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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 Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy]  As a result of the most recent changes, a section containing a number of safeguards and designed to prevent a sale or to reduce the prospect of such a sale was included in the Bill. The greatest safeguard of all would be if Irish Water did not exist. The billing system being put in place is expensive and Irish Water is a very expensive quango. While I accept that there is a need to invest in water services, the last thing we need to do is put money into a massive quango. When Mr. John Tierney of Irish Water appeared before the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, it emerged that it is estimated that the assets being transferred to the company - the intention was to work this matter through with each local authority - are valued at €11 billion. In recent days it has become clear that the relevant liabilities will not transfer in their entirety, which means that Irish Water is a much more attractive proposition in the context of its being sold.

The intention of the amendment in my name is to include some further safeguards in the legislation. The amendments under discussion have obviously been grouped together because of the variety of different ways of preventing any sale. My amendment suggests that a two thirds majority of each House would be required to allow shares to be disposed of. I would prefer it if we were not in the position of seeking ways to amend the legislation. Irish Water has become a major problem in its own right and the current approach must be abandoned.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I wish to speak to amendment No. 5 in my name. In that context, I will take up from where Deputy Catherine Murphy left off. This legislation is flawed and contains a number of major holes. The Government is rushing the process relating to the Bill, which will be put through the House by the end of the week. We are revisiting this matter because 12 months ago Deputies Timmins, McNamara and I were not listened to when we raised specific concerns with the then Áire Stáit, Deputy O'Dowd.

Deputy Joe Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins Zoom on Joe Higgins Leading the charge.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I am of the view that we will also be obliged to revisit it at some point in the future.

Section 2 of the Bill comprises almost a full page of text and relates to a plebiscite on the ownership of Irish Water. What is proposed in it is nothing more than a three-card trick. On 19 November last, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, informed the House that "The Government believes that public ownership of water services is the will of the Irish people and I propose to legislate to ensure that, if any future Government sought to change this position, it would be required to put this matter before the people in a plebiscite". That is not what the legislation before the House seeks to do. If the Bill is passed by both Dáil and Seanad Éireann by a majority of one in each case, the relevant proposal may be submitted by plebiscite to the decision of the people.

Deputy Joe Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins Zoom on Joe Higgins It may be. The Deputy is absolutely right.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten It is not the case that the matter shall be put to the people by plebiscite. Any Government, including that currently in office, with a majority of one in each House will actually be in a position to dispose of the assets of Irish Water without referring the matter to anyone else. There is absolutely no security whatsoever provided within the legislation on this matter. I tabled a very simple amendment which would have led to the inclusion in the Bill of the promise the Minister made on 19 November to the effect that the matter should be put by plebiscite to the people. However, that amendment was ruled out of order on the basis that giving the people of this country their say with regard to the disposal of this particular asset would involve a potential cost on the Exchequer. The legislation before the House is not worth the paper on which it is written. The Minister is serious in terms of the commitment he gave on 19 November but what he said on that date is not reflected in the legislation.

  Those of us who were involved in passing the legislation which facilitated the sale of the assets of Eircom are of the view that we made a genuine mistake. When we debated legislation relating to Aer Lingus a number of years ago, the then Minister, the late Seamus Brennan, gave a commitment that a formal motion would have to be approved by a majority of either House before any shareholding in the company could be disposed of. More recently, the assets of Bord Gáis were not contemplated in the legislation relating to that company's disposal. There is genuine concern regarding the assets of Irish Water because these are believed to be of such intrinsic value. As the Minister is aware, these assets are being used as a mechanism to leverage equity. The fear is that they may be forcibly sold at some future date.

  As a result of the fact that I cannot table an amendment to the effect that the sale of those assets should be put to the people by plebiscite - which is what the Minister announced on 19 November - without it being ruled out of order, I drafted amendment No. 5 in order to guarantee that the assets of Irish Water will not be disposed of at any future date. Now that local government is clearly written into our Constitution, my amendment would require that every municipal district in the State would be obliged to approve any motion relating to the disposal of the assets of Irish Water. What I propose will provide a belt-and-braces approach in terms of ensuring that a sale cannot happen at the whim of any future Government or at that of the troika, should that entity ever return. Amendment No. 5 would ensure that the assets of Irish Water could not be sold without the approval of every municipal authority in Ireland. In my opinion, such approval would not be forthcoming. My amendment will provide the security people are seeking on this matter.

  As already stated, the commitment given by the Minister on 19 November to the effect that there should be a plebiscite if any assets of Irish Water are to be disposed of is not reflected in the legislation. On that occasion, he also indicated that one of his other priorities is the removal of boil water notices and stated, "In the very near future, for the first time in many years, people in Roscommon will be able to drink water from their tap". I received correspondence from Irish Water in recent days which indicates that it will be March 2017 - at least 12 months after the next general election - before the people in north-east Roscommon will actually be able to drink the water from their taps. That eventuality is a long way down the road. In the interim and if they live in urban areas, these people will be obliged to pay €130 per year for the pleasure of receiving water which is below the proper standard.

  Some 12 months ago, the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, provided the following commitment:

I wanted this to be reflected in the legislation at that time but I was informed that there was no need because people would not be charged for water supplies that are subject to restrictions on health grounds. Under the Bill before the House, those who live in urban areas will be charged €130 per year for water that is unfit for human consumption. The Minister can say what he likes and provide all the assurances he wants. However, the reality is that it must be written into the legislation that the approval of the Irish people will be required. We have been given commitments in the past 12 months but these are not reflected in the Bill and, as I have just outlined, they have not been honoured by the Government.

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