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Water Services Provision

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 12 June 2013

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Questions (1)

Barry Cowen


1. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will provide a county breakdown of the number of local authority staff engaged in water services; the future plans for those staff under Irish Water; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28195/13]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Environment)

The independent assessment of the establishment of a public water utility undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2011 estimated that there were just over 4,000 whole-time equivalent staff directly engaged in water services. A breakdown of this figure is not available in my Department. The local authority water services transition office is gathering this information on a water services authority basis to inform the implementation of the water sector reform programme.

A fundamental underpinning of the water reform programme is to ensure that the skills and experience built up over many years in local authorities are put to the best use for the long-term benefit of the customer and that there are no negative impacts on services to customers during the transition. It is intended, therefore, that the legislation to transfer statutory responsibility for water services to Irish Water will provide for local authorities to act as agents for Irish Water, with this relationship being expressed through service level agreements. The majority of the existing staff will remain employees of local authorities working under such arrangements.

A specific structure, the Irish Water consultative group, chaired by Mr. Kevin Foley of the Labour Relations Commission, was established last year to facilitate engagement between unions and management on the water sector reform programme. The group meets regularly to work through the issues concerned and has agreed principles for the secondment of local authority staff to the Irish Water programme. Discussions are ongoing in respect of the proposed service level agreements, addressing issues such as their scope and duration and the protection of the terms and conditions of employees in various circumstances.

The Minister is right in saying that the PricewaterhouseCoopers report produced prior to the setting up of Irish Water identified more than 4,000 jobs in the area. It also suggested that there would be job losses. Despite the Minister's statement that when the Department went through the figures it was not done on a county-by-county basis, the Minister should seek to have that information provided to the House.

In respect of the service level agreements being sought under the stewardship of Mr. Foley, what progress has been made? Can the Minister confirm that those agreements will only bring us to 2017? What indication can he give the House regarding permanency for staff beyond that date? It is important that we and, more importantly, the staff are aware of the long-term role they have. Will service level contracts between local authorities and Irish Water continue and will staff have incremental contracts rather than the permanency they now enjoy? Does the consultative body contain a public representative or someone who could act as a conduit between local authority members and the staff under their control, who will not be under their control in the future?

There are a number of questions. Ultimately, there will be an increase in employment relating to water provision. What we are seeking to do is to generate an efficient implementation programme that will mean that the processes we have at the moment between local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will be rationalised to the extent that we will be speeding up the investment programme. We anticipate that in two or three years' time we will have doubled the amount of money in contracts available through Irish Water for water and wastewater service provision. We need to do that if we are to keep pace with the level of economic activity that is required and the fundamental issue of providing adequate water and wastewater facilities for inward investment.

I am not in a position to give the Deputy exact figures about the outcome of those discussions that are ongoing at the moment about who and how many will be seconded. I will inform the House or the committee on the environment, culture and the Gaeltacht to keep it briefed on jobs on a county-by-county basis. At the end of the day, Irish Water is charged with the responsibility for delivering on behalf of the taxpayer an efficient and effective service and ensuring we have additional investment through the private capital programme in the future to assist Irish Water in achieving the aims of our water services programme.

Progress is being made on service level agreements. They are not concluded yet. I expect we will go beyond 2017 in respect of the relationships between Irish Water and local government, but there is a two-year review clause we are seeking to examine in two years' time to see how far beyond that we have to go. It will be up to the people around the table to decide many of these issues with Irish Water.

There is no public representation on the in-house management-union structure that is in place at the moment to work out these issues, but I envisage public representation on the board of Irish Water.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to having public representatives on the board of Irish Water. However, I again ask him to seek to have similar representation at the table for consultation on service level agreements. As the Minister said, the initial period is to 2017, with the arrangements to be reviewed thereafter. I hope a commitment will be given at this stage that any such review would look at the much longer term to safeguard and protect the jobs of existing staff within local authorities. I welcome what has been said in recent weeks in respect of the call centre and the jobs that will emanate from that. However, as I have told the Minister on many occasions in the past, there are many call centres throughout the country in which we have faith. Nowhere were they shown to be more effective than during the winter freeze a few years ago, based on the local knowledge, experience and professionalism of those concerned. How the new regime works will be measured in time against that performance. I am anxious for a place at the table to be given to some representative of local authorities and their members to make further progress in this area.

I do not agree with Deputy Cowen that it is appropriate to have public representation at the management-union talks that are ongoing under the chairmanship of Mr. Foley from the Labour Relations Commission. There are many technical issues to be resolved. Public representatives are in charge of policy and will effectively be the board of directors in respect of local authorities in the future. Management and unions should get on with the job of working out the details about how matters will be implemented, including staff arrangements.

Hundreds of people have expressed interest in secondment to Irish Water from local authorities. They must see career opportunities in Irish Water in the future, or they would not be interested in doing that. I hope we will be able to get agreement on service level agreements in the near future. I announced 400 jobs in the call centre dealing with customers but there will be about 1,600 jobs involved in the metering programme. Three regional contracts will be announced around 10 July.