That Seanad Éireann accepts the Report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, copies of which were laid before Seanad Éireann on 12th April, 2017.
That Seanad Éireann accepts the Report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, copies of which were laid before Seanad Éireann on 12th April, 2017.
I am pleased to address the Seanad on the report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services.
The Minister of State is not.
I am always happy to be in this lovely House surrounded by people who have positive contributions to make. This is an important motion and I am glad we have the report. It is great to have had an opportunity in the Dáil last night and in this House this evening to debate the report. It is important that this work will be completed before Easter and that timelines will have been adhered to. The Dáil voted to accept the report's recommendations earlier and I hope the Seanad will do the same. That would be great in order that we can draw a line under this stage of the process and move forward to legislate for what has been democratically agreed by the committee.
Like the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, I recognise and respect the diverse views that people have on domestic water and how we fund and manage it, but I also recognise that it is a very emotive issue for many people. We have had many discussions on this in both Houses and I have always said that people have principled views on this issue. I can understand them better than those who have political views for other reasons. However, when people have genuine principled views, that is acceptable to me.
The committee attempted to bring everyone together and agree some common ground to move the issue forward. It is important to recognise the work of the committee and its Chairman, Senator Ó Céidigh. I compliment him on all the work he did to bring the report to both Houses and to achieve a compromise that is acceptable to the majority of us, which is what democracy is about. That was hard work, which took many hours and committee meetings. Many members were prepared to do that work but it takes a chairman to pull everything together. I congratulate him on that.
We have agonised about this for too long and neglected our infrastructure in the meantime. There has been an attempt over the past few years to use the single water utility to direct increased investment at our water and wastewater infrastructure, which we have to do as a country and which we all agree has to happen. It did not happen in the past because we were having this debate. When the Government was formed a year ago, there was agreement to keep investment going and to retain Irish Water to direct that investment and secure the money required. That investment must continue in the years ahead. It was a separate issue from levies and charges, wastage and the polluter pays principle.
It was important to have that discussion. We need to grasp the nettle and move on with a system that responds to the various viewpoints, while delivering a water services infrastructure that meets the needs of our society and our expanding economy. It is about what we have today in society but also about what our plans are in respect of job creation, expansion and delivering an additional 500,000 houses all over the country over the next 15 to 20 years. We would like jobs to be dispersed nationwide and we will do that. We have proven over the past four or five years as a country what we can do when everyone comes together with the private sector helping to reduce the unemployment rate from 15% to 6%. Water services infrastructure can contribute to job creation and business expansion.
I welcome the committee's report. It provides a sound basis for Ireland to move forward on an issue and take the issue of how we fund water off the table. Let us take a moment to remind ourselves of the process by which the committee reached this point. Its terms of reference were clear. It was tasked with considering and making recommendations on the report of the expert commission published in November 2016. The commission proposed the following: the funding of water services for normal domestic and personal use should be out of taxation; excessive or wasteful use of water should be paid for directly by the user by tariffs; and excessive or wasteful use of water will be discouraged by charging for such use and therefore is consistent with the polluter pays principle. The commission argued that this model would provide for clarity around long-term investment, support the application of the polluter pays principle and meet the requirements of basic equity and fairness. The commission's thinking was sound and provided a basis for moving forward through the committee.
Commissioner Vella, in his letter to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, last January also emphasised the central importance of full cost recovery and encouraging sustainable consumption through metering to our future funding model.
Over the last four months the discussions at the committee have been wide ranging and intensive. The members can clarify that better than me but that is the feedback I am receiving, even from the private meetings. The committee had input from the chair of the expert commission, the European Commission, regulators from other jurisdictions, our policy makers and regulatory bodies and other stakeholders from the water sector. There was much consultation. People got to make their presentations and bring their views to the table. There was plenty of discussion and input, which was correct. That is the way it was meant to be. The rubber has hit the road over the last couple of weeks, especially as the work of the committee moved towards conclusion. The draft text presented led to discussions in the last fortnight that have been robust and on occasions quite fraught. We have come to this process willing to engage constructively and to seek a compromise outcome that respects people's differing perspectives while meeting certain fundamental requirements. Most people approached it in that way.
The Government's consistent objective over the last four months at the committee has been to ensure that the final report clearly reflected these fundamental requirements. We did this for a number of reasons, including the need to make clear to the European Commission precisely how Ireland intends to go about meeting its inescapable EU obligations. However, more importantly, the Fine Gael members want to be clear with the Oireachtas and with the Irish people and clearly to set out how the model would work and to whom it would apply. Other parties had a similar approach, with the same desire to get that message across.
Early drafts of the report last week raised significant concerns for the Fine Gael members of the committee and more broadly for me, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and for the Government. It appeared that the committee report would propose a model that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, believed, on the basis of advice before him, would clearly fail to satisfy our EU obligations for the sake of a short-term victory with a significant price tag in terms of fines which the Irish taxpayer would ultimately have to fund. I welcome the fact that the report has come back on track now with the benefit of further legal advice around certain key aspects. Everybody was able to reach an understanding on that and reach a consensus decision.
The committee has now agreed that households responsible for the wastage or excess usage of water would be required to pay, but that a generous allowance would apply for households consuming normal volumes, paid for through taxation. The key is the generous allowance. The majority of people I have met over the years during this discussion understand and accept the polluter pays principle. They accept that people must pay if they waste water. However, there was always a fear that one could get a bill that one could not afford and that the general allowance would be too low and people would not be able to afford usage for their daily lives. That was a genuine fear for some. Others had political motives and I separate them from genuine people. Genuine people had that concern. The committee has dealt with that fear that people could get a bill they could not afford or that they would be charged too much for their normal usage of water. The committee has done its job and put that to bed. It has agreed that average consumption would be determined independently by the Commission for Energy Regulation and that only those households using 70% more than average consumption would pay. It has also agreed that the basis for measuring consumption would be the existing meters, domestic as well as district meters, and that all new builds or refurbishments would be required to be fitted with meters.
All of this is in the context of the forthcoming discussions at the housing committee on the issue of preparing for a referendum to enshrine the public ownership of public water infrastructure in the Constitution. Again, that allays people's fears. Even though the law currently prevents anything happening until the Houses agree and there is a plebiscite, people wanted the position clarified further. Enshrining it in the Constitution through a referendum is the best way to bring that clarity and allay that fear.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, outlined a number of inescapable truths to the Dáil last night. He said that we require significant investment in our water infrastructure to address years of under-investment and to support a modern economy. I said that at the beginning of my contribution because it is a key issue. We must invest in our infrastructure. We did not do it for decades and it is important we move on from that. I believe everybody agrees on that. We also cannot walk away from our EU obligations, including those we face under the Water Framework Directive. The European Commission will not tolerate continued non-compliance by Ireland and has indicated a willingness to go the distance to force Ireland into compliance through the European Court of Justice. We will face significant penalties if that happens.
As Deputy Coveney said, we have an opportunity now to make responsible, long-term, sustainable decisions around how we fund our domestic water services, which include treated water and dealing with wastewater. It is often missed in this debate that treated water and wastewater can be very costly to deal with. The Minister is absolutely correct in all of these points. The Government has a serious responsibility to lead and to legislate for a responsible package that gets Ireland to where it needs to be. Following the Dáil and Seanad votes, the Department will commence drafting a Bill on the basis of the report and will engage with the Office of the Attorney General as part of this process. I hope this House will be able to pass this motion tonight.
Like the Minister, Deputy Coveney, last night, I wish to record my thanks to the Chair and all members of the committee for their deliberations. That includes the substitutes. It is hard to commit to a three or four month process so there were substitute members as well, which was important. I also thank Senator Coffey for tabling the motion and I thank the Fine Gael members on the committee. Other parties will speak on their contributions as well. I am aware of the work that was required. Trying to find a compromise can take time. Not everybody is completely happy, but the majority are happy. Most people would regard this as major progress on the position over the last couple of years, and that is the key. We can move on from something that has been ongoing for a long time. Others in the House have more scars than me from this issue. It has been going on for a long time, so it is time we put it to bed. I thank the House for its time.
I thank the Minister of State. I wish to say "well done" to the Chair and the members of the water committee who have worked so hard in the last few months. The committee had 23 meetings. They were long and hard and there were times when it almost came to blows, but today we are where we are. The realistic outcome is that 92% of people will not have water charges. That is the end of water charges. Over the last few years €465 million has been spent on metering. In 2015, the Fine Gael and Labour Party charges regime cost the State €22 million. Now, we have moved on.
The Minister of State is correct that it is time to move on. We must move on and the people need to see us moving on. I welcome the comment by the Chief Whip, Deputy Regina Doherty, that it was a catastrophe and a cock-up. She was right, because it was. We can all say what we wish. I understand Sinn Féin is voting against the abolition of water charges today. That is disappointing. In future, the existing water charges regime will be abolished-----
Will we send you the bill?
-----and water services will be funded through Exchequer funding. Households that have paid their bills will be refunded. This is crucial for the people who have paid their bills. There will be no future metering programme for existing homes. A referendum on the public ownership of Irish Water will be held. The independent advice indicates that this will satisfy EU legal requirements. Again, what the Minister said in that regard is crucial. A detailed report on ensuring equal funding for rural and urban dwellings will be published and used for future budgeting.
The vast majority of householders will no longer pay water charges. Those who wilfully and excessively abuse water will be fined. Many on the hard left of Irish politics have sought to claim that the report failed to deliver what Fianna Fáil had sought. However, four questions are answered today. Have charges been eliminated? The charges are gone for 92% of households. Will householders be receiving bills through their letterboxes? No. We will tackle the abuse of the water system. We have put a system in place that will ensure Ireland meets its European obligations. Those four questions have been answered.
Fianna Fáil has done what it said it would do in the 2016 election campaign. We did not win last year's election but we decided to be constructive and use our mandate to maximise benefits for voters and our country. As part of the agreement we reached to facilitate the establishment of a Government we set in train the events that led to yesterday's report. Those who sat on the sidelines, complained and did nothing to contribute did not deliver on their commitments. We did. Today, 92% of Irish people will not have water charges. That is a lot. It is a bill they could not afford and they are not worried about it now. There will be no bills going through their letterboxes.
Finalising the State's position on water charges, as we have done, allows us to focus on other issues and move forward. As the Minister said, there are challenging times ahead of the country, namely, housing, schools, health care and protecting ourselves from the risks associated with Brexit. The process from now on is absolutely clear.
It is the obligation of the Government to quickly draft these changes into legislation and finally put behind it years of arrogant badly devised mis-mash water policies, which is what they were.
I am glad. We have had lots of compromise. We, in Fianna Fáil, had to compromise. What the people need to understand is that 92% of people will not have water bills and anyone who does exceed his or her allowance, will have a very small bill. We will stand firm on that. I note the Government will honour its commitment too.
Ní úsáidfidh mé cuig nóiméad.
I thank the Minister of State and everybody for their nice comments and comments of support. It is much appreciated. As the Minister of State will be aware, I am new to these Houses and it is my first time taking on a challenge like this. I very much appreciate the Minister and the Minister of State's confidence in me, but also both Houses of the Oireachtas supporting my name going forward as Chair. Frankly, I was apprehensive. People told me, "This is a hospital pass. It will not work out." However, I am probably the kind of guy for whom the bigger the challenge, the more I try to jump the fence in as much as it is possible.
From day 1, the support and commitment I got from every member of the committee was 110%. The commitment and the work that everybody put in was significant. As was said, there were 23 meetings. The 23 meetings were only a very small part of the overall amount of work that members did. I found out what real positive politics can be like in this country where we went on and said, "Look, there is a big challenge here. Let us together try and work it out." There were members coming from different philosophies and different backgrounds, but the one certainty right in the middle of the whole lot was that they all wanted to achieve a result for a better Ireland, as they saw it, and I fed into that. I felt passionate about this.
For me, personally, it is one of the greatest challenges, if not the greatest challenge, I have ever had in my life - I have been involved in business and many other aspects like that. If we can get results from something that was as challenging as this, and we can, certainly there is so much more we can do together on behalf of the Irish public. We can punch way above our weight. One thing I would like to do - it has been part of this House - is to let us start doing it.
It is also important that the Minister of State and the Minister entrusted me, a Seanadóir, to chair this committee. I understand that does not happen often. This is not about me, but there are many Senators - Senators here and Senators who are not here this evening for whatever reason - who have significant skills, talents and abilities, and I ask the Government to utilise this House as much as possible. There is a lot more we can and want to do, to support the Minister and support the Government, but primarily supporting the Irish people. I encourage the Minister to work on bringing us much more into the fold. I am only one Senator. There are 59 others here who, I believe, can make as much, if not more, of a contribution than I can. I had a small role in the whole lot.
All of the 20 members made a strong commitment. The Senators here, Senators Paudie Coffey and Grace O'Sullivan, made a very significant and important contribution. One can look at various lines and recommendations where one sees their input has been there in a positive sense. Long may this Seanad continue. Long may they continue to give really strong service to the Irish people.
Right at the centre of the work of all of us are the people and what is in their best interest. Frankly, I was looking at it from a point of view of health. The Minister of State mentioned it. They have already started working on analysis of the water, the wastewater of the water we consume, of the showers and baths we have. That is having an effect on our health. That will be the single biggest issue. For me, probably the most important recommendation of all is that we have one body which is focusing on the health aspect of domestic water in the future. That happens in other countries. There are various parts of the recommendations that introduce best practice from other countries into it. That, for me, is hugely important. This is fundamentally a health issue, as well as very much an environmental issue which is also very important to me.
I might leave it at that. I merely made a few quick notes. I thank everybody, those who voted for and those who voted against, for their contributions. Those who voted against made a significant contribution too and I very much appreciate that. They really added to it.
I would say, as maybe my second last point, that between 80% and 90% of the recommendations were agreed unilaterally. We did not have to contest if they were agreed across the table by every one of the 20 members. There were a small number of issues that we had to have a number of votes on, but it was confined to a small number of areas.
Tá mé an-bhuíoch den Chathaoirleach as ucht deis a thabhairt dom labhairt. I am privileged to have an opportunity to play a small part in this, but there was a committee of 20 extremely dedicated members. Everybody played a big part in it. It is like a football team. One will never win any game just with a full forward or a corner back; it takes everybody. I refer to all the political parties and all the individuals. Those who voted overall in favour and those who voted against made a big contribution. I hope that, just like in the Dáil, the Seanad supports this report and we move forward because there are a lot of other pressing issues that we can help support the Irish people with. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit.
I am sure we all appreciate and agree with Senator Ó Céidigh's comments with regards to this House and its Members.
As spokesperson for Fine Gael, I was happy to move this motion in the House and to seek its adoption by Members of Seanad Éireann. To follow on from what our colleague, Senator Ó Céidigh, has said, I want to put on the record that this House was represented front and centre, and strongly, by four Senators. Certainly, the Chairperson, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, and our colleagues, Senators Grace O'Sullivan and Lorraine Clifford-Lee, and myself where all honoured. Speaking for myself, I was particularly honoured to serve on this committee which, I believe, has done the State some valuable service.
If I can, I will give special mention to Senator Ó Céidigh who, I believe, was an outstanding Chairman and took on a role in a very difficult circumstance where an issue caused much division and emotion in this country. I say to Senator Ó Céidigh, and put it on the public record here today, that he was a fair, independent, impartial and constructive Chairman. He was strong and he was supportive to all members. All views were respected, heard and facilitated, and what more could any Chairperson do? I thank Senator Ó Céidigh for that.
The committee produced a majority report. Many diverse views were heard. We heard expertise from all sectors that had to do with public water services in the country - with both national and international experts - where we had the issues teased through and worked through. The focus at all times was to find solutions. I believe, as Senators do, that the Irish people demand solutions and a sustainable water system for the country.
I commend Senator Ó Céidigh for his work. Indeed, I commend all my committee colleagues. As I said, they have done the State some valuable service and they can be proud.
The history of water services has been problematic for this country. It has been unsustainable where we spent over €1 billion a year and had nearly 50% of treated water leaking into the ground. We had boil water notices all over the country, we had lead pipes that are unhealthy servicing mains water and we had raw sewage flowing out into the rivers, lakes and oceans. Unfortunately, that is still happening. I think we are all agreed that was no longer sustainable and a future of sustainable water systems was necessary.
I cannot complete my statement without saying that we must recognise those who have provided their own water in this country for many years and paid for it themselves. I refer to the many thousands who are in group water schemes and the many thousands who have their own private wells and septic tanks. I am glad that they are being recognised and acknowledged in this report also. That is only right.
I do not want to be too political here because that will not achieve anything. Some parties might say that we were strong armed into water rates or water charges when the troika came in, and that is possibly the case.
That is possibly the case but none of us can get away from the fact that we need to invest in our infrastructure. I have always stood four square behind the establishment of Irish Water as a national utility, and it is one of which we can be proud of in time. I have often compared it to the ESB, a company for which I worked for 20 years. The ESB is a utility and a national asset of which this country can be proud. I believe that in time we will also be very proud of Irish Water, which will manage our assets in terms of our infrastructure in a cohesive and efficient way to sustain the needs of our country. We are already seeing the benefits of that in my county of Waterford. Dunmore East and Ardmore, two beautiful coastal villages, always struggled to attain blue flag status and they now have that status guaranteed every year as a result of the investment by Irish Water in new wastewater treatment plants. That is the type of investment that needs to be made throughout the country. I am confident that as a result of this report, we will see such investment properly managed to secure the future of our water infrastructure.
A charge will apply to polluters and those who waste water, which I fully support. That is in compliance with our environmental and moral obligations and with our EU water framework directive obligations, and that is only right. The best way to identify leaks and to encourage conservation is to measure water usage. I welcome that block meters will be installed in apartment blocks and meters will be installed in all future builds. With the recovery in the construction sector, more than 20,000 housing units will be built per annum and they will have meters to assist homeowners to identify their water usage and conserve water. It is now over to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I acknowledge the support that he, the Minister of State, Deputy English, and their staff gave to the Fine Gael membership on the committee. We worked as a team not in the best interests of Fine Gael but in the best interests of the Irish people and this country and I believe members of the public realise that. We stand over the positions we took. I am glad that common sense prevailed in the end and that we produced a report that has the support of the majority of the Houses of the Oireachtas. When the Seanad hopefully passes the motion on this report this evening it will prove that politics works. It will prove that we must respect alternative views and that every one of us as policy makers has a responsibility to the Irish citizens. This is an example of how that has worked.
I pay tribute to all the Members in this Chamber for their hard work as members of this committee, particularly the chairperson. It is important to recognise that. I stress there were common grounds on a number of key points and it is also important to recognise that. The report supports a referendum on public ownership of water services and also endorses public ownership being enshrined in the Constitution to protect against privatisation. I have a feeling that the Government will backtrack on that but I would be very happy to be proved wrong on that. The recommendation is absolutely right. The report recommends that domestic water use should be funded through general taxation and we certainly endorse that principle. It includes a whole raft of sensible conservation measures, some of which include retrofitting, rainwater harvesting, education in schools with the involvement of the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which are all good aspects. The report recommends refunds for those who paid water charges. It also recommends parity for those on group water schemes, and it is important that provision is included. The report recommends an end to the metering programme for existing builds. None of these recommendations would be contained in the report without the work of the Right2Water campaign and the members of that campaign who were on that committee.
I do not want to explain why Sinn Féin voted against the report. A week is a long time in politics. Last week's version of the final report also recommended an end to all mandatory metering, an end to the Fine Gael proposal for a meter charge for so-called excessive use. This version of the report was supported by the Right2Water campaign members, Fianna Fáil and two Independents. However, under threat of a general election, after the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, sent a letter to the committee outlining his opposition to the amended report last Friday, Deputy Barry Cowen and Fianna Fáil backed down. The decision taken by Fianna Fáil to support Fine Gael has nothing to do with complying with EU law and everything to do with Fianna Fáil's fear of a general election. It is using the legal advice as a fig leaf to justify it making another massive U-turn on the issue of water charges. The words "flip flop" do not go far enough to cover Fianna Fail's stance on this issue.
The fact is that Fianna Fáil has broken its key election pledge to abolish water charges, having previously abandoned its pledge to scrap Irish Water. By supporting this report, Fianna Fáil has conceded a number of major issues. The party voted in favour of volumetric water charges for excessive use based on average household usage and mandatory domestic metering in all new builds and refurbishments. The roll out of domestic water meters in new builds and refurbishments is not to promote conversation but to leave the option open for a domestic charging regime in the future. Charging for excessive use will initially affect an estimated 10% of households but, like bin charges, waivers can be ended and the charges can be increased. This is why Sinn Féin voted against the report. Our work, alongside our colleagues in the Right2Water campaign will continue until there is an end to all mandatory domestic metering, any so-called excessive use charge is abolished, water services are enshrined in public ownership, and Irish Water is abolished and replaced by a fully accountable water and sanitation board.
My heart goes out to my colleagues in Fianna Fáil because they have been trying for the last year to pretend they are somehow a left of centre party but whenever it has come to the crunch on matters such as Irish Water, voting rights for emigrants and lowering the voting age to 16, they have always retreated back to the conservative ground and, to be fair, that is where they are based and from where they come. The issue of water points us very clearly in the direction of a merger between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They have no significant ideological differences. They believe in the same type of economics and in the same type of right-wing philosophy that has dominated this country for 80 years. They have been engaged for a year and it is time they gave us a day out.
We are not populist.
On that romantic note-----
Some 92% of people-----
Allow Senator Gavan to continue without interruption. I ask Senator Gavan to conclude.
The Senator does not know that. That is the point.
The Senator does not know that either.
The Senator's party can join up with Deputy Paul Murphy.
We know where bin charges started out. Sinn Féin has always been consistent in its opposition to water charges.
Deputy McDonald said she would pay.
Allow Senator Gavan to conclude without interruption.
If the Senator were to read our manifestos, we have always been consistent in opposing water charges.
That is a fairytale.
The fairytale is the Fianna Fáil flip-flop fairytale-----
Not at all-----
Allow Senator Gavan to continue without interruption.
-----where it introduced water charges; it proposed a water charge of €500 per household as we know from a Cabinet memo but when it proved increasingly unpopular and it was embarrassed, it flip-flopped, and now it has flip-flopped again. The people can see where Fianna Fáil really stands. In fairness to Fine Gael, we know it wanted there to be charging and we know it has left the back door open to allow for charging. That is okay. It is a right-wing party, it believes in toll booth taxation and that is fine. We know where it stands.
I ask the Senator to conclude.
Senator Gavan's party is a high tax, high spend party.
Fianna Fáil on the other hand pretends to be something it is not and all I am saying is that in the spirit of Easter harmony it is time for a big day out.
It is voodoo economics.
I wish to say a major thank you to the Chairman of the committee, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, who did an incredible job. Like him, I am a relatively new Member to this House and I must say that rigour was the order of what we as a committee went through over all the months. It was excruciating at times. We met over the course of 23 meetings over many weeks and over and above that. A great deal of negotiating went on outside the committee where we tried to find ways to move the issue forward. That has been achieved, of that there is no doubt. As well as the Chairman of the committee, his right-hand man, the clerk to the committee, Tom Sheridan, is to be complimented-----
-----as well as the other members of the Chairman's team who were superb. They ran around at times to facilitate and introduce efficiency because at times the committee was about to break down. It was very tense at times but in the end the objective remained clear: we wanted to get through it and get the best for the country. Reference was made to the issue of public health, and that was to the forefront of my mind. There is no doubt about the public ownership of water services. The Green Party some two years ago promoted enshrining water in public ownership to address the concerns of those who had a lack of confidence and feared that there was a back door in this respect and a chance of privatisation.
There was a chance of privatisation. The sooner we copperfasten that and close that door the better.
There is so much in the report that is excellent. Last night when I was on "The Late Debate" I became aware that the tide is turning. In recent weeks water has been all over the newspapers. It is out there. More importantly, people are being empowered to make decisions themselves based on what they have been reading in recent months about the committee's deliberations. During "The Late Debate" programme I said I was very proud of the committee, in particular of one recommendation I had promoted for which I had the full agreement of the committee, namely, that consumers could opt to have a meter if they so wish. If people do not have a meter and they decide they want to control their water consumption, take ownership and measure water usage in order to know how much they are using, they can call up the utility and ask to have a meter installed. The presenter of the programme grinned at me and suggested we put it to a vote. He took a poll during "The Late Debate" programme and listeners were split 50:50 on the issue. I believe that would not have been the case some months ago but because water has been on the agenda people realise they can take ownership of water usage.
From my perspective there is so much in the report that is superb. For me, the meter is the gold standard in terms of an ideal measurement tool. There is so much in the report in terms of fairness, equality and power being given to the Commission on Energy Regulation, CER, and more support is being given to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The document is very worthwhile. However, I voted against the report because for me a water bill should be simple. If someone is abusing water he or she must be billed for it and there must be a penalty or fine. The bill should come in one's door and it should not be a mechanism to drag people through the courts, as in the Water Act 2007. The taxpayer will now pay for water and the taxpayer is supporting the courts system. If a person is dragged through the courts to pay a fine for excessive consumption of water it will be an extra burden on the State and the people of this country.
That is not correct.
That is why I voted against the report in the end but, by and large, I compliment the Chair, his team and the committee. The committee made a huge effort and although I voted against the report, by and large the effort is sufficient to bring people on board and to recognise that water, public health and the sewerage system require investment and must be protected. We need the best water service for the Irish people.
I congratulate Senator Ó Céidigh and our colleagues from this House who were on the committee on the good work that was done. I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in his absence, for the good work they did in the background by way of briefing.
I say to my good friend, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, that it is not the intention to drag people before the courts. The legislation will be drafted to levy but not with the intention of bringing people before the courts.
I say to my Sinn Féin colleague who spoke earlier, Senator Gavan, that I would have thought there was nothing more right wing, almost verging on the extreme right, than allowing people to waste water and asking ordinary working people to pay for it. I say that with respect.
It is very important that the polluter pays principle is established. It is not an accident that it is a European directive. There is good science and good reasoning behind that. The alternative to the polluter pays principle is that a working person, for example, in County Cavan, where I come from, perhaps a family on the average industrial wage paying to their local group water scheme would through their personal taxation then subvent people who waste water in their gardens, who might have something as outlandish as a swimming pool, who would not bother to fix a leak. It is an unreasonable proposition that one would have anything other than the polluter pays principle. I am pleased that is enshrined in our approach. The allowances are extremely generous. Senator Coffey covered that issue. There is no difficulty in that regard but the concept that there should be free water beyond the allowances is unacceptable.
It is good that the installation of meters in new builds will be enshrined in the legislation. That is important from a conservation point of view because at the root of all our difficulties is the fact that between 45% and 50% of water is wasted through leakages, and metering to prevent excessive use and identify leakage is critical.
It is very good that the principle of refunding people who already paid for water incrementally and in a reasonable fashion will be enshrined in the legislation, as per the recommendations of the committee. That is eminently fair and right. It is right that people who through good civic mindedness, patriotism and concern for the welfare of others did the right thing should not be penalised now. That would be a very bad thing to do.
The issue is primarily related to health. This is about ensuring a level of investment. There is a forecast investment of €533 million this year by Irish Water and €300 million was invested by local authorities in 2013, which indicates that spend on water infrastructure increased. The threat of contamination has been removed from four drinking water supplies in Dublin affecting 220,000 people and many boil water notices have also been removed. Raw sewage is another issue. Water is fundamentally a health issue and it is important that we get the principle right.
We are all reasonably intelligent people so let us deal with the myth that exists – there is no such thing as free water. Other than the water coming from the sky, which has to be treated before it gets to the consumer, there is no free water. The only issue is who pays and how we pay. If it is not the polluter that pays - the person using the water - then it is the taxpayer. If one removes water bills from the individual one then moves them to another source of taxation. We should bear in mind that the working people of this country are taking the brunt of the burden of taxation at the moment and we should be very cautious about increasing that burden.
I wish to preface everything I say by saying that I support the motion. I find it deeply regrettable that after such a long period we are only coming to grips with water. It is also deeply regrettable that we constantly blame the European Union for what is a national decision, one that was negotiated nationally. We must stand up and take responsibility for the things we negotiate in Europe. It could not be a European obligation unless we agreed that would to be the case. One cannot have water coming through one's pipes for nothing. We made a bags of it from the beginning.
We set up the wrong type of company. Everything we did with Irish Water was a mess from start to finish, but having said that, Senator Paudie Coffey was mentioned and I want to single him out in particular. He was a Minister of State who put his neck on the line and he paid a massive price in the last general election for his commitment to water charges. Deputy Alan Kelly also paid a price, as did his party. The Cathaoirleach chosen for the Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, was the ideal man for the job because he came with clean hands. I think he was able to bring all parties together and did a tremendous job. As everybody has said, Ireland owes him a debt of gratitude which we will be paying for years to come.
I want to deal with the issue of charges for water and the 92% of people who will not have to pay them. Let us be honest about it. As time passes, more and more people will be brought into the water charges net.
That is right.
That is just the nature of the world in which we live. There is nothing anybody here can do about that or to guarantee that it will not happen. It will happen as time passes, as technology moves on, as we develop better systems and install new ones. People will have to pay through central taxation, from which we have too many things dragged out. That will have to change over time.
I congratulate the Government on managing to get this measure through. I congratulate new politics. I am not sure a marriage of the centre left and centre right would work out that well. There might be a divorce in a very short period.
That is true of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael; not us.
I am sorry that it has been reduced to a political argument, as we saw in the final few days. This is not really about politics but about the health of the nation, as my colleague said. It is about people being able to switch on the tap and knowing they will not catch something. It is about being able to dispose of waste. As reluctant as I am about having to pay for water at some stage - I hope not in my lifetime, but it could happen and if it happens, it happens - I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, and the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, well. I have seen huge work being done in their Department to try to solve some of the most difficult problems in the country, namely, water charges and housing provision. I genuinely wish them well. I am genuinely sorry that we were dragged through so many committees and discussions on the issue of water charges.
The motion is now being passed and the legislation will follow, but let us be honest with the people, of whom 92% will not pay water charges, but over time the number of whom will pay will increase. I am desperately sorry that we wasted €550 million in installling meters that now seem to have no value other than in establishing whether there is a leak in the system. That €550 million would have helped to shift a fair few hospital trolleys or given us a better education system. We should have been paying a standing charge from the outset and have had a better company than Irish Water. I hope everything will go well and that the motion will be passed. I will support it. Fair play to the Minister of State. He put his neck on the line on this issue, for which he must be admired.
It is welcome that we have reached this point in the debate. I thank and pay tribute to Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh in his role as Chairman of the Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. It illustrates the point, as referenced by him at the meeting on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges yesterday, that it is important to have Members of the Seanad as chairpersons of committees. Many of us have been. Senator John O'Mahony is in the Chamber. I chaired a committee while in the other House of the Oireachtas. Transferring to this House does not mean that our abilities diminish. It is important that we recognise and stand up for the Members of this House. Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh is right. There is a vast array of talent in this House, irrespective of political viewpoints. I thank all members of the committee for their work on behalf of the Oireachtas and the people. In particular, I pay tribute to my colleague and friend, Senator Paudie Coffey, who, as a Minister of State, demonstrated his ability to take decisions and govern. He demonstrated it equally through his work on and, if I can use the phrase, off the committee to help to broker a deal and, I hope, facilitate the passage of the motion.
Senator Paul Gavan speaks about marriage. I notice that he did not offer a ring to anybody tonight or make any overture to anybody other than in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The Irish people are in the political centre. Some involved in politics like to take a megaphone and a banner and march up and down O'Connell Street or outside the gates of Leinster House, which is their prerogative. The real fact, as Senator Paul Gavan's colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly recognise, is that politics is about government and governing the country. It is about making decisions. We may argue the toss about what way to go, but it is about running the country. My party has always been consistent on the matter of water charges. It has always been consistent in wanting to be in government to do the right thing for the people at all times. Some day Senator Paul Gavan's party may have the good fortune to be in government in the South.
Is that a proposal?
I would not dare make that proposal.
The Senator is being very romantic this evening.
Whatever else I will do, I certainly will not propose to the people that they should put Sinn Féin into government.
At least not until the next general election.
It is important that we be honest. In the past few months the debate has been about the need to recognise that we need a national utility company to provide clean drinking water and end the battle where there are boil water notices in many parts of the country and raw sewage is being pumped into harbours and waterways across the country.
I disagree with my friend, Senator Craughwell. Metering, whether it be district metering or metering in individual houses or apartment complexes, will, in time, reveal the leaks which will lead to a saving of money and conservation which, in turn, will lead to a better outcome for the people. I do not agree that we are on the slope Senator Paul Gavan says we are on or a similar pathway to bin charges. If the importance of conservation and using water wisely is recognised, we will not see people being put into the water charges net. As Senator Paudie Coffey said, 8% of people waste water.
This week has been bookended by this debate, while we had political controversy at the beginning of it. Irish Water opened a €117 million wastewater treatment plant in Shanbally just outside my city of Cork, from which some 20,000 houses are benefiting. I will give one statistic. Up to this point some 44,000 wheelie bins of raw sewage have been pumped into Cork Harbour daily. None of us can be irresponsible in allowing that to continue, irrespective of what our viewpoint is. That is why I have always been a firm proponent of having a national utility company for water services. I salute the men and women who work in Irish Water who have been ridiculed, belittled and treated poorly by members of the political class and the media. We read a story last weekend in the newspapers about bonuses. It was a Workplace Relations Commission recommendation; it was not Irish Water deciding to pay bonuses. In time Irish Water will save the country money. We made a hames of it at the beginning in explaining what it was about and rolling it out, but we are now seeing the benefits in Cork. We have expertise, a funding model and a national utility company. It behoves all of us to support Irish Water and not go back to the days when we had boil water notices and people had to buy water in shops. None of us wants to go back to those days.
I commend Senator Paudie Coffey for his ability and work on the committee. I say it again because he is present. He took hard decisions when Minister of State. He was a Trojan worker and pivotal as a member of the committee. He deserves to be commended, as does Senator Padraig Ó Céidigh.
Before I put the question, I add my congratulations to an Seanadóir Pádraig Ó Céidigh for his extreme professionalism as a Member of the Seanad in chairing the Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. It is a special accolade for the Seanad that we have such individuals. As I said today, there are many others who could take their place, whether in the Cabinet or as chairpersons of committees.
Will the Senators claiming a division please rise.
As fewer than five Members have risen I declare the question carried. In accordance with Standing Order 61 the names of the Senators dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Seanad.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 May.