I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. I am happy to be here to address his concerns and give clarity where I can. There are some layers to the issue.
As the Senator will be aware, the Government water services policy statement 2018-25 published in May of this year contains the broad policy context for the development of water services in Ireland. It outlines the position of Irish Water as the single publicly owned national water services authority. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. It has entered service level agreements, SLAs, with each local authority for the provision of water services. Staff working under these arrangements remain local authority employees while continuing to perform key water service functions, with local authorities acting as agents of Irish Water. Staffing arrangements are an operational matter for Irish Water and local authorities within the context of the SLA arrangements that are in place.
On 19 September 2018 I received a report from the director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in respect of a process of engagement undertaken at my request with the parties involved in the transformation programme for Irish Water, namely, Irish Water, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, relevant affiliated unions, local government management and my Department. The context lies in Irish Water's proposal to integrate its operations fully and end the current operational arrangements for the delivery of water services through the SLAs with local authorities. The discussions with the parties have advanced on the basis that the current SLAs will remain in place until such time as an alternative is agreed by all sides.
In considering the report in consultation with my Government colleagues, I am particularly mindful of the comments of the WRC that uncertainty about the next phase of transformation appears to be causing staffing difficulties at local government level and that further delay in providing the necessary clarity could exacerbate that situation and increase risks to the safe and effective delivery of water and wastewater services.
Since the WRC was asked to undertake the engagement exercise, the future governance and operational arrangements for Irish Water have been clarified. In July of this year, the Government decided that Irish Water would become a stand-alone and publicly-owned commercial regulated utility and would be separated from the Ervia Group during 2023. Work on the preparation of a separation plan is under way.
Having set out the future direction of Irish Water in this respect, it is important for all involved that clarity is now achieved in addressing the issues that arise in the context of the transformation programme. This needs to happen without delay. In this context, I have asked the parties to engage in a process to work towards the development of a stable structural and operational framework for the future, which would replace the current service level agreements with arrangements which will provide Irish Water, as the national water services authority, with the necessary control of operations, accountability and capacity to manage risk and to communicate and negotiate with all water services workers on the change agenda and on a single identity for customer-facing services. As part of the development of this framework, there is a need to ensure that Irish Water is not left without an appropriately skilled workforce to carry out its statutory functions and that local authorities are not left with stranded costs. The concerns of workers about the future deployment of existing local authority water staff can be addressed by developing arrangements which meet the two objectives I have just mentioned without requiring section 19 of the Water Services Act 2013 to be invoked other than by collective agreement. For the information of the Senator, section 19 relates to the designation of local authority staff for transfer to Irish Water upon the termination of an SLA.
I have asked for the development of a framework for the future to be concluded by the end of February 2019. I am grateful for the commitment of the WRC to facilitate this process. I am also grateful for the engagement to date in this process of staff representatives through their trade unions. Water services are essential to the daily lives of our citizens and our economy. It is imperative that we ensure the best and most appropriate arrangements possible are in place for the delivery of these vital services.