Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services
Public Water Forum
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on its website after this afternoon's meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, witnesses and the people in the Gallery are required to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device used, and not merely left in silent mode.
As we commence today's discussion on public engagement and transparency, I welcome Professor Tom Collins, Ms Mindy O'Brien and Mr. Keith Hyland of the Public Water Forum. I also welcome Mr. Jerry Grant, who is here on behalf of Irish Water. Mr. Paul McGowan and Ms Sheenagh Rooney of the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, are also present and might be able to assist the committee on matters arising in the course of this afternoon's discussion. I invite Professor Collins to make a brief presentation.
Professor Tom Collins:
I thank the Chairman and the joint committee for the opportunity to address this meeting. I am accompanied by Ms Mindy O'Brien, who is a member of the Public Water Forum representing the environmental sector; and by Mr. Keith Hyland, who is a member of the forum representing domestic users. There are 20 representatives of domestic users and 12 representatives of sectoral groups on the Public Water Forum. The background to the structure of the forum is outlined in the documentation that has been supplied to the committee. My involvement in the water sector began in 1998, when I chaired the National Rural Water Monitoring Committee. During the ten years I spent in that role, the European Court of Justice found that the drinking water supplied by group water schemes in Ireland was defective. Members of the committee will recall that the court imposed daily fines on Ireland but ultimately did not trigger them. The monitoring committee spent ten years looking at the rural water investment programme, which involved expenditure of approximately €2 billion on rural group water schemes, which supplied approximately 500,000 members at the time.
Professor Tom Collins:
No problem. Arising from that experience, I began to get an understanding of the scale of this country's water supply problems, certainly in a rural context. The group sector had become so debilitated and degraded over the years that the European Commission ruled positively and definitively against Ireland in its court ruling. The other thing I gained from that experience was a conviction that there was a need for a national water authority. One of the issues we were confronted with at national level during that period was the fact that the State did not have the authority at local level to implement the changes that were necessary in group schemes even though it was picking up the responsibility for the fine which had been imposed on Ireland by the European court in its adjudication. I became and remain convinced of the need for a national authority.
I would like to set out the background to the Public Water Forum. Having been asked in 2015 to chair the new forum, I was subsequently asked to work with the CER to recruit its membership. The forum was established essentially to give a voice to the public on the issues affecting Irish water consumers. That is the primary responsibility of the forum. As I mentioned at the outset, there are 20 representatives of domestic users on the forum. When we were recruiting them, we deliberately selected people who had registered with Irish Water and people who had decided against registering with Irish Water. We tried to ensure we were not creating a community of believers among domestic users. We have also drawn 12 sectoral representatives from a variety of consumer groups, as noted in our documentation. The Public Water Forum has met on eight occasions since its establishment. Our secretarial service is supplied by the CER, but we are not supported by any particular technical or other resources. Nevertheless, we have managed to produce a number of consultation documents in response to a variety of calls issued by the CER, Irish Water, the Expert Commission on Domestic Public Water Services and this committee.
I wish to give the committee a sense of what the forum would like to happen as it goes forward and to set out a vision for our development. We have been in situfor a year. We have probably learned a bit about how the public voice might be better engaged when deliberations are taking place on the issues of water supply and quality. Two statutory forums on water services are operating at present: the Public Water Forum, which I am representing here today as the chair; and the National Rural Water Services Committee, which has replaced the old National Rural Water Monitoring Committee on a statutory basis. The Irish Water Stakeholder Forum is one of a number of other forums. The CER has a number of such forums in place. I suggest that if we were starting again - this might still be worth considering even through we have already started - it would be desirable in a general sense if there was just one forum that would be responsible for engaging the public in a meaningful and involved way with all matters relating to water services and water quality. My own sense is that the water debate in Ireland needs to be looked at in the context of wider debates on climate change, environmental management, the degradation of fresh water and groundwater sources and the overall sense that water is a barometer of the environmental health of the corpus of the country in which we live.
To the extent that we protect it, we protect the wider environment. A national forum should try to comprehend both the issue of water services and the issue of water quality. In structure, I would like to see a new forum. On an administrative basis this could evolve out of the existing two fora and in the first instance be established with representatives from both, and maybe some others as well. The role of the forum as I see it would be to monitor and evaluate water supply services and the protection of the fresh water resource with reference both to the wider social, economic and environmental aspirations of the country and to the European requirements. It would advise the Minister accordingly with regard to all initiatives under way or planned in this regard. If we were to put in place such a structure we would need to resource it. The entire expenditure of the public water forum last year was something in the region of €30,000. This is a very small-scale project in terms of drawing on the resources on the State. To give it meaningful presence in the context of staffing, it would obviously need a chief executive officer. It would also need an education and engagement specialist, who would deal with the public on consultational issues such as the river basins strategy, Irish Water's strategies, the strategy of the group water scheme and the wider debate on the protection of the environment. This education role would partner with the universities, the institutes of technology and schools on the subject of water in the environment. The forum would need technical expertise to support its thinking, policy development and commentary role. It would need a role in commissioning research, either to support its own thinking or to support the development and application of new knowledge on the priorities which it selects. Obviously it would also need a secretariat.
I am drawing here on the model which has been used in other such entities. The one I am most familiar with is the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which I chaired for six years. All of the education stakeholders were involved on that council. It had the support of a very active technical and research expertise and had a budget of approximately €4.5 million per annum. I should say by way of closure that I have begun a process of discussion with project officials on these matters. I have a strong sense that the Minister is minded to move in a direction somewhat along the lines of what we are discussing, though of course I have not actually had any discussions with him on the matter.
Go raibh maith agat. I will be very conscious of time for questions and answers. I will ask that members and witnesses be as brief as possible and come straight to the point if they can, because I want to give everybody an opportunity to ask questions.
I just wish to take an extra second or two to apologise to the witnesses in a personal capacity, and I am sure on behalf of much of the committee, for the delay and the wait. We appreciate the fact that they were waiting for an awfully long time. We had a private session which ran for longer.
I thank Dr. Collins for his excellent presentation. I would like to follow up on one or two things. The first area I would like to tease out is how what he is proposing and has sketched in outline fits in with the experience in other jurisdictions. Are there particular organisations in other jurisdictions with comparable remits which he would cite as fitting his outline neatly or as having best practice?
Dr. Collins has touched initially on some of the functions and areas which he would envisage moving to this body. It does seem to me that a very large body is being proposed with the secretariat, support services and structure mentioned. Obviously if one puts something on the scale and size which Dr. Collins has proposed into the mix, there will be a distortion in terms of the existing regulators and groups operating within the areas. Has he had any thoughts as to how he envisages the new forum fitting in with the current structures, particularly river basin management, the Office of Public Works and such things?
Dr. Tom Collins:
I can respond quickly. I have visited Scotland and looked at the public water forum there. It is a very different context though. In Scotland the broad parameters are agreed, so the role of the forum is really one of deciding on a fair price to charge. That is the one I have looked at most closely and it does not really resemble what I am proposing here. I am not aware of a similar structure in any other jurisdiction. I am drawing more on experience from the Irish context in other areas rather than from other jurisdictions in this area.
It is a large body but we could evolve into it. I think this an iterative process and it will evolve over time. It is a problem but I do not envisage the body we are suggesting as in any way encroaching, for instance, on the work of the regulator or the EPA. They are two very significant bodies in the field. Carving out the distinct roles for each is actually a challenge and would need to be given some more detailed thought.
The programme for Government also envisages the appointment of an external advisory group. We need some clarity as to what its roles will be and where the different roles fit. At the moment, the expert commission notes that the role of the public water forum is poorly understood. I think there has to be a role for public consultation. I believe this from a citizenship point of view and from a democratic point of view. Somebody needs to carry that and to be a vehicle for the public voice as it interacts both with the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, and with Irish Water. Whether this entity should also have that wider advisory role or not is open for debate. My own view is that it should because it has a holistic perspective.
I have specifically discussed the river basin and we would see this new forum embracing the river basin plans and the water services issue. I do not think it would be helpful to separate them. They interact at the front line, as the quality of water going into the tap in the first instance has been determined to some extent by what has happened in the fresh water supplies, in lakes and rivers around the country. As part of the national rural water monitoring committee, I was involved in a project run for fresh water studies in Dundalk Institute of Technology involving the protection of a catchment area in Monaghan. I can see enormous possibilities in these kinds of initiatives but they need to be in synergy with the needs of the supply side, not to mention with the needs of water treatment services at the other end.
Can I very briefly focus on one thing?
At the heart of it, what Dr. Collins is saying is that the Public Water Forum's key priority area is in regard to the supervisory voice or input voice into the Ervia-Irish Water decision. We are all aware of the bad mistakes Ervia and Irish Water have made and the poor management in certain areas. I presume what the Public Water Forum is looking for is the ability of an authority to clearly voice public concern at that point, as a first step. The other things Dr. Collins has alluded to would be a building-on stage for the authority as it would grow in size, budget and stature. Obviously, that key initial role is the ability to interact on behalf of the public when Ervia goes off the tracks.
Dr. Tom Collins:
That is a necessary if not a sufficient condition. The consumer - the citizen - needs a voice but the forum needs to be able to interact directly with the public on these matters. It needs to be out there, hearing what the public position is and relaying that. It is not merely a conduit, however. There is also a feeding of the public debate and of introducing the experience from abroad, as well as introducing the wider issues regarding the factors that are impacting on water quality at source. Consumers need to have a sene of this. I believe they need to know this in order that the citizens can themselves become environmental managers, whether they are schoolchildren, parents in schools, farmers or otherwise. Ms O'Brien has a lot of experience in this field.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
We need to look at this in a holistic manner. What we are drinking out of the tap is coming from the source water and we have to protect that source water. We have to get our people out in the areas to understand that. The problem with Irish Water was that it was a diktat and people were told what to do - they had to pay. They did not feel part of it, they did not feel engaged and they did not feel ownership of the water. People need to have that sort of ownership and guardianship over water and source water protection. By creating this Public Water Forum with a grander remit than Irish Water, and one that reaches over the whole water resource, this can feed into the Government approach. Right now, the Government has many different Departments handling water, including the Departments of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the OPW, which deals with flooding, the fisheries bodies, the local authorities and the ESB, with all of them dealing with the one resource. To have just one organisation could unify the communication so there would be a holistic approach to water protection.
I thank the witnesses and join in the apology regarding the delay. I want to tease out a little further the question of the role of the Public Water Forum in regard to the public. The witnesses might share my view that there is not a lot of wide public knowledge of what the forum does, and they might be able to answer as to what can be done about that. Do they feel there should be public deliberations? How could there be better transparency, given one of the issues we are supposed to look at today is public engagement and transparency? How could the Public Water Forum provide more of that? Obviously, one way is to give the forum at least a secretariat so it can do the work it is tasked to do.
Our role is to look at the future funding of domestic water services. Perhaps the witnesses do not discuss this as a group, but do they have a view in regard to how water should be funded, particularly in view of the wider role Dr. Collins and Ms O'Brien indicated in regard to protecting the environment, security of clean supply, safe removal of wastewater without damaging our rivers and so on? Do they have a view as to whether funding should be, for example, through ring-fenced general taxation or otherwise?
On a question to the regulator or to Irish Water, given the fact there is an Irish Water national stakeholders forum, as well the Public Water Forum, should there be some kind of rationalisation in that regard?
Dr. Tom Collins:
With regard to the role, I agree the forum does not have a huge profile and we have not sought that, although we are beginning to do so. It is such a deeply contested area that, as a forum, we ourselves needed to engage in the interrogation of positions. We have 20 representatives from among domestic consumers. As I mentioned at the outset, people had to apply to be members but those 20 do not represent anybody in that sense. That is probably a weakness in the structure. There would be some value if the domestic consumers were reporting in to a wider constituency, whatever that constituency is. Of that group, at the time about one third had not registered with Irish Water, so we are sure about one third of the membership are not registered, which means we had a mixed position. I believe we need to engage much more actively now at local level, where there is an amount of interest. There is obviously a huge level of interest in the wider issue of water in Ireland. Where it comes home is on issues where there is a failure in the system, such as in regard to boil water notices and lead in pipes - in other words, if the thing is not working, people become animated by it.
I personally believe the best way we can become involved is in a wider public education role. We could become involved with schools and the community sector and we can partner with the various water groups in the NGO sector, which have become very active. That is a strategy that waits to be developed and is one that requires resources, as the Deputy said. A new forum needs to ensure that the public is actively inserted in the debate as water affects them, however it affects them. There will be many other contentious areas in water once the domestic water issue is resolved. For example, there are 500 different tariffs in non-domestic charges and we are about to look at these. I could see us actively involving ourselves with the Irish tourism sector, the farming sector, the ICT sector and the food industry in exploring with them how the water resource impacts on their plans.
Regarding the future funding of domestic water services, we accepted the report of the expert commission. We took the view that water begins as a public service, that there is a citizen entitlement around water and that the issue of affordability should never interfere with a person's right to water. That is the forum's position. The only other point I will make on funding is that the debate on the funding of domestic water has struck me on a personal level as being about a relatively minor part of the total cost structure. When water charges were suspended some months back, although Mr. Grant may correct me on the figure, I believe €232 million was the projected figure for domestic charges at that time. In 2014 Irish consumers spent €215 million on bottled water, and they got 25 litres per head for it and spent €47 per head on it. If Irish Water was charging for water at that rate, we would certainly have funded the domestic water bill issue.
My point is that, clearly, we have gone for the general taxation route on the basis that the expert commission examined that route and decided it was its preferred one. We can see arguments for both, but saw no reason to second guess the expert commission.
Dr. Paul McGowan:
First, we welcome the establishment of the Public Water Forum and obviously we worked with the chairman, Dr. Tom Collins, on its establishment. It represents the voice of the consumer and our role in everything we do as an economic regulator is to act in the public interest. Getting that consumer voice is key to us being able to undertake our function. We provide secretariat support and funding to the Public Water Forum in its current structure. It is important to recognise that our focus in on ensuring that Irish Water delivers customer service to its customers. We set the minimum standards for that, so we must engage with consumers to understand what they should be. We also hold Irish Water to account, along with the EPA, particularly from an economic perspective in terms of its ability to deliver service quality improvements whether it is in the water or the wastewater services it delivers. That is the performance assessment framework I have spoken about on previous occasions. Finally, it is about holding Irish Water to account to deliver all of this efficiently at the minimum cost.
In all of that process we have reason to engage with consumers or consumer representative bodies at different levels of detail, be it through public consultation or hearing the voice of the consumer through the Public Water Forum. For example, we publish our documents for public consultation, so we may hear the voice of the consumer through different routes. The point is that different groups interact with us on different aspects of the work we do, at a considerable level of detail on very narrow matters or on much broader issues. We have had a consumer consultative group over the last number of years across our energy and water functions which allows non-governmental organisations, NGOs, that have a particular interest, whether it is representing people with disability, the voluntary sector or the environmental pillar, to engage with us so we can give them briefings to enable them to respond to our public consultations. We are aware of the need for a continued diversity of means by which we access the public voice. At the same time, we believe the Public Water Forum has a very important role to play in representing the voice of the consumer. Dr. Collins has alluded to a potentially wider role but that is a matter for discussion between the PWF and the Government. Under legislation our focus is on regulating Irish Water, so our engagement with the Public Water Forum is in respect of our statutory functions and the statutory functions of Irish Water.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
I wish to make two comments. The role of the Public Water Forum as outlined by Dr. Collins could be very valuable in terms of catchment management. It must be emphasised that the quality and safety of drinking water can be hugely influenced by what people do in the catchment. Pesticides are a very good example. We can deal with that either by controlling them or we can try to retrofit a very expensive treatment into our plants. That is an important point.
On Deputy O'Sullivan's point, we established a cross-sectoral forum for bouncing ideas. That has been very useful. It is quite specific. It includes people from agriculture, various commercial sectors, NGOs and so forth. It has been useful for bouncing ideas and plans. That said, we will not duplicate anything that exists. I believe those involved have found it useful for communicating around fairly narrower issues.
I thank Dr. Collins for the presentation. On his comment about the water charges of €232 million, the actual cost of domestic water is significantly higher. It was set at a deliberately low price to try to entice people to pay for it, so it is not really reflective of the actual cost. If water charges had been accepted, they would have increased significantly over the coming years.
The regulation that established the Public Water Forum in 2015 stated that members of the forum had to be registered customers of Irish Water. That was subsequently amended and the witness alluded to that in his presentation. I take it that it was Dr. Collins's point of view that it should be amended. Obviously the Government's view was that it had to be registered customers. Will he expand a little on that process?
Dr. Tom Collins:
It is an interesting one. I am trying to recall it. When the forum was being established I was very keen for it to have as broad a representation as we could manage. To be honest, I had forgotten that non-registered users were excluded, but I never encountered any opposition to including unregistered users in the group. I was very clear that they had to be included as otherwise it would simply be people from one side talking to themselves. Keith Hyland might wish to comment.
Mr. Keith Hyland:
I joined the Public Water Forum to replace a previous member who had left. I do not know the reason they left. I joined seven or eight months ago. It is not too onerous. We meet approximately once every six weeks. It probably takes up a full day between preparation, the meeting, thinking about it afterwards and digesting any reading one might wish to do. It is time I am very willing to give. It is fascinating. I came to it with a particular point of view on the issue, but through education, experience and listening to the CER, Irish Water and other people who have spoken to us my view is changing and evolving. I believe I have a good role on the forum and I am delighted to be able to contribute.
I have two further questions. Dr. Collins said that at this stage the forum has not carried out much engagement with the wider public. Is there a plan to roll that out further to develop awareness? I note that all the meetings are held in Dublin. If there is a plan to reach out into the regions it might help to build awareness of the work of the forum.
Dr. Tom Collins:
That is an interesting option. We have gone for Dublin because of the transport links but I see an absolute value in moving out. We have a commitment to beginning to engage with the public, but we must do two things on that.
We need to find a theme about which the public will get animated and we would like to see the charges issue dealt with before we can move into the next one. We also need personnel to do it. As we speak, we are in the process of making two appointments. One is for an executive to give, in a sense, executive leadership to the forum. The other appointment is for an education and engagement specialist. We will be appointing somebody. We have agreement in principle from the Department for those two appointments.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions so far. I repeat the apologies for the delay earlier. I appreciate that it was probably difficult for the witnesses sitting outside, but it was much more difficult in here. The witnesses probably had the better location for the time. I wish to make a couple of general points and I also have some questions. I believe the Public Water Forum is a good idea but, through no fault of its own, it has fallen victim to the broader political and policy arguments we have been having around water policy for the last while. There are two issues. The first is around the term "consumers". I always get nervous when we talk about consumers in the context of water because part of the disagreement is that when one starts to commodify something such as water and refer to people as consumers, it does change the relationship between the user of that service and the service itself. We do not speak of consumers in education or health; we talk about parents, patients or children. I know that is not the language used by the Public Water Forum water, which chooses its language very carefully, but it is important to acknowledge that it is not just an accidental choice of word. In the context of citizens’ engagement it is very important that we are talking about people, families, households and the person as the user of something, not as a market consumer.
The other issue is around the representing of the voice of the consumer or the user. Of course, they do not have a voice or a single voice as there are a variety of different views out there. For me, the real value of the forum is if it becomes a facilitator for all those different voices to get access to the information they need and have that voice, which is something the Public Water Forum has not been able to do up to this point. Again, this may have been through no fault of its own. I would be interested to hear the witnesses’ ideas, beyond what they have said already, on how that voice can be brought to bear with the high level advocacy and education activities that Dr. Collins has spoken of and in the day-to-day issues. Members of the Houses receive many complaints, and I am sure the other members of this committee would emphasise the same point, that for all of the faults of the old system - and I am not arguing for a return to the old system of delivery of water services - there was at least a local point of connection when it was council staff and elected council members to engage face-to-face with people about concerns around delivery of water services. That is not there anymore. Dr. Collins spoke of the higher levels of education and advocacy, which is really important, but we must also consider the people who are accessing water in their communities. How do we involve those people? Is it through the public participation networks in the local authorities or through some other mechanism?
My other point is relevant to all three groups here today. The expert group recommends four actions. I am interested to hear if the Public Water Forum agrees with each of those actions, how the witnesses believe they could be actioned and if having more direct public involvement and greater access to information from the water utilities is a good thing. The actions are all eminently sensible, even for those of us who are strong critics of Irish Water – and Mr. Grant knows all about that. If this committee is going to make recommendations on how to implement those four key actions we would welcome hearing any thoughts, ideas or suggestions the witnesses have on those. The summary recommendations of the actions are listed on page two of the report and that is part of what this committee is trying to deal with.
Dr. Tom Collins:
I will begin with Deputy Ó Broin’s comment on the issue of language, which I accept. The forum has had a lot of debate on language and has consistently argued against the use of the word “customer” in terms of water users, on the basis of our philosophical position which is that, as citizens, we have a citizens’ entitlement and that access to water should not be based on marketplace capability. I believe that there would nearly be consensus in the forum on that issue, regardless of where people were coming at it from. I accept that language is always important and the language being used here does mean something.
On engaging the voice of the public at local level I certainly believe there are opportunities there through the existing structure such as the public participation with the local authorities and I would also consider structures such as the citizen information centres and a variety of other public information venues at local level. The problem is that our forum has not utilised those kinds of structures up to this point, but it probably should do and probably needs to look at doing so and engaging proactively with people who have direct upfront face-to-face interaction. Part of this debate relates to people's capacity to access information. Obviously, people who are uncomfortable with information technology or who may have certain disabilities or who are otherwise locally confined will have greater needs in this area than other people. These are possibly the people on whom we should be proofing all our work. I will take on board Deputy Ó Broin’s point and bring it back to the forum to see how it can engage more effectively. I now invite Ms O’Brien to address the committee as she has some further ideas on engaging with the NGO sector, on the same point. I will then come back in on the issue of the four recommended actions.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
Local engagement is key and there are already existing groups one can tap into. There is the Local Authorities Water and Communities Office, LAWCO, that was developed under the EPA and the local authorities for the river basin catchment areas. One can also consider The Rivers’ Trust and StreamScapes who are existing groups out there. During the roll out of Saorview I know that the Wheel was very involved in getting in to the local communities and engaging existing communities. That might also be an avenue to tap in to existing groups.
With regard to open access data, I am a member of SWAN, the sustainable water network, and we had a think day on how we could approach this. We asked: If we are not going to use them for charging purposes then how we can use the existing meters that are in place? We asked if they could be used for information gathering. Not only do they track leakages they also allow consumers to see what amounts they are consuming, so even if they are not charged for what they are using they can see what they are using compared to their neighbours. This could be an education process. The meter could also potentially be used to create a pilot programme for research to see what type of measures would encourage a reduction in consumption. That could be done through meters and existing communities. The meters could be used for other purposes and the committee may be able to tap into that.
I really need to go ahead if that is okay, but I very much welcome the Deputy’s question and the reply from Professor Collins that he will provide his views on the four areas recommended by the expert commission. That is a very valuable point. I am going to have difficulty including all contributions, as we do not have a lot of time.
I thank Dr. Collins and apologise for our role in delaying him. The first time I saw Dr. Collins was on television at the height of this and his presentation and contributions today reinforce the view I held then - and that I still hold - that if the process of water metering had started with him then we might have ended up in a completely different place. Dr. Collins has come across as a trustworthy voice. I have two or three questions to ask but first I must refer to a number of things that Dr. Collins said that really made an impact on me. One of the phrases he used was that water is a great barometer of the health of the nation, but also of the health of the nation's land.
If we had started at this point and had taken our time, leading in with the education aspect for a few years, we would not have ended up with people educated about Garda powers, the fabrication of water meters and what they are or are not made of, and what are the rights of individuals as protesters.
The Chairman has allowed so much latitude to other speakers. I insist on it now. He has extended the meetings and we made our points earlier. I really want to make my point and I am the only member of my group who is contributing. These are important issues. If the process had started with education, people like me, who favoured the idea of metering, until a hames was made of it, would not be here in the committee.
I compliment Dr. Collins on running his outfit on €30,000. The Public Water Forum's ability to take on board everybody's views is vital. I cannot stress the educational function enough. Many people do not realise what happens to a drop of water from the moment it drops from the sky to the moment it comes into their taps.
It is not my fault, as a consumer, that the bulk of the water I use domestically, which has been treated, ends up being flushed into the system as opposed to being consumed. Dr. Collins mentioned €215 million being spent on bottled water. As a student in France at the age of 14, I found it hilarious that French people drank bottled water. What caused the shift among Irish people towards the consumption of bottled water? Dr. Collins's point was hinting that although we were not prepared to pay water charges, look how much we pay for bottled water. Why do we use bottled water? When I was a kid, one filled a bottle with water and brought it somewhere. What does that say?
Dr. Collins said the forum had discussions with a Minister. Which Minister has the forum discussed it with?
The expert commission's report touched on public engagement and transparency. In the confidence and supply agreement that underpins the Government, there is a commitment to establish an external advisory body on a statutory basis to build public confidence in Irish Water. How does Dr. Collins see the role of the Public Water Forum in the future with the establishment of the external advisory body and the commitment that legislation is forthcoming on it later this year? Does he think the Public Water Forum and the external advisory body can complement each other or does he have any concerns about duplication?
The expert commission's report, which is the basis of our work here predominantly, stated the Public Water Forum should be extended. I admire the work it does on €30,000 per annum. Has Dr. Collins a figure in mind for the increase he would need to expand its role? I had to do some research about the Public Water Forum. Even as a public representative, I was not very au faitwith its work. There would be merit in the marketing element and looking to expand this work. There is much valuable work and input the Public Water Forum could have in making us aware that the activity we do around our water courses impacts directly down and how it is all interlinked. When we talk about water and water charges, the constant rebuke we get from people of a certain view is that water is free because it falls from the sky. However, we are talking about treated water, which is a very different matter and which involves a very significant cost.
Dr. Tom Collins:
Generally, we would be concerned about duplication. From the forum's point of view, it is not clear to us where the CER's role begins and the external advisory body's ends. Duplication in this field is an issue and this is part of the reason we are working on the notion of a national forum which would replace some of the existing consultative mechanisms. We have extended, submitted and got approval for a budget of €170,000 this year. This will allow us to move on the appointment of both a manager or chief executive and an education person. It is very clear to me, both from the expert commission's work and from this conversation, that we need to build the forum into the wider community and into constituencies which we have not gone into just yet. The 12 sectoral groups are all there representing their sectors in the forum. They represent the position of whichever sector they are holding. We are deficient in engagement with the wider, non-affiliated public and we need to work on it.
The forum will consider taking on the consultation that is required of the country around river basin management plans. We are developing the term Ms O'Brien used, a "holistic perspective" on things. Local consultation will be a requirement. There will be a requirement for consultation with local users in the river basins, whether they be farmers, tourism operators or fisher-people. They are all stakeholders. Somebody will have to take on the task of engaging directly with those users, and this national forum, with an eye on what is coming out of the tap at the other end, is probably the best placed vehicle through which to do it.
Dr. Paul McGowan:
We are a creature of statute and our role is very clearly set out in legislation. Our function is to regulate Irish Water and work with the Public Water Forum and so forth. To the extent that the external advisory body is established, whatever function it has, we will work with it.
I echo what Dr. Collins said. If we avoid duplication and have clarity of roles then overall that provides the best outcome, but it is a matter of policy as to what the function of the external advisory body, the EAB, would be.
What is the source of that funding? Obviously the Public Water Forum has to be independent and to be seen to be independent both of Government and Irish Water. Is there a need for a legally independent source of funding for that organisation?
Mr. O'Brien mentioned the possibility of using local authorities as contact bodies locally. Is he aware that local authorities are prevented from dealing with questions about Irish Water from the public at the moment, by instruction of Irish Water?
My other questions are for Irish Water. Mr. Grant told us on 12 January 2017 that the water metering programme would stop yesterday, 31 January. Can he confirm that it has stopped and that contractors have been instructed to stop installing meters as of yesterday?
With regard to public engagement, I am very clear that in my experience and the experience of the vast majority of my constituency is that there is a complete lack of engagement, indeed a culture of disengagement, from Irish Water with water users generally. Why, for instance, does Irish Water not have local offices where the public can engage with the company, or at least local officials with whom the public could engage? When a pipe bursts and there is a disruption to supply, why are the public not notified as they would have been in the past by local authorities by way of radio advertisements, leaflet drops or other means? Currently the only engagement is by notification on a website. Other than that water users and householders are in the dark. In relation to planned maintenance, other entities such as ESB would notify their customers in advance. Why would Irish Water not use something like this?
Will Mr. Grant tell us why Irish Water is cutting off supply to premises without notice? Why is it cutting off supply anyway, and why is it being done without notice? Very recently in Clonmel, water users were left for between nine hours and two days when supply was switched off without any notice. It was not the first time, and indeed the local service engineer said he had made an official complaint to Irish Water on behalf of the people affected and on behalf of the county council. Why would Irish Water not put in place local offices or local officials through which or whom water users could make contact directly with Irish Water about all the issues arising.
I am conscious of time and I want to afford two further speakers an opportunity to come in, so I ask speakers to be as tight as possible. It may be a situation where there could be responses in writing to some of the questions posed. You may or may not have the answers here now.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
I think that would be helpful, and I will do that. I would like to make the point that our call centre handled 700,000 calls last year from the members of the public in connection with the work we do. A reason that people suffer shortage or loss of supply is because 80% of all the interventions in the network we make at the moment are unplanned interventions. In other words, they are failures. We have to get to a point in this country where our system is 80% planned and 20% unplanned.
I understand that. The question I asked was why Irish Water does not make available local offices or local officials where water users can contact Irish Water when these issues arise. The call centre is not fit for purpose in my view, and that is the view of many people I speak to and many constituents who have come to me. There is, in my view, little or no engagement with water users by Irish Water, and that is the question. I accept that there are burst pipes. We all know that. In the past, local authorities would have radio advertisements, they would drop leaflets and they would engage with people.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
I will come back in detail because I think that would be better and more effective. We do all the things we are talking about here. We do radio communications and leaflet drops in relation to boil water notices. There is one compelling reason having an effective call centre connected with operations works really well in the medium and long term, and in the short term when everybody plays their part, and that is that all the information is captured, fed back into the system and used. We decide on our mains replacement programme on the basis of frequency of bursts. We decide on our interventions and our programmes of work based on precisely the data we collect through the call centre. It is a really effective way of doing it. It breaks down when some part of the chain does not work. I absolutely accept that this is a work in progress. We had 10,000 calls last year from elected representatives alone, and I get a lot of very positive feedback on that. I am not complacent and I fully accept that we have a way to go.
I am sorry for delaying the Chair, but I asked that question because there were Irish Water contractors in a number of estates yesterday and people contacted me. Can I take it they will not be in any estates from today?
Sorry, I did ask a specific question. Irish Water are not entitled to discontinue and disconnect supplies. I want Mr. Grant to tell us why supplies were disconnected in Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir in recent weeks without any notice whatsoever.
I am sure it is a very important question to you and to the people of Clonmel. That is why I am asking that Mr. Grant provides a full written reply to that specific question. I want to go ahead now, in fairness.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
To my knowledge, nobody has been disconnected at any time recently in the domestic or non-domestic sector. In the non-domestic sector there is provision for cutting off supply for failure to pay. That happens from time to time, and it happened under the local authorities. It still happens. We are very slow to do it. I cannot reference any specific circumstances. Domestic users are never cut off.
I will try to stay within the remit of the committee, because obviously some members are going way beyond that. We have enough work to be doing, and if members of this committee have specific issues, I am sure they can take them up directly with Irish Water. This is not the forum for that.
I want to acknowledge the witnesses who have attended and who have been helpful to the committee, especially the members of the Public Water Forum. They are providing a valuable public service in terms of what they have outlined to the committee.
The public forum is required to advocate on behalf of consumers and I am sure that technical assistance sometimes is required. How can the forum access such technical assistance? Is that resource available to the forum? When one is dealing with the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Irish Water or the Department of Health, one must have technical resources available to one.
My second question relates to public engagement as it relates to both the public forum and Irish Water itself. Public engagement should be about building trust and transparency and ensuring that the reputation of the national utility is intact. Obviously, some damage was done to that reputation in the past. Where infrastructural improvements are made to our public water system, for example, through a lead pipe replacement programme in a town or village or where pollution or leakage issues are resolved, is that reported back to the forum and to the public? That should be done if we want to build trust and improve the reputation of Irish Water. A lot of very good work is being done by Irish Water. It is making a lot of good investments and resolving a lot of problems that have been extant for years, particularly in terms of pollution and substandard infrastructure. Unfortunately, however, the message is not getting out about that. As I understand it, Irish Water now has a modern asset management system in place. Every pipe in the ground, water source, wastewater treatment plant and so on is now recorded, with a maintenance plan and schedule made out for each part. That information should be supplied to both the forum and the public. Is there a reporting mechanism in place in that regard?
I now wish to focus on the issue of a customer charter in Irish Water. I presume, as with any utility, that a customer charter is in place in Irish Water. How was that developed? Was there an input from the public forum? I understand that the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, has a role in terms of approving the charter but I ask the witnesses to confirm if that is the case. How does the charter compare with other well established utilities in Ireland in terms of performance indicators, compensation in the event of commitments not being met and so forth? How does the customer charter for Irish Water compare with the charters of other utilities?
The contact centre was mentioned and I have had very positive feedback regarding how Irish Water is now engaging with the public. There were teething problems in the beginning but I know from speaking to colleagues in the Oireachtas that there is now a very good two-way communication system available to Oireachtas Members when problems arise with regard to Irish Water. If Oireachtas Members are honest, they will acknowledge that.
The expert commission report which this committee is currently considering refers to normal usage and this is going to be one of the key points with which this committee must deal. The report suggests that normal usage of public water should be paid for by general taxation. I ask all the witnesses to outline whether they have had an opportunity to consider what "normal usage" might mean. If they have not, why not? Is this question something that they might consider into the future? This committee will have to take advice from the very witnesses in front of us on how to define "normal usage". That will be the crux of our work. I look forward to hearing the views of the witnesses on that issue.
Regarding the Senator's final question, the issue of normal usage will be brought up at later meetings. That said, it is very important to flag it to the CER and ask that the commission revert to the committee with information on that issue. It will be critical for us in our deliberations. Is that acceptable to Senator Coffey? In that way, we are giving the CER the opportunity to work that out for us.
Dr. Tom Collins:
I will deal with a couple of questions raised by Senator Coffey. The first one relates to an earlier question posed by Deputy Seamus Healy about how the public forum is funded and how its funding is organised. Funding is organised through the CER at the moment. We have a budget for this year of approximately €180,000, which has been approved by the CER. We made three requests for technical support since the foundation of the forum, all of which were processed through the CER's own procurement system. The first request related to recruitment and publicity support when the forum began in autumn 2015. The second request was for technical support for the establishment and maintenance of the website. The third request was for technical support for policy analysis. Where we require technical support, we request it via the procurement system of the CER. Once the forum evolves and matures - it has some way to go in that regard - it would be better if it operated more independently. Independence is key, not only in the sense of being independent but also that the forum appears to be independent. The perception of independence is as important as the reality. From that point of view, ultimately one would like it to evolve and become a statutory body with its own direct line of funding. There is no debate on that issue at the moment, however.
I agree with Senator Coffey's overall point about building trust. Certainly trust has been one of the victims in much of the debate over the last couple of years. We do not have formal reporting mechanisms such as those suggested by the Senator whereby Irish Water reports to the forum on progress made. However, we have found our engagement with Irish Water to be entirely positive. We have, for example, asked to be involved with various presentations by Irish Water and have always received a positive response. The notion of a coherent body engaged in trust building is important but the forum is not an agent of Irish Water or of any other State body. It is a vehicle for the public voice and maintaining that public voice is important. If that voice is a critical one, that makes it even more important at times. I see trust as being built not on marketing but on informed public debate, education and the capacity to take different positions from bodies that may have a particular axe to grind, so to speak. I do not think it is necessarily in the interests of the forum to be particularly close to any of the bodies in the landscape in which it is operating because independence is absolutely key.
I think I have dealt with the main questions posed by the Senator.
Dr. Tom Collins:
Sorry, yes, the question of usage was discussed at our last meeting. Our sense is that rather than defining a level of usage and saying that it is reasonable, we should look retrospectively at what has been used and instead of using the word "normal", it might be better to use the word "average". We would need to determine the average usage, per person, aggregated to household, on some method of self-declaration. If we can agree that figure - there are already figures in the public domain to that effect - then we can decide that a charge could kick in at some percentile above the average usage-----
I would like to hear the views of Irish Water and the CER on the customer charter and on the wider issue of reporting progress. Irish Water is not reporting progress to the public forum and I can understand that because the bodies do not want to be too close. However it is important in the context of public engagement, that the positive work, investment and the resolution of problems with our public water infrastructure that is happening is reported to members of the public so that they are aware of, understand and appreciate it.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
We are obliged by the CER to define the objectives of the various programmes of investment that are approved for us. We are measuring them and reporting to the CER with regard to them. The same thing applies to the customer charter. I am happy for the officials from the CER to comment on these matters. The customer charter is very challenging. We have to comply with many strong metrics and report against them. The information in question is available. We will take every opportunity that is available to us to communicate the achievements on a year-by-year or any other basis.
Ms Sheenagh Rooney:
I will be brief. Senator Coffey asked how we developed it. Obviously, we have been regulating energy and gas supply companies. In 2014, we developed a customer handbook, which imposes 353 requirements on Irish Water. We monitor its compliance with those requirements. As a subset of that, we have identified nine customer charter areas as key requirements. One of them involves giving vulnerable or priority customers notice in advance of a planned outage or in the event of an unplanned outage. One would expect these key requirements to be in place. An automatic penalty is imposed on Irish Water if it breaches one of the nine basic customer commitments. We produced an information note with respect to that recently. Eighty-four charter payments were made throughout 2016. We monitor how Irish Water deals with complaints and publish information in that respect. All of this is in the public domain. We have an independent dispute mechanism to assist Irish Water customers who are not satisfied with the service they received or how they were dealt with. Irish Water accepts that the determination we make after we have looked at a complaint is final. This means that people who are not satisfied with Irish Water have somewhere to go. It is important to outline that the information in the documents we published when we looked at how Irish Water performed and what it achieved between 2014 and 2016 is in the public domain. We accept that more needs to be out there about it.
I will be as brief as I can. I would like to focus on one of the expert commission's four recommendations in the area of public engagement and transparency. It recommended that "an EPA administered research budget on water management and conservation is necessary and should be put in place". My question relates to the CER's engagement with the forum, which may have happened on instruction or may have been undertaken participatively. Has the CER undertaken international research on the effectiveness of public awareness campaigns in curtailing water consumption? I am asking about research that may have been done not just since the expert commission produced its report but since the inception of the CER and the start of its engagement with this forum.
Will the CER play a part in reviewing whether there should be an open data role for Irish Water?
We were led to believe that 300,000 homes were never going to be metered because of technical issues associated with their locations, for example in apartment blocks. It is not possible to access some homes in this way by virtue of the period in which they were built. Has the CER discussed a review mechanism with the forum to allow for water conservation in those homes? If that could be done effectively, perhaps it could be continued into the future. I remind the witnesses that the expert commission recommended that there should be "district metering" rather than individual metering. Maybe this is something that could be brought to bear in the forum.
Has the CER explored means of water conservation other than the charging mechanism that dominated the debate and was almost rammed down the throats of consumers as the only form of conservation? What other form of water conservation has the CER engaged with in recent times? I remind Mr. McGowan that this committee is responsible for making recommendations for a solution and bringing them to the Dáil for agreement. Has the CER looked at the harvesting of rainwater as a possible conservation method as it engages with the public about bringing water conservation to the forefront and leaving water charges in the background?
Dr. Paul McGowan:
The Deputy has made a valid point about unmetered premises. We have said in the past that we will always have premises that are unmetered because they cannot be accessed for technical reasons. We did not get around to looking at those specific premises when we were delivering the first phase of the metering programme, which targeted the original 80% of premises. We had flagged that we would have to look at the parameters for future phases of metering and how we might access this cohort of premises. We have not initiated any particular work in that regard.
Will that information be made available to this committee in the coming weeks? We are under pressure to make recommendations. One would imagine that the CER would have had ample time to bring forward solutions to this problem.
Dr. Paul McGowan:
We have been asked questions about conservation, which will be the subject of a future discussion at this committee, as I understand it. We will submit proposals in that regard. That answers the fourth question.
We support open data in principle. We support the idea that data could be made available for research purposes by Irish Water, the CER, the Environmental Protection Agency or any other independent body.
We have not undertaken any specific international research on consumption. The CER is a member of WAREG, which is a body of water regulators across Europe. We gather experience about research that has been undertaken elsewhere through WAREG and then determine what might be done in Ireland. In our first price control, we gave Irish Water a research and innovation fund to enable it to approach us with ideas for our consideration regarding innovation and research projects that could be undertaken. We have carried this into our second price control. We have set aside a €4 million fund specifically to allow innovation and research projects to be initiated. The future role of the Environmental Protection Agency is a matter for the agency.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
Perhaps grants could be made available for the installation of facilities for the harvesting of rainwater, along the lines of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland's low-energy grants. The use of low-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads and other low-water use appliances could be similarly incentivised. I suggest that grants or tax incentives should be introduced to discourage the use of large quantities of water within the house.
I ask the Public Water Forum to come back to us in response to Deputy Cowen's important question about looking at options for other forms of water conservation that could or possibly should be considered. We would value the forum's input on that to help us with our deliberations.
Okay. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis na finnéithe uilig. I thank the representatives of the Public Water Forum, Irish Water and the Commission for Energy Regulation for their assistance this afternoon. I thank my colleagues who asked some really good questions. The responses to those questions have helped us to understand many of the key intricate areas involved in this project. I also thank the lucht féachana and those who took the time to connect and relate with the committee. It is much appreciated.