Dáil debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Irish Water: Motion [Private Members]

 

7:50 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:notes:

— that the 2009 Fine Gael Party NewERA document advocated the establishment of Irish Water;

— the announcement of the Irish Water Charges Plan on 30th September and the introduction of the new domestic water tariff system on 1st October;

— the €172 million set-up costs of Irish Water;

— the €80 million being spent on consultants within the set-up of Irish Water;

— the €500 million ongoing estimated spend on water metering across the country;

— the €300 million in total annual domestic revenue accruing to Irish Water;

— the performance related award bonus structure within Irish Water; and

— the 700 staff due to be employed within Irish Water by the end of 2015;

further notes:

— the Government’s plans to subsidise Irish Water's domestic revenue stream through several options by an estimated €125 million;

— the estimated domestic revenue stream, after Government subsidies, of approximately €150 million - €175 million; and

— the number of changes to the water charges system introduced by the Government since 1st October;

condemns:

— the Government's failure to address excessive spending on outside consultants;

— the lack of information for members of the public and lack of a complaints system;

— the lack of communications between the Oireachtas and Irish Water;

— the lack of additional spending on the water infrastructure network; and

— the Government's refusal to acknowledge the ability to pay or otherwise; and

calls on the Government to:

— fully review the appropriateness of the Irish Water model from a funding and service delivery point of view;

— assess the actual sustainability of the funding streams of Irish Water;

— confirm that it has no intention of privatising Irish Water;

— establish an equitable regime for reliefs on domestic water tariffs;

— ensure the body is subjected to full Oireachtas scrutiny, not just internal political party forums; and

— cease any payment of bonuses within Irish Water.
I wish to share time with Deputies Seán Fleming and O'Dea.

This is the third time we have had to use Private Members' business to raise the issue of water charges and the setting up of Irish Water, and in an effort to highlight the unmitigated disaster it has been. I have also published various Bills in an effort to amend the legislation which gave effect to the setting up, ongoing maintenance and administration of Irish Water. On each and every occasion we were voted down and largely ignored, yet the problems never went away, the costs were never reduced and people’s fears were never addressed. The problem that was, and still is, Irish Water, was allowed to drift, and the runaway train continues apace.

We failed to divert the initial course of action by the Government, which created a gold-plated, bonus-driven, super quango. We were not alone in that regard. PricewaterhouseCoopers, PWC, was commissioned by the Government to carry out a report and it advised against the vehicle that became Irish Water. We then focused on the many deficiencies within the legislation, which was not open to debate. We say now what we said then, namely, that the provisions of the legislation will impinge on people’s ability to pay for a system that is not fit for purpose. One could ask whether we should we be forced to have to take that route. Of course we should not.

The role of the Opposition is to seek to hold the Government to account. In order for Government to allow the Dáil to work effectively on behalf of citizens, it must provide that legislation is analysed and scrutinised. That was most definitely not the case with the legislation to give effect to the quango in question. If it had been, many issues and problems that have ensued might have been identified. Those problems now have the potential to derail Irish Water. Many citizens are frustrated, fearful, worried, annoyed and definitely very angry. They are angry to such an extent that many feel it necessary to follow a path of disobedience. Such a course of action threatens the ability of the Government and this House to bring the public with them towards meaningful recovery for all; rich and poor, young and old, employed and unemployed, public and private sector, urban dwellers and rural dwellers. Divisions have been created that will be hard to mend. The situation will ultimately lead to a grave distrust of the Government. As trust subsides, Governments panic and bad governance sets in. When backbenchers panic, governance will get worse. As the Government's once massive mandate weakens it finds itself at a crossroads. One of those roads leads to an election. Last week some Government Deputies described the budget as an election budget. I caution them to be careful what they wish for in that regard.

Fine Gael and Labour made many commitments in the previous election campaign. Having vehemently opposed the tough yet progressive budgets which achieved two thirds of the fiscal adjustments to consolidate the economy, the Government promised to steer a different path. Fine Gael and Labour said they would not be a party to the tough but necessary corrective measures. The public accepted their analysis and argument. People had seen them vote against such budgets and their associated finance Bills. They had promised a softer and easier way. They said the troika agreement would be torn up. In addition to the softer and easier way, the two parties promised a new politics, a democratic revolution that would include report cards for Ministers. They said there would be no hooky appointments to State boards or other such bodies but what we got was very different. What we got was a recognition that the fiscal consolidation path had to be continued, the four-year programme and the targets it contained would after all continue under the new Government with its new politics of democratic revolution. Hence, the Tesco advertisements were binned, the red line issues were deleted, the five-point plan was silenced; the strategic investment bank was quelled, to name but a few of the promised initiatives. The Government had also to rid itself of the statement the Labour Party made about Frankfurt's way.

In addition, there was the infamous explanation for the reason people were let down; that it is what one does during an election. That was another item to add to the bin. The expensive advisers that were to be ditched were hired with gusto and their associated payment caps were also thrown in the bin. The only advice they could give in order to plough ahead was to blame Fianna Fáil and that might have won the Government the previous election. I do not say who will win the next election but if the Government continues along the same path, it will not win another election.

Fianna Fáil achieved 450,000 votes in 2011. The party in government did two thirds of the heavy lifting necessary to achieve fiscal consolidation and allow a prospect of growth. The party achieved more votes and seats than any other party in the local elections. Fianna Fáil had discussions with the troika on several occasions since the Dáil was convened. The troika reiterated to us, other Opposition parties and Independent Members that the financial targets were the bottom line, not the detail. All those factors determine that we have a duty and mandate, as well as many others, to participate and to engage and recommend paths to recovery. We were ignored on Irish Water. The Government can ignore us at its peril, but it should be very careful about ignoring the public. It does so at its peril.

On assuming office, Fine Gael wanted to broaden the tax base. That is a credible and understandable objective. However, one would assume that to achieve it, the parameters would have to be right, the preparations would have to be thorough, the public would have to be won over to the concept, the procedure, the path and its delivery. Property tax and water charges were the means chosen by the Government to achieve such a broadening of the tax base but it would have to be done fast by a tough Minister in a strict timeframe. The tough Minister in question would need an incentive, a carrot. He would also require a line that would not trouble Fine Gael or Labour either as they would have to be brought along to support the endeavour. The Minister appointed by the Taoiseach was Phil Hogan. The timeframe was three years, the carrot was Brussels and the political line was that it was Fianna Fáil's fault anyway. With its ducks in a row, and its target in sight, the Taoiseach and the Economic Management Council, EMC, consisting of the then Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, of the Labour Party, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, from Fine Gael and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, also from the Labour Party, with the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, would pursue the target and the carrot with gusto.

We know now that most of the Cabinet would be kept in dark about the mechanism used to fund the quango. Ministers did not have to feign surprise last January when they were told about the cost of consultants. They were surprised and they were not aware of the facts, as they should have been, but that is the way the Government works. The members of the EMC disregard many of their ministerial colleagues. Not only were members of the Cabinet ignored but the Minister of State with responsibility to for the implementation of NewERA, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, was ignored if he was not prepared to toe the line. The Opposition was ignored and debate was shut down. The Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, was to be instructed on policy and Irish Water was told to plough ahead and set up its pay systems and bonuses. Local authority managers were told they could resign or retire, get their packages and get a new job in Irish Water. Irish Water could do as it liked. It could get the charges as quickly as possible and swell the Government's coffers for future tax giveaways and election victories. However, the Government did not bank on John Tierney's interview with Sean O'Rourke. Only then did the chickens find their way home and consider roosting. The cat was out of the bag, but the Government said to plough on regardless. Furthermore, it instructed Irish Water and the CER to plough on regardless. The Government never banked on a resilient nation, a persistent Opposition, the local election results, the by-election results or people power, as exemplified in the march that took place last Saturday week.

This weekend’s announcements by RTE following our parliamentary question last week eventually proved what we suspected all along, that Irish Water as set up by this Government, by every member of the parties associated with it, is nothing but a gold-plated, bonus-driven super quango. The Government would not do it before but now is the time for an honest, open, frank debate; now is the time to initiate an appropriate review of Irish Water and its ability to be a service provider. In the meantime, all impending charges need to be suspended.

To set this debate in its proper context the Dáil needs to acknowledge and note some facts. In 2009 it was Fine Gael, not the troika, which in its NewERA document advocated the setting up of Irish Water. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, I believe, was at the heart of it. I would very much like to know who were the consultants hired to initiate that plan. I ask the Dáil to note that it cost €172 million to set up; I ask the Dáil to note that €80 million has been spent on consultants; I ask the Dáil to note that €500 million has been spent on metering; I ask the Dáil to note further the categoric and unambiguous fact that there are performance-related bonus structures in Irish Water, despite what the then Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, said last January, that there is no bonus culture in Bord Gáis Éireann nor will there be in Irish Water. I ask the House to call on all its Members from Fine Gael and the Labour Party as well as ourselves, to condemn the Government for its failure to address excessive spending on consultants and the set-up costs; for its lack of information provided to the public, whether by CER or Irish Water or the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government; for the lack of a complaints system which should be enshrined in any such body; and for the lack of an adequate communication system for Oireachtas Members. This is the second or third time we have raised this issue in the House. We raised it last year, in September, October and November and Departments refused to answer questions about Irish Water tabled by me and others. The conceited, underhanded nature in which the body was configured from a monetary perspective allowed the Government to avoid answering questions. The Government gave a commitment in January or February which it has not honoured and we are now at the end of October.

I ask the Dáil to condemn the lack of additional spending that is evident in the same Irish Water. The three-year spending programme of €1.7 billion announced earlier this year was not a red cent more than was given in capital expenditure by the previous manner in which funds were expended in this area. I condemn the Government for the lack of a mechanism of an inability-to-pay clause.

When I think of the ongoing concerted effort by Government to keep the public in the dark and all the double-speak we have heard, I am reminded of what has been said in recent months. The Taoiseach spoke on this issue in the House on several occasions. He initially said that children would not have to pay for water, that there would be no charge. He subsequently said that children would be given 38,000 litres free and then he said it would be 21,000 litres. He said the average charge would be €240 but it is far from it. The Taoiseach admitted that Irish Water has had a few teething problems. I refer to what we have been told in recent days. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, said Irish Water needs to be more customer-friendly; the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, said that Irish Water needs to work on its PR; the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, said he met with Irish Water two weeks ago and he expressed concern about the bonuses; and a total of 20 Fine Gael Deputies spoke out last week at a parliamentary party meeting saying that they had a problem with the communications in Irish Water but they had no problem in marching up to vote for it. I remind the 20 Deputies, wherever they are, and the Labour Party Deputies, that nobody but themselves set up Irish Water. They would not listen to anyone because they took their orders from the top down and they were kept in the dark.

8:00 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Big Phil.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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We were not allowed to contribute to the debate and we were not allowed to show those opposite that some of the measures could not work. They are all culpable and they are all responsible.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, said last week after the budget that the Opposition is only scratching around for an issue and it has come up with Irish Water. I say to the Minister that the people of Roscommon are scratching around; the people of Dublin South-West are scratching around; and up to 100,000 people on Dublin streets last Saturday week were scratching around too. Now we hear that a few backbenchers are scratching around. How much scratching around does it take to get with the programme?

(Interruptions).

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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One speaker, please.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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There is no doubt that the Minister for Finance did not single-handed return this economy towards the prospect of growth, prosperity or even recovery. However, that disregard, contempt and ill-feeling towards genuine fears and anxieties that exist, risks everything and says so much about this Government's total and absolute disregard for the democratic process, a disregard for the people who elected us to this House, who gave us the privilege to explore, analyse and critically examine legislation despite the fact that we might not agree with the thrust of such legislation or the policy behind it. We have a mandate first of all, and a duty thereafter, to analyse that legislation and to ensure in our belief that it will have the least possible detrimental effect on those we represent and is in the best possible interest of the country and the coffers.

I will make clear that my party wants a review of the service-delivery model of the vehicle and of the system which the Government put in place, Irish Water. We want a proper and critical assessment of the sustainability of the funding model contained within it. I want the House to confirm categorically in this debate, once and for all, that there will be no privatisation. I want the Government to enshrine in this Irish Water model, which it has pushed ahead, an equitable regime that has at its core an ability-to-pay clause. I want the Government once again to provide an assurance that there will be full accountable scrutiny of this body by the Oireachtas, that when Members of the Oireachtas make inquiries and raise concerns and when they wish to make representations on behalf of their constituents, they will be treated with a bit of respect which their constituents deserve. The cat is out of the bag and the game is up - Seán O'Rourke saw to that last January. The Government gave commitments which have not been honoured and only when they are honoured can the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, be told that the scratching might stop.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Cowen, for tabling this motion on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party. We are discussing what is becoming the increasingly discredited super quango, Irish Water. The whole country is furious about this matter. The Government has a Dáil majority of well over 100 Members but I am looking around now and I count only four Members present on the other side. The Government side of the House is not listening - its Members are not even here to listen and there is not a single member of the Government present. It reminds me of last Tuesday evening, the day of the budget. The Ministers delivered their scripts but it was an inconvenience for them to have to come into the House to deliver their scripts because as the Taoiseach said they had to speak to the nation by means of press conferences with the national media. Once they had delivered their scripts they left the Chamber, as did every other Minister and more than 100 Members on the Government side. We were left with four Members from the Government parties to listen to what the Opposition had to say.

The same level of arrogance and contempt for the Chamber is being displayed this evening. It is no wonder the Government is having trouble with Irish Water. The principal reason for this is that it is not listening. It is not listening to the people, to the professional advisers who presented a report on the flawed model with which the Government proceeded, or to the Oireachtas. The longer it tries to run the House like an absentee landlord, the more trouble it will get in.

Only four members of the Government parties out of well over 100 are present, with no member of the Cabinet. It is a repeat of what the Government did last Tuesday. It might do it again next Tuesday and the following Tuesday, but while it can run away from the Oireachtas, it cannot run away from the public in 12 months time or whenever the election is held. Let it be a salutary lesson. Members of the Government parties will wonder why the people will be cross with them. If the people look at this debate, and it should be borne in mind that it is being broadcast on a couple of television stations as we speak, they will see the contempt the Government is showing for the debate on Irish Water. It showed contempt when it established Irish Water. It guillotined the legislation last December and did not allow a debate. It showed contempt. If I were to characterise the performance of the Government on the Irish Water fiasco, I would say one word sums it up, and that is "contempt". The Government has shown it every single step of the way.

The Government has sought in recent days to blame the chief executive. We are not here to defend John Tierney, but he is one of the finest public servants and has an excellent track record at delivering to the detail on Government policy. The reason the Government is unhappy with him is because he is delivering its policy of which it is now ashamed and from which it is trying to run and hide. The running and hiding will stop, because it will have to face the electorate in the ballot box.

The Government blames the management of Irish Water for communication. Not a single issue upsetting the people is the fault of Irish Water. The Government regulator, who is not independent, was given his instructions and procedures to follow and told the parameters by which he could arrive at his decision. The Government regulator set the price. The Government regulator announced the free water allowances. The bonuses were approved by the former Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, who is in the House, because it is part of Bord Gáis and he approved them within Bord Gáis. Ervia, the parent company, also runs Bord Gáis, and Deputy Rabbitte was aware at all stages of the bonus culture in the organisation establishing Irish Water. The former Minister, Mr. Hogan, was the same.

8:10 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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For the record, I did not approve that bonus scheme.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Rabbitte was aware of the bonus culture. I did not ask him whether he signed up to the jocose bonus culture we now have, whereby even those who do not do their work or show up will receive a bonus. If he had inquired, which was his job, about what bonus regime was in place in Bord Gáis, he would have known what would follow into Irish Water. The Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton, signed up to the fiasco with regard to the PPS numbers, because Irish Water will consult the Department of Social Protection, which is responsible for PPS numbers. This could not have been done without the Minister having agreed to it. We asked time and again for Irish Water to be included under the freedom of information legislation. A third Labour Party Minister, Deputy Howlin, refused to do this, but eventually he was forced to do so. The former Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, knew about the bonus culture in Bord Gáis, which is running this operation. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, approved the PPS arrangement whereby people must include the PPS numbers on the application forms. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, tried to keep it from being subject to the freedom of information legislation by establishing it as a semi-State company.

The possible privatisation of Irish Water is a live issue which upsets the people. I find one sentence in the Government amendment to the motion grossly hypocritical. It states the Government recognises the legislation establishing Irish Water prohibits the privatisation of the company. One vote, one guillotine and one whim of the Government can change this outright overnight. Members of the Government know all it takes is for the Government to come in some fine day and change it. This was voted in without the Opposition present. The Government did not allow a debate and the Opposition could only do what it could, which was leave the Chamber, after which the Government proceeded with a guillotine. A simple vote of the Government can change what is in the legislation. Any assurance from the Government that it will not privatise Irish Water counts for nothing because it only holds for as long as the vote lasts, and at a future date a Fine Gael Government will try to privatise Irish Water.

The people are returning to sender their application forms for their free allowance en masse, and there are not just boxloads of them in post offices throughout the country. I had it confirmed to me this morning that pallet loads of forms with "return to sender" on them, returned by the people, are in An Post sorting offices throughout the country. This is what the people think of what the Government is doing.

Measures on tax credits and social protection were announced last week in the budget. Despite these hasty measures, many people were left out. Those who do not pay income tax or who are on low incomes are excluded, as are people who lose their jobs and receive jobseeker's allowance. How did the Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton, come in here and tell the people if they lose their job and go on jobseeker's allowance they will not receive any allowance because they are not in receipt of the fuel allowance? Only people on long-term jobseeker's allowance receive this and those out of work for up to 12 or 14 months will not be able to avail of it.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Kelly, to the House. We now have five Members of the Government parties out of more than 100, and at least one member of the Cabinet has shown up at this late stage.

The people have lost confidence in Irish Water. The Minister is presiding over this floundering around him. It is not too late to go back to the drawing board. A key measure left out of the legislation from the very beginning is recognition of the ability of people to pay. The Government's ham-fisted efforts last week were panic-driven because of the people it saw on the streets the previous weekend. This is only making the people angrier.

The only thing Irish Water has done since being established is to spend €500 million on installing meters and €180 million on consultants and a billing system. Irish Water is not spending one additional euro on investment in the network or water and sewage treatment plants compared with what was spent the previous year by the local authorities - not one single euro. When one considers the amount that subsidies will cost taxpayers, through tax credits and people receiving social welfare allowances, the net income of Irish Water will only be approximately €175 million per annum. It will take four years to recoup the funds invested in the meters, consultants and the billing system based on the revenue from the domestic charges the Government hopes people will pay next year. This is assuming a relatively high number of people pay their bills. The Government is threatening the financial viability of Irish Water, and in doing so it will have to recoup the cost over the coming years and less will be spent on the infrastructure rather than more, which is needed.

Fianna Fáil is telling the Government it is not too late to go back to the drawing board. It should do so now. We are stating clearly and unambiguously that it is time for a comprehensive review on the role and performance of Irish Water in its entirety. Do not rule out closing down that ugly shop.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Cowen for tabling this motion. A total of 750,000 people in the country, that is one in six, live below the poverty line. Hundreds of thousands more are struggling just barely above that line. The population as a whole has been battered by year after year of austerity, cuts, charges and impositions of all sorts, both covert and overt. Against this background the least that people are decently entitled to expect is that where the Government establishes a body, regardless of what type of body it is, to impose another charge on these battered taxpayers, the interaction between this body and the taxpayers who will be charged should be clear, transparent and coherent. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, among others, has told us, and we do not have to take his word for it because we see it every day, that Irish Water is acting in a way which is the polar opposite of this transparency, accountability and openness.

8 o’clock

It is opaque, distant and even disinterested.

I will give the House some examples of my interaction with Irish Water to illustrate what I am saying. Some time ago I telephoned Irish Water with a simple query. I am lucky enough to own a second house in Limerick and I have it converted to use as a constituency office. I wanted an answer to the simple question as to how that is treated for water tax purposes. Is it in the same category as a holiday home? Is it an unoccupied building? What is it exactly? The gentleman who answered said, "Well, Deputy, that's a very interesting question, but I can't answer it. I'll have to put you on to somebody higher up". He duly put me on to somebody higher up and the reply I got from the somebody higher up was, "Well, Deputy, that is a most interesting question, but we don't have the answer to it. I'll have to put you further up again". So I went up and up; I almost finished on the roof. Eventually when I got to the key man he told me - guess what - "That's a very interesting question. I don't have the answer, but give me your mobile phone number and I'll ring you back within the hour". That was five weeks ago and I have not heard a word back from that man since.

Undeterred by my failure in that regard, because of countless constituents who have queried why they need to submit their PPS numbers, I contacted Irish Water again with a simple question. Why do people, for example, those who are being assessed and who know what their liability will be, have to submit their PPS numbers? As a matter of fact, why do I, as a citizen, have to submit my PPS number? I got straight through to the top on this occasion, I am glad to say. The gentleman's first response was shameless blackmail. He said, "You go and tell your constituents that if they don't give their PPS numbers, they won't get their allowances". I reminded him that was not the question I asked him at all; I wanted a clear rationale for why people had to submit their PPS numbers. He went into an explanation and to my amazement I could not understand the language he was speaking. After a while I figured it out; it was a variant of the English language, called incoherent gibberish. I would have been better off if the man had been talking Swahili because then I would know why I did not understand what he was saying. George Orwell said that the function of political language is often "to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". If that is the case, the function of the language of Irish Water is to give the appearance of pure balderdash to - well - pure balderdash.

8:20 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Hurricane Willie.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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One speaker, please.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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Undeterred by my failure at verbal communication, I sent an e-mail and got a response back late last night that stated, "The PPS numbers have to be submitted to ensure that correct water allowances are allocated to the correct recipients". That is a very interesting answer because it tells us that Irish Water is starting from the premise that the entirety - or almost the entirety - of the population are shysters, fraudsters and gangsters who will deliberately submit false returns and poor old Irish Water will give 5 million allowances to 1.5 million houses.

The Revenue Commissioners, who collect tax in this country, take people on trust. A person fills out a tax return outlining his or her circumstances. In most cases that will not be examined as they take people on trust. There is a spot-check, and anybody caught cheating the system will be dealt with very severely and properly so. I cannot understand why Irish Water cannot do something similar.

The Minister ought to be aware of a court case in the past three weeks where two people were successfully prosecuted and convicted for obtaining information from the Department of Social Protection - namely people's addresses - by giving the Department of Social Protection PPS numbers which they had got from credit unions. That should illustrate, if illustration was needed, the danger of people's most confidential information - their PPS numbers - getting into the hands of a third party.

I have received no coherent explanation from Irish Water as to why I, as a citizen, should submit my PPS number and I have absolutely no intention of doing so. At the end of the day, when I get my water bill I will pay it, but I will deduct the allowance to which I am legally entitled. At that point Irish Water with its serried armies of consultants laden down with taxpayers' largesse, employees laden down with bonuses and directors, who regard their responsibility as of such importance that it is only secondary to driving the Minister's car, can all come after me if they wish.

In addition I made a further effort to get information on this by tabling a parliamentary question to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, who is sitting across from us now looking pensive. I asked him what my constituents - and constituents of very other Member of this House - are asking. Why do people have to submit their PPS numbers? I was not alone; in fairness, Deputies Clare Daly and Catherine Murphy tabled similar questions. I had to laugh out loud at the sheer irony of the Taoiseach's statement this morning that the real problem here was that there was not enough communication. What sort of communication did we get from the Minister, Deputy Kelly? We got a one-line arrogant reply stating that the situation was unchanged and outlining Irish Water's telephone number with a recommendation to use it. That is some example of communication.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is accountability.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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It gives rise to a number of very interesting questions. Is that the Minister's version of accountability?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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That will go down well in Tipperary.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We will have one speaker, please. Deputy O'Dea is in possession.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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Is that his version of the democratic revolution for which people voted in such numbers in the last general election? I remember a grandiose statement from the programme for Government: "We believe that in recent years an over-powerful Executive has turned the Dáil into an observer of the political process rather than a central player and that this must be changed". How hollow that sounds? Is it any wonder there is such cynicism about politics and the political process when people measure that performance against the promise?

I have no doubt the Minister in his speech will refer to the hoary old chestnut the Taoiseach always drags up when he is asked about this - that Fianna Fáil signed some sort of a deal with the troika for some huge amount of money to be paid by the citizens.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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Are you going to borrow it?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We will have one speaker, Minister, please.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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I cannot remember exactly the amount because it seems to change every time he answers the question. However, the Minister should remember that nobody signed up with the troika for somebody on the dole with four or five kids to end up paying €400 or €500 in water charges year-in year-out. Nobody signed a deal with the troika or anybody else that the people of this country would be forced to shell out tens of millions of euro in payments to consultants - no doubt very well connected consultants. Nobody ever signed an agreement with the troika or anybody else that the battered people of this country would have to pay bonuses to people simply for turning up - many of them retired senior officials of local authorities on gold-plated pensions.

The system is broken. The man who brought the legislation through the Dáil told the Minister that. I urge him to fix it, but I must say my confidence is not great.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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I move amendment No. a1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“supports the establishment of Irish Water as a long-term strategic investment project to deliver the necessary water services infrastructure and quality of services required to meet statutory compliance and demographic needs, benefitting Irish citizens and businesses;

recognises that managing our water resources effectively is also essential to ensure that Ireland can continue to attract major overseas investment and employment;

recognises that the legislation establishing Irish Water prohibits the privatisation of the company;

notes that:
— following on from the requirement to introduce water charges as part of the agreement with the troika, the Government provided for the introduction of a fair funding model to deliver a clean, reliable and affordable water supply with a charging system based on usage;

— the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, has published its decision on water charges on 30 September 2014 taking account of the policy framework set by the Government;

— the CER have examined the establishment costs of Irish Water and approved €172.8 million on the basis that this investment will enable Irish Water to drive substantial cost savings and service quality improvements over the interim review period and for many years to come; and

— the CER has approved an extensive capital investment programme for Irish Water and, in its examination of Irish Water’s costs in the period ahead, set challenging annual efficiency targets for both operational and capital expenditure;
recognises the importance of ensuring that there is full public understanding of the rationale for the establishment of Irish Water and that issues of legitimate public interest arising in that context are addressed, in order to support public trust and confidence;

emphasises the commitment of Irish Water to addressing the issues involved, with a particular priority on actively reviewing its communications strategy to better reflect the needs of all stakeholders, including elected members;

welcomes:
— the progress with the roll-out of the domestic metering programme being delivered by Irish Water with some 450,000 meters installed to date, supporting some 1,300 jobs; this level of meter installation now significantly exceeds the 400,000 target for end-2014 already indicated to the CER;

— the indications that progress remains on track for the installation of 1.05 million meters, with programme completion likely to be ahead of the target - mid-2016 rather than end-2016; and

— the Government’s package of measures to ensure that domestic water charges are introduced in as fair and equitable a basis as possible, with particular reference to the following elements:
— Irish Water’s Government subvention averaging €537 million per annum in 2015 and 2016;

— each household will receive an annual free allowance of 30,000 litres of water and a corresponding allowance for waste water;

— there will be an additional free allowance for every child under 18 years of age to cover a child’s normal consumption of water supplied and waste water treated, 21,000 litres;

— household benefits package and free fuel allowance recipients will receive a €100 "water support" payment per year, benefiting 653,000 households;

— income tax relief on water charges will be available, at the standard rate, worth up to €100 per household per annum when claimed in the following year;

— charges to be capped for people with high water usage due to medical needs; and

— Irish Water to take account of the quality of services provided to customers, including circumstances where services are reduced or restricted, for example, due to boil water notices; and
— the Government’s intention to provide funding to increase investment in public water services infrastructure on average by €100 million in each of the years 2015 and 2016, including for a scheme to provide each household with a free fix of the first leak on a customer’s water supply pipe; and
supports the Government’s overall water funding package, which balances the need for a sustainable funding model to support long-term investment in the sector, taking account of the relevant European rules on Government accounting, while ensuring that domestic water charges are introduced in the most affordable, fair and equitable manner possible.”
I thank Deputy Cowen for bringing this motion to the House and for providing us all with an opportunity to - until the last contribution - rationally debate the critical challenges the country faces in terms of our water infrastructure, and the role of Irish Water and domestic water charges in the future of water services delivery.

At the outset, I acknowledge that the past few weeks have seen some difficulties in communication and public engagement concerning Irish Water. I fully accept this. I accept that for the public, for some of the utility's customers, the customer registration process has been frustrating and at times confusing, and the charging structure is not as easy to understand as it should be. I believe Irish Water also accepts this.

The timelines associated with the establishment of Irish Water have been extremely challenging and ambitious and a task of this scale was never going to run smoothly or easily. There is a need to directly address many issues that have arisen and I intend to do so in this debate. I would go so far as to say that the timelines operating to date have been somewhat unrealistic, squeezing many years of work into too fine a condensed period of months. This is about the creation of one of the largest utilities in the history of the State and it was never going to be a simple task.

Addressing legitimate issues of concern arising, however, is essential to maintain public trust and confidence. I expect to see a major overhaul of the communications strategy employed by Irish Water and that it will be transformed to a customer focussed and customer friendly organisation.

8:30 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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On a point of order, normally the ministerial script is circulated during Private Members' business.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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It is a matter for the Minister.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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This is a normal courtesy. It was de rigueur in our time.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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I will get the Deputy a copy.

This needs to happen urgently and the Government will drive this. It is clear there has to be a seismic shift in how Irish Water interfaces with the public. Clarity and certainty has to be given to members of the public about the charges they will pay. I assure the House that the Government is working with Ervia and Irish Water to ensure these issues are addressed and addressed immediately. I also accept that there needs to be more explanation of why we have embarked on this highly ambitious water sector reform programme, what we have achieved in a short time and what we can achieve for the long-term future of our public water system. I would like to use this debate as an opportunity to provide clarity on many of these issues.

It is important, in the first instance, to remind the House of the purpose of our reforms. The traditional water services system was in need of fundamental change. Water infrastructure is deficient and inadequate as a consequence of decades of under investment and of not having a truly, national approach that could maximise the impact of investment. The result has been a national leakage rate of 49%; inadequate wastewater treatment, with untreated sewage discharging into 42 urban areas, for example, putting rivers and bathing waters at risk of pollution; Ireland going on formal notice of an EU infringement case, requiring wastewater improvements at 66 urban centres; a total of 22,181 people are on boil water notices, and a further 945,000 people dependent on drinking water supplies at risk of failing required standards - these include the major but antiquated drinking water schemes on the Lee Road in Cork and the Vartry Scheme in Dublin, both critical for our two major cities; and insufficient supply for the greater Dublin area. While most major European capital cities have a spare capacity of between 15 and 20%, Dublin has a surplus capacity ranging between 1% and 4%.

Future challenges also make the need for a more cost effective, efficient and nationally orientated system imperative. Our population is increasing, and is forecast to increase in the coming decades. Our economy is recovering, bringing with it added water demand for industry and agriculture and we have to meet these challenges. These challenges result in large part from decades of under investment, with the bulk of that time presided over by Governments led by the party that tabled the motion. A total of €600 million should be invested every year in capital infrastructure to ensure our public system of treatment plants and networks is adequate for modern requirements and operations, yet recent investment levels have stood at just over €300 million per annum.

Under investment is not the system's only difficulty. Local authorities have demonstrated commitment and great dedication to water services for well over a century, but 34 separate water services authorities providing services and infrastructure unilaterally for the most part have not, and could not have, achieved the best public water system. An example of this is in the lack of economies of scale identified in the independent assessment on establishing a public water utility. Operating expenditure per connection, for example, is more than twice the average of UK water companies.

The only way these deficiencies could be rectified, the infrastructure deficit removed, the problems of quality addressed and inefficiencies tackled was by creating a single, national utility and a new funding model. All parties will be aware that the public water and wastewater systems will not improve without a national approach. All parties will be also aware that the best way to secure the necessary expansion in infrastructure and to ensure spending on water services is accountable and the standards of quality expected by the public are achieved is by creating a direct relationship between the water user and the service provider where funding goes from one to the other, and where the expected standards are received in return. We are all aware of the previous funding model for water services. However, Members should ask the people on boil notices over 12 years if this model has worked for them. If water is condemned forever to compete with health, education and housing for essential funding, we simply will not be able to address the major difficulties that exist within our water system and we, as a Government, will be condemned for not facing up to this reality.

Against this backdrop, I would like to take this opportunity to dispel certain myths that have grown around the establishment of Irish water. First, it cannot be privatised. This is the law of the land. While this is a legitimate concern many people have, it is based on falsehood and it cannot happen. I would also like to address the issue of start-up costs of Irish Water, which is important. I accept again that people need reassurance about this issue. That is why it is necessary that such costs be examined by independent experts with experience in utility management. That was part of the job of the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. The conclusion at which it arrived was that 95% of the establishment costs were justified and 5% of the budgeted costs should not proceed. I accept that it was incorrect to refer to too many of these costs as "consultant" costs. Much of this was related to costs associated with building the company's systems using outside expertise but I reiterate that after all the establishment costs of Irish Water were independently assessed, 95% were justified, warranted and necessary.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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What about bonuses?

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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This was done on the basis that these initial costs will enable the company to drive substantial cost savings and service quality improvements over the immediate period to end 2016 and for many years to come.

The CER is responsible for setting performance standards for the new utility, examining its costs with a view to approving, amending or rejecting its "water charges plan" and protecting customers by directing the company in respect of codes of practice in areas such as performance standards, customer billing, payment methods, information communication to customers, and customer complaints. Earlier, the commission's staff outlined their approach to their work before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government, demonstrating the important link between independent regulation and Oireachtas scrutiny.

The commission's work to date has demonstrated the importance and impact of independent, economic regulation. In setting performance standards for the utility, the CER has announced that it will conduct a partial overall performance assessment of Irish Water to incentivise the utility to improve its performance in areas such as service delivery. The company will be required to publish the performance results. This will incentivise the company to improve its performance through a set of key metrics, for example, customer service scores, drinking water standards and environmental compliance. An overall performance assessment will commence from the beginning of the first full revenue review period in 2017.

The CER has also demonstrated its independence in its examination of Irish Water's establishment and operational costs as well as its capital plans. It rejected 5% of proposed establishment costs, 14% of operational costs and has set an overall reduction in costs of 8.2%. Operational costs will have to come down by 7% per annum, and the same level of efficiency will be required in respect of non-committed capital costs. These cost reductions are aimed at ensuring Irish Water's customers pay charges only to cover reasonable costs on the system.

Important safeguards such as this are evidence of the role regulation plays in protecting consumers and ensuring that there are consequences when Irish Water's performance standards drop. The establishment of Irish Water is a critical long-term project for this country and an absolute economic necessity. It will become among the largest utilities in the history of the State and is necessary for a safe and secure supply of water into the future. There is some way to go before we have the world class water system the public deserves but we have already achieved much progress during this ambitious programme of reform. For example, as a result of the establishment of Irish Water, by Christmas of this year boil water notices in parts of Roscommon will be lifted for the first time in 12 years. I am sure this development will be welcomed by everyone in the House. Why it did not happen previously is beyond me. Over the next two years, there will be an average annual increase of €100 million in investment in water services infrastructure in the State.

One of the less commented on consequences of reform, but a fundamental and a positive one, has been the increased focus on water quality and standards. As the public prepares to pay for water services, it will expect even higher standards, and rightly so. I can assure the House that a key driver for Irish Water, the Commission and my Department, is the continual improvement in customer service and quality. Irish Water and I accept that customer service to date has not been good and steps to address this will be taken. More resources have been diverted to the Irish Water call centre. It is currently handling approximately 10,000 calls a day and the average waiting time has been reduced to three minutes. It is expected that by the end of the week in excess of 750,000 responses under the registration process will have been received by Irish Water, the vast majority of these being registering customers. The level of registrations is consistent with previous experience of the pace of registration in respect of the household charge and septic tank registration. Today, the CER indicated that it is considering extending the deadline. Previous experience suggests that there will be a rush of registrations towards the end of the registration period. I accept that Irish Water must do more to facilitate queries from elected representatives of all political parties, be they Oireachtas Members or local councillors. Steps will be taken urgently to address this issue.

In overall terms, an organisational reinvigoration of customer engagement within Irish Water is required. The complex nature of the charging system has led to confusion and frustration. I will be working with Ervia and Irish Water to address these issues and to give customers certainty and clarity with regard to what they will be paying. This must be done immediately. I believe reform of the boards of Ervia and Irish Water will offer an opportunity to reinvigorate the organisation and give it a much stronger customer face.

(Interruptions).

8:40 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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One speaker at a time please.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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I know the man well. He is a good man. Irish Water must engage with its customers in a new way and with a new style. The brand of Irish Water must be repositioned in the public mind.

Despite some protests, the metering programme is being successfully rolled out, with some 458,000 meters already installed, which will benefit overall water conservation and allow customers to manage their usage. It is important to remember the reason Government authorised the most ambitious metering programme of its kind. Metered charges are the fairest form of water charges. In metering 1.1 million homes under the first phase of the domestic metering programme, we are linking usage with cost recovery. The OECD has stated that usage-based charging is the fairest form of charging. The Government agrees. Through metering, customers can manage and control their water usage more effectively. International evidence suggests metering can reduce customer usage by 10% to 15%. Customers and Irish Water can also tackle leakage through the domestic metering programme. It is believed that at least 5% of the 49% of leakage in the water distribution network is on the customer side. Installing meters helps identify customer side leakage and will help Irish Water to achieve its objective of halving the national leakage level.

Under the domestic metering programme spanning the country, a meter is installed every 30 seconds. No other country is metering on such a scale. The programme is providing 1,300 people with employment, 84% of whom are from one of three social inclusion categories: the unemployed; employees of SMEs; graduates or school leavers or apprentices. This far exceeds the Government's target of 25%, set in February last year. The domestic metering programme is providing much needed employment across the length and breadth of the country, representing the kind of economic stimulus and infrastructural investment for which many on the Opposition benches and elsewhere have been calling.

Irish Water has already demonstrated the benefits a more national approach to water services and infrastructure a national utility can produce. It has placed greater focus on deficiencies within the water system such as leakage, water quality, lead piping and infrastructural planning. It has adopted a new approach to asset management, in particular central strategic planning based on accurate asset performance data. It wants to plan investment consistently across the asset base rather than on large scale, one-off investments. An example of this is the proposed Ringsend waste water treatment plant upgrade, an alternative approach to a treatment plant extension which will save the company €170 million in capital investment.

Irish Water is also working on the centralisation of procurement of supplies such as chemicals and energy sources, which will result in significant savings for the company. Its 2014 to 2017 transformation plan, agreed with the local authorities in the context of the service level agreements, contains new initiatives in the areas of standardised, digitised systems for work and asset management and inventory management capability.

I would like to turn now to the issue of the funding model for Irish Water. As I outlined earlier, water services and infrastructure have been underfunded for many years. This is no longer tenable. The Government has agreed on a funding model that will allow subvention of Irish Water to help the public offset some of the direct cost of funding water services, while also designing the model in a way that allows Irish Water to operate commercially. This will allow Irish Water to borrow money for capital expenditure from capital markets and should see an increase in capital expenditure averaging €100 million in each of the years 2015 and 2016, in comparison to some €350 million this year. An increase in capital investment is one of the objectives of the Government's reform programme. We will achieve this next year.

As in other OECD countries, domestic water charges form an important part of the funding model for water services. Over the years ahead, economic regulation will drive operational efficiencies in water services to ensure that charges remain affordable for customers. It was important for the Government to set parameters for this regulatory period to guide the transition from the old funding model to the new regime, and particularly to focus on affordability. The subvention to Irish Water ensures that the Government's objective of the average charge being less than €240 per annum is achieved. Some €537 million will be provided to Irish Water in 2015, in the main to cover the free allowances.

The Government recognises that the poorest and most marginal in society must be protected from water poverty. Water poverty is a real challenge of which we must all remain acutely aware. To this end, the Government is providing a number of significant protections and reliefs to assist households in meeting their charges, including the provision to every household in the country of a free allowance of 30,000 litres per year; an additional free allowance to cover the normal consumption of water supplied and wastewater treated per child in primary residencies in the State; the capping of charges for people with high water usage due to certain medical conditions; a €100 water support payment for all recipients of the household benefits package; and free fuel allowance and water charges income tax relief at the standard rate on water charges up to a maximum of €500 per household per year. This will provide relief of up to €100 per household per annum when claimed in the following year and the Government is examining what support can be made available for those who are not entitled to income tax relief or the water support payment. For social and environmental reasons, there is no standing charge on domestic water charges. This will benefit those living on their own.

In addition, the exceptional needs payment system will continue to be available for people experiencing severe financial difficulties.

The introduction of a new charge is difficult for any household, and the Government instructed the regulator in July to provide certain supports to ensure ease of transition. An important support provided for in the regulator's decision is the capping of charges at the unmetered rate for the first nine months of charging. Metered homes have now an incentive to reduce usage since 1 October as their bills can be lower than the assessed level but in recognition of the challenge in changing behaviour and usage patterns, bills will not be higher than the relevant assessed level for those nine months.

The regulator was also instructed to provide for retrospective adjustment of charges, including provision for a rebate, if assessed bills are higher than metered usage would warrant.

As stated earlier, Irish Water is also expected to implement a free first fix policy early next year. This will help those households with leaks to address problems that can cause significant customer-side wastage of water. The Government is providing €51 million in funding for this scheme, on which the regulator will hold a public consultation shortly. In the interim there will be supports to ensure that households identified through the domestic metering programme as ones with leakages will have their bills capped until the issue of leakage is comprehensively addressed.

Through the various supports and reliefs available from Government, I believe that a fair, equitable and affordable charging system is being produced.

It is critical that Irish Water performs as the Oireachtas and the public expect. Government recognises a number of concerns have arisen in the context of getting Irish Water fully up and running and will move to address these - none more so than the complexity of the charging regime.

As stated earlier, the establishment of a unified Ervia-Irish Water board presents an opportunity to reinvigorate the organisation to become significantly more customer focused in its operations and communications. The Ervia Group and Irish Water are actively reviewing their communication strategy to reflect better the needs of all stakeholders, including elected Members.

I also recognise that the particular pay model in the Ervia Group has been the subject of much comment. This model, which was applied by Ervia rather than being created by Irish Water itself, provides for part of salaries to be placed at risk and this element of pay is only earned subject to performance. One of the first actions I will be asking the new board to do is to review the application and operation of this model in Irish Water, particularly in its start-up phase.

I would like to add one more detail. There were reports at the weekend of in excess of €188 charges for a second call-out after people have had their first leak fixed for free through Irish Water's first fix policy. I would like to express a personal view-----

8:50 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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A personal view.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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You are the Minister.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Sorry, Deputy Cowen, no one interrupted you, to be fair. One speaker please.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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-----that I believe this is too expensive but again I point out, as stated previously, that this has not been finalised and it will be subject to the approval, as everyone knows, of CER. I also point out that the use of such services is not mandatory.

As the system of charging and water services delivery through a national utility beds down there will be an ongoing need for accountability and scrutiny within this House and the Seanad of Irish Water's performance and its actions.

Deputy Cowen's motion calls for full Oireachtas scrutiny of Irish Water. This level of scrutiny is already in place-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Do not read it-----

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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-----through parliamentary questions, engagement between Irish Water and elected representatives on an individual level-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Stop, please.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Thank you.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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-----and at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

This scrutiny is in addition to the various forms of accountability that Irish Water is subject to including the submission of an annual report on the performance of its functions to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government; the laying before the Oireachtas of the company's annual report and accounts; approval by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of a 25 year water services strategic plan; and the power of direction, held by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, towards Irish Water in relation to the performance of its functions.

Last year's Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 also requires Irish Water to consult with the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and each local authority and regional body before submitting the 25 year strategic plan, and on capital plans, to consult with the EPA, regional authorities and planning authorities for which the plan is relevant.

Irish Water has responded to 4,700 individual queries from elected representatives on a range of issues since its specific e-mail facilities were put in place. However, I know that Members are dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the current arrangement and I have been engaged with Irish Water to ensure that a more comprehensive, responsive system is put in place, given the overall extent of queries. New arrangements in this regard will be communicated to Members in a week or so.

These important safeguards on accountability and consultation with elected representatives and State agencies reflect a new water services framework that is designed to remain in public ownership. I want to be perfectly clear on this issue - Irish Water will always remain in public ownership. The Government stated this at the start of its water reforms, it has stated it throughout the reform programme and it has demonstrated it through enshrining it in law. The law of this land does not allow Irish Water to be privatised.

While I welcome the chance to debate the details of water charges and aspects of Irish Water's operations, it is disappointing that the Opposition has not sought to articulate any vision for where it would like to see water services in the future, through its budget submission, for example.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That was not in the script.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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The Government, on the other hand, has a vision. It is a vision for a country in which every household connected to public water supplies has a high quality, reliable water supply and has established a relationship with this new, national utility that is based on customer service, reliability and good communications. It is a vision for an adequately funded water and wastewater system in which the necessary funding is obtained to upgrade public water supplies, have low leakage levels and adequate levels of waste water treatment to keep our rivers, lakes and coastal waters free of pollution, helping to maintain Ireland's image as a clean, green country that continues to attract a growing number of tourists.

The vision includes a security of quality water supply through effective services, quality asset management and significant investment so that Ireland is seen as a water secure country in the future, notwithstanding the challenges of a rising population, economic recovery and climate change, and a water secure country in a context where the global scenario is heading towards demand exceeding supply by 40%. It is a vision in which Ireland's security of supply will guarantee current and future competitiveness for industries such as agrifood, ICT and pharma-chem, which combined, provide well over 200,000 water intensive jobs in Ireland. It is a security of supply that will attract further water intensive industries to Ireland as other countries experience growing water shortages, creating further prosperity into the future.

I accept fully that there is much that remains to be done to see that vision fully realised, but it is a vision this Government is committed to realising. Establishment and effective operation is an essential part of realising that vision, and any issues that need to be addressed along the way towards realising that vision in full will be dealt with effectively and immediately.

Government is committed to giving clarity and certainty to people surrounding their water bills. This is absolutely going to happen. From both Ervia and Irish Water, I am expecting a reinvigoration in customer focus and to establish a much stronger relationship with the public and stakeholders. There has to be a seismic shift across the range of Irish Water activities. Put simply, this Government will reposition Irish Water in the public minds, and I expect this to happen immediately.

The question has been put to me in recent days about confidence in senior management of Irish Water. I am expecting them to deliver major changes in a short period of time and I have confidence both in the boards of Irish Water and Ervia, and their management teams, but I am demanding that they deliver.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That was not in the script.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Deputy.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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Deputy Martin is very funny.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No, I am not. That was not in the script.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Minister to conclude please.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Government rewrote that script today. The Minister could not say that yesterday.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Martin-----

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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Tonight's debate is an important opportunity for all sides of this House to support this vision.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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He is the big man's man.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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It is an opportunity for the House to end the negative criticism that offers no solutions or constructive ideas. Let us get behind this ambitious, far-reaching reform programme and focus on the long-term benefits for all of us and for future generations through a water utility of which we can all be proud.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Brian Stanley who is sharing time with Deputy Pearse Doherty.

9:00 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this subject. It is a timely debate. The Minister said that he is demanding that the board of Uisce Éireann pull up its socks and he has set out certain things for it to do. Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil have all supported pushing water services out of democratic control, away from the Oireachtas and local councils. That is why we are in this situation. There is huge anger over the level of bonuses. It does not encourage confidence in the company, despite the review of communications announced this afternoon. To make matters worse, it was revealed today that fewer than one third of householders have filled in and returned the forms containing their personal public service numbers and other details. That means more than 1 million people have not returned their forms, which has forced Irish Water to seek an extension of the period for return of the forms to the end of November.

Given the level of anger at the bonuses, the water metering, general incompetence and lack of clarity, it is not difficult to see why those million or so households are not encouraged to comply within this extended period. The Government should use that time to implement a thorough review of its plan for Irish Water, address the concerns that have arisen about it and pay heed to the many people who regard it as a disaster.

The Fianna Fáil motion details some of the huge costs incurred in the establishment of Irish Water. Further sums will be made available in 2015. The Estimates we received prior to the announcement of the budget detail a further €200 million to be given as a capital contribution to Irish Water. One of the Ministers might inform us what exactly that is because in previous years we have not been able to get that detail.

The costs are far higher than we were led to believe they would be when the Government pushed through the legislation to establish Irish Water, from the high salaries of top executives to bonus payments, consultancy fees and the establishment of call centres. Government party Deputies have complained about this in the past week or two, but they seem to forget that they rammed through the legislation on the eve of Christmas and those of us who tabled amendments to try to knock the rough edges off it were shouted down and told we were negative. Everyone wanted to get home for Christmas, the legislation was rammed through and they went away leaving a mess behind.

The bonus payments have come under scrutiny since last weekend and are not justified given the shambles that Irish Water has proved to be. The managers gave themselves huge bonus payments, up to 19% for senior management. There was 4% for ordinary workers who exceeded the targets. Senior management took 14% for meeting targets but gave only 1.5% for those on less than €40,000, a lower percentage of a lower amount for the peasants. Their game is very clear.

When asked about it today, the Commission for Energy Regulation said this was a matter for the board of Irish Water. The Minister should take heed because the Government has handed over control of this very important resource and service. It has disempowered the 31 new reformed local authorities, this House and itself. What did we get for the €80 million paid to consultants? Local authority and private rental tenants are in a mess, while some meters are substandard. Surely the consultants should have been able to figure out these problems when paid that sort of money. We were led to believe that the Uisce Éireann contract was awarded to Bord Gáis, the Mammy and Daddy, because it had all the engineering skills and a background in rolling out a utility service. We thought there was a logic to that argument, but we discovered, courtesy of John Tierney, the managing director of Irish Water, that all this money had been blown on consultants. Why were they needed if Mammy and Daddy, Bord Gáis, already had these skills? I would love to hear the answer to that question. It has never been explained by Irish Water or the Government.

What does the call centre do? Is it observing a radio silence? A member of the public spent seven days trying to get through to it. This person is on the phone most days in the line of work but could not have a call returned or answered. The same applies to the Oireachtas helpline, which, although it may be a bit faster, poses serious difficulties. People are receiving forms addressed to previous occupants of households and there are problems with databases.

While I realise that a new system will have problems the scale of the problem is huge. A massive number of people have come to my constituency office about this, and that is just my small corner of the world. We Deputies can relate to this because it is similar to the Health Service Executive which responds by saying that our questions have been received and will be responded to in due course. I am not attacking those at the other end of the telephone line because I suspect that in most cases they do not have the answer. They are fronting for the geniuses behind the scenes who have set up this structure.

What will happen at the end of 2016, when the current allowances, the rate per litre, and the household and child allowances will be reviewed, along with the rebate to people on social welfare and the tax credits? What will be the level of household charges then? The regulator has said that the average charge without subvention will be €594 and could be higher, given how Uisce Éireann is spending money. Will the EU framework directive be used to ram that average charge down the throats of taxpayers? The allowances and budget concessions were conceived as a means to get people through a general election, especially the comrades in the Labour Party. What will happen after the general election late next year or in early 2016?

I call on the Government to go back to the drawing board with this project which was ill-conceived. It is no harm for the Government to admit it went down the wrong road. We can all make mistakes. This was a huge mistake. Unfortunately, the Government did not listen to the advice from this side of the House or from economists and others involved in governance who critically questioned it. The Government’s colleagues in local government have been questioning it this week in their council chambers. They claim to be in revolt because they are getting a pasting from the electorate about it. The Government has taken away democracy.

There are some examples in other countries of services being taken out of the hands of corporate structures and put back under the remit of local councils and municipalities.

There is precedent for that. The Government has gone down the wrong road in this case. This is a monster that cannot be handled. This is not the ESB. This is not Bord na Móna. This is not the old Department of Posts and Telegraphs. It is none of those. This is a different baby that the Government has created. It has turned into a monster and it needs to be stopped in its gallop.

9:10 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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I was listening to the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, talking about his grand vision. He repeatedly used the word "vision". It struck me that I was listening to a Labour Party Minister in a Labour Party-Fine Gael Government. I was wondering what the founding father of the labour movement would have thought of his vision. The vision the Minister spoke about in this Chamber is different from the vision that many ordinary people in this State have. As they see it, a Labour Party Minister is imposing additional charges on people who are already struggling to pay for the austerity measures that were imposed on them by this Government and its predecessor, which was led by Fianna Fáil. The vision they fear is the bill from Irish Water dropping through their letterboxes next January. They are wondering which they will have to compromise on over the next few months in order to pay the Irish Water bill. That is the vision of the Labour Party. That was the vision of the Minister, Deputy Kelly, when he stood up proudly in the Chamber this evening. That is the problem with all of this. It was the problem with the Fianna Fáil motion. It is not surprising that Fianna Fáil is wobbling on this issue, while sticking to its principles of imposing a water tax on people who cannot afford such a tax even though they have been paying for water through general taxation for many decades.

The Government does not understand that people are saying they simply do not have the money to pay for water. Regardless of what way the Government asks for it, or what way it dresses this up, people simply do not have the money. It is simply not there. It is another burden that will be placed on people. It really surprises me that this Government got out of touch with the public so quickly. We experienced the same thing in the last Administration, when a Government led by Fianna Fáil was completely out of touch with ordinary people. Its members were living in their own bubble or silo. They were completely unaware of what was happening. This Government has become spectacularly out of touch with people within a very short period of time. It fails to understand where people are at. It fails to understand that people are asking chemists which of their medications they really need because they cannot afford the prescription charges for them all. It fails to understand that people are homeless because they cannot afford to rent houses. An individual who contacted me yesterday has been homeless for 14 days because the bank took possession of his house. He cannot get any emergency accommodation. He was being kept in bed and breakfasts and hotels, but the local authority has said it cannot do that anymore. The Government is failing to understand where people are at.

Deputy Stanley referred to Irish Water as a "monster" that has been created. The Government washed its hands of the payment of €80 million to consultants by saying that the former Minister, Phil Hogan, is over in Europe now. The Government and the Taoiseach claim to have nothing to do with the bonus culture within Irish Water. When the Taoiseach and the Labour Party were on this side of the House, they rightly decried the bonus culture within the banks. The Government of the day was forced to introduce a protocol which said that no bonuses could be paid. Indeed, in cases of contractual bonuses that could not be scuppered or cancelled, a clawback measure was included in the Finance Bill to apply to any bonus that might be paid. This is possible if the political will is there. Some new revelations in this regard came out today, as they are doing every day. We learned that information given to Irish Water in confidence about people who are willing to pay these water charges was given to third parties. We know of at least ten individuals whose bank details were given to landlords. In all sincerity, who in their right mind would give personal details to Irish Water, in light of the manner in which it has abused very sensitive information so far?

The Taoiseach misleads the Dáil time and time again when he says that every child in the State will have a free water allocation. I would like to nail this one to the mast and show it for what it is. Only children who are in receipt of child benefit will get the free water allowance. Some categories of children will not get it. As early school leavers - 16 and 17 year olds - do not get child benefit, they will not get the free water allowance. Returning emigrants who cannot satisfy the habitual residency clause will not get the allowance. Children whose parents work in the North or in another European jurisdiction and do not get a top-up of child benefit will not get the allowance. This is not hypothetical. I know of a family in Letterkenny, with four children consuming water, on which a charge of an additional €408 will be imposed.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Deputy. I ask you to conclude.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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I could go on about the mná tí and other issues. The Government is unwilling to listen.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Deputy. Your time is up.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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It needs to listen to the people, take notice of the right to water marches that will take place in every village and town, and scrap the water charges.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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You are eating into other Members' time.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Socialist Party)
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I would like to share time with Deputy Fitzmaurice.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Socialist Party)
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There has been a lot of talk in the last few days about communication problems. I am sure many people at home will have been very reassured to hear the Minister, Deputy Kelly, saying earlier that "the brand of Irish Water must be repositioned in the public mind". That will ease people's worries about their inability to pay the water charges. Apparently, the problem is simply that Irish Water has insufficiently communicated how grateful we all should be to pay €500 a year for water, on top of what we already pay. We are being told that if we pay water charges, investment in water infrastructure will automatically increase. We know that the opposite happened in Britain. Contrary to the experience with bin charges and despite people's widespread instinctive understanding, it has been suggested that if water charges are implemented, water charges will not increase and privatisation will not inevitably flow. I would like to make it clear to the Government that it is not the manner in which the latest austerity robbery is taking place that is the real problem. The real problem is the robbery itself. Irish Water, with all the powers it has, is the Frankenstein creation of the Government. Its specific purpose is to impose this bondholders' charge on people and to prepare for privatisation. The communications problem here is a problem of the Government, which is wilfully refusing to listen to the 100,000 people who took to the streets on the Saturday before last, to the people who voted in the by-elections earlier this month, or to the 1 million people, representing two thirds of households, who have refused to send back the so-called application pack.

I would like to spell out the message clearly. Working people across the country do not want these water charges. They do not want some false concessions that will be taken away in the future. They do not want a temporary postponement that will be used to prepare for a more vigorous imposition of these charges in the future. They are demanding the abolition of these water charges and the disbandment of Irish Water. All the indications are that they are prepared to mobilise to achieve that demand. It is extremely significant that 1 million Irish Water forms are still outstanding. There is talk of extending the deadline, but it has already been extended. It was extended on 30 September by the Commission for Energy Regulations in its documents. It is simply a ruse to try to get people into the system. The Government and Irish Water are running scared on this issue. Those who have received the Irish Water forms at home should take confidence.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Socialist Party)
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They should tear them up. They should send them back in protest.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I ask the Deputy to resume his seat.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Socialist Party)
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If we refuse to register and refuse to pay, we will beat these water charges.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I ask the Deputy to respect the House. That type of gesture is inappropriate in the House.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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It is very respectful-----

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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It is not, Deputy Higgins.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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-----to bring the concerns of 1 million householders in here.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Deputy Higgins. You are here long enough to know the rules of the House as well as I do.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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Yes. It is very respectful to bring the concerns of 1 million householders in here.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I am not going to harp on about Irish Water. We know that its public relations set-up and everything else about it has been in trouble from its very concept. It is really a farce. As I listened to the debate all night, I heard everybody talking about water. We have got to realise that if we talk about water as a commodity, we are going down a dangerous road. The service of water is what we should be on about. As the chairman of a group water scheme, I put in meters along with the rest of the committee ten years ago. We found that to be a great success in conserving water. The first thing one must do before one talks about charging for water is get water quality right. When I was in Cloonfad, Ballaghaderreen, Boyle and Strokestown yesterday evening, there was not one glass of water. I have often taken water out of a bog hole to put into a machine that was of a better quality than the water those people are being asked to drink.

I can see a few problems that need to be addressed straightaway as part of the whole water debacle.

9 o’clock

People do not want to give their PPS numbers. The Minister should declare that Jack, Tom, Mary, Keith or whatever the person's name is fine for filling in the forms.

Proper allowances are needed. After ten years of working on a voluntary water scheme, the Government has decided to cut the amount of water that people need to meet their basic human rights. A family of two adults and two children needs approximately 140 cu. m. The system's administration will cost a great deal of money, as it involves the Government spending on social welfare payments to which people are entitled as well as on the Revenue staff engaged in it. This is like asking someone to buy a crashed car for what the full price would be were it fixed.

Another problem came to my attention today. Where there is no supply of water from Irish Water and people are boring private wells, a new requirement has been included in their planning permissions by local councils whereby they must connect to the network when Irish Water eventually comes to the area. This is wrong. Account must also be taken of rainwater harvesting. Be it for six months or a year, the Government should stand back, get this project right, ensure that people are treated right and listen to them.

Debate adjourned.