Thursday, 11 December 2014
Water Services Bill 2014: Committee Stage (Resumed)
There was an interesting and important intervention from the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd. It is all the more reason why, if this Bill is passed and Irish Water goes ahead, this section needs to be significantly strengthened. Is the Minister talking about a binding plebiscite? A plebiscite is a very different proposition from a referendum. Whether it is right to put the right to water into the Constitution is an entirely separate debate that would have to include other rights.
Some of the points others have made about this section are very well made. It does not state that the Government “shall” hold a plebiscite. The word “may” is much too weak. The provision has to be much more certain. It has to be certain that it is binding, otherwise I would have to question whether this is just a fig leaf to say it has been addressed. Like many things, it is being addressed superficially. It needs to be addressed in a much more solid and meaningful way.
I listened with interest to the Minister’s response on Tuesday night. I was greatly disappointed that the Minister did not address my core point. The Minister announced here on 19 November that the public ownership of Irish Water would be nailed down and that water services could not be privatised without the explicit approval of the Irish people. That is not what is in this legislation. The Minister is deceiving the public. I would like to put that more strongly but I cannot under parliamentary rules.
The Minister is deceiving the public in what he said because that is not in the legislation. The legislation states that a government, if it is to dispose of and privatise Irish Water at some future date, needs the majority of one in Dáil Éireann, the majority of one in Seanad Éireann and then it may or may not put a plebiscite to the people. I put down a very simple amendment which states that it "shall" put that plebiscite to the people and the Ceann Comhairle has ruled it out of order based on the Standing Orders of this House.
As an alternative I have put forward amendment No. 5 which deals with the principle we are talking about here, ensuring that it is clear that the State-controlled assets, which are being handed over to Irish Water, cannot be privatised at any future date if the boot-boys from the EU come in here to tell us we are in serious financial difficulty and we have to flog off the assets of Irish Water to the highest possible bidder as quickly as possible. My amendment would force a situation such that it would take not only a majority of the Dáil and Seanad but of each of the 95 municipal districts across the country to approve. Without writing it into the Constitution that is the best way to protect the assets of Irish Water and ensure they remain in public ownership.
The Minister and his Labour Party colleagues say they are putting the protections in place to ensure the assets cannot be privatised. There is nothing new or additional in this Bill that would guarantee that. The former Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd, said in his contribution here on Tuesday night that previously there had been an agreement to make it explicit in the legislation that the assets could not be privatised. That has evaporated. Interestingly, Deputy O’Dowd said there is a hidden agenda to privatise these assets in the long term.
I cannot understand why the Minister has not explicitly inserted in the legislation that it must go before the people. He has not even been prepared to defend that. In respect of my amendment he has said that a future government will not look to dispose of the assets of Irish Water and the water supply in this country and that my amendment is too cumbersome. Cumbersome to whom? Cumbersome to a future government that wants to privatise the assets of Irish Water.
If the Minister is sincere in what he says, my amendment deals with the concerns raised by his party and the thousands of people who were outside this building yesterday and many thousands more, who are very concerned about the potential privatisation of water. It proposes putting a very simple procedure in place that each of their local councillors across the country would have a direct say before any decision could be made. In such a system and mechanism it would not get the agreement of all 95 municipal districts across the country. That would put a critical safety valve in place to ensure we do not see again a situation such as arose when the EU masters put a gun to the late Brian Lenihan’s head. They will not be able to put a gun to the heads of the 95 municipal districts across the country. That will ensure that not only Irish citizens have a say but every individual in this State, over the age of 18, who has been legally resident in the country for at least 12 months, has a say through his or her local councillor in what should happen to the assets of Irish Water.
The Minister will again argue that he will do what he says but he did not do what he said on 19 November. The Government did not do what the then Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd, said here 12 months ago next week, that people in County Roscommon or anywhere else who have a boil water notice in place would not pay for that water. They will face bills on 1 April next of €130 for a family in an urban area. The Minister promised us on 19 November that the boil water notice in County Roscommon would be lifted imminently. That is not happening. There is even confusion between the local authority and Irish Water as to when the boil water notices will be lifted.
The Government is being disingenuous in the commitments it is making in the House and in what is happening in practical terms on the ground. For the Minister to come in here and say he is reassuring us in this House and the public that no future government would privatise the assets of Irish Water is not good enough. This section in the legislation which deals with a plebiscite is nothing but a fig-leaf because it is deceitful to tell the public that there is such a plebiscite in place when it is written in black and white in this legislation that this is not the case.
If the Minister is serious and genuine, I urge him to accept my amendment, which provides for a belt-and-braces mechanism that would ensure Irish water cannot be privatised at some future date. This is the only mechanism that would make such provision without having to put it explicitly into the Constitution. It seems the Minister's colleagues in Fine Gael are vehemently opposed to taking the constitutional approach, although I believe many of his colleagues in the Labour Party are anxious to see it happen.
It is nice to see that we can resume the debate on water charges, given that the sinister fringe has gone home. The Government feels safe again - mistakenly - now that tens of thousands of people are no longer outside the Dáil. The debate on privatisation inspired by these amendments gets to the core of this matter. I expected slightly more of a fig leaf from the Government on privatisation. When it started talking about privatisation and taking account of people's concerns about it, all the music initially suggested that the Constitution would be amended, or at least that a referendum would be absolutely essential. The Government's strategy has been badly exposed by the wording of this Bill, which essentially tells a future Government that it "may" have a referendum on the privatisation of water charges if it wants. No future Government will need the permission of this Government to have a referendum or pass legislation on anything it wants. This useless and meaningless line in the Bill before the House will not bind any future Government or any future Dáil to anything, especially given that the ability to repeal this legislation will lie in the hands of such a Government and such a Dáil in any case.
Deputy Naughten hit the nail on the head when he picked up on the use by the Minister, Deputy Kelly, of the word "cumbersome" when the Minister was responding to the Deputy's amendment No. 5. Cumbersome is precisely what we want. Cumbersome is precisely what the Labour Party and the Government as a whole were supposed to be arguing for. They may have forgotten that they are supposed to be saying "do not worry, nobody is ever going to privatise it". They are supposed to be making it as cumbersome as possible for anybody to privatise it in the future. The best way to do this would have been to include a provision in the Constitution. In the absence of such a provision, it should be done by any means possible. The notion that an amendment like that proposed by Deputy Naughten should not be made because it would make things cumbersome is somewhat bizarre. It exposes the reality that Governments are open to the idea that water may be privatised in the future. It points to the sinister agenda of the elements that were referred to by the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd. I would say those elements are twofold - they are political and they are in the European Commission. Together with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, the Commission has driven water privatisation across Europe. The privatisation of water was an integral part of the troika deal in Greece and Portugal. It would have been an integral part of the deal that the previous Government here did with the troika if water charges had been in place in this country at that time. If water is to be attractive for privatisation in the first instance, it has to be commodified by means of the introduction of water charges.
The amendments proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance are fairly simple, obvious and democratic mechanisms that should be accepted by the Government. We are proposing that the McKenna judgment should apply to any plebiscite in this area so that the Government cannot spend huge amounts of money promoting its side of the referendum. I think people would see this as entirely reasonable, given that the purpose of a referendum is to ensure a decision on a specific question is made by the people as a whole rather than by the Government. Another one of our amendments seeks to make it clear that the Government should not be allowed to row in with massive financial resources. We are also proposing that the vote should be extended to all residents of this country who would be affected by the privatisation of water.
Two days ago, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, said he had gone around the country to listen to the reasonable people of Ireland. The phrase "reasonable people of Ireland" seems to have replaced "middle Ireland" in the rhetoric of the establishment in this country. The Minister told us that the reasonable people of Ireland have decided that they will pay these modest charges because they do not have a problem with them. The Government was confounded yesterday when tens of thousands of these reasonable people - up to 100,000 of them - turned up outside the Dáil to say they are still opposed to paying the water charges. They are still demanding that there should be no privatisation of these water charges.
The Government has exhibited a twofold response to yesterday's events. First, it has tried to talk down the scale of the protest, which was massive by any stretch of the imagination, especially given that it took place on a weekday during working time. Yesterday's immense protest filled two sides of Merrion Square fully and went from there all the way down Nassau Street to College Green. I suggest the size of the crowd was heading towards 100,000 people. It does not do the Government much good to deny that the protest was so big and to claim that the number of people was smaller than that. The people who were there know they were there. The people whose friends went know their friends were there. The people whose family members went know their family members were there. People know it was an immense protest and an expression of their refusal to be bought off, to be fooled or to be scared.
The second part of the Government's response to yesterday's protest is to suggest that everyone who was in attendance is a supporter of Sinn Féin and the so-called hard left. If that is the case, the Government has more problems than water charges. If we can conjure up 100,000 people to take to the streets during the week, the Government is facing a serious crisis that goes well beyond water charges. The Government's response will not work. The people who were at the protest are moving to the left. They can see through the lies of the Government and the establishment parties. The vast majority of them are not politically aligned. They are reasonable people who can see that regardless of the introductory rate of water charges, those charges will increase and will ultimately lead to privatisation. Will the Government continue with its delusional and arrogant response? It seems to be saying "so what, you can protest all you like, we are the Government, we are going to ram these things through". If it continues to act in such a manner, it will be surprised again by the next protests. Above all, it will be taken unaware by the level of the boycott that will meet these charges in April. I believe that boycott will sink the water charges and take down the Government.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate again. Yesterday's huge protest showed that people are not going to be browbeaten on this issue. Irish people understand the power of the boycott and of feet on the street.
Section 2(1)(b) of this Bill is nothing less than a total act of deception by the Labour Party and Fine Gael. Regardless of whether people agree with paying for water for a third time, through the water charges that are being proposed, I have not met anybody anywhere - not a single constituent - who does not want water services to be kept in public ownership. Fine Gael has got that message. People want water services to be kept in public ownership. We were told the Minister would put in place a measure to this effect. The Labour Party disgracefully voted against a Bill I introduced in this House two weeks ago, which would have provided constitutional protection in this regard. I offered some simple suggestions about how this could be done. Given that the Government intends to hold a number of referendums next year - we will be supporting some of them - it could have put my proposal to the people on the same day. I suggest it would have been carried by the people. I proposed that we should provide in the Constitution that water services could not be privatised and would be in public ownership forever, unless the Irish people decided to change the Constitution again to provide for privatisation, which is not something I believe they would ever do. The Government failed to accept my proposal. It is a disgrace that the Labour Party voted against it.
I tabled an amendment to this Bill to try to provide for constitutional protection in this regard, but it was ruled out of order. I have received no explanation for that. Other Deputies have tabled similar amendments. Amendment No. 6, in the name of Deputy Naughten, would have proposed that the section of this Bill stating that any attempt to provide for privatisation "may" be put to the people in a referendum should be changed to provide that this "shall" be done. He told me he has received no explanation for the decision to rule that amendment out of order. Another amendment that is before the House proposes that the approval of each local authority municipal district would have to be sought before privatisation could take place. This provision would offer some level of protection because Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and Independent local authority members would not dare to support such a measure. Local councillors on the ground are closer to the people. They do not live in a bubble. They have to face the people every day. They would not dare to support privatisation.
The former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, has spoken in this House about the manner in which draft versions of a previous water services Bill were handled. He said that protections in terms of privatisation were removed from drafts of the Bill when they were presented to him, even though he had been told that such protections would be included.
Deputies have spoken this morning about the lobbying and potential power of the bureaucrats, the troika and the rest of the dead weight on top of us. Perhaps the hand in all of this is closer to home. Perhaps people in board rooms are influencing officials to change documents and trying to prevent words like "may" being turned into "shall", but such a protection would be a simple way of ensuring that Irish Water could not be privatised. The Labour Party should stand up and the Minister, as its deputy leader, should do the right thing. People on the street, regardless of whether they march or are for charges, want Irish Water to be kept in public ownership. Amendment No. 5 provides some level of protection. The Government needs to accept it. Not accepting it would be a betrayal by the Labour Party.
Section 5 is an act of deception. The Irish people want water kept in public ownership. They want this protection. The Government should give control back to them. Do not give it to others today.
I am pleased to be able to contribute. I support the amendments, which the Minister seems hell bent on rejecting. He did not even want this debate. We went through two or three interactions with the Ceann Comhairle at the commencement of the debate. Thankfully, we are discussing it.
Where many aspects of this Bill are concerned, but especially these amendments, I plead with the Minister to listen to people and not to couch words in the legislation to give him an "out" or wriggle room. From the outset, this issue has been a fiasco. When the Minister was appointed, he promised us that he would sort it out after taking two weeks or however much time he needed to deal with all of the issues, but he has not done so because greater powers are at work in the interests of privatisation.
In fairness, the Minister did not oppose the Water Services (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill that I introduced last week. Obviously, it must wait in the queue, but the Minister could have accepted it in the interests of being honest with people and showing them that he was meaningful and trustworthy. He did not. Nor has he done so in this legislation. It is all spin and talk. There will be no block to a future Government selling Irish Water - the real story is that this is being readied - at the behest of the troika or someone else.
My clear understanding is that we have an explicit derogation from Europe as regards charging for water. I do not know why no Minister will answer that question. I hope that the Minister present will. The derogation will be removed in early January 2015. We are crucified with different types of European legislation, but we have a hard fought derogation in writing in this respect.
I listened to those who were outside yesterday. Many thousands of other people could not travel because they had work or businesses to run. At this late stage, will the Minister accept the basic change proposed by Deputy Naughten's amendment? The Minister has adopted a hard-nosed approach against it.
There are boil water notices. Obviously, there will be temporary interruptions and boil water notices in areas regardless of who is in charge. At least the county councils communicated. They had the help of the Civil Defence. I thank the Civil Defence in my county for delivering boil water notices to households. Its members know the area and had the information. Thankfully, there is a memorandum of understanding with the county council as regards services. Other than that, though, one cannot get answers from Irish Water. I put questions in the Dáil two weeks ago but I have still not received answers. Irish Water claimed it had never heard of the issue of blocked sewers in private gardens despite having been contacted by Tipperary County Council. Irish Water will not allow the municipal district council to free up those sewers as the latter always did. The situation with Uisce Éireann is spin, deceit, brass necks, arrogance, bonus cultures and the worst of everything possible.
A Bill was rammed through the Houses almost a year ago and signed into law on 25 December 2013. As we all know, 25 December is a special day across the world. I do not know why the legislation had to be signed into law that day or why anyone other than the emergency services would be at work. Why was there indecent haste?
It is important that we have a referendum - my Bill contains this provision - before entering into any sale process or public-private partnership. I went that far. It is a simple proposal. The people will accept nothing less because they do not trust this or future Governments, whatever the composition. A Government might be forced, as happened on the night of the bank guarantee. I have said it hundreds of times - I could make a record - that I was forced to vote for that. It was the biggest mistake of my life because we were told lies and were bullied by other powers. The same could happen in this instance and we would use it as an excuse. Catch me once, it is my fault. Catch me twice, it will be very serious if it happens. The people will not accept it. They want Irish Water disbanded. The Minister is facing them down, but he will have to meet them sooner rather than later. As I stated recently, they will be able to deal with him one to one. They will write his epitaph. He spoke of his legacy on the evening he launched his changes in the Chamber. It will be some legacy. It will be an epitaph written by the people through a rejection of the policies-----
I am speaking through the Chair. The Labour Party was well regarded and respected. The Minister wants to wipe it out of existence. That will be his legacy. Will it not be a proud one? Decent people in Tipperary fought and worked for that party.
During the children's referendum, the Government was caught with its hand in the till. The €3 million that the House voted to the independent commission to run the referendum was siphoned away. A man had to challenge that in the courts. A five-member Supreme Court found unanimously that the Government had misbehaved and directed it to withdraw its information from a website, etc. The issue has never been debated despite a debate being requested hundreds of times. A Supreme Court decision was ignored and the referendum continued without any debate in the Dáil. If any other citizen did that, he or she would be locked away. Some people seem to believe that they are mightier than the law and the Supreme Court. I remember the then Minister, Deputy Shatter, claiming that the High Court had found the Government to be acting correctly. When Mr. Brian Dobson challenged that because the Supreme Court was a higher court, Deputy Shatter said "No" and wriggled with his words. Where is he now? Tá sé imithe freisin. He is gone, thanks be to God, from that office anyway. There will be many more Ministers gone because of their arrogance and hard-nosed dismissal of the public. Similarly, the Government turned the mandate it received from the people in their faces. It will be their turn next to turn it in someone's face. They are ready, able and waiting.
Even if we have a referendum, the powers, spin and big business interests can get involved. Companies are getting contracts despite not being registered. I happen to be a small businessman. I tender for works. I have tendered to Irish Water. One's company must be set up and tick all of the boxes. However, some can get a big, lucrative job without any registration. I do not know how. Again, there has been special treatment for an elite group. This is fundamentally flawed and wrong. It is a scam. Deputy Naughten's amendment would change one word. That is all we should need.
I mentioned hard water. Half of Clonmel town, which Deputy Healy, others and I represent, has a major issue with it.
That gives rise to an enormous cost for people and many of them cannot afford it. Even if they can bear the cost, it is still putting a great deal of pressure on them. It costs up to €2,000 to install the equipment that takes the lime out of the water and there is the ongoing cost of treating it every month with salt and other commodities. A huge amount of water is used nightly to flush out these systems. People's allowances will be used up after a few nights. I have referred to this issue in several parliamentary questions I have submitted to the Minister, but there has been no acknowledgment of it.
I do not know how some local authorities have been getting away with providing such a poor service. If any other business person was selling a poor product, various agencies would be in to inspect them, and rightly so. No other company would be allowed to sell a contaminated product. It is apparently acceptable, on the other hand, for householders to have to put up with boil water notices. In Clonmel, Golden and other parts of Tipperary, consumers will now be charged for this faulty product. That should not be legal, but people do not have the energy or money to challenge it in the courts. If one gets a bad ice cream in a shop or a bad beer or bad meal in a pub, one can complain and get a refund or some other form of redress. Where necessary, businesses will be shut down on health and safety grounds. We hear about that happening regularly. Uisce Éireann, however, is being given carte blancheto write its own rules and abide by those rules.
The Minister, Deputy Kelly, has been at great pains to emphasise that he was not in office when the original legislation was introduced and the President was disturbed on Christmas Day to sign it into law. The former Minister has gone on to greener pastures. He was lucky to get out of the burning fire just in time, but he will have to come back some day. Meanwhile, his colleagues must face the fire. This matter is now in the hands of the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and I do not know why he will not act reasonably and accept these honest and sensible amendments. Instead, he came into the Chamber this morning seeking to prevent this debate.
I saw the Minister approaching the Ceann Comhairle and I heard his utterances. The Ceann Comhairle was not too pleased with what he heard. Where is the openness in that? Is that the legacy the Minister wants? It is some legacy.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his forbearance; I am almost finished. Members of the Government are saying they have listened to what people are telling them, but clearly they have not. Do they want to see another march in Dublin in January? Business people trying to make a living in this city could do without that. Gardaí are needed all over the country; they should not all have to be here in Dublin to oversee another such event. I thank them for their efforts yesterday, by the way. I also thank the marchers for the joyous and good-spirited manner in which they conducted themselves in spite of the hardships they face and the cost of travelling to the march. Peaceful, honest protest is a good and right thing.
The Minister is turning his face and refusing to listen to any sensible proposals from Members on this side of this House. It is a sad day for Ireland and for democracy here. I rest my case.
What we are proposing in amendments Nos. 7 and 8 is that the users of water services should have a say in any plebiscite. People on all sides of the House should avoid continually using the word "citizens" given that we have a significant number of people living in this country who are not citizens. The point was made the other night that 24% of the constituents I represent in Dublin West were born outside Ireland. Some of them have since attained citizenship but others have not. Nationally, 12% of people living here are not citizens, but they are being asked to pay water charges. As such, they should have a say in any decision regarding the ownership of Irish Water. We should be careful of the words we use. Our other request in these amendments is that the McKenna judgment should apply to any plebiscite that is held on this issue.
I am sorry the Ceann Comhairle is not in the Chair because I also wanted to ask why a whole series of amendments has been ruled out of order. For example, a key issue that is now emerging in the public discourse is the refusal of the Government to accept the word "shall" instead of "may", as set out in amendment No. 6. One of the key points the Minister made when he introduced the Bill was that he would guarantee there would have to be a plebiscite - he actually referred to a referendum, but what we have in the Bill is a plebiscite - on any proposed change in the public ownership status of Irish Water. It is now clear that the Minister is not willing to accept any degree of compulsion on Government in that regard.
I wonder why the Ceann Comhairle ruled out this particular amendment. The usual grounds for so ruling is that the proposal would impose a cost on the State. How could the inclusion of the word "shall" in this section involve a cost to the State? Is it the case that we are not allowed to propose the holding of a plebiscite because that would cost the State money? It is farcical. This issue will not go away. What we discussed here in the Chamber at 12.30 on Tuesday night is now in the public domain, contrary to what the Minister wanted. The people who make the decisions to rule certain proposals out of order should have to explain why they did so.
The idea that is constantly peddled from the Government side that nobody in this House stands for privatisation of Irish Water is a nonsense. Who said that? There are many Deputies in this House who are neoliberal hawks and stand for the privatisation of absolutely everything that moves. The idea that they would somehow oppose the privatisation of Irish Water in a broad brush-stroke way is absolute nonsense.
Another important consideration emerged during the debate late on Tuesday night. We have all seen how the troika twisted Ministers' arms for the past six years. We have heard how they made Ministers of this Government do things they said they did not want to do back in February 2011. It was not Labour's way after all; it was Frankfurt's way. What is to stop the troika, EU or IMF from putting pressure on any future government to privatise the water service? I do not know why the Minister considers that so unlikely. Everybody outside this House considers it highly likely, based on this Government's performance since it came to office.
I would like an explanation as to why amendment No. 6 was ruled out of order. It does not incur any cost to the State. Is it the case that we are not allowed to advocate a plebiscite because holding one would cost the State money?
It is unfortunate that Deputy Naughten was not allowed to outline the reason he was given for his amendment being ruled out of order. It would be helpful to have that clarification.
The Minister must see that nothing short of a referendum will satisfy the people. Despite what he says, he clearly is not listening to what he is being told. I wish to refer to an analogy I heard being made by one of the members of the Detroit water brigade who travelled here yesterday to take part in the demonstrations. Before doing so, I must say that I cannot understand why the Labour Party is not being much more robust on this issue. The Minister is insisting that Deputy Catherine Murphy's amendment is too restrictive and the other proposals are too cumbersome.
I would have thought that the Government, if it wants to respect the will of the people, would be seeking to ensure that water services will never be privatised and will remain in public ownership.
The analogy to which I refer is that which relates to the monkey and the crocodile. In this old story, the monkey is trying to cross the river and the crocodile knows that it cannot reach the other side without some help. The crocodile says, "Monkey, jump on my back and I will bring you across". The monkey is very nervous but he eventually jumps onto the crocodile's tail because he has to get across the river. The crocodile begins to swim across the river and says, "Lovely day, nice weather" and asks, "How is your family?" When the monkey tries to answer, the crocodile says, "Move to the middle of my back because I cannot really hear you". The monkey very nervously moves to the middle of the crocodile's back and chats away. Then the crocodile says, "Move a bit closer. I cannot hear you and I want to have a chat with you". The monkey, again very nervously, moves forward. After two minutes of conversation the crocodile turns his head and grabs the monkey between his jaws. When the monkey asks, "Why are you eating me", the crocodile replies "It is in my nature to do so".
This analogy reflects the position with regard to international capitalism. Huge water companies, such as Veolia, etc., are encroaching in countries across the globe in an effort to have public services privatised. If the Minister were serious about this matter, he would introduce the most robust legislative provision possible in order to ensure that our water will protected from the big multinationals to which I refer. Nothing short of a referendum to amend the Constitution will facilitate this. If the Minister does not ensure that it will be necessary to hold such a referendum in order to allow the people to have their say, then that will be his and the Government's legacy. I urge him to think again and to inform his colleagues - as the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd did - that he is not happy with what is proposed because it leaves the door open. He should inform the other members of the Cabinet that we do not want a situation similar to that involving the monkey and the crocodile to befall the people of Ireland or the country's water services. The Minister should make provision for a referendum - to be held in conjunction with those which are already planned - to protect public water in this country under the Constitution. If he does this, the many people and communities that are extremely concerned about this matter will be happy.
Irrespective of which side of the debate on which they find themselves, the one matter on which members of the public are in agreement is that there should be no privatisation of Irish Water. They are concerned that we have already begun the process in this regard as a result of the involvement of Denis O'Brien and GMC Sierra. They are very worried that at some point in the future those to whom I refer will become the owners of Irish Water, which will then - to the detriment of households throughout the country - become a for-profit organisation. The people want a referendum to amend the Constitution in order to prevent the privatisation of water services.
When this whole idea was first mooted by Deputy Costello, the members of the Green Party originally involved in drafting proposals to introduce water charges and Jack O'Connor, general secretary of SIPTU and the man who has acted as the mudguard of the Labour Party in recent years, it was nothing more than a diversionary tactic. The Bill before the House is the result of that. On 19 November, the Minister effectively promised that a referendum to ensure water services would not be privatised. When introducing the Bill on 4 December, he stated:
Section 2 provides for a plebiscite on the ownership of Irish Water. It provides that where a government proposes to initiate legislation to amend the existing legislation that sets out the ownership of shares in Irish Water, such a proposal cannot be initiated without a resolution from both Houses of the Oireachtas. Subject to such resolutions being passed, [the Minister should listen to the next part] the Government would then be required to submit the proposal to a plebiscite of all people eligible to vote in a referendum on a proposal for an amendment to the Constitution.On 19 November and 4 December the Minister stated that the Government would be required to hold a referendum. As he well knows, however, the legislation before the House does not reflect what he said publicly on either date. There is no requirement on the Government to hold a plebiscite. Section 2(1)(b) states that "if such Resolutions are passed, the proposal may, if the Government decides to proceed with the proposal, be submitted by Plebiscite to the decision of the people". What is contained in the Bill does not, therefore, reflect what the Minister said on 19 November or 4 December, what the people want or what he gave them to understand.
It is clear that the Government wants neither a provision included in the legislation to prevent the privatisation of Irish Water or an amendment of the Constitution. It had numerous opportunities to ensure that the company will never be privatised but did not take them. For example, it refused to accept a Bill relating to this matter which was introduced by Sinn Féin. Deputies Stanley and Donnelly tabled amendments to the legislation before us in which they called for the Constitution to be amended by way of referendum but these were ruled out of order. The Minister also had the opportunity to make specific provision in this regard in the Bill but he did not take it. On foot of the debate in which we are engaging, he still has the opportunity to change his mind and ensure that a requirement to hold referendum to amend the Constitution in order to prevent privatisation is included in the legislation.
The Minister can bury his head in the sand if he so desires. The facts are, however, that despite what he said publicly, he and the Government have decided that there should be no requirement in the Bill to hold a referendum to amend the Constitution in order to prevent the privatisation of Irish Water. We can only assume from this that, at the very least, there are people on the Government side - the Minister may be among them - who want to privatise the company. That is why the Bill does not contain a provision to prevent this eventuality.
I wish to ask a number of questions relating to matters the Ceann Comhairle ruled out of order. What is the status of the €100 rebate that will be provided to all registered customers of Irish Water? Is this rebate designed to allow Irish Water to be set up as a semi-State company outside the Government sector? If it is not, then this money would be considered a subsidy. Is the €100 subsidy for non-registered customers of Irish Water a "thank you" gesture, as the Minister has stated, or is it a compulsory measure designed to get the company off the ground?
Will the Minister respond to those queries?
There is considerable concern in rural areas over private wells. In many instances, people have been given grant aid to drill for a new well or upgrade an existing one. They would like to be assured that they will not be liable for water charges in any respect in the future. Will the Minister clarify that? Those concerned have spent a lot of money, especially those who did not get a grant or for whom grants were not available. Will the Minister assure them that they will not be brought into the charging system in any way for using their private water systems?
I support the basic thrust of the amendment. We have had this debate on Second Stage. The streets of this city and elsewhere have comprised a very public forum over recent weeks and months. Many people may have varying views on how we fund our water and sanitary systems throughout the country but there is a very strong view that Irish Water, as an entity, concept, company and utility, is just not acceptable to the Irish people, for many reasons. People are seeking assurance on what will occur if this proposal is bulldozed through. It is regarded by the Minister as a very fine idea that has been brought about by much thought.
It is the company itself that people have great concerns about. They are concerned about the way in which it was established. Since its inception, it has been mired in difficulties. It has lost the trust and confidence of the people and many Members of this House, including some Deputies opposite. Note should taken of that. The Minister should embrace the thrust of this amendment quickly because many people are losing a lot of patience. There is genuine concern, not only in the context of the protest. There are ordinary people who regard the funding of water services as a necessity but who regard funding them through the Irish Water mechanism as anathema to their views. The Minister should park this legislation. He should embrace the thrust of the amendment before us, at the very least, to give cast-iron assurance to the people. However, he is giving cast-iron assurance to the people about a company they do not want in the first place. That is the bigger issue at stake.
Former Minister of State Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, a very fine parliamentarian from County Louth who had responsibility for the NewERA document and Irish Water, has said in this House that he is genuinely concerned about forces, even dark forces, in the context of how the company could end up. He referred to the pressure being applied for its establishment and to its potential route towards privatisation. The Minister has dismissed him, as is his entitlement. I would not hurriedly dismiss Deputy O'Dowd and I certainly would not hurriedly dismiss the thousands of people who have genuine concerns about Irish Water as an entity and its privatisation. The amendment and thrust of this debate this morning are reflective, if only moderately, of people's view of Irish Water.
In December 2014, we are facing a period in which people will simply not comply with signing up to Irish Water, although they may view the funding of water services as necessary to ensure we have adequate water and sanitary services that are not polluting rivers and seas. However, because of the arrogant, bull-headed approach being taken by the Government in the context of this legislation to establish a company that will not achieve its aim, the trust and confidence of the people in the project of investing the billions of euro we are told are required to ensure proper water infrastructure will not be gained. The Minister is sitting here insisting he will railroad through this legislation against the will of many in this House and certainly against the will of the people. Legislation should always take into account the greater good and the noble good. In this context, Irish Water is far from achieving that aim.
In a way, by accepting this amendment or even proffering the view that it should be accepted, we are giving legitimacy to Irish Water. That is why I believe the Minister should think long and hard and allow time for reflection. There is nothing wrong with tearing up a plan, especially a bad one; it is actually a good thing to do. The Minister is going down a route in respect of which he has lost absolutely the confidence of the people. This is not just a political view from this side of the House; it is evident on the streets of this city and all over the country, and it is evident in polls taken by national newspapers. I am not saying we should be governed by what happens on the street or what is reflected in polls but that there will come a time when the people will just not accept what is occurring.
Reference has been made to the number of people signing up. Let us not fool people: the reason there has been a rush of people signing up to Irish Water in recent times is that people are signing up who have their own septic tank and water supply. Of course, they are. The Minister knows as well as I do the real reasoning behind it.
If the Minister gives me the figures, we can debate it further.
The purpose of Irish Water, as the Minister says, is to invest and conserve. Certainly, on the basis of any assessment of the proposals that are before us, that will not be the case. Irish Water has been castrated in terms of its ability to borrow on the markets. It will simply be incapable of doing so because it will not have the financial base committed to previously when the Government originally talked about charging a family with two adult children €500. Obviously, pressure was exerted and the Government yielded to it, and rightly so. However, we are now in circumstances in which the Government is neither able to borrow, invest or conserve because there is no incentive to conserve. For all these reasons, I ask the Minister to consider the amendment. We are really asking him to consider an amendment to ensure the entity can never be sold although it should never have been set up in the first place.
The whole point of this Bill was to respond to the expressions of outrage over and opposition to water charges, Irish Water itself and people's fear that the establishment of the company is a prelude to privatisation. It was supposed to be the Minister's response, proof he is listening and his reassurance that people's worst fears will not, in fact, be realised. Yesterday, we got a clear statement that people do not believe the Minister's assurances. For 70,000 to 80,000 people — that is my estimate — to have come out on the streets midweek after the Minister made his so-called concessions was an absolutely decisive rebuttal and rejection of his assurances, including those made in here.
It is a decisive statement that people do not trust the Minister when he states that Irish Water will not be privatised.
Lest there be any doubt, as I have heard some rather ridiculous comments on numbers yesterday, any demonstration that can fill three sides of Merrion Square, and where the end of it is at College Green and people who are arriving at College Green cannot move all they way up to Merrion Square, is vast. I got at least four telephone calls from people on College Green stating they could not move. It extended all the way up Nassau Street and on three sides of Merrion Square. The demonstration for the late Ms Savita Halappanavar was 20,000 people on one side of Merrion Square. We had three sides of Merrion Square and all the way down Nassau Street to College Green and some commentators stated there were 30,000. Who were these commentators?
Where were they standing? Did they have eyes in the back of their head, did they have eyes that could see around corners, or were they, in fact, shivering in the cold near the back gate of the Dáil asking us how many people there were, looking at our estimates, looking at the Garda's estimates and deciding it was somewhere in between? According to those who were stewarding the demonstration, and calls we were getting, they were all the way down to College Green, there were more coming down from O'Connell Street and they were on three sides of Merrion Square. If that is not 70,000 to 100,000, I do not know what is. That happened mid-week, in the bitter cold.
Fianna Fáil will be glad to hear this little story. Up the front, I heard a big gang of people saying they have been life-long supporters of Fianna Fáil and voted for that party all their lives, but they were protesting. They said they did not agree with my politics, but they were there because they are absolutely opposed to these water charges and they know it will lead to privatisation.
There were grannies. There were young people. There were disabled people. Every sector of Irish society was represented. I was on the radio yesterday and in response to a Government spokesperson who said it was only the radical left and Sinn Féin supporters, a garda said, "You must be joking. I know of hundreds of off-duty gardaí who are on the demonstration". The Minister, Deputy Kelly, can no longer fool people.
This is an attempt to fool people again. Having said that the Government will not privatise Irish Water, the Minister uses in the word "may" when it comes to a plebiscite. Do the people think it will be "may" or "may not", or "will not", as all three are open to interpretation given the wording in the Bill? Of course, we got that answer yesterday. In case there would be any doubt, the Minister will get that answer again on 31 January, when towns, cities and villages across the country will again mobilise. There will be no dispute about numbers then because it will be seen in every town.
On the different provisions of the Bill, such as the use of the word "may", and what is happening in Irish Water, we learned from the people from Detroit. I do not know whether the Minister listened to what the people from Detroit were saying, but it was interesting. I had not been aware that the Detroit water system is still in public ownership. They said that while it is nominally in public ownership, like Irish Water, it is completely privatised. Everything is outsourced to the private sector. The private sector runs, controls and finances it. They made the important point that it also uses off-balance sheet financing for their water system. The people from Detroit pointed out it was precisely the issuing of bonds from the Detroit water system that had forced up water charges to astronomical, unaffordable levels.
Should we not know this from what we have learned about bonds generally? If one borrows to finance a public entity but all of the funding comes from the private sector, the bondholders call the shots. Once the Government finances this entity through off-balance sheet financing, it is, in fact, already privatised regardless of the nominal status that the Minister may accord it in law. Of course, we can see that with our own eyes in terms of the hollowing out by private interests of Irish Water even at this point by GMC Sierra and all of the private consultants who have had a feeding frenzy on the set-up costs of the utility.
The Minister's assurances are not credible. That a proposal "may" rather than "shall" be put to a plebiscite is the giveaway that the Minister knows his assurances are worth nothing, that they are a gimmick to defuse the unprecedented popular rebellion against these charges, against Irish Water and against the Government's plans to privatise Irish Water. The people have seen through it. The Minister should have the honesty to admit, at least, what is going on and explain how this sleight of hand has occurred but the people already know what the Government is up to. The process of privatisation has started. The Minister is trying to facilitate it and all of this is merely smoke and mirrors to confuse people. He believes people are stupid out there but, believe me, they are not. The people have woken up. They have seen right through the Minister. That was evident on the streets and the Minister can be sure it will be again in the new year.
There are three issues here we need to deal with. One is the question of reassuring the public that Irish Water will never by privatised. The Government had one lock, that it is already forbidden in law, before any of our new legislation came in, that the Government cannot sell off water infrastructure. The second part of that lock is the proposal in this Bill, which no doubt will pass. However, the real triple-lock, what would solidify the fact that it will never be sold, would be a referendum on the issue. I do not see why we do not do that. I see no reason whatsoever not to do it, unless the Minister may believe that there are some unintended consequences to such a referendum. The public wants it.
Some of the concerns might be about a referendum about the ownership of other entities, particularly energy companies. Views on that issue are not as strongly held as those on this one. I believe we should reach out. The Minister is in his wisdom listening to the people and listening to us here. He should reach out and hold such a referendum. If that happened it would put the argument to bed for all time.
In some cases, I was surprised at the decision to do so. It was not mine to make to rule out a number of the amendments.
There are issues that have been raised by Deputies in regard to other sections of the Bill and I will deal with their questions through those sections, if that is agreeable. On the amendments that have been tabled, Deputy Catherine Murphy's amendment refers to requiring the resolution from both Houses of the Oireachtas to be approved by two thirds of the Members. As I stated previously, I will not be accepting that amendment because it would place stringent conditions on future Governments in this regard and, potentially, set precedents which would not be helpful.
On amendment No. 7 in the name of Deputies Coppinger, Higgins and Paul Murphy, referendums should be based on those who are citizens of the State and we will follow that route on the basis of advice given by the Attorney General as well.
On amendment No. 8, which proposes-----