Water Sector Reforsm 20.11.14

Water Sector Reforms: Motion (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Noel Harrington: Information on Noel Harrington Zoom on Noel HarringtonThe system was broken and not fit for purpose. Many would have that situation continue. We saw such situations on the Aran Islands and Cape Clear Island this summer when they ran out of water as a result of the lack of investment. One prominent islander on Cape Clear Island described the pipe network, because of all the joints, breaks and sleeves, as being similar to an Arab’s rosary beads.

This is only a taste of what lies in store for people in the greater Dublin area. The ability to provide water for the capital is on a knife edge and, while this has been known for years, the issue has not been addressed. How could it be when one looks at the existing structures? This cannot go on. The Government is committed to addressing the myriad problems crippling the delivery of a fit-for-purpose water and wastewater network. The decisions it is taking are not popular or easy, but they are necessary. Some would have us believe all is well in water services, that the situation should remain as it is and that the water we have available in Ireland in such abundance will always be clean and flow freely, but they are living in a parallel universe. They might let me know some day how they got there. A break from reality from time to time will do no one any harm.

The same people also claim that water is paid for through direct taxation. The truth is it is partly paid for through the Exchequer, which contributes a fraction of the investment required just to maintain the network. There is little or no acknowledgement of the non-domestic or commercial sector that has always paid for the provision of water and wastewater services, from small sole traders to the largest multinationals and every farm in the country connected to a water supply. They have paid dearly for water over the decades, yet they are witnessing a decline in the network, despite their best efforts. They understand the investment in the network needs to increase greatly just to bring it up to an acceptable standard. How is this to be achieved? Those opposite would have us increase income tax to raise an extra €1 billion annually, with almost €3 billion to be raised up-front. There are 800,000 households in the country which are not connected to a public water supply or a public wastewater network. They pay their taxes also. They provide their own water and wastewater infrastructure at their own cost. Are we seriously asking these 800,000 households to accept a 3% to 4% increase in their taxes to pay for somebody else’s water supply? We hear the rhetoric about equality in society. Those from whom we hear it might like to give us the benefit of their wisdom and explain to us how they can truly justify this as being fair or equal.

The establishment of Irish Water on the principle that the user should contribute will be the foundation from which the decades of under-investment in water services can be reversed in a coherent, rational and consistent way, in respect of which funding can be accessed in a manner that would be impossible were we to sit on our hands and wait for the inevitable collapse of what remains of the network. The pricing regime being proposed is affordable, will give certainty into the future and will provide for householders to conserve more and pay less than the maximum net amount of €60 for a home with a single adult or €160 for a home in which there is more than one adult.

We have listened to the people. We have made mistakes and there is no denying this issue has been handled appallingly, but we have learned. The bonus structure and the requirement to send PPS numbers to Irish Water have been scrapped. There will be clarity, as well as certainty, for many years to come in terms of capping of charges and the structure of the water supply model to be used. Importantly, Irish Water should not and will not be privatised. It would be a brave Government that would decide in the future it was going to amend legislation and not allow a plebiscite to happen.

The ongoing metering programme will lead to conservation measures and the identifying of leaks within the curtilage of individual homes and will deliver results. I recall one householder ringing the Joe Duffy show last month, having discovered after the meter had been installed that an inordinate amount of water was passing through their home. After calculation, it was found that three months of inaction had led to 1 million litres of treated drinking water flowing from the house into the gravel beneath. This was only discovered after the installation of the meter. These are the conservation measures about which we are talking. It is not about shutting off the water when brushing one’s teeth or the brick in the cistern. This will lead to identifiable and real conservation measures within the home. The idea of district and estate metering is ludicrous if we are talking about conservation. We will get one chance to do this right and this is it. I absolutely support the long-term programme of metering every single house and business in the country in order that we will know exactly where we are with an expensive resource.

The future of water services is and will be a challenge. We are fortunate to have an abundant supply. While it requires treatment and investment, this will put Ireland in a better place by providing a clean and consistent supply for homes and the capacity to attract further and future investment and jobs for the people equally throughout the country.

Deputy Tom Barry: Information on Tom Barry Zoom on Tom Barry While it is repeating the point, it is very important to say I absolutely condemn the thuggish behaviour that took place last week. There is no place for it in our democracy. It was shocking. Politicians from all parties might disagree with each other’s policies and we might have issues between us, but allowing mob rule is a very dangerous route to take. Not only was the Tánaiste trapped in a car, which was horrific, but her staff were also attacked and bruised by bullies and people chanting “Peaceful protest”. I am sorry, but that is just not on. I hope they are really proud of themselves. I hope they will reflect on what they have done and apologise. It is, however, a lot harder to apologise.

I have participated in many protests during the years. I protested against sugar beet closures and with the IFA when farmers were not being listened to. However, we always did it in an organised fashion and respected the people with whom we were dealing. I do not like the way this is going. The social media campaign taking place is horrific. We need to look at this issue in more detail at a later date.

I have paid for water during the years. We received our water supply in 1966, the year my sister was born. What a revelation it was to have water coming into our home; it was fantastic and changed everything. The pipe laid in 1966 is still in place today, although, unfortunately, it will have to be replaced because it is deteriorating. In 1966 it was a farm with some 30 cows, but today we are looking at farms with hundreds. We are increasing the animal population owing to what is the good news story of Ireland being a huge supplier of infant milk formula across the world. However, in order to produce high quality milk, we need an awful lot of water and a reliable supply. I had to sink a well two years ago at a cost of €7,000. No one here should think water is cheap because it is not. Even going down 300 feet into the ground does not guarantee a consistent supply. Water is an essential asset.

The town of Mallow, in which I live, had a reserve of only 12 hours until a few years ago, when Cork County Council spent €4 million on a new and badly needed supply. I would like to see movement on the conversation measures mentioned – for example, on the question of whether we can grant-aid water softening systems. I accept that we are living with issues such as hard water and iron in the water which, if they are not bad for people, cause a lot of trouble. I think of a town such as Youghal, in which sewage is flowing straight into the sea, despite its being a huge amenity area. That is just not on and we should be striving to fix the problem. When Deputies say they are not paying for water, that is fine, because I will pay for it. If they do not want to pay, others will pick up the tab, because it has to be done. It is as simple as that. I wonder how many are objecting to this on the basis of conviction rather than political cuteness.

We are talking about drinking water. At €1.85 per 1,000 litres, a 500 ml bottle would cost 0.0009 cent.

Water Sector Reforms: Motion (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Tom Barry: Information on Tom Barry Zoom on Tom BarryIf that is not affordable, I rest my case.

There is no doubt that the debate has been handled poorly, but people will see that there has been political acceptance of this. When one makes a policy, one expects it to be carried out properly using executive functions. If we must monitor it closely, we will do so, but it would be far better if we had the help of more people in looking to make this work, as opposed to trying to pull it apart.

The biggest issue for people in the countryside is lack of pressure. Most people have to keep their own supplies. They build a supply during the night and use it during the day. This, I hope, will be a new era in Ireland in which we will see proper infrastructure put in place. I am certainly looking forward to seeing the results in time.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall The game is up for water charges. The bottom line is that the public has simply not accepted them, and if the Government does not accept this fact, it is even more out of touch than I thought it was. The public has not accepted water charges for a number of reasons – some because they object in principle to water charges; some because they simply cannot afford to pay them; some because they are sick and tired of cronyism; and some because of the shocking level of Government incompetence. I believe most people have not accepted them because they are sick and tired of having to pay charge after charge, while others, most notably the bondholders, have got away scot free. For many, this is a charge too far and no amount of mea culpa from Ministers and Government backbenchers will change this fact. Without public acceptance of the charges, all other plans the Government may have for investment in water infrastructure are redundant. It is time the Government realised this. It will simply have to find another way.

The first test the Government has failed is that of fairness. By any yardstick, the charges are regressive. They take no account of a person’s ability to pay. They are all the same and apply to everybody equally. As the Minister of State well knows, that is a regressive charge. This is the introduction of what is essentially a flat charge. There has been an attempt to soften the blow of the charges and gain political acceptance for them by introducing what is termed a conservation grant. This is a complete misnomer as it has nothing whatsoever to do with conservation. In fact, the earlier defence of the charges – namely, that they were about conservation – has gone out the window. Everything – investment in water butts, all of the different schemes operated in schools to encourage conservation and all of the habits people were trying to change in order to use water more sparingly – has gone out the window. It does not count at all because, as this is a flat charge, conservation does not matter. It is a capped charge, a flat charge that benefits rich and poor equally. Of course, there is no detail of when people will actually receive this conservation grant. We are told that people may start to apply from September 2015. Does anybody know when they will actually receive it? Certainly, low-income families will have to fork out the full amount for most of next year without receiving any grant. This is clearly back-of-an-envelope stuff where none of the detail of this so-called grant has been worked out; therefore, it will certainly be the end of next year before people on low incomes, and everybody else, will receive any kind of relief in respect of the charges. We do not know anything about when and how it will be paid.

We will also be facing the spectacle of the Department of Social Protection sending cheques for €100 to every household in the country, regardless of its circumstances. It is ironic that this is a proposal being put forward by the Government and that of all Departments, the Department of Social Protection will be engaged in this exercise of sending every household €100, while at the same time claiming it cannot reverse the cuts made to so many welfare payments in recent years.

The Government has stated that part of the reason for setting up Irish Water is in order that it will not be competing for scarce resources with services such as education, health and other important public services, but of course it will, because at some point at the end of next year we could have a situation in which the Department of Social Protection will send rebates to a potential level of €130 million in order that every household receives this so-called grant. In the budget at the end of next year these figures will, of course, come into play. The need to send the cheque for €100 to every household, irrespective of circumstances, will be competing with the needs of schools, hospitals, public transport and all other essential services that are so under-funded. Fine Gael must be delighted that thousands of its rural voters with private supplies will receive a €100 grant that they certainly were not expecting.

The other point about the issue of fairness is that the Minister yesterday, the Tánaiste last night and the Taoiseach on several occasions have all claimed that everyone will be better off next year. This is simply not true and I ask Ministers to stop misleading people by making these statements. People on incomes of less than €10,000 will not be better off next year. The prioritisation of tax cuts for the better-off – the reduction in the top rate of tax – will ensure that people on very low incomes of less than €10,000 receive nothing whatsoever. Those on short-term welfare payments will certainly not be better off next year. We know that when every person on a low income, be it from low-paid work or short-term welfare payments, has to pay his or her water charges, he or she will be worse off next year. As that figure is certainly into the hundreds of thousands next year, Ministers should stop misleading people.

Of course, the other point that arises in this regard concerns the impact on the Department of Social Protection not just in respect of its budget, to which I have referred, but also in terms of the cost of administering the scheme, whereby it must give a rebate or grant to every household. Has the cost of administration been factored in? I doubt very much that it has. Will the Department have to set up a new section? I am not aware of any other payment coming from the Department that must be made to every single household. How many staff will be diverted to this exercise of sending €100 to everybody? Will extra staff be recruited or will they be taken from other sections of the Department which we know are understaffed