Amendments Nos. 1 and 40 to 43, inclusive, are related and will be discussed together.
Water Services Bill 2003 [Seanad]: Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 12, to delete lines 1 to 10 and substitute the following:
"(5) The Fisheries Acts 1959 to 2006, section 111 and this subsection may be cited together as the Fisheries Acts 1959 to 2007, and shall be read together as one.
(6) The Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2006, section 114 and this subsection may be cited together as the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2007, and shall be read together as one.
(7) The Local Government Acts 1925 to 2006, sections 113 and 115 and this subsection may be cited together as the Local Government Acts 1925 to 2007, and shall be read together as one.”.
It is worth reminding ourselves what this Bill is about. It is a radical Bill which fundamentally changes the form of delivery and control of water services on local authorities and some amendments speak directly to this. It means local authorities must have a water plan similar to their development plans. Perhaps it is long overdue but we will deliver it at long last. The Bill creates additional enforcement powers for the EPA to ensure the water delivered is safe. The Bill prohibits the privatisation of water services. It gives councillors the responsibility and right to make a water plan. It also provides powers to the Minister because the Minister is relatively powerless in law as it stands at present.
By any standard, this is legislation which not only brings together comprehensively legislation which first came on the Statute Book when Queen Victoria was a small girl. More important, it also brings together the entire panoply of local government law on water services. I am grateful for the considerations given on Committee Stage. I took a great deal of what was stated on board and one will see from the amendments tabled that I have tried to accommodate anything I considered to be appropriate and improving.
The amendments we will discuss are technical amendments to update the wording in a number of collective citations to reflect the change of year from 2006 to 2007. It involves minor cross-referencing for an error. Amendment No. 1 updates the wording of the collective citations in sections 1(5), 1(6) and 1(7) to reflect the change in the year. An additional cross-reference is made in section 1(7) to section 113 to correct a clerical error. The update would normally be picked up automatically. However, I will move it by way of amendment.
Amendments Nos. 40 to 43, inclusive, are technical drafting amendments to update references to the collective citations in the environment protection Acts, the local government Acts, the local government water pollution Acts and the planning and development Acts as inserted in Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 2001 by section 115 of this Bill to include the current year.
So all of these amendments are technical.
Is amendment No. 1 agreed to? Deputy Gormley may make a contribution, and Deputy Michael Higgins is offering.
I thank the Minister for putting down these amendments. In particular I indicate how important it is for our water supplies not to be privatised. It is crucial that we retain control of our water supplies and not let them get into the hands of private operators. The Minister may be aware that water will very quickly become a very scarce commodity, and it will be treated as such by unscrupulous private companies. The poorer sections of society will especially find they have to pay if it gets into the hands of private operators, which we should stay well away from.
With regard to this legislation, it seems we have been waiting since the time of Queen Victoria for it. This legislation has been languishing——
We are on Report Stage. The Deputy should speak to amendment No. 1.
We are and I am responding to what the Minister, Deputy Roche, has just stated. We have been waiting for quite some time since Committee Stage to deal with these very important amendments. I ask the simple question of what the Minister has been doing, and why he has been sitting on his hands or simply smiling smugly over here at us. We have tried to emphasise just how important it is to have clean water for citizens.
My colleague Niall Ó Brolcháin in Galway has been the standard bearer who has again and again called on the Minister to act on the water issue. It is not restricted to Galway and my colleague Brian Meaney in Clare has also indicated that we must do something to tackle the cryptosporidium problem.
The problem is all over the country, not just in Galway. Some 13 years ago I went to Inis Meáin and was told I could not drink the water on the island, so it is not a new problem. There have been comments that we have only discovered it but the reason we are dealing with this legislation now is because we are coming up to an election, and the Minister must be seen to act. The Minister has done very little and the people will see through this.
I am happy to sit over here and accept amendments and I am happy we are dealing with the Water Services Bill. Where has the Minister been for the past five years? It is a bit too late and people will see through this.
I understand we are discussing amendments Nos. 1 and 40 together.
We are discussing amendments Nos. 1 and 40 to 43, inclusive.
We are taking amendments Nos. 1 and 40 to 43, inclusive, together.
My first point follows logically from the discussion we have just had. I do not want to anticipate the discussion we will have on amendment No. 2, which we have strayed into in a way.
Amendment No. 1 in the name of the Minister speaks of co-operation between Departments and also takes cognisance of previous legislation arising from planning and development matters. It makes a specific reference to the Fisheries Acts. Responding to Question No. 974 on 24 April 2007, the Minister in a written reply stated:
Statutory responsibility for protection and improvement of water quality is assigned primarily to local authorities acting under the general supervision of the EPA. Lough Corrib lies within the western river basin district as designated under the EU water framework directive and Galway County Council is the co-ordinating local authority for this district.
Later in the reply the Minister stated:
A framework for co-ordination of water management actions by all relevant public authorities within each river basin district has been established for the implementation of the water framework directive. All relevant public authorities, including Government Departments, are participating in these arrangements which will lead to the adoption by 2009 of river basin management plans for each district.
It is to this I wish to refer. Leaving the Corrib's management plan or system to 2009 is singularly imprudent. In 2004 I attended meetings which, to be frank, should have brought public support for what we identified in November 2004. Earlier in that year there had been a kill in the Owenriff river.
In 2004 I spoke in Oughterard, suggesting there were more than four or five sources of pollution. These included some agricultural practices, as well as insufficient sewerage in Oughterard and Moycullen. Other sources were tree-felling practices, although not forestry, and these may have been related to the loss of the freshwater pearl mussel in the Owenriff river. Insufficient care in inspecting septic tanks was also a contributory factor, as was the impossible pollution of the tributary that was the Clare river through the insufficient sealing of a dump in Carrabrown.
As a result of this, a timescale for action was constructed in 2005. The water directives from the European Union have now existed for 15 years, and we have examined the main source of pollution of the Corrib, having identified it in 2005. The answer I received today suggests action "will lead to the adoption by 2009 of river basin management plans for each district, incorporating environmental objectives and a programme of measures to achieve those objectives". Note the mention of environmental objectives, not regulations.
This is singularly insufficient. I will summarise my comments on the acknowledgement in amendment No. 1 of the relationship between fisheries, environment and local government. I could put it bluntly. If the Minister was serious about the European Union directives, he would come in with a proposal for an authority to deliver on these directives. The county council is not the appropriate body and local authorities in one part of the country or another have rarely been out of the top four or five polluters themselves. Frankly, it is not going to work.
I am making these comments in trying to constructively address the Galway problem. The Minister will not solve the Galway problem by beginning at the other end and looking back. In amendment No. 2 we will speak of the right to clean water. We can move back from that point through a filtration of what is necessary in the short term. It is absolutely incredible that we would wait until 2009 for actual plans, not procedures, that would make the Corrib safe.
In 1996, Dr. Roderick O'Sullivan was drawing our attention through a comprehensive sampling system of the threat that existed to the Corrib. We were still discussing it eight years later in 2004 and many people should have been supporting action, be it in regard to agricultural or local authority pollution. As there were multiple polluters it was possible for them to point fingers at each other. The meeting in question closed at about half an hour after midnight and now, much later, there has been no progress.
I feel very strongly that we really need an authority now. I would support the Minister if he introduced a regulation to achieve European Union directives on water. I am speaking personally on this issue as I feel very strongly about it. We have two significant sections of water: the Shannon is managed in a particular way; and there is also Corrib, Carra and Mask. If we are to make it safe we must take other measures.
In my days as a Minister I was involved in designating a number of special areas of conservation and that may be a route to take. The issue cannot wait until 2009 because tributaries are already polluted. Who is inspecting the agricultural practices? Admittedly, an incentive is given to people to comply. It is positive that such an incentive was negotiated under the nitrates directive. Nobody is inspecting septic tanks. A set of guidelines, rather than regulations, applies to septic tanks. No attempt at compliance is being made. The local authorities are not giving the public information about where they are taking samples, what the results of those samples are and to whom the samples are being sent.
The tree-felling practices in the forestry industry are also relevant in this regard. When the House considers the other amendments, Deputies will have an opportunity to speak in more detail about such matters. Approximately 90% of the European population of the freshwater pearl mussel, for example, has disappeared. Just 10% of those mussels are left. Our protection obligations apply not only to ourselves, but also to a much wider community. For that reason, I ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to go beyond amendment No. 1, which acknowledges the inter-relationship of different agencies and Departments, by accepting in principle that a special authority is needed to ensure that Ireland complies with the EU directives on waste water and drinking water.
I echo the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Deputy Gormley, and Deputy Higgins of the Labour Party. I share their concern about the condition of Ireland's water supply. I refer not only to Galway city and county, but also to counties Limerick, Clare and Wicklow. Water has had to be brought in tankers to certain parts of the latter county, which is the Minister's backyard and is supposed to be the garden of Ireland.
It is incredible that the European Commission has seen fit to drag Ireland to the European Court of Justice to ensure it complies with EU directives on safe water supplies. It is incredible that the Minister, Deputy Roche, who prides himself on being a European, is allowing himself, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Government and, by association, the people of Ireland to be dragged into the courts of Europe to ensure that this country complies with the regulations which have been laid down by the EU. The Minister needs to send out a clear signal that Ireland will comply with the nitrates directive and ensure that farmers play their part in ensuring that groundwater is not contaminated. Local authorities should be regulated on an annual basis to ensure they do not pour effluent into estuarine waters, such as Clew Bay, and thereby endanger the livelihoods of those involved in the shellfish industry.
We need a Minister who will make forestry regulations to ensure that forests are not planted just 2 m from the shores of Lough Corrib. The Corrib fishermen and others have recommended that all planting should be 15 m or more from the lake. We need a Minister who will put protections in place, rather than bowing to every interest group in this sector. We need a Minister who believes in land use planning, rather than tolerates the laissez-faire “whatever you are having yourself” system that has been operating for years in counties Galway, Limerick and Clare and elsewhere. We need a Minister who believes in planning, and in the principle of planning, so that our water supply can be protected. We need a Minister who will rise to the dignity of his office, rather than belittle that office in an unbecoming manner by throwing cheap shots at the Lord Mayor of Galway. I would have thought that the Minister has a clear understanding of the role of local government. I refer to matters like designated and reserved functions, for example. I wish we had a Minister who could deal with such issues. It was unbecoming of his office for the Minister, Deputy Roche, to take such a cheap shot at the Lord Mayor of Galway.
The lack of regulation of septic tanks in this country constitutes a timebomb that is ticking and waiting to explode. We need to put in place regulations which provide for the inspection of septic tanks. Such tanks are being installed in the north, south, east and west of this country in the absence of an adequate system of ensuring they do not pollute the groundwater. In certain areas, such as those with karst landscapes, it is very easy for discharges from septic tanks to go straight down into our rivers and streams. We need to ensure that a system of regular inspection of septic tanks is put in place.
Legislation that updates the guidelines covering the protection and extraction of water is needed. As the Minister pointed out, some of the statutes being repealed in this legislation date back to the 1860s and 1870s. It is time for this Bill, which has sat on the Minister's desk for three years, to be passed. It is hard to explain such a delay, but I suspect it results from a lack of bottle on the part of the Minister. It is time for this draft legislation to become law. If nothing else, it will stop livestock from drinking from the water that is about to be extracted for human consumption. It should be simple to erect barbed wire fences to keep livestock away from reservoirs, or to provide for a system of regulation and testing that belongs to the 21st century, rather than the 19th century. If the legislation does nothing other than that, it is long overdue. We need to ensure, in the interests of the hundreds of people in Galway who are ill and the tens of thousands of people throughout this country who are experiencing difficulties in acquiring a water supply, that this legislation becomes law and drags our water supply system into the 21st century as soon as possible.
I thank Deputy O'Dowd for facilitating my intervention at this stage. When the House debated this Bill on Second Stage at the end of 2004, I made the point that while the legislation was unlikely to excite the passions of the House, the media or the public, we would return some day, after something had gone wrong, to consider the issue of water services and the manner in which the passage of this legislation had been dealt with. Following the recent events in Galway, people are showing an interest in water services and schemes, as well as the development, financing and design of water treatment plants. There is a widespread interest in who should build such plants and what should be done to treat our water.
Anybody with an interest in the water problems in Galway should read the transcript of the Committee Stage debate on this Bill, which took place on 22 November 2006. Over the course of a day, the Select Committee on Environment and Local Government debated all the issues which are relevant to what has happened in Galway. I proposed an amendment to establish a legal right to clean and potable water. Deputy O'Dowd proposed a similar amendment. The committee discussed amendments addressing the possible privatisation of our water services, which I understood to be the Government's agenda. I argued at the time that the Government was trying to take responsibility for water services from the local authorities. Many issues relating to water services and water quality were debated on 22 November last.
I would like the Minister to answer a couple of questions in this House. Why, in 2007, are we still dealing with a Bill that was published in 2003? Why did the Minister sit on the Bill for over 18 months? It was passed by this House on Second Stage at the start of 2005, but it was not considered on Committee Stage until November 2006. Why did the Minister sit on the Bill for a further five months, after the select committee concluded its work on it and reported to this House that it had done so? Why is it only in the dying days of the Dáil and in the wake of the events in Galway that the Minister brought the Water Services Bill back into the House? I put it to him that the Government's agenda is to deliver water services by the private sector through a variety of PPP and design, build and operate, DBO, projects rather than by the public authorities. Word has spread among local authorities throughout the country that there is no point in sending the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government water supply or sewage treatment schemes unless they are designed as PPP or DBO projects.
The Minister's comments regarding the Galway water situation are guff because he knows it was not a question of his Department allocating money to the local authority or the latter being expected to submit a scheme. He is aware that the money allocated by his Department carries the rider — perhaps unspecified, unwritten and unspoken but certainly understood by everyone concerned — that water services are to be developed as PPPs. The delay on the Galway water treatment plant is directly linked to the delays in passing this Bill, the original intention of which was to provide a legal framework that would facilitate the privatisation of water supply and services in this country. An explanation is owed to the House as to why legislation which the Government itself claimed was essential in order to give effect to the European Union's water services directives has been delayed and sat upon for so long by the Minister.
This is an important part of the discussion on the Bill. I agree with Deputy Gilmore that a protracted period of time has passed between the initiation of the Bill and Report Stage. Public opinion has significantly changed in the interim and, in view of the issues raised today regarding Galway's water supply, the amendments need to be more fully considered because the health of the people who drink the water must be paramount.
In some of the decisions made on water supply and septic tanks around Lough Corrib and in areas of my own county, planning permission has been granted without due consideration of water supply issues or the contamination caused by septic tanks. A family in my own area complained to me that their neighbour's septic tank was causing contamination and asked what I could do about the matter. I immediately contacted council officials, who quietly but firmly informed me that a motion under section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 had been passed by councillors in order to grant planning permission against the wishes of the officials. The health hazard, therefore, had been politically generated. The public is now strongly of the opinion that authoritative protections must be introduced for water supplies. If a local authority takes the view that it is not appropriate to grant permission for a septic tank, even under section 140, because doing so could infringe upon the quality of water, we need to change the law to ensure that permission is not granted in such instances.
This issue does not only arise in respect of individual houses. The Minister will know I am not being political when I say that councillors sometimes have others issues in mind when they make county development plans. The absolute judge on these matters should be the body, such as the EPA, which has statutory responsibility to advise on matters of health or contamination of water supply. I have received representations on planning matters in Bray, in the Minister's county, regarding my opinion of construction on flood plains. A similar problem arose some years ago in Ashbourne, County Meath, where building took place on flood plains.
Homes were flooded.
Recently in Drogheda, planning permission was sought for a house with a floor elevated above the historic flood plain. With issues such as climate change and construction on low lying areas near water courses becoming important——
The Taoiseach has not gone to the park yet.
I am looking forward to the visit to the park. We need to seriously reconsider these issues. I acknowledge and respect the independent role of the EPA but it needs a stronger voice in this House. We should consider the reports it compiles on the contamination of water supplies throughout the country. When representatives of the agency appear before the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government, they do not receive the legal consideration they deserve. A sea change is taking place on these issues and we must ensure we always act in the interest of public health. When a local authority or the EPA states an opinion, nobody should be in a position to overrule it.
That is especially important in the context of waste water issues. The Minister was given a report in 2004 on the country's waste water treatment plants, many of which were seriously disintegrating, yet the moneys provided by his Department for water and sewerage works have decreased over the past five years. We should be increasing our spending in those areas.
We should acknowledge that the provision of clean and healthy drinking water is a core public function of local authorities. I would go further by stating that access to such a service is a basic human right. Whether one is a pauper or a millionaire, it is a critically important issue.
The Minister knows he made an incorrect statement in his opening comments when he said that one of the purposes of this Bill is to ensure water services cannot be privatised. I accept that one of the core functions of the Bill is drawing together legislation but its overriding intent is facilitating the privatisation of water services, or at least those parts from which the vultures can make substantial profits. That is the agenda of certain sections of the Bill and the Minister could accept the amendments, including one of mine, which will put paid to privatisation if he thinks otherwise.
What are the consequences of privatisation? First, people will not have access to what is a core function of local authorities and a basic human right, an assertion regarding which the Minister nodded in agreement. Instead, they will have to pay for it under the terms of the Bill, once enacted. The function of providing clean water will be removed from local authorities and given to private developers. That in turn will lead to redeployment or redundancy for a substantial number of local authority staff, meaning a significant loss of historic or corporate knowledge and individual expertise in the field.
The developers will do what they have always done — operate on the cheap. They will not worry if 50% of the water continues to leak from pipes before reaching the householder. They will be concerned, like many local authorities hitherto, only that water comes out on the other side and that they collect their money for it. That is extremely bad for the population of this entire island. Currently, there are many treatment plants all around the State, some of whose locations have been cited, in urgent need of upgrading and repair.
As Deputy Gilmore said, the Department does not want to hear from local authorities about upgrading those plants unless it is on "design, build and operate" lines — a public private partnership, in other words. That is not the most efficient way of dealing with the matter. I am sure that the Minister has seen the report by Professor Eoin Reeves of the University of Limerick clearly indicating that it is the most inefficient way of dealing with the issue. I heard that no report has ever been written in this State on the efficiency or otherwise of PPPs, yet one in existence clearly indicates that, regarding water treatment, they are definitely not the way to proceed and that is most unfortunate.
What we have seen in the case of the M50, whereby a great public asset was handed over for a pittance to private developers and is now to be purchased back at astronomical cost to taxpayers in this State, will be repeated under the terms of this Bill when enacted. A Minister in a future Government will have to negotiate with those developers in an attempt to purchase back the infrastructure to be handed over to them under the terms of this Bill and that is extremely worrying, since it will come at great cost to the taxpayers of this State. We have the example of the M50 toll bridges, in which regard taxpayers will be needlessly fleeced by developers owing to bad Government policies. Whatever the political hue of the incoming Government that we will have in a few weeks, I hope that it will address this matter and amend the Bill. I do not disagree with its entirety, but I am extremely concerned at this element, which could bring catastrophic consequences for many people in the State on low incomes.
I wanted to make the point that we are talking about some very technical amendments rather than the M50, but I will return to that question.
Regarding how this manifests itself, there are two waste-water treatment plants in my constituency, but one straddles north and south Kildare. Osberstown is one and the initial paperwork came to the Department in 2002. I know the Minister has responded to me on this before, but we are now starting to be contacted by people in the construction industry who are saying that they now have no option other than to cease building, since they will not secure planning permission because the land cannot be serviced. They will get a refusal based on the application being premature, since the service has not been provided. If the reason was that there would be public private partnerships, it has had an incredible impact on the private sector by virtue of people in the construction industry not being able to build houses or industrial sites. That is an extremely important factor.
It seems that we have a system of crisis management unique to Ireland. We tend not to believe that something will happen until we see it. For example, I have seen entire housing estates in such places as Kilcock built because of a shortage of houses and a need to give people a roof over their heads. Some of those estates are on timers that kick in at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. to allow people to use water. This is all rather redolent of the Third World. I know that a new system is to come on stream within a few weeks in that case, but some of those housing estates now look mature. They were not built today or yesterday. They are fully occupied and people have settled in.
A mismatch between the provision of services and the occupation of houses creates a problem. People do not care where the water comes from as long as there is a safe and abundant supply, and the same is true of the reliability of sewage treatment plants. Members of local authorities see the mismatch regarding the level of house-building and industrial activity and one knows that things are on a knife-edge. It is only when that happens that people ask how it was allowed to come to pass. We must do things differently to prevent this situation recurring.
"Design, build and operate" public private partnerships complicate matters and the future is very uncertain if one cannot guarantee that such a vital service will be provided. The lack of delivery at Osberstown has certainly proven a disaster for Kildare, since it has slowed everything down.
I thank Deputies for a very wide-ranging discussion covering such matters as likely outbreaks of cryptosporidium, public private partnerships and DBOs. We have also discussed the very fundamental point touched on by Deputy Michael Higgins, namely, the appropriate place to allow them. The last three contributions were particularly interesting, since they go to the very heart of the Bill. Deputy O'Dowd made a very thoughtful contribution in which he put his finger on the nub of the matter, anticipating points made by Deputies Catherine Murphy and Morgan. I will deal with them in the order in which they were presented.
While I always respect Deputy Michael Higgins's views, I fundamentally disagree with the proposal that we create another quango to deal with water and I will explain why. Deputies O'Dowd and Catherine Murphy illustrated the fallacy of that route. I found myself smiling while the latter was speaking, since I entered politics through my involvement with the residents' association in Greystones many years ago, which included a housing estate called Applewood Heights. A lady who has now moved on from the area was the secretary of the residents' association. She famously called her house "High and Dry" because she could not run the washing machine until 2 a.m. This is part of the debate that went on in the background to this Bill. I was asked why there was a delay. The reason I would respectfully disagree with Deputy Michael D. Higgins is that it is critically important that physical planning and development and the development and manning of the strategic planning for water are married. They are absolutely inextricable. Deputy Catherine Murphy is correct; it is wrong and there has been a mismatch. Unless one creates a solid legislative base and identifies the appropriate locations, I do not think one will get that.
With all due respect, I do not think establishing a quango, a national body similar to the HSE would either improve public accountability or improve the delivery of water services. I have put much thought into this matter. It is absolutely appropriate that the planning authorities which are responsible for drawing up the development plans should also have the power, duty and responsibility for drawing up the water plans for their areas. One should be a reflection of the other. To disconnect that would be fraught with difficulties. I understand all the benefits that would come from having a single body but they would be better if they were to come from having an oversight body. I make this point because it was dealt with in the contributions. The purpose of the legislation is to take all of the legislation, as Deputy Gilmore said, that dates back to the 19th century and to consolidate it, to give it a coherence and focus and to give a particular locus for responsibilities we do not have currently.
Like a butterfly, Deputy Cuffe floated into the House, made his contribution and then flitted back out. He made some references to the situation in Galway. I will deal with those because I wish to respond to each point that was made. I do not wish to get into a discussion about Galway in particular. The situation in Galway County Council and other local authorities well illustrates one of the difficulties we have in regard to water. The local councillors who are democratically elected to represent the people do not feel involved in this process. That is why in this legislation it is becoming a reserved function of the elected councillors. It is proposed that councillors will make the strategic water plan, in the same way as they make the strategic development plan — the physical plan. It is clear where the nexus comes together and where the responsibility lies at local level. It is right in a democracy that we should focus responsibility in an area where the public can pass its judgment. I say to Deputy Michael D. Higgins that it would be wrong to disconnect water provision from the system and to put responsibility for it into a quango. I respectfully differ from him on that point. We will just have to agree to differ.
An interesting point was made by Deputy Michael D. Higgins. He referred to afforestation and related matters. It is worth pointing out that there is a continuing moratorium on all tree felling in the pearl mussel areas.
He got distracted.
I address this specific comment to Deputy Michael D. Higgins as he raised the important point about the pearl mussel. It is not simply an airy-fairy or touchy-feely issue, it is a matter of some significance because the pearl mussel, in addition to being a species which we should protect, and biodiversity would demand we do that, is also important as an indicator of water purity. That was the point made by the Deputy.
A total of 90% of the species has perished in Europe.
That is correct. I agree with the point the Deputy made. When I met the anglers in Galway, including the "gentleman" to whom Deputy Michael D. Higgins referred in derogatory terms recently on television, and not entirely truthfully either, they made some interesting points. One issue related to the point dealt with by the Deputy; the haphazard tree-felling system. There is currently a moratorium on tree felling in the pearl mussel areas. It is appropriate that proper guidelines be put in place to deal with that issue. I agree with Deputy Michael D. Higgins. A forest management plan for pearl mussel areas is being prepared by the Department of Agriculture and Food, which has responsibility in this area, with the support of my Department. In the context of Galway and the other issues we discussed this may not appear an important point but I agree with the Deputy that it is important.
To return to the main point which was made by Deputy O'Dowd, it is very important that we locate responsibility for strategic planning for water in the same place as we locate responsibility for drawing up development plans. Deputy O'Dowd is absolutely correct. He has hit the nail on the head. This is reflected in the point made by Deputy Catherine Murphy.
Deputies Morgan, Gilmore and Michael D. Higgins — forgive me if I am wrong — referred to privatisation. I do not understand how any clear reading of the Bill could suggest this is a charter for privatisation. I said on Second and Committee Stages that I would examine the matter. I accept we were anticipating another amendment. This point has been made several times in the contributions. Amendment No. 17 specifically addresses the issue. It puts the ownership of public water outside the remit of privatisation. Deputy Morgan and I would agree that one of the extraordinary things that happened a few years ago on an island not a million miles away was that privatisation of water resulted in a disaster. It cannot happen here and it will not happen if we enact this Bill, especially amendment No. 17.
Deputy Morgan also asked a question that was touched on by Deputy Gilmore about whether charging could be reintroduced. If one recalls, we discussed this issue on Second Stage and on Committee Stage I introduced an amendment in this regard. Section 105 specifically prohibits charging. That section reflects the prohibition on charging which is contained in the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1997. It is worthwhile making that point because it anticipates a point that will be made when we discuss future amendments.
As is his wont, Deputy Cuffe strayed fairly dramatically from the general area of reference in the Bill. He referred at some length to Galway. He said the people of Galway are looking for action. I agree with him on that. I also agree there have been some contretemps between the mayor and me. It is my view that the mayor has looked after Galway in a way that is extraordinarily desultory but he is not here to defend himself so I will not engage in a discussion on that issue. The mayor, the chairman of the county council, the manager of the county council, the manager of the city council and I met on 30 March and we specifically agreed a number of measures for Galway — to identify the source or sources of the infection; to supply water from Tuam to augment the city’s supply; to switch the water from Tuam by June; to phase out the old treatment plant in June; in the medium term to install a packaging plant at Terryland with a capacity to handle 18 million litres of water per day; in the long term to fast-track the advancement of the new water treatment plant for Galway city; and, also to provide augmentation of the treatment plant in Tuam. All of that is happening.
As the Deputy will be aware, the county council is in the process of transferring water from Tuam, where there is a clean water supply, to Galway. I understand this will take a number of weeks for technical reasons to do with sludge build-up. It is anticipated that the county council will be pumping that water by 8 May and that the process of transfer will be completed by June, with the Terryland plant being completed by June.
Deputies Catherine Murphy and Gilmore referred specifically to the plight of families in Galway who are without water. I can well understand their frustration. It is an extraordinary situation. I have indicated to Galway City Council that I will make resources available to it. In the past week and a half, I made additional resources available to it to help it to fund the delivery of water. I have, on three separate occasions, offered the use of water tankers. It is an issue for decision by the local council and it decided, for its own good reasons, not to accept my offer.
Deputy Cuffe has continually and very unfairly made efforts to blame the farming community for all the problems with water supply. The nitrates directive was negotiated over 15 long years and implemented last year and some credit is due to the farmers and particularly its leadership in this regard. It was a very difficult bullet for them to bite, but bite it they did, and there is now an improvement in that there are very strict controls on spreading. It is unfair for Deputy Cuffe to single out the farming community continually because it has done its bit.
The issues of spreading human sludge and delays in the implementation of schemes have arisen recently. Deputy Cuffe has an extraordinary brass neck to stand up in this House and refer to the problems in my constituency. The problem with the Arklow sewage plant was caused by a group of people who decided to take the matter to court. It has been tied up in court for an interminable period and the only political party that supported the group in bringing the matter to its current impasse was the Green Party. It is astonishing that the Green Party, as opposed to all the other parties and independent members at the local council, opposed the putting in place of a sewage treatment scheme that the people of Arklow desperately need. It is incredible that Green Party Members stood up in this House and made such an accusation. It is an extraordinary, duplicitous stand.
Had Deputy Cuffe bothered to remain in the Chamber, I could have reminded him of the rather opportunistic opposition and difficulties faced by Deputy Michael Higgins when he spoke in Galway about common sense in the placement of housing and planning policy. I agreed with Deputy Michael Higgins's comments and we have captured our views in this Bill. I could also have pointed out to Deputy Cuffe, had he bothered his barney to stay here, that there was some rather opportunistic opposition from across the political spectrum to the project on Mutton Island, which opposition made progress somewhat difficult. An extraordinary set of circumstances arose when there was a vote to create the big facility in Cork and the motion was carried by only one vote. Councillors of some of the major parties had to stand up and make the decision, as they always do, and they made the right one, as has been vindicated.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 40 to 43, inclusive, are technical.
A few matters arise from the Minister's contribution. As he is well aware, I come from County Galway, in which there are 90,000 people with undrinkable water. I want to talk about a number of issues. Irrespective of whether it is Galway city or county, or any other part of Ireland——
I remind the Deputy that we are on Report Stage and dealing with amendment No. 1. Time is limited.
I am reflecting on what the Minister had to say and if he was in order I assume I am also.
I was simply replying.
I am commenting on the Minister's reply and I assume we are in the same hunt. The Minister said part of the short-term solution to the water problem in Galway involves a proposal to transfer water from the Luimnagh scheme at Corrandulla to Galway. I have no problem with the policy in this regard in the short term but I would like to draw the Minister's attention to the mid-Galway group scheme, in which 3,000 houses participate and which is one of the largest schemes of its kind. For the first time in many years, Galway County Council, bearing in mind planning considerations, had to deny a certificate confirming that water would be obtainable by people who wish to build their own houses. This first happened on 1 January.
When the Luimnagh plant was built — one would want to be local to understand this matter — I was a member of Galway County Council and noted the plant was one of the best projects the council ever completed. We call it the "water factory" locally and that is exactly what it is. It was built specifically to ensure the regional water schemes in north and mid-Galway would have a water supply over the years but not half this area has been connected to the source in Luimnagh. The irony is that some years ago the then county manager allowed the pipeline to extend from Luimnagh to the outskirts of Galway city, that is, to Claregalway, for the very good reason that the draw-down of water at the time was insufficient.
The Deputy should return to the amendments before the House. There seems to be a general debate taking place. Given that some Members made long contributions, I was reluctant to intervene in the contributions of others. The Minister replied to the points that were made and we cannot make a mockery of Report Stage of the Bill. I do not mind a passing reference or a reference to what the Minister said but we cannot have a detailed debate.
I take the Ceann Comhairle's point and accept his ruling.
I ask the Deputy to address the Bill before us.
Will the Chair allow me one second to finish my point? The Minister should know——
I would prefer if the Deputy did not finish it. We are not anywhere remotely near the Bill, let alone the amendments on Report Stage. I ask the Deputy to return to them owing to the limitations.
I only require one sentence with which to conclude. Let the Minister be put on notice that, regardless of wherever else the water going to Galway goes, it should be made available for the county of Galway in the future.
I am sorry I have been stopped because many people want me to make these points in the House. I am a bit disappointed that——
There are other ways to raise the matter but unfortunately it cannot be raised on Report Stage of this Bill.
May I respond?
No, we are moving back to the Bill. Deputy Michael Higgins is waiting to contribute.
Why does the Ceann Comhairle not allow the Minister to answer?
The Minister will have an opportunity to reply to the debate as the proposer of amendment No. 1. Speakers are allowed two minutes each and the Minister then has the right to reply. If he wishes to reply, that is his business. This is not even a Committee Stage debate.
Can I not comment on anything else the Minister said?
No. The Minister was really replying——
I am very thankful to the Ceann Comhairle.
I appreciate that.
It is outrageous.
The Deputy came into the House when——
Which I am entitled to do.
He is entitled to make a contribution as long as he likes on amendment No. 1 and the amendments being taken therewith, but not on anything else. The Chair has given the Deputy some latitude.
The Minister must have been out of order although I thought he was making good sense.
I call on Deputy Michael Higgins, who has two minutes.
I will remain strictly within my two minutes. I want to deal with one point raised by the Minister in his reply, which concerns why there should be a separate body to manage water quality. The overview in the explanatory memorandum to the Bill states:
The Bill concerns itself only with the actual provision of water services. It does not seek directly to take on board wider environmental issues surrounding water resources (pollution control; water quality in its broadest sense; river basin management, etc.), although it complements the relevant legislative codes in this regard.
Far from advocating the division of physical planning from general planning in regard to water quality, I was really arguing that physical planning should be disciplined by making planners responsible to an authority that would implement the EU directives. This Bill leaves everything exactly as it is regarding responsibilities and that is a defect. I pointed out that proposals for the management of the Corrib will not be in place until 2009. I suggested that was too late.
Disastrous results will flow from the fact that local authorities, in which the Minister has total and exclusive faith, do not have capacity in terms of environmental microbiology to deliver the safety we require. Neither is it the practice of local authorities to allocate exclusively people with competence in water quality to the monitoring. These are serious defects.
In respect of the reference made by Deputy Gilmore and I to design build operate, we refer to page 21 of Professor Reeves's article, in which he refers to a monoculture of design, build and operate, the ethos of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government at present. He advocates that one should consider all procurement strategies in terms of reasonable value.
I agree with the Minister in respect of the relationship between physical planning and the supply of essential services such as water and waste water. I will use my constituency as an example because I am familiar with it. A major debate took place before the 2002 county development plan was adopted. It was an uneasy debate and resulted in a broad strategy with the intervention of a previous Minister into the process. A strategy on how development should take place was drawn up. Each sub-county plan fitted into the strategy. These were predicated on sufficient water and waste water services but it was not in the gift of the local authority to provide this. It was for central funding to fund the major element of such services. Spills occurred in the River Liffey as a result of not upgrading the waste water treatment plant at Sallins. These were identified by residents in the area. Some remediation work has taken place as the first part of the upgrade.
I remember asking the council engineer about the contents of the river and he responded that there was "some enrichment". I had to press him to understand this. It did not sound that I would want this in the water. I discovered that it referred to raw sewage. I certainly did not think this was desirable if it was upstream of the water treatment plant.
Responsibility to connect physical planning with the ability to provide water and waste water may lie with the local authority. However, the Minister has responsibility to provide funding to allow this to happen. This is where the scheme has fallen down in Kildare. It is a fault at national level rather than at local level that there is insufficient funding to carry out the upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant at Osberstown and Leixlip in a timely way. The local authority approached the Department in 2002 and although the Leixlip upgrade has been sanctioned it will be two or three years until the Osberstown plant is up and running. That timeline has caused a serious problem.
I am aware of the concerns of Deputy Connaughton. I have provided €27.4 million specifically to Galway County Council to provide for upgrading and further capacity. Luimnagh produces good water and this funding will provide conservation measures and storage capacity as well as additional treatment. There is a problem at Luimnagh and Tuam, as Deputy Connaughton is aware, because 70% of the water at Tuam is lost through cracked pipes. I sanctioned the local authorities to address this on 30 March. This matter prevents the water going to where one would wish.
I referred to 2009, which is the end date mentioned in the directive. It is not necessarily the only date. The other point made by a number of contributors considered whether the Department is besotted by PPPs. This is possibly not the place to debate that. The water service investment programme for 2005-07 contains 899 schemes, with a value of €5.1 billion. Some 16 schemes currently under way are PPPs. It is not correct to state there is a preponderance of PPPs.
Deputy Higgins referred to independent oversight in addition to where water plans are made. This year I made additional regulations granting more power to the EPA. It has the power to monitor and report. It has carried out some excellent reports on the monitoring systems but did not have power to enforce. I granted the EPA additional enforcement powers by regulation in early March, before the Galway outbreak. This enforcement power and oversight function exists through the EPA. This is the independent supervision to which Deputy Higgins refers.
Deputy Murphy referred to the relationship between local authorities and central Government. More power should be given to local authorities and local authority power should reside in council members. They have a responsibility to draw up a development plan. I agree with Deputy O'Dowd that extraneous issues sometimes creep into it.
Deputy O'Dowd referred to flooding, one of the issues in Galway. The area had an extremely high water table, as Deputies Connaughton and Higgins are aware. The latter referred to his contribution on a debate on this matter years ago. A high water table pulls in material from septic tanks and the land. His point about flood plains is correct but there have been positive developments in this respect in recent years. I indicated I would strike down part of the Monaghan plan because it was imprudently involved in development near flood plains in the Ballybay area along the lines indicated by the Deputy. That is not right. An Bord Pleanála takes flood plain issues into account to a greater extent than in the past, including the case in Kildare to which a Deputy referred.
Amendments Nos. 2, 6 and 15 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 14, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:
""fundamental right of the individual to access to sufficient, safe, acceptable and accessible water" includes the right to access to water which is free from contamination that is likely to cause injury to human health;".
This goes to the heart of the problem that arose in Galway, the absence of a legal right to water from this legislation and Irish law. This Bill should include the fundamental right of the individual to access to sufficient, safe, acceptable and accessible water for personal and domestic use, having due regard to international legal standards, and subject to any necessary conditions or limitations that may be prescribed by law. Where a local authority is making a strategic water plan, among the matters that the authority must consider is the right of each person within the functional area of the authority to have access to water services. The amendment defines the fundamental right of the individual as including the right to access to water which is free from contamination that is likely to cause injury to human health. I moved those amendments on Committee Stage on 22 November 2006. On that occasion the Minister dismissed them, saying I was trying to make provision for "an eccentric millionaire who might buy John Lennon's island in Clew Bay and decide to build a palatial premises there" and that the State could not be expected to guarantee a right of water in such circumstances. I pointed out to him that was not the circumstance I envisaged and that although this country has plenty of water, too much of it at times, there is no right to water in our law.
As a consequence, one ends up in situations, as I said on Committee Stage, where if the quality of water supplied through a public system to households is deficient, if the pressure of water supplied through a public system to households is insufficient or if one wakes up one morning with no water supply until lunch time, there is no legal right of redress against the public authority. I went on to argue that under Irish law, the polluters of our water system have more legal rights and protection than the consumers of the water supplied through the public system. That must be addressed.
We have before the House legislation that deals with the provision of water and delivery of water services. This is a fundamental issue, that the people of this country are entitled to a water supply and good quality water, and that right should be enshrined in law. The unfortunate people of Galway have no redress. They cannot sue anyone. For two months their public authority and the State has been delivering water to their homes that could poison them and that has made 200 people in Galway seriously ill. That is wrong, and it wrong that those who cannot drink the water from the public supply have no legal redress.
I say this because the Bill places obligations on householders and the owners of premises regarding their management of the water supply. Under this legislation, a householder who is wasting water can be prosecuted. A garda can walk into a private home under this legislation to see if a person is wasting water by running a hose in the back garden on a hot summer's day and can take that person to court. That householder can be liable for a major fine and the cost of the recovery of the water. In some sections of the Bill there is provision for fines of up to €15 million. It is not unreasonable that the law should prevent the abuse of water when there is a water shortage but if we are putting in place legislation that imposes on the individual householder a legal responsibility for the management and conservation of water which is punishable by large fines and forms of restitution to the public purse, it is then essential that there is a corresponding right provided to the public to a reliable, safe water supply.
If we had that legal right, the lethargy and neglect between the Minister, his Department and the local authority in Galway for the past five years would not have happened because, if there was a legal obligation imposed on the local authority and, by extension, the State through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we would not have a situation where people are suffering while the Minister and the mayor of Galway city engage in a blame exercise. The people of Galway cannot consume the water and we know from studies carried out by the media and the Environmental Protection Agency that up to 20% of the public water supply is as vulnerable as the water in Galway. This problem may be repeated.
We must provide a legal right to water in this legislation. When we concluded the debate on the issue addressed in the three amendments I am now proposing, the Minister gave a general indication that we had made a good case. He understood that we were not just talking about the billionaire who might buy John Lennon's island.
We would not want to poison him either.
We were talking about genuine concerns and he undertook to consider this before Report Stage. He has now had five months to reflect on this and I am disappointed there is no Government amendment on the list that would acknowledge the right of the public to a safe and reliable water supply. This is a fundamental issue and it is not new. The Labour Party proposed it on Committee Stage, as I had indicated it would on Second Stage in 2004. It is, however, given a new urgency by events in Galway in the past two months.
I find it difficult to disagree with the sentiments Deputy Gilmore expressed. I have spent a lifetime involved in group water schemes and I am a trustee of one such scheme. As the Minister knows, those small schemes brought water to rural Ireland and there has been little thanks given to those who spent a lot of time on the issue.
At least it could be argued that we were legally responsible for the water flowing through the pipes. At the corporate end, however, it is difficult to find anyone who will take responsibility for anything that might go wrong. The water supply could be off for two days and people might be told why but they will not have any redress.
As for the supply of proper drinking water, there are so many aspects to it now, particularly as a result of Galway, that people are beginning to ask how safe is their source. The Minister must find it difficult to guarantee that treated water is fit for human consumption. I do not accept that after what has happened in Galway.
The catch-all method to ensure water was potable was to give it a dose of chlorine. The chlorine solution was to solve everything. That will not work as we know and is just not on. Is it not reasonable to assume that somebody should ensure that the quality of every gallon of water produced by local authorities on behalf of the State for people in their private houses is perfect all the time? That is not happening. If Galway has achieved nothing else, it has raised that spectre right across the country. Somebody should be accountable in matters such as this when something goes grievously wrong. As far as I am aware, nobody is accountable, and I am long enough dealing with this area.
When the Minister went to Galway he blamed the Mayor of Galway, quite wrongly in my view. Ultimately, it is important from the viewpoint of the local authority and the State to ensure that every drop of water going into houses is guaranteed and that in the event the end users or consumers can have recourse to damages if they have been blatantly blackguarded. In other words, if the quality is wrong, they do not get it on time or the source does not function, for whatever reason, they should have redress. We send a great deal of money from this country and missionaries through Government agencies and NGOs all over the world to ensure people have drinking water, yet in many parts of our own country we do not have it.
I have always accepted, as Deputy Gilmore said, that there must always be counterbalance and people should not waste water. Even from the farming community's viewpoint it has been acknowledged that there must be metering of water. There is no question that we must avoid waste and that water, as such, must be metered. The big problem is that the system of measurement is very unfair to farming, particularly where there are fragmented holdings. Commercial users avail of a metering system and that is the right way to do it. In my case, in the event, I will have seven fragmented parts of my holding which will require seven different meters. That is very unfair. In the Galway context it is €88 for the first meter and €35 thereafter. The Minister introduced an overall limit of 180% above the cost of the first meter, but that is of no use to me as I would not even reach that. Instead of paying €75 a year for my usual source I will be charged about €700 or €800. That is the type of increase in water charges we are talking about.
Against a background that will require us certainly to conserve water — we all accept there will have to meters — the way the Minister is treating the farming community is extraordinarily unfair.
This is an absolutely crucial amendment. It establishes a fundamental point, namely, where we stand as regards the right to clean water. I urge the Minister to accept it, because this will enable him to respond beyond the time of the drafting of this Bill, originally, to both current and other issues.
On page 1 of the explanatory memorandum it is stated:
The Bill concerns itself only with the actual provision of water services. It does not seek directly to take on board wider environmental issues surrounding water resources (pollution control; water quality in its broadest sense; river basin management, etc.)...
This is a great pity. It is also a great pity that we will have no more than plans in 2009, not regulations. It continues, "although it complements the relevant legislative codes in this regard". There are not relevant codes in many of the areas. It continues:
To appreciate the overall thrust of the Bill therefore, it is helpful to visualise its application as pertaining to management of "water in the pipe", i.e., from the time, following abstraction, that it first enters a supply pipe to the point of its subsequent discharge again to the environment as treated waste water.
That is necessary, but it is far too narrow and certainly does not address the circumstances in which we find ourselves in any sense, locally, nationally or internationally.
The right to water is being debated abroad at present. It is being debated here. Fortune magazine has referred to water as the oil of the 21st century. It is likely to be the source of wars and conflicts into the future, although I hope not. However, internationally, in areas that have been conflict zones in the Middle East, the path of the Euphrates and all of the other rivers have been matters of tension. Much more than that, the UNDP in its report last year, which took water as its main theme, opened up a debate which it left without conclusion. For example, it discussed the right of the person to water both for life and health. That raises other issues which I will not stray into here, as to whether this right is universal, is included in the right to development and whatever.
There were interesting differences, however, even in the UNDP report. It did not have the same figure for what is necessary for human life as the WHO. However, there was a fundamental issue in the debate the UNDP introduced. Agreement can be had across the board, and internationally too, that water is a scarce resource. More than 30 countries already are in difficulty as regards the provision of water, droughts are threatening and climate change makes matters worse. However, the issue concerns water as a scarce resource to be managed. Where everyone is divides — a clear division emerges everywhere — is on how to address the issue. One theory is to first switch off the water and then switch it on with regulation, in other words to treat it as a scarce resource that is commodified. This is the practice that prevails in the leading French company, for example, which limits water in South Africa and at the same time to black residents of Los Angeles, regarding water as the oil of the 21st century, as Fortune said.
Standing against that are communities in India which are in competition with Coca-Cola and other companies as regards the volume of water required in the villages and so forth. They suggest that water is needed as a matter of personal survival, for life and so on. There is a discussion, which I will not go into, about the right to water for life. This amendment addresses the second approach. I believe strongly in the right to clean water as a fundamental legal principle. In the discussion it is interesting that the UNDP report, to its credit, spoke about the need for regular and accessible water. However, the right to water goes beyond the right of access. It is not a right of access through the market, but a fundamental right. We are either in favour of establishing the legal right of a person to water for life as fundamental or we move away from that.
I have addressed two issues. The first concerns the dangerous vacuum that is being created by the narrow structure of the Bill, not least in relation to environmental issues. Environmental microbiologists who will give reassurances on the quality of the water supply are not in place. Those appointed to water management in local authorities do not necessarily have expertise in water quality, usually having been moved from various sections of local authorities. The Minister and I agree to fundamentally differ as to whether a local authority is the appropriate body to implement the EU water directives.
The other vacuum relates to confining one's concern to the water in the pipe. What is unfortunate and pathetic about the situation in Galway is that everyone has moved into a defensive mode. The city council claims it was restrained by EU procurement guidelines which is a nonsense. The 2004 directive on procurement states:
Nothing in the directive should prevent the imposition or enforcement of measures necessary to protect: public policy, public morality, public security, health, human and animal life or the preservation of plant life, in particular in the view to sustainable development provided that these measures are in conformity with the Treaty.
There is nothing in EU law that delayed anyone's response to the Galway situation. It is claimed by the Government that funds were put in place as early as 2002 to ensure the quality of the water supply in Galway but the Department received no proposals from the council. Why did this not emerge when evaluating the bonuses for managers, assistant managers and directors of services?
Dr. Eoin Reeves of the University of Limerick, who has conducted a study on PPPs, argues that a prevailing single model is canvassed in the Department. Is this what is causing the delays? There are two sets of guidelines on the operation of design, build and operate, DBO, and PPPs from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Finance. Dr. Reeves suggests — and this is not a left wing suggestion — that all procurement models must be examined on a rational basis. He points to failures in Halifax in Canada and successes in the US. In his paper, " Public Private Partnerships in the Water and Wastewater Sector: An Economic Analysis", from September 2006, he states:
It is a matter of concern that the DOEHLG [Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government] in Ireland is implementing the water services investment programme on the basis that DBO is the preferred model of procurement. This approach is at odds with the rational model for public procurement outlined above. By failing to consider different procurement models there is a danger of creating a monoculture of procurement based on PPP. The UK experience highlights the dangers associated with such an approach. For example, the IPPR in 2001 presents evidence from the health sector where a significant number of projects proceeded despite a lack of convincing value for money gains. This was attributed to the belief on the part of public sector managers that PFI was "the only game in town".
We are suffering from this in every Department from Transport to Education and Science, for which we are paying a heavy price.
Amendment No. 2 states it should be the "...fundamental right of the individual to access to sufficient, safe, acceptable and accessible water includes the right to access to water which is free from contamination that is likely to cause injury to human health". The narrow structure of the Bill, which is singularly insufficient as to be pathetic, only deals with management of water in the pipe. Management of water in the pipe can include from the moment of extraction to wastewater. The Minister is an enthusiast of local authority management. May I ask him about the continued development in Doughiska, County Galway, where I am not aware of a wastewater management system being put in in advance?
Is it not relevant to question the management of the supply source for Galway? I accept the Minister's comments about giving additional powers to the EPA. However, the EPA's director wrote to me in 2005, acknowledging pollution problems in Lough Corrib. It is scandalous that the pollution was allowed to continue since then. This is why I have no faith in the local authority's management of the water supply of the Corrib.
A great deal of time has been wasted in discussing the use of an ultraviolet method of screening. It is claimed that it is not suitable for water coming through peaty soil because it is tinted and the water supply must be slow-running. It is extraordinary how every party involved in the Galway situation went into defensive mode. Why was there not a public forum on the science of water pollution? It could have been used to discuss choosing a screening model and the various treatments such as electromagnetic and slow sand processes. Instead, the director of services is only available for consultation with the local authority members. How satisfactory is that? I am hoping sometime in my life there will be a genuine discourse and consultation where citizens will be shown not what has been decided but all the information that will make up the decision-making process.
No one is interested in crucifying anyone for a mistake but we are entitled to the results, the response, the scientific and policy options available. None of this happened which only infuriates people who are correctly concerned as to effects on their health. This problem must be managed but it cannot be if we damage the tourism industry and the economy. It is not served by people imagining that what must be done is a run of press releases to keep their defence going. Going into defensive mode, be it the Department or city council, is singularly insufficient. I strongly suggest this amendment is fundamental to the legislation. If one accepts the amendment, one will be putting in place a building block in regard to rights upon which one can move forward. However, if one does not accept it, one is putting one's stamp on a narrow version which only addresses a very limited part, welcome though it is.
When speaking about what is happening around the country, why should we confine ourselves to water in the pipes when what we want is a genuine water services structure that will be able to take the quality of water into account, properly monitor the environmental issues and, most importantly, accept for the citizens the right to water as being a fundamental one. By doing so, we will give an indication of where we are in the general development debate about water, namely, that we do not see it as a commodity or the gold of the 21st century, as it was described in Fortune magazine, but something that is essential for life itself. The legislation should follow that path rather than the narrow one.
I support the three amendments tabled by Deputy Gilmore and look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. I suspect one of the reasons the Minister will not accept the amendments, although he may do so and it would strengthen the Bill, is that he is concerned about the consequences of doing so because, for example, the infrastructure is simply not in place to meet the requirements of any of them.
I will give a brief example. In the village from which I come, Omeath, County Louth, from June to September, approximately one third of homes in that village will not receive a water supply after about 2 p.m. or during peak times due to poor water pressure. The infrastructure is not in place. The local authority is making some effort to try to resolve the matter. If these amendments were accepted, I suspect the Minister would be concerned that the State would be opened up to all types of litigation etc. Perhaps that is the only excuse. This Government has had the wealth to put infrastructure in place — unfortunately, previous Governments did little as well, but this one is more culpable because it had the resources to deal with many of these cases.
Development is not permitted in the village because the sewage treatment capacity does not exist. At present there is a holding tank and twice a day as the tide goes out, the sewage is discharged into the waters of Carlingford Lough totally untreated. That is one step short of villagers going back three or four centuries when there was no tank and they peed directly into the lough.
Given the EU shell fish directive, we are leaving ourselves wide open to substantial fines. I am so frustrated lobbying to try to get the local authority to do something about the water and, in particular, the sewage treatment capacity that I am at the point of making a complaint to the European Commission about it. I have not done so as yet because I do not want us to incur the wrath or, in particular, bring on the fines of the European Commission. However, given the lack of movement, I am within weeks of doing so and I have already begun to prepare my complaint to the European Commission in this regard. This will probably be replicated in other areas. The State will incur the cost anyway so it would be much more efficient to deal with the issues and put infrastructure in place rather than plough money into paying EU fines.
I too support the three amendments, in particular, that the fundamental right of the individual to access to sufficient, safe, acceptable and accessible water includes the right to access to water which is free from contamination that is likely to cause injury to human health.
I will give an example from my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan where this has become a major problem recently. There has been a problem with a number of our group water schemes for which people have taken responsibility and put in place at great expense. The schemes to which I refer are the Dernakesh, Crosserlough and Kill in County Cavan and the group water scheme in my area, Glasslough-Teeholland. The problem was a foul smell which was chemical-like.
I have a number of concerns, including how these matters are reported. Had the users of the schemes not complained for at least three weeks from mid-March, nothing would have happened. When one adds chemicals to water, there is no doubt there is an impact on health. I am very concerned that nobody liaised with the users of any of these group water schemes to inform them as to whether there would be knock-on effects in regard to health. Sometimes when bad water comes through a system, the advice on radio is to boil the water. That is fine if the water supply has been contaminated by bacteria. In this instance, however, the problem related to chemicals and the boiling of water would have absolutely no effect. The chemicals would remain in the water regardless of how many times one boiled it.
This problem could affect a number of the food producing industries. One must bear in mind that there are many food producing industries in the Cavan-Monaghan area. In particular, I refer to Silverhill Ducklings, the mushroom industry and the numerous bakeries in the area. These industries depend on clean water. Since young children are particularly susceptible to injuries to their health as a result of drinking contaminated water, more decisive action should be taken.
Most of these group water schemes have employed private companies to monitor the water but, ultimately, overall monitoring is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the county council. The problem in this case was a faulty supply of chemicals which had originated in Ringaskiddy in Cork. The storage area in Cork had been changed and this caused the problem. The company in Cork sent its product to Northern Ireland where the company monitoring the water quality sourced the chemicals. Was information deliberately withheld from people? People should be told exactly what is happening. It was only through word of mouth that those involved in one scheme discovered that another one had similar problems. Is this occurring in other parts of the country without people knowing? Have people accepted the fact that we have poor water quality and now buy water?
In this instance, the county councils accepted that they should supply proper drinking water to the food industries, the schools and at three locations in the Glasslough-Teeholland scheme.
The use of chemicals allows for human error where somebody may put an incorrect mix into the water. What plan of action is in place to deal with such a situation or where faulty chemicals are introduced into the system? There should be a plan to deal with these situations. I call for a faster and better response.
When this serious issue was raised by Deputy Connolly I consulted with Monaghan County Council because County Monaghan is one of the busiest food producing areas in the country and the county depends on food production for income and employment. Any adverse publicity could be very serious. I am happy to say that the county council officials have made every effort to rectify the situation as quickly as possible. I agree with Deputy Connolly that there should be a much better means of checking the situation. The first I heard was that chickens and cattle were refusing to drink the water. It is obvious that the company which was handed the bundle system has literally bundled it themselves as the problem is not just in the Teholland-Glasslough area but also in significant areas of County Cavan. There is no excuse for this and decisive action must be taken. In the past these water schemes were run by voluntary committees. These voluntary groups made sure that while the water may not have been perfect, it certainly would not do any damage.
I refer to a reply I received from the Minister this week to an inquiry on behalf of the Donaghmoyne group water scheme. This was one of the first schemes in the country to install a plant to deal with the problem which is now in Galway and it treats the water for the same parasite problem. This scheme has done its best to work with the system, albeit outside the bundle. The Minister in his reply stated that the scheme did not seek or obtain approval. This scheme sought to meet the criteria in every possible way. It is nothing short of a disgrace. It was informed that if it did not go into the bundle it would not be penalised and that has not been denied, yet when it made the effort to go otherwise, it was stalled. Although it had a totally clean record with its bankers, the bank withdrew the money when it was about to start. The amount of skullduggery associated with this issue is unforgivable.
The Minister should arrange a full inquiry to see how the group can get water for its producers at a realistic price while the cost of water to so many others is at such a level. Legislation is extremely important but common sense must prevail. This group is providing water to 1,500 households plus another couple of hundred people and it finds that because of a difference of opinion, it is allowed to suffer and that is wrong. I assure the Minister that whether it is given a grant, the job has been done and has been financed, and that raises more questions. If the group can proceed on its own without a grant, how is all the money being spent and why is it being spent?
I question the long-term commitments made by other schemes which now find themselves with organisations that are increasing the costs far above inflation and are producing unacceptable water as a result of the chemicals used. I ask the Minister to examine the situation and I thank him for listening. I hope he will deal with the situation in a practical way before it is too late.
Water is a basic necessity of life and citizens should have a statutory entitlement to good quality water that is free from impurities and from anything that might give rise to illness. This right should be a statutory right enshrined in legislation. Issues that have arisen in recent times and in the past mean that water supplies in various areas of the country are not fit for human consumption. Local authorities, which are effectively State agencies, should be able to deliver a water supply that is clean and free from impurities and that poses no danger to health.
Citizens should also be entitled to a sufficient supply of water. When we were growing up we always believed we had too much water but in recent years there have been shortages and deficiencies in supply. A few dry days cause water shortages and water is turned off from midnight until 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. Areas of my constituency have had consistent periods of water turn-off, particularly during last summer. Breakdowns in the system have also occurred frequently. During weekends last summer the area of Slieve Ardagh had no supply of water for humans or animals. The entitlement to a sufficient supply of water should also be enshrined in legislation.
As is the case in south Tipperary, in many local authority areas the networks which carry water supplies have not been upgraded. Up to 50% of supplies can be lost from networks that have not been modernised. In many instances, the pipes that comprise these networks are made from asbestos and this gives rise to other concerns with regard to health and quality of supply.
It is only right that the quality of water should be monitored on an ongoing basis. This monitoring should take place at source, regardless of whether the latter is a borehole, a lake, a mountain stream or whatever. Water should also be monitored on arrival in people's homes, at commercial undertakings or whatever.
Monitoring should be carried out without reference to the costs involved. I heard in recent days that some local authorities have not tested for cryptosporidium because it is too costly to do so. In light of the importance of water in people's lives, its quality is vital. We must ensure, irrespective of cost, that a quality supply of water, which is free of impurities, is delivered. If that means testing for cryptosporidium or other impurities, then we must make arrangements in that regard.
The situation in Galway gives rise to questions of trust as regards monitoring by local and national agencies. A proposal was recently made to locate a dump in my constituency at a place called Hardbog. The dump will be situated close to the River Linaun, which provides the water supply for Carrick-on-Suir. There should be no development of any kind at the dump site until it has been reassessed and re-evaluated from the point of view of ensuring that the River Linaun will not be polluted. An assessment must be carried out by independent international experts in order that everybody can be satisfied that an proper examination has taken place. The need to use such experts arises because of people's perceptions and the fact that there is a lack of trust as regards local and national agencies monitoring our water supplies.
The proposed dump at Hard Bog near Grangemockler in Carrick-on-Suir should not proceed until a full re-evaluation is carried out by independent international experts. No development should take place until a report from such experts is made available to the public for examination.
I thank Members for a series of wide-ranging and important contributions. If Deputy Crawford provides me with details of his concerns regarding the case to which he referred, I will have them examined.
Deputies Connolly and Crawford raised the fundamental issue of information. I introduced regulations in early March which, as a result of complaints made in the past, require local authorities to retain monitoring records and make them available to the public. It is important that information relating to the monitoring of water supplies should be available. I envisage that this information will be posted on local authorities' websites. Guidelines will issue in respect of this matter in due course.
With regard to culpability, responsibility and the matter of redress, local authorities are statutory bodies and there are certain rights of redress against them in respect of injuries caused. Non-compliance with the 2007 drinking water regulation is an offence and the EPA has the power to prosecute in that regard. In the regulations introduced in March, I gave specific power to the EPA to prosecute. The authority previously only had power to monitor and publish monitoring reports from time to time.
Deputy Michael D. Higgins raised wider pollution issues and the other codes to which reference was made. Those codes include the Water Pollution Acts and the nitrates regulations. I differ from the Deputy because I do not believe it would be possible to encompass all of the issues relating to potential pollution and water supplies in a single item of legislation. It is more appropriate that legislation should refer to one or the other. The nitrates regulations would be encompassed and their implementation would have a direct impact on water quality. Regulations or guidelines that are going to be produced on the issue of forestry and tree felling and the manner thereof will also have an impact. I also envisage the introduction of regulations, arising out of correspondence and contact with the Corrib anglers, relating to phosphates and detergents, particularly dishwasher detergents. To try to capture these various matters in one item of legislation would make it extraordinarily cumbersome. I also disagree with the Deputy's assertion that the focus of the Bill is narrow.
On the wider issues of DBO and PPP, I already stated that only 16 of the schemes currently under construction come under the PPP model. PPP and DBO are not the same as ownership. The PPP model is only applied in respect of water services where it is clearly established that it provides the best overall value for money. Local authorities are obliged to examine all potential procurement methods. A variety of different approaches were taken in recent times by local authorities. In some instances, DBO was the chosen model while in others it was not. It appears, therefore, that the reality on the ground is somewhat different. A fundamental principle of PPPs is that the relevant infrastructure is operated under contract to the local authority. In the area of water, ownership lies with the local authority.
On the issue of an unencumbered right to water and the provisions of the amendments, Deputy Gilmore is correct to state that I gave a great deal of consideration to this matter. The Deputy made an extremely coherent argument during our lengthy debate on this matter on Committee Stage. There are, however, practical problems in incorporating in law an unencumbered right to water. I accept that it is not the intention but doing so could potentially prove to be a recipe for chaos in the area of water. Amendment No. 6 attempts to subject such a right to any necessary conditions or limitations that may be prescribed in law. It appears, therefore, that amendment No. 2 makes provision for an unencumbered right, while amendment No. 6 recognises the difficulties attaching to any such right and suggests the putting in place of certain controls. When one considers the amendments together, it appears that their acceptance could give rise to endless litigation.
The Deputy has a good memory as he is correct to state we referred to somebody on John Lennon's island. Certain cases are easy to consider. In my constituency a person has a house half way up a mountainside. If we gave that person, who is extremely wealthy in order to be able to buy and operate that house, an unencumbered right and he or she chose to exercise that right in law — which the current occupant may not wish to do — it would place extraordinary pressure on the taxpayer and the public purse to bring a pipe to an area with no other house where, because of scenic amenity and planning considerations, there will never be another house.
This is an extreme example as is the other case, but they illustrate that one could run into difficulties whereby people with deep pockets and a willingness to go to court could do so and cause significant loss. I acknowledge the sentiment behind the amendments. While I am not in a position to accept them I refer to a change, arising out of our previous debate, we made in the Long Title of the Bill which included a reference to the common good in a summary expression of the objectives of the Bill.
Wholesome and clean water is the objective of any water treatment system. The enforcement provisions in place, particularly those in place since March deal with some of the concerns expressed in a number of contributions including that no watchdog was in place. It is made clear the EPA was provided with the enforcement standard. I listened attentively to the contributions made. For a variety of practical reasons which I previously outlined, taking this course could cause us difficulties and regretfully I cannot accept the amendments.
Amendment No. 2 refers to a fundamental right of the individual. In general, when legislating for rights one can draw a distinction between the construction of law from civil and political rights and the international convention on economic, culture and social rights. Usually when doing so, one makes reference to the progressive realisation of a right. The Minister chose not to go down this road. Neither did he fall back on the normal drafting strategy of the phrase "such as is practicable". By not accepting the amendment he rejects absolutely the principle. He has not met either the substance or spirit of the amendment in any way in this regard. Far from amendments Nos. 2 and 6 containing anything contradictory between them, amendment No. 6 addresses the issue that conditions may arise which would make it either practicable to implement it within a particular set of conditions or to specify the progressive realisation of what is accepted as a right.
On this specific point, I accept amendment No. 6 recognises a practical difficulty exists. I also accept the point the Deputy made previously that the conventional script "in so far as is practicable" can be used. However, they are slightly "weasel words" because they lead us to difficulties.
I gave this consideration and it was not that my contribution here was short. We discussed this at extraordinary length on Committee Stage. I promised to examine it and it would mean we would run into difficulties. Notwithstanding the intent of amendment No. 6, I am convinced if we accepted amendment No. 2 even with amendment No. 6 we would find ourselves in difficulties and subject to regular challenge. This is not the way forward. For practical considerations I regret I cannot accept the amendments.
I wish to respond to the debate we had on this. The Minister mentioned practical difficulties prevent him from accepting three amendments which would give Irish people a legal right to water. Such a legal right is hardly an unreasonable request to make in the first decade of the 21st century. Water is essential for life. The practical difficulties referred to by the Minister relating to delivery of a water supply in cases where an exceptional physical difficulty exists or where a house was developed some time ago can be controlled through planning laws. If it is not possible to supply water to a new dwelling, it is grounds for refusing planning permission.
Not if the house is already there.
How many houses in the country do not have a supply of running water either from the public supply or a group water scheme?
A huge number of houses have private water supplies.
Strictly speaking, the Minister should not intervene at this point.
If the Chair wishes I will not answer the question.
The Minister can make a brief reply.
In my constituency many hundreds of houses depend on water from private sources such as wells and not group water schemes. Many hundreds of houses in the upland areas of County Wicklow and the mountain areas of County Dublin depend on water from private wells. If the amendments were accepted it would give people the right to have water taken to them at taxpayers' expense if a private well had a tainted supply or the water had a bad taste or colour. We made a decision not——
Yes. What is wrong with that?
Has Deputy Gilmore finished his contribution?
I would prefer if Deputy Gilmore completed his contribution and the Minister will make a final reply.
That is fine with me.
This is at the root of what we are discussing. This is not about the supply of a luxury. It is about the supply of something which is essential for life. The Minister spoke about the practical difficulty that this would somehow impose an enormous burden on the State. We know one third of the country's entire housing stock was built during the past ten years, presumably connected either to a group water supply or a public water supply. Certainly this would have been a condition of planning permission.
Dwellings built post-1963 under the terms of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963 are all subject to planning permission which establishes how water is supplied. It removes them from the equation. The Minister stated dwellings built before 1963 operate on private water supplies. If the water supply is contaminated by someone outside of the control of the householder——
It is a matter for the State.
——the State has a responsibility and obligation. If somebody living in a rural area draws his or her water from a well or other private supply and it is polluted by the activity of someone else the State has a duty of care to protect the right to water of that person. It is up to the State, through water pollution laws, etc, to ensure those people are protected.
The reality is that in the vast majority of cases, people's water is delivered either through a public water supply or a group water scheme. Today, we are in the business of making the legislation which will govern the way in which public authorities deliver the water supply and the framework of group water schemes in the delivery of a water supply.
There is an obligation on the State to ensure people have access to clean and potable water. It is not an unreasonable position to take and in this day and age people ought to have a right to a supply of water in the first instance, and of the water being of sufficient quality for domestic use in the second instance.
Unfortunately, there is a time limit on the Deputy's contribution at this point.
I am replying to the debate.
If the Victorians could deliver clean water to towns and cities when this country was under British rule in the 19th century, it is not unreasonable to ask that, in the 21st century, the Government of this independent State should be able to deliver and guarantee to people that they will have a good quality water supply.
The Minister is standing back from the issue — we are getting this over and over again from the Government. It takes responsibility for nothing. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government does not want responsibility for delivering clean water to people and the Minister for Education and Science does not want responsibility for the schools, as she has indicated that boards of management are responsible. The Minister for Health and Children does not want to take responsibility for the hospitals as the issue is now under the Health Service Executive.
Nobody on the Government benches is taking responsibility for anything but it wants to take the credit for everything. There is always a Minister present for an opening, and the Minister is a great man for pipes. As for the single-model PPP, the Minister is a two-model man from what I have read recently in newspapers. The Minister cannot always take credit without taking responsibility for delivering as well.
This is a critical amendment looking to ensure that people of this country have a legal right to water. It is a very fundamental question and I ask that the amendment be put to the House.
I will allow the Minister to answer a specific question before putting the amendment.
There are 200,000 households connected to wells in this country. Not all of those would have been built post-planning; many would have been built before planning. It would be irresponsible to suggest that every one of those be connected up to a pipe.
That is not what I am getting at.
That is not what we are suggesting.
That is the effect.
- Boyle, Dan.
- Bruton, Richard.
- Connaughton, Paul.
- Connolly, Paudge.
- Crawford, Seymour.
- Crowe, Seán.
- Deasy, John.
- Deenihan, Jimmy.
- English, Damien.
- Enright, Olwyn.
- Gilmore, Eamon.
- Gregory, Tony.
- Healy, Séamus.
- Higgins, Michael D.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Kehoe, Paul.
- Lynch, Kathleen.
- McCormack, Pádraic.
- McGinley, Dinny.
- McGrath, Finian.
- McGrath, Paul.
- McHugh, Paddy.
- Morgan, Arthur.
- Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.
- Murphy, Catherine.
- Naughten, Denis.
- Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
- Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
- O’Dowd, Fergus.
- O’Keeffe, Jim.
- O’Shea, Brian.
- O’Sullivan, Jan.
- Pattison, Séamus.
- Penrose, Willie.
- Perry, John.
- Ring, Michael.
- Ryan, Seán.
- Sargent, Trevor.
- Sherlock, Joe.
- Shortall, Róisín.
- Stagg, Emmet.
- Stanton, David.
- Upton, Mary.
- Wall, Jack.
- Ahern, Noel.
- Andrews, Barry.
- Ardagh, Seán.
- Blaney, Niall.
- Brady, Johnny.
- Brady, Martin.
- Callanan, Joe.
- Carey, Pat.
- Carty, John.
- Cassidy, Donie.
- Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.
- Coughlan, Mary.
- Cowen, Brian.
- Cregan, John.
- Cullen, Martin.
- Curran, John.
- de Valera, Síle.
- Dennehy, John.
- Devins, Jimmy.
- Ellis, John.
- Fahey, Frank.
- Finneran, Michael.
- Fitzpatrick, Dermot.
- Fleming, Seán.
- Gallagher, Pat The Cope.
- Grealish, Noel.
- Hanafin, Mary.
- Haughey, Seán.
- Hoctor, Máire.
- Jacob, Joe.
- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Kelleher, Billy.
- Killeen, Tony.
- Kirk, Séamus.
- Kitt, Tom.
- Lenihan, Conor.
- McDowell, Michael.
- McEllistrim, Thomas.
- McGuinness, John.
- Moloney, John.
- Moynihan, Michael.
- Mulcahy, Michael.
- Ó Cuív, Éamon.
- Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
- O’Connor, Charlie.
- O’Dea, Willie.
- O’Donnell, Liz.
- O’Donovan, Denis.
- O’Keeffe, Ned.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Malley, Tim.
- Parlon, Tom.
- Power, Peter.
- Roche, Dick.
- Smith, Brendan.
- Smith, Michael.
- Treacy, Noel.
- Wallace, Dan.
- Wallace, Mary.
- Wilkinson, Ollie.
- Woods, Michael.
- Wright, G.V.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 14, to delete line 5 and substitute the following:
""groundwater" means all water below the land surface that is not in a pipe or similarly contained;".
I promised on Committee Stage to revisit the definition of "groundwater" on Report Stage. Deputy Gilmore mentioned on Committee Stage that the ambiguity in the wording of the existing definition could result in water below the land surface — in water pipes and swimming pools, for example — being regarded as ground water. He made the clear point that the legislation did not have such an intention. The definition of "groundwater" is intended to apply solely to water in a free state that seeps down through the subsoil from the surface above, including aquifers. The revised definition clarifies explicitly that the prescribed interpretation is not intended to apply to water in pipes or any artificial container. Therefore, I think it deals with the issue that was discussed at some length on Committee Stage.
As amendments Nos. 4 and 17 are related, they may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 15, line 4, after "accordingly" to insert the following:
", but references to prescribed persons and cognate expressions shall refer only to householders involved in group water schemes and similar arrangements, and shall not refer to those engaged in commercial activity".
During all the debates on this Bill, I have expressed concern on behalf of the Labour Party about the possibility that this country's water services might be privatised. I outlined my fear that the Water Services Bill, as it was initially presented to the House, would have provided a framework for the privatisation of water supplies. I have to acknowledge that the Minister responded strongly on Committee Stage by stating that he did not intend to privatise water services. He agreed a number of amendments to the Bill which somewhat calmed my concerns about the possible privatisation of water supplies. I acknowledge that amendment No. 17 represents progress in so far as it appears to prohibit a local authority from handing over water infrastructure assets to a private company. However, that does not protect us sufficiently against situations in which water supplies are privatised on a de facto basis through the introduction of the design, build and operate formula. If, for example, the Terryland water treatment in Galway becomes a design, build and operate scheme, the operation of the plant will be in the hands of a private company for 20 or 25 years before being transferred back to the local authority. In all probability, further upgrades will be required at that stage and presumably we will be back on the roundabout.
In order to make absolutely sure this legislation will not be used to privatise the country's water services, amendment No. 4 provides that prescribed persons and cognate expressions refer only to householders and group water schemes and do not include commercial water companies. That would give us protection from the privatisation of water supplies.
On careful reading, amendment No. 17 appears to have the effect of prohibiting the privatisation of water schemes. If that is indeed the case, it will be a significant amendment.
Can the Minister clarify how the amendment relates to section 31(12), which states: "Subject to any regulations made under section 79(2) or (3) a person shall not provide water services in the functional area of a water services authority without the agreement of that water services authority”? That implies a private operator could use the facilities as long as the permission of the water services authority has been granted. Which holds sway, amendment No. 17 or section 31(12)? The subsection clearly indicates there is provision for a developer or operator to use the facility, whereas the amendment appears to overrule such a possibility. A clarification on that issue would be welcome.
I strongly hold the sentiment that water services should not be privatised. We had a lengthy discussion on this issue on Committee Stage. Amendment No. 17 prevents the asset from being transferred because the essence of privatisation is the question of who owns the asset.
The new subsection (12) inserted by the amendment needs elaboration because I do not have any principled disagreement with the cogent and sincere points which Deputies have raised. The subsection prohibits a water services authority from entering into an agreement for the purpose of divesting itself of the water services asset other than to another water services authority or a group scheme. We want to ensure that we do not prohibit exchanges between group schemes. Basically, paragraph (a)(ii) prevents the transfer of water services assets outside the local authority. The design, build and operate process does not confer ownership of the asset.
I trust Deputies will accept that privatisation was never on this Government's agenda nor was it the intention of this Bill. I assure the House that I believe certain services, such as water, should lie within the public sector. The prohibition in the new subsection will not apply to arrangements reached between individual water service authorities or water service authorities and group water schemes, which have been defined elsewhere.
With regard to why I do not simply provide by law that water services cannot be privatised, such a measure could be interpreted as placing an obligation on a water service authority to provide water in all instances. More importantly, if we were to introduce an absolute prohibition along those bald lines, we could face a challenge. It is better and more effective, therefore, to focus on the ownership of the asset. Existing provisions in the Bill already provide an effective mechanism to prevent de facto privatisation, which may have been at the back of Deputy Gilmore’s mind when we discussed the manner in which local authorities divested their functions in waste collection. The question was raised of whether a surreptitious divestment could take place but the Bill makes clear the intention that ownership will remain in the public sector.
Section 31(7) is important in this regard because it enables the Minister to direct a water service authority to provide services. One of the issues which arose in the Galway debate was that the Minister has limited powers under the law as it stands. The local services authority will now be bound to comply with a direction to provide services in any particular area. A water service strategic plan, which also provides for such an action, is required to be approved by the elected members of the local authority. This pertains to the point I made earlier about the importance of involving democratically elected members rather than making the matter an executive function. It is imperative it remains a reserved function because, if efforts were made to do something underhand or if there was uisce faoi thalamh, elected representatives could be made aware of it. As with the controls provided in planning law, if the representatives went mad and decided to act perversely, their plans would be subject to the scrutiny of the Minister. Not only is full democratic accountability provided for in the legislation; there is a control mechanism of reference to the Minister and if a local authority tried to go in this direction, given the Bill's provisions, it would encounter very significant difficulties. It is complex, but the reality is that the asset cannot be transferred and although local authority members will have the policy decision in the area, the Minister has the power of final scrutiny. The protection that we seek is provided in the Bill. I ask the Deputy not to press the amendment.
I acknowledge that, since the Bill was published, we have made considerable progress in limiting the potential for the privatisation of water services. It is certainly the case that, when the Bill was originally published, provisions in it expressly allowed for the privatisation of water. The original section 27, which I believe has now gone, referred to that. The same is to some extent true of section 28. The Bill was peppered with provisions whereby the Minister could, by order, effectively transfer the functions and responsibilities of water service authorities to others, who could include commercial companies.
I accept that, in the course of the debate on Committee Stage, the Minister agreed to the introduction of the democratic accountability provision and that he has put an amendment before us on Report Stage that protects against the transfer of assets and infrastructure that is in the ownership of the local authority. However, I am still unclear about what happens in a DBO situation. For example, if a new water treatment or sewerage plant is being built, the local authority advertises. There is no existing plant and a new one is being built. Whose asset is that? Who owns the infrastructure? One has an asset not originally in the ownership of the local authority so what happens to it?
I am also concerned about the de facto situation. While I acknowledge that provision has been made for democratic accountability in the DBO scenario, the de facto case is that, where one has a DBO set-up, control of the facility and the service will rest in the hands of a private company. The Minister may say that, in theory, the asset is owned by the local authority and that it will all return to it in 25 years. In practice, however, it is——
The Member is allowed only two minutes to speak so that the Minister has an opportunity to reply.
I have asked the question and I await the Minister's response.
That was useful and it will be interesting to tease this out if "transfer" relates to transfer of the possession. The way in which amendment No. 17 is worded appears to refer to the transfer of ownership of the system or the asset. However, perhaps the Minister will clarify that it also means transfer of its use. For example, the DBO does not bestow ownership on the developer, that would remain with the local authority. It is therefore critical that we secure clarification regarding a potential loophole. Perhaps the Minister will also clarify section 12. It clearly states that there is provision, subject to the local authority's permission, for a third party to use the system. In other words, there appears to be provision for privatisation under that section.
All I can do is assure the Deputy that the words mean what they appear to mean. The central issue of privatisation is who owns an asset. That asset may not be transferred in law, and amendment No. 17 specifically deals with that. The same question arises regarding use and the DBO. In the latter case, the contracting parties are contractors to the council, but that does not give them ownership of the asset.
Who owns the water in each case? We must test this.
It is the local authority.
In no circumstances will the water be owned by the private company.
No, it cannot. Section 40(7) provides that, notwithstanding the contracting out of the service to a third party, the contracting water services authority will retain responsibility for ensuring that it complies with all statutory requirements. There will be no danger in a DBO process of any slippage. The asset, which is the water and the system, will remain with the water services authority. In the DBO process, a contractor is contracted by the council for specific work over a specific period. I realise that there are arguments, issues and debates about the DBO process as opposed to councils operating the services themselves. However, that is an argument about operational matters.
The core issue in privatisation is ownership and I am grateful that the Deputy accepted on day one that I eviscerated any opportunity to create privatisation that may have existed. I do not accept that it was ever part of the ethos of the Bill, but I have gone through the legislation to ensure that there is no chance of the asset being privatised. That is the whole point of amendment No. 17 and I hope that the Deputy accepts my bona fides in this matter. The House should accept amendment No. 17.
I am happy to accept amendment No. 17, which improves the situation. I have been comforted to hear the Minister state that in no circumstances will the assets or infrastructure of our water services be transferred to private ownership. I am also satisfied to have heard that the water itself will not in any circumstances be owned by anyone but the public authority. I hope that I am right in my interpretation.
This is a very important point and the answer is that it will be owned by the water authority. Water is extracted under abstraction orders and those provide ownership of an abstraction right to the local authority. The Deputy brought up that point previously and I am sorry that I did not answer it. He raises a very important point, which has been dealt with.
We have come a long way on this since the Bill was published and, to be fair, the Minister has responded to the issues raised on this side of the House. Having come this far, I do not see how he cannot accept the amendment in my name, which would put the matter completely beyond doubt.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 18, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
"6.—In addition to the matters specified in section 5, the purpose for which this Act is enacted includes giving effect to the fundamental right of the individual to access to sufficient, safe, acceptable and accessible water for personal and domestic use, having due regard to international legal standards, and subject to any necessary conditions or limitations that may be prescribed by law.”.
Is the amendment being pressed?
In view of the decision made on the connected amendment No. 2, this amendment is dead.
Amendment No. 7 in the name of Deputy Morgan arises from committee proceedings. Amendment No. 13 is related and the two may be discussed together. As it is almost 7 p.m., perhaps the Deputy will move the adjournment.