Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The transfer of responsibility for water from the local authorities to Irish Water has created many problems. As a public representative, I find the process of reporting issues cumbersome and frustrating. I can imagine, therefore, that it would try the patience of an ordinary citizen. When a problem is reported to Irish Water it utilises the water services staff and equipment of Dublin City Council and other councils. If I were to go directly to the council to report an issue, I would be told to contact Irish Water first, which is a ridiculous situation.
While there is a dedicated elected representative support email address, in my experience the system does not necessarily address the issues any quicker. My constituency colleagues and I have had to pursue issues to the point of exasperation, sending email after email to the Irish Water representative's address to try to get the problems we have raised resolved. I have found that many of the responses I receive show a lack of understanding of the problem raised and are often inaccurate. This method of raising issues with Irish Water is nothing more than a sop to public representatives. Lack of effective communication and an inability to liaise directly with senior management raise concerns in respect of both transparency and accountability.
Elderly residents, families with small children and people with disabilities or long-term illnesses and so on are severely affected by any disruption to their water supply. It is essential, therefore, that the customer service side of Irish Water is effective and public representatives have access to senior management.
I am also concerned that works carried out by Irish Water have caused secondary problems, such as airlocks and low water pressure. On McKee Avenue in Finglas last Saturday, after Irish Water had completed works in the area, residents, including a number of elderly people, were left without a water supply all weekend and all day Monday up until this morning. It appears that no advance notice was given of the works taking place. In St. Canice's Court in Finglas, residents were also left with disrupted water supply following works carried out by Irish Water. The issues around water pressure are still ongoing. When these problems are raised with Irish Water, I find that it effectively abdicates responsibility and in many cases puts the onus on the homeowner affected to rectify the problem.
One such example relates to a case in which the roots of a tree have penetrated a sewage pipe, causing a blockage. The affected pipe is located outside the boundaries of a private residence on Collins Avenue Extension. However, Irish Water is of the view that it is the responsibility of the homeowner to fix the problem. It is not an isolated case. In this and other cases, it is clear that Irish Water is not undertaking proper investigations that would lead it to a different conclusion as to who has responsibility for fixing such problems.
Irish Water also needs to look at the policy of patching up of work areas after initial completion. In many instances, the patching up of roads and pathways has left them in a terrible condition for months on end before they are properly reinstated. I am concerned about the proposal to transfer responsibility for Dublin City Council's drainage section to Irish Water in July. It is a serious worry in light of Irish Water's failures to date. It needs to get its house in order before it should even consider taking on this responsibility.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and allowing me the opportunity to outline the position in respect of Irish Water’s responsibility on this matter. The Water Services Acts 2007 to 2017 set out the arrangements in place for the delivery of water and waste water services by Irish Water, and for the scrutiny and oversight provisions that apply in respect of these arrangements. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels, including with respect to water supply interruptions and communication with customers and the maintenance of water and waste water infrastructure. Irish Water is independent in the exercise of its statutory functions and in regard to day-to-day operational matters.
In assuming responsibility for water services from local authorities, Irish Water has entered into service level agreements, SLAs, with each local authority for the provision of water services. Staff members working under these arrangements remain local authority employees while continuing to perform key water services functions with local authorities acting as agents of Irish Water.
As part of the operational model established by the Oireachtas it is important to note that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, in its role as economic regulator of Irish Water, has an important role in regulating and protecting the interests of Irish Water customers. One of the key ways the CRU protects customers is through the Irish Water customer handbooks, which set out how Irish Water must deal with its domestic and non-domestic customers. In the case of planned interruptions for operational reasons or for other service incidents, the handbooks detail how Irish Water must communicate with its customers. These handbooks are available on the CRU website.
Planned supply interruptions can occur for maintenance reasons or in regard to planned works undertaken by local authority staff or third party contractors on behalf of Irish Water. Unplanned interruptions can often be the result of a fault in the network, or related to a severe weather event, and are usually responded to in the first instance by the relevant local authority under the service level agreement with Irish Water.
Irish Water assures me that it makes every effort to deliver on its responsibilities and keeping such interruptions to a minimum to the extent possible, thus minimising the impact on its customers.
I assure Deputy Ellis that all Oireachtas Members and councillors use the public representatives’ service. I find it good but I take on board the points made in terms of it being a different way. It took a bit of getting used to from when we would make representations directly to a local authority. Generally, I find that any representations I make to Irish Water in regard to water or waste water infrastructure or emergency situations are good but there is always room for improvement in this regard.
I believe the original purpose of changing over to Irish Water and moving all services from local authorities was to privatise it. The people went out on the streets and stopped that. It now seems we are going to keep Irish Water in public ownership, which is right. However, it was already in public ownership with the local authorities. That was the best place for it to be.
That said, Irish Water is in place and I am outlining the problems we face as public representatives when dealing with Irish Water, as well as the problems residents encounter. In some cases, Irish Water fixed a fault, only for other houses to be knocked off the system through air locks and other faults. We must have a mechanism to deal with that. We cannot just turn around and say to people it is their responsibility. Many of these are senior citizens and pensioners, left with a large bill to sort out a problem that they never had before. It is just not good enough. We need to have better mechanisms. The handbook needs to be revisited with some of these issues. I have encountered it on a number of occasions. On a lot of occasions Irish Water has reacted reasonably well. However, there are many occasions where there has not been a proper reaction with people angry over it.
The residents to whom I spoke only this morning were fuming over what happened. They were not even given warnings. No one even sent a letter around from door to door, which to me would be the most sensible thing to do, especially for those with sick people at home. That would give them the opportunity to store water and be ready for a cut-off.
Deputy Ellis raised important points, particularly about sending out notifications and effective communication. Those points are important for Irish Water to take on board.
The Water Services Acts place specific responsibilities on the Minister and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, including responsibility for matters relevant to water policy, funding and in the making of regulations. The Water Services Acts also put in place a variety of legislative and regulatory controls to ensure governance, oversight and accountability regarding water services.
Irish Water is subject to significant regulation and oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, relating to environmental compliance and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, relating to economic regulation, including customer service. The Oireachtas also established the Water Advisory Body to report to the Oireachtas on Irish Water’s performance.
For example, regarding the major boil water notice arising from problems at the Leixlip water treatment plant in 2019, the CRU carried out an audit of the Irish Water response to check compliance with the standards laid down in the customer service handbooks. This audit is also available on the CRU website.
As I have outlined, Irish Water assures my Department that it makes every effort to deliver on its responsibilities, to keep service interruptions to the minimum extent possible, as well as to comply with its obligations under the customer service handbooks when communicating with customers.
I note the points made by Deputy Ellis. As I said, we can always improve on the communication and on the level of service provided to the public.
On the point raised about McKee Avenue, Finglas, I understand that the burst water main has now been repaired. It was probably the initial query brought forward by Deputy Ellis. I thank him for bringing this issue forward this evening.