deal behind closed doors. The lessons have not been lost on the people. Fianna Fáil cannot be trusted. These are the people who said in their election material that they would abolish water charges and Irish Water. Comfortably for them, in their confidence and supply deal, they kept Irish Water out of the equation.
Despite these shenanigans, this is not a victory for those who wanted to commodify water as a step to privatisation, though I have got some concerns. If the two parties think they have managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and from the Right2Water movement, they can think again. The changes to the report made over the weekend amount to nothing more than saving face and clutching at straws. Any attempt to use these changes as a backdoor to the reintroduction of charges down the road will be met with even fiercer resistance than in the last three years. The people have their victory and they will not give it up without a fight. However, what this demonstrates is the need to copper-fasten that victory. That involves two issues.
One of those issues is the referendum to enshrine public ownership and management of the public water system in the Constitution as per the Bill on this issue moved by myself and other Right2Water Deputies, which is now at Committee Stage. I urge all those who supported the Bill to continue to do so both at Committee Stage and when the Bill comes back to the House for Report Stage. The area I am very concerned about is the commodification of this so-called excessive use of water. The European rules and regulations of the markets allow private companies to come into that market on the basis of that excessive use and the commodification of the water. I am concerned about that and I want to see how that runs through the committee when we are discussing the referendum on this issue.
The other issue is that Irish Water as currently constructed has to go. I will bring in legislation or facilitate any other Deputy's legislation to achieve that when we are debating this in the near future. We need a national water authority with a remit to deal with the scandalous waste of the 47% of treated water. What we do not need is a bloated entity with a bonus culture that has wasted €1 billion on consultants and an unwanted and unnecessary metering programme that it cannot complete.
Some people might be disappointed given that what looked like a resounding victory in the committee's report last week had been watered down by Fianna Fáil's about turn. It beggars belief that a senior counsel who said last week that the report was perfectly legit and within the boundaries of legislation and the water framework directive turned around this week to say that same report is not compliant with the water framework directive. I believe he said it was something to do with a letter he received from Fine Gael. I say to the Minister that that letter to the senior counsel should be produced to every Deputy in the Dáil to see what was written in it. I ask for that to take place.
The letter to what?
The senior counsel said he had received a letter from Fine Gael.
No, he did not. I wrote to the Chairman of the committee.
He got a letter from Fine Gael.
Exactly. That was my information. If there was a letter which the senior counsel said there was-----
There was no letter from me to the senior counsel. I do not know the senior counsel and have not interacted with him.
From Fine Gael.
Do not mislead the Dáil.
It was from Fine Gael. The Minister must be aware of it as it came from his party.
Just to be clear, Deputy Joan Collins is not misleading the Dáil. The senior counsel said at the committee that he had received correspondence from Fine Gael.
Perhaps one of the Minister's colleagues might clarify. For the information of Deputy Joan Collins, the clock is ticking.
Every Deputy and I would like to see-----
The senior counsel did not receive a letter-----
That is not what he said.
The senior counsel said he had received a letter from Fine Gael. If he received that letter, we would all like to see it.
We did see it.
We all saw it.
If there are two letters, we would like to see the two of them, or three or four or whatever.
There are not two.
There is only one.
Any correspondence to the senior counsel should be circulated to all Deputies in this Dáil.
The Deputy is misinformed.
The Deputy is spreading a conspiracy that does not exist.
We should be extremely proud of what has been achieved so far by the Right2Water movement. The collection of the PPS numbers by Irish Water as an asset to be sold when it was privatised was stopped in its tracks. Water charges intended as €800 to €1,000 per household per year has been abolished. There has been no attempt to force water meters on working-class communities who do not want them. The anti-water charges campaign has achieved an increased allowance for those on group schemes to match the urban dwellers in this country.
For the past week or so, we have been treated to an incredible farce over a row about something that does not exist, that is, the excessive use of water. Even within the 8% that the Minister talks about, he does not know whether there is excessive or wilful waste of water because we do not know if it is from the pipes or from the actual household. It could be a lot less than 8% and I suspect that it is.
That is why we have meters. That is why meters are important.
None of the parties involved in this row, Fine Gael, the Labour Party or Fianna Fáil, have any right to be righteous about water wastage, as I said on Saturday. They are the parties that presided over decades of under-investment in our water system which has allowed up to 47% of expensive treated water leak away through an antiquated system of underground pipes. They have some neck. It is unbelievable.
They are also the parties who have allowed companies like Glenpatrick Spring Water under Tipperary County Council to not pay a cent for extracting water that they sell on for huge profits in the markets. This part was not allowed to be discussed in the committee because the committee was only to do with domestic water meters. They have said nothing about other companies such as Ballygowan, which pays nothing to Limerick County Council for the extraction of water that it goes on to sell on the markets, making huge profits. We do not hear the European Commissioner coming out to say that this is disgraceful and that Ireland should make sure that those who use our water and extract water from our ground should pay for the privilege. We have the European Commission pontificating about conserving water and making the polluter pay, though it has nothing to say about the fact that 40% of our treated water is being wasted in the ground, or about the companies I mentioned. It is ironic that the Minister can quote from what the Commission has to state about the principle of the polluter paying, how water meters play an instrumental role in the Water Framework Directive, etc.
However, when the Commission tells us to accept €13 billion from Apple, we say: "We cannot accept that. We will go to the courts in Europe and we will challenge that." This happens with Apple, one of the biggest companies in the world, but the Government cannot challenge what the Commissioner says in regard to water.
It was people power which enabled a Bill on public ownership in the Constitution to come before the Dáil and not be arrogantly dismissed. It will be people power that will ensure that charges, the commodification of water and water poverty will not come onto the agenda in the future.
I call Deputy Mattie McGrath who is sharing time with Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice.
I am happy to speak on this issue. Having watched the debate and the prolonged activity, I was as aghast and bewildered as many of the public were at how long this has gone on. The Minister spoke about the recommendations of the independent commission. It proposed that the funding of water services for normal domestic and personal use should be out of taxation and that excessive or wasteful use of water should be paid for directly by the user at tariffs determined by the CER. The CER has an abysmal record in dealing with gas price hikes, the ESB and everything else. The independent commission recommended that excessive or wasteful use of water should be discouraged by charging for such use and, therefore, be consistent with the polluter pays principle, with which we all agree.
The Minister went on to take account of all he heard from Big Phil, the man who created this monster, and the people in Europe. He referred to maintaining Irish Water as a single utility structure for the delivery of our water services, increased funding certainty for future investment in water infrastructure, a conservation-based approach to using meters, a charging system that is fair for households and that encourages sustainable consumption patterns, and - here is the sting in the tail - equitable treatment for people who currently pay for their domestic water through group water schemes, as well as for those households who have already paid water bills.
Here is the problem. I salute this cohort of people, as I have done before in this House. They were the pioneers who went out and created the group water schemes from the bottom to the top of Ireland. This was when they were drawing water with horses and carts, as I did myself, to feed their families and their animals. These are the people who are bewildered with all this going on and they are not being taken into account at all. What is the Minister doing to them? In the past couple of years he has stripped away the grant aid they could get.
We have not.
Statistics were released to me in a response to a parliamentary question last December by the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, regarding the amount paid to group water scheme operators which confirmed the absolute need to introduce exemptions in any future water charging regime. Where are the exemptions? My parliamentary question showed there was a massive drop in grant payments issued by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to group water schemes and private well owners from 2011 to 2016. In 2011, the Department funded all local authorities to administer the rural water programme to the tune of €70 million but by 2016 that amount had dropped to just under €21 million. That is an astonishing gap of almost €50 million which needs to be explained by the Minister, given it has happened during all this crisis and all the "can't pay, won't pay" debate.
In Tipperary alone, during the same period, there was a reduction in payments under the rural water programme from €1.953 million in 2011 to €718,000 in 2016, which is a cut of €1.2 million. We can see from the data provided that between 2015 and 2016 the amount paid to private well operators in Tipperary was down from €92,905 to €71,407. Kick in the teeth after kick in the teeth - that is what they are getting from the Government. This is the cause of huge frustration within rural society, particularly in the light of the recent proposals to impose an additional de facto water tax on this sector which is ostensibly aimed at maintaining and improving the current water infrastructure. The figures prove that more and more responsibility was being put on the group water scheme operators while less and less support was being given to them from the Department while the debate was raging here. Any national conversation we have on the water charging issue must prioritise parity of esteem for this vitally important sector within rural Ireland.
We also have other problems building in terms of the management of the water resource. In 2016, I asked the Minister to explain this and we now have the figures. These people have been cut and cut. Here we are tonight talking about all we did and did not do, and all the Minister's aspirations. I hear it said 92% will not pay anything and the remaining 8% might be penalised, but they will get time to fix their leaks. The group schemes have to go out and fix their own leaks. They mind the water because they know how costly it is. The man who has a well in his back yard which gets polluted must pay for his filters, must pay for the pumping costs and must replace the pump for €3,000 or €4,000. Nobody gives a toss about him in this country, apparently.
These are proud people, quiet people. The Minister will remember the grey vote that came out before with the attack on the medical cards. They could come out again very easily because they are disgusted with what has gone on in the past couple of years. They are disgusted with the people who do not want to pay anything and who have now won the battle. They are disgusted with the main political parties twisting and turning, and all their PR and stunts. They pay everything. They pay their general taxation too and they get nothing for it. They have to repair their own pumps and their own wells and look after their own children. If the wells get contaminated with effluent, as they do, they must be treated and sorted out but the grant aid has been diminished by the same Government.
This has been a monster from day one, created by Phil Hogan and then perpetrated by the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly - the AK-47 - who did not even have the good manners to come in tonight to contribute to the House. He ran away, hiding like a scalded cat. He is pontificating on what he can do. This is a disgrace perpetrated on the people of rural Ireland, who have carried the can for everything and who pay for roads and everything else. We in the Rural Independent Group intend to support those people. We are going to fight tooth and nail in order that the Minister gives them some semblance of respect for the way they pay for the provision of their own water not just for themselves, but for neighbours, schools and other places. They have done this since the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The pioneers of the water schemes sank their own wells and now they are discarded as if they do not exist. We have all this talk about fairness and equality. We had a referendum two years ago on equality for all. Where is the equality for the people I represent? The Minister represents a few of them as there are a few out his way also.
Has the Deputy read the report?
Then there are the farmers and the small businesses such as funeral parlours and hairdressers. They all have to pay for water and the prices are going to be doubled and tripled for them.
They are not.
They will have to carry the can again, no matter the business. Schools might get it for free but shops and other businesses will have to pay for water. The cost is going to be doubled and tripled to pay for the charade the Government has continued on with for the past two years. It is just silly. The ordinary, plain people of Ireland must hump off or do what they like. People with polluted wells must buy bottled water but there is no grant aid. If they have sick children, they must buy bottled water. If they are afraid for their well, there is not even an allowance to get it tested. They must leave our county of Tipperary and go to Limerick to have their wells tested, for which they must pay €50 or €60. I rest my case, but I believe they have been abused and misused by those in this House.
I thank the Rural Independent Group for sharing time.
The people in the group water schemes have been basically neglected in the past few years, although the Minister said earlier they were not. As I am chairman of a scheme, I know the reality is that the subvention has been cut in order that those in the schemes had to go to members to get more money. They have been pushed forwards and backwards for the past two years and they did not know where they were going. If the Minister is to treat them properly, at a minimum he will have to increase the subvention by €100 per house to treat them equally with everybody else. Unless that happens, it is no good to the group water schemes.
Will the people in rural Ireland have to pay their taxes on their work, as they do, and then on top of that pay for their septic tanks? We should bear in mind that the water in and the water out are going to be free. However, for those with their own septic tanks, any problem with the tank will cost up to €10,000. The Constitution states we will treat all citizens equally. Are we going to make sure they are treated equally in a fair society? I have no problem if we have to pay something in taxes. However, if we are going to pay it in taxes, we have to make sure the people right around rural parts of Ireland are treated fairly. In addition, those with their own private wells have their own pumps and have put in their own chlorination and filtering systems. In what way are they covered in the new system that will be brought in?
I advise everybody to go to a sewage treatment plant and a water treatment plant. Let us forget about charging or not charging, but anybody who does not believe in a meter is codding themselves and does not know anything about water. I will give a simple statistic. In one group water scheme 950 cu. m. was being used per week and, with the help of the meters, it was brought down to 375 cu. m.
That has meant less electricity, the addition of less chlorine and less work for people to do. In all such schemes around the country, people are doing this voluntarily. I have no problem paying through general taxation, but we cannot be treating those I describe completely differently.
I welcome the Minister's acknowledgment of the group water schemes. Irrespective of where the money is to come from, the Minister has now made a commitment in the House that there will be no charge and a levy for excess use. Whoever produced the figures on the excess was obviously not doing the mathematics very well, for the simple reason that it amounts to 90 cu. m. per person. On a group water scheme, a family of two adults and two children uses on average – one can go from the highs to the lows – between 75 cu. m and 120 cu. m. We are, however, going to give 90 cu. m multiplied by four, which is 360 cu. m.
Yes, it is in the excess. If one adds the litres and multiplies the sum to take a year into account, one realises those are the facts that emerge. I have always said there should be an allowance for water but if people waste water beyond that, there is obviously a leak. People do not genuinely waste water but 90% of most leaks are from what we call the stopcock to the house. Is Irish Water now to be moping around houses trying to find leaks? Anyone who says a district meter will solve the problem obviously has not learned about water.
I am sharing my time with Deputy Eamon Ryan.
After years of wrangling, grandstanding, fake fights and false bravado, we have a report. Since the day the Opposition walked out of this Chamber en masse in December 2013, the inability of the Government and particularly its predecessor to listen to voices that were clearly pointing out what the Chief Whip, Deputy Regina Doherty, summed up earlier this week as an epic cock-up has been evident. The voices were ignored while we were preached to about waste. Even today, we are hearing about waste. Yes, there is water lost and there are those who waste water, but they comprise a small number in the overall scheme of things. Most water is lost through leaks.
When I think of Irish Water and waste I think about exorbitant consultant fees, the yoga classes and the gilt-edged bonuses. Everything about Irish Water screamed waste as it set out on its journey using consultants to turn citizens into customers. In the best systems in the world, one still will not get below a leakage rate of 20% to 25%. The reality is that water pipes leak.
Before Irish Water was established, local authorities used a particular method to calculate unaccounted-for water. That system factored in an amount that could be expected to be lost both on the public and private sides. Irish Water came along and totally changed the method of calculation. Therefore, one cannot make direct comparisons with what happened in the local authority regime. The two are completely different.
In the case of a leak, a cost-benefit analysis is very often completed on the public side. One is not going to dig up a road if the analysis does not prove there is a savings benefit to the disruption. Similarly, if an old-age pensioner finds he or she has a leak under the path, driveway or garden, must he or she face extensive costs to remedy it? It may not be feasible for him or her. I acknowledge the report states the first-fix policy is expected to remain but there will be other incidents after the first fix. Most unaccounted-for water is lost through leaks.
We accept that water services need significant additional investment but, as with other public services, this should come through the Exchequer. The money spent on Irish Water so far would have been far better invested in much-needed upgrades to the piping system. Some of the pipelines date back to Victorian times.
Let us not forget in all of this the very lucrative and sometimes wasteful contracts that were put in place and that have still some life left. I wonder what the intention is in regard to the Abtran call centre contract, for example, in the context of what is occurring now. That contract was awarded in 2013 for a period of five years up to 2018 and with the option of an extension of another two years at the discretion of Irish Water. The potential liabilities from such contracts are obviously of serious concern. People will be concerned that they will become a charge or that the Government subsidies to the quango that is Irish Water will have to continue to rise to fund such contracts. The Abtran contracts for the call centre, the original metering contracts, many of which were awarded to Sierra, a subsidiary of Siteserv, the €80 million on consultants and the PPS numbers issue are all reasons people found it absolutely impossible to accept Irish Water. If this report is a fudge, one will know about it sooner rather than later. At the very least, there should be a full and open financial review of Irish Water and the related contractual commitments.
We feel strongly that the public utility is needed but it has to be backed by a constitutional referendum. That is the only way to restore any confidence in a utility that will exist at national level. That must be done.
The Green Party and green movement in general are based on one simple, clear idea, namely, that if we can be efficient in our use of natural resources, we not only be successful in being sustainable in a world of scarce resources but also secure because we are facing an insecure world. The climate will change. Some areas in this country face flooding and huge water management problems and other areas will have a water shortage. When that day comes and the tap does not run, we will be cursing the fact that we did not manage this water issue correctly in the past three or four years.
The bigger picture is that to manage scarce resources, one has to monitor, measure and place a value on a resource. One has to discourage waste. I am glad there is some progress being made. I wish we had started three or four years ago with some of the principles we are finally getting to. We should have a referendum to insert into the Constitution a provision stipulating there is no possibility that the public water supply could be privatised. I would like us to go further. We have nothing in the Constitution about respecting the environment. Perhaps there is wording we could come up with that would embed in our Constitution a statement that we value our land, water and air, as exists in some other countries. That is important for us.
I am also glad we have come to the position that there is a right to water and that everyone will be entitled to it to meet their basic needs. It is not a commodity like other goods. It is not like electricity or telecommunications infrastructure; it is essential for life. In this country, where we have such access to water, it should be included as a basic right. I am glad we have come to this conclusion.
I am glad, even though the system is not perfect, that at least in this last deal that has been hammered out there is an agreement that all new builds will be metered. How could we not do so? How can people argue metering is a bad thing? If we do not measure, we do not value, as Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice said. I am glad this is realised and I hope that over time, as people opt in and see the sense of this, metering will start to become the norm and we will construct apartments in the way that has been provided for.
I am glad that there is, at last, a majority in this House that agrees we should have some charge on waste. Most people are not naturally wasteful but a charge on waste is the way to achieve conservation and reduce the amount of money we have to spend. This saves us money.
The main reason we did not support the report coming through yesterday is that we are concerned the actual mechanism to implement the charge on waste, find the leaks, cut down on waste and support conservation is not going to work or not going to work as best it might. I do not want to be political about it but this is all about politics. I fear that the use of the 2007 Act was just political cover for Fianna Fáil because it was fearful of Sinn Féin, which in turn was in need of political cover when it changed its position following Deputy Paul Murphy getting elected in Tallaght. That is what it is all about; we all know that. I do not believe that is a particularly clever outcome in terms of how we introduce the charge.
There may be some legislative mechanism and the Minister will show it is not a fines based system without all the court and other difficulties. I do not see how that will be possible using the 2007 Act. That was the reason my party stated it could not support it. My party supports the other principles I have mentioned and I hope we can get some sort of consensus here on those major blocks in order that perhaps we might start to move on.
I have a number of regrets. The first is that we are doing this because the EU states we have to do it. We should do it because it is right that we start to treat nature and our natural resources properly. I regret also that the lawyers have been all over this. I am mortified when I watch the committee. Parties are now bringing lawyers into Oireachtas committees. Where will that lead? I am told nine different legal opinions were presented in the committee. Our job is to set the law and the policy. Let the lawyers interpret it thereafter. Our job is not to abdicate our responsibilities to lawyers and ask them to become politicians because they are not as good at it.
We are the politicians.
Yes. We, as politicians, are better placed to decide what the policy is and what broad legal approach we should take. It is the lawyers who interpret it. If it is not constitutional, the lawyers come back and tell us that but we should not abdicate our responsibilities to the legal system just because we have got ourselves into a political knot. We need to untie it. We need to win back the confidence of people. We will need to share resources, monitor their use and use everything efficiently, not only water but energy, raw materials and space. That is our big challenge. If we get that right, we will be an incredibly successful country. We are blessed with a natural environment that is rich in so many ways. Let us use it wisely.
That completes the first round. We will move on to the second round. The list of speakers comprises Deputies Thomas Pringle, Mary Butler, John Lahart, Seamus Healy, John Brady in substitution for Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, Jonathan O'Brien, Kate O'Connell and Martin Heydon. Deputy Pringle.
The Minister, in his statement this evening, said we should remind ourselves of the process by which the committee reached this point. That is a good place to start. On Thursday last, the committee had a final draft report and received legal opinion on it, which gave it the green light. In the legal opinion, particularly in section 4, the barrister stated, with reference to incentives and penalties, that these will assist in attempting to persuade the Commission that the purpose and intent of Article 9 has been complied with. The barrister added, as he had advised previously, that it would be a matter for the drafters of the legislation and the Legislature to ensure any laws passed by Dáil Éireann were in compliance with the directive. Lo and behold, in respect of the exact same document, he came back on Tuesday with a completely different legal opinion, recommending the insertion of three new paragraphs and totally changing the emphasis of the report. In relation to metering, on Thursday last he stated that while there have been some changes made to this section, they do not alter the advices previously furnished. Lo and behold, on Tuesday he came back stating that paragraph 7.5 had been substantially changed and the changes, in his view, caused difficulty. How did he arrive at that point, on the exact same document, with two separate legal advices? He told the committee the only difference was that he got a letter from Fine Gael. That was the only difference between Thursday and Tuesday. It is obvious what happened. He was got to. The advice was changed to facilitate it. It was changed to give the Minister and the Commission everything they wanted. That is what has been arrived at. That is why we ended up having 12 or 13 votes yesterday at the committee, namely, to try to get back to the report, which the Thursday before was legally sound and which all of a sudden was not legally sound, according to the same legal adviser.
The difference was that over the weekend Fianna Fáil marched up the hill and huffed and puffed, and the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, faced it down. It is now Coveney, two, and Cowen, zero. Coveney faced them down. Fianna Fáil backed down, climbed back down the hill again, and came in and voted against everything it had voted in favour of the week before in the draft report, which, based on the legal advice to the committee, was legally sound. That is what happened.
It was interesting that the Minister, in his contribution, indicated he was now merely a messenger for the Commissioner and that the report reflects what the Commission stated it wanted. It is also interesting - we will have to look at this closely when the legislation comes through - that the legislation will merely push it all over to the CER and the CER will do the dirty work on behalf of it. The Commission has stated the charge for excessive or wasteful use of water should be dissuasive. That is more than merely a charge for water. According to the Commission, that is a dissuasive level at which to penalise those who end up in a position where they have used an excessive amount of water.
The completion of metering will be instrumental in this regard. The metering programme will take a bit longer. In metering new builds, by 2030 we will have an additional 300,000 meters installed across the country, which leaves that back door open to the Minister to reintroduce charges. That is the back door that we all will fight against and oppose. Fianna Fáil has stated it has ended the failed water charges regime. It may have ended the previous failed water charges regime but it is introducing a new future failure.
Fianna Fáil has made much of the fact that the 133 litres per person per day is included in the report but it is significantly weaker than it was in the report we had on Thursday last because section 4.4 states, "The Committee recommends that the CER should determine average consumption levels setting the threshold level at 1.7 times the average household use", which Fine Gael pursued religiously on Thursday last as being 127 cu. m per year. The section goes on to state, "The legislation should also provide for appropriate allowances for extraordinary circumstances such as medical conditions and above the average household size that falls beyond the threshold allowance and taking [only] into consideration that the average usage per person is 133 litres per person per day." That is significantly weaker than it was in the report on Thursday last. Interestingly, Fianna Fáil withdrew its amendment to allow Deputy Noel Grealish's go forward. Perhaps that was to give it a bit of cover when it blows up in its face.
I say to the Members who spoke in favour of the group water schemes that they should read section 6.2 of the report on group water schemes. I thank the Right2Water Deputies for insisting that the section was inserted into the report.
The end of water charges for 92% of Irish people, as recommended by the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, is proof that debate, discussion and dialogue is much more beneficial to the interests of the people Deputies seek to serve than political posturing. The Fine Gael-Labour Party water charges regime failed and cost the State money - €22 million in 2015. The legislation was rushed through Government and the Dáil on the basis of claims which were systematically dismantled during the committee's work.
We heard the point about the Government Chief Whip twice tonight and I will not repeat it. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, labelled water charges a dead cat. The list goes on. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, stated that it was a rushed, badly planned and appallingly implemented policy, and there no disagreement there.
I was delighted to hear Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett state that we had abolished water charges. The Deputy is not here at present but that is what he stated.
To clear up a bit of fake news we heard earlier, it was Fine Gael which proposed, in its NewERA document in 2009, produced a year before the troika came to town, that it would set up a new semi-State company called Irish Water. I remember the weekend when a lot of messages were tweeted and put up on Facebook. I watched with interest Deputy Mary Lou McDonald state she would pay water charges but perhaps it was when Deputy Paul Murphy won the by-election that all that changed. We all can talk about fake news. We all can score points.
Thanks to the work of Fianna Fáil this regime has now been abolished. In its general election manifesto, Fianna Fáil promised to abolish Irish Water and end water charges. We agreed to compromise on this in order to ensure the country had a stable Government.
The report has recommended that the failed water charging regime put forward by Fine Gael, and let us not forget the Labour Party, is now over. The vast majority of households will no longer face water charges but those who wilfully and excessively abuse water will be fined.
Many on the hard left of Irish politics have sought to claim that the report fails to deliver what Fianna Fáil sought. The following questions should be asked of them and if anybody would like to answer them, I have no problem. Have charges been eliminated for the vast majority of households? Will regular bills for water stop coming through people's letter boxes? Are we tackling those who abuse the system? Have we put in place a system that ensures Ireland meets its European obligations?
The answer is a clear yes and a clear vindication of Fianna Fáil's position before, during and after the 2016 general election. We did not win the election last year, but we decided to be constructive and use our mandate for the maximum benefit of voters. As part of the agreement we reached to facilitate the establishment of a Government, we set in train the events that led to yesterday's report. Those who sat on the sidelines and did nothing should not complain about those who worked with others to deliver on our manifesto commitments. Too many politicians talk a good game, but when push comes to shove, those on the hard left are too comfortable in hurling abuse from the ditch rather than getting stuck in. I am not afraid to get stuck in and do what is needed to achieve results.
I will be absolutely clear. I believe ensuring at least 92% of households will not be charged for water, making sure the small minority who abuse the system are addressed and securing a referendum on the public ownership of Irish Water is a good result. Yesterday we secured in writing the deal originally agreed to two weeks ago before the Fine Gael leadership race intervened. The deal was praised by Deputy Eoin Ó Broin on "Morning Ireland" on Thursday, 31 March, and the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, on 30 March; we believe, therefore, that all parties should be well satisfied with it.
The report recommends the following key points. Existing charges will be abolished. I am sorry that Deputy Mick Barry has left the Chamber because I wish to be quite clear: the definition of "excessive use" is 1.7 multiplied by 133 l per person per day for a household of 2.6. Water services will be funded by the Exchequer. Households that have paid their bills will be refunded. There will be no future metering programme for existing homes. A sum of €465 million has been spent on metering, with 58% of houses metered. As a party, we cannot stand over a further spend of between €300 million and €400 million. Finalising the State's position on water charges, as we have done, allows us all to focus on the other pertinent issues challenging the country, namely, housing, schools, health care and protecting ourselves from the risks associated with Brexit. The process from now is absolutely clear. It is the obligation of the Government to draft the changes quickly for inclusion in legislation to finally put behind it years of an arrogant, badly devised mish-mash of a water policy.
I ask the House to imagine what life was like under what was an unassailable Fine Gael and Labour Party Government when it came to charging for water. I have fought more elections than most in the House in the past three years - local elections in 2014, a by-election in 2015 and a general election last year. I was, therefore, close to the evolution of public opinion in the evolving water charges debate. As I have said before, something that had the potential to be as groundbreaking as the establishment of the ESB came, to quote the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, to be something rushed, badly planned and appallingly implemented. From what could have been a dynamic, smart and successful State utility with public support came in the end, to quote the Chief Whip, a cock-up and a catastrophe. It failed to win the moral support of the people who, whether the Minister cares to admit it or not, were justifiably suspicious that his game plan was to fatten a tax-funded State utility and sell it off. During the local elections of 2014 it became clear that the Government's proposed allowances were mean, with no account being taken of ability to pay. The Government terrified seniors and frightened families with students and non-working adults, for whom no allowances were made. It is very difficult to believe now that there were no waivers or medical allowances provided for in this context. Grandparents were frightened they would not be able to care for their grandchildren without exceeding the daily allowance the Government had set.
When it came to water charges, the previous Government was austere, mean and clinical. This meanness, indifference and arrogance was epitomised most by the then Minister Phil Hogan's threat to cut people's water supplies to a trickle. The previous Fine Gael-led Government had the largest majority in the history of the State and still managed to do 12 U-turns on water charges. It was Deputy Alan Kelly who rendered redundant the water meters on which €500 million of taxpayers' money had been spent. I ask the House to remember that the Government spent income tax, motor tax and local property tax receipts in the establishment of Irish Water. Water charges were introduced at a time when USC was applied in all its force, when property tax was applied and when VAT rates had been increased, levying an average increase of €2,000 per annum on the average family and household. Water charges were simply a step too far.
Sinn Féin is the carpetbagger when it comes to the Right2Water campaign. I fought the 2015 Dublin South-West by-election, in advance of which Deputies Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty said they were paying their water charges. They lost that by-election. Then it came to the 2016 general election and there is one party that made a commitment to the electorate in advance of it and one party that has delivered on that commitment. We achieved the suspension of water charges. No other party in this House can claim credit for this. The commission headed by Mr. Duffy followed, as did the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. We can, therefore, go back to our constituencies - I can go back to Tallaght and the constituency of Dublin South-West - and say we made a commitment, that we kept our promise and that water charges have been abolished.
The last word must appropriately go to the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar. He has said there can be no victory for Fine Gael in the abolition of water charges. Common sense has prevailed; politics has won and Seán Lemass would be proud.
In the general election of 2016 the electorate democratically decided to abolish water charges and Irish Water in electing 90 Deputies committed to abolition. However, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Green Party and the Endapendents have shamefully rejected the democratically expressed wish of the people. Yesterday Fianna Fáil caved in on water charges, ably assisted by the Labour Party and the Green Party. Water charges can now be phased back into operation over time. The intention is probably to do so after the next general election, but the Minister should make no mistake about it: the Right2Water campaign has not gone away and people power can and will stop any attempt to reintroduce water charges. Yesterday Fianna Fáil voted against amendments to recommendations on water charges which it had proposed last week. On all key row-back amendments the Labour Party and the Green Party voted with Fianna Fáil at the committee. Then the Labour Party and the Green Party, hardline supporters of charging for water generally, cynically voted against the final report.
It is important to recognise that the gains won by the Right2Water campaign have been retained. There will be no immediate return to general water charges, those who did not pay will not be pursued and those who did pay through fear or bullying will receive refunds. The metering of existing homes will remain halted. The anti-water charges campaign has also achieved an increased allowance and equity for those in group schemes. The recommendation that a referendum be held to change the Constitution to prevent the privatisation of water services also remains. However, the U-turn amendments make domestic water a tradeable commodity under EU law. Payments for excessive use to Irish Water Limited commodify water. This will facilitate the phasing back in of water charges over time. The Government can reduce the free allowance, thus making increasing amounts of water chargeable. This may also be used to prevent the holding of an anti-privatisation referendum or to change the wording as new private suppliers of water are entitled to enter the market under EU competition law. This, of course, was also facilitated by Fianna Fáil in agreeing with Fine Gael that the abolition of Irish Water would be outside the terms of reference of the Oireachtas committee. In addition, Fianna Fáil has conceded that the metering of new builds and refurbishments will continue in a further U-turn by the party. Fianna Fáil has proved again that it simply cannot be trusted. Right2Water campaigners will continue to campaign with the same vigour against these U-turns as we campaigned against water charges to achieve the gains made.
We already pay for water and will not pay a second time. Fine Gael, the Independents, the Labour Party, the Green Party and Fianna Fáil must not be allowed to restore water charges. They will also attempt possibly to increase PAYE, VAT, or both, to make us pay for water a second time. We are already paying for water services through existing general taxation but the money has been diverted to other purposes, including tax concessions to the very wealthy. The financial assets, shares and bank deposits of the Irish super-rich are now €35 billion more than at peak boom levels in 2006 and €70 billion above bust levels in 2008. Those huge untaxed gains are due to the sacrifices and hardship endured by the blameless majority of the people. It is time the Irish super-rich gave back something. I will propose in the Dáil that significant taxes be imposed on those assets to pay for improved public services. There must be no increase in taxation such as PAYE, VAT or motor tax to make us pay a second time. I will also advocate at a legislative stage in the Dáil that Irish Water be abolished and its functions returned to local authorities and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
The Right2Water campaign will continue to organise and to fight against the water charges. Fine Gael and the Independents, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and the Green Party are hell bent on using water charges and additional taxation to soak citizens in order to protect massive incomes and the assets of the Irish super-rich. We will continue to resist this agenda into the future.
The irony is not lost on me that Fianna Fáil members bring themselves in here like knights in shining armour to save the day and bring an end to water charges. The irony is that this is the same political party that signed the deal with the troika that brought about the water charges in the first place. Fianna Fáil is the same political party that presided in government over cuts to local authorities that starved them of essential funding to put in place the infrastructure to deal with the 47% of treated water that is lost in the leaking and antiquated infrastructure across the State. It is ironic to hear Fianna Fáil come in here and lecture us on what it has done while it forgets its past.
What about Sinn Féin’s past?
This is a long running saga that has been ongoing for three years. We know the grubby little deal that was put in place between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, kicking the issue down the road to this point to ensure that we did not go back to the polls and have another election in order that Fianna Fáil could have its say while propping up Fine Gael in government.
It is important that we remember that Deputies were given a mandate in the election. The people had their say and they gave the majority of Deputies in this Chamber a mandate to go and legislate to abolish water charges. We are constantly lectured by both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties about democracy and the principles of democracy. I will not take lectures from either political party, as a member of the oldest political party in this Dáil, Sinn Féin - the oldest political party on the island.
The Deputy should stop. He should be quiet.
Deputy John Brady is not. We have more in common with the original Sinn Féin than his party does.
I remind both political parties that democracy does not stop on ballot day. It does not stop when people go out to vote. Democracy is following through on the mandate that all politicians have been given.
It adheres to the Constitution.
I hope that one lesson will be learned by the people out there who loaned Fianna Fáil their vote in the polls last year, that whether in government or in opposition - or in between in the little arrangement it has made with Fine Gael - Fianna Fáil simply cannot be trusted. It signed up to the water charges with the troika. It was in favour of water charges.
Sinn Féin was for water charges.
Then it decided it was against water charges. Then the party flipped again and decided it wanted to suspend water charges for perhaps three years.
Is that a problem for the Deputy?
The current position is that Fianna Fáil is facilitating the comeback of water charges through the back door.
Is getting rid of water charges a problem?
Deputy John Brady should be allowed to speak without interruption.
The flip-flop party is a better definition of Fianna Fáil.
What is Sinn Féin's policy in Northern Ireland?
A mandate was given to Fianna Fáil in the election. People did loan Fianna Fáil their vote and there was a clear mandate given to abolish water charges.
Vote for the motion so.
At the time some Fianna Fáil candidates, including Deputies, had election posters saying a vote for Fianna Fáil was a vote to abolish water charges.
Sinn Féin is going to vote against the report.
I hope the electorate will remember that whenever the next election is held.
The people will be watching Sinn Féin vote against the report.
Quack, quack, quack.
One could ask what has brought us to this point. It is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people right across the State engaged in civil disobedience, protest and took to the streets in their tens of thousands. We had one of the largest, most successful mass movement organisations this country has seen in many years – the Right2Water movement - which mobilised on nine separate occasions right across the State, bringing thousands upon thousands of people out onto the streets. I was proud to stand with the people in the Right2Water movement in Wicklow when we engaged in such protests. There have been some fantastic results for the Right2Water movement as a result of the process. Refunds were secured and those who were bullied and cajoled into paying water charges will be repaid. An end was secured to the metering programme in existing dwellings. It must be borne in mind that €480 million of taxpayers' money has been wasted in the process to date.
As it stands, we essentially have a flip back to the original position. Fianna Fáil originally said it wanted to suspend charges and now the water allowances are back in place.
I call on the Deputy to conclude. His colleague is next.
I will just finish on this point, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. People are not fools. They are watching this debate.
I call Deputy Jonathan O'Brien.
They are watching Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and people will be back on the street in their tens of thousands and they will hold Fianna Fáil to account.
A total of 4% of households will be back.
As a member of the committee, I pay tribute to and commend the Chairman of the committee, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, who I believe acted impartially in all of his deliberations. It was not an easy task for him given the very diverse views within the committee.
The committee met on 22 occasions. I also pay tribute to all of the members of the committee. Regardless of their political affiliation or lack thereof, all 20 members came to the meetings to try to reach a consensus.
It was probably very clear from the outset that we were not going to reach a consensus but everyone came to it hoping that we could. Everyone came to it with very genuine intentions and it is only fair that we recognise that point. It is only fair also that we recognise that at the end of the 22 meetings we had recommendations composed of eight sections. In the current back and forth of the debate, we are not focusing on what we have all agreed. There were only four paragraphs in the report which divided the committee. If those four paragraphs could have been resolved, we would have had a report before this House that had the unanimous support of the committee. While they are only four paragraphs, they go to the very heart of the debate on the future funding of water services.
Some people will say this is a defeat for the anti-water charges movement. I do not agree. Some of the provisions in the report are welcome. The referendum is to be welcomed, as is the fairness and equity. People who paid willingly or were bullied into paying charges in the past will be refunded. The issue of conservation is something on which we are all agreed. However, there were areas where we could not agree.
It is not for me to judge whether Fianna Fáil did a flip flop. I have an opinion on it, but it will not be me making that judgment. As the general public will make the judgment at the next general election, I will leave it up to them. They are intelligent enough to know what each political party promised before an election and what they will deliver. However, the proof will be in the baking of the cake, which is the legislation. There are differences of opinion even among those who supported the report. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supported it but there are clear differences about how we measure water. There is an analysis from Fianna Fáil that it will be done on an individual basis, regardless of the household composition, while it is clear that Fine Gael is looking to the household composition. There will be challenges in drafting the legislation.
This debate will continue when the legislation is brought before the House. The campaign to abolish water charges in total is not over, because the abolition of water charges has not been achieved. In 90% of cases people will not pay for water, but some people will continue to pay. The excessive use charge is obviously a big issue that divided the committee. The metering programme also divided it. Last Thursday, there was a consensus on metering which I believed would have complied with the Water Framework Directive. That was the legal advice given to us that day. Unfortunately, that legal advice changed over the weekend. I will not question or second guess the senior counsel, but one cannot argue with the fact that we received two sets of differing legal opinion from the individual on the same report. He is the only person who can explain why he did that.
I do not wish a narrative to be conveyed that this is a defeat for the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets over the last three years. There has been some progress and some achievement. It is the job of Right2Water Deputies to ensure the matters we support, such as the referendum, the equity and fairness, the refunds and the conservation measures, are reflected in the legislation. We will vigorously oppose the provisions we do not agree with when the legislation is brought before the House.
First, I pay tribute to my colleagues on the water committee. It was a tough task and we all embraced it. I believe we have reached a solution of sorts. Initially, I wish to correct the statement made by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, who insists on making the false assertion that there are no water charges in Scotland. Scottish people pay an average of €400 per year in water charges. They have an opt-in system for metering, which usually reduces their bills. It is important to make that point.
Some Members in this Chamber do not appear to deal in facts and disregard experts - experts who have no vested interest but who work in their fields and on behalf of this country. I genuinely hope the people who disregard the experts never need an expert. There are times in one's life when one wants the lad who has done the heart operation previously, not the lad who googled it.
My party and I do not live by the philosophy of take what one can and give nothing back. It is one of our core principles. I also pay tribute to Irish Water as a utility. It is worth noting that it has fixed 28,000 leaks and that 70 million litres of water a day are supplied to 200,000 homes. That is a good thing. It is probably unusual for a Deputy from Dublin Bay South to talk about cutting roads illegally in the middle of the night. My father is almost 80 years old so he will hardly be arrested for it now. I spent many years doing things like that, drawing water from wells to feed cattle and breaking ice on water barrels to feed animals on farms. As a major part of me is rooted in rural Ireland, it is important to put my view on the record tonight, and I assume it is the view of Fine Gael, that people in rural Ireland, whether they are on group water schemes or have their own wells, will be treated no less favourably than people in urban centres.
I could give a history lesson, as some Members have tonight, but I see this as a forward measure. Deputy Eamon Ryan has left the Chamber, but he made an important point. This is about doing the right thing, and not because Europe made us do it. It is about aspiring to have state-of-the-art infrastructure for water and to put under the ground the foundations that will support what this Minister is doing and what he plans to put above the ground, which will complement Fine Gael's vision for the future of our great country. I will work with the Fine Gael Party to get this legislation through and to make it fit for purpose to secure the future funding of domestic water services for this country, something that has been neglected in the past.
Inné, rinneamar an rud ceart. Tá béim ar uisce mhuintir na hÉireann agus infreastruchtúr uisce mhuintir na hÉireann a chosaint ar son gach duine sa tír seo. Rinneamar an rud ceart inné agus déanfaimid an rud ceart amárach.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this after four months as a member of the committee. During the debate I used my telephone to google the definition of the word "spin" because I was struck by some of the earlier contributions. It is defined as a heavily biased portrayal of an event or situation. There has been much spin in the Chamber tonight, as one probably would expect, from those of different political persuasions. There have been heavily biased portrayals of events in the last four months and of parties' different positions in the last decade or so, with people trying to tell us that their current position is what it always was.
Before the expert commission report and throughout the proceedings of the committee on the future funding of domestic water and wastewater, the Fine Gael position was very clear. I am delighted there is no need for spin on our side. When other parties opposed us on the need for an excess usage levy we made it clear that we simply could not support them. When others said there would not be mandatory metering in new builds, we let it be known that we could not support that. When others talked of penalties and criminalising people for using excessive amounts of water we said that it was okay if people wanted to use excessive amounts of water, but that they should pay for it. If it is far above the average allowance they should make a contribution for that, not expect their neighbour or somebody else to pay for it. One pays according to the excess one uses.
The core issues for us last week were legal concerns. The legal opinions that were returned to the committee vindicated our concerns. Four key Fine Gael principles relating to the future funding of domestic water have been achieved. Meters will go into new builds and apartments will be bulk metered. People who use water excessively will pay for that excess usage. When one considers that 8% of households in this country are using one third of all treated water, which is very expensive to produce, it is right for all of us to wish to see that figure drop. Many of those people do not even realise they are using that amount, due to leakages in the ground. Securing the future of Irish Water as a single utility is another key principle and certainty of funding to sustain our water services into the future is crucial. I believe the results of this report and the work we did are of great benefit to Ireland in terms of the environmental and economic sustainability of the public water system into the future.
At all times Fine Gael has insisted that it could not leave the country open to very significant fines for being in breach of European directives but, as has been said earlier by my colleague and a couple of other contributors, this is also the right thing to do. Supporting the "polluter pays" principle is the right thing to do for our environment. Fine Gael is working towards achieving an outcome that is honest and fair. This report is honest and fair to the people, to the taxpayer and to the Members of this House who will ultimately vote on it tomorrow.
I take the opportunity to acknowledge the role of my Fine Gael colleagues on this committee and thank them. We worked very much as a team. Even beyond the six Members on the committee there was a number of other people who substituted at times when a member could not make it. It really was a team effort. I personally learned a lot from it throughout the process. I would like to acknowledge the chairman, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, and his staff for the unwavering commitment to being an honest broker in a difficult set of circumstances. I also acknowledge the clerks and staff of the committee, the staff of the Department and the Fine Gael staff behind the teams who were always there as a support us when we needed them.
As I say I learned a lot from my time on the committee. One of the key moments, for me, that I will always remember was the visit to Irish Water headquarters. Very few of the committee members went out that day. To see, at first hand, the progress and commitment of the staff and management in Irish Water was really an eye-opener. For all of the bad press they have got, Irish Water replaced far in excess of 800 km of piping, that had been lying in the ground for years needing to be replaced, in three years when local authorities had struggled to do it in decades.
Opposition to Irish Water and talk of reverting to more than 30 local authorities proves that Governments do not get rewarded for strategic and long-term thinking. That is a concern. That is something on which everybody in this House needs to reflect. I acknowledge the role those staff in Irish Water have played, and continue to play, in what have been very difficult circumstances as they try to work to improve our water and waste water infrastructure. I hope the certainty of funding for the utility and the certainty of its future allows those staff to get on with that work without any distractions in order that their focus can be on the 44 pinch-points the length and breadth of the country where raw sewerage or untreated water enters our water schemes.
For me, at the back of my head throughout all of this process were places like Oak Park in Narraghmore in South Kildare and Walshestown Park in Newbridge, where residents who pay big mortgages and who go out to work every day are regularly subjected to raw sewage being thrown on their greens because of the mistakes of developers in the past and because of the difficulties we have in fixing those problems. Everything that drives us in Fine Gael to fix the problems and to secure certainty into the future is with those people in mind. We want make sure we can fix all those problems of the past quickly, and make sure that we do not make the same mistakes in the future.
I acknowledge the work of the committee in the past four months. It was a very robust, in-depth debate. It did not always agree on everything, as is very clear. I think we all enjoyed the process because it was very informative. I do not think I have ever learned as much about water as I did in the last four months. We were locked into that room many a time. I know that Deputy Barry Cowen was trying to get out of that room a number of times, as were many of us, but I think what we have brought to the floor tonight is a report that we can work with. There was consensus from the majority of people who were on that committee.
Fine Gael has been consistent on water because we recognise the infrastructure that is needed to develop this country after years of under-investment. We need a sustainable water infrastructure that can support the modern economy for which we all strive.
It is very easy for the anti-everything Solidarity party to be against everything and to never come to the table with reasonable solutions. Whatever about general taxation being used to pay for normal usage, I think it is unacceptable for general taxation to pay for the household that wilfully uses excessive amounts. I do not think anybody in this country would agree to that.
I think the people have had enough when it comes to Irish Water. They want solutions. They do not want to see any more protests or marches. What they want is solutions and for those solutions to be in the ground. We need to be honest with the people. I heard commentary this morning on a radio station, that I will not mention, from a Deputy who is not here to defend himself; therefore, I will not name him. He was deliberately misleading people and using sensationalism to sell his story. He was twisting the facts and the figures, to tell people that what 8% really meant to the Irish people was that large families would pay for water. That form of misleading people, sensationalising and preying on vulnerable people is not the kind of politics to which I signed up. It is very unfortunate that somebody would be disingenuous like that.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett has also left us. He is a colleague in my own constituency and one whom I have worked well with for many years since 2004, but it is also very disingenuous for him to come in here tonight and dismiss the commentary by a very eminent professor, Gavin Barrett, who has spoken on many airwaves this week. He is somebody with expertise in European and constitutional law. It is disingenuous to just dismiss his commentary, as if it does not matter. As Deputy Kate O'Connell said, does one search for a heart surgeon on Google or does one go to somebody who has experience in these areas? I know exactly where I would take legal advice from and I do not think it would be from Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett.
I think the Deputy would also recognise the infrastructure that is required to develop the country. If I am going to be parochial, Dún Laoghaire will have the biggest growth in population in this country in the coming years. That growth has to be supported by proper, sustainable infrastructure. I am delighted that the Government has recognised that with the local infrastructure housing assistance fund and that we will be able to develop homes and communities for the people who want to live in the Dún Laoghaire constituency. It is disappointing that Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett is not thinking long term and that this is about short-term populism politics because I prefer to be honest and straight with people. I prefer to give someone a worst case scenario and to work back than to be deceptive and misleading.
This country needs, and the people need, a proper vision. They need an honest vision for the country to make sure no household is on boil-water notices, that raw sewage is not being pumped into any river in the coming years, that we can provide environments that will sustain the growth that is needed and that we can create the environment for development that is needed.
I do not want to go back over the past, but I would like to outline what Irish Water has done to date, because there was commentary earlier on the wastage in Irish Water in the past couple of years. There has been a significant increase in investment in water core infrastructure from the approximate €300 million invested by local authorities in 2013. There have been improvements to water quality and supplies. The elimination of boil notices has been prioritised, with this work resulting in the lifting of long-term boil notices affecting thousands of people. Irish water has removed the threat of contamination from four drinking water supplies in Dublin for 220,000 people. It has increased the spare supply capacity in Dublin from 2% to approximately 10% of water supplied in the region. In most European capital cities, head room is about 15%.
There has been a greater focus on reducing leakage. The Irish Water "first fix free" scheme for households has resulted in daily savings of 77 million litres by the end of the third quarter of 2016. That is equivalent to the water supply to 210,000 homes. It is developing a regional shared service approach to leakage and has set annual targets. With regard to communications to households about lead in drinking water, information has been supplied to more than 36,000 households with probable lead piping identified through the national metering programme. To say Irish Water has not done anything or has wasted money does not recognise what it has done in the past couple of years. There are many more examples, but I do not want to delay the House.
I will finish up by saying this is not about victory from any side. This is about providing a water infrastructure that the people deserve and that we as a country can develop in the way that we want to.
In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 13 April 2017.