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Water Meters Installation

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 12 June 2013

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Questions (6, 7, 17, 30)

Joe Higgins


6. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the schedule for the installation of water meters in the different local authority areas. [28077/13]

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Dara Calleary


7. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the number of sub-contractors that have been appointed to implement water metering roll-out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27988/13]

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Joe Higgins


17. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if his Department has estimated the cost of fixing leakages that may be discovered in the course of the installation of water meters; and who will bear the cost of paying for the fixing of these leakages. [28078/13]

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Timmy Dooley


30. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the estimated number of jobs from the roll-out of water metering; the estimated length of employment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27990/13]

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Oral answers (27 contributions) (Question to Environment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 7, 17 and 30 together.

The programme for Government and the memorandum of understanding with the EU, the IMF and the ECB both provide for the introduction of domestic water charges. The Government considers that charging based on usage is the fairest way to charge for water and has decided that water meters should be installed in households connected to public water supplies. The Government has also decided that Irish Water, a new State-owned water company to be established as an independent subsidiary within the Bord Gáis Éireann Group, will be responsible for the metering programme. The Water Services Act 2013 provided for the establishment of Irish Water. The Act assigns the necessary powers to allow Irish Water to undertake the metering programme. The installation of meter boxes and domestic water meters is scheduled to commence in July 2013 and will be rolled out nationally as quickly as possible thereafter.

The procurement process for the metering programme, which is being managed by Irish Water, is at an advanced stage. The criteria for the procurement process were developed by my Department, in consultation with Bord Gáis Éireann, to ensure SMEs have an opportunity to compete for contracts. No subcontractors have yet been appointed to implement the national water metering programme but tendering for acceptance onto a panel of subcontractors established by my Department remains open until the end of this month. Some 158 eligible subcontractors have already been accepted onto the panel. Regional management contractors, to be recruited by Irish Water through public tendering procedures, are due to be selected later this month. These contractors will have responsibility for appointing subcontractors and it is expected they will be utilising the resources of the subcontractors from the pre-qualified panel created by my Department.

I expect 1,600 jobs will be sustained through the national metering programme. The contracts for the installation programme have been prepared to ensure that 25% of the jobs generated will be for people from small businesses, the unemployment register, school leavers, graduates and apprentices. These jobs will be sustained over a two to three year period while the installation programme is being rolled out.

Irish Water recently announced that it has awarded a contract to Cork-based company Abtran to set up and run a customer support call centre for the service. The call centre will employ up to 100 people initially to support roll-out of the national metering programme, with 400 jobs to be created by the end of 2014.

Measures to address leakage will be complementary to the water metering programme. The Department, in consultation with Irish Water, is developing proposals for customer side leaks detected as a result of the metering programme. With regard to water mains rehabilitation, significant investment has been made in recent years in water management systems and active leakage control has provided the platform for more intensive water mains repair and replacement contracts under the current water services investment programme. Over €247 million has been spent on water conservation projects in total over the past decade, with €39.9 million spent in 2011 and a further €39.25 million in 2012.

What is the anticipated cost of the water metering programme nationwide? A figure of hundreds of millions of euro has been mooted. I call on the Minister to agree that the drive for water meters at people's homes is a misapplication of those funds. It is incredible that, when 50% to 60% of water treated by taxpayers' funds is leaking into the grounds in many local authorities, the Minister does not apply the funds at that point to amplify the inadequate spending on rehabilitation. Is it not obvious where the funds should go? Is it not obvious the Minister could create thousands of jobs in construction and plumbing for a fruitful outcome rather than what he is undertaking?

Is it not clear the Government's agenda is not primarily conservation but the establishment of yet another local tax? Along with property tax, water charges will increase to over €1,000 per household, an intolerable burden for many families. I call on the Minister to change policy in this regard.

Deputy Joe Higgins prefers to pick figures off the top of his head. The sum of €1,000 per family is way off the mark and he knows it. People are paying, through their taxes, for the treatment of good quality water at a cost of €1 billion. It comes from ordinary working people, as Deputy Joe Higgins call them. They are already paying through their taxes. I am not in a position to tell Deputy Higgins what funds will be made available to the water metering programme because we are in the final stages of a tendering programme for regional contracts, which will roll out the metering programme to 1.1 million households.

Plumbing jobs will be created under the water metering programme. We will also create more jobs through further investment in the water sector which the country is not in a position to afford at present. In the contracts that have been put out to tender I have provided that 25% of the employees should be persons assigned to complete their apprenticeships or come from the unemployment register. They particularly target people and skills that were available in the construction industry in the past that we can use for the water metering programme.

I do not subscribe to the Deputy's negative connotations in this matter. We have very important work to do in ensuring a plentiful supply of good quality water for job creation, investment and households in the future.

As Deputy Joe Higgins said, we still do not know what the exact cost of metering will be. We still do not have a countrywide audit to further determine the cost of repairs to put the system right before we start charging for water. The Minister has said 1,600 jobs will be created in the installation of water meters. That is commendable, if the actions match the rhetoric. The Minister has said regional contractors are about to be appointed. These regional contractors must have a minimum turnover of many millions of euro to be considered for the regional contract. The Minister went on to say 158 local contractors were on a register. They are placed on a Department register from which the regional contractor can employ them. What compulsion is placed on the regional contractor to employ local plumbers and contractors where the service will be put in place? The Minister has said 25% of the people who will get jobs installing water meters must come from the local live register and so forth. What mechanisms and training programmes are in place? How specific can he be that provisions are being put or are in place for people on the live register to receive training in order that they can obtain some of these jobs?

It might sound like pie in the sky to the Deputy that there will be a substantial amount of economic activity and job creation under this programme.

I did not dispute that.

Many people have been in touch with the Deputy, me and others in the last while about where to send curricula vitae, CVs, to get work. I hope that will continue and that people will be able to send their CVs to Irish Water and the firms that will win the regional contracts as part of this major investment. I cannot give the cost today for commercially sensitive reasons.

With regard to the subcontractors' panel, the normal rule of the Department of Finance for subcontractors is that they must have a turnover of €1 million. I reduced the figure to €400,000 to allow as many people as possible from the small and medium enterprises, SME, sector to be placed on the panel, but that does not stop others from going onto it between now and the end of the month. In fact, it is an indicative list. People can be put on it afterwards and considered by the regional contractors. People are waiting to know who are the winners of these contracts in order that they can apply for subcontract work. In every county there will be economic activity and people from the plumbing and the electrical industry will be involved in this work.

I am conscious of what the Deputy has said about ensuring we get the Department of Social Protection to compile lists of all the people who are in need of employment and have the necessary old skills from the construction days, when matters were going well, and to submit these names to the subcontractors. I am working with the Minister for Social Protection to ensure this happens.

Is it not incredible that weeks before the Minister's metering programme is due to start, he can provide no figures for the cost of the programme? I suggest the Minister, even at this late stage, carry out a cost-benefit analysis. He will find that if the investment were made in water conservation and rehabilitation of the network and so forth, it would be far more beneficial. Far more real jobs would be created as a result. I am glad that he recognises that taxpayers have funded our water supply up to now. That gets us past the rubbish that comes from him when it suits him and the media that we have free water, which is a ploy to justify water charges. When one considers property tax and the water charges which the Minister intends to apply very soon, talking about a figure of €1,000 per household is very realistic, even if it is completely unaffordable and a huge burden. In fact, what the Minister is planning is not a programme for water conservation primarily but a programme for the commodification of water, bringing this crucial, natural resource into a situation where it will eventually be a product for the capitalist marketplace and privatisation in the water corporations he supports. He supports that philosophy, but it is not in the interests of the majority of the people.

We are teasing out some answers, which I welcome. The Minister mentioned the creation of 1,600 jobs in installing meters; a couple of weeks ago he mentioned the creation of 400 jobs in the call centre. However, there is no commitment for those employed by local authorities in this area, other than a statement that many of them have sought jobs with Irish Water. As the consultations on service level agreements are not yet complete, we cannot give certainty to those who have not applied about what their role will be in the future.

Despite the aspiration that 25% of the people taken on to install water meters will come from the live register, there is no certainty about this. It is time we were given some certainty and specifics to match the rhetoric and spin regarding the creation of jobs and so forth. When will the Minister devise a mechanism through which his Department and the Department of Social Protection will provide training programmes for people on the live register who wish to avail of the opportunities that might arise in this sector? When can they receive adequate training to have them placed on a proper register that will give them the opportunity to avail of jobs that might become available through local plumbers and contractors? The Minister said he had reduced the turnover cap from €1 million to €400,000. Did he also say he would reduce this further in order that there will be an opportunity for other local contractors and plumbers to be placed on a register?

Members on all sides of the House have asked that the Construction Contracts Bill be brought through the House and passed to ensure protection under contracts such as these. Will the Minister confirm that this legislation will be in place prior to the commencement of the programme?

The Construction Contracts Bill is an important one and being brought through the House by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. I understand it is due to go through Committee Stage. I can get the Deputy more information on when it is due to be brought before the House. I would like to see it enacted as quickly as possible, as it is important for subcontractors.

As I said earlier regarding training programmes, we are working with the Department of Social Protection to ensure people who already have skills and are on the unemployment register, people who are waiting to complete their apprenticeships and people who are in need of employment, particularly young people, will be in a position to have their names put forward for consideration by those who wish to participate in the programme. We are working closely with the local employment offices to achieve this. This is a €4.7 billion project, the largest since the ESB was established. One will not get answers immediately as it will require a great deal of work. It has taken one and a half years to get to this stage. However, we are now in a position where all the processes are in place and we are ready to roll them out.

In response to Deputy Joe Higgins, the top-of-the-head figure of €1,000 per household is ridiculous.

The Deputy was wrong about the local property tax figure and the bin charges figure in the past and he is wrong now.

No, they have gone up consistently.

I welcome the initiative and the job creation aspect. I wish the Minister would reduce the €400,000 figure, if possible, because there are many small companies that will not be able to tender for this work or become involved in it. Many small operators got involved in this area at the height of the boom.

Second, do any of the regulations deal with the fact that some people have stopcocks a long way from their houses? If the meter is located there, the distance between it and the house might not be under their control. Could the regulations state the stopcock should be put as close to the entrance to a person's house as possible?

Otherwise, they may incur costs as a result of a leakage on council property, for example.

I wish to be positive, as the Minister wants us all to be in a positive frame of mind today. If the Minister wants to stop water leaks and reduce costs, why has he not looked at district or block metering? I checked the price of this since I last discussed it with the Minister here. A district meter catering for 1,000 households costs between €3,000 and €4,000 to install. There is a computerised system going back to headquarters. Leaks are spotted within one minute and can be found within one hour with a detector. I have checked this with engineers who work in areas where such meters are installed. District metering works out at a cost of between €3 and €4 per household. Has the Minister looked at that?

On the question of the cost to the householder of Irish Water, the Minister says he does not know because that will be the responsibility of the regulator, which I accept. However, the Minister is being somewhat evasive on the issue. The figure can be obtained by adding the €330 million in capital to the €0.9 billion in current expenditure, which comes to €1.2 billion, and dividing that by the number of households, which is slightly below 1.3 million. I ask the Minister not to reply with lectures about charges in Northern Ireland. That is what the figure will be - I know what the total is, as does the Minister, without even having to take a calculator out of his pocket.

I am delighted to see that Deputy Stanley has done his sums.

I will certainly convey the Deputy's suggestion on block metering to those involved in the implementation of this programme. I am sure they have thought of it already but in case they have not, I will pass it on. The Deputy might be able to give them the benefit of his wisdom-----

The Minister did not know anything about it the last time I asked him.

I do not know everything.

I have been asking the Minister about it for some time now.

I know Deputy Stanley has a lot of experience of these matters in Northern Ireland-----

And down here too.

I am learning from him all the time with regard to the charges and what they provide in terms of public services in Northern Ireland. I am also learning that he is against all of that in the Republic of Ireland. However, I will convey the positive suggestion he has made.

I will not be in a position to micro-manage the metering programme.

Block metering costs €4 per household.

Please allow the Minister to speak.

I say to Deputy Stanley that if he has queries or suggestions about implementation, he should write to the managing director of Irish Water, Mr. John Tierney, who will be in a position to take them on board if appropriate. I say the same to Deputy Lawlor with regard to the surveying that is being carried out at the moment in each local authority area. Approximately 350,000 households are being surveyed, in co-operation with local authority staff, whom I thank. They are doing that work on behalf of Irish Water, which demonstrates the partnership approach being taken by Irish Water and local government. That partnership will continue for many years to come - perhaps for even longer than we think.

With regard to the turnover threshold of €400,000, I am not in a position to reduce that. It will be a matter for those who are under the threshold to liaise with others in the same business to see if they can reach it by combining their turnovers.