Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011: Committee Stage (Resumed)

SECTION 4
Debate resumed on amendment No. 9:
In page 5, to delete lines 9 to 11 and substitute the following:
"(e) in the case of an application under subsection (2), there will be no fee required.
—(Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill).

I cannot agree to this proposal. A modest fee must be charged in order to cover administration costs and those relating to inspections. I do not want to again impose on the goodwill of those in employment by introducing another general tax, which is what Sinn Féin wants.

Yes, it is. If we do not charge for these services, then the money will have to come out of the pockets of working people. I do not want to do that and I am imposing an administrative charge on a once-off basis for registration.

I will drop that copy of the pre-budget submission down to the Minister.

The Minister to continue, without interruption.

In case Senator Cullinane is worried about what would happen five years afterwards, there will be no re-inspection charge. There will be no €300 annual inspection charge like the one some were going around speaking about when this Bill was first mooted in June. I am sure the misinformation and fear generated about something that was not going to happen is what motivated many to write to Senator Ó Murchú. I can understand that and Senator Ó Murchú is correct to reflect it. The manner in which, this evening, we have clarified many issues on planning and the risk-based assessment that we will introduce, for example, the planning exemption will mean that people will not have to go to the expense of applying for planning permission for upgrades, will allay the reasonable concerns of those who want to have their fears allayed. All that is required here is to comply with the European Court of Justice judgment of 2009, which I inherited and about which my predecessors did not do anything, in order to ensure that there is an inspection and monitoring system so that the State will not have to pay €26,000 a day in fines to the European Community, which working people would not want us to do either.

Grants are something that can be considered when we know the extent of the problem. We do not know the extent of the problem until inspections are carried out and that will be in 2013. For those on low incomes or for the less well-off in the community, if they have a serious problem, I will not be found wanting in looking at the grants issue in 2014. I cannot do that until I know the extent of the problem or the people who are affected, as I have said all along.

There have been many broken promises so far.

On this Bill, what promise did I break?

Reducing the number of Deputies.

I will do that.

By what number, 13 or 20?

Some of what I am saying does not suit Senator Ó Domhnaill and I have clarified a great deal, but the Cavan solution that he has proposed as an amendment——

The Minister is coming back at me now.

Is it not the truth? Did Senator Ó Domhnaill not table an amendment to have this legislation implemented on the Cavan model?

No, the Minister did not read it.

I read the amendment.

It does not state that.

The Minister should realise that we in Cavan do not like spending money and he is using us as a wrong example.

It is never easy to get money out of Cavan, but €200 every seven years is a bit far.

We spend it wisely.

In fact, I had to oppose that amendment because it was too onerous on people.

That was not the amendment. On a point of order, I am sorry for the confusion but that was not the amendment.

What is the point of order?

The point of order is merely on the words the Minister stated.

Senator Ó Domhnaill should resume his seat.

We were not proposing——

Senator Ó Domhnaill should sit down. That is not a point of order. The Minister to continue, without interruption. We are on amendments Nos. 9 and 10 and we are not reopening the debate.

I must reiterate these matters because, obviously, they are not sinking in. I oppose the amendment that was put to this House to deal with registration matters on the basis of the Cavan model. The House, unfortunately, when put to the test——

That was not the amendment.

——of €200——

The Minister on amendments Nos. 9 and 10.

Cavan would get a special exemption and people there would not have to pay the €50 fee. That is what we were proposing.

To clarify other issues, there are people who expected an annual inspection charge of €300 propagated by the Fianna Fáil Party, the IFA and others——

And the former Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív.

——but they are disappointed.

The Minister reduced it when we kept the pressure on him.

Senator Ó Domhnaill is taking instructions from Deputy Ó Cuív.

The Minister reduced the €200 to €20 last week when we had him under pressure as well.

Scaremongering. Out of order.

The Minister should not be inviting interruptions.

I am not inviting them.

Senator Ó Murchú and others expressed another view on the urban-rural issue. Some €500 million has been spent in the past ten years under the rural water programme, which was a serious investment to improve water quality, particularly through group schemes. It should be acknowledged the State is still subsidising these schemes in rural areas and people are benefiting from the improvements that have been carried out by successive Governments. The same investment was required proportionately for urban areas because of the difficulties they encountered over the years in terms of urban wastewater treatment plants, which are still a significant problem in villages and towns and must be addressed.

Did that funding not come from central taxation?

I did not interrupt Senator Cullinane.

The Minister did actually, but it came from central taxation.

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

If Senator Cullinane looks at what I am doing in the case of a wastewater treatment plant in Ballyhale, which is near where he lives, he will see that I am making major investments in improving the situation.

We are not discussing local issues here.

I am sure Senator Cullinane got the letter in the door. The clarity I am giving here this evening should ease minds on the fact that we are bringing forward a risk-based assessment. We are bringing forward a fee on a once-off basis to cover administration costs and inspection costs — no more, no less. Unbelievably, I probably did not even acknowledge it sufficiently to Senator Mooney earlier that I have put the €50 in the legislation in order that there is no doubt about it. It would have to come back to the House to be amended and I do not intend to do that.

Question put: "That the words proposed to be deleted stand."
The Committee divided: Tá, 31; Níl, 13.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D’Arcy, Jim.
  • D’Arcy, Michael.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Harte, Jimmy.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O’Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O’Keeffe, Susan.
  • O’Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.

Níl

  • Cullinane, David.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O’Keeffe; Níl, Senators Ned O’Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson.
Question declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.
Amendment No. 10 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 11 to 14, inclusive, are ruled out of order.

On a point of order, we do not agree with the ruling on amendments Nos. 12 and 13 tabled by Sinn Féin.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 14 which were ruled out of order relate to the subsidised de-sludging, paid for by the Exchequer, that would be provided for every house in the country.

They were ruled out of order because they impose a potential charge on Revenue.

I am disappointed that they are ruled out of order but we have dealt with many of the issues.

Amendments Nos. 11 to 14, inclusive, not moved.

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 5, to delete lines 22 to 24 and substitute the following:

"(5) A certificate of registration shall be valid for the lifetime of the property or not less than a period of 40 years from the date on which it was issued.".

This amendment relates to the certificate of registration. The Bill provides that it shall be valid for a period of five years from the date on which it was issued. What is the logical, scientific reason behind a certificate of registration being valid for only five years? Is there a scientific reason that it should be valid for five years? I do not think so.

Is there a valid scientific reason for this? I do not think so. Why would someone have to re-register after five years? A person who re-registers will be hit with a re-registration fee. That is currently at €50, but it could be increased later to €300.

More scaremongering.

Senator Ó Domhnaill to continue, without interruption.

We are proposing that the certificate of registration would be extended to the lifetime of the property, or for a period not less than 40 years. If a septic tank in a property is deemed to be working properly under the assessment process, if self-regulation was built in for the householder, and if what we are proposing on annual de-sludging was accepted by the Government and paid for by the Exchequer, there would be no need to review the legislation after five years.

Under the RIA which accompanies the Bill and under the section which deals with financial cost to the householder, it is suggested that a recommendation for desludging accompany the legislation. Perhaps this could be inserted into some of the regulations that the Minister controls under the legislation, and the RIA suggests that the average cost of this would be €200 for the householder. That could be defined as a hidden cost in the legislation if householders are requested at a future date to carry out that de-sludging themselves. We propose that de-sludging should be paid for by the Exchequer before the Bill comes into operation. If that were to happen, I do not see why the certificate of registration could only be valid for five years.

I am not sure if there is another scientific or microbiological reason for having a certificate that lasts only five years. Perhaps the Minister could identify such a reason. If there is a reason, can he tell us whether or not an annual de-sludging would deal with it?

The registration certificate also has massive ramifications from a conveyancing point of view. Legal experts have advised me that any section of this Bill, irrespective of whether it is a section attached to conveyancing, has property implications as the lawyer acting for the purchaser in a property transaction would look for all of the compliance certificates attached to this legislation when carrying out due diligence. That will have cost implications for people who may need to sell their homes. What implications will that have at the moment for a person who has a distressed mortgage, who is in financial difficulty——

The amendment is very specific.

It is about the certificate of registration.

There are 77 amendments to this section alone. If they were all interrelated, we would discuss them all together. The amendment is very specific and I ask the Senator to speak to it.

I appreciate that. I have posed a few questions to the Minister. It is too definitive to have a five-year registration certificate when there are alternative solutions to it. We feel it should be extended to the period outlined, given that the desludging would address any anomalies that may occur within the period specified in our amendment.

I would be grateful if the Minister clarified the reasons for the five-year term. How was it arrived at? What criteria were used to establish that five years would be the required time? The explanatory memorandum refers to section 70B(1) and explains that it provides that each water service authority will be responsible for establishing and maintaining a register of treatment systems within its functional area. I assumed that the concept of registration was to establish that the number of septic tanks in the country was the same that the local authorities already know about, and that the system of registration would then allow for inspections to be carried out. That is why I am perplexed as to why there is a time limit put on it. Surely once a septic tank is registered and that register is then maintained, no updating needs to be done. A person either has a septic tank or not. It is unlikely that a person who has a septic tank will not have it after five years, because once it is sunk it is there and it will be used. The instances of people abandoning a house are rare.

Without labouring the point, I would like the Minister to enlighten us as to how this was decided. I would like him to address it in the context of the concept of registration and the reasons for registration, which is about maintaining a register.

Fair points are being raised. The Bill states that a certificate of registration shall be valid for a period of five years from the date on which it was issued. Why will people be asked to re-register? They make an investment in their homes, and a septic tank system is also a life-long investment. Once somebody is registered, what is the logic of re-registering? The Minister said in earlier contributions that there would be no re-registration fee, and that is fair enough. However, in dealing with a separate amendment, he was precious about the word "prescriptive". If that is the case, why is this not prescriptive and why is it not in the Bill? It does not state anywhere in the Bill that there will be no re-registration fee. The Minister is asking us to take a leap of faith on many issues, and that is the problem. I have no difficulty in taking the Minister's word, but——

The Senator said he has a problem with taking a leap of faith, and then he said——

I said he is asking us to take a leap of faith, but it is quite possible there could be a reshuffle and there may be a different Minister in charge. It has nothing to do with this Minister.

As I will not be Taoiseach, there is no need to worry.

I know the Minister has higher ambitions.

The Senator is certainly making——

Senator Cullinane to continue, without interruption.

Why are people being asked to re-register after five years? It just does not make sense. If something does not make sense, it is reasonable to ask if there is some ulterior motive for making people re-register. People make a lifetime investment in their homes and I cannot understand why this timeframe be put on them. Why put any timeframe on it? Having said that, I think the amendment of 40 years is reasonable. I have heard nothing from the Minister on Second Stage or since on why there needs to be a re-registration after five years. That puzzles me.

Does the Minister see any need for a certificate of registration to be registered also on the title of the property? Anybody buying or selling property will ensure that the cost of desludging or fixing or replacing a septic tank will be an integral part of any searches to be done. Will it be registered as alis pendens or a burden on the property? Should it be so registered?

I am also confused about the five-year period. The septic tank, the soak pit and all that goes with it are such an integral part of the property that if it is registered, it should be registered for good and glory. If property is registered, it is there forever. If a house is being sold, then unless it is being knocked, the septic tank must last with the lifetime of the house, which in most instances would be in excess of 60 years. The Minister might consider giving the registration a permanent function, and also making it part of the title; that is, if somebody is buying or selling property, he or she must ensure it is present as a simple attachment to the title deed. It does not make a lot of sense if people have to re-register. I do not see the need, unless, as somebody said, it is to require people, for some furtive motive, to go back to square one. It is similar to when one gets an NCT for a car and one is asked pay another fee, even though the Minister says he does not wish to do that. He should make it more permanent and make it part of the title. A septic tank is an integral part of a property. This five-year clause is confusing.

Under the judgment of the European Court of Justice, we are required to institute regular inspections of the quality of our groundwater and, arising from that judgment, we are obliged to have regular checks. We can do this through a registration process which happens every five or six years — I will pick five years. The first round of registrations is to request basic information. This will establish the ownership and location of on-site systems. When the inspections are carried out, the EPA may decide to seek further information on the systems that are being used, whether they are in compliance with regulations and whether they are working. It is a normal and expected course of action that the State, and local authorities in particular, should wish to know if compliance with the judgment continues and if information supplied on a second occasion correlates with information given on a previous occasion. It is a cross-check to reassure the public, through the authorities, that we are serious about our groundwater quality and that we are complying with the judgment that was laid down in 2009.

I do not agree with Senator Cullinane. There is not a shadow around every corner, although he may wish to think so. I have been explicit in the legislation about what I intend to do. The fundamental thing is to ensure we establish checks and balances and a risk-based approach that will actually deal with groundwater quality. I am pro-environment. I support measures that protect the environment and protect our groundwater, and I am against anything that will damage public health. As the Senator voted against the Bill on Second Stage, he is against that principle.

Not at all. That is disgraceful.

No, it is not.

It is true that the Senator voted against the Bill on Second Stage, is it not?

The Minister and his colleagues voted against a lot of things.

Did the Senator vote against the Bill on Second Stage? Did he vote against the principle of the Bill?

Does the Minister want me to bring up every single Bill——

No, I am just talking about this Bill.

——that the Government parties voted against when they were in opposition?

Did the Senator vote against this Bill on Second Stage?

I explained the reasons earlier.

Senator Cullinane, you have indicated that you wish to speak again. Please allow the Minister to speak without interruption.

I have, but if he asks me questions I will give him the answers.

I must point out also that £115 is the discharge licence fee requested in Northern Ireland. Senator Cullinane did not mention that in his contribution. There are regular inspections in Northern Ireland and groundwater issues are treated seriously. We have to do the same in the interest of households, public health, inward investment and job creation. We cannot continue treating water in a casual and haphazard way. It is a finite resource and must be respected, and people will do that in the future.

The Cavan model was mentioned earlier. De-sludging is a solution, but €200 is charged and the householder pays, not the public authority. The system is privately operated and people pay the operators to do the job. This does not fit in with Senator Ó Domhnaill's thinking that we should rely only on public bodies to deal with these matters. Private contractors deal with them in Northern Ireland and in Cavan. We cannot have it every way. We are trying to put a reasonable system in place to comply with the European Court of Justice judgment and deal with groundwater issues. The more information we have and the more checks and balances we establish, the better equipped we are to ensure we continue to protect our groundwater to the highest possible standard.

We are trawling through the sludge quite well and clarifying many of the issues with regard to this Bill. However, there is a contradiction in the Minister's answer on this specific point. Earlier I asked him — quite specifically, because I was seeking clarification on this point — whether the registration process and the inspection process were for septic tank systems or for groundwater, and he clearly stated that it was to do with the quality of the water and that the specifications would be to do with the water. However, he has just said that the re-registration fee would be paid in order that inspectors could go back in and check that the——

There is no re-registration fee.

Well, the purpose of the re-registration process is to allow inspectors to check that the systems are working. Are we talking about checking the system or the water coming from it?

That is what I mean — the groundwater.

If it is only the groundwater, why do people need to re-register the actual septic tank? Even though we are seeing a lot of crime in rural areas, I have never known anybody to steal a septic tank. I do not think a septic tank will move in the lifetime of a house.

They are stealing the metal.

The lid might be stolen off it.

As most septic tanks are plastic these days, I do not think that will be an issue.

They will not take the Senator's word on that in Ros a' Mhíl.

A Senator

Nor in Kilkenny.

There are a few blocks in them as well.

It is certificates we are discussing here.

That is the point. It was a red herring thrown in by the Minister. There is a basic issue here: if one registers a septic tank, it will not move. It is connected to a house, which will not move. A person who registers will be on the system; the county council will know exactly what septic tank he or she has installed. There is some sort of red herring in the Minister's explanation of the requirement to re-register after five years. The inspectors will know where the tank was the last time; it will not have moved in the garden. I agree with the amendment. We certainly should not have a re-registration fee or even a re-registration process, because once a system is on the list, it is on the list.

With your permission, a Chathaoirligh, I would like to answer a question from Senator O'Donovan.

The Minister can return to it.

To follow up on the point made by Senator Ó Clochartaigh, the Minister said that the logic for the initial registration is to ensure that we have a database, which will allow us to carry out inspections and checks. He said the purpose of the initial registration was to get basic information — I have no difficulty with that — and that the re-registration was to get more information and allow inspection. Why is there a need for a second registration? It does not make sense. What Senator Ó Clochartaigh has said is right. The Minister has not clarified why there is a need for re-registration. He accused people on this side of the House of being anti-environment because they oppose a Bill on entirely different grounds — that is, on financial grounds. He will not debate the real issues.

The Minister has been asked a simple question about re-registration but his argument, from where I am standing, does not make any sense. He has not given us any credible reason for the requirement to re-register. It is not a question of looking for shadows or anything else; I am trying to find some logic in what the Government is doing. If I could see the logic, I could perhaps support it, but I fail to see the logic.

I will give the Senator the logic.

I will wait for the Minister to respond.

I must confess I am not totally reassured by the Minister's reply either. I will not rehearse the arguments that have already been made but if I heard him correctly, the Minister said that this process would have to be undertaken following inspections in order that the EPA would be aware of any changes that might have taken place post-inspection. I will return to the original point I asked the Minister to address. It is specified in the legislation that the purpose of the registration process is to create and maintain a register. There is nothing else, unless I am wrong.

Is it then suggested that all 475,000 septic tanks in the country are going to be inspected? The Minister said the information would be used post-inspection to help improve the flow of information back to the local authorities. I do not want to labour the point, but when one sees an aspect of proposed legislation that does not make sense, it is only human nature to question it. I am happy to be reassured by the Minister on this; I am not trying to be awkward. However, I wonder what is the point of it if the concept, as stated, is the creation and then maintenance of a register of septic tanks.

The issue of de-sludging in Cavan and Northern Ireland was raised. It is the case that this is being carried out by private contractors who have waste collection permits and I have no issue with that. However, they are not the same people who are carrying out inspections. They carry out the de-sludging and I would have no difficulty were they to do the de-sludging here if the grant scheme were available. More employment could be created.

I appreciate the need to carry out periodic inspections to comply with the registration scheme and I note that this is referred to in the Commission's judgment. The Environmental Protection Agency recommendations state that periodic inspections should be carried out on septic tanks as well. A better way of doing this could involve the provision of updated information by the individual if a simple form were made available to a householder to advise of any changes. That might be a better way. For example, let us consider the situation whereby a three-bedroom house is extended to a four-bedroom house and one receives planning permission and one complies with X, Y and Z. Self-regulation or inspection might be easier, rather than inspectors having to come out every year or every two or three years.

When one buys a car one only registers it once unless one is selling it onwards. The NCT is different and involves an inspection that is carried out every two or three years for each car. However, the registration is different and it is the same in this case. It appears from this side of the House that the registration process could be used as a vehicle to bring in new charges or criteria after five years from enactment of the Bill. That is the concern on this side of the House. Unless the Minister can provide a detailed explanation to the contrary that is how it appears. Let us consider the example of a car being registered once, save when it is sold on. The NCT inspection for such a car takes place based on the age of the car, regardless of the owner.

The requirement for registration and certification after five years will have major property implications in terms of property transfers. For example, what happens in the case of people who get into difficulty with mortgages and people who must move house and upgrade their registration certificate? After five and a half years they will be obliged to start the process again. The guidelines may change and more stringent guidelines may be introduced by a future Minister. The regulations could be changed in conjunction with the EPA. All of these permutations must be taken into consideration. We should extend the time-line because five years is simply too short a time window.

Senator O'Donovan asked about the certification arising for people who might be buying or selling property. All that is required is a certificate of compliance with the registration of a septic tank on the purchase or sale of a property, similar to the case of the building energy rating, BER, certificate. There must be a certificate to demonstrate that one has registered a septic tank.

What if registration is in place and it is confirmed that work needed to be carried out on a septic tank?

No. Registration is all that is needed. The fact that one has registered a septic tank is sufficient. One need not do anything more.

A prudent purchaser would be satisfied with that.

That is a consumer issue that must be dealt with in another way. All I am requiring is a basic registration.

The Minister could make things perfectly clear by——

I am making it clear. If I were introducing a system of uniform inspection of septic tanks then no other registration would be necessary, but I am not doing so. I am introducing a risk-based assessment under which approximately one in every five or six tanks will be inspected. During the five year period changes will be made to the systems by some people and some may put in second or tertiary treatment systems. Any details in a second registration would necessarily take account of improvements since the first registration. Circumstances will change and the detail one outlines in the second registration may be different. This involves updating what is taking place on the ground and seeing what people are doing in a self-assessment way through the registration process by updating the information about how people are putting in new systems, whether they must do so or what they are doing to improve groundwater quality without having inspections through this registration process.

People will make changes to their systems. This is possible, it will happen and I accept what the Minister is saying but if more information is needed to update the system it must be done through the inspection process.

Does Senator Cullinane want an inspector?

The Minister is saying that one in every six properties will be inspected. If on foot of an inspection there has been a change then why not simply update the system at that stage?

I agree with what Senator Cullinane is saying about people who are inspected but I am referring to the five out of six people who will not be inspected. We need information about what they are doing as well and the way to track that is through a second registration without a charge every five years.

I fully accept what the Minister is saying. It is perfectly logical and sensible that this will happen. Senator O'Donovan touched on the same point that there may be changes which I did not fully anticipate. Does the Minister believe that five years is sufficient? When people install a septic tank and comply as of now, does the Minister believe they would effect changes within a five-year period? It does not seem likely. Has the Minister given any consideration to the five-year period and to extending it further?

There is another possibility or way of doing this. If one has a house and one wishes to make an alteration to it, one should make an application for a change. Could that work under this system? My concern is that we may be creating a bureaucracy that will lead to duplication every five years and a great deal of additional work within a Civil Service that is already burdened and which we are trying to scale back. We should try to use the existing resources in the best possible way. Could the Minister not put in place a system where one registers only once? The number of people who will add or change a system is rather small in the overall scheme of things. Why not make it a regulation that if someone is going to change their wastewater system then they must re-register or register the change they are making to that system? Surely that would make more sense than creating a bureaucracy that will do this once every five years and which will create more work for paper pushers. We do not need people to do such work and we are trying to cut back on bureaucracy. Non-compliance could be picked up at inspection stage. If the inspectors are qualified then surely they will pick up on a change that has been made to a system. This represents a more sensible approach.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh is advocating a reporting mechanism such that each time we carry out some work it is reported to someone, to the central registrar. Certainly, that is one way of doing it.

We are referring to substantial work as opposed to minor repairs.

The Senator is dealing with the definitions now. We have not laid down in legislation what we intend to do in that regard. The second registration will pick up wherever inspections have been carried out in the risk-based areas and whether the work has been carried out. One must allow a certain amount of time for people to carry out work arising from an inspection. Then one can see with the second registration whether people are declaring if certain work has been carried out to the appropriate standard. It will be evident at that stage. Equally, if people carry out work without an inspection, such information will be picked up at the second registration as well. One could choose any term but I believe five years is a reasonable term. It amounts to updating an existing register and adding additional information that may be requested in an appropriate timescale.

There is common ground between what the Opposition and the Minister are saying. We all accept the bona fides of his logic for this part of the Bill, except that if substantial changes are made to a system then it makes sense for the system to be updated. I assume the point Senator Ó Clochartaigh was making referred to every change or minor repair made. The Minister was referring to significant changes. It makes perfect sense. There is nothing stopping the Minister from being prescriptive about the type of changes that would require someone to re-register. The Minister could be prescriptive and suggest that if certain changes are made then one must contact the administrator with the information and provide them with the information and simply update the existing register rather than having to re-register. As Senator Ó Clochartaigh said, we will create a bureaucratic nightmare for the Minister and his Department where people have to re-register every five years. The Minister said the logic of this is that people may make changes. Only a small percentage of people would make changes and they should be required to inform the Department. The Minister should be prescriptive about the changes he proposes. It is a reasonable request.

I understand the Minister said in the registration, which is to last five years, septic tanks may not be inspected. If that is correct, it flies in the face of the framework of the Bill and the decision of the European Court of Justice.

One worry I had was that once one registered an inspection would necessarily follow within a five year period. If there is a problem in west Cork, Kilkenny, Connemara or Donegal, having a cop-out to placate Europe does not mean that a septic tank on the Beara Peninsula which may be polluting aquifers would be inspected. If that is not the case there are inherent flaws in the Bill which the Minister may need to examine. I am not saying I agree with that.

However, the thrust of the Bill is that a person has to pay €50 to register but is not inspected for five or ten years. There are many more septic tanks than we would like to see in the country which may be polluting streams, roads or aquifers. If that is the case the registration system will fall far short of what the Minister, Department and Europe envisages it should be.

The thrust of what we said earlier was that the system will check the quality of the groundwater is suitable. Why are we going back to a system? There is a system in place, through the planning process, which tells people the specifications for septic tanks if they are building houses. Therefore, the Minister is asking people to register such systems with the Department, which is fine. The issues are the environment, water and effluent. The inspection is about checking the water, not the system. If I decide——

The system must work.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. He told me earlier it was about checking that the water——

The system has to work to make sure——

Senator Ó Clochartaigh to continue, without interruption.

This has been a long debate but I am fairly clear about what was said earlier because I tried to labour the point. We discussed houses that were built 20, 30 or 40 years ago. I understand the Minister said if the water coming out of such systems was of an EPA standard to be laid down it did not matter what the systems were or how they worked as long as they conformed to the guidelines in place when they were built. It is proposed to register that system and re-register it if there are changes. If I add to my system and the effluent from it is still of a high quality the water coming out of it should be inspected. The idea of registering and re-registering is a red herring and I do not see the logic.

Will sanctions be imposed for non-compliance with the re-registration process? How will the system of re-registration work? I presume it will be similar to the registration process. Will individuals be written to and advised that the five year term is up? Will the form be automatically sent out at the end of five years? Will there be sanctions for non-compliance?

Based on the arguments made on this side of the House and what we have heard to date, I can see what the Minister is trying to achieve to a point on reregistration which might allow changing circumstances to be taken into account and so on. However, it will introduce major conveyancing and land transfer difficulties. Any solicitor carrying out proper due diligence will obviously look for much more than the registration of the property and all of the other work that has been carried out. We need to extend the period of registration. Other elements could be introduced under another Government amendment to the Bill if the Minister feels they need to be covered. I am not sure if he is open to that idea but it might be constructive in resolving the issue.

We cannot have protection of groundwater without a good working system. If groundwater quality is not up to scratch the system has to be changed to deal with that.

That is not what the Minister said earlier.

How can we have good groundwater quality if we do not have a system that is able to deal with it?

If I improve my system——

There are technologies available——

What is being tested, the water or the systems?

The system is inspected but the groundwater is tested to make sure everything is working properly. The objective of the exercise is to ensure we have non-contamination of groundwater from septic tanks. That is the ruling from the European Court of Justice. We are doing our best to comply with it through a risk-based approach. I am not introducing a universal system of inspection, which some people said I was going to do during the summer months, or have a €300 annual inspection charge. I do not think Senator Ó Clochartaigh did not get in on the act, to be fair to him. He was not as bad as some of the others.

The Minister has said that a few times.

I have and I will keep saying it. One has to have a valid registration, otherwise it is an offence. That clarifies Senator Mooney's question. If one does not have a valid registration, even on re-registration it has to be valid. I am prepared to consider what Senators Ó Domhnaill and Ó Clochartaigh said on the time period and the cumbersome way in which one might have to re-register. I will return to the point on Report Stage if I am in a very generous mood at 11.50 p.m.

Is the amendment being pressed?

No. On the basis of what the Minister said we are willing to await the Government amendment on Report Stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 16:

In page 5, line 32, after "registration" to insert "at no additional cost to the householder".

This amendment relates to registration. We seek to insert into the Bill a provision that any re-registration would not incur an additional cost to a householder.

The initial registration fee was €50. We opposed that but in terms of re-registration the Minister has indicated he may accept that. The mood is changing as we approach midnight. We propose inserting the words "at no additional cost to the householder" in terms of a re-registration which we hope would take place after a period longer than five years and that it would be specified in the Bill for Report Stage.

I have already stated that in the regulations I intend to bring forward there will be no charge for re-registration. I intend doing that, and that is the way I will deal with it.

Will the Minister accept the amendment?

No, I will not accept it.

I cannot understand then why the Minister will not accept the amendment. He said he may look at this in the form of a regulation——

I am looking at it. That is exactly what I am doing.

Why not accept the amendment?

I am doing it my way, not the Senator's way.

Why not accept the amendment?

I will do it my way with the regulations.

Why not accept the amendment?

It will be in the regulations and I have already announced it. The Senator is getting the result by a different means.

It is not the same result. It is entirely different. The Minister is being disingenuous.

The Minister is. He should accept——

I do not have to accept the word "disingenuous" from the Senator for any purpose.

I am saying the Minister is being disingenuous because he is saying, on the one hand, that there will not be a re-registration charge——

——yet when an amendment is tabled that simply states "at no additional cost to the householder" he will not accept it.

I will do it in the regulations, which will do the same thing.

That is different.

If I want to explain how to do that I will but I do not have to explain everything to the Senator.

I will explain it in plain English. The Senator's amendment states "at no additional cost". That is to presume that the Minister had it in his head to impose an additional cost. He did not have it in his head to impose an additional cost and therefore he cannot accept the Senator's amendment because he is presuming he is imposing an additional cost. Does the Senator understand that?

With respect, legislation is not about what is in the Minister's head.

Senator Keane to continue, without interruption.

Legislation is what is defined and what we vote on. The wording is important, not what is in the Minister's head, with respect.

As we approach midnight I am pleased to note that the Minister is ameliorating somewhat and softening in attitude, which is most welcome.

There must be something in the water around here.

No. The Minister is known affectionately as Big Phil. I think he might have a big heart as well and we might give him a chance in that regard.

It is appropriate for Senator Ó Domhnaill to table his amendment and it should not be belittled. Will the Minister clarify that he is not saying he will amend the Bill to incorporate Senator Ó Domhnaill's amendment? Will he confirm to us that in the Schedule to the Bill on which we will have to vote before it becomes law the question of no charge for the second registration will be included? If the Minister can give us that assurance in his current good mood I would be glad to accept that position providing he confirms that to us. We do not want to split hairs but if the Minister confirms that in the Schedule to the Bill, which will form part of the Bill, he will have a little aguisín that there will be no fee for a second registration I am prepared to accept that. I compliment him on the manner in which he is at last listening to us after several hours.

(Interruptions).

It is worth making the point that we do take the Minister's word. I appreciate the amount of discussion on the Bill tonight which has been useful but we have had about five different Ministers for the environment in the past number of years. This Minister might get a promotion and move on to bigger and better things in the near future which is the reason it is important that this be clarified. That would ensure that what he is considering, with which we agree, goes into either the Schedule or the legislation itself. We would need clarification that that is the case. We would support this amendment being pushed through because it is a reasonable request.

We all like to get on the record and it is nearly midnight. There appears to be confusion on the part of one member of the Opposition who seems willing to accept that the Minister will do this by way of regulation. Another person from the same party is not accepting it. Perhaps it is getting so late——

We are waiting on clarification from the Minister.

——people do not understand what the Minister is saying. He clearly stated that this matter will be dealt with by way of regulation when the time comes and in fairness to the Minister, if we are to progress this further tonight and when we return to it tomorrow evening, and I accept that much good work has been done in the hours we have been here, we should accept the Minister's bona fides and move on to the next amendment.

There is no reference to a charge for subsequent registration. Why should I agree to an amendment that highlights that fact? I am prepared to do that by regulations, which is fair. Why should I include a section in a Bill to draw attention to a future Minister to do it? The Senator is concerned about future Ministers but I am only a Minister about eight months and I intend staying a Minister for a little longer.

Because it makes it absolutely clear.

I am making it absolutely clear to the Senator.

I know the Minister is making it clear——

Yes, and it will be laid before——

——but I would prefer it to be clear in black and white.

There is more than one way of doing it. Perhaps the Senator is not long enough here to understand that.

There is more than one way of doing it and the regulations will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas where the Deputy will see them.

The simple way to do it is to accept the amendment.

If the Senator does not want to accept that, that is fine but I am not accepting his amendment——

Take the easy option.

——or anyone else's amendment.

On a point of clarification, I thought I heard the Minister indicate when he spoke initially that he would accept it as the Schedule to the final Bill.

No, I did not.

Obviously, I was mistaken but to accept this as a regulation that will be signed some time in the future after the Bill is passed by the Oireachtas with the Oireachtas having no powers in regard to that regulation——

It will be in play for five years——

——and therefore the Senator has time.

Amend the legislation.

Senator Ó Domhnaill to continue, without interruption.

We may have time but we have no say.

The Senator could have the Cavan model.

Senator Mullen, do not frighten the horses at this hour of the night.

And remember to include the Cavan model of charging.

In the circumstances and given the lack of clarity, I appreciate what the Minister is saying but unfortunately I cannot accept it because the timeframe is too short. If the Minister will concede to have it written in as part of the Schedule to the final Bill we would accept it but in the event that does not happen we will have to press the amendment.

Amendment put.
The Committee divided: Tá, 13; Níl, 31.

  • Cullinane, David.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Darragh.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D’Arcy, Jim.
  • D’Arcy, Michael.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Harte, Jimmy.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O’Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O’Keeffe, Susan.
  • O’Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O’Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O’Keeffe.
Amendment declared lost.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 24 November 2011.