Water Services Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, back to the House. We had a very good debate on water on Second Stage yesterday. One of the most important points pertained to the quality of water, which is so important in this country. Over time, we have seen the difficulties that have arisen in this regard. I recall the cryptosporidium in Galway. We were listening to news reports thereon every night.

It is important that our water quality be excellent. As a result of the setting up of Irish Water, we will achieve this. With regard to points made yesterday, I hope the expertise in local authorities will be drawn upon.

A guarantee has been given that Irish Water will draw upon that expertise, and I hope that will be the case. I acknowledge that it will be difficult for people to pay additional amounts for water, but I hope they realise the cost of producing the quality of water we need.

Senator Whelan alluded to industry's need for water. That is another important area. It will be difficult for people to pay the charges, but I hope the allowances will be generous and that the numbers in families will be taken into consideration when those allowances are being given. I do not believe people will object too much. Some people who are against everything will campaign against paying for water or any other service. That is par for the course in the democracy in which we live, but I do not believe people will rebel too much when asked to pay less than €1 a day for this important commodity. I acknowledge people have been asked to pay property charges also, but I believe they will pay the water charge with a heart and a half if they get the quality of water they require.

On the question of metering, the Minister might let us know more about that in his response. He made a comprehensive contribution on Second Stage, but he might provide more detail on the timescale for the metering, who will do the metering and the contracts for that. I hope that as many small local contractors as possible will get the opportunity to be involved in the provision of these meters.

The Minister of State has been actively involved in this area since his appointment as Minister with responsibility for the setting up of Irish Water and this Bill dealing with water metering. I praise the Minister for his efforts in that regard. It will be very difficult but it is important for the country that we get right the question of the supply of and charging for water. I hope that as a result of householders throughout the country paying for their water, there will be some alleviation for the people who have been paying for water until now including traders, shopkeepers and small businesses. I hope there will not be any major increases in the cost of water for those small companies, and the larger ones, that provide employment for so many of our people. That is a point Senator Whelan mentioned regarding Intel and other such major industries.

I commend the Minister for his work. It will be a difficult area. We will have resistance from those in some areas of the community who will not want to pay. Some will say they cannot pay. In that regard, what are the provisions for people who will not pay? We have a situation with the other commodities, namely, electricity and other areas, where the supply can be cut off if people do not pay. Will the same situation apply or what way is it intended to address that problem because I am sure a problem like that will arise? We had serious problems in areas of the country, even in my area, with such problems previously but Bord Gáis will be dealing with it this time, not local authorities, and that may change people's attitude. However, I remain concerned about it.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I was in a position yesterday to listen to what was an informed debate on this issue. I have some questions for the Minister of State. First, I have deep reservations about the awarding of the contract for this water service to Bord Gáis. It should have been more transparent. With the huge dip in construction employment I would like to see local contractors, primarily those who have experience and training in plumbing, involved in this project. I met some of them last week and they would be very interested in becoming involved as subcontractors. I would not like to see the work subcontracted to two or three firms in Ireland.

I made a point here previously about a new second level college that was built in Bantry and opened by the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock. A gaelscoil next door, which I was very involved with during the years, was opened by the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley. They were great occasions for the town but what concerned me about both those contracts was that many people worked on them but because of the European tendering process, less than 20% of those involved in those jobs were from west Cork. That is a wrong approach when there are many people who are idle. If there was a job in Louth, the Minister of State's neck of the woods, and the people appointed were Dublin-based or Galway-based, he would ask why there was not more local involvement.

I have a grave concern that this Government or a subsequent Government will impose a water extraction charge in the future on those who have their own bored wells. That is European thinking and I hope it is not the thinking of the Cabinet. I would hope a definitive answer could be given that that will not be the case. I live in south Schull at the end of a cul-de-sac with about 12 or 14 houses and for various reasons none of us has a public water supply. On three occasions my partner has bored wells without success and had an awful problem with contamination of the well, use of filters and so on which is annoying from the point of view of washing, dish washing and even using the shower. We would love to have a proper water supply. It would gall people in those circumstances, and I am sure there are thousands of them in rural Ireland, if they had to pay an extraction charge for water in the future. The view is that water is a very valuable commodity whether the State provides it by way of this new scheme, the local authorities or whatever and that anyone who extracts water from the ground for use will have to pay for that. I hope that is not about to dawn.

The issue I raise may not be directly related, but it should be under consideration. I was a member of the local authority in west Cork for about 18 years until my election to the Dáil in 2002 and I was deeply concerned about the quality of water in the region. We had major issues with the main water supply for the Bantry region, which covers a large area, and the council had to put in an amount of additives to make the water potable - that is the word they used. I got the water analysed by experts in St. Finbarr's Hospital and the results were that the water was potable but there was an awful stench from it at various times of the year. If people are expected to pay for water they will expect it to be top quality and in that regard it is difficult for me, as a Member of the Oireachtas, to say that for almost a decade I have been buying gallons of drinking water. A Labour Party Senator asked yesterday if anyone ever thought Ballygowan would be a success but I buy gallons of drinking water. I am conscious that one can buy two gallons of water for less than a pint of stout, and it is probably better for me-----

(Interruptions).

It is better for my liver and my kidneys. Having said that, it is regrettable that thousands of people who are concerned about quality buy water for drinking. I have reservations about the Bill, but I have no doubt the Government will push it through and, while there will never be a Utopian situation, in two or three years time 99% of water will be of good quality. There will be an uprising in many areas, in particular in the large urban areas of Cork and Dublin, where water is currently of the highest quality.

The benefits or otherwise of flouridation, however, is a significant issue. I have received hundreds of e-mails saying it is not good for one's health. I am no expert in that regard, but it is an issue which has been highlighted and should not be ignored.

The Government is responsible for bringing forward legislation, but it will argue that there is an extent to which it is imposed on us by EU directive. Perhaps it is something that should have been done before. We have substantial amounts of water falling in Ireland. We do not have a situation of drought as in Australia which recently saw temperatures of 50° Celsius. We need quality water and fairness in its delivery. While not every Tom, Dick or Harry can get an installation contract, the need to create jobs locally in the areas where projects are rolled out should be borne in mind.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for the overview of Irish Water which he provided for the House yesterday. It is good to know there will be ongoing liaison with people who are already involved in water services at local authority level nationally and that nobody's job is threatened. Water is a precious resource which is of great importance in our everyday lives. A great deal of concern has been expressed about people who will not pay water charges. While I do not have any time for people who will not or who do not want to pay, I have concerns for people who genuinely cannot afford to pay. The Minister of State has provided assurances that there will be a waiver scheme for people who are genuinely unable to afford the charges.

There is a great deal involved in the delivery of water. Reservoirs must be created and kept as free of pollution as possible. Water must be piped and treated. A great deal of money is invested in water before it comes out of one's taps. As Senator Denis O'Donovan said, the quality of water is important. Like Senator Maurice Cummins, I do not have any time for those who are campaigning against paying for water. Water services cost a fortune to provide. A great many people are involved at every level in local authorities to provide water services which are vital to public health and vitality. There is no excuse not to pay for it. I wish Irish Water well and look forward to the passage of the Bill on Committee and Report Stages. It is a good thing. We are going in the right direction in the way in which we deal with water.

The debate in the House has been first class in terms of its standard and the issues which have been raised. It is very welcome for the Department to listen to the important points which have been raised. The debate affirms the importance of the Seanad. Perhaps six minutes' speaking time was far too much for many Members who will spend a bit longer on the legislation on Committee Stage. It is important that this debate has been full and transparent and that the Government has been kept accountable in the Houses with regard to these issues. I welcome the comments Members have made.

It is important to get our strategy right and to ensure that the public buys into it. This is not about the troika, even though the latter has forced our hand due to what happened in the last Government. Even if the troika had never been established, these provisions would have had to have been introduced. The Bill is about ensuring we have potable water and the most efficient method for distributing it and eliminating the appalling waste of 40% of our supplies. It is also about addressing health issues like that of cryptosporidium in Galway and boil notices, of which there were under 200 last year nationally. It is about health, the environment, conservation, business and jobs.

The strategy will create more than 2,000 jobs over the period of the three-year contract to install water meters. I agree with Members on both sides of the House that those jobs will have to be local. The procurement process is ongoing but as soon as possible I will announce the number of SMEs who have been given contracts. The contracts will be broken up to ensure that small businesses can tender for them and that local tradespersons can come together to pre-qualify. The process is all about pre-qualification and people demonstrating they have the capacity and track record to do the job. I understand that hundreds of firms have applied and will give the exact details to the House at a later time. I will also be able to tell the House how many people have pre-qualified. The procurement process is about local employment and ensuring the job is done properly by those best qualified and placed to do it. Contracts will have to be of a size which makes it competitive for an SME to tender and which makes the job worthwhile for an SME to undertake.

Strange as it may seem, there will be a drought in Dublin by 2020. By drought, I mean a shortage of water. The greater Dublin area includes Dublin city and county, Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow and will experience a water shortage by 2020. That means the production of water and demand for it will be equivalent and therefore require significant augmentation of the water supply above the current level. While we appear to have water, water everywhere much of the time, it does not fall in the right areas. We must supplement and improve certain water schemes to meet future needs, which is the major challenge we face. Members mentioned Intel and its commitment to apply €20 million to the future purchase of water. We have a tremendous opportunity with the water infrastructure we build to attract water-demanding industries. We have Intel and other IT firms and the pharmaceutical and farming industries already. Many countries experience water shortages. I visited Anglian Water last year when it was rationing water in parts of England. It was not even high summer. If we get this right, we will create a water infrastructure which is best in class; best in Europe if not best in the world.

The legislation is aimed at creating an efficient, effective physical infrastructure to purify water to provide the best quality. The annual EPA surveys which are available in the Oireachtas Library show that the quality of water in Ireland is as good as it is anywhere, particularly in Europe. We are at the top of the leader board when it comes to water supply services for communities in excess of 500 persons. There is an issue with some smaller schemes, which is why the synergies of the new body are important. Currently, there are 20 to 30 small, individual water supplies in County Kerry for example.

The engineers and professionals will advise on how to improve and augment all of them.

With one single national body, we will be able to review issues in a river basin district or region and, working through Irish Water and local authorities, can meet all these needs. The relationship between Irish Water and local government is absolutely critical, as we know, because all of us present have come from a local government background. We have to get right that important relationship with local councillors, councils and the regional water bodies. Later this year we will come up with the legislation to integrate and make Irish Water accountable at local level in respect of the access and information elected representatives already have, regional planning and so on. Planning is very important. It cannot be the case that one council in one part of the country states it will increase the population by a certain amount when the infrastructure cannot support it. There has to be joined-up thinking and significant decision-making on how such issues will be resolved, for example, if the infrastructural programme in one area is X and the demand in other areas is Y. It has to be done in a transparent, accountable way that meets the needs of local communities without making unnecessary or unreasonable demands on national infrastructure.

It is important to mention climate change which will impact adversely on parts of the country. Some parts of the country will receive more rain than they need or want, while others will have less, which will create problems.

One major initiative to meet the needs of the greater Dublin area will be the fantastic water supply project at Garryhinch which will be a water resource primarily for this region and an amenity of international standard for fishing and so on. It is very important that what happens there will be compatible and works in with what happens on the River Shannon. I stress that the two will not compete with one another.

It is Government’s responsibility to deal with the issue of affordability. We will have to decide on it. There are serious issues to address such as providing for people who have an illness and require a large supply of water, family increment size and so on. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has worked with the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in this regard. We are putting a great deal of thought into the matter and much research has been done. When the PricewaterhouseCoopers report was issued, there were many comments and significant submissions from organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and individuals such as Fr. Healy. It is very important for us to get this right. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht emphasised the issue of affordability in its report. This key issue will be properly researched and whatever we do will be transparent, fair and equitable, as otherwise it will not work.

In response to the question about those who cannot pay and those who will not pay, we do not intend that anybody will ever have his or her water supply cut off. There will have to be strategies in place for those who will not pay but can afford to do so. One of the issues we have studied in the United Kingdom is how to discriminate between these two groups and go after those who can afford to pay but will not do so. In the United Kingdom there is a simple system, whereby with due process the person who will not pay receives a civil bill. This depends on the legislation being correct. The process requires issuing notices, having proper time spans and so on, but there will be no money wasted on this. People will not get away with not paying if they can afford to do so. That is part of modern Ireland. I have dealt with the issue of those who have financial difficulties.

One question that came up yesterday and today was how did Bord Gáis get the job, did it receive a big fee, why was this not opened up and who could have tendered for the contract. The prime reason for doing it this way was to be sure a public entity received the contract for Irish Water. We could have set up a new company from scratch, which would have involved finding a chief executive with all the skills and knowledge required. It would have taken a significant length of time, a minimum of 12 months, to reach critical mass and be sure the team could work together. Which State companies could possibly have been involved? Bord Gáis, Bord na Móna and the ESB are the three main organisations that have databases and are used to working with customers, providing for the supply side, customer needs, call centres and so on. Bord Gáis and Bord na Móna made submissions and there was significant preparatory information, not through a political process but by interview with competent and qualified people to go through all the relevant issues involved. Bord Gáis was the successful company and it did not receive a big bonus. No money was exchanged. It was given the job of setting up Uisce Éire, Irish Water. The process was transparent and any State company that could have applied did so. It is crucial that we have critical mass immediately to do what we want to do. I hope that answers the questions asked.

A question arose about the cost of meters. When the process is finished, everybody will know the cost, but if we were to say now that we anticipate the cost will be X, Y or Z, all those involved in the procurement process would have a field day with us. There is no question of this not being a transparent and accountable process.

The legislation provides that at the end of the financial year the annual report of Uisce Éire will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. There will be a debate in both Houses and Uisce Éire will be accountable to the Oireachtas committee which will deal with any issue arising.

The price of water will be fixed by the regulator which must also be transparent. It will have to decide what issues arise in connection with the cost of water such as what it is reasonable to include. Uisce Éire will not be able to stack up a pile of bills and add them to the cost of water. It will have to make a submission on its physical operations and future investment programme and so on. The regulator will base its proposals on this information. The regulator’s job is to consult the public and it is committed to doing this. I presume that once it has made its proposals, the regulator will be able to come before the Oireachtas committee where Members will be able to properly debate all the issues involved in full. Nothing will be hidden and there will be no hiding place for a cost that is not absolutely essential.

Senators Diarmuid Wilson, David Cullinane, Cáit Keane and David Norris raised the question of affordability, to which I hope I have responded clearly. The stakeholders are the Departments of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform. The comments submitted to the Oireachtas committee and PricewaterhouseCoopers will also be considered.

Irish Water will have a range of options in place for anyone who can pay but will have difficulty in doing so. There will have to be different strategies to deal with different customers. No one who can pay will get away with not paying.

If, at the end of this, one can pay but will not do so, one will not get away with it. Everybody who can do so has to pay and that is it.

Concerns about local authority staff were expressed by a number of Members. We have made it clear to everybody that service level agreements will be in place until 2017 and an existing body chaired by Kevin Foley deals with the unions, the Department and Bord Gáis to ensure any issues which arise will be dealt with constructively. It is very effective.

Staff carrying out these functions will move to Irish Water on secondment in the period to 2017 and as such will remain as employees of the relevant local authority. We fully recognise the importance and quality of work carried out by local authority staff and the commitment shown by each and every one of them. The transfer of assets from local authorities to Irish Water was also raised. This is not addressed in the Bill. As I stated yesterday, another Bill will be brought before the Oireachtas later this year, I hope before the summer, which will address the issue of asset transfer and the relationship between Irish Water and local authorities. We do not anticipate any issue which will not be clarified in the second Bill. We are speaking about people on the public water supply. Rural cases will be different, but in most cases the work will be done on the road and not in the house or yard. We will be very happy to ensure total clarity on whatever protocols and procedures are in place with regard to the public water supply.

A number of Members, including Senators Keane and Cullinane, raised the issue of addressing leakage and I fully agree. It is complementary to and very much a part of the programme. There is no point in installing more than 1 million meters and charging a tariff for water when almost 40% is being wasted. This will not happen. A programme must be put in place, to which Irish Water is committed, which states how and where leakage will be reduced. It is easy to fix big leaks because everyone can see them, but small continuous leaks are much more difficult to find. In some cases they have been continuing for years. Replacing 1 km of pipe will put pressure on the old pipe further down. A programme will be put in place and leakage will reduce, but it may not be as easy to do immediately as people might think. It will be very much part and parcel of this and significant focus will be on it. I presume the regulator will ask Irish Water by what percentage it has reduced leakage and what are its plans and if the company does not keep to this it will not receive the same tariff. Everybody will welcome this and I have no doubt Irish Water would not want to have it any other way.

The calculation on unaccounted for water is based on an assumption of reasonable usage. International experience and group water schemes, which are great advocates for water conservation and water metering, have shown that metering works. A Cavan-Monaghan group scheme reduced water demand by approximately 18%. Senator Mooney raised the issue of privatisation. There is no intention to privatise water services. At the outset I explained why we made sure it was a public entity. Investment in the water sector is key to our strategic interests and any revenue generated by Irish Water will be reinvested in infrastructure. The very important issue of job creation was mentioned by Senator Whelan and I have dealt with it. Careful management of our water resources is very important.

I hope this legislation will be passed. In the first week of next month an information leaflet will be sent via An Post to every house in the country outlining some of the proposals. We will also have a national information campaign. We want feedback and want to know what people think. It is all about educating and informing people and our young people are very important in this regard as they are most receptive to change. Just as in the race against waste and smoking, it is important to get through to young people, including through schools. We hope a very proactive programme on all aspects of water will be put in place and we will work with the Department of Education and Skills to push this home. An Taisce will also be a key player as it has a water programme and the green flag award.

I thank Senators for listening to me. If there is an issue I have not addressed, I will be happy to take it up on Committee Stage.

Question put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 25; Níl, 9.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Harte, Jimmy.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • Norris, David.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.

Níl

  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Paul Coghlan; Níl, Senators David Cullinane and Diarmuid Wilson.
Question declared carried.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 29 January 2013.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Tuesday, at 1.30 p.m.