I welcome the Minister of State.
Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage
I am glad to be in the Seanad again. If I was to seek honorary membership, I am sure I could get it by now. It has been one of those weeks.
As long as the Minister of State does not apply for permanent membership, he will be fine.
I thought I might honour the Seanad for a couple of months. It is nice to be here.
The Minister of State could be here for a couple of months.
It is looking that way.
Is that on the record of the House?
I mean in respect of this Bill.
As it will be a long day, please allow the Minister of State to proceed.
I am pleased to present the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2016 to the Seanad. I look forward to our constructive debate on the Bill and the delivery and funding of public water services. The need for an informed, balanced and rational debate on the funding of domestic water services that is respectful of all positions is the context of this legislation on suspending domestic water charges for nine months. Quality public water supplies and the ongoing investment required are critical for public health, social and economic development and environmental protection. We have important decisions to make in the coming nine months as to how we fund water services to meet these needs.
Before I outline the Bill's contents, it is important to remind the House of the legacy of under-investment and diseconomies of scale that left us with so many problems with public water and wastewater systems. When Irish Water assumed responsibility for water services in January 2014, 945,000 people were dependent on drinking water supplies that required remedial action. Data indicated that 49% of all water produced was lost in leakage. Dublin, our capital city, which should have had a spare capacity of 10% to 15% like most European capital cities, had a spare capacity of only 1% to 4%. Major drinking water schemes were in need of significant modernising and more than 44 urban areas throughout Ireland saw untreated sewage going into rivers and seas, posing a major risk to public health and the environment.
Put simply, we have these problems because we are guilty of having underinvested in water infrastructure and services for decades. That is a fact. The capital allocations for vital water and wastewater projects and upgrades competed with and more often than not lost to other more pressing and tangible investment requirements such as those for roads, schools and hospitals. We had these problems because 34 local authorities provided services and infrastructure on a subnational basis, defined as they were by county boundaries and diseconomies of scale in procurement and network and asset management. These problems emerged despite the dedication, commitment and professionalism of local authority staff in often financially constrained circumstances. Most Senators have served on a county council at some stage and will recall the negotiations with neighbouring authorities on water and sewerage services at the county boundaries. It was lunacy.
A new approach was needed. For this reason, the previous Government established a single national utility to deliver water services and infrastructure, a utility that could plan and invest on a whole-of-asset and national basis funded by sustainable revenue sources in order that Ireland would be able to meet the water challenges of an increasing population, a growing economy and a changing climate.
Since Irish Water became the national water utility in January 2014, it has made good progress in addressing some of the problems that I have outlined. By the end of 2015, Irish Water had delivered 20 new water treatment plants and 49 new wastewater treatment plants. Some 500 km of piping has been repaired or replaced. The number of people dependent on water supplies listed on the EPA's action list of works requiring remediation has reduced significantly. From 945,000 two years ago, it now stands at 804,000. Last year, through Irish Water and the local authority's work, 17,300 people in Roscommon no longer had to boil water coming out of their taps. Dublin's spare water capacity has increased to approximately 10%, a welcome move towards Irish Water's 15% target. If our capital city is to compete with other capitals in its offerings in tourism, jobs, investment and so on, it must have this capacity. We remember what happened during that one week a number of years ago when the supply dropped so low.
Through the more than 844,000 meters installed by the utility, Irish Water has been able to identify customer-side leakage and offer householders repairs under the first fix free repair scheme. By the end of March this year, approximately 48.5 million litres of water per day had been saved through this scheme and domestic customers' repairs arising from leakage detection through metering. This is the equivalent of the daily water needs of 150,000 homes. The largest leak identified through the first fix free scheme saw leakage at a property in Galway of 77,000 litres of water per day, enough to supply the daily requirement of 235 homes.
The metering programme has also been crucial in the identification of possible lead piping in householders' properties. Irish Water has written to approximately 34,000 households informing them of the likely presence of lead piping in their properties and provided them with customer advice on dealing with the issue, including public health advice from the HSE. This response would be much more difficult to achieve or co-ordinate if we did not have a single national utility.
Some of the progress that I have outlined arises from the innovation and national approach adopted by the public utility. However, increased investment is also critical. This year, Irish Water expects to invest €550 million in the network. This represents an 83% increase in investment on three years ago.
Having outlined the fundamental facts of why reform and greater investment are needed and the difference that reform is making, I will set out the steps that the Government will take to facilitate a comprehensive and deliberative process on the future funding of domestic water services. In parallel with the progression of the Bill through the Oireachtas, my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, established an expert commission to examine and make recommendations on the sustainable long-term funding model for the delivery of domestic water and wastewater services by Irish Water. The commission is chaired by the former chairperson of the Labour Court, Mr. Kevin Duffy, who has a distinguished track record of public service and will bring a wealth of experience in addressing complex issues. The other members of the commission were announced by the Minister on 29 June and comprise a number of international and national experts. The commission will be independent of the Government and supported by an independent secretariat through the Institute of Public Administration.
In line with the confidence and supply arrangement agreed between the Government and Fianna Fáil, the terms of reference require the commission to make recommendations on the funding of domestic water services and improvements in water quality, taking into account the maintenance and investment needs of the water and wastewater systems on short, medium and long-term bases, proposals on how the national utility in State ownership would be able to borrow to invest in water infrastructure, the need to encourage water conservation, including through reviewing information campaigns on water conservation in other countries, Ireland's domestic and international environmental standards and obligations, the role of the economic regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation, and submissions from all interested parties. This expert commission will endeavour to report back within five months. A special Oireachtas committee on the funding of domestic water services will debate the commission's recommendations and endeavour to put its own recommendations before the Oireachtas, I understand within approximately three months. The Houses will then consider and decide on the future funding model. This process should take no longer than nine months from the end of June this year.
Notwithstanding our debate on the future of domestic water charges and the funding of same, we recognise the need to improve Irish Water's transparency and accountability, both to the Oireachtas and the public it serves. To achieve these objectives, it is the Government's intention to introduce legislation in the autumn to establish an external advisory body for Irish Water. The body will be tasked with publishing advice for the Government and giving quarterly reports to an Oireachtas committee on Irish Water's performance in the implementation of its business plan. The board will play an important role in enhancing public confidence in the utility and ensuring it continues to deliver on its business plan and build trust.
Suspending charges will have implications for households that are not customers of Irish Water. In line with the supply and confidence arrangement, the Minister intends to restore State funding to group water schemes to pre-2015 levels for the nine-month period of suspension of domestic water charges. This will restore parity of approach towards group water scheme members and Irish Water customers. The Minister also intends to revise the grant levels to new group water schemes and the refurbishment of private wells.
This is a short Bill with the specific purpose of suspending domestic water charges to allow for the deliberative process that I have outlined to be undertaken. I will detail the sections of the Bill.
Section 1 sets out the definitions fòr terms used in the Bill.
Section 2 provides for the suspension of domestic water charges, except for connection charges, for a period of nine months, commencing on 1 July 2016. Irish Water cannot bill customers in the period of suspension of water charges. The section also provides for a prohibition on Irish Water billing domestic customers for water services used during quarter two of 2016, for which bills would be due now, until after the period of suspension.
The section also provides that the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government can extend the nine-month period of suspension by way of ministerial order for a further period if an Oireachtas committee, established to examine the issue of funding of domestic public water services, informs him or her, or if he or she is otherwise satisfied, that it will not complete its work on or before 31 March 2017. In both cases the Minister must be satisfied that the extension is required solely to allow the committee to complete its work and the extension will only be for a period that he or she deems necessary to allow the work to be completed. The Minister may further extend the period of suspension, by order, to enable the Government to consider the recommendations of the said Oireachtas committee.
The section also provides that Irish Water shall not include the period of suspension of domestic water charges in calculating the time period of unpaid water charges, for which a late payment charge applies. I believe this to be a reasonable approach that will allow for the extensive deliberation process to be undertaken without further intervention.
Section 3 is a standard provision to provide for the Short Title of the Bill which is to be cited as the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2016.
The Bill is to suspend domestic water charges for a nine-month period to provide space for a reasoned debate on the future funding of public domestic water services. We need to use the opportunity to ensure questions on the source and investment requirements are answered once and for all. We need to use the time to have a genuine debate both in this House, on the airwaves and with the public to look at this issue and talk about it in a reasonable manner. We had this conservation in the Dáil when debating a motion earlier in the year. We must genuinely try to see if we can all put our best thoughts together on the issue to reach some agreement on what is best for the country. We all want the same ends. We demand high quality water services for all and that these services remain in public ownership. We all want a public water system that will sustain the economy and communities into the future. The Bill lends us an opportunity to debate openly and frankly how we will achieve these ends. I commend it to the House.
I welcome this important Bill and will seek clarification on some aspects from the Minister of State in due course. Fianna Fáil supports the Bill which sets out a clear route to end failed water charges. The measure is the first step in ending water charges. Under the new Bill water charges will be suspended immediately. Irish Water will be subject to a new oversight body and remain in public ownership, which is crucial. This will keep down costs and help to ensure greater efficiency.
As I said to the Minister of State the other day, the role of a local authority is important in this regard. No one seems to be taking responsibility for manholes in backyards and front gardens, particularly in old housing estates. I ask the Minister of State to revert to me on this matter because we need confirmation of who is responsible.
I thank the Minister of State. Local authorities need to know what role they are expected to play.
In 2015 only 53% of all revenue due to Irish Water was paid. The recent collapse in payment rates for bills sent in April and May only added to the pre-existing trend. When all costs are factored in, it constitutes a massive amount of money, as follows: €540 million spent on water meters; €172 million expended in setting up Irish Water, and €46 million spent in running it. The Government's creation of Irish Water will leave the taxpayer €758 million worse off this year than if it had not been established at all.
The failure to meet the EUROSTAT test completely undermines the reason behind the current water charges system. It is time to draw a line under this fiasco and end the water charges regime. We now have a path forward. The Bill is the first step towards ending them. When we were out canvassing on doorsteps, we were aware of the hurt people felt as a result of property and other taxes. They cannot afford a system that is inadequate. There are many problems with water meters and manholes, but who will take responsibility for solving them? Fianna Fáil supports the Bill, but we must have clarification of who will play each role.
Tá céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dhéanamh le muintir na Fraince agus leo siúd a fuair bás agus a ghortaíodh san ionsaí uafásach i Nice aréir. Bhí sé aisteach toisc go rabhamar ag an ambasáid aréir agus bhí ceiliúradh mór ansin ar lá speisialta na Fraince. Ansin, tharla an t-uafás sin aréir agus téann ár gcomhbhrón anonn chucu ar fad.
Cuireann Sinn Féin fáilte roimh an mBille seo toisc go bhfuileamar i bhfábhar aon rud a chuireann stop le na táillí uisce. Ba bhreá linn dá gcuirfí deireadh leo ar fad. Má bhreathnaíonn muid ar an méid a thit amach maidir le táillí dramhaíola, bheadh muid buartha nach bhfuil ann anseo ach cur i gcéill. Tá sé tábhachtach go dtuigeann daoine nach bhfuil ann anseo ach táillí curtha ar fionraí.
While Sinn Féin sees the Bill as essentially a fudge, we will be supporting it. When we get to the end of the road in a year's time, we will find a lot of cans.
Cans of water.
However, it is only fair that we be clear with the public, including the many people to whom Fianna Fáil made a range of promises in the run-up to the general election, that there is merely a suspension of water charges from April to December. It is one of the results of the cosy-up deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, known as the confidence and supply deal. It should be renamed the supplicate and comply deal from Fine Gael's point of view.
We are told bin charges will be suspended for one year, that water charges have been suspended for one year and that Fianna Fáil will be happy to support legislation on banded hours contracts in a year’s time. It seems to be the party for next year. From my experience around the country but particularly in west Galway and south Mayo, I know that people simply cannot wait for a year. They are wracked by uncertainty. This is not fair on those who want to plan for the future. The reality is that Fianna Fáil does not care about people’s futures. It only cares about doing the bare minimum to get it over the line in the next general election. On the issue of water charges, it has changed its position so many times that it is hard to keep track.
The reason we are discussing the Bill today is not the new politics or the practical or pragmatic implementation of the manifestos of the Government parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but that in recent years hundreds of thousands of people have marched, boycotted and voted on this issue. They forced Fianna Fáil, in particular, from its position of supporting the creation of Irish Water and introducing water charges to its current fudge position which still confuses me every time I hear its members speak about the matter. It should be clear to Seanadóirí on all sides of the House that there is still this movement which is watching carefully what is happening in this House today and will continue to do so. There will be a huge electoral cost for any politician who in the last general election advocated the abolition of Irish Water and water charges and who breaks his or her word when these issues are finally voted on in the Houses.
The most recent Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael deal involved the proposed suspension, for 12 months, of the pay-by-weight waste disposal system. There was utter chaos in my area of Connemara where people were forced to sign up to contracts with the local waste company. Some of them were good responsible recyclers who only needed a bag or a tag on the odd occasion. I welcome the climbdown on the issue and the Minister's eleventh hour intervention when put under pressure in the House to do so. It was only after pressure was exerted by me and my colleagues in Sinn Féin and others in the community that the Government finally listened. It took Fianna Fáil Members quite a while to make up their minds on the matter also. They considered they could not support our motion to repeal the statutory instrument and end the pay-by-weight system. However, they changed their tune when they saw pressure being exerted in communities.
I take the opportunity to clarify Sinn Féin’s position on water charges. I want to do this because the debate on the Bill in the Dáil was replete with the usual formulaic nonsense from Fianna Fáil about our position on taxing water services. Mr. Chris Hazzard, the Sinn Féin Minister for Infrastructure, has suspended the installation of water meters across the Six Counties. Before him, Mr. Conor Murphy, as Regional Development Minister, ruled out water charges and totally stopped their imposition. He also blocked any move to privatise water supply provision. We want an end to domestic water charges. We want public ownership of water and waste services enshrined in the Constitution. We want water services to be delivered by a democratic and accountable public body. We want water to be supplied on the basis of need, not the ability to pay. We will not rest until these objectives are achieved.
The alternative to the failed water policy of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party has been outlined by the Right2Water movement: provide water on the basis of need, not ability to pay; fund it through general taxation; deliver it through a democratically accountable and transparent body working with the river basin management groups and local authorities; focus investment in the first instance on reducing the more than 40% wastage in the system; implement an ambitious capital programme to upgrade the water and sewerage system; meet the broad objectives of the water framework directive; and, crucially, remain the only OECD country with zero water poverty.
I agree with the Minister of State on the issues surrounding the transparency of Irish Water. We have had a boil water notice in Carraroe in Connemara for the past while. We finally hear, after much pressure, that Irish Water is carrying out an upgrade to the system there, but we have asked for months for detailed information on what upgrade it is carrying out in the plant there. However, it has refused to give it to us. If the Minister of State speaks to somebody in Irish Water, he might ask him or her to tell us finally what exact type of upgrade it is carrying out to the system in Carraroe in order that we can check that it is future-proofed.
There are also very small issues that make people very angry. There is an area in Connemara, a village called Teach Mór, where the local council wanted to do up the road. It cannot do so until Irish Water buries a water pipe. This has been ongoing for a year and Irish Water will not tell us when it will do it. When there are things like that happening with Irish Water and when it will not give us basic information and do such small jobs on the ground, people have very little faith in the company.
We have concerns about the terms of reference of the commission in the Bill. References to conservation in the terms of reference are minimal. This is not a comprehensive commission to consider the future of water and sanitation services. It is simply a ruse designed to deliver a predetermined outcome which was showed by the resignation of Joe O'Toole. Sinn Féin's view, as I am sure the Minister of State knows, is that these terms of reference should be expanded and the commission should be tasked to consider the funding and delivery of all water and sanitation services. It should be asked to examine issues of water poverty and poverty-proof any proposals it makes to the Oireachtas. It should have a greater remit for outlining recommendations for water conservation. It should have an input from professionals with regulatory, operational, management and environmental expertise from water and other utilities. It should have economic and academic expertise, expertise on workers' rights and consumer interest, as well as anti-poverty advocacy and policy expertise.
Nuair a cuireadh na táillí uisce orainn ar dtús, bhí an Rialtas ag maíomh go ndéanfaí an soláthar uisce a chosaint agus a chaomhnú, ach ní fheicim mórán tagairtí do sin sa Bhille atá romhainn. Táimid ag tacú leis an mBille seo, ar an mhórchuid, ach beimid ag breathnú go géar ar an méid a bheidh ag teacht ag deireadh na tréimhse fionraí agus cuirfimid ár bpolasaí féin - sé sin, go bhfuil sé de cheart ag daoine soláthar uisce a bheith acu - chun cinn i gcónaí. Beimid ag díriú ar na gealltanais a rinne Fianna Fáil roimh an toghchán seo caite. Níl sé féaráilte ar dhaoine nuair a deirtear rud amháin leo le linn aimsir an toghcháin, ach déantar rud eile ar fad ina dhiaidh sin.
I have been getting reports on the ground in the past two weeks that the water meter fairies have reappeared in Connemara, installing water meters. I think the people of Connemara, in particular, would much prefer them to fix the holes in the pipes, bury the pipes, do the remedial works that need to be done, etc., before they come back to put in the water meters. The Minister of State might also raise that issue with the people in Irish Water with whom he is dealing. I know we had clinics here on a regular basis but they were a joke. Senior executives from Irish Water would come in and we would ask questions of them. They would take plenty of notes and a very well paid PR executive would send us back an answer that they were looking into the issue but really when it came down to the nitty-gritty and the substantial answers that we were looking for, we did not get them. It is simply not good enough, especially when nearly €1 billion has been spent on this company since it was set up.
I, too, welcome the Minister of State for this debate which I think should be open, honest and frank. If we are all honest with ourselves, this is a regrettable day because it is a huge backwards step in terms of investment in what are essential water networks required for the future of the country and citizens. We are essentially postponing the day. It is a classic kick-to-touch and I say this as a Government Senator. It is happening simply because Fianna Fáil over-promised on water during the last general election and this legislation is to facilitate Government formation with the agreement of Fianna Fáil. However, I think it will rue the day when the commission finishes its report because I predict that either Fianna Fáil will do one of the biggest U-turns and climbdowns in the history of the State or we will have another general election. The stance of the Fianna Fáil Senator I heard speak this morning is a hypocritical. The facts are there. Fianna Fáil signed the country up to water charges when it signed the memorandum of understanding with the troika a number of years ago. That is a fact.
That is not true.
It is a fact.
No, it is not.
Fianna Fáil might like to try to deny that, but it did a U-turn to buy votes during the recent general election because it was getting outflanked by other Opposition parties. Sinn Féin is not consistent on this matter either. I know that this is a divisive issue and a very political issue, but if we want to be open, honest and frank, let us be at least consistent. Sinn Féin at the outset encouraged people to pay their water charges.
Deputy Gerry Adams publicly said people should pay their water charges, as did other Sinn Féin public representatives.
No, he said he might personally consider it. Our policy has been clear from day one.
Then - this is also a fact - the by-election in Tallaght happened and Sinn Féin got outflanked by the left. It lost a seat that it thought was its to win.
It was outflanked and changed its position and then became outright in its opposition to water charges.
The Senator should check our record in the Seanad on it.
The funny thing about all this is that in the North of Ireland where Sinn Féin is in authority-----
There is too much leakage and there are too many problems with the system.
-----35,000 water meters have been installed and Sinn Féin is preparing for the day when it will introduce water charges in Northern Ireland also.
I just told the Senator that Chris Hazzard has stopped them.
This is on top of the local authority charges which are at least €1,000 per household in the North of Ireland. Then it comes into the South in its divisive way and opposes what I believe to be a minimal charge for investment in public services such as water-----
The Senator needs to go up to the Six Counties a little more often.
I was never a populist. Anybody who knows me knows that as long as I have been involved in politics, I have not been a populist. I believe we need water charges in this country in order that we can invest in quality water services to service our future, our children and society. The Minister of State has referred to some of the serious issues. Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh spoke about the problems in Connemara, including cryptosporidium in the water. It happened in my own town, where there were boil water notices for a number of months. People could not bathe their children because of it. This is so serious that if we do not address it and grasp the nettle, we will regret this day. We will have failed, as public representatives and so-called leaders, future generations-----
The Senator has failed.
-----unless we stand up to do what is right by the country-----
The Senator was in government.
-----not what is right by our parties, which is what is happening. Let us be honest about that.
I worked for the ESB for 20 years and that company which I think is well respected globally is a semi-State company that manages national electricity assets. It invests in them. The ESB undertook a network renewal programme during the 1990s and the 2000s whereby it invested almost €7 billion in electricity networks. If that had not been done in this modern economy, of which we are all so proud now that it is growing, we would not have that quality network and service for business, farms and our homes to enjoy. I compare this to the water networks. If we do not have a network renewal programme and if we do not manage water assets in a coherent and maintained way with proper investment, we will regret this day. I do not blame the Minister because Fine Gael was literally forced into this by the over-promising, which I mentioned, that Fianna Fáil engaged in during the recent elections.
Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
We have not changed our position. Ours is the one party that has been consistent on water charges from start to finish and we are standing up for what is right on this issue. In fairness to the Labour Party which probably took the biggest electoral hit of all, it stood by the country. My Labour Party colleagues, one of whom is here, and the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, stood by this country also. They are not populists. Those in Sinn Féin are populists. They change by the day. They are the chameleons of Irish politics and Fianna Fáil is being outflanked by them.
That is nonsense.
That is why they are changing also.
The pipes should have been fixed first.
They might not like it, but that is the truth of the matter.
The Government spent €172 million in setting up Irish Water.
They will regret the day. They are kicking to touch a thorny issue that they introduced in the first place when they signed the memorandum of understanding that tied the country's hands in terms of water charges.
Contributions should be made through the Chair.
Regarding some of the investments, it is a fact that since Irish Water was established, 34 new treatment plants, including 26 for wastewater and eight for drinking water, have been installed around the country. In my county the seven village sewerage scheme has ensured we now have blue flag beaches right across the coast of County Waterford because we do not have raw sewage going out into the sea waters of the coast. That is what this is about. It is about installing infrastructure that will secure quality services and clean, environmental, sustainable services for the future of our country. Furthermore, more than 47 water conservation projects have been completed and 452 km of mains pipe has been remediated by Irish Water. Close to 800,000 water meters have been installed. We need a fair system, which is why the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and I introduced the capped charge system. Two out of five households that were metered were beating the capped charge. That is a fact.
No one takes responsibility, neither local authorities nor Irish Water.
People were beginning to conserve water.
If we are open, frank and honest, as we wish to be in this era of new politics, it is essential that we look to the future and do what is right for the children and people of the future.
I regret that this legislation is before the House. It is a backward step, but I understand that it is in the interests of facilitating Government formation and to satisfy a promise Fianna Fáil made in the recent general election campaign. I believe the country and society will regret it, but I will support the legislation in that context. However, I will watch the work of the commission closely. The commission is independent and its members will examine this matter in a factual, scientific and environmental way, which is welcome and appropriate. As politicians, however, if we are honest with ourselves and the people, we should do what is right and have a system for investment in water services on which we can rely into the future. We cannot afford to have public water systems close due to contamination, to have 50% of water leaking into the ground from leaking pipes or to have our capital city and a growing economy with serious capacity issues in providing water. We cannot afford to have cities such as Galway being almost closed down, as happened a number of years ago due to cryptosporidium in the water and as a result of which it lost its tourism and business trade. These issues are not sustainable. If we continue with the broken system we have had up to now, we will all regret it and we will have done the country a disservice.
I welcome the Minister of State. Unusually, I find myself somewhat in agreement with Senator Paudie Coffey.
That is not unusual.
I have always supported the idea that water must be paid for, but I have never supported Irish Water. Much of what Senator Paudie Coffey said was true. In fact, I am quite baffled at the fact that water meters are still being installed throughout the country while we are going through this farce of suspending the charges until a commission ultimately reports back that water must be paid for. That report will be put before an Oireachtas committee and we will knock lumps out of each other as we sit in a committee room and water will still have to be paid for. It is such a ham-fisted approach to anything that is done in this country that Irish Water has become the de facto bible of how to get things wrong.
That is 100% right.
The previous Government introduced property taxes and got away with it. Then it introduced the incremental charges, one of which was water charges. I am from Galway city and most of my family is involved in the tourism industry there. When cryptosporidium arrived in Galway, it devastated them. They had to buy gallons of bottled water every day. There is no getting away from the fact that we must pay for water in this country. We - by "we" I mean the collective political influences in this country - have allowed the water systems to fall into a state of dilapidation which is not just regrettable but disgraceful. We are still working with Victorian pipes. There are still lead pipes running through back gardens in Tralee, Dublin and in other cities and towns throughout the country and there is no way we can replace them under the current system. We do not have the money to do it.
Nobody will take responsibility for it.
I hold the Minister of State in the highest esteem, but this sham of a Bill is exactly what Senator Paudie Coffey described. It is a hodgepodge that was put together to secure an agreement to form a Government. The charges are suspended for nine months. In nine months' time, now that over 45% of people who were paying their bills have stopped paying, is anybody seriously telling me that they will start paying again once we agree on a payment method? We have had Lisbon treaty two and any other two one cares to think about and now we will have "water two" in the not too distant future. We will have to find a nice new way of packaging the water problem and getting people to pay for it. That is what we will have to do regardless of which part of the political divide one is on and regardless of what stick I will take on social media tonight.
What has happened is a disaster. Irish Water was a disaster from day one. Everything about the establishment of the organisation was a disaster. Those who were involved with its establishment, both on the political and administrative side, have ridden off over the hill with their large salaries or pensions and have left a disaster behind. I agree with Senator Paudie Coffey that the Labour Party took the greatest hit for Irish Water. I had much respect for the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. He tried his damnedest to run this thing through. Senator Paudie Coffey was with him in that, but perhaps they should have rolled back on the nights when we were in this Chamber until 3.30 a.m. pointing out that this was going to end in tears.
It is a disaster.
The problem is that I am not sure how a minority Government will get what is required to get water charges up and running. I do not believe it will happen. I believe this will probably ultimately lead to an election, in which all sides will again promise a utopian State where nobody will pay for anything, we will all have a great time and everybody will be happy. Afterwards, somebody will be elected into government and they will have to fix the damage that has been done. We must wake up. We must recognise that water was being paid for through general taxation and we must adjust the general taxation system to take account of the new taxation methodologies being used. One cannot keep piling stuff on people. They do not have it.
The bottom line is that I believe everybody should pay. Nobody should be exempt from paying for water. However, the Irish Water model is a failed identity. The Government should scrap it, go back to the drawing board and come up with a system of local taxation, which includes property and water, at a rate that is affordable for people. Ultimately, the European Union will make a decision for us. We will probably find ourselves spending millions of euro defending the decisions that will be made as a result of this Bill. It is with some regret that I will support the Bill. I look forward, with great interest, to seeing where we go from here. I agree with Senator Paudie Coffey that we will be back sitting around a table knocking lumps out of each other again over what ultimately must happen. One must fund water systems. I have seen Galway and Roscommon brought to their knees because of the water system.
We must get this Bill through now, but I cannot see how the Minister of State will get the 45% who have opted out ever to return to the system. However, we will worry about that when the time comes.
Thousands of ordinary households are willing us to pass this Bill to suspend water charges formally, but it does not end there. We must scrap them entirely. Let us face the fact that they have been suspended in the hearts and minds of people, as can be seen in the reduction in payments made to Irish Water.
Water charges were the straw that broke the camel’s back. People took to the streets to give elected representatives the clear message that they oppose these charges. People, families and communities have their backs to the wall when it comes to disposable income and it was a crying shame that the previous Government introduced an extra charge when people clearly could not afford it. We have seen the cost of sending children to primary and secondary education escalate. On top of that, we seek to charge them for water, the most vital element to sustain human life. What we must do is educate people on the conservation of water and support them in doing so.
We must find a way to use the funds currently available to make up for the under-investment by previous Governments. We must seek opportunities to reduce waste across the public services, reduce our reliance on outside consultants and agencies and provide a water service that citizens deserve. It is also of the utmost importance that a referendum is held to ensure water remains in public ownership and is not privatised. We charged people for it in the past through central taxation; therefore, we have a duty to deliver it to them. I hope the water commission will find an alternative to the current regime. However, I look forward to the day when there is a vote on water charges because I will stand with thousands of families throughout the country and oppose them. It is in that context that I am supporting this Water Services (Amendment) Bill.
I am so disappointed with the level of dishonesty in this debate, especially the dishonesty of Fianna Fáil on this issue.
Fianna Fáil adopted the river basin management plan in July 2010, which Marian Harkin, MEP, confirmed. It was confirmed by Deputy Eamon Ryan in the Dáil a couple of weeks ago that it was agreed at Cabinet level when the Green Party was in coalition with Fianna Fáil to introduce water charges. Deputy Barry Cowen likes to forget conveniently everything that was agreed, but those things were agreed. That is a fact. It was agreed by the Cabinet.
It did not set up Irish Water.
Please do not interrupt.
That is the thing about Fianna Fáil members. When one says something they do not like, they are ready to jump in. They are not challenging facts, but those are the facts. They signed the memorandum of understanding. All three things are fact. That is what Fianna Fáil does. They got scared about Sinn Féin and rushed to be popular rather than to do the right thing by the country. The last time I saw legislation when we were running down this path, I was a mere councillor and Fianna Fáil bankrupted the country.
I am deeply disappointed about Fine Gael. I have the utmost respect for Senator Paudie Coffey and the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, but I am reminded that it is not the Minister but the Minister of State who comes to the Seanad to take the kicking. I do not intend to give the Minister of State a kicking because we no longer have a Government. What we have are office holders. We are not getting real decisions and leadership. "Repeal the Eighth" has been kicked to the Citizens' Assembly. Water charges have been sent to a water commission. Legislation on school admissions has been kicked to a Dáil committee for a year. The Cassells report on education has been kicked to another committee for a year. That is so it can all be kicked further and further down past the next election. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have just been elected and it is a coalition Government in that Fine Gael cannot bring legislation through the House without the support of Fianna Fáil. The idea that water charges, once suspended, will come back before the House before the next election is a joke. Nobody is talking about the 340,000 rural people who pay every day for their water. No one is marching on the streets about them and not one speaker here has referred to those people who have wells and those in group water schemes who have paid since the foundation of the State for their water. Nobody seems to care about them. Urban people get looked after because it means an extra seat for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael but because the 340,000 rural people have paid for their water and their wells all along, we can forget about them, aside from giving them an extra grant to keep them quiet. Sure they have always paid.
Since I was a child, Fine Gael has been considered a party of law and order. Will the Minister of State confirm whether legal advice has been taken from the Attorney General as to whether the Bill is legal? The former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, sought legal advice from the Attorney General prior to exiting the Government. Has the Cabinet sought the Attorney General's advice? Commissioner Vella has been very clear about it. Once the Bill is passed, a letter will wing its way to the Minister asking him to explain. The pilot letter will arrive and our fines will start to grow. I hope the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the shadow Minister, Deputy Barry Cowen, realise that they are building up a substantial debt for the country. We cannot manage to deal with water, the repeal of the eighth amendment, the schools admissions legislation or the funding of education. How on earth are we going to deal with legislation on climate change? Climate change is going to be costly. Are we going to kick that further down the road? Are we going to forget about the 2020, 2030 and 2050 targets, about which so many Members have spoken so passionately, because it will not be cheap to do so? It is going to cost money. Will we kick that down again and cause more fines? Shortly, we will be paying more fines than we will be paying interest on our loans. That is where we are heading.
Officeholders are refusing to make decisions, which is inexcusable. One can see Fianna Fáil's hidden hand pulling the strings of the Government. All I can do is warn. The former Minister of State, Senator Paudie Coffey, knows well the pain this country had to go through to reverse its bankruptcy. He knows the 15% unemployment rate and the number of people who had to emigrate because Fianna Fáil would not take unpopular decisions, would not regulate and would not provide funding for regulators when tiny numbers were put into offices. Do not go down that road. We have to stop repeating history. Get away from Fianna Fáil. They will bankrupt us again. They bankrupted us in the past and they will do it again. Do not be their willing partner in running this country down. We have huge challenges but they are minor compared to modernising water services. Dublin city is on a knife edge. Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can knock on doors in four years time and talk to the person who comes out and says that no water has come out of the tap for the last three weeks and that they are fed up of buying water at the supermarket. Why, when that person turns on the tap, will water not come out? It will be because we failed to invest in water services. There is no clarity on the investment plan for Irish Water and how it is going to replace its income. Are we going to pull the money away from the HSE, education or the house building programme? Where on earth is the money going to come from to invest in water?
I have two direct questions for the Minister of State. Has the Cabinet taken the advice of the Attorney General on the Bill? What fines are expected after the legislation is passed and what consultation has taken place with the Commissioner with regard to rowing back on what was signed up to three times by Fianna Fáil in government?
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English. I start on a discordant note with Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh. We had very good Irish Water clinics in the last Oireachtas. My experience was 100% positive in that regard.
They gave us plenty of information.
Today is a very important day because it is the beginning of new politics. It is Fianna Fáil reinventing itself as the catch-all populist party. It is welcome that we are to have a commission.
It is Fianna Fáil doing the right thing.
No interruptions, please.
Fianna Fáil has never done the right thing.
We have done the right thing. People cannot afford it.
The Senator may not speak. She has had her turn.
I welcome the commission because we can have a real debate about water, the payment of charges and the funding of the network, system and services. I challenge anyone in the House to show me the colour of his or her money. The Irish Water list of projects for Cork is going to require investment. That means money. As Sinn Féin becomes more mainstream, as it has done in the North, it will discover that government requires making decisions. One cannot come into this Chamber or any local authority chamber and be all things to all people. It requires making decisions. That is why Senator Paudie Coffey has said the most consistent party on the issue of water charges has been Fine Gael. I would happily go to the country on the issue if I had to. I did it in the last election and was intimidated by people in my constituency. I will stand up to all of them.
However, I will not be populist like the Fianna Fáil Party leader was in the case of Cork.
Please address the Chair.
The memorandum of understanding is clear, as Senators Gerard P.Craughwell, Kevin Humphreys and Paudie Coffey said. We are opening ourselves to daily fines from the European Union if we do not continue to charge for water. These will cost the taxpayer more and more money and that will mean less investment.
The memorandum of understanding was signed by Fianna Fáil in government. The leader of Fianna Fáil was in the Cabinet and signed up to it, whether he likes it. He cannot do a Bobby Ewing and turn off the shower, come out and say that he was never there.
Fianna Fáil did not set up Irish Water.
He cannot do that. Moreover, Deputy Barry Cowen cannot promise everything and deliver nothing in terms of investment.
What we are doing today with this Bill is to provide for the setting up of the commission. I believe the bona fides of the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, and the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney.
The energy regulator has been sidelined. The regulator is the independent authority that approved the pricing structure for water and other utilities. Let us remember that under the memorandum of understanding and the Fianna Fáil plan, the cost was far more than what the last Government proposed.
It had suggested €700 per year.
If we want a debate about water charges, let us have it.
There is another concerning aspect that no one here has addressed. Last week, Professor Seamus Coffey from UCC referred to the revelation of the significant drop in the number of people who had paid bills by the end of the last billing quarter. There has been a 50% drop. The company is looking to collect approximately €260 million. That amounts to €65 million per quarter, a significant amount of money.
I was not in the Cabinet. I am not privy to the Attorney General's advice. I do not really mind about all of that. What I am concerned about is the need for us as politicians from Connemara, Waterford, Carlow, Cork or wherever to go back to the people. I want to go back to the people of the lower harbour, Carrigaline, Ringaskiddy and Monkstown in Cork and tell them that we are going to bring in the Cork lower harbour drainage project and give them clean drinking water. I want to tell them that we are going to invest in the water treatment plant and in the lower harbour in Cork. However, we cannot do it unless we have the resources and the money to do it. Fianna Fáil has no plan to do it. Sinn Féin wants to increase all taxes.
That is nonsense.
If we are to have investment in the water network and system, let us allow the commission to produce its report.
Fine Gael should stop wasting it on the meters and put it into the system.
If the commission makes a recommendation as part of the final outcome, I will accept it as a democrat. We can talk about new politics, but that does not mean we can be a catch-all for everyone. Let us remember 1977. The Leas-Chathaoirleach was an active member at the time.
The Senator's time is up.
I will finish on this point. That was the beginning of the end of local government funding. We then had a gargantuan U-turn by one political party and are going to see another one now on this question. I welcome the commission. I hope it will be a success and I will await its outcome. I very much regret the fact that Joe O'Toole had to resign. He was forced out. This is important legislation and I hope it will be able to do its work and present a report within five months.
I had not intended to speak on Irish Water, but I was upstairs and heard Senator Paudie Coffey chatting away and felt a responsibility to come down and respond.
First, I wish to comment on the North and water charges. Let us be absolutely clear because Senator Paudie Coffey seems to be a little confused about this. There are no water charges in the North. There are no water charges-----
I am not confused.
Perhaps the Senator might give me a chance to speak. There are no water charges in the North because the Sinn Féin Minister with responsibility for regional development, Conor Murphy, stopped water charges being brought in and stopped the privatisation of Northern Ireland Water.
Senator Paudie Coffey rightly refers to the fact that some metering has been done. Again, the reason-----
They are still doing it here.
Metering has been done in the North because there was a change of ministry to a Unionist ministry. We lost that ministry and they brought in metering as they had intended, a little like what Fine Gael is doing here and what Fianna Fáil did originally.
I want to refer to the Fianna Fáil position. Certainly Senator Jerry Buttimer is right to say it was a Fianna Fáil baby originally. Maybe Fianna Fáil people were there at the conception. Fianna Fáil representatives are right to say the party did not make Irish Water. They did not have the final say on the outcome of the baby. However, we can only go on their record or the members of the family who were born before that. We had Eircom and then privatisation of that company. We then had waste management service privatisation. We also had centralisation of the hospital services and then privatisation. One would be forgiven for thinking that they had the same thing in mind for Irish Water.
Sinn Féin never told people to pay bills.
We have always said - we are absolutely consistent in all of this - we would never tell anyone to pay a bill or not to pay a bill. We have always said that people should decide for themselves. We have faith in the capacity of individual human beings to make decisions around whether they pay bills. We would not have the responsibility of someone not paying a bill and subsequently incurring interest charges or anything else. It would be an irresponsible stance to tell someone not to pay a bill, in the same way as I would not expect anyone to tell me not to pay a bill. I am glad to have the opportunity to clear that up.
The problem is that people are not paying for water when they are paying water charges. They are paying for the likes of what happened around Siteserv and the deals that were done. That is the problem people have with it. We know 50% of water is being wasted. People are refusing to pay for poisonous lead pipes that have not been fixed. Those pipes were not fixed during the boom when the country was awash with money and when so many things were being done to sort out bonuses and jobs for the boys and extra money here, there and everywhere. Instead of investing that money in water services, it was used to line the pockets of people in the golden circle and people around that circle. It is as plain as that. Irish people are not stupid and they see that. Therefore, when they are told that they have to pay for water, that is what they see.
My party believes water is a basic human right. I am one of the people to whom Senator Kevin Humphreys referred. I have paid for water delivered through a water scheme all my life and do not have a problem with it. I do not have a problem with it because I know every cent I pay goes into a local community group. Every cent is used to produce water of better quality. We have control over the quality of that water. I do not have to pay for vast bonuses for anyone and do not have to pay for anything else. In other words, it is targeted at the water. I thank the Senator for considering me in all of this.
I wish to discuss what is being done with the sewerage schemes because sometimes when we talk about water, we think only of drinking water. Sewerage schemes are being developed throughout County Mayo. Let us consider the Belmullet sewerage scheme, for which we have waited 40 years. It is finally being delivered because of an imposition from Europe to the effect that we must have a sewerage scheme. The original cost of the sewerage scheme was predicted to be €13.5 million. The cost is now down to approximately €7 million. The capacity of the treatment plant has been reduced to the extent that we cannot now attract new industries to the area. I call on the Minister of State to seriously consider this in the context of the network and collective responsibility.
Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael must take responsibility for creating the monster of Irish Water. They cannot hide behind Europe or European directives. They have to take responsibility. The people are not stupid when it comes to water. That is why hundreds of thousands come out onto the streets. It is not that they do not want to pay for things. They do not mind paying for the things they get, but they will not be paying for the nonsense of Irish Water.
I will answer some of the questions asked and respond to comments made by Senators.
People do not mind paying their water charge when they can see exactly what they are getting for it. A major reason for setting up the commission is to analyse methods of payment, how people are paying and if people can follow their charge to see how it is being spent and to build that analysis into the system. I believe in the concept of paying for water services and will defend it until the cows come home. I have no problem with that concept whatsoever, but I acknowledge that it was not very well explained, the business case was not always well sold and there were issues around transparency and concerns over bonuses, etc. Most of the concerns, if one analyses them, can be addressed but headlines in the media and commentary from politicians of all parties do not help that discussion. The bonus issue was not what people thought it was at all. As with most businesses, the bonus was built into the basic pay. My background is in business and the scheme which was put in place for the Irish Water bonuses was actually logical in order to generate activity and staff efficiency. However, I accept that it was never fully explained.
I totally agree that the majority of people are quite happy. Although people do not like paying for anything, they understand certain things such as electricity and telephone services have to be paid for. People like to know they are getting value for money, are not getting ripped off and are getting a good service. It is part of what we are aiming to do in building confidence. If that argument is not won in nine or ten months time, this and the other House might vote to get rid of water charges. If the argument is not won to bring people on board - I include Senators and Deputies in this - decision-makers will have to decide over those months what the future is regarding the funding of water services. The question must be asked as to whether a system can be built in which people have confidence. That is a decision for Senators and Deputies.
We must be honest. Senator Kevin Humphreys mentioned dishonesty in this situation. One way or another, water has to be paid for by somebody, somewhere and sometime in the State. It is becoming quite expensive to provide water. I understand Senator Frances Black's comments about people who could not afford more charges at the time. I understand it. Trust me when I say that if this could have been prevented, it would have been. Fine Gael and the Labour Party do not like being unpopular and we do not introduce these measures for fun. We would have avoided it if we could have. Perhaps we could have tried to work around it but decisions were made by the previous Government which forced the timing of the introduction of water charges. We acknowledge that the timing was wrong. However, even if the State could avoid water charges, the expansion of water services had to be paid for at some time and taxpayers' money would have been used anyway. The cost would still be the same for the State one way or another. It may not have manifested itself as water charges but rather as other taxes. There would be a cost as it was not going to go away. This is what must be discussed and decided on by decision-makers, Senators, Deputies and the public. In the next nine or ten months, I hope people will come with us on the journey of exploration. People might still decide at the end that they do not like water charges. If that is what they decide, that will be fair enough. However, let us look at it. Has everybody read the business case behind Irish Water? I do not believe he or she has. I doubt it, but I will not pick on-----
I did not say "we". I asked if everybody in this and the other House, decision-makers and the public which has an interest in this had. I know that everybody is busy but I would recommend taking some time out to read the original business case for setting up a single water utility. Let us put aside what happened after it and look at the business plan and the improvements. Then let us put them together to see if it is working. I totally believe in the concept of a single water utility. Questions around transparency and so on are a different concept, but I believe in the business case.
Reference was made to the cost of setting up the utility. It is correct that it will cost €750 million over a couple of years. The business case examines all of those figures and they were set out at the very start, which was two or three years before the final vote in the Dáil. The business case analysed the figures and stated what the set-up cost would be. There were no hidden figures, although it may have been more expensive in some areas. It was an average costing at the time of €120 million, but it cost €170 million. The business case went through the fact that it would cost money. However, if one did not go through all those set up costs, the utility could not now borrow money. The whole idea is that Irish Water owns all the assets and can borrow money separate from us, which will help to fund investment in water services. That was why part of the money was spent.
If one analyses what it cost to run 34 separate water utilities, one can see what the savings are. It was very clear that it was not going to pay for itself in one, two or three years. It will take eight to ten years by the time there is a payback for the State. It is built into the contract that Irish water must bring in efficiencies and savings. As people have not had time to read the business case, I suggest they read it and we could then discuss it more. I do not believe we discussed this enough. People said the debate was guillotined, but the Bill was debated in this House for two or three years before it came to use of a guillotine. On the night, there was a guillotine, but there was two or three years discussion before that. However, not everyone got into the debate, including the media and the public. During this period when charges are parked, I urge everyone to look at the business case and the choices. Should we have water charges or not? If there are no water charges, do we use more taxpayers' money? If we do so, there is either more tax to be collected or there are cuts in other services. That is the reality because we have no choice but to invest the guts of €10 billion in water services for the years ahead.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell referred to the lunacy of continuing the metering programme. I do not agree with him. Metering is the best way to achieve conservation and educate all of us about the logic of saving water and not wasting it. One of my first trips outside of the State as a Deputy was to Geneva on a global water shortage conference. We are lucky to have plenty of rain in Ireland but other countries do not have it. We have a duty to conserve water and to build that into the mindsets of all, both young and old. Metering helps to focus us on not wasting water. The best example of metering is that it saves leakage. As I said, the truth of the matter is that because of metering, we have saved 48,000 million tonnes of water which, in brass tacks, is the equivalent of 150,000 houses' water usage each year. People must understand this. Apart from the merits of water conservation and not wasting it, if we can reduce the leakage through any method, it reduces what must be spent on building infrastructure in the first place. It costs a lot of money to build a water treatment plant. If leaks continue in the system, more treatment plants and facilities would need to be built to flush the system. It costs so much to treat water and make it safe for drinking that the leaking water is equivalent to Ballygowan water. That is the cost of it and metering should enable a reduction in the rates of leakage. It will not catch all leaks but it will stop many of them. This continuing work is required, whether water charges are in place.
I will now return to the matter of the water charges. This is a discussion people must have in the coming months and decisions will need to be made. I will not hide the fact that I believe in water charges at the right price and with the right value. I accept that, but this is a collective decision and it is not just about my view or that of Senators-----
We should suspend everything.
I do not agree with the Senator. Metering is important and contracts have also been signed. The contract will be finished by August or September and the second phase is being reviewed. A decision might be made to wait and it might be best practice to do that. However, I believe this phase should finish what was started in the next couple of months. However, we will, I hope, have a decision once and for all in eight to nine months' time.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of questions not being answered. That is disgraceful. I will try to get it addressed. If they are silly questions, it is just tough luck, but if they are objective questions which should be answered, they should be.
Reference was made to Galway County Council waiting one year for an answer. If that is true, it is disgraceful. I would not stand over it and will have it addressed. I have seen before where the council needs to dig up the road and it is left waiting for two years for an answer from Eircom or another utility about when it is putting pipes in. It is not a good way to do business. We are aiming for joined up thinking with all Departments and I will certainly check that matter out as that situation is not good enough. We have spoken about this previously and I will not dwell on it today. It was an oversight at the time and it needs to be addressed because people cannot be left wondering. If a person is 95 years of age, he or she cannot be expected to live at home with a serious blockage that is not in his or her boundary. I accept that we have to try to find a way to address that. I cannot say we will have an answer tomorrow but we are working in the Department with Irish Water. Some county councils such as Westmeath County Council have taken the lead on these kinds of issues.
I totally agree that people living in rural areas are already paying for water. Apart from water schemes, they are paying for wells which require massive costs for installation in the first place. It can cost thousands of euro. It also costs money to run and maintain a well each year. Septic tanks and bio-cycle units cost thousands of euro to install, sometimes €4,000 or €5,000. These also require servicing each year and have to be discharged, which costs a couple of hundred of euro on top of electricity running charges. The people concerned, with more than 300,000 people on schemes, are also paying tax like everybody else; therefore, it is not exactly very fair. This is another reason for bringing in the single water utility and water charges. These are all matters for analysis and decision on what is right, fair and best for the State.
I have no doubt that this will be done in the months ahead.
I will now deal with some other issues. We have dealt with blockages. I will address the subvention. With all the different changes and the things that have been done for this year in respect of the conservation grant and switching money from subvention to working capital, the net cost of this decision for the months ahead will be in the region of €20 million to €30 million. It will get more expensive in the years ahead and the opportunity to spend money elsewhere, whether on education or services for people of all ages will be an issue. That cost has to be taken into account also.
Let me give the official position on fines. The Commission can instigate infringement proceedings leading to a referral to the European Court of Justice, where it is considered that a member state is not complying with an EU directive. This can lead to the imposition of fines until such time as compliance is demonstrated. The Commission has refused to comment on hypothetical questions and will only assess compliance based on the specifics of any change to the current system.
As Members know, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, met the Commissioner recently to outline developments regarding the deliberative process on the future funding of domestic water charges and to discuss its broader implementation. The Minister has explained to the Commissioner what we are trying to do. We understand the implications of this because of previous Government decisions back in 2010. The Attorney General has advised that we believe it is okay to temporarily suspend the charges to have this discussion.
There is an issue and there is legal advice that we used during the negotiations on the programme for Government and in the agreement with other parties. Let me put it out there that it is a minority Government and we need the consensus of the Houses of the Oireachtas to do this. This is regarded as the best approach to give us some time and space to have this conversation in a calm and fair way for everybody and we will see where we go from that. We hope the Commission will understand where we are during these nine months. It might get more complicated thereafter, but that is where it is at. We do not have a cost of what the fines will be for this month or next month.
In respect of metering, there are 840,000 meters installed and another 30,000 to 40,000 will be installed in the months ahead. I believe we should continue with that programme for other reasons, apart from the funding issue. I know that people do not like that this is continuing. I accept that view, but a lot of the concern is about the trust in the system. At the start of the work, the people I met who marched were genuinely afraid that the metering of water usage would take off and would cost them €1,000 year. That happened during the electrification programme and people did not take up the offer to bring electricity into their homes because they were afraid they would be faced with bills they could not afford from the meter in the corner.
I think they were more annoyed about the cost.
There were many reasons, but one of the reasons I came across was the actual fear that a meter could show that their usage would mean a bill of €1,000. This was a genuine concern because they did not have the money and could not afford to have it. People were afraid of having a meter. That is the logic of introducing a cap on the cost of water in order that the supply would not cost more than €260 or €280 a year. A person could get used to looking at his or her meter and use of water and try to monitor usage. That is the idea behind putting a cap on the charges. In an ideal world a cap should have been introduced at the start in order to give people time to see how to work out their consumption and build trust in the system. I totally agree that this has to be done.
Let us bear in mind that before the suspension of charges, up to 75% of people had started to pay for water. From meeting people at the door, my judgment is that nobody likes to have a bill but most people kind of agree somewhere along the way that this has to be done if it can be done fairly. Let me reiterate that I said "most people;" I am not saying everybody. Even when I meet people at the door they tell me: "You made a bags of bringing it in but we understand the logic of it." That is the type of comment I got, but I was also eaten out of it and ran from doors over it too. Most people said there is a logic but do not like the way it happened. That is what we have to tease out also.
I have spoken about the costs already and we can deal with it afterwards, if need be.
Do I have more time?
The Minister of State can have a few more minutes.
Let me reassure the House that Irish Water will remain in public ownership as long as the Government is in office. Given the strong views of most parties and the Independents on this issue, I would be very surprised if any future Administration adopted an alternative policy. However, people think it could be privatised tomorrow. It actually cannot and will not be. I can assure Members of that and will set out the reasons.
There could be a referendum on the issue.
The public has consistently espoused the notion that public water services and indeed the national utilities should remain in public ownership. The Government agrees with this. Water is an essential national resource. There is no question of putting at risk people's very access to their basic needs in terms of water services. This is why the previous Government introduced safeguards in the area and carefully considered the question of the holding of a referendum on the ownership of Irish Water, as the Senator was saying. The various categories of ownership of water services included infrastructure that is State-owned, State-funded but operated by private group schemes and boreholes located on privately-owned lands. Seeking to enshrine such matters in public ownership through a constitutional referendum could have unintended consequences and could impinge on an individual's constitutional right to private property. That is the reason for the decision not to hold a referendum. Previous experiences of constitutional referendums have shown that it is extremely complex in trying to get the wording of the amendments right. We have all seen that, but it does not mean it cannot be done. It is very complicated and does not give the result that one wants or would genuinely like to achieve.
The approach adopted in the Water Services Act 2014 is much clearer and straightforward. No legislation to change the public ownership of Irish Water can be initiated unless three specific conditions are met. I know that Senator Paudie Coffey is probably sick of hearing this as he has dealt with this also.
The first condition is where a Government proposes to initiate legislation that would change the ownership of Irish Water it must obtain a resolution from both Houses in favour of the legislation, both the Seanad and the Dáil have to pass it. Second, subject to such resolutions being obtained, the Government would then hold a plebiscite of the people; therefore, the public would be consulted and get to vote on it. It is not too far off a referendum, but a referendum is for a change to the Constitution. The plebiscite is quite common in every other country. In Switzerland there is a plebiscite nearly every week.
The people are being consulted. What more does the Senator want the Government to do?
Please allow the Minister of State to conclude.
It is very different from a referendum in terms of its legal status.
It is subject to the people.
Third, only with the approval of a majority of voters in a plebiscite, that is the people will have a choice and will decide on the proposal that both Houses of the Oireachtas could pass a resolution to privatise Irish Water or dispose of any share held by the Government.
That is the truth. People should bear that in mind. Members can advocate for a referendum if they like, but I would like people to say that by the way, in law it cannot happen without a vote of the public.
It is the truth.
If we are to be responsible in the Houses of the Oireachtas, we have to deal with the truth and the facts. That does not always happen in all our parties. That is not acceptable. I will always try to put the facts out there. Even last week, I do not think people liked me putting out the facts on the Seanad reform Bill. It was the truth and I was stating the facts. If we are to progress the debate, we can only deal with facts and truths. I do not do flowery. I just do facts and figures. I hope people realise that. That is what we need to do for the good of the country. We need to do the right thing.
My colleague, the Minister for Housing, Plannning, Community and Local Government, has clearly stated he is open to looking at the question of further reassurance on this issue, if required.
There has been some discussion of late about Ireland's obligation under the water framework directive. I wish to make a few points on that issue. A key component of the directive, as Senator Paudie Coffey mentioned, is the polluter pays principle and the cost recovery of water services. Article 9(4) provided a derogation that could be used where charging was not an established practice and the objectives of the directive could still be met. Ireland did not use this derogation in its first river basin management plans in 2012. Senator Kevin Humphreys made the same point. Those plans stated domestic charging would be introduced as a means of complying with the directive. That is three Governments ago, to be clear about this issue.
I am not going to go there, but it is a fact.
The Commission in response to a recent question submitted by two Irish MEPs has stated the current practices that apply in Ireland mean that the Article 9(4) provision, the so-called Irish derogation, is no longer an option. Earlier this month the Minister met the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries to outline the process under way in relation to the suspension of domestic water charges and to deliver the process of the long-term funding model for the delivery of domestic public water services. Again, the Minister set out the terms of reference of the expert commission which, among other things, will have to take cognisance of our obligations under the water framework directive in their examination of the issues. The Minister also set out the role of the Oireachtas as part of this process. It is not a pre-determined outcome. The decision on this matter will be in the hands of both Houses of the Oireachtas, which includes the committees. It will be well informed and there will be no hiding.
I must apologise to the Minister of State. I misread the time; he has more time.
It is a collective decision, from which there is no hiding. The commission is there to advise, implement and deal with the facts and the truth, not opinions or ideas. IIt will come down to choices. With every choice, there is an opportunity cost. My background is accountancy and opportunity cost can get very expensive when one goes looking for money for something else.
The logic of having conservation, meters and charges is to try to reduce the amount of money we need to spend on water in the first place. We could then spend the money elsewhere.
The cost of building a water or wastewater treatment plant is substantial and I would prefer if this money were spent elsewhere. We should, therefore, try to reduce consumption and the capacity we require. The best way to achieve this is through metering and, in my personal opinion, charging, but the decision in the matter will be one for both Houses to make. I thank Senators for their time.
On a point of order, we discussed local authorities and mix-ups with Irish Water and the Minister of State indicated he would revert to me on the issue.
That is not a point of order. Points of order must concern procedure or clarification.
It is a point of order because the matter relates to the manifesto to which the Minister of State referred.
I am sorry to correct the Senator, but that is not a point of order. A point of order can only deal with procedure or clarification. The Senator wants to ask another question, having already made her contribution to the debate.
May I seek clarification on the manifesto about which the Minister of State spoke?
No. That is not a point of order.
May I ask a specific question?
No, the Senator may raise the matter with the Minister of State afterwards.
I am very disappointed as this is a serious issue.
I am sorry, but it is not a point of order.
I am disappointed that is the case. I will speak to the Minister of State when the debate concludes.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?