Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Water Services Bill 2014: Report and Final Stages
On a point of order, I seek permission to move that section 5 be recommitted to Committee Stage from Report Stage based on an irregularity in how closure was sought under Standing Order 66 last Friday. My understanding is that closure of the debate requires a vote of the House. The transcript shows there was no vote, which is serious in light of a Member being suspended. I wish to move that section 5 be recommitted now.
On a point of order, I seek a ruling from the Chair on amendment No. 2. The reason given for amendment No. 2 being ruled out of order is that it is in conflict with the principle of the Bill. The amendment seeks to replace the plebiscite section with a provision that puts an onus on the Government to introduce a Bill providing for a referendum. How is changing a public vote to a public vote on the Constitution in conflict with the principle of the Bill?
The amendment seeks to insert new text providing that within three months of the passing of the Bill the Government must introduce a constitutional amendment. The current Bill does not propose to amend the Constitution. The amendment is in conflict with the principle of the Bill as read a Second Time and must therefore be ruled out of order in accordance with Standing Order 131.
It is a procedural question. The amendment I tabled on Committee Stage was ruled out of order on the grounds that it sought to change the Constitution and a Bill that seeks to change the Constitution cannot do anything else. I resubmitted an amendment which does not seek to change the Constitution but to oblige the Government to bring forward a Bill to change the Constitution.
Amendment No. 2 proposes to amend section 2 of the Bill, which provides that where a Government proposes to initiate legislation which amends the ownership structure of Irish Water there must be a resolution from both Houses of the Oireachtas, and that the proposal would be submitted to referendum.
The amendment seeks to insert new text providing that within three months of the passing of the Act the Government must introduce a constitutional amendment. The current Bill does not propose to amend the Constitution. The amendment is in conflict with the principle of the Bill as read a Second Time, and must, therefore, be ruled out of order in accordance with Standing Order 131. I am moving on, with the co-operation of the House, to amendment No. 3.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, to delete lines 2 to 18 and substitute the following:“2.(1) A Bill providing or allowing for the alienation of any share or shares in Irish Water to a person other than a Minister of the Government shall not be initiated by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government in either House of the Oireachtas unless—We had a lengthy debate on the section on Committee Stage and I appreciated all the comments made by the Deputies. I took their comments on board because I felt it was necessary. Every Deputy who was here commented on it. Deputy Naughten made a particular contribution. Having listened to the lengthy and detailed debate in the House, I am bringing forward two amendments on Report Stage which are based on it and will provide full clarity in the Bill.(a) a Resolution of each such House is passed approving a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation,
(b) a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation is submitted by Plebiscite for the decision of the People, and
(c) a majority of the votes cast in such Plebiscite shall have been cast in favour of the proposal.”.
This amendment clearly states that no legislation can be brought forward by any Government without the support of the people in a plebiscite. It is clear and direct. Having listened to the debate and concerns Members have expressed, including the amendments tabled previously, I propose an amendment to subsection (1). This amendment makes it very clear that any proposal to initiate legislation which would allow for the alienation of shares in Irish Water to any person other than the Minister would require:
(a) a Resolution of each such House is passed approving a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation,I would also like to clarify the position on shares in Irish Water. Early in today's debate, Deputy McNamara suggested that shareholders in Irish Water might seek to dispose of their shares without the Government's introducing legislation. This is untrue. Section 5 of the Water Services Act 2013 provides that the shares in Irish Water were issued to Ervia and the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government and Finance. The section prohibited Ervia from alienating its share in Irish Water. The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 amended section 5 by inserting a new clause to provide that neither the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government and Finance nor Ervia can alienate the shares issued to them. This provides a prohibition on the privatisation of Irish Water. Section 2 of the Water Services Bill 2014 must be viewed in the context of the existing legislation, which provides that any proposal to change the current shareholding, other than where the shares transfer to another member of the Government, be subject to a plebiscite. I trust this clarifies the matter, and it reflects the comments of speakers on Committee Stage, particularly the stipulation that "a majority of the votes cast in such Plebiscite shall have been cast in favour of the proposal" and the other changes that have been proposed.
(b) a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation is submitted by Plebiscite for the decision of the People, and
(c) a majority of the votes cast in such Plebiscite shall have been cast in favour of the proposal.
The Minister has moved somewhat to try to address the issue through legislation. However, the Minister is not in a position to hold any future Government, right, left or centre, to the legislation. The changes he has made are aimed at trying to get the Bill through the Seanad, given that his party members in the Seanad clearly backed the need for a referendum when they voted to introduce a constitutional amendment to ensure water services do not pass into private ownership. The Minister's move strengthens it from the point of view of legislation in this House in that it provides that before any alienation of shares in Irish Water,
(b) a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation is submitted by Plebiscite for the decision of the People, andHowever, it is dependent on a future Government holding to the legislation. We have seen how quickly legislation and Governments can be changed. We have seen the pressure that can be put on Governments during financial catastrophes to sell assets to the private sector when it suits. Hopefully, we will never again have a major financial collapse on the scale of the catastrophe of 2007 to 2011. However, we could wind up in a situation in which the big boys in Europe pressurise the Minister or his successor to change the legislation or comply with some European competition legislation. The European Commission has targeted utility services to ensure there is competition. I am concerned that the Minister has gone only some of the distance. I have listened carefully to every word the Minister has said in recent months on the issue, and he seems to be certain in his mind that water should never be privatised. The one certain way to ensure this is to put it into the hands of the people.
(c) a majority of the votes cast in such Plebiscite shall have been cast in favour of the proposal.
The Minister is putting it into the hands of politicians, and who knows what kind of politicians we will have and what kind of Government majority there will be in the future? By putting it into the Constitution, the Minister would put water services and resources into the hands of the Irish people. What does the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, think is wrong with that? The Government must trust the Irish people. A number of referendums will take place next year. The two referendums scheduled to take place in May are welcome. All the Government has to do is produce another A5 sheet of paper asking the people to choose "Yes" or "No" regarding a proposal to insert an amendment into the Constitution that water services and resources belong to the State and cannot be privatised. I introduced a simple Bill to insert such a provision, and the Government voted against it.
In their heart of hearts, the Labour Party Members understand how legislation, the Government, the Dáil and the Seanad work and how matters can change. The one way the Minister can do this is the way his colleagues in the Seanad did it a few weeks ago: by supporting the proposal that we amend the Constitution to copperfasten this and put it to bed for once and for all. There are probably people in Fine Gael with whom this does not sit right - people who want it kept in public ownership. I suspect there are others in Fine Gael who could not care less whether it is privatised, and I am addressing them also.
I agree with the principle of what Deputy Stanley said. Although the most secure way to ensure Irish Water and its assets are not privatised is to enshrine it in the Constitution, we do not have such a facility in this legislation. I am glad the Minister listened to the argument proposed here on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week and accepted the amendment. Sadly, it is the exception that sensible amendments tabled by the Opposition are taken on board.
Members were obliged to argue in this Chamber over two days before this amendment was tabled that there should be a change, from a plebiscite that may be put to the people to one that will be put before them. Had the Government been far more about the legislation open 12 months ago, neither Members nor the Government would be in the mess they are in today in the passage of the Bill. Nevertheless, the amendment the Minister has tabled is welcome. It strengthens significantly the legislation published initially which contained a weakness in that it was at the discretion of a Government whether a plebiscite would be put to the people on whether the assets of Irish Water should be disposed of. This ran contrary to the commitments the Minister had given both inside and outside the House. I, therefore, welcome the amendment. I remain concerned, however, that at some stage in the future the boot boys from the troika or the European Union may put a gun to the head of some future Government - as was done in the past in the case of the late Brian Lenihan - to force it to introduce emergency legislation to take out this provision from the legislation and hive off the assets of Irish Water into private hands. I reiterate that I welcome the move that has been made.
It is highly unusual for a Minister or a Government to accept amendments tabled by the Opposition, which should be done as a matter of course in any properly functioning Parliament. However, I acknowledge that the Minister listened to the argument I made and accepted that there was a weakness in the legislation that I highlighted last Tuesday week. He has brought forward what I consider to be a sensible amendment to clarify and strengthen the legislation and ensure that, as the Bill is drafted and enacted, should an attempt be made to dispose of the assets of Irish Water at a future date, the issue will have to be put to the people.
Obviously, the earlier debate on the section has resulted in an improvement in its make-up, in particular, with the addition of this amendment. However, major concerns remain because in recent years Members have watched fundamental changes take place with regard to semi-State assets. I refer, for example, to the position of Irish Water's mother company, Ervia, and how, as I mentioned the other day, the Government sold off Bord Gáis Energy which was an historic semi-State brand and important national infrastructure. Obviously, the pipes remain as a little bit was learned from the tragedy of what happened in the privatisation of eircom. However, major concerns remain about this issue and it seems incredible that the Government has not gone the important extra mile, as outlined in the amendment that the Ceann Comhairle has refused to allow to be moved in the House about having a referendum and having cast-iron certainty that a referendum would be held, such that this issue would be locked down for good.
Even the wording, "other than a Minister of the Government", could be concerning in terms of what might happen in a future Government and how the important water and drainage network of Ireland would be managed in the future. I note we are told that it is worth €11 billion, or is it worth €20 billion? It is a lost opportunity to state absolutely and categorically that the public water and drainage systems will be kept forever in the public sector. This could well return to haunt the Minister and while the amendment improves section 2 to an extent, it still leaves major concerns that the Minister has left open the door to privatisation and that it could happen down the line.
In common with other Deputies, I acknowledge that the Minister has decided to amend the legislation to remove the word "may" and add "shall". The amount of time that was taken up in the debate on this issue last week makes one wonder why there is resistance within the Government and the Civil Service to holding a referendum to define clearly the ownership of Irish Water and water services and put the issue to bed once and for all and why that resistance is so trenchant. Perhaps it might have something to do with the other forces about which Deputy Fergus O'Dowd spoke when he was present in the Chamber last week and the risk of possible privatisation of water services. The fact remains that it will be open to any future Government to bring in a one page item of legislation to delete this subsection from the Bill. This then would automatically allow for the alienation of the shares within Irish Water and it is not inconceivable that this could happen. While Deputy Brian Stanley made the point about not knowing what type of politician will be in the House in the future, it is more than likely that the politicians who are already on the other side of the House will be the ones who will bring forward such legislation to amend the Bill. There is a possibility that there could be outside shocks or external pressure from the European Union to make the privatisation of Irish Water happen, but it is more than likely that it will come from internal sources within the political system here because the ideology of the Government clearly is to outsource and privatise public services and resources.
My fear is that this will happen in piecemeal fashion. Even if the Government does not decide to amend this legislation and sell off Irish Water as a whole, what will probably happen when the service level agreements with the local authorities come up for renewal in 2025 is that the Commission for Energy Regulation will insist on the contracts going out to tender. Members will then see water companies such as Veolia, Severn Trent and Celtic Anglian Water that are already operating design, build and operate contracts nationwide tender for the contract for the provision of regional supplies. Consequently, the local authorities will be forced into a position where they will be obliged to tender for a service level agreement against the likes of Veolia or Severn Trent. Moreover, they will lose because it will be an unfair competition as the Commission for Energy Regulation was established to liberalise energy markets. It has been highly successful both at increasing the price of electricity and facilitating the entry of other operators into the market. That is the creeping privatisation that will happen, regardless of whether the Government or any future Government decides to amend the legislation or have a plebiscite. What will happen is that, county by county, the operation will be handed over to private companies to provide services. In many ways, that is the ideal world for these private companies because they will not have any of the responsibility or the governance procedures required. Irish Water will still do all of that for them and they will simply receive a massive cheque for the provision of services that heretofore have been provided by local authorities. Therefore, while I acknowledge the Minister has tabled an amendment, it does not go far enough and one must ask why there is such resistance within the Government to holding a referendum to ensure Irish Water will stay in Irish ownership. That is something the Minister must address.
Thinking back, I must have been one of the first in the House ever to promote the merits of using the word "shall" rather than "may" in legislation and there is a simple explanation for it.
In the event of the word "shall" being inserted the Administration is obliged to do something, whether or not there is a necessity to so do, whereas in the event of the word "may" being inserted an Administration may in the event of necessity invoke a particular piece of legislation as required.
I do not know what more can be done to assure the people that Irish Water will not be privatised unless and until a referendum or plebiscite is held. I have long since held the view that some utility services are better held in public ownership. However, we have had the experience of the situation facing the local authorities and the National Roads Authority and the heavy investment required in that regard. When it was not possible to co-ordinate that level of investment from the various local authorities we all agreed as members of local authorities that it was better to centralise the system to ensure progress was achieved quickly, otherwise nothing would be done.
The provision of a reliable water utility in this country is a serious issue that requires the ultimate treatment in terms of how to deal with it, how to make it as accountable as possible and how to ensure that it does the job it is intended to do, without privatisation. I believe sufficient provision is made in the Bill to ensure that any future Government, including from the opposite side of the House-----
-----regardless of what members over there might say today, will not come out of the darkness, do a u-turn and decide it appropriate that this utility be privatised in order to achieve a particular advantage. To my mind, provision is already sufficiently interposed in the legislation to ensure the protection of the institution as a public entity for the foreseeable future. It should be acknowledged that the public could change its mind some time in the future. I hope that it does not from the point of view of what is being said in this House now. I believe there is a need to ensure that into the future there is a sufficient degree of consultation with the public prior to the making of any major policy change in this area. I say that having been one of the people who strongly opposed the privatisation of the telecoms system in this country years ago. All kinds of arguments were put forward at the time. They were all wrong and did not stand up in the event. I hope we have learned from all those experiences and that as a result we have now come up with the ultimate in terms of foolproof legislation that will ensure that what we set out to do will be done and is safeguarded as such.
Personally, I believe the idea that we would call for a referendum on Irish Water is daft. I believe also that members of the Opposition know within their hearts that it is daft. Why not call for a referendum on all our hospitals remaining in public ownership?
Would members opposite like a referendum to ensure that will always be the case? Should the same apply in respect of our roads and so on? The fact that members opposite are calling for a referendum means that not only do they have no regard for the Dáil Chamber and the Oireachtas but they have no regard for the people who elected them. The people elected the Deputies to represent them. There are more people in this Chamber and Oireachtas who want to get rid of Leinster House than there are people who want to privatise Irish Water.
The people do not want to privatise Irish Water. It is only in the United Kingdom that water companies are privatised. This does not happen in Northern Ireland, the Republic or most European countries. It is only in the United Kingdom that that happened and we have seen how it failed.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh in calling for a referendum to be held on the ownership of roads, schools and everything else is showing a lack of trust on behalf of the people who elected him. The Deputy knows this is nonsensical.
We have had an endless debate on this issue. I have read all about how Northern Ireland Water was established. What we are doing is not that different. Sinn Féin is in Government in Northern Ireland where water meters are being installed and bonus payments are being paid to executives.
There is little difference, yet Sinn Féin is marching people up the hill and down again and saying that it is going to do something radically different. Sinn Féin has been in Government in Northern Ireland for seven years yet it has done nothing that is radically different up there in regard to water.
In regard to the household charge in Northern Ireland, £160 per annum of that goes to meet water service provision. A further £200 million of the Westminster grant also goes towards water services. That same £200 million will probably form part of the budget deficit if things do not get sorted out up there. Perhaps water charges are on the way.
I am doing my best but Deputy Ó Snodaigh insists on speaking over me. The document published by Northern Ireland Water makes clear that no domestic charges will be introduced in 2014 or 2015. It is not say they will not be introduced. That is the reality. Perhaps it is coincidental that the elections in the North will take place at the same time as the general election here.
The reality is that there is not much difference between what was done in the North and what we are doing. When one makes the comparison between Northern Ireland Water and Irish Water much of the debate here has been phony and misleading.
With Irish Water we are establishing a major piece of national infrastructure. In terms of comparisons and analogies the best example is probably the establishment of the ESB in the early years of this State. As in the case of water provision now, at that time we had a multiplicity of small suppliers and local generating plants serving particular towns and districts. This situation severely inhibited the country's industrial and commercial life.
The establishment of the ESB replaced these small localised electricity suppliers with a single nationally based entity.
This was transformative. The establishment of the ESB transformed the country's economic and commercial fortunes, as well as its domestic life. Yes, there was a cost but instead of concentrating on it, the people saw the value of it. Like with the establishment of the ESB in the past, the Minister today is proposing a major new piece of national infrastructure. Just as in the time of the establishment of the ESB, the Minister has his critics. Yes, there are criticisms but no alternatives, however. Yes, the new scheme will be costly but the alternatives will be more costly for this country in the long run.
Alongside the benefits to the country’s economic and domestic life, we must factor in the benefits for our national environment, our beaches and our rivers. As many as 40 large rivers are reckoned to be spilling raw sewage into the open seas and along our beaches. This aspect of untreated water does not receive sufficient attention. Its cost to our tourism industry has not yet been calculated.
I commend the Minister for his work in establishing this much-needed national infrastructure. Analogies with the establishment of the ESB, which has been a resounding success, are very fitting and appropriate.
How many plebiscites have been held in Ireland? The answer is none. He has just invented something whose status he has not clarified. There are two types of plebiscite. One is a mandatory plebiscite, where the Government must act on the vote of the people on an issue. The other is advisory. Will the Minister clarify which type of plebiscite he is planning on holding?
The reality is that the Minister was bounced into this because he knows the will of the people is to keep water in public hands for the reasons already outlined. It is quite laughable-----
It is quite laughable to hear some Members opposite talking about Europe. We do nothing that they do in Europe. In Europe, they have twice the rate of our corporation tax. Our model is actually from the United Kingdom and it is much more likely the Government will go down the same road the UK did.
The idea no Member in this Parliament is in favour of privatising Irish Water is absolutely ridiculous. There are neo-liberal hawks in this Parliament who would privatise their own mothers or anything that moves.
-----they would have heard these arguments. Members opposite obviously do not know how to conduct a debate. The claim there is an ideological aversion to privatising the water system is absolutely ludicrous. There are many Deputies who I could list who would like to see water services privatised as they have supported every other privatisation.
It could easily twist the arm of another Government. That would mean a plebiscite would be gone out the window. A constitutional referendum would be the best safeguard but the Government has set its heart and face against conceding one. That is what most of the people want. It is another mistake the Government is making. However, I am confident that in April there will be mass non-payment of these water bills and the Minister and the Government, along with the water charges, will be consigned to history.
Like other Members on this side of the House have mentioned, this amendment arose because of the pressure we put on in the Chamber last week with regard to the use of “may” and “shall” which exposed what the Minister had originally put down but defended, like a dog with a bone, until now.
Water is a human right. One cannot live without water for a very short time. One can survive without gas, electricity-----
We should start with the premise that water is a human right. Then one must ask how does one protect that. Vulture capitalists and multinationals see water as the new oil. As a nation, we need to examine how we put in the strongest protections to keep our water services in the public domain. The only way we can do that - a point known by the many thousands on the streets - is through a constitutional referendum to keep our water services in the public realm. We know legislation can be changed down the line, say in ten or 15 years while these multinationals sit waiting to come in. We also know the TTIP, transatlantic trade and investment partnership, a secret programme the details of which we do not know much about as it has yet to be teased out in Europe, will set up a machine to allow multinationals to put pressure on national governments to relinquish their public services.
With this in mind, the most secure way the Dáil as a so-called Parliament can secure our water as a public utility is to have a constitutional referendum on its ownership. The proposal in this amendment will not protect it. It can be changed maybe not in five or ten years but in 15 years. The Detroit water brigade who attended the recent demonstration informed us that water in Detroit is supplied through a public water utility. However, due to service level agreements, the same company turns off water supply and knocks down houses because they are deemed not fit for purpose as they have no water supply. That company is making money on that. Members should learn from history. They should look around the world and see what is happening in every other city and country. The only measure that will protect the people’s public water system is a constitutional referendum on its ownership.
I know the Minister does not intend to privatise Irish Water in this Government’s term. However, down through the years Governments have made mistakes. Who knows what a Government could do 20 years from now? No Government can bind its successors. While a plebiscite might be a step in the right direction, it will not stand up if scrutinised properly and a new Government decides to privatise the utility.
There is no point in saying that it will stand up to scrutiny as a new Government will be free to decide what it wants to do. The Government has come this far and the people in the back rooms should listen because I feel the Government should go the extra step and provide for a referendum. Between pipes and infrastructure, some €15 million to €20 million worth of pipes and water infrastructure is in the ground at the moment and, for the sake of the country, we should not throw this away in future. This is not a blame game but we should do this right through a referendum.
When I saw this amendment I felt it was a matter of window dressing because, in spite of many comments from this side of the House over the course of the debate on this legislation and arguments for putting this matter to the people at an early stage, the Minister set his face against nailing the issue down early by way of referendum. Now, at the 11th hour of this debate, the Minister has come up with this amendment. This has clearly been produced today and presented to us because of the real possibility that the Seanad will reject this legislation due to the fear of privatisation.
If this legislation is rejected by the Seanad it will cause significant difficulties for the Government and necessitate another day in this House during Christmas week. The sentiment of the amendment may be fine but the fact is that it is entirely aspirational.
One cannot tie the hands of any Government, be it this Government or a future Government, through an amendment like this. At the heart of the debate on this legislation to date is a serious concern about the fact that the funding model simply does not add up. So many changes have been made to the proposal to make it more politically palatable that the basic economic calculations have not been done and there is no indication that anyone has run a slide rule over this to see whether it makes sense. We had great difficulty last week drawing the Minister on the figures he was using and he still has not produced these.
Deputy Martin tried to press the Taoiseach this morning on the issue of the calculations behind all this and he made the point we still have no figures so things do not add up. There is a real concern that this issue will blow up in the Government's face in the not too distant future. Deputy Martin pressed the Taoiseach on the need for independent oversight and regulation of these measures to ensure it all amounts to a viable proposition.
The Taoiseach replied that an independent assessment has been carried out by the CER "into all these matters". I was not aware that the CER had performed an independent assessment since the Minister announced his new proposals on 19 November and I checked the CER website this afternoon but found nothing on the new proposals. Perhaps the Minister has done some work on this in the past two or three weeks but, if that is the case, he should refer us to it. There is nothing recent on the CER website, nothing relating to the proposals of 19 November, though there are references to various studies carried out by the commission on earlier proposals. We are debating the proposals of 19 November today because we say, on the basis of those proposals, these measures do not add up. Where is the independent oversight of this financing model and where are the studies to support it? I am not aware of any such oversight or studies, though I would like to think they exist. Perhaps the Minister could clarify this point.
People have said they do not believe this Minister and other Ministers intend to privatise Irish Water and I accept that the Minister has not set out with that intention. However, on the basis of these proposals and given the shakiness of the financial model that has been constructed, it seems highly likely that, at some point towards the end of next year or early in 2016, Irish Water will become insolvent. In that event there will be a crisis because Irish Water will have insufficient revenue and will fail the market corporation test. The Minister has been pressed on his plan B in the event that Irish Water should fail this test because if that were to happen all of the costs associated with the project would go back on the balance sheet - in other words, there would be a crisis. In such a crisis situation, the Government would be under great pressure to privatise Irish Water and this is my concern. I accept that the Minister may have no intention to privatise Irish Water at this stage but, given the shakiness of the proposed financial model and the absence of robust oversight, it is inevitable that the entity will fall apart, necessitating emergency legislation. All that is required to amend this section is the passing of amending legislation in this House and the Seanad, using the same large Government majority that has been used to ram through everything else over the past three and a half years.
It beggars belief that a full, independent assessment of the new proposals has not been carried out but a member of the public did much work on this over the weekend on the basis of figures provided last week. Many people have seen the calculations of this individual and he has done a fairly thorough analysis of the Irish Water figures. Taking everything into consideration and using the figures provided by both Ministers over the course of this debate, this individual has concluded that the total net revenue available for investment by Irish Water is €63.7 million, after costs and grants are taken into consideration. That figure is the maximum that will be available to Irish Water.
The figures provided by this person look reliable - I am happy to give the Minister my copy and if he can dispute the calculations I would welcome his response. It seems that the figures stand up.
In the absence of any recent CER assessment one must say that the figures provided by the Government simply will not stack up. The figure of €63.7 million represents the maximum that is likely to be raised in revenue if there is 100% compliance and not even the Minister believes there will be 100% compliance. Let us imagine there is a 25% non-compliance rate.
A non-compliance figure of 25% is rather conservative. In that scenario, Irish Water would take in less than €30 million. A 35% non-compliance rate - again, a credible possibility - would bring the total down to less than €16 million. What if it got to the point at which there was a non-compliance rate of 46%? That is possible given the sentiment that has been expressed. Under the charging system that the Minister has proposed, this issue will not come to a crunch from the point of view of payment until 2016. If there is a non-compliance rate of a little over 46%, then Irish Water will be in the red, making a loss of approximately €400,000.
A member of the public did this detailed work over the weekend on the basis of the figures released. I will pass the document over to the Minister now. I gather other Members have it already.
It seems to me to be credible. If it is not, then let the Minister provide evidence to that effect.
This is why we are saying that, irrespective of what the Government claims as its intention now, when we examine the detailed costings and the analyses that have been carried out, it is clear that this will not work and that in these circumstances this so-called saver will be worthless. All it will take is some amending legislation to get rid of it. It is not possible to bind someone's hands in the future in that way.
If the Minister was serious about this and if he had confidence in the model he is proposing, all he had to do was agree at the Cabinet meeting yesterday to hold a referendum at the same time agreement was reached on two other referendums to be held next May. If the Government was serious about providing the assurance to people and addressing the real concerns expressed by the public about the inevitable prospect that the company will end up being privatised, then surely the Cabinet would have agreed yesterday to a third referendum in May. Will the Minister explain to us why the Government cannot do this? Usually, the excuse for not having a referendum is that the Government does not wish to go to the expense, but the Government has already committed to two referendums in May. Why not hold a third? The absence of any commitment to do that can only lead a person to the conclusion that the Government is not serious about this and that it does not make sense.
It is clear that the Taoiseach misled the House on the Order of Business today. He said a full independent assessment of all these matters was carried out by the Commission for Energy Regulation. I cannot see that. It would seem that the Taoiseach has misled the House. Can the Minister clarify the matter for us tonight? If it is the case, I hope the Taoiseach will correct the record tomorrow.
Many people are asking questions of the Minister. There are nine more speakers, so I appeal to people to be brief. I realise people can speak for longer, but not if you want to hear the Minister. Deputy Ryan, you have the floor.
Do I have the same latitude as others to diverge from it?
Concerns have been expressed by people on the possible privatisation of Irish Water. I have had concerns and people I have met out and about and at my clinics have expressed concerns. My party colleagues have expressed concerns. We have sought to have those concerns addressed. One way of addressing those concerns - perhaps the obvious way - would have been to have a referendum. Anyway, the Minister has brought creative proposals before the House to deal with the matter in a different way. His proposals are sound and I believe they achieve the objective he has set as well as what we have asked him to do. I compliment the Minister on his response to suggestions from the Opposition in respect of the concerns they had about his original proposal. I am confident about the future of Irish Water.
I wish to touch briefly on the matter of the right to water and water as a human right. This is often discussed in the context of United Nations Development Programme. The UN has developed several aspects to the concept of water as a human right. One element is that water should be sufficient and continuous. We are going to see this element of the right delivered. Another element is that it should be safe. Under the legislation to set up Irish Water, one of the key objectives is to ensure we have safe water. The setting up of Irish Water will address the issues relating to boil water notices throughout the country. Another element of the right to water is that it should be acceptable in terms of colour, odour and taste. A key objective of Irish Water will be to deliver on that aspect of the right to water. The fourth of five aspects of the right to water is that it should be physically accessible in respect of proximity to houses, buildings or whatever. This aspect of the right to water is being delivered too in the context of the setting up of Irish Water. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his forbearance. The final element of the right to water to which the United Nations has specifically referred is that it should be affordable. According to the United Nations, the test of affordability is that its cost should be less than 3% of household income. In the context of this element and the other elements of the right to water, this legislation passes the affordability test.
I mentioned on Committee Stage that there are clearly powerful forces at work that would like Irish Water privatised. Maybe there is not one Member of this House who would like that, but, clearly, there are people who would like Irish Water privatised.
My thanks to Deputy Stagg for his personalised and unprofessional comments. In respect of Deputy Stagg's question of whether I would like to privatise Irish Water, I refer him to amendment No. 2, tabled in my name, which seeks a referendum to maintain public ownership of Irish Water.
Let the record show Deputy Stagg's vote versus my vote, as well as Deputy Stagg's pre-election promises and how they stack up now.
It is clear that there are people who want to privatise Irish Water. It is relevant that in the letter from the European Central Bank to the late Brian Lenihan, structural reforms were insisted on as a condition of continued ECB assistance to the Irish banking sector. Four weeks later, the memorandum of understanding was signed and it contained only two structural reforms. One was an insistence that the people would be charged for water. Clearly, there are powerful forces at work that would like this.
Let us take it on faith that the Minister absolutely does not want to Irish Water to be privatised. Let us take that as a given.
There are two ways we can do that. We can pass legislation insisting on a plebiscite or we can pass legislation that puts it to the people for a referendum. The Minister's preferred mechanism for ensuring Irish Water is never privatised is a plebiscite.
My preferred mechanism is a constitutional amendment. Let us assume the Minister and I are both trying to achieve the same thing. There is a gaping flaw in the Minister's approach that a future Government can change the legislation which does not insist on a plebiscite being held. Therefore, a referendum should be held because such a measure cannot be changed by a future Government. The suggestion is, "Trust us," but it is not even a case of trusting the Government but of trusting future Governments. However, the people do not trust it and none of us should. If we have unanimous agreement in the House which may or may not be the case that Irish Water should never be privatised, why choose a mechanism that can be bypassed by the Government over one that cannot be bypassed by it? The more people appreciate the Government's position, the more compelling the argument becomes to provide for the holding of a referendum. I asked the Minister on Committee Stage, but he did not have an opportunity to answer. If the aim of both a referendum and a plebiscite is to try to have a vote of the people before any privatisation takes place, what is the advantage in having a plebiscite over a referendum?
The argument being brought forward by the Government side does not stack up. What it has not stated is if, as Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly has articulated very well, it wants to prevent a future privatisation of Irish Water, it will hold a referendum. There is nothing to lose. It would copperfasten it and keep everybody happy and we would all be singing from the same hymn sheet, at least on that issue. Why does the Minister not do this? The obvious reason is he wants a get-out clause.
It is most likely that Fine Gael wants it, but the Government wants a get-out clause and there is a good reason.
I come at the issue from a slightly different point of view from many of the other contributors in that I do not believe a majority in the Government parties want to prevent the privatisation of Irish Water; worse than that, I believe the Government knows that, with the introduction of water charges, privatisation is absolutely inevitable. The Minister knows that is true and privately, if we were not discussing this issue openly in public, he would admit it. He would say, "Of course, it is going to be privatised," just like everything else was privatised once charges were introduced. Once on the slope towards user charges, privatisation inevitably follows. The evidence I will provide in favour of this argument is what is happening in the here and now. I pointed to this in the experiences of the people from Detroit.
The Government is privatising Irish Water now, which is why it does not want to hold a referendum on the issue. The introduction of charges is the beginning of the privatisation process. Off-balance sheet financing is, de facto, privatisation. It is not nominal but effective privatisation, which is precisely what our friends from Detroit explained to us. Detroit Water is nominally in the ownership of the city of Detroit, but, in reality, as they explained in detail, off-balance sheet financing means that it effectively has been privatised because the people from whom it borrows money to undertake the infrastructural work - the private financiers - actually call the shots. They decide the level of charges, the priorities of Detroit Water in terms of where investment is made, the bonuses for those who really make the decisions, exert pressure to have cut-offs and so on. That is what happens. Once the private financiers come in, they will decide.
Is this scaremongering? I say we know about this from our national economic experience in the past five years. The bondholders call the shots and have been calling them in the economy for the past six years, but the Minister is trying to tell us that it will be totally different in the case of Irish Water. He must think we are idiots. That is what has been happening; the bondholders have been dictating everything and the more the Government becomes dependent on them to finance whatever Irish Water does, the more they will control the situation. When this is added to the incredible holes in the finances of Irish Water which we discussed at length last week and which will be the subject of subsequent amendments, it completely proves the point. If Irish Water will only generate what could be as little as €16 million net a year for the Exchequer or perhaps up to €60 million - let us say it is even €60 million - that means that it will take 15 years to pay back the initial set-up costs. Where will Irish Water get the money to undertake all of the infrastructural work?
I am making the point that the Government states the amendment offers us a guarantee against privatisation, but it does not. In fact, everything else about Irish Water guarantees that it will start to be privatised from the moment charges are made in April 2015 or whatever date is proposed by the Minister. As soon as Irish Water starts to borrow money on the financial markets to undertake the infrastructural work, the privatisation process starts. In fact, in terms of the installation of meters and the €175 million paid to private consultants, it has already started. Which bit of Irish Water will be public? The private consultants - KPMG and IBM -are doing everything, as are Denis O'Brien and GMC Sierra. We are going to get the money from private financiers, but nominally Irish Water will be publicly owned. That is rubbish and the experience in Detroit shows that it is. Everywhere else where a company is nominally in public ownership but in reality all of the finance is coming from the private sector, there are user charges and all of the work is outsourced to private contractors, de facto, there has been privatisation. That is why the Government does not want to hold a referendum because if one were to be held, we would have to seriously discuss the exact wording in terms of how it would insulate our national resource of water against being owned and controlled by persons other than the people. It could act as a block and a serious impediment to the de factoprivatisation that has already started. That is why the Minister does not want to hold a referendum.
This point is directed not only at Members in this Chamber but also at Senators who will be making the decision because the aim of the amendment is to try to get the Bill over the line with the Senators whom the Minister is not sure will vote the Bill through. I hope, therefore, that they are listening to the arguments being made in this House. I ask those Senators who have said their big concern is that the Bill does not protect Irish Water from privatisation to look at the experience in Detroit and they will then know that the Bill in its entirety is the prelude to privatisation which is guaranteed, inevitable and inexorable. That is why I hope they will oppose it and force the Government back onto the back foot on the issue. Ultimately, the issue will be decided on the streets. The next year will decide whether Irish Water, the charges regime and the privatisation agenda live or die. I hope they will die at the hands of the people on the streets, as the have done in the past few weeks.
One of the concerns raised with me about the concept of holding a plebiscite or a constitutional referendum is how it would affect rural people. I note with surprise the contributions of Deputies Denis Naughten and Michael Fitzmaurice, as well as other Opposition Deputies from rural constituencies such as Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly whose constituency is substantially rural.
They did not mention people with private wells or members of group water schemes whose water is frequently derived from aquifers. This is where the proposal to insert a provision in the Constitution falls asunder. What wording is to be inserted? Would the Constitution refer to the collection, distribution and pumping of water, pipelines, pumps, manhole covers, meters and the men who read them? Our experience of changing the Constitution, particularly in the 1980s, was not a positive one and we are still living with the consequences of some of the changes made as a result of poorly thought out constitutional referendums that did not achieve their objectives.
The proposal to tinker with the Constitution worries me. I am surprised by some of those who are in favour of doing so because they generally make well thought out contributions on policy, although some of them, for reasons of their own, do not participate in the committees to which they have been appointed.
Inserting a provision on Irish Water in the Constitution would effectively nationalise the wells and septic tanks of people living in rural areas. Charges have been made against the Minister concerning the implications of recent changes for the asset base and balance sheet of Irish Water. Perhaps the proposer of the amendment, Deputy Donnelly, will enlighten the House about the cost of nationalising every well and septic tank. This is what his proposal amounts to or perhaps he wants to introduce some form of urban-rural apartheid. I hope that is not what he is seeking as it would not play well in east County Carlow and west County Wicklow where many people are members of group water schemes.
People living in rural areas have been treated as second class citizens for long enough. They had to provide their own water, which some people consider to be a human right, by making a private investment. They did so because no one else was willing to provide it for them. Those who have suddenly taken a great interest in the public water supply do not have any interest in farmers, people who live on the sides of mountains and even some of those who live on the edges of towns where the 50 kph speed limit still applies. Some towns in my constituency do not have public sewers. The role of Irish Water is not confined to the provision of drinking water but extends to public sewers.
How would the referendum tie up with Sinn Féin's position in Northern Ireland on the disposal of sewage from septic tanks? Northern Ireland Water charges £152 to desludge a septic tank. This charge, which is in effect and was not delayed, applies to people in counties Fermanagh and Tyrone and so forth when their septic tank backs up. I remember some Opposition Deputies predicted that other legislation would result in bills of €20,000 or €30,000 to have a septic tank inspected. Septic tanks can be registered for €5. How does Sinn Féin's proposal to insert a provision on Irish Water in the Constitution marry with the approach taken by the Government North of the Border where people are charged €152 to desludge a septic tank? The urban-rural divide and apartheid that certain members of the Opposition from County Wicklow are promoting also seems to apply in the North.
On the constitutional requirement, another important public service, the national broadcaster, charges people €160 per annum to avail of its broadcasting services. I hope Deputy Donnelly will not propose to insert a provision on RTE in the Constitution. Imagine if we had to remove a reference to Joe Duffy from the Constitution or insert an article in the Constitution on Marian Finucane.
This is an important issue because RTE is a public service that is fundamental to our democracy. While it is vital that it is kept at arm's length from the Government, it is not the subject of an article in the Constitution.
I note the Chair gave plenty of latitude to three Opposition Deputies who voted for the programme for Government and had no difficulty with this element of it when it was proposed. One of them even took up a position as Minister of State.
I appreciate that but I have waited patiently to speak for more than an hour.
I am surprised and disappointed by Deputy Donnelly's approach to this debate. He has omitted from his argument the fundamental issue of the Irish people in whom he obviously does not have any trust.
The role of Deputies is to serve the people and it is the people who will determine the hue of the next Government. Deputy Donnelly may very well be a member of the next Government and if he is, good luck to him. I can imagine what he and his new ally, Deputy Boyd Barrett, would come up with in government. It is lovely to see there are no policy differences between them. If they are in government after the next election, it would be nice to know that they trust the people who elected them.
Given that he could well be part of a Government, he should at least trust himself.
This amendment would prevent a repeat of what Fianna Fáil did with Eircom, Aer Lingus and a couple of other semi-State companies they are conveniently trying to forget about. I do not recall a constitutional referendum being held on depriving people in rural areas of a broadband service for generations or on Aer Lingus withdrawing its services at Shannon Airport.
The Deputy may have won that argument if he had been knocking around at the time.
I note Deputy Fitzmaurice has left the Chamber. The amendment would insert in the Constitution references to aquifers, rivers, septic tanks, hosepipes in backyards and companies in my constituency which draw water from the ground and bottle and sell it to consumers.
I cannot understand the reason the Deputies opposite are so anti-rural and want to treat rural dwellers differently. Since the foundation of the State, successive Governments have treated people in rural areas as second class citizens. This is the first time ever-----
I am surprised at Deputy Healy as he comes from a rural constituency. I hope he will encourage everyone in south Tipperary with a well to avail of the €100 grant.
He is already printing the leaflets. This is a clumsy attempt by the Opposition to try to gain some sort of kudos with the public in regard to one element they may have had a genuine concern about. I accept that. The Minister has gone further than any previous Minister in regard to any public service, utility, semi-State company or anything provided by the State by way of a service. When Deputy Naughten was in the House, he acknowledged that and was the only Opposition Member to do so. The Technical Group, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil want to have the apartheid of urban and rural continue. People, because of their address, will be treated differently, and that is bad.
A previous speaker referred to things blowing up in our faces. The Constitution is an important document of the State which has served us very well since 1937, by and large, and should be treated as such. The clumsy proposals, by way of amendments, would do a lot of damage to the Constitution because they would set a precedent. Where would that end? What would Deputy Donnelly want to see next in the Constitution? Would he like to see the ESB in it? I know Fianna Fáil opposed the foundation of the ESB.
Would he like to see other elements of the public service in the Constitution? Would he like to include schools in the Constitution? What schools would be included and excluded? Would he like to give preferential treatment to certain schools because they are fee-paying or are of a certain denomination?
What the Minister is doing meets the legitimate concerns of people who have worries about the possible privatisation of Irish Water. Throughout the past week of debate and since the issue has been resurrected, the Opposition has failed to have any element of trust in the electorate. It continually mentions what a future Government may or may not do. It may very well be in government. The cheap seats over there-----
-----where Members have to continually knock everything will soon be vacated. The day may come when Deputies Donnelly, Healy and Boyd Barrett might have to cobble together a programme for Government. Deputy Donnelly, along with others, is considering forming a party or a group of Independents, or neoliberal hawks, as someone referred to them. I was beginning to think a hen harrier was lurking around Leinster House. He may decide that his political ideology would win out and try to sell of parts of Irish Water or get rid of the €100 grant for the rural people with whom he seems to have such a difficulty.
This amendment prevents that because the motion before the House would have to be clear and concise, and both Houses would have to be consulted and act responsibly. The banking inquiry started today-----
I have listened to a lot of ráiméis since I came here, nothing of which was to do with water. The banking inquiry commenced public hearings today on an element of the recent past in this country, where fundamental mistakes were made. There is an acknowledgement by the Minister, the Government and the Minister of State that the previous legislation on the establishment of Irish Water may not have been perfect, and this is the response.
Deputy Stanley referred to the domestic charges which are not currently being imposed in Northern Ireland. His party is in government there. I found a document he will be very interested in, namely, the Northern Ireland Water Scheme of Charges 2014 to 2015. It shows that the charge will be £1.689 for a variable water charge up to 1,000 litres. It makes it clear that there will be no water charges for 2014 or 2015, but says nothing about the period after that.
Sinn Féin and certain elements of the Opposition have tried to con the people into thinking the situation in Northern Ireland is different, but it is not. There is no written constitution in Northern Ireland, therefore a provision regarding privatisation could not be included even if one wanted to do so. We have a written Constitution and it is dangerous to tinker with it and include things in it for the sake of it. Deputy Stanley can dismiss this all he likes, but his party is in government and the document to which I referred came from parties in government in Northern Ireland.
Deputy Mattie McGrath has a particular interest in this because he talks about it constantly. I cannot see him cobbling together a Government with Sinn Féin. The charge for desludging septic tanks will be £152 in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin talks about privatisation of a utility in Ireland. Someone who talks out of both sides of his or her mouth at the same time is, in anybody's language, a hypocrite.
The Minister's amendment is well thought out, comprehensive and deals with people's concerns. The Opposition does not like the fact that the Minister has dealt with the issue. It has decided to approach the Constitution in a clumsy manner. Some people call this a so-called Parliament. The Opposition would dilute the powers of the Constitution and erode what it is supposed to be about, namely, protecting the citizens and fundamentals of democracy. It is not supposed to usurp the role of the Parliament or the Executive. That is why the amendment proposed by the Minister is good and why I will support it.
I understand and appreciate everyone's views and genuine concerns. I have never engaged in a campaign of deprecation or adversely commented on anybody's sincerely held views and opinions. I acknowledge that there are genuine concerns about privatisation. Coming from the background that I do, I am stridently opposed to any attempt to privatise this utility, in particular. Some people may have forgotten, but I played a significant role in ensuring that Coillte remained in public ownership. Everybody has conveniently forgotten about that, but we fought a very strong campaign. It was part of the troika's programme and we succeeded in ensuring it did not happen.
Let us be clear about a few things. I have listened very carefully to people who have come from very posh brigades who said all sorts of things and represented their views. I come from a background of genuine poverty. I am not ashamed to admit that I come from a lower socioeconomic background. My late father was a county council worker. In 1961 we were very glad to get a council house. I recall very clearly that he was only paid every fortnight and worked five and a half days a week. He cycled 14 and 15 miles on a bicycle to and from work. Deputy Donnelly may sneer. I did not arrive into college in a lovely car.
When we got the house we had to pay rent, which was normal, and twice a year we had to pay moiety rates. Deputy Halligan will remember the rates on county council houses. We did not have any money and had to make do. Every year my late mother had to rear turkeys or pigs to try to pay the rates. I acknowledge that I have the same background as Deputy Healy. In that context, we were extremely limited economically and financially, and did not have many resources, but we were raised always to pay the bills.
I remember that before Santa would be looked after, the rates man would arrive for the second moiety in December and the turkey had to be paid for from the rates money. This was, by the way, for a rented council house. We did not own it, but we were glad that we had it. I came from that background. I am the eldest of ten children of a county council employee. The reason I mention this in the context of water provision - Deputy Seamus Healy will probably know this - is that we had a dry toilet, a toilet with no water.
Exactly. We travelled across the fields to a well and carried water to the house to meet our essential needs. I remember it spilling from the bucket into my wellingtons, which was awful. This went on for a number of years, until we hand-dug a channel to supply water for the village. We did it on a Good Friday and a Holy Saturday. It is for that reason I would hate to see what we have put in place privatised. That would be anathema to me. If I was part of a Dáil that was trying to privatise it, I would be the most disruptive person one could meet. We set up that system for ourselves. About seven or eight years ago we joined a group scheme, for which approximately 40 households paid €950 each and there was no big row about paying for it as individuals. We were glad to pay it because we had learned the value of water in carrying it from the well across the fields. That is why the issue is so important for us. I look on it as a human right, but this human right was certainly circumscribed during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and even into the 1990s, based on affordability.
I did not intend to raise this issue, but we had to put provisions in place for every drop of water brought to the house, which is why I see it as something of value and appreciate it. I understand and appreciate the reasons people are stretched because of the charges. I acknowledge the points made because coming from this background I understand that every new imposition is always very difficult to meet. We must ensure provisions are made to accommodate those in the supplementary welfare system who are in that position. For that reason, I support Members on all sides of the House who have made contributions in that regard. I acknowledge that their view is genuine and even if mine is different, it does not mean that theirs do not have equal validity.
On the issue of holding a plebiscite, I was only part of the Government for a short time, but I cannot imagine any Member allowing Irish Water to be privatised, particularly in the context of this debate. Some Deputies have made valuable and constructive contributions, and if they are in government, they will surely be the very ones who will say privatisation will only happen over their dead bodies. That is the way I would feel if I were in that position. Privatisation would not happen because I feel so strongly about water provision and know the value of water, having been in the position I described in my early years. I appreciate everything that has been done to provide it.
Many people have had to dig private wells, particularly in rural areas. It costs from €3,500 to €5,000 to bore a private well, depending on the depth one must go down to reach water. This is tough on people, even if they receive a grant. Each year the well owner must provide for filtration and treatment and a pump which must be replaced approximately every three or four years. The other day I met a person who was paying out €1,500 for a new pump. There are many hidden costs attached to living in rural Ireland. People in group water schemes are also paying out significant sums.
Many of the people I have met in rural areas are glad of the €100 grant and that their efforts are at last being recognised. They have not received anything up to now. Deputy Barry Cowen lives in a rural area and I know well that when he visits Clara and the surrounding area, he will discover this €100 will mean a lot. Significant work has been done in these areas in which I am sure he has been involved, as has his brother. This sum of €100 is recognition that they have taken positive action during the years in digging wells and being members of group schemes.
I share the concerns of colleagues across the House who have made points in this regard and the amendment has been moved to allay the profound and deep concerns expressed by them. This is not to diminish their comments because their points have been well made. The amendment deals with the issue such that the make-up of any future Parliament will ensure privatisation will not happen or that it cannot happen. Clearly, we will see a plethora of manifestos etc. in the next 12 months or so, but woe betide any Government that will act to change this. People will put their trust in Deputies who will represent and reflect their viewpoint here in the context of the make-up of the next Government.
I understand some Members want to go further than the amendment and provide for a full constitutional amendment. However, the amendment is reasonably good and is as far as the Minister will go in this context. The use of the word "shall" makes the proposal an imperative and whoever wants to change the legislation will have to try to bring forward new legislation which I cannot see being successful in the context of the contributions made. I know that the Labour Party will not countenance the privatisation of the water supply under any circumstance. I certainly would not be part of a Labour Party that would privatise water services, but there is no fear of that happening.
The reason I have outlined my background is that I know how important is access to water. I acknowledge that many colleagues come from a similar background. This will guarantee Irish Water will not be privatised. The Minister must be commended for taking on board the genuine concerns expressed. I listened to the debates on the issue in which people expressed their views strongly. Their views have been acknowledged and taken on board and from those debates has come a positive and progressive proposal.
I call Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh. Before he begins, I remind him that there are eight more speakers - the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, Deputies Joanna Tuffy, Catherine Murphy, Joe Higgins, Michael McNamara, Michael McCarthy, Joe O'Reilly and Seamus Healy. I, therefore, ask him to be as brief as he can be.
I will be as brief as possible, but I wish to refer to the major implications of the amendment. First, however, I congratulate the Minister on rallying his troops to talk down the clock because in so doing he will avoid the thorny issue of the missing 300,000 households. Everybody has the right to speak to the amendment, for which I do not criticise them, but I am critical of the fact that this debate is to be guillotined, as was the debate on the legislation which set up Irish Water, which did not allow us to fully debate the issues involved. Once again-----
Deputy Emmet Stagg might like to contribute to the debate, rather than snipe from the Government side of the House. He has the same right as everybody else to do so.
What is being proposed in the amendment is illogical. When is a referendum not a referendum? The answer is when it is a plebiscite.
There is nothing in the Constitution to give effect to a plebiscite. There is no mention of a plebiscite. What the Minister has cobbled together is dangerous in many ways. The amendment refers to "the People" but they are not defined. Does "people" mean everybody who lives on the island, every citizen or every household bar the 300,000 that have gone missing somewhere and that may be in his back pocket? It is important when drafting legislation to make sure it is clear. If it was clear, it would refer to the people as the electorate as intended under Articles 46 and 47 of the Constitution, which provide for referendums. It is logical to hold a referendum rather than play around with a concept that does not exist under the Constitution.
The amendment provides that if a Government plans to privatise, it will line up all its ducks in a row and then go to the people. Deputy Donnelly proposes a referendum in order that the Constitution can prevent a Government from doing so. This would be pre-emptive and would mean no future Government could contemplate going down that rood.
We have seen the way the Labour Party has examined in government how to sell off natural resources. Bord Gáis has been privatised and the Government intended to privatise Coillte, both of which came under the remit of a Labour Party Minister - the same Minister who said something along the lines of "Election promises - what the hell?" stating, "Isn't that what you tend to do during an election?". How much faith would anyone have in promises from that quarter?
It is important that the amendment be withdrawn and that the Minister provide for a referendum. Why is he afraid of a referendum? On May 6 or 7 2015, the Government will hold several referendums, which I welcome. Why not put on another one at the same time to prevent Irish Water from being sold into private hands? It is a simple proposition. Why is the Minister afraid of this? There will be no additional cost if several referendums go ahead on the same day. However, the Minister is trying to ensure that a future Government can produce something that is not legally binding and can be overturned without a plebiscite, because the legislation could be amended prior to that. A Bill could be introduced in six months to repeal that section, because there is nothing in it to prevent the Government or a future Government from repealing it, but that could not be done easily if the Constitution prevented it. It is a simple proposition, and the logic of what is proposed is that if the Minister believes the people should be consulted, the way to do so is through a referendum as provided for in Articles 46 and 47 of the Constitution.
This has been an interesting debate. We all agree that major investment is needed in water, which is a national resource, but we disagree on how we should deliver that investment. The Government has made it clear how it will do so by establishing a national utility called Irish Water. We are not reinventing the wheel. Back in the 1990s, a national utility, the ESB, had paper records in various regions with ad hocmaintenance plans and a utility system that was breaking down. The company undertook a huge modernisation programme. First, it established an asset management system, which recorded every asset in its infrastructure on computers, and this was all brought together under one management system. Maintenance records were then brought under this system before the company set about attracting outside investment to upgrade the network. This was the national network programme for the electricity distribution system. Almost €7 billion in investment was attracted, which the State did not have to provide.
The Government is not reinventing the wheel. Neither the Deputy nor any Member has called for a referendum on whether the ESB should be privatised. I have never heard him praise how the company performed, but we are all proud of the work it has done. We are trying to emulate a system that works rather than adopt the Deputy's proposal, which is to increase investment in water services infrastructure, although he will not tell us where the investment will come from. He wants to impose taxes on working people-----
-----or he wants to take the money from other departmental budgets, whether that is health, education or social protection, which the Government is working to protect. There are options, and the Government has come up with a workable solution that has worked previously. That is what the debate should be about. Whether it is this Government or a future Government, future generations will not thank any of us if we do not act now to secure the future of the valuable resource that is Irish Water.
I welcome the amendment that has been tabled by the Minister to reassure people who have doubts about the Government's intentions in respect of public ownership of this valuable infrastructure. The Government has gone to great lengths to reassure people that it is not the intention to privatise the water network. If we were so determined to privatise, why have we not privatised the ESB's network, which is much more valuable? We resisted that when pressure was applied due to the economic challenge with which the Government was presented when the troika was in town. The Government resisted all attempts to privatise the national electricity network. The proof is in the pudding.
The Government is determined to develop a national water infrastructure of which we call be proud, and I fully support everything being done in that regard.
I would like to correct the record regarding statements made by the Sinn Féin representative. Earlier in the debate, Deputy Stanley named Mr. Alex Atwood as the Northern Ireland environment Minister. He resigned his position on 16 July 2013 and Mr. Mark Durkan took over.
The Deputy had the wrong man. I thought he would have been on top of this and what is happening in Northern Ireland, but obviously he is not.
I am galled by the hypocrisy of Sinn Féin in respect of water services. A total of 35,000 water meters have been installed in the Six Counties, which represents a significant investment, yet Sinn Féin Members criticise the Government in this House for undertaking a metering programme to conserve water and to find leaks. Reference was made by a number of speakers to the cost of water and how the State compares to other jurisdictions. According to the UK's energy regulator, the average notional cost of providing water and sewerage services to each domestic household in Northern Ireland was £412 in 2013-14. Although the Northern Ireland Executive has delayed the introduction of water charges, its 2011 to 2015 budget states:
[I]n Northern Ireland [water] services are currently primarily funded from public expenditure. This creates pressure in other areas ... for example, [funds for] health and education, need to be diverted to cover the associated water services costs.There is the proof in the pudding that we have a clear choice. We either take the funding out of vital health and education services, as is being done in Northern Ireland, or we come up with a vehicle that can attract and leverage funding off-balance-sheet, as the ESB has done for many years to develop its network.
We can do the same again with water networks. It has been made clear by the Minister and the Government that we are not privatising it and I welcome this amendment.
I join with others in welcoming amendment No. 3 from the Minister. As has been pointed out by Deputy Penrose, the amendment changes the word "may" to "shall" and makes clear that it obliges and that it is a legal imperative. This was raised with me over the weekend by a member of the public. I will now able to go back to that person and tell them that the wording has been changed and, hopefully, this will reassure them. It was the only issue they raised with me.
My point is that there are diverse viewpoints among the public. One would not think it from the way the Opposition goes on. There are many different viewpoints on this issue. I note that Sinn Féin has also tabled an amendment to change the word from "may" to "shall" so I take it that it also welcomes the Minister's amendment. Sinn Féin has no proposal regarding an amendment relating to a constitutional referendum, as Deputy Donnelly did. There is no proposal.
Right now, Sinn Féin should surely welcome amendment No. 3 because it is in line with its own proposal here tonight.
There is a mistake in Deputy Donnelly's amendment, which was ruled out of order, that would make it unworkable. It says that the Government shall no more than three months after the passing of this Act introduce a constitutional amendment Bill seeking to amend the Constitution. It then says that the amendment of the Constitution effected by the Act shall be called the thirty-fourth amendment of the Constitution but quite clearly, the Act would not amend the Constitution and the amendment proposed by Deputy Donnelly contains a mistake. It shows the problems one faces when one tries to come up with an amendment to the Constitution. There is a mistake in what is proposed before us tonight and we would be very foolish to pass it.
In respect of the views of the public on this, I would be very concerned if we proposed to have a constitutional referendum. I am not the only one. Other members of the public who are not in here, who have no vested interest and who are very attached to State assets have expressed the same concern I hold. My concern is that if one was to amend the Constitution to enshrine Irish Water in public ownership, this would then set the bar too high for State assets generally. The implication would then be that any other asset that is not in the Constitution is not protected in the same way as Irish Water and there would basically be a hierarchy of State assets.
I do not think anyone here campaigned about a constitutional referendum relating to Irish Water in the general election. That being said, the majority of voters-----
The majority of voters voted for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens, all of whom stated that they were going to establish a single water utility, water metering and water charges. Neither the People Before Profit Alliance nor the Socialist Party - nobody up there on the Opposition benches - campaigned during that election campaign for a referendum on Irish Water. What they did campaign on was the contention that we should not privatise the ESB, Coillte or other State assets yet they would put them lower down and diminish them in terms of their protection as State assets by proposing to amend the Constitution. I very much support the Minister's approach and I welcome the fact that Sinn Féin does also.
The reason we are here with this amended legislation is because of the events of 11 October 2014 when 100,000 people took to the streets. In making these changes, the issues were identified. One of those issues was the fact that people had very real concerns about the prospect of Irish Water or water services being privatised. I wish we were not here talking about this tonight. I think the real problem is Irish Water and that there is no confidence and trust in Irish Water. Why should there be when one looks at the litany of issues that have happened from this day last year when the legislation was rammed through?
I think we know the difference between a referendum and a plebiscite. A plebiscite is a vote of the electorate to accept or reject a proposal whereas if one puts something in the Constitution, one cannot enact legislation that is repugnant to it so it must be consistent. The Attorney General would not stamp the legislation. It would not get on to the floor of the House and we know that. There is a big difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. A referendum, if passed, is a guarantee that legislation cannot be brought in that is inconsistent with the Constitution. Essentially, this is giving the impression that there is a certainty about non-privatisation. It does not give anything like the same sense of certainty that a referendum would give.
If we had a crystal ball ten years ago, would any of us have predicted what happened in the years that have intervened in terms of the economic crash and the kind of pressure that was put on to look at the assets that might be sold to get us out of the difficulties in which we found ourselves? I do not have a crystal ball and I do not think anyone else here has one. Who is to say that this will not happen again? This is why one needs to have certainty about the assets of the State and this is why we need a referendum as opposed to a plebiscite because it gives that certainty.
There was a lot of talk about the ESB, more or less saying that there is a similarity between the ESB and Irish Water. The ESB did not start off with €11 billion worth of assets and very few financial liabilities. It did not start off being packaged in a way that made it an attractive proposition to privatise. Why would people not have concerns about that? I must question where Irish Water is going to get all this money to invest in the infrastructure when it is very clear that the net amount that will be available will be very small.
I very much regret that a particular issue was raised in this debate, which is the issue of trying to divide urban from rural. We have all paid regardless of whether one is on a group water scheme or a mains system. People have mainly paid through development contributions and in recent years, some of those would have been up to €15,000, €16,000, €17,000 or €18,000 per house. If one quantifies that as a mortgage over the lifetime of a mortgage, people would be paying €30,000 or €40,000 in development contributions. We have all paid so let us try not to divide and conquer on this particular issue and say that rural people have always paid and urban people have not. We have all paid for the development of a system that accrued something in the region of €11 billion worth of assets.
People are not stupid. They know the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. They know when something is a fig leaf and that is exactly what this is. None of us knows who will be in government in five or ten years time.
We are writing legislation that is supposed to stand the test of time but when we can identify a flaw in it and if we believe water services should remain in public ownership, it is incumbent on us to act. Given that Labour Party Members say they want to keep Irish Water in public ownership, I would have expected them to be first out of the traps in demanding a referendum rather than a plebiscite. However, if they did not proceed with Irish Water we would not need to discuss this issue. That is the fundamental flaw.
It is a grotesque abuse of parliamentary procedure for a Government to put a guillotine on a debate, only for Government Deputies to be deliberately piled into the Chamber to take up a significant portion, if not the bulk, of the time allocated.
It would of course be welcome if Government Deputies had participated fully in the debate. For example, if they had joined us last week when we were here at midnight without a guillotine, that would have been welcome. In the context of a guillotine, however, it is cynicism in the extreme.
In regard to the proposal to legislate for a plebiscite before any water services are privatised, it was edifying, even moving, to see Fine Gael Deputies come into the Chamber girded in the cloth of champions of opposition to privatisation.
The reason this issue has become so important is because people, from bitter experience, do not trust the political establishment. It is incredible to hear a Labour Party Deputy blithely absolve herself and others of any blame for breaking her party's election promises on the grounds that Fine Gael's policies were different during the course of the election. Suddenly, the massively expensive Tesco style advertisements which promised to protect the ordinary hard-pressed people from all of the hurts Fine Gael would inflict were gone. Is it any wonder that people do not take as gospel the promise that the parties opposite will never participate in any move to privatise Irish Water? The reality is that people's fears are justified in regard to privatisation. In respect of another public service, domestic refuse collection, people have seen Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party privatise on a local level-----
My comments are very relevant to the issue of privatisation, which is the subject of the amendment. Senior Ministers have come into this House and blamed the privatisation of refuse services on the campaign by the people of Dublin in 2003 against a new refuse tax, ignoring the truth that the vast majority of local authorities, while dominated by the parties opposite, had already privatised refuse collection services by the time they were being reintroduced in Dublin. Let us hope we never hear that false story again.
The reason this amendment is not what it purports to be is because it can be removed by a future Government or Dáil, depending on the complexion of the majority, through a simple vote on legislation. The absolute guarantee against privatisation is not making a market commodity of this crucial resource called water. Do not parcel it up so that it can then become a focus of pressure from European multinationals and the European bureaucracy for privatisation as a commodified resource. Abolishing water charges is the protection against privatisation. The Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, made certain accusations against us. Based on 2012 figures, an increase of 0.2% in the corporation tax rate would bring in far more money than water charges next year, not to mention the financial transaction tax and other options.
In December 1996, the current Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, who was then the Minister for the Environment in a Labour Party-Fine Gael Government, had the good sense to announce to the country, following a movement of people power, that water charges would be abolished. Rural water schemes gained tremendously from a campaign that was waged mainly in Dublin in advance of that abolition. Lobby groups were, quite rightly, formed to demand resources for group water schemes and they managed to get substantial extra resources for these schemes-----
----- on the back of the campaign against water charges. I was a champion of that. Abolish water charges now. It will happen anyway. The question is whether it will be sooner or later. The longer it takes to abolish water charges, the greater the body count of Labour Party candidates. If they want to avoid a water massacre, they should abolish charges now instead of waiting for the people to force them to do so.
With amendment No. 3, the Minister has responded adequately to the question of privatisation. Privatisation cannot happen without a decision of the two Houses of the Oireachtas followed by a plebiscite of the people. That is watertight beyond measure. The Opposition Deputies did not vote against this earlier today. There was no official vote against this amendment from any part of the Opposition when it was put to the House. The constitutional prohibition proposed by Deputy Donnelly and others would prove difficult due to group schemes and private wells.
It would end up as a legal quagmire due to rights of ownership and so forth. It is not easy constitutional law, it would not work in practice and it would be open to many legal challenges. That is the difficulty with it. The Minister's response in the amendment is adequate. It deals with the issue and allays public fear. In fact, just as he has allayed public concern on this issue, he has also allayed public concern about cost. It will cost a little over €1 per week for an individual and a little over €3 per week for a multi-person family or home to have a water supply.
I am delighted with the conservation grants. I challenge the Opposition to state its position on them. Many of its Members are opposed to them, but the grants give recognition to people who have their own wells and to the group schemes. How would the Opposition proceed? Is it happy to keep the status quoof the boil water notices, the miles of lead and old piping and the sewage going into waterways, with the health and safety issues that go with it?
We are not charging for water. Water is a free resource that falls from the sky in Ireland. The cost arises in the delivery and treatment of water. It is a misnomer to say we are talking about water charges. There is no question of water charges; it is a question of charges for treatment to get pure, clean water and the delivery of that water. The Opposition must state whether it wants the status quoor whether it supports change to support tourism, inward investment and the health of our nation. If it supports that change, how does it propose to fund it? Will it be through direct taxation and increasing the tax on the narrow base of people who pay much of the tax in this country, when this offers a broadening of the tax base? Would the Opposition diminish services to pay for it? It is impossible that money will fall from the sky by some magic process to do it, so the question the Opposition must address is whether it would cut services-----
That is the question Deputy Boyd Barrett and others must answer. How would they fund change, or do they accept the status quo?
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, and the Government for tackling an unacceptable situation. We cannot continue with the current situation where we have a broken down pipe system, with 200 year old pipes in some instances, sewage effluent being released into freshwater and the boil water notices. We must have the courage of our convictions, lead from the front and deal with it. Then the question of how to fund that arises. Does one do it by indirect taxation, as the Opposition appears to imply, or by reducing other services? We say there should be a modest, reasonable and acceptable charge.
Today, we addressed the privatisation question. I will conclude, in deference to the Ceann Comhairle's wishes to proceed with the debate. The House and the people of the country should be satisfied following the amendment put forward today, which was not officially opposed in a vote by the Opposition. It will require the two Houses of the Oireachtas in unison with a plebiscite of the voting population of our country to change the situation and privatise Irish Water. Nothing could be more copperfastened than that. It is time we removed the nonsense from this debate and accept that we must fund this and proceed with it. My challenge to the Opposition is to tell the people precisely how it would fund it.
I am happy to support the Minister's amendment with regard to the constitutional amendment. It provides a considerable guarantee. I suggested earlier that the original Water Services Bill was a legislative measure that would most facilitate privatisation and that no legislation was required to alienate the shares. I wish to correct that. That was the case with the original Bill passed by the House but a second Bill was introduced which provided for the requirement of legislation. The Minister is now introducing a further copperfastening of that, whereby a referendum would be required before that legislation would be enacted. The legislation that provided for the legislative requirement to privatise was introduced this time last year. The provision was in the last section of the Water Services (No. 2) Bill which passed all Stages in this House in one afternoon. It was guillotined. It was the most ignominious legislative measure that was ever passed by the House and the section, which I was not aware of up to now, never saw the light of day in the House. That is not how legislation should be passed.
I commend the Minister for the fact that a great deal more time has been allocated to this legislation, even though a guillotine is being applied. There has been considerable filibustering and that has not been confined to the Opposition benches. Deputies on the Government benches have tried to talk down the clock tonight. I will not do that. However, I will make two points. I am happy to support the Minister's approach to this and the fact that there is a constitutional amendment. I would have preferred to see Irish Water under the auspices of a consumer co-operative rather than Ervia. Nevertheless, it is under Ervia and there were reasons for that.
Second, conflict of interest provisions were introduced in respect of the board of Bord Gáis in legislation in 2013 to ensure that a member of the board could not be involved in another gas or electricity provision company. There is a lacuna in this legislation whereby somebody can be on the board of Irish Water and be involved in an alternative or competitor water services company. I tabled an amendment in that regard but due to the guillotine it will not be reached. I hope the Minister will undertake to examine that in the Seanad.
I am disappointed that Deputy O'Donovan has left. He obviously arrived to put on his comedy act and to follow it with a disappearing act.
The public is absolutely opposed to the privatisation of water and it wants absolute certainty about that. A plebiscite does not give that certainty. The only thing that will provide such certainty is a constitutional amendment, and that is what the public wants. Why is that? The public does not trust this Government. I do not trust this Government.
The public has good reason not to trust the Government. The Minister who is introducing this legislation told the people of north Tipperary during the last general election campaign that they should vote for him so he could stop Fine Gael introducing water charges. In the Tesco advertisement issued by the Labour Party one of the six things it named that would hurt the Irish people was a €238 water charge to be introduced by Fine Gael. In addition, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform told everybody a number of years ago that he was absolutely opposed to water charges.
Finally, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government now tells us that we never had an exemption under the EU water framework directive, even though successive Governments and Ministers have told the Dáil that there was and is an exemption under that directive.
I was prompted to speak by the speech made by Deputy Higgins and the interventions of Deputy Boyd Barrett. Every time a question is asked about how money can be found, the answer is always the same from those Members of the Opposition.
We are told to tax corporations, introduce a wealth tax and tax the super rich. Of course, the corporations to which the Deputies refer are the corporations that employ 246,000 people in this country.
The people I stand here to represent are the people who work for those companies. They are people who go to those companies to earn a living with the skills they have acquired and contribute to our economy.
The Opposition is admitting it has so little confidence in the claims it is putting forward that they will not be able to win seats and parties to influence future Dáileanna and Governments. The Government's track record is very clear. When we were on our knees, we did not privatise or sell stakes.
The time permitted for the debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of 16 December: "That the amendment set down by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and not disposed of are hereby made to the Bill, Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed." Is that agreed?
- James Bannon
- Tom Barry
- Pat Breen
- Richard Bruton
- Jerry Buttimer
- Catherine Byrne
- Joe Carey
- Paudie Coffey
- Áine Collins
- Michael Conaghan
- Seán Conlan
- Paul Connaughton
- Ciara Conway
- Noel Coonan
- Marcella Corcoran Kennedy
- Joe Costello
- Simon Coveney
- Michael Creed
- Jimmy Deenihan
- Pat Deering
- Regina Doherty
- Paschal Donohoe
- Robert Dowds
- Andrew Doyle
- Bernard Durkan
- Alan Farrell
- Frank Feighan
- Frances Fitzgerald
- Peter Fitzpatrick
- Eamon Gilmore
- Brendan Griffin
- Dominic Hannigan
- Noel Harrington
- Tom Hayes
- Martin Heydon
- Brendan Howlin
- Kevin Humphreys
- Derek Keating
- Paul Kehoe
- Alan Kelly
- Seán Kenny
- Seán Kyne
- Anthony Lawlor
- Ciarán Lynch
- Kathleen Lynch
- John Lyons
- Eamonn Maloney
- Michael McCarthy
- Helen McEntee
- Gabrielle McFadden
- Dinny McGinley
- Joe McHugh
- Olivia Mitchell
- Mary Mitchell O'Connor
- Michelle Mulherin
- Dara Murphy
- Eoghan Murphy
- Gerald Nash
- Dan Neville
- Kieran O'Donnell
- Patrick O'Donovan
- Fergus O'Dowd
- John O'Mahony
- Joe O'Reilly
- Jan O'Sullivan
- Willie Penrose
- John Perry
- Ann Phelan
- John Paul Phelan
- Pat Rabbitte
- James Reilly
- Michael Ring
- Brendan Ryan
- Arthur Spring
- Emmet Stagg
- David Stanton
- Joanna Tuffy
- Liam Twomey
- Leo Varadkar
- Jack Wall
- Brian Walsh
- Gerry Adams
- Richard Boyd Barrett
- Tommy Broughan
- Dara Calleary
- Joan Collins
- Niall Collins
- Michael Colreavy
- Ruth Coppinger
- Barry Cowen
- Lucinda Creighton
- Seán Crowe
- Clare Daly
- Pearse Doherty
- Stephen Donnelly
- Dessie Ellis
- Martin Ferris
- Michael Fitzmaurice
- Terence Flanagan
- Seán Fleming
- Tom Fleming
- Noel Grealish
- John Halligan
- Séamus Healy
- Michael Healy-Rae
- Joe Higgins
- Colm Keaveney
- Billy Kelleher
- Michael Kitt
- Michael Lowry
- Pádraig MacLochlainn
- Micheál Martin
- Peter Mathews
- Charlie McConalogue
- Mary Lou McDonald
- Finian McGrath
- Mattie McGrath
- Michael McGrath
- John McGuinness
- Sandra McLellan
- Michael Moynihan
- Catherine Murphy
- Paul Murphy
- Denis Naughten
- Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
- Éamon Ó Cuív
- Seán Ó Fearghaíl
- Aengus Ó Snodaigh
- Jonathan O'Brien
- Willie O'Dea
- Maureen O'Sullivan
- Thomas Pringle
- Róisín Shortall
- Brendan Smith
- Brian Stanley
- Billy Timmins
- Peadar Tóibín
- Robert Troy
- Mick Wallace