Water Services Bill 2017: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Obstacles are being put in front of Irish Water such as in Lough Talt in Sligo where it is willing to put in a new system to upgrade the water quality because of the danger of trihalomethanes, THMs. Water has been extracted here for 30 or 40 years by Sligo County Council but now, because of new regulations and even though the same water is coming out today, the council will not give Irish Water an extraction licence, which is absolutely crazy.

Water pipes remained safe but if anything was learned from the storm in the last few days it was that there was a problem with electricity not being restored quickly. Obviously, reservoirs would not be big enough to keep many parts of the country going for a few days, especially in large urban areas. We were caught out in a few places. This should have been done years ago. It is not just about Irish Water in that the councils should have backup generators to ensure we were able to keep the flow of water going. This is one lesson that needs to be learned from the storm in certain areas. In fairness, however, people have been on the ball and things are up and running again in most regions. I believe it was an oversight.

Maintenance of the lines is also an issue. Down through the years it is the one thing that has not been done. Anybody who understands the water system will know that one must scour the lines. This is the cleaning of the lines from A to B to C right to the end of the pipe. Unfortunately, in Ireland we do not seem to have a proper programme for doing this. Many places appear to be understaffed; they are busy doing connections or making sure other problems are sorted. Line maintenance, however, does not seem to be done. This is why Deputies get calls from people telling us about dirty water or little molecules in their water. The lack of line maintenance is the reason for this. If it was done on a three-monthly basis, four times per year, we would have absolutely no problem in many cases. It has not been done down through the years; it is not only now. A proper programme needs to be set up.

I have worked in the water sector for many years and Ervia gives the impression that the paperwork seems to have multiplied by a thousand. From my understanding of the Bord Gáis Energy side of Ervia, they love paperwork also. The Department should make sure we address this situation. There are many smaller contractors in the State who, because of the recession, would not have had a big turnover in recent years. The money was not being spent. They then had to reach certain thresholds to tender for contracts. In so doing, we were cutting it down to just a few contractors. I believe this is by design. The small contractors covered all the group water schemes and the public schemes right around the State. There may have been ten in each county. These smaller contractors are now being sidelined and are being made into sub-contractors, because one big crowd has taken it over. This costs more money because everyone has to have a slice of the loaf. We should make sure that everybody is given an opportunity. We must remember the amount of work that has to be done and that it will give employment to areas. There are water pipes everywhere around the country and it will give employment to people in all regions but the culture of paperwork is an issue. When I worked in the water sector, I remember bringing pipes right around Ireland and I saw some of the biggest pipelines being laid.

Nowadays, the volume of paperwork required to be completed before even a bucket is put in the ground is so unbelievable people are tearing their hair out over it. We need to look at how our processes can be simplified.

Another issue is the delay in the granting of permission to order equipment such as pumps and so on. While most small operations would have at least one spare pump and larger ones would often have two often by the time permission is granted to order a new one the spare one is also out of action and panic ensues. This is pure stupidity in terms of how the process operates.

I would like the Department, and in particular the Minister, to address a situation in the west. Decisions on group water schemes by Galway County Council have slowed down dramatically. I am not blaming the council for this. I understand that owing to absences due to illness and staff transferring to other areas of work within the council there is only a skeleton staff in Galway County Council. In one case involving an upgrade of a group water scheme, all of the paperwork is done, the contractor is in place and ready to go but three months on, the project still has not been given the go-ahead. This should not be happening and it must be addressed. In another scheme, a massive leak has been identified. This scheme is fed by a public scheme. A consultant was hired to complete all of the paperwork and everything is ready to go but the letter giving the go-ahead for this work is not forthcoming. The longer the delay the more water is wasted. In Ballyhard, which is just outside of Glenamaddy, a leak was identified almost nine months ago. The go-ahead for work to commence on the installation of valves in the roads where the leaks are occurring is still awaited. This needs to be addressed. What is happening is a disgrace. I accept that there will always be staffing issues in councils but we need to ensure that there is sufficient staff in place in all of our councils to deal with the group water scheme sector.

Another issue that I would like to be addressed by the Department, in respect of which it can work with the communities, is the provision of funding for sewerage systems in small towns. To be blunt, there is raw sewerage going into many of the rivers in our small towns. Communities will work with the council, including through the community involvement scheme. Communities are willing to work with the councils. This funding needs to be provided, such that we can focus on improving our water quality.

The delay in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment making a decision on the slurry situation, which forced farmers to spread slurry on a plain of water, will result in a worsening of water quality throughout Ireland. As a result of the rigamarole that went on in the Department around prioritisation for inspections and payments, many farmers would not even contact the Department. The Department will do everything in its own time, let us not cod ourselves about that. The slurry has to be spread but the manner in which the Department dealt with the matter was a disgrace.

The issue of upgrading group water schemes needs to be urgently addressed. I hope that the National Federation of Group Water Schemes will properly represent its members and ensure that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. In other words, it must ensure that people on the group water schemes are given the same hearing as the people on the public supply.

There is another situation emerging throughout the country in regard to septic tanks. A person whose septic tank is joined up to the main sewerage system is not charged for that pipe work. There is a grant system in place in regard to septic tanks in rural areas but let us be clear that the grant system pertains only to the 5% the EU wants us to look at. Outside of that, people are being screwed for €10,000 to €15,000, which in my opinion is disgraceful. We need to ensure that we alleviate the pressure and hardship on such people. I have met pensioners who are barely surviving yet they are being told they have to install fancy treatment plants and have other jobs carried out that cost €10,000 to €15,000. For a person living in Connemara, where one would have to bring in clay etc., the cost could be €20,000. If we are to be fair to all people, this must be addressed.

This month marks the third anniversary of the biggest mobilisation this country has ever seen. Over 150,000 people mobilised three years ago against water charges. I was one of those people. At that time the former Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, said that this was about more than just water charges. He was right. The people of this country had had enough. They had reached breaking point. During the march, I knew something had changed dramatically in the psyche of working people. They had had enough of austerity. Water charges was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Defeat is contagious. If one is constantly defeated, one gets very down. However, in this case the contagion turned into resistance and a confidence in working people. Since then, there have been nine further anti-water charges marches, which have been fantastic. They brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. This gave people confidence and a sense that they would not be constantly defeated. It was great to be involved. From my point of view it politicised, radicalised and mobilised people such that they were confident they could defeat the water charges, which was extremely important. In a parallel universe, had the Government side won and water charges had been introduced, this would have led to a sene of defeat among my generation and the next generation. It is hard to rid oneself of a sense of defeat. When one is constantly defeated one is crippled by the feeling that one cannot do anything or resist anything.

Overall, we have defeated water charges. I have no doubt about that. This Bill, more than anything else, is a face-saving exercise. What defeated the water charges was people power. People mobilised on the streets, in their communities and in their workplaces through many forms of resistance, including marching and blocking entrances to estates - in which I was involved along with other residents in Clondalkin - so that Irish Water could not install meters. This action and the boycott of water charges were key in defeating water charges. Fianna Fáil often makes the point that it was the catalyst in the defeat of the water charges, which is laughable, because it was people power that did so.

It is great that water charges have been defeated. However, this Bill leaves the door open for future water charges. There is no doubt about that.

The Bill is deliberately vague on excessive use and could be open to change in the future. Over the past 35 years we have always been open to the idea that water charges would be introduced in some manner. The key thing is that they will be defeated. They have been defeated now and they will be defeated in the future, which is good.

During the water charges debate over the past four or five years, certain things stick out in people's heads. One of the major things was people power. Sticking out in my head - they probably come back to haunt Fine Gael - are the words of Phil Hogan when in May 2014 he very arrogantly said that people's water would be turned down to a trickle but it has not been. The great thing is that the Bill before us has turned the Government's water charges to a trickle. People power has defeated the water charges. In my eyes resistance is never futile.

It is strange that we are here on a quiet morning with very few people present for a debate on what was one of the most politically toxic issues in Ireland, the issue of the water charges. It must stick in the craw of the Taoiseach and a number of other people at the top of Fine Gael to have to refund people and effectively declare the end of water charges.

I will split my speech in two. We should deal with the scale of the victory and what has brought about this position. Three years ago the now Commissioner, Mr. Hogan, threatened that anyone who did not pay their water charges would have their water turned down to a trickle. The original proposal for water charges could have amounted to almost €900 for some families based on the original plan. People rebelled and revolted against that and the then Government was forced to make massive concessions.

Water charges came following a period of austerity when the establishment might have believed it would get away with it because there had not been that much opposition. Unlike in other countries, the trade union leadership did not put up much opposition to seven or eight years of austerity. The key factor in the water charges was that the people themselves had the power to withhold payment of the water charges. That was the decisive thing. People felt they had control over the issue and it was something on which they could make a stand. They did not have to wait for a signal from others. I pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people who took the decision to boycott - a word invented in this country - these charges as the most powerful way to get them abolished.

Then, of course, we had the mobilisations like we have not seen in at least a generation. The only comparable marches in history were the tax marches in 1979 and probably the anti-war marches in the early 2000s when huge numbers of people turned out on the streets. The scale of the marches against the water charges took the previous Government by surprise and shook it to its core.

The role of the Labour Party needs to be taken into account here. The Labour Party is obviously not in this Government, but shamefully it was central to the introduction of water charges in the previous one, having given a pre-election commitment that it would oppose water charges in the infamous "Tesco" advertisement that will be emblazoned on the tombstones of a number of Labour Party Ministers from that time. That kind of absolute lie aroused the anger of many people.

The legislation before us abolishes the water charges, as they were, and abolishes any arrears people may face. The late-payment fees made in an attempt to force people to pay are gone. We now have refunds for elderly and other people who were bullied into feeling they had to pay. Those of us in Solidarity and People Before Profit along with a handful of others were the first to raise this and argue that refunds should be paid. This represents a very important victory for the anti-water charges movement given that the then Government was refusing to refund.

A big element in this debate, as reflected in Deputy Cowen's comments, is why it happened. This is completely and utterly down to the mass revolt that took place in Irish society on the water charges, forcing the political parties to change. Deputy Cowen shamefully made a comment about street thuggery; it is called democracy. People have a right to come out on the streets and vent their opposition to or support for a political issue. There was resistance and opposition to the imposition of meters. Crucially, there was organised non-payment with 73% refusing to pay in full.

One of the consequences was the shift in positions by Fianna Fáil, which having agreed this in a memorandum of agreement with the troika, was then forced to put up posters, including in my constituency, calling for Irish Water to be abolished. Its election manifesto clearly called for the abolition of water charges. That is how political parties are forced to change their positions and other people should take note regarding other social and political issues in society as to how it is done.

We do not have full and unambiguous victory because the Government has chosen to leave the door open on excessive water usage. Some might argue it is to give itself cover regarding the EU. Others would argue that this is something that will happen, just not right now because it is still politically toxic. The idea that the Government will suddenly reintroduce water charges in a year or two and face the type of opposition it did in the past three years is untenable. However, it leaves the way open in the future for a government to attempt to change the definition of excessive water usage. I am particularly amazed at how this could affect four-person families. The latest census indicated that between 400,000 and 500,000 young people under 30 are living with their parents. The number of four-person households has increased due to the horrific housing crisis which this Government and its predecessor inflicted on people.

How could that work? It means that a four-person household does not get the same allowance per person as a single individual. How is that discrimination allowed to take place? It is a bit like the original water charges proposal. It presumes a household with more people uses less water. Are people sharing baths and showers or what? It is just ridiculous. That is something that can hit many families, particularly those with students who are not earning money and living at home right up to their 30s. We will certainly table amendments on that on the next Stage.

According to the expert commission, the average water usage here is 125 l per person per day, compared with 140 l per person per day in Britain.

There are certainly water meters in England and Wales. Private water companies run the whole network in England, but the idea that water meters lead to reduced usage has not been proved. There are many similarities with Britain. Therefore, the excessive usage of water is not widespread here. Making that argument again is an attempt to make out that ordinary households are the problem when we all know that leakages are the problem. The national rate for unaccounted for water of 40% is scandalous. In council areas where work has been done on this issue, particularly in some of the Dublin local authorities that have newer housing estates, the rate has been reduced to 26%. Obviously, we will never be able to reduce it to 0%. Where work has been done to reduce it, it works, yet the previous Government, in particular, rather than ensuring pipes were fixed, came out with a sledgehammer and tried to put the blame on ordinary householders. In the case of Fianna Fáil, we could have had it wiped out and eliminated completely. It could have made it an absolute political red line, but it chose not to do so. Therefore, it is simply not true to argue that the only people who will have to pay water charges will be water wasters.

I agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan that the timeframe for this measure is very suspicious. The fact that it will not take effect until July 2019 shows the reality. The Government is terrified of introducing anything to do with water charges before a general election. It has the figures for consumption and could introduce this measure tomorrow. However, it does not want to do so because, as was said, the issue of water charges is politically toxic and it will stay politically toxic for many years. Some 40% of homes have still not been metered. In those circumstances one has to question whether the Government will seriously go for this measure in another year and a half. If both it and Fianna Fáil do so, they should have no fear. They will be beaten again by a movement that has experienced victory on this issue and that movement can and will beat it again by using the same tactics and strategy it employed previously.

On some of the amendments the Solidarity group will bring forward on Committee Stage, we will propose that a new section be inserted into the Bill to abolish Irish Water. There is no need to have it as currently constituted. There could be a central organising entity, but certainly there is no need for company directors with bonuses, etc.

We will propose the insertion of a new subsection to provide for something like a swimming pool tax to be considered within six months of the Act coming into effect to levy a charge on the very few who use massive amounts of water. As there are no conservation measures proposed in the Bill, we will propose the undertaking of a public information campaign and an education programme in schools and third level institutions on the use and preservation of water resources. We will propose the deletion of any reference to excessive water usage which we believe potentially allows any future Government to reintroduce water charges.

We will propose the insertion of a provision to provide for investment in the pipes network and an upgrade of the network. We will also propose the establishment of a grant to allow domestic households to take part in water conservation measures such as the installation of dual flush systems, the conservation of water in containers, etc., when houses are being built.

We will propose that the membership of the water forum be completely transformed to allow for community and trade union representation and so on to enable people who use the water network to participate. We will also propose that its membership include a representative nominated by the trade union movement. This would ensure the protection of workers' rights and could act as a check and a brake on excessive bonus payments. The person concerned would be a representative of ordinary workers.

The Minister of State should listen, given that he refused to listen previously, to the arguments in favour of these amendments when they come up for consideration. We know that on previous occasions when water Bills were introduced, they were shoved through the Dáil. I remember being here and they led to massive problems and massive opposition. The Minister of State should take on board the amendments, wave the white flag on the issue of water charges, put it behind him, move on and let the people move on also.

I reassure the Deputy that I am listening. I was not in this position previously to not listen, but it is hard to listen to some of the jargon of 1970s Trotskyism which overhangs some of the commentary we heard from the two previous speakers. That is not to say, however, that some legitimate concerns have not been raised.

Opposition to water charges is Trotskyism.

Interestingly, in her concluding remarks the Deputy said she was in favour of water charges for those who used water excessively. She mentioned the introduction of a swimming pool tax and that there should be a charge. That is the first time I have heard anybody in the Socialist Party say in this Chamber that there should be a charge for those who use water excessively.

For swimming pools. We have said it previously.

That makes an interesting change.

I thank the staff of Irish Water and the local authorities who are working, have been working in the past few days and will be working for the next few days to restore water services, including wastewater treatment, to houses and businesses across the country that have been affected by Storm Ophelia. It is only when major events like this happen that they receive the praise they rightly deserve for the work they carry out.

I thank those who contributed to the debate. I was here for much of it. It took place for several days and there were many contributions. I will pick up on some of the issues raised by speakers earlier in the discussion.

On the possible holding of a constitutional referendum to enshrine the water system in public ownership, let me reiterate the Government’s commitment to engage further with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the issue. I recognise that some members of the public and some Members of the Oireachtas have genuine concerns about the ownership of public water infrastructure. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services acknowledged these concerns in its report, as did the Government in not opposing Deputy Niall Collins’s Bill when it was brought before the House last November.

The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government in May to discuss the complexities of the wording of any constitutional amendment. The Department and its three Ministers are working with the Office of the Attorney General on the issues involved. Among the issues to be considered are the challenges of the wording, given the range of categories of infrastructure ownership - private boreholes, private group water schemes, private group water schemes that source water from the public network and water infrastructure located on privately owned land which is quite common throughout the country; achieving a balance between the principles reflected in the Constitution and more detailed policy which should be reflected in legislation; and addressing the risk of unintended consequences, which relates to possible impingement of individuals' rights to private property which are strongly protected in the Constitution. Once we and the Office of the Attorney General have concluded our work on these issues, we will be able to engage further with the Oireachtas joint committee.

Several Deputies referred to the Oireachtas joint committee’s recommended review of investment needs for the rural water sector. I am absolutely committed to holding this review to ensure the group water scheme sector will have a vibrant, sustainable future. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, assured the National Federation of Group Water Schemes of this when he met it and also at the recent rural water services conference.

The Department has held initial discussions with the sector about the review and I intend progressing this at the earliest opportunity.

Another issue raised was the levy on excessive use of water. The approach being taken is in line with the recommendations of the joint committee. The main point to emphasise is that the excessive usage provisions will apply to all households, not only households that have a meter. As recommended by the joint committee, wasteful water use should be monitored by using district water meters, existing infrastructure, which includes domestic water meters, and modern technologies. It is important to highlight that Irish Water will give customers six months to eliminate excessive usage. In the case of larger households and those where excessive water usage is caused by medical needs, the Bill provides an extra usage allowance for households of five persons or more and makes provision for households where excessive water usage is due to medical needs to apply for an exemption from the levy.

It is vital that we retain the incentive for households to conserve water. Approximately 8% of households, according to 2016 metering data, are consuming more than one third of all water supplied to domestic households. This is an astonishing statistic. This is primarily due to leakage, which is a waste of water all taxpayers will have to fund if we do not directly levy households responsible for this excess. Retaining this dissuasive incentive is critical to conserving this precious resource, reducing leakage and helping us to meet our obligations under the water framework directive.

As the Minister outlined in his opening statement, the objective of the Bill is to give funding certainty and clarity to Irish Water about how we fund domestic water services. There was criticism that the new funding model does not give multi-annual certainty to Irish Water. However, Deputies must recognise that there is an annual budgetary process and all allocations are subject to the annual Estimates process.

The new funding and policy framework will, however, give greater confidence to Irish Water to plan and deliver major projects such as the Cork lower harbour main drainage scheme to end the practice of discharging raw sewage into Cork's inner harbour area or the Stillorgan reservoir and Vartry water supply scheme projects, both of which involve modernisation of infrastructure that is more than 150 years old and each of which serves a population of more than 200,000 people.

Through the production of a national water services policy statement and Irish Water's strategic funding plan and within the context of the economic regulator's approved water charges plan, the Government will be well placed to allocate the appropriate level of funding to Irish Water. This will enable the company to continue to deliver important initiatives to improve water quality, protect water sources, reduce leakage and increase spare capacity, as well as address the major deficit in wastewater treatment capacity which resulted in raw sewage being discharged directly into local waters at 42 urban areas as at the end of last year.

As Deputies will know, one of the key elements of the Bill is for refunds of domestic water charges to be paid to Irish Water customers. This important provision is in line with the recommendations of the joint committee relating to equity and fairness. While the Second Stage debate has taken place over a three-week period, which is perhaps somewhat longer than anticipated, I reassure the House that Irish Water will commence making refunds as soon as the Bill is enacted and the process will be administered as quickly as possible.

On water conservation and its role in the Government's water sector reforms, conservation has always been, and will continue to be, central to water sector reform. It was for this reason that we introduced a metering campaign, Irish Water rolled out a first fix programme which had delivered 89 million litres of water savings per day by the end of last year, and the utility is implementing a leakage reduction programme which will involve more than €500 million in investment in the four years to the end of 2021. Increased water conservation plays an important role in increasing security of supply. The leakage reduction and first fix programmes as well as other initiatives will continue to form part of the conservation agenda.

We need to provide funding clarity and certainty to the water services sector in order that it can deliver a public water system that provides a secure, safe supply to homes, communities, the water-intensive industries that sustain approximately 400,000 jobs and the wider economy. We need to provide funding certainty in order that we can address the major deficits in urban wastewater treatment so that public health and the aquatic environment are protected. This is vital to communities' quality of life and the future management of water.

By supporting the Bill, the House will support a strong funding and policy framework for water services and enable us to aspire with confidence to achieving a modern public water and wastewater system fit for a modern society and economy.

Question put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 18 October 2017.