I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. I never like to be personal about anything, but when I look back over this debacle, I am reminded of the arrogance of the former Minister, Phil Hogan, who behaved in a condescending manner when dealing with people who had dared to voice objections to what he was proposing. The actual charges being proposed at the time, before the then Government started to climb down, were outrageous. I calculated that families with a number of children living in their houses would be facing the imposition of charges of €600, €700, €800 or €900. It was going from nothing to that level. It was no wonder that the people took to the streets. It was no wonder that political organisations rallied against what was being proposed.
In County Kerry, I marched with people who were opposed to what was being proposed. I made many great friends on those marches. There were wet, bad and cold days. I tried to be out as much as possible with them because I believed what was being proposed was wrong.
The funny thing is that if the Government had addressed the issue in a different way, and had been more reasonable, there could have been a different outcome. I am not one to apportion blame, but I remember when a former Minister sat in the Taoiseach's seat. I was debating the abolition of town councils, something to which I was totally and vehemently opposed. I did not care whether people were in Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or any other political party. Our urban councillors played a vital role in our democracy. I believed that at the time and still believe it passionately. Town councils should not have been abolished.
When I was debating the issue, the former Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, was in the House and I spoke about Fine Gael town councillors, in particular, whom I knew and were very upset about the abolition of town councils. When I finished making what I would call a plea on behalf of those councillors and town councils, the former Minister stood up and said I could go back to those people - I was speaking about his people - and tell them he was quaking in his boots. That was the same as telling me where to go. We are at this juncture because of that type of arrogance.
I welcome the fact that what I would call the swagger and arrogance of the previous Government is not present in the current one. I recognise Deputy Cowen. The input of Fianna Fáil means that the Government does not have a massive overall majority, which was the worst thing that ever happened. The Government of that time thought it could stand back from the people and tell them it was going to do whatever it liked. That hurt me a lot.
How this issue was dealt with at that time was beyond belief. That is why we are discussing the Water Services Bill 2017 and why approximately €179 million has to be repaid. Nobody could have foreseen that this would be the outcome. The previous Government drew it all upon itself through its actions. I applaud the people who made their views known, stood out, argued, fought and won the day.
One has to do things right. I wish to make a declaration. I am a person who could have a perceived conflict of interest in terms of the Bill because of a person to whom I have a connection, work and all of that. I want to put that on the record so that nobody can say I was neglectful in my duty in declaring that.
I refer to people who help to ensure the delivery of water to homes, businesses and farms throughout the country. When I refer to these people I have to speak about Kerry County Council. I refer to it because there are great people in many sections working in our local authority, including housing and planning.
People in office jobs or what I call water men who repair water leaks for Irish Water do great work. Before the creation of Irish Water, they were employees of Kerry County Council. I want to put on the record my admiration for and total confidence in the great work they do. They work on Christmas Day and New Year's Day. I spoke to a water man recently and asked how he was getting on. He told me they had a late night fixing a water leak and did not finish until 12.30 a.m. They ensure water keeps flowing through pipes and gets to houses.
On a personal note, I wish to acknowledge my late father-in-law, Jack Lyne, who was a very respectable man and went about his work diligently all his life. He was very proud of the fact that he worked for the water services division of Kerry County Council. I want to acknowledge my uncle, Dan Rae, who worked for many years driving a digger to dig holes and expose pipes to ensure water kept flowing. It is always nice to remember people who have gone.
I wish to acknowledge the great work of men such as the two I have named and all the other people who dedicated their lives to their work. They were very proud of their work and the fact that water services might service a single house, an entire town or a community. As I said, they would tear at the work in all weathers and at any hour of the day or night. It is only right and proper that those people should be remembered today.
I find those currently working in Irish Water to be extremely diligent and good at their work. It is often a tough job to get water going again. Sometimes pipes can be very inaccessible and they work in all types of weather. It is not an easy job at times. The Minister of State and Government should always acknowledge the vital role those people play.
With regard to the Bill before us, nobody could have foreseen that we would be where we are today. It is a problem created by the Government and one which it has to sort out. I listened very closely to previous speakers and very valuable and important contributions were made because of the importance of this issue. People are wondering what way this is going to pan out and how money will be refunded. People are fearful about the talk of excessive use. As others have said, we have to be very careful that a future Government does not use a window of opportunity to try to do something similar to what the last Government did.
If something sensible had been introduced at the beginning, we could have had a completely different outcome. Given the charges which were proposed and the excessive use charges imposed, people were not going to accept the regime in any shape or fashion.
We have to remember a very important group of people who have always paid for their water, namely, the farming community. Farmers and businesses have paid for water. I have paid water charges for over 30 years. I am very grateful for the service and continuity of supply I receive. However, that is in a business context. Many farmers who are unable to connect to mains water have to provide their own water.
People set up group water schemes. I was very glad over many years in County Kerry to have helped to assist community groups and individuals come together in this way. A group scheme could be two, three or 103 people. I was always very glad of the co-operation I received from Kerry County Council when those group water schemes were set up. There is always a cost for those schemes and a cost for individuals. When speaking about people providing their own supply, water does not come from nowhere in that people have to drill, fit pumps or have a gravity-fed supply from streams or rivers. There is always a time cost, even if people use their own labour; time and expense is involved with all of it.
Ultimately, every house, business and farmer needs water. We do not want to see a scenario where the provision of water could be privatised. When Irish Water was set up, I saw it as a possible vehicle for the privatisation of the water supply so it could be sold by the State. I was in the Dáil when this was raised and people made vocalised concerns. I was concerned about it and I would like to be sure about what future Governments do. One does not know what will happen in the future but we can never allow such a vital supply as water to our homes, businesses and farms to fall into the hands of private groups or investors. That is something the people of Ireland would never stand for. It is one of the reasons there was such a backlash from the general public, leading to protests by thousands of people who marched week in, week out, whether it was a small group in a small village or town or the monster rallies, as I would call them, which occurred in cities like Limerick, Cork and Dublin. People mobilised because of a fear of privatisation. In certain sectors there is room for privatisation but with an essential service like this, we should never go down that road. We do not want to go down that road.
I am glad this Bill is before the Dáil and we are all getting a chance to debate it. There are sections I welcome very much and, as I outlined, there are sections about which I am worried. I am concerned about the way these will be interpreted, although not necessarily now, as it is clear enough what we will vote on and either support or not. Members will make up their own minds. I am worried about the way this could be viewed by future Governments. I hope they will have learned a major lesson, which is that we must listen to the people. Ultimately, we must listen to what is said by county councillors, members of the public and elected Deputies in this House. The last Government was completely wrong in failing to listen to the people. Some of the biggest mistakes ever made were the way it handled Irish Water, abolished the town councils and closed Garda stations. It was all part of the package of arrogance, with an attitude that it could do whatever it liked. I proved on the record of the Dáil that it cost more to keep a particular Garda station closed than to keep it open. There was no way one could get this through to the Ministers or the many of the officials who thought they could do what they liked. That is wrong and we must listen to the people.
I am so humbled by the idea of being a representative of County Kerry and I know that the day one stops listening to people and representing their best interests, it is the day one becomes a very poor politician. That is why I was so exercised by the charges as they were proposed at the time. Both then and now, young couples struggle with mortgages and face massive costs trying to run a home, educate children and send them to college while dealing with medical and other matters. They must balance budgets and we must recognise all of that any time a new charge is proposed, whether it is for Irish Water or increases in energy prices. We saw the massive increase in ESB bills over the past ten years and this can be combined with the high cost of insurance, for example.
Ministers speak about the recovery but it is not real for people with a medium to low budget. They are finding it impossible to cope, and the Minister of State and his Government should keep that foremost in their minds. Young people are not feeling the benefit of the recovery. They struggle every week to pay mortgages and their bills. I have highlighted the main costs in their homes, including straightforward items they cannot do without, such as power going to their homes. Those costs have risen enormously. I have clinics every week and the most common problems are faced by struggling families or elderly people. Pensioners are getting a fiver of an increase to their pensions but will not get it until March next year. An increase on something goes on at midnight but a person must wait five or six months to get an extra fiver per week, which is an outrage. People with disabilities were hoping for a real increase, which would have been approximately €20 per week to be paid immediately. Unfortunately, the Government had a choice but it chose to leave people like that behind and offer them a fiver next March. It is not much of a solution to the tough times faced by people with a disability or young struggling families when they must try to balance their budget. It is not much of an answer or help to them.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this very important matter. The subject of water and water charges will never go away, as the cost of providing water to people's home will always be there. I want to be sure that people will have water and a proper and pure supply. We should put our shoulder to the wheel to ensure our pipes can be upgraded and waste is brought to a minimum. We can only welcome that. There should never again be a big stick approach to water supply or associated charges. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak this evening.