I wish to share my time with Deputies Noel Treacy and de Valera.
Private Members' Business. - Water Charges: Motion.
That is agreed.
In County Mayo 785 households have no running water, while a number of small groups have been waiting for a water supply for more than 20 years. These people are not impressed by the decision to abolish service charges. They would be delighted to have a water supply and would not mind paying for it.
I support the motion moved by Deputy Dempsey and condemn outright the Government's decision to discriminate against the people of rural Ireland. This decision was made in haste on the afternoon of 19 December last after the Dáil had adjourned for the Christmas recess. The left wing parties in Government, Democratic Left and Labour, are obviously dictating to the right wing party, Fine Gael, which because of its desire to stay in office and to accommodate its wonderful new friends agreed to this decision. I know from research and representations I have received that there was no consultation with officials in the Department of the Environment or local authorities on the elimination of service charges in the capital city and borough corporations. The people in rural areas have rightly rejected this decision.
On 21 January the Minister decided at the opening of a library in Galway to throw water on the fire which was escalating in rural areas by announcing that people connected to a local authority source would not have to pay domestic charges either. He did not take into account the people in rural areas who had used their own resources to provide a vital water service for them, their families and communities.
In response to this decision, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes was established on a countywide basis. It has met with the Minister and politicians and put various proposals to them. I fully support these proposals. The Minister of State, Deputy Higgins, was probably at the meeting at which this drastic, discriminatory decision was agreed. The Government has failed the people of rural Ireland and stands condemned. Until such time as this decision is reversed all schemes, whether they relate to one or two houses or groups, must be subsidised.
How much would the Deputy give them?
That is a matter for the Government, which introduced this decision without any consultation.
I am sick of tabling parliamentary questions as I am never given a reply which sets out thede facto position. On 25 February my Question No. 183 asked the Minister for the Environment the reason capital grants were not paid to group water schemes throughout the country over the previous 12 months; the number of such schemes awaiting payment; the total amount of money to be paid; the date on which these payments would issue and if he would make a statement on the matter. The Minister replied:
Last year my Department paid £6.6 million in capital grants for group water and sewerage schemes. Instalments of grants are paid on foot of certification of work done as schemes progress. Final instalments are paid on the satisfactory completion of the scheme. There has been no undue delay by my Department in paying grants as they fall due.
This is totally false as group water schemes involving two, three, four and five houses which were cleared by the Department's inspectors in late 1995 and early 1996 were told payment would be made in 1996. My backbench Government colleague announced in the local papers, having been informed by the Minister for the Environment, that payment in respect of these schemes would be made in early 1997. As recently as last December I raised the matter with departmental and ministerial officials who told me that payment would be made not later than 11 January.
As a result of the confusion created in the Department of the Environment by the Government and immature Minister for the Environment, people involved in schemes approved in 1995 and 1996 have been told payment will not be made until the files have been transferred to the local authorities. These schemes have been cleared by the Department's inspectorate and payment should be made now. I call on the Government to ensure that schemes such as the Boula No. 2, the Baragurrane, Traskernagh and other schemes in County Galway receive payment immediately. The duplication of work by the Department and local authorities should be eliminated and cheques issued immediately. I appeal to the Minister to do this forthwith. I want an update on the position of the schemes in County Galway within seven days.
The handling of the water charges issue shows a complete lack of understanding by the Government of rural communities and, even worse, demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the principle of equity for all citizens. This decision shows that the Labour Party got its way at the expense of rural Fine Gael Deputies. The political cost of this remains to be seen.
There was little or no evidence of consultation or deliberation by the Minister for the Environment on this issue until public reaction proved that his proposals were unjust. He then announced that local authorities would take over private group water schemes. There must have been no consultation with such groups as many of them are vehemently opposed to such a takeover. The Minister seems to have forgotten that private group water schemes were introduced by very strong and influential groups who had done tremendous work in their communities. The Minister said another study will be carried out. As Deputy Dempsey said, we are back to where we started.
Deputy Dempsey outlined four options the Minister could take to deal with this problem and to remove the inequity he created as a result of his announcements on 19 December and 21 January. These are (1) direct subventions to householders; (2) direct subventions to appropriate group water schemes; (3) the taking in charge by local authorities or the Department of schemes opting for this approach; and (4) the provision of a formal scheme between the Department, local authorities and group water schemes which will ensure that those groups which wish to remain independent can do so without suffering any penalties or inequity and will be facilitated in their function of providing and maintaining a portable water supply to their communities. He said that options (1) and (2) could be used in the shorter term to remove the inequity created by the Minister and that options (3) and (4) were, of necessity, of a longer term nature and would require full consultation with the group schemes concerned before any such schemes could be finalised.
I fully support the motion. This issue has caused great anxiety throughout rural areas, not least in my own constituency where a number of meetings have been held during which views were vehemently expressed. I hope the Minister, even at this late stage, will listen to the proposals put forward from this side of the House to ensure an equitable and fair system in the future.
I wish to share time with my colleagues, Deputies Eric Byrne and Penrose.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the logical and systematic approach adopted by the Minister for the Environment. I compliment him on being the first Minister for the Environment in decades to take a genuine interest in local government reform and take positive action on it.
Over the years local authority members, particularly at Estimates time, demanded the retention of road tax within the county exchequers. This proposal provides for that. It also introduces an equalisation fund and abolishes water and sewerage charges, which means that householders in urban areas will no longer have to pay up to £150 per house for these services. It also provides free water for rural areas where water is sourced from public authority supplies.
As regards self-sourced rural water supplies, the Minister has given the clearest possible commitment that a comprehensive examination of the rural water supply issue will be undertaken, and a report thereon will be brought to Government. It is administratively easy to abolish water charges for urban dwellers and establish a system for those water schemes which buy their supplies from county councils, but it is not so easy to devise a scheme of remission for private schemes.
I pay tribute to those who availed of Government funding to bring water to huge tracts of rural Ireland where previously there was no domestic water supply. As a secretary, organiser and trustee of a rural scheme I know at first hand the degree of organisation, administration and frustration involved. I pay tribute also to the Minister, Deputy Howlin for the dramatic increase in grants for the provision of such supplies this year. In 1994, £3.4 million was made available to rural group water schemes. In 1996, that figure doubled to £6.6 million. The Minister has brought about a dramatic increase, from £700 to £1,600 per house this year.
Deputy Hughes put his finger on the problem yesterday evening in underlining the fact that Mayo, for example, has approximately 350 group water schemes. The reality is that some schemes are being run at a cost of £40 per household while others are costing £240. Some schemes are well run, while others are not. Some schemes are efficient and economic while others are plagued with leaks which results in wastage of water, time and resources. Some schemes want to be taken over by local authorities, whereas others want to retain their independence. The reality is that 43 per cent of schemes show levels of coliform contamination. A substantial amount of this contamination occurred over the seven year period from 1987 to 1994 by way of phosphate contamination, proliferation of septic tanks, etc., and nothing happened by way of redress because of Fianna Fáil's typical closed eye solution to most problems.
The difficulty and complexity of devising a uniform scheme involving public funding which can guarantee equity, efficiency and quality is obvious. The Minister is examining all the issues in detail, and I have every confidence that when he brings his report to Cabinet it will be thorough, comprehensive will address the issues fairly. I have every confidence also that whatever formula is proposed will be informed by the vast range of consultation the Minister has had with county councillors and officials at different locations, his dialogue with the IFA and the ICMSA and his meeting with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes.
I listened last night to Deputy Dempsey's timeworn and threadbare cliché about the anti-rural bias. No Minister for the Environment has allocated as much money to rural areas as Deputy Howlin. When we came into office, potholes on rural roads were the norm. Neglect of county roads under Fianna Fáil led to a rash of pothole candidates and pothole councillors. The Minister faced the issue head on, and in 1995 and 1996 there were huge injections of capital into the county and regional roads structure, with a record allocation of more than £0.25 billion in 1997. As a result, the day of the pothole and the pothole candidate is at an end and there will be no need for water scheme candidates either.
I listened to Deputy Hughes in the House yesterday evening and his usual "Mayo, God help us" argument. Can Deputy Hughes read? Does he read his local newspapers,The Western People, the Connaught Telegraph and the Mayo News? Just four weeks ago the Minister announced £3,857,000 for national primary and secondary roads in Mayo. Up to £5 million is being made available for local authority housing as well as a plethora of schemes throughout the county under the voluntary housing programme.
Two weeks ago, the Minister announced £4,160,000 for Ballyhaunis sewerage scheme, to start immediately; £5,350,000 for Claremorris sewerage scheme, which is expected to start in 1997; £11 million for the extension of the Lough Mask regional water supply scheme to Knock and Ballyhaunis, also taking in a network of group water schemes in the south of the county; £1,750,000 for the Bangor Erris water scheme and £762,000 for the Dugort sewerage scheme; construction on the Achill water scheme will cost £1.9 million; £2.25 million to the Westport water scheme, Deputy Hughes's native town, and a further grant of £120,000 for leakage control.
Not only is the Minister putting in place vital infrastructure by way of adequate water, sewerage and roads to ensure rural areas are poised to harness the benefits of the new industrial policy announced by the Minister for Enterprise and Employment and the IDA this week, but more jobs than ever are being created in rural Ireland. The Mayo County Enterprise Board, for example, created 299 full-time jobs in 1995 and an additional 133 full-time jobs in 1996. Under Fianna Fáil, the Castlebar and Claremorris bacon factories, Irish Spinners Limited in Kiltimagh and Clare Morris Limited went to the wall, but this Government has announced more than 240 jobs for APC in Castlebar, the consolidation of additional jobs for Farah in Kiltimagh, a proposal for a new cement factory in Kilkelly employing 200, and 63 additional jobs involving an investment of over £7 million at Western Brand Chickens Limited, Ballyhaunis.
I never cease to wonder at the consistent inconsistency of members of the Progressive Democrats. God was to be removed from the Constitution, but there was a sudden reverse throttle and God stayed put; the Senate was to be abolished, but after a sudden change of heart, they now happily participate in it. The group water scheme band came merrily down the street, and not only did Deputies Molloy and McDowell get into step behind it, they tried to pass it out by throwing £23 million at the problem. If implemented, PD policy would result in a net profit of up to £200 per household. Who would not want to be a member of a group water scheme?
I will answer the allegation about the lack of a distinct Fine Gael policy on this issue. Fine Gael, the Department of the Environment and the Government are at one on this issue. The Government's policies are contained in our tripartite agreement, A Government of Renewal. That is the spirit which continues to reinforce the success of this Government.
I compliment Minister Howlin on his compatent handling of this issue. I do not doubt his capacity to deliver an equitable and adequate solution. I appeal for less panic and more logic to enable him do that.
I congratulate the Minister. That was a very fine slap in the face for Fianna Fáil, and I hope to give them one or two myself.
It is rather like being savaged by a dead sheep.
Fianna Fáil's amnesic Private Members' motions never cease to amaze me. Deputies Dempsey, O'Hanlon and Ahern referred to "the principle of equity for all our citizens". I would like to examine that further. Everybody knows that Democratic Left's public representatives and non-elected representatives campaigned against local authority water charges since they were first introduced. Our campaign was based on the principle of equity. The charges were iniquitous. They were a form of double taxation and were levied on an arbitrary basis. In some areas, for example, householders paid nothing; in other areas they had to fork out over £100 and in others in excess of £200.
In 1985, Fianna Fáil appeared to recognise the inequity of the situation. It certainly recognised the depth of feeling which was stirred among the voters and, in its Opposition clothes, stated it was: "totally opposed to the system of service charges and on return to office would abolish those charges". The rest is history. Fianna Fáil was returned to Government and the charges with the attendant inequities remained, forcing householders to pay twice for the most basic of services.
I applaud the fact that it took Democratic Left's participation in this Government and in the Programme for Government to finally have the charges scrapped.
That is a slap in the face for the Deputy's Government colleagues.
At the end of last year Deputy Dempsey, showing a fine disregard for history, accused this Government of pre-election panic. Deputy Dempsey and his Greek chorus in the Progressive Democrats, who are not here tonight, have latched on to group water schemes in their attempt to play to the large farmers' gallery. With the IFA and the ICMSA they are engaged in what is clearly a transparent attempt to manufacture a urban-rural divide on this issue, blithely forgetting that over 235,000 rural households, around 55 per cent, benefited directly or indirectly from the abolition of local authority water charges, and that figure includes 85,000 rural households belonging to group water schemes which were supplied from a public main.
In January the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, announced a new multi-annual programme with capital funding this year of £5 million, the aim of which is to improve water quality and to enable local authorities to take over private schemes where the members wish, a step which would eliminate charges for the householders concerned. In addition, those schemes that wish to remain fully private will continue to be able to avail of the technical and grant assistance available. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Howlin, because the measures taken by him will inject an element of equity into the system as well as ensuring that the quality of the water supplied by private schemes meets national standards. There are many low income rural households currently paying for private group schemes. I agree that the burden on such households should be alleviated. I wish low income rural households had a more vocal lobby because I would argue strenuously that they are not served by the local ranchers in the IFA, the ICMSA or the spokespersons on the Fianna Fáil or Progressive Democrat benches.
In campaigning to have local authority water charges abolished, Democratic Left was campaigning for tax equity, and those who have been most vocal in support of private water schemes have steered well away from the topic of tax equity. Many of them know little about taxation, double or otherwise, as is evidenced in the most recent household budget survey which once again highlights the gulf between the tax take from urban PAYE households and that from farm households. It does not surprise me that Fianna Fáil seized on the rural water schemes issue with great glee because they have been desperately searching for some mast to which they can nail their increasingly tattered colours. Like the previous speaker, I was amazed when I heard the Progressive Democrats committing themselves on a radio programme to subsidising private water schemes to the tune of £23 million per annum. I very much doubt whether that promise will survive Deputy McDowell's first "self-help" or "no-help" budget. The fact is that the group water scheme issue is being viewed through the magnifying glass of an impending election, an election that will see this Government returned to office to continue the project of reforming local government financing.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Byrne for allowing me to make a contribution, however brief, to this important debate.
As somebody who comes from the heart of rural Ireland, a small village called Ballinacarrig in County Westmeath with a population of 550 people, I do not think anybody can deny that I am deeply committed to the concept of rural rejuvenation and regeneration. It is from this perspective that I recently called for an integrated strategy focusing on a rural renewal concept which would ensure that the problems of rural Ireland would be meaningfully addressed. One such problem is the decline in population which is accentuated by increasing migration to the larger urban centres of population. I have called for the implementation of a rural renewal scheme similar to the urban renewal scheme. Special taxation incentives should be granted to entrepreneurs and business people who locate much needed industry in these areas.
I welcome the recent initiative of the Minister for Enterprise and Employment, Deputy Bruton, in implementing, with the IDA, a new regional policy for employment growth in locations outside the larger urban centres. This is just a start. In order to ensure that the drift from rural Ireland is halted, we must have a more focused approach to encourage investors and promoters to locate their industries in rural villages and towns, of which there are many in my constituency.
Problems have arisen in rural areas concerning the running costs of group water schemes and charges to members for domestic supplies. The Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, is considering this matter and has met representatives of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, the IFA and the ICMSA and has received representations on this issue from Deputies and other public representatives of all parties. I am confident that the Minister will do as he has done so often in his portfolio in the space of two years and two months when he grasped the nettle in regard to issues that had been left on the back burner for years. He will examine the submissions of various bodies and a satisfactory solution to the problems will be found.
Let us not engage in hypocritical cant by saying that rural Ireland and those who reside there have been forgotten by the Government and, in particular, by the Minister, Deputy Howlin. He has done more than all the Ministers in various Governments over the past 20 years to ensure that rural people are placed at the heart of the Government's agenda and are not forgotten. I intend to demonstrate how untrue is that mantra of anti-rural bias which has been glibly trotted out.
Westmeath is a large rural constituency, and I will give some examples of the tremendous work the Minister has engaged in on water and sewerage schemes, local authority housing and county and regional roads, all matters of primary and paramount importance to people living in rural areas. I am aware of these matters because I live in one of the most rural villages in County Westmeath. Let us compare the record of the Minister, Deputy Howlin, to the scandalous level of neglect of rural Westmeath by his predecessor in the Department of the Environment. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, made funds available for urban and village renewal projects throughout the country and County Westmeath received a good share of that funding. The village improvement schemes carried out under the auspices of the local authority have been extremely successful in County Westmeath. Work has been carried out which will enhance and improve the villages concerned and underpin their economic position for the future. Villages such as Castlepollard, Delvin, my village of Ballynacargy, Finea, Clonmellon, Multyfarnham, Fore, Coole, Moate, Glasson, Baylin and Ballinahowen have benefited. The village enhancement schemes provided great impetus for further community development and I am glad I initiated some of those schemes at local authority level.
The Minister increased the rate of grant for group water schemes. The new rate of £1,600 per house, subject to a maximum of 75 per cent of cost, and £1,200 per farm was more than double the previous maximum rate of grant and encouraged people in outlying rural areas to get together and provide piped water supplies for themselves. The Kinnegad-Killucan Cloncrave scheme is one example where the increased grant provided an impetus to development. Developments also took place as a result of increases for sewerage schemes. It was acknowledged by the Minister that group water schemes were very successful in supplying the water needs of many rural communities. By increasing the level of grant for such schemes he showed his strong support for and commitment to the development of self-help initiatives, which helped many rural householders and farm families to provide a supply of quality piped water for their farms and homes.
I live in an area with high unemployment and for 30 years politicians came to the village telling us we would be looked after in terms of water schemes, but when they rode out of town we never saw them again. When I was elected I gave a commitment that a decent water supply would be provided in my village. I raised the matter on the Adjournment with the then Minister, Deputy Smith, but the reply left me without hope. However, Deputy Howlin was only a short period in the Department when that 30 years wait ended. I was delighted to be involved in securing a scheme for Ballynacargy, Moyvore and Ballymore. The water supply in the area was totally inadequate and unreliable, particularly in the summer period, and the villages of Moyvore and Ballymore had no public supply. The people in those areas will not forget that I delivered on my promise. I pay tribute to the Minister for ensuring that £2.1 million was made available for the area. In the absence of a quality water supply the efforts of local community groups to initiate development and bring worthwhile projects to the area were hindered. As a result of that scheme a project is in line for my village of Ballynacargy which will create a significant number of jobs. That is only one example of the importance of water supply schemes.
The Minister provided £4.587 million for Moate sewerage scheme to allow construction to continue this year. That important scheme, which was promised 20 years ago, is designed to the highest standard and permits the extension of the mains to the environs of the town of Moate and its surroundings. Tyrrellspass, an area with major hotels and businesses, does not have a proper water supply. The source is very unreliable, causing major problems for the residents and farmers of the area. The Minister provided £1.1 million this year for that scheme and tenders are being sought.
I have given examples of only a few rural areas which were neglected by previous Governments. I am glad a Labour Party Minister delivered on the promises for County Westmeath — the people will remember that at election time — and I am proud to have played a role in that regard.
For many years county roads were in a very bad state of repair. I have been a member of a local authority for 14 years and at every council meeting motions were put forward, but no money was available to pay for filling the potholes. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, who made many improvements when Minister for Health, introduced a ten-year initiative to solve the problem of potholes, which have bedevilled county roads for the past ten years or more. I was acutely aware of the problems of county roads and was delighted the important contribution made by rural people to the economy was recognised by the Minister. The existence of a sound network of county roads is central to the creation and maintenance of jobs in industry, agriculture, tourism and rural development.
The development of county roads has a knockon effect in terms of employment. Not everybody is committed, as I am, to employing a large number of outdoor permanent staff. In the mid-1980s workers were let go willy nilly from the council. That accentuated the problem of potholes because there was nobody to maintain the roads. Some people, particularly those who advocate right wing economics, disagree that local authority outdoor permanent staff are critical to the implementation of these schemes but I will continue to call for increased employment at local authority level.
In the housing area, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government provided for only six or seven local authority houses in my area, which was very unsatisfactory because there were about 300 people on the housing list. The Minister of State, Deputy Stagg, like his predecessors, Jimmy Tully and Deputy Liam Kavanagh, ensured a decent allocation was provided for local authority housing for those unable to provide their own homes. As a result local authority waiting lists are decreasing. If there is a change to a centre-right Government will there be a repeat of what happened in the late 1980s when there was no provision for local authority housing? Local authorities are building houses in rural areas, thereby keeping people in those areas and ensuring that schools, Garda stations and churches remain open. In some areas there were not enough young people to form a football team, but that position is now changing. Those matters are very important in rural Ireland and I am glad the Labour Party has made a contribution to those areas. We have provided resources for local authority housing and hope to be in Government to ensure that continues.
I wish to share time with Deputy Brendan Smith.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Local Government has become less effective since it lost its main statutory revenue base in 1983. Prior to that there existed an enlightened sharing of national Exchequer revenue through a statutory formula giving each local authority a rate support grant equivalent in real terms to the amount it would have obtained in receipts from rates on domestic dwellings which were abolished in 1978. That policy was supported by all the main parties in the Dáil at the time.
When domestic rates were abolished, local authorities enjoyed a level of funding that allowed them maintain all their existing services at a high level and acquire property and invest in projects deemed beneficial for the development of their areas. However, after the general election of 1982, a Fine Gael-Labour coalition Government was elected and Deputy Spring, the leader of the Labour Party, was appointed Minister for the Environment. He immediately set about enacting the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1983, the result of which meant the rate support grants no longer met in full the domestic rates income which had been foregone on the abolition of rates on houses. That Act also introduced service charges, which have been a bone of contention ever since. They did not bring in additional income but were used as a device to justify a reduction in the rate support grant paid annually by the Department of the Environment from Exchequer funds.
In the years since the introduction of those service charges, many Labour councillors — even though their party introduced the charges — urged people not to pay them and indeed many leading Labour councillors voted against them when adopting annual estimates. This was done of course for local political kudos purposes. They were happy to spend the money, but were not prepared to accept responsibility for raising revenue.
The Labour Party's service charges policy introduced inequity into the system. A large local authority like Dublin, because of its huge commercial base, did not have to rely on service charges to maintain its services and decided not to charge them. This introduced a serious inequity between a large urban authority and the many rural councils, who had no choice other than impose high service charges which were seen as double taxation.
In 1997 the Labour Party is back in office, in the Department of the Environment and, true to form, we have another iniquitous proposal. This time it wants to abolish its mistake and replace it with an extraordinary system that copperfastens an inequity between rural and urban dwellers. Out go the service charges and in comes motor taxation as a source of revenue for local authorities, with a right to increase the tax by 6 per cent every year after 1998. In 1998 alone the increase is to be limited to 3 per cent. The service charges which are being abolished applied only to those who had the benefit of a public water supply system. Rural dwellers, who did not have such a service, had to rely on their resources to provide piped water and they invested their capital along with small grants and built a network of group water supply schemes — 5,500 in all — around the country. The 150,000 householders getting supply from group water supply schemes, as well as building the scheme and managing it, have to pay an annual maintenance charge that could in some cases be as high as £270 per annum.
These householders must continue to pay maintenance on their private scheme while at the same time pay the local authority increases in motor taxation which are being imposed to compensate local authorities for the loss of revenue from the service charges previously paid by urban householders. In other words, rural dwellers pay twice. This is a hare brain scheme. It is not equitable and institutionalises a rural-urban divide in a most retrograde manner.
Considering that the leader of the Minister's party introduced these changes, it is ironic, even hypocritical, of him to state that:
The long-term decline in the financial independence of local authorities needs to be reversed and the basic drawbacks of the existing local finance system needs to be tackled. For a start, the local authority funding base was too narrow and there was little buoyancy. This problem was compounded by the fact that the authorities have been continuously conferred with new function, without any allowance being made for the additional pressure such functions would place on their finances. Furthermore, the authorities were at the mercy of central Government to the extent that they never knew for certain how much rate support grant they would receive in the next year and, in addition, this grant did not always keep pace with inflation.
The sheer audacity of it is breathtaking. There is not a word of regret, nor one admission that the Labour Party got it wrong then, as it has now. There is not the slightest admission that the Labour Party, with its socialist ideology for central planning and central control, is guilty of gross mismanagement of the local government system. Instead we were subjected last night to a lecture from the Labour Party Minister asking us not to engage in political point scoring. This is the party that ruined local government and is now only motivated to abolish its earlier faulty system because it faces a political threat from people such as Joe Higgins and other disenchanted former Labour Party members who nearly won the Dublin West by-election on the single issue of abolishing service charges.
The Minister is not in a position to lecture those who opposed Deputy Spring's Bill in 1983 and who have now been proven right. For the second time, opposition voices have to be raised against the folly of the Labour Party local government reforms that were ill-thought out and blatantly discriminate against 279,000 households in rural Ireland. A major blunder has been made and I call on the Minister to admit what Deputies and Senators from his party and the Fine Gael Party are saying at meetings in their constituencies and behind closed doors at Parliamentary Party meetings.
The Minister sought to rubbish the good work of group water schemes by saying "...the quality of water in many of these schemes is not up to standard. The recent Environmental Protection Agency report on drinking water quality indicates that 43 per cent of private group supplies suffer some degree of coliform contamination". A reference for that statistic was not given. Did the 1995 report of the Environmental Protection Agency not indicate that 62.5 per cent of public water supplies suffer some degree of coliform contamination and that the excess of coliform in group schemes was only 32.5 per cent? The Environmental Protection Agency report is more critical of public water supply schemes than of group water schemes, but the Minister sought to put across a different image last night.
On a number of occasions he has also sought to reinterpret the announced system whereby for 1998 local authorities would be able to vary the national rate of motor tax by up to 3 per cent and for 1999 and subsequent years by up to a maximum of 6 per cent. The Minister now says what he really means is a maximum 6 per cent increase on the base year of 1999. His document did not mention a base year. It stated that the net effect of these changes will be that in 1998 local authorities will be empowered to vary the national rate by up to 3 per cent and in 1999 and subsequent years by up to a maximum of 6 per cent. It is only since the Group Water Schemes Federation started its campaign that we heard of the application of a base year. If this is a backing down, why not admit it?
I also dispute the Minister's assertion that "Under the new arrangements, no household, urban or rural, connected directly or indirectly to a public water supply will have to pay for a domestic water supply". That is not correct. All group water schemes that get their supply from a local authority water main incur the cost of running and maintaining their schemes, which could involve more than one booster pump in hilly territory. These annual maintenance costs remain to be paid by the members of these groups.
The Group Water Scheme Federation sought £80 per house from the 85,000 rural households involved, making a grand total of £6.8 million. That is its estimate of the amount involved. The Federation sought £160 per house for all of the 55,000 rural householders totally dependent on group schemes with a private water source.
The Minister announced a package estimated to cost £18 million, which included a figure of £5 million, to enable local authorities take over group schemes. The federation ridiculed the £5 million figure for the take-over and refurbishment of quality-deficient group schemes and estimated that it would require capital funding of £50 million this year to bring them all up to quality efficient standards. It is obvious the Minister did not do any preparatory work before making his "I'll abolish water charges" statement.
The essence of this debate is that the Minister made a monumental blunder. He has stirred up a sleeping giant in rural Ireland and has not yet moved to resolve all the complex difficulties which he has created by lack of judgment in a decision which was politically motivated solely for the purpose of seeking to save the seats of Labour Deputies, not one whom has apologised to the House for the current position.
To save a few Labour Party seats, 279,000 households must continue to pay for their domestic water while this Government gives a free gift of unlimited, unmetered water supply to every urban household. The Minister claims no principle of equity is being breached by this decision. That does not bear comment, it is beyond belief.
Group water schemes are an ideal example of rural communities using their initiative to organise the supply of piped water to their homes and managing the maintenance and administration of their scheme on a voluntary basis. This Labour Minister wants to replace this voluntary, no cost to the State, effort with a team of civil servants. Thus in one fell swoop he is dealing a death blow to enterprising self-help groups in rural Ireland, adding another burden to the already overburdened taxpayer and motor car owner and in the process creating a grave inequity between rural and urban communities. I call on the Minister to redress this inequity to give equal treatment to rural and urban dwellers and to stop making irrational, ill-thought out decisions for purely party political gain.
The Minister's party has a record of messing up the local government system. He should get rid of these inequities immediately. The quality of his decisions in office is abysmal. Need I remind the Minister of the dishonourable way he reneged on his solemn commitment to proceed with the Mutton Island sewage treatment plant in Galway as planned again for narrow, politically motivated reasons? Because the director of elections for the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, resigned, he announced a reversal of his solemn commitment in favour of an underground treatment system without an access causeway, a proposal of which the Minister and his Department, the corporation and its consultant engineer, knew nothing in terms of technology, cost or construction. The Minister who speaks about the need for water quality has condemned the citizens of my town to watch the putrification of the water of inner Galway Bay along its beaches and at its harbour and piers where sewage, slime and foul odours permeate the place. This is the Minister's legacy.
If the group water schemes collapse, if the trustees walk away, if the systems fall into disrepair, if rural people become reluctant to ever again join forces in the common good, if all this comes about because of this brazen, selfish, outdated socialist and politically motivated decision, then the Minister's legacy will be even worse and his shame all the greater.
May I share my time with Deputies Leonard and Kirk?
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to make a short contribution on this important subject. I support the case put forward eloquently last night by our party spokesman, Deputy Dempsey, and other Fianna Fáil speakers. During a recent Question Time the Minister tried to imply that all and sundry welcomed his local government reform proposals published on 19 December last and that he was the first to foresee anomalies with his announcement in the latter half of January about the provision of funding for the upgrading of group water schemes.
Members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, particularly Deputies and Senators from rural areas, were acutely conscious of the grave injustice being inflicted on rural communities by this Government's ill-thought out approach to the abolition of water charges. That concern was evident given the number of parliamentary questions tabled by myself and other Fianna Fáil Deputies the day the Dáil resumed in January. Those parliamentary questions highlighted in no uncertain terms the anomalies and the discrimination against rural Ireland due to the so-called reform of local government proposals announced by the Minister.
Those proposals are anti-rural and have managed to divide urban and rural communities. It is obvious this Government gave no consideration to the interests of participants on group water schemes or to people sourcing their water supplies from private wells. During recent parliamentary questions to the Minister for the Environment I instanced the substantial costs accruing for the ongoing annual maintenance cost of private group schemes. The Minister and the Government have no proposals to offset those substantial costs for participants in group schemes while households fortunate enough to be able to participate in public schemes receive their supply free of charge.
Some 129,000 homes are served by private water supplies. Those of us familiar with rural Ireland are aware of the enormous cost, in many instances, to people sourcing supplies from private wells due to the cost of boring wells and the provision of pumps, etc. Participants in group water schemes and households with private supplies are not being treated fairly.
Recently I asked the Minister for the Environment if he had any proposals to allocate funds to households that must install a single house mechanical plant for sewage treatment in view of the fact that the average capital cost of such a plant is £4,000. The household must also meet the running and maintenance costs. I sought the Minister's views on whether such households now receive treatment equal to that of city dwellers following the abolition of service charges. His only response was to the effect that there are no proposals to provide public funds or tax allowances in respect of the cost of those facilities. The single house mechanical treatment plant is common in my constituency due to the nature of the drumlin soil. Is that the creed of equity as enunciated by this Government?
My constituency and most of rural Ireland have been well served by active and committed group water scheme committees. The organisers and committee members gave and continue to devote much time and energy voluntarily to a worthwhile community effort. The group water scheme concept has been of enormous benefit to rural Ireland, but the schemes with which I am familiar in my county and County Monaghan need upgrading. It has been estimated that the appropriate upgrading of those schemes in County Cavan would cost £15 to £20 million. When will such finding be provided?
The only demand the organisers of the group schemes made in recent years was capital funding for upgrading purposes. That was a legitimate request by any standard but the only response of this Government was to create chaos and further inequity. The people of rural Ireland will not accept such treatment from this Government.
I support the motion proposed by our spokesman on the environment, Deputy Dempsey, but I am critical of the amendment which is a rehash of what many Members listened to in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell a week ago when the Minister and an assistant secretary of his Department launched the document Better Local Government — A Programme for Change. We listened to phrases such as "buoyant funding systems" and "ring fencing". The programme is based on funding provided from motor taxation, which will bail them out of funding group water schemes. The Minister spoke about an extra 6 per cent which could be obtained over the next two years by increasing motor taxation.
Last night the Minister spoke about county roads which is a popular topic. It was reported in the newspapers yesterday that his boss, the man who carries the purse, had indicated clearly that £40 million of the sum allocated for county roads would be used to meet the nurses' pay demands.
The decision to abolish water charges was ill-advised. The necessary groundwork was not done. It appears the Minister disregarded all of the technical advice available. A sum of £5 million is available to upgrade group water schemes. A further £10 million will be made available by way of a block grant. The constituency I represent requires the combined sum.
The Minister now knows that the local authorities are not in a position to assume responsibility for group water schemes, most of which are supplying water of good quality efficiently and effectively. At least half of the schemes in County Monaghan have treatment plants. While some schemes have agreed a set price for the repair and maintenance of water mains, the members of other schemes carry out this work themselves. No local authority could compete with them. The members of the small scheme of which I was a member did everything that needed to be done. They took metre readings and collected money on behalf of the council. That is the reason schemes can supply water to their members at a reasonable price.
Group water schemes operate on the principle of self-help. Scheme organisers devote all of their spare time to administration. They are not prepared to transfer responsibility to local authorities because they fear that, in time, supplies could become too expensive. When I first entered politics there were few schemes in my constituency. Supplies were made available by the Western Water Board in Northern Ireland — Monaghan County Council was responsible for the connections — but costs spiralled out of control. Because of this and weak pressure, Monaghan County Council and scheme members had no option but to sink wells and supply pumps.
Members of group water schemes are entitled to be reimbursed for the domestic water supply element. In addition, individuals have spent between £2,000 and £3,000 from their own resources on sinking deep wells. No grants are available for that unless it is provided for in a farm development plan. If motor taxation is increased, they will face additional charges. This is inequitable.
I tabled a question on behalf of the members of a group water scheme who were seeking an extension because the supply was not usable. I asked the Minister if he would make arrangements to expedite approval and was informed in reply:
As already announced, responsibility for the operation of group schemes is being devolved to the local authorities, subject to existing commitments on foot of approvals issued by my Department. Where schemes have not yet been approved, it will in future be a matter for the local authorities to decide on grant applications.
Monaghan County Council does not know what commitments have been made. I ask the Minister to clarify the matter as soon as possible.
The interests of rural dwellers have been disregarded. The Government seemed to have a chip on its shoulder so far as funding for the Border region was concerned. Over a three year period, 24 out of 26 counties received funding from the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. Last week an application to have an incinerator provide electricity from waste located in the region was turned down. The project was snatched from us and is to be located instead near Dublin Airport where it is not wanted.
Last evening the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, dealt fully with all of the issues raised by the motion and placed them in the context of the Government's proposals for fundamental reform of local government. These proposals provide for a total revamping of the hitherto ramshackle and inequitable system of funding local authorities. Unfortunately, despite the Minister's comprehensive statement, Opposition Deputies have persisted in deliberately misrepresenting the Government's position. I will do my best to set the record straight, again.
The most overused word in this debate is "equity". Does anyone suggest the previous method of funding local authorities was equitable or consistent? The system of water charges which has evolved mostly under Fianna Fáil Governments could scarcely be less equitable. Can it be equitable that a basic necessity of life such as domestic water provided by public authorities varied from being free in two of our largest cities to a cost of £200 per year in some counties?
The Government has repeatedly been accused by the Opposition of being unfair to rural communities. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Minister referred to the huge programme investment in non-national roads as an example of the Government's support for rural development and communities. The removal of charges from households connected to a public supply benefits both rural and urban communities. The majority of rural households will benefit directly from this measure. The decision to abolish water and sewerage charges and to absorb the cost into general taxation stands on its own merits. If the Deputies opposite believe that domestic water and sewerage charges should be reintroduced, let them say so. Their continued attempts to make this an urbanv. rural issue are negative tactics which do them little credit.
The Opposition's other tactic of trying to link the abolition of service charges with an increase in motor tax is a red herring. There are strong reasons motor tax is a suitable basis for the future funding of local authorities. It provides a buoyant source of income, it is already collected by local authorities and is closely related to the services they provide. If local authorities wish to increase the level of this tax by up to 6 per cent, they can do so if they wish to expand local services. It is important to clarify that no local authority will exercise this limited discretion to increase the rate of motor tax because of the absence of water charges.
If anything positive is to come from this issue, it is that it has focused attention on a relatively neglected aspect of the water service, rural water supplies. Water quality in many private group schemes is a major cause for concern. The problems for rural water supplies did not arise overnight or because public domestic water charges were abolished. It is a separate issue to the abolition of service charges and one I am glad to say the Government is now tackling.
I assure the House the Government is united in its determination that the problems affecting rural water supplies are tackled in a fully considered, planned and effective manner. As the Minister has already indicated, we envisage that such an approach would be based on four broad principles; first, integrated strategic plans for rural water supplies with the improvement of water quality as their main focus will be prepared by each county council with complimentary roles for public and group schemes; second, the continued development of group schemes, whether providing new or expanding or improving existing schemes which includes examining the running costs of schemes and the charges made to members in respect of these costs; third, implementing the new multinational programme to allow local authorities to take charge and upgrade as necessary those schemes which wish to transfer to and be treated as public schemes; fourth, devolving full responsibility for the implementation of all aspects of the group schemes programme and small public schemes to local authorities.
This kind of planned approach which the Government is intent on pursuing will take some time to develop. We will not throw money at the problem like drunken sailors as advocated by the Progressive Democrats. Neither will the "too cute by half" approach of Fianna Fáil solve this problem. Fianna Fáil is long on rhetoric but short on the specifics of a solution, especially on costings. This Government will not act irresponsibly nor be rushed into piecemeal or quick-fix solutions, not even by this motion. I commend the Minister's amendment to the House.
I refuse to be provoked. Like Robert Emmet, I offer the charity of my sadness.
The Minister of State, Deputy McManus, spoke about Fianna Fáil being short on specifics on this issue. When I tabled questions to the Minister for the Environment on the number of group water schemes, those sourced by local authorities and those privately sourced, the Minister could not provide me with that information. It is therefore difficult for an Opposition party to be specific about a solution to this problem.
As the Minister of State knows, we explained our approach at an early stage by outlining general principles and by specifying the action needed to be taken by the Minister and the Government to ensure equity. Despite the rhetoric of the Minister of State, we know about equity. She preaches about it but we know about it and have put it into effect before. I bow to the Minister of State's superior knowledge only in the area of negative tactics because Democratic Left has never used anything but negative tactics.
In closing this debate, I wish to open the Minister's mind a little. The debate proved to be enlightening for us on this side of the House.
That is an achievement.
We learned much, not from what the Minister said but from what he failed to say. For example, in a lengthy and tedious recitation which lasted 40 minutes, he failed at any time to acknowledge the hard work, commitment, dedication and community spirit involved in providing group water schemes in rural areas.
That is not true. I will send the the Deputy the unrevised version of the debates.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
No interruption, please. Let us have the same level of order as prevailed for previous speakers.
One would have thought the Minister, despite the pressure he obviously feels, would have had the good grace to acknowledge the commitment of these voluntary workers in rural areas. Instead of acknowledging it or praising them, the Minister chose to insult their contribution, time and effort, not just last night but over the past four to five weeks. This indicates his attitude to these groups. He also shows his contempt for the local effort of these people by tabling the amendment to this Fianna Fáil motion. Government Deputies are tonight being asked to support an amendment which the Minister hopes will kick this issue to touch until after the next general election. He has attempted over the last three to four weeks, to avoid the issue, to avoid meeting the people involved and to avoid resolving it because he and his friends in Democratic Left have no concept of the anger and resentment felt in rural Ireland on this issue. The Minister has decided that kicking it to touch will get it out of the way for the election so as not to affect the Labour Party and Democratic Left too seriously.
The responsibility on the Minister's shoulders is a serious challenge. His and this rainbow coalition's habit of shirking every issue will be judged by the electorate sooner rather than later. There is probably some excuse for the attitude of Labour and Democratic Left in adopting this approach but I fail to understand why the approach is being adopted by Fine Gael. Who would believe that, with its so-called rural roots, it would allow this to happen? I said last night that Fine Gael is in Government but not in power. This amendment proves that case. Despite the obvious pressure on the Taoiseach from rural Deputies, he has managed to get them to allow Labour and Democratic Left to call the shots on this issue. Some Fine Gael Deputies have tried to ride two horses on this issue. I visited Mayo at the weekend and read, with great interest, the local newspaper of 29 January which reported statements by Deputy Ring and the Minister for Tourism and Trade, Deputy Kenny, who warmly welcomed the Minister's announcement on water charges. There was not a word about group water schemes or inequity. We all know about the different tune Deputy Ring has played on a number of occasions since then.
Tonight Fine Gael Deputies have an opportunity in this House to put into effect the sentiments they are uttering to smooth the feathers of their electorate in rural Ireland. Under the motion we tabled they have an opportunity to support the group water schemes in their constituencies and the Federation of Group Water Schemes set up three to four weeks ago. If Fine Gael Deputies follow the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, through the lobbies tonight, they will endorse his policy of putting this issue on the long finger and postponing its address until after the election. They are ignoring the real anger and hurt felt by people who have organised and availed of group water schemes in rural areas. By walking through the lobbies with the Minister, Labour and Democratic Left, Fine Gael Deputies will be turning their back on rural Ireland. They should know the effect that will have on them. By that decision the electorate will know finally where Fine Gael stands.
Last night the Minister spoke at great length about his programme for local government. During the past week he accused me and other Deputies of not reading what was in the document about the financing of local authorities. That document states local authorities will be empowered to vary the national rates of tax as they apply to vehicles by a margin of up to 6 per cent, there will be no increase in 1997, there will be an increase of 3 per cent in 1998 and up to a maximum of 6 per cent for 1999 and subsequent years.
From the base.
That is not mentioned in the booklet.
That is implicit in it.
It is not stated in it. Does the Minister want me to read it? It states:
...a further change is proposed, with a start date of 1 January 1998 envisaged. Local authorities will be empowered to vary the national rates of tax as they apply to vehicles ... by a margin of up to 6 per cent, subject to a maximum of 3 per cent in the first year (1998). There will be no increase in motor tax in the interim... and for 1999 and subsequent years by up to a maximum of 6 per cent.
From the base. That will be enshrined in law.
That word was not used.
The Deputy does not understand it.
The Minister has given three versions. Which one is right?
On page 8 of the booklet entitled Better Local Government — A Programme of Change it states that the variation will be up to 6 per cent, but there is no mention of bases.
I will explain it to the Deputy.
The Minister is having great difficulty in understanding it.
That is an outrageous charge.
The Minister attempted to mislead the House last night or he did not understand what is in the explanatory booklet. He does not understand his press release of 19 December which states that local authorities will have the authority from 1998 to vary rates of motor taxation by a maximum of 6 per cent.
The Minister said that would be in subsequent years.
That will be enshrined in the law. The Deputy should read it.
The Minister should not tell me to read it. He should read his press release, what he said last night and what he said during Question Time last week.
We are entitled to know which version is right.
Last night the Minister took a different tack.
The Deputy is being mischievous.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
Let there not be interruptions from either side.
Last night the Minister appeared to abandon the principle of allowing discretion to local authorities. If his latest statement last night is the correct version of this reform, it is clear the power over local government will remain firmly in the Custom House in the future.
The Deputy cannot have it both ways.
The Minister also tried to perpetuate the myth that he was providing free water, but nothing could be further from the truth. He tried to confuse the issue again last night when he talked about motor tax. The Minister, the public and I know that this year motorists will pay £40 million extra in petrol and diesel to pay for the Minister's provision of free water. He knows that as well as I do because that is provided for in this year's budget.
There were lots of provisions in the budget, but they were not all related to water.
Last night I appealed to the Minister to provide for the making of some payments to group water schemes immediately to cover their running costs and expenses. That is necessary in view of the inequitable manner in which the Minister acted. People in rural Ireland feel they have been treated as second class citizens and that they are entitled to free water. They will not pay fees to the schemes of which they have been members. In many cases the schemes collect their fees in arrears and many are now facing bankruptcy. If those schemes cease to operate because of a lack of money to meet their expenses, the Minister and his Fine Gael colleagues will be responsible and they will have to face the consequences. The Minister believes the forthcoming election will be over in the next six to seven weeks and he will not have to face those consequences for another five years.
Last night the Minister gave no indication that he intended to meet representatives of the federation again to allow them to contribute their views to the study and report that is being prepared. He did not indicate a timescale for the completion of the report and study. A timescale is necessary as this matter should not be put on the long finger. I call on the Minister to open discussions with the federation to avoid further chaos in the coming months. Will he give an undertaking that he will meet the federation, enter into meaningful negotiations and not say something to its members on a Thursday night and something else to us in the House on a Tuesday?
I wish to refer briefly to the contribution by the Minister of State, Deputy Higgins. He complimented Deputy Howlin on being the first Minister for the Environment for decades to take an interest in local government. That is not complimentary to John Boland, the Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, Fergus O'Brien and others, not to mention the excellent Fianna Fáil Ministers for the Environment. He mentioned there has been a constant demand from the members of local authorities for the retention of road tax. There has been, but they want to retain it to improve the roads, not to finance local government services generally or to bail the Labour Party out of electoral difficulties in Dublin West.
All this talk about a careful study and devising a scheme shows how badly prepared the Minister was for the announcement he was panicked into making before Christmas. If he had done his job properly, he would have prepared properly for this and would have entered into discussions before he made the announcement. He would not be trying to resolve the difficulty and alleviate the sense of grievance he has created in rural Ireland. Nobody is to blame for that but the Government. He and his colleagues in Government will pay for that in the next few weeks.
The Fine Gael Deputies on the Government side have an opportunity to show their support for group water schemes by voting for this motion. If they do not they will turn their backs on rural Ireland and give in, once again, to Democratic Left and the Labour Party. They will not be worthy of the many Fine Gael Deputies who have gone before them. They are a party with no politics, principles or policies.
(Carlow-Kilkenny): Deputy Dempsey should look into his own heart.
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- Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
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