I made many references to Bord Gáis during this debate, because it is the body in which Uisce Éireann has been placed as a subsidiary. If we look at the ESB, though, the average salary about six years ago was €70,000 per year.
If one compares this with any other industry one will see a huge disparity. During the terms of the last Dáil and Seanad I was a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and I sought to obtain figures on the salaries of the top ten executives in each of the semi-State companies within the remit of that committee. I met some resistance but we also got figures for the average salaries. It is fair to say that people were handsomely paid because I doubt that people in the same positions in the private sector got half the amount of money. There is a historical record on this and, ultimately, when it comes to public utilities, taxpayers and householders foot the bill for egregiously handsome pay packages in semi-State companies.
Mention has been made of the privatisation of water but water is one of our great natural resources and I think we all acknowledge that it is valuable. It will become increasingly valuable because climate change will have a significant bearing on the need for water around the world and will adversely affect water supply in many regions. All of this will enhance significantly the value of our water resources. We are fortunate to live in an area with a plentiful supply of good quality water. I visited Jordan as part of a delegation of American and Irish politicians some years ago and I attended a meeting with King Abdullah where he predicted that the next general war in the Middle East will be about water rather than oil. Huge issues in that region at the moment have given rise to tensions that could lead to conflict over the supply of water. If there are to be charges, it is essential that we ensure water continues to be available to the people of Ireland at a competitive rate. The cost of water must be reasonable and affordable but if Irish Water is privatised, customers, householders and the people of Ireland will be fleeced. This could be avoided if there was sufficient competition under privatisation but I do not know how that could be achieved.
Much reliance has been placed on section 2 and I will return to the wording and the weaknesses of the section shortly. The weaknesses of section 2 are apparent irrespective of the intent behind the section, which is unachievable. The previous speaker mentioned the European Union and I welcome the fact that the European Union has protected the consumers of the State in various areas but greater efforts are required to ensure competition and consumer protection in a range of areas where there are monopolies or dominance. Energy provides a good example because we pay far more in Ireland for electricity than those in other countries. The cost of telecommunications is very high in Ireland but efforts have been made through the European Union to introduce more competition to tackle the issue of cost. As stated, water is an area upon which the European Union will focus attention in the not-too-distant future. The European Union has increased its levels of intervention in all areas of society, but I do not welcome intervention on social matters because I think that is ideologically driven rather than in people's best interests. The sovereignty of individual states must be respected.
Ireland has signed up to the powers of the European Union through various treaties that were approved by the people of Ireland in referenda. The State will not be able to contest any challenge by the European Unin in the area of water because the people of Ireland have already endorsed the various treaties from which the European Union derives its powers. Fine Gael and Labour Party Senators have said that their parties have guaranteed the people of Ireland that Uisce Éireann will not be privatised. I do not know how reassured the people will be by such a commitment from these parties but it is only a couple of months since one of the parties in these Houses, Sinn Féin, stated that it would buttress any shortfall in funds by part-privatising Irish Water. The by-election in Dublin South-West changed the view of the party but it could make another U-turn on this in future, as could any party. I am concerned by this and do not believe the people of Ireland will find comfort in the assurances of any politician from any party.
I was in this House when the economic crisis began in 2008 and it is the biggest emergency the State has faced in my lifetime. The future of the country was at stake and the parties in opposition at that stage were happy to play politics by promising to burn bondholders and show the people of Ireland a better way. Yesterday I read assurances from the then Opposition that there would be no charges for water because it opposed such charges. However, the Bill before us and the Bill we dealt with this time last year aim to impose water charges on the people of Ireland.
The standing of politicians in public opinion is very low and, while this is somewhat exaggerated and media-driven, there are good reasons for it. Politicians say things without any intention to follow through and give no thought to reversing direction when the time comes. I heard rumours yesterday that public moneys and soon-to-open public positions are being used to secure the passage of this Bill through the Houses. I do not know if the rumours are true and I sincerely hope they are not because, if true, they would further undermine the standing and credibility of politicians. This would not be good for democracy at a time when many people in society are almost anarchists who are happy to undermine the democratic process by stoking public opinion. If we lose the democratic process we lose everything.
I know that section 2 was added with good intent and to assuage fears held by the people who campaigned against the legislation. They feel that Irish Water could fall into private ownership and impose unaffordable costs on hard-pressed taxpayers. As many Members have asked, is section 2 any more than a fig leaf?
I will give two reasons for my saying that and raising the question. First, as many speakers have said, any legislation can be overturned at any stage by any Government purely by bringing amending legislation through the House. If there is another Government such as the current one, with a huge majority in the Lower House, legislation may be overturned at the whim of a Minister or, perhaps, a Department. This presents a serious risk for the public.
The next issue I wish to raise was highlighted by my colleague. If the European Union, for example, imposed a requirement on us to ensure an element of competition in the interest of the consumer, the Government would be obliged to take it on board. No Government would be able to resist that. In such circumstances, there would be a credible argument for changing the legislation without a plebiscite. The latter would leave us offside with the European Union and we could be fined for contravening its laws and regulations. This point has been made by many others.
Let me raise a point I have not heard made yet but which seriously concerns me. I refer to the complete undermining of the Government's intent. Section 2(1) states a Bill providing or allowing for the alienation of any share or shares in Irish Water to a person other than a Minister of the Government shall not be initiated without a resolution on a referendum coming before the House. That deals specifically with the transfer of shares. As we all know, one does not have to transfer shares to transfer business. The business could be transferred.
In this regard my colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne, referred to the lottery, in respect of which a licence to operate or a lease for a period could be given. In this instance, however, one could go further. There could be a transfer of the business of Uisce Éireann. Perhaps it would retain the distribution system but there is nothing in this section that would prevent it from transferring the treatment plants or reservoirs, for example, or from determining the water charges. Perhaps Uisce Éireann would retain the network of pipes, for which it would apply a charge to the new private entity. There is nothing in this section that would prevent that from happening. A Government could have to act under duress based on a requirement of the European Union. If what I describe happens, a Government could proceed without any reference to the Oireachtas. It would not even have to go to people. The business could be transferred under the legislation. That is a very serious lacuna in what is drafted. This would be the case even if it had the force of sustainability in the future, which, obviously, no legislation has because it can be changed.
I ask the Minister to reconsider. It is not as if we are asking for something very unreasonable. Everybody I have heard speak, including the Minister, talked about keeping our water supplies in Irish ownership in perpetuity. If we are ad idem on that, there will be an opportunity next May, at no extra cost to the people or at very little cost, to hold a referendum with the others the Government is proposing to hold. There is actually an avenue to achieve what we are asking for if the Government is of a mind to do it.
To date, I have not heard how the Government could give us absolute assurance on this without underpinning that assurance with an article in our Constitution. One of the greatest legacies of Éamon de Valera and the Government of the 1930s was a Constitution that has really stood the test of time, as the Minister acknowledged. It was extraordinary a few years ago, when we were introducing in our laws the European Convention on Human Rights, that all the protections we were adding to our laws were already invoked and covered under the 1937 Constitution. It is remarkable that there was such foresight and vision almost 80 years ago. Today we urge that some of the vision of the founding fathers of the State be applied by the Government and all politicians. I do not just point the finger at the Government. We all need to renew our sense of commitment to the people and this country, in which we are fortunate enough to have been born and to live.