Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Report Stage (Resumed)

Bill recommitted in respect of amendments Nos. 1 and 2.
Debate resumed on amendment No. 2:
In page 5, line 8, to delete “and the” and substitute “, the”.
-(Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Paudie Coffey).

There was much discussion yesterday evening and this morning on the amendments relating to financing in this Bill. It has been alluded to that in some way this amendment relates to the financing of Irish Water. It does not. That is not what this amendment is about in any way, shape or form. The amendment simply allows an amount of up to €540 million to be made available from the local government fund to the Exchequer. This is reflected in a budgetary decision. It has been well flagged with the publication of the Revised Estimates and the 2015 Estimates and has already been debated. The provision simply gives the legal underpinning to that budgetary decision. It is as simple as that.

For the benefit of the Deputies I will explain the figures again. Page 160 of the Revised Estimate Volume sets out the forecast income and expenditure of the local government fund in 2015. The main elements of the forecast of €1.84 billion in revenue are made up of gross motor tax receipts of €1.167 billion and €440 million in the local property tax. The matching expenditure is €1.84 billion. This is made up of €459 million provided to local authorities as the LPT contribution, demonstrating that 100% of LPT is provided to local authorities. A total of €364 million is provided to roads and transportation payments, €399 million is forecast for an Irish Water subvention and €484 million as a proposed payment to the Exchequer. This is what this amendment is about. It is about nothing else. The amendment refers to the payment to the Exchequer.

The Minister referred to the local government fund. I am surprised at the Fine Gael Deputies. I note the young man from Limerick who threw a tantrum before lunchtime has disappeared again. He was not on for staying too long.

He may be back.

The Government has cut farm assist, bus routes on rural transport and the local improvement schemes. The Government did not cut the schemes, it has done away with them. The local improvement schemes served to help people living in rural areas who wanted to roll up their sleeves. I have dealt with many of these people over the years and I continue to deal with them. They are good hard-working people. The Government cut these schemes, it axed them. It did away with the local improvement schemes. Now, people in rural areas who are willing to help improve the roads in their own area cannot even get grant assistance. Then, the Government cut the home help hours, which affected elderly people in rural areas. It removed the community welfare officers. I note the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, is running out of the Chamber because he does not like hearing the truth.

I will be back.

The Government cut Garda stations as well. I am surprised at Fine Gael.

Turning to water supplies in rural areas, the Government has caught many people with this. These people are the so-called Irish Water customers and have an Irish Water meter outside their front door. I have seen many of them in recent months. There are many of them in rural areas. The Government has caught all these rural dwellers, which Deputy O'Donovan claims to be so concerned about, into the Irish Water net. People in rural areas who are on wells and group water schemes see the carrot of the water conservation grant for what it is, a carrot. That is why many of them who have their own septic tanks have not applied for it. Those people see what is coming.

For the record, during the debate on the septic tank legislation I pressed the then Minister, Commissioner Hogan, in the Chamber and outside in respect of the need to change the group sewerage schemes, improve the grant level and bring it up to at least the level of the group water scheme grant. He did that and I gave him credit for doing so. Deputy O'Donovan said that this is the first time in the history of the State that the State has given grants to people in rural areas. This shows how ignorant he is about what has been happening previously in this country. Grants have been available to sink and improve wells for as long as I can remember, and rightly so.

If the Government has an extra €130 million floating about that it can take from social protection I would prefer to see it being used in the best way possible. Rather than give it to people who do not need to save a drop of water, the Government could use part of it for well grants for people in rural areas or to improve the subvention to the group water schemes, which should continue. These are the facts. We believe the Government should put the money into real conservation measures or use it to fix some of the leaks. Can the Minister imagine what some of the county councils could do with €130 million? Imagine if those on Tipperary County Council heard tomorrow morning that under service level agreements they would have an extra €130 million or even €10 million to fix leaks around Nenagh or Borrisokane? What if the same applied to Laois County Council for Mountmellick or Rathdowney? Let us consider the improvements they could make given the results they can produce with €1 million, €2 million or €3 million. That is what should happen to reduce the amount of leaks. The Government could use some of the money to improve the grant scheme for wells and the subvention for group water schemes. I am surprised that Deputy O'Donovan did not know that but then again he did what he always does. He ran into the Chamber, spoke for everyone in the Chamber and assumed everyone's position for them.

Deputy Stanley might be surprised.

He threw something of a tantrum when he was faced with the truth and ran out of the Chamber when he was unable to take the heat. Imagine a Fine Gael Deputy for a rural constituency not knowing the basic facts regarding the availability of those grants.

The problem with the €540 million is that the Government is doing what was done in previous years. It does not matter which way the Government turns, it is taking money from the Exchequer. Twice already in this debate - I will not do it a third time - I have outlined the amount of money the Government is taking out of the Exchequer and loading onto the State's balance sheet to prop up the godforsaken entity that is Irish Water. The Government is sucking away €540 million from the motor tax to fill the hole left which is propping up the entity called Irish Water. That is what is happening. I advise the Minister not to proceed with this amendment.

It is good to see the Minister, Deputy Kelly, in the Chamber. We can have a fruitful debate in the coming hours on this amendment. Deputy O'Donovan made a contribution to the debate with his repetition in a rather sharp and pointed way of what the Government is effectively arguing, that is to say, that this a matter of urban versus rural, with urban Deputies and those on the left, etc., representing urban dwellers against those of Fine Gael, who are defending the rights of rural people, people who are not receiving water from the mains supply.

The Labour Party does that too.

That is true. The Labour Party gladly goes along with it as well.

Members should make their comments through the Chair.

Certainly. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, is at the front of that campaign of the Labour Party. The only problem the Government side has is that what is being said is not true. Deputy O'Donovan spoke of repeated attacks by Deputy Ruth Coppinger and me on farmers and the rural community. I challenge Deputy O'Donovan, if he is in his office watching the debate, to return to the Chamber and back up his statement with references to the Official Report, media reports or any forum in which we have attacked any people who do not live in major cities. It is a nonsense. It has never been the case. Admittedly, we attack the financial system and the troika. At times, we criticise harshly big businesses and big corporations. At times, perhaps, we criticise big farmers but we do not make a point of criticising or condemning those who do not live in cities. By contrast, we consider ourselves their allies.

In my constituency, Dublin South-West, there is a not insignificant number of people who are not connected to the mains and who have wells or are part of a group water scheme. I have met many of them who say they support the campaign against water charges. They are opposed to the cut in the subvention to the group water schemes that has gone hand in hand with the water charges. They are opposed to the turning of water into a commodity and to the process of privatising the water system. They favour having free, quality public water supplied to all. That is our position.

The Government has admitted in the course of this debate that everyone has paid for water through motor taxation and other means. We are not saying those people who are not connected to a public water system should have to pay twice while those who are connected should pay only once, through motor tax. We are saying no one should pay. Through a mechanism of sufficient grants and infrastructural investment in and expansion of the public water system, no one should have to pay twice, regardless of where he or she lives. It is without basis for the Government side, including Deputy O'Donovan, to present this as a matter of an urban-rural divide. In fact, we have a classic case of divide and rule. There is an attempt to set ordinary people against one another based on where they live, just as the divide-and-rule principle has operated in the past through differentiating between people based on whether they worked in the public or private sector.

Let me refer to some of the points the Minister made. I welcome his contribution and presence because he may be able to shed light on some of the issues for us. He referred to the fact that this legislation effectively has nothing to do with Irish Water and that the money is a sum being transferred from the local government fund to the Exchequer. That is fine and we understand that but we are clearly of the belief that this is step one of a two-step process. Step one involves the transfer from the local government fund to the Exchequer, and step two involves a transfer from the Exchequer to Irish Water. Does the second step simply not exist? Will there be no transfer from the Exchequer to Irish Water? Will the transfer from the Exchequer to Irish Water, presuming there is one, be of the same magnitude as the one from the local government fund to the Exchequer? Is it, therefore, the case that there is effectively one transaction involving a transfer from the local government fund to Irish Water, but with the middleman, the Exchequer, in between?

In my previous contribution, I raised a number of points on the amendments Deputy Ruth Coppinger, Deputy Higgins and I have tabled, namely, the amendments to amendment No. 20. None of these points has been dealt with or referred to in any way, never mind answered, by the Minister of State. Therefore, I hope the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, will be able to do so.

Our first amendment to amendment No. 20 reads: "In the third line of paragraph (a), proposed to be inserted by section 42(a), to delete “or more than one,”." The Government's proposed paragraph (a) reads: "Subject to paragraphs (b) and (c), the Minister may, on or before 31 December 2015, pursuant to a request from the Minister for Finance, make one, or more than one, payment from the Fund in the amount requested by the Minister for Finance." Our amendment would delete "or more than one" so only one transfer could be made. Deputy Ó Cuív asked about the point to having one sum transferred. It would be in the interests of transparency and clarity as everyone would know how much is involved on the completion of the transfer. Why does the Government not accept that amendment?

Our second amendment, which we believe is more important, is more to the point. Again, the Government has not given any reason it will not accept it. It is a very simple, democratic addition to the relevant paragraph. It reads: "In the fourth line of paragraph (a), proposed to be inserted by section 42(a), after “Finance” to insert “and approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas"." That would change “payment from the Fund in the amount requested by the Minister for Finance” to “payment from the Fund in the amount requested by the Minister for Finance and approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas.” That is very simply a democratic check on the Minister for Finance. If we need any evidence that the democratic check is necessary, we need only note how Committee Stage has been avoided and the way in which a new water charges Bill has been rammed straight through via another Bill on completely unrelated matters. We clearly need a check on the Minister for Finance. The amendment makes a very simple, democratic demand, namely, that the Houses of the Oireachtas should have to approve any transfer from the local government fund to the Exchequer. It is entirely reasonable and democratic for us to ask that this demand be inserted in the Bill.

Of course, with the respect of the Government for the European establishment it regards as its ally, democracy is fairly low down the priority list. One need only look at the attempted regime change that is currently taking place in Greece, with Ms Angela Merkel at the head but with the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, happy to play along.

Let me refer to our third amendment and clarify a point Deputy Ó Cuív raised earlier. The amendment reads: "In the second line of paragraph (c), proposed to be inserted by section 42(b), to delete “€540 million” and substitute "€1"." It is not to substitute €1 million but €1 for €540 million. The reason is that the Government has not given any justification for the amount of money being transferred. We believe it is being transferred to feed the beast that is Irish Water. We oppose the section and the Bill as a whole because of what will be in it. As a step in the right direction, we propose to reduce the amount of money from €540 million to €1. That would limit the transfer amount to an amount that is much more reasonable.

The Government side has not addressed the amendments and has not outlined why they should not be accepted. In particular, I press home the basic democratic argument concerning the need for the transfer to be approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas as opposed to just giving a blank cheque of a little more than €500 million to the Minister for Finance.

I apologise to the Minister because I could not be here for most of the debate yesterday. I had a number of committee meetings to attend. I hope what I am asking in respect of this group of amendments has not been asked previously by another contributor. The amendments to amendment No. 20 have just been mentioned by Deputy Paul Murphy. I have not had the time we normally have to consider amendments properly and determine how they fit in with the overall intent of a Bill. That was stated earlier on the Order of Business and I will not repeat what was said. Normally as Whip, I take the time to consider amendments to try to inform myself, my party and the party spokesperson and to determine whether we can amend the legislation, if required, in order to keep it in line with our party policy.

I do not have that luxury, which one would have in the case of a normal Bill, because the Minister has produced a brand new Bill. I am not sure whether some of this has been dealt with, but from what I can gather, the amendments facilitate the transfer of €540 million from the motor tax fund to Irish Water. Originally, such funds went towards the cost of fixing all roads in a county. Thereafter, they were used to supplement the subvention paid by the State to local authorities such that motor tax became a local government tax used to fund water services and whatever other service local authorities looked after. If we were to tell someone from any other country in the world that we had to pay motor tax and that the funds went to a company that had nothing to do the roads, he or she would find it bizarre. At €540 million, the payment is huge. Perhaps I am a little foolish, but I thought that if there was extra money available from motor tax receipts, it would be spent on plugging the potholes that were appearing not only in rural Ireland but also in Dublin city. We see far more potholes because of the failure to fully fund local authorities.

It is also very convenient that the figure nearly corresponds with the stated cost of installing water meters. I am told that the figure was not arrived at in this way, but I find it very odd that it is a way of funding the new corporate monster that Irish Water has become. In the past, when the moneys went to local authorities, they were spent in a more efficient manner because we did not have the new high costs associated with Irish Water, including set-up costs such as the cost of installing of meters and establishing call centres. I find it strange.

The householder is not only being asked to pay domestic water charges, as part of a series of bills designed to facilitate the introduction of a company known as Irish Water, he or she is also being asked to pay commercial water charges because companies pass on costs incurred to the consumer. There is also the State subvention, the National Pensions Reserve Fund and, in the long term, the borrowings of Irish Water which will be passed on to householders in time. Despite the fact that the Government has set water charges at a certain level, they will increase in the future because it has set up Irish Water as a commercial company that must become efficient. If it has the desired effect and people pay in the way the Government wants them to pay, water charges will increase.

The Government has left a hole in the local government fund. It is interesting that the Minister mentioned this, in some ways, out of the blue, even though I was trying to see whether there was any mention of it in his opening remarks in terms of how the money was to be spent and who would benefit. There would be a benefit in leaving it in the funds in terms of making local authorities more efficient and investing properly in new technologies to help deal with pollution and renew the supply for Dublin city, an issue I have mentioned here on a number of occasions and a supply which is continually endangered by the failure of the Government to invest in a renewal or a restoration of the tunnel on the Vartry river to the Dublin supply network. The Government is to allow a private company to borrow. Therefore, it will be paying not only the initial cost but also the extra cost involved, rather than investing directly, as requested by many local authorities. I know that local authorities have continually asked central government for additional moneys to plug holes in the system to make it more efficient, but they have been starved of funding, which is one of the reasons motor tax receipts are being used to fund water services.

What is the position on VAT? Is a portion of VAT receipts being used for water conservation purposes? Are all VAT receipts going to the Exchequer? One of the reasons for the increase in the rate of VAT was to deal with a problem that had been identified because of the lack of investment in the water network in which the leakage rate was 50% or more. Apparently, Irish Water will do the devil and all and it will not cost consumers anything for a few years. However, a huge bill will then land on their doorsteps because Irish Water will borrow to do all of this work and consumers will pay not once, twice or three times but possibly four times. There is a problem with the figures the Minister is coming up with and his intentions, as we still do not know the full extent of the cost involved. How many times will the customers of Irish Water have to pay? Will it just be a single payment or will they have to pay continuously through various other mechanisms such as the State subvention, paying for the borrowings of the company or through the passing on by companies of increases in commercial water rates? At the end of the day, their customers are the Irish people. How many more times does the Government intend to raid the National Pensions Reserve Fund to keep this corporate monster afloat?

I thank Deputies for their contributions. This has been a long debate. I have been here for different parts of it.

We must reflect on the fact that the economy encompasses all of Ireland.

There has been much debate and commentary about the differentiation between urban and rural Ireland. It is an unfortunate commentary.

(Interruptions).

The Minister of State introduced that debate.

We are all Irish men and women.

I accept that the Deputies opposite have good intentions. However, I was very surprised by some of the contributions made. In fairness to Deputy Brian Stanley, on a number of occasions he has come to the House and reversed his comments on the water conservation grant. That was appreciated.

On a point of information, payment of the grant, as it stands, is not a good idea. It is not about conserving water.

The Deputy has a good knowledge of rural Ireland. As they say, he is only up the road from me. However, I am surprised by Sinn Féin's position on the water conservation grant, but I note that it has rowed back considerably on it.

There has been no rowing back.

I appreciate the fact that the Deputy has clarified his comments-----

On a point of order, the problem is that the conservation grant will not help to save water. It is not about conservation. If it is genuinely to be used for the purposes of conservation, it is a good idea, whether in a rural or an urban area. I have suggested some ways it could be used. I support the idea behind conservation grants to conserve water, but not a grant which is used as a carrot. That is the difference.

The Deputy has already spoken. The Minister is in possession.

On a point of order, one does not have to be Irish to pay water charges. Will people, please, stop saying Irish-----

That is not a point of order.

It is. One in four of my constituents is not Irish, but they will be paying water charges.

This is the Irish Parliament.

I am sorry, but we also represent people who are not Irish.

Will the Deputy, please, speak to the amendment?

One in four people in Dublin West is from outside Ireland. I represent them also and the Minister is asking them to pay water charges. They may not have a vote, but they will pay water charges.

They do have a vote here on certain occasions.

Yes, but the Minister should stop patronising.

I am not patronising.

Can we stick to the amendment, please?

It is an important clarification.

I am glad that Deputy Brian Stanley has started his contribution again. The water conservation grant is very welcome in rural Ireland and I am sure the Deputy is well aware of this across counties Laois and Tipperary and everywhere else. Many hundreds of thousands in group water schemes and with wells will have the opportunity to use the grant to service their wells or invest in technologies to bring water to their homes or buy water butts, for example. The Deputy may be aware that the grant has stimulated thoughts about the development of a range of new products and services which people will purchase. People are now more aware of the need for the conservation of water, which is surely a good development. Deputies of all hues talk about the need to conserve water. I have met a number of people who are defining technologies and services which they believe must be made available throughout Ireland. The grant has been welcomed across the country and it will help to motivate people to think about technology and services they will use to conserve water. It is not just customers of Irish Water who are thinking along these lines but also those in group schemes. They have been the unsung heroes for many years when it comes to the professionalisation of water services. I met representatives of group scheme operators on a number of occasions. I also meet them organically in my work and they have consistently shown that water supplied through group schemes is of a high standard, which is credit to the dedication, work and effort of such schemes across the country. Some of the finest water is to be found in very large schemes, which has been the case for many generations.

The water conservation grant has been well received, particularly so in rural Ireland and by group schemes on the basis that they are being treated in the same way as everyone else, which is as it should be because they have been paying for water for many decades. People living in rural areas know the value of water, the value of the technology used and the effort it takes to get clean water into their houses. They know that it does not just appear out of the tap all of a sudden, that infrastructure has to be created for it to be supplied.

Will the Minister stop wasting time and deal with the amendments?

I am not wasting time. The Deputy may not like to hear this, but infrastructure needs to be created-----

That has nothing to do with the amendments.

The Deputy spent six hours discussing them yesterday.

The figure is €540 million and it has nothing to do with what the Minister is talking about.

The grants will have a very significant impact across rural Ireland and I am delighted at the manner in which they have been welcomed across the country. I note the comment made by Deputy Paul Murphy when he said he had allies in rural Ireland. That was a very clear comment.

The Minister is trying to divert attention from the real issue again.

I am not diverting attention from any issue.

Please allow the Minister to conclude.

I am entitled to respond.

The Minister has to speak to the amendments.

That is rich coming from the Deputy after her ramblings last night.

Everything I said was relevant.

The Deputy even brought lone parents into the debate.

Yes, because the Minister is taking money from the Department of Social Protection.

Please allow the Minister to conclude, without interruption.

This morning I launched Food Wise 2025. I am sure the Deputies opposite will welcome this fantastic document which was put together by the food industry in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and a number of agencies working hand in hand from an environmental perspective with my Department. It is a strategy that will absolutely grow the food industry hugely, to a level we have not seen before. It will help to create 23,000 jobs which will be totally dependent on the supply of good, clean water. All jobs in the food industry are completely dependent on the supply of good quality water. I did not see anyone at the launch today which was attended by very many people who had an issue with the Government's water strategy. They understand and respect the fact that we have to pay for infrastructure because if we do not have it in place, we will not be able to create these jobs and will not be able to support food production in rural areas. They were happy about the fact that I, as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, and those who would come after me would be in a position to provide water for their industry to ensure it would be protected and could recycle itself. In 2025 there will be a requirement for a new strategy to ensure even further economic development.

The Deputy mentioned that there was an attempt to divide and rule.

I wonder if Deputy Murphy has ever visited County Roscommon. Has he ever seen what those people have gone through? I have visited it many times, I was there this week and I was also there three weeks ago. The people in County Roscommon have gone through a disgraceful situation.

The Deputy referred to divide and conquer.

The Minister does it so well. It is the stock in trade of the gombeen politician.

Please allow the Minister to make his contribution.

The Minister is a gombeen man.

The Deputy, who has now left, referred to divide and conquer. There is a big division when tens of thousands of people in a county have boil-water notices because of lack of investment in infrastructure. The people in County Roscommon do not see, necessarily from an intensity point of view, the same thing happen in many urban areas around the country. Those people deserve to be supported. That is why we have worked towards ensuring that thousands of them no longer have boil-water notices and are now getting what they absolutely deserve.

Deputy Stanley also made reference to the rural water groups. Subsidies and grants have always been given to the rural water groups to address deficiencies in their schemes even though, as the Deputy is well aware, the schemes are very well run. I acknowledge he has said that on a number of occasions. There are some good schemes not far from where he lives and where I live. I met members of those rural water groups on a number of occasions. They have looked for a multiannual programme of funding so that they can plan ahead, a request to which I have acceded.

I welcome that.

I do not believe I made the Deputy aware of that previously, but I am sure he welcomes it.

Deputy Paul Murphy asked if there was a two-step process regarding the amendment. The answer is "No". I have read into the record of the House exactly what is happening here, as has the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey. This is simply an amendment to allow for this payment to the Exchequer. There is no seeing around corners. There is no second step. This is simply as it is stated. There can be a level of paranoia around certain things, but there is no need for it on this occasion. The amendment is to give legal force to a budgetary position set out in the Estimates. From a transparency point of view it must be remembered that the accounts of the local government fund are published annually and are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. So this is fully transparent.

The Deputies opposite have questioned on numerous occasions the issue of LPT. The LPT fund that is being put together is paid straight out to local authorities. That has been repeated ad nauseam in here and the figures have been produced as well. So there is no hole in the local government fund. The amendment is simply as stated, to make a payment to the Exchequer. It has already been flagged on numerous occasions. There is no possibility of any second step, which Deputy Paul Murphy suggested. This is exactly as stated. I propose that the amendment be accepted.

Amendment put and declared carried.
Bill reported with amendments.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, line 8, after “1996” to insert “, section 6 of the Local Government Act 1998”.

Amendment put: The Dáil divided: Tá, 64; Níl, 35.TáNílButler, Ray.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 64; Níl, 35.

  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Collins, Áine.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Daly, Jim.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lyons, John.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McEntee, Helen.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Dara.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Sherlock, Sean.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Walsh, Brian.

Níl

  • Aylward, Bobby.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Coppinger, Ruth.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Fitzmaurice, Michael.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Murphy, Paul.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Troy, Robert.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg; Níl, Deputies Ruth Coppinger and Brian Stanley.
Amendment declared carried.
Sitting suspended at 2.30 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.

Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 21, amendment No. 11 to amendment No. 21 and amendment No. 25 are related and will be discussed together.

Bill recommitted in respect of amendment No. 4.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 5, line 8, after “1996;” to insert the following:

“to amend the Water Services Act 2007, the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 and the Water Services Act 2014;”.

Amendment No. 4 is a technical amendment to amend the Long Title of the Bill to reflect the proposed amendments to the Water Services Act 2007, the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 and the Water Services Act 2014. Amendment No. 5 is also a technical amendment to provide for the collective citation of the proposed Part 8 of this Bill and the Water Services Acts 2007 to 2014.

Amendment No. 21 amends the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 by inserting a new provision, section 23A, into the 2013 Act. This section introduces a legal requirement on the owner of a dwelling either to register with Irish Water as the customer or to notify Irish Water that they are not the occupier of the dwelling. Where the owner is not the occupier of the dwelling, the owner shall be required to notify Irish Water of the name of each person with whom they have an agreement to occupy the dwelling and the date of commencement of any agreement. This provision would not apply where the customer details have already been provided to Irish Water before the proposed legislation comes into effect. This would mean there will be no additional requirements for customers who have already registered with Irish Water as part of its customer registration campaign.

This is an important provision to ensure that Irish Water is made aware of the person responsible for the payment of water charges in accordance with the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013. The section provides that where the owner of a dwelling does not provide the necessary information to Irish Water within 20 days of the legislation coming into operation, or within 20 days following any change of occupation, then the owner shall be liable for any charges payable to Irish Water until such time as they provide Irish Water with the necessary information. The provision of false information to Irish Water shall be an offence.

The section also provides that any agreement to occupy a dwelling which commences after the provisions come into effect, unless it expressly provides otherwise, shall be deemed to include a provision that the occupier is liable for any charges to Irish Water. Any tenant whose tenancy is covered by the Residential Tenancies Act will be responsible for the payment of water charges. This is in line with the principle that the user pays, as defined in the Water Services Acts, and will ensure that tenants are eligible for the water conservation grant.

Amendment No. 25 is a technical amendment. It provides for the amendment of sections 9 and 10 of the Water Services Act 2007, relating to the prosecution of offences, to take account of the offence provisions introduced by amendment No. 21, which deals with the requirement to register with Irish Water.

I would like to address Deputy Ó Cuív's amendment No. 11 to Government amendment No. 21. Deputy Ó Cuív's amendment proposes that the provisions outlined in the proposed section 23A be subject to review by the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, in regard to its impact on tenancy termination.

It is important to note that this section does not put a new obligation on tenants. The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 defines the customer as the "occupier" of the property. As such, the tenant is already liable for the charges. It is a standard term and practice in residential leases that tenants should pay their utility bills, which would include water bills. Accordingly, there is no basis to predict that a landlord would seek to evict tenants for not paying their water bill over and above the non-payment of any other bill. In any event, tenants continue to have the same rights and protections under the PRTB process provided for in the Residential Tenancies Act, which must be gone through prior to any evictions. It should be noted that evictions are generally sought where there is non-payment of rent or anti-social behaviour.

I do not see the Government's amendment having in any way, shape or form any adverse impact on the number of evictions sought. Accordingly, I will not be accepting the Deputy's amendment.

I am very concerned about amendment No. 21 because in it the Minister is effectively turning landlords into enforcers and the landlord will be responsible for ensuring this money is paid. This would include local authorities and voluntary housing associations, because it applies to the owner of the house. In the case of a local authority, the owner is the local council and in the case of a voluntary housing association the owner would be Respond, Clúid or STEER or a similar organisation.

My greatest concern is for the tens of thousands of people on a low income who are renting privately. About this time last year, around the time the Minister took up his position, we addressed the issue of the position of the Private Residential Tenancies Board in both the committee and this House. The PRTB was a positive step forward because it put something in place where we had nothing, but it only had a staff of 31 or 32. This made it very difficult to take a case through, hard to get the PRTB to take on the case and difficult to get it completed. This is no fault of the staff there. There are two main problems. First, the existing legislation is extremely weak in regard to tenants' rights, although there are also difficulties for landlords and, second is the lack of resources available to the PRTB.

Sinn Féin is concerned that we already have people who are becoming homeless. A typical situation is that a landlord wants to raise the rent, perhaps from €500 a month to €600 or €700 a month, but he cannot raise the rent for the sitting tenant within 12 months of the previous increase. What happens therefore is that the landlord serves notice on the tenant and the tenant has to move out. If there is any hangover of a utility bill, that is deducted from the deposit. I have frequently come across a situation, and this is what gives rise to my concern regarding this amendment, where the landlord will withhold some or all of the deposit for damage. That might be justified sometimes, but much of the time it is not and the deposit is being retained for wear and tear. The landlord will retain the deposit and use it to redecorate. The problem in this regard is that the tenant has no way to raise another deposit for new accommodation.

I having been dealing with the case of a girl named Edel. She is stuck in private rented accommodation, but she cannot get a tenancy agreement or rent book from her landlord. She is a very vulnerable person and the best I can come up with for her to show the local authority she is renting the place is to get her to keep the lodgment receipt from the bank showing she is lodging money in the landlord's account. She should be on the housing waiting list and I will try to get her onto the local authority list in the next few weeks. This girl has serious disabilities and a traumatic past. I would not even try to describe a quarter of what she has gone through. What she has been put through is horrendous. She is from the Minister's county originally.

This woman is not on the waiting list and is unable, therefore, to get rent allowance. She is living on €86 a week and her electricity was cut off the other day. I raise this matter in the context of this amendment. The electricity account was in the name of the previous tenant and because Edel cannot show she is now the tenant, she cannot get the account transferred to her name. I have not been able to do that either. She has no electricity, no rent allowance and has just €86 a week left after lodging €100 a week to the bank for her rent. She is living on fast food and some of her neighbours are helping her. This is a difficult and appalling position to be in.

If this amendment goes through, it will cause another problem for her and many like her. The media often mentions how common renting is throughout Europe, from housing trusts and other groups. That is fine and dandy for them, because there is nothing unusual for people in Germany or Holland to be in the same private rented apartment or house for most of their lifetime. However, it is a different story here. It is like a mill churning, how quickly rental properties are turned over here. Several tenants could occupy the same house over the period of a year here for various reasons.

If, for example, Irish Water charges by the quarter, in the first quarter some tenant might leave the house on 1 March without having paid for the first quarter. The landlord will not want to pay that bill. Therefore, we will have a situation where, for example, Joe Bloggs leaves the house without paying and then Mary Bloggs comes in as the next tenant at the start of the second quarter. She will end up carrying the bill for the first quarter, because that is what is happening in the case of electricity. That is what this amendment will allow. The landlord will not take on the shortfall. If Mary Bloggs does not pay, when she goes to leave the apartment or when, six or 12 months down the line, the landlord decides to raise the rent and she cannot pay the new rent, she will be caught in situation where part of her deposit will be withheld to pay the charge to Irish Water. This is a serious problem.

I see the Minister shaking his head, but I can see no other way for this to work. The fact is the different pay periods for the bills will not always correlate with the length of people's tenancies. This is only one of the problems and I can think of ten more. Will the Minister provide an answer in his response regarding the case of the girl I mentioned who has to produce her receipt from the bank into which she pays her rent? I am aware this is a separate issue, but I would like to hear the Minister's response to it. She is very vulnerable and should be on the housing waiting list.

If a water bill is carried on to the new tenancy, the new tenant will feel hard done by and may not be able to afford to pay it. The people most affected by this will be the people on low wages who are not on rent allowance or people on rent allowance who may be on social welfare. Those worst affected will be people like the unfortunate person I have mentioned who is on social welfare but is not on rent allowance because of a technicality or because the landlord will not comply.

She cannot rent anywhere else. The Bill presents a new set of problems for her, in addition to her existing problems. If the changes are introduced they will lead to major conflict, pressures and tensions and add to the problems that exist already between some landlords and tenants.

Tenants in this country do not have fixity of tenure. The Land League sought a fair rent, fixity of tenure and the right to buy. Land was the issue 130 or 140 years ago but we are still talking about the same issue in connection with housing. People do not have any guarantee when it comes to tenure and there is no sign of it coming in the near future. There was talk last year of beefing up the PRTB and perhaps doubling the staff to 60 because the private rented sector has expanded and it is now a major player in terms of housing provision. People have different views on that. My view is that we are overly reliant on the private rented sector. A new problem has landed on the doorstep. The measure under discussion will especially cause problems for multi-unit complexes, but it will also cause problems in the case of single housing units within developments, in particular for people on low incomes.

We had a debate in recent days about one-parent families. I know many such families. The Government has hit those lone parents who are working part time, who cannot get 19 hours work per week. If they get 19 hours then they can resort to family income supplement, FIS, payment to support them. Many lone parents are in private rented accommodation and they will be affected by the measures contained in the Bill. The situation will be very difficult for them.

Housing issues comprise the majority of cases in constituency clinics and they are also the most difficult ones that arise. That is the case in my neck of the woods anyway.

Yes, a fair percentage of mine are housing issues also.

It is a very difficult situation and it has become increasingly difficult to solve the problems. One does not know where to send people. Tenants will be in a difficult position because the landlord is the enforcer and he or she will lean on the tenant. The responsibility will be carried over from one tenancy to another. I have seen it happen with electricity bills and other utility bills such as gas. The situation could give rise to all types of problems. The meters have not come into effect yet. If a stand-alone house with an address of No. 1 Bridge Street is rented out, when the meter is in use, what will happen if a tenant moves out in the middle of March? It is unlikely that Irish Water will send someone to read one meter. What will happen in such a case? Then a dispute could arise over how many gallons of water had been used at the point at which the tenant left. There is no provision for a new tenant to read the meter. At least with electricity meters a person can open the box housing the meter with a little triangular key and read the meter but that is not the case with water meters. I cannot read the meter and tenants in private rented accommodation will not be able to read them. The situation will cause havoc in the private rented sector. I appeal to the Minister to withdraw the proposal.

With this set of amendments, in particular Amendment No. 21, we are getting to the heart of the Government’s way of doing business, and why it is in effect ramming a new legislation through an existing Bill that has nothing to do with water charges. The approach can be summed up in the word “bullying”. The Bill is about scaremongering and using certain tactics to push up the levels of payment, by targeting people who are more vulnerable, partly as a result of the actions and lack of action on the part of the Government and previous Governments in terms of security of tenure for those who are renting. The intention is to target them and attempt to force them or scare them into paying. Of course the Government has learned from the best. It is a pale reflection of the kind of bullying and terror being inflicted on the Greek people at the moment in an attempt to get them to vote in the way that the European establishment would like them to vote.

In the first case, it is clearly discriminatory. It adds a second obligation on tenants to pay the water charges. One could ask why that is necessary. Everybody is meant to pay the water charges. It is the law that we must do so. There is a significant campaign encouraging people not to pay, of which I am part. I am not paying my water charges and I encourage others not to do so but everybody is already subject to the law which says people have to pay water charges, so why discriminate against tenants relative to homeowners and give them an extra obligation to pay? What is the justification for that discrimination against tenants?

Why is the measure needed? If people were paying the water charges, would the measure have been introduced? The Minister, Deputy Kelly, has joined us in the Chamber only in the past couple of hours for the debate.

On a point of order, that is not true.

Okay. That is fine. Is the Minister in a position to give us the figures about the levels of payment of water charges? He has the figures.

The Minister does not have them.

The Cabinet discussed them on Tuesday.

The Cabinet did not discuss them.

We are dealing with an amendment.

Certainly. The matter is related because this is an attempt to push up the payment levels, which are clearly embarrassingly low from the point of view of the Government. I say to the Minister, the Government and to Irish Water – they cannot hide forever. They can do what they want to try to bring up the figures, but they will be forced to reveal them at some stage-----

Deputy Murphy is dead right.

-----and if as I suspect they are not good for the Government, we will have a crisis.

There will not be a crisis.

We will see. I look forward to the figures.

The Minister should show me the figures. In the words of Jerry Maguire, "Show me the money."

I genuinely do look forward to it.

Could we have an orderly debate?

We can of course.

I am sorry, a Cheann Comhairle.

That is good. We look forward together to the figures, which I think will show what level of acceptance there is.

We can meet up then.

If the figures are good, we would not have this kind of discriminatory bullying legislation that targets tenants in particular. It is especially disgusting to go after tenants when there is a housing crisis in the State and people are being made homeless. People are being kicked out of their homes because rents are going up or their house has been sold and they are simply unable to find anywhere.

I dealt with a case last week concerning Alan and Kellie, who were forced to occupy South Dublin County Council.

Does the Deputy refer to two people?

Yes, two people, Alan and Kellie. They were forced to occupy South Dublin County Council because they could not get any emergency accommodation that was suitable considering that Alan had 50% custody of his son, and they had been sleeping in a tent. It was a disastrous situation which is illustrative of the broader problem and crisis we have in housing and that makes it especially disgusting that the Government would now go after tenants in terms of trying to bully them into paying water charges.

That owners are being obliged to register or to hand over the name of their tenants is also discriminatory and unnecessary. Corresponding obligations do not exist to the same level for home owners. I also object to the fine of up to €5,000 for filling in false information in a registration form.

It is clear that what is at issue is scaremongering. That is the only explanation of the proposed measures. I do not understand why the Government cannot accept Deputy Ó Cuív's amendments Nos. 11 to 21, inclusive. It seems reasonable that the measure would be reviewed by the PRTB and a report made to the Oireachtas after one year. However, I would also like to explore the matter and question the Minister on the reality of how the system will operate.

The Minister said scaremongering is occurring and has implied that those of us who are campaigning against the water charges are scaremongering. We are not interested in scaremongering. We want to explain the reality of it, which is less scary than some of the headlines that have been generated around it. The Government is out to scaremonger to try to force people to pay.

If a landlord hands over a tenant's name to Irish Water, which is now a legal obligation, and if the tenant declines to register or pay, there will be no negative consequences for the landlord's relationship with Irish Water. Irish Water will not pursue a landlord for water charges, given that they are the legal responsibility of the tenant or occupier once the landlord has fulfilled the obligation to hand over the tenant's name. I would like the Minister to confirm that this is the case. If so, and if the Bill is enacted, tenants can clearly tell landlords that while they are obliged to hand over the tenant's name, the matter has nothing more to do with the landlord but is a matter between the tenant and Irish Water.

A number of leases already specify that the tenant is required to pay all utility bills, which can include water charges. There have been no cases of tenants who failed to pay water charges being evicted. The fact it could happen is scary, discriminatory, bullying and wrong. However, it has not happened. There is no incentive for a landlord to evict a tenant for non-payment of the water charges given that non-payment would have no negative consequences for the landlord. Tenants should not be intimidated, if the legislation passes, and think they have two obligations to pay the water charges, one to their landlords and one to Irish Water, and feel they have to do it. Landlords will not evict tenants who do not pay water charges given that non-payment has no impact on landlords. The legislation is not retrospective. Those who have existing tenancy agreements that do not specify that people must pay water charges will not experience any change. They would need to have a new tenancy agreement with a new or existing private landlord for it to come into effect and to insert an implied clause into the tenancy agreement about the need to pay water charges.

I would like the Minister to clarify the following point. When a landlord complies with the obligation to hand over a tenant's name, it removes responsibility from the landlord for the water charges bill. Irish Water will send a bill in the tenant’s name. If the tenant does not pay, at the end of the lease when the tenant moves on, the bill follows the tenant. If a tenant fails to pay an electricity bill that is in his or her name, and moves home, the landlord has nothing to do with it. The electricity supplier continues to pursue the tenant, given that the bill is in his or her name. If the bill is in the landlord’s name, the landlord has the right to deduct it from the tenant’s deposit. The same applies in this case. Under the legislation, landlords will not be empowered to deduct water charges from people’s deposits. The Minister has threatened more legislation that may empower them. I will believe it when I see it.

The amendment is outrageous, discriminatory, bullying and bad behaviour by the Government against tenants, the more vulnerable sections of society who are more susceptible to pressure, because of the housing crisis, responsibility for which lies with the private market and this and previous Governments. However, we will do our best to debate it here and convince the Government by the strength of our argument to withdraw it. If the Minister does not do so and if the Government uses its majority to get it through, tenants should not be scared or intimidated by it but stick to the boycott. It is very unlikely that a question of eviction will arise and if it does, the landlord is legally obliged to specify the obligation to pay water charges in the lease. People can leave it to that point, and it is very unlikely that many, if any, tenants would come to that point. Tenants should not be intimidated but should have confidence over fear, stand up to the bullies and continue to boycott the water bills even if they are in council, private rented or housing association accommodation.

There is a range of elements to the amendments and some of the contributions have focused on rental properties. Amendment No. 21 requires all households to register as customers of Irish Water. This is the only utility of which I am aware for which registration is a mandatory obligation. For electricity, telephone services and other utilities there is a choice. I understand why there is no choice in this instance, given that there can be only one water service. However, there is a major lack of confidence. A recent survey of organisations people distrusted put Irish Water at the top of the list. It is a big ask for people to register with a body in which they have no confidence. The lack of confidence exists for a number of reasons, not least the ham-fisted way the Government has gone about this, even for people who are in favour of water charges.

At least two pieces of legislation were brought through the House in a very flawed way. This is the third. While the Tánaiste and others can try to brazen it out, it is not the way to do business. A flawed process very often leads to a flawed outcome. If this message did not hit home in the first and second pieces of legislation, I wonder if it is hitting home in this, the third piece of legislation. There is no evidence to suggest it is.

Every household will be affected by the legislation. Households in rented accommodation will be affected more often. There is a higher level of renting now than in the past, which is set to continue given the changes in how mortgages are funded with higher deposits required which would be difficult for people to provide. Included in the announced changes in local authority housing provision is a high level of private sector rental accommodation, whether by leasing, rental accommodation scheme or housing associations, which will dominate this.

The PRTB already faces a significant workload. I know of people who have been waiting longer than a year to recover deposits which were withheld erroneously. This is the biggest element of its workload. The PRTB will be taking on a more sizeable role in future given the changing nature of tenure. It will be required to deal with even more complaints due to this amendment at a time when it is already creaking at the seams. When we make this kind of change, it has the biggest impact on those who are most vulnerable to the housing market. These include people who are already struggling to pay rent. A withheld deposit or even a refusal by a previous landlord to provide a reference can make the difference in the efforts by individuals to secure accommodation. There will be unintended consequences for the more vulnerable renters, who unfortunately are an increasing cohort of society due to the precarious nature of work.

People are required to register with an entity in which they have no confidence. There are many reasons why their confidence has been dented, not least of which is the Minister's attempt to differentiate between those who will not and those who cannot pay. I have tried to find out what that means. Part of the reason why people are fearful is because they believe the monumental amounts of money required to build a first class water system will result in significant increases in water charges. Full cost recovery will put people in a parlous position. They see an organisation that appears to offer generous rewards internally. That is a significant problem.

The water charges are not seen as being presented in an honest manner. I accept that in parts of the country, including the place in which I live and represent, water supplies are on a knife edge. We urgently need to persuade people to conserve water but this system was not designed with conservation in mind. The nonsensical conservation grant gives the impression of conservation but we could save much more money if people were more responsible with their water usage. The Government is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear with Irish Water. The Government's attempts to force people into a position where they feel they are unable to criticise that organisation will do nothing to restore confidence in it. The sooner the Government understands it has to go back to the drawing board, the better.

I am glad the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, is back in the Chamber. The way in which the Government handled the Bill yesterday reminded me of "Lanigan's Ball". Kelly steps in and Kelly steps out again. Phelan steps in and Phelan steps out again. Kelly steps in again and Kelly steps out again. Coffey steps in and Coffey steps out again.

Where is Deputy Cowen today?

I am doing the duty.

Deputy Ó Cuív is stepping in for him.

I am stepping in consistently.

One rule for us and another for them.

Can we get on with the Bill? There are a large number of amendments.

The situation for the Opposition is very different than that of a Minister. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Kelly, is well aware of his duties and obligations.

Very much so.

I am glad to hear it. I am fascinated with amendment No. 21, which provides that a property owner must register the property if he or she is getting a service from Irish Water. What this means in practice is that if the property is the owner's principal private dwelling, for some inexplicable reason the he or she will have to register with a company with whom he or she has no commercial connection if he or she wants to get the grant. On the one hand, the Minister says this will be done de facto but, on the other, he is not including it in the legislation. There must be some reason why he is saying people kind of have to register their principal private residence if they want to get the lollipop from the Government given that the legislation does not require them to register. This is indicative of the muddled thinking behind the legislation.

It has become obvious over the last two days that a considerable number of ordinary decent people, particularly those on low incomes, will get caught in the middle of the stand off between the Minister and the Independent Deputies who are advising people not to pay. These two macho groups are using the people with whom I work on a daily basis as pawns in a power game. The Minister arbitrarily declared that if people do not register by 30 June they will not get the €100 grant. On Sunday night a lady on modest means informed me that she had not registered with Irish Water.

She was on a group water scheme and had a septic tank but because she had not registered with an agency she need not have any connection with, the Minister will take €100 out of that widow's pocket. Her daughter lives nearby and thankfully I managed to contact her also. I told her that since she has a well and a septic tank, she does not have to pay. She still has to register, however, otherwise there will be another €100 out of her pocket. Due to all this conflicting information, there are hundreds of thousands of people in this situation around the country. Given the Government's attitude in setting an arbitrary deadline, they will miss out on the grant. They set this ridiculous condition that a person must register even if they get nothing from Uisce Éireann.

The other situation concerns people who have been told not to pay and tough it out. The Minister is saying that if a person has not registered by 30 June they will be €100 down. That applies to the most vulnerable people in our society who have been listening to the propaganda not to register. The State is a patient operator and does not mind, as long as it knows the money will roll in the longer term.

According to the legislation, a person who has not paid bills for water and sewerage services for two years, will have passed the magic €500 threshold. They will be brought to court as a result and the fines can be attached to their income. The Deputies behind me may say that the State cannot bring everybody to court. However, my experience of the more vulnerable people in my constituency is that when legal letters start flying, they get worried. They have never been to court in their lives and do not want to go there. In addition, the court may be 40 or 50 miles away, so it represents a big cost for them to attend. They will wind up paying nearly €600 and will have lost €200 in grants. Most people will not escape the payment because they will not want to attend court.

The same applies to those who get caught for the €200 household charge. They will have to pay an extra €100 whereas those who paid €100 in the beginning got away with it. I have yet to meet any of those who advised the public not to pay water charges, who are willing to put their hand in their pocket and pay for them. I have not seen that happen. The Minister's clever pincer movement catches people in a bind that they think they cannot get out of. Ordinary citizens are more likely to pay, rather than go beyond a certain point. The people who tell them not to pay, do not put their hands deep in their pockets to make up the difference.

The Government is laying down rules that will penalise those who have not registered by the end of June. In addition, there is a clever pincer movement on top of that to make sure the Minister gets his money one way or the other. I know the syndrome that the Minister is depending on. If, through all of these machinations, the Minister gets the compliance rate up to 80% or 85%, he is aware that no matter how reluctantly people paid, human nature being what it is, they will say, "Well, if I had to pay, I am damned if a whole lot of other people are going to get away without paying". Therefore, even those who have protested against water charges, once they sign up and pay, many of them will change sides and say, "If I had to pay, why should everybody not pay".

The meanest element of the pincer movement is the significant cut that An Tánaiste has made to the funding for exceptional discretionary payments for those who cannot pay water charges. A community welfare officer explained to me that the social welfare system makes payments on a rote basis. There is a series of rules, including means testing and payment of social insurance contributions. However, a person's actual circumstances are not taken into account in terms of how poor they are or how many bills they have. The means test does not count those things.

In the past, a community welfare officer was able to make payments on a discretionary basis, which was hugely important. They were able to make a case based on need, taking everything into account outside the terms of fixed schemes that are always quite rigid. In that way, they were able to help people in poverty and financial distress in a way that the more formalised part of social welfare cannot do.

In many years of dealing with constituents, I have noticed that for one reason or another, two people with the same income and household profile, can find themselves in dramatically different circumstances. I have dealt with people on low incomes but who have huge savings because they are careful. Other people cannot handle money and are eternally in financial distress. That is part of the human condition.

One of the biggest percentage cuts in the Tánaiste's budget has been made to discretionary payments by community welfare officers. We are talking about making payments on a staged basis, but when a person has no money and their income does not meet their outgoings, it makes no difference whether they are asked to pay today or tomorrow.

When I was running the co-op, somebody came in to buy something. I asked them if they wanted to pay now or put it on the account. They said if they could not pay there and then it would be unlikely they would be able to pay, so they paid. This idea of putting it on the never-never for those who are stuck for cash is utterly meaningless. That is why the Bill does not hang together.

As a result of the way this has been handled, the least well-off will be the hardest hit. The Minister knows that it is in the housing estates which ironically are the places where €100 would most come in handy that the lowest number of households will gain from the largesse of the Department of Social Protection. It would be fine if the Government was going to write off the obligation, but it is going to wait in the long grass for two years and leave a sword of Damocles hanging over these people until it comes after them for the money. When it does this, I do not see any group that could make up the money for the people caught up in this macho war between the two warring sides.

I ask the Minister to stop and rethink, to reflect on who is becoming the ham in the sandwich and recognise that what is happening will hurt a lot of people a few years down the road.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions on this amendment. Earlier today I launched one of the biggest food strategies in the history of the country and everyone present recognised the requirement for water and water infrastructure. I am sure Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív would welcome and agree with it. The people present knew that if we did not put forward this strategy, there was no way they could have confidence as the food industry was water intensive.

As the Minister's comments deserve a better audience of his own backbenchers, I call a quorum.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

I hope the Members present will stay for the Minister's speech.

I thank the Deputy. He might have saved himself the bother.

He does not have much to say. He has been waffling and talking rubbish all afternoon.

The Minister to continue, without interruption.

The Deputy should not speak like that.

The Deputy's party left some legacy for the country. He should be ashamed. It was in government for 14 years.

Will the Deputy, please, allow the Minister to speak?

The Deputy should buy himself a mirror.

We have rescued the country, whereas the Deputy's party sold it out, not once but twice. He should be ashamed of himself for playing politics here.

We will leave it to the electorate to decide.

It has decided already.

It will decide next time, too.

This morning the Deputy opposite would have seen a whole sector which was totally reliant on water to create 23,000 jobs. A number of Deputies in the Chamber were present to hear about it. It is an amazing plan and I am sure the Deputy will be encouraged when he gets a chance to read the proposals put forward by the sector across the food production industry.

There is nothing unfair about the provision in the amendment as it is about providing certainty and clarity for the person responsible for paying the bill. There is nothing discriminatory about it as it is the user who pays. I hope most people will agree that the user should pay. We have already passed the Water Services Act which provides for the payment of water charges and this provision is to assist in the efficient administration of the charges. It promotes the user pays principle with which I presume everyone agrees. It also ensures tenants can obtain the conservation grant, which is critically important.

The existing legislation requires the occupier to pay. A couple of Deputies made the point that somebody coming along after someone else would be liable for the bill if it was not paid, but that is not the case.

That is simply not the case and it is actually the total opposite. Deputy Stanley should hold on and stop shaking his head. Irish Water will have to deal with whoever was the previous occupier. This gives obligations in that sense to the landlord. Irish Water will have to deal with-----

Who will read the meter?

A landlord can read the meter. Deputy Stanley should wait a second. This puts obligations on the owner. It is very clear. The Deputy should read it.

I have read it in detail.

It puts obligations on the landlord. If someone leaves, Irish Water will have to follow up or deal with that situation. The new tenant starts as a new customer with Irish Water in that premises. Local authorities and voluntary housing bodies already have transferred information on tenants to Irish Water and this is covered by the existing legislation. I wish to make that point. Just in case anyone thinks otherwise, it would be an offence to provide incorrect information to Irish Water under this section, including an incorrect date or details. Dispute resolution options are also available through the Commission for Energy Regulation and the Residential Tenancies Act.

In respect of the matter raised by Deputy Ó Cuív, in 2015 non-customers are required to inform Irish Water that they are not users of the service. This is to avoid non-customers receiving bills from Irish Water. Deputy Ó Cuív knows that and I presume he welcomes the fact-----

Nobody normally sends a bill to a non-customer.

In Government amendment No. 24, when we get to it, we will be able to discuss the approach towards the eligibility of the water conservation grant. I presume Deputy Ó Cuív welcomes this grant and the fact that the people in rural areas, who he and I represent, now have the capacity through this grant to help out in various different ways in servicing their wells-----

This is the problem with the Minister stepping in and stepping out again. I said that last night when the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, was here.

Deputy Ó Cuív has been stepping in and out himself a good bit.

I have had to because I have been trying to bring the Minister up to speed on what his proxy has been saying.

He might be a better dancer than I am; I am not sure.

The Minister is confused.

Does Deputy Ó Cuív want to continue this analogy? It could go on forever.

If Deputy Ó Cuív wishes to come back in, he may, but the Minister is on his feet.

I will come back in.

I presume Deputy Ó Cuív is very happy that this modest amount of money will be available on an ongoing basis to help all those in rural areas.

I said that last night to the Minister's representative.

Deputy Murphy raised issues relating to increases in water charges. The Government realises the concerns of citizens about affordability of charges. For this very reason, as the Deputies are well aware, legislation was prepared at the end of last year to cap water charges at €160 for a one adult household and €260 for multi-users. The capped charges apply until the end of 2018 with provision for a further cap to be set by the Minister of the time, whoever he or she may be. A free allowance provided for children and the provision of meters allows people to beat the cap. It is quite clearly a conservation measure.

All in all, this legislation and this amendment are far from discriminatory, as one or two Deputies described it. This is actually bringing a large degree of certainty to the situation. It is providing a certainty that will ensure tenants are treated fairly and it will also ensure that it is clearly defined who is responsible for paying the bill.

I listened carefully to the Minister's reply. He has not dealt with the central issue raised by me. On the issue concerning long-term and short-term tenancies, Deputy Paul Murphy made a point, on which I disagree with him, that it will not become an issue between landlords and tenants. It will become an issue in private rental accommodation in many cases given the short-term nature of tenancies. The issue will arise given the precarious and short-term nature of tenancies in this State. We are not Germany or Holland. We do not have people in rental housing belonging to housing trusts for life or perhaps ten, 20 or 30 years. It is common, and I have come across it often, to have several different tenancies of a house within the one year. A problem will arise. The tenant of a local authority or a voluntary housing association will wind up pretty much in the same situation as an owner-occupier. Joe Bloggs will rent from the local authority and the information will be passed on by the local authority to Uisce Éireann. The local authorities and the housing associations will have fulfilled their responsibilities in that case so it will be a matter between the tenant and Uisce Éireann. The local authority or the voluntary housing association will be caught in the middle. Their obligation, as set out in the Minister's amendment, is to provide the information. A failure to do so leads to a penalty and I am sure the voluntary housing bodies or the local authorities will not allow themselves to get into that situation.

Assuming the landlord complies with the requirement, a problem can arise if there is a dispute between them given the short-term nature of tenancies. The problem will be between Irish Water and the tenant in private rented accommodation in many cases. The Government has not dealt with the issue of the meter reading. Perhaps I am not explaining it very well, but if tenant A is in a house and surrenders the tenancy or is served notice to quite because the landlord wants to increase the rent or says he is going to sell the house or whatever else, and tenant A moves out, there is only a 1 in 91 chance that there will be a correlation between the date the tenant moves out and the date of the meter reading because there are 365 days in the year and four quarterly bills. There is only a 1 in 91 chance the dates will coincide. If tenant A moves out on any of the other 90 days in the quarter, the problem will be that the meter will not have been read. This is where a problem will arise and that is only one of the problems. I know and the Minister knows and I have seen landlords doing this already with electricity bills - they will put unpaid bills onto the new tenancy. I have given the advice to people going into private rented accommodation to photograph the meter on the day they enter the property. The Minister is waving his hand at me but they cannot do that in the case of Uisce Éireann because the meter is in the ground. One cannot read the meter. It is not possible to read the one outside my door. This is where a problem will arise. The problem also is that if the meter has not been read and it is not due to be read for another month or two months, tenant A who is moving out cannot pay the bill, which means he cannot get his deposit back, but he needs the deposit to move onto the next property. In my neck of the woods, landlords were happy enough to take the equivalent of a month's rent in advance as a deposit. Now they are looking for both. Now they are looking for €1,800 or €2,000 in some cases. This is causing a problem. This will cause an added problem.

The Minister referred to this in his speech yesterday. He said:

The Government reiterated its commitment in May to legislate in these areas, principally, regarding liability for domestic water charges and the process of registering with Irish Water and in particular, clarifying the registration process in respect of landlord-tenant relationships. Today, I am fulfilling these commitments through the amendments proposed to water legislation.

The Minister was referring to this legislation. He went on to say that measures announced in May to place a requirement on a landlord to retain a tenant's deposit until the tenant provides evidence that he has paid the water charges would be brought forward shortly in a forthcoming Bill. Which Bill is the Minister referring to? He might set that out for the House. We would be interested to know what Bill the Minister will use to bring forward that measure.

This is the crux of it. Can the Minister see what he is suggesting? He refers to a tenant providing evidence. Even if a tenant is willing to pay, how can he provide evidence if he does not have the evidence? These people will be caught in a see-saw situation. Let us make no mistake about it. It does not matter which way the Minister tries to explain it. I foresee legions of these people joining the legions of people who are already homeless. The Minister heard this in County Laois on the day he was there.

I was there three times.

I am referring to the day of the meeting about housing. A total of 91 households presented as homeless in the first 90 days of the council this year. Laois has a relatively small council. I had four people in my office last week who were experiencing different types of homelessness. Two came in on the Monday. They are going to add to the numbers because of the hangover of bills, the confusion and the lack of evidence available to a tenant to show he has paid it.

The Minister is missing another point. Many landlords have put in prepaid meters. It is not a bad system. A tenant can go to a local pay point in a local shop and get €10 or €20 worth of credit and put that credit into the gas or electricity meter, just as a person does with a mobile telephone. When it runs out, the person can go over by €10. That is useful. It is a good help for people. The most a landlord is ever left with is a €10 hangover of the bill. There is no great dispute and world war three does not open up over it. The problem in this case is those involved do not have the means to read the meter. Uisce Éireann will not dispatch meter readings here, there and yonder for the benefit of landlords. I realise there are electronic means of reading them but the company is not going to do it and it is not easy to contact.

The operation has been taken away from the local authorities. When the local authorities ran the call centres, it was easy. A person could ring up the local authority and ask for the water services section. The man or woman at the other end of the telephone would know where the person was living and could identify the area. The person contacted by the call centre person in turn would know this information as well. This is different territory and I see difficulties arising with it already. I hear councillors talking about it, even councillors from the Minister's party. It is not as easy now as it was previously. This situation will create another muddle. In the middle of that muddle will be the casualties, the private rental tenants stuck in revolving door tenancies. These people are moved on in a matter of a few months because landlords do not want people staying in tenancies for long given the nature of tenancy and rent legislation. The Minister has not brought in rent caps. He has talked about it again lately and we are getting near election time.

Give me a chance.

The fact of the matter is that the Minister has not brought that in yet. All this is on top of the crosses that people are already carrying. It amounts to a crucifixion of people in the private rented sector. The multitude of problems that people have to deal with already is more than enough. We hear about it from them daily. I lived in private rented accommodation at different times in my life. Depending on who the landlord was, it was not so easy. People are vulnerable. The Minister knows and I know that as the demand for housing grows, the hand of the landlord is strengthened. That is a fact. The hand of the tenant is weakened and the tenant has few cards in his hand. In fact they are stripped bare. This will drive many tenants under and make it impossible for them to secure new accommodation. The problem arises in that gap between a tenant either surrendering a tenancy or the tenancy being ended by the landlord and the period when the unfortunate tenant is trying to move on to another tenancy. He will not have the deposit or the cash back. I see what many landlords are doing, although not all of them.

The Government promised another thing last year. This was discussed at length in the committee. The Government gave the impression that it would put in place some kind of mechanism to deal with deposit retention. That would be welcome and it is urgently needed.

I am pleased to hear that. I hope Deputy Stanley will support it.

Some kind of deposit retention to secure deposits for tenants is needed. One suggestion was that it could be put into an account. We would not get much interest on it at the moment, but the interest on the account could fund the operation. I am unsure whether we could do that at the moment. The fund could lend the money to Irish Water, because Irish Water is paying 3% on borrowings. Is that not the case?

I knew that was coming at some stage.

It could be one of those investments.

In fairness, that was a good analogy. I will grant that much to Deputy Stanley.

There is an absence of some kind of deposit retention scheme, some mechanism, agency or body. There is an absence of strong legislation to improve the lot of tenants and provide for long-term and more secure tenancies. There is an absence with regard to what I had thought the Minister would do in respect of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. None of us wants to see bloated quangos, but the PRTB has a staff of 30 or 31 and cannot be counted as a bloated quango. It is grossly understaffed. The creation of the Private Residential Tenancies Board was positive. The 2004 Act is generally positive in that it sets out the rules.

I agree. It is good legislation, in fairness.

It gives some kind of framework. However, it is not used and has not always been satisfactory. The big problem is the delay. It can take a year or two years for a case to get through the door, get under way and for progress to be made. That is too long. Sometimes within a year or 18 months the tenant in question may have moved two or three times. It is chaotic. In the case of a dispute over a tenancy 18 months ago, we may as well forget about it, move on and take the loss at that stage. In the absence of beefing up the Private Residential Tenancies Board and changing legislation for more long-term and secure tenancies in this country, the Government should not proceed. I maintain the Government should not proceed with this in any event, but to proceed with it in the current circumstances is lunacy.

The Minister or whoever comes after him will be dealing with the problems of increased numbers of homeless. The health service is the most important thing in the State. It is about life and death. The next most important thing is housing. Last Christmas, the Minister put homelessness at the top of his agenda and the Opposition parties rode in behind him. Some short-term measures were put in place.

Deputy Stanley welcomed them.

Of course. They were not enough but they were welcome. Any improvement is welcome. The problem is that a roof over people's heads is the next most important thing. We have to try to get people away. Numerous people are attending general practitioner surgeries suffering from mental health issues that are exacerbated by two issues. The first is a shortage of money and the second is the insecure nature of their accommodation. I know one woman on the housing waiting list. She is now housed with a voluntary housing association. She has a condition called agoraphobia. The fact she was on a waiting list and in insecure accommodation aggravated her condition and caused her more problems. That is another issue that will compound the problems from which vulnerable tenants suffer. This will catch people between moving out of a tenancy or losing a tenancy and their ability to get somewhere else.

Organisations such as the Simon Community will wind up mopping up big problems.

I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 21. I will not spend too long on the first two. I oppose them because the Government is trying to amend the Water Services Acts through a separate Bill. I really want to speak to amendment No. 21 which relates to private and other tenants. I implore the Minister to listen but not with his usual somewhat condescending and arrogant demeanour.

I am sorry, but I resent that comment from the likes of you.

Deputy Ruth Coppinger cannot make comments like that in the Chamber.

It is outrageous.

The Deputy should withdraw her remark.

The gang opposite said a lot worse.

There is a point to it.

It is a fact. I am surprised that the Minister, after making absolutely libellous and scandalous remarks-----

Deputy Ruth Coppinger has the floor.

-----would get so upset about a very anodyne remark made by Deputy Ruth Coppinger.

If the Deputy wants to come back in later, he can. Deputy Ruth Coppinger has the floor.

I will outline why I made the remark. The Minister is winking away. He goes on about people saying he is arrogant, although he has just winked at somebody.

Will the Deputy, please, speak to the amendments?

That is how casually the Minister is taking this.

I am not going to start commenting on the Deputy. She should get on with the debate.

If there is one thing private tenants do not need, it is the Minister changing their leases to make them more vulnerable to being evicted. There are three steps he could have taken to make their position somewhat safer, but he never bothered with them.

A previous speaker raised the issue of rent controls. I became a Member one year ago, but many before me had been asking the Minister - I am sorry for boring him - to introduce rent controls to try to stop the escalation in the level of homelessness. He is setting up a commission - the proverbial commission - to look into it. Meanwhile, the level of homelessness has increased by 800%. What has the Minister done? He has introduced a provision such as this to make private tenants even more vulnerable and insecure. We all know what he is doing; he is trying to drive up the payment figures for Irish Water. He is bringing in this law to try to frighten people and hopes the payment figures will go up by the time he releases the information, if ever.

I am sure the Minister must be aware from his civil servants that the number of private tenancies has escalated. Since he took office, the number has increased by 52%. In December 2013 there were approximately 450,000 private tenants. There are now almost 700,000 because the Minister is forcing an increasingly large number of people into the private rental sector. Therefore, the provision in the Bill is really important. I want to send a message to people who are privately renting that they should not worry or be bullied by what the Minister is introducing today. I will explain why. Owners of properties - landlords - must give information on who is occupying their homes to Irish Water. I was asked by somebody this afternoon whether the Minister could clarify the legalities regarding data and privacy, about which people are very concerned. I would really like an answer to that question. What I have said means that if owners do not provide the data, they will be liable for the charge. If they do provide them, they are not liable and the person named as the occupier becomes liable. That actually gives tenants the ability to take part in the mass boycott of the water charges, which is what my provisions are aimed at, without being put under severe pressure by landlords. Landlords must give the information to Irish Water, which means that they will no longer be liable. The charge is applied to the home of an owner, but if the owner can prove he or she is not liable, he or she does not have to pay. Therefore, tenants can say and should be able to say to the landlord that it is a matter between them and Irish Water. Unfortunately, as the Minister knows, some landlords are using whatever lame excuse they can to evict tenants. He needs to clarify today in a very serious way whether tenants will be evicted on these grounds as a result of the legislation he is shoving through on a Thursday before the summer recess without any serious Committee Stage debate taking place. It is important that he do so because I believe I heard him say in his initial speech that it was not the case. He has a duty, as Minister, to reassure tenants.

Tenants should not feel intimidated by this measure. They should say to their landlord that the question of whether they pay Irish Water is a matter between them and Irish Water and that it is none of the landlord's concern. The Minister agrees with this. I am glad that we are in agreement on at least something today, which is a first. What the Minister is trying to do is use this legislation to panic the living daylights out of people who he knows are very vulnerable to get them to rush out and pay. People have contacted my office to say their landlord has already raised this issue with them. The measure cannot be invoked, as the Minister knows, because it is not now included in one's tenancy agreement. It will be, or can be, included in a new tenancy agreement. For most tenants, rents are rocketing and an Irish Water bill is the very last bill on their mind. In Dublin, in particular, rents have increased by €100 per week. In Cork, Galway and elsewhere they have also increased. Somebody said today that he or she did not know anything about what was occurring beyond the M50. In Galway city 38% of people are reliant on the private rental sector. In Cork the figure is 28% and in Dublin, 25%. If one adds to these figures the figures for council and housing association tenants, one will realise they, collectively, comprise a very significant section of the population. The much-heard cliché that it is in Irish DNA to own one's own home has been shattered since the Government came to power. It is not actually building homes or allowing people to gain access to credit from the banking system. Therefore, an increasing number must rely on private landlords. It is critical that we send the message that people should not be intimidated by this measure and that landlords should not be using it.

I would like the Minister to clarify whether the plan to steal from tenants' deposits which they should be getting back will be implemented before the summer. There are only a couple of weeks left, but, given the way things are going, the Minister will probably bring in a new set of Bills in a couple of days. Will it be invoked very soon?

One cannot be evicted for not paying water charges. If the Minister agrees, I would appreciate it if he could get this message out also. If people are worried, I implore them to consult an information leaflet that others and I have drafted. They can go to the Anti-Austerity Alliance, its Facebook page or website and get the leaflet. It is a leaflet for tenants arising from the Government's new water charges legislation. They should boycott the water charges until after the general election. It is really important that we have very high non-payment figures to persuade a future Government to abolish the odious Irish Water and also the water charges.

Given the increase in rent supplement and the Minister's steadfast refusal to introduce any legislation to allow people to gain access to increased rent supplement, for example, the introduction of a measure such as this is despicable. The Minister is adding to people's stress. When will the Government introduce "rent certainty", as the Minister called it, rather than rent controls? When will it introduce such measure?

The third thing that is needed in the private rental sector is an absolute end to repossessions by banks in order to sell houses on the open market. People should be allowed to stay in their properties and continue to rent them, rather than landing on the street, sleeping in cars and ending up in hotels, if they are "lucky", at huge cost to the taxpayer.

If the Minister is going to make it more likely that landlords will evict people for not paying water charges, would he at least consider asking NAMA to do something? NAMA owns 12% of the hotels in this country, none of which are in use for homeless people but could be used. Is that not something to which the Minister should turn his attention?

Amendment No. 21 makes it compulsory to register. Would the Minister recognise that by obliging people to register with Irish Water within 20 days of this Bill being passed, he is admitting defeat? He claims that 70% of people have registered but, of course, we have not been able to examine that figure because many of the people who have registered are not Irish Water customers as the Minister knows and as Irish Water has acknowledged. Even if that is the case and 70% of people registered after a bribe of €100 where the Government gave away free money to people to sign up, it did not really work. That awkward 30% who would not be bribed by the €100 so-called conservation measure, which does not have any conservation criteria attached to it in order to receive it, still exists. The only thing people have to do to receive the grant is to sign up with Irish Water so desperate is the Government to get people to do it. That did not work because that 30% of awkward people who are sick and tired of this Government and austerity and who say "No" to bribery still exists. The Government now has to bring in a law and statute that makes it compulsory for people to register within 20 days of the Bill being passed. Will the Minister admit that he could not get people to volunteer so he now has to force them? This is what this measure is an admission of.

I am beginning to wonder about the Minister's registration figures. Registration does not equal payment because we all know people may register for the €100 grant but it does not mean that they will pay the bills. People may register because their landlord has pressured them or has even registered them. That 30% cannot be forced to register so the Minister had to bring in a law today. In light of the circumstances in which he is doing so, bypassing Committee Stage, he should admit defeat, that he has not been able to persuade the 30% and that he must legally force them to register. Can the Minister clarify what the penalty for not registering is? That was not made very clear and is really important. Is it just a toothless law? The Minister is saying people must register but I am not clear what the penalty is if they do not register. Will we all be rounded up in dawn raids at 7 a.m. and whipped into Mountjoy Prison? What is the situation because people deserve to know that from this debate today?

Debate adjourned.