Friday, 12 December 2014
Water Services Bill 2014: Committee Stage (Resumed)
It is perfectly normal for companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds to speak of customers and consumers because that is what people are to them. People buy their products and those companies view people not as human beings or citizens but as consumers because that is what they do as far as such companies are concerned. The State should avoid playing into the same philosophy as large companies like that. The State should go the extra mile when forming legislation and should insist that the citizens of a country remain so and are not commercialised in this manner. Sadly, nowadays we build more shopping malls than community centres but I advise that the State should refrain from buying into this ideology.
As for the make-up of the forum, unless it is a body that has the potential and the will to challenge how an organisation such as Irish Water will operate, I will perceive it as being surplus to requirements and unnecessary. Similarly, the manner in which people are selected for committees, forums or authorities in Ireland is important but sadly it leaves much to be desired. There is a need for far greater independence in how people are selected. The question of who does the selecting is crucial because unless a truly independent body selects people, those who are selected can never be deemed to be independent. Members saw a powerful example in this regard recently with the appointments to the chair of the new policing authority and of the new Garda Commissioner, both of which clearly were political appointments. Both organisations are the poorer for it at a time when independence was something for which Members were screaming out and both organisations were entities that really could have done with it. In respect of this forum and its make-up, I suggest the Government should not establish any forum unless it is prepared to put in place an independent group to select those who will make up the forum.
I also support the amendment tabled by Deputy Stanley. The entire proposal is vague. Members do not know how many people will sit on it and it could be 13, 59 or 25 people. Will representatives of local authorities be on it? Will householders sit on it? What will be the selection criteria? Who will make the selection? Will they be consumers or householders or will they even be taxpayers in this country? How often will this forum meet? Will it engage with the public? Will those who sit on it be compensated? Will they receive expenses and who will pay for that? Will the forum have powers to make decisions and recommendations? If it makes recommendations, will they be implemented and at what cost?
I also am concerned by this proposal and in the Private Members' Bill I introduced, namely, the Water Services (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014, I sought that a specific ombudsman be put in place to deal with what will be a huge utility. Huge issues will arise and simple mistakes will be made, such as meters being appropriated to the wrong house. It is possible to make such mistakes, especially when there are multiple housing units and pipes using the same manholes or connections. While such errors can happen, at present the ordinary public cannot get through to Irish Water. This forum can be established and I note the section mentions the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. However, the Minister has told Members countless times that he is setting the prices. Originally, Members were told the CER was setting them but the Minister now states he will set them and he is trying to state he will set them fairly. Members are aware that the figures do not stand up and that the company will make a loss. Consequently, it will be obliged to get money from somewhere and while it will make a loss this year, it probably will double the prices in the next couple of years and then it will make the money. However, my worry in this regard is for the existing commercial customers, be they farmers, business people, hairdressers, shopkeepers or anything else. They will be crucified because they already are paying and at a good rate of payment. I note that in my native county, the rate is up to 98% but if the charge is going to be jacked up, they will be unable to continue. It is as simple as night follows day that the company must stay solvent and this is the only alternative. Otherwise, this off-balance-sheet talk will be out the window because the company will be obliged to get money from somewhere and the easiest way to get it is to charge the existing customers. Consequently, I am concerned about the proposed forum, with a minimum membership of 12 and a maximum of 60. It will be another talking shop and will be under the jurisdiction of the Minister. I do not refer to the present Minister but to any Minister in the future.
Accountability is needed in respect of this utility and Members should consider the Health Service Executive, because this company will be almost as big. One should consider the existing issues such as the pipeline programmes, as well as the issues that will develop. Why put the cart before the horse? Members should deal with this now. A specific ombudsman should be established to deal with queries. People will have reasonable queries, as they have with the county councils, where officials will negotiate and the public representatives often will intervene. A balance is agreed in respect of repair costs and everything else, matters are worked out and life goes on. However, this will lead to trouble after trouble because Irish Water is not accessible and people cannot get answers. I cannot get answers when representatives of the company attend the so-called information meetings for Oireachtas Members.
I have still not got the answers, either because they do not have them or, in many cases, they do not want to give them. This part of the Bill is flawed. We need a dedicated ombudsman appointed to deal with these issues.
It is important to oppose this section. On all my points concerning each section there is a caveat, which is that the Minister should abolish Irish Water and the water tax. This legislation is dead in the water and there is huge public opposition to it. People will not engage with it. Why the Minister is establishing a public forum to discuss the fact that money is not being brought in from the water tax is beyond me. He is putting in more structures that will be useless in six, 12 or 18 months' time.
The Government and its backbenchers are in cloud cuckoo land if they think this will actually work. If the Minister wants to bring this in, fair enough, but the section should be opposed. Deputy Stanley's idea to include households and commercial water users is better than nothing. However, they will be discussing where on earth the money is coming from because people will not be paying for this.
I am opposing this amendment which is clumsy and does not add anything to the section or to the Bill. Section 7(5)(a) states that one of the forum's functions is "to represent the interests of customers of Irish Water", and that is clear. Customers are the ones who use and pay for the service.
I do not understanding the wording in amendment No. 29: "and representatives of the trade unions with members in Irish Water". That is illogical and does not make any sense. I therefore do not support the amendment but I also think the section is completely flawed. A public water forum is just a sop. It is scant in detail and it is not clear how it would operate. In addition, its purpose is unclear. It is just an attempt to appease the anger that exists in respect of Irish Water.
Irish Water and the Minister with responsibility for it are accountable to the Dáil. We live in a parliamentary democracy, so the actions or inaction and all the problems with Irish Water should be dealt with and teased out in this Chamber. The people's representatives are elected to do that job. If we set up a similar talking shop for every semi-State utility company, it would make a joke of the whole democratic parliamentary system. I do not understand it.
This section is meaningless and will do nothing to enhance the functioning of Irish Water. It will not make Irish Water any more accountable than it already is. It is simply a populist stunt, which is unfortunate because it is dishonest. If the Minister was interested in genuine engagement on the functioning of Irish Water, he would be answering the questions he has been repeatedly asked here since last night. He would also be treating this House with a lot more respect than he has done so far. He would be interested in listening to Opposition amendments and accepting them. Instead, however, it is a repeat of what happened here last December. A public water forum, which is not clearly defined in this legislation and is, to my mind, just a talking shop, will not change that one iota.
I want to clarify what the amendment is about. It refers to "representatives of the trade unions with members in Irish Water”. Once Irish Water is fully established, there will probably be a number of trade unions of which workers within Irish Water would be members. The best way would be to have a representative of each trade union on the forum, but that could be unwieldy. In some other companies there is an agreed representative to represent the trade unions on the equivalent of this consultative forum. The trade unions themselves come up with a mechanism whereby they can agree who is to represent their members' terms and conditions. Sometimes, however, because the members of a company know the inner workings and are most visible in dealing or liaising with the public, their insights can be a lot more useful than others' who might be on that forum.
There are major problems with the way in which this public water forum has been suggested. While it is a good idea, we should have taken a different approach to it. Once again, despite the Government's promise of change and democratic reform, it all lies with the Minister to make the regulations and appointments. There is no mention in this section of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government, which is representative of most parties in this House and the Seanad. That committee would have a view as to how appointments should be done and who should be on the forum.
The section does not outline, which is common across other jurisdictions, that the forum should have a 50-50 gender balance. If society comprises 55% women and 45% men, then the board should have a minimum of 50% female members, if not more.
Pensioners are not listed as having a position on the forum, and neither are ethnic minorities or young people who will be served longest by this company. A range of people are not listed in the section, and while I am not saying that was the Minister's intention, a future Minister may not have the same view. If up to 60 people are to be appointed to the forum, it would be appropriate for the Minister to list them. The legislation should provide for that.
There is no mention of remuneration for the public or whether their expenses will be covered. If the forum is to be representative of the whole country, one member might be in Donegal while another is in Kerry and the meetings may be held in Dublin. There will be a cost involved. I am not suggesting that people should be paid to attend, but if we expect them to be on a public forum, at the very least their travel and other incidental expenses should be covered.
There is no mention of the breakdown of customers either. Will the Minister ensure that customers of public and group water schemes will be represented on this forum? The fact that the section does not, in this day and age, refer to trade union membership is a detrimental step. I am surprised by the Minister, although maybe I should not be.
I suggest that this section requires more substantial amendment than Deputy Stanley has proposed. We should ensure that is reflected if this Bill is to pass at any stage. I am opposed to the concept behind Irish Water, but if it is to be there, it needs to be the best possible company. It needs to be reflective and should listen to the public water forum.
In some ways, it is difficult to know what to say about the sham that we are witnessing regarding Irish Water. If Irish Water manages to bed down, which I doubt, then this amendment would alleviate the damage that Irish Water will do to the provision of water services. The fact that it will do damage is already very evident in just about every Member's constituency, given the joke that is people trying to contact Irish Water when leaks or bursts occur. They get the run around from the call centre or whatever it is, the call centre contacts the council, which just handed over its assets to Irish Water, and then the council and Irish Water fight so as not to have responsibility. Some body will sit around and recommend measures to deal with this fiasco, but the underlying problem is the fiasco itself. The best constituted public forum in the world would not be able to make head nor tail of it. I told the Minister last night that this fiasco deserved a place in a Charlie Chaplin film. In fact, I wonder whether we could have an honorary seat on the forum for Charlie Chaplin in absentia.
Irish Water will not work and will probably not last, but even what the Government has proposed in this section will not work. Many problems happen at local level. This is the folly of removing functions from local authorities. Although national co-ordination is a good idea, we do not need a super-quango to ensure it. We just need co-ordination between local authorities and a small body to oversee it. Many of the problems, grievances and issues that will emerge with Irish Water will be spotted at local level by the authorities' workers and the areas' residents. When bursts happen, people will not get proper responses, no one will come out to fix things, etc. The best sort of consultation forum is one's local authority. It has local elected representatives as well as local offices with real human beings whom one can approach instead of somebody in a call centre that, although it may be located in Ireland at the moment, will probably end up in-----
Yes. In a few years' time it will be outsourced to some other part of the world. This is laughable. Sinn Féin's amendment is at least an attempt to alleviate the damage and stupidity involved in this folly.
There seem to be holes everywhere in the Minister's numbers, with even more in this section. Will there be 12 or 60 members? We do not know. How will they be appointed? Deputy McLellan asked how much it would cost. Is this another item that we can set against Irish Water's projected revenue? We cannot quantify the cost of the conservation grant either. With these costs added together, we are moving closer to a situation in which the net revenue accruing to the State's finances - not the narrowly conceived finances of Irish Water, which we own, lest we forget - will end up being nothing. I am sure we will find a few more costs along the way in this debacle.
I oppose the section. The entire idea is mad. This is a desperate attempt to deal with the public outrage around this issue and to pretend that the Government is interested in listening. The real public forum has already been held on the streets and will continue to happen that way until this debacle is finally put to rest.
I add my name to the opponents of this section. The concept of a public water forum is to produce an overarching talking shop, but it is ill-defined in this context. Subsection (5) states:
The Forum shall have the following functions:(a) to represent the interests of customers of Irish Water;Is this code for the overall pricing of the water service charge? I believe it is. The Bill continues: "to provide Irish Water with comments and suggestions." This is like a customer relations division. As Deputy Boyd Barrett stated, it will probably be outsourced to Mumbai, where the cost of running call centres is approximately one third of what it is in Ireland per capita. The Bill continues: "to provide the Commission with comments and suggestions in relation to the performance." This is customer rating stuff. One sees it on hotels' websites. It further states: "to comment on any policy document produced by Irish Water, when requested to do so in writing by Irish Water." This is so convoluted, it is like trying to do somersaults and acrobatics at the same time. It continues: "to comment on any consultation document produced by the Commission in respect of public water and waste water services, when requested to do so by the Commission." That is like being on standby all of the time for a call that might never come.
The next subparagraph is the dynamite bit. It states: "to carry out such other activities in respect of such other matters as the Minister by order specifies." I do not know how many question marks one can include in "other activities" and "other matters". This provision is so open, one could just keep a finger on the question mark button. Whoever is the Minister - it might not be the Minister, Deputy Kelly, by that date - can order and specify anything in connection with the section. As such, it is really just a waste of print, paper and time. It has not been thought out. The entire thing is crazy.
Deputy Boyd Barrett was right. The customer-service provider relationship is on the ground. That is where events happen, water flows and leaks occur. Establishing a huge forum that is not even specified - "at least 12 and not more than 60 members" - is like creating a people concertina. It is building an illusion. This is Christmas, and some people will package a surprise that is low on substance but around which they put tantalising paper and ribbons. It does not fool us - it is an illusion.
On a minor note, Deputy Stanley's amendment does not quite hold water grammatically or in terms of sense, but we know that his heart is in the right place. He is on the customer's side.
When one talks about forums, I recall the turf cutting issue several years ago when someone had the bright idea of a peatlands council in which stakeholders were invited to partake. It was the greatest quango and talking shop, as well as the most useless thing ever set up to resolve a problem. People drew expenses for travelling to council meetings. It has now even gone so far as people get a wage out of it. For God’s sake, let us learn from past mistakes and stop setting up more quangos. Instead, people should be put on the ground to resolve problems and to scour water pipes across the country to ensure proper infrastructure is put in place. We should forget the attempts at appeasing through lip-service and get on with the real work on the ground to resolve water supply problems.
I support the concept of a forum because it is important the public has a say in what is happening with this new utility. Deputy Boyd Barrett is wrong in the sense that ESB Networks is a national organisation that responds very quickly at local level. This is a similar concept, so it is nothing new or different. The way Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about the issue, one would think there was never a burst water pipe before Irish Water was set up. It was set up for the very reason that there are problems with our water and wastewater treatment network. The Deputy is losing perspective on this.
Last night, Members wanted to compare with what was happening in Bolivia and elsewhere in the world. Why can we not look closer to home, north of the Border? Northern Ireland Water is a similar type of utility and deals with the same issues we are discussing. Last night, we discussed the installation of water meters in Northern Ireland for water conversation.
We can look at how Northern Ireland Water operates and how it deals with its public consultation process. Water meters are being installed in Northern Ireland for conservation. There is no reason that Sinn Féin should deny that. It has admitted itself that there is legislation there to do that. It might be useful to make comparisons with what is happening in Northern Ireland and Irish Water.
The intent behind the establishment of the customer consultative forum is to provide a voice for Irish Water customers so they can have a greater influence on how the company operates. Section 7 provides that the Commission for Energy Regulation shall be required to establish the forum consisting of at least 12 and not more than 60 members. It also provides that the Minister will make regulations in respect of the forum’s composition. It is important its membership is fully representative of the multitude of interests and concerns held by the various categories of customers serviced by Irish Water. This will include household customers, as well as various categories of non-domestic customers in a much broader way than envisaged in Deputy Stanley’s statement.
A customer of Irish Water is defined in the Water Services (No.2) Act 2013 as the occupier of a premises in receipt of water services. It is also referred to in section 1 of this Bill.
The forum is similar to the model used in Scotland and Wales. While I will not accept the Deputy’s amendment, in the spirit of co-operation, I will put the regulations governing this forum before the relevant Oireachtas committee before I sign off on them.
Deputy Creighton does not understand what a householder, a commercial water user or representative of a trade union is. I know she has a particular problem with trade unions. A member of a trade union is a representative of a worker in Irish Water. A householder is someone who lives in a house, a flat or an apartment who has a public water supply to it. A commercial water user is someone who has a commercial water supply to his or her premises. In the case of my family, it fits into that category. The reason I set this out was to nail down in legislation that these three key sectors will be represented at the forum.
From Sinn Féin’s point of view, the key forums are local authorities. We have opposed this mad project from day one for several reasons. Politically, morally and from the point of view of efficiency, it does not stack up. Reforming local authorities was the way to do this. The Government, however, has gone down the road with this model. The Dáil Chamber is in danger of being side-lined as the Government pushes ahead with this project. Irish Water will become like Bord na Móna with an annual report to the Minister and the odd appearance at an Oireachtas committee but nothing more. I recognise all of this. I am concerned about democracy being side-lined with the Dáil and local authorities supplanted by boardrooms. We have seen the pressure people in boardrooms can bring to bear on this Parliament. We have seen how powerful they are in media and political lobbying. The real deal for democracy is stronger local and national government.
The Minister, however, is steaming ahead with his project. I hope it does not succeed. As he does so, the problem is we have a duty that these sectors are represented. There are 949 local authority members across the State. How many of them will be on this forum? Will it be guaranteed that there will be some local authority members on the forum and board? They have been elected. The Government can set up the monster quango of Irish Water with all of the costs paid by the taxpayer and keep it all up there. The reality is, as outlined by Deputy Mattie McGrath, that if there is a problem on the ground, it is the local authority which fixes it. How many of local authority members will be on the forum? If none, why is that the case? Has LAMA, the Local Authority Members' Association, been contacted on this? Has the LGMA, Local Government Management Agency, or its director, Mr. Tom Ryan, been consulted? How will members of this forum be selected? The Minister has significant powers in this regard. What criteria will apply to the selection of the chairperson, the key position in any forum?
Deputy Liam Twomey should note Sinn Féin would not hold Northern Ireland Water up as a model of perfection. It was set up by the British Government during the time of direct rule. We are constantly working to improve that company as it has significant shortcomings. Some of these were shown during the big freeze winters several years ago. Water from Louth had to be brought in for households and facilities in County Down.
As poor and as bad as the service might be in Louth, Louth County Council had to help out Down. We are saying this honestly and openly. We would not hold it up as a model of perfection. There are huge problems with Northern Ireland Water, some of which we have overcome and some of which have not been overcome.
I am aware that the definition of a customer is contained in the 2013 legislation but there seem to be contradictions in this legislation. It is not redefined anywhere that a customer is any different from the definition set out, but there appear to be voluntary and involuntary customers and a separate range of rights and entitlements. I presume that all of these pieces are supposed to hang together. Looking at the definition of a customer in section 7 and then at the definition in section 8, it says that a customer must be registered with Irish Water to enter the dispute resolution process. It seems that a customer is a different thing depending on whether they are a voluntary or involuntary customer. They are either a customer or they are not. I do not believe the definition in this legislation is adequate.
I acknowledge that the Minister said that he would look at making the regulations in consultation with the committee and, hopefully, the Government will look at that aspect when setting up anything like that. There is a body of people in here who have the interest, if not the expertise, which should be used far more in terms of Ministers making regulations as they are the ones who have dealt with the legislation, often well in advance and sometimes in far more detail than the Minister. It can and hopefully will be useful for that to happen in order that the Minister produces the regulations and goes before the committee where the regulations can be teased out, corrected and altered in whatever way.
I tabled two amendments for later discussion but they were ruled out of order. They concerned duties around the Irish language. This is not contained in this legislation so if there were a public water forum, it would be something that should be raised. All State companies are supposed to come under the provisions of the Official Languages Act. This is a new company that was set up a number of months ago and it does not come under the provisions of the Act. I know of people who have tried to complain to or raise issues with Irish Water as Gaeilge and who have not been communicated with. I went to An Coimisinéir Teanga and he told me that because it was not in the legislation, he-----
I am happy to inform Deputy Stanley that I know precisely what a trade union is. My issue is with the actual wording of the amendment. It is clumsy and does not read logically. That being said, I do not believe that it would be a positive or progressive step to create yet another talking shop for trade unions. That is part of the culture that existed under successive Bertie Ahern Governments which acted directly against the interests of Irish consumers and taxpayers. While I consider the entirety of section 7 to be completely irrelevant, redundant and a talking shop, I certainly would not support the proposal that it become a talking shop for trade unions as well. I oppose the section but I also oppose the amendment.
I feel that Sinn Féin is a unique position in this House in the sense that it has responsibility for Northern Ireland Water, which is very similar to the structures being set up here. I agree with Deputy Stanley that there have been huge issues with Northern Ireland Water. The Deputy is right. Only a few short years ago, tens of thousands of people had no water for days, so there will be issues and I have no doubt that there will be teething issues with Irish Water as well. Sinn Féin's knowledge of this would be very useful to House in respect of how we roll out Irish Water and what happens, because it did have direct responsibility for Northern Ireland Water.
Sinn Féin never proposed dismantling Northern Ireland Water and giving responsibility for the delivery of water back to local authorities, so Sinn Féin recognises that there is a role for an organisation like Irish Water, in the same way as there is a role for Northern Ireland Water, to deliver a proper system of clean water and to get rid of wastewater in an appropriate fashion. Sinn Féin could make a very valuable contribution by making comparisons in this House with what happened with Northern Ireland Water. Pointing out the problems with Northern Ireland Water is as important as pointing out the good things.
Taking up the last point, we learned this morning from Ofwat, which is the water regulator in the UK, that the average charge across the UK is approaching £400 per household. It shows the fate that could lie ahead for this country. Thames Water and a number of the UK water companies were deeply involved subcontractors to some of the Irish local authorities so they know the water and drainage conditions of large parts of this country. When one looks at the history of water services in the UK, one can see that in that kind of so-called market, services involving the most basic and precious product on the planet - aqua vitae- were starved of investment. This is the fate that many of us fear lies ahead when a future Government, if not this one, might proceed further along the road to privatisation.
I again warmly welcome Deputy Stanley's amendment which aims to give householders some kind of an input into the future direction. I would not be very hopeful about these kind of fora because we have seen them in other bodies. I think colleagues have referred to this. In particular, I note that in the financial services sector before the crash, there were a number of so-called consumer fora which were supposed to advise the Governor of the Central Bank on the kind of conditions that were happening in credit situations, mortgages and so on. The general feeling is that those fora were talking shops and did not work because the Central Bank, as part of the European system, and the Government, through its fiscal policy, made the decisive moves.
I have never had much confidence in the Commission for Energy Regulation in terms of energy regulation. When I was the Labour Party spokesperson on energy for a long time, I found that I was knocking my head against a brick wall in respect of energy costs. For example, for the past couple of months, we have seen oil prices going through the floor and companies are still gouging us. The Government takes a lot as well but companies are gouging us in terms of petrol and diesel week after week.
I am not sure about the situation in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's constituency of Galway East but it was only in the last day or two that petrol and diesel prices remotely approximated the fall in wholesale prices due to the massive increase in production in the United States and Canada. The introduction of a huge new element in production in these countries has eased the vice grip of the Middle East. Disgracefully, gas prices also increased.
This is the regulator that the Minister has in store for us in respect of Irish Water. I have no confidence in that regulator. Similarly, I have no confidence in ComReg. As we know from mobile telephone charges over the years, there were situations in which companies were allowed to do what they liked. They were able to gouge us right, left and centre. They got away with murder, including the so-called roaming charges. While Deputy Rabbitte was Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, I told him that we all know what the companies do. They have a cartel and they pay each other huge sums of money to go between 086, 087 and 085 prefixes. Ultimately, however, the consumer pays.
I have no confidence in the regulatory system as it has developed in this country. It was modelled on the UK system but it is not remotely as effective as that system. Having a forum of some description would allow ordinary householders and small businesses to have an input. I have been a strong supporter of small businesses all of my life, and I am currently the director of a number of small business centres in communities in the northside of Dublin, including in particular Coolock Development Council. It is critical that their voices are heard on commercial water charges. Deputy Stanley has taken the right approach in this regard. We might expand the proposal to provide for other groups to be consulted but we should not be taking a restrictive line.
This is the first time I have been on my feet since the disgraceful suspension of Deputy Shortall. Last night we asked for figures which we should be given, as Deputies representing the 4.5 million people of Ireland. The Minister refused to give us those figures.
He refused to engage in an excellent debate precipitated by Deputy Donnelly. We were trying to have a Committee Stage debate but, unfortunately, we were closed down this morning by the Ceann Comhairle. The suspension and the vote were despicable actions by the outgoing Government.
I protest this in the strongest manner. The Deputy is a senior Parliamentarian and former Minister of State. One of the best Parliamentarians in the history of this House was treated shamefully.
----- the debate to conclude. We thought the Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, were going home to do their obair bhaile and would come back in to us with numbers. We thought they would be up to 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., sweating through the figures -----
I strongly support this amendment. I would go so far as to say that householders should have a majority, or certainly a very strong representation, on such forums. I outlined a number of scenarios that currently exist and which underpin the need for such representation. Dealing with Irish Water reminds me of the difficulties which arose with regard to medical cards.
The point I am making is that the public and public representatives cannot talk to anybody in Irish Water. We can only reach a call centre, and this gives rise to considerable frustration and anger. Every backbencher in this Chamber knows that what I am saying is 100% true. I asked the Minister on two occasions, yesterday in the context of section 3 and again this morning, to respond to my questions on sewerage blockages. This is something that happens on an almost daily basis but Irish Water is refusing to clear sewerage blockages. In the past, local authorities cleared such blockages. Nearly every backbencher in this Chamber has encountered situations in which Irish Water refused to clear blockages regardless of whether they were on householders' properties or public land.
I am disappointed in the Minister's reply. He is not for turning but there will be a big turn when the public get their chance, and he will find out where he ends up. I introduced legislation, the Water Services (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014, which would provide for the establishment of an ombudsman for water services. The difficulties for people trying to contact Irish Water are so big that it is a no go area. I must admit that I got a contact after my visit with Irish Water to the area of Mullinahone. I have a live number. I had to phone this person last Friday evening, and I thank him for sorting out a problem.
The forum is a talking shop. We are discussing a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 60 members but the Minister has powers to approve who is on it. It is like the peatlands forum. Volunteers - genuine people from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's part of the countryside - gave their time free of charge on that forum while other people from agencies got paid and took expenses. That is the disgusting part. It will also happen in respect of the Irish Water forum. The issue of financial remuneration has been raised. Volunteers and pioneers constructed the water schemes around the country. There are always volunteers who will work for nothing but the ethos of Irish Water has been a gravy train for certain people. The people who are working for Irish Water on the ground are doing their job. It is not their fault. If I contact a helpful official who tries to resolve an issue, I will acknowledge that.
Two weeks ago, Irish Water workers fitted a meter for a parish priest in my town of Clonmel but because they did not turn the water back on, he had no water for two days. Luckily enough he had the wine and water in the chapel but he had no water in his house. He rang Irish Water repeatedly but he might as well have been ringing Timbuktu. That is the problem.
He got his torch and his screwdriver and got down on his knees - he looked like he was praying outside the parochial house, but he was not - and he turned the lever and turned it back on. Things like that will happen. It was not an accident. It was deliberately not turned back on in case there was a leak.
Yes. What will the forum do? It will be another talking shop. Will a person telephone the forum? Where will they find the forum at 5 p.m. on a Friday or on a Saturday or a Sunday? Who will be on the forum? It will be stooges of the Ministers, with which they have packed every other board since they came into power.
For a man who sits in the Chair, he is very petulant when other people are talking. I am addressing the Chair. I am not talking to him. I have no interest at all in him. The people of Cork will sort him out when it comes to it. I just want to say-----
I am not a lick, like some people. I come here to represent the people and give my views as best I can. I can use robust language too and I thank the Minister for withdrawing any remarks he thinks he may have made last night. I am able to take it and to give it as well.
The Commission for Energy Regulation has been an abysmal failure, with the ESB, PSOs, the charges-----
I am addressing the amendment. The CER will look after the forum. The Minister told us yesterday and on other occasions that he sets the prices. We were told the CER was to set the prices but it has been relieved of that role by the Minister. I am addressing this very amendment, a Cheann Comhairle-----
I support it because the CER is directly mentioned in it. He thinks he will appoint people but he will be relieved of that duty as well. He was to set the charges but he was relieved of that duty by the Minister. He will also be relieved of the duty to appoint members to the forum, whether 12, 34, 35 or 60. This is a worry I have.
We are talking about a forum and we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We are talking about something that will be out of date. Irish Water will be up and running and the forum will have nothing to talk about only the weather or a trip to a foreign country to see how things are done there.
It states a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 60. Getting the right people is the problem. The people who understand things - the volunteers and the community enablers - should be on this forum. They would be willing to give their time voluntarily if they were listened to. Pioneers, including Deputy Fitzmaurice, a new Deputy, who pioneered group water schemes know how hard it is to work this. They dealt with all the regulators and set up systems where people are happy to pay for water because they do not want to draw it from wells with buckets and barrels. Those days have passed.
In deference to the Ceann Comhairle, I will conclude my comments because I know we have to finish at 2 p.m. It is Christmas time and we have to do a bit of shopping and whatever else. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his forbearance.
One of the success stories of this Dáil has been the Constitutional Convention. That type of forum can work well. What we want to achieve is the creation of a forum which will allow people to highlight and address issues many of us highlighted and spoke about, including that highlighted by Deputy Healy.
Some of the remarks about the staff of Irish Water have been downright disingenuous and very unfair.
I am referring to that. The forum, as I understand it, will include the people who use water. We must also remember the board of Irish Water is in place and there is a corporate structure with a chief executive.
Yes, a Cheann Comhairle. The forum, as I understand it, will represent the interests of the customers, the people to whom Deputy Stanley refers in his amendment, including the householder and the commercial water user. Perhaps we need to see more dialogue and communication, which is what the forum is trying to do. I welcome that. Any of us who attended and spoke at the clinics-----
Any of us who spoke at or attended the clinics of Irish Water in Leinster House will recognise that this is an opportunity for us to engage with it. The important point here is that the forum will allow a channel of communication and will allow for the stakeholder, which is the citizen, to engage properly in discourse with Irish Water. Rather than oppose it, we should embrace it as a model going forward where we could see other public bodies taking the views of their users on board. There is nothing worse than dialling a telephone number and being asked to pick a suite of options before getting to talk to a person.
What we are doing here is giving an opportunity to the citizen, the user, to engage or interface, which is the new modern term, with one another. Rather than oppose it, we should embrace what the forum is trying to do and see how it works. The reality is that if we do not, we will have missed an opportunity.
I am opposed to this amendment not because of the amendment per sebut because it extends a concept which is flawed and a sign of weakness. I will elaborate on that to a greater extent when the section is debated. Surely the forum for Irish Water should be in this House. This Government promised us-----
That is grand, Deputy. The amendment from Deputy Stanley, which is before the House, asks us to consider including others, other than those mentioned in the section. That is what we are speaking about. If you want to speak to the section, I will certainly call you when it is being debated. Please speak to the amendment.
As I said earlier, at least the Sinn Féin amendment is an attempt to specify that the people who should be represented are represented. I refer to the customers and the people who actually work in Irish Water. We need people who know the system and know what is going on. If this forum consists of yes-people who have been appointed by the Minister, it will be no more than a way of rubber-stamping the Government's view of what Irish Water is doing. I do not doubt that in such circumstances, it will come to the conclusion that Irish Water is a wonderful success, everybody loves it and the customers think it is hunky-dory.
I am speaking specifically about how customers are finding it extraordinarily difficult to raise the issues that are of concern to them with Irish Water. I am suggesting that the body proposed by the Minister will fail to change this. Sinn Féin's amendment, which is being proposed against a general background of debacle, fiasco and almost guaranteed failure, tries to provide for some specificity regarding the membership of that body. I agree that the members of the board should be representative of the customers, rather than merely being cronies and stooges of the Government or Irish Water. While I oppose this whole idea, if the Government insists on it then we should ensure the customers and workers of Irish Water have a majority on this forum in order that it can have any function whatsoever. I think it will have very little function because it will be dealing with a dysfunctional entity. I would like to ask the Minister one more question at this point. Do we have actual figures on the costs of the mini-quango that he is talking about setting up?
An interesting sort of language is being used during the debate on this amendment. A previous speaker introduced the language of citizenship to the debate even though it is clear that this amendment relates to customer relations. The corporate idea of having a relationship with a customer is incorporated in the ethos of this Bill. A citizen is a person of a community and of a political community. Rather than availing of the opportunity presented by the local authority system to involve democratically elected councillors who represent the interests of citizens, it seems that an opaque and inaccessible forum is being devised as part of the total corporatisation of Irish Water services to shift the system away from citizens. On Tuesday at 10.30, there was a degree of plausible deniability on the plinth of the Dáil where the previous Minister was blamed for everything. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, did not blame the former Minister, Phil Hogan, for what happened with respect to the destruction of our democratically elected local authorities.
I thank Deputies for their contributions. It is important to point out that a customer is anyone who gets a service. Not everyone is necessarily registered. Section 8, which is about dispute resolution, provides that one has to be registered. That might help Deputies. I assure those who have commented that this is being done for the right reason, which is to ensure everyone can give feedback. As I have said already, I accept the spirit of the Deputy's amendment. I will send the draft form of the regulations that will set out the costs and numbers, etc. in this regard to the committee. The committee can come back to me. I have made a fairly clear commitment that we will make decisions based on the committee's recommendations. I cannot make a clearer commitment.
I was asked whether I have spoken to local authority representative bodies on this issue. No, I have not. I will do so. Like the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, I have spoken to them on a number of occasions. I presume the appropriate time to do so will be when the actual law is passed rather than beforehand. This amendment is in the right spirit. The new forum will not be a talking shop. It will allow customers to bring forward any issues they might have. It is based on a model used in Wales and Scotland. Other representatives will be able to bring forward issues if needs be. As regards the numbers, I admit that the band provided for in the legislation is quite wide. When I am making decisions on the draft regulations, I will take on board whatever the committee says about the numbers. I can genuinely say I have no set figure in mind.
This section of the Bill provides for the principle. It has been designed deliberately not to be very specific. I want to take on board the views of the committee. I have said on numerous occasions that I will welcome those views. I will also welcome the committee's recommendations about who should sit on the forum. If they believe representative bodies such as trade unions should be represented on the forum, obviously I will not have any issue with that. It is possible that local authority members will be involved. I will look at whatever is suggested. It is pretty open-ended. I will make some recommendations about the draft regulations and send them to the committee. I will make a decision on the basis of what the committee returns to me. I will absolutely take on board the committee's recommendations. I am making that commitment to the House in the spirit of the amendment that has been proposed. Many of the references that have been made to people who should sit on the forum, including in the amendment, will be borne out.
The Minister has said he will not contact the Association of Irish Local Government until after the regulations have been made. He also said he does not have a problem with this. That is the problem. The composition of the forum will depend on what the Minister of the day thinks about who he or she wants to be there. In this amendment, my party is attempting to set out specific categories such as householders, commercial water users and trade unionists.
The issue with the Association of Irish Local Government is that substantial powers have been taken from it. I suggest in the specific context of this amendment that it comprised a democratic forum. The county and city councils used to make the water plans. They had to prioritise. Their members made a significant input into the annual water plans. That has now been removed. It is not good enough to say they may or may not be there. The Association of Irish Local Government deserves the respect it has been given by the millions of people who elected our authority members, regardless of what party they represent, last May. The 949 people who were elected and the people they represent are entitled to respect. I hope they will not be treated in such a shambolic fashion in the future. We need to start recognising local government as a key foundation of democracy.
- Richard Boyd Barrett
- Tommy Broughan
- Dara Calleary
- Joan Collins
- Michael Colreavy
- Barry Cowen
- Pearse Doherty
- Stephen Donnelly
- Timmy Dooley
- Dessie Ellis
- Martin Ferris
- Michael Fitzmaurice
- Tom Fleming
- Séamus Healy
- Colm Keaveney
- Michael Kitt
- Mary Lou McDonald
- Finian McGrath
- Mattie McGrath
- Michael McGrath
- Sandra McLellan
- Micheál Martin
- Catherine Murphy
- Paul Murphy
- Seán Ó Fearghaíl
- Aengus Ó Snodaigh
- Jonathan O'Brien
- Maureen O'Sullivan
- Shane Ross
- Brendan Smith
- Brian Stanley
- Peadar Tóibín
- Mick Wallace
- James Bannon
- Tom Barry
- Pat Breen
- Richard Bruton
- Ray Butler
- Jerry Buttimer
- Catherine Byrne
- Eric Byrne
- Ciarán Cannon
- Joe Carey
- Paudie Coffey
- Seán Conlan
- Paul Connaughton
- Ciara Conway
- Noel Coonan
- Marcella Corcoran Kennedy
- Joe Costello
- Lucinda Creighton
- Jim Daly
- John Deasy
- Jimmy Deenihan
- Pat Deering
- Regina Doherty
- Robert Dowds
- Andrew Doyle
- Bernard Durkan
- Damien English
- Alan Farrell
- Frank Feighan
- Anne Ferris
- Terence Flanagan
- Eamon Gilmore
- Brendan Griffin
- Noel Harrington
- Simon Harris
- Tom Hayes
- Brendan Howlin
- Heather Humphreys
- Kevin Humphreys
- Derek Keating
- Paul Kehoe
- Alan Kelly
- Seán Kenny
- Seán Kyne
- Ciarán Lynch
- Kathleen Lynch
- John Lyons
- Michael McCarthy
- Helen McEntee
- Gabrielle McFadden
- Dinny McGinley
- Eamonn Maloney
- Mary Mitchell O'Connor
- Michelle Mulherin
- Dara Murphy
- Eoghan Murphy
- Gerald Nash
- Dan Neville
- Derek Nolan
- Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
- Kieran O'Donnell
- Patrick O'Donovan
- Fergus O'Dowd
- John O'Mahony
- Joe O'Reilly
- Willie Penrose
- John Perry
- Ann Phelan
- John Paul Phelan
- Brendan Ryan
- Alan Shatter
- Emmet Stagg
- David Stanton
- Billy Timmins
- Joanna Tuffy
- Liam Twomey
- Jack Wall
- Brian Walsh
This whole idea of a public water forum is a total joke. When discussing amendment No. 29, I referred to the existence of public forums - the local authorities - which used to mean something. Representatives are elected to these authorities and these individuals can then be consulted by people. In the past, they had offices in local areas and individuals experiencing problems with their water supply could call in to discuss the matter with the relevant officials. Alternatively, they could phone their local councillors and inform them of the existence of a leak or a burst pipe and ask for assistance. All of this has been rendered superfluous by the establishment of Irish Water. The public water forum is a pathetic sop designed to try to pretend that the public and workers will have some input. In reality, they are going to be obliged to deal with call centres. As with most of the call centres with which people are obliged to deal these days, the centres relating to the forum will soon be outsourced to God knows where. When people experience difficulties with their water - as happens week in and week out - they will be obliged to phone someone in Scotland, India or God knows where. They will phone someone in Irish Water who, in turn, will contact the local council. The council will call Irish Water back and state that the matter is not its responsibility and the council will say it is not its responsibility either.
If I could explain the relevance of my contribution to the Ceann Comhairle, the Minister outlined that the purpose of the section is to ensure that customers have some representation in terms of dealing with the issues that arise with regard to Irish Water.
On Committee Stage, we deal with the detail involved. The detail in this instance relates to the establishment of the public water forum - full stop. We are not discussing what may happen in the future or whatever. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy but I am obliged to do so in accordance with the rules.
It cannot represent the views of those customers and it is a pathetic attempt to replace the bodies which did represent them, or the citizens or local residents, as I prefer to call them. The corporate speak in section 7 is alarming to say the very least. What is proposed will involve the corporatisation of a public service. This section is both ludicrous and completely ill thought-out. For example, we do not know how many people will serve on the forum or who those individuals will be.
Absolutely. They will be appointed by the Minister. We do not know if there will be 12 or 60 members. How much is it going to cost to run what is going to be yet another quango?
Against the broader background of our not knowing what will be the overall cost of administrating the fiasco that is Irish Water - that cost may reduce the revenue the company is supposed to generate to zero or close to zero - incredibly, another cost is going to be added as a result of what is proposed in section 7.
I am opposed to the section because what is proposed in it is ludicrous and completely meaningless. The best advice I could give to the Minister would be for him to reconsider this entire matter. He should remember that there are already public forums in existence. These forums are being rendered completely superfluous by the actions taken by this Government - in the context of the matter before the House - and those which preceded it. The Government is castrating local authorities and making them completely meaningless to citizens. People used to have a place to go in order to voice their concerns but they will increasingly be obliged to deal with mini-quangos - somewhere off in the distance and full of cronies and stooges - or call centres on the other side of the world.
This section represents what is probably one of the greater weaknesses with the legislation. In recent years we were obliged to listen to much talk about the abolition of the Seanad. In practice and theory, the section under discussion could be used to establish a forum with up to 60 members serving on it.
They could possibly meet three days a week if they wished. There is nothing in the legislation to stop them meeting. In this respect, are we looking at Seanad-lite? This was the Government that spoke about cutting down the number of quangos and abolishing them. This is a complete sop, a buy-off and an easy way out that no one will fall for.
I ask the Minister to consider withdrawing this section. In fairness to him, he has had a difficult few days in here but he is pragmatic and I suspect he is not really in favour of this section. I suspect this proposal came from somewhere else-----
-----that if we had not had McNulty affair, the book written by John Walsh, the former adviser to the Minister for Education and Skills, would have articulated a view on the way people have been appointed to State boards. This could give rise to tremendous abuse. I see no worthwhile purpose in having a group that potentially could have a membership of 60 people who could meet every day of the week if they so wished. It is nothing short of ridiculous and the section should be withdrawn.
I join other speakers in objecting vehemently to the inclusion of this section in the legislation. This is the democratically elected forum in which the spending of taxpayers' funds on behalf of taxpayers by the Government should be scrutinised. The mistake that was made, which precludes this forum from having any role into the future, was the passing of the first Water Services Bill. The funds used to set up Irish Water and to insert meters across the country, which combined came to the tune of €700 million, came from the National Pensions Reserve Fund when the Economic Management Council, that secret agent within the Cabinet, decided to use that route to fund this quango, this sorry debacle. That was the day this House was precluded from seeking answers as to how that fund was spent. We saw that 16 months ago when we asked many questions in the form of parliamentary questions and were informed that because of the way in which this entity was constructed and funded, this House - this authority, Oireachtas and forum that is representative of the Irish people - has no hand, act or part in questioning the way in which public funds have been spent in this area. That is the disaster that has been Irish Water since the get-go, since this sorry process began, and we are here today listening to what is nothing short of a sop to the public, to tell them that some quasi forum will resolve these issues. What role, prospect or indication is given within this section to allow for that petty forum? What accountability will it have? What questions will it be able to ask? Who will be obliged or accountable to it?
This mess began 18 months ago. The Government was offered the opportunity by virtue of the fact that it communicated to us that it was listening to us, the Opposition and the public. It eventually came out with one hand up and offered ten U-turns in an effort to appease the public, but it has not succeeded. It has failed abysmally again. This is one of the biggest disasters in the legislation. In is an effort by the Government to give the impression that it will continue to listen and take on board the suggestions that emanate from this forum, irrespective of who will be on it, and we do not know who will be on it.
The bottom line is that 166 people were elected to this House to act on behalf of the electorate, those who gave us the privilege to be here to question any spending of public funds by any Department and by any Minister lucky enough to be appointed by the Taoiseach. However, the way in which the Cabinet saw fit to set up this entity precluded any Member of this House getting information. The answers we get are that it is sensitive information and we cannot have information that emanates from it because of the way in which it was set up. That is ridiculous and, unfortunately, this charade will continue. I have no doubt that eventually there will be a review or probably a tribunal or an inquiry into the way this entity was set up, carried on and the loss of funds to the taxpayer that has carried on regardless. The Government is continuing along that road. The entity and the model it is using stands a fair chance of being rejected by the EUROSTAT test when we come to next March. The 44% subvention that it mentions is in danger by virtue of the figures we heard last night and by virtue of the fact that we will not have full compliance. That along with many other things will allow us to be back here again next March or April listening to plan B. It is unfortunate the Government will not give us any indication of what that plan might be. It will continue to keep people in the dark, and with the secrecy surrounding the spending taking place within this entity, this forum will get no closer than elected Members in this Chamber have got since this debacle began.
I, too, am disappointed with the response to the various amendments and to the points that have been put to the Minister and the Minister of State today. With regard to the forum and the question of accountability, the Minister was asked directly in the last set of questions to which he replied if he had he met the local authority representative member associations. There were a number of them but now there is only one, or there may be two. The Minister said he had not met them but would meet them after this is passed. That spells out for me what is wrong with this legislation. There is no engagement, listening or understanding.
Yes. I am coming to the issue of a public forum. What will it do? Will it just meet and wrap up the Bill in nice paper and send it to people as Christmas presents, if there will be no engagement or involvement? We need accountability. The Minister's predecessor and the Government abolished local democracy.
Okay. I will speak about the forum. Its membership will comprise of a minimum of 12 and can range to 60. I am a member of a number of voluntary companies limited by guarantee and the membership of all of them is a maximum of 11 and a minimum of seven. Why are 60 people required on this forum and who will they be? The point I have made about the forum is that it will not listen.
I am involved with an organisation that has made a High Court challenge on the abolition of the town councils. We believe they were abolished contrary to the Constitution and that was signed into law on 27 January 2014. We are dismantling democracy and setting up forums. This should be the democratic accountable House for all of this and where we should be talking about it, rather than it being talked about at some forum by people who are supposed to be appointed by the Commission for Energy Regulation, but from which the Minister has taken the power to set prices. Therefore, I am sure he will take this power from it as well because this power could be handy to put in people who are friendly and favourably disposed toward this, and I will not say any more on that.
The forum is a sop to make it look as if we have an accountable body, and maybe it can shift some of the blame on to it. The forum will be toothless and will not have any say. We do not know the type of people who will on it, what they will be doing or what they will have to do. Specifically, sticking to the point the Ceann Comhairle asked me to speak to, the forum is a nonsense because it will not have anything to do. The Minister is going to meet the representative associations after the whole thing is passed. That shows that the cart is being put before the horse. It is bad legislation. It was rushed through here last year and look where we are now. As Deputy Cowen said, there will be an inquiry into this sooner rather than later, and then we will all say why did we not listen, why did we not do something and were we a part of that at the time.
The key part of section 7 is subsection (4) which states: "The Minister shall make regulations in respect of the composition of, and the conditions of membership of, the Forum."
That should have been teased out and probably put into legislation itself. There did seem to be a system, for example, in regard to the Central Bank's forum which involved public advertisements. Any member of the public could apply for a number of positions on the forum. At the time, one or two constituents who were interested in the increase in grocery and retail prices found the consumer panel to be very useful and one of them secured a place on it through a genuine competitive process. One can understand the reservations Deputy Timmins and others have expressed about another useless, toothless talking shop which the forum could be, in particular a forum that is not in any way representative. That is the key element, namely, the way in which ordinary householders could have been given some input.
One does not have much confidence in Irish Water responding to the matter. I have volume 1, issue 3 of Uisce Éireann's newsletter. It was kindly prepared for us by Dr. John Tierney, with whom I interacted a good bit when he was the manager of Fingal County Council and also when he was the manager of Dublin City Council. He is a fellow county man of the Minister.
The headline in the current issue refers to the disaster of Irish Water and demands its elimination and the end of water taxes. The striking thing about the newsletter from Irish Water is that it is totally at variance with previous newsletters. There is no consistency.
We have the extraordinary situation whereby the chief executive has provided a range of details that are completely the opposite to what he said, although he generally sent someone else out to speak on his behalf.
What he said in the past year and a half is farcical. I agree with Deputy Timmins and Deputy Finian McGrath. This whole thing is just a sop. When one looks at the history of Ervia, formerly Bord Gáis Éireann, it was always a very distant, remote organisation. Many felt it was not a cost-conscious organisation. It lashed costs onto consumers. A couple of winters ago it greatly increased gas prices for no obvious reason. The body that had the capacity to invigilate Ervia, previously Bord Gáis, was the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. I do not have confidence in CER given the manner in which it did its job. The forum is to be placed within CER and to be more or less run by the Minister. Once again, it looks like a fig leaf to try to cover up the grave errors, mistakes and the disastrous history of the organisation. It seems a totally pointless exercise.
When one looks at the section, given that Deputy Stanley's amendment was not accepted, one also wonders how exactly the interests of consumers of Irish Water will be protected, in section 7(5)(a), given the overweening power of the Minister to make regulations. What exactly will Irish Water do with comments and suggestions? The point is that for the first 18 months or so of its putative existence, Members, as Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett so eloquently expressed, found trying to talking to this entity that seemed to have no existence required an incredible rigmarole of phone calls and e-mails. As another Deputy said, it was a case of machines talking to machines. We were trying to get a human voice into the conversation.
When one thinks of local drainage in the city and in the four Dublin local authorities which I know best, it seemed to be impossible to get to grips with it. We had a disaster, for example, in a part of my constituency, namely, the Howth Peninsula and environs in early August when we had major rainfall and consequent flooding. Irish Water seems to be an impossibly remote, vague entity. The normal response would have been to have recourse to the city engineer or county engineer, who did such a fine job through the decades with limited resources from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led Governments. We cannot have confidence that section 7 will have any real effect.
The Minister said he has the right to appoint experts. Who will such people be? Will they be from abroad? Is the Minister talking about people from Thames Water or another private company such as Veolia? The latter is a massive private company and the French state under the Socialist Party President is trying to reclaim water services and bring them back into the fold of the public sector. When the Minister launched a parallel document on housing, he said Fianna Fáil brought an end to social housing through privatisation and that the Government had to start from scratch. The Minister's responsibility is not to create another platform that could allow for the privatisation of one of the most important resources of the Irish people. That would be an appalling legacy for anyone who describes himself or herself as a representative of the Labour Party.
I refer to subsections and paragraphs (a), (b), (c), and (d). The history of the establishment of Irish Water has been disastrous. Some Fine Gael speakers referred back to the great difficulty involved in the establishment of the Electricity Supply Board, ESB, in the 1920s in the first ten years of the history of the State. I do not think, however, there was ever a period in the immediate years after independence - we are coming up to the 100th anniversary - when people felt such anger and rage. The ESB was welcomed with open arms. It took the company up to 40 years to bring electricity to the entire country. Parts of the country did not have electricity until relatively recent times which was disgraceful. The chief executive of Ervia, Michael McNicholas, is someone whom we know well and whom I met in my previous portfolio because he was the head of ESB International.
What I am trying to say is that I do not have confidence in Irish Water given the disastrous start of this semi-State company. The debacle is ongoing. Following the next general election and however the numbers fall, I hope Members from the high backbenches who have fought so valiantly for the Irish people in recent days in particular will be in the process of driving the next Government forward and perhaps even leading it.
Deputy Fergus O'Dowd was responsible for NewERA and he said Irish Water was a disaster. Deputy O'Dowd and I have a lot in common on many policy issues. When Irish Water is dissolved and we have a new system, and we take this incubus off the back of the Irish people, we will look back and ask how on earth it happened. Unfortunately, it will not be a good chapter in the Minister's legacy or biography.
I do not have confidence in the provisions of section 7 and the forum as it is designed. It will not assuage the major, desperate feelings the majority of people have on the issue because their hearts are broken at this stage after the past six or seven years and the two Ministers opposite are just adding to the pain.
I am utterly opposed to section 7. I consider it to be an entirely empty, vacuous, meaningless part of this flawed legislation.
As many Deputies have stated already, what is proposed in the Irish Water public water forum is nothing more or less than a talking shop. Essentially, it has no power, and the various elements referred to in section 7(5), which are supposed to be the functions of this water forum, are vague and toothless, to say the least. They include representing interests, making comments and making suggestions. They are the only functions that are supposed to be ascribed to this meaningless body.
This is an ineffectual and pathetic ploy, a tokenistic gesture to try to assuage the concerns expressed in all corners of the country in recent months about Irish Water. It is an exercise in optics. It is to give the impression that the Government wants to listen to people, hear their concerns and act on them, but there is nothing in this section that obliges the Minister or the Government to act at all. It does not even oblige it to take into account or to listen to the recommendations and, primarily, the comments. The primary purpose of this forum is to provide comment but there is no obligation on the Minister or the Government to do anything about that comment.
I said earlier that if this is to be a new modus operandifor a national utility, why not have a public forum for the ESB, Bord Gáis and all the other utilities? It is meaningless nonsense. There is nothing to say that the Government should not be establishing various talking shops to accompany any range of quangos and semi-State agencies it chooses. It is absolute nonsense and I do not believe anybody on the Government benches considers this to be a serious proposal to address the incompetence, mismanagement and waste we have seen in Irish Water in recent months. It does nothing to address that. It is nothing but an exercise in optical illusion.
The Minister for Irish Water is accountable to this Dáil. Article 28.4.1oof Bunreacht na hÉireann states that the Government shall be responsible to the Dáil. This is the Chamber where the people are represented. This is the democratic forum for the Minister sitting opposite, who is the Minister for Irish Water, to be accountable and answerable. This is the Chamber, but the problem is that this Government has repeatedly ignored, bullied and sidelined it and the elected representatives of the people. Nothing but contempt has been demonstrated for the Members of this House and, by extension, the 4.5 million people who elected them in 2011. We saw it on 18 December 2013 when the then Minister, former Deputy Phil Hogan, rammed the Irish Water legislation through this House, shut down debate and refused to accept amendments. We have seen it over the course of the past 12 months when Deputies raised concerns with Irish Water, when the issue of bonuses arose earlier in the year, and when people tried to highlight the fact that secret deals had been done with trade unions to shore up the support of the unions for Irish Water through secretive deals, which were initiated by the then Minister. All of that has been raised in this House and all of it has been batted away, yet we are supposed to believe that the Minister will take heed of some non-binding forum, with no powers and no real statutory authority, while at the same time showing total and utter contempt for this Chamber. It is just not credible that this so-called public water forum will be anything other than a stitch-up, a talking shop and a so-called panacea for the public outrage that has been demonstrated in recent months. As other Deputies have said, it is a joke. It is an affront to our democracy and an affront to our citizens.
I support the inclusion of the public water forum in the section. When I first heard reference to the public forum, a specific reference was made to another forum that had been set up some time ago, namely, the Constitutional Convention. I was a member of that convention and I attended every one of those meetings over a period of a year or more. As that process developed, one could see its value more and more.
When we set up a new consultation process, there is a leap of faith involved because we are stepping into the unknown in a sense. As we gathered last week in the Taoiseach's office to reflect on the consultation process that had taken place in the Constitutional Convention, I suspect every one of the 66 citizens from throughout the country would have complete confidence not only in that process but in the public representatives who engaged in it.
The Government is being brave. The Government and the Minister are showing a willingness to engage with the public on this new process, and it is to be welcomed. It is not, as Deputy Cowen referred to it, a petty forum, and it is certainly not a quasi-quango. It is an effort on the part of the Government to engage with people on this new utility, and what we are seeing here today is an effort at continuing filibustering at all costs, even to the point where Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin continued to debate it and voted against section 6, which prohibits the Government from reducing or terminating people's water supply if each household does not pay the charge. One cannot believe that. This is filibustering at its worst. This is a process that has been welcomed, and it is one that I support.
If it is filibustering, at least it is preventing the complete abandonment of the most precious element of life in this country. That is what we are trying to do. As other Deputies have said, a monster has been created but there is no need to create this monster, and it has been done through the language of illusion. Section 7 is building that illusion. There are 730 words in the seven subsections and the paragraphs of this particular section, and it is meaningless. The German Enigma code machine could not unscramble what the Government is trying to say in it.
It is talking in the language of hypnosis and illusion because the functions of the forum are empty. They mean nothing. One function is to represent the interests of the customers of Irish Water. What interests? Is it their sporting interests or their career interests? It is creating illusions. Another is to provide Irish Water with comments and suggestions in relation to the performance by Irish Water of its functions. It is aspirational and not connected with reality. Another is to provide the commission with comments and suggestions in relation to the performance by Irish Water of its functions. This is like a customer relations corporatocracy-speak manual that would do one's brain in. Another is to comment on any policy document produced by Irish Water when requested to do so in writing by Irish Water.
Irish Water might decide to go to sleep and then it would be redundant. The next function is to comment on any consultation document produced by the commission in respect of public water and wastewater services when requested to do so by the commission. Again, the commission might simply decide to forget about it. The next function is to carry out such other activities-----
As for carrying out such other activities, what other activities? How many types of other activities? As these activities are "in respect of such other matters", Members are now going into deep fog. How many other matters? Members should wait, however, because this is where they get anchored in as it continues "as the Minister by order specifies". Wow. That is for the A class. It then goes on to state the commission shall provide the forum with such administrative services and so on. It struck me that last year, the Government decided it would abolish the Seanad. While "Senate" comes from the Latin, Members are now getting a new Latin word, namely, a forum.
At least this is classical stuff. Again, I refer to the concertina of people, as with 12 people one could have a soccer team and a substitute while with 60 people, one could field four GAA teams. It is just incredible. As for customer dispute resolution, would one not imagine there might be a connection between section 7 and section 8, which pertains to dispute resolution and which is where the crunch comes from the customer's point of view? However, there is no such connection because the customer dispute resolution provisions, which go on for pages and to which Members soon will come, circumvent the forum. The forum is irrelevant by definition in the legislation.
Yesterday, the problem was understanding Ann and Barry arithmetic. As Members may remember, 2 million packets were sent out to hall doors and post boxes but one then heard there are 1.64 million households. Thereafter, one learned the basis of the calculation for the rebates or the grant was 1.3 million residences and Members could not work that out. Moreover, they still do not know and Deputy Shortall has been excluded from the proceedings. She actually made one of the top-notch contributions.
As I stated, there are 730 words in one section and they could be from the Enigma code machine. It really is like an outcome from that. Perhaps Members will ask the forum to start dealing with its own terms of reference and its own raison d'êtreand to unscramble what this section is about and how it may or may not be connected with section 8. That section is where the teeth occur because section 7 has no teeth. I am bewildered and ask the Minister to please enlighten me.
The purpose of the section is to provide for the setting up of a forum and that the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, would establish that forum. I do not have confidence in the CER, no more than the Minister can have confidence in that body because there have been so many U-turns with respect to undermining the role of the energy regulator. I believe there have been approximately 11 U-turns and I do not know what kind of confidence one could have in the energy regulator if the Government cannot have any confidence with respect to its role in protecting the public interest.
I agree with the previous speakers that, essentially, this is a fig leaf in which it is proposed to set up a forum without any public terms of reference at this point. What is its stated purpose, apart from making comment? The former Minister of State who set up Irish Water speaks of another forum that has a powerful influence in the privatisation of Irish Water. He put it on the record of the House this week. There are forces and my concern pertains to how selections are made or who is selected to sit on a forum. One must have a clear understanding of its standing orders, stated purpose and so on. However, I do not believe a situation will arise in which there will be the requisite type of transparency to keep as much democratic control as possible on the role of the public interest, that is, the role of the citizen, in any forum.
It is clear that we must learn from what we have and, at present, we have the local authorities, which are democratically controlled by the citizens. That is the forum that is being ripped apart and a corporate model is now being set up with a fig-leaf consumer or customer forum. Clearly, it does not have an agreed understanding from the Oireachtas as to its stated purpose and I question whether it will prevent anything with regard to the forces that exist behind the scenes. Obviously, the former Minister of State who was responsible at the time could not prevent the deletion of an inclusion in the legislation that would have prevented proposals on privatisation. What is the purpose of this committee with respect to its role in protecting the public interest? This provision proposes a public water forum set up by the Commission for Energy Regulation that will represent the interests of the customer. There are a number of interests from different sources obviously, including the Department, some commercial, some from the citizens and some from the consumer. It is incredibly important that this proposal be rejected out of hand because it would imply that Members would shift the liability and responsibility for accountability further away from this House and further away from the hands of the people.
It is not even clear how the process of selecting those 60 people would be handled. I would have major difficulty were the CER to select some of the dark forces that were being referenced in this Chamber on Tuesday night and who were driving the privatisation agenda that prevented the then Minister of State from putting in a provision. I would have a major difficulty were the CER to choose from a pool of people who had an agenda to privatise Irish Water and to take it out of the hands of the people. It is not transparent and Members are being asked to vote on something that clearly does not have a set of standing orders in which they can have confidence. Moreover, it does not have a sense of purpose or a culture with which Members can identify in terms of its purpose and function. It is important that Members reject this proposal. It is a fig leaf and a distraction from the reality that there are other forces at play regarding another agenda. In recent weeks, Members will have seen powerful meetings taking place with backbenchers down the corridors of power. That is where the decision-making on this matter will take place. It will not be with some public water forum set up by the Commission for Energy Regulation, which clearly does not have the confidence of the Government because after the budget, announcements were made on 11 U-turns on specific areas. How can Members have confidence with the CER establishing a forum that would have a customer or citizens' interest without having a proper, open dialogue and debate here today on the kind of standing orders, on the forum's stated purpose and on how appointments can be made clearly and transparently? Again, I have concerns that whomsoever is appointed to this forum easily could come from that basket of forces the former Minister of State talks about in respect of the agenda of privatisation. Members must guard against this carefully.
I must confess that I too am absolutely puzzled even by the intent behind section 7 of this legislation. I tried to figure out what is the purpose of this forum of people. I tried to work through a process of elimination and reckoned that if the purpose of the forum is to represent the views of the customers of the entity called Irish Water, the question is how will they do that. Will there be a requirement on the forum members to speak to their neighbours and their local communities?
Who will set the agenda for them? Will it be the local community? Who will advise them as to how the local community views the operations of Irish Water? I see nothing in this section to state that the representatives on this public forum must be elected by the people. That is a fundamental and fatal flaw. If members of the public forum are not elected public representatives, then the only people they will represent will be Irish Water and whoever nominated them to the forum.
The last thing Irish Water customers need is a body of 60 people whose job it is to tell the nation how great they are. Having read this section, the only thing that would make sense of it is that it is a public relations stunt for Irish Water. Forum members will not be in a position to know what the public feel about the service, but they will be indoctrinated by Irish Water. They will be brought into the boardroom, wined and dined, and told how well Irish Water is doing. They will then be told to get out there and sell that message to the wider public. That is what this public forum is really about.
We need something better than the equivalent of 60 little plastic nodding dogs on the dashboard of the gravy train that is Irish Water. The Government talks about empowering local communities and strengthening democracy, but how in the name of God could this be regarded in any way as doing so? Deputy Keating said the Government was being brave in establishing this forum, but I cannot figure out how it could be described as brave when it spawns a dysfunctional entity like Irish Water. The Government has made a total mess of introducing the legislation to establish the company. Ministers listen to no one but their own echoes, and guillotine democratic debate to push through flawed legislation, yet they are now to be considered brave because they will select 60 people to represent the views of this wonderful entity. How in the name of God could that be described as brave?
The public forum that should have been heeded was the one outside the gates of Leinster House on Wednesday. If the Government had listened to the tens of thousands of people then, this bad legislation would not be going through. I hope that those people, and more, will be out again on Saturday, 31 January 2015. If I were a gambling man, I would go down to Paddy Power's and put a sizeable wager on the fact that no more than a few of those on the protest marches will be on this nonsensical public forum for Irish Water. The only people who will be on that forum are those who share the Minister's view that Irish Water is the best thing ever invented. There will be no dissenters allowed.
Some 500,000 houses across the country are on group water schemes. They did not need a forum; they just rolled up their sleeves and got together. There was no huffing or puffing when they quietly put such water structures together in rural areas with the help of an organisation called the Water Federation. Water is a pretty simple commodity to handle, but we have made the task laborious over the past year.
It can be sourced, treated, piped to a house and then consumed. People did this work voluntarily around the country, yet we are now talking about creating forums. It is like dreaming up ideas. On one occasion, I naively joined a forum and after three or four meetings I saw that it had become a talking shop. To be quite frank, I got to hell out of it because it was only people talking and drawing expenses. I read later that some people were even paid a salary, but the nitty-gritty was not discussed. I saw people appointed to a forum who knew as much about the issues they were discussing as I know about the moon.
In addition, the terms of reference are restrictive. It is like being in a barrel with nowhere to turn. One is in a confined space and if one talks about anything beyond that, it is not listened to. The proposed public forum is basically being established so that a Minister can hide behind it. I am not saying that the current Minister would do so, but some future Minister could hide behind the facility.
A Teachta Dála is a messenger of the people. If Deputies cannot raise issues with the Minister - without having 60 more people talking in a forum - and get them sorted, then something is seriously wrong. The old saying is that "He who pays the piper calls the tune". The buck ultimately stops with the Minister. The forum may be there but there is no statutory obligation on the Minister to take its views on board.
It is like appeasing people and saying: "Look, this is a great idea. We're going to set this up so that everyone's voice will be heard." The reality, however, is that most forums set up over the years have only been talking shops. Ministers go on television and say they will set up such forums, but they do not listen to everything they come up with. Such a forum is just a way out - a gate from the field to the road.
I ask the Minister to reconsider the idea of a forum. He should remember that the word of a Teachta Dála, the messenger of the people, should be listened to more.
I am opposing this section. I ask the Minister to reconsider this whole charade that we are going through today. He is setting up a forum that will make comments and suggestions, but only when requested to do so in writing by Irish Water.
Section 7(e) states that a function of the forum will be "to comment on any consultation document produced by the Commission in respect of public water and wastewater services, when requested to do so by the Commission". The forum will not even have the right to do this, because it will only happen if Irish Water, the commission or the Minister requests it.
This is a sop to democracy and to listening to people. The Minister stated he would listen and provide clarity, but if he had done so, he would not be going through with this charade. He would have abolished Irish Water and the water tax, which is what people are demanding.
I will put my position on the record. This section narrows the focus of what we are about as a nation. The first bills will arrive in April. Within 16 months, people might have penalties of €30 or €60 attached to their €160 or €260 charges. This debacle, which has been ongoing since Phil Hogan was Minister, will be gone by then, but only after we will have wasted a great deal of time, energy and people's money.
I strongly oppose section 7 because it is an attack on democracy and the people of this country. The most important forum in the State is Dáil Éireann. We must show it more respect and listen to its voices. Many of us have worked long years to get inside the gates, but now we are discussing forums. This is the people's forum. This is what the Government should listen to on such an important matter.
We have other forums like local councils. New and fresh voices joined those councils at the recent local elections. The Government should listen to them as well. They will give it constructive proposals and advice.
Under this section, decisions could be made by a forum comprising 60 people. There are times for forums, but when we discuss democracy and the establishment of major companies, we must ensure that the House and local councils are the democratic forums of the people. This is an important point.
There is a question of confidence and trust. The people spoke in recent days. They speak everyday in this House. They have spoken of their attitude to Irish Water and the water charges. They were on the streets outside the gates of Dáil Éireann during the week. Their number was highly misrepresented by the naysayers. Thousands of people came from all over the country. If the Government wanted to hear people's voices, that was another example of a people's forum.
This section is an attack on democratic institutions like the Oireachtas where Members are elected by the people, but it is also an attack on democratic principles. It is not about reform or accountability. If the Government wants to listen to people, it should listen to people on the streets and their elected representatives in this House and on local councils.
Cost is an issue. We urgently need to get on with fixing pipes, yet here we are wasting more public money. People are demanding change, action and accountability. I oppose section 7 because it is an attack on democracy and elected representatives in this House and on local councils.
Without our amendments, the section is flawed and we will oppose it. Consider the past 18 months. Much has been said about the Dáil being the representative forum of the people of the Twenty-six Counties, but its Members have not been able to get answers. I stood opposite Phil Hogan when he sat where the Minister is and asked direct questions, but he waved his hand and brushed away my questions. Other Opposition Deputies like Deputy Cowen were brushed off in a similar manner. We have not been able to get answers.
This section relates to a forum. We specifically included householders, commercial water users and trade union representatives to ensure the key sectors were represented and we got the answers we wanted. The Bill makes no commitment to that. Last night, the most basic of questions could not be answered. The same was true this morning, be it because the Minister was not allowed to do so by the Ceann Comhairle or because he did not have the answers. It is appalling. We are being asked to buy into the Irish Water project, a corporate monster with considerable powers.
I recently received a letter from a Minister concerning a parliamentary question I had asked about Irish Water. The reply was to the effect that it was an operational matter for Irish Water and not the Minister.
This relates directly to section 7. If the Minister is not going to answer questions on Irish Water in the Chamber or via written reply and if the key stakeholders are not on the forum, which is being established merely to be a talking shop and to create a mirage, from where will we get answers? The Minister will move further down that track. I know where this is going - I saw it with local authorities. A structure like this is created and then it and its managers are blamed by us. Meanwhile, the Minister will claim that something is an operational matter for Uisce Éireann. The most fundamental issues will be pushed away and we will not have the forum we need to get answers.
Many of the 949 local authority members are affiliated to parties that the Minister and Minister of State represent as Deputies. Like me, they meet and talk with those members at the weekend. Now they will have to tell them that not only have local authority members and Dáil Éireann been sidelined, but we are creating a body that does not have the right people at the table, never mind the power to hold Uisce Éireann to account. That is my problem with the forum. It is an illusion of accountability and consultation. In reality, it will have no teeth because it will not have the necessary people at the table.
This is a bad day for democracy, of which the House and local authorities are the primary forums. The Government is removing democracy from them and the representatives of key sectors of society will not be members of the forum. It is a bad day for republicanism.
This debate has been interesting. Whatever the faults in the Bill's wording, for example, not giving sufficient authority to the forum to act of its own accord as opposed to having to be asked in writing by Irish Water to consider a matter, fundamental to democracy is Irish Water's accountability to a forum like this. I have no problem with it. One of the points I made as a Minister of State was about the need for such a forum. Specifically, the forum would need to be one where the regional policies of Irish Water, particularly its investment policies, would be discussed. A potential conflict will not be between the Oireachtas and Irish Water, but between Irish Water and local authorities, their communities and their development plans. If a county council proposes to develop an industrial site or zone an area for housing, there can arise an incompatibility between that proposal and the plans of Irish Water. This potential conflict needs to be addressed.
There was support from many people with whom I spoke at the time of using the regional bodies to discuss these matters. I have no objection whatsoever to any citizen going to a forum. How they are selected is important. It is crucial that it should be an open and transparent process and that the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, should be accountable in how it selects the forum’s membership.
There is a significant need for public feedback on Irish Water. Members are right that we got it on the streets last week and earlier in November when 100,000 people walked in protest. The huge failure of Irish Water is how it did not listen or understand or even explain what it was about. Anyone listening to this morning’s radio news is aware that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, identified 42 separate locations where raw sewage enters our rivers and seas. That is absolutely unacceptable. Is it not right that those communities affected by this would have a voice to have this issue tackled? Is it not right that a forum can tell Irish Water that it should do A, B, C and D to rectify water supply and treatment issues?
The forum should also be able to ask Irish Water about costs. There are service level agreements between each local authority and Irish Water. The forum should ask what changes have been made, county by county, to the cost of running a water service. It should ask what plants and parts of the water network have been improved in each county. There are many good productive issues that can be properly dealt with in a national forum.
Section 7 does not bar any local representative from being a member of the forum. While I do not know the Minister’s intentions in that regard, there is no reason local representatives should not be included.
I do not know what changes can be made to the legislation before Report and Final Stages. There are reasonable and strong changes that could be made to make the forum stronger, give it a real voice and authority. It would be an additional voice to this House’s. We cannot ignore the committee system of the House. When I presented the original water services legislation, I made it clear that all reports from the CER and the EPA are accountable to the Oireachtas. All Members know they can demand these agencies attend committees again and again. When I was in opposition, Deputy Ross and I worked on an audit query we had with Irish Rail. We had committee meeting after committee meeting, month in, month out ad nauseamwith Irish Rail on that particular audit. It is the duty of the Oireachtas to ensure Irish Water is accountable to the committee system. The reports of the CER and the EPA can always be discussed in the House. It is a matter for the Whips and I cannot envisage any situation where those reports would not be discussed here. The claim that there is no democratic forum or accountability for Irish Water is untrue.
Every Wednesday, Irish Water holds meetings open to all Members where they can raise individual issues. I praise it for the significant change it has made in response to representations it has had on problems with the installation of meters and other issues. One now gets an immediate acknowledgment and response.
Deputies Barry Cowen and Kevin Humphreys asked in parliamentary questions about the costs of the set-up of Irish Water to date. The answer he got was that was a matter for Irish Water. When those questions came before me when I was Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, they should have been forwarded to Irish Water for direct replies. That never happened to the Deputies’ questions on Irish Water. When I discovered that, I asked the Secretary General to contact both Deputies to apologise to them for the mistake made within the Department. It was my intention that every single question that was asked about the costs of Irish Water would be replied to by Irish Water directly with the facts to which the Deputies are entitled. If that had happened, it might have stopped much of what happened subsequently.
It is better to have a consultative forum than not to have one. It can be very productive. Will the Minister reflect on the points made on all sides of the House and acknowledge very good and solid ones were made?
When I spoke on the Bill earlier this week, the record will show I did not use the words “dark forces” but the words “other forces”. The Minister and I had words about that yesterday and I hope he will clarify that. He said on the plinth if not in the Chamber that I used those words, “dark forces”. I did not. I want people to be clear about what I actually said and not for them to misinterpret what I said.
I believe this forum will be worse than useless. Will the Minister withdraw this section? In my view, it is simply a smokescreen for Irish Water, for the Minister and for the CER. The history of getting information on Irish Water, water charges and water tax has been marked by failure. This House, and we as public representatives, have failed to get information from successive Ministers. Most of the information had to be got through freedom of information requests, not directly from the former Minister, Phil Hogan. When I did Leaders’ Questions for the Technical Group, I tried to get the information from the Taoiseach every week but could not. There is a culture of concealment in this whole area.
For the past three days, the Minister has been asked for various pieces of information which we simply have not been able to get from him. I have asked on three occasions for him to comment on an issue I have raised but have got no response from him.
This forum is worse than useless and an absolute smokescreen to ensure we do not get the information to which we and the public are entitled. Irish Water has proved itself to be completely incompetent in this regard.