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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 2

Water Services (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2022: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

On behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I am happy to have the opportunity to outline the Bill before the Dáil. The purpose of the Bill is to separate Irish Water, also known as Uisce Éireann, from its parent company, Ervia, and establish it as a stand-alone national authority for water services. The Bill delivers on the programme for Government commitment to retain Irish Water in public ownership as a national stand-alone regulated utility.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is the majority shareholding Minister for Ervia, which delivers strategic national infrastructure in the areas of gas and water through its subsidiaries Gas Networks Ireland and Irish Water. The establishment of two separate State companies to operate the gas network and develop our water services provides the optimal solution to meet the future challenges of decarbonising our energy supply and modernising our water services. The decision to separate Irish Water from the Ervia group is in the best strategic interest of the water services and gas networks businesses.

Following legal separation, the remaining Ervia-Gas Networks Ireland business will predominantly, both in terms of activities and revenue, be the operation, maintenance and development of the gas networks and the interconnectors that are in its ownership. Separately, my colleague, the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is developing legislation to provide for the integration of Ervia with its subsidiary, Gas Networks Ireland, so as to become a single entity, namely, Gas Networks Ireland. That legislation will be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas in due course.

The Bill is about separating Irish Water, the subsidiary, from its parent, Ervia. It does not deal with the transformation process and the movement of local authority services staff to Irish Water. That is a separate and distinct policy process being progressed in parallel. The 2021 policy paper on water sector transformation charts the course for completing the institutional reform programme by fully integrating water operations within the organisational structure of Irish Water. The transformation of Irish Water into the publicly owned national water services authority has the potential to create new jobs and training programmes. The framework for future delivery of water services identified through the engagement at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, which concluded on 24 June 2022 will now enable Irish Water to work in conjunction with local authorities and current water services staff to complete the integration of public water services into its own organisational structure by 2026.

The matter of a referendum on water will continue to be considered in conjunction with any anticipated referendum on housing arising from the deliberations of the Commission on Housing.

The Bill provides that Irish Water will be known only as Uisce Éireann and it outlines the character of Uisce Éireann - the national authority for water services. The Bill provides for a change in the share ownership arrangements such that the shares in Uisce Éireann are held by both the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, similar to the approach for other State-owned bodies. A new non-executive board of Uisce Éireann and its chief executive are now being prescribed in primary legislation rather than in the constitution of Uisce Éireann. The Bill provides for enhanced accountability and auditing arrangements such that Uisce Éireann will be subject to a dual audit both by the Comptroller and Auditor General and its commercial statutory auditor under the Companies Acts. It also provides that Uisce Éireann will be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. The Bill removes Ervia's functions relating to water services. Provisions for the transfer from Ervia to Uisce Éireann of those staff, rights and liabilities, contracts and records which relate to functions of Uisce Éireann are also included.

I will now elaborate on the provisions of the Bill. It is a relatively short Bill comprising three Parts, 30 sections and one Schedule. It is largely a technical Bill.

Part 1, covering sections 1 to 4, inclusive, addresses preliminary and general matters. These include the Title of the Bill, arrangements for bringing the Bill into operation and standard provisions. It also includes, in section 4, specific provisions of existing legislation that are being repealed so as to facilitate the separation of Irish Water from Ervia. The primary legislation governing the establishment of Irish Water are the Water Services Act 2013 and the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013, with other water services Acts being also relevant.

Part 2, which takes in sections 5 to 26, inclusive, will provide for the reorganisation of Uisce Éireann. This is the most substantive part of the Bill and it provides that Uisce Éireann will no longer be a subsidiary of Ervia. Section 5 provides for Irish Water's name change to Uisce Éireann. Section 6 provides that Irish Water will cease to be a subsidiary of Ervia and that the existing shares will be cancelled. When Irish Water was established in 2013 as a subsidiary of Ervia, shares were vested in the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Minister for Finance and Ervia, and it is these shares that are now being cancelled.

Section 9 provides that the new shareholding arrangements, such as the new shares in Uisce Éireann, are issued to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. There will be no change to the Water Services Act 2014, which prevents a current or future Government from initiating any legislative proposals that would seek to transfer Irish Water from public ownership unless such proposals are first approved by a majority vote of the Irish people in a national plebiscite. Section 9 also outlines the character of Uisce Éireann as the national authority for water services, with responsibility for the functions assigned to it by or under the Water Services Acts 2007-22.

Sections 7, 8, 10, 12 and 13 contain technical amendments relating to the functions of Ervia which are being removed.

Section 11 provides for the appointment of Uisce Éireann's non-executive board and its chief executive. These provisions are now prescribed in primary legislation rather than in Uisce Éireann's constitution, so as to enhance transparency and accountability and to reflect the approach in other State-owned bodies. The chairperson and other Uisce Éireann board members will be appointed by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. One director will be nominated by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The Uisce Éireann board will have no more than ten directors, including its chairperson and chief executive officer, serving for a period of five years, with a possibility of reappointment for one more term. Each director may serve a maximum of two terms. Since 1 January 2022, Irish Water has largely been operating as a separate stand-alone utility while remaining subject to overall governance by the Ervia board. The Ervia board will continue to remain the ultimate governing authority for Irish Water until the enactment and commencement of the Bill, which we hope to achieve by 1 January 2023. At that time, the Uisce Éireann board will be the governing authority.

The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, intends to appoint Mr. Tony Keohane as the chairperson designate of the board of Uisce Éireann. Mr. Keohane is currently the chairperson of the Ervia board, a role that he has held since he was appointed in July 2016 following the independent competitive process undertaken by the Public Appointments Service at the time. On separation, Mr. Keohane will cease to be the chairperson of Ervia and he will be appointed as chairperson of the enduring Uisce Éireann board for the remainder of his current term of appointment, that is, until 21 June 2024. This appointment is critical as the new Uisce Éireann board transitions from being governed by its parent, the Ervia board, to being a fully independent board. Mr. Keohane has gained significant experience of being chairperson of the Ervia board and involved in governing the outgoing executive Irish Water board. His experience will be essential in ensuring continuity at a time when Uisce Éireann is undergoing significant changes, including the separation and the transformation process. He is best placed to steer the Uisce Éireann board on its new course. In accordance with the code of practice for the governance of State bodies, Mr. Keohane will make himself available to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to discuss the approach that he will take to his role as chairperson and his views about the future contribution of Uisce Éireann. Arrangements are currently under way to appoint a new Ervia chairperson through an independent competitive process being undertaken by the Public Appointments Service.

Similar to the chairperson, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, also intends appointing some other existing Ervia board members to the enduring Uisce Éireann board on separation. A public appointment process is already under way to identify candidates to fill vacancies on both the Uisce Éireann and Ervia boards. It is intended that both boards will include members with the appropriate skills and competencies necessary, as well as overall compliance with the code of practice for the governance of State bodies and its annexe on gender balance, diversity and inclusion. This will ensure a smooth transition for the new board of Uisce Éireann.

The appointment of the current chief executive officer of Irish Water is prescribed in Irish Water's constitution, whereas section 11 of the Bill provides for such an appointment in the future.

Since 1 January 2022 Niall Gleeson has been the CEO of Irish Water. He will continue as CEO and ex officio director of Uisce Éireann for the duration of his appointment. The Bill provides that future CEO appointments will be made by the board of Uisce Éireann with the consent of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Terms and conditions of such appointments will be determined by the board with the approval of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

Sections 14 to 16 provide for enhanced accountability and auditing arrangements for Uisce Éireann. Section 14 deals with the final accounts and annual report of Uisce Éireann as a subsidiary of Ervia in circumstances where the appointed day is not 1 January 2023. Section 15 inserts provisions on Uisce Éireann's accounts and annual report after the appointed day when Uisce Éireann will no longer be a subsidiary of Ervia. Section 16 provides that Uisce Éireann will be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. Uisce Éireann's CEO and chairperson will be nominated persons to give evidence to the committee.

The effects of these sections are that Uisce Éireann will in the future be subject to a dual audit by both the Comptroller and Auditor General and its commercial statutory auditor under the Companies Acts and that Uisce Éireann will be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. This dual role arises due to the provisions of the company's legislation, Irish Water's governing legislation and the Comptroller and Auditor General's legislation. The heightened levels of accountability and transparency applying to Uisce Éireann are commensurate with the level of Exchequer funding of the company. In view of the introduction of complex accountability and auditing arrangements for Irish Water the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is anxious to ensure that the legal separation takes effect on 1 January 2023.

Sections 17 to 22 are further technical amendments removing Ervia's functions under the Water Services Act. In order to establish Uisce Éireann as a stand-alone company certain staff, records, rights and liabilities must transfer from Ervia to Uisce Éireann. Since 1 January 2022 Irish Water has largely been operating as a separate stand-alone utility while remaining subject to overall governance by the Ervia board. This operational separation included the transfer and assignment of employees from Ervia to Irish Water with the full transfer to be completed on legal separation as well as the separation of the existing IT applications, integrations, data, infrastructure and networks as well as contracts and licensing arrangements. These steps effectively achieve the incorporation of all staff and all business support services together with the financial accounting obligations related hitherto to the Irish Water business directly thus enabling it to become operationally independent of Ervia to facilitate a smooth transition to Uisce Éireann becoming a stand-alone entity. Separation and novation of framework agreements and contracts are expected to be completed by the end of 2022.

The Bill makes the necessary provisions for a smooth transfer through the provisions in sections 23 through to 26. Section 23 provides for the transfer of certain Ervia staff designated by the chief executive to Uisce Éireann. It protects the terms and conditions of service of the staff transferred. Section 24 provides for the transfer of rights and liabilities from Ervia to Uisce Éireann and the preservation of contracts. Section 25 transfers liability from Ervia to Uisce Éireann. Once Ervia and Uisce Éireann are legally separated, Ervia will no longer be liable for legal proceedings relating to Uisce Éireann. Section 26 provides for the transfer of relevant records from Ervia to Uisce Éireann. In the case of joint records that relate to both Ervia and Uisce Éireann, Ervia will be required at Uisce Éireann’s request to transfer a copy of that record. To provide for surety for Uisce Éireann, the Bill provides that the Minister may make regulations in relation to the transfer of records. Ervia and Uisce Éireann are in the process of drafting appropriate data sharing agreements that meet GDPR requirements.

Part 3 which takes in sections 27 to 30 and the Schedule, inclusive, is the final part of the Bill. This part deals with consequential amendments to other legislation. Sections 27, 28 and 29 contain technical amendments to the Water Services Acts so as to reflect the end of Ervia’s role relating to water services and the change in ministerial shareholding of Uisce Éireann. Section 30 and the Schedule provide amendments to 11 enactments in order to reference Uisce Éireann by its own name rather than being referenced as a subsidiary of Ervia.

I am thankful to the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for the detailed pre-legislative scrutiny that was afforded to the general scheme of the Bill in September 2021. I am glad to say the majority of the recommendations set out in the committee's report are reflected in this Bill. Since 2013 Irish Water has carried out its water services functions under the umbrella of its parent company, Ervia. This Bill allows Irish Water – Uisce Éireann – to function as a stand-alone national authority for water services.

I look forward to Deputies' contributions and the progress of the Bill through the Houses.

I thank the Minister of State. When the Right to Water movement was campaigning against the then Fine Gael-Labour Government's attempts to privatise our water services one of the many concerns we had at that time was the decision of that Government to locate the water utility in Ervia. In fact the view at the time was Ervia being the most commercialised of the then Government's State companies it would be the ideal place to frame the development of the emerging water utility in a way that would make it most conducive to privatisation. It is with some degree of satisfaction for many of us, when we heard former Deputy Eoghan Murphy a number of years ago announce the eventual separation of the utility from Ervia. It caused significant consternation in Ervia and indeed among some of the trade unions because they had not been consulted. However, as many of us have long argued if there is to be a stand-alone public utility managing the essential resource of public water, a stand-alone non-commercial publicly-owned entity is the best possible model.

The Minister of State is right, we did conduct pre-legislative scrutiny. It is probably not accurate to say the majority of our recommendations are in the Bill because we only made three recommendations. One of those three recommendations is in the Bill. I will go through them in a moment. While I have a wider set of concerns that I am going to raise during my shared time, Sinn Féin will not be opposing this legislation.

One of the recommendations from our committee was that members of the board would be appointed through the public appointments service. That is not explicitly required in the Bill. It has been the practice of the current Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to use the Public Appointments Service for most board appointments to date. The difficulty is of course that if it is not in the legislation it is not legally required. Therefore, either this Minister or a future Minister could choose otherwise and that is a mistake which the Government should reconsider on Report Stage. I welcome the fact that the chief executive and chairperson of the utility will be held as accountable persons for the purpose of attending the Committee of Public Accounts. That is welcome.

The third recommendation we made was that in parallel with the publication of the Bill the Minister would publish an updated statement on the outcome or the negotiations between workers and their unions, the County and City Management Association, CCMA, the Department and Ervia on the Workplace Relations Commission talks. While some of that documentation has been published particularly the industrial relations component of it, Document No. 2 which deals with the wider public policy issues which many of us are concerned about has not been published. Of course it is in wide circulation. I encourage the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to ask his officials to put it up on the website because then it would be available to everybody. In fact the absence of the publication of that document in an updated statement from the Minister of State is in my view disappointing.

In regard to those wider issues, while the separation of the utility from Ervia in itself is not a problem, it is clearly part of what the Government calls the transition to a single water utility. It is required under the current plan and it was motivated and provoked by that. Therefore it is proper that this House has a discussion on the outcome of those Workplace Relations Commission negotiations and in particular how that could impact on public policy concerns in regard to delivery of domestic drinking water and wastewater and related matters. We have been following that process very closely in the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We have held a number of hearings both in the last Dáil and this, listening to what the trade unions, Ervia, Irish Water and the CCMA may have had to say about the matter. During all of that time and to the present, our position has been as follows. It is not our business as a political party to interfere in the industrial relations negotiations between workers and their trade union representatives and the employer.

Those are therefore matters for the participants to those talks and they can make their views known on that very clearly. We welcome the fact there are no involuntary transfers required under that agreement and that there are no compulsory redundancies. That is a commitment that was given by the previous Minister and this Minister, and they have been true to their word. We are conscious that there has been a very significant criticism of those aspects of the deal which deal with workers' terms and conditions, some of which we have seen in the media recently.

One of the particular concerns of those workers is a genuinely held belief that for those workers who opt to remain in the local authorities that their full terms and conditions as they are currently experiencing them will not necessarily translate if they remain or are redeployed elsewhere. If that is not the case, it would be very helpful for the Minister to clarify that today or at a later stage, because that is obviously a very important piece of information for anybody considering the option of transfer or of remaining.

The biggest concern of those workers who have been raising their voices in recent weeks has been a lack of clarity around the referendum. The Minister confirmed once again that no Government decision has been made. We do not even know if the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage intends to bring forward a memo to Cabinet on the holding of a referendum this year and that is one of the fundamental flaws in document No. 2, the unpublished document that has come out of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Sinn Féin’s view is very clear. We are completely convinced of the merits of holding a referendum as soon as possible to enshrine public ownership of our water system, its ownership, management and investment, in public hands.

If the Government proposes such a referendum and works with us, either on the wording proposed by Deputy Joan Collins and endorsed by a majority in this House as far back as 2016, or on an improved wording, we will be happy to campaign alongside it on that. However, I am a sceptic as to whether or not this Government will agree to hold a referendum on the right to housing in the Constitution, where such a thing was recommended by the Housing Commission, or indeed on public ownership of water but we will wait to see what happens.

We also have a strong concern with the lack of clarity in document No. 2 on the legal status of the entity. It does appear that it will be public but it is not sure if is commercial or non-commercial, or of what the standing of future employees of that utility will be, and whether they will have the same rights, entitlements and terms and conditions of existing Irish Water workers, or workers who may transfer from local authorities to the new single utility at a later stage. Again, clarity on that from the Minister would be helpful.

There is also the enormous concern once again of the hollowing out of services provided by our local authorities. There were eminently sensible proposals by SIPTU during the course of the WRC negotiations to have what it called a National Transport Authority-type arrangement where big strategic cross-local authority boundaries of water infrastructure issues would be dealt with by the utility, but there would be a continued responsibility for some levels of local water services provision remaining within the local authority. That is obviously not the outcome of the WRC talks but there is still the question of whether the staff employed by the new utility will have a continued footprint in the offices and the depots of the local authorities. That would be eminently valuable. People have an affinity and a local connection with the local authority. They know who to ring and who to talk to. Particularly, where things go wrong, water services employees while under a service-line agreement with Irish Water are employed by the local authorities and know the lay of the land. They have the local, historical and institutional memory which is absolutely vital. Therefore, while there are again some ambiguous commitments in document No. 2, the future relationship between the single utility and the local authorities is not yet clear and the sooner that we have clarity from the Minister on that, the better it is for all of us.

I say the following to the Minister. There is nothing offensive in this legislation and there is certainly nothing that I would object to in the text as is proposed. Those wider issues, however, are completely crucial and the sooner the Minister can publish that document and perhaps even clarify aspects of that document for water services workers and local authorities, but also for citizens and residents of the State who depend on water services as provided, the better for all of us.

To conclude, Sinn Féin remains as committed today as we were in 2013 and 2014 to the core principles of the Right2Water movement. We believe that the fact that that movement won the core elements of that campaign were very important. We do not have domestic meter water charges and that is a good thing. Water should be free at the point of access and funded through general taxation and low interest Government borrowing. That is the best route to ensuring that we have and continue to have zero water poverty, something which is the envy of most European countries.

We are also completely convinced of the need to ensure that any utility is publicly owned, publicly controlled and accountable, not just to the Minister and the Government, but to Members of this House and to the Oireachtas committee. So long as those principles are enshrined, along with the referendum and a non-commercial semi-State company with full protection for all current and future workers, with a continued footprint of water services personnel in a local authorities in local government, then I believe we can have a significant improvement in services.

I look forward to any future clarification from the Minister. We will deal with some technical elements of the Bill, which need further teasing out on Committee Stage, but at this point we are happy to support the proposition as tabled today.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I support the comments made by Deputy Ó Broin. I will focus my comments, from my perspective as environment spokesperson and someone living in County Meath, on the importance of Uisce Éireann having a programme of work and seeking to deliver on that programme of work for communities and for our environment because we know that we have very particular challenges in infrastructure deficit in water and wastewater. That has an impact on planning and there is a great need to ensure there is alignment between county development plans and critical infrastructure priority programmes for water and wastewater, among other things. We are not there and it is a problem.

We see where the deficit or lag in delivery of water and wastewater infrastructure has an impact on development. I am someone who supports compact growth and transport-led development but where it does not happen or happens poorly, it is very problematic for people who have to live with it.

I will mention a number of projects in my own county that are at various stages of development and progress. In Ratoath, with a population that has seen very significant growth over recent years, the Windmill Hill reservoir and the replacement of the existing water mains needs to be a major priority. I would encourage the Minister, Uisce Éireann and the Department to ensure that it is delivered as a priority. It is working its way through the system. We have had very many water outages in recent times because the infrastructure is literally creaking at the seams and needs to be replaced and upgraded. I welcome that there is a commitment in regard to investment but we need to fast-track these projects and have them delivered.

This is similarly the case with Stamullen wastewater treatment plant and Kells wastewater treatment plant. That is an area I know and I commend the local angling community, the custodians of the water network, who do such great work as they are the first people who contact you if there are leakages, contamination or environmental harm or damage. They will spot it straightaway. I find so often that they are not adequately supported in that role. Kells wastewater treatment plant is on a long list of projects due a network upgrade but it needs to be advanced. We have seen from various Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, reports over the years that this is a project that was a priority but was pushed back and various intermediate or interim measures were taken to push it back even further. We need to see that work done.

Finally, I again commend the work of angling and community groups in my constituency and in the neighbouring constituencies of Louth and Meath East.

The Save the Boyne group has emerged in response to what I believe is an offensive planning proposal for a meat processing plant that will discharge wastewater into the Boyne. The group has sought an oral hearing from An Bord Pleanála and has been denied that. I believe that is the wrong decision and I will continue to make that case. I commend that group for its activism in opposition to this planning application but, far broader than that, for its work to support and protect the Boyne. It is very encouraging to see that type of environmental activism. I commend it for that work and will continue to support it and the call for an oral hearing.

As Deputy Ó Broin has outlined, my party will not be opposing the separation of Irish Water or Uisce Éireann from Ervia. As we are addressing the issue of water services, which are essential to sustaining human life, at a time when there is so much public uncertainty and distress in the matter of other vital services, namely, heat and light, and whether people will have them at all or be able to afford them, this debate gives an urgency and impetus to our work here and gives us a chance to put water and its provisions high in the public mind. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in, with war and soaring energy costs, we can be in no doubt it is critical that our water utility remains in public ownership. It is critical that we have the necessary referendum so the people can have their say and that Irish Water remains a non-commercial, not-for-profit, semi-State company. We will be asking the Government to publish the wording for the referendum and to set a date, as was promised.

In the world we have and the world we are facing, I would be very fearful for our people were water to be privatised and profitised solely as a market commodity, as opposed to being seen and protected as an element essential to human life. It is for this reason that we believe water services should continue to have that connection with local authorities. Something as essential to existence as water should not be out of the reach of the public. I am often contacted by people who have bought houses and are waiting for the keys, and there is that delay because when they contact the council about Irish Water, often because it is a strategic housing development, the delay is a nightmare. We need to see more investment into Irish Water.

We are at a critical time and I do not need to tell the Minister that. The heatwaves of the summer have given us a taste of what we are facing. All across Europe, we saw reservoirs getting lower. We saw the stone emerging in the Shannon and all across Europe, rivers were drying up. We are living in a world where all of us are vulnerable to drought and the food and economic effects that will have. This will make people look more closely at water and the management and provision of that vital service.

As a member of the climate committee, I hear the scientists who have come to talk to us. It is vital that we heed them. We face a world forced to face up to temperature rises, many of which are baked in at this stage. We are going from floods in one country to droughts in another. Uisce Éireann will have to do big and important work within the provisions of this Bill. The accountability provided for by the Bill will be critical because Uisce Éireann will operate in a radically different world to that suggested by those who believe climate change might benefit Ireland because of milder winters and lower heating bills, as the Tánaiste himself said at a climate action plan, if I remember correctly. He is in trouble again now for comparing something to the Sinn Féin manifesto. I do not know why because I think the Sinn Féin manifesto is excellent.

On the other specifics of the Bill, we welcome the Committee of Public Accounts accountability, although we are mystified as to why Uisce Éireann would not have an Accounting Officer reporting straight to the Committee of Public Accounts. I hope the Minister will have another think about that. Equally, we are disappointed that the Minister has chosen not to publish a detailed statement on the conclusion of the Workplace Relations Commission negotiations and the issue of the all-important referendum.

The fact the Minister has to remove “Irish Water” as a title shows how toxic the phrase and the brand “Irish Water” was, how it was rejected across the State and the distress and anger caused in local communities. Considering the dire financial situation so many families are in now, I am glad I was one of those who fought back against Irish Water charges. The rallying of those communities in solidarity and in opposition to Irish Water has not gone away. We are hoping we will have good numbers out on the streets on 24 September because the shadow that cast was long and uncomfortable. It will take more than changing the name from Irish Water to Uisce Éireann to erase that from the Irish memory. The Government will do well to remember that. I am out of time. To conclude, we will be supporting the Bill.

I am pleased to speak on this important legislation, which the Labour Party will not be opposing, although there may be amendments that we will propose on Committee Stage and later stages.

I know the Minister and everybody in this Chamber will agree that water is a public good. We have had many debates across our society in the past few months about what constitutes a public good and what should be left to the markets to decide who pays for a product or a service. We have had those discussions in the context of the energy crisis we face at the moment and the impact that is having on households, businesses and jobs across the country. However, we can affirm today again that water is a public good and it should always be considered as such - it should always be considered as a public good.

It is crucial that Irish Water is retained in public ownership in perpetuity, until the day this Oireachtas or a subsequent Oireachtas decides otherwise or, crucially, until such time that the Irish people decide otherwise. It is not a new proposition, this idea that the Irish people should decide on the fate of this particular publicly owned water utility. The Minister will be aware of the provision for a plebiscite in the 2014 legislation, which sought to reassure concerned citizens across this country about the future of what is publicly owned by the Irish people, lock, stock and barrel.

It should remain the case that Irish Water is a public utility in perpetuity for a number of different reasons. One of the reasons is because I see and I have always seen Irish Water and the idea of a single publicly owned, standalone State water utility as one of what we can describe as the new generation of State enterprises, that is, State enterprises that will work with citizens, businesses and investors to try to improve and develop our economy and provide the water services that a decent society requires. Crucially, it should also remain as a publicly owned utility because that is in the best interests of the Irish people.

We have been subjected already this evening to history lessons on the establishment of Irish Water and what the intention on the establishment of Irish Water was actually all about. I do not think any public utility on its formation has had so many myths and fallacies ascribed to it. There is no doubt that when the idea of a single water utility was first mooted, the Fine Gael Party would have privatised that particular utility with gusto. For example, we only have to look at its 2011 election manifesto. It was because of the presence of the Labour Party in the 2011 to 2016 Government that that utility was not privatised, and neither were many other important commercial State enterprises or other State bodies. That is a fact, and it is an uncomfortable fact for some people who have made their careers out of, bizarrely, opposing the establishment of a publicly owned State utility.

I completely understand and acknowledge the concerns of people who had been loaded with additional costs at a very difficult time for our society during the great recession, and the understandable opposition to the introduction of water charges.

However, the idea of a publicly owned, national State water utility is, in itself, a good one. Unfortunately, some people will never be persuaded of that because it does not suit their political narrative and a lot of Dáil seats are owed to the opposition to the establishment of a State water utility. That is a fact and no rewriting of history to suit a particular political narrative will change it. The 2014 legislation to which I referred copper-fastened the status of Irish Water as a State utility. My party and I, and the trade union movement, want it to remain so. It is important that we have a clear indication soon from the Government of the timeline for the referendum that was promised in the programme for Government.

I turn to some of the details of the Bill before us. The provisions regarding the appointment of board members are interesting. I am pleased provision has been made for the appointment of a representative of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, to the board of this State utility. It is a good way to do business and a positive thing to do. The ICTU represents more than just workers; it represents, in my view, the public interest. It is an important signal to send and an important acknowledgment of the position of the trade union movement in our society. That can only help to make Irish Water, or Uisce Éireann, a more successful State utility.

I am pleased as well that provision is being made for a limit on the term of office of directors of the board. It is important that there be a replenishment of skills and experience on boards. We have seen to our cost over the years that people can hang on to board positions, with the result that organisations become stale and a herd mentality tends to dominate. New thinking should always be encouraged and this provision is a very positive move. I am disappointed, however, that the Public Appointments Service, PAS, will not be utilised for the appointment of board directors, with an alternative means of appointment being adopted. The use of the PAS is the gold standard with which there should always be alignment and compliance.

Regarding accountability to public bodies, Uisce Éireann, as a stand-alone State utility, will be receiving significant amounts of investment from citizens, that is, taxpayers, through the Government. It is important, given this is the case, that it will be subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General, which is as it should be.

I refer to the rather protracted process in which the trade unions involved in Irish Water and the local authorities engaged in order to get to a point where the new framework for future delivery of water services agreement was hammered out. It is important to put on the record and reassure those who may be transferring from local authorities and Ervia into the stand-alone utility that many positive things were secured by their trade unions at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. There will be no compulsory transfers of staff to Irish Water from local authorities and no compulsory redundances. Local authority workers will have the option of transferring to Irish Water on a voluntary basis. Existing pay is protected and there is a chance to earn more through individual or collective Irish Water performance rewards. Existing pension benefits are legally protected, which was an important issue that had to be addressed in the process. It is important that existing pay, terms, conditions and all other entitlements will transfer if local authority workers decide to transfer to Irish Water in the fullness of time. It is important as well that local authority staff have the option to remain within the local authority system. In my view and that of the trade union movement and the workers themselves, they should do so from a position in which the pay, terms and conditions they enjoy will be no less favourable than those they enjoy in their current role. Great credit is owed to people like Liam Berney of ICTU, Brendan O'Brien and John King of SIPTU and others in Connect, Fórsa and Unite for reaching this point. I am aware, for example, that the SIPTU water committee has approved the agreed approach. Great credit is owed to the unions, the Department and Ervia for facilitating this progress.

When this utility is formally re-established, if I may put it like that, and is moved away from Ervia, it will have great potential to help our economy grow as one of the new generation of stand-alone, dare I say commercial, semi-State enterprises. I say "commercial" because it will still be raising commercial revenue from business charges and so on. There is, of course, a commitment across this House not to introduce direct domestic water charges. That is as it should be. There was always a challenge to make sure responsible public representatives and political parties would ensure we have a sustainable taxation base to fund the development of our water services into the future. In that regard, the report of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare, published yesterday, makes for very interesting reading and I look forward to engaging with the Government on it. There are big challenges ahead of us but Uisce Éireann can play a significant part in developing our economy and society and protecting and sustaining our environment.

I welcome the Bill, which provides for the separation of Irish Water from Ervia and the establishment of a stand-alone national authority for water services. It is important to acknowledge, too, that the Bill offers a significant milestone in that it gives effect to the programme for Government commitment to retain Irish Water in public ownership as a national, stand-alone regulatory utility.

The separation of Irish Water from the Ervia Group is in the best strategic interest of water services and gas network businesses. That separation will be achieved by 1 January next year. The reality is that the past nine years have been nothing short of a disaster as we saw autonomy over water services taken from local authorities and officials given every conceivable hiding place when it came to accountability. Thus we have the disaster that is Irish Water and Ervia. Uisce Éireann must ultimately stands accountable as, otherwise, it will be no more than a stranglehold on an already struggling rural Ireland. Many Deputies here this evening will speak about their own issues with the current incarnation of Irish Water and Ervia. I will give way to those misgivings and concerns.

I have spoken many times about our efforts to kick-start commercial house-building in County Longford once again. An obvious place to start this would be in Ballymahon, which is the county's second-largest town, thanks to the arrival of Center Parcs, in which it seemed half the Members of the House holidayed this summer. Ballymahon is now one of the fastest-growing mid-sized towns in the country. It is thanks to the efforts of the local authority and our far-sighted towns team that it is one of the most progressive and innovative mid-sized towns in the midlands. Earlier this year, the Government approved the town team's plan and provided almost €6 million in funding for a new family resource centre and community hub. Over the past 12 months, the Department of Education has approved in excess of €20 million for the development and further development of the three schools in the town. In addition, Center Parcs has a massive, multi-hundred million euro expansion plan for its facility.

Arguably, the biggest deterrent to the further growth of the town is the local sewage system, which is now at capacity and urgently needs to be upgraded. It is a similar story in many small provincial towns across the country. Local councillors in the Ballymahon area and the local authority have flagged this issue with Irish Water, as have I, on numerous occasions. We are now at the stage where the issue needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency.

When Irish Water is considering a new infrastructure project, it seems that it runs the proposal through a series of eight workshops before it can be advanced. It has taken four years for us to get to the second workshop for something that is critical infrastructure for a provincial town. Part of the Center Parcs' model is that it maintains a strong community forum which meets with members of the local community twice monthly. It was interesting to hear in one of these recent community forums that a major challenge for Center Parcs lies in trying to get staff to come to Ballymahon because of the lack of available housing. Local auctioneers and the county council have estimated that approximately 50 to 70 new-build houses are required in the area over the next two years to make up for the ever-depleting and dwindling housing stock. Many of the people who should be coming to work in any of the industries in Ballymahon and to live in the town are now, unfortunately, living in adjoining counties while working in the town. This has a huge knock-on effect on the local economy.

We only have to go across the road then to Edgeworthstown, which is no more than eight miles from Ballymahon. It is a similar story there. We can see the ineffectualness of Irish Water during the last nine years. Already this year, the local authority has been forced to turn down a planning application for a much-needed housing development. Critically, plans for a new primary healthcare centre have also had to be refused on the basis that the local sewage treatment facility was ineffective and had reached capacity. The developer must be commended on having had the wisdom to seek to get around this situation by installing a developer-provided water services infrastructure, DPI, on site, which is a solution that has been accepted in other counties. Unfortunately, and perhaps correctly, Longford County Council was suspicious and fearful that allowing such a solution would stand in the way of Irish Water ultimately following through on its responsibility to provide an enhanced sewerage system for the town.

Indeed, when it comes to the DPI and the failure to address these issues, we will see that Irish Water has form in this regard in County Longford. We only have to go from Edgeworthstown to the nearby village of Cullyfad, where we have two small housing estates. Between them, they number no more than about 30 houses. By looking at these two small housing estates we can really paint a picture of what have been the abject failings of Irish Water over the last nine years. The Woodland estate is a local authority development which was taken in charge by Irish Water, but the network is simply unable to operate at the required capacity. Twice weekly, Irish Water, or, as is the case, we must pay for tankers to come to clear the network. Meanwhile, a few hundred yards up the road we have the beleaguered residents of Radharc na Coille, which is a small development of just six houses. All of them were purchased after 2013. The local authority took the estate in charge in respect of roads and lights. As Irish Water was coming into being, the local authority obviously did not take charge of water and wastewater services. Consequently, these six households are now struggling to manage and finance a DPI system as operational and energy costs are soaring.

We will head into Longford town as we continue our whistle-stop tour of the county. Two of the oldest housing estates there, namely, Annaly Park and Teffia Park, were built 50 and 60 odd years ago. Almost monthly or, indeed, weekly, we hear stories of the creaking network of water and sewerage pipes across those two estates. Also almost weekly and monthly, I or someone in the office will squabble with Irish Water over whether these are backyard issues. After toing and froing on the subject and going over and back with multiple emails, Irish Water will, ultimately, accept that the situation is its responsibility as the utility provider.

I could go on, because there are many similar instances. There is the Lisbrack housing estate in Longford town, where every couple of months a family is besieged by overflowing sewage. In February 2021, Irish Water assured us that a consultant had been appointed to oversee the project which would see the installation of a new pumping station. At this stage, it would surely be expected that we would have at least seen the outline of the plans for this project, but as of this weekend, when we had another outflow of sewage, we are no nearer to knowing what Irish Water's plans are for this beleaguered part of the town. Therefore, I welcome this legislation, which is very positive, but we really need to see accountability from Uisce Éireann, when it comes into being.

Let us be clear that Irish Water as it stands is a complete disaster. There is no denying this. Before I continue, I note my unshakeable belief that water should be provided based on need, free at the point of access and funded through general taxation. This Bill separates Uisce Éireann from its parent company Ervia. It was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny in committee, yet some recommendations have been omitted. One of these was that the chair of the new entity would be appointed via the Public Appointments Service, PAS. There is no explicit reference regarding the appointment of the chair in this way. The issue here, and this was reflected in the committee's report, is that putting in place an appointments system that is accessible, rigorous and transparent would enhance the prospect that applications would be forthcoming from experienced and qualified people with a commitment to public service.

There is also the issue of the impact on workers. While I do not wish to be drawn into commenting on the industrial relations negotiations, I am conscious that the deal, as agreed, has come in for criticism from county council workers in respect of the retention of their full terms and conditions if they remain in the county council. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could clarify this aspect. Further clarity is also required concerning the lack of a ballot for the unions on this matter. I welcome that the final agreement is voluntary and does not include any compulsory transfers or redundancies.

While I am referring to local authorities, I record the need for water services to have a footprint in these local authorities. If Irish Water had as much knowledge of the finer details of the water system in our localities, then there would be much less of a headache for households compared with the experience in this regard in recent times. This is especially the case for County Tipperary, where thousands of people are now subject to boil water notices. There are 25 areas and surrounding districts thus affected. Some have had boil water notices for the last two weeks. Carrick-on-Suir is a perfect example of this, and there are similar situations elsewhere in County Tipperary. Equally, there is no mention of a referendum, or of holding a referendum, in this Bill. I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether he intends to do this. Sinn Féin supports investment in reducing leakage, improving water quality and enhancing wastewater treatment, but this should all be funded through general taxation, commercial charges and low-cost Government borrowing. To legislate for water charges as the way forward in this regard, as was proposed some years ago, is a false argument and it has been proven to be so.

Before concluding, I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the ongoing issues with taking in charge housing estates. I refer to how the memorandums of understanding between the agencies involved are obviously not working effectively enough. This is the case with estates such as Rock Springs in Kilross and others across County Tipperary. The Minister of State told me that a study is being carried out by Irish Water to develop optimum solutions for estates with DPIs. Where are we at with this endeavour and can the Minister of State convey any sense of urgency in dealing with the matter and in taking many such estates out of this type of limbo?

I call Deputy Cian O'Callaghan next. I understand he has agreed to share time with Deputy Connolly.

I am disappointed with two aspects of the Minister of State's opening remarks on this legislation. One is relatively minor and it concerns saying that the majority of the joint committee's recommendations are reflected in this Bill. We only made three recommendations, which I think was quite modest of us. Out of those three recommendations, one has been adopted. Therefore, that is by no means a majority. It is welcome that the legislation includes our recommendation that the chief executive and chair of Uisce Éireann would be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. This provision is in the Bill and I very much welcome that. It was something I supported and sought.

Our other two recommendations are not, however, reflected in this Bill or in process. The first of these was for the chair to be appointed through the PAS to ensure that the process would be open, accessible, rigorous and transparent and that this be stipulated in the legislation. This is the practice operating currently, but it has not been included in the legislation as we sought. Our third and final recommendation was that a comprehensive statement would be delivered by the Minister of State alongside this Bill providing an update on the process involving the trade unions and workers representatives. Crucially, it would also have included information on legislation to enshrine the right to access to water in the Constitution and a timeline for the holding of such a referendum. That has also not been incorporated in this process. The joint committee made only these few small requests.

My major disappointment at this stage is the comment that continued consideration will be given to a referendum to ensure that water and access to water services would be kept in public ownership. I refer to the context of everything we have gone through here since Irish Water was established and everything we have gone through globally in recent years.

Nobody can be in any doubt about the necessity to hold and retain in public ownership key utilities, especially water. I need not tell the Acting Chairman, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, or anyone else this. Nothing is more important to our survival, apart from the air that we breathe, than water. Water is key to everything we do. It is key to our ability to live. It is key to businesses' ability to function, schools' ability to operate, to hospitals and to farms. We absolutely need water.

The process of privatising water in other countries has been a disaster. Let us not be in any doubt whatsoever about that. Let us not be in any doubt that when Irish Water was set up it was part of a process and plan to privatise water and that has been stopped by a huge campaign that was put in by communities across Ireland.

If one looks at the privatisation of water in other countries and what has happened, in Berlin, for example, where water was privatised, it was nothing short of an absolute disaster. It led to significant deficits in investment in the water infrastructure and at the same time led to significant profits for the new shareholders of the company. It was so bad a popular vote was organised by campaigners in Berlin demanding that their water services be brought back into public ownership and that forced the re-municipalisation of water services in Berlin. Of course, it was an expensive process. Those shares had to be bought back. Similarly, in Paris water privatisation led to price hikes for individual households which simply were not justified by the very low levels of investments in infrastructure that the privatised company was making. After 24 years of privatised water supply in Paris, the price of water had increased by 174% while the profits of the owners had soared. That was the trajectory that we were on as a county if it had not been stopped.

Interestingly, in Paris, when water was brought back into public ownership, efficiency savings of 35% were found. Therefore, this nonsense we hear that the private sector is more efficient at running key utilities has been proven to be nonsense from the experience in Paris. In fact, after Paris, we have seen re-municipalisation and public water utilities across France which are being brought back into public control. In fact, we now have 235 places around the world where water supplies have been brought back into public ownership. That trend is growing. That shows the disaster that water privatisation is, how it should never be allowed, and when it happens that people must then fight campaigns to get it back into public ownership. That is at huge cost and means that there has been a lack of investment while profits have been extracted in the meantime.

For absolute clarity, we need to put this to bed, once and for all. I welcome this legislation but we need a referendum to enshrine the right to and public ownership of our water resources in the Constitution. When will the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Government provide a concrete timeline on this? The Minister of State has been in government for over two years. The least we and the public deserve is a concrete timeline on this. That is essential.

In terms of the role of the work force in water services, many of us will have seen the considerable knowledge of the local water systems among staff in water services. It is important in terms of any changes that are made that the localised element of the staff, which is second to none and in which the knowledge held is far more than that held in any maps or system, is fully retained. It is important, in terms of the negotiations being agreed, that any transfers would be voluntary. No doubt many water services staff will be wary of any transfers knowing what happened to An Post workers when they were transferred and what happened to their pensions despite all the promises and commitments that were given that there would be no effect on their pensions and no effect on their terms and conditions. Workers, who had given a life of service to An Post and its predecessor, when they were transferred saw significant cuts in their retirement income that they were promised would never happen to them. Because that has never been rectified, that will, of course, be to the forefront of the minds of water services workers in terms of any possible transfers.

Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Cian O'Callaghan as an deis a thabhairt dom a bheith páirteach roimh mo chuid ama féin mar táim ag brath ar bhus beagáinín níos déanaí. I thank the Social Democrats for facilitating me.

I will start by thanking the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for its digest, as usual, produced under pressure.

I stand here as someone who proudly campaigned against water charges and to keep water services within the local authority. It appalled me what we were doing - I watched it as I was an active member - to underfund, underresource and undermine the local authority. We did it on every level. We did it on waste management. The unions stood by and watched it happening at the time. Galway, for example, was the second last local authority to succumb. There is always room for improvement and questions as to where our refuse was actually going, but we had theoretically the best system in the country, in 2000, led by the people on the ground. There was a book published on waste, The burning issue. They led us in relation to zero waste and led a campaign where there were monster meetings in a hotel that at one stage was proudly owned by the State, the Corrib Great Southern Hotel - that is a story in itself. What happened? A fantastic service, with three bins and education liaison officers going out, was taken away and legislation was passed to remove the power for local authorities to pass their own waste management plan.

Parallel with that, we had the water debacle. I was led by the people on the ground, and proudly so. It was a very bad decision to take the water services from the local authority. They were the experts on the ground. I had no difficulty with a national body but trust was missing. We were proven right in relation to it. I refer to the institutional memory and experience on the ground from those people who knew where pipes and leaks were.

We knew at a very early stage that approximately 40% of the water was wasted on the ground. That was not the workers' fault. That was not the fault of the people out there doing their job who responded as to the click of our fingers when we phoned them about leaks and difficulties, and they were out. The problem was that the Government, with the help of the managers in the counties and the cities, successfully undermined completely and set the scene for the privatisation of the water system.

If this legislation is a step to undo that, I very much welcome it. However, I have grown very cynical. I wish I was not. I wish I had more optimism. It is my duty to have optimism and to lead, but it is difficult. In that limited sense, I welcome that we are going somewhere to confirm that this will be a publicly-owned utility. However, I have a problem with the word "company" and shares. I am not quite sure why that is necessary. There is a danger that it could still be sold off in the future. We clearly need a referendum. It is a matter of disappointment to me that we are now discussing this in a vacuum. I would hope, before the Bill goes any further on Committee Stage, that we would have a firm commitment from the Government about when we will have the referendum and the wording of that referendum because we do not want weasel words. We have had enough of weasel words. We want a firm commitment. I could read out the words that the unions have suggested. I will not, but there is any amount of examples that we clearly enshrine that this service is owned by the people for the people. It is the most vital service that we will talk about, along with housing and health. However, water is top of the list.

We have seen what happened in other countries. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan referred to various examples. I saw that in Toronto, Canada, where everything was privatised. The refuse was privatised. Gradually, they had to change that because the private system simply does not work. It is based on profit and greed. We have seen that earlier on in the week. We have seen it regarding the allegations about An Bord Pleanála and we have seen it in the 1,500-page Siteserv report, which I am making my way through and which is horrific.

The private system is there for profit. There is a role for the markets and the private system, but it must be matched by a state that recognises what is fundamental to a civilised society: water, publicly owned, which should never be even up for discussion, public housing across the board to balance the market, public health, public education and public childcare. If the Bill is a step in that direction, and I am really not sure it is, I welcome it.

I welcome the proposed accountability to the Committee of Public Accounts. However, I would like the Minister of State to explain the following. I should understand it myself, having spent a good few years on the committee. I am not sure why the Government proposes to distinguish between Accounting Officer and accounting person. Is that with a view to ensuring more accountability? Even with my experience, I cannot make that one out. As has been said, there were only three recommendations from the housing committee. I do not sit on that committee. I thank it for its work. It made very specific recommendations, only one of which was taken on board, and that related to the Committee of Public Accounts. From my reading of the report, it was the committee that asked for the distinction between accounting person and Accounting Officer, but I am not quite sure why that was.

Then a regulatory impact analysis was carried out and it came up with three options. I never understand when such analyses are carried out why one of the options is to do nothing. The options should be looked at. One of the options is always no intervention, as if that is an option. The two other options in this analysis are, No. 2, to separate Irish Water from Ervia with additional regulatory requirements and, No. 3, to separate them with no additional regulatory requirements. The committee went for No. 2, and the additional regulatory requirements presumably involve the Committee of Public Accounts. Do they involve the regulator as well? Again, I am a little worried about that because such a provision is for commercial companies. I am not sure what status this company will have. Perhaps that could be clarified either tonight or in the process.

Cuirim fáilte roimhe gurb é Uisce Éireann an t-ainm a bheidh ar an eagraíocht seo, ach tá mé beagáinín buartha. I gcónaí bíonn an teideal Gaeilge mar rud diúltach. Tá eagla orm gur rud diúltach é Uisce Éireann. Níl mé ag cur lochta ar bith ar na hoibrithe. I am worried that Irish is often used in a negative sense. I am delighted that the name of the body is to be Uisce Éireann, but very often Irish is associated with negativity, and that is a little difficulty for me. I think of Lá Nua, which is a mental health centre in Galway and is anything but a lá nua in terms of the way the Government has treated it. I think of Tusla. Tús means beginning and lá means day, so the beginning of a new day. The grammar is wrong and the síntí fada are gone and it is nonsense. Of course, Tusla itself has had its own problems, and perhaps that has come from the word. The beginning of a new day, which would be tús lae or tús an lae nua, becomes Tusla. I do not know even how to pronounce it. Again, this is no reflection on the staff, but there is an absence of vision here. We stick in the Irish language rather than the Irish language being part of the solution. I have repeatedly pointed to a book called Irish and Ecology by Michael Cronin. It is a wonderful little book. It is in Irish and English and it talks about Irish being part of the solution to climate change because of the history of the Irish language and the Irish people being with nature and working with nature. That is just an aside while I have the time, courtesy of the Social Democrats. I have decided to use that time. I despair of the negativity of the Irish word when used that way.

I hope Uisce Éireann works out. I have a little difficulty with the way it has been allowed to develop unaccountably. It is pushed on all sides from every side. It makes sense to have it in the local authority under the new thing the Government is now doing but with the footprint, as has been said, in the local authority. That is where it should be, along with its colleagues in the other services. Moving it out does not make sense to me.

I will turn to practical matters in Galway city. I have mentioned this previously to the Minister of State. The problem is partly mine in that I have not come back to him on Carrowroe. Raw sewage is pumping out from Carrowroe into the sea as we speak. There has been a long campaign, before I became a Deputy and even, I think, before I became a councillor, to erect the suitable infrastructure. Irish Water has a plan to build there. My belief, and that of many other people, is that it is totally the wrong site. To complicate matters even more, the people who own the site have planning permission for a heritage centre and, as I understand it, are proceeding to erect it in Céibh an tSrutháin, just outside Carrowroe. I have mentioned this previously. I raised it as a Topical Issue matter for Irish Water to see sense. There are other sites. I am in trouble for mentioning Ros a' Mhíl but I will mention it again. It is an industrial site, and tá talamh ag Údarás na Gaeltachta ansin. To me, it is a perfect site, but I am no expert. The site they are putting it on, however, is just not going anywhere. Uisce Éireann is pursuing that. That is tunnel vision. It is clearly under pressure to perform but it is not performing.

Then we had the latest stories from Inishbofin. People are not allowed to drink the water there. Irish Water, again, was three weeks late telling them, so people were drinking water that was not fit for consumption. Earlier this morning we had a discussion on a policy for the islands during Oral Questions. Here is another example of problems with drinking water, and all the other Deputies have similar examples from all over the country. It is inexcusable not to tell the people that there is something wrong with their water until three weeks later. I have been through that with cryptosporidium in Galway, where there was a risk assessment way back in 2005 or 2007. We were never told about cryptosporidium, but the officials at management level knew about it. I thought we had left that day behind. We have two problems here: the fact that they cannot drink their water and the fact that they have not been told about it.

As for the Aran Islands, to show the House how we go around in circles, there were two problems. One involved the county council and a toilet and the sewage going into a field, and there was a separate problem with a number of cottages. I cannot tell the Minister of State how many contacts myself and other Deputies have had with the EPA, the county council and Irish Water, going around in circles trying to identify who would take charge and who would do something. I am talking about years and a file a foot high. That is the difficulty with no clear roles, no clear vision and no clear targets.

Galway is one of the five cities identified to grow in population. We have the Mutton Island treatment plant, which should never have gone there. It should have gone to the docks, but it went there. Although management tell us, to be fair to them, that it is fit for purpose and able to cope, I believe it is not because on many occasions we have raw sewage going into the bay from the outfalls because of "rain events", which are supposed to be rare but which happen every day in Galway. Finally, in the east of Galway city we do not have the infrastructure for the development that is planned.

I commend Deputy Connolly on how she eloquently describes our Irish language. I thank her.

I thank the Deputy.

The Bill separates Irish Water from its parent company, Ervia, and changes the name of the company to Uisce Éireann. It also includes new provisions to require Uisce Éireann to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts, which is welcome. The general scheme of the Bill was published in 2019 and underwent pre-legislative scrutiny. The committee recommended that the chair be appointed through the Public Appointments Service and that the Minister publish a written statement on the negotiations relating to the single utility, along with an update on holding a referendum to enshrine the right to water in the Constitution. It is disappointing that these issues have not been adequately addressed. Previous speakers have mentioned all that.

We in Sinn Féin are not opposed to the separation of Irish Water from Ervia, but we support the recommendations of the Oireachtas housing committee's pre-legislative scrutiny report. The key issues for us are that the water utility remains in public ownership and that a referendum be held urgently to enshrine this in the Constitution. The Government must publish wording for a referendum and must set a date. At the moment we have no referendum Bill and no date for the holding of a referendum. The Minister has made a vague commitment to bring a proposal to the Government but we have no detail. This is extremely important and must be dealt with. We are, and will continue to be, opposed to domestic metered water charges and domestic meters.

The final legal status of the utility is unclear. Our preference would be for it to be a non-commercial semi-State company. We are concerned with the loss of yet another service to local authorities. We should be strengthening our local government, not weakening it.

Clarity must be provided on what footprint water services will have in councils in the future. Adequate assurances must be provided for local authority staff who choose to transfer to the new utility. We in Sinn Féin believe water should be provided on the basis of need, free at the point of access and funded through general taxation and commercial charges. It is clear from recent county development plan discussions in Kildare that urgent investment is needed to deliver the water and wastewater services that are necessary to ensure we have balanced development.

There are almost 7,000 people on the housing waiting list in Kildare and many thousands more who are not on that list are living in substandard or inadequate housing situations. We are doing them a disservice if we do not address this urgently.

Six years ago, Deputy Joan Collins put forward the water in public ownership Bill, which calls for a referendum to ensure that water services remain in public ownership. Yesterday, the Taoiseach was asked when this referendum would be held and when a date for it would be announced. He replied that the Minister " is working on it" and that "We will get a timeline when we are ready for it." Water workers across the country insist that this referendum must be announced before 1 January. The reason for this is because 1 January is the date when water services are to be transferred from local authorities to Irish Water, Uisce Éireann. They warn of a real danger that in the context of an international recession and pressure on Government finances, the Government may be prepared to privatise Uisce Éireann and that would in turn lay the basis for the return of water charges through the backdoor, that is, "Water charges 2.0". They believe it is in the vital interest of the people of this country that they are aware of that situation given the hatred across the country towards water charges and the complete opposition to any hint of their return.

I suggest that the demands of the country's 3,000 water workers on the naming of a date for a referendum before the end of the year should be taken seriously by the Minister. From the contact I have had with water workers in my own Cork city and county area and the feedback they receive around the county, water workers are deadly serious about this issue. They are not messing about. They are prepared to fight to achieve a referendum. A smooth transfer of water services from local authorities to Irish Water on 1 January will be ruled out unless those assurances are given.

The water workers are right to warn of the dangers of outright privatisation. There is also the real possibility and the threat of a slow privatisation process taking place. Let us call it creeping privatisation. Even with a successful referendum outcome, a State-owned utility can contract multiple private operators for work. We have seen that with the situation in the ESB. Therefore, it is important that the water workers defend and build their industrial strength in Ireland in order to guard against a contracting-out situation. Nor is it ruled out that a semi-State company could go against the interest of the people in this country and reintroduce water charges. We have seen how the ESB went against the interest of ordinary people by massively hiking up the price of gas and electricity, despite the fact it made €679 million in profit last year. We have seen how Allied Irish Banks, a majority State-ownership bank, went against the interest of ordinary people by attempting a mass closure of their branches at the start of summer. This points to a couple of points. First, whatever entity controls water services in this country should be run by a board that is made up of elected representatives, of the people who use the service, and the workers themselves. In other words, there is democratic control and the board genuinely represents the interest of ordinary people. Second, people remember that the Fine Gael Party, along with the Labour Party, introduced water charges. That Government also had the backing of Fianna Fáil on the broad issues. People would do well to remember that and put those parties outside the door next time around. People would also do well to remember that it was a mass movement of people power on the streets and mass non-payment that defeated the water chargers. We did it once and if we have to do it again, we will do that too.

I refer to the framework document that was issued on 25 June, which provides for local authority workers to be transferred from local authorities to Uisce Éireann on 1 January. The document was put in place in spite of a service level agreement between the local authorities and Irish Water that is due to run to 2026. Despite this, the group of unions signed up to the framework document. It is a major understatement to say there is discontent among water workers nationwide that their unions took this position. The decision was made by the unions without referring to the workers themselves. Workers are advancing the demand that they must have the right to ballot on this. No change of this scale and importance should be rammed through and it cannot happen without the workers' consent. I agree 100% with their position on this and I will watch with great interest as to whether democracy will be served at the end of the day and whether the ballot is put in place by the respective unions on this crucial and vital issue for water workers and society. I will leave it at that.

Deputy Connolly made interesting points earlier about the use of the Irish language. I definitely support use of the Irish language in terms of naming State bodies and so on. It is an important way of popularising and bringing the language into normal use but I cannot help but be a little bit cynical when it comes to this naming. I wonder if the name is being changed from "Irish Water" to "Uisce Éireann" because of the deep unpopularity of Irish Water, the dislike that many ordinary people hold for it as an institution and its connection to the project of the commodification of water and potential privatisation of water.

The context of this debate is the mass social movement that happened in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

It prevented the agenda of the political establishment in this country and the capitalist elite in the European Union, which was to drive through commodification and privatisation of our water. The mass movement of hundreds of thousands of people protesting, the 73% of people refusing to pay and the community organisation at an incredible scale, including blocking water meters, defeated a serious Government agenda of commodification leading to privatisation.

At the time, those of us who opposed the water charges were ridiculed for suggesting that such a process of water charges may lead to privatisation. It is very clear to anyone who analyses the various troika programmes that were imposed that where there were no charges they were imposed, such as in Ireland with the agreement of the then Government, and where there were charges privatisation was imposed as, for example, in Greece. It was the clear agenda and it remains a clear agenda. The political establishment in this country cannot go out and speak about its support for water charges. Do we really think the wholehearted support it previously had for water charges has gone away and that it really changed its mind because of the mass movement? No. It was defeated and forced back.

We, together in the mass movement, stopped the process of commodification and privatisation through the front door for now. We have to remain vigilant about the process happening through the back door. Officially we are meant to be getting bills for excess usage of water charges next year. They were originally meant to start in 2019. As a result of the mass opposition and the absence of water meters in half of the homes in the State, the Government has put it off again and again. I presume, because of pressure, particularly in the context of the cost-of-living crisis, the Government will be forced to put it off again. This is meant to be coming and it is a back door towards commodification and full charges.

The other most likely route to effective privatisation is by the back door. This is already happening in terms of how Irish Water operates. There is a lot of outsourcing to private companies. There is not only outsourcing whereby a company is paid to do particular work but also outsourcing in the form of various design, build and operate contracts. This effectively means that large parts of our water infrastructure are run on a for-profit basis. They are handed over to private companies from their very inception. They design, build and operate them and effectively they are run on a for-profit basis. We may well see this extended more and more this until very little of our water is held in effective public ownership. If not, there may be a threat of a future economic crisis when the Government will state it will sell off Irish Water directly.

One of the things that, in a sense, the water movement won was a promise that we would have a referendum to enshrine the public ownership of water in the Constitution. This is important for everybody in the country who drinks and uses water, which is literally everybody. It is particularly important for the 3,000 workers who are expected, from 1 January next year, to transfer from working for local authorities and the State to working for Irish Water. They are extremely concerned that they are being transferred to a semi-State company which, at a future point in time, directly or indirectly, could become a private company and that they would lose all of their rights. It is not a small matter.

The Minister of State is nodding. I presume he personally agrees with the idea of a referendum to ensure water is in public ownership. It is a matter of very clear public record that the Government has dragged its feet on this. That is the case with this Government and the previous Government. I sat in multiple committee meetings dealing with the Bill tabled by Deputy Joan Collins. Six years ago, she introduced a Bill that stated we should have a referendum to put public ownership of water into our Constitution. We were treated to all sorts of arcane legal arguments that were trotted out just to avoid a referendum. There was no meaningful proposal of wording. We were just told this or that was a problem.

Six months ago, we had a promise from the Minister with responsibility for housing that there would be a referendum this year or early next year. As Deputy Barry pointed out, I asked the Taoiseach about this yesterday. The answer I got was far from reassuring. The Taoiseach told me there is no reason for workers to be concerned but he did not give any reassurance whatsoever on the content of the referendum or the timeline for it. When I pushed for an answer on when it would happen I was told we would get a timeline when the Government was ready for it. The Taoiseach said we could not have had a referendum, or even prepare for one, over recent years because of Covid. He said:

Deputy Paul Murphy should acknowledge that significant progress has been made in recent years in cementing the public ownership dimension of Irish Water in terms of the State structure that has been introduced. There is no question about that.

I do not agree there is no question about it when we do not have a referendum. We did not get any indication of a timeline. This is an essential, core issue for the 3,000 workers as well as everybody in the country who is concerned about water.

What the Taoiseach indicated about the wording of the referendum was concerning. The programme for Government is also concerning. There is a general reference to water and our natural resources. The Taoiseach stated:

The fundamental issue around the referendum on water is control of a natural resource, besides the mechanisms by which it is managed. Be it an agency or local authorities, that is a matter for ongoing debate. It is State-owned and the State is the shareholder... The Minister has committed to a referendum on it. It is a referendum that will deal with the broader issue of ownership of water.

I have an idea of what he is getting at, which is that we will not put in the Constitution that we will not privatise Irish Water. What we will put in the Constitution is some type of general idea that the ownership of water in general is held in the context of the State but not that we cannot sell the water coming through our taps for profit and not that it cannot be privatised. The referendum the Government will deliver, based on what was said yesterday, will not meet expectations and hopes and what is necessary to satisfy the demands of the water workers.

I commend the local authority workers for fighting for their rights and the rights of every person in this country who wants to see publicly owned and properly provided water. They have organised a series of protests throughout the State. We do not have any Fine Gael Deputies present but they got a rude awakening at their think-in where the issue of water was present. People were marching outside demanding a referendum. It is absolutely reasonable for the workers to say they want a ballot. Effectively, they will be transferred. They do not feel they have much choice. They are being faced with not much of a choice given what will happen to them in 2026 if they stay in the local authorities. They state they need to have a ballot on this and a democratic decision within the union as to whether they will accept it. This is a very reasonable position for them to adopt. Previously they were informed that no such agreement would happen without their democratic consent to it. They are absolutely right to be campaigning, pushing and demanding ballots in their unions on whether they accept the deal.

If the situation does not change and we do not have a guarantee of a timeline for a meaningful referendum about public ownership of water in a real sense, and if the workers are not satisfied on the various issues they are raising about conditions and pensions, then on 1 January there is likely to be a significant problem. The workers will be absolutely justified in engaging in industrial action to state they will not be transferred to Irish Water. It is very easy for the Government to solve this. I am putting it on notice, and the workers have put it on notice through their actions, that the Government can avoid all of these things by going for a meaningful referendum and engaging with the workers and listening to them. If it does not, it will be faced with the active opposition of these local authority workers who will have very broad public support. The public gets this. It is deeply in the public sentiment that water must not be commodified or privatised and that we must enshrine that in our Constitution. We want a guarantee that what happened with bin services will not happen.

Commodification led to privatisation, to massive attacks on workers' rights and a decline in services for people. That must not happen to something as essential as water. I hope that we will get meaningful responses on the referendum and engagement with the workers.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes, which does not really leave room for everything I wish to say. It has been quite an interesting debate up to this point. I will use this opportunity to raise two local issues. They have been going on for quite some time and are very serious. It is unfortunate that it has to come to the point where they have to be raised in the Dáil. The people of Inishbofin were advised of a boil water notice on 25 August due to the level of manganese in the water. This was then changed to a do not drink notice on 3 September. Even more concerning is that it has now been revealed that as early as 11 August, the level of manganese in the water was not safe. Locals are worried because they feel there might have been an issue for some time with the water. Some have said that for some months there was a strange taste but now the water is completely brown. This water was being used by locals, even for washing bottles for a small baby, at a time when they had not been told that it was not safe to use if it had not been boiled.

All of that is horrendous but the lack of communication from Irish Water is simply not good enough. Islanders have told me that they have found it impossible to get any information from the company. We know that our island communities are very-well organised to get this kind of information. I contacted Irish Water about this and was sent a press release that I could easily have gotten if I googled it. When it comes to the point of us trying to get some information, it simply is not good enough when we are talking about peoples' health.

The boil water notice came in on 25 August but equipment and replacement filtration only arrived on the island almost three weeks later on 13 September. Islanders want to know why it took so long. They also need clarity from Irish Water on the exact level of manganese, when it started and an explanation of how much exposure islanders had to it before this was raised with them. Did this happen all of a sudden? Had it been building for some time? What exactly had been the problem with this system? All of these questions are still being asked by the islands. I understand that the Minister of State will not have all the answers to this issue now but I would be delighted if he could furnish me with a response at a later date.

I will raise another Irish Water issue on Inisheer, which has been ongoing since last summer. There are nightly restrictions of water over summer months from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. I was on Inisheer at the weekend. What happens is that a cargo boat has to bring 10,000 l of water twice per day to the island. Usually there are 300 people living on the island. However, there are thousands there during the summer. That is not good enough. That boat should not be going. We need to make sure that there is a functioning reservoir for the island. We should think of all the rain that falls that could be collected. That is the kind of vision we need. Those are two urgent actions.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss Irish Water. I accept the fact that it needs to be put into a single entity and that it be separated out in order that it can have full responsibility for what it does and that we, as elected Members, have an opportunity to question its performance, its spending and the value for money it gets out of that. There will be an obligation on Irish Water to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees from time to time, which is welcome.

We need to make sure that Irish Water is protected from privatisation. It is a commitment of Government that this will be done and it needs to be done in a meaningful way. Having said that, I would like to move on to some of the problems I encounter with Irish Water. If the company is to be effective in delivering what it will supposed to deliver, which is safe water and wastewater treatment to our towns, villages and cities, the first thing we need to make sure is that it is resourced properly.

I look at issues that arise. I have concerns if I go back prior to Irish Water. Galway County Council had a schedule of wastewater treatment plants to come on stream over time. One of them would have been a major wastewater treatment plant for the east of the city to serve the Ardaun corridor, which is the next development phase out of the city towards the east of the county and Athenry. A site selection process was in place. Feasibility studies have been done and it has not moved one inch since then.

We talked about the possibility of getting the likes of Intel in to Galway to set up a microchip processing plant. I understand that other major chip manufacturing companies are looking at the same site now. We should have the infrastructure in place to take on a project for which we have the land - a project that would be as the same size and calibre of what is going on in Leixlip. It is important that we front load our infrastructure investment to make sure that particular area is serviced by wastewater and water.

We have an Industrial Development Authority, IDA, Ireland site in Athenry, which is at the crossroads of the railways and the motorways in the county that go north to south and east to west. Approximately four years ago, under the previous Government, we succeeded in getting Irish Water to upgrade the treatment plant. That was phase 1 of the project for Athenry. Phase 2 was to put in a pipe network, which was to happen within two years. That pipe network was to connect all of the existing housing estates in the town to this new upgraded treatment plant. That has not happened. It has not even gone out to tender. It is still in some design process and has not happened. It is probably two years overdue at this stage.

Meanwhile new schools are being built, including a Gaelscoil campus. We have other projects to do in Athenry and we do not have the infrastructure. We have the plant but we do not have the pipes to feed from the private treatment plants that Irish Water will refuse to take in charge. We have a solution, which is to pipe from them all the way to the new treatment plant. That has not been done. That is stifling growth in Athenry, which is a growth centre with train connectivity to Athlone, Limerick and Galway city. We have to think about what we are doing.

I have other issues with regard to smaller towns such as Craughwell, which is another growth centre outside of Galway, where the treatment plant site was selected by Galway County Council. That has not moved. We have six private wastewater treatment plants in Corrofin, a village, all built on the edge of the River Clare. These treatment plants are not working to proper standards. They are not being maintained because the people living in the houses cannot afford it. We are living in an era when we are fast approaching an environmental time bomb there.

There is a considerable tract of land in Corrofin village that is primed for development, but nothing can be built on it because An Bord Pleanála has decided that an application to build housing there was premature until a municipal wastewater treatment plant was built. That decision was probably made in 2007 or 2008. We have had nothing since that with regard to even putting it on an agenda to get it done. It is the same in Abbeyknockmoy, Laban and Ardrahan, where we cannot build the houses people want to build in our villages because we do not have the wastewater treatment plants.

Irish Water will say it does not have the funding to do it. It is prioritising places where there are centres of population that it needs to service such as Dublin. I understand that the money that was supposed to go into Athenry was diverted to a project in Dublin. That is fine. I do not begrudge anybody getting their infrastructure but I need to see that the infrastructure that was planned by Galway County Council and deemed to be feasible to carry out is done as a matter of urgency.

We were talking about energy earlier during my group's Private Members' motion and we had a good debate on it. If we do not have electricity, water or wastewater where are we going in terms of trying to build houses to solve the crisis we have? I do not blame Irish Water. I blame the fact the Government is not providing enough funding for it to be able to carry out the job it is charged with carrying out.

Another issue that concerns me is at the moment if you are looking for a letter of consent to apply for planning permission for a house and you are on a public scheme owned by Irish Water it takes up to 12 weeks to get a letter to confirm the utility will give you consent to apply for planning permission and that it will give you water. That is not right. If you are successful you go to the next stage where you connect the water to your house. You again have to apply for a connection. If it is along the public road Irish Water will have to carry out the work itself and use its own set of contractors. The rate they will charge is very high and can be very serious. In one case lately, a young woman who is building a house with her husband found the cost of providing the water to the meter outside her door was €60,000. It was never envisaged it would cost that but because it was coming along a public road it cost so much per metre. The 250 m at €300 per metre was €75,000, less certain discounts etc. That kind of thing has got to be taken by the scruff of the neck and just thrown out the door. We need to ensure people get reasonable costs for utilities that are being provided. I assume the reason so much is being charged is the local authorities have put long-term damage charges onto the digging-up of public roads and as well as that, Irish Water must try to make a few pounds someplace when it is not getting enough to resource itself.

The other area that is of concern to me is that in County Galway, as well as in Clare, Mayo and Donegal, there is a huge amount of private housing schemes that have private wastewater treatment plants and the responsibility for managing these is being left to the residents. They are not qualified to do it and they have not got the resources to do it. Again, we are seeing that people cannot sell a house in these estates because they cannot get confirmation the wastewater treatment plant is in public ownership. It is creating huge problems in trying to get people to take an interest in their estate because they are deflated by the fact they bought these houses, got mortgages for them and now find they are spending much more money every year and at the same time paying the local property tax.

I have raised a lot of issues. There are many things we need to get right. This is an opportunity for the Government and all of us here to say let us get behind Irish Water. The best way to do that is to give it the resources it needs.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in. I have plenty of time so I want to focus on an area he will be familiar with, namely, Duncannon and the water and sewage treatment issues there.

There are two villages in the running to be chosen for a new treatment plant in County Wexford. One of them is my home village of Ramsgrange. On all available evidence it appears to be a no-brainer that the plant be located there. Ramsgrange is an unusually large village with a secondary school of over 500 pupils, a primary school of up to 100 pupils, a supermarket, a church, a pub in the centre of the village, a day centre and South West Wexford, which is a local business hub. The installation of the treatment plant in the local area of Ballyhack and Arthurstown would allow access, if Ramsgrange was allowed to join it, to new and existing dwellings for planning permission. Equally, if we join the dots here we can save money because the secondary school has planning permission for an extension, in which case the Department of Education will have to fund upwards of €150,000 to provide sewage treatment for the extension. A survey has gone on with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and EU funding gave in excess of €500,000 to bring the farmers in the area into a scheme that would restore the blue flag for Duncannon beach. That has been very successful but at the same time it has reduced the percentage of effluent going into the open sea down to probably 13%. The problem is that 13% is still there to go back into the sea if Ramsgrange is not joined.

We have not regained our blue flag in Duncannon. It is a coastal village. The Minister of State has been there. There are huge plans for it from a tourism perspective but this is also an area where the infrastructure was in absolute chaos this summer. For almost a month in August people had limited water. Some days there was none, on other days there was some and it was always at reduced pressure, meaning people could not use their showers, washing machines or dishwashers. They could hardly wash up, never mind wash themselves, and this went on for a month. While the sewage treatment plant work was being carried out the contractor, against the advice of Wexford County Council and when we were all on reduced water pressure, decided to fill the treatment plant's tanks with water. They took every drop of water out of the reservoir. When it was discovered by the council and Irish Water combined, we were left with a series of air locks through the whole system that lasted for a couple of weeks in different areas. It was a nightmare. We had businesses that supply food that had to close. The supermarket had to close its deli. The response from our local Wexford County Council water engineers was phenomenal. They did everything they could. With Irish Water, the contact was there, there is not doubt about it, but there was nothing we could do; there was no water. Irish Water delivered tanks to certain areas but it means so much to join the dots.

We talk about resourcing Irish Water but we must look at how it spends its money. It makes the most sense in the world from everybody's perspective to join Ramsgrange into that wastewater treatment plant. It is the next village from the three that are in it and it is the biggest village of the three. It would give us access to housing, which is so badly needed. On top of that I must say I have had a lot of interaction with people in this area who are very disgruntled about Irish Water because they feel they are currently paying for water. If you have planning permission and you just want the utility to come and connect you it is €4,000. All Irish Water is doing is turning on a tap and it is €4,000. You are paying the contribution to Wexford County Council for roads and water. People feel they are paying for it. They hear €10 million of Irish Water's budget is being paid out in performance bonuses - I am assuming they are performance bonuses because I do not know what else they would be for. My interaction as a public servant is mostly with the local Wexford County Council engineers, who are phenomenal. Dan McCartan in New Ross spent his whole summer engaging with the community who have had no water 24-7. It is as simple as that. There are many more like him, such as Billy Harris. People have given up their weekends to deal with the water shortage. I do not know why that €10 million was paid out but we really cannot afford bonuses when we have an infrastructure that is failing all over the country. It is something I will be happy to tackle when Uisce Éireann appears in front of the Committee of Public Accounts. I do not want to see moneys expended in a way that is not deserved. I want to see us joining the dots between the Department of Education and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

Virtually all of the septic tanks in Ramsgrange need upgrading, which would be at a cost of maybe €15,000 to €16,000. If we get the wastewater treatment plant they can probably join. We do not know what the cost is but it would be significantly less to aging people who built their houses some years ago. That is what I mean by joining the dots. We have people who cannot afford €15,000 no matter what the Department with responsibility for the environment says. It does not matter what fine the Department institutes or whether it brings people to court, because they cannot afford it.

On the €5,000 the council will give for the septic tank grant, the outlay has to be spent before people can recoup the grant. That is just not practical. At local level the engineers have done everything to make sure the dots are joined and the wastewater treatment plant goes ahead in this area, simply because it makes more sense and it is the practical, value-for-money thing to do. It will go in front of a board and the decision will be made. I am not aware exactly of what is located in the other village but I do know it only costs €2.5 million. When I say "only", I am benchmarking that against the €10 million in performance bonuses. We will have a lot of angry people if it is not granted, for the simple reason that it makes no sense to pay bonuses when we have poor infrastructure and people are paying for it one way or the other by having to actually buy water for the whole month of August.

I am glad to see that we have the initiative now to separate and bring in water as an entity on its own. The constitutional referendum was promised and I assume it will come in time. I believe we are paying currently. We have an infrastructure that is 60 or 70 years old, particularly in rural Ireland. There has been no effort to replace it. All we keep doing is putting a sticking plaster on it. It is not working from the point of view of value for money. Three weeks ago, I saw a story about leaks on the front page of my local newspaper, Wexford People. We have a man in Wexford, John Hayes, with a leak in his garden that expends 3 l of water per minute. In the 56 years he has lived there, he estimates that 88 million l have been lost. It is treated water. The council has tested it but it cannot find the source. He says that at that rate he has piped it in a way that his garden does not flood. How much is it costing us to lose 88 million l of water for which we cannot find the source?

I know the Minister is passionate about the environment and believes this has to happen in respect of the whole country but €1.2 billion into the budget of Uisce Éireann will go nowhere unless we start to join dots, take practical measures and listen to our local engineers. We have spent €500,000 of EU money cleaning up farms in the area and still we cannot make a straightforward decision. It is nonsensical that there has to be a competition as to who gets what first. I appeal for a more practical approach. We could save the Department of Education €150,000 to and we could probably use the balance of the money left from the EU fund to start to do the same thing with farmers in Kilmore in respect of effluent treatment. Lots of things could be done. We can save the county councils the €5,000 grants provided to upgrade septic tanks. These are all the things we could do to save money if we connected Ramsgrange to the wastewater treatment plant.

Irish Water was allocated a fund for the greater Dublin area drainage project of €410 million and €294 million for the water supply project. The funding for these two projects was ring-fenced for the duration of Irish Water's third revenue control period, RC3, although the company could not access the fund for diversion of projects. Irish Water is now proposing that the ring-fenced funding be used broadly across the portfolio to absorb the impact of inflationary pressure, given that the money will not be utilised for the drainage or water supply project within the revenue control period as originally intended.

I refer to rural areas. There was €410 million for the greater Dublin area and €294 million for the water supply project which is to bring water from the Shannon Estuary to Dublin. How many sewerage systems in the counties could be upgraded with this money? People in Askeaton have been waiting for 36 years now for an upgrade and there is water going into the Shannon. There is water going from Drumcolliher to the Deel and reports show that the State is the biggest polluter in the country through the local authorities. It is not the farmers or anyone else. The local authorities are the biggest polluters.

In my own investigations in Limerick, I found out that no major investment will be made in the county's sewerage plants to allow for extra capacity. Only the upgrade of the existing capacity of sewerage systems is provided for. I just mentioned Drumcolliher and Askeaton. Oola is another case. I will take the Minister of State around the county and show him where the local authority is polluting. That means I cannot build houses in these areas for people to return home because there is no infrastructure. The money the Government is allocating for the likes of the Dublin area could be redeployed into all the counties. I have heard other speakers saying this. Infrastructure in all these towns and villages could be upgraded but the Government is making an allocation of €704 million for Dublin. If we had the proper infrastructure, we would have the proper houses being built and our schools, businesses and everything else would be sustainable.

All I am hearing tonight is stories about the shortfall of water and sewerage capacity around the country and Deputies looking for funding to fix sewerage and water systems to provide an adequate water supply. All the Minister of State is telling us is that existing systems will be upgraded with no additional capacity and there is no money to do anything else. We are waiting for a water supply to build 100 houses in Croom. Eight months ago, we had Irish Water before a committee at which its representatives guaranteed me we would have letters for the contractors to get those houses built. That letter is only coming this week. We waited eight months to get a letter to say we would have water in Croom to build 100 houses, a nursing home and a crèche. These projects were held up for 12 months as waited for a letter to say there would be adequate water in Croom. Croom Medical is expanding and adding 80 jobs. Its biggest concern is how it will get people into these jobs because of the lack of housing in the area. We have 100 houses that would help that business be sustainable because people could move to the likes of Croom, which is a 15-minute commute from Limerick city. That is how important it is to get funds into local areas so we can build our businesses.

People in rural areas pay the highest transport costs because there is no industry in their areas due to a lack of infrastructure. If Covid has taught us anything, it is that the farming sector in these areas are the people who kept food on our tables. Some of these farmers could not get adequate water even for the cattle they were trying to feed because of the lack of infrastructure, yet it was okay for the Government to try to allocate €704 million to bring water to Dublin from the Shannon. Is there any other county in Ireland bar Dublin?

Are the people in every other county in this country as important as the people in Dublin? The problem is the Government overpopulated Dublin to the point where it is now bursting at the seams. The grandparents and the parents have no hope of any of their children returning because it is at capacity. It is common sense to put in infrastructure in the other areas and deploy people back out into the country where they belong. We can create employment there ourselves, if we have the basic infrastructure of water and sewerage. A basic need is not a lot to ask for.

I came to Dublin last Monday morning. I came in by Kildare at about 5.30 a.m. The traffic on the road trying to get into Dublin was absolutely unbelievable. I could not believe it. It was 5.30 a.m. on a Monday and I was going to a medical appointment with my son. I asked where all the cars were going at 5.30 a.m. The factories and so on have changed their hours and have asked the staff to come in at 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. because of the congestion in Dublin. If any of us leave here after 4 p.m. to try to head home, we might as well sit here until 7.30 p.m. given the time it takes us to get out of here. There is the same problem when trying to get in. That speaks for itself.

Dublin is at bursting point. The infrastructure in Dublin is also at bursting point. There are areas around this country where if the Government spent money on proper infrastructure, we would get industry. We would have houses, people would want to move there and we would have industry. If we had people in these areas, the Government could then put something together for a proper transport sector. That is why the infrastructure is in Dublin. The Government shoved everyone into Dublin to try to get infrastructure, but it starved the rest of the country. If the Government believes in the rest of the country and builds infrastructure there, the country will supply it with what it needs. That is common sense. That is representation and looking outside the fold. That is looking at everything we see.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was here while we were talking about ESB and transport costs. They do not apply to Dublin because it does not have them. It has the ESB costs, but does not have all of the other associated costs that we have to deal with. When or if the lights go out this year, it will be the fault of forward planning. First, you put infrastructure in, like I said to the Minister tonight, and then you can build for the future. If the Government invests money now in rural areas, there will be infrastructure. However, we have to make sure that Irish Water spends the money in the areas where we want to rebuild and deploy people and not give it a free hand to get involved in massive projects that will not represent this country as a whole.

Every representative here represents different counties. It is the duty of every Deputy or Minister to get funding for their county. Now the pressure is coming on the Government to deliver. Like the Ministers in my county of Limerick, the Ministers of State, Deputies Collins and O’Donovan, Ministers in every county are now bringing down Ministers to open everything and start spending a few euro. What were they doing for the past ten or 15 years when our county sent them here to bring the money home to put in infrastructure? What did they do? Now there is social media and they can be found out for what they are not doing for their county and now they are running. My job is to make them spend the money in Limerick and I will make sure that they deliver for Limerick.

I am delighted to speak on this issue. I have huge concerns about Irish Water. I have fond respect for county council management from the time I was on the council. I salute some of them who have gone on to their eternal reward and some who are still working in it, including engineers, ordinary water caretakers and council outdoor staff and, indeed, indoor staff who did, and who do, a tremendous job. They were and are accountable. Now, the Government is trying to force many of them into Irish Water with no certainty or future. It is totally unfair. I originally opposed the setting up of Irish Water. It is a white elephant and a monstrosity. First, it is lacking in basic knowledge. I met water caretakers who had intimate knowledge of every stopcock, air valve and sluice valve in the systems in the areas. One such person, PJ Cullinan, who is very sick at the moment was a wonderful caretaker as was Joe Carrigan. There are many more. Tommy Hartigan looked after Clonmel as if it was his own fiefdom.

For the umpteenth time this year, Clonmel, the second biggest inland town in the country, is on a boil water notice this week. In addition, there are water outages. Areas of Tipperary are totally neglected, including the Commons, Ballingarry, Lismalin, Moyglass, Fethard, Ballinure and Dualla. We have outages but nobody to report them to. Lay people who are concerned about water tell me that if they call Irish Water on Friday night, they will not get anyone to call them back until Sunday. It is shocking.

While I love the cúpla focal Gaeilge agus is maith liom an t-ainm "Uisce Éireann", this new company being set up will be another failure. First, it is not accountable to anybody. It is not responsible to the elected representatives or anybody else. I am not saying responsible in the wrong way, but it will not come before the Committee of Public Accounts. Who does this Government think it is fooling? Did it not learn from its mistakes when the former Minister, Phil Hogan, wryly smiled and said he would turn down the water to a trickle? The Government will do the same now with the power. It will not be a trickle; it will be an outage. You cannot turn down the power because it will destroy every motor, every dishwasher and everything else. The Government will just turn it off. It thinks it can do this and get away with it. That is what it was inadvertently planning for by closing peat-fired power stations and everything else but I will not go into that debate.

I refer to the whole situation of water in Dublin. I have nothing against the people of Dublin. Many people from my county came to Dublin to live. However, the whole charade of pipeline from the Shannon through Tipperary and several other counties into Dublin is an white elephant. Deputy O'Donoghue mentioned the money ringfenced for Dublin, the water pipe and other Dublin sewerage and water schemes, which will cost €700 million. What would that do for all the villages? I could name 30 of them in Tipperary.

I heard Deputy Connolly talking earlier about very wonderful areas in Galway that I know. They are famous places where there is raw sewage is spilling into the sea. If farmer has an accidental spillage, he is prosecuted and persecuted. It is a charade. The genie is out of bottle. The Government will not stop. The biggest polluters are local authority housing estates but Irish Water does not have the money to deal with them. Many treatment plants are at a very advanced stage of planning, design and everything else but they are all buried because of Irish Water. It could find €10 million to pay in bonuses. What are the bonuses for? They are for being the worst, most inefficient company that ever entered the public realm. Yet it paid out €10 million in bonuses because that is the structure. That is the twisted, pernicious make up of the structure and set up of the company. I know good people who left the county councils when this happened because they were so hurt. They loved their jobs and looking after the people. They were excellent public servants and they just bailed out because of this nonsense, and it is nonsense.

I know one caretaker who is about to retire in two months. He told Irish Water officials he would give them all of the information about the area, which had been handed down from other workers who had retired, but they just laughed at him. However, now they cannot find the valve, the sluice valve and the turn-off point. They are doing more damage with their outages because they are digging and poking around in the dark. Is rud uafásach é sin and it is just not acceptable.

The Minister of State is from the Green Party, which has its ideas. I tabled a Topical Issue matter about the Shannon pipeline. I want to salute Councillor Seamie Morris, Ms Emma Fitzpatrick, who did a report, and others in Tipperary who are opposed to this mad, bonkers plan to pipe water to Dublin from the Shannon and to have up to 47% of it leak into leaky pipes in Dublin. One must remember how the water leaks out. If there are outages and stoppages, all the stuff leaks back in and no one is even thinking about the contaminants coming back into the system. That is a bonkers plan and I raised it here with one of the Minister’s colleagues.

He read out the typical reply from the Minister, Deputy Ryan, today, but then he met me afterwards when we were leaving the Chamber and told me that he 100% agrees with me. The Green Party is all about saving the economy, not building motorways and stopping big projects but this massive project is going to go through the Golden Vale and all the other counties to pump water to Dublin, whereas if the leaks had been fixed, there would be no need for it. The Government had the ideal opportunity to fix the leaks during Covid when there was no traffic in Dublin. Did it do so? Not at all. There is no forward thinking; not an ounce of it.

There is a water treatment plant planned for Clonmel. It has been planned for nearly a decade now. There is a landowner who is willing to give a site. I mentioned him previously. Jimmy Harney pursued that project and got it to a certain stage. There is still not a sign of it, though. It was going to take water onto the farm of Donal Lyons, who has agreed to sell the site and has seemingly signed contracts but there is no sign of it happening. That would provide for the town of Clonmel, where there is industry and households that have to put up with boil water notices and outages every week. I could go on to mention most of the towns in the area. The situation is the same in Carrick-on-Suir. Those towns have treatment plants, but what about all the villages, including my own village of Newcastle? We cannot build a henhouse because the treatment centre is not a treatment centre; it is a big septic tank. I can keep going. Burncourt, Lisvernane, Bansha, Monard, Solohead - anywhere you want to go; they are all there. Some of them do not even have tanks. It is disgraceful. The Government brought out a mockery of a septic tank grant which could not be assessed. One had to do the work first. It was only seven or eight or ten sites in south Tipperary and maybe ten more in north Tipperary that were even tested. It was all a big PR message. In Golden village, there is raw sewage spewing into the River Suir. It is one of the best river salmon and trout fisheries that we have, yet raw sewage is spewing into it every hour of every day. The Minister of State knows the consequences of that but we hear the talk from the Government about a green and clean environment and making people freeze and be without light and making industry be without energy this winter. All this patent nonsense is going on as well.

I want to salute recent retirees from Tipperary County Council who did tremendous work. Two former directors of services, Pat Slattery and Clare Curley, were fine public officials. A number of engineers, including Willie Corby and Eoin Powell and others are retiring now after many years of service. I thank them and wish them well. They will be a huge loss to the system but the system does not care any more. Irish Water does not want to know the county councils. I ring it regularly. I also want to thank the plumbers and the supervisors, such as Pat Fitzgerald and many others whom I have to contact because you might as well write to Santa Claus as try to phone Irish Water. There is no information. It is like an answering service. They do not know what county you are in, not to mind what parish you are in. It is a shocking situation. I know of people who will ring Irish Water about a major burst pipe that will do huge damage to the road as well as being a waste of water but they cannot get through to anyone. They ring the Garda and it tells them to ring their public representative or to ring me. That is the way it has gone. It is patent nonsense.

The Government is now going ahead with this without proper legislation or proper scrutiny mechanisms to make sure the company will be accountable to somebody, there will be audits and it will be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts for the waste and the way they waste money. I am appealing to the Minster of State, as a green Minister, to stop this mad and devastating project that is going to destroy the flora and fauna and the landscape for all that distance just to pump water up here for it leak it into the ground. It is patent nonsense.

As I said in a debate last night, it is the men in white coats who should be coming to take ye away. The Government needs to fix the leaks in Dublin. I have nothing against Dublin people. They are entitled to clean water. During the drought this year, we did not have enough water at Ardnacrusha to keep our plants going but the Government is going to pump that much water up to Dublin for it to leak. It is nonsense. It is bonkers and a failed decision by previous Governments. I do not know why the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and their colleagues now acquiesce with this project and keep it going, but it is not going to be a reliable source because the water is not there. Dublin has heaps of water at Poulaphouca. There are plenty of bore wells that can be sunk in Dublin to supply the city and its people and give them plenty of water. It is just not acceptable that the Government has kept this project going.

As I said, Emma Fitzpatrick has done a tremendous report on the situation. That report is there to be debated and examined and is available for independent scrutiny. It lays bare the fallacy and the nature of the concept of the project the Government is doing, as well as the figures. The figures will triple. It will be like the children's hospital - another runaway money train with no accountability.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I may as well say that before I came into this House I worked as a water services caretaker for Donegal County Council for 16 years. Unfortunately, in spite of the positive words that have been said about caretakers in the debate tonight, that is going to be lost under the Bill because that system is gone and will be gone through Irish Water as well. I do not believe that anybody can tell me that will not be the case. Sadly, that is the reality of the situation. There is no doubt that local staff knew the situation on the ground and worked their best and hardest to make a bad system that existed under the local authorities work. They could contribute more and have an easier time of it if the system was run properly but that will not happen now. I will get to it later on, but what Irish Water staff will be doing in the future is managing private contractors and that is probably all they will be doing.

I wish to explicitly state that in the context of the effort to update outdated systems, I am completely against the Government's numerous attempts to take power away from local authorities and its continuous moves towards outsourcing and privatisation of our water supply. In terms of resources, there is absolutely no difference between what is needed now and what was needed before Irish Water was created, except that Irish Water packaged it differently and presented it on a national basis. There probably was a commitment to publish and fund more by the Government to make it look like Irish Water was some sort of dynamic company that was solving all of our water problems that were never highlighted before, which it actually was not doing.

The Bill before the House states that the aim of the legislation is to supposedly create a national publicly owned regulated water services utility under Uisce Éireann. I am aware that this legislation provides for the separation of Irish Water from the Ervia group but does not contain provisions in respect of the parallel Irish Water transformation process involving the transfer of local authority staff to Irish Water. The ongoing disputes between Irish Water and council staff have significant relevance in this context, however. We know that workers from the 31 local authorities do not want to work directly for Irish Water and were against the phasing out of the current system of service level agreements. This move to rename and make Uisce Éireann is a way to get the workers to accept the change and buy into it but Uisce Éireann will continue to use contractors to supply and run our water infrastructure. When the workers all agree to move to Uisce Éireann, we will see the phasing out of direct employment other than managers managing the contracts of private water workers. That is the reality of what will happen, sadly, because the days of local people who actually know their local areas being involved in water services and responsible for them are gone. In a huge number of cases they went the extra mile to ensure the water services would survive and be able to manage and work in the area. The day I started on Donegal County Council, the local engineer came down to meet me. He told me that although I might think the job should not be a vocation, it would become a vocation. I laughed at him and told him I was not looking for a vocation; I was looking for a job that would pay me a wage at the end of the week. What actually happens, however, is that because you are left with sole responsibility for this network and looking after water - providing water for all your neighbours. You go the extra mile to make sure you can do it. You end up working night and day and Sundays and everything like that to make sure it actually works for your neighbours and friends and community. That will be lost in the system.

I understand the staff in the council water services have not been given an opportunity to have their say on this legislation. That should be done first, before even bringing the legislation to this House. It seems that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is to nominate one director but it will have to allow the Minister to choose between at least two candidates. Why should the Minister get to pick who will be the representative of the workers? As citizens of Ireland, this is our water and we are all invested in it, yet the Minister gets to pick those whom he wants for the board. Surely there should be a public interest representation on the board as well. We can add to the above that we saw how out of touch previous Ministers were on this. That was obvious in 2014, 2015 and 2016 when Phil Hogan, Alan Kelly and Simon Coveney all did the exact opposite of what the public wanted. Experience has shown us that the Irish people cannot trust politicians to act in their interests.

There is always the possibility of something that should be inextricably linked to this legislation, that is, a referendum on the future of water. I have been speaking to water activists from all over the country, including those involved in the right to water protests, and we are all aware that water is still among the most profitable non-financial assets on the planet. The Government and major multinationals are also aware of that - probably more so than the community. That is why there was a rush to privatise water. Whether it is admitted or not, there is an appetite to privatise our water system.

There is talk about why we want to have it in the Constitution and why it should be in the Constitution. A very interesting aside is that when Portugal went into a bailout the Troika could not touch the housing system in Portugal because in the Portuguese constitution housing was a protected right of citizens. What did the Troika do here? With the active participation of Fine Gael and everybody else they destroyed the housing system and look at the mess we are in today. That is why it is vitally important that Irish Water is properly protected in the Irish Constitution to ensure that it will not be privatised by the Government or anybody else in the future.

The water activists and the water workers have two major concerns in regard to the referendum. First, what is the wording of the referendum? It has been six years since the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) Bill 2016 was put forward by Deputy Joan Collins and unanimously passed in this House. We still do not have sight of a wording for a constitutional amendment. Talk about undermining the democratic wishes of the nation and the democratic structures of the State. We do not want simply to enshrine Irish Water or Uisce Éireann in the Constitution. We need to ensure that the following wording is used: "The Government shall be collectively responsible for the protection, management and maintenance of the public water system. The Government shall ensure in the public interests that this resource remains in public ownership and management." Anything less will allow privatisation through the back door. Second, we will need to make sure that the amendment is placed in Article 28, section 4(2)(i) rather than, if we even have an amendment, the Government will intend it to be in the section of the Constitution which means that the courts will have to decide. We want to place it in the right section of the Constitution where our human right to water is in conflict with the ownership of our water system by some Irish oligarch or international vulture fund and some Supreme Court judge decides whose right is sacrosanct. We need the amendment placed in the governance section of the Constitution.

Now water workers and water activists across the country are watching to make sure that this is not a symbolic or tokenistic measure. Only a meaningful referendum to protect our water system will be satisfactory. That is vitally important. I know for a fact that the Government will not come up with this meaningful referendum, if it comes up with a referendum at all. Yesterday the Taoiseach was answering questions on this during Leaders' Questions. He actually said that we did not need a referendum, that the Government was doing everything to protect water. If that is the case we are in big trouble because sadly this Government will not protect water. That is why it has to be in their founding document, in the Constitution, and in the right section of the Constitution. I have no doubt that the intention of this Government and previous Governments will be not to have it in that section because that will restrict them in what they actually do. It will restrict them privatising and selling it off. Have we not learned from what happened with Eircom? We should learn from those mistakes. This is vital public infrastructure and it has to stay in public ownership; that is the reality of the situation.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this. I will first say I am the chairman of a group water scheme. We run it ourselves voluntarily. We do not need Irish Water or anyone else, thankfully; we do it ourselves. There is a great community in our area. I want to make that clear. I probably have an advantage over most people where I would have dug and laid it, filled it in and scoured it and done everything with water down through the years.

I listened to the speakers and the debate earlier on the motion from the Regional Group Members. As I said before, EU law over the years has broken things up and it is heading this way with Bord Gais. It was heading this way with many things but it has failed. Water, energy, light, fuel coming into a country, and health, need to be held and we need to ensure those basic necessities are in State control. If not, communities can do their own thing as we are doing, but in general it is necessary for a country to have that security of supply. There is a big problem with water. We had a few fine days, damn all to be frank about it, and then I saw on the television there were hosepipe bans and the need to conserve water. We are on life support if that is how our water system is. The first thing this Government should do is to show faith to workers because there is a debate going on that everyone is aware of. I understand that is not on this Bill tonight but the first thing the Government should do is say it is prepared to put that to the people in a referendum to keep it in State ownership. That is paramount for anybody and needs to be part of any negotiations for workers’ security.

There is a current debate about whether water should be brought to Dublin. In my opinion there should be four spurs coming out of the pipe that is talked about for Lough Derg. For balanced regional development there should be one to the west, one to the south, one towards the north and one towards the east, for the simple reason that at the moment there are 66 plants in Leinster on life support in the line of water. Forget about Dublin. They are in serious trouble because the sources they have are not good enough. That is the bottom line. Put Dublin in on top of that.

Leaks need fixing. Someone said earlier that meters should not be installed. Forget the debate about paying or not paying. The reason for putting in a meter for anyone who ever worked in water is so that you can look at the little red wheel going around and it tells you if there is a leak in the area. On a half-inch pipe this enables about 3,000 gallons of water a day to be saved if it is bad leak. There is no point in wasting water.

Something else needs to be done on which the Government should be proactive. At the moment another EU piece of legislation – God bless them – on water abstraction relates to water coming from rivers and lakes, which will be controlled by the State. The water will come along the river and into the lake and on further again to be taken out somewhere to be treated. We are taking it up and putting it through the full treatment system, which costs millions of euro throughout the country. We are going to UV it, chlorinate it, and then send it back around again. That is sound, people need that done for themselves, but the cattle will also get chlorinated water. If Johnny Farmer decides to put a pump on the river or the lake he will be a criminal. That is not what we should be doing. We should actually give a grant to Johnny Farmer to bring water out from the river, to put in the rings and make sure that he pumps it without having to UV it, treat or chlorinate it. That would be common sense especially in an energy crisis when we are pumping it that way to come back this way to go down there and drink it again.

EU legislation comes in here and is not being thought through. What we are doing is madness at times. Cattle do not need chlorinated water yet around the country most of them are drinking it. In fairness to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there are some grants under targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, for rainwater harvesting and that is a good thing. I am in favour of that and we need to do it.

The Bill that is coming in on splitting Uisce Éireann from Ervia is a good thing because I have worked in water over the years. When we were putting in a local scheme the rates were tight and basically it was a transport box, a tractor, a JCB and a few people. That was the phrase we used. I know it was more technical than that but the phrase was that the job was tight. Once Irish Water came in and Ervia had influence on it, the Lord God there were so many people in offices that you had to have a bit of paper for this and a programme going ahead and every type of stuff was dreamt out of the sky on how to do a job. The taxpayer is paying for it, and that is the problem. We have now probably raised the price of the same meter by five to six times what it costs.

It even came down to saying that if you had a white van, you could put Irish Water across it. That all comes, in my opinion, from the Ervia side of it. I remember when Irish Water was set up and I pay tribute to people such as Jerry Grant who started, as they say, at the bottom and who worked his way up. He was a practical person in Irish Water, as was Michael O'Leary, in fairness to them. There are good people within Irish Water.

There is one problem for us, however, as politicians at the moment. If you have a leak, with no disrespect intended you might have someone who might not know a lot about water and you may have no idea what that person is saying to you. You are trying to solve a leak and to get a leak allowance. I even saw in the past few days where someone told my office that where a leak was within the house or building, a leak allowance cannot be given. The leak has to be from the meter on the pipe on the way into the house. If it is in the floor underneath, where you did not see it, lo and behold that is your tough luck. Anyone who says that has not got a bull’s clue about water in their life.

Another thing they have said is that if you have not reported the leak within three months, the company will not deal with it. That is not the way to treat people. If someone comes and fixes a leak, people will be more proactive. There should be an education in this country about encouraging people once a fortnight or every three weeks to look at their meter or the company should make it easier to do so. This is because with the new gear that is out there, you can go along the road and read the meter from the computer and you are putting a little block over it. You would need a magnifying glass now to look down to find where it is working. The company should make it easy for people and work with them. People will conserve water if there is any way they can do that.

In addition to that, Irish Water needs a very significant budget for many years to come. If you look at the ratios of money spent in Dublin as against the countryside, it is significantly different. As has been said earlier by many Deputies, a great number of towns have no wastewater treatment or sewage plant or anything like that and of course the farmer gets kicked about it. Sooner or later, whatever is in the town will straggle its way down to the river but as the farmer is the other side of the river, he or she will be blamed for this. I welcome what I see in Ahascragh at the moment, where the company is finishing a job. That is great. I also know that an upgrade is coming in Ballymoe, County Galway. I will tell Members the reason. It is because of a river called the Island river. The media will talk about all of these farmers, what they are doing and not doing, and they are wrong no matter which way they turn. The facts are that this river is one of the most pristine in Ireland. When it comes along and meanders through all the agricultural land, it is tested every way. There is a meeting next Monday night where the results will be given. It is one of the most pristine rivers but when it comes into Ballymoe, because the upgrade had not been done on the sewage treatment plant there, the river is damaged there. That is what is happening in Wexford, Kildare, Connemara, Kerry, Donegal and wherever. It is "not in my back door" stuff. That aspect needs to be looked at.

On the water abstraction issue, we should be looking at it in a totally different way than basically saying to a farmer that we want to know how much water he or she is taking out and all of that. No one goes pumping water for the crack up and down the road.

The other thing that is required is that companies such as Irish Water need to tighten up on the rigmarole it is involved in and this Bill might help it in that regard, because Ervia was obsessed with paperwork, procedures and all such things.

The one thing that Irish Water needs to do in the talks that are going on at the moment is to ensure, as has been pointed out earlier, it recognises there is a wealth of knowledge. I know the caretakers, for example, around our country. You can ring them at any time and in fairness, they are mighty people. We need to ensure that those people are happy at their work, whether it is with the council or is with Irish Water. If you talk to them, they are all reasonable people. Many of them are afraid that there is not a future. The first step for the future is to give reassurance about something by ensuring that a referendum is done on water and that such an opportunity is there.

I thank all the Members for their contributions. I feel like I have been managing the Irish Water hotline for the past three hours but I will try to respond to some of the issues.

I will say specifically on operational issues and issues that have been raised by Deputies here this evening that those are matters for Irish Water. Members will be pleased to know that Irish Water has been invited to appear before the Oireachtas joint committee on housing on 4 October to discuss issues around water quality and supply and I am sure that will be of interest to Members also.

I will speak specifically also on the issues raised by Deputies Mairéad Farrell and Connolly on Inishbofin and Inisheer where that issue of communication is critically important. The fact that it took that length of time to communicate the issues around the manganese highlight that it is very important that as soon as an issue arises, that it is communicated effectively to local communities. The islands are particularly vulnerable and it is very important that Irish Water communicate and work swiftly to try to address those particular issues. We will ask Irish Water to respond on behalf of those two particular issues, without singling out all of the issues that have been raised by Members tonight, which are of great importance to their own communities and which is something in itself. It is important to also note the good work that is being done by Irish Water around the country. Deputy Fitzmaurice has alluded to how there have been some very good successes.

This Bill, however, which we are discussing here this evening is a technical Bill on the separation of Irish Water from Ervia and it is those issues which we want to discuss at this point. There has been quite a bit of revisionism and rewriting of history where we are treading over old, well-worn ground but this Bill is about looking forward, about the provision of safe, secure water for people and communities and protecting and improving our water resources, rivers, lakes and estuaries for the future. In particular, I want to refer to the comments by Deputies Barry and Paul Murphy in what I see as scaremongering references to “Water charges 2.0”, water charges by the back door and privatisation. That is not the case and we all want the same thing. We all want to ensure that we have a public utility that is effective and delivers for the people. They talk about outsourcing and design, build and operate contracts, DBOs. As far as I recall, when I was on the local authority from 2004, DBOs were used routinely by local authorities to deliver water infrastructure. I want to refute any of those comments that this is what is being attempted here. It is quite clearly not the case.

The main issue that Members have raised here this evening has been on the referendum and the recommendations of the Oireachtas joint committee and I will just go through those matters quickly, if that is okay. On the referendum, I will note that and mention it to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. In the context of Deputy Joan Collins's Private Member's Bill that was spoken about, extensive work has been undertaken by the Department and by the Attorney General's office to consider possible approaches to advancing the referendum proposal. This will be an approach based on protecting the public ownership of the entity established under law to provide public water services, that is Irish Water, which has been identified as the most appropriate and straightforward approach. Having consulted with colleagues in government, the Minister has signalled his willingness to support a referendum on public ownership along these lines and it is something to which we are giving consideration. A number of referendums have been proposed in the programme for Government but it is important when considering this that there is adequate public engagement, and noting that the Housing Commission has been specifically tasked with advising the Government on a referendum to place the right of housing in the Constitution, it would make sense that the constitutional issues around the right to housing and the protection of the public supply of water would be considered, possibly, at the same time. I cannot give a definitive time or date as to when the referendum would take place but I will say that it is being advanced as a matter of urgency by Government.

Other points were raised specifically by Deputy Ó Broin in particular in respect of the recommendations of the committee.

On the issue of transformation and the availability of documents and clarity on staff, we note the Deputy’s comments and, hopefully, we will seek to deal with those during Committee Stage. I will not go into the issues around the operational and legal status of workers. However, we did take on board the recommendation to provide for the attendance of the chief executive and the chairperson of Irish Water at the Committee of Public Accounts.

I will try to deal with the other issues raised by Members in the time I have remaining. Many comments were raised about local authority staff, the fantastic work they do and the dedication they bring to their work, which I acknowledge. That dedication, along with their service and their skills and knowledge, is also something they bring to their continuing work with Irish Water. Most of the issues raised largely related to operational matters and I am not going to dwell on them because these are matters for Irish Water. It is important that Irish Water will take up that opportunity on 4 October to appear before the Oireachtas joint committee to discuss issues relating to water supply and water quality.

At the beginning, I outlined the provisions of this Bill, which is focused on separating Irish Water or Uisce Éireann from Ervia and its establishment as a stand-alone authority for water services. The Bill provides that Irish Water will be known only in its Irish name, Uisce Éireann, and that it will cease to be a subsidiary of Ervia. Again, issues were raised by Members about the renaming of Irish Water but I believe that is something they should welcome in terms of the Irish language. The Bill acknowledges the character of Uisce Éireann as the national authority for water services, with responsibility for the functions assigned to it under the Water Services Acts, 2007 to 2022. The Bill amends the current shareholding arrangements and enhances its governance arrangements. Significantly, the Bill provides for Uisce Éireann's accountability to the Committee of Public Accounts.

I reiterate that this Bill is solely concerned with the legal separation of a parent company and its subsidiary, and setting up that subsidiary as a stand-alone company in its own right. The Bill does not in any way deal with the transformation process and the movement to Irish Water of local authority staff who are currently carrying out water services under service level agreements with Irish Water, which is a separate matter.

As mentioned earlier, due to the introduction of the new and complex accountability and auditing arrangements, it is in the best interests of both Irish Water and the Oireachtas that a legal separation takes effect on 1 January 2023. It is simpler and more straightforward from an accounting perspective that the Comptroller and Auditor General is allowed to start its financial auditing of Irish Water from the start of next year. The Committee of Public Accounts will then be in a position to examine such accounts following the audit of a full year's accounts.

I hope that when we vote on the Bill, it will continue to receive the support of the House, and I welcome the support of the parties this evening. The Bill delivers on the programme for Government commitment to retain Irish Water in public ownership as a national stand-alone regulated utility. I thank all Deputies for their valuable input to the debate. Again, we welcome continuing engagement on the next Stages of the Bill. It is hugely important that we move forward in a spirit of positivity for the people of Ireland, for the communities all over the country that Members have spoken about and for our water quality and water services provision. This Bill is important as a significant step forward in addressing that. I look forward to continuing engagement on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.
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