Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Questions (46, 78)

Thomas Pringle

Question:

46. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the steps he will take to progress the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) (No.1) Bill 2016 seeking to place the right to water in the Constitution; the reason for the delay to date in moving forward with the legislation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51222/19]

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Joan Collins

Question:

78. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government when he plans to have the revised amendment wording ready to bring to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) (No. 2) Bill 2016. [51760/19]

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Oral answers (29 contributions) (Question to Housing)

This question relates to the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) (No. 1) Bill 2016, which passed through the House several years ago. It is languishing on Committee Stage, waiting for the Minister to come back and look at how it will actually work. I would like the Minister to tease the problems out and say how we can move it forward.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 46 and 78 together.

The Government is firmly committed to keeping public water services in public ownership, as reflected in the Water Services Acts and in the water services policy statement 2018-2025.  This position is consistent with the April 2017 report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, which supported a referendum while recommending that the status of group water schemes and private wells remain unchanged.  

In consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, my Department has engaged in detailed examination of the proposals for a referendum contained in the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) (No. 2) Bill 2016, the Bill initiated by Deputy Joan Collins which is currently on Committee Stage.  The examination has highlighted a number of unacceptable risks which I have shared with the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government.  The Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers has separately advised the committee on the risks inherent in the Bill. Officials from my Department have also engaged in detail with Deputy Joan Collins and her advisers on the Bill, as I have myself on several occasions. In response to these concerns I have undertaken to bring forward appropriate amendments to the Bill.  In that regard, the Government has decided to proceed on the basis of drafting amendments which will focus on keeping the entity charged with the provision of public water services in public ownership.  

Progress on a proposal for revised wording continues to be made by the Office of the Attorney General in conjunction with my Department but it is not a simple matter.  In a letter to the committee in July 2019 I advised that I was working towards concluding a proposal for revised wording, subject to Government agreement and the advice of the Attorney General. This work is not yet complete.  Deputy Joan Collins is aware of the challenges and the various tests for any wording and her own legal team has not yet reverted to my Department following the last engagement that took place.  As with any Bill introducing an amendment to the Constitution it is essential that there is agreement, first, on the intent of the proposed amendment and, second, on the actual wording of the amendment to give effect to that intent. This is necessary in order to smooth the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas and to ensure clarity for the electorate on the proposal that is being put to it.  It is with these concerns in mind, rather than seeking to delay the Bill unnecessarily, that the Government has been giving this matter, which the Deputy knows is complex, the time and very careful consideration it requires.

I will call on Deputy Ó Broin in the second round of questions.

I would like to thank the Minister for the response, but it basically confirms that what is actually happening here is delay, delay and delay. He mentioned that he contacted the committee last July, some six months ago. This Bill was passed by this House several years ago. I may be wrong, but it looks from the outside that the Minister is putting this on the long finger in the hope that the election will arrive and the Bill will fall, as all legislation does. I do not believe that the Minister's Department has engaged with this properly or is doing so.

I would like to think it is. Deputy Joan Collins has tried to meet the Department officials and has been unsuccessful. What is the problem? Let us have a meeting with them to discuss this.

I have several pages before me detailing the various engagements we have had with Deputy Joan Collins and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on this matter.

When was the last one?

The last engagement was on 15 July, when the committee was notified of our concerns. I have spoken to Deputy Joan Collins in person since we came back after the summer recess about the work that was ongoing in the Office of the Attorney General. I have an email from the Attorney General dating from October which outlines several concerns that are still held in that office. The Office of the Attorney General awaits clarification on several items related to the Water Services Act 2007 and functions assigned to Ervia. Detailed work is taking place.

I also published a series of tests that any wording will have to pass for it to have the support of the committee. It would not pass the committee if it proceeded with the current language. I know the committee is talking about going to Committee Stage without Government amendment. My fear is that the Bill would then fall because of the risks inherent in things like group water schemes. Those key tests have been published. Legal counsel for the Deputy has not come back to me to outline how its suggested wording passes those key tests, or with revised wording that would do so. I am trying to get language we can all agree on so that legislation can pass through the House without complication and a referendum can be won without any negative forces using it as an opportunity to build their public profile or just to be contrary. This should be an easy thing to get done once we can agree the language.

As a co-sponsor of the Bill and a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government I want to believe the Minister but I simply do not.

The reason is that we have been given three separate deadlines by the Minister's Department for when that text will be available. The latest was in the communication the Minister just mentioned in which we were told we would have it by the autumn. We were told we would have it by the summer just gone and by the previous summer. Each of those deadlines has been missed. As a consequence of the delay on the Minister's end, two things are happening. He is eroding the confidence of committee members, whose opposition as he claims to the current wording of the text may not continue, and he is also undermining confidence from the trade union sector which the Department is in negotiations with about the creation of the single utility. The constant delay in getting the Minister's amendments published is sending a clear signal to them that he is not serious about this or the commitment he has given them and ourselves in writing.

We have given the Minister two and a half years to come up with his amendments. All we are asking for are the amendments. I do not accept that it takes two and a half years to produce the alternative wording the Minister is saying is required.

I call Deputy Pringle, and then I will let the Minister back in.

Deputy Ó Broin outlined the situation and the difficulty that is there. It is two and a half years. If the Minister was serious about this, he could bring them forward and let the committee decide on them. That would bring it to a head. I do not believe that the Department is serious about it, and that is a problem.

I call the Minister for his final comments.

We are deadly serious about it. Where is the Deputy's wording? Where is his amendment?

We have given the Minister our wording.

I gave the Deputy the 14 tests.

(Interruptions).

Could I speak without interruption, please?

The Minister wants to change it. He has to-----

It is always the case that when Deputies do not like the answer, they interrupt.

We just want the Minister’s amendments. Has a referendum Bill ever taken this long to produce? The Minister is breaking a record.

Can we hear the Minister without interruption, please?

I thank the Acting Chairman. I published 14 tests and I gave them to Deputy Ó Broin. He is aware of them. He did not come back with one change in language that would help us to address the concerns of those 14 tests.

That is the Minister’s responsibly and the Attorney General’s. That is disingenuous.

I am telling the Deputy that we are working on it. I asked him for help. I said let us try to do this by consensus. The Deputy has not bothered. We have been working hard. The Deputy knows how complex it is.

I do not have an Attorney General in my back pocket.

Do not put this on us. The Deputy’s party has plenty of legal advice because he is always talking about it. He knows how difficult this is.

Did any referendum Bill take two and half years?

If it was so simple, the Deputy would have found the wording.

I allowed the Deputy to ask a supplementary question, although I did not have to do that. Please respect the Chair. That is all I ask. We will move on to the next question because we might make more progress. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett who has 30 seconds.