Thursday, 19 December 2013
Water Services (No. 2) Bill 2013 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
That we delete the words after "that” and substitute "the Second Reading of the Water Services Bill not be taken today as the time set aside by the Government is totally inadequate to deal with matters if such seriousness as the imposition of water taxes on householders and the transfer of resources to a value of billions of euro from local authorities to Uisce Éireann".Standing Order 125 provides:
Amendments may be made to this motion—(i) by omitting the word “now” and adding at the end of the motion the words “this day three months”, or “this day six months”, or some other date;It is grotesque that-----
(ii) by deleting all or some of the words after “That” and substituting words which state some special reason against the second reading of the Bill.
-----the Government seeks to ram through all Stages of this Bill today which has huge implications for our people through the imposition of new taxes for water into their homes and wastewater out of their homes and through the transfer of billions of euro of assets from local authorities to Uisce Éireann without proper procedures or preparation. It is quite incredible that in the week the Government is boasting of having seen the back of the troika and supposedly regaining our economic sovereignty that it is bringing in this new draconian measure putting taxes on our people at the behest of the same troika. This Bill is the preparation for the privatisation of our water supplies down the road, handing them over to large multinational companies. It is incredible and impossible that this Bill should be dealt with in this manner today.
I have allowed the Deputy some time on this. He can make those points during the debate. Yesterday, this matter was discussed on the Order of Business and was voted on. Members should have an amendment to the Second Reading in writing in front of them and notice should have been given. I cannot accept an amendment could be proposed at this time. I call on the Minister of State. The Deputy and others can make their points during the debate.
The order of the Dáil yesterday was that Second Stage would be provided for today. Standing Order 125 deals with what happens when we arrive at Second Stage. It is open to any Member to make an amendment as I have done.
It is, but my advice is that an amendment would normally be put in writing in front of all Members and we would have notice of it. I have no notice of the amendment from you. The points you have made can be raised during the debate in response to the Minister.
No amendment was submitted to the Chair. There is no amendment in writing for Members to study. My ruling is that we go ahead. All these points can be made by all Members who wish to speak on this debate. I have no option now but to call on the Minister of State to make his speech.
This is incredible. It denies the Members of the House, under Standing Orders, the right to have discussed reasons this Bill should not be taken today, as I have outlined. What the Government is trying to lash through here today is a grotesque abuse of Parliament, and it will come back to haunt our people because of the medium and long-term consequences of this Bill, of water taxes and so on.
Tá an Bille seo faoi bhráid na Dála inniu agus bhí díospóireacht an-mhaith sa Seanad coicís ó shin. Bhí tuairimí ag gach taobh den Teach agus d'éisteamar leo, agus táimid ag díriú ar cuid de na rudaí a dúireadh ag an am sin.
This Bill is the second legislative milestone in the Government's strategy for the reform of water services provision in Ireland. The Water Services Act 2013, enacted last March, provided for the establishment of Uisce Éireann as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis under the Companies Acts. This Bill represents fulfilment of our programme for Government commitments to introduce a fair funding model to deliver clean and reliable water, to establish a new State-owned utility to take responsibility for water infrastructure, and to advance our commitment to implement a charging system based on usage above a free allowance and a programme of water metering of all households. International evidence clearly indicates that the metering programme will help reduce leakage and demand, cutting production by at least 15%. That statistic is found in all the relevant literature.
The challenges facing Ireland's water sector are not unique. Water demand is rising, with supply becoming less secure. Our water bodies need greater protection. By 2030, the world is expected to need 40% more water than will be available. We are distinct from most countries by the level of freshwater we have available. We must turn this to our advantage by creating a world class water sector that can continue to attract water-intensive industries such as ICT and pharmaceutical and chemical industries to Ireland, as water stress becomes increasingly common elsewhere. By 2030, our river basin management plans will have been reviewed a further three times and the quality of our water bodies will have further improved. Environmental and economic regulation of water services must be inter-linked. This Bill plans for the future.
We are advancing a reform programme based on three pillars: the establishment of a public utility, Irish Water; the creation of a more sustainable funding model based on usage, including domestic charges, and the utility's access to commercial lending; and independent, economic regulation of the sector by the Commission for Economic Regulation. The delivery of water services and new infrastructure through Irish Water, working with the local authorities, which have provided water and wastewater services with great care and dedication for over 100 years, will involve a new partnership. It will be a partnership combining the local authorities' expertise in assets management and operations with the considerable network and utility management experience within the Bord Gáis group through the service level agreements which this Bill provides for. The establishment of a new and sustainable funding model will help to secure the level of investment required to upgrade, repair and expand our public water and wastewater infrastructure. Increased investment, as well as securing supply and protecting our water bodies, will provide thousands of additional jobs, adding to the 1,600 jobs which are being created by the investment in the domestic metering programme.
The Government's objective in creating the sector's new funding model is very clear; the domestic charges element will be based on fairness. The OECD has stated that metered charges are the fairest form of water charges. The Government agrees. We will provide a free allowance, as well as supports for those willing to pay but unable to do so, and for those with high water usage necessitated by medical conditions.
Independent, economic regulation of water services is critically important if we are to ensure that all water customers are protected and that the new utility delivers value for money. I am confident that the Commission for Energy Regulation, with its reputation for independence and rigorous oversight of utilities, will protect the interests of domestic and non-domestic customers. Its scrutiny of Irish Water's budgets and capital plans, and determination of water tariffs, will ensure that water services are cost effective and efficiently delivered. The EPA has a proven track record of environmental regulation and its role in the oversight of Irish Water will mark continuity with its existing role in monitoring and maintaining water quality.
I would also like to address the impact of the reforms on the local authority sector and in particular, on local authority employees. Given the scale and complexity of change involved in this reform process, engagement with staff and their trade unions has been critically important and the Irish Water consultative group, which was put in place to facilitate this interaction, has played a vital role in moving the reform process forward and also in helping to shape key aspects of this Bill. It is also important to acknowledge the significant achievements of the local authorities and their dedicated staff in the delivery of water services, often in very challenging circumstances. The structures we are proposing to introduce with this Bill will ensure that their experience, expertise and knowledge will be at the heart of the new water services model.
Irish Water and each local authority will be entering into a service level agreement. The Bill provides that the initial agreement will be of 12 years duration, and once the first agreement comes to a conclusion, the option of entering into subsequent agreements is also provided for. Where it is decided not to enter into a subsequent agreement, the Bill provides for the transfer of staff involved in the delivery of the service level agreement from the local authority to Irish Water.
I would like to address briefly the reports of a special meeting of Dublin City Council which took place earlier this week. First, it is important to acknowledge the prominent role the city council has played, in collaboration with the other councils, in providing quality water services to the greater Dublin region. This has been critical in supporting the development of the region as a place in which to live, invest and work. It was reported at the meeting this week that the city council would be left with substantial pension liabilities arising from the establishment of Irish Water and the transfer of water services infrastructure. I want to put on the record of the House that this is not the case.
Local authorities operate a public sector defined benefit "pay as you go" pension scheme, so as pension liabilities fall due at the point of retirement, payments are made from annual current expenditure and contributions made by staff. The water services employees that currently work in local authorities have accrued pension entitlements already and these would be a future liability of the authorities if things remained the same.
This Bill provides that the payment of accrued pension benefits to local authority staff who transfer to Irish Water, either now or following the termination of a service level agreement, will not be imposed on the county and city councils. The service level agreements will provide for the payment by Irish Water of existing water services pensioners for the duration of the agreements. I want to confirm that the County and City Managers Association, which has been centrally involved in the oversight of the reform programme, has also been given very clear commitments by the Department. These commitments address any other pension liabilities in respect of water services employees who, on the termination of a service level agreement, opt to remain in employment with a council rather than transfer to Irish Water.
It was also reported that valuable water service assets would be transferred to Irish Water without compensation to councils. This is an unbalanced presentation of the situation. There has been very substantial Exchequer capital investment in water infrastructure. The Bill provides that Irish Water and the water services infrastructure will remain in public ownership; therefore, it is transferring from one publicly owned authority to another. The Bill also provides that liabilities and loans associated with infrastructure that is transferred will also be taken on by Irish Water.
Part 1 of the Bill, comprising sections 1 to 4, inclusive, deals with standard provisions in primary legislation regarding the Title of the Bill, commencement provisions, expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the legislation and the definitions of terms used in the Bill. Part 2 provides for the transfer of functions, property and staff.
Section 6 provides that transfer day may be appointed by order by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Section 7 provides for the transfer of functions conferred by the Water Services Act 2007 to Irish Water on transfer day provided for in section 6. It also provides that water service functions in Parts 4A and 6 of the Water Services Act 2007 will not transfer to Uisce Éireann.
Section 8 provides Uisce Éireann with the power to charge non-domestic customers with effect from transfer day on the same basis the local authorities had charged these non-domestic customers before that day. This section will have effect only up to the date of commencement of section 16 which requires Uisce Éireann to charge customers in accordance with the water charges plan which will be subject to the approval of the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. The section effectively provides for the roll-over of the non-domestic water charges levied by the local authorities until such time as the CER approves Uisce Éireann's charges next year.
Section 9 provides that the provisions of section 29 of the Water Services Act 2007 shall apply to Uisce Éireann. This section confers immunity on Irish Water and its employees from prosecutions arising from carrying out their functions under the Bill.
Section 10 provides that the local authorities will continue to have powers which transfer to Uisce Éireann under section 7 which are necessary for the performance of local authority functions under the 2007 Act. These functions relate to septic tanks and rural water services.
Section 11 provides that actions of a water services authority which commenced before transfer day but which are not completed may be carried on and completed by Uisce Éireann, where this action relates to a function transferred under section 7. This would include matters such as planning applications or environmental impact assessments, EIAs.
Section 12 provides for the transfer of the property of the water service authorities to Uisce Éireann on a designated property vesting day or days. These transfers will be facilitated through ministerial orders. Property will include assets such as land, buildings, water services infrastructure, vehicles, pipes, sewers and moneys. A provision is included for the Minister to request any information required from a local authority to enable him to decide on the making of a transfer order.
Section 13 provides for the transfer of rights and certain liabilities, associated with the property transferred under section 12, from the water service authorities to Uisce Éireann. Examples of the rights and liabilities referred to would be leases, licences and wayleaves.
Section 14 provides for the transfer of other liabilities of a water services authority to Uisce Éireann. Liabilities transferred under this section shall be designated in a ministerial order.
Section 15, a Government amendment in Seanad Éireann, provides for the transfer of liabilities for losses before transfer day. Liabilities arising in respect of civil liabilities or the recovery of damages will not be transferred.
Sections 16 to 18, inclusive, were Government amendments approved by Seanad Éireann. They provide for the transfer of licences, certificates, authorisations and permits, including, inter alia, water pollution licences, foreshore licences and wastewater discharge authorisations.
Section 19 provides for the transfer of staff from local authorities to Uisce Éireann. Such transfers would take place following consultations between each individual local authority and Uisce Éireann. This section will apply only to local authority staff involved in the delivery of water services as part of an SLA made between the local authority and Uisce Éireann under section 31 and will be applied only following the termination of such an agreement.
Part 3 deals with water charges. Section 21 provides that Uisce Éireann shall charge each customer in receipt of water services. The charges to be levied by it shall be calculated in accordance with a water charges plan as set out in section 22. Uisce Éireann will be prohibited from cutting off a water supply to a dwelling arising from non-payment of water charges. Irish Water will be empowered to disconnect a non-domestic user where water charges remain unpaid and it will also have the power to reduce the supply of water to all customers where charges remain unpaid. The power to disconnect a customer from a water supply or reduce a water supply to a customer will be subject to the approval of the water charges plan under section 22. The section provides that charges will not apply for water supplied to a fire authority for the performance of its functions. It also provides that for the purpose of charging, the owner of a premises will be presumed to be the occupier of that premises unless it is proved to the contrary.
Section 22 provides that Uisce Éireann is to prepare a water charges plan setting out the manner and method for the water charges to be applied under section 21. This water charges plan must be submitted to the CER by Uisce Éireann and the CER will have the power to approve or reject the plan. The plan will contain the charges to apply where the charges are based on the quantity of water as measured by a meter or where the charges are assessed based on a formula to be set out in the plan. The plan must specify the charges to apply to different classes of customer and the different methods of payment for customers. Uisce Éireann will, in common with other utility service providers, put in a place a wide range of payment methods and options to facilitate its customers. The section provides that water charges will apply to water supplied to a premises and wastewater discharged from a premises. Unless agreed otherwise between Irish Water and a customer, the amount of wastewater discharged from a premises will be deemed to be equal to the amount of water supplied to the premises. An example of the households that this approach would need to differentiate would be those in receipt of a water supply from Irish Water but which are discharging wastewater to their own septic tanks or similar systems.
Section 23 provides that Irish Water may enter into agreements with a customer for charges for the provision water services that are different from the water charges provided for under section 21. Such agreements which will require the approval of the CER would typically apply to large industrial and commercial customers.
Part 4 of the Bill deals with provisions relating to the governance of Uisce Éireann and related matters. Section 25 provides that Uisce Éireann shall take the necessary steps to amend its memorandum and articles of association to ensure they are consistent with the Bill. The Water Services Act 2013 set out conditions in relation to the memorandum and articles of association of Irish Water and provided that they be approved by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, with the consent of relevant Ministers. The 2013 Act and this Bill provide that any alteration to the memorandum and articles of association requires prior ministerial approval and consent.
A copy of this speech has been circulated and if any issue arises in the debate, I will stand over it.
The Government's decision to take all Stages of the Bill in the space of four and a half to five hours is astounding. It is wholly inappropriate, disrespectful, arrogant and nothing short of shameful.
Like everyone else present, I welcomed the country's exit from the bailout programme last week. I join others in paying tribute to the people who accepted the unfortunate but necessary corrections to the public finances in the past few years. When I looked at the Taoiseach last Sunday night, I thought of how he had vehemently opposed and voted against measures contained in some budgets that were progressive rather than regressive, yet he sought to take credit for the manner in which they had been implemented and the success they had brought. We have exited the bailout programme; Fine Gael has enjoyed success in recent polls and we are in the mouth of Christmas. The Government believes it can do no wrong, to such an extent that it can seek to bring forward this legislation and treat the Dáil and its Members with such contempt that in four or five hours it will bring through this massive legislation that has great significance for the economy.
This is a major piece of legislation that has huge significance for the taxpayer, local authorities, householders, business and industry. Despite this and despite seeing households around the country being hit with water charges, the Government now sees the taxpayer forking out untold sums of money to fund the super quango Irish Water is fast becoming. In the lifetime of this Dáil, few pieces of legislation have been as significant as this. However, instead of providing time for a constructive debate on the details of the Bill, the Government, led by the caring Taoiseach we saw the other night who thanked the people so sincerely and spoke about all the new charges and initiatives his Government and others had placed on them in order to arrive at the juncture at which we have found ourselves in recent weeks, is now, a couple of days later, putting this Bill before the House.
Despite the fact this Bill is of such significance and will have such a bearing on various aspects of the workings of the economy, it is treated with this sort of contempt. Where is the sincerity in that? Where is the caring nature of the Government now? Where is the Government and its leader who thanked the people for the manner in which they had accepted many of the policies that had to be implemented? The Government now wants to ram this Bill down the throats of Deputies and to provide no time for an adequate opportunity for real and informative scrutiny.
The Government has talked blandly about political reform, but it has done nothing only abuse that terminology. Take, for example, its efforts to abolish the Seanad and its passing of legislation last week to abolish town councils and to cull councillors. Now again, we see this Bill being pushed through the House, another example of the record level of guillotining of legislation. This does nothing only prove the autocratic style of governance that is evident on the part of the Government. This style of autocratism is now being ratcheted up, as the Taoiseach and the Government think that by virtue of exiting the bailout and their advancement in the polls they are invincible and are bordering on infallible. Its treatment of me and other spokespersons and Members of the House is nothing short of disgraceful. It is an affront to democracy and an insult to the taxpayers, who will foot the bill for Irish Water.
I have no doubt the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government are very much aware of the growing concern that exists in the community about their approach to water reform, but what is their response? Their response is to stifle debate and to remove opportunities for criticism. They are pushing this through and hoping that in the week that is in it, nobody will notice. Sod that for attitude. Sod that for its regard for those of us on this side of the House and for its own Members. They too need adequate time for scrutiny of this Bill so they can be certain the proposals of the Government are adequate and meet the necessities of governance.
Fianna Fáil will oppose this Bill tooth and nail. This legislation strips away functions from democratically accountable local authorities and places them in a new Irish Water super quango created by the Government. This entirely new layer of bureaucracy, populated as we have seen in recent months by highly paid consultants, will be funded directly by homeowners across the country. On numerous occasions in this House when we discussed the first water Bill, I pointed out the obligation of the Government following on its commitment to complete an audit of the network throughout the country. Instead of this glorified consultancy stimulus package, the Government is obliged to complete that audit, identify the faults and place on record a timeframe or roadmap for the network to be brought up to speed and made fit for purpose.
In addition, the House is entitled to know the costs associated with doing that, for how long those costs will be charged and the timeframe by which the system will become fit for purpose. It is entitled, for example, to know the timeframe by which the water issues for Dublin will be addressed properly. Only then can we honestly adjudicate on the system. We can adjudicate only on a system that is fit for purpose and only then charge its users. Make no mistake, Fianna Fáil has no problem with the concept of water charges, but we want a system that is fit for purpose. We want a system of which the electorate can be proud so that people will feel it is fair and will have no problem thereafter paying for it. If the audit is put in place, the system can be then comprehensively upgraded to a standard for which homeowners, businesses and industry can pay, a system of which taxpayers as a whole can be proud. This would be a service that could be genuinely delivered.
This Bill proposes to move powers, assets and liabilities away from local authorities and to give them to Irish Water. The first water services Bill passed earlier this year included legislation relevant to giving effect to the setting up of Irish Water, its configuration and allowed the commencement of water metering. Almost two years ago, I asked for the publication of the relevant papers which allowed the Government to appoint Bord Gáis as the vehicle for setting up Irish Water. Bord Gáis got the contract ahead of Bord na Móna. I make no apology for stating that I believe Bord na Móna was better placed to win that competition. However, the Government needs to prove to me it has made the right decision. In doing that, it needs to produce the papers that allowed it make that decision and to show the merit behind that decision.
As I and many others have said, it was obvious that the intention of the Government, having sold Bord Gáis, was to set up Irish Water in a way that would allow it to be sold down the road.
The manner in which Irish Water has been established means it will be a commercial entity with a glossy corporate identity, and much has been spent in this regard. I have no doubt it will be a prime target for future sale, which would be a selective sale - only the best populated and most profitable networks would be sold, therefore showing disregard for group schemes and rural schemes, which is another threat to rural Ireland. This threat is real, and even more so because when the Bill is compared to the heads of Bill produced earlier this year one can see the heads contained a number of provisions which are absent from the Bill. The most significant issues now absent include a provision to terminate service level agreements; a prohibition on the sale of Irish Water by Bord Gáis Éireann or any part of the company; a prohibition on the sale of water services asset infrastructure without the consent of the Minister; a prohibition on the company's entering into an agreement that would result in the transfer of assets or water services infrastructure; and an entire section on environmental regulations making the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, the supervisory authority. All of these have been deleted. The omission of these confirms to me and others that the Government, whether by design or accident, is sleepwalking Irish Water into the shop window for future sales.
In recent months I asked the Government to inform the House about progress on the water metering programme. I have been given no information and have been told it is an operational matter. In other words, I was not entitled to know. Why is this? I am informed that only 25% of the initial target has been met. Several weeks ago I was informed that €600 million had been taken from the Local Government Fund for the establishment and workings of Irish Water. This process began two years ago, and two weeks ago I heard that €600 million had been transferred from the Local Government Fund. This confirms that local services are not being delivered from the source from which the Government stated it was intended to deliver them.
The Acting Chairman has asked me to conclude.
I respect what the Minister of State says because of his obligations under the Order of the House as ruled by the Dáil yesterday, but I do not respect the manner in which the Government has brought the legislation to the Dáil and the manner in which it seeks to ram it down our throats. It shows absolute and total disregard for Members on this side of the House and many Members of the Government. We have the privilege and honour of representing those who gave us the right to represent them, and the Government is bringing forward significant legislation with total disregard for our right to question and scrutinise it so the public can be satisfied that the Government's efforts are well meant.
I am absolutely disgusted, and I am being left with a poor view of the House as I leave for the Christmas break. I am very disappointed that the Minister of State, who I know is a fair-minded person, is party to this. We have been given three hours and 45 minutes to debate this Bill, which is an absolute bloody disgrace. It is the most significant legislation to come before the Dáil so far.
The Water Services (No. 2) Bill is a Trojan horse for privatisation of essential services. There are no safeguards in the Bill to stop it. The introduction of these water charges, which were planned by the previous Government, is an absolute disgrace. It was in the previous Government's national plan from 2011 to 2014 that €500 million per annum would be raised, which is exactly the same figure as that projected by this Government.
The Government's commitment to privatisation was borne out again last week with the sale of the important part of Bord Gáis. The part with the valve has been handed over to international capitalism. Does the Minister of State not understand this? The Government has handed over the valve and the buyers have the keys and the control. Does the Government not understand this? It has no right to do this. It was never discussed in the House. It is an absolute disgrace. The stand-alone utility company, which has been discussed for the past two years, will be put under the wing of what has been sold off. It is a disgrace.
No public service or body is safe under the Government. The Bill will asset-strip our local authorities, and this has been happening without a vote in any local authority. Not one section 183 has gone through a local authority. It is a disgrace. The Government has walked over the rights of 1,600 councillors. It is an absolute bloody disgrace. It allows for billions of euro in assets to be given to Irish Water without a single vote. This important Bill is being rushed through the Dáil in a few hours with no time for debate. Sinn Féin has tabled amendments, as have other Deputies on the Opposition benches, but the Government does not want debate. It is about asset stripping. A real debate would expose the phoney arguments the Government has put forward over the past two years on this.
Sinn Féin has been consistent in our opposition to the establishment of Irish Water and the introduction of water charges. Does the Government know that most households are creaking under the weight of debt and stealth charges? Does the Minister of State not realise this? Households already pay local property tax, management fees, domestic waste charges, fire charges and many other charges, and now they are being hit with this charge. In a cynical move, the Bill for domestic water charges will not be received until after the local elections. The previous Government planned to introduce them in 2014 and the Government has held them back until the last quarter of next year. The Minister of State knows why this has been done and I have told him. The charge will be introduced after the local elections when Government councillors have their feet under the table in council chambers. It is a move which the Government hopes will protect those who should be on the Labour Party benches but are not present.
We have opposed the establishment of Irish Water and the introduction of water charges based on simple belief the people should not pay two, three or four times for water. The Bill before us is a smash-and-grab of local authority assets and local democracy. It further advances the policy of privatisation and forces households to pay for essential services for which they have already paid. If passed into law the Bill will mean the public will pay three times: once in their taxes, a second time in funding made available to Irish Water from the National Pensions Reserve Fund, and a third time through water charges.
Not even happy with this attack on local authority assets, the Government has further plundered money from local taxation which should go to local authority funding. A total of €600 million has been robbed for this. This money should be for roads and services. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, have made much play over the past two years about the fact that people will know what they are paying for and what they pay for is what they will get. They are on the record as stating this. This year I paid car tax, as did million of citizens throughout the State. I paid it for road maintenance, footpaths and lighting. I did not pay it in order for it to be taken and handed to a stand-alone company. Funding for water services has been cut by a massive 87% for 2014. The same water services will now be provided by Irish Water, requiring an investment of €240 million from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. This is on top of the €500 million given to Irish Water this year, as mentioned earlier, from the National Pensions Reserve Fund to install meters.
The previous Deputy is correct that the Government is well below 25% of the target it set for installations. Irish Water is stuck in the muck in many places trying to do this. The Minister of State should do the maths - €600 million from the motor tax fund; €240 million from the Department; and €500 million from the NPRF to install water meters giving a total of €1.34 billion. In addition, €300 million in commercial water rates and €500 million from domestic water rates will be generated in a full year. That amounts to approximately €2.2 billion. That is an expensive service, which is double the current cost, but this is a scam if even there was one. The Bill makes no mention of how much Irish Water will cost to run. However, one paragraph in the legislation permits the company to borrow a further €2 billion. The Government needs all that money to install meters and to run the God forsaken call centre it has set up. Not one drop or glass of water will be saved by it.
This paragraph is followed up by a commitment in the legislation on behalf of future Ministers to make grants available. This grant does not even require a vote in the House, as a simple application to the Minister will suffice. This is like Las Vegas and Irish Water and the fat cats running it have just struck the jackpot. The Bill makes no mention of how much the householder will be charged. That has been subcontracted by the Minister in order that he can hide behind the energy regulator.
Water charges are in place in Denmark, which has a population similar to our own at 5.4 million and, in 2007, the average cost was €715 per household. This Bill does not take into account people on low income or even those currently living in poverty. A total of 706,371 people live in poverty in this State. Their households will be charged the same for their water as a millionaire, which is shameful and unjust. Water charges will have an immediate and negative effect on low income families. When poverty levels and income distribution in Ireland are taken into account, it is obvious that water charges would have a significant impact on households and their income. The Minister of State does not have to take my word for it. According to a major report carried out by the British Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, a household spending more than 3% of its income on water charges is at risk of water poverty. Is he aware of that? The report entitled, Water Poverty in Wales and England, found that "UK households in the lowest three income deciles spend on average 3% of their net income on water bills whereas the average spend for all households is just 1%." The report further states: "Large water bills in relation to income do have the potential for causing significant deprivation."
The Taoiseach was on television the other night expressing how grateful he was to us all, particularly those who have suffered. They will suffer more and will find life more difficult because of what the Minister of State is doing today. How much will the water supply be reduced by to those families? He has not outlined this. Will it be reduced by half or to a trickle? Those families cannot afford water charges. They are short of food and heat as it stands. The Minister of State knows people in this position, as I do. We have loads of constituents who cannot afford to heat their homes or to feed themselves properly. They will now be denied water. They face a trickle of water, a trickle of food and not enough heat. That is a great lifestyle in this supposed republic.
It is shocking to think the Labour Party will stand over these tactics. The Bill, despite international evidence, does not even attempt to protect low income families and those who are vulnerable and makes no reference to ability to pay. We have tabled amendments in this regard but the Government will now allow us to even discuss them. All the Minister will do is threaten to reduce water supply to a trickle for those unfortunate households that cannot pay these charges. The amendments we intended to table would undo the worst excesses of this legislation. We seek cross-party support to make Irish Water more accountable to this House and to protect the vulnerable from poverty.
The Government would have us believe that we are the only region in the EU in which water charges are not levied but this is untrue. Just 90 miles up the road only a few miles from where the Minister of State lives, Sinn Féin has put its politics into action in the Northern Ireland Assembly and reversed the attempt by the British Government to introduce water rates in the North. Despite London's best attempts at bullying the Assembly into imposing water charges, Sinn Féin Minister, Conor Murphy, ensured no such charges would be introduced. Our alternative to this Bill is cost effective and efficient and can be implemented now. Sinn Féin calls for the establishment of a national water sector team within the Department to oversee governance of the water sector and capital investment in it. It would comprise city and county managers and it would be convened and chaired by Secretary General of the Department. My party proposes investing money from the National Pensions Reserve Fund in creating jobs that have a positive legacy and that will prevent leakage of up to 40% of the water supply and not just in setting up a call centre and putting a meter outside my door, where there is one already. The money is being wasted on meters and instead should be invested in upgrading an ageing network. The €500 million ring-fenced for water meters would fund the water conservation strategy for six years and it would be more appropriate to do that rather than invest in installing meters.
Sinn Féin supports the introduction of district metering as opposed to installing domestic water meters in every household. It is not necessary to install a meter in every household. District metering is used in the county in which I live. I have outlined to the Minister of State previously that this is cheaper and more effective because usage can be monitored and it is of great assistance to local authorities in identifying leaks. Sinn Féin calls on the Government parties, even at this late stage, to abandon their ill-fated domestic water meter scheme and instead to expand district metering. It would be more cost effective and would ensure water leakage is detected efficiently and quickly.
Currently the water sector is managed by the 34 local authorities. The move to Irish Water will not improve accountability or governance. A 1890 number is available to the call centre and I told the Minister he would do this a year and a half ago. Local authorities are accountable to their communities and this was demonstrated during the two big freezes in recent years. We did better in this State than the administration in the North. Local councillors were able to respond quickly with local engineers. Local authorities are able to meet local demands and can provide solutions to emergencies working with local engineers.
Last year the Minister bulldozed property tax legislation through the house. This Bill will have serious repercussions and it represents a huge shift in public policy, as it proposes to strip assets and charge people for their drinking water. It is shameful that the Government would ram this complicated Bill through the House and then head off for Christmas. The Bill should be rejected and replaced with a proper plan for the co-ordination of water services provided by democratically controlled local authorities and adequately funded by a progressive tax system.
This is akin to rural electrification but the implementation of the Bill is a farce. We have been given three hours and 45 minutes. We will have no opportunity on Committee State to discuss amendments. The Government promised a democratic revolution. While the Minister of State occupies a different part of the political spectrum to me, his party promised a democratic revolution but what we are getting is a democratic counterrevolution. What the Government is doing is a disgrace. The property tax was last year's Christmas present to hard pressed householders. The legislation was rammed through the House. Only one of my party's amendments was discussed in the House and it was rejected. No amendment tabled by any other party or Independent Member was discussed. The Government rammed it through and all its members then went on their Christmas holidays. This legislation is being rammed through this year and I feel let down by the Minister of State and the Labour Party because of what they are doing. I am disappointed by the way the House operates. My opinion of it is poor because of how it conducts its business. We should do things better and at this late stage the Minister of State should do the right thing, leave the House and go to the Taoiseach to tell him he will not be a party to this.
I know it does not sit easily with him.
This country does not have a Government; it has a bunch of charlatans masquerading as a Government. They do not listen to the people of Ireland. They prostrate themselves in the most slavish fashion before the demands of the institutions of European capital, including the ECB and the European Commission. These institutions, in turn, subject themselves to the demands of European financial markets, international bankers, hedge funds and vulture capitalists in their pursuit of super profits. With breath taking arrogance, this band of charlatans, masquerading as a legitimate Government, will ram through Dáil Éireann - the national Parliament - water services legislation that will pile new burdens in water taxes on the shoulders of the people who are already hard pressed as a result of austerity policies. It is another bondholders' tax introduced to pay the disastrous speculative debts for which this cowardly Government continues to bleed the people. The Bill is nothing more than a charter to bleed new water taxes from ordinary people and to make water, a human need and a human right, a business commodity that can be bought and sold in the capitalist marketplace and privatised and handed over to multinational water companies.
This legislation and any attempt to charge for water should be met by a nationwide boycott of this unjust tax, as was done in 1994, 1995 and 1996 to compel the Government of the day to abolish a previous tax. This is perfidious legislation entirely befitting the bunch of charlatans from Fine Gael and the Labour Party who call themselves a Government. Apart from these words and my vote against the Bill, I will take no further part in these proceedings because my doing so would only confer credibility on a charade and a grotesque abuse of even the remotest concept of democracy.
The Government's intention to charge people for the water they need to drink and wash is utterly despicable. That is why it has chosen to take the equally despicable decision to ram the Bill through the House a few days before Christmas. It is cynical in the extreme. The Government is perpetrating a heist and trying to cover up the robbery of one of the most precious and vital resources for the people of the country in order that it can sell it to its cronies in big business who will make their money by selling it back to ordinary citizens. The shocking backdrop is that the owner of one of the companies installing the meters is Mr. Denis O'Brien, one of the richest people in the country. Mr. O'Brien got a write-down of €110 million on the debts of a company he took over from Anglo Irish Bank. These debts were written off and he got the contract to install the meters to charge us for water. It is a heist and a robbery. The Bill gives Irish Water the despicable power to reduce water supplies to people who need it to drink, wash their children and keep their homes clean. This is one of the sickest things imaginable. All of us know that water supplies have to be funded and financed, but the way to do this is to pay for them according to people's means through a progressive and fair tax system in order that everybody, including children, the vulnerable and ordinary people, will have access to water based on need and right. The Government is robbing our water in order that its mates can sell it back to us at a profit.
The Bill makes no mention of the 12 year duration of the service level agreement between management and trade unions reached earlier this year under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission. The explanatory memorandum to the Bill specifically acknowledges this timeframe, but it has been excluded from the text of the Bill.
In the absence of the service level agreement, I ask what protections are provided against privatisation. A recent consultation paper from the Commission for Energy Regulation added further to the confusion about the matter. The paper was produced under section 27 of the Water Services Act 2013 which states the commission may advise the Minister on the development of policy for the regulation and provision of water services. The report recommends that after the transition period, Irish Water be given a free hand to determine how its services are procured. One of the options would be to issue a public tender in which local authorities could participate. The idea that local authorities could compete with a private entity is rubbish, given the overheads they will be carrying.
A significant problem arises in the way responsibilities are being divided. Responsibility for surface water and flooding will remain with local authorities. These are costly and unpredictable tasks. From where will the staff come when they are needed? They will not be in the local authorities once Irish Water is established. Local authorities will be left with a range of responsibilities without the capacity to deal with them. The foul system is going to Irish Water, but the problems it causes such as pollution are being left with the local authorities. In other words, the good stuff is going to Irish Water but the problems are being left behind.
Planning functions will be separate from Irish Water. If a new business coming into Ireland wants to build a major complex in the docklands or somewhere else which will require significant water services, Irish Water will not want to pay for them. How will that issue be addressed?
I object in the strongest possible terms to the inadequate time allocated for this debate. If the Government really believes in the Bill, why does it not want to debate it? It does not want to have a debate because it wants to get this piece of bad news out of the way at a time when it will receive less attention, in exactly the same way as the property tax was introduced last year. We need to analyse what will happen to the relationship with Bord Gáis. The assets and liabilities to be transferred need to be scrutinised. Without an income, local authorities' liabilities, including pension liabilities, will have to be funded through commercial rates, property taxes and the local government fund. There will be unintended consequences from the fact that a first fix policy has not been implemented. People will end up with significant liabilities if such a policy is not put in place. We have heard nothing on that issue. We are not being given time to debate the potential difficulties that will arise from the taking in charge of estates with pumping stations or the possibility that the laying of pipes too close to the surface will result in inadequate water supplies.
ComReg is being given the power to decide on water charges. This is another example of the Teflon coating we saw with the HSE, whereby functions are one step removed from Dáil scrutiny. It is the wrong way to approach this matter. I have no problem charging for water, but an adequate free allowance is required. We are not debating that issue today. We have no control over prices or allowances. The power to make decisions on these matters is being given to ComReg.
If the Government is convinced about the utility of this legislation, why is it insisting on ramming it through with inadequate scrutiny? A number of issues could jump up and bite us in the future, but the Government is not even anticipating them.
I was not expecting to get the opportunity to participate in this charade but, seeing as the time allows, I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Troy, for that.
No doubt this is potentially the most significant piece of legislation in the lifetime of this Government so far. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, is facilitating the legalised robbery of this important public service. The manner in which the legislation has been constructed and the setting up of the service level agreements against the background of the recruitment embargo and the natural wastage that is occurring in local authorities means that inevitably they will not be in a position to fulfil those contracts, there will be a knock on the door and that task will be outsourced. The reality is, in a European context, that once one commodifies and charges for a public service, there is nothing one can do to prevent a private operator from coming in and bidding for it. Today the Government, in this incredibly undemocratic manner, is facilitating that process.
What we have seen with Irish Water is a big conglomerate with a nice glossy image and logo, an office and a telephone line, but no attention has been given to restoring and revamping the water supply. If the Government were to invest to fix the leaks, impose water conservation measures, etc., for which there is money available, we could have a top-class supply here. Instead, the Minister of State is undermining it and facilitating the vultures.
The idea that a Labour Party in Government could stand over the undemocratic way in which this is being foisted on us is an absolute insult, and the people of this country will not thank the Government for it. The idea that people should pay for water is anathema to them. People cannot afford these charges and they will not be engaging with the system whatsoever.
The website of the Consumers' Association of Ireland, under its "Know your rights" section, states:
Under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980, anything you buy from a retailer must be:- of merchantable qualityAs this is the water services Bill, I imagine that this service should come under these provisions as well. It further states:
- fit for its normal purpose, and reasonably durable[.]
When you buy goods from a retailer, you make a contract with him. He agrees to provide certain goods to you for a certain price. If your purchase turns out to be faulty, the retailer, not the manufacturer, is responsible to you and must sort out your complaint. You are entitled to a refund, a replacement or a repair. [...]I have a question for the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd. When the Government starts charging people for water, what will it do about the people who live outside my town, Castlerea, in the Castlerea rural scheme, who are forced to drink the water I have here? I have checked with Standing Orders and the word "piss" is not one of the words one is not allowed to use in this Chamber, unless directed at a Member. The people in my area are expected to drink glorified piss and the Government is going to charge them for it. The reality is that we are not going to pay for it.
If you have a genuine complaint about faulty goods, you can ignore shop notices such as 'No Refunds' or 'No Exchanges'. Such notices cannot take away any of your statutory rights under the Sale of Goods Act[.]
I have a challenge for the Minister of State today. I will present him with this water and challenge him to drink it, and if he does not drink it then he is not drinking it for a reason, because it is poison. It has got cryptosporidium in it. Kids outside my town cannot even brush their teeth with this water, and the Government is going to charge them for it. I have a present for you Minister, and I am going to give it to you now, because this is way too big to let go of.
Like others, I express my disappointment, dismay and disgust at the inordinate rush with which this Bill is going through the House. It deserves far more time and in-depth discussion by everybody concerned. I am also disappointed at the cynical way in which the introduction of charges has been arranged. The bills will not be coming in yet as they might coincide with either the local elections or the European elections.
I note that Ireland supports the right to water for the developing world. It is one of a series of rights such as the right to food and the right to a roof over one's head, yet the Government seems to be taking a completely different attitude to water when it comes to this country, where, suddenly, it is a commodity to be bought and sold. This area, and what is being proposed here with water charges, is completely profit-driven.
I represent Dublin Central, which has had many examples of repeated flooding. Even in the good times when we were, if one will pardon the pun, awash with money, the money did not go into the infrastructure required to protect residents' homes against flooding. We are seeing repeated flooding, and there is also the role of the insurance companies, as has been discussed here and as I have brought up with the Minister. The insurance companies will not provide flood cover for houses in areas that have been flooded already. They will not even cover houses that have not been flooded but that happen to be in that same geographical area. There is a massive piece of work that has to be done on that. The insurance companies seem to be able to do what they like. It appears this new board will have the power to do what it likes as well.
That is fine.
I welcome an opportunity to contribute to this debate. The legislating for and setting up of Irish Water, which will assume responsibility for managing water supplies, will go a long way towards ensuring that we have a sufficient and reliable supply of water in the future, particularly given the importance of water not only for our own survival but also in the areas of agriculture, fishing and tourism, and in view of the critical role it plays as a key driver in attracting foreign direct investment into the country.
Given the establishment of Irish Water and the transfer of functions from the local authorities to it, there are a number of issues that I want to bring to the attention of the House today. Up to now, Clare County Council has managed our water services, and it has done a good job against the backdrop of tight budgetary constraints in recent years, especially given the embargo on recruitment. I am anxious to see that Irish Water is not restricted in the same way. I have raised this with the Minister on a number of occasions. I understand Irish Water has already recruited 183 staff but I ask the company to review the position in Clare and, if necessary, supplement the number of staff transferring from Clare County Council in order to ensure that our water services are maintained at their high standards.
It is also critical that Irish Water continue to invest in the water infrastructure and that consumers are protected and have safe drinking water. Of course, reliability is important as well. The EPA expressed concerns recently regarding delays in the replacement of lead piping in the town of Ennis. Phase 1 of the Ennis water mains contract included the replacement of lead pipes in the Marian Avenue, Ahern's Terrace and Linnane's Terrace areas of the town, and this has been a success. Given that the contract documents for phase 2 of the Ennis scheme are currently being prepared, the replacement of lead pipes in the remainder of the town, including Connolly Villas, should be included in this phase, as this is important for health and safety reasons.
We also need to progress the Ennis-Clarecastle sewerage scheme. Commercial and industrial activity has effectively been stifled in this area given that planning permission is being refused, as the majority of lands zoned would utilise this scheme. The Minister is anxious to progress the upgrading of the Clonroadmore wastewater treatment plant and his Department is currently examining the tenders. I hope this can be fast-tracked as well.
As well as the much-talked-about interconnectors from Castle Lake and Sixmilebridge to Ennis, the upgrading of the Shannon sewerage scheme is now a priority given the vile odour that residents in the Shannon are must endure, and, of course, the Kilkee and Kilrush sewerage schemes are key infrastructural projects in the county, not only because of the jobs they would generate during the construction phase but also because of their potential to attract new businesses to Clare. I am in the process of examining whether we can progress the Carrigaholt small sewerage scheme as well. Carrigaholt is an important seaside resort in west Clare and there is fishing off the coast. The establishment of a sewerage scheme there is important, and I am trying to progress that.
At a public meeting I attended recently in Scarriff, I heard that there was much concern in east Clare regarding the plans to extract 350 million litres of water every day to supplement the supply in Dublin. The indications are that this could have an environmental and economic effect on tourism and fishing in east Clare. There are genuine concerns, especially as the water levels are so low in Lough Derg at this time of the year, the middle of winter. These concerns must be taken into consideration before the debate continues further.
I have several other issues to address, but time does not permit me to do so. In particular, with regard to metering and the application of water charges, I urge Irish Water to learn from the experience of the local property tax. The billing system needs to be fair.
Payment methods need to be flexible. Phased and cash payments through post offices must be facilitated. There must be flexibility for householders and businesses with an inability to pay. It is also important that there be clarification for community organisations, voluntary groups and Tidy Towns committees on who will have liability for the use of the public water supply when water charges are introduced. There are a number of outstanding issues and I hope the Minister of State will respond to them. It is extremely important that small villages and towns in rural areas, some of which I highlighted, are looked after by Irish Water.