Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
General Scheme of the Water Services Separation Bill 2021: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage
I thank the witnesses for coming in and for sharing and presenting to us on the general scheme of the water services separation Bill 2021.
First, I am generally in support of this Bill at this stage but there is a great deal more to be dealt with. On a first look at this and the presentation made by our witnesses, I am glad they have again put on the public record that this will be a publicly owned, national, stand-alone, regulated utility. I do not want to go back because I do not believe in that but much of what we are talking about today was discussed in the committee rooms before and concerns were raised about Ervia. That was on another day and I hope lessons have been learned from that.
I want to focus in particular on two or three issues, and while I do not have many questions, I wish to make a number of statements. Heads 7 to 9, inclusive, provide for the revised accountability and auditing arrangements for Irish Water in terms of its dual audit, which Mr. Ó Coigligh spoke about earlier. Will he elaborate a little bit more on that and on the statutory audit under the Companies Acts? That has to be welcomed. One need only look at the Comptroller and Auditor General’s function and role. His job is to provide, as our witnesses and we all know here, an independent assurance as to accountability and the appropriate use of public funds in accordance with the law of those resources. That is to be welcomed and it is a very positive move.
I am also conscious that all of the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General are presented to Dáil Éireann and are therefore examined on behalf of the Dáil by the Committee of Public Accounts, which is another layer. That is reassuring and is a very positive step. I subsequently made some inquiries with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General yesterday and I understand that, in the absence of the Comptroller and Auditor General himself being present, a senior member of the office staff attends all meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts as a permanent witness. That was something I did not know. There are many layers of accountability and good governance which I welcome in this initiative.
Mr. Ó Coigligh touched upon an issue, and while our committee does not wish to get into any issues related to industrial relations, IR, or the WRC, because it is important those issues progress, any stable framework for the delivery of water services to replace the service level agreement, SLA, providers must involve securing an agreement through negotiation and addressing the stated concerns of all of the stakeholders involved. That is very important and their status as public sector workers needs to be addressed. I will not comment further on that issue. I spoke to a number of the representative unions and I indicated I would raise that today. I am happy just to put the point and park it at that. It is not appropriate for this committee to get into the WRC issues other than to say that I am sympathetic to and supportive of the staff.
Will our witnesses touch on the issue of public ownership and, in particular, the referendum on Irish Water, please?
I thank our witnesses and I am generally supportive on the way this Bill is progressing or appears to be. Another key objective we must always be mindful of when we are talking about water, particularly if recent weeks have taught us anything, is of the broader environmental management systems of water and waste networks. Sometimes we forget that issue in this debate, and I know the Cathaoirleach will be especially interested in this issue. The environmental management systems must also be fit for purpose.
Those are some of my comments and I ask our witnesses to give me some feedback on them, please.