European Union Directives: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

(1) notes the agreed Report of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government under Standing Order 114 on the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption - COM (2017) 753, which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 27th March, 2018, in accordance with Standing Order 114(3)(b);

(2) having regard to the aforementioned Report, and in exercise of its functions under section 7(3) of the European Union Act 2009, is of the opinion that the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption - COM (2017) 753 does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity for the reasons set out in section 4 of the Report; and

(3) notes that, pursuant to Standing Order 114(4), a copy of this Resolution together with the reasoned opinion and the aforementioned Report shall be sent to the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission.

As Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, which is a very cohesive and hard-working committee, I am pleased on its behalf to move the motion for a reasoned opinion on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption. Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, introduced by the Lisbon treaty, provides for national parliaments to ensure that draft EU legislation complies with the principle of subsidiarity. The protocol on the application of the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity annexed to the treaties lays down the procedure by which national parliaments can fulfil their responsibility of ensuring that the EU institutions respect the principle of subsidiarity and gives national parliaments a formal and treaty based role in the EU’s legislative procedure. Under its provisions, national parliaments have a right to object to EU draft laws in the form of a reasoned opinion. This power must be used by national parliaments within eight weeks of the publication of proposed new EU legislation.

Subsidiarity is the principle which regulates the exercise of EU powers. It determines whether the EU can intervene or should let member states take action. It ensures that powers are exercised at the appropriate level. The subsidiarity principle acts as both a check on the need to take action at union level and ensures that, where it is needed, effective action is taken at the EU level. Judgments on subsidiarity compliance essentially require political rather than legal judgment. Each sectoral committee is delegated with the power to conduct subsidiarity checks on behalf of both Houses on all draft legislative Acts within their remit. If the committee considers that there is a subsidiarity infringement and agrees that a reasoned opinion should be prepared, it adopts a report containing a reasoned opinion and the Chairman tables a motion in the House. I am therefore introducing this reasoned opinion as Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government.

On 1 February 2018, the European Commission published a proposal for a recast of the current drinking water directive, the ultimate purpose of which is to ensure the provision of high-quality drinking water in light of the latest scientific advice and to help customers access this water and to find reliable information about its supply. The proposal is a response to the successful European citizens' initiative, Right2Water, which received the support of 1.6 million Europeans. The initiative was submitted to the Commission in December 2013 and urged in particular that EU institutions and member states be obliged to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation and that the EU increase its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation.

The revision is also part of the plan to transition to a circular economy and to help reduce bottled water consumption. The committee first considered this proposal on 8 March and agreed that the proposal required further scrutiny. The committee considered the proposal for a second time on 21 March when it held a very productive meeting with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and Irish Water. Each of the witnesses before the committee raised valid concerns regarding the proposal. The committee supports the overarching goal of the proposal, especially the aim of improving standards of drinking water and improving the monitoring systems for the quality of drinking water.

The committee, however, has had specific regard to the treaty provisions and is of the opinion that the proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity, and I shall now outline the reasons. The committee believes that the proposal unnecessarily limits the provision for national decision-making. Consequently, the scope for member states to choose how to implement the proposal’s objectives at national level and in accordance with established national systems is constrained. The committee believes that the actions in this proposal do not sufficiently restrict themselves to those necessary to fulfil its stated objectives and, therefore, are not proportionate to the objectives of this proposal.

The committee does not see the necessity for diverging from the recommendations of the World Health Organization in regard to the parameters for monitoring the quality of water for human consumption. The committee is further of the opinion that this proposal does not adequately take into account local and regional considerations and has the potential to have far-reaching implications for well-established national arrangements in place in Ireland. The committee is satisfied that the above points, taken together, clearly demonstrate that the proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. The committee, pursuant to Standing Orders, recommends the reasoned opinion contained in section 4 above, for agreement. If this draft reasoned opinion is agreed by the Dáil, it will constitute the House’s formal response under the Lisbon treaty.

I thank the committee for its robust questioning, the detailed meetings we had with the relevant stakeholders and the speedy way in which it dealt with the issue.

I join with Deputy Bailey, the Chairman of the relevant committee, in offering and committing our party's support for the committee's contention, and I hope and expect that others will do likewise. The drinking water quality directives have not been updated in 20 years and we acknowledge the need for an update to ensure the quality of our water is in line with relevant standards across the EU.

At last week's meeting, Irish Water, the Department and the association of group and private schemes informed us that the directive went way beyond the recommendations of the WHO and this sounded alarm bells for everybody, despite the Government's policy commitment and the capital programme of Irish Water to repair leaks and to improve the quality and delivery of water to various parts of the country, particularly Dublin, in view of what has happened in recent months. Any expectation over and beyond what is reasonable places a huge strain on Irish Water and the State in terms of their responsibility to group and private water schemes and would render Irish Water unable to adhere to its capital programme to maintain and upgrade its existing systems.

I understand that four countries out of six have voiced similar concerns to our own. Members of the committee are of the view that subsidiarity means that, if 16 nations raise questions, a directive has to be redrawn and that approach would receive unanimous support from my party. I urge the Minister to converse with his counterparts across the EU to ensure other states agree with us that the directive goes far beyond the requirements for safe water delivery, despite the fact it is well meaning. The quality has improved over the past 20 years and we accept that it has to improve more. We would support the allocation of funding to do it but it has to be done within the context of existing commitments to repair and maintain the system. It has to be borne in mind that there has only been adequate investment in the past ten or 12 years. I ask for the Dáil to ensure the right action is taken on this issue.

I add my support to that of committee colleagues, Deputies Maria Bailey and Barry Cowen, in respect of this issue. For those Members who were not part of the committee's deliberations, it is important to be very clear about the purpose of the revised directive. It is about improving the quality of drinking water and increasing access to good-quality drinking water in member states where that is a problem. We all share that objective, as do all the organisations which presented to the committee, including the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, but there were a number of concerns which were shared unanimously by the organisations in question. The fact that the European Commission has chosen to go beyond the recommendations of the World Health Organization is very significant and while some people might be suspicious or sceptical of Irish Water or the Government not wanting to go beyond WHO recommendations, the fact the EPA also voiced concerns demonstrates that all of them had bona fide reasons for expressing their difficulty.

Irish Water made very clear that, on the basis of the current draft, the capital expenditure required to meet the suggestions of the Commission would be between €200 million and €300 million, with an extra €100 million in annual operational expenditure. These are very significant sums of money and, when all the key organisations tell the committee they are not convinced of the merits of the details of the directive, it would be remiss of us not to give a reasoned opinion in response.

It was also significant that the National Federation of Group Water Schemes presented to the committee and expressed significant concerns about how it would cope with the additional requirements for upgrading treatment and drinking water facilities. It was not that it did not want to provide its members with the best quality drinking water but it had genuine concerns about the cost implications and made a compelling case for more thought on the issues.

I thank the Labour Party for requesting a debate on this matter. The role of Oireachtas committees in scrutinising draft EU directives is very significant but it does not get a lot of attention. Given the fact that this is about something that goes into every household in the country, and has such a potentially large cost, it was right to have some debate on it.

This is part of the Lisbon treaty changes to member state scrutiny. I was a very strong critic of that treaty and I do not think these measures are strong enough but they are there and we should use them when they come up. If one third of member states submit a reasoned opinion, the Commission is forced to review its draft, although it is not forced to take it off the table. If one third of member states shared our concern, it would send a very important signal to the Commission at this early stage. If a majority of member state parliaments and upper houses, if they have them, submit a reasoned opinion the Commission would have to take it off the table and start again. My understanding is that the water section of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government believes that the fact we have done this will strengthen its position in its negotiations with the European Commission so it is a very worthwhile thing to have done. On the basis that it was a unanimous decision of the committee, I urge all Deputies to support it.

I thank the committee clerk, Ms Fiona Cashin, and Padraig Grant, who drafted the report. They deserve the thanks of the committee and the House for producing this report in an incredibly short period of time - from last week to yesterday when we agreed it. I also thank the Chair, Deputy Bailey, for chairing the session very well and allowing us to come to this conclusion.

This is a really important motion and I hope everybody will support it. We have certainly given a commitment in the committee to continue to track it, irrespective of what happens with the recent opinions and the yellow or orange card. It is of great significance to the Oireachtas, water services delivery and citizens across the State.

As Deputies will be aware, it was the intention on the Order of Business yesterday to have this process seen through without debate, but the Labour Party sought a debate on it. Normally, when somebody seeks a debate, it is because he or she has an issue and wants to raise certain concerns, but that is not the case on this occasion. On the Order of Business yesterday there was no report available to us at the time. We were asked to agree to a proposal without any visibility of it and, because of the nature of this Dáil, the Labour Party is not represented on the committee. The Minister who was present in the Chamber was not in a position to throw any further light on it because he had not seen the final report either. Deputy Brendan Howlin said that, in the circumstances, the safe thing to do, to allow agreement on the Order of Business for today, was to allow time for debate on the matter, if necessary. It was my intention to come into the House today and say at the outset that we had seen it, did not have an issue with it and that there is no need for a debate. Having seen the report from the committee, we are happy for the motion to proceed without major concerns. On behalf of the Labour Party, I congratulate the Chairman and the two members of the committee who spoke, who have studied the matter and done the work required to bring us to this point. I understand the process, having been on previous committees, in terms of what is to be done in respect of subsidiarity. The Labour Party is happy with the opinion of the committee which was outlined in detail by its Chairman, Deputy Maria Bailey, and we have no concerns. We are, therefore, happy to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.