I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Water Services Bill 2017. I want to begin by saluting the Right2Water campaign and the hundreds of thousands of people across this country who marched in every county as part of that campaign. They marched in our capital city of Dublin on many occasions. They stood up to Irish Water and to a Government that wanted to impose huge austerity on them through water charges and they won. I was proud to be part of that campaign. I was proud of the people who prevented Irish Water from installing meters on their estates. They stood up for their neighbours. They stood on meter boxes to ensure meters would not be installed. They stopped the attempt to install meters and force water charges on people who were already significantly affected by austerity. Water charges were toxic, are toxic and will be toxic in the future. I have no doubt that any future attempt to reintroduce water charges by the back door this year, in 2019 or five years down the road will be defeated again by those who are absolutely committed to ensuring they are treated properly.
People should not be forced to pay water charges because they are an unfair form of double taxation, especially at a time when very wealthy people in this country are treated differently from the ordinary man and woman in the street. During the recent years of the economic crash and the so-called "recovery" we are having at present, very wealthy people have increased their assets by more than €35 billion by comparison with the assets they had at the height of the boom. They pay absolutely no tax on that wealth.
We heard recently that this country has 850 millionaires. I was told by a former Minister for Finance that 20,000 people are earning €495,000 per annum. We have a situation where the gap between rich and poor is continuing to widen. This so-called recovery is exacerbating that divide and there is no doubt but that recent budgets, and the policy of this Government and the previous Government, have contributed to that and have resulted in ordinary people - social welfare recipients, PAYE workers, people on low incomes and poor people generally - being treated despicably but they treated very wealthy people with kid gloves and ensured they made huge fortunes in recent years. I salute all those people who came out and stood up for themselves and their neighbours and defeated Irish Water, defeated the Government and defeated these water charges.
There should be no need for this legislation because when Members returned to this Dáil after the 2016 election, 90 Deputies were committed to the abolition of Irish Water and water charges. We should have gone ahead and done what those 90 Deputies had promised the public in that general election. However, the Government wanted to be in a position to impose water charges, if not immediately then down the road. Unfortunately, Fianna Fáil, whose manifesto stated it would abolish Irish Water and water charges, let the Government off the hook and then joined it in a situation where it is now attempting to bring in water charges by the back door. There is no need for it and if we were a proper democracy and if this House had any respect for itself, it would have abolished water charges over 12 months ago when we came back after the last general election.
As a company, Irish Water is toxic. It was toxic from day one, especially when we heard the managing director of Irish Water tell the entire country on "Today with Sean O'Rourke" that it spent €50 million setting up the company by way of payments to consultants, and it has continued as it started. There is no transparency in Irish Water. It has no local offices and no local contacts. Local people who have a problem with water or wastewater services have to telephone what is effectively a receptionist who is not able to give them any information and does not know the geography of the country. Nobody, not even public representatives, can talk directly to somebody who knows the situation on the ground. That is hugely frustrating for people, particularly for those who have difficulties whether it be a leak, a sewage problem or whatever. In my experience, Irish Water has no regard for people who have to deal with it and has no regard for public representatives.
I believe Irish Water should be abolished and that its abolition should be provided for in this Bill. The abolition of Irish Water is essential for the development of water and wastewater services because it is toxic and will always be toxic. Responsibility for providing those services should be returned to local authorities, as was the case in the past, and that local authorities should be funded properly to deliver those services. Local authorities were starved of funding over recent years and that was used as a stick with which to beat them. We heard that they did not do this, that and the other. How could they do anything when they were not funded by successive Governments? Even in the good times they were not funded properly by the Government of the day.
I pay tribute to and thank the local authority staff who are effectively carrying out the work of Irish Water on the ground. Only for those staff, the situation would be much worse, and people's frustration and anger would be much worse. Unfortunately, some local authority workers have to deal with anger and frustration from people who are clients of Irish Water and who need work to be done by Irish Water. I am aware that in Tipperary, and I am sure it is the case across the country as I have heard it from other Deputies, were it not for the local authority staff who are now under contract to Irish Water, the situation in local areas would be much more difficult. Irish Water should be abolished and responsibility for the services provided by Irish Water returned to local authorities.
This Bill has no reference whatsoever to the question of a referendum to put water in public ownership. This is something to which, supposedly, every Member of this House has agreed. The Joint Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services of which I was a member unanimously agreed on the question of a referendum to put water services in public ownership. Second Stage of a Bill was passed in the House for the same purpose but that seems like years ago now. It is certainly a long time ago and it is probably sitting on a shelf in some Department. There is certainly no urgency about it. It is clear from the discussions in Cabinet in the past week or ten days that a referendum on water is not on this Government's agenda. I will table an amendment on this issue to propose a new section which will state:
Within six months of the passage of this Act by the Oireachtas, the Government shall propose that the following clause be inserted in Bunreacht na hÉireann and a referendum shall be held on the proposal: "The Government shall be collectively responsible for the protection, management and maintenance of the public water system. The Government shall ensure in the public interest that this resource remains in public ownership and management."
Accordingly, all water services currently provided by the State through Irish Water, local authorities and State agencies shall remain in public ownership in perpetuity. Such services shall not be carried out by any privately owned company under contract to the above agencies.
The nub of the question is what Fianna Fáil will do about a referendum. Will it let the Fine Gael-led Government off the hook, demand that a referendum take place or join with the Government in refusing a referendum? Every Member in this House, including Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Members, has agreed that a referendum should take place but a referendum will only take place if Fianna Fáil states it seeks a referendum. It has to make that decision. Will it cave in the way it caved in on the charges at the committee?
I will be opposing the Bill because it is perfectly clear that its purpose is to allow for the phasing in of water charges over time, probably after the next general election.
This so-called excessive use charge is in fact a Trojan Horse and, as I said, a back door to phasing water charges back in over time, probably after the next election.
The Bill is the outcome of bizarre developments at the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, at which Fianna Fáil caved in to Fine Gael, voted against several of its own amendments and reneged on its election manifesto in respect of the abolition of Irish Water and water charges. It is quite clear that Fianna Fáil cannot be trusted on this issue, which is why I raise the question of the referendum. Can Fianna Fáil be trusted on the referendum issue? Will we have a referendum? Will Fianna Fáil demand, through the supply-and-confidence arrangement it has with the Government, a referendum to enshrine public ownership of the water network in the Constitution? Fianna Fáil certainly needs to step up to the plate on this. At the committee, as I said, a series of bizarre events occurred. Fianna Fáil voted against several amendments it put forward itself and, of course, all the roll-back amendments at the committee and in the report were supported by the Greens and the Labour Party. Cynically enough, the Labour Party and the Greens, which are hardline supporters of charging households for water, having supported all the roll-back amendments, then voted against the report.
It is important to recognise that significant gains have been made by the anti-water charge campaigners. For example, there will be no immediate return to general water charges. Those who did not pay will not be pursued and those who did pay will receive refunds, and that is only right. The metering of additional existing and unrefurbished dwellings remains halted. The anti-water charges campaign has also achieved an increase in allowances - this is in the report as well - for group water schemes. However, this Bill is the outcome of the U-turns on the amendments at the committee. This Bill and the committee's report make domestic water services a tradeable commodity under EU law. Payments for excessive use to Irish Water commodifies water, and this facilitates the phasing back in of water charges over time. As provided for in the Bill, the Government can reduce the free allowance, thus making increasing amounts of water chargeable to more and more households. This may also be used to prevent the holding of an anti-privatisation referendum, to which I have already referred, or any attempt to do so, or to change its wording as new private suppliers of water are entitled to enter the market under EU competition law. It is, therefore, very important that the referendum is agreed and brought forward rapidly.
In my view, and as accepted right across the country, this excessive use charge is really a backdoor to the reintroduction of water charges. The term "excessive use" is simply not correct. All the evidence shows that Irish people use less water than most, if not all, other countries - certainly most: 123 l per person per day here as against 146 l in Britain. Figures for other countries could be cited.
There is also the question of the unmetered properties. Thankfully, the metering has stopped; the Right2Water campaign forced it to stop. It is now proposed to discriminate against people whose properties are metered. They can be charged for excessive use under this Bill whereas people whose properties are not metered cannot. The key fact in this is that the Government of the day, no matter its hue, can change the rules, reduce the multiplier, reduce the threshold for excessive use and, in this way, over time, effectively introduce water charges on a much wider scale across the community by the backdoor.
As I said, the purpose of this Bill is quite clear: to allow the phasing in of water charges by the backdoor over time, probably after the next election. This issue will not go away, whether it is brought forward again in one, two, five or ten years. Water charges are toxic and any Government that brings in these charges and any Opposition that allows it to do so will pay the price at the ballot box.