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Water Services Bill 2014: Committee Stage (Continued)

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 861 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly] I had that ruled out of order on the basis that it would result in a charge on the Exchequer. How Irish Water not getting extra money from Arklow is a charge on the Exchequer is beyond me. I did a count and discovered that more than half of the 31 amendments tabled by Members of the House, other than the Minister, were ruled out of order. Deputy Naughten's amendment, which dared to suggest that a "may" should be turned into a "shall" also cannot be discussed by Parliament because that would incur a charge on the Exchequer. I am aware the Minister has nothing to do with the amendments being ruled out of order but he is sitting at the Cabinet table and it is impossible for us as Members of the Oireachtas to conduct proper parliamentary business when faced with a set of rules which seem dedicated to stopping us conducting parliamentary business.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien That is why they are there.

Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly Perhaps the Minister could raise at the Cabinet table that these Standing Orders need to be changed to allow us to do the job of Parliament.

In terms of the substance of the change, I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, as a Labour Minister, would act against any privatisation. The question is why I and others want to move beyond a plebiscite to constitutional protection. The reason is as follows. First, the public do not trust the plebiscite because legislation can be changed and, second, we do not know what is going to come from Europe. We saw the letter from Jean-Claude Trichet to the late Brian Lenihan. He demanded structural reforms. The ECB acted completely beyond its mandate in demanding structural reforms. Four weeks later the first memorandum of understanding, MOU, was signed and it contained two structural reforms. One of them was that Irish people must be charged for their water. One can be absolutely sure there is a view in Europe that the Irish water system should be privatised.

I accept the Minister’s bona fides. I accept he would not vote for the privatisation of water but I do not believe for a second that a future Irish Government is not going to come under very serious pressure from Europe, potentially legally binding pressure, that says the plebiscite is all well and good but a new EU directive states we have to privatise the water supply. My question to the Minister is as follows. If he is dedicated to the Irish water supply never being privatised and if the plebiscite does not provide the guarantee that is required, will he explain to the House what the downside to a referendum is if it achieves what he claims and what I believe he wants to see?

Deputy Fergus O'Dowd: Information on Fergus O'Dowd Zoom on Fergus O'Dowd This is a very important debate. I do not have any issue with when it is discussed because this is a democratic Chamber but I would much prefer that it was in the committee rooms or during normal sitting times because the public is very interested in the points being made.

I wish to respond to the point made by Deputy Naughten. He is absolutely right; as Minister of State at the time, that was the commitment I discussed with the Department and that had gone through the apparatus of the Department. I said it because it was agreed and it was in my speech. That has all been changed but that is what happened. Deputy Naughten is correct; people who cannot drink their water should not be charged for it. Part of the building up of a relationship between the Irish people and Irish Water, Uisce Éireann, is fairness and equity and going out of our way to make sure people who do not have a proper supply of water or who do not have a safe, drinkable or potable supply of water do not pay for it. I wholeheartedly agree with that.

When I previously acted in the House as Minister of State I gave a commitment on the Water Services (No. 1) Bill that the Water Services (No. 2) Bill would contain a commitment that Irish Water could never be privatised, and that the company would always and forever be a public company. That was agreed, but when the No. 2 Bill was handed to me as I went into the Seanad on the day of the debate, the provision was excluded from the legislation. That concerned me greatly. The Department was fully aware of my very strong and forceful views at that time. I discussed the issue with the then Minister, Mr. Hogan, and with others. Eventually, the provision was brought in as an amendment to the Bill. I remain deeply concerned at other agendas – they may be European as Deputy Donnelly suggested – but I do not know where they are coming from. It was never articulated to me why we should not and could not have a referendum on Irish Water never going into private ownership. Enshrining the provision in legislation and copper-fastening it in the Constitution would ensure there never would be such a possibility. We have reason to be concerned.

When the Minister comes to discuss the section, which I know will not happen tonight, I ask him to explain why the Government has decided that will not happen. In terms of the acceptability of Irish Water and of the charges and issues concerning it, there would be a vote of between 80% and 90% in favour of a constitutional referendum to ensure Irish Water could never be privatised. I am convinced there are other forces at work. They may not necessarily be political forces. I do not know where they are coming from but they exist, they are active and they have an influence. I accept that people might not like what I say but it must be said. I am aware of other issues which I will bring to the Minister’s attention privately when the debate is over, which might inform him of other areas to which he could look in the Department for confirmation of some of the things to which I refer.

At the end of the day the debate is about people having confidence in Irish Water. We should have a referendum. That is what the people I represent want. It is what people of all political parties want – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and those who do not subscribe to a political party. Why do we not have it?

Deputy Seamus Healy: Information on Seamus Healy Zoom on Seamus Healy This section deals with a plebiscite on the ownership of Irish Water. The measure is in the Bill due to the serious and understandable concern among the public generally that Irish Water, if it ever gets up and running, and if water charges are introduced, will eventually be privatised and sold on for private profit to super rich Irish or international organisations and companies, people who are already very wealthy and who are already involved in the Irish Water scene. That is very understandable because once water becomes a commodity then it is inevitable that full cost recovery will arise. The charge, though initially capped as an introductory offer by the Government, will sky-rocket and the company will eventually be privatised and sold on to private interests.

That is a reasonable and understandable situation for ordinary people because they have seen it happen before, in particular in the case of refuse charges, which were introduced at a very low cost but after a number of years we now have a situation where there is a very significant charge for refuse of approximately €300 per year per household. The waiver scheme has been abolished and the refuse service has been privatised. People are very much aware of that.

The notion of a plebiscite or referendum was initially introduced by Government supporters and the Green Party, in effect, as a diversionary tactic to try to get people’s mind off charges.

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