Wednesday, 27 April 2016
Irish Water: Statements
I thought I had seen it all, but if the media are reporting what I believe is probably accurate, we are heading back to the past. If that is the case, politics is failing. The issue of water charges has been a consistent blight on the political system for many years. We have to recognise that it has recently divided society because it followed a period of horrendous austerity during which taxpayers were lumbered unfairly with major bank debt, against which my party voted. I believe we are about to witness the triumph of mediocrity over modernism, of short-termism over common sense and of immaturity over innovation. If the scrapping of Irish Water goes ahead, let us call it what it is: political, economic and environmental sabotage. Let no one think we are in anyway experiencing new politics or that this is the birth of a new political maturity, if the current speculation is accurate. This is 1977 all over again. It is Groundhog Day. Unpopular local rates were abolished by Fianna Fáil and people paid income tax rates of up to 60% in the 1980s. We risk repeating that mistake. Every other EU country has some type of domestic charge for water. Fianna Fáil had the chance to make a stand on mental health services, the renewal of rural Ireland, to end child poverty or institute a living wage, yet it has made a stand on something that costs people €3 a week. What are its priorities?
Let us be clear on the decision that may be made shortly. A suspension or scrapping of water charges will result in the loss of billions of euro of potential investment in water services. I believe we will have water shortages in this very city in the near future. It is not only the amount of investment that matters but also investing in the right places at the right time and getting the balance right between new capital projects, upgrades and planned maintenance works. The aforementioned independent assessment and countless Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, reports pointed to the need not only to address an infrastructural deficit but also to improve the standards of operation.
Given what I am hearing, if there is any fairness, the law-abiding people who could afford to pay and who have paid their bills will have to get their money back. That will mean that Irish Water will have to reprocess well in excess of 2 million financial transactions. I ask Deputies if that is common sense. Whether the charge is being suspended or abolished, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Members of which are not even present, need to tell people how and when they will give them their money back. The loser in this is not any political party represented in this House but the environment and those who depend on a clean water supply. The 20,000 tonnes of sewage that pour into the lower harbour in Cork each day will continue to flow in the constituency of the Fianna Fáil leader; the boil water notices will continue and Dublin will not have a secure water supply into the future.
What has Irish Water done to date? Its investment has delivered 34 new treatment plants, including 26 for wastewater and eight for drinking water, as well as 73 upgrades, including 51 for wastewater and 22 for drinking water. A further 47 water conservation projects have been completed, while 452 km of pipe has been remediated. Irish Water is also targeting investment to improve water quality. Look at the improvements it has made to the lives of 17,300 people in County Roscommon who were subject to boil water notices, with the residents of Castlerea, for example, being subject to boil water notices from November 2009 until two years ago. They can now turn on the tap without having to turn on the kettle first. Irish Water's implementation of disinfection technologies has meant 300,000 fewer people are now dependent on supplies in need of remedial action, as defined in the EPA's remedial action list.
The urban areas with no wastewater treatment facilities are the focus of Irish Water, with the investment being aimed at protecting public health and the environment of the people living in these communities. Two of the required plants are complete and in operation, while another six are under construction. Critically, Irish Water is also addressing the unacceptably high level of leakages. Through metering identification of customer-led leakages, Irish Water has been able to offer households a first fix repair of leaks between the boundary of a property and a house. Through the repairs conducted by it under the scheme and those by customers of internal leaks identified through meters, 34 million litres of water have been saved. That is enough water saved every day to supply County Wicklow.
Staff in Irish Water and their contractors must be reeling today, 500 of whom are based on the southside of Cork city in the backyard of the Fianna Fáil leader. I wonder what the 5,000 people who work in the water and waste industry think of the latest developments today. The Labour Party stands in solidarity with these workers.
The funding model to modernise the water system is based on three components: subvention, commercial charges and domestic charges. To replace one of these, we will have to eat into the now famous fiscal space. Therefore, funding that may have been available for housing, education or welfare payments will not be there. Over €1.4 billion will have to be found to meet Irish Water's running costs and modernisation programme to 2021 if domestic charges are ceased. Sewage treatment plants do not compete easily with hospitals or houses when it comes to political priorities. That is why it must be taken out of politics and the task given to a utility.
The people who paid - approximately 950,000 households - may be about to be made fools of. The 340,000 people who have already paid for water through wells and group schemes are being shown nothing but disregard by Fianna Fáil, in particular. What is more, Irish Water reported to me that during the general election the payment rate actually increased and while not all of the data were collected, a payment rate of just under 70% was likely.
Then there was the "Prime Time" programme on 1 March. It is my view that if the suspension or abolition goes ahead, it will cost us more in the long run.
There is one vital question: are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael acting within the law? Does the decision to suspend water charges run contrary to EU law and, in particular, Article 9 of the water framework directive? Ireland did have a derogation from water charges, but it was signed away by none other than Fianna Fáil in 2010 which committed to the introduction of domestic water charges at that point. We should note that the directive institutes the principle that the user pays and that costs must be recovered from the user or polluter of water. A failure to do this will likely result in substantial EU fines in the years ahead. Greece and Italy were both hit with fines running to millions of euro that were increasing by the day until environmental issues were tackled by the European Court of Justice.
Why would countries which routinely pay for water grant us a new derogation? Furthermore, the European Commission has described the metering programme as a basic pre-requisite for implementing the directive.
Many people in this House have no idea what Irish Water actually does and there are quite a few who chose not to learn what it does. I agree with former Minister Noel Dempsey that it has been almost impossible to have a rational debate on water for the last few years. As such, I take this opportunity to nail a few myths. First, nobody pays for water twice. Does our water system with boil water notices, leaking pipes and insecure supply look like something that we have paid for? Even in Northern Ireland, every home pays its local rates of which £200 goes to the water company along with general taxation.
The prospect of privatisation is another myth. I cannot imagine any private entity ever wanting to own thousands of kilometres of Victorian pipes while having to adhere to the strict regulations set down by the EPA and the HSE on water quality. However, a referendum on future public water ownership may help to address people's concerns and the Labour Party will support it if it finally puts the matter to bed.
I am concerned that the deal being proposed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has been made without any engineering expertise or the knowledge of the people who have to implement water investment, that is, the management of Irish Water. If those in Right2Water really believe water is a human right - and I could not agree more - they might pay attention to the United Nations whose definition of access to water is not free water for everyone, but affordable water where the costs of providing it does not go above 3% of people's incomes. Protecting water as a resource is also essential in tackling climate change as energy use in water treatment is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. That is another fact that has been lost by the so-called "hard left" in this debate.
The Labour Party stands by the people who choose to pay. We further stand behind acting responsibly and our values regardless of the political consequences. If one does not govern by one's values but rather governs based on public opinion alone, one will never achieve anything.
I welcome this debate, the reasons for it and the background to it. I acknowledge the right of the Dáil to discuss this issue, especially considering the level of public discourse on the matter as a result of our own talks with Fine Gael on an agreement potentially to facilitate the formation of a Government. One is forgiven for questioning why this specific issue is given more coverage or consideration than the very pressing needs in the provision of housing and addressing homelessness, crime prevention, creating decent jobs, rural decline in towns and villages throughout the country and the massive waiting lists, to name a few of the issues that dog our country currently. I contend that all parties and none acknowledge those pressing needs in those areas. They acknowledge that with an agreed budgetary framework within fiscal rules priorities can be made by a new Government in these areas. An example of the collective responsibility of this new Dáil is in the area of housing where it was agreed by all parties and none to establish an emergency committee to explore the issue within a defined timeframe, consult with relevant sectors and stakeholders, make recommendations to the Dáil and subsequently to turn those recommendations over to a new housing Minister. It is an example of how this new Dáil can help and instruct government.
In 2009, Fine Gael launched the NewERA document which contained the blueprint for a national commercial water utility to deliver water services as a full cost-recovery entity. Fianna Fáil in government, in its agreement with the troika for the provision of necessary funding, included in its potential mechanisms to close the gap of €35 billion between income and expenditure an option on water charging. By the time that Fianna Fáil Government and the subsequent Government closed the gap, water charges had still not been introduced. In effect, the introduction of a charging regime or commercial utility was not necessary or deemed necessary by any EU water framework directive. Fine Gael in government pursued the contents of the NewERA document, in particular the policy that ended up as Irish Water. Without going over old ground in great detail, it was rushed, ill-thought out, ill-advised and ill-conceived. It was most expensive, to put it mildly. It quickly ran out of control and became a runaway train costing billions of euro.
It has cost the taxpayer on the double. It took revenue from the initial household charge and the motor taxation fund and it continues to take revenue from property tax funds. It has left local authorities at a massive loss. Despite all this funding, it is still spending less on repairs, maintenance and capital expenditure than was the case during the years 2000 to 2010. During the course of the passage of the various water services Bills in the last Dáil, there was no regard for the views of the Dáil. There was no space for scrutiny and there was no room for amendments. It was rammed down the throats of the Irish people by the last Government with the largest majority in the history of the State. Subsequently, there were 13 different U-turns by the Government which only served to make the sorry saga worse, more unpalatable, more confusing and more ridiculous. That is why it became the election issue it was.
I accept and admit that it was not the most dominant issue but it was one which has now the ability to strangle and kill this Dáil and cause an election. It is against that background and for that reason that Fianna Fáil sought to be responsible and fair to the people. We sought to play our part in resolving this issue, to take the heat out of it and put a roadmap in place for a resolution, thus allowing us to seek the facilitation of a Government which is the overriding factor that must be taken into account. The overriding background music to the recent election was a trend from people that they now demand, not merely expect, that parties and candidates are true to their word and true to the commitments in their manifestos. Tesco ad politics and commitments on Labour's way over Frankfurt's way have done irreparable damage and must be stopped and put to bed. We made commitments in our manifesto in four key areas including securing home ownership and tackling homelessness, cutting costs for families and improving the services they rely on, creating decent jobs and supporting enterprises and in seeking to bring about crime prevention and support communities. Specifically, in the area of cutting costs, we said that in government we would seek to abolish Irish Water and scrap water charges.
There is no doubt that we did well in the election, but we did not win it. We did not win enough seats to form or lead a Government.
Our over-riding promise was not to enter into government with Fine Gael. There was no outright victory by any party or any obvious bloc. Three times we tried to form a minority Government, lead it and offer a change that we believed people sought but failed to secure one extra vote.
We then had to acknowledge our responsibility by exploring the potential to facilitate Government formation while retaining our independence as an opposition party with the right to pursue the policies contained in our manifesto, as is the right of any other political party or person who has the privilege of representing voters. This allows us to set down our guiding principles. It allows for the potential to give value to the votes that we received and to work with the Dáil in instructing the Government.
We realise that no one won the election but we recognise that the Dáil contains a majority that is against the water charges and the water charging regime that is in place in the form of a commercial utility. Consequently, we recognise the right of the Dáil to determine the future of those. Therefore, it is our duty to ensure that when the Dáil makes such a decision, it does so in full knowledge of the relevant expertise's recommendations on a charging or non-charging mechanism, on whether it should be a public utility or not and on facilities and appropriate statutory oversight to ensure that the work of any public utility is costed and delivered in a way that allows it to be measured against its performance and be adjudicated on by the Members of this House. Market conditions should be appropriately measured against European norms.
This affords Deputies, who were elected by the people irrespective of who they were and where they came from, the opportunity to abolish, or otherwise, water charges or any mechanism for providing water services. It also affords us the opportunity to have an overarching utility that is publicly owned and publicly accountable to the Dáil and, by effect, the Irish people. This is the new sort of politics that people want to see. This is how they want the Dáil to have an input. They do not want us to disregard the result as given just because some will not enter into negotiations or seek to give them the desired outcome of the votes that they cast.
It is a complicated situation that we find ourselves in but it is one in which we have a responsibility to ensure that a Government emanates from it. We do not expect to implement all of the policies in our manifesto because we will not be in government but we will facilitate a Government and allow it to be formed. One of the over-riding issues on which we gained our votes - not all of them but some in cities and large towns - was that of water charges. We have an obligation and duty to put the message to the Government that it cannot impose the will of the last Dáil on this one. That is why we are outside of government but we are giving value to the votes that were cast in our favour. It is incumbent on us and others to take that responsibility seriously and not to use the opportunity that some of the Deputies to my right have used ad infinitum. They will always be on the promise path and never on the decision-making one. However, we are taking our responsibility seriously. This is why we will continue exploring. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, including this issue, in terms of our facilitating Fine Gael in leading a government. We will take the responsibility and privilege given to us seriously and appropriately in the hope that we can have a better country because of it.
Since there is no vote and, thus, no conclusion to our deliberations today, these statements on water are of little worth to the citizens who sent us here to make decisions on their behalf. The debacle that has been Irish Water and water charges is a major issue for citizens. Due to the resilience and determination of those who campaigned on it, including tens of thousands of Right2Water activists, water charges and Irish Water have failed and were resoundingly rejected by the electorate in February's general election.
Despite this, a motion calling for their abolition that was signed by 39 Teachtaí Dála is yet to be debated. We have been actively prevented from doing so. The Dáil is the people's assembly. It is supposed to be an independent Legislature. As Teachta Cowen rightly stated, each of us has been elected and mandated to fulfil the commitments we made to the electorate. A majority of Deputies sought and won a mandate to abolish Irish Water and scrap water charges. Sinn Féin's view is that Irish Water should now go and water charges be scrapped. This is our mandate.
It is also Fianna Fáil's mandate. Fianna Fáil's manifesto calls clearly not once, but in three separate sections, for the abolition of Irish Water and the scrapping of water charges. This is the mandate to which it should be true. The same manifesto says nothing about the suspension of charges, maintaining the mechanism for charging on the Statute Book or kicking the can down the road in perpetuity.
Why are we being denied our right as legislators and as representatives of our people to debate legislation on scrapping charges and dismantling Irish Water? It is because Deputy Enda Kenny wants to be the first Fine Gael leader to be elected for two consecutive terms as Taoiseach and because Fianna Fáil is intent on supporting this groundbreaking historical mission.
Were Fianna Fáil serious about its manifesto commitments, it would support calling a vote on motion No. 30 on the Order Paper. After that vote, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could return to negotiations in the knowledge that the issue of water and water charges had been handled in a democratic, transparent and open fashion to the satisfaction of the people who sent us all to the Dáil.
Let me remind the Dáil that Sinn Féin prevented the privatisation of water in the North. We also stopped the introduction of domestic water charges. This is the precedent for our position and it works.
I do not have the time to take us through the serial scams and fiascoes that mark the history of Irish Water and the Minister, Deputy Kelly's legacy. It would take too long. Suffice it to say that nothing less than the abolition of Irish Water and the scrapping of water charges will do. This is the message that we were given. Fine Gael must accept it. Fianna Fáil must honour it.
In his absence, I thank Deputy Micheál Martin for the backhanded compliment on the issue of water this morning. He and his colleagues in Fianna Fáil know a thing or two about verbal dexterity. Given the fact his party's U-turns on the issue over the years have turned into veritable cartwheels, "verbal gymnastics" is probably a more appropriate description.
It is worth reminding the House of the positions of Fianna Fáil on this matter in recent years. In 2009, Deputy Micheál Martin and his party signed up to a programme for Government with the Green Party to introduce water charges. In 2010, Fianna Fáil, with Deputy Micheál Martin in the Cabinet, signed up to a programme for national recovery that included water charges. Only a few months later, it set a date of 2012 for the charges' introduction. On the basis of the figures in the document in question, that would have cost the average household €400 per year. Just in case the Deputy suggests that this was at a time when he was not the leader of Fianna Fáil, his party's manifesto in the first general election that he fought as its leader in 2011 made a commitment to continue the introduction of water metering and, by default, water charges.
Compare this with Sinn Féin's record. Deputy Adams gave it but I will repeat it for the record. In 2006 when the British Government was attempting to do in the North what Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have been trying to do in this State-----
-----Sinn Féin campaigned against it. When the Assembly was re-established, we deliberately took the Ministry for Regional Development with Mr. Conor Murphy for one reason above all, namely, to halt the introduction of water charges.
Our view on the matter is very straightforward. Some 90 Deputies were elected to this House on a mandate of ending water charges and 39 of us have tabled the motion, as Deputy Adams stated earlier.
I welcome the fact Fianna Fáil has abandoned a long-standing commitment to water charges. Why has it done so? It has done so under great pressure from the hundreds of thousands of people in the Right2Water movement who have campaigned against what we believe to be an unjust charge. It has done so under huge pressure from the Deputies in this House, including those from Sinn Féin, the Anti Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit, Independents 4 Change and other Independents. This is not about some road-to-Damascus conversion to a belief in a fairer society; this is Fianna Fáil doing what Fianna Fáil does best. Therefore, what should one do now? In our view, the Deputies who have not done so should put their names to the motion the rest of us have signed. It was deliberately worded to be consistent with their election manifesto. They should insist that the motion be tabled for debate and decision here and then they should vote with us.
Deputy Micheál Martin was correct earlier when he said passing a motion will not change the law. We are not suggesting it would but it would achieve two important ends. First, it would give expression to the democratic will of the majority of voters who voted for Deputies to end water charges. In doing so, it would heap enormous pressure not only on Fine Gael but also on Fianna Fáil to ensure this unjust charge is scrapped.
Irrespective of what Fianna Fáil does, Sinn Féin will continue to keep its word. We believe water is a human right and the Minister is correct in that regard. Since it is a human right, we believe it should be delivered on the basis of need and not ability to pay. On those grounds, we believe general taxation is the most appropriate way of funding water delivery from a social justice perspective.
The Minister is also wrong on the water framework directive, and he knows it. The derogation is in Article 9.4. It was not given away. It is in place to be invoked and negotiated with the Commission at any stage. It is on those grounds that Sinn Féin believes this House should debate and vote on the motion to scrap Irish Water, scrap water charges and enshrine in the Constitution public ownership of water services.
I suspect the reason Fianna Fáil has voted with Fine Gael to block the tabling of the motion is because, at some stage in the future, its members will seek again to do another U-turn on the issue. Instead of kicking the can down the road with a commission on the future of water services and charges and presenting it as some kind of victory for the democratic will to abolish the charge, they will turn once again and people will be left having to foot the bill for the broken promises of their party. Sinn Féin will not tolerate it nor will its colleagues in the Right2Water movement. Therefore, let us debate the motion, take the vote and force the scrapping of this unjust charge.
I welcome the opportunity to outline the views of Fine Gael on the future of water services. It is important to state at the very outset that Fine Gael fully believes in the benefits of maintaining a national utility to fix, upgrade and maintain our water network so families and businesses can enjoy a secure and clean water supply. We also stand by our belief in the conservation of water as a precious natural resource through a metered charging regime.
The creation of a single water utility by the last Government was in response to the shocking state of our national water infrastructure. Decades of inaction by previous Governments had brought our entire water system to the verge of collapse. While we all saw evidence of the decay, such as the cryptosporidium contamination in Galway, it was really only when Irish Water had been established that the extent of the crisis facing our infrastructure became clear for the first time. Almost 1 million citizens were at risk of contamination. One third of all major wastewater treatment plants were overloaded. At least 23,000 people had to boil water before using it, and many had to do so for years. Raw sewage was and still is being pumped directly into our seas, rivers and bays at more than 40 locations around the country. Two thirds of all sewers were in need of repair as raw sewage leaked into the ground. These issues have a real impact on people, families and businesses across the country in terms of health and quality of life. We could not stand over a system that was making people sick. It was clear that the disparate and fragmented approach to water as an inevitable consequence of having 34 separate local authorities responsible for local water services contributed to this broken and failed system. After considering the issue fully, a decision was made to consolidate water services into a single national utility. This decision was taken to protect families and secure our water supplies long into the future. The accusation from some of a secret agenda of privatisation is completely bogus and untrue. The hard yards in establishing Irish Water have now been taken. The early investment and reform measures are now starting to deliver real results for communities across the country.
In the three years since a single utility has taken over responsibility for water services, we now have for the first time a plan and a long-term vision for water infrastructure. Irish Water has removed almost 300,000 people from the EPA at-risk drinking water register by implementing required disinfection technologies in water treatment plants. It has already removed 20,000 people from the long-term boil-water notice circumstances in which they were living. It has repaired more than 500 km of the worst water mains that were continually failing people. It has upgraded wastewater treatment plants in places such as Swords, Naas, Leixlip, Galway, Clifden, Dunmore East, Ardmore, Clonakilty and Carrigtwohill. It has saved more than 32 million litres of water, enough to serve the counties of Carlow and Laois combined, and it has identified a further 80 million litres that can be saved through fixing household leaks. Also, critically, it has reduced operating costs by 14% and identified more than €200 million in capital savings on large projects in planning.
The decision to create a single water utility was the correct one. It is working and it is here to stay. Over the course of the next five years, the utility has an ambitious €5.5 billion works programme to bring our water infrastructure up to an acceptable standard. This will involve the removal of all supplies from the EPA’s at-risk list, benefiting nearly 1 million households. This will eliminate all boil-water notices across the country and reduce leaks to a rate of 38%, as opposed to the current rate of 49%, saving 180 million litres of water per day. That is the task we are embarking on. The utility will end the scandal of pumping raw and untreated sewage into our rivers and onto our beaches, including at Cork Harbour, into which 50,000 houses are currently pumping raw sewage. That will be fixed within the next 18 months by Irish Water.
Irish Water will secure water supplies for a growing Dublin region and deliver water improvements and derisk supplies in every county. As part of our discussions with Fianna Fáil on its facilitation of a Fine Gael-led minority Government, we have discussed the possibility of creating an oversight committee on Irish Water that will report to the Oireachtas to boost transparency and ensure targets are being met.
On water charges, as the House will be aware, talks are ongoing on the formation of a Fine Gael-led minority Government with Fianna Fáil. During these discussions, Fine Gael has maintained its long-running policy of supporting a single water utility and a water charging regime that supports conservation and protects funding for clean water supplies. However, the facts are to be seen. Fine Gael won 50 seats in the recent election and the parties of the last Government can no longer impose their will on the Dáil. Instead, we need to persuade people on the merits of good public policy, informed by experts and best practice. While I hear very clearly today and relate to the frustrations outlined by Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, the fact is that without agreement with Fianna Fáil on water, it is inevitable that a rushed vote on the future of Irish Water and water charges will be taken in a politically charged environment in the aftermath of an election.
The result would have been a massive public policy mistake that we would have regretted.
Pending a final outcome of the ongoing discussions with Fianna Fáil, we have discussed the possibility of establishing an expert commission to examine funding models, charging and conservation incentives. The commission could send its recommendations to an Oireachtas committee for further investigation and testimony from experts. Independent legal advice to the Dáil should also be considered on Ireland's obligations under EU water directives. This process could provide time and space to conduct an informed and detailed discussion for a period of approximately nine months, during which time water charges would be put on hold to create space for this debate and fair consideration.
Following this process, the Dáil would need to make a decision, which would be a test for politics and all those who speak about new politics. Do we accept independent expert advice about what is best for the country and vote accordingly or do we retreat behind party political positions designed for electoral gain? Fine Gael will vote for a charging regime that supports the best principles of water conservation and the provision of clean water for homes and businesses. The priority for this party, three months after an election, is to form a Government that can adequately deal with the many challenges facing the people, of which water provision is one. The current discussions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can provide a basis to allow us to move on from the current political impasse with which so many people outside the House are losing patience.
I believe we will secure the future of Irish Water as a single water utility. Detailed discussions on the nature of water funding can lead to a path towards an agreed and settled water charging infrastructure. Most important, this must be a model that is accepted by the vast majority of people on the basis of argument and evidence of what is right. This infrastructure must ensure families and businesses receive the safe and clean water supplies they need.
The Government is losing and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, is a very bad loser. Once upon a time, not very long ago, the Government seemed strong and the people seemed weak. Then the anti-water charges movement came along and it is now the people who seem strong and the Government-in-waiting which seems weak, nervous and fearful of the people. This is reflected in the emerging deal on water charges.
The hundreds of thousands of people who marched, the 750,000 households which boycotted water charges and the hundreds of communities nationwide that blocked meter installation are responsible for forcing the forthcoming suspension of water charges. The backtracking by the Government parties is vindication of the work done by each and every one of these campaigners, all of whom I congratulate.
We are in favour of the abolition, as opposed to the suspension, of water charges. Once this particular car has stopped and the engine has cooled, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have a bloody hard job restarting the motor and getting it back on the road. In France people say what parliament does, the street can undo. This refers to the power of the working class - the broad mass of people - to make and break governments and unpopular and wrong government decisions. This tradition is taking root in this republic and what has been started on water charges can and, I hope, will be done on pay, housing and other issues.
Who is making the concessions this week? While it is true that Fine Gael is being forced to backtrack, parties that campaigned in favour of water charges in the general election are in a minority in the House, whereas parties that campaigned against them are in the majority. By kicking the can down the road and keeping water charges on life support, it is the Fianna Fáil Party that is making concessions. Why should that surprise anyone, given that it is the party that first discussed water charges in the Cabinet? According to Cabinet records released under freedom of information legislation, the Cabinet discussed water charges twice in 2010, incidentally at a rate of €500 per annum. Instead of abolishing Irish Water, as it promised in the general election, Fianna Fáil is agreeing to keep it in place. Instead of ending water charges, as it undertook to do in its manifesto, it is keeping them on life support.
The purpose of the proposed commission will be to try to save water charges. People cannot place any trust in Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil on this matter. Irish Water must be abolished and water charges scrapped. The metering programme must be stopped and all arrears of non-payers written off. Those who paid, often under duress, must have their moneys repaid and all charges against those who bravely campaigned against water charges must be dropped. Last but not least, the Government must invest €1 billion per annum in water infrastructure. The money to do so is available. The Sunday Times rich list published at the weekend showed that the richest 250 people in Ireland own €73 billion. A modest millionaire tax would be more than enough to cover this investment.
I congratulate people in every town, townland, village and city, including Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and on every housing estate who for the past four years have put their shoulders to the wheel and fought tirelessly to see this day come. Irish Water and water charges may not have been abolished, but we are witnessing the beginning of the end. Although we have not gone the whole nine yards, as the previous speaker noted, there is a major chink in the armour of those who pursued an agenda of water charges. I congratulate those who fought and boycotted water charges, endured police harassment, went before the courts or sent to jail. Organised by the Right2Water movement and other groups, people turned out on the streets again and again in their tens of thousands.
During the general election campaign the Fianna Fáil Party stole the clothes of the left in order that its members could portray themselves as warriors leading the fight against Irish Water and water charges. Its manifesto declared it would abolish Irish Water and water charges. The U-turn the party made today illustrates the point that what matters is that more than 90 Deputies were elected on the basis of getting rid of water charges. Today, it has been finally recognised that democracy must play a role in the House. It was for this reason that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were forced to park this issue for a period and begin to negotiate on how they would deal with it.
We believe that eventually we must see the abolition of water charges and Irish Water. It is only a matter of time before that happens as the people will not get off the streets and will punish those who betray the vote they gave them.
This is important when we look at the history of Irish Water, about which nobody wants to talk. I believe the Dublin 4 set and the media do not really get the people. They do not really get what is wrong when we say we are not paying water charges and when we get up at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. to block the installation of water meters. They do not get it that some people are willing to end up in prison or march consistently. When we look back at the formation of Irish Water, we see an absolute debacle. If €2 million is owed to the people who paid water charges, let those who made a bags of the issue pay them back, such as IBM which was paid nearly €49 million in a contract; Accenture which was paid €17 million; others which were paid €13 million; Ernst & Young which was paid €4 million; Goodbody's which was paid €2 million; KPMG which was paid €2 million; Mr. John Tierney, head of Irish Water, who paid €200,000, plus bonuses; as well as other CEOs who also scandalously received bonuses. The scandal went on and on. We also had the Siteserv scandal, with Mr. Denis O'Brien in the middle of it.
People do not forget this kind of cronyism, corruption and disgraceful way of treating our most important national resources. Water is our most important natural resource. Wars have been and will be fought over it. It is not a commodity that can just be treated in the same as any other. We can live up to 70 days without food, as hunger strikers in the North and elsewhere have proved, but we cannot survive for more than three to five days without water. That is the reason we must ensure it is publicly controlled and funded through progressive taxation that provides for the wealth to be shared. The people have been overburdened by austerity and taxed again and again on their homes. They have lost their bin services to private companies which are pushing prices up by extraordinary amounts. They know that this could happen with water, which is why they are determined to fight with every breath in their body, often to the extent of going to prison or making significant sacrifices in their communities. They want to ensure the politicians they have elected who are sitting in this House and claim it does not really matter whether we postpone water charges or abolish Irish Water know that this matters. They will know it come the next election. If they promise something, they should deliver. That is what democracy should be like, rather than the debacle we witnessed today, when we had to vote on whether we should have a vote. Of course, we should have a vote on this issue. That is what we were elected to do.
It is about time there was real democracy, rather than the sham democracy whereby the very wealthy and the quangos are looked after. We need to end this, but given the the co-operation Fianna Fáil is about to give Fine Gael, we are going to see more of it. The people need to stay alert and in the movement because we are going to push the whole nine yards, until Irish water which is clinging onto the edge of the grave is kicked into it and buried.
I too congratulate the people who came out in their thousands in the past year and a half. Over 1 million people in seven major demonstrations walked shoulder to shoulder with the Right2Water movement which changed the face of politics in this country. After years of austerity, the straw that broke the backs of the people was water, Irish Water and the potential privatisation of a natural resource to meet a human need. Today we are inching closer to the abolition of Irish Water and water charges. I agree that Fine Gael and the Labour Party had a mandate when they introduced the hated water charges and the Irish Water structure; it is in their faces that they did not receive a mandate in the recent general election to continue that policy. Their austerity policies were rejected. Fianna Fáil received support and extra seats because it decided to rob the overcoat of the progressive left in this Dáil and put out the message that it would abolish water charges and Irish Water. However, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil can stand up to its backbenchers and say it is carrying out its mandate or what was in its manifesto. Therefore, the issue must be taken off the negotiating table. They should agree what they want to agree regarding a minority Government and the other issues on which they can agree, but they must bring this issue back to the Dáil, either through a vote on the motion tabled by 39 Deputies or by agreeing to a minority Government and then allowing this debate to happen in the Dáil. Then the 90 or so Deputies who have been given a mandate to scrap Irish Water and water charges will have the opportunity to have a real debate on the issue.
We need water conservation and a proper retrofit of our homes to reduce leakages to the recommended amount. If there was only clean water coming through our taps and it was not being flushed down our toilets, how many litres of water would be saved each day? The implementation of such measures is important. It is vital that a national water and sanitation board be set up but along the lines of the National Transportation Authority.
As a Right2Change candidate, I too was elected with a mandate to abolish Irish Water and water charges. The general election results made the decision for us on that issue and the House should have been allowed to vote on it today.
As Deputy Bríd Smith said, the history of the introduction of the charges in Dáil Éireann was farcical and extremely undemocratic, with late night and guillotined debates. The former Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, and the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, clearly showed that they did not understand the basic economics of water charges and conservation and demonstrated a disgraceful misuse of taxpayers' money in the setting up of the quango Irish Water. During debates many Deputies, including me, put the figures and questions to the Minister, but he had no answers to them. He did not have the basic economics of the issue worked out in any way, shape or form. He just ploughed ahead with the stubbornness that has devastated his party. A few days ago he said the abolition of water charges would make fools of people. However, it was he who made fools of them. He certainly made fools of Labour Party backbenchers, 80% of whom bit the dust in the recent contest.
Water charges were the straw that broke the camel's back, after the years of harsh austerity, cuts in health services, housing, disability payments, pensions, etc. and increases in taxes and charges. Ordinary people have said enough is enough, on which I congratulate them. The movement to abolish water charges was very powerful in my constituency, where groups such as Clare Hall Says No, Edenmore Says No and Coolock Says No were determined to get rid of this harsh imposition on the backs of the people.
In my earlier career, when I was chairman of Dublin City Council's general purposes committee, we oversaw the water supply system for Dublin and a chunk of mid-Leinster. We consistently asked Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led Governments for the money we needed from central taxation to run the system properly. Most other EU capital cities had standby reservoir reserves of 10% or 20%, but this was the only major capital city that did not have such a reservoir. Unfortunately, those Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil dominated Governments refused point blank to give us the money we needed. Irish Water and water charges must be abolished immediately.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, told us that we needed Irish Water because of the need to stop leaks and the waste of water. Why were the leaks not tackled immediately after Irish Water was set up? Some 40% of water in Dublin is still leaking into the ground. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, said this was about conservation. The Government paid people a conservation grant of €100, but they could leave the bath water running all night. Where is the conservation element?
The Minister also spoke about best practice. The Government spent a fortune on consultants to learn what best practice was, but when it had to go back to local authority engineers, it was told that what had been just designed was a load of rubbish. It binned that design and then took advice from local authority engineers who had been running the existing system. What a waste of money that was.
It would be cheaper to abandon Irish Water. People are considering the amount that would be wasted in doing away with it, but more would be wasted in keeping it.
We need a State-run regional water system and we do not need the entity called "Irish Water". Just about everybody in this House was okay with the idea of water being paid for through central taxation, which is a fair system. Direct taxation is based on ability to pay but we now have the highest indirect taxation in Europe, which makes it very unfair. A water tax does not incorporate one's ability to pay. During the election campaign in Wexford, of the 20,000 houses on whose doors I knocked I would say one half of the inhabitants would struggle to pay any water charge. Irish Water was set up as a commercial entity so that it could be easily sold. In England today, households pay approximately €900 per year for water. The Irish people are dead right to oppose any water charge such as this and we should continue to pay for water through a fair central taxation system.
There are days when this place has all the hallmarks of a twilight zone divorced from the real world and this is certainly one of them. The penny does not seem to have dropped with Fine Gael and the Labour Party that they lost the election. They were utterly hammered and their policies absolutely rejected by the Irish people. Of course, they never had a mandate to bring in Irish Water or water charges in the first place, having lied to the electorate in the previous election to this one. Their betrayal sparked the biggest movement of people power in this State for decades and it is as a result of that movement of non-compliance and civil disobedience on the part of citizens who self-organised that Fine Gael has been dragged screaming and kicking into its backroom deal with Fianna Fáil on the issue.
We should not be here discussing a fudge. Following the recent election, the mandate of this House and of a majority of the Deputies who were elected is for the abolition of Irish Water, the ending of water charges as a direct charge and the enshrining of water as a public service funded from central taxation as part of our Constitution. Water is and should be a human right and we have one of the lowest levels of water poverty in Europe, which is something about which we should be very proud. People should be able to access water on the basis of need rather than the ability to pay and I find it nauseating to listen to Fine Gael and Labour Party Deputies saying they need the money. Ordinary citizens have paid for this but the Government slashed taxes to wealthy earners in successive budgets. Had they chosen to collect that tax we would have had more than enough money to invest in our water supply to bring in the conservation measures that would have an impact and improve the service.
I agree with those who said we should be voting on this. We should not be facilitating a fudge by dragging it out. The sooner we abolish Irish Water the cheaper it will be and I have no doubt that day will eventually come because the Irish citizens will not tolerate anything less.
I propose to share time with Deputy Catherine Murphy. I welcome the fact that the issue of Irish Water has been brought into the Dáil for debate. It is something the Social Democrats called for this week. It is an important issue but it is only one of the important issues facing the country, and we are also dealing with crises in homelessness, housing, distressed mortgages, health care and child poverty, to name but a few. However, it would have been entirely unacceptable for the Thirty-second Dáil to fall because of an inability on the part of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to find a compromise solution in talks in which none of the rest of the Dáil is involved.
Most, if not all, Members of the House agree that investment in the water system is required to the tune of an additional several hundred million euro per year for at least the next seven to ten years. Most, though probably not all, Members of the House also agree that the water supply should remain in permanent public ownership in this country. The solution to the second of those points is very straightforward. First, we should hold a referendum seeking to change Article 10 of the Constitution enshrining the water supply in public permanent ownership. Second, we should disband Irish Water as a commercial semi-State and set up a public board, or whatever we might call it. Those two acts would absolutely guarantee that the Irish water system remains in permanent public ownership. Regardless of what happens to domestic charges, those two things should happen and I imagine that a very strong majority of this House would support a referendum and ending the commercial semi-State entity that is Irish Water.
The solution to how to find the funds for investment is a lot more complex. The main argument for domestic charges has been that the money is needed for additional investment but this is a false argument. The economics of the water charge are such that the money raised more or less covers the cost of raising the money so not a single euro paid out by Irish households is being used to invest in the water system, nor is it being used to provide people with water. It covers the cost of taking the money from them. Nevertheless, capital investment is happening. This is much needed and welcome but how is it happening if the domestic water charge is not raising any money to make it happen? It is happening because Irish Water is borrowing.
The second argument put forward by the Government for a domestic water charge is that a domestic water charge allows Irish Water to borrow this money, which means we do not have to shrink the fiscal space to which the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, referred. However, Irish Water is borrowing on balance sheet so the Irish State can borrow on balance sheet, but at a much lower cost, to do exactly the same thing. It costs approximately twice as much money in Ireland per capitato supply water as it does in the UK, including in Northern Ireland where there is a similar geography and population density. Therein lies the answer to finding the several hundred million euro per year required for capital investment in the system. Targets have already been set and agreed by the regulator and a significant cost saving can be found by bringing 34 utilities into one national entity and that money can and should be used to fund the upgrading of the system. There is a short-term cashflow lag between the savings that can be found because, for example, it would have to be done without compulsory redundancies, so it would take time. The investment, however, is required now and Irish Water is bridging that funding gap by borrowing but it is borrowing on balance sheet and the State can do exactly the same thing.
It is a reasonable argument to suggest that everybody be provided with a very generous allowance for free and we would charge people for excess usage. The reason not to do that is that it costs some €100 million a year to charge people for water and it is too expensive just to stop a very small number of people from using too much water. For these reasons, the Social Democrats believes the domestic water charge in Ireland does not make sense. We would like to see a referendum held, the commercial semi-State ended and a national water board constituted.
What appears to be happening now is that the entity known as Irish Water is to remain and water charges are to be suspended. The word "abolition" does not come into the argument, but that is what the majority of Deputies have a mandate for. This was a dishonest enterprise from the outset. The aim was to turn citizens into customers and to transfer €11 billion of assets to Irish Water. People quickly came to the conclusion that this was all about the privatisation of the water service. The aim was to get full cost recovery and there was little consideration for how much people had in their household budgets after the additional taxes and charges were taken out.
The last Government was a Government for the few, not for the many. The people have reacted to that and reversed it.
In the best systems in the world, one will get no better than a 20% leakage rate; it does not go below that. The cost-benefit analysis will not support digging up a street for a small quantity of water, and there are many small leaks. That is as good as one will get it. Good telemetry can achieve a great deal. Irish Water's 20-year plan was to reduce the leakage rate to 30% and yet the first county in which water meters were installed was Kildare. Before a single water meter was installed the leakage rate was 25% because there was good telemetry. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, said that the investment made in the system so far is producing results. Most of that investment, if it is not coming from the amount that was borrowed, mainly comes from the motor tax fund which formerly funded local government until property tax was introduced. The local government fund was stripped out and that has gone to Irish Water. That is how the investment is being made in the improvements.
As I said, the last Government was a Government for the few, not the many, and that is what people have concluded with regard to the people who gained as a result of the introduction of this entity. How the meter contracts were awarded or to whom they were awarded was part of that. The Cregan inquiry was set up to inquire into IBRC and the sale of Siteserv. That has stalled. Indeed, the deadline for the inquiry was extended to the end of April, which is next weekend, but there is nothing forthcoming from the Department of the Taoiseach about what will happen to the inquiry. Two legislative measures, one on privilege and one on confidentiality, must be introduced to allow that inquiry to proceed. The inquiry must proceed and I will continue to raise it at every available opportunity to ensure that it proceeds. It is also costing approximately €12,000 per week just to rent accommodation for the inquiry. The inquiry is at a standstill. A statement must be made in the House on how it will proceed because it must proceed until it comes to a conclusion.
People felt that they were being made fools of with regard to Irish Water. It was constantly raised on the doorsteps that they were being pushed beyond their ability to pay, being pauperised and that some people were gaining from this at a point when they were being asked to shoulder another burden. They railed against that. Sometimes people might not like the result of democracy, and the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, obviously does not, but the one thing about democracy is that one must respect the result. The people have spoken on this and the majority of Members of the Dáil were elected on a mandate to abolish Irish Water.
I wonder if Ireland is different from other nations. Do we have a fundamental disconnect with nature or the environment? Is there something in our history, character or national story which means that we do not really take care about the way we interact with nature? One can look at that in different ways. Sometimes, one can be optimistic and think we are very connected to this land but at other times, one thinks that we are not. If one considers the way we have dealt with water over the last 30 or 40 years and the way we treat our wastewater, one emerges with a very poor assessment of how we connect to nature.
For decades, we have planned and built without care or consideration for where we would get water and what we would do with our sewerage and other wastewater systems. We built housing without installing proper wastewater services, sufficient water supply systems or sufficient processing systems to ensure we would get the best quality. We were willing to turn a blind eye and to allow all sorts of practices to develop which, had we really thought about them, we would have known would not work, would pump raw sewage into our streams and cause long-term pollution. That problem started to become transparent when the country started to boom. I recall that it finally caught up with us when further development was being considered in Sandyford Industrial Estate in my former constituency, which is now Deputy Catherine Martin's constituency. The development part of the council was gung-ho to build and to zoom up 30 storey buildings with an Alpine garden on the top. A scientist was obliged to point out that nothing could be done in that area because the water and wastewater systems would not cope with another shed. At the same time, the very beneficial European directives were beginning to drive home the reality of what we had done to our land and our water. We were in breach of almost every environmental directive and were the worst in class in terms of meeting those standards. This was a country that had a green, natural image and in which we had a sense of ourselves as living in harmony with nature but we were fouling our water supply system like no others.
We started to invest in trying to address that problem. Ireland ended up being fined because it had septic tanks everywhere that were leaking and we had to tackle that problem. The Government in which I participated was spending €500 million per year, in difficult economic times, because we realised this was a crisis and that we had to change our ways. At that time, we also had a tax commission to examine how we were managing our tax system. Within that, there was a broad strategic assessment that we had to broaden our tax system away from just tax on labour and value added tax, VAT, and to start putting taxes in place that would get efficiencies and help us to live with nature in a more effective way. It was on that basis that we met with Fianna Fáil in the autumn of 2009 and in revising the programme for Government, we agreed that we would bring forward the concept of developing a surcharge on the wasteful use of water.
I cannot recall every moment of those long and, as the former Minister, Dermot Ahern, said, sometimes tortuous and fraught negotiations but I am quite sure about one thing - there was not a voice or moment of dissent from Fianna Fáil on the basic wisdom of that approach and principle at that time. It went into the revised programme for Government. The former Minister, former Deputy John Gormley, came to the Cabinet with a proposal. It included, as an absolute measure, that whatever we should do should be fair. It should allow people to have a basic allowance so that there is a right to water. It should enshrine a constitutional referendum so we start taking ownership of our connection with nature and ownership of our public water supply.
We left the Government and in the one week between our leaving and the Government falling, the approach was changed by a small measure. Fianna Fáil agreed with the public service to change the nature of how to go about doing it. When Fine Gael and the Labour Party took office, they also changed, without any consultation, the report that had been commissioned to examine the best model. They changed it from saying what sort of single authority should be put in place to saying what sort of commercial utility should be put in place. There was no discussion, no public consultation and no report or analysis. With the stroke of a pen, people were saying that was the solution. Therein lies our problem today. Deputy Kelly's predecessor went at this bald-headed. He did not allow a debate in the House. He established a flat rate charge which had none of the sophistication that was required to win the public over on this. It did not help to have a conservation grant which had no benefit in terms of conservation or really changing the system.
Members of the House know the full details of what has happened in the last four or five years. There is no need to rehearse that and the public movement in which others on this side of the House participated. I understand where they are coming from in terms of this being a validation, in a sense, of that public movement. However, what comes next? What is really in the public interest here? From talking to people who were at those marches and who were adamant on the campaign I find I have a certain common cause. I believe we should examine certain principles. Deputy Cowen said he wishes to be guided by the guiding principles of Fianna Fáil in this.
I am not sure what they are, but I suggest that everyone does have a right to water and that we give a very generous basic allowance so that no one in the State is ever threatened with not having the availability of water. It is not a standard commercial project. Let us do this and enshrine it in a constitutional change, which maybe does not just look at the privatisation issue but might also look at starting to put value on our connection to nature and, for the first time, recognise in our Constitution that the protection of nature is something we need to include in a modern republic and a wider sense of our republic.
Let us also ensure it is fair, in the sense that those who can pay more do so and those who cannot pay do not have to pay, by using the same money we gave in the conservation allowance to cover those who are least able to afford it. Deputy Donnelly did not think there was a case for going after those who are wasting the most. People can differ with my figures if they are not true, but as I understand it Irish Water has stated the top 1% use 22% of the water. This is obviously through leaks as they are not having a bath every two seconds. Catching this would not be a small saving. I understand that according to the figures the top 7% consume six times the average and this is worth addressing.
For me, a principle is we must retain some charge to maintain a conservation incentive. If we do not monitor and measure we do not care. I still hold out hope that in whatever the mechanism and deal being done between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael we will not throw out the baby with the bath water and we will be able to come back and vote in the House on some type of system that is similar to every other developed country in the world. If the French revolutionaries think this is an issue about which they should be on the streets to change the government why are they not doing so? Why do they pay something in France and in every other country?
If the commission to be established could come back with a proposal to the House which includes a right to water, has an element of real fairness and still maintains the principles of monitoring and measuring and stopping and discouraging waste, it might get the support of the majority. I do not know how the commission would do this or how to combine the various wisdom and different motions but I would like to see it try. I would certainly like to see something which starts changing our understanding of our connection with nature because this is what is at play.
It is of fundamental importance to the Irish people that when we turn on our taps we think the water that emerges is pristine, the best, what we are good at and we are proud when we have visitors to this country. I used to work in summer tourism in west Clare and regularly I used to have to tell people not to drink the water. The system could not cope with the bigger number of people, and every time I was in west Clare people got sick. I had them in the van for two days with diarrhoea, which was no fun. This was because system could not cope. According to the latest figures on where we dump raw sewage and where our system cannot cope, it is all around the coast. It is in every tourism spot in the country. How can we hold up our heads regarding being a clean island and bring visitors here if we are one of the worst in terms of care for our environment and looking after our most basic environmental necessity, which is our water?
With regard to the Irish Water controversy, it is my belief that all homes and businesses should be metered, and the average usage of domestic water per person should be determined by initial metering. The UN has declared water is a human right and has calculated that a person needs between 50 litres and 100 litres of water daily to meet their needs for consumption, cleaning, cooking and other domestic uses.
The average consumption per person in Ireland is 150 litres to 170 litres per day. Countries which have introduced metering have reduced consumption by 40% by being conscious that water is a precious resource. If this were replicated in Ireland it would mean approximately 100 litres per day would be the new Irish average. If this volume, or an agreed volume, is exceeded there should be a charge for the excess volume. A 40% conservation would lead to decreased production and treatment costs and would allow this saving to be invested in infrastructure.
Leakage of water from the system prior to arriving at its destination can be up to 50%. Thus, Irish Water, through infrastructural investment, should be able to reduce the leakage to less than 25% and reduce production costs, making additional savings. Savings in water production and the charges for commercial use and excessive domestic use could then be supplemented by general taxation to allow Irish Water to continue its essential infrastructure work on water delivery and wastewater treatment so that good clean water is available to everyone at no cost or at a reasonable cost.
Water must be seen as a precious valuable resource which must be used responsibly. Irish Water needs to be restructured and reviewed to be efficient and effective. Additionally, Irish Water need to be retained in public ownership. Irish Water engineers and front-line staff should not be vilified but supported in their work. However, the management structure needs to be reviewed and restructured now to prevent it becoming over-managed and under-led, similar to the HSE. Our water system must be modernised urgently to bring Ireland to international standards at a reasonable agreed cost.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue of water. There is no doubt it is very emotive and is the one which probably attracts the most attention in the media. Many Members on the opposite side of the House campaigned almost exclusively on this issue alone and would not have won their seats but for the issue of water. At this stage I believe the public is tired of the constant talking and media attention given to the water issue.
Despite what other people may say, during the election campaign water was not the issue about which people on the doorstep wanted to talk. They wanted to talk about health, education, housing and the economy. They wanted to know our plans for the health services, how could we improve the waiting times in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda and improve the services available in Louth County Hospital in Dundalk. They wanted to know the plans for the education sector, how we would reduce class sizes in secondary and primary schools, improve access to third level education institutions, such as Dundalk Institute of Technology, and provide the funds to continue with a very active capital investment programme in our schools.
On housing, they wanted to know how we would provide the extra housing required to address the housing and homelessness issues which, unfortunately, exist today.
They wanted to know how were going to create more jobs to replace the ones lost during the crash. They wanted to know how we were going to continue to attract home the many young men and women who had to leave our shores in search of work during the crash. They also let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that we must never ever go back to the boom and bust policies of the previous Government.
I find it interesting that in a survey of people who voted in the last general election, only 8% voted with water as their main issue, but here we are today debating water as though it was the only issue affecting the country at present. We should not forget that until recently we were the only country in Europe that did not charge for water services. The upgrade of the water and waste water services is estimated to cost just under €1 billion per year. No matter what anybody says, this money has to come from somewhere. It will not appear out of nowhere. It has to come from the public funds.
The most important business we have in the house at present is the formation of a stable Government.
It appears that the only option is a minority Fine Gael-led Government. If it is the case, as it appears to be, that in order for this to happen water chargers are to be suspended for a period of time, I want to put on the record the following. All households that have paid their water charges must be fully reimbursed, should the charges not be reintroduced. If charges are reintroduced, those who have paid their water charges must receive the full credit for their payments. We also need to consider the situation where members of a group water scheme have already been paying for their water for years. We cannot simply ignore them.
I am happy for an independent commission to consider issues relating to the charging for water and for this to be considered by a Dáil committee. The House will then have an opportunity to vote on how we are to finance our public water and waste water services in the future. As with all other issues, I am happy to listen to all Members, regardless of what party or alliance they belong to, if a workable and fair solution can be found. Too many people in this House use the water issue as a political football for cheap political and populist gain yet offer no viable or workable alternative. We have heard a lot of talk of new politics since the election. This is another example how the new politics can be put to use. Let us see how we can all work together and come up with a solution that will allow us to provide the public with a water and waste water service that is both cost-effective and fit for purpose.
I would like to put again on the record of the House my position on water charges, should they be suspended. All households, bar none, should be fully reimbursed, should the charges not be reintroduced. If charges are reintroduced, those who have paid their water charges must receive a credit for their payments to date. I look forward to hearing the views of other Members on this issue.
Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and will be as brief as I can in putting a few concise points on the record.
This day, and the stalemate we have arrived at in this debate, marks a sad departure. We are seeing the substitution of principled politics with popular politics, and that is not a good turn for the country, democracy, the environment, the economy or politics as a whole. I regret that we have chosen to go this route and I would like to register in my own way my thoughts on the matter.
It is a retrograde step to abolish or to suspend charges - we can play with the words - because the reality of the charging system is that water will have to be paid for somehow, and the €270 million that is collected per annum by Irish Water every year will now arguably and probably have to come out of roads or health. I have not heard anybody decide yet which one of those will suffer. It is also indiscriminate in the extreme to abolish or suspend charges and give a cheque of €160 back to each and every household, irrespective of its means.
A lot of myths about Irish Water and the regime of charging for water are in circulation, much of which was aided by certain elements in the media, which are very hungry to see near anarchy and excitement. One can see the said-same media starting to shift in their approach now and we will see them taking a very responsible attitude in the future towards the charging for water and the potential abolition of Irish Water-----
-----and changing their tune accordingly as the politics moves the other way. Belatedly they are coming to that party.
I come from a constituency where 20% to 30% of the people may not be provided with water, are paying for their own water and have to sink wells, pay maintenance and electricity costs, etc. I hope that point is well understood at this stage. However, the provision of water across Ireland by 34 separate local authorities costs €1.3 billion. Under Irish Water, as a single utility, the provision of the same water to the State costs €800 million per annum. I am not a mathematical genius, but that is a saving of €500 million per annum with the establishment of a single utility to provide water to the nation, as per electricity or any other utility in this country. There is a lot of toil, sweat and tears to be done by working people to enable them contribute that saving to the Exchequer. Just because we want to abandon principle, leave principled politics at the door and chase popular politics in a race to the bottom we are willing to forgo this saving as a starting point. That is deeply regrettable for anybody who continues to agitate for the abolition of Irish Water.
Another myth is that people's road tax is going into Irish Water. Again, the media has been very difficult in this regard, and I have tried for my part several times to make these points about Irish Water to the media but they had no interest in them. The reality is that the function of water was removed from the local authorities and so was a certain part of its funding stream. Road tax always went into the provision of water. Where do we think the money for the €1.3 billion cost of water was coming from? It always came from road tax-----
Road tax has always gone into the provision of water, and now that the function of the provision of water has been moved from the authorities to Irish Water then so is a certain amount of that funding stream.
Politics, in my book, is about leadership, and always will be, making the hard decisions and choices and showing leadership, not about following the populist race to the bottom.
I must disagree with my party colleague, who spoke about the charges being refunded. It would be a nonsense to refund charges, and I would hate to see that happen. The law, as laid down in this House for right or wrong, good or evil - we either respect the institution that is Dáil Éireann or we do not - is that water charges are to be applied and people are to pay them. Anybody who has not paid them should be chased by the utility, be it through attachment orders, which we have already legislated for in this House, or whatever other means necessary. We cannot have a two-tier or à la cartesystem. We either have a law we all subscribe to or we do not. Is that what we are going to do now with those who will not pay their TV licences? Is the solution to give everybody else back their money? It is a nonsense beyond all levels imaginable.
We are where we are. We have to negotiate with the Fianna Fáil Party and I respect that. We do not have the mandate that we had previously. I also respect that. We have to compromise.
We sought this debate because we believe it is important for Deputies to be able to outline their approach to the broad issue of water services, and if we want this debate to be useful, it would be constructive if Deputies concentrated on outlining their own policies. This is very far from being the single most important issue facing our country. However, it is important, and the handling of it in recent years represents a dramatic public policy fiasco. It is also one of the few areas where there was a substantial policy debate during the election and a decisive result in favour of ending the current policy.
There has been an enormous amount of ill-informed and highly skewed coverage of this issue in recent weeks. The scale of lobbying and media briefing by a commercial State body using public money has been unprecedented. This has distorted the debate and ensured that manifestly false claims are being made on behalf of existing policy. During the past five years and during the election, Fianna Fáil was clear in setting out its policy and addressing various eventualities. Many have presented distorted and superficial claims about our policies, but distorting and misrepresenting our policies has been a consistent reason that so many failed to anticipate growing public support for our party.
We opposed the establishment of Irish Water and the introduction of the charge. Leaving aside the issue of the arrogant failure of the outgoing Government to justify the model of a national commercial utility or to outline the actual costs involved in the administrative and charging regimes imposed, we had other substantive problems. We accept the need to invest in improving our water services but to say that the existing framework is the only way this work can be funded and delivered is not true. The comparison with the ESB is fatuous. The ESB does not require State subvention. It is a genuinely commercial firm, albeit providing a vital public service. More importantly, the ESB does not demand that users pay it for years before it can guarantee an acceptable service.
The outgoing Government’s policy was to allow Irish Water massive commercial freedom even though it would be funded primarily by direct State subvention and it would take many years to bring services to the level the company itself defines as acceptable. Irish Water is very far from being the accepted model of water service provision and development internationally. Northern Ireland and Scotland are very much the exceptions in Europe. Comparable countries to Ireland manage to deliver major water infrastructure developments without a commercial utility like Irish Water as it is now constituted.
A service delivered with ongoing public investment should most properly be delivered by State agencies. Had Irish Water been a State agency from the outset, the uncontrolled expansion of management, the bonus culture, the waste, the secrecy, the €0.33 million spend on polling, the massive and rising payments for lobbying and many other practices would not have been possible. Equally, the disdain for democratic accountability would never have been allowed.
The consistent claim for Irish Water was that this was the only way of raising the funding required for investment, and this is simply false. In fact, the commercial State firm has reduced potential funding for investment. Not only has Irish Water's investment programme failed to be taken out of government borrowing figures, there is no plan on the table from anyone which shows how this could happen. Commentators who state that we are facing a choice between off-balance sheet borrowing and public funding need to look at the facts. There are no proposals from anyone which show how Irish Water could potentially ever meet the arms-length borrowing test of EUROSTAT. Let us hear no more of the nonsense that water services will be deprived of funding unless current policy continues. That is a key point. If one looks at the financial framework of the Fine Gael party or any party over the next five years, they envisage Irish Water funding on-balance sheet, not off-balance. That is something that has been confirmed to us in more recent times. The entire case for Irish Water and the investment figures published have been based on putting spin first. Far more time and money has been spent on co-opting the support of commentators than on ensuring the policy stands up to scrutiny.
In the context of the speeches of Deputy Coveney and others, we must make the general point as well that in the decade prior to the establishment of Irish Water, from 2000 to 2010, €5.5 billion was invested in water services and more money was spent per annum on water infrastructure in the three years prior to the establishment of Irish Water than in the years since. One should not get me wrong as there are significant challenges and considerable needs for investment but it never was simply the idea, which Irish Water fostered, that nothing was done, everything was in a medieval state for decades and hey presto!, in a magical moment, one created a new body and everything changed wonderfully. Members talk about sewage outflows, etc. One of the biggest sewage treatment projects ever was carried out 20 years ago by the two local authorities in Cork - I refer to the main drainage system going out to the wastewater treatment plant in Little Island. Many mythologies grew up about investment too and we need to be realistic about all of that and stop trying to sell the idea that everything was a disaster beforehand and everything will be fantastic afterwards. As we all know, that is not the way life works.
Conservation and quality are core objectives for water policy, and this is where the funding and the priority should have been rather than on constructing a metering and charging regime which is profoundly wasteful. There should have been a cost-benefit analysis before €500 million was poured into the ground. By Irish Water's own estimation, the fixing of elements of the supply system is the single most important element of conservation and quality improvement.
On the matter of charges specifically, we believe there is no basis for asking the Irish people to pay a regressive direct charge which is, at present, marginal to achieving conservation and quality objectives. At present, Irish Water's net revenue is something below €50 million, if one takes account of the water conservation grant of €100 million and the 61% compliance. There is no significant current revenue coming in at all under the existing model.
Unlike others, our position is that one does not get to pick and choose what lawful payments one makes. What is lawfully owed should be paid. It is up to us, as democrats, to use legitimate democratic means to change policies. This is exactly what I have said repeatedly when questioned on this topic, before, during and after the election.
On the issue of a constitutional referendum on public ownership, we are fully supportive of a stand against privatisation. There is, however, a need for all advocating such a referendum to explain how it would work, for example, how would it be proposed to give constitutional status to a service which is not universal and about water services not provided directly by State agencies. We have had enough of water policy being made up on the hoof by the outgoing Government that we do not need to spend years on something which is all about soundbites over substance. Clearly, detailed work would be required in exploring such an option. In the meantime, moving Irish Water on to a pathway to effectively become a State agency is the most effective and pragmatic way of copper-fastening the public ownership issue.
Nobody here has been given a mandate to dictate policy or to tell others what their mandate represents. We have heard too much of that in recent weeks. The legitimate place for the future of water policy to be settled is here in Dáil Éireann. The talks that we are engaged in which are not yet concluded provide effectively for that. We are not denying anybody any inputs. The fundamental point is that the future of water policy will be decided, not by the policies of the previous Dáil but the inputs of this Dáil and all parties, through an Oireachtas committee that is proposed to be formed subsequent to a commission's recommendations. That means, effectively, that water charges, only after they are suspended by legislation, can ever only come back by the will of the Dáil, and given that a majority of the Dáil have been elected on a position that they are opposed to water charges, there are fairly clear implications from all of that.
What we have been trying to do is to deal with this decisively in advance of the formation of a minority government so that it, in the public interest - the public wants a government formed - has some chance of dealing with the major issues of this country without it being consistently undermined by an issue that would not be resolved in advance of its formation. We are an opposition party that will facilitate the formation of that government but we want to ensure it has some chance of sustainability in the future.
Let us first do what should have been done five years ago, that is, have an independent report on key elements of water policy. Let us then debate it. Those who believe that the current model of provision and funding is the only possible way can make their case and let them seek to persuade others and the Irish people. We welcome the fact Fine Gael acknowledges the new reality and may agree a suspension of charges. It would be free to argue and vote for the recommencement of charges after the suspension and, equally, we and others would be free to argue and vote for the non-imposition of charges during this Dáil term.
I would encourage other Deputies to put aside their fake outrage and distorting spin for the rest of this debate. The policy we are committed to remains a scrapping of the commercial State firm, no charges for at least the duration of this Dáil and a major national investment programme in developing this public service.
I wish to share time with Deputy Brady.
I will start by assuring Deputy Micheál Martin that any outrage expressed by me will be nothing less than genuine. Imagine the scene of a seaside town, families strolling on the beach and children and adults alike engaged in various water activities. If it was a sunny day, this would be a hot spot for tourists and locals but what if untreated raw sewage was in those waters? What if one was swimming and could see raw sewage right beside one? Surely this could not happen in Ireland, the island where we pride ourselves on our attractive beaches and lovely coastlines. Only 30 km from here, this is a reality because it is happening in Rush. This is not breaking news. This was not even breaking news last year or the year before. The EPA's urban wastewater report has repeatedly confirmed that the practice continues in Rush and the failure to properly treat sewage can pose a risk to human health and the aquatic environment.
The population of almost 10,000 who live Rush has been waiting years to be connected to the sewerage treatment scheme that serves Portrane, Donabate and Lusk. Delays to this have meant that the pumping of raw sewage into the sea is the rule rather than the exception. While money was allocated to the scheme in 2008, it is expected that work on the sewage plant will start only in the third quarter of this year, giving a completion date of sometime in 2018 or 2019. From the allocation of the funds initially, the residents of Rush will have been waiting ten years before the work is completed. Add to that the countless years of campaigning and lobbying that went on before that. These delays on the scheme are unacceptable.
If we juxtapose this heel dragging and disregard for our environment and health, with the extravagant waste of public moneys on water metering, the quango that is Irish Water and the enthusiasm of Fine Gael and the Labour Party to burden working families with water charges, the community in Rush is justifiably angry about it. While Irish Water has been quick to put in meters and send bills, the residents of Rush would be far better served if Irish Water focused its efforts on dealing with the major environmental issue of raw sewage being pumped into the Irish Sea. If as much time and effort were put into dealing with the countless Environmental Protection Agency reports and cases concerning compliance with the EU wastewater treatment directive as has been put into the blinkered view on water charges, the residents of Rush and the surrounding areas would have this serious blight alleviated by now. I guess raw sewage pumping into our seas is not as important as squeezing a few bob out of hard-pressed families.
Water charges are a major issue for families and communities across the State. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to express their views. People voted on the issue in huge numbers only two months ago. Their direction was clear: water charges need to go. Last night on "Prime Time", Deputy Dara Calleary said, "We want to see Irish Water completely reformed." Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are talking about establishing an independent commission to examine Irish Water and the retention of the charging regime. This is not good enough. They are tinkering with a totally failed enterprise as part of their political play acting. They have no plans to replace it. The phrase, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", springs to mind. The deal being cooked by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil smells dodgy.
Temporarily suspending water charges is not abolition. Sinn Féin's mandate is to abolish Irish Water. We want an independent commission, post abolition. We want a public water utility that is enshrined in public ownership and that best serves Irish citizens, not a rehash of a broken and wasteful Irish Water model. Anything less is unacceptable. The starting point must be the abolition of the household water charge. Fianna Fáil is willing to consider a temporary suspension of water charges. When campaigning in the general election, due to enormous pressure and because it was being raised consistently at doorsteps across the State, Fianna Fáil changed its position and campaigned against water charges.
It was an electoral strategy to help it win seats. If Fianna Fáil cannot take the bull by the horns and act on the mandate it was given and if it cannot honour the commitments it made, what is the difference between it and Fine Gael? The people sent a strong message that they want water charges abolished and for water services to be paid for through general taxation. How can they trust politicians who promised abolition but deliver nothing more than a damp squib? How can they trust what comes down the line after any suspension will not be even more punitive?
Only one good thing has stemmed from the introduction of water charges, namely, the awakening and politicisation of a generation of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have mobilised since Fine Gael and the Labour Party first implemented Fianna Fáil's blueprint for water charges. We have seen a coming together of progressive forces and the formation of the Right2Change movement, which has organised some of the largest demonstrations in the history of the State, one of which took place the weekend before the general election. In February, the people decided to elect more than 90 Deputies with a mandate to scrap water charges and Irish Water. They do not have a mandate to reform Irish Water or water charges, as some in Fianna Fáil would lead us to believe.
It appears some little grubby deal has been done by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, pushing the issue down the road to allow Fianna Fáil to support Deputy Enda Kenny's return as Taoiseach. Last week, 39 Deputies submitted a motion to end Irish Water and water charges. The fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael again colluded by preventing a vote on the motion to abolish the charges and Irish Water tells a tale. The House should have acted on the mandate it received and put the issue to bed here today, once and for all.
The State has forcefully pursued Irish Water's agenda with gardaí and private security firms in tow. Last year, across the State, more than 188 ordinary citizens were arrested for opposing the installation of water meters, some of which were being installed by companies with friends in very high places. On 14 April, 14 people were arrested in Wicklow town for peacefully protesting against the roll-out of the water metering programme, which is costing more than €540 million. At the protest, not unlike many others, more than 15 gardaí were present, acting as a private security firm for a private company. Last year, in a similar protest in Wicklow town, a force of more than 30 gardaí arrested 17 people. The irony is that due to Garda cutbacks, Wicklow town has no community garda and yet resources are being squandered to protect Denis O'Brien. Would those resources not be better spent protecting communities from the crime gangs that are terrorising and murdering people in all our communities? Would it not be better to stop raiding the limited resources local authorities have in order to hand them over to Irish Water to install meters?
The evidence indicates that the establishment of Irish Water and the introduction of water charges was more about privatisation than conservation. Water meters and charges do not encourage conservation. Investing in the water sector, reducing the unacceptably high percentage of leaks and introducing water harvesting and dual flush systems as part of building regulations would guarantee conservation. Would it not make sense to invest in infrastructure and fix the leaks that are resulting in over 40% of water being lost, rather than installing water meters that will, ultimately, become redundant?
The electorate has spoken. People have said they do not want water charges or Irish Water. We do not need a commission of experts to be established to examine issues such as alternative charging systems. A panel of experts, namely, the Irish people, has already given its report. They will not be fooled by any grubby little deal which kicks the issue of water charges down the road in order to return Deputy Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. The mandate they gave to the majority of Deputies is to totally scrap water metering, Irish Water and water charges. I ask the Minister of State to stop criminalising entire communities by stopping the roll-out of the water metering programme immediately.
I would like to share my time with my colleague, Deputy Regina Doherty.
I have always believed a single utility and a charging mechanism are crucial for us to adequately address the deficits in the provision of a quality water and waste water treatment system. As a former councillor, I have seen first hand how the system whereby 34 local authorities had responsibility for water infrastructure did not work. There are estates in south Kildare where raw sewage flows out on the green areas. Some of this has been resolved recently, and some of it is about to be resolved, by Irish Water. Before Irish Water, due to the limited resources of Kildare County Council and the devolved grants it was waiting for from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, all it could manage to do was to pay for very expensive tankering, which never addressed the underlying system and was throwing good money after bad.
In a short time, Irish Water is getting to grips with these issues and bringing about solutions much faster and for less money due to the economies of scale of a bigger entity. Irish Water has delivered 34 new treatment plants, of which eight are for drinking water and 26 for wastewater. Not enough discussion about Irish Water has been about the wastewater element. Irish Water has delivered 73 upgrades, comprising 22 drinking water and 51 wastewater. It has completed 47 water conservation projects with 452 km of pipe remediated.
The impact on people's health and quality of life was a key motivation in changing how we manage our water and wastewater infrastructure. Irish Water has removed 20,000 people from long-term boil water notices and 300,000 people from the EPA's remedial action list.
As a result of the extent of the customer-side leakage that has been identified through metering and the first-fix repair system, it is estimated that a saving of 34 million litres of water is being made each day. This is the equivalent of the entire daily demand for water in County Wicklow.
The future of Irish Water and of the charging mechanism has come under serious scrutiny as a result of the result of the recent general election. We have a very changed Dáil on foot of the election result. No one party can claim victory, or claim to have received a full mandate. Some Deputies in this House have cherrypicked certain issues from their pre-election promises while ignoring others. A new way of business comes with a new Dáil. The days when a Government could drive through its own agenda, having been elected to do so, are gone. Instead, we have a more empowered Parliament, in which consensus will be the name of the game. If and when a Government is formed, Opposition Deputies will need to be aware that life in opposition will have changed utterly. Although the days of grandstanding and populism alone will have gone, I expect plenty of that behaviour to continue. Responsibility will have to be shown in opposition in a more consensus-driven Dáil.
The Deputies who want to abolish Irish Water may well get an opportunity to determine the future of the entity and the charging mechanism through the proposed Dáil committee, but they will also have to suggest how best to address the 950,000 households that have paid their charges to date and how best to treat business people, farmers, people in group water schemes and people with private wells and septic tanks. If the Deputies in question think they can go back to the old system, an inequitable feature of which was that some people paid for water and waste water services while others did not, they can think again. They will have to come off the fence and set out where the money will come from, if domestic charges are abolished, to provide the investment of €1.4 billion that is needed between now and 2021. They can decide through the proposed new budgetary committee whether the health budget or the housing and homelessness budget should be sacrificed to come up with the money that is needed to modernise our water and waste water infrastructure. Maybe they will repeat the mistakes of the past by deciding not to invest enough money in the treatment of water and waste water.
This Dáil term will see a more powerful Parliament. Over the last 60 days, we have witnessed more people expressing a desire to be in opposition than trying constructively to form a Government. Those who think they can sit comfortably on the fence on the Opposition benches need to be put on notice that their populism and their soundbites regarding Irish Water will be put to the test. I look forward to availing of the proposed process to continue to advocate for a single entity to manage this country's water services. That entity should be funded properly so that it can drive the investment that is needed. I look forward to a process that will call out the bluffers and the spin doctors who tell us we can have everything for nothing. I hope for a debate in which the facts will dominate and help to inform public opinion.
As a nation, we have been held to ransom over the last six or seven weeks. We have been discussing an issue that seems to have been the subject of discussion for the last three years. I suggest this is a testament to the real need to solve this problem by tackling it head-on. I welcome some of the political choices that Fianna Fáil has put to Fine Gael in the last couple of days because it has made everybody focus their minds. I will set out what I believe in this context. It has not changed in the last three years. I believe we need a single utility to manage the development and roll-out of and investment in this infrastructure, thereby providing this country with clean, good-quality drinking water from taps in kitchens and bathrooms and other locations in our homes. I believe the management of the taxpayers' money that is going into this utility system needs to ensure the best value possible is attained from this country's finite resources. I believe the management structure needs to be scrutinised by a body to ensure we get good value for money.
I also believe we need to bring Irish people along with us on this journey. The overarching idea when water charges were introduced in the first instance was that this measure would make people think about the value of the water that comes out of our taps, appreciate that it is a scarce resource and accept that it costs money to get water of the best possible quality and form to come out of out taps. Maybe the way we did it was ham-fisted. I think we are the first people to put up our hands and say it was not done perfectly. We made mistakes and lots of them. We are now at a crossroads where we can take stock of the good and bad decisions we have made and get it right. We want a quality water system for our people. I believe a single utility is the way to go. I want our people to recognise the value of water. One of the biggest flaws in the approach that was adopted in recent years was the failure to conduct a conservation education campaign. We should have started with our children, our teenagers and our adults whose water-usage habits of a lifetime need to be changed. We should have educated people on why it is a good idea to conserve water. When we introduced the conservation grant, we should have taken the opportunity to reduce from 23% the rate of VAT that is charged on items like water butts that would allow us to conserve water. We should have had a look at the building regulations for new-builds to make sure they encourage people to be more conservative and conscious of the value of the finite resource that is water.
Many people are talking about winners and losers, and about who conceded or who won. I suggest that nobody won and nobody lost. We have a window here now to reflect on what we all want for the people of this country, which is how best to provide high-quality water infrastructure from the investment that is made by taxpayers. I suggest that the whole argument about whether people should pay for water out of their left pocket or their right pocket is bizarre.
At the end of the day, taxpayers are paying for it. Our problem was that we were trying to reduce the burden on PAYE workers and to place an even burden on everybody who uses water in this country, and not just those who go to work every day. Maybe we did not do that quite as well as we could have done. I guarantee Deputies that when I am standing here nine or 12 months from now - whenever the commission reports its findings against the backdrop of an EU directive that sets out the legislation to which this country needs to adhere - I will be advocating, as I have done for the last three years, that there should be generous allowances in our family homes and special clauses for people with particular medical conditions and for children. We can do all of that and - please God - it will be done within the commission. However, people who choose to use more than their allowances, to whom I say "fair play to you, off you go", will have to pay for that water. I refer, for example, to those who water their gardens every day of the week because they want luscious green grass and those who want to have a bath every night of the week. By contrast, those who conserve water and contribute towards the management of a finite resource will benefit from a quality investment structure in this country. We can all be part of it together.
I am the first to acknowledge we have made mistakes in recent years. Lots and lots of people paid their bills. We will not argue about whether the accurate figure is 61%. I do not believe we brought those who paid their bills with us. We sort of dragged them along. People wanted to be law-abiding. Everybody needs to be law-abiding in this country. That is why I firmly believe those who have not yet paid their bills will have to do so. When we are all back here nine, ten or 11 months from now, we will be talking about the merits of charging people who use excessive amounts of water and providing a high-quality water system for every citizen of this country.
I thank the Chair for this opportunity to contribute to today's discussion. We cannot really call it a debate because there is nothing happening here. We will talk to the air and it will fizzle out at 6.30 p.m. That will be the end of it. I would like to speak about the details that are emerging in the media at the minute. I refer to the speculation about the deal that has been done between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on water charges. It has been suggested that a commission of investigation will look at a proper charging regime. This shows that Fianna Fáil is not really opposed to water charges at all. It is just using this issue as a means of making it look like it is driving a hard bargain as it negotiates going into government with Fine Gael and tries to maintain its domination of the Opposition benches. It is being clearly shown to the people of this country that this is the case. When the moment is opportune for Fianna Fáil, it will go along with whatever charging regime is decided for it by the commission. That might happen in a year or two. It could be two and a half years or whatever. We hear talk about the commission reporting in nine months, but it will probably take a number of months for the terms of reference to be established and for the commission to be established and to get up and running. We will hear about delays then. They will achieve their moratorium on water charging. They will probably stretch it out to 18 months or two years. Fine Gael will go along with that nicely as well. That will deal with the issue. Ultimately, we will come back to the imposition of water taxes on citizens across the country.
It is a fact that people are paying twice for water services. Deputy Regina Doherty referred to the "argument about whether people should pay for water out of their left pocket or their right pocket". In fact, it is being taken out of both pockets. Citizens are already paying for water and have already paid for water. As one listens to speakers on the Government benches in this House, one would think absolutely nothing was ever done with this country's water services before the establishment of Irish Water in 2014. I remind those who have spoken about the 34 plants that have been built by Irish Water that the groundwork and the preparation for all those plants was done by the local authorities over the years. The real problem with water services in this country prior to the establishment of Irish Water was that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, through the Government, constantly withheld money from the local authorities. They held up the delivery of projects at every stage of the process. Local authorities were not given the ability to deliver projects in a timely fashion. They had to wait for approvals from the Government at every step along the way. The Department held everything up in that way. That was how they set out to do their business.
The myth that Irish Water is a dynamic organisation delivering all of these projects is just that - a myth. The water charges it is levying on people do not even meet the cost of sending out water bills. As such this charge is not financing water services in this country and will not do so in the future.
Another myth is that this is all about water conservation. Prior to being elected to this House I worked in water services for 16 years. The only way to conserve water is through a district metering programme of the mains. Installing meters at every house will not identify where the real losses are occurring. Water wastage is being dressed up as a consumer problem in terms of citizens possibly having a bath every day or boiling their kettles more than twice a day. The vast majority of the losses in the water system occur on the mains rather than in consumer households. A proper district metering programme would correctly identify the households wherein the losses are occurring, thus enabling any necessary leaks at those households or to the mains to be repaired. That is the only way water can be conserved and savings can be achieved on water production costs across the country thus bringing about real change.
To say that the local authorities were the cause of the malaise in the water system and that Irish Water will resolve the problem is disingenuous. It is not the reality and those on the Government benches need to come to terms with that. This deal will halt the campaign against the water tax for a couple of years but that campaign will be ready to go again whenever Fianna Fáil decides to levy the charges again.
I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on Irish Water. I agree with others in the House that we should have been able to speak on this issue sooner, as represented by the manner in which I voted yesterday.
In my view one of the primary reasons the establishment, governance and operation of Irish Water has been so excessively problematic is because there was not and still is not adequate and equal engagement of all parliamentarians on how to invest in and manage a mammoth systemic upgraded change to our water infrastructure. Significant mistakes were made in the past and the legacy of these mistakes looms large in the present. I expect then that our statements today will be heard and considered by the leaders and members of both negotiating teams who are attempting to form a minority Government. It is a positive development that both parties at working out a process whereby Irish Water and the current funding model is to be reviewed through independent expertise and an Oireachtas committee that should be - will be - operating under the new politics rules of Dáil reform and will then be brought before this Chamber to be voted on. No doubt there will be mobilisation, protest and other forms of citizen engagement as this process unfolds. I, of course, welcome that too.
Owing to decades of under-investment by successive Governments we continue to live in a country where the water and water system do not support with adequacy and sustainability the health, well-being and safety of our people, food and land. I want to outline four prime principles that I believe should be integral to how we plan for systemic change to our water infrastructure and thereby boost the wellness of our people or, as mentioned by Deputy Eamon Ryan, our connection to nature. These principles are the ones on which I stood in Dublin South-West as an Independent candidate. First, the establishment, management and operation of one national utility is the most efficient and effective way to bring our water infrastructure up to the high standard required for this and future generations. Second, this one national utility ought to be placed in public ownership through a constitutional referendum. We should never move towards a day when the natural resource of water is placed outside of the right of every citizen and resident. This can only be guaranteed, in my view, through changing our foundational legal document to ensure that the governance and operation of that natural resource remains within public ownership. I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin that it will take time to do that but it is worth us spending that time, alongside the process of a commission and an Oireachtas committee, following which the matter will then come before the Dáil. Third, as independent experts and law makers map out and implement the best way to protect, sustain and fund our water systems, a public education initiative, perhaps along the lines referred to by Deputy Regina Doherty, should be put in place so that our people can contribute to and learn from the process of systemic change as it unfolds. Fourth, our funding model for water should encourage habits of conservation of this precious natural resource, and no one who cannot pay for water should have to pay for it - that being a prime principle of fairness. However, the principle of fairness does not have to contradict the principle of conservation. I am in favour of a funding model that is fair and conserves, one that encourages equality and ecology simultaneously.
I am pleased that we are making progress on how to deal with the issue of Irish Water and water charges and in this regard are now creating a pathway to allow further progress to be made, which is what people want.
The point has been made that there are other serious issues to be dealt with in this House, including the crises in housing, homelessness and in our health and mental health services. The question as to why water has taken centre stage has been asked, and rightly so. It became clear to us in our efforts to facilitate the formation of a Government that if we did not sort out the water issue prior to the formation of a Government it was going to disrupt the business of this Dáil and prevent other important business being carried out. Sinn Féin knows this but disruption and chaos is what it thrives on. Forming a Government and participating in and progressing matters was never on its agenda. It would have suited Sinn Féin to allow matters remain unresolved.
Water has become an emotive issue, prompting thousands of people to take to the streets, some in protest at water charges and others in protest at the manner in which water charges were implemented and the manner in which Irish Water was constituted. This is evidenced by the number of Deputies elected to this Dáil who had campaigned against the current water regime. It must be remembered that there is not one view on how we should manage our water supply and water infrastructure nor is there one view on whether we should charge for water or fund it entirely through the Exchequer. The point is that there are many options open to us as a country in terms of how we deal with the water issue. Each option is worthy of exploration in consultation with all Deputies and citizens and with the assistance of relevant expertise.
The reason we are in the mess in which we currently find ourselves is because the outgoing Government did not consult the people or Members of this Chamber. It also did not allow for proper debate of the issue and instead rushed the legislation through by way of guillotined debate, failing to take on board any of the dissenting views in this Chamber. If we have learned anything from the manner in which the outgoing Government managed this issue it is that all views must be listened to, even those which we do not like. That goes for all sides of the House. It is proposed to establish a commission to examine the future of water charges and Irish Water and then to establish an Oireachtas committee to examine the recommendations of that commission. The committee will comprise all-party representatives and Independents and will report its findings to the Dáil, at which time every Deputy will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate on the matter and to vote on it. Every view will be listened to. This is a good idea. I believe it will help to progress matters and I fail to understand how any Deputy could be against that.
Coming from a rural constituency where many people already pay for water either through a group water scheme or through provision of their own water supply via a well at their own expense, I want to see equity at the centre of water provision in this country. We cannot forget those people. If water provision is to be funded through general taxation then those who provide their own water or pay into group water schemes must get something back. This has to be considered by any commission or Oireachtas committee. The other option is that everybody pay something, although I accept there are some people who cannot afford to pay, in respect of which Deputy Regina Doherty made some very interesting points. I take on board that there is a need to upgrade our infrastructure, to modernise how we manage our water supply and to consider the huge cost and expertise required to remove waste water.
This is going to require considerable investment and is something into which every Deputy needs to have an input. I was never in favour of having a semi-State company. I fully support the establishment of a single public utility to be owned by the people that could not be privatised and would be subject to proper oversight by the Dáil and the Seanad. I take very seriously the need to promote water conservation, the need to be mindful of the impact water has on the environment and the fact that it is a very precious resource. These issues have to be taken on board by a commission or an Oireachtas committee.
We need to recognise that this is a new Dáil with a clear mandate. The current water regime is hated by the public. It lacks credibility and the public want it gone. We cannot ignore this and must go back to the drawing board. The suspension of water charges would allow us the space to regroup and see how we wanted to progress as a country. In contrast to Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin has refused to engage in Government formation and is happy to take the easy road, sitting in observation and sniping from the sidelines. The only problem it has with the current proposal is that it would not facilitate them in disrupting the Dáil further.
Fianna Fáil is committed to giving practical effect to its manifesto, facilitating a stable minority Government and ensuring the country is given the leadership it requires to tackle the challenges it faces. We are committed to ending the failed water regime and making sure the country has a stable Government.
I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate, although with only two Members on the Government benches, I am not sure it qualifies as a debate. I am glad, however, that this issue is now being brought to a head. It is an important issue but by no means the most important. The amount of airtime it has received in recent weeks has been disproportionate. Other matters such as health, education, transport, energy, broadband and housing are huge issues that have suffered owing to the inordinate focus placed on water provision in the set-up of this Dáil. Nonetheless, it is an important issue, one that has united and divided both this House and the wider public.
Let us be clear that Irish Water and the water model used have been a catastrophe from start to finish. I am not going to pre-empt what may or may not emerge this evening, tomorrow or in the coming days based on media reports on how a minority Government might be put in place and what might stem from this. If it is accepted, as appears likely, that the Irish Water model is considered a failure - that is acknowledged at this stage on all sides - it may be a sign of things to come in a minority Government. On some issues the Government will win, on others it will lose.
Would we be in this mess if more than a few hours had been dedicated to the issue when it came before the Dáil, if the legislation had not been railroaded through and if a proper, full and frank debate had been allowed, with credence and time being given to opposing views? In the turbulent and tempestuous five year period of the last Government the debate on Irish Water marked one of only two occasions on which the entire Opposition walked out of the Dáil Chamber en masse. However, I wish to be constructive and acknowledge some basic facts. Let us learn from our mistakes. I recognise that water is a scarce resource and have no difficulty in principle with putting in place a mechanism to fund water services. I wholeheartedly support investment in the water network and endorse any measure that encourages or incentivises the conservation of water. I believe the majority of the people accept this and value the resource. I am not opposed to water charges in principle, but I am virulently opposed to waste, incompetence and the abject failure to tackle the underlying problems.
In an effort to be constructive, rather than considering all of the problems of the past and pouring oil over the coals of the previous system, I would like to consider what a functional water system would contain. A functioning water system should reward and incentivise conservation. Any form of charging regime should be based on excessive usage rather than basic consumption. A metered but flat-rate charging system, as we now have, appears to be the worst of both worlds. The cost has been borne of installing meters, but none of the savings in actually using them for any monitoring conservation programme has been gained. A fair water services system should be based on the ability to pay. The most fundamental concept in any charging regime is that progressive charges should be based on one's means. That is contained in every piece of economic legislation introduced by Fianna Fáil in the past 50 years, but this is completely lacking from the Irish Water model under which flat rates are levied regardless. A fair water charging system should include allowances based on medical need, family size, family stage, life stage and basic usage parameters. A mother of six children or a sufferer of Crohn's disease should not be assessed in the same category as a single person with no health conditions.
A functioning water system should invest more in the network, not less than was invested prior to charges being introduced. The idea that a dedicated new utility firm which has introduced a charging model and begun collecting charges would actually plan to spend less on the network after it was set up summarises the entire fiasco. The Fianna Fáil Government in 2010 spent more on the network than was projected to be spent in the Irish Water model in 2015 when charges were being levied. That is the ultimate paradox. A functioning water services system should recognise the different challenges faced by urban and rural dwellers and work with both to achieve appropriate outcomes. Group water schemes and those with their own wells should be accommodated and served just as efficiently as those living in urban estates.
In north west Kildare last night I attended a meeting at which I heard that the members of Ballina group water scheme had been told they would have to wait a minimum of ten years before receiving priority from Irish Water. Why are they at the back of the queue? A functioning water services system should be capable of dealing with issues such as private and public property, easements, wayleaves and accessing property when repairs need to be made. That is another basic technical issue that it has not been possible to overcome and has further complicated the entire model.
A functioning water services system should not operate as a quango, with wanton waste, excess and an incompetent manner to lose more money than it has made, giving free money to people via a conservation grant paid without any link with the need for conservation or compliance. This is the first tax in history which has actually resulted in a loss of money, where the profit in collecting the charge does not even cover the cost of bringing it in.
A functioning water services system should be introduced following more than a token debate in the House. It should be subject to scrutiny, governance, oversight and the considered input of all groups and interested parties inside and outside the House and only rolled out following agreement on same. This is too important to get wrong. The people deserve better.
I welcome the opportunity to make a statement and be part of this debate. I pose the following questions to the two Ministers present from the caretaker Government. Why were water charges such an issue? Why did they dominate political discourse for so long? Why were they such an issue in the election campaign? Why was water provision the issue that spooked both Fine Gael and the Labour Party over and over again into making mistake after mistake? Why did water charges force the party of water charges, Fianna Fáil, which had signed the State up to implementing them in the first place with the troika in the memorandum of association to eventually change its position for electoral gain? It was all to do with people power. The people rose up. They had had enough and saw water charges as a tipping point. Right across the State, in every town, village, community and almost every housing estate, the people rose up and marched in their tens of thousands against water charges. They saw them in terms of all the nasty, mean cuts made by Fine Gael and the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil before them. They came with all of the cuts made to social welfare payments and community services, all of the taxes brought forward and all of the damage done to pay back the bondholders, banks and property speculators. It was fantastic to be part of the Right2Water movement and march in protest with senior citizens, young people and children in a family-friendly atmosphere at rallies and protests. It was fantastic to see people from working class communities from all over the State coming together to say "No" to the charges because they knew that they were unfair and unjust. That is why Fine Gael and the Labour Party were spooked and why Fianna Fáil changed its position.
Deputy Lisa Chambers spoke about Sinn Féin sitting on its hands. We have heard this all the time from Fianna Fáil in the past few weeks. The reality is that when we were out on the streets standing shoulder to shoulder with trade unionists and people from communities across the State, there was no one there from Fianna Fáil. It sat on its hands and abandoned these communities when they needed support. It cynically used the issue of water charges as a pawn in a game. That is all it means to it. It is not sincere or genuine.
The Deputy does not have to agree with what I say. The reality, which everyone in this Chamber needs to realise, is that water charges are politically dead and should be given a burial here. We do that by introducing legislation to abolish domestic water charges and Irish Water and holding a referendum on public ownership. A motion has been signed by 39 Deputies but not one member of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael has signed it. Why not? It is because they are not interested in dealing with the issue.
If they want water charges scrapped, they should sign up to the motion, introduce the legislation and give water charges and Irish Water the burial they deserve. Stop prolonging the game and the nonsense. Sinn Féin has made it clear that it would not pursue those people who have not paid water charges. We have said we could not make such a commitment to pay back those who have paid if and when water charges are abolished. We said that because we believed at the time the money was not there. We welcome the fact the Minister for Finance has said today that there is increased scope in terms of the fiscal space. In that context, we are willing to look at such a proposal in terms of seeing if it is viable to refund those who have paid their water charges to date. There is a responsibility on everyone in the Chamber to stop playing games on the issue of water charges.
Let us bring in the legislation and deal with this once and for all. That is what the people want and that is what they elected us to do. We are not sitting on our hands. We have signed a motion and are prepared to do what we were elected to do, which is vote and pass legislation and not to play games like Fianna Fáil.
The Government must now accept that it failed miserably to win the support of the Irish people for its water charges and the quango that is Irish Water. The people had their day and their say on 26 February. Despite what the Government said over and over, water charges were the single issue that mobilised, ignited and rallied the Irish people. They were the single issue that ignited the spirit of protest and the determination to fight back in the Irish people, something we have not seen in decades. This was because the unfairness of the Government's austerity policies was obvious to everyone except the Government.
The people knew from the very start that Irish Water was a toxic entity. The people knew they were already paying for water through progressive taxation and that they were already paying their PAYE, PRSI, USC, motor tax, local property tax, toll charges, bin charges, accident and emergency charges and many more. While they were paying these taxes, they could see that the Government had cut many public services to the bone. They also knew that the water tax was just another austerity measure against the working man and woman and those who could least afford to pay. They saw that the Government bulldozed ahead regardless. How wrong it was. It did not break the backs of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets and mobilised themselves in every town, city and village across the State. In my own county of Louth, in Drogheda, Dundalk and Ardee, thousands mobilised. It should be clear that any attempt to fudge this issue by a short-term suspension or the setting up of a commission whereby a Government and those propping it up seek to have a majority to put a veto on abolishing Irish water will not be tolerated.
Under pressure. Unfortunately, there is not enough pressure on and that is the reality of this situation. I remember being in Carrick-on-Shannon three years ago when the water charge protests were going on. There were a couple of thousand people there, the vast majority of whom were on group schemes in Leitrim. While they were protesting about Irish Water, they were also protesting about SNAs being taken out of schools, about relatives who were unable to get hospital appointments and against all the austerity measures the Government had introduced over many years. They were really protesting about the right-wing conservative attitude of the two main parties which wanted to bring us down a road where people pay their taxes for services and then have to take out their chequebooks and pay again. That is the reality of what people have protested about. That is the symbolism that the water charge protest was. There is another symbolism coming up in the next couple of days. If the two parties of the right in this Chamber come together and create a fudge on Irish Water, it will be clear that nothing has changed. The symbolism will be clear that the old ways of the conservative past will be brought back again. That is what people are watching out there. They are watching to see exactly what will happen. Will the change they voted for on 26 February come into being or not? That is really what the water charges issue is about. If one wants to show the people that one is going to listen to them, one must abolish Irish Water and extinguish water charges.
I am sufficiently new in the Chamber to still be aghast at the arrogant, contemptuous and self-serving content of the speech given by the Minister. I would have thought I would have seen a little humility and a hands-up acknowledgement of the mistakes made and the debacle of Irish Water as clearly outlined by various Deputies, in particular Deputy Smith who outlined the money that has gone into the ground. I am bemused, even though this is so serious, at Deputy Martin coming in and saying he sought this debate today. While I am particularly fond of some of the Fianna Fáil Deputies, one or two of whom are my colleagues, I find, as the Irish phrase goes, tá siad ag caint mar Thadgh an dá thaobh. The last speaker from Fianna Fáil said that, in principle, he is not against water charges while Deputy Lisa Chambers said she is willing to look at all options. They cannot have it every way. What we have today is a solution that beggars belief. We are going to have the equivalent of a water birth in nine months. We will have a pregnancy and a water birth and we will see what child emerges. It will be a changed Irish Water or a new Irish Water but still an Irish Water.
It seems to me we are missing the point completely but it has been outlined by other Deputies. The people of Ireland have spoken. I take particular exception to the way the Minister denigrates anyone who wishes to speak out or articulate a different vision. We are not negative. If the Government was seriously interested, as we were in Galway city, it would have looked at our example down there. We led the whole campaign on recycling. Despite all advice from engineers, we reached a 70% recycling rate and diversion from landfill. With the introduction of charges, which were unfortunately championed by the Green Party, the people were punished. Then, the service was privatised. That was exactly what was on the cards for Irish Water and it still is. That follows a model where we demonise people and decide we have to punish them. Indeed, Deputy Zappone has talked about an education programme. That education programme would have to start with us in the Dáil where I have not seen a single sign for conservation. I have not seen a single mechanism for conservation of water in the toilets. That education programme must start with us in the first instance and then encompass the service sector. I am staying in a hotel for this period of time and I have not seen a single sign for conservation or anything like it, nor have I seen a grant given to any ordinary person for conservation of water. That tells me that there is a lack of seriousness about conserving water.
In my 16 years on a local authority I saw it starved of funds in the first instance and staff in the second. I take exception to the claim that we did not do our job. We did. In Galway city we had cryptosporidium, from which, unfortunately, I suffered. A risk assessment was carried out, but this was never made known to councillors and no funding was made available until after people had got sick. We identified the problems. The 7,000 people living Carraroe cannot drink their water until the end of the year. Irish Water will be taken to the courts in May by the Environmental Protection Agency. The utility to which we have entrusted responsibility for water provision is being taken to court, not over what happened in Carraroe but because of its failure elsewhere.
I would like to work with whatever Government is in power because it is vital that we conserve water, but we must do so in a positive way. We must work with people and show example. We should not proceed with a divide and conquer approach. Fianna Fáil Deputies mentioned people with Crohn's disease. Are we going to take the route of divide and conquer, depending on whether people are disabled, or are we finally going to realise a civilised society must have basic services for which we must pay through taxation? These services are housing, health, public transport and water, for which we are paying. The Minister was contemptuous in claiming that we were not already paying for them. He is asking us to pay on the double.
I will happily support the motion to get rid of Irish Water. That motion should be put to the House. We should conclude the charges and hold a referendum on the issue.
I stood in the recent general election as a Right2Water and Right2Change candidate and have been involved in the movement since the initial stages. I congratulate all water campaigners around the country who in the past two and a half or three years stood up to be counted. Hundreds of thousands of people went out onto the streets. Community campaigners, anti-metering protestors and those who fought Irish Water on every street and estate and in every village, town and city stood up to be counted. They also stood up to the political parties. People power has won its first victory against water charges. Those involved have forced the political parties to retreat. The emerging deal - a fudge - is the first victory as the Government and Fianna Fáil have been forced to back down, but they did not do so voluntarily. They did it under the pressure exerted by people power. A word of caution to everyone involved in the campaign: he or she should stay organised and continue to resist metering. The political parties are treacherous and may attempt to reintroduce water charges. Today's bad tempered rant by the caretaker Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, may be an indication of what is to come. If we stay organised and continue to resist metering, however, water charges will be dead and buried.
As we have said from the beginning, water charges are unjust and represent double taxation. They were the straw that broke the camel's back among people who had been devastated by austerity, in particular low and middle income families. A motion on the Order Paper that has been signed by 39 Deputies calls for the abolition of water charges and the enshrining in the Constitution of the public ownership of water infrastructure. It should be debated urgently, but, unfortunately, Fianna Fáil has agreed with Fine Gael to prevent that from happening. I appeal to Fianna Fáil, the Members of which where elected on a pledge to end water charges, to allow the motion to be tabled and voted on, as there is a majority in the House in favour of abolishing water charges. Irish Water must be abolished as it has been a disaster for ordinary people. We must also ensure the many people who paid their water charges under duress - the elderly people who were afraid and people who were ill and worried certainly did not pay voluntarily - will have their money refunded. It is important that the legislation underpinning domestic water charges is repealed. I appeal to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to allow the motion on the Order Paper to be debated and voted on so as to put water charges and Irish Water to bed once and for all.
It is eight years since the economic crash, an event of such magnitude that it was supposed to herald new ways of doing the State's business and for a while it did. The two largest parties in the State at the subsequent general election agreed to form a Government and negotiated a programme for same within one week. They worked together for five difficult years to ensure Ireland's economic recovery. As the publication, the stability programme update, SPU, attests, they brought us to a place where we could for the first time in seven years confidently plan for our future. It was said the most recent election result replaced old politics with new politics. It did nothing of the sort. What we have witnessed in the past 60 days is self-interest over national interest, old politics at its very worst, the kind of politics that led us into the economic crash in the first place.
The establishment of Irish Water was not conceived to be popular. As the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government stated, it had its origins in a Fianna Fáil commitment to the troika to establish such a utility. That commitment waived our derogation from water charges under the wastewater directive, but it was also the right thing to do. We all know that our water and wastewater treatment systems have not been fit for purpose for decades. They are certainly not fit for the challenges we face in the 21st century in a modern, First World economy, the people in which are entitled to clean and decently treated water and the protection of groundwater.
Historically, water provision has been underfunded. It does not have the same visibility as the factors that compete in my Department for scarce funding: schools, hospitals, houses, day care centres and so on. Who can envisage in a competition with new cancer wards or children's facilities sewage treatment facilities ever coming top of the list? We all know this and it has gone on for decades.
The utility model addressed this issue by allowing Irish Water access to non-Exchequer funds. That was the idea behind it. As with the ESB and Bord Gáis Energy, it was to be a commercial company that could access funds that would not be on the State’s balance sheet and invest the billions of euro needed to bring our wastewater treatment and water supply infrastructure up to normal European standards. A successful market corporation test was not impossible and was actually achievable. EUROSTAT stated "No", but the Central Statistics Office, CSO, stated "Yes". In my experience - I am around quite a while, as the Chairman knows - this was the first time EUROSTAT had actually overruled the CSO, which, basically, is the Irish subset of the European statistics body. If we had been given the okay by EUROSTAT, we would have had even greater access to cheaper funding. Owing to the improvements we set out this morning in the SPU, we can now borrow, as a state, at a rate of less than 1%. State bodies and companies such as the ESB share the benefits of this low interest rate because of Ireland’s success.
If what I read in the newspaper is true, water provision is now to compete once again with other pressing demands for funding. As I stated, in a competition between a cancer ward and a sewage treatment plant what will lose out? A treatment plant and investment in water systems have no prospect of being successful.
It is understandable that the imposition of domestic water charges following a period of very painful fiscal consolidation was going to be unpopular. The public was fortunate that Fianna Fáil was not in a position to proceed with its planned annual household charge of €400, but it did take us some time to get the model right. We did act too swiftly because of the pressure exerted on us by the troika. I can attest to this at first hand because I had to meet representatives of the troika every three months to go through our scorecard with them before they released the money to pay pensions and make social welfare payments and meet public sector pay bills. Every three months we awaited the troika’s scrutiny and oversight as we lost domestic control over our own finances.
Consider the water charges we have in place, despite all the rhetoric. I listened to statements about the calamitous imposition on ordinary people. God knows, there have been calamitous impositions on them in recent years, the most egregious being the loss of 300,000 jobs and the sending of 100,000 people abroad. That was calamitous. To put it bluntly, a charge of €3 a week on a household does not fit into that category. I am not, however, wedded to the system. We could make further adjustments. We should allow households a generous allowance and charge only for water wasted or abused. However, what is now being discussed is dishonest. If charging is abandoned, it will be gone for good. The law-abiding citizens who paid the charges, whether they agreed with them, and who accepted the law of the land will be penalised for their loyalty. It would be a poor lesson in a country that drove itself to the brink of viability a few short years ago by pursuing short-term opportunities over long-term planning. It is no accident that this is being driven by the same party that was responsible for the economic catastrophe out of which the country has now crawled its way painfully. If the lesson we should have learned from the economic crisis was to think long term and reduce the temptation to court popularity at the cost of the nation’s long-term needs, it is amazing how quickly we have unlearned it. Deputy Micheál Martin, above all others in this House, knows that well.
My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, told the House today that water charges, under the draft agreement being put together by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, would be put on hold. He knows the truth of that statement. Everybody in the House knows it. “On hold” means "finished and abandoned". It is a policy that I know runs contrary to the views of every Fine Gael Front Bencher. How do I know that? I know it because they told me so trenchantly for the past five years. It has been our policy as a Government to do the right thing. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and I guaranteed each other on the first day we held our seals of office that we would do the right thing, even if it was not the easy thing to do. An election should not change that fundamental principle.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. There is a saying that if one always does what one always did, one always gets what one always got. Today may mark the end of repeating behaviours and policies that simply have not worked. The comments of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, on the immaturity of the approach of my party to this issue and his description of it as national sabotage indicate that while others might have grasped the need to step back and reassess where we are, he certainly has not. It could have been so different.
The establishment of Irish Water had the potential to be as groundbreaking as the establishment of the ESB. However, from the moment it was established, by a guillotined debate in the Dáil and denying the opportunity to discuss amendments or engage in serious in-depth consideration of its remit, to the moment when the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, threatened to punish non-payers through the reduction of their water supply to a trickle the die was cast.
Like other Deputies, I fought the local elections in 2014. It was apparent even then, or from those early days in the history of Irish Water, that there were real and genuine fears among all classes of people about the scale of the charges that would face them and the scale of the bills they might have to pay. It could have been so different.
The allowances for children and households were adjusted and readjusted continually. There were to be no allowances for teenagers over 18 years. This alonestruck fear into the hearts of parents of college-going children, or those living at home, who had genuine fears about the bills that would come through their doors. By that stage, the debate had been lost, but the Government ploughed on relentlessly, ignoring the fact that there were people who wanted to pay but who simply could not afford to do so because their finances were so tight. There were no allowances ever made to reflect their ability. It could have been so different.
By the time the Government parties had finished, there had been a dozen or so U-turns, from the suspension of water charges for one year in 2014 to the replacement of other planned initiatives with the water conservation payment. I could run my tap from one end of the year to the next and still claim my conservation grant, yet the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, spoke about sabotage and immaturity. Not only that, I could run my tap day in and day out, wash my car every day, have a swimming pool in my back garden, if I could afford it, and at the same time completely disregard my neighbour who might be making painstaking efforts to conserve water. Where is the intelligence in that kind of regime? Where is the justice in it? It could have been so different.
The Government could have had a long lead-in period in the charging for water and educating people, beginning with children in primary school, about the necessity to protect and conserve a finite resource.
Instead, we had children participating in marches with their parents and writing the right to water principle into their 2016 proclamations, yet the Minister lectures us about sabotage. It could have been much different if a metering charging regime had been based on people's abuse rather than use of water.
Tax incentives for domestic water harvesting measures and enhanced building regulations requirements in respect of water could have been introduced. In Massachusetts, for example, one of the latest building regulations requires home designers and builders to design hot water systems that deliver hot water to taps in less than 15 seconds, potentially saving millions of gallons of water annually. How long must we wait for hot water to arrive from the moment we switch on our tap?
The Government was stubborn in the face of the most objective opposition. Irish Water workers had to face into protest after protest from people, many of whom had never participated in a protest in their lives or felt a need to do so. Whole sections of society have become actively politicised by the water charges issue. Perhaps I will have another opportunity to discuss those who claim to be the champions of the anti-water charges cause.
As the Minister may be aware, meters have not been installed in half of my constituency. How did he intend to have meters installed in the remaining parts without encountering significant opposition and protests that would require the deployment of Garda human resources that would be far better invested elsewhere in fighting crime and protecting people? The Minister describes this reasonable question as immature and argues that it could give rise to sabotage.
I reiterate the comments of my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin. Fianna Fáil is committed to a policy of scrapping the commercial State company, Irish Water, of not applying charges for at least the duration of this Dáil and of implementing a major national investment programme to develop this vital public service.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Lahart, for sharing time.
It is important that the House is debating this issue. I listened to the revisionist speech of the acting Minister, Deputy Howlin, in which he washed his hands of this issue. Irish Water was created in 2009 when the concept first appeared in the NewERA document produced by the Fine Gael Party. The birth and implementation of Irish Water were abject failures. Four water services Bills were rammed through the House and guillotined by the previous Government. We also had the farce of the introduction of a conservation grant of €100. As Deputy Lahart stated, the grant had nothing to do with conservation and was introduced to bribe people to participate in a model that would never work.
All of us agree that we must conserve water, a highly valuable resource. People have jumped on the bandwagon in recent years and used this issue for political gain. When one is in a hole, however, one should stop digging. Now that a stop has been put to water charges, we can examine the current model, including the ownership of water. I was the leader of the Opposition in the previous Seanad, which passed a motion calling for a referendum to ensure ownership of water remained with the people in perpetuity. Irish Water was established using a model that did not reflect the advice the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government received from independent consultants. Under the structure chosen, the company could be privatised and sold on at some point in future. Irish people are intelligent and saw that was the case.
Irish people are also intelligent enough to realise that Sinn Féin was scared into pretending to campaign against water charges when it lost the by-election in Dublin South-West more than two years ago. I read with interest Sinn Féin's manifesto for the Assembly elections in the North. When one discounts the five blank pages, the document extends to 24 pages, of which two and a half are devoted to the party's priorities for government in the North. The manifesto does not contain a single reference to water because Sinn Féin in the North charges people for water and applies a property tax.
The fundamental problem with the water charges and property taxes is that ability to pay is not taken into account. The water charges are not a conservation measure but a tax and people view them as such. At this stage, it is important to suspend water charges and try to find a better model to improve water infrastructure. I watched with interest a recent "Prime Time" programme which reported from Rush in my constituency where raw sewage is pumped into the sea on the north beach. That is outrageous and disgraceful. I remind Government Deputies that funding was in place for a scheme up to 2013 but the previous Government cut it and kicked on the completion date to 2018-20.
A targeted investment programme is needed, one which focuses on areas where infrastructure needs to be improved. Water charges must be suspended and a commission established to examine how the process would work in future. I am confused by Sinn Féin's stance that a commission would be a problem given that the party wanted such a commission, albeit one that would deliver exactly what it wanted. We must step back and examine what model can work properly, how local authorities can be properly funded and how water infrastructure can be properly upgraded.
This debate is welcome, as are the current moves towards the full suspension of water charges. A referendum on the ownership of Irish Water would address one of the main issues by ensuring that water remains in public ownership.
I very much welcome the opportunity to make a statement on Irish Water. I have been paying for domestic water since 1988. I also paid to have a septic tank installed and I regularly pay to have it cleaned. My perspective on water and wastewater is that they cost money. If people want free water and wish to defecate in public, they should do so by all means. Ultimately, however, we must pay for clean water and to have waste and raw sewage treated properly. This is necessary on several grounds, both health and environmental, and all of this costs money.
I would love not to have to pay ESB and broadband bills or the RTE licence fee but the harsh reality in 2016 is that domestic households and industry must pay for the services they require, including water. Water infrastructure is worth investing in and I cannot understand people who want to abolish Irish Water and scrap water charges. What exactly would abolishing a utility such as Irish Water mean? It would result in thousands of staff being made redundant, including those who take telephone calls to help consumers, workers installing badly needed new infrastructure for water and wastewater treatment plants and the staff who install water meters. During the recent general election campaign, I met subcontractors who got work from Irish Water. They were delighted to be working again. Are Deputies on the Opposition benches who argue for the abolition of Irish Water saying we should get rid of all these staff?
I have an interesting point to make to Deputy Ellis given that he raised his voice. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht when it was asked in 2012 to carry out an investigation into a report on the provision of water.
A significant amount of work was done by that committee to establish whether we needed a water utility and the topics we reviewed were: the status of a new water utility - I remind Members that this was in 2012 - the principle of metering, metering mechanisms, charges and tariffs, water conservation, poverty proofing, outstanding water rates, North-South basis for river basin management, regulation, consumer representation, waivers, emergency planning, flooding, transparency and accountability, and I could go on. The committee produced a 148 page report which is available and which was agreed by the committee in May 2012 and published in June 2012. Deputy Ellis was one of the members of that committee-----
-----as were Deputies Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley, former Deputy, Sandra McLellan, Deputy Catherine Murphy and Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú. I could go on but the evidence is all there.
We can look at the cost of putting in a system to store and treat water for people in rural areas. Does Deputy Ellis know how much that costs? Does he know how much it cost my neighbours? It costs anywhere between €4,000 and €9,000 to install a waste treatment plant. I got my water bill last week, which amounted to €140. All my neighbours received similar bills. These neighbours are looking with bewilderment at people in this country who think they should get everything for nothing. Unfortunately, that is not what happens in the real world. I would love to have everything for nothing but that is not what happens in the real world.
That is my experience. I have another question. Did people who received the conservation grant pay their bills? I would like to know whether anybody is investigating that. I have been told that people obtained a conservation grant and the reason they were given that grant was to assist them. As far as I am concerned, it is fraud if they received the grant but did not pay their bill.
We have come a fair distance from a time when we brought our can to the well to bring water to our houses years ago. All around the country, people, particularly those in rural group water schemes, got together and worked to install water infrastructure in their areas. When Irish Water was set up, I felt like tearing my hair out. In the first few weeks and months of Irish Water, I found what was going on frustrating. However, bit by bit, that changed for those of us who engaged with Irish Water and attended meetings and learned of the problems around the country, particularly in places which had cryptosporidium problems for up to ten years. We worked with Irish Water and the new systems so as to ensure that within a year or 18 months new infrastructure could be installed to solve that problem. This was a step in the right direction.
Everybody should know that 700 people work in Irish Water, 150 of whom came from the local authorities. Some 200 people are on contract for the metering system and they will probably have to be told now they no longer have a contract. That is the reality of what is happening now, whether right or wrong. What has been going on is a fudge. I do not mind how we pay for water, whether through tax or a payment system. However, whether we like it or not, we need to spend double the money if we are to improve treatment plants and the quality of water to the level required.
I believe we should have taken the referendum route on this issue so as to ensure Irish Water could never be sold to private operators. This should have been done. Whether we want to admit it, Irish Water has made progress, but people do not want to admit that. It started out as a disaster and mistakes were made by people rolling it out who did not explain the benefits of a water meter. I know from my local group water scheme that 900 cu. m was being used before we introduced meters. On the introduction of the meters, this was reduced to 250 cu. m. Conservation has gone out the door with the fudge going on now and there is no penalty if one leaves a tap running 24 hours a day. There are 190,000 households around the country that are members of group water schemes and these people lost €45 of their subvention last year. If everyone is going to get free water, and that is fine if that is what the Dáil decides, I want to see the subvention for those on group water schemes being raised enough for them not to have to pay. If we are giving free water to everyone around the country, it is only right that happens.
Whatever is decided now, down the road in five to seven years, I believe that whether we like it or not, the European Union will slap fines on sewerage treatment plants because of raw sewage in our drainage systems. I have seen raw sewage in my own area. Let us be honest and tell people straight out that we do not have the required funds. If we are putting €240 million here and €240 million there, we will not have the money to put the infrastructure in place. Whatever decision is made now, will be for the next few years. Nobody should could cod himself or herself and believe that within the term of this Dáil, water charges will return. A commission is being put in place. The Independent Alliance has received no information on what is being discussed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We do not know whether the Dáil will accept any proposal the proposed commission brings forward or whether it will be put to a vote.
I would emphasise that the group water schemes were short changed last year. Conservation has now gone out the window, although this is something the group water scheme sector has promoted down through the years. We do not know now whether the money taken from people will be returned. I am concerned that in five, six or seven years, we will be in trouble as the tap can be left running now without consequence. I have no problem with paying for water, whether through taxes or a charge, but we must face reality. People do not like hearing that. Sometimes people do not like hearing the truth that water will cost money down the road, whether through taxes or not, but we must pay if we are to bring this country up to spec. I work on a group water scheme and EU specifications now are totally different from what they were ten years ago and cost a lot more money.
Like Deputy Fitzmaurice, I work on a group water scheme. I have spent 21 years as secretary of the largest group water scheme in County Louth and believe I have good knowledge and understanding of the complexities of water supply. The issues and costs of supply, the integrity of water quality and the need to control leaks and waste go hand in hand. All in all, the supply of water does not come cheaply, whether one is part of the group scheme, an individual well owner or part of a larger local authority supply. The same can be said in regard to wastewater, whether in regard to the individual septic tank or the larger municipal treatment plant.
I firmly believe that the nation's vexation and motivation in the water charge protest was not totally about water but that the water charge was the straw that broke the people's backs. They were basically crying out that enough was enough and that they had paid more than their fair share through a myriad of taxes - USC, property tax, income tax and motor tax. In return for all of that, they saw none of the moneys raised spent in their locality. The lack of services, such as poor public lighting, deteriorating road infrastructure, crumbling footpaths and so on, were the order of the day, while Irish Water was allowed to form, grow and try to empty the last few coins from the ordinary person's pocket.
It is worth noting that the group scheme I referred to earlier was subsumed into a local authority in the early 2000s, when 100% grant aid was available from the European Union. These grants were freely available for the upgrading of all water schemes across the country. Many local authorities took up that challenge and did a good job in the delivery of water and waste services. I believe they should have been left in charge of those services but should also have been given the resources they need to expand and improve supply problems.
I subscribe to the idea of a national plan for services but there was no need for the current structure. I firmly believe this delivery mechanism should be returned to local authorities, along with a water and waste infrastructure company which is owned by the people and is accountable to the House of the Oireachtas. I look forward to the deliberation of the proposed commission to look into the structure and delivery mechanisms. I also subscribe to water metering, both bulk and individual. Such metering, however, should only come into play when an appropriate and generous allowance per household and individual allowances are determined.
We all know the saying, "You don't miss the water until the well runs dry". The day when water is a scarce commodity may be approaching faster than one expects. It is the responsibility of all Deputies to fully apprise themselves of all the issues relating to both water and waste. They should not just focus on cost but on the complex and pressing problems of water supply and its availability. We are equally required to inform our constituents honestly of these complexities. I firmly believe the commission is being set up to examine the issue and its recommendations will ultimately be debated in this House so that we can make an informed decision on how to deal with the problem of water. This was something that was not offered to the previous Dáil during the establishment of Irish Water and this angered not just politicians in this House but across the country and the public generally. If this proposal helps to free up the logjam of forming a government, then this House is doing the right thing.
I support the abolition of domestic water charges but need to be fully informed on the correct and equitable mechanisms for doing so. Conservation and quality must be to the fore of any water policy and, ultimately, whether or not we have water charges for the domestic supply, it is my belief that the Exchequer will have to fund the bill at any stage.
I do not know what is in this deal and I look forward to hearing from my own parliamentary party and from the Fine Gael parliamentary party as to whether or not there is a way forward.
The roots of this debacle go back to 1977 when our predecessors in this Chamber, from all parties and none, engaged in American-style auction politics. Fine Gael decided it would reduce domestic rates and car tax, so Fianna Fáil decided to top that by abolishing domestic rates and car tax. That created two things: the inability of local authorities throughout the country to operate under their own steam and undertake their own projects; and a lack of the right level of financing to do that, rather than depending on the proximity of a senior Minister in one's constituency to back projects that were needed or on population numbers, where greater priority was given to those areas where most people lived. That system of local government funding has struggled along since then and, while we would like to blame it on the troika, Fianna Fáil or the previous Government, that was what led us to where we are today and our need for enough resourcing and enough financing to undertake the works we require.
There is no question but that in 1977, domestic rates required reform because in cases where a man died leaving a large family of nine children in a large farmhouse in rural Ireland, his widow would lease the land for a nominal rent while the nine children were gone to the four corners of the earth. A widow in such circumstances was rated in a very unfair way on the size of her property. We needed a fair reform of the process whereby those who could pay would pay. There should be a local authority contribution for refuse collection and water and all of those things were included at that time but since those days, the people who occupied these Houses have made a complete mess of it, collectively. Here we are today, struggling with that outcome and trying to fund everything from general taxation. I appreciate the dilemma before the Houses in respect of this issue.
The establishment of Irish Water was like setting up Unilever to run a corner shop. It put the cart before the horse in a major way, a cart populated by people who were used to spending the public's money without any need to focus on where the money would come from or whether there was affordability and people had the ability to pay. We had 31 local authorities throughout the country populated with good staff who knew what schemes had to be undertaken. In my own constituency of Sligo, for example, there are three schemes known as the bundle scheme, involving Grange, Tubbercurry and Strandhill, all shovel-ready for a number of years. Instead of Irish Water and water rates bringing the project forward, it has put it into reverse. Irish Water personnel on service level agreements with Sligo County Council have the same level of expertise and know what work needs to be done but the resources are not being provided to them and any decision they make has to be laundered through some outfit in Cork before they are allowed to proceed in any way. Those three schemes are being scaled back so that if they are built, they will not be able to provide for any additional housing or business. This is in Sligo where the IDA is about to embark on a 70-acre park for industry, so we are not taking cognisance of any of those things. If we were to take the money that was spent on meters and on the establishment of Irish Water, for which there are different figures up to €750 million, and distributed that money throughout the 31 local authorities to the expertise that is there on site, how much further down the road could we be towards the €5.5 billion that we need all over the country? I am giving an example from Sligo but I am sure that this is replicated in Dublin, where we have infrastructure that is hundreds of years old, and in every village and rural area throughout the country.
If today is the day we draw a line in the sand and begin to move forward, I am glad the power over charges and structures will lie with this House and the sum of all the people of this House, whether Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael or anybody else who ran the place effectively as a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. I welcome future debates on the issue. I do not know what is in the deal but I hope the essence of the deal is that people in this House, of whatever colour, will have the say on the future of these issues.
Few political movements of any kind have disturbed Ireland's political establishment in the way the movement against water charges has but not in the way some have characterised it today. There have been comments from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that seemed to suggest that Sinn Féin and others have delighted in some kind of anarchy or mayhem unleashed by the water protests. Tá dhá príomh fadhb le sin. First is the fact that the demands of the water charges movement and Right2Change were, in many ways, very simple - nothing extraordinary or dramatic. People wanted water to be delivered as of right, free and in a quality way. The second problem with the argument is that the water charges movement was much, much bigger than Sinn Féin or any of the other parties or political organisations that contributed to it. This movement frightened the political establishment for precisely that reason. This was a movement not led by Deputies or trade unionists but by ordinary mothers, fathers and neighbours on the back of remarkable local solidarity. Whatever success this movement has met with has been due to them.
We will see what is going to emerge from negotiations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on their proxy programme and what the outcome will be of the commission report. I am not convinced that this is the end of water charges and we may yet see their return. However, it seems likely there will be some form of suspension. I pay tribute to the people in communities who have delivered that.
It was an enormous movement and effort in my city and constituency. The first estate in the State where people protested actively and regularly on their doorsteps on the water issue was Ashbrook Heights in Togher, only a few hundred feet from where I was raised. The community effort has been remarkable, with shifts organised and everybody working together to a common objective. Neighbours pulled together. I saw this not only in numerous estates in Togher but also in Leesdale, Mahon, Ballyphehane, Passage, Carrigaline and across the constituency and Cork North-Central as well as across the county. What has worried the establishment is that these communities took power into their own hands and have said they will not take any more and will make their power count.
There has been comments among the media and political figures in the last few days that they are tired and frustrated with talk about Irish Water, as if there are no other political issues. Undoubtedly, there are many issues of equal importance and, perhaps, greater urgency, such as the housing and homelessness crisis which is becoming more stark each day in my home city. However, what that commentary misses is that for many people Irish Water became a totem for those issues as well. It came to symbolise all of the wrong choices taken and the wrong priorities during the years of the crash and austerity. Do not assume that the people who protested against Irish Water and water charges and stood up for their communities are going away. If the incoming Government fails to deal with the housing crisis or the crisis in accident and emergency departments, the communities that found their courage in the last few years on the issue of water will once again hold the Government to account for its failings.
The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly today falsely framed the debate on Irish Water by saying that only water charges could build the investment necessary to provide for safe drinking water and the infrastructure to deal with wastewater. This is clearly not the case. Water quality and the structure required for it are simply based on investment. The source of that investment is not the key determinant of the quality of the water or the quality of the infrastructure. He identified the massive problems within that infrastructure, including the boil notices in Roscommon and the effluent flowing into the sea. However, what he identified was the legacy of under-investment by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Those problems exist today due to the fact that those two parties have not invested in the infrastructure.
The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly also stated that if one takes the investment for Irish Water from the Exchequer it will compete with health, education and housing funding. However, health, education and housing have competed very unsuccessfully under Fine Gael and the Labour Party with cuts to the incomes of higher income earners and cuts to the USC. Those three issues are already the poor relations in the Government's investment priorities. If one seeks an insight into the Labour Party and Fine Gael's prioritisation of investment, just look at the level of investment they already give to infrastructure in the State. Ireland has one of the fastest growing populations in Europe. It also has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, yet Ireland is second from the bottom with regard to infrastructural capital investment. That demonstrates the priority of investment with this Government.
We wish to have a functioning water distribution system. If one looks at the manifestos of all of the major political parties, Sinn Féin was to the fore regarding the level of investment that would go to infrastructure and water in the coming years. Sinn Féin is the party of infrastructural investment.
We have been calling for a proper debate on this issue, and a vote on a motion on it, since the election. In all of that time Fianna Fáil has frustrated us on it. It appears that it flip-flopped very recently, for strategic reasons, in its negotiations with Fine Gael. That should not be the case. The debate should be on the basis of democratic mandate alone. The reason the Dáil has been in democratic lock-down for the last 61 days and the reason that Fianna Fáil has failed to allow this debate is that it is seeking wriggle room with regard to any U-turns it needs to make in its negotiations with the Government. That should not be the case. The issue of democratic mandate and how it affects the Dáil should be primary.
The imposition of water charges and the other mess that is Irish Water were soundly rejected by the Irish people in February. They were soundly rejected on the streets and in our communities for months before that but the main parties, despite their spin, refused to recognise this complete and indisputable rejection. Hundreds of thousands marched in our towns and cities, organised locally and protested against water meters being forced on their communities with the help of gardaí and private security firms, who harassed and bullied local people and took photographs of the people where they lived. People are still being arrested for protesting peacefully on the streets outside their homes. The people's opposition has not stopped and will not stop.
What political leadership has given the organic development of the anti-water charges movement is clear. Communities have risen up. People power is evident and it is not going away. Even many who voted for the Government are disgusted by the waste of money that is Irish Water. It has already cost the Irish people hundreds of millions of euro, all while much of the water infrastructure of the State is leaking and rotting in the ground before it reaches the homes of the people who have had meters installed. Money which could have done some good was squandered on consultants to develop the master stroke of naming an Irish water company Irish Water.
Today, and for the last few weeks, Fianna Fáil has been trying to backtrack on what it told the people during the election. It has sought to delay charges and kick the can down the road in the hope of giving the party space once again to take some part in running the State. Delays did not work previously and they will not work now. The people did not buy the reduced charge, the delay in metering or even the ridiculous water conservation grant. They will not buy this rubbish either. If Fianna Fáil wished to keep its promise to the people it would support a vote on water charges today, and if Fine Gael had any respect for the will of the people it would facilitate that vote. However, power is always the priority with those two parties, the tweedledum and tweedledee of the gombeen political system.
The people know what this is about, and they reject it. They will not be satisfied because they understand the true nature of what Irish Water represents - the thin edge of the wedge of privatisation. They know that if charges continue they will increase, waivers and grants will disappear and the human right to water will be truly commodified once and for all. We have seen this happen in Detroit where many people in poverty, due to the impossibly high water charges, are now facing eviction. There was also the struggle in Bolivia, where the IMF forced privatisation. Thankfully, that was defeated after a long campaign. In Dublin, bin charges were sold off against the will of the people and we now witness the mess as companies ensure their bottom line, with no concern for affordability. Waivers were promised and delivered, then were weakened and removed. The most vulnerable and worse-off were left to the whim of private companies for an essential service.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirleach, as ucht an seans a thabhairt dom cúpla focal a rá maidir leis an gceist thábhachtach seo ó thaobh Uisce Éireann agus na táillí uisce de. I and Fine Gael have believed in this over the last number of years and even before that it was part of our manifesto in 2011. Some people have stated that we did not get a mandate for Irish Water, but I believe we did in 2011. A single integrated public utility is the most effective and efficient model to meet the country's water and wastewater infrastructure requirements. It is the correct way forward.
The decades of under-investment require a large scale intervention. Irish Water, which is publicly owned, is already achieving savings and efficiencies. There has been investment in every part of the country, including in Galway where a host of problems and challenges are only being addressed now. In the past we had the experience with cryptosporidium. With regard to our beaches and coastal waters, Clifden has thankfully achieved an improvement in water quality in its bathing waters. That was highlighted constantly in the news media for many years, which impacted on tourism. Thankfully, that has been resolved due to investment in Irish Water. What will happen to the investment programmes that every Member of the Dáil warmly welcomes?
It is amazing that the people against Irish Water always seem to be able to welcome the investment by Irish Water in their local communities. A failing of our society is the lack of any debate or focus on how we raise revenue. This is why the broadening of the tax base, which included the property tax and charging for water whereby everyone in society pays something for the services they receive, was a correct and proper principle. Were there to be an abolition of water charges we must look at fairness for those individuals on group water schemes, those with private wells who provide for necessary upgrades and maintenance from their own pockets and those who have responsibly paid their bills. I have strongly stated to the Minister, Deputy Noonan, that if there is to be any row-back on charges there also needs to be increased funding for group water schemes and private wells. Fine Gael and I certainly do not believe there should be a row back on water charges. Others have commented on a deal which, if it is reached, will be announced in due course. The principle of paying for the services used is correct and proper. As others have pointed out, there are issues with ability to pay. This has been a failing of the system and I accept this. There needs to be closer scrutiny and analysis of those who cannot pay and measures provided to help them.
If we constantly attack the sources of revenue it puts us on a dangerous avenue. There has been little debate on how we properly fund our water and wastewater services. They will not magically appear and they must be funded. The provision of clean safe water has been one of the most important innovations of modern society because in the past many people died from unsafe water. People died from treatable illnesses in Ireland because of unsafe water. World Health Organization research states at least 10% of the world's population is thought to consume food irrigated by wastewater. Globally, at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces. A total of 842,000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hand hygiene. We cannot underestimate the importance of a safe water supply, which requires investment.
When I was first elected to Galway County Council - Deputy Canney was there at the time - we received a water and wastewater investment programme from the Department with responsibility for the environment which stated every town and village in County Galway would be funded over the following years, and the following year we received the same list with a year added on to the completion dates. I will not say there was no investment, but there was little investment in valuable water and wastewater services.
Fine Gael is often accused of not being on the side of workers. There has been very little thought, although the Minister mentioned them, about the workers of Irish Water. Politicians always get blamed, and that is fine because it is part and parcel and people attack us verbally, but Irish Water staff have listened to insults being fired at the company for which they work. It has been called a calamity, a fiasco and a failed entity. This contributes to the dislike of the company and makes it difficult for them to go about doing the job they do. We can criticise the CEO and people who are on big money, but many Irish Water staff are on ordinary wages, the same as many other people. They are on the same payscale as those who work for Gas Networks Ireland. They been subjected to a sustained attack for going about their business, and this must be acknowledged.
The unions in Irish Water request that there be no diminution in the terms and conditions of Irish Water and Ervia employees. The group of unions will not accept any redundancies which might result from any proposed reconfiguration of Irish Water. They also believe a constitutional referendum to ensure enduring public ownership of water services and infrastructure in the State should take place. I agree with this and I regret it has not been done heretofore. It is something that should be considered. Although the outgoing Government had no intention of promoting a privatisation model, as other people have suggested, it would somewhat relieve and allay the fears people have about water.
I cannot understand why people have an issue with water metering. People believe if one has a water meter one will pay for it, but water meters save money. They identify leaks. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, spoke about this earlier. The installation of water meters provided jobs at a time of poor prospects for many people in the construction sector. It has allowed an increase in the balance between usage and supply in Dublin, where we have seen major instances in the not too distant past when there was a threat that the water supply of Dublin, our capital, would run out. It would not be good for companies thinking of investing anywhere in the country to see a headline that our capital city did not have a proper water supply. The installation of water meters has helped this because it has identified leaks, which is important. Consumer metering is extremely important and we have seen this in group water schemes over the past 20 years. When I was first elected to Galway County Council, there were problems with an inadequate water supply on the outskirts of Galway city and a district metering scheme was introduced to identify major leaks in the system. This helped, and it also helps in individual water situations. This is important.
I am 40 years of age and I remember going to the house of my neighbour, Mrs. Hand, Lord have mercy on her, with a bucket to get water from her well. I remember back in the 1980s turning on a switch for the pump to try to get water from the river, if it worked. This was seven miles from Galway city. Many people in rural Ireland had to establish committees, group water schemes, hold meetings, collect subscriptions and lobby politicians to get water schemes in place. There are still parts of County Galway, such as Kilreekil which will be familiar to people who travel on the road from Galway to Dublin, which has no public water supply scheme. No investment was made. Other areas in Connemara and many parts of rural Ireland are too far to bring public water supply schemes and they fend for themselves as best they can. If one buys a house in an urban area it is connected to a public supply scheme; when one turns on the tap water comes out, and when one flushes the toilet one does so without worrying about where sewage goes to because it is on a mains system. In the country people have septic tanks. If people understood the fight many people in rural areas had they might have a different view of the value of water and believe it should be paid for. I draw a distinction between those who cannot pay and those who will not pay, and the outgoing Government should have done more for those who genuinely could not pay and struggled to pay.
With regard to the Costello regional water supply scheme, I have been fighting with Irish Water to ensure we get an adequate supply from Galway city so this very important area has adequate clean water. Previous plans ran into problems with An Bord Pleanála with regard to capacity in Glenicmurrin Lough, but I have been fighting with Irish Water and I hope that over the coming period of time we will hear something about this very important scheme for the south Connemara area.
I am delighted to be able to stand up in the Dáil Chamber for the first time to speak on a very important subject, namely, Irish Water. There has been a huge discussion about how Irish Water works, how it was established and the waste of money involved in setting it up and we have all heard about this. It has been very well voiced in the public domain in recent years. We must be very careful because there are particular aspects to water which we do not discuss, about which I have found very little discussion. Where I live in Galway East there is a huge number of group water schemes. I heard previous speakers talk about people coming together in communities to resist meters, but in east Galway people rose up together to create momentum to bring water to houses.
I have first-hand experience of having to draw water from the River Clare to our cattle for the summer, when we might have a drought. We had to do it at our own cost. Eventually people got together into groups and created the network to provide a water supply. They did so with the help of public money, but also with a huge amount of voluntary effort. Some of these group water schemes around the country are a model for the way water should be managed by any utility company, but they have been ignored and pushed aside in the whole debate.
One concern I have about water charges and the fact that they may be postponed or whatever is that the people who have been paying for water for the last 40 years are not even being discussed. The whole argument is all about paying for water or not paying for water. Nobody has said to me how these people will be dealt with. Will they get a free allowance or a restoration of their subvention for the group water schemes, which has been reduced? We must consider this matter and have parity in our dealings with people who are getting water in this way.
The second concern that I have in my constituency of Galway East is the issue of waste water treatment plants. We have a plethora of private waste water treatment plants attached to a huge amount of housing schemes in our county. They are managed by the residents and the management companies in these estates. They are paying for the supply and maintenance and must pay for any capital cost to keep them up to standard. This is a huge issue. What will happen in the towns around our county if we do not have some sort of structure? One example I have come across in north Galway, in our village of Milltown, is a scheme designed in the 1970s to put in a waste water treatment plant. That is a good while ago. I was in school at the time. That scheme is only now coming to fruition. The plant will be turned on this month, and for the first time we will have a public waste water treatment plant in Milltown. That has taken over 40 years to bring to fruition. It has been designed, undergone preliminary reports, costed, etc. If that is the kind of delivery we had in the past, I dread the possibility that we might be going back there again.
There is a huge number of villages and towns around the country which are in need of public waste water treatment plants. They need them for a number of reasons. In east Galway, where we have tourism, we need to make sure that our waterways and fishing ways are unpolluted. There is only one way we will do that, and that is by making sure that we have proper public waste water treatment plants in place and that they are managed properly over time. I am hugely fearful for all of these private waste water treatment plants. While some of them are being managed now - some are not - in ten to 15 years' time, when the plants begin to break down, who will be there to pick up the tab and pay for them?
When we talk about this, we need to do so in a holistic way. We need to be truthful with everybody in this country about what we are doing here. Nothing we will do will be done for nothing. There has to be investment, and the investment has to be made in a way that is fair and delivers both water and waste water treatment plants around our country. If we continue on the path we have taken, we will have nothing but trouble in our country. We need a properly funded framework to deliver water and waste water. We also need to make sure that we have a proper network of metering in our country because anyone who was ever involved in the delivery of water in any group water scheme in this country knows that if you do not have a meter, you do not know where your water is going and therefore cannot conserve your water. We have to look at this in a reasonable way. Delivering water to houses costs money. It is a scarce and expensive commodity, so we need to make sure we conserve it as best we can. Deputy Kyne mentioned Dublin being without water or at a stage where it would run out of water, and if we allow that to happen in the capital of our country, we are saying very little about our country.
We talk about job creation, the tourism element, which can create so many jobs, and the environment, and they are all tied in with having a proper water and waste water supply. If we do not have them, we will fail to deliver the jobs. We talked this morning about the economy: where it is going and its projections for the future. If we do not have the economic drivers in terms of proper waste water and water services, we will not be able to provide the jobs or attract the industry, and we need to do that. We also need to make sure, especially considering tourism, that there is no raw sewerage going into our bays or rivers, and we need to do that in a very managed way over the next ten years.
We need the money, we need the will to do it, and I believe that within this Dáil we have the people who can do it. However, we must stop making a political football out of something that should not be a political football. We need to get our heads together to make sure we deliver what is best. When we look back on our time here as public representatives, we should be able to say that we made a good stab at it and worked together to get it in place. I suggest that some people who have exercised their minds about the meters should visit some group water schemes, speak to the people who have run these water schemes and talk to them about what getting water out of a tap is all about.
I was not expecting to get the opportunity to speak so I appreciate that the Ceann Comhairle has fitted me in.
We have all spoken about Irish Water in the House today and have all highlighted the concerns and issues relating to it. Deputies present are very familiar with my constituency, the Acting Chairman and I represent it. They will also be aware of the same concerns relating to the establishment of Irish Water, the way it was done and whether there was a need for it. Most people accept that it was unnecessary at the time and that local authorities were doing a good job and providing the service. The one resource that they have been missing over the last number of years by successive Governments is, perhaps, funding. There are different reasons for this, be they economic or whatever they were at the time, but local authorities in general, whether water or waste water management, did a good job, delivered the services and improved the infrastructure.
As we all know, if there is an issue with a person's water service or waste water service and he or she rings Irish Water, it rings the local authorities. They employ the same staff who were there before Irish Water was set up to go out, assess the problem and contact Irish Water about the issue. Irish Water then issues them a purchase order or order number to go out and carry out the work. This is a completely inefficient way of doing business because another completely unnecessary layer of bureaucracy is being introduced. The local authority staff, who had the local expertise, carried out the work to a high standard and delivered an excellent service all across my constituency and the country generally, are still doing the work, but they are now doing it under a new management regime of Irish Water. Everyone would accept that this is unnecessary, and it is done with an extra capital cost that was not needed previously for the staff. Indeed, we now learn that they are subsidised somewhere in the region of €250,000,000 per annum out of our motor tax money. That money should be going into upgrading the infrastructure that we all need for roads, commuting and opening up other ways for industry around the country, where it would be much better spent rather than spent subsidising an agency that is not required at this time or at any stage.
I am not in favour of having water charges currently or at any stage. They need to be suspended. We also need to look at a waiver system, which should have been considered and implemented for those who cannot afford to pay. There are many people, whom we all meet at our clinics every week and whom we have met canvassing, who simply cannot afford to pay.