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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 17 Oct 2017

Vol. 960 No. 4

Water Services Bill 2017: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The approach taken by the previous Government and the current one to the establishment of Irish Water and how we run water services in this country is a lesson in how not to do it. It has been a difficult campaign for many people, in both conducting the campaigns and trying to face down the efforts to impose what was, in effect, double taxation. An issue which concerned me greatly, and I am on the record of the House pointing it out on many occasions, was the cost of establishing the utility. It was really set up to provide a billing structure. There was speculation that part of the idea was that the structure could be privatised. I introduced a Bill four years ago, under which we would have a referendum to ensure that it would not be privatised and I still think that is worth doing. I welcome that the Labour Party, which rejected it at the time, has now changed its mind on the matter and thinks that we should do it.

According to Irish Water, 49% of the water supply leaks out of the network. The wasteful installation of meters could have been better spent. I pointed out a number of times, as did some of my Sinn Féin colleagues, that we should have a neighbourhood or district metering system. That has been floated and I notice it has been taken on board in a more mainstream way in the last year or so and that is to be welcomed. The cost of metering every house and maintaining these meters has not been taken into consideration enough. The life of these meters is quite short and trying to maintain them is costly, and their purpose is questionable. I pointed this out many times to the then Minister, Phil Hogan. There should have been no introduction of domestic water charges and we still should not have any through the backdoor. With the ministerial power proposed in this Bill, we do not want a future Minister to be given the power to create a charging regime.

Water is a basic source of life and it must remain in people's hands. Such a basic human need is important for health and hygiene and cannot become an economic commodity. It was established that Irish Water was a company to trade water as a capitalist commodity. I firmly believe that was the eventual intention. All its structures were geared towards that end, including billing and other components. With the responsibility for water being taken away from the local authorities and given to a company, it would have been easy to sell off to the highest bidder. One can look at what happened in Britain. One cannot ignore the catastrophic effects of that and the way householders are being charged huge prices for a basic water supply.

I introduced a Bill in 2014 regarding public ownership and a referendum to decide on that. Fine Gael and the Labour Party voted against that. The then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, rejected it and said there was no need for it. The Fine Gael Minister of State at the time said: "I would not consider it an appropriate approach to amend the Constitution to provide for a prohibition on the privatisation of a utility company." That was it and it is still seen by Fine Gael as a utility that trades as a commodity which can be bought or sold. This is key. If one sees water as a commodity and not as a service, then the logical extension of one's ideology is the potential to sell Irish Water. We need that referendum. We have had referenda on less important matters in the past and this is one we should have and which should be prioritised. Later, another Bill was passed on Second Stage by this House to achieve public ownership but that now languishes on Committee Stage. Sinn Féin and other Deputies involved in the Right2Water campaign also submitted amendments to this Bill to ensure public ownership.

The structure of Irish Water has been inefficient in its functions. Local authorities still provide the service but it is now taken away from local practice to bureaucratic workings elsewhere. The argument for an overarching body responsible for water may be taken as a given, particularly for cross-county matters, but if it is in place, it must be efficient, working, accountable and cost effective.

The waste of money in Irish Water has scandalised us. The public is outraged by what went on. It has had a polarising effect in this country.

The Government in the past played the game of pitching rural against urban. I refer to those who are connected to group water schemes. Many rural dwellers are Irish Water customers. Before one walks in through somebody's gate in many rural areas, for instance, in the constituency I represent, one will see the Irish Water meter. The argument does not stack up from that point of view. Many of those schemes have been taken over by the local authorities and are now in the hands of Irish Water. There are tens of thousands of people in rural areas who have an Irish Water connection.

In relation to the group water schemes, my party provided in its budget submissions in the past for an increased subsidy for the group water schemes to ensure that those involved are treated fairly. I would also point out that there is a scheme for private wells through the local authorities that works well. One can avail of it for the upgrading of wells also. That scheme needs to be protected and we need to look at how we can enhance that.

In the few seconds I have left, I will refer to the potential for future charging. The Minister, as I understand it, will have the power to change the 1.7 times normal usage provision. From the point of view of my party, as part of the Right2Water campaign, we will oppose any attempt to try to introduce domestic water charges through the backdoor. We support the concept of commercial charging. In my household, we pay a commercial charge because of a small business we have. I have no problem with that because it is used for commercial profit-making purposes. However, we cannot go back to double taxation on domestic water.

Fianna Fáil, in government, agreed water charges in principle. Fine Gael and the Labour Party, in government, implemented them. Privatisation was clearly on the agenda - get the charge in, make water potentially profitable, then flog the service off to a private utility. Threats and pressure were used but this agenda was defeated. This Bill provides for water charges, as they were, to be abolished, arrears to be written off and refunds to be organised for those who paid.

What made Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil change their minds was people power - the 250,000 plus who marched the streets, the 1 million plus who refused to pay in full or in part, and the two thirds plus of the population who voted for parties in the general election who pledged to abolish the charge. It is to those people who took part in that magnificent people power movement that our congratulations go tonight for achieving this victory.

At the same time as we celebrate a victory, we must also issue a warning because this Water Services Bill tries to build a back door for the return of water charges. It does this through the mechanism of the excessive use charge. The excessive use charge was inserted in this Bill by Fine Gael with the support of Fianna Fáil as a Trojan horse to facilitate the return of water charges in future. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil deny this. They say that this is a Ronseal charge - it only does what it says on the tin. They say it is for excessive use only. It is for those who use 1.7 times the average amount of water, for so-called "water wasters". Only 8% will be hit, they say.

What Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do not highlight is that this legislation states that the threshold can be lowered by a vote of the Dáil in five years' time. What Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do not say is that the excessive use charge will saddle tens of thousands of ordinary four-person households with water charges in less than two years' time. How is that the case? The legislation factors in average household size as 2.75 persons. Average household usage for households with between one and four members is 2.75 persons multiplied by 1.7 times the average usage. This means that a household with four members - by the way, these include many households with adult children who are forced to live at home with their parents because of the housing crisis - using more than 1.2 times the average amount of water will be hit under this legislation for excessive use charges. In other words, there will be water charges by another name in less than two years' time.

These two examples, one, building in a mechanism for lowering the excessive use charge threshold in five years' time and, two, attempting to slap tens of thousands of four-person households with water charges in less than two years' time, show the true intentions of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to leave a backdoor open for the return of water charges in the not-too-distant future. I will conclude my introductory remarks by issuing a warning to the Fine Gael Party and the Fianna Fáil Party that if they seriously attempt to go down that road and levy water charges by the backdoor on increasing sections of the people, they will face a movement at least the same size as, if not greater than, the water charges movement which has forced them into such major concessions that we are debating in the Bill tonight.

I will expand a little on some of my introductory points. I stated that Fianna Fáil in government agreed water charges in principle. The Irish Examiner, using a freedom of information request about Cabinet meetings in September of 2010, has shown conclusively that Fianna Fáil put the issue of the water charges on the agenda before any other party did and agreed to them in principle. It is a matter of clear historical record that Fine Gael and the Labour Party implemented them a number of years after that. Privatisation would have been inevitable had they got away with this. Leaving aside European Union legislation which would force the Government to go down that road, if one changes water from a service one day into a commodity the next, with a price tag on it and the potential to realise a profit, of course, the big multinational corporations that trade in and profit from water would be banging down doors in this State to get their hands on that valuable commodity, "blue gold", as it has been called by many commentators.

I mentioned that threats and pressure had been used. There were the threats of penalties. There were the threats of court actions. There were the threats of the former Minister, the Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan, who stated that failure to pay water charges could result in one's water supply being reduced to a trickle. What a threat to make to the households of single parents, pensioners and those who live on low incomes within society, that the Government would reduce their water supply to a trickle. What a contrast with the debate that we are having tonight because that attitude, approach and agenda has been defeated. Water charges, as they were, are to be abolished, arrears and the penalties are to be written off and refunds organised for those who paid.

It is clear that this has come about not as a result of a change of heart on the part of Fine Gael Ministers or the Fianna Fáil Party, but as a result of people power. It was as a result of working class people, ordinary people. People power forced this change.

I said earlier than more than 250,000 people had joined the marches. On the first big march in Dublin in October 2014, there were 100,000 or 150,000 participants. On the second day of action called by the Right2Water campaign there were protests and demonstrations in cities, towns and villages across the country in which there must have been at least 200,000 involved. I mentioned that more than 1 million households had refused to pay, in full or in part. That was an incredible boycott. Had it been seen before on any issue in the history of the State? I also said that in the last general election more than two thirds, probably more than 70%, in fact, had voted for political parties which had pledged to abolish water charges. I do not think there is any question or doubt as to whom the victory belongs. It belongs to the people of Ireland who marched, refused to pay and voted for change. Their struggle and campaign and people power forced this major climb down.

At the same time as we celebrate this victory we also issue a warning. We said in the debate that took place before the summer recess that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were attempting to build a back door to allow for the return of water charges in the future. In fact, if one looks at the Bill in detail, one will see that they are actually trying to widen that back door a little and their weapon of choice is the excessive use charge. It is the Trojan horse to facilitate the return of water charges in the future, although Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael deny this. The argument being made is that we cannot stand over the wastage of water, that 8% of households are using more than 1.7 times the average amount of water and that the excessive use charge is for them and them alone. However, what we are doing in this debate is highlighting the real agenda which can be seen in two examples.

First, the figure of 1.7 times average usage is not to be set in stone in this legislation. The Bill does not fix that figure forever and a day. It allows the Dáil the possibility of lowering it, but to what? To a figure of 1.6, 1.5, 1.4 or 1.3? The Dáil can do this within five years. The legislation allows for the possibility that households that use far less than 1.7 times the average amount may be penalised.

The second example is what the legislation plans to do, not in five years' times or even in two years' time but in about a year and three quarters, to ordinary four-person households. There are many four-person households in the country. In fact, there are probably more such households today than there were yesterday or the day before, given the housing crisis. There are many families with children in their late teens and even their mid-to-late 20s who previously would have been purchasing their own property or at least renting from a landlord who can no longer afford to do so because of the chronic housing crisis. What is the story with this legislation vis-à-vis these four-person households? They will not be penalised if they use 1.7 times the average amount multiplied by four; rather, under the terms of the legislation, they will be penalised if they use 1.7 times the average amount multiplied by 2.75. In other words, they are to be penalised not if they use 1.7 times the average amount but if they use more than 1.16 times the average figure. Therefore, a four-person household which uses marginally above the average usage level is to be hit with Fine Gael's and Fianna Fáil's so-called excessive use charge in 21 months' time. Clearly, it is an attempt to hit the families in question, the first tranche of families, with a new, returned water charge which can be levied on others if the Dáil so decides five years down the road.

It is difficult to concentrate with all of the talking that is ongoing in the Chamber.

Please, Deputy Cowen.

No problem; apology accepted.

The legislation allows the Dáil in five years' time to lower the threshold and bring more and more people into the loop as time passes. That shows the true intent of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with this legislation. They have had to accept defeat through gritted teeth because the people power movement forced it upon them. However, before they let this issue go, they are keen and determined to leave the back door open for the return of water charges in the future. That is why we issue a warning to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The people power movement has beaten them once and will beat them again if they attempt to use this opening to drive through water charges again down the road.

Previous speakers made reference to the attempt being made by the Government to wriggle out of the commitment to organise a referendum on the keeping of water services in public ownership. The House has passed a motion which indicates clear support for going down that road. However, in mealy-mouthed fashion, Government spokespersons are now saying that with the changes being introduced in the Bill, abolishing water charges as we knew them, scrapping the arrears, organising refunds and so on, a referendum on keeping water public services in public ownership is not as important as it once was; therefore, it is not a priority for which the Government intends to legislate. Who are they codding? The aim of a referendum to keep water services in public ownership would be to strike a blow against water charges and the privatisation agenda. The Government's attempt to escape from that commitment is an attempt to keep that agenda alive. Ask those who marched to defeat water charges, who refused to pay their water charges or who voted for change on this issue in the last general election and they will tell us, quite clearly, that they, with their friends, neighbours and families, support the holding of a referendum to keep water services in public ownership. It is a real indication of the intent, in the medium to long term, of the two parties to try to wriggle out of their commitment on water charges at this stage.

Previous speakers also referred to the issue of leaks in the water network. Incredibly, reports indicate that up to 50% of treated water in the State is wasted; it leaks back into the ground. The leaks are not mainly on the household side of the boundary wall or stopcock; they are on the street and the responsibility of the local authorities and the State. The greatest waster of water in the State is the State.

Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of euro on metering the homes of ordinary householders in order to facilitate an agenda of water charges and privatisation, every red cent of the money should have been invested instead in improving the network and stopping leaks for the fixing of which the local authorities and the State are responsible. We are not saying it is a pity that was not done; rather we are saying it should be done now. An investment of €600 million a year in water infrastructure is not enough; we need an investment of €1 billion a year. That is crucial. The infrastructure should be funded, not through further crippling taxes on the PAYE sector, working people and the middle class, but rather by those who can afford to pay: the corporations the super-profits of which in the State are sky-rocketing and the upper echelons in terms of income, that is, those earning more than €100,000 a year per person as opposed to per household.

The water charges campaign has demonstrated people power and the power of protest. I hope it is an example that will inspire and encourage others to take a similar stand. I hope everyone in the country who is outraged by Government policy and the lack of action in dealing with housing and homelessness will take inspiration from this campaign and understand people power can also force a shift on this issue. I hope every worker who has had little or no pay increase for the guts of the past ten years and is forced to hear about economic recovery every day on the radio, every night on the television and every time he or she opens a newspaper will now insist that his or her family needs a share of it. They cannot afford to pay their rent; they need pay increases and a recovery for working people. They can fight and win. They can look at the water charges movement and draw inspiration from it. It is a powerful example and it was a pleasure to have been involved in it.

As a Deputy who represents a rural constituency, I, too, would like to talk about people power, the positives it can produce and how people in communities can work together. Much has been said and written about the water charges issue, how we deal with it; the cost and leaks. Anybody and everybody can now claim to be an expert on water services. Through the whole debate, however, the real experts have been forgotten about. They are the people who, through people power, generated what we now know as the group water schemes. These experts are the volunteers up and down the country who, when there was very little else going on, took on the task of creating the schemes and providing water for houses where there was no water supply before. This is not something that happened years ago. I did not have piped water in my house up until about ten years ago when the group water scheme provided it for me. Up until then I had to pay for it; I had to sink a tank in the ground and pay the costs. Thankfully, the group water scheme took me on and provided me with a water connection.

The people concerned have spent many years working day and night developing and putting the schemes together. They have given of their time freely and offered leadership in communities, in providing potable water for their neighbours up and down the country. When Deputies talk about the hundreds of thousands who went out to protest, I can talk about the hundreds and thousands who worked together to generate the means through which they could obtain water. They got up on their feet and did something for themselves - they got up and made sure they could deliver for themselves. They brought their communities together in taking on the responsibility to provide water. The members of these schemes got involved, in turn, and became the owners. Believe it or not, they actually paid for the privilege of having a water supply and were delighted to be able to do so for the simple reason that they had never had water piped to their houses before then.

We have now decided that people should not pay for water, unless they use it excessively, a decision that has been made to give people with access to public water supplies free water. As we do this, however, we cannot just leave those in group water schemes to one side and forget about them. We have to treat everybody in the country equally. We have to have equality in the provision of services and the way we pay for them. My constituency of Galway East is full of group water schemes: up and down back lanes; with ten, 16, 150 and hundreds in a scheme. That is how water is supplied in most of rural Ireland. What are we going to do about these schemes? First, we need to fully recognise the fact that the people concerned have paid for water for a long time. We also have to give recognition to the people who set up these schemes, some of whom are no longer with us, although their legacy lives on. We cannot treat them any differently from the rest of citizens. They have to be treated equally. If water is to be paid for out of general taxation, this principle must apply to all.

Group water schemes have taken on many additional challenges since they were first brought forward. Their officers, chairpersons, secretaries and treasurers have taken on additional regulations, standards and responsibilities. I express my sincere thanks to everyone involved in every group water scheme in the country who has worked so hard and free of charge to improve people's lives. The Minister has indicated that he fully understands the group water scheme issue. I look forward to seeing his proposals to ensure we will treat people equally.

It is included in the recommendations and the legislation.

I ask the Deputy to please let me finish. I welcome the Minister's recommendation that group water scheme subventions be put back in place, to be applied retrospectively. We also need to make sure we will honour our commitment to those involved in the schemes that they will no longer have to pay for water because the subvention will cover the cost. That is important. There has been so much publicity about the water charges issue but very little about group water schemes. It is time we gave them the recognition they are due. I look forward to seeing the Minister's proposals.

It is all included in the recommendations. There is duality. Fair is fair.

I call the Deputy to order. The next speakers are Deputies Michael Healy-Rae and Danny Healy-Rae who will be followed by Deputies Catherine Murphy and Eamonn Ryan and then Deputy Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice.

I also have Deputy Dessie Ellis listed. If he wishes to proceed, he may do so now.

Ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuilimid i gcoinne an Bhille seo. This legislation is another debacle in the long and sorry water charges saga. As we all remember and Fianna Fáil would like us to forget, the water charges fiasco began with it and its inability to stand up to the troika. It accepted almost every ridiculous, divisive and debilitating demand from it. It agreed to impose water charges at its request. The demand for such charges was a clear commentary on the atrocious legacy of successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments in underfunding vital utilities like water services.

Up until now, most of the narrative around the justification for the establishment of Irish Water involved blaming local authorities for the condition of the country's water infrastructure. It is unfair to blame local authorities entirely for the issues that have bedevilled the provision of water for Irish households and businesses. Many local authorities did Trojan work to maintain the water infrastructure and provide clean drinkable water for houses, even though they were restricted by under-investment by central government.

Previous Governments, just like the current Government, could have used additional targeted funding to provide for the additional capital infrastructure required to improve and upgrade water infrastructure. We can imagine what could have been accomplished if the enormous sums spent on consultants to Irish Water and the hugely expensive water metering project had been allocated for investment in the maintenance and upgrading of water infrastructure. The establishment of Irish Water and the transfer of assets and personnel from local authorities were other huge costs which could have been avoided and should never have happened.

Sinn Féin and the Executive in the North ensured a major package was made available in the North for investment in water infrastructure. Such investment meant there was no need to introduce water charges in the North. On the other hand, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were clearly committed to the introduction of water charges in the South. This was demonstrated by Fianna Fáil in its agreement with the troika and by Fine Gael in its manifesto commitments. The tens of thousands of people who came onto the streets to oppose water charges clearly showed that these parties were on the wrong side of history and what was right. Have they not learned anything?

The Bill before the House raises a number of concerns. I am concerned about what it says and does not say. As I will set out shortly, there is a lack of clarity on some important issues. I am concerned that this complex legislation is being rushed through the Dáil without proper scrutiny. The wording of the Bill seems to disregard some of the recommendations made by the special commission on water. There are no references in the legislation to some of the key recommendations made in the committee's report. The Bill does not refer to the conservation measures recommended by the commission.

I am concerned about how the Government will decide to calculate what it regards as "excessive use" and about the allowance that will be available to households. The way the Bill is framed raises a real concern that over time, the Government will reduce the allowance and the threshold for it. The Bill makes provision for the recalculation of the threshold amount. I am concerned that the multiplier to be used in calculating the threshold amount cannot exceed 1.7. I envisage a real difficulty as a consequence of the restrictive nature of the ministerial powers set out in the Bill. It seems that the Minister will have the power to reduce the threshold amount multiplier from 1.7 but not to increase it above 1.7. There is a real possibility that households could be paying significantly higher amounts after five years for usage regarded as being above the allowance determined by the Minister in reducing the threshold. It can be argued that the effect of this is to leave the door open for a return to water charges by stealth in the future. Is the Government being mischievous or duplicitous in restricting the Minister's powers in this respect? I suggest the legislation has been framed to allow a future Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael Government to increase charges.

The Bill does not make a distinction based on the number of people in a household. A household can have three or four children or teenagers. It would not be beyond one's imagination to deduce that a household with three or four children or teenagers could reasonably use significantly more water. A family could be severely disadvantaged if its allowance does not reflect the everyday realities of having a house full of young children or teenagers. They could pay heavily for any imbalance in the perception of what constitutes an ordinary household. Families will also be penalised as a result of the decision to base charges on household usage rather than on individual usage. The related problem of how to tell how much water a household is actually using arises in this context. Certain households are metered, while others are not. Given that just 42% of households have meters, how can the Government determine the average household's use of water? I am not arguing for the metering of houses but pointing to a flaw in the logic behind the Bill. One cannot get a true or accurate average figure with limited information. The skewed average figure the Government will work out could adversely affect a household's threshold and allowance.

Fianna Fáil and the Government are happy to accept the false idea of excessive water usage. I would like to see evidence of the level of water wastage about which Fianna Fáil and the Government speak. I do not believe they have evidence of water wastage. It simply does not happen. Irish Water's figures show that the level of Irish household water consumption is one of the lowest in the OECD, but what did logic and data matter when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were determined to introduce water charges? The sad fact is that they did not have to introduce them. Ireland's exemption in the water services directive could have got them off the hook. If they had wanted to do so, they could have funded water charges directly from general taxation. I remind the House that in the American city of Detroit water was used to put people out of their homes. It is like the new gold in the way it is being used.

There is no doubt that people power forced the Government to backtrack on some of its more excessive ideas about water charges. I was a member of a local authority when bin charges were introduced with the support of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael which looked for waivers for senior citizens. Where are these waivers now? Where are the promises politicians make? The problem is that politicians come and go but the rules change. What is the reason for the fear of a referendum to keep water services in public ownership? Surely that would send a strong message that the Government has never intended to privatise water services. Many people think differently.

Táimid i gcoinne an Bhille seo. Tá imní orainn go bhfuil táillí uisce ag teacht isteach tríd an gcúldhoras.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. I never like to be personal about anything, but when I look back over this debacle, I am reminded of the arrogance of the former Minister, Phil Hogan, who behaved in a condescending manner when dealing with people who had dared to voice objections to what he was proposing. The actual charges being proposed at the time, before the then Government started to climb down, were outrageous. I calculated that families with a number of children living in their houses would be facing the imposition of charges of €600, €700, €800 or €900. It was going from nothing to that level. It was no wonder that the people took to the streets. It was no wonder that political organisations rallied against what was being proposed.

In County Kerry, I marched with people who were opposed to what was being proposed. I made many great friends on those marches. There were wet, bad and cold days. I tried to be out as much as possible with them because I believed what was being proposed was wrong.

The funny thing is that if the Government had addressed the issue in a different way, and had been more reasonable, there could have been a different outcome. I am not one to apportion blame, but I remember when a former Minister sat in the Taoiseach's seat. I was debating the abolition of town councils, something to which I was totally and vehemently opposed. I did not care whether people were in Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or any other political party. Our urban councillors played a vital role in our democracy. I believed that at the time and still believe it passionately. Town councils should not have been abolished.

When I was debating the issue, the former Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, was in the House and I spoke about Fine Gael town councillors, in particular, whom I knew and were very upset about the abolition of town councils. When I finished making what I would call a plea on behalf of those councillors and town councils, the former Minister stood up and said I could go back to those people - I was speaking about his people - and tell them he was quaking in his boots. That was the same as telling me where to go. We are at this juncture because of that type of arrogance.

I welcome the fact that what I would call the swagger and arrogance of the previous Government is not present in the current one. I recognise Deputy Cowen. The input of Fianna Fáil means that the Government does not have a massive overall majority, which was the worst thing that ever happened. The Government of that time thought it could stand back from the people and tell them it was going to do whatever it liked. That hurt me a lot.

How this issue was dealt with at that time was beyond belief. That is why we are discussing the Water Services Bill 2017 and why approximately €179 million has to be repaid. Nobody could have foreseen that this would be the outcome. The previous Government drew it all upon itself through its actions. I applaud the people who made their views known, stood out, argued, fought and won the day.

One has to do things right. I wish to make a declaration. I am a person who could have a perceived conflict of interest in terms of the Bill because of a person to whom I have a connection, work and all of that. I want to put that on the record so that nobody can say I was neglectful in my duty in declaring that.

I refer to people who help to ensure the delivery of water to homes, businesses and farms throughout the country. When I refer to these people I have to speak about Kerry County Council. I refer to it because there are great people in many sections working in our local authority, including housing and planning.

People in office jobs or what I call water men who repair water leaks for Irish Water do great work. Before the creation of Irish Water, they were employees of Kerry County Council. I want to put on the record my admiration for and total confidence in the great work they do. They work on Christmas Day and New Year's Day. I spoke to a water man recently and asked how he was getting on. He told me they had a late night fixing a water leak and did not finish until 12.30 a.m. They ensure water keeps flowing through pipes and gets to houses.

On a personal note, I wish to acknowledge my late father-in-law, Jack Lyne, who was a very respectable man and went about his work diligently all his life. He was very proud of the fact that he worked for the water services division of Kerry County Council. I want to acknowledge my uncle, Dan Rae, who worked for many years driving a digger to dig holes and expose pipes to ensure water kept flowing. It is always nice to remember people who have gone.

I wish to acknowledge the great work of men such as the two I have named and all the other people who dedicated their lives to their work. They were very proud of their work and the fact that water services might service a single house, an entire town or a community. As I said, they would tear at the work in all weathers and at any hour of the day or night. It is only right and proper that those people should be remembered today.

I find those currently working in Irish Water to be extremely diligent and good at their work. It is often a tough job to get water going again. Sometimes pipes can be very inaccessible and they work in all types of weather. It is not an easy job at times. The Minister of State and Government should always acknowledge the vital role those people play.

With regard to the Bill before us, nobody could have foreseen that we would be where we are today. It is a problem created by the Government and one which it has to sort out. I listened very closely to previous speakers and very valuable and important contributions were made because of the importance of this issue. People are wondering what way this is going to pan out and how money will be refunded. People are fearful about the talk of excessive use. As others have said, we have to be very careful that a future Government does not use a window of opportunity to try to do something similar to what the last Government did.

If something sensible had been introduced at the beginning, we could have had a completely different outcome. Given the charges which were proposed and the excessive use charges imposed, people were not going to accept the regime in any shape or fashion.

We have to remember a very important group of people who have always paid for their water, namely, the farming community. Farmers and businesses have paid for water. I have paid water charges for over 30 years. I am very grateful for the service and continuity of supply I receive. However, that is in a business context. Many farmers who are unable to connect to mains water have to provide their own water.

People set up group water schemes. I was very glad over many years in County Kerry to have helped to assist community groups and individuals come together in this way. A group scheme could be two, three or 103 people. I was always very glad of the co-operation I received from Kerry County Council when those group water schemes were set up. There is always a cost for those schemes and a cost for individuals. When speaking about people providing their own supply, water does not come from nowhere in that people have to drill, fit pumps or have a gravity-fed supply from streams or rivers. There is always a time cost, even if people use their own labour; time and expense is involved with all of it.

Ultimately, every house, business and farmer needs water. We do not want to see a scenario where the provision of water could be privatised. When Irish Water was set up, I saw it as a possible vehicle for the privatisation of the water supply so it could be sold by the State. I was in the Dáil when this was raised and people made vocalised concerns. I was concerned about it and I would like to be sure about what future Governments do. One does not know what will happen in the future but we can never allow such a vital supply as water to our homes, businesses and farms to fall into the hands of private groups or investors. That is something the people of Ireland would never stand for. It is one of the reasons there was such a backlash from the general public, leading to protests by thousands of people who marched week in, week out, whether it was a small group in a small village or town or the monster rallies, as I would call them, which occurred in cities like Limerick, Cork and Dublin. People mobilised because of a fear of privatisation. In certain sectors there is room for privatisation but with an essential service like this, we should never go down that road. We do not want to go down that road.

I am glad this Bill is before the Dáil and we are all getting a chance to debate it. There are sections I welcome very much and, as I outlined, there are sections about which I am worried. I am concerned about the way these will be interpreted, although not necessarily now, as it is clear enough what we will vote on and either support or not. Members will make up their own minds. I am worried about the way this could be viewed by future Governments. I hope they will have learned a major lesson, which is that we must listen to the people. Ultimately, we must listen to what is said by county councillors, members of the public and elected Deputies in this House. The last Government was completely wrong in failing to listen to the people. Some of the biggest mistakes ever made were the way it handled Irish Water, abolished the town councils and closed Garda stations. It was all part of the package of arrogance, with an attitude that it could do whatever it liked. I proved on the record of the Dáil that it cost more to keep a particular Garda station closed than to keep it open. There was no way one could get this through to the Ministers or the many of the officials who thought they could do what they liked. That is wrong and we must listen to the people.

I am so humbled by the idea of being a representative of County Kerry and I know that the day one stops listening to people and representing their best interests, it is the day one becomes a very poor politician. That is why I was so exercised by the charges as they were proposed at the time. Both then and now, young couples struggle with mortgages and face massive costs trying to run a home, educate children and send them to college while dealing with medical and other matters. They must balance budgets and we must recognise all of that any time a new charge is proposed, whether it is for Irish Water or increases in energy prices. We saw the massive increase in ESB bills over the past ten years and this can be combined with the high cost of insurance, for example.

Ministers speak about the recovery but it is not real for people with a medium to low budget. They are finding it impossible to cope, and the Minister of State and his Government should keep that foremost in their minds. Young people are not feeling the benefit of the recovery. They struggle every week to pay mortgages and their bills. I have highlighted the main costs in their homes, including straightforward items they cannot do without, such as power going to their homes. Those costs have risen enormously. I have clinics every week and the most common problems are faced by struggling families or elderly people. Pensioners are getting a fiver of an increase to their pensions but will not get it until March next year. An increase on something goes on at midnight but a person must wait five or six months to get an extra fiver per week, which is an outrage. People with disabilities were hoping for a real increase, which would have been approximately €20 per week to be paid immediately. Unfortunately, the Government had a choice but it chose to leave people like that behind and offer them a fiver next March. It is not much of a solution to the tough times faced by people with a disability or young struggling families when they must try to balance their budget. It is not much of an answer or help to them.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this very important matter. The subject of water and water charges will never go away, as the cost of providing water to people's home will always be there. I want to be sure that people will have water and a proper and pure supply. We should put our shoulder to the wheel to ensure our pipes can be upgraded and waste is brought to a minimum. We can only welcome that. There should never again be a big stick approach to water supply or associated charges. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak this evening.

It is probably a bit surreal that we are still in this Chamber speaking about the same matter, as it seems to arise every single year. It was in 2012 or 2013 that it began.

On occasions, because the Government had such a big majority, it essentially rammed through legislation. I remember one particular occasion, just before the Christmas recess, when the entire Opposition walked out to try to highlight the inadequacy of the legislation, but the Government was so arrogant that it would not take the message at the time. It could do whatever it wanted to because of the scale of its majority. It was fundamentally flawed legislation, which has been demonstrated over time. Many members of that Government still sit in this House, but there is now a minority Government, which means that legitimate concerns have a better chance of being heard. The arrogance displayed at that time has ensured that the last three or four years have been fraught with tension surrounding Irish Water. It is no exaggeration to say this was a doomed enterprise from the get-go. I hope lessons have been learned from that time.

While it is welcome that the enormous public outcry and determined and sustained complaining have culminated in the abolition of the water charges, I still have huge concerns about the costs involved, including the contractual obligations which may supersede best spending practice or decisions. One example is the metering programme. If we look at the leakage rates around the country prior to the introduction of Irish Water, County Kildare had one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in the country at the time. It was the first county selected for metering. It did not make sense to say metering was about conservation. As the methodology used for calculating it has changed since Irish Water was established, it is not easy to carry out a like for like comparison.

The lifespan of meters is between 15 and 20 years, yet we are continuing to install them on the basis of contracts that were agreed rather than on the basis of what makes sense. From the outset of the water charges controversy I have been clear on the need to recognise the importance of conservation, but Irish Water was never about conservation. We saw the leaked PR memos which referred to "turning citizens into customers", but that was firmly rejected. It was about borrowing off balance sheet, money which had to be paid back, and a full cost-recovery model. People understood exactly what that meant; it meant additional taxes on top of the cuts they were seeing in their incomes. It was a very real political issue.

That every house requires a meter to guarantee conservation is not true. The very fact that County Kildare had such a good system prior to metering speaks to this. It had achieved a figure 7% below what the 20-year objective was for Irish Water before any meter was installed. That was because there was a very good telemetry section in the county council. There is much criticism of the county councils. However, I had reason to ring a county council last week. A constituent had contacted me to try to find out when a large burst pipe was likely to be fixed. I rang Irish Water and obtained some information, but then I rang the county council and got much more. That the county councils and the 34 local authorities were going to disappear and that a big entity would be placed on top has turned out not to be the case because the county councils were to be contracted to do the work. It is self-evident that the pipes are where they are.

The Scottish Water officials who presented to the Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water said the same about the roll-out and the huge cost of the metering programme, which will be replaced in 20 years' time. That has to be questioned. Is this a prudent way to spend money? There is no doubt that a very significant investment is required to repair some pipes which were laid in Victorian times. A community-type metering programme, rather than individual meters, might well be a more prudent way to spend money. It seems that we are going to pay to buy and install more meters. Then we will pay to maintain more and to read them. We will also pay somebody for the administration of the billing system and we will have to have a helpline in case there are disputes. It seems that an awful lot of money will be shelled out and it is important that the Government give us some indication of how it has gone about costing this process and where the cost-benefit analysis falls on a different type of programme that would probably result in something very similar.

One of the main concerns people had about Irish Water was related to the awarding of contracts, some to high profile names who have benefited from them. Unfortunately, this legislation does very little to assuage such concerns. A major issue with it is the lack of a specific mention of the now changed entity that is Irish Water and the changed financial reporting structure inherent in this. When it was established, it was proposed that domestic charges would fund it, in addition to charges on businesses and farms. The Bill makes Irish Water a fully funded public entity; thus I have tabled an amendment that would ensure the Comptroller and Auditor General would be given full power to examine it. This year alone €753 million has been earmarked for Irish Water. That is in addition to development contributions, agricultural and commercial water charges. There is a very sizeable amount of money that requires oversight.

My amendment reads as follows:

Recognising that Irish Water is a fully State funded entity, Irish Water shall be required to report, as required, to the Comptroller and Auditor General, and to be amenable to all reporting guidelines, and inspection and audit powers of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, as provided for in the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993.

This issue has come up at the Committee on Public Accounts. When items of correspondence have come before us from Irish Water, it is not at all clear where oversight lies. There is a clear gap because of the way the utility was set up. It was intended to be a semi-State commercial company, but it is no longer a semi-State commercial company and it requires oversight.

I want to reiterate the point about household size. It would be quite an administrative burden to have to obtain all of that information and it would cost money to obtain it. I question whether this is the way to go. Part of the reason people wanted to have it enshrined in the Constitution that Irish Water would not become a utility that would be sold on was there was a lack of trust. This legislation probably reinforces that lack of trust more than anything else. While I am keen not to insert amendments into the Constitution that we do not absolutely require, there will continue to be a concern about this issue until it is put to the people.

The Social Democrats believe oversight is critical. Its omission from the Bill is serious. Given this, I sincerely hope the Government will accept the proposed amendment to the legislation.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. The debate on whether we should pay or not pay for water in the public system appears to be over. A decision has been taken democratically and that is where the issue stands. However, people need to understand that, whether the money comes from the right or the left pocket, it will come from some pocket to provide the €10 billion or €12 billion in funding that will be required in the coming years for the infrastructure which has been neglected during the years.

I have worked in water services and say to people who have not worked in that area that it is good that we have had a debate on water services and that a new body is in place for the simple reason, as anyone who works in the area will be aware, that the issue of wayleaves has not been sorted downthe years. There are major problems in rural areas. In places a meter was installed. Perhaps two further meters were installed down the road on the same pipe and ferocious discrepancies were found. That problem was not being solved. We might like to give out about Irish Water and there were things wrong with it from the day it was set up, but any public representative who engages with and contacts it during the day or at night will receive a response. Even today I contacted it about the supply of water in ten areas. An electricity outage can occur, but people can telephone straightaway when they have no water supply. In fairness, Irish Water brought supplies to areas that were fairly difficult to get to during the years.

We have come a long way from the day when youngsters waited for the milk can to be delivered from the creamery in order to go to the well to bring water home. Many years ago great people got together years in different parts of Ireland. With only the assistance of bad machinery, they put pipes into the ground to bring water to houses. They should be remembered and respected in this debate for the work they did. We can criticise the pipes now that they are busted, but they laid those pipes in the 1960s and 1970s when people gathered in houses as there were no community centres and decided to get water flowing.

At the time, water was brought from a well from which cattle could also have been drinking, but now we have EU water quality regulations. Water comes from the sky into the soil. Depending on its depth, it seeps through the rock and comes up through a spring in some places and boreholes in others. Because people's immune systems are not strong as they were in the past, we have to treat water. We have to chlorinate it. If it does not meet certain standards, it will require ultraviolet treatment to deal with cryptosporidium. We also have to ensure the quality of water supplied to the last house and that the chlorine residual value is no higher than 0.20 mg/l. That is illustrates the difference and the costs involved in the provision of water services.

There is a plan to provide certainty in the provision of water services throughout the country. If water is to be brought from the River Shannon to where it is needed in cities such as Dublin, we will have a constant supply and a source that could be treated. We could use the machinery required to bring it to the standard people require.

In following the debate I have heard people talk about having meters here, there and everywhere and about counties that do not need as many meters as others. My group water scheme was using 960 cu. m a week. It is a small scheme. When we installed meters, we reduced the volume of consumption to 350 cu. m. The value of meters, regardless of whether people want to believe it or pay for water, is that within four years they will pay for themselves in terms of the cost of electricity, chlorination and all of the different processes used in the provision of water. The matter needs to be put in context. There is no point in directing water down into the ground where people looking for leaks will not find them. If one installs meters and loggers - this is scientific detail for those who want to shout about the issue - one will end up finding leaks along any part of the line.

I am concerned about those participating in group water schemes. I do not want those who have to pay for water in their local schemes to go out to work and also pay their taxes just like anybody else. In my book that is double taxation. I ask the Minister of State and the Dáil to make sure the subsidy being paid to group water schemes is increased to ensure those participating in them who use water for domestic purposes will be given the same facility as those connected to the public water supply. This has to be done before the end of the year. We cannot have apartheid in the water system, depending on whether one is in a town or wherever else. One could have two people living in a village, one of whom is participating in a group water scheme functioning on one side of the village, while the other is connected to a public water supply on the other and there would be two ratios.

We need to bear in mind the costs involved. Anybody who understands water services will be aware that, as one comes to the end of a line, a 4 in pipe is brought down to a 3 in pipe which, in turn, is brought down to a 2 in pipe. If those involved in group water schemes give up on them because of the way they are being treated and if the public supply has to be joined to the supply to their homes, laying new pipes, including the use of a 4 in pipe to ensure a sufficient supply, will cost way more than it would to make sure we treat the people concerned right. This issue urgently needs a Government response. The Government should allay the fears of those participating in group water schemes, of whom there are probably 300,000 or 400,000. There are also people who live along byroads who have no access to a public supply of water or a group water scheme and who have spent €4,000 or €5,000 in employing somebody to sink a well. A grants system needs to be put in place every four or five years, either to replace a person's pump or install a UV treatment system to ensure the water quality is to the required standard.

I agree that those who paid their water charges should receive a refund. When this debate is over, they should get their money back. It was paid in good faith and they deserve to get their money back.

The other aspect about which no one seems to have spoken is that the water one drinks ends up in the sewerage system somewhere else. Ironically, it costs more to treat sewage than water because pipes have to be laid and a treatment plant is required. One must make sure raw sewage is 95% to 96% perfect when treated. We need to make a massive investment in every town to deal with raw sewage. Common sense must also prevail. I am aware of a situation where two or three Environmental Protection Agency reports have been produced and there is talk of raw sewage in a special area of conservation. In fairness to Irish Water, it has put money aside to deal with the issue. It has stated it will do the work, but some of the geniuses, instead of going 100 m into the lake with 96% or 97% water, are talking about a distance of 6 km or 7 km with the same pipe.

Debate adjourned.