Wednesday, 25 April 2007
Water Services Bill 2003 [Seanad]: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 18, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
"6.—Nothing in this Bill will enable local authorities or Water Service authorities and providers to charge domestic users for the provision of water supplies.".
We heard earlier from the Minister on the privatisation issue, when he told the House he is against the concept of privatising such a basic human necessity as a water service. I look forward to the Minister assuring the House that he is totally opposed to any prospect of charges applying to a major basic human right and necessity. I hope the Minister will provide such assurances. However, while assurances are one thing, the most effective way of ensuring there will be no service charges on water is to accept this amendment. This will put the issue beyond discussion in terms of legislation, which is what we want.
Currently, almost 50% of water escapes through various leaks in a cranky system. Very little has been done to try to check such a large loss, although I accept that some minor effort has been made to try to at least quantify more accurately the level of loss in our water service. That occurs at significant expense because it invariably happens between production point and the tap.
We are sometimes told householders are wasting water but they are not a patch on those primarily responsible for it, the local government as agent for the Minister and the Government. If this significant waste is checked, the attending cost savings will be notable.
The prospect of charges for water will represent an imposition of a double taxation system. We are used to double taxation but this one will not be accepted. In the late 1980s, there was a significant battle over the issue and many Members will remember those hard times. I have no doubt we will return to that battle whenever a Government tries to introduce water charges again.
For me, it will be a battle North and South as the British Government is trying to impose water charges in the North. That battle has been won temporarily but I do not doubt for one moment the issue will return. I hope a number of the Unionist parties will be on our side in that battle. Who knows, they may even come to join us here should a Government decide to introduce water charges on this side of the Border.
This water war could be interesting. The first major water war took place in Cochabamba in Bolivia in 2000, when thousands of people took to the streets in opposition to the imposition of charges. That case was so ridiculous that it got to a stage where the Bolivian Government would not allow people to dig a hole to retain rain water. That became an offence under the legislation, so even the rain was privatised. People would have been asking if fresh air was next.
In 2005, Uruguay changed its constitution by means of referendum, defining water as a human right and a public natural resource. Any prospect of ever privatising public water supplies for domestic use was banned. That is where we should be heading in this State. This House should have that assurance from the Government not just verbally from the Minister, but through the acceptance of this amendment. The inclusion of the amendment would ensure there will be no water charges.
Why should poor people, those on a very low income and already categorised as living in poverty, be hounded over this basic human right? Why should anybody, irrespective of income, have to pay for something so critical to human life itself? I hope the Minister will recognise this. I look forward to his reply.
I thank the Deputy for his remarks. Given that water charges are specifically prohibited in this State under the 1997 Act and will be prohibited under section 105(1) of this legislation, it seems to me that a third prohibition is probably unnecessary. Section 105(1) of the Bill before the House, which was inserted on Committee Stage, explicitly prohibits charging for domestic supplies and cannot be changed by regulations. The 1997 Act cannot be changed unless it is the will of the Oireachtas that a change be made. It is not necessary to provide for yet another prohibition in law. I ask Deputy Morgan not to press the amendments.
The Deputy quite rightly highlighted the loss of water through cracked and fractured pipes, especially old pipes. We announced some weeks ago that we intend to pursue a €240 million water conservation scheme. The Deputy might not be aware of the scheme because its announcement was overshadowed by a welter of publicity about photographs taken on that occasion. The water authorities in Dublin are introducing a forward-looking scheme that will involve the replacement of approximately 240 km of piping over a short period. Eight or nine contractors have been engaged to pursue the scheme in a progressive manner. The press conference at which I announced the water conservation scheme did not get as much publicity as the photographs, unfortunately. Dublin City Council has dealt with this big issue.
I mentioned earlier that there is an issue in other parts of the country where water service authorities are responsible for mending pipes. When it was decided recently to pump water from Tuam to Galway city, it was discovered that up to 70% of the water was being lost through old pipes. The Government has allocated €27.4 million to Galway County Council to deal with that issue. The Deputy is quite right to suggest that the issue of the loss of water from the system as a result of bad piping is a critical one. The Government devoted massive funding last year and this year to deal with the issue. Moneys will continue to be spent on it throughout the rest of the water services programme. I agree with Deputy Morgan that this is an important point, but it is being dealt with.
I thank the Minister for his reply, which unfortunately does not allay my concerns. Section 72 of the Bill states:
72—(1) Subject to any direction of the Minister under this Act—
(a) a water services authority may—
(i) supply water by measure,
(ii) meter or otherwise measure the volume of water supplied or the volume of waste water discharged,
(iii) subject to complying with other enactments in relation to charging for water services, charge a rent or otherwise recover from a consumer the costs incurred by it in respect of every meter or other instrument provided for measuring the water supplied to or the waste water discharged by that consumer.
The Minister has told us that he will not charge for the water, but it seems to me that he intends to find a device whereby charges can be imposed. The effect of that device, which will be called something else, will be to impose charges for water. If the Minister accepts this explicit amendment, he will ensure that such a situation simply cannot arise.
I will give the Minister a moment to examine section 72, which appears to be quite explicit in its reference to costs pertaining to the domestic use of the water supply. The Minister can call it what he wants, but it amounts to the same thing — the imposition of charges on consumers for water. I ask the Minister to delete section 72(1)(a)(iii) to deal with some of my concerns. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
I will remind Deputy Morgan of what section 105(1) of the Bill states:
105.—(1) A water services authority shall not charge for water supplied to or discharged by—
(a) a household, which is used by that household for domestic purposes, or
(b) a person, other than another water services authority, providing water services to a household for domestic purposes.
It could not be clearer. The Deputy referred to section 72, which deals with the provision of meters. Meters, other than domestic meters, are charged for. If a meter is installed at a commercial premises, including an agricultural holding, a charge is imposed.
I will take this opportunity to address the concern expressed earlier by Deputy Connaughton that a farmer with seven disjointed holdings might have to pay for seven meters. That has not been the case since earlier this year, when I introduced a specific prohibition on the imposition of such multiple charges. Under the new system, a farmer has to pay for the first meter in full, for a portion of the cost of the second meter and for a smaller portion of the cost of the third meter. He will not pay for more than 1.8 meters in total. If one is running a large multinational company, there is no reason in God's earthly world the taxpayer should pay for the provision of one's meter.
The imposition of water charges on domestic consumers is specifically prohibited by section 105(1). The 1997 Act also specifically prohibits the imposition of such charges on domestic consumers. Ireland is probably the only country in the world that has two separate statutory enactments prohibiting the imposition of charges on domestic consumers. I do not think it would make any sense to provide for a third such prohibition. If Deputy Morgan checks section 72 again, he will find that it clearly deals with metering. There is no reason commercial operators and big businesses should have taxpayers paying for their meters.
I agree with the Minister's last point. We do not object to businesses and commercial users having to pay for the water they use. We do not disagree with that at all. We do not approve of the use of the term "consumer", however, because it is a catch-all phrase. If that term were more closely defined, I could more easily accept the Minister's argument. In the unfortunate absence of an acceptable definition, I will have to press the amendment.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 20, line 40, to delete "subsection (1) or (2)" and substitute "subsection (2), (3) or (4)".
This technical amendment intends to correct a cross-reference in section 8(5) so that it refers to the appropriate penalty provision in the section. It arises from the insertion on Committee Stage of additional subsections earlier in section 8.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 21, line 33, to delete "5" and substitute "3".
This amendment has been proposed because it is in everybody's interests that prosecutions or other follow-up actions are taken during a period that is as close as possible to the time of the offence. The five-year period proposed is too long. Deputy O'Dowd has proposed this amendment, which provides for a more realistic three-year period. It will have the effect of concentrating the legal activities at a time that is as near as possible to the time when the offence took place.
This amendment, as well as ensuring that action is concentrated nearer the time of the offence might also have the unintended effect of making the prosecution of such offences more onerous. The advice obtained from the Office of the Attorney General indicates that five years is a standard provision which applies, for example, in the waste management and environmental protection codes. I do not see why we should constrain a local authority by making a prosecution under this Bill more difficult than is the case with the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992. Perhaps if the Deputy reconsidered the issue, he would understand that five years is a prudent provision in other environmental legislation. We should not provide for a shorter period and I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
I was interested to hear what the Minister had to say but the opinion of the general public would differ with regard to when a prosecution should take place and the most cost-effective means of bringing an action. He argued that it might be better to align the provision with other relevant Acts because a local authority might not be in a position to bring a prosecution within three years. However, the longer the delay from the time of the offence, the more irrelevant a prosecution can become. The measure as it stands could encourage unnecessary delays in prosecutions. The speedier the prosecution, the more it would be perceived by the general public as a response to an offence. I do not know how much additional time a local authority might need but concentration of the mind would have beneficial consequences. I understand why Deputy O'Dowd tabled this amendment.
I am a former local authority member, although I left voluntarily before there were any redundancies in that regard. I always held to the view as a local authority member that if a decision must be taken, it should be taken immediately. While I do not want to go down the watery roads we have travelled in past weeks, decisions should be taken on foot of the legislation and procedures being put in place. The longer one delays, the less effective one's action becomes. It would send a salutary message if a prosecution took place within months of the offence. I do not know how beneficial a long drawn out prosecution could be, even if such a delay is set out in other legislation.
I will oppose this amendment because it gives criminals a way out, even if that is not the Deputy's intention. We should make it as clear in this Bill as we have in other environmental legislation that people who commit environmental crimes will be brought to court and punished with severe penalties. I am surprised that Deputy Durkan is pressing the amendment and ask him to withdraw it.
I remind the Deputy of the browbeating and bullying required to force local authorities to take action against criminals who were involved in widespread dumping. Many of the investigations into these offences were very difficult and some required officials to take risks. I do not think we should constrain their rights. Once a crime has been committed, we should resource the investigation and the prosecution rather than make it easier for environmental criminals to escape.
I am not convinced by the Minister's argument. This amendment does not represent an attempt to give criminals the opportunity to find the easy way out but an effort to concentrate the mind of the statutory body on prosecuting within the shortest possible space of time. Deputy O'Dowd's intention was that the necessary resources would be provided to the local authority to ensure that the maximum amount is spent on the investigation with a view to identifying sources and administering the necessary punishment.
If the culprit in the case of the water supply in Galway was brought to book, would it be better that the prosecution took place within five rather than three years? The preferable response would be to prosecute immediately. I am not suggesting for one moment that the Minister will be prosecuted or imprisoned but postponing the response to any offence will not necessarily improve the quality of the service. I will not begin a long tirade on the countless questions I have put down on that subject to the Minister and his predecessors. I have repeatedly attempted to remind the responsible authorities of the need to ensure adequacy and quality of domestic water supplies. Any deviation from that requires a response and the more immediate, the better. There is little to be gained by saying we might not have the evidence. It did not take long to discover the real culprits for the water pollution in Galway. I do not propose to press the amendment but the Minister's reluctance to accept it will reflect on him and his Department.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 24, to delete lines 33 to 38.
These amendments delete identical provisions inserted on Committee Stage to enable the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 and the Local Government Water Pollution Act 1977 to be used as the basis for regulations to transpose EU directives on related matters. In the absence of such a provision, any treaty or Act of the EU would require new legislation to enable it to be transposed. However, since Committee Stage was completed, the European Communities Act 2007 has been enacted with a general provision similar to those being repealed, thereby obviating the need for separate provision in any other enactment. The related provisions in the Bill are therefore redundant and the proposal to delete them makes good drafting sense.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 25, line 21, after "paragraph" to insert the following:
"and, in the case of electronic mail, provided also that the individual has consented to receive legal notices by email, that the matter is one of urgency, and that there is a facility to confirm that the recipient has received and read the mail and that this facility has been operated".
This amendment limits the circumstances in which electronic mail would be used to where the recipient has agreed to receive notices by e-mail and there is a degree of urgency in the communication.
We discussed this issue on Committee Stage, following which I gave some thought to the contributions made by Deputy Gilmore. With regard to electronic mail, paragraph (f) already provides that a notice must be served by one of the more traditional methods provided for in the earlier paragraphs of section 19. Service of the notice by electronic mail is effectively an additional method rather than an alternative one. If the Deputy considers the matter, he will see that depending on e-mail alone could lead to some difficulty. The purpose of providing for service of a notice by e-mail is to facilitate speedy transmission. It could also facilitate reproduction of additional copies of the notice. At any rate, it does not seem practical to me to provide for a system that confirms that a recipient of an e-mail has read it. That would land us in difficulties and I ask the Deputy not to press the amendment.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 25, line 24, to delete "the "person in charge"" and substitute ""the person in charge"".
This is a technical amendment to correct a typographical error discovered on Committee Stage.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 31, line 33, to delete "Minister" and substitute the following:
"Minister, save for functions associated with or connected with the agreement or imposition of water service charges,".
Question, "That the word proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 38, to delete lines 30 to 33 and substitute the following:
"(9) The obligation on a water services authority to comply with a request from the Minister under subsection (7) shall not apply where the water services in question cannot be provided due to climatic conditions or other circumstances beyond the reasonable control of the water services authority.".
I promised to return to the provision on Report Stage to address a specific concern expressed by Deputy Gilmore on Committee Stage. He expressed concern that the current wording of subsection (9), which is couched in terms of the liability of water services authorities regarding a water service, might be interpreted as relieving it of all legal liability as a consequence of providing substandard water services, even where the problem might have been aggravated by underlying incompetence on the part of the authority in the first instance.
It was never intended that the proposed provision be given such an interpretation. Its only purpose was to provide that, where the Minister requests a water services authority under subsection (6) to provide a water service, the obligation on the authority to comply should not apply where circumstances such as adverse climatic conditions beyond the reasonable control of the water services authority prevent it from doing so.
To address the Deputy's concerns, the revised wording in subsection (9) avoids reference to liability or any similar construction, providing only that a water services authority will not be obliged to comply with a request from the Minister under subsection (7) to provide water services in a given area where circumstances outside its reasonable control prevent it from doing so. I regard the provision as a reasonable restriction on the application of the powers under subsection (7) and trust the clarification will meet the concerns that the Deputy expressed on Committee Stage.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 38, between lines 39 and 40, to insert the following:
"(12) (a) Notwithstanding any provision of this or any other enactment, a water services authority shall not enter into any agreement or arrangement with another person, other than with a group water services scheme or another water services authority, for the provision of water services jointly with or on behalf of the authority which—
(i) involves or may involve the transfer of the water services authority's assets or infrastructure, or any part of such assets or infrastructure, to that person, or
(ii) prohibits the transfer to the water services authority of assets or infrastructure, or any part of such assets or infrastructure, provided by the person as part of such agreement.
(b) In this subsection "group water services scheme" means a scheme which provides a private supply of water, or a private waste water collection, treatment or disposal service, to the members of the scheme by means of a common or shared source of supply, or related distribution or collection network.".
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 39, line 6, to delete "water services authorities," and substitute "water services authorities".
These are technical drafting amendments to correct certain textual errors.
I move amendment No. 19:
In page 57, line 18, to delete "Part 7" and substitute "Part 7 or 8".
The purpose of this essentially technical amendment is to amend the cross-reference to Part 7 in section 42(11)(b) to include a reference to Part 8 as well. It arises from the insertion of a new section 97 into Part 8 on Committee Stage. That provides for the powers of the water services authority to lay water pipes and related cables and wires through land. Such powers for the purpose of installing a pipe are clearly necessary under section 42(11) or (12), and the amendment will therefore ensure they are available to the water services authority if required.
I move amendment No. 20:
In page 57, line 51, after "repair" to insert the following:
"and may recover a contribution to the cost of meeting his or her obligations under this section from the persons using the connection, in direct proportion to their level of use of the connection".
We discussed this at some length on Committee Stage. It addresses problems where there are combined drains or services and liability for repair and maintenance rests with the householder. I had hoped that the Minister might have produced an amendment to deal with the issue because we debated it quite extensively.
We carefully considered amendment No. 20 in particular, which could have a very dangerous, unforeseen and unintended consequence. It would allow the owners of service connections to charge users for their upkeep, albeit in direct proportion to the level of use. That would effectively amount to a charter for water charges for all consumers, domestic and non-domestic, which I know certainly was not the intention of the Labour Party or Deputy Gilmore.
For example, it would allow the developer of a new housing estate to charge every household for the upkeep of drainage and water supply pipes on the estate until such time as they are taken in charge by the relevant local authority. I am convinced that Deputy Gilmore did not intend that. No one in this House would want that because developers get away with enough already. There is a potential danger, and I ask the Deputy to withdraw the amendment.
The principle espoused in amendment No. 21 of recovering costs from users based on the level of use for a connection is already enshrined in section 43(3) and (4). Subsection (3) places responsibility for the upkeep of a connection on the person who owns or is in charge of it. Where such a person cannot be identified, subsection (4) provides that such responsibility falls proportionally on the owners of the premises using it.
Regarding amendment No. 22, section 43(2) provides that a water services authority may, at its discretion, provide, repair or replace a connection itself or, alternatively, contribute to the costs of such works. I consider that it would be preferable in the first instance to allow individual water services authorities in a spirit of local democracy to exercise their discretion regarding the extent of assistance to individual premises for the purposes of section 43. I expect a reasonable line would be taken depending on individual circumstances. If further direction is necessary, I will exercise my powers under section 33(1) to issue appropriate guidance.
In summary, a quite dangerous and entirely unforeseen consequence would arise from amendment No. 20, and I do not suggest for a moment that it reflects the Deputy's intention. Amendment No. 21 has already been addressed, and the Deputy's concerns expressed in amendment No. 22 can be dealt with in guidance. I ask that the amendments not be pressed.
I do not wish to be obstructive at all, but any sum that is lawfully due is recoverable from a debtor. If that person is the owner of any premises, whether domestic or non-domestic, it is reasonable to place a charge on it for the recovery of the debt in due course when the premises are sold. That is standard civil and commercial practice. There is no case for limiting its application regarding the recovery of debts due. If the Deputy's concern relates to the possibility of the provisions in subsection (2) facilitating the return of domestic water charges, I can only reiterate that there is an ongoing prohibition under the 1997 legislation, which is restated in section 105.
I cannot accept these amendments, which we discussed previously. Section 54(1) and (2) place a duty on the owner of a premises to maintain the internal water distribution system of the premises in good repair and in such condition as to ensure that drinking water meets subscribed quality requirements at the taps used for the purpose. The owner is also required to ensure that all taps connected to the distribution system do not leak water from the system.
As I indicated when we discussed this matter on Committee Stage, removal of the absolute requirement in this regard, for which the current wording of the subsection provides, could undermine enforcement actions by a water services authority under the section and protracted legal argument over what constitutes reasonable steps could in time potentially allow serious water wastage or contamination to go on unchecked and unpunished. The only people who would benefit from this may well be the lawyers who would be involved in the cases. I am sure Deputy Gilmore accepts the point. The aim is to ensure due care is taken on internal piping. I urge him not to press the amendment.
I move amendment No. 26:
In page 80, line 35, after "subsection (1)," to insert the following:
"fails to comply with a requirement applied by regulations under subsection (14),".
The purpose of these two linked amendments is to enable the Minister to make regulations to add specified classes of domestic discharges or storm water to subsection (1) for the purpose of applying the licensing requirement of this section to them. Non-compliance with regulations under subsection (14) will be an offence.
It may, for example, be appropriate in certain circumstances to license particular classes of domestic wastewater discharges to control the biological load arriving at the receiving wastewater treatment plant. The issue of load has been a problem in a couple of plants. The accumulation of a particularly concentrated load from a large number of premises may have adverse implications for the capacity of a wastewater treatment plant to deal with the normal wastewater inflow for which it was originally designed.
For example, should the practice of discharging domestic food waste to the sewer, for example, via under-sink food waste disposal units, rather than disposing of it or composting it with the biodegradable waste stream become widespread, it could have a significant impact on the volume and biological loading of the effluent received at wastewater treatment plants. A study on the use of food waste disposal units, carried out by RPS Consulting Engineers, which is due for publication shortly, indicates that over one third of the waste produced by households is organic. A trend towards increased disposal of this waste to the sewer to avoid paying refuse charges could have a significant negative impact. The situation is currently being monitored. The aim of the proposed amendment is to prevent what is called shock from heavy loads reaching any particular water treatment plant. It is a prudent provision.
I move amendment No. 27:
In page 81, to delete lines 3 to 5 and substitute the following:
"(14) (a) The Minister may by regulations—
(i) apply the requirements of paragraph (a) of subsection (1) to such class or classes of domestic waste water or storm water, or
(ii) exempt from paragraph (a) of subsection (1) such class or classes of discharge,
as he or she considers appropriate in the circumstances.".
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 89, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:
"71.—This Part shall not apply to domestic dwellings.".
This amendment essentially deals with the issue of charging for water. The Minister has devoted an entire part in this Bill to the legislative provision for water metering. I propose that this measure should not apply to domestic dwellings. As we all know, the purpose of metering is to provide for the charging for water at some stage. The argument will be made that there may be water conservation reasons for installing meters but I do not accept that. Amendment No. 28 proposes that the whole metering regime should not apply to domestic dwellings. There is no point in it applying to domestic dwellings if, as the Minister stated, there will not be charging for water.
I am also concerned the introduction of meters would in any event be a back door method for introducing water charges. The provisions in the Bill allow for the rent or hire of the meter. I fear this might operate in the way in which the old rental charge for telephones used to operate. It was not really regarded as a telephone charge but in practice it was one. In theory, one could have a situation whereby one was not charged for water but a charge could be imposed for the meter.
I propose, first, that metering should not apply to domestic dwellings and, second, that the idea of the meter being leased or rented out should not apply because it is, in effect, a way of charging for water without calling it a water charge.
Metering is a central element of every water conservation programme. I listened recently to the president of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes talking at length about the value of metering and the astonishing impact of putting in meters just to make sure water is not being wasted. Metering is a prudent provision because it helps to pin down leakage and stem wastage, and is an essential aid to water management.
Deputy Morgan referred to the huge amount of water that is lost every day through bad maintenance and bad pipes. Local authorities are coming abreast of that and they are doing major replacement works on which I congratulate them. The Government has provided them with funding for this purpose. It would be folly to take away the opportunity to install meters which would measure and would help to determine leaks. It is not easy to determine leaks, especially in built-up areas and periodic meters are a good way of dealing with this issue. Domestic metering is also used extensively in the rural water sector where it is found to be a positive measure.
Like Deputy Morgan, Deputy Gilmore expressed concern that metering could be a back door method of introducing a charge or could introduce another charge like, for example, telephone line rental. I refer them to section 72(1)(a)(iii), which makes it clear that the measure is "subject to complying with other enactments in relation to charging for water services". The other enactments referred to are section 105 of this Bill and the 1997 legislation. We have a unique position in this country in that not only have we prohibited charging for water once but we have done so twice. It is unnecessary to do it a third time. It would be unwise to remove metering because it is a way of detecting leaks. The Deputy's concerns about metering, which I acknowledge he expressed on Committee Stage, are dealt with in the relevant subsection of section 72. I ask Deputy Gilmore not to press the amendment.
I move amendment No. 32:
In page 107, line 44, to delete "subsection (8)" and substitute "subsection (9)".
This amendment is to correct a cross-referencing error.
I move amendment No. 33:
In page 111, line 8, to delete "water service authority" and substitute "water services authority".
I move amendment No. 34:
In page 114, line 31, to delete "subsection (1)" and substitute "subsection (2)".
Both amendments are technical and correct cross-referencing errors.
I move amendment No. 36:
In page 115, line 37, to delete "section 36(10)" and substitute "section 36(18)".
This is a technical drafting amendment to correct a cross-referencing error. Section 36 was significantly and very positively redrafted on Committee Stage to stipulate that the making of strategic water services plans should be a reserved function rather than an executive function. We all agreed with this measure, which was to return the control of water services to where it belongs.
There were a couple of consequential drafting amendments and this amendment is one of them. This area is one in which we have all done good work because the local authority members who are elected and answerable to the people are now becoming responsible for the preparation of the plans. This will allow councillors to be more closely involved in water control in their local authority areas. In areas other than Galway in recent weeks, councillors told me they did not know what was happening in respect of water services. This will no longer be the case.
I move amendment No. 37:
In page 119, line 27, to delete "hardship," and substitute "hardship or quality of water supplied,".
This amendment inserts an additional provision into the existing text of section 105(4)(a) to enable a water charge, or part of a water charge, to be waived where there is a problem with the quality of water supplied. This is certainly very topical at present because it is obviously wrong that people should be charged — in Galway, for example — for water contaminated through no fault of their own. It would be unfair and unreasonable to charge people for water that is in any way tainted. This is a very prudent and timely amendment that will allow for the waiver of such charges.
I move amendment No. 39:
In page 128, to delete lines 1 to 11 and substitute the following:
"(i) related ancillary and incidental matters.".".
I move amendment No. 40:
In page 133, to delete lines 35 and 36 and substitute "Environmental Protection Agency Acts 1992 to 2007".
I move amendment No. 42:
In page 134, to delete lines 15 and 16 and substitute "Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts 1977 to 2007".
I move amendment No. 43:
In page 134, to delete line 18 and substitute "Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2007".
I move amendment No. 44:
In page 136, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
|48 and 49 Vic., c. 34||Water Rate Definition Act 1885||The whole Act|
This amendment repeals the Water Rates Definition Act 1885. The purpose of the 1885 Act is to provide clarification on the basis for assessment of water rates under the Waterworks Clauses Act 1847. As the 1847 Act is repealed in its entirety under the Water Services Bill, the 1885 Act is therefore superfluous. Removal of the Water Rates Definition Act 1885 from the Statute Book complements the ongoing Government initiative to repeal outdated pre-1922 statutes.
The Government has been very negligent in the way it has handled this Bill, which concerns the transposition of the EU directives on water services. Ireland has been in trouble with the European Commission regarding water services legislation. It should not have taken over four years for this Bill to reach the stage of enactment.
The Bill has been changed very substantially in the course of its passage through this House. I made the point on Second Stage that it was providing a framework for the privatisation of water services in this country. I still believe that was the intention and that in the course of Report Stage, and particularly Committee Stage, significant amendments were made which, at the very least, substantially reduce the possibility of the privatisation of water services. The Bill now contains provisions that expressly prohibit the transfer of water assets and infrastructure to private companies and there are also provisions to prevent the reintroduction of water charges. The record of the House contains repeated assurances from the Minister that this will not happen and therefore very significant progress has been made.
I welcome the provision to put in place strategic water plans. It is a great pity this regime was not in place heretofore as it might have prevented what happened in Galway. I welcome the fact that the Bill has changed the initial objective that the development of strategic water plans would be an executive function of county managers and that it will now be a reserved function of the elected members. This is significant given what has been learned in Galway and the extent to which the elected members of Galway City Council were apparently kept in the dark with regard to water services developments in the city. If the function is to be reserved, the elected members of the local authority will have to be in the frame.
I regret that the Minister did not accept the Labour Party's amendments to provide for a legal right to water. We need a legislative basis for the management and development of water services. There is an urgent need to upgrade and modernise water services, as we have seen, and I am therefore prepared to agree to the passage of the Bill.
There is an area of outstanding concern, however, that I ask the Minister to address. The staffs of local authorities, particularly those working in the area of water services and their trade unions, are concerned about the development of the design, build and operate, DBO, process and the implications for employment and security of employment in this area. Under the social partnership process, a mechanism should be established that would involve the social partners in discussions on how water services are to be provided, particularly with a view to reviewing the use of public private partnerships and DBO methods in their provision.
I welcome the passage of this legislation but I would not let it pass without making a plea under a couple of different headings. I regret that the Bill does not emphasise water conservation adequately. We could change the building regulations to make low-flow taps a reality and harvest rainwater for domestic use. This could be done now but progress has not been made. I note with a raised eyebrow the proposals made by Fianna Fáil in its environmental policy. I wonder why so many of the measures have not been implemented.
I urge a note of caution about the emphasis on end of pipe solutions. Many other countries bend over backwards to protect their watersheds and to allow water to flow from the mountains to the cities with minimal treatment or no treatment. How can the city of New York provide much of its water with no treatment whatsoever? They have protected those watersheds from development for more than 100 years and provided national parks around the lakes upstate and allowed clean, clear water to flow through aqueducts straight to the city of New York.
I make a plea to the Minister in his last few hours or days of office to examine planning, forestry, farming and industry if he is returned as Minister. He should ensure our watersheds, watercourses, reservoirs, lakes and streams are better protected from pollution. There is an onus on us as consumers, farmers, foresters, industrialists and custodians of the land and waters we live on to protect the water. This does not mean banning development but ensuring that development does not take place in sensitive locations so that we do not end up with the appalling spectre of what happened in many counties, including Galway. Water is an elemental need and strikes a chord deep within us. There is so much we can do to protect our watercourses and I am concerned we are not doing enough to protect our water at source.
I conclude in the same fashion I began my contribution on Report Stage. There are many positive elements in this Bill. I acknowledge that the Minister accepted many changes to the Bill. He did so by making many of the amendments suggested on Committee Stage his own. This is a change from most Ministers, who bury their heads in the sand and march on. I agree with Deputy Gilmore that it is a better Bill because of these changes.
Unfortunately, there are a number of worrying elements in the Bill. Privatisation came close to being settled but I remain worried about the difference between the transfer of an asset, which cannot happen, and the transfer of the use of an asset. The latter is not prohibited in the Bill. Therefore, there is a significant get-out clause for privatising the delivery of water services to domestic users. I hope that is not the case but it is still on the cards and the privatisation issue can be carried through this Bill. I oppose the Bill.
The other issue is charges for the domestic supply of water. These are not called water charges but the effect is the same. I am concerned that the Bill provides for this. As with privatisation, it is implicit rather than explicit and is most unfortunate. While other Acts ban water charges this Bill is a sleight of hand, facilitating charging for water by another name. It damages the good parts of the Bill, which is unfortunate. This will be one of the concluding Bills of the 29th Dáil, we had an interesting debate on it and so much for that.
This is an important debate on the most important issue facing the country. The conservation of water will be the major issue in Ireland over the next 15 years. The impact on global warming and climate change will significantly affect how we consider these matters worldwide. There are many good aspects to this Bill and the debate has been full, open and without personal rancour.
The security and integrity of our water supply, free from contamination, is a key issue. This Government missed a major opportunity in respect of waste water treatment plants throughout the country. Serious problems with our sewage treatment plants were identified in a publication in April 2004. This Government has spent a decreasing amount of money on waste water treatment.
Treatment of sludge and the issues debated in Donabate, regarding the regional waste sludge treatment, are serious and must be addressed. Everything has changed because of the contamination of the water supply in Galway. It has had a profound impact on how people feel. The next Dáil must address these issues in a serious way. I welcome and support the passage of this Bill.
Having spoken on this Bill on Report Stage and noted the solid contributions on Committee Stage and the concerned speeches on Second Stage it is good that the Bill, in its limited sense, is being passed. From its introduction until this evening it has been improved by contributions made and will assist, in a narrow sense, better water management.
I repeat my urgent message on the wider issues discussed on Report Stage. Whatever Minister has responsibility for these matters must return to the assumptions that guided the defeat of so much on Report Stage. I refer not only to the issue of right, which was decided against us, but particularly to matters of intergenerational responsibilities. In so far as this is Fifth Stage I will confine myself to this point. A constitutional debate will eventually take place and a future Dáil will not be able to avoid it. If actions that cannot be reversed take place, by commission or omission, a new jurisprudence is emerging that suggests one has a responsibility to future generations.
It is my belief that Lough Corrib is dying and the necessary actions are not being taken. I also believe that if this term of Government is followed by another in which responsibility is not given to a body that can take action against the major sources of pollution, be they related to irresponsible tree felling, agriculture or local authority action, future generations will read the history of the Corrib as a once clean water body.
It is not that now. I went to Galway in 1961 when the lake and the river were in much better condition than now. I repeat this with no sense of acrimony, only a sense of urgency. Diffuse authority across several agencies, in terms of monitoring and taking action, and across different areas of responsibility, be they in agriculture, fisheries or local authorities, does not serve as a model that can protect something that is important not just to this generation but to future generations.
I am not making a party political point. Often I have gone to public meetings where we began with an expression of concern but the public did not follow it up by supporting the strong measures necessary to protect something that belongs to future generations as much as to the present generation. It is quite hypocritical to affect concern and then to seek escape by pointing a finger at another polluter.
What has happened in Galway means that we cannot go back to the way we were. Our issues in Galway are not simply those of solving an immediate problem, they are matters on which we must take action now if we are to resurrect something that is dying in front of us. Anyone who looks at the aerial photography can see the polluted parts of the lake and the build up at its edges. They can also see what is happening with the Clay River. We are still far from effective action in terms of a legally integrated capacity to impose penalties that will be monitored and will ensure compliance. I say that with no spirit of rancour as we pass legislation that will make a contribution but that is insufficient.
It would be wrong if I did not point to the action that is needed for something that is so terribly important, not just in itself but in terms of its social impact, its history and its symbolic importance to Galway city. No selfish view will suffice, there are many people whose actions have put the lake at risk. Something that transcends these interests is necessary if we are to move out of the perilous position we are in now. I hope the resources will be made available to make this Bill effective within its own parameters but I hope that whatever Minister is responsible in future will quickly introduce mechanisms to address the situation I have described.
I thank Deputies for their constructive contributions. This is a significantly better Bill than the one that was introduced because I have listened to each and every one of the points made. It is radical because for the first time the Bill establishes the Minister as the national authority for regulating the water sector — incredibly there was no central authority until the enactment of this Bill. It gives the Minister of the day specific powers to direct the local authority in management and operational practice. Amazingly, there is a gulf in existing law that will be bridged by this Bill.
On monitoring and effective enforcement and control, Deputy Michael D. Higgins is right. Until this legislation, responsibility for monitoring fell within the remit of local authorities but there was no real enforcement. The EPA could and did in many excellent reports draw attention to the monitoring and, in Galway, on several occasions drew the at risk notices to the local authority's attention but nothing was done. Now the EPA has supervisory and enforcement powers over all public water supplies, including supervision and monitoring by local authorities. It can monitor the monitors, which is an important step forward. The recent drinking water regulations already gave these powers to the EPA by ministerial regulation but this emphasises those powers.
The most radical change is that the Bill will introduce a reserve function to the elected members of the council to ensure they know about and take the necessary action when water is at risk.
Deputy Higgins is right, and I was moved by the eloquence of this point, that no single self-interest should be allowed to be above the common good and the protection of the water course is an important public responsibility. It has not been discharged in the way it should be. Serious lessons have been learned and are being legislated for and I thank the House for that.
Water is a resource. It must be conserved and valued. We have always thought that water is free, it is just there. We will not appreciate it until it is not there anymore, a realisation which has dawned in recent weeks. I decided to give this as a reserve function a year before the outbreak in Galway but it was a good decision and I was supported by all sides of the House. We have made a difference by passing that power to democratically elected councils.
Specifically the Bill prohibits the privatisation of water as an asset. Deputy Gilmore asked a searching question about who owns not just the assets, such as pipes and equipment, but who owns the water. It also belongs to the people.
A range of issues was raised. There has been a phenomenal increase in the resources put into water. We are a rich country and we should not have a situation where a city of 90,000 people must buy bottled water. It can happen, there is a danger to any surface water process, it happens all over the world. Surface water is prone to cryptosporidium infection and other parasites so we must put the resources in place. The Government committed €3.7 billion in the national development plan that has just finished and has earmarked €4.7 billion for the current programme. The resources are there and thanks to the good work on all sides, the legislation is in place.
I thank Deputy O'Dowd for his many positive contributions. I listened to him and took on board the contributions I could and the Bill is better as a result. I also thank Deputy Gilmore. We had a long and interesting debate that also strengthened the Bill. Deputy Morgan made some interesting propositions, as did Deputy Cuffe.
This is radical legislation that was long overdue. There was criticism of the length of time it took to come to the House. It is not an excuse but there are finite resources for the drafting of important legislation. Due to the fact that I had accepted so many proposals made by all sides of the House I put significant pressure on the staff of my Department and the staff in the parliamentary draftsman's office. I thank them for the work they have done and thank the House for supporting this important legislation