Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 20 Nov 2014

Vol. 858 No. 3

Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 3) Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed) [Private Members]

Atairgeadh an cheist: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I support the Bill proposed by Sinn Féin and I believe we have a right to raise these issues in the Dáil Chamber. It has been claimed that the Water Services Acts of 2007 and 2013 prohibit the shareholders of Irish Water from disposing of their shares. However, we have now learned that this legislation can be changed by any Government. That is why it is important that the Government listen to Deputies on this side of the House and to the people, who are hugely concerned about the privatisation of our water. We want our water services to remain in public hands. On Tuesday evening during the Private Members' debate we were told that public ownership of water could not be enshrined in the Constitution because of property rights. However, I would remind Members on the other side of the House that there are responsibilities as well as rights associated with property. On Wednesday we were told that, just to be sure that the ownership of our water services remains in public hands, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government proposes to legislate to ensure that if any future Government sought to change this position, it would be required to put the matter before the people in a plebiscite. This is contrary to what was said on Tuesday evening - namely, that this could not be done.

It is really important to enact this legislation because the people have demanded it. The Government is supposed to be listening to the people, and it has announced its intention to set up a 60-person listening body. If such a body was set up - which I do not think would work - the first thing the Government would hear is that the public wants a referendum to ensure that our water remains in the hands of the people. The Government should take this on board, consider it carefully and bring it to the people. If the Government is really serious about calming peoples' huge concerns it would do so.

It seems there is no end to the fiasco concerning Irish Water, water charges and the Government's handling of the issue. The Minister should take this Bill on board. He has spoken about doing something in the future but he should act now.

Many people will take with a pinch of salt yesterday's assurances from the Government that legislation is coming which will ensure a referendum will be required to privatise Irish Water, because the Minister, in the same breath, washed his hands of people who have said that they will not pay the charge. Asked whether people who do not pay will be taken to court, he said it was a matter for Irish Water. It is becoming abundantly clear that the Government is making this up as it goes along and is quite content to change the script to suit itself. Another case in point is the fact that meters are now effectively redundant if capped charges continue. So much for water conservation. The concessions announced yesterday will result in the accumulation of massive debts by Irish Water over the next four years. The Government has said it will make up the gap in revenue to the tune of €84 million to €87 million per year. Obviously that money will be diverted from already crippled public services.

It is a fact that we have no guarantee that a future Government will uphold the decision to prop up Irish Water.

The Government made a commitment yesterday that no privatisation would take place without the consent of the people, but it failed to recognise in any way that water was a basic human right that should be kept under democratic, rather than commercial, control. That failure sends a clear message to working class people, from whom the Government is far removed, that it clearly regards water as a commodity which will be far beyond the reach of the 26% of households with two adults and two children who are living in deprivation. This figure was recorded in 2011 and I have no doubt that the proportion now far exceeds 26%. When concessions end in 2018, householders will face much higher bills to make up for the loss of revenue. I have no doubt that the picture painted for the public at that time will be that privatisation is the only sustainable option; hence the decision announced by the Government yesterday. Its proposals are the very building blocks that will push the privatisation of Irish Water. The concessions made yesterday will push Irish Water into insolvency and eventually make privatisation inevitable.

The Government's gymnastics on the issue of privatisation cannot mask the reality that, with the establishment of Irish Water and a charging regime, privatisation has already started. Its assurances are completely worthless. It should consider the reality of Irish Water. Some €500 million is to go mostly to Denis O'Brien's GMC/Sierra to install meters. Some €175 million will be spent by the end of 2015 on consultants and private contractors. Private landlords are now to be the debt collectors for Irish Water. Effectively, Irish Water is already the property of the consultants and big contractors and even private landlords are acting as its agents. The company is being privatised.

One of the most shocking aspects of Irish Water that has still not been fully taken up in the general discussion on what is occurring but which should ring alarm bells in a very major way is evident in the customer terms and conditions agreement. It states: "The Customer shall not allow the discharge of rainwater run-off from roofs, paved areas or other surfaces into any Sewer, except as may otherwise be agreed in advance with Irish Water in writing". This is the legal basis for Irish Water to claim ownership of the rain that comes from the sky onto people's roofs. In Bolivia and the United States, once private companies entered into the picture and water services fell under a legal private entity, as is Irish Water under the Water Services Act, they claimed ownership of rainwater and had inspectors going around to people's houses telling them that the water running off their roofs was their property and had to be paid for. The condition I have quoted establishes the legal basis for such a regime here. I bet the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, has not even read it. This is what the Government is up to and the people will not buy it.

The starting point for this discussion has to be that access to water is a human right and access to it should be based on need rather than ability to pay. The provision of the service does cost money. We know this because we have paid for it through a central taxation system. The idea that water would be treated as a commodity to be profited from is absolutely reprehensible to most citizens. They are not stupid and know that the experience of privatisation has been incredibly bitter. In some instances, it forces the renationalisation of a service because a hames has been made of the process. When Paris was forced to renationalise the service, it saved €35 million straightaway. If one privatises a company, the fat cat salaries, bonuses and profits have to be covered. Who pays for them? The cost is borne by those on whom the bills are levied and also by a creaking infrastructure that does not benefit from the investment it deserves because the money is diverted to those at the top.

The doublespeak of the Government on this issue in recent weeks and months has been firmly exposed through the measures announced by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, yesterday. The mantra was that the service was protected and could never be sold or privatised based on the legislation already in place, but this has now been contradicted by the Government. It is admitting there is a need for another provision. Rather than making a decision to this effect or allowing the people make the decision, at a time when they have never been more engaged in an issue in their history, the Government is including some wishy-washy clause stating a future Government can deal with this issue.

The Sinn Féin motion is timely and absolutely appropriate. An interesting lesson the Government would do well to remember concerns what happened in Bolivia. In that country water privatisation resulted in a quadrupling of the price. Not only that, the political fallout from the mishandling of the water issue resulted in a political transformation of the country. Our history will follow in its path.

Every Member of the Oireachtas agrees that Irish Water should always remain in public ownership. Of all the public resources, water is the most important for citizens. However, in order to have sufficient, safe and accessible water, the Government recognises the need for substantial investment after years of neglect. There is no point in protecting something in the Constitution if sufficient and safe water is not available in the first instance.

Irish Water can demonstrate that after installing 500 water meters, 22% water is being used by 1% of houses. This statistic is frightening. It is just incredible and highlights again the need for the water issue to be addressed. The Government has made it clear that Irish Water must always remain in public hands. Every party, Independent Member and representative believes this. The Minister announced appropriate mechanisms yesterday to ensure this would continue to be the case. The Government, despite the financial crisis, resisted pressure from the troika to sell off State assets such as ESB Networks and Coillte. The nation has learned from the lessons of the past. A huge mistake was made when Fianna Fáil decided to sell off Eircom. We are still suffering economically as a nation because of that decision. We see this every day with the slow rolling out of broadband around the country, particularly in rural areas.

The Minister's announcement yesterday will go a long way towards satisfying people that, in setting up Irish Water, we can now provide safe, affordable and accessible water to all. I commend the Government's position.

The commitment to public ownership of water services was enshrined in legislation in 2007 and reaffirmed in the legislation introduced last year. Irish Water will remain in public ownership. I will not waste my breath discussing whether it will be privatised because we all know that will never happen. Even the Opposition knows it. Therefore, let us stop wasting time.

The Government lives under the rule of law, not one of kangaroo courts and grandstanding theatrics. It upholds the rule of law, unlike Deputy Paul Murphy and his cohorts, yet we sit here debating a motion tabled by the Sinn Féin Party which violates parliamentary rules one day and invokes them the next. It is used to this and believes it can waste our time with this item of business.

This is another deflection from Sinn Féin's own unsettling issues, just like Deputy Mary Lou McDonald's theatrics in this Chamber last week which deflected attention from the sexual abuse of Máiría Cahill. I find Deputy McDonald's à la carte approach to the rules of this House deeply troubling. I can only speculate what this might mean for the country were she, or Sinn Féin, ever to get near power. The approach of Sinn Féin to this House is not surprising. Today's business is obviously a diversionary tactic, costing the taxpayer money, and I will not waste another minute discussing the Bill. Irish Water will remain in public ownership.

This is a very important issue. As we all know, water is vital, but we have seen many people use it as a political tool. It is a plentiful resource but, unfortunately, providing it to people in their taps requires much effort. I hope the result of what we have seen over the past while will be the start of a proper water service and that, like our broadband service, this service will be put together from scratch. We have worked on depreciation for the past number of years and have seen no investment in this critical infrastructure.

The people who pay for water already know the value of it. People might say it is a human right, but so too is food, which one does not get free. We have had to make huge efforts to ensure we have high-quality food. Now that this issue is settled and we have seen the very affordable proposals, I think people will appreciate what we have done and will say that in the longer term it is important to build up our infrastructure. That will take many decades and I hope it will provide much valuable employment for people.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and look forward to the results of the work we have done. I hope that in the future, when we have all moved on, what we have done in this regard will be recognised as something pivotal for this country that will be very valuable in the long-term.

I welcome the Government's announcement yesterday of changes to water pricing and to Irish Water. Without a doubt, the cost of water and the fear of not being able to afford another bill has been to the fore in the minds of most people. The suite of changes set out by the Minister shows that considerable depth of consideration has been given by the Government to concerns articulated in regard to certainty and affordability, including issues of governance at Irish Water.

Clearly, we have massive infrastructural problems with our water and sewerage systems, which have not been addressed in a meaningful way over the years. The previous system in which local authorities operated as sanitary and water authorities was not in a position to address the considerable shortcomings. Forty-two towns in this country have no wastewater treatment facilities and many of them are in designated environmentally sensitive areas. One hundred and sixty-two urban wastewater treatment plants are operating currently while awaiting licences. They must be licensed by the end of 2015 but they are in limbo because, in most cases, remedial works are required at the very least. In the meantime, our rivers, lakes and coastal areas are being polluted and we face the threat of prosecution, fines and other sanctions. There are problems and knock-on effects for citizens in terms of a proper and adequate water supply and the treatment of sewage. These are no small things, even though I have heard them referred to very glibly in this House during the course of debate. As responsible citizens, we must address these issues. Our well-being is connected to our environment. Not only do we need water, but we need a safe environment and we must be environmentally responsible. We must ensure we have proper wastewater and sewage treatment facilities. As a modern country, society and economy, if we want to attract people here to invest in business and provide a healthy environment for our people, this investment must be made.

I am glad to see the three-year capital investment plan Irish Water has set out. For years, my county has had different wastewater treatment schemes, water schemes, etc. on lists which could never be dealt with because we did not have a rates base to provide a polluter-pays contribution. The environmental degradation is real, as is the lack of proper water. There is no other tenable and viable solution here, so I welcome the changes made. In my own town, €5 million has been spent on fixing leaking pipes. Local authority workers were out every other day fixing pipes, which was such a waste of resources. Substantial businesses were without water, as were whole housing estates. When one looked into the ground, one could see that the pipes had simply melted away. There was no way that was going to be addressed in a comprehensive fashion, so I welcome the expeditious implementation of the capital programme which is very necessary and will reap benefits for our citizens in the long-term.

With this particular saga or debacle in regard to Irish Water, the natural fears that people expressed highlighted the conflict of ideologies in this Chamber. However, it is worth remembering that this is an open market economy and we draw benefits from capitalism. Even the proponents of socialism want to draw benefits from capitalism. They want foreign direct investment and the taxes we glean from it, so there must be a reality check.

I refer to the violent nature of some of the protests, which was condoned by some Deputies. Where people desire socialist ideals, they should realise that they must be pursued through democratic means, because if one destroys our democracy in the course of trying to achieve something, what is one left with? That is not socialism. We can try to implement socialist ideals, some of which are worthwhile or worthy, but we should not undermine our democracy in the process.

It is always worth remembering that, in many ways, democracy is about how we try to persuade people as to the merits of our case. We persuade people with words and language, and there are very many articulate people in this House. It is never about force or banging somebody on the head and saying that he or she must follow a certain way; it is always about persuasion. That is why I was very alarmed to hear Deputy Paul Murphy suggest that it would still have constituted a peaceful protest had the Tánaiste been detained in her vehicle for 12 hours. Is this really being presented as some democratic endeavour, and to what end? The Tánaiste has her own well-founded and deep-rooted convictions about her position, so should she be bullied and intimidated into changing them? Is that what we are talking about?

The aim of the revolution we are being told about is to cause civil strife, uproar and, ultimately, anarchy, which is the only place I can see it all ending up. With anarchy, there is the destruction of so many freedoms we enjoy. We must obey the law of the land. Democracy is exercised in this House and we should reflect on it and not throw it away. Members of this House have a platform and they should show leadership. The sort of carry-on we have seen is not democratic.

The country has been through a great deal in recent years. We should take stock of the economic recovery and what it will mean for people. It will allow us to self-determine. The objective is to ensure people can get back to work to sustain their families and that is the direction in which we are moving. Considering the precipice we were on economically, there was no assurance that we would come out of the doldrums or the black place we were in, but we have done so and should focus on the positives. We know that there is more we need to do as we strive to address all of the concerns and problems such as housing people and so on. Of course, water charges are not popular, but let us consider the social benefits that we will reap now and in the future. Already the plans for County Roscommon are being implemented. People have been told that they will benefit from them in the short term and the future and I fully expect this to be the case. We will all reap the benefits in the end and are building something for the future. We are addressing problems which under the previous system could not be addressed. Let us not be swatted from our goal of returning the country to its productive best by those who talk but have no clue what to do.

I am pleased to speak about this important Bill submitted by my friend and party colleague, Deputy Brian Stanley. It stands apart from all of the other arguments about Irish Water. It is not about Irish Water's gross mismanagement or the oppressive tactics of the State in pushing ahead with the installation of water meters. It is not about protesters, water balloons or being stuck in a ministerial car. It is about one thing: public ownership of the water system. Public ownership is crucial if we believe in the right to access water. A private company is not about a rights-based provision but about profit. Water provision should not be about profit, in circumstances involving water charges or otherwise. Access to clean drinking water is the right of every citizen and this right can only be upheld by a body in public ownership. The Bill seeks to ensure this would be the case. It seeks to allow the people to affirm this right by making it a constitutional requirement for Irish water to remain in public ownership and by ensuring that if any subsequent Government seeks to change that position, it would have to go to the people on the matter. That is rather simple and fair, is it not? Ensuring such an important decision cannot be made by a Government on a whim when it decides it no longer needs to uphold its promises is responsible. The ultimate expression of democracy is putting this decision in the hands of the people only. I wonder if a similar approach had been taken in the case of other momentous decisions in the past whether we would have been in the mess we ended up in with regard to bank bailouts and bondholders.

It seems that the Government has accepted this point, despite the spin that Irish Water was protected from privatisation. This was obviously rubbish given the record of the Government in protecting public services, as well as the number of times it has attempted to fly kites about privatisation. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, spent the past three years in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport with the then Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, hammering nails into the coffin of CIE; forgive us, therefore, if we exercise great caution in respect of his promise to protect Irish Water. The plan to privatise 15% of bus routes throughout the country and 100% of Bus Éireann routes in Waterford is an indication of why we need this Bill. The clear fact is that the Water Services Act does not protect water services from privatisation and to claim as much is to play the people for fools. Irish Water could be privatised on the whim of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Finance with the consent of the Cabinet. Given the disposition of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and his party, with its history of back-flipping on its promises, it is far from secure. It is also worth noting that the Minister's promises to personally protect Irish Water are not of much use, given the likelihood that he and his party will be back after the next election.

Yesterday the Minister went further. He now says legislation will be put in place to ensure a plebiscite, as he calls it, would have to be held to privatise Irish Water. If that is only included in legislation, the legislation could be amended and the relevant section deleted to provide for easy privatisation by a future Government. The Government is proposing a flimsy version of our proposal. It is definitely an improvement, but it is not good enough. The people have a right to protect Irish water from privatisation. They should be allowed to exercise that right as soon as possible and if any future Government wishes to change or go against the decision of the people, it can put the matter before the public.

What is the Government afraid of? Public ownership of water services is in keeping with the will of the people and "if any future Government sought to change this, it would be required to put the matter before the electorate through a special referendum." These are the words of the Government which should put the essence of these words into action, support the Bill and the holding of a referendum on public ownership of water services. If it was really dedicated to protecting the service, it would join us in the campaign for its protection.

From the outset of this debacle the Government has stated time and again that water is a scarce resource and that people need to conserve it. It had the willing ear of the people on the issue and people have generally been progressive on the issue of water conservation, yet when we ask Ministers to set out the Government's water conservation strategy, we get little by way of response. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government tells us that a comprehensive water conservation programme will be undertaken by Irish Water and that it will cover the full spectrum of measures, including conservation-related customer awareness and education campaigns. Considering the hundreds of millions of euro paid by Irish Water to consultants, the Minister could forgive those of us on this side of the House for having high expectations of such a strategy. Sadly, none of these millions has conserved one drop of water. In reality, it is simply conserving the lifestyles of the consultants in question.

Like the Labour Party leader and Tánaiste, Irish Water has taken a reductionist approach to water conservation. The much heralded strategy is merely a short list of patronising instructions. Has the Minister seen the website? I could not believe it when I saw it; I could not get over what was written on the website. There were instructions telling people to shower less and turn off the tap when brushing their teeth. This does not amount to a strategy, even by the Government's low standards. If I were to walk into any primary school first class classroom today, I would be able to create the same list for far less money.

Behavioural change is just one element of water conservation. Arguably, if the Government was serious about changing behaviour, it would have proposed a system that would provide people with an annual allocation of sufficient water to meet their daily needs, charging only for excess water used. When we press the issue with those in government, they tell us that the Irish Water capital investment plan sets out a water conservation project. This is a grandiose description of what the rest of us normally call investment in critical infrastructure. I am referring to the capital investment in which governments normally gets involved, especially in times of economic crisis. It is a capital spend funded by taxation.

Speaking at a meeting of the environment committee last month, Mr. Paul McGowan of the Commission for Energy Regulation told the members that the regulator has a function in respect of the conservation of water resources and that the greatest area of water conservation is reducing leaks. It is as plain and as simple as that. Despite Deputy Joan Burton and her party colleagues' insistence that the need for water charges is the result of feckless citizens leaving their taps on night and day, the dogs in the street know who is really at fault for the vast amounts of water wasted within the system.

The trickle of investment by the Government in infrastructure over the past number of years is the root of the problem. We saw a massive collapse in capital investment when the Government came into power. We have never previously seen a collapse so large. Capital spending is what is necessary in this case but instead we have seen the fiasco factory that is the Government create a tin-pot corporate entity called "Irish Water" to do the job for it. The Government has separated the job from itself. Citizens are very aware of this. If we had real political leadership at the helm of Government, the positive attitude toward behavioural change could have been harnessed. As with wind energy, the Government's ignorant policies have actually soured public opinion in respect of what should have been an easy win.

If the Government was serious about conserving water at household level, it would be incentivising families to adapt their homes to benefit, for example, from the harvesting of rainwater. There would not be a new build in the State that did not have a rainwater harvesting system providing water for toilets and outdoor taps. The bottom line is that the Government does not give a whit about water conservation. No matter how often it denies it, the decision to off-load the State's water infrastructure to a corporate entity is an ideological one. Not only are they failing to be the guard dogs of Fine Gael in government, but Labour Party Ministers are pushing the ideological fight for the privatisation of these important public services.

It is very interesting that we are debating the Sinn Féin proposal to protect a public water supply in the hands of the people during what has perhaps been the most dysfunctional performance by any Government in the history of the State. I stress that it is absolutely dysfunctional, totally uncaring and without any concept of what it means for ordinary decent working class people who strive to put food on the table for their children and families to introduce a water tax charge. The Government does not care what people think about introducing water charges, installing water meters or the right to water in the Constitution. The Government does not care what people think about spending €500 million to install meters while paying €85 million to unaccountable consultants.

Everybody, including Sinn Féin, wants conservation but we also want our water supply protected in public ownership. The public believes in this and wants it. The history of the Government and the battles surrounding social welfare payments, privatisation of bus routes, the attempt to privatise Coillte and the breaking up of the ESB created an uproar out there. The track record of the Government is about privatising all public services for the benefit of selfish vultures who want to capitalise on them.

We are arguing for a referendum, which is what the Labour Party mentioned a few weeks ago. It is a referendum to be put to the people to guarantee the continued ownership of a natural resource vested in the Irish people. A referendum would go a long way towards assuring people and giving them confidence that the public supply of water will be protected in future and only reversible by way of a referendum. The Government proposes a form of legislation with an indication of a plebiscite. Legal experts to whom I have spoken have said this does not guarantee indefinitely the ownership of water in the public domain.

I would have thought the Labour Party by its utterances in the past and its voting record in the Seanad in recent weeks would have been supportive of this proposal from Sinn Féin. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I say that with regret because it should be in the interests of all people who claim that they are socialist to protect public services, public utilities and public resources in the public interest. Instead, the Government, including the Labour Party, has gone down the road of placating selfish vested interests who seek to capitalise on the resources that belong to the people of the State. We have seen it happen with our offshore resources. We have seen the performance of the Labour Party in the House when Deputy Pat Rabbitte was Minister. I was in opposition to him when he defended the interests of oil companies against the interests of the common people and the common good.

The Labour Party has a chance today to redeem from the electorate and the people some of the faith it has lost. It has that choice but its track record suggests it will make a choice that is not in the interest of the people. Its choice will be in the interest of the vested interests to which the party has succumbed since it came into government. I hope it will have the courage of past convictions by standing up here to defend the protection of Irish resources in the interest of the people by supporting a referendum to constitutionalise this debate.

I do not know if the Government will listen on this. People marched on two issues. One was the charges themselves and the demand was to abolish them. The other concern was around privatisation. Clearly, there has been a huge shift in opinion in Irish society. The Government has tried to respond to that shift. There were by-elections and large numbers of people came onto the streets. I heard from people on the doorsteps as a local representative in Dublin south-west that this is a tax too far. It was not only people from a Sinn Féin background who said it, but those from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party backgrounds. They were quite familiar with the argument that they are already paying for water.

The debate is supposed to be about bringing more clarity to matters. We were told yesterday that there would be more clarity, but there is still confusion and people still do not know what they are being asked to do. What we heard yesterday was a lure. As the fish, one will grab the lure and the next thing is that the gaff will pull one out on the bank to be left with this charge. People have choices. Yesterday we went through a farce with the Minister. We were told about conservation and a cap and then we were told that there was a possibility that one might save money by adopting various measures.

According to the Minister, Deputy Kelly, we could save some euro. When we had this conversation, we asked how we could save money. If one does not flush the toilet one might save some water. One could avoid running the bath and skip having a shower the odd day. The Minister is nodding his head. When washing one’s teeth, do not rinse. Given that it is the month of “Movember” one could maybe grow a beard. Do not wash the windows; it might allow clarity in.

One might be able to see out.

Maybe we could drink beer. In the Middle Ages it was common to drink beer when one could not drink the water. Maybe not washing one’s clothes is an option. Those in a better financial position than ourselves might not fill their swimming pools. They could fill the hot tub with rainwater. One could eat cake; one would not have to boil one’s spuds or pasta. The steamy Irish Water saga continues. We could face a future in which people share showers and baths. In case my wife is listening, I do not want the tap end.

We have been promised clarity. Although people may accuse me of being flippant and failing to address the issue, I am deadly serious. It is a tax too far, and the Government needs to take the message on board. The Government says it is listening to people: they are saying this is a regressive tax.

People do not believe the Government when it says water supply will not be privatised. Privatisation is the hidden agenda, and it is happening across Europe. There is no real explanation of what the Government means by a plebiscite. No matter what the Government says, the people do not believe that Irish Water will not be privatised. The Government has lost all credibility with the public. It has failed to listen to people for far too long and has underestimated their anger and resolve. We tabled the motion in order to give power back to the people. We want to see it enshrined in the Constitution, and if people disagree, they would have the option to vote against it. Support for the Bill, which provides for a referendum to retain water services in full public ownership and prevent privatisation of the service or infrastructure now or in the future, would empower Irish people and make water a constitutional right.

The international context can teach us much on the issue. Around the world, Governments and private companies are trying to turn water into a commodity to be exploited for profit, and not a public resource or an intrinsic part of an integrated ecosystem. It begins with moves such as those of the Government, and it ends in disaster. We have choices. The Government's members have choices. People have spoken. We have seen them out on the streets. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, said the large turnout in Dublin was the last hurrah. Yet the Minister, Deputy White, knows from listening to supporters in his constituency that this has not gone away and will not go away. He has an opportunity, in this motion, to copperfasten the right to water.

In the Minister's opinion, water charges are here to stay. We have a different view; we want to abolish them. Although the Minister said the water metering programme would continue, the options announced yesterday say the opposite. There is no constitutional right to water. Yesterday was a confused, complicated introductory offer from the Government which did not fool the public. They know that once water charges are in place, they will only increase. Although the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, said he would implement legislation that would keep the charges at a certain level until 2019, it is no guarantee. There is no guarantee about who will be in government after the next election. It is just another promise by the Government.

It is clear that Irish Water is unfit for purpose. There is a general consensus in the House that it has been one disaster after another. It has been characterised by excessive spending on consultants, bonuses and cronyism. Irish Water and the Government have no credibility. All sections of society will mobilise on 10 December and it will be a barometer for the Government. This morning, the Minister said the Government would not move. Although the Government said the same 12 months ago - that it could not change - it has shifted. While I welcome the fact that the Government has shifted, it has not shifted far enough. It needs to move further on the privatisation issue. We have made a positive proposal about enshrining the right to water in the Constitution.

Whether the charge is €60, €120 or whatever, it is a tax too far. The electorate gave this message to me and many of the Minister’s party colleagues when they called to the door. The Minister has choices. I do not believe him when he says the Government will not move again. Yesterday, Joe Duffy's “Liveline” show held a ten-minute poll, and of the 15,000 people who responded, 71% still opposed the charges. It was just a sample, a snapshot, like an opinion poll. If the Minister is listening to this debate, he needs to listen long and hard, adapt his policies to deal with what people are saying about the charges, end the privatisation and abolish the charges.

Deputy O'Brien has just four and a half minutes left.

Given that my colleague was in full flow, I did not want to interrupt him, so I conceded some of my time to him. I congratulate Deputy Stanley on the publication of the Bill. It is very appropriate that we discuss it today, especially in light of the announcements the Government made yesterday, when it went a little way to try to address some of the concerns about the privatisation of our water supply. Yesterday's announcements will not satisfy the anger and emotion of the 150,000 people who took to the streets only two weeks ago. It is a genuine concern. Last night, I listened to the contribution of the former Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, in the Chamber and the concerns he raised about the possibility of privatisation when he was the Minister of State in charge of the process. He sought that the legislation would ensure that privatisation of our water supply could never happen. The only way to ensure this is by going to the people in a referendum and copperfastening it in the Constitution.

In recent days I have listened to numerous Government spokespersons, and the line being trotted out is that no Deputy or Minister is in favour of privatisation. Even if I accept this at face value, if it is the case, why can we not copperfasten this in the Constitution by holding a referendum? The idea of a plebiscite does not wash with people. In the past 70 years there has been only one national plebiscite, in the 1930s, although there have been some local and regional plebiscites, including one in County Kerry recently about the renaming of a town.

The reality is that people do not trust the Government. Its track record makes it clear why people do not trust it. We were told people would have to submit PPS numbers because the system would not work unless it had them, yet the need for the numbers was absent in yesterday's announcement. We were told the possibility that the water service would be privatised could not arise under current legislation, but in yesterday's announcement it was stated additional legalisation would be introduced. The reality is that the Government made a balls of things yesterday; it made a mess of things. It did not listen to the people.

The word "mess" is parliamentary.

I must have missed it.

I come from Cork and it is the slang term we use; there is nothing offensive about it. Why did 150,000 people march on streets across the State? They did not hold placards which stated, "Give us some concessions; Lower the costs; Get rid of PPS numbers", rather they stated, "Scrap the water tax". That is for what they marched; they did not march for concessions and will not settle for them. The Taoiseach was banging on about the people's forum he would set up. It will comprise 60 people who will come together, engage with Irish Water and have a conversation about how well it is doing, its PR exercises and communications strategies. People did not march in October and again this month to have a talking shop established. If the Government wants to give people a genuine forum on this issue, it should call a general election. That is where it will get its answer on Irish Water. Every citizen, not just 60 people, of voting age would be able to go to the ballot box to give their opinion on the performance of the Government, not just on this but on every other issue.

When I heard Deputy Brian Stanley introduce the motion the last night, initially I wondered whether it was essentially a piece of politics in the context of a major political controversy or a genuine attempt by Sinn Féin and the Deputy, in particular, to introduce a new provision to the Constitution, something which I and, I hope, all Members of the House value highly, and have a debate on it. The Deputy did address the constitutional issue in his contribution in ways with which I do not agree. I was reassured that perhaps this was a genuine effort on the part of Sinn Féin to examine whether a new provision in the Constitution might be desirable or necessary.

When I came into the House half an hour ago, I did not hear all of Deputy Dessie Ellis's contribution, but he did address the proposal to amend the Constitution. I then heard Deputy Peadar Tóibín, who managed to make a speech without once mentioning the proposal tabled by his party. When we come into the Chamber for debates, we know that there is a wide degree of latitude in discussing the subject matter of a Member's speech on an issue. Members range far and wide, something we all do and understand, but this is a Bill to amend the Constitution of Ireland. I would have thought Deputies Peadar Tóibín and Seán Crowe would have done better than reducing the debate to ridiculing ideas or tactics to reduce the usage of water in the home. There are children in the Visitors Gallery who could probably tell us a great deal more about how best to properly conserve water, whether by showering less, not filling a kettle when it is not needed and all of the other things one could do in a house to save water. Deputy Seán Crowe can ridicule such things, but they are important elements of what we should be doing to conserve water. He should not ridicule them. The debate is not about that issue but about Bunreacht na hÉireann, the most important document we have and which sets out the basis of our democracy from a legal point of view. The Deputies opposite could have done themselves a greater service if they had addressed that issue.

Deputy Peadar Tóibín referred to capital expenditure and issues far and wide from his party's proposal. However, he exposed himself and his party because he referred constantly to capital investment being needed, but he never mentioned from where this would come and the economic or financial policy that should underlie all of the capital expenditure he said was necessary.

It is amazing that Deputy Dessie Ellis should say that yesterday's proposal to amend legislation to include a provision to state Irish Water would not be privatised without a plebiscite of the people is only a legislative proposal. What respect do the Members opposite have for the House if they reduce legislation to something that is meaningless? The House passes legislation and we will include in legislation a requirement that a particular action cannot occur unless a plebiscite of the people supports it. That is capable of ensuring precisely the outcome the Members opposite say they want to achieve, but they quickly reduce the debate to a piece of political knockabout because that is what they came here to do. Unfortunately, I have reached the conclusion that this is not a genuine proposal to amend the Constitution in a manner in which it would be in the interests of the people but rather a piece of political knockabout to try to expose or flush people out or talk about the Labour Party until the cows come home. That is all the Members opposite really want to do. What interest do they have in the Constitution? What contribution do they want to make to changing the Constitution to allow for socioeconomic rights, possibly including a right to water? Where does Deputy Martin Ferris stand when he refers to our natural offshore resources? Where is his proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for this? He said the timing of the debate was interesting. It is; the motion has only been brought forward by Sinn Féin to gain a political advantage.

As Members of the House, we should work together on how we want to amend the Constitution. We had a Constitutional Convention last year. Let us participate in a real debate on the Constitution. I am afraid that I am critical of Deputy Brian Stanley. An amendment to the personal rights and equality provisions of the Constitution under Article 40 is not the way to proceed if he is genuine about this issue. He needs to examine Article 10 and the balance of rights. How would his proposal be balanced with the property rights provided for in the Constitution? I have raised issues about property rights in the Constitution and their exacting nature. We should examine the property rights provided for in the Constitution, but we should be serious about the issue. If Sinn Féin regards it as its Constitution - I hope it does - it should examine these issues.

I take exception to references by Deputy Martin Ferris in the context of this debate to my party not acting in the interests of the country in what we do. If we were to have a debate on whether his party had acted in the interests of the country, we would be here until midnight. If we want to talk about the Constitution, let us do so. It belongs to the people of Ireland. Let us be serious and responsible about such a debate and not make it the subject matter of political knockabout, as I am afraid the Deputies opposite have done.

I wish to share time with Deputy Brian Stanley.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

If ever there was a telling sign that a Government and a Minister were under pressure, one only had to listen to the Minister's contribution. He gave a great lecture on Sinn Féin. On the motion before the Dáil which is to be discussed by all Members of the Legislature, not once did he give a reason or outline the rationale for the Government not supporting an amendment to the Constitution enshrining a right to water. Instead, he tried to score political points across the Chamber about what we had said about the Government. Our comment was simple - that the public did not trust it.

Try to be honest for a change.

With respect, if the Minister has some manners and humility, he will begin to listen, not just to me but also to the manifestation of the right to water on the streets of the capital city over one month ago which then spread to every village and town across the State. The right to water campaign, in which Sinn Féin, with others, is proud to play a central role has two aims, one of which is to achieve a right to water - that is what the motion is about - and have it enshrined in the Constitution. The second is to have the water charges scrapped and the legislation repealed.

What Sinn Féin is doing with this Bill - Members on the Government side may call this opportunistic - is that it is listening to the will of the people and putting forward what it has been saying for many years - that water is and should be a right and should be protected under the Constitution. It should not be at the whim of the Government or the Labour Party to make another promise, which they will no doubt break in the future.

Is the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, asking us to trust the Labour Party in the same way it asked the public to trust it on the issue of university fees? Its members promised there would be no increase in university fees and went as far as having a photo shoot and signing a pledge. Should they now ask the public to trust them on the issue of water rights and public ownership, just as they asked the public to trust them on the issue of child benefit? That time, the Labour Party went as far as spending thousands of euro of its money erecting posters the length and breadth of the country pledging that the promise it was making would not be breached.

The problem for the Government, and for the Labour Party in particular, is that the public has lost faith, trust and confidence in it. The Minister says the Government is bringing in a legislative bind on the Dáil to ensure that Irish Water will not be privatised, but it told us that a couple of months ago. The Government said the legislation provided that it could not be privatised, but now it has acknowledged that the provision is not strong enough and is saying it will go for a double-lock provision. The same problem exists with the double-lock as with the first lock. It is legislation and any Government can, at a whim, change the legislation of the day. The Government can put it into the legislation that Irish Water cannot be privatised in the future without a plebiscite, but a future Government, or the existing Government under pressure from the troika or other forces, internal or external, could propose an amendment to that legislation that would remove the condition to have a plebiscite.

Let us get real about this. This is about taking the people for fools. The Government is trying to say it understands these matters and that inserting a condition to provide for a plebiscite will protect Irish Water, while hoping the public does not understand that with the snap of a finger it can change the law, if it so wishes, through a majority vote in the Seanad and the Dáil.

The core of this issue is whether water should be protected under the Constitution. I said in my opening remarks, and we acknowledge this, that the Minister is clearly under pressure on the issue. Half of the Labour Party believes water should be protected under the Constitution, while others, particularly those promoted to the ministerial benches, believe it should not, or perhaps it is just that they have to toe the line on Fine Gael policy.

We are not ruled by the military. We have different views.

The Minister lectured us earlier about having a conversation on the Constitution, but he is now resorting to cheap shots such as that he has just made. Let me echo what he said earlier. This Government is under pressure, the Labour Party is under pressure and a particular Minister is under pressure. The type of accusation just made is beneath the Minister - whom I respect on a personal basis - and below contempt.

This is about a constitutional right. It is about the inclusion of the right to water in our Constitution. It is an issue that 150,000 members of the public marched for and that tens of thousands will march for on 10 December. It is time for the Government to wise up, listen and stop its cheap political point-scoring off people like me. I was democratically elected by the people of Donegal South-West. I remind the Minister I had to use the Constitution for which he suggests we have no regard to take the previous Government to court to force an election it tried to stop. We will use every opportunity under the Constitution and under people's rights to defend the rights of the people. That is why we want to ensure the right to water is enshrined in the Constitution.

I hoped the Minister would remain in the House, because I wanted to respond to what he said, but he has run from the Chamber. The Minister is more liberal than left-wing, while the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, is more of a full-back who tends to play the man instead of the ball and who could even damage some of his own team in the process.

The Minister said that some of the Sinn Féin Deputies went away from the issue of amending the Constitution. Obviously, yesterday was a big day, with the debate on water services. Last night, however, the Ceann Comhairle allowed Members on the Government benches to talk about dead bodies, not those shot by Free Staters or the stickies-----

It was not the Ceann Comhairle.

-----and to talk about rape, but not the children raped while past Governments stood idly by without doing anything to stop the rape in homes and institutions throughout the State.

The Ceann Comhairle was not present. He did not allow that, as he was not here.

Two Government Deputies were allowed make those comments.

I have no information on that. Please return to the debate.

I thank Deputies from all sides for their contributions. While the Government benches have clearly indicated that they will not support our proposal in regard to a referendum, it is clear this has unsettled them. The response of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, yesterday was to promise to enact a legislative amendment to the current legislation, which would be totally inadequate. The insertion of an amendment to have a plebiscite in the event of a proposal to privatise the water service would not even guarantee that a plebiscite would be held. The Minister of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, who has just left the Chamber, would be aware of that, because he has a legal qualification. It is hard to imagine that a Government which had made up its mind to sell off the water services would not simply again amend the relevant legislation to remove the commitment to hold such a plebiscite. This means the only way to guarantee that privatisation is prevented would be to hold a referendum along the lines proposed by Sinn Féin. That would be the most democratic means of settling the issue. A simple question could be put as to whether people want Irish Water to remain in public ownership or be sold off to a private company. It is clear that several members of the Labour Party, including party members in the Seanad, share our view on this. I urge them, therefore, to follow their convictions, if they are serious and this is not just public bluster, and vote to allow this Bill to go forward.

Last night, the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, claimed the original legislation proposed a legal mechanism that would prevent Uisce Éireann from being sold off or privatised, but this was removed by officials. We can only presume at whose whim that was removed. I presume it was done on the instruction of the former Minister, Phil Hogan, and his senior officials. I must also refer to the astonishment expressed by the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, at Sinn Féin's allegedly ill-judged and badly timed decision to introduce this Bill. I cannot think of a better time for this Bill. I do not know whether he has been outside this building in the past week, but this is the issue and concern of people on the street. They are worried about this issue. He made that claim in light of the lectures on the issue that we have had to listen to since yesterday. People are concerned about this issue, particularly those who vote for Sinn Féin. I have also met many Fine Gael voters who are concerned about it.

First, we initiated this Bill over a month ago, prior to the recent break. We may be many things, but we are not mind readers. The truth is that the Government, in its panic, has done a number of U-turns. It announced ten changes yesterday. It has stumbled from one crisis to another in regard to Irish Water and the water charges. Second, our Bill holds validity, despite any of the U-turns announced by the Minister. As I said earlier, it has even more validity in light of the Government's strange reason for not providing the opportunity of a referendum to allow citizens to decide whether they want a constitutional guarantee against privatisation.

I suspect the Government's opposition to our proposal goes much deeper than the diversionary responses of the Minister and some Members on the Government benches. The only conclusion one can draw is that it would not object to selling off the water services at some future date. The evidence certainly points to that, and the Labour Party appears happy to support that and to leave the door open to the implementation of another part of the neoliberal agenda. We have seen much of this attitude since it came to power. At least Fine Gael is consistent in regard to its ideological position and its right-wing agenda. I am not sure where the Labour Party stands in that regard.

Most of the Minister's response had nothing to do with the substance of our proposal.

He spoke about the nature of the protests, water meters and other issues that had nothing to do with the point at issue. There are several conflicting views on the issues discussed yesterday which will be discussed again later today during the debate on the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly's announcement.

Our Bill, while obviously inspired by the current national debate on water services, stands alone, regardless of anyone's opinion on whether Irish Water is fit for purpose or whether there ought to be water charges, which are the two key issues. Sinn Féin and others on this side of the House do not think Irish Water is fit for purpose and we propose that it be abolished, as it cannot continue in its current form.

They charge for it in the North. They have it all rolled up into one.

However, if the Government gets its way on these issues and Irish Water remains as it is, a successful amendment on retaining water services in public ownership would not conflict with it. Therefore, we must again ask why the Government is so keen to ensure this option will remain for a future Government. The Bill I have brought forward would put control in the hands of the people of the State. The Minister, Deputy Alex White, has talked about the amendment we seek to insert into Article 40. We do so on legal advice. While I know that the Minister has a legal qualification, barristers differ. Doctors also differ and patients die - that is a fact. This is the advice we are going by and we are doing so for a good reason. It is fair enough if the Minister believes it should be inserted into Article 10 of the Constitution. We will not fall out over it and I would certainly not fall out with him over it, if he was willing to back it. However, that is not what he is about. What he is trying to do is belittle the solid proposal we have brought forward. He said it was some kind of diversionary political tactic.

When we bring up any issue, there is always a diversionary political tactic. I have seen the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey's diversionary political tactics and the way he plays the man, not the ball.

I do not do that.

I have seen the way the Minister of State does it and it does not go down well with the public or, I must inform him, even with some of his own supporters, some of whom I have heard comment on the way he does it.

Please, Deputy, can we stick to the Bill?

Is Deputy Brian Stanley going to Fine Gael meetings also? Is he infiltrating them?

The Minister of State stands up here and has an answer for everything, bar what is being spoken about. If he would stick to the subject, he might do better.

Please, Deputy. There should be no more interruptions.

Through the Bill we have brought forward, we want to put this issue in the hands of the people only. The Government's flaky proposal of a plebiscite would put control in the hands of a future Government when with a simple majority in the House the law could be changed. That is all that is needed to change the law at any time and sell to the highest bidder - to vulture capitalists. The Government has left the way open. Of course, because of the IMF, the ECB, the troika or some other conglomerate, the Government could state, "We have to do it because the big boys have told us to do it," and force it on the people, or some other concoction of a Government will force it on them. We could have a situation where there was a Fine Gael Government. Unfortunately, there are no Labour Party Members present in the House to hear what I have to say, but I make the point that Labour Party people, most of whom are fair-minded, need to be very careful. We can imagine a situation where Fine Gael and the Reform Alliance, the Progressive Democrats Mark II, are occupying the Government benches with a majority. Those who occupy the Labour Party benches now will have to trust them. They are willing to go with the legislation and trust a right-wing Government including the Reform Alliance, the Progressive Democrats Mark II or Mark III, with Fine Gael, on this issue. I certainly would not trust it on it, given the U-turns it has made and what I have seen it do since it came to power.

Do not forget it founded the State and all of the institutions that go with it. The Deputy's party for many years tried to usurp them.

It would sell it off on a whim to the likes of Sierra.

We will not be lectured by Sinn Féin. My party founded the State.

I ask Deputy Brian Stanley to conclude.

The Minister of State is interrupting. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for calling for order. What Fine Gael would do is sell off Irish Water to Sierra, which already has its foot in the door, or some other such company. That is what the big plan is.

That is scaremongering.

That is the road it will go down and the Labour Party needs to be aware of this. That is what Fine Gael is fit to do in a future Government including the Reform Alliance, the Progressive Democrats Mark II, or some other concoction of a Government. I appeal to the Members of the House, even to Fine Gael Members who may be worried about this issue, to vote for the Bill to insert this simple amendment into Article 40 of the Constitution and give control back to the people. They should not leave these decisions in the hands of flaky Governments. Water services and water infrastructure belong to the people and nobody, including the Government, has the right to sell them off. We must enshrine this amendment in the Constitution.

Cuireadh an cheist.
Question put.
Rinne an Dáil vótáil ar mhodh leictreonach.
The Dáil divided by electronic means.

Given the importance of this issue, the importance of water services and the utterances of those on the other side of the House, as a teller, under Standing Order 69 I propose that the vote be taken by other than electronic means.

Cuireadh an cheist arís.
Question again put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 43; Níl, 74.

  • Adams, Gerry.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Stephen S.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Fitzmaurice, Michael.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.


  • Bannon, James.
  • Barry, Tom.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Collins, Áine.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Daly, Jim.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • McEntee, Helen.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Dara.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Deputy Brian Stanley and Deputy Pearse Doherty; Níl, Deputy Paul Kehoe and Deputy Emmet Stagg.
Question declared lost.
Faisnéiseadh go rabhthas tar éis diúltú don cheist.
Sitting suspended at noon and resumed at 12.05 p.m.