I apologise for being late. I was involved in a debate in the Seanad. I also apologise if some of my questions have already been answered. I ask the Chairman to direct me on this and I will read the transcript later.
With regard to the expert commission's report to the committee for consideration, there must be equity between group water scheme members and rural dwellers versus public water users, and we must deal fairly with those who complied with the law and paid their water bills in the past so they are treated no less favourably than those who did not. These are the two key points on which the committee must focus. With this in mind, and following on from what Deputy Ó Broin has said on group schemes, I contended it has never been fair because they have always paid. They have always contributed to the supply of water through individual group schemes or through private wells and sewage treatment plants. We have been given a bigger task because we are being asked to ensure whatever we recommend is fair to those and to public users. Following what Deputy Ó Broin has said, this brings a heightened expectation from those on group schemes as they will expect equal subsidy and support as those on public water supplies. I am interested to hear the views of the witnesses on what it costs group water schemes, to which Deputy Ó Broin has referred. We will need this information if they are to be treated equitably with those on public water supplies.
Something that has been lost in our debate is the environmental aspect of the sustainability of water supplies. The EPA referred to it briefly in its contribution when it appeared before the committee. In its submission to us on 30 January, the EPA discussed equity and fairness. It stated the quality of drinking water in public supplies is consistently better than has been found in private supplies. This is a fact quoted by the EPA and taken from its annual drinking water report. Automatically, there is now an expectation that we need to recommend a system that is equitable to private and group schemes because they have a legitimate expectation their quality should be the same as those on public schemes.
Committee members will know from parliamentary questions that grants to support and subsidise group water schemes are subject to availability in the Estimates. They have often been far less than what was applied for. If we are being realistic about being equitable and fair we need to hear from the Department that grants applied for will now be fully funded and that there cannot be shortages.
Am I right in that assertion? If so, what type of capital provision are we talking about in our Estimates? Otherwise, it is not realistic and I believe it is unfair to expect equity and to raise expectation as is the case currently.
To refer to what Deputy's Pringle said earlier about appreciation, I think we all appreciate public infrastructure. However, the fundamental issue here is that somebody must pay for that infrastructure, whether it is a public park, a roadway, a light or water provision. It is either the taxpayer or the user or a combination of both. Somebody has to pay for it and I think we all appreciate that.
My second point relates to the issue of fairness and people who have either paid their existing water bills and complied with the law in the past versus those who have not. I know that views have been expressed and I have missed some of the discussion. However, if we are going to have equality and fairness, it is one or the other. Either we pursue payment from those who have not paid or we reimburse those who have paid. In the view of the Public Water Forum, how best should we achieve this fairness? Should we do one or the other? Obviously, we have to do one or other. I would like to hear the view of the Public Water Forum on that.
It is generally accepted now, from listening to various contributors over previous meetings, that there should be a charge for excessive use. Even Right2Water accepted that yesterday and is on the record as having done so. How can this be fairly achieved unless we install meters? How can we fairly implement a charge for excessive use unless we have meters? Is it possible at all? Unless there is a fundamental acceptance that meters are necessary to measure where excessive use comes in, I believe that it might not be possible. I would like to hear the views of the Public Water Forum on that. I hope I have not been too convoluted. I have mentioned two areas: group schemes and the people who have paid their existing bills. How do we treat both of those and manage the expectation that is out there in the public domain, given the task that this committee has?