Tuesday, 2 December 2014
Water Services (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Water Services Act 2013, to make provision for Irish Water to be fully subject to freedom of information legislation, for the creation of a dedicated independent ombudsman for resolving disputes related to Irish Water, and to make provision for Irish Water to be a fully public owned entity which is prohibited from entering into a public private partnership, and to provide for related matters.It is important the Government listens and seeks to find some compromise on the whole issue of water services. The Bill will amend the Water Services Act 2013 to ensure the board of Irish Water is fully subject to freedom of information legislation. It will create a dedicated independent ombudsman for resolving disputes related to Irish Water. We know there have been many disputes with the company already. The Bill proposes Irish Water be made a fully publicly owned entity and be prohibited from entering into a public private partnership without recourse to a referendum. The Bill also proposes the Minister will direct the subsidiary known as Irish Water within two years of establishment to provide for an insurance policy to all customers with respect of water leakage and damaged infrastructure in their property and homes.
It is important we proceed with this Bill, despite all the fanfare and damage limitation measures announced in the House over two weeks ago by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Rarely has the House witnessed such a brazen and arrogant delivery of so-called reforms from a Minister more concerned with his legacy than listening to the people of the country, not to mention Tipperary.
The creation of a dedicated independent ombudsman for resolving disputes related to Irish Water is absolutely vital.
Much has been made of the Government's commitment to establishing a public forum on a statutory basis to ensure the voice of the people is heard. While these are laudable goals, we should not fool ourselves that a forum with significant statutory powers will emerge from the process. There is a big difference between providing a space for people to talk and acting upon the words spoken. Just ask the Ministers of this Government who were denied access to the Economic Management Council, which consisted of the big four members of Government. If Government Ministers can only apply a rubber stamp to decisions of this council, what hope has the public of being heard?
The Government record on reform and the introduction of a more participatory democratic process is one of abysmal failure, as noted by Deputy Mathews a few minutes ago. On a practical note, what model will the forum follow? What weight will be accorded to the opinions of members of the public who engage in the process? Why do we need another model when an ombudsman with clear and forceful statutory powers to act in the public interest is a better alternative? We already have an ombudsman with plenty of experience. Like many aspects of this debate, I believe the forum is designed to give the appearance that the Government is listening when the opposite is the case.
The matters I have mentioned are linked to another provision in my Bill that seeks to have the actions of the board of Irish Water fully subject to freedom of information, FOI, legislation. Section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 1997 provides that regulations may be made to extend the Act's coverage. I am aware that in January the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, agreed to the principle contained in the Bill but it is unclear whether the FOI provisions he has spoken of will extend to the merged boards of Ervia and Irish Water. I believe this merger will require amendments to the Gas Act 1976 and the Water Services Act 2013. I hope the debate on the Bill will provide an occasion for such clarity to be secured.
In any event, more debate is required on the mechanisms to hold Irish Water accountable. We must try to tame the beast that is Irish Water because one issue after another has led to trouble. I feel we must focus more on the issues of insurance policies, leaks and damage to water infrastructure. Irish Water has shown itself to be arrogant and out of touch with the call-out charges it submitted to the regulator. If these charges are allowed, they will have a more detrimental effect on family incomes than the capped charges. The price of capped charges for three years would not match call-out charges and associated costs.
I know my time is almost up. The Acting Chairman will tell me when I should finish. The Government Whip need not be so glib because the people of Wexford will not have time for him at the polling booths.
This Bill is an effort to bring honesty to this area and show respect to people. The costs relating to call-outs will massively exceed capped charges. The Government Deputies are only codding themselves because the people are not buying this. The legacy of the Minister, Deputy Kelly, will be a sad one. We will not speak of John F.K. but a sad Alan F.K. from Tipperary. I hope the Government will not oppose this Bill. I hope it will be debated, amended as necessary and discussed openly and fairly. Ná bí ag magadh. This is a serious issue and the Government should not pour cold water on the fire. It is a fire brigade reaction to an honest effort by me.
I never resigned and I do not know what Deputy Kehoe is talking about. He will have to correct the record in two weeks, like the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. I never resigned and I ask the Deputy to withdraw the remark.
Paul Kehoe (Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I withdraw the remark about Deputy Mattie McGrath resigning. Perhaps he left Fianna Fáil, rather than resigned.