That Seanad Éireann rejects any proposal to introduce a flat rate household water charge and calls on the Government to:
state clearly whether it will introduce a flat rate household charge in January 2012;
recommit to the introduction of a fair system of metered water charges, with a free usage allowance of water per dwelling in the interests of water conservation and the environment; and
ensure that the ability to pay principle is central to any new charge.
I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate him publicly on his appointment. I wish him well in the years ahead.
Fianna Fáil has tabled this motion in an effort to do what the Government has not done, clarify its plans to establish a national water authority and to introduce charges for domestic water services. The Fine Gael and Labour Party programme for Government commits the Government to the establishment of a State company, Irish Water, which will take over responsibility for all water services from the 34 local authorities. This was to be accompanied by the fitting of meters to houses and apartments.
This aspect of the programme for Government has the support of the National Competitiveness Council, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, which have been urging the reinstatement of water and property charges for some time. They maintain that in the present economic circumstances such charges represent vital sources of income for investment and for correcting the public finances. These same areas were identified during talks with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, in which it was agreed by the Government that a site value tax would be introduced in 2012 and be completed by 2013. An interim fixed household charge of €100 per annum would be introduced in 2012 and a full value-based addition would be introduced in 2013, with the introduction of a scheme for the metering of water in the domestic sector with charging for domestic water by 2014.
In recent weeks we have heard the Minister, Deputy Hogan, as well as the Taoiseach and other Government spokespersons blame the last Government for the necessity to introduce an interim household utility charge. This is wrong. Yes, commitments were given in connection with the EU-IMF bailout that required the establishment of property and water charges, but Fine Gael's commitment to charges long predates this. In March 2010 Fine Gael called for the introduction of water metering and water charges. In fact, in its New Politics document, published in March 2010, it proposed a system of water charges whereby everybody would be allocated a water credit with water meters in every home. Householders would be charged for consumption in excess of the credit. Fine Gael has consistently supported the rolling out of water charges; therefore, blaming the last Government and the European Union and the IMF for tying us into these charges is disingenuous on the part of the Minister and his colleagues.
These issues are now the responsibility of the Minister and the current Government and as unpopular as these charges might be, they should be explained and defended by the Government, not used as a political tool in the popularity stakes. I am not saying the introduction of these charges will be welcome. They will be anything but welcome but we in Fianna Fáil believe the charges should be fair. When the economy went into recession there was general agreement that those in a financially better position should contribute a larger portion to our economic recovery and to the creation of employment opportunities. Implicit in this was the belief that those in less fortunate positions should pay at a lesser rate and in cases of severe hardship nothing at all.
In what would appear to be an acceptance of this principle, Fine Gael in the run-up to the general election stated it would not charge people for water until meters were installed. This commitment is repeated in the programme for Government but we are here today to discuss water charges because of the conflicting information coming from Government spokesmen who cannot seem to agree whether charges are to be implemented next year or on the form these may take.
What is the Labour Party's position on proposed water charges or on the introduction of a flat-rate charge? Speaking to the Irish Examiner on 28 June 2010, the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, said he was totally against water charges, stating a flat household charge would be unfair because it does not discriminate between houses with five bathrooms and none. He said metering was unworkable. As recently as October 2010 he said it should be possible to phase in water charges on a metered basis but only as part of a broader reform of how we manage and deliver this vital environmental resource. In an interview with Newstalk on 26 January 2011, he said a flat rate water charge was not going to be introduced.
We now know, however, that the Government intends that two new charges will come our way; a household utility charge by 2012 and water charges by 2013. Nowhere in the programme for Government does it mention a household utility charge. What happened to fairness, what happened to looking after the less well-off in our society? Nothing we have heard from Government sources in the past week has served to allay the fears and concerns of many less well-off persons who fear the introduction of draconian taxes. Nor has the Government convinced us of its commitment to fairness. Instead of leadership and unity of command, we have seen confusion and disagreement in Government. Far from clarifying the Government's intentions on such important issues, Ministers have engaged in a blame game in an attempt to divert attention from Cabinet difficulties.
Today we need clarity and certainty, not confusion and doubt. Some weeks ago, when the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, announced that water charges would be delayed until metering had been completed, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government quickly indicated that a flat-rate water charge would pay for the cost of installing meters. Within days he changed his mind on the grounds that a decision had yet to be taken by Cabinet. Now he is suggesting a wider utility tax, to embrace both water and property. This obvious lack of cohesion within the Cabinet is dangerous and creates unnecessary tensions and instability at a time when stability and leadership is required. It is imperative that Fine Gael and the Labour Party learn the meaning of the phrase "joined-up Government" and work together as a unit to bring clarity and certainty to the matter.
Fianna Fáil in government outlined its plan to fund our water infrastructure in the years ahead. We outlined our plan to introduce domestic water charges for households in the next four years. This would be preceded by the roll-out of water meters which, as stated in the national recovery plan, would be funded from the National Pensions Reserve Fund. The installation of water meters will strengthen the capacity of local authorities to manage their water distribution networks, lead to greater incentives for households to conserve water and provide the necessary additional funding to improve the network.
Water metering will undoubtedly lead to a radical transformation in the way people use and view water. It will provide value for money for consumers and also provide a customer service focus in the management and provision of water services. The roll-out of water metering will result in much needed jobs in the construction sector. We estimate that it could create between 1,200 and 1,800 jobs between 2012 and 2014.
I call on the Minister to clarify these proposed charges.