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Finance Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 857 No. 1

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  2 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue] A decision was taken by the Government to establish Irish Water without debate or consultation with anyone in this House or outside it. My colleagues and I on the Opposition side were compelled to walk out of the Dáil before Christmas as the legislation was run through the House. Only after many Government refusals to answer questions did we learn how much it is spending in establishing Irish Water.

Initially the former Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, now safely ensconced as an European Commissioner in Brussels, told us the cost of Irish Water would be €10 million. Only later on a radio programme did we learn from the chief executive of Irish Water, Mr. John Tierney, that the cost of consultants for the project will reach €175 million by the end of next year. Very little has been heard of the chief executive since and the €10 million cost suggested by the former Minister is incorrect. Not one euro of the €175 million cost of consultants' fees will improve pipes or water quality.

The Government has decided to proceed with a metering programme that will cost up to €500 million. Again, none of this money will go towards improving pipework or water quality for households that suffer poor water quality day in and day out. All in all, in establishing Irish Water the Government will spend more than €650 million in a manner that contributes nothing to water quality and network improvement. Meanwhile, the Government asked people who are provided with bad water to pay full water charges and only reconsidered this when it was dragged over the coals. It is time the Minister of State reconsidered the whole operation.

It is incomprehensible that the Government expects people to sign up to be charged for water when at this point they do not know what they are signing up for, what the charges will be or what the structure will be. Day after day the public is being treated to a different story on this from a different member of the Government. Yesterday the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, gave her view and we later learned this was only her personal view rather than that of the Government. Other people denied the figures raised by the Tánaiste and claimed they are still under consideration. Meanwhile, the Government expects people who do not know how they will pay water charges or what will be the level of those charges to sign up, return forms and agree to its approach.

It is time to draw a line under this matter. The Government should spend the money that has been allocated for Irish Water on improving the water network. In future, people's ability to pay and financial circumstances should be the determining factors when the Government is budgeting for the measures it is to introduce. The confusion surrounding this issue has added to difficulties. Those currently being charged for water, including businesses and farms, are unsure as to how they will engage with Irish Water. Many small businesses and small farms with domestic allowances have made water payments to local authorities for some years. After the establishment of Irish Water representatives of such enterprises wondered how they would engage with the new body and asked who they should pay and how much. They were told that the answers are not known but will be sorted out as things go along. Donegal County Council charges businesses and farms €1.50 per cubic metre of water but Irish Water will charge households €2.44 per cubic metre. There is no clarity as to how this makes sense and the people to whom I referred are being told they will have two bills - one from the county council at the lower rate and one from Irish Water at the higher rate.

Group water schemes were also left in the dark as the Government pursued a hidden agenda that people do not understand. Representatives of group water schemes asked how such entities would be billed, if at all, and were not given answers, apart from "we do not know". Some people say they should sign up as a group water scheme that is availing of public water and therefore pay charges. However, Irish Water's online system allows users tick only one such category and this means they do not have to pay at all. Those in group water schemes do not know how they stand and there are more than 600 such schemes in Donegal. Some people in group water schemes are one day told that metering will occur at the entry point to the scheme and another day that they will not have to pay at all. Other days they are told they will be metered and will have to pay if using water from the local authority. This is an unacceptable way to treat people who worked hard with neighbours and other members of the community to lay the water pipes that serve them. It is indicative of the lack of thought that went into the establishment of Irish Water and deciding the charges involved. There is no clarity as to whether Irish Water will take over group water schemes - we cannot get an answer.

A similar situation applies to housing estates. Previously, if management of an estate was to be assumed by a county council the county council in question made decisions as to responsibility for roads, lighting, water and sewerage. Now the water and sewerage elements of such estate must be sanctioned by Irish Water. Irish Water representatives recently briefed councillors in the north-western counties and indicated it will not take responsibility for housing estates that are not connected to public sewerage - that is, any estate with its own treatment scheme. This means that hundreds of estates in Donegal, and many more in other counties, will not be taken over by local authorities, as their residents had hoped. Irish Water has washed its hands of such matters and does not want to deal with people who are not connected to the public sewerage system. This is yet another example of how poorly planned this matter has been. Irish Water will be more focused on collecting revenue than maintaining the level of service that existed previously via local authorities.

The former Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, was involved in establishing Irish Water and he has said that this body is a sham that is not fit for purpose. Meanwhile, those who tasked the Deputy with establishing Irish Water continue to stand by the body that he was instrumental in setting up. There must be a complete change of approach and the public must get some certainty. Water charges should be suspended and there must be a review of how to approach the matter. The national water system must be audited. Instead of spending funds on consultants to set up Irish Water and installing water meters the Government must listen to the people.

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