Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 are being discussed together. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett was in possession.
Water Services Bill 2017: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage
He has been delayed.
We will move on.
I move amendment No. 38:
In page 29, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:
"(d) a representative nominated by the trade union movement.".
We will call a vote on this question. This is the end of a three-year saga. The Government has been forced to recognise reality and abolish water charges as they were. However, there is a sting in the tail. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have worked together to provide for excessive use charges which have the potential to become water charges through the back door, particularly if the Dáil decides five years from now to reduce the threshold for such charges. If a decision to go down that road is taken in the future, we will be ready.
I oppose the Bill. It is important to recognise that as a result of the significant gains made by those campaigning against water charges, there will be no immediate return to water charges as we have known them. Those who did not pay water charges will not be pursued and those who paid will receive refunds. The metering of existing and unrefurbished dwellings remains halted. All of this welcome. The effect of the Bill is to make domestic water a tradeable commodity under EU law. The payments for excess water usage that will have to be made under the Bill represent the commodification of water. This will facilitate the phasing back in of water charges over time by this or a future Government. It may also prevent the holding of the proposed anti-privatisation referendum, or result in the use of a changed wording in the event of such a referendum, given that new private suppliers of water will be entitled to enter the market under EU competition law. The Bill rules out, or does not provide for, the possibility of a referendum to enshrine in the Constitution this country's ownership of its water and water infrastructure. A deliberate decision has been made. My amendment to provide for the holding of such a referendum has been unfairly and wrongly ruled out of order. The anti-water charges campaigners will certainly not allow water charges to be reintroduced. Any attempt by this or a future Government to provide for their reintroduction will be challenged head-on by those of us involved in the anti-water charges campaign, just as we did in the past three years.
When the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government swaggered in arrogantly three years ago, in the absolute depths of austerity, to announce the introduction of water charges, people said, "No; enough is enough."
It was not just about water, as the Minister is well aware, and I am sure that movement absolutely rocked the political establishment in this country in its peaceful resistance and the solidarity shown. In many ways it was a well-organised opposition to the water charges.
We will now have a vote on this legislation which I believe introduces water charges through the back door and, despite what the Minister thinks, there is still an urgent need for a referendum. As part and parcel of the last election, the majority of Deputies in this Dáil were elected to abolish water charges, establish a public utility in place of Irish Water and hold a referendum. A number of Fianna Fáil Deputies went out to the gates of Leinster House and signed the petition by SIPTU. I have the pictures of Deputy Cowen doing that and saying Fianna Fáil would support a referendum on Irish Water.
This issue has not gone away. I have made the point before, although it is not really for the Minister's ears because he knows it, that water companies are waiting to grab water. It is blue gold and they want to make their money on it. They make huge amounts of money when it is privatised, as in Britain, where directors of water companies lend to themselves from their own banks. They distribute shares among their shareholders and themselves while people on the ground pay excessively for water.
Despite huge pressure on it, last year in Slovenia the Government brought in a provision in the constitution to keep water in public ownership and management. We should be going the same way. It is what the people demand. People want to see a referendum on the public ownership and management of our water. I will continue, along with the Deputies in opposition and the Deputies of Fianna Fáil who supported that and signed the petition with SIPTU approximately a year and a half ago, to pursue vigorously the holding of that referendum. We hope the Minister and those in his Department will not put up any barriers to it.
We have reached a point where we will not see major water poverty in the country for a number of years. However, we and the people will be watching closely future Governments and the steps they take and we will resist absolutely and vehemently any changes. This was originally meant to be a penalty or fine to be paid to the local authorities. Now it is a payment for excessive water use. We will be watching the situation closely and opposing the Government on this legislation.
Sinn Féin opposes this legislation. In terms of the water charges, we have witnessed on the streets how people's power has this Government and Fianna Fáil in its tracks. We fought this for many years in the local authorities where it was clear there was a push towards privatisation. The Minister is trying to introduce charges through the back door. We are opposed to that and will be watching this space. In five years' time or whenever the Government seeks to try to change the charging system, the people will be ready and we will be there.
As far as I can remember, this is the first time that the people, who in their tens of thousands took to the streets, have forced a government to do a U-turn. The Minister may never admit it and his colleagues in Fianna Fáil may never admit it, but that is the reality. There will be other campaigns. There will be a major campaign on bin charges and we will all be out on the streets at some stage in the future. The drive towards privatisation in this country has been an absolute disaster. We have seen it in housing where the privatisation agenda and a pandering to those with money and the private sector has been going on for many years. We need to stop this agenda. The people are calling for action to stop all these drives towards privatisation.
I too express regret that the amendments relating to holding a referendum on keeping the infrastructure in public ownership was not allowed. It would have given a sense of security that there is no intention to privatise. I do not believe there is an intention to privatise but there is a concern it could happen in the future. I, therefore, regret very much that we were not able to stitch provisions on a referendum into the legislation.
We will be opposing the legislation as well but for different reasons to those of other Deputies. If I may put the record straight, it was Fianna Fáil and not the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government that signed us up to charges. We were in a position where they were already signed up and there is no doubt that there would have been significant fines from the European Union if some measures had not been taken. One of my concerns about this Bill is that there may still be significant fines from the European Union because there has been a fudge, as I have stated already, between the two big parties in terms of what has finally been agreed.
Those who excessively waste water should have to pay but there should be a free and fair household allocation for the normal use of households. However, what is being implemented will not effectively ensure that there is fair play for everyone in terms of who pays. Only those who use excessively should pay.
It is obvious that the legislation will pass and what happens in the future remains to be seen. It would have been positive, however, if we had finished today with a commitment to hold a referendum on maintaining public ownership of the water system.
This brings to a conclusion what has been a contentious matter over the past number of years when a Labour Party-Fine Gael Government implemented a water charge regime. It not only implemented it but railroaded it through the house.
It was signed up to by yourselves, Barry.
The Deputy, without interruption.
Deputy O'Sullivan might allow a bit of space and time to listen. She might not like what she hears but, despite the fact that I have said it on numerous occasions, it has to be said again.
It is not true.
In government, the Labour Party and Fine Gael implemented a botched regime. They did not just implement it but railroaded it through the House without due consideration or due deference to other Members during the passage of various legislation associated with the implementation of charges. They guillotined legislation and led the House down a path where it was not properly abreast of relevant information to allow it to make an informed decision, and they suffered a backlash because of it.
Other parties and Members described it as a success on their part and they can claim some credit for it. Of course they can. They were merely reflecting the viewpoint of the majority of the public who failed to get on board with the process that the Labour Party and Fine Gael initiated-----
Which Fianna Fáil initiated.
-----and the harm associated with it.
After the last election we embarked on a process that would seek to resolve the mess that they created. It was not easy and there were other more pressing issues to be dealt with. However, as I said last night, a Government needed to be formed in order to bring some stability to the nation and, as convoluted as the numbers might have been, give effect to the votes the people had cast. We took the responsible path while the Labour Party and others took ten weeks of a break. It is as simple as that. We took our responsibilities seriously and facilitated the formation of the Government. I would much rather be dealing with a lot more pressing issues that my constituents bring to bear on me and others in this House.
So would I.
Thankfully, after today I will. This legislation is a result of the process we, with Fine Gael, put in place. In the first instance, a committee of experts sought to make recommendations on how water services would be funded in the future. That in turn fed into an all-party committee, of which Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and others were part, and this committee in turn made recommendations by majority decision to the Dáil. The Dáil itself then instructed Government to bring forward legislation to reflect those recommendations. As I said on numerous occasions during the past number of weeks, I feel this does that.
I am sure the majority of the Dáil will agree with that and, ultimately, the people will accept the decision of the Dáil. It will have been seen that we have given some weight to the votes in our favour to deal with this, as well as many other issues, that the public asked us to do during the course of the last election, for which we formed an alliance, namely, the confidence and supply arrangement. That process is in train and we are very glad to be part of it. We will hold the Government to account, scrutinising and analysing every effort it makes to address those issues. If it fails to do so, we will not support budgets which do not address that in the future.
On the issue of public ownership, the committee, of which Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was a member, noted:
The Committee notes that, while existing legislation already provides a statutory prohibition on the privatisation of Irish Water, the Thirty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership (No 2) Bill 2016, which proposes that the following subsection be inserted after subsection 2 of Article 28.4 of the Constitution:
"3° 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."
We went a step further, in so far as Deputy Joan Collins's Bill got the approval of the House and was moved to the committee to further the process from which a referendum would ultimately emanate. We remain committed to that. We signed petitions and gave various commitments to members of the public, including the ones referred to by Deputy Joan Collins. We will continue to honour that commitment and ensure the Government maintains it too.
The funding model, whereby water services will be funded by general taxation, as recommended by the committee of experts, was reaffirmed by the committee. On public engagement and transparency, the previous Government made no effort to have the entity accountable to this House. That is now addressed by virtue of a public water forum. We will see the sort of accountability and transparency, under various headings for which it has responsibility, brought to bear on it by the House and for it, and ultimately the people, to pass judgment on it. We also have the Department's Vote which will require committee approval, as is the case with all Departments.
I commend Deputy Catherine Murphy for her amendment, which, as I said last night, is the only one that made any sense. It was the only one to copper-fasten the responsibility for the public funds given to Irish Water with the Comptroller and Auditor General. I withheld my support for that amendment because the Government, as affirmed by the Minister to the Dáil yesterday, has given a strong commitment to prioritise legislation to amend the Comptroller and Auditor General Act in this regard.
On compliance with EU law, the framework put in place promotes conservation. There are other recommendations on various forms of water conservation, as other Members well know but do not like to repeat, despite the good work they were engaged in to ensure consensus on them. We will hold the Government to account for implementing them over the coming year.
Sinn Féin put down silly amendments. Its first one personified that when it spoke about renaming the legislation the water charges by the back door Bill. Why did it not continue with "Water charges or fines by the back door for the 4% of the population who, after every effort and conciliation is made and assistance given to them to ensure compliance and conservation, still want to wantonly waste water and leave their taps on"? Will Sinn Féin incite people to bring this to a head and bring it to the floor of the House again? There is an 18-month period before which time an allowance is calculated. That allowance will be for every house up to eight persons. If there are nine persons, they can prove it and be allowed for it. There are allowances for people with medical difficulties which are cast in stone. If Sinn Féin wanted to change the name of the Bill, it should have gone further with a Title like "water charges or fines by the back door for those, who despite every help and assistance given to them in this Bill, still want to leave their taps on and expect to get away with it".
The recommendation on equity and fairness, as had been provided for in the confidence and supply arrangement initially, was that those who had paid would be treated no less favourably than those who had not. We were all laughed at when it was divulged how that might emerge or could be squared. If one was to go after those who had not paid, it would cost much more than paying back those who paid. It was fair and appropriate, meeting with everybody's approval, despite the fact they felt it might never happen. It is in the process of happening. A campaign has been initiated already to ensure people get those refunds as quickly as possible, despite the protestations of others in the hope they might act as a Christmas Grinch to detract from a feel-good factor for some households which might require or be glad of it. If others want to donate to charities or to the homeless, as was suggested by a campaign initiated last week, so be it. That is people's choice. I know some Members who initially paid the first water bill but then changed their minds and decided not to pay the others. At least they will get something back and they can see what to do with it then.
There is also provision within the equity and fairness section to bring about and to measure parity for those on the public supply and those on rural and group water schemes. Unfortunately, during the course of the deliberations of the expert committee and the Oireachtas committee, no information emanated which could properly calculate and compare the two. Much capital assistance is given, for example, in the setting up of many of these group schemes. Despite the fact somebody might be paying €200 a year towards the provision of a service from a group scheme, were it not for the capital subvention and funds provided by the Government, they might be paying a lot more. That needs to be measured to ensure we achieve the parity one would expect for the State to have relating to those who get a water supply, irrespective from where it comes. That is an issue for which I and others should hold the Government and Department to account, along with those who represent those bodies, to ensure that figure is forthcoming, that measurement can take place and to insist, thereafter, that there is the sort of parity one would expect. The whole area of metering was brought to a conclusion, as was recommended. It remains the fact, save for new homes in the future.
The bottom line is this saga is coming to a conclusion. I am glad of that, as well as the fact I could play a role, together with my party colleagues, in ensuring some value is given to the votes cast in our favour on this issue. We did not get all we had sought because we accept in the art of negotiation there has to be compromise. We have given a lot of value to that vote. I do not believe this matter would have progressed in the way it has if we did not take that course of action. Others simply sought to use this as a battering ram to ensure no Government could function after the day it was formed. In my and my party's opinion, that would have created the kind of instability that we witnessed previously that was of no good to the country or the economy, despite the history that others have in ensuring that sort of instability, in some way, helps them with their political ideology and advancement. It does not work in my book. As a pragmatist of the centre, it is important we find solutions and move on. There are more pressing issues with which the Government and the House should be dealing. I commend the Bill and its recommendations. I hope and expect the Seanad to deal with this expediently in order to put this issue to bed for once and for all and for people to get the refunds to which they are entitled.
It was interesting to listen to what the previous speaker said on this issue. He started off his contribution by saying he wants to be able to deal with more pressing issues. I do not see a more pressing issue than dealing once and for all with the legacy of the debacle that is Irish Water. There have been a number of attempts to introduce water charges over the years. It is a pressing issue. The whole flip-flop of those in Fianna Fáil on this issue has been enlightening to many people in our society. We have said this for many years - it is not a case of pragmatism, it is a case of them being chancers. This issue, more than many other issues, has exposed that.
The biggest crying shame in all this is the hundreds of millions of euro that have been wasted in recent years which could have been spent on more productive areas, such as addressing housing needs and the crisis in health care, yet the previous Government and the one prior to that decided to proceed with a charging regime for water. It is not over. This Bill will be opposed. Any attempt in the future to introduce a more restrictive or a more penal charging regime will be resisted. The appetite for such resistance exists now. Both the previous Government and Fianna Fáil can be thanked for helping to radicalise quite a sizable proportion of Irish society and unifying it against the Government. If nothing else, with this issue people have seen that they can win and that they can stand up to a Government and its decisions.
The previous speaker suggested that those of us who were aligned to the Right2Change or who campaigned for the ending of water charges sat on our hands or went on holidays for ten weeks after the result of the election. We did no such thing. I can guarantee the Deputy that if he were to go into the communities we represent they would be happy that we represented what we stood for in that election. The lie that my party did nothing, which has been continuously peddled in recent months, needs to be challenged when, in fact, we did act in that period. However, when one has a door slammed in one's face continuously, one does not usually go through that door or knock again and ask, "Please, sir, let me in." Fianna Fáil has suggested we did not engage in government forming. Before and after the election, Fianna Fáil, the previous Taoiseach and the current one continuously said - and it is said again now - that Sinn Féin will not form part of any Government. That is happy days from my point of view. I do not want to be in government with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael but they cannot then at the same time say we were remiss in our duties because we did not involve ourselves in government forming. If someone slams the door in one's face, one takes that as a given. People need to look at their own history.
As this Bill reflects a mere victory on this issue, I take this opportunity to congratulate the hundreds of thousands of people throughout this country who mobilised on, got involved in and researched this issue because they were not led like sheep. They formed their own opinions and took to the streets to campaign against the imposition of water charges. I congratulate, in particular, those who got involved in the Right2Change movement that came about from the Right2Water campaigning. That shows what can be done if there is unity among those of us who are progressive in this society. It is a pity that the legislation which should be before the House ending fully any charges for water is not before it and that the current Bill does not contain a provision for a referendum that we all believe should be held to ensure that a future Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael Government could never ever privatise the water that we enjoy in our society.
As we move towards the close of the debate on this Bill, it is important to recall how we got here and what this was all about. In this debate, and over the course of the past three years, all sides have tried to put their spin on what it was all about, and that spinning continues with people trying to put forward a particular interpretation of the facts. The most ironic, almost laughable, spin that has been put on it are attempts by the Government and Fianna Fáil to say that what is being achieved with this Bill today is somehow to their credit. That is laughable because, although this Bill very deliberately leaves a back door open to the reintroduction of water charges, at another level it is a victory not for any political party and most certainly not for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil but for the mass movement of people power against the water charges, a mass movement of peaceful civil disobedience in refusing to pay an unjust charge and then mass mobilisation on the streets on an unprecedented level which forced a historic climbdown by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
The people certainly know this but it is important to remember, as the Bill moves through its Final Stages, that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been committed for a long time to trying to introduce water charges. Fianna Fáil, when it was in government, wanted to introduce a water charge of €400 a year and it had a PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, report detailing how it was going to introduce water charges. Fine Gael then came in after it and that was the third attempt during the past 20 to 25 years by the political establishment to bring in water charges. Austerity and the troika programme was the excuse and the proof that it was just an excuse was that they had tried to bring water charges in during the 1990s but they were defeated by a mass movement of boycott, civil disobedience and peaceful resistance on the streets. Also, back in the 1980s attempts to bring in water charges were similarly defeated by a mass movement of peaceful resistance, ironically at the time it included leading figures such as the former Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, who then subsequently went over to the other side and tried to justify the introduction of water charges when his party was in government with Fine Gael. However, the people who remained consistent on this were the ordinary working people who fought it in the 1980s, fought it again in the 1990s and fought it again this time around and triumphed against the combined efforts of the two major political parties, with considerable support from those in the media and so on which seemed to think there was something barbarian or philistine about the opposition to water charges, when in fact that opposition was absolutely justified opposition to a regressive tax imposed on the less well off in our society and which was linked to a very well worked out and concerted agenda to privatise water resources, regardless of whatever the Government tries to claim now.
It is not just a theoretical supposition that the introduction of water charges and the establishment of Irish Water were a stepping stone to privatisation. Privatisation commenced immediately when Irish Water was set up. Look at the people who were involved. Denis O'Brien, now implicated in the Paradise - or parasite - Papers of tax evasion, got the contract to put in the water meters, which was worth nearly €1 billion, in shady circumstances. I call that privatisation and very shady privatisation. All the usual suspects of consultancy firms and accountancy firms, many of which are now also implicated in the parasite papers for assisting, and continuing to assist, the wealthy in Irish society to stow their money away in offshore tax havens, were also involved in Irish Water. They got massive consultancy contracts to set up Irish Water. Irish Water was a honey pot for wealthy, greedy private interests. Much of its management operations, design and so on, when it was set up and now, were contracted out to private firms. As soon as Irish Water was set up, it was being hollowed out. While notionally it was in public ownership, in reality it was in the hands of private interests, whether private consultant, private contractors or big tycoons like Denis O'Brien and other big firms.
I ask the Deputy to desist from naming those who are not in the House. The Deputy knows the rules.
Sure everybody knows it.
Everybody knows it.
I can only tell the Deputy the rules.
I will not repeat the name because the name is very familiar.
Let us act responsibly.
That is what was going on. It was only because of the mass movement of resistance on the streets that the plan was scuppered. In so far as anybody played a role in here, it was only those who participated in the Right2Water campaign. I am proud that some of the political forces in the Dáil were involved in that. Some of the early organising meetings of Right2Water took place here when we met the trade unions and set out a plan to establish a mass movement. That mass movement would have been nothing were it not for the mass involvement of ordinary people boycotting the charges, opposing the installation of meters, moving onto the streets in unprecedented numbers and shaking the political establishment.
The lesson of all of that is that people power can bring massive change. We often hear about the need to be in political power and in office to bring change. It is a common truism that if one stays in Opposition, one can achieve nothing. The truth is the big political achievements that have taken place over the past six or seven years have not been achieved by those in power. They have been achieved against the resistance of those in power by ordinary people on the streets fighting for change. That did not just include the campaign to defeat domestic water charges. It was preceded by the campaign to stop the agreed plan of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, and before that of Fianna Fáil, to sell off the harvesting rights to Coillte. That was also defeated by a mass movement of resistance. They wanted to sell the water and the forests and were frustrated in their attempts because of the-----
We stopped the selling of the Coillte harvesting rights.
The Labour Party agreed. It signed up in the troika agreement to sell off the forests. I remember former Deputy Rabbitte, when he was Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, standing up in here the day after the demonstration that we organised in Avondale Forest where the week before he had said that sale was going ahead and the day after he admitted that the demonstration changed his mind and forced an about-turn in policy. That is the truth. The Labour Party had signed up to it.
Deputy Boyd Barrett should concentrate on the Bill that is before us.
I am. I am simply making the point-----
The Deputy has gone off on the forests.
-----that the reason we have got here is because of people power and the resistance of ordinary people to the attempts of the political establishment in this country, including the Labour Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who wanted to sell off our natural resources and then have them sold back to us at a cost, whether it was water or trees.
In case the Government is under any illusions as a result of the back door it has left in this legislation to try to reintroduce the charges at a future point, the resistance will be very quick to remobilise if the Government attempts to reintroduce the charges. The attitude the Government has taken to the amendments we tabled is telling. The central justification the Government had for the charges all along was its concern to deal with the decrepit water infrastructure in the country and to promote water conservation measures, but actually there is nothing substantial or serious in that regard in the Bill. The Government has refused to accept amendments that have tried to bring serious conservation measures into the Bill, such as the water conservation grant and regulations around building that would ensure water harvesting equipment is standard in all new-build houses. That is something the Government has resisted. If it was serious about water conservation, those are the sorts of measures it would introduce and it would own up to the fact that the reason the water infrastructure is in a mess is because the Government slashed the capital investment programme to water infrastructure during the austerity years. Even now with the Irish Water business plan the Minister referred to, it is still way short of what is necessary to address the huge infrastructural deficit in water services. We need to double the level of investment in water infrastructure rehabilitation if we are going to address the massive leakage out of the system, but there is no sign of that from this Government. We have won a battle but the war is not over because the Government has left a back door open. Any credit on this issue goes to the people on the streets who fought this battle over recent years.
The next offering is from Deputy Bríd Smith and, while there is no time limit to the contributions, we must concentrate on the Bill.
I will be short. As others, I want to use the opportunity to congratulate the people who stood shoulder to shoulder on the streets of their estates to stop water meters being installed. Many were not engaged in any of that activity, including many of the people in the House and the Minister. The Minister must realise it was quite a sacrifice for people to get up at 5 or 5.30 in the morning, often in very dark and cold mornings, in all sorts of weather and mobilise with their neighbours to prevent the imposition of water meters in their estates. The Taoiseach would know all about people who get up early in the morning. This was done collectively through very peaceful civil disobedience.
I clearly remember a neighbour of mine called Sandra who spoke to me about a week after being engaged in this activity. She had been suffering from serious depression. Her mental health had gone down since she lost her job as a consequence of the collapse of the economy. I was interested to hear Deputy Cowen talk about the instability that those of us in the House who oppose water charges have brought to the country. It is really rich coming from somebody whose party brought the economy down around our ears with the banking collapse some years ago. One of the victims of that was Sandra who, a week after protesting against the metering in her estate, said her morale, dignity and self-esteem had been lifted completely as a result of this and she had stopped taking antidepressants.
That tells me that people who engage in shaping their own future by direct, collective action, by grouping together with others in solidarity, grow hugely, because they see they can have an impact on society and change it. They see that politics is more than the 15 minutes in a person's life that they will spend in a polling booth ticking 1, 2, 3 on a piece of paper. It means engagement, activity and trying to shape and determine the sort of society we want to live in. If it has done nothing else, the water charges movement has proved that. It has proved that people power, when inserted into the arguments and debates about the country, the world, and our economy can make a huge difference. Every individual who engages in that people power feels the difference. That lesson has been learned and will not go away.
In the first few months we spent here before Fine Gael formed some kind of Government with the backing of Fianna Fáil the discourse was that the centre must hold; it was more important than the disparity between left and right. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are doing everything they can to hold the centre. Hence this Bill, which leaves not just the back door but the window, the front door and the skylight open to bring in water charges at the next opportunity that the next Government gets. In the meantime, the victory lies with the people, the Sandras of this country, who fought locally in their estates and nationally by taking part in marches.
When we started out on this journey I was a councillor on Dublin City Council and when John Tierney got the job of heading up Irish Water, with a big increase in salary, up to €200,000, I believe we had a bit of a get together to say good luck to him. I remember very clearly saying to him, "Good luck in the war department because that is where you are going." He did not last very long in that department but the war department spent a fortune, through his leadership, on consultancies, on bringing in contractors, on the Denis O'Brien - not to mention his name - Siteserv exercise trying to put in meters, putting people in prison and through long trials such as the Jobstown trial. This has cost the country a fortune. The people have seen through it and have seen it down, albeit after enduring suffering and sacrifice.
Those of us who might remember Phil Hogan will remember that at the introduction of water charges, when he was Minister for the environment, he told everybody in this country that they would ultimately be paying between €500 and €600 a year for water. He then said if we did not comply with bringing in water meters and paying charges our water would have to be cut down to a trickle. He threatened at another stage to use the pay related social insurance, PRSI, of every man, woman and child, in every household, to get the cost of the water. All that has been rolled back to the point we are at now, and some in this House are boasting about it and about issuing cheques to people who paid their water charges in time for Christmas. This Government looks extremely foolish and it has been extremely foolish with our most precious natural resource. That is why I echo the call from other Deputies for a referendum to stop the privatisation of water. It is not just an add-on or extra, water is fundamental to life. We cannot survive without it. We can survive without food, as many hunger strikers have done for 70 or more odd days, but we would not last more than a week without water. As it is fundamental to life and as we hurtle towards climate change with water under more and more threat, it is absolutely essential that we do not privatise it and put it into the hands of the greedy Veolia, Thames and SUEZ companies which gain billions of dollars from the privatisation of water in some of the poorest countries in the world. That should never ever happen in this country. Resistance to it means not charging for water but paying for it from direct taxation, bringing in tax justice and making those who are not paying taxes, pay them. It has become absolutely apparent, as Deputy Boyd Barrett said, from the "parasite" papers that there is loads of money to be got from taxation. That taxation should be used to fund a service that is absolutely essential and crucial to this society. Hats off to every man, woman and child who engaged in the resistance to this most neo-liberal, objectionable move by this Government and the previous one. Until we get a proper socialist left wing government, I have no doubt it will continue with governments to come.
I will be brief and stick to the Bill. Anybody who thinks that the issue of water will be put to bed by this Bill is mistaken. Irish Water has published a proposal to move towards what it calls its single utility by 2021 at the cost possibly of 1,000 jobs and seeking to bring to an end the service level agreements with the local authorities four years early. That is going to have huge implications not just for the staff in local authorities but members of the public who access water services and the taxpayers. That will be a major political issue directly relevant to this Bill.
Our understanding was that this Bill was intended to put into effect the outworkings of the special Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. Notwithstanding my heated disagreements with Deputy Cowen yesterday, his comments earlier today were absolutely right. There was a series of issues where there was unanimous agreement that we were expecting to be brought before the House in one form or another. It is ironic that the one issue that caused deep disagreement at the committee was the one at the centre of this legislation but many of the issues on which there was unanimous agreement have yet to be brought before us. That is why many of us sought to table amendments to this Bill, for example, to secure further support for a referendum on public ownership, for dealing with the issue of group water schemes and equity of those outside the public water system and to advance changes in conservation. I listened very carefully to the Minister's interventions yesterday. If he is going to bring forward those types of measures in line with what the committee agreed on we will support him on it but we will not accept further delays in those areas.
One issue that received very little scrutiny, which was central to the committee and the European Commission, was funding certainty for water services. Those of us on the Right2Water campaign made very firm proposals to the committee to ensure funding certainty by proposing a legally binding service level agreement between the State and the provider of water services for a decade. That would satisfy the Commission's requirements as well as the funding needs for infrastructure, something that the Government has not supported. We are back to the year-to-year budgetary cycles with the uncertainty that creates.
When the committee first met, Fine Gael was divided on the refund of water charges. At least Fianna Fáil, Right2Water, the Labour Party and others supported it. I want, however, to respond specifically to a comment the Minister made yesterday about the delays. He said that he published the Bill at the end of September, which is true, and that he thought it was reasonable to get the Bill through the Houses by the middle of October. The second week of October was budget week and there was no scheduling time available. The idea that a Bill such as this, even if there was unanimous support for it, could be got through in a single week with adequate scrutiny, given the complexity of those issues not relating to refunds but the charge for so-called excessive use, was unrealistic. Nobody on the Opposition side has sought to delay it. We consented and agreed to dispense with pre-legislative scrutiny. We wanted to have our say here because this was an issue of huge importance to many Deputies and our constituents. We had a single sitting on Committee Stage. Nowhere is there evidence to suggest that we have delayed the Bill but we should not have to make apologies for scrutinising or articulating our views on matters of huge public importance. On the central issue at the heart of this Bill, which has been wrongly described by some people as a Bill about refunds, namely the introduction of a charge for so-called excessive use, there are still unanswered questions. I appeal to the Minister to address these in his concluding remarks because whether he is in favour of, or against, the charge for so-called excessive use people have a right to the answers.
The biggest objection from this side of the House is that the infrastructure for the future introduction of a domestic, metered volumetric charge for water usage remains intact and in the future it can be extended by this Government or another one to a larger number of households at a higher cost. That is our central objection. Can the Minister confirm that the charge arising from this Bill will be a metric charge and that households above the threshold amount will be charged for every cubic metre or litre of water they use beyond that point?
Can the Minister provide clarity on what that charge will be because the legislation does not give us that and the public has a right to know? Can he tell us how it is going to operate for households which have not been metered because if 54% or 55% are metered and the remainder are not and if there is a volumetric charge for so-called excessive use, almost half of households will not be able to have it applied? Could that create legal problems for the State if there are two households on the same street, one of which has a meter and other does not and one of which is charged, while the other is not? These are not questions designed to delay the progress of the Bill, rather they are legitimate questions to which people deserve answers.
I note the one area in which the Minister accepted our bona fides on Committee Stage was the way in which waivers in respect of medical issues or household size would be rolled out. I acknowledge that he gave a commitment to come back to us when the regulations were at draft stage to consult us. I hope he will keep his word because obviously this issue is very important.
One aspect of the Bill that surprises me - it is an issue on which Fianna Fáil and Right2Water agreed - is that a household may fall foul of the charge for so-called excessive use, although it may not use water excessively. It might live in a very old property or involve a pensioner on a low income. The water infrastructure on the property may be in such a bad state that it causes excessive leaks, yet there is no additional support for such households which might not be able to pay to rectify the leaks. As a result they could face a fine or charge for water they are not consuming. They would be more than happy to rectify the problem, but they might not have the means to do so. In all sincerity, people have a right to answers to such questions. Obviously, the Bill will proceed to the Seanad and if they are not addressed here, we will pursue them there. Therefore, this issue will not go away. Until the core agreement reached at the water committee that domestic water services be fully funded through general taxation and that there be a fully public and non-commercial utility protected in the Constitution, funded by the State to provide services for users on the basis of need, is put in place, we will continue to have these problems. I do not think anyone in Sinn Féin or Right2Water will apologise for raising legitimate concerns on Second, Committee and Report Stages and I hope the Minister will provide us with the answers we rightfully deserve.
An old man once said to me that a bad law was an unjust law. The setting up of Irish Water privatised water services installation, shut down small companies and destroyed work within the local authorities. Irish Water held businesses and local authorities to ransom and forced county councils to give data for residents on the housing list, which was another breach of data protection legislation which was just dismissed by Irish Water. It was, therefore, an absolute debacle. One of the stipulations of the rules and regulations was that where Irish Water did excavate, it would put things back in the way it had found them, but that never happened. It was shambolic, diabolical and a disgrace. Irish Water terrified people. A development plan in my county, an issue I raised in County Hall, was scuppered. Irish Water refused to provide services. It was farcical. Irish Water has been telling county councils where they can and cannot develop houses or businesses because it was up to it to decide where water services would be provided.
I again commend everybody who stood up and resisted the charges. I visited many family homes where families felt terrified and had been forced to have a meter put outside their door. It was shambolic. We certainly need a referendum to enshrine Irish Water in public ownership. We all spoke about the back door. It should be a safety system in the event of a fire, not a system to introduce charges through the back door.
I will not delay the Bill much longer. I thank Deputies for their co-operation in dealing with it in the past few months. I thank the water charges committee for the extensive work it did, as well as the expert group and the joint Oireachtas committee for the time they took to consider the Bill. I do not view it as a victory for the people. I view it as political parties and politicians trying to use the issue to score points for their own political gain against a Government that is trying to recover an economy and a country. It is a great disservice to the public they claim to represent. After the general election in 2016, we had to put a Government together. That meant putting stability above populism, which is exactly what Fine Gael sought to do. Nevertheless, I hope the Bill will settle the matter for a number of years.
We have a single utility in Irish Water. Regardless of whatever people might like to think about the good work it has already done, it has done good work. It has proved itself in a number of instances in the work it is doing to help people who previously had been subject to "boil water" notices, to repair extensive parts of the water mains and infrastructure that had not been repaired previously and to help in times of crisis, including when Storm Ophelia struck in restoring people's water supplies, being part of the national emergency co-ordination group and working with ESB Networks to make sure the water infrastructure power supply was prioritised in those few days. We have that single utility which is doing good work. There is funding certainty for Irish Water in this legislation because of the different steps it sets out regarding the strategic plan for it, the policy statement that will come from me, the water services charging plan and the cost recovery mechanisms that will be involved in it. We will have it in place for the years to come and also levels of transparency that were not evident previously. These are all good things to have, particularly as we look to the future. With all of the money we seek to invest in Irish Water, it is important that there be proper transparency in making that investment and in terms of what will happen.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett is right that the spin is continuing because simply to claim that this somehow and in some way represents water charges through the back door and also that the allowance is so generous that it will not capture swimming pools and water features is a ridiculous position to hold. Nevertheless, the Deputy attempts to hold it.
With regard to what Sinn Féin and parties of the left state will happen if the Dáil changes or progresses its views in the future, I hope they are not suggesting they will stand against the democratic decision of the Dáil if it makes that decision in the future because clearly the legislation puts that decision regarding the allowance figure of 1.7 on top of the average household allowance in the hands of the Dáil. I am not quite sure if Sinn Féin and Deputies on the left are saying they will stand against a democratic decision of the Dáil, but the sentiment is clear in what they say. When Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asks why Fine Gael will not enter power with Sinn Féin, it is because of the undemocratic tendencies suggested in Sinn Féin Deputies' contributions.
Deputies claim there was an attempt at privatisation, but that was never the case and it is not the case today. Owing to the funding arrangements for Irish Water, it is essentially impossible to do so. I have no problem with retaining it in public ownership and holding a referendum on the issue of public ownership, but we need to make the decision soon because Deputy Joan Collins's Bill is being brought to the committee. If we think a referendum on the issue has priority over other referendums people want us to hold, for example, a referendum on the eighth amendment, that is a decision we must make and we must be responsible in coming to such a decision. Again, I have no problem with holding a referendum on the issue of public ownership in the future, but there are other referenda that are just as important to people in this republic.
Once the Bill passes through both Houses, we will be able to begin the process of issuing refunds to as many households as possible. Regrettably, it will not be possible to make them to all households before Christmas. Let us be honest about the delays we have seen as the Bill has passed through the House. Let us look at the number of speakers who contributed on Second Stage and the speeches they repeated on Second, Committee and Report Stages and in their concluding remarks. Let us look at the number of amendments tabled, refused and resubmitted. As Deputy Barry Cown pointed out, let us look at the substance of some of those amendments and what they were really trying to achieve, if it was not to cause a delay. Let us look at some of the questions I had already answered that were asked again today.
Deputy Eoin Ó Broin can go back and look at the record of the proceedings in the House yesterday, at the questions I answered related to the role of the independent regulator. Perhaps Sinn Féin does not support having an independent regulator, but we do. It will answer the questions about the actual amount to be charged. It will be a metric charge for those with a meter. For those without a meter, I imagine there will be a range of charges, but that will be a matter for the independent regulator to decide in consultations. There is plenty of time to decide because, as we all know, even though an attempt was made to take these measures out of the legislation, there will be a 12-month period beginning in January during which we will review households' consumption of water. Following that 12-month period, they will be issued with a notice and have six months to bring their usage below an allowance that allows for there being eight people in a household. If they number more than four, they can apply for even more for individuals. If there is a medical need, they will be able to apply for a waiver. Again, to suggest this represents the introduction of water charges through the back door and somehow leaves something open or left to be done is complete nonsense.
I have already begun my engagement with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and that engagement will continue once the Bill has been passed. I have to say it is a pleasure to deal with the group because it knows what it costs and what it means to have clean drinking water and treatment facilities provided for households.
The Government will continue to prioritise investment in our network and in the future of the country's water services. We will continue to conserve water and improve that water services network into the future because of the importance this vital resource has for all the businesses and people in this Republic. I accept this investment was not made in the past. In the past it was not prioritised as an investment because water infrastructure is below ground and therefore perhaps not as sexy as hospitals and schools, but it is just as important. We will continue to make that a priority and the Bill will allow us to do that.
I commend the Bill to the House.
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