Wednesday, 1 February 2012
Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages
This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 118, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad.
For the convenience of Senators I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of those amendments. There is also one amendment proposed by Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill and Fianna Fáil Senators to amendment No. 4 made by the Dáil. It was circulated yesterday on an additional list of amendments and it will be debated with amendment No. 4. I have also circulated the proposed grouping of amendments in the House. The Minister will deal separately with the subject matter of each related group of amendments. A Senator may contribute once on each grouping. I remind Senators that the only matter that may be discussed is the amendments made by the Dáil and any proposed amendments thereto.
The Government amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are being taken together. In amendment No. 1, in page 6, I am deleting lines 28 to 30. In response to requests made during the debate in both Houses, and initially in this House, I have accepted that it would not be appropriate to retain on a record to be made available to the public, details of prosecutions brought for non-compliance with the provisions of the Bill. I am therefore proposing that the original requirement in the Bill for water services authorities to enter details of prosecutions on the register is to be deleted. Amendment No. 2-----
I have indicated my observations on amendment No. 1 and the explanation for deleting those lines.
Amendment No. 2 states: "In page 6, line 32, "(h) such other" deleted and "(g) such other" substituted". The amendment is necessary to correct the format in light of the deletion of the Bill's original subsection (g). What was subsection (h) will now become subsection (g).
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire ar ais go dtí an Teach. I welcome the Minister back to the House. The specific amendments being proposed by the Minister relate to details of any prosecutions for an offence by the water services authority concerned. The deletion of those lines does not mean that the offences and penalties contained in section 70M of the principal Act are deleted from the legislation. The Minister is criminalising-----
Prosecutions will still issue irrespective. That will apply if a householder does not meet the required standard and we still do not know what that standard will be. There has been no clarification of the golden standard that the Minister will introduce. No one knows what it will be but we all presume it will be today's standard. According to legislation, it is the standard of today's water we need to keep clean. The Environmental Protection Agency is of the view that if it is the standard of today's water we need to keep clean that we will have to go with the most up-to-date standards, which have been accepted by the European Commission.
I welcome the deletion of the lines proposed because it is our view that the word "prosecution" or the word "offence" should not be contained in this legislation. Section 70M of the principal Act sets out all the offences and penalties contained in the legislation for non-compliance with whatever the new standard will be. The Minister might explain what the deletion of these lines will mean for a person who does not have the resources to bring his or her septic tank up to the required standard, or for a person who believes his or her tank meets the required standard on foot of having obtained planning permission and having adhered to the conditions that pertained to the planning approval for the house, or if any difficulty would arise for the person with a house built pre-1964, for which planning permission would not have been sought. The Minister might clarify the detail of what is being proposed before we proceed further.
Tá céad failte roimh an Aire leis an gceist tábhachtach seo a phlé. Mar atá a fhios aige, tá an cheist seo ag tarraingt cainte ar fud na tíre, go háirid na ciontaithe a bhéadh ag baint leis an mBille.
As the Minister is well aware, this issue has been the subject of a heated debate across the country. People are concerned about this Bill and are keeping a close eye on every change being made to it. I seek clarification in respect of the amendment proposed by the Government regarding the details of any prosecutions for an offence under this part brought by the water services authority concerned. Sinn Féin's stance on this is that prosecutions should not apply under this Bill. Does the amendment proposed mean that prosecutions will be brought against people who do not comply with the Act? If so, does it mean that such prosecutions will not be taken by the water services authority, or will they simply not be noted on the register? Is that what this amendment is about? If it is that they are not to be noted on the register, that is one issue, but if the water services authority concerned will not be taking any prosecutions or they will be taken by another party, the Minister might clarify that. There is a great degree of unease about potential sanctions under this Bill. People in rural Ireland are up in arms over the potential costs this Bill will impose on them.
Another major issue is that a person will have the right under the Bill to refuse an inspector admission on to his her land, but if the person does that, a prosecution could be brought against the person for that refusal. I am sure the Minister is well aware of all these fears. It does not appear that those issues have been addressed in any of the other amendments. The Minister might clarify what exactly is meant by this proposed amendment. Is what is proposed a deletion from the register or is it that the water services authority concerned will not be the body that will bring prosecutions, in which case it is not necessary for it to have that noted on the register?
This is a pointless amendment. In one sense it is good because it means the local authority is not doubling on information in that it is already on the public record. If one fails to comply with the legislation, if one commits the crime of adversely affecting the countryside or places of special interest, which is a crime under the legislation, in operating one's domestic waste water treatment plants-----
The Bill provides that the owner of a premises connected to a domestic waste water treatment system shall ensure the system does not constitute a risk to public health or the environment and, in particular, does not adversely affect the countryside. If one adversely affects the countryside in the operation of one's system, one is guilty of a crime. One's prosecution will be recorded as part of the soft information of the Garda Síochána and any conviction will be recorded on a criminal record. In fact, this section does absolutely nothing.
Paragraph (h), which will become (g), allows the EPA to put any other information as it might determine on the record. Presumably, it cannot put any prosecutions on the record but there is nothing to stop it from putting convictions on the record, if it wishes. This is pointless. It is a sop to rural Ireland to give the impression that the criminality under this legislation associated with ordinary people operating their ordinary systems is eliminated when, in fact, it is not. The Minister is not giving them any help to upgrade their systems so that they can comply with the law. All the Minister is doing is not requiring a local authority to do something that authorities will do anyway.
This information will be on the public record. It will be in newspapers because any prosecutions that are brought to court will be conducted in public. There was no need to do this. The legislation will still criminalise people. They will be expected to maintain standards under threat of criminal liability and those standards are very unclear and, in the case I outlined, very broad. There is no point in the Minister thinking that people are happy about this or that the anger has died down. I could not believe it the other day when I knocked on doors about a road project - people are still up in arms about this.
The Minister has said that the service does not know the standards. Does he suggest that the service is wrong?
That is one of the key problems with this. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service is independent of all of us and of the Government, and thank God for it. It has stated that this legislation could cost householders thousands, but the Minister and his party continue to ignore that. There must be some way of assuaging that concern in rural Ireland. My suggestion would remove the criminality aspect as well.
I was listening to that programme as well. The Senator should not try to turn his words. I was also in contact with Cavan County Council. Of the 11,000 tanks in Cavan that have been inspected, there has been an 89% pass rate. The man on "The Frontline" programme also said that the people of Cavan accepted the legislation.
Speaking to the amendment, which all of us should do, it removes the prosecution element from the register. It will not be on the register. However, the legal requirement to keep water safe is not a new requirement. It is not being introduced in this Bill for the first time. For anybody pollutes the ground water in their area there is already a law in place. That law is being implemented in this Bill. It is a fallacy to say it is a new law. The legal position, and it was the position when the Senator's party was in Government, is that if anybody pollutes ground water, they can, will and should be prosecuted.
I will address the amendment and the issue of criminality and prosecution. Senator Crown told us last week that if one drew a line from the German Embassy to the American Embassy, the line would run through his house. I do not live in the embassy belt but in Cremorgan, Timahoe. I am the proud owner of a septic tank and have been for 30 years. The reason half the country is covered in septic tanks is the failure of promises made over decades by Fianna Fáil Governments to put small schemes in place to address this issue. Nonetheless, where I come from every family has a septic tank, and I am more concerned with what happens in the countryside and in places such as Rathdowney and Timahoe than with what happens at climate change conferences in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto.
It is a criminal act, and is morally wrong, to pollute a neighbour's water.
Any right thinking person would maintain and moderate their septic tank to ensure it works properly to purpose. On an annual basis I and families in my area arrange for a technician to call. He charges between €100 and €150 to check and inspect the tank and, perhaps, change the filters or-----
I commend the Minister for mainstreaming genuine environmental issues and concerns and for protecting the water sources and courses in rural Ireland. I also commend the county manager in Cavan, Senator Wilson's county, for taking the initiative. There are 9,000 septic tanks in Cavan and 3,300 have already been inspected. Only 11% have been found to have any fault. There is no timebomb ready to go off. The people in Cavan are compliant of their own accord-----
There is no extra charge. In fact, it costs less under this scheme being introduced by the Minister, Deputy Hogan. It is a one-off charge to have one's tank registered. The Members on the other side told us that it would be an annual charge of €350-----
-----but the reality is that the conduct of Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív and other members of Fianna Fáil on this matter is a disgrace. A one-off registration charge, after which the local authority will inspect and advise the person about their tank, free of charge, is an absolute miracle in the circumstances. Not only does this comply with the EU court ruling, and if we do not comply with that ruling the country will be fined to the tune of €26,000 per day,-----
That is the motivation of Fianna Fáil. There is no fear low enough for Fianna Fáil to exploit. It brings no credit on this House for Fianna Fáil Members to stand up and not even understand the nature of legislation. We expect more from people.
It brings discredit on this House to score such blatant party points, play on the fears of ordinary decent people living in rural Ireland and then claim to have a monopoly of wisdom. It is dishonest and disgraceful. It is shameful to come into the House and undermine the reasonable level of debate we normally have here. They should be ashamed of themselves.
It is interesting that Members opposite are making the point that they have to pay for the maintenance of their septic tanks. In urban Ireland the council does all that. That is why people should be given grants by the Government. The Minister is talking about grants, but not about 100% grants. He has said that in 2013 the Government will see how many septic tanks are not in compliance and then review matters.
How much money has been spent by the Government on providing waste water treatment in urban Ireland? No one in urban Ireland ever had to pay towards it.
That is why Fianna Fáil are making the point that there should be a 100% grant. Householders received planning permission and installed septic tanks in accordance with the laws and regulations at the time, and now we are changing the laws and regulations.
I do not disagree with the need to upgrade septic tanks because we are polluting our own water supply. The Senator made that point very well. We need to have a good water supply. We all know of the cases in Galway and elsewhere in the country where there are boil water notices. The Fianna Fáil position is that if someone has to take out a waste water treatment unit in their own back garden, they should get a 100% grant for that. That person complied with the law of the land at the time and did nothing wrong. Now we are going to tell people in rural Ireland that they must spend €1,700, €5,000 or €10,000 to put in a new treatment unit because the existing one is not compliant. We all know of planning authorities who are refusing planning permission because the ground will not take even the best waste water treatment plant available.
If planning permission is refused in one field and there is a house in the next field which has the same soil, that house will fail even the 2012 standard. If that house's septic tank was put in 30 years ago, it is going to fail the standard.
This is the problem. As my colleagues have pointed out, we are being sold a pig in a poke. The Minister must decide the standards and we do not know what they are. His officials know but we do not. That is why we are asking for them to be published. I know the Minister is conducting a review, but the matter should be brought back to the House in order that we can debate it.
Let us suppose a householder is told to install the best standard available. I return to the example of the two fields in Kerry where one neighbour is refused planning permission but the other has had a septic tank for the past 30 years and is told to install a new one.
I will finish on this point. It would be very interesting for the people of rural Ireland to know how much money we gave towards waste water treatment units throughout the country. Could a percentage of the hundreds of millions of euro spent on that not be spent on upgrading septic tanks? Those systems were funded from income tax, development levies and other taxes. People who are now being asked to replace their septic tanks should get a 100% grant. That is fairness. The Revenue Commissioners say any tax law will be followed so long as there is fairness. The problem with this measure is that there is not fairness.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. I would like to clarify a particular point. A reference was made which, although it is not relevant to this section, should be clarified. The Minister referred to the Cavan model. It has been mentioned in the Dáil and by the Minister on radio and television programmes and throughout the country. The Cavan model is, indeed, an excellent one. It has worked well in Cavan and is still doing so. I was a member of Cavan County Council when the regulations were brought in. Cavan was exempt from the recent European Court of Justice ruling because we had taken the initiative and brought in our own guidelines. They have worked and are working. As a result, Cavan County Council has been able to grant planning permission where otherwise we would not have been able to do so.
When the Bill comes into effect, the so-called Cavan model will go out the window, so to speak. We understand the new departmental guidelines will be totally different from the current Cavan guidelines. If that is the case, and I await the Minister's reply on this, the Cavan model will cease to exist and planning permissions will cease to be granted in Cavan and other counties. We ask the Minister for clarification on this point. What guidelines will the Minister use and why is it necessary to introduce new fines relating to the pollution Act when the existing fines are adequate?
Inspections will visit upon people who are already in difficult economic circumstances the need to carry out necessary work. I say "necessary" because if the work is necessary, it should be carried out. However, if the work is necessary and householders cannot afford to carry it out, a grant should be available to assist them. We are not saying that if a septic tank is found to be polluting, it should not be rectified. Of course it should. Anyone who suggests otherwise should be locked up, in my opinion. However, a grant should be provided to allow those who could not otherwise afford to do so to rectify the situation.
Further clarification is required on the matter of the legislation if grants are not to be provided. If an inspection is carried out which finds that work needs to be done and the owner of the septic tank cannot afford to have it done, is the local authority compelled to carry out the work and then seek to be refunded? Where will the local authority be refunded from? People in rural Ireland are finding it difficult enough and very few could afford to pay €18,000 or €20,000 to rectify a septic tank. In the absence of grant aid I see no alternative to local authorities having to carry out the work and seeking the money from the Department. I ask for clarification of some of these points.
Once again, I advise Members that we are dealing with a specific amendment. On reading all the amendments which have been grouped together, it is the Chair's opinion that many of the contributions made so far could be made on other amendments. The amendment under discussion has to do with prosecutions, fines and criminal offences as against civil offences. I mention this in the interests of seeking brevity and also to allow the Minister to respond to the legitimate questions raised. The Chair is of the opinion that much of what has been asked so far does not necessarily come under the amendment under discussion. I am only advising Members that they need to look at the amendments and to be specific in their contributions in the interests of seeking clarification for which everyone is calling and which the Minister is very happy to provide.
We are talking about the contributions we made in this House. The Minister might recall the very lengthy debates on the issue of prosecutions and the criminalising of people living in rural Ireland. With respect, it is impossible to deal with the content of the amendment and the issue of prosecutions and fines without dealing with two substantive issues - standards which have not been set and grant aid in terms of what financial supports will be provided. Therefore, we should be given some latitude because there are many-----
I accept that. I also accept that we should only speak to the amendment before the House. However, my point is that a number of Government representatives have spoken about scaremongering. I have been consistent at any public meeting I have attended in that I have stuck to the facts. The €50 charge is a one-off charge and there is no re-registration fee. However, people are concerned that things can change. Up and down the country at any meeting I have held - I have held a number across the State-----
In fact, the real issue is not necessarily what the Opposition parties are doing but rather that the Government has not been clear on what the standards will be. It has also not been clear on what grant supports will be available. What goes to the heart of the issue - this is the reason I have opposed prosecutions and fines - is equality. My house is hooked up to a mains system. I will give credit to the previous Government for spending €300 million on a new waste water treatment service for the south east-----
-----which provides an excellent service for Waterford city, parts of south Kilkenny and Wexford. It was a significant investment in upgrading the system at a cost of €300 million. All taxpayers, including those who live in rural Ireland, paid for the system as well as that in other urban areas to be upgraded, yet if the Minister introduces new guidelines and as a consequence, septic tanks have to be remediated, we are saying to people living in rural Ireland that if there is something wrong with their systems, they will have to pay for the work themselves. This amounts to inequality.
While I fully accept that the Minister has an obligation under the European directive and as a result of the European Court judgment - we have indicated our support for registration and inspection - I reiterate that ground water must be protected. My party has asked the Minister to examine the issue of standards and we await his proposals. We have also asked him to consider adopting a risk-based approach to inspections in order that septic tanks located close to public water supplies and lakes and rivers would be the primary focus for inspections.
That is what I hope will happen. People living in rural Ireland have a fear that while this might be the case now, there is a real danger that at some point the European Union may force the Government to change the standards again. The Minister will then come back, wash his hands of the matter and say it is not his fault but that of the Europeand Union that the standards have to be changed again. In that event, people will be required to upgrade their systems at huge personal cost.
I will finish on this point because I want to confine my remarks to the subject of the amendment. Sinn Féin welcomes the fact that the Minister has come some of the way, but we are very concerned that some people who may be asked to upgrade and remediate their systems and who will not be financially able to do so could end up being prosecuted in court and having a criminal record. This would be unfair. As such, the provision should be re-examined by the Minister. This will be his last opportunity to do so.
The Minister mentioned the absence of public meetings in Kilkenny. I am sure he is getting it in the neck from people living in rural areas. If he says this is not the case, he must not be out in his constituency because a lot of the people I have met in Kilkenny and elsewhere are very concerned-----
Hundreds of people are turning up at the public meetings being organised in small towns and villages up and down the country because they are concerned about the implications of the Bill and do not want people living in rural Ireland to be criminalised.
We will have a debate in Carroll's in Knocktopher where the Senator lives. We have strayed a little from the amendment. I presume the Acting Chairman will give me latitude to stray a little also.
I will deal with that issue. Fianna Fáil Senators should be aware of the penalties provided for in the 2007 Act which was brought forward by their party. The penalties are five years in prison and fines of up to €15 million-----
This legislation does not provide for imprisonment. The Senator is confusing it with the legislation brought forward by his party.
Senator Byrne is operating on the basis that we should not comply with a court judgment. Ireland has lost a court case owing to the negligence of the previous Government to make a good case, with the exception of the Cavan model. Even with the best legal advice and the alleged great negotiators in the then Government, the case was defeated in October 2009 in the European Court of Justice. Now the Senator wants us to operate on the basis that this judgment has not been made and states we should neither comply with the ruling of the European Court of Justice nor the law. He wants Ireland to break the law and face a fine of €26,000 a day, to be clocked up from October 2009, when the previous Government lost the case. The fines to the present day would amount to about €20 million which he wants all taxpayers to pay, but I am not prepared to agree with this.
Fianna Fáil is also against the introduction of provisions to protect groundwater, public health and the environment. That is the implication of what the Senators propose. They have a brass neck to even raise the issue. To be fair to Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, he accepted on Committee Stage in the Dáil that it was necessary to provide for offences. I, therefore, suggest the Senators speak to him in order that they will be consistent about Fianna Fáil party policy in this regard.
In response to Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, while the legislation will introduce offences where a person fails to meet its requirements, a request to provide a valid certificate of registration or contravenes the requirements of an advisory notice, I am satisfied that the proposed penalties are proportionate and fair. There has been scaremongering in recent months about the legislation, including in the Senator's own area. It has been suggested armies of inspectors will descend on the countryside, even though I have already stated local authority staff will be the inspectors. The Bill and the new inspection system will not alleviate or deal with any of the scenarios trotted out. I know it makes a good political story, but I ask what system is in place in Northern Ireland, in which Sinn Féin is involved. What system has been introduced and what is it costing each householder? The cost is €150 and one gets one free desludge. Fianna Fáil say we should not bother to do this.
Please allow me to read from A Renewed Programme for Government agreed between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party on 10 October 2009. Page 24 of that document reads: "We will introduce a scheme for the licensing and inspection of septic tanks and wastewater treatment systems."
The House will be satisfied to hear the information I have available to me on what the previous Government intended to do. I came across a brief regarding septic tanks and other onsite waste water systems on the file dated October 2010. A Renewed Programme for Government agreed on 10 October 2009 includes a commitment to introduce a scheme for the licensing and inspection of septic tanks and waste water treatment systems. On 29 October 2009 the European Court of Justice ruled against Ireland in relation to the disposal of waste water from septic tanks and the ECJ ruling highlights deficiencies in the existing Irish legislation. Therefore, we need the legislation. There is a legal obligation on Ireland to address the ruling which will require new legislation to be brought forward to provide for the setting of standards for the performance and operation of septic tanks and other onsite waste water treatment systems, and the monitoring and inspection of the performance of such treatment systems.
That is what Fianna Fáil intended to do. It wanted to introduce a universal inspection of all septic tanks. It wanted an annual inspection charge of €300 and to implement the 2009 EPA code of practice in respect of septic tanks.
I repeat for Senators Ó Domhnaill and Ó Clochartaigh that the 2009 EPA code of practice standards will not be implemented in respect of this legislation, which I have said on several occasions.
It will be a risk-based assessment, as I said on Second Stage, which Senator Cullinane has obviously forgotten. It will deal, in the first instance, with rivers, lakes and streams. We want to protect the people in rural areas in regard to public health and water supply, but obviously Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil do not. I have listened carefully to all the nonsense. Members opposite are against public health and the environment but are in favour of ground water contamination because they are a failure.
To be fair to Senator Diarmuid Wilson, he rightly articulated the position in regard to Cavan. That is why Cavan was not included in the judgment. We looked at the Cavan situation very carefully and the reason we opposed it is that Cavan is introducing by-laws and 100% inspections. It is introducing an inspection paid for by the householder, and -----
Everything is paid for by the householder in Cavan to comply with the by-laws. There is no grants system in place. Based on the experience with inspections in County Cavan, the majority of systems inspected are working well. The failure rate was 11%. Is that correct?
It is expected that only a minority of systems inspected will require remediation, upgrade or replacement. I have said at all times that once the inspections are carried out on a risk-based basis we will establish whether there is financial hardship and we will then be able to assist people. However, I will not buy a pig in a poke, we have had enough of that in the past with blank cheques being written by Fianna Fáil. I will not go down that road. That is the reason the country is in the present state.
Senator Daly referred to discrimination against rural dwellers. Rural dwellers do not pay development charges for the purpose of connecting to water or sewerage systems because they do not have them.
Therefore, they are taken into account. In the scheme in Kilkenny and in other areas of which I am aware - I do not know about Donegal - it is a matter for the local authority members.
I advise the House, particularly the Opposition, that it has tabled several other amendments and there is a limited amount of time. In the opinion of the Chair, there will be an opportunity to respond to the points raised by the Minister. I remind Members that they cannot raise a point of order when the Minister is answering questions.
The development fees charged by planning authorities to developers include charges for connection to drinking water supply, the public sewers and municipal waste water treatment plants. These fees are part of the purchase price in urban areas or in areas where the public supply is paid for by the purchaser. Where connection to a public water supply or a public sewer is not possible the appropriate deductions are made in respect of those individuals.
In addition, I commend the previous Government on the fact that from 2006 to 2011, inclusive, €500,000 was spent in rural areas to help people deal with connections to public supplies but also group water schemes and group sewerage schemes. They will continue under the rural water programme. If one had a problem in regard to a well, a grant is available to replace the pump or get another well up to €2,000 or 75% of the cost. That recognises there are difficulties in rural areas that do not exist in urban areas. I have made it clear in urban areas that where there is a public supply in 2014, people will be charged by meter. That relates to public supply only and will not apply to people in rural areas who have a private supply. That is unlike what Sinn Féin has said at some meeting, particularly Deputy Martin Ferris, to the effect that a charge would apply to private wells. That is not the case and will not be the case. People who are providing their own water, at their own expense, will not be have a charge imposed on them by the State. However, if they wish to connect to a public supply, obviously there is a connection charge which is applicable in all local authority areas.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to put on record some of the hypocrisy that has taken place on the issue. It is not well founded given the information I have just given to the House. I am taking an unprecedented step of publishing the regulations for a four-week consultation period and will not commence the Bill until such time as they are approved by the Oireachtas. That has never happened before under any previous Minister. In order to allay public concerns and the fears that have been expressed arising from the misinformation, I am glad to say the public meetings will be well attended and the people will get the truth.
With this amendment, on page 6, line 47, "within ten days" has been deleted and we are substituting "within 20 working days." There will be ample time for owners-----
Fair enough. With this amendment, on page 6, line 47, "within ten days" has been deleted and we are substituting "within 20 working days." There will be ample time for owners to register their systems with the water services authority. I envisage that will be within 12 months of enactment of this legislation. Having listened to the debate regarding the time to be allowed for production of a valid registration certificate, I am prepared to change ten working days to 20 working days to allay people's fears. Senator Ó Clochartaigh mentioned people in holiday homes in the west of Ireland, which is a valid point. Senator Ó Domhnaill mentioned that as well. I consider this to be a reasonable and fair period.
People want to have some certainty with regard to what is wrong with their septic tank, and they want a reply from the local authority fairly quickly if there is a problem. They do not want to worry for a long period, and 20 working days is a reasonable period to alert people to the fact that an inspector is to arrive. Equally, people wish to be told fairly quickly if there is a problem so they can address it.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an leasú seo. D'iarr muid go gcuirfí é chun cinn. Tá díomá orm nach bhfuil i gceist ach 20 lá. Sílim go bhféadfadh fadhbanna eascairt as sin i gcás duine atá as baile, srl. Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil oiread laethanta i gceist. Mhol muid go mbeadh ar a laghad mí nó mar sin i gceist. Glacaim leis go bhfuil an Aire ag dul píosa den bhealach. I welcome this amendment, which we called for and for which we made a logical argument. The Minister might find that some people might have a difficulty with the 20 days, especially if they were away.
I appreciate that but there could still be issues. With regard to the Connemara people and others who will be subject to the implications of the Bill, we have said from day one that they want to comply with legislation and they want clean water, contrary to what has been said by the Minister on the record. He spoke a complete untruth earlier. I speak for Sinn Féin, which is totally in favour of clean water and a fair system. I would correct the record if the Minister is not clear on it. We had the debates in the Seanad over 18 hours when it was said repeatedly that we are in favour of clean water. I appreciate that the Minister has gone a little way on this measure but it is a shame he did not take on board some of the other very practical and constructive arguments put forward in the debate.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an leasú seo. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht glacadh leis. D'aontaigh mé leis nuair a chuir an Seanadóir Ó Clochartaigh é síos roimhe seo. Taispeánann sé an riachtanas atá leis an Seanad, os rud é gur ghlac an Aire leis an leasú. Good amendments can be made in the Seanad to Bills. I supported this amendment when it was put forward by Senator Ó Clochartaigh and I welcome its acceptance by the Minister.
I acknowledge that the Minister has extended the time from ten to 20 days. During the course of the debate we sought to have the time extended as well. I agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh that it was disingenuous of the Minister to single-handedly accuse both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil of not wanting to protect the public water courses. Considering the record of this House and the Dáil, the Minister would clearly see that the amendments - certainly from my own party - were geared to protecting the water courses, although we would achieve it a different way, ensuring that standards would be published before legislation is enacted. We are approving legislation affecting septic tank owners but the Minister will have a consultation and bring in his own standards anyway.
The Minister may use the 2009 standards, although he has indicated on numerous occasions that he will use the Phil Hogan standard. I can assure the Minister of what will happen if that occurs, and he knows exactly what will happen. An Taisce and environmental groups will go straight to the European Commission in Brussels, and Ireland will be brought to court again because we would not be in compliance with the current standards, as set down by the European Commission in 2007 and accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency guidelines in 2009. People from An Taisce will be listening to every word being said in both Houses. They may have accused me of going too far but I will not apologise to An Taisce because it has tried to close down rural Ireland on many occasions by objecting to An Bord Pleanála. It does some excellent work but its efforts in objecting to planning permissions for young local couples goes beyond the call of duty.
There is talk of this being unprecedented. The wetlands regulations were introduced on 8 September last year and then public consultation was initiated for four weeks; that was after the signing of the regulations. How can we stand here and accept that a Minister will bring in a regulation when the consultation in that case came after signing the regulation into effect?
With regard to the specific amendment, I welcome that the provision for a ten-day period will be changed to 20 days. Accusations were made from the Government side of the House that Fianna Fáil brought in certain offences and penalties in the 2007 Act. It was geared towards massive and widespread industrial pollution, dealing with a specific case in County Wicklow.
Those fines were imposed in 2007. That principal Act did not introduce the penalties referred to in this section. The Minister is changing the provision where a person fails to comply with a request under subsection (11) within ten days. That is being increased to 20 days but if people do not comply, they face a class A fine under section 70B(12) for not being able to provide a valid registration certificate for a septic tank. That was not introduced by the previous Government but is being introduced by this Minister. This means, in effect, that people can be fined up to €5,000 for not being able to produce a valid certification within the 20 days. That is wrong. I appreciate that people must be penalised for polluting the environment but we are in very straitened times.
The Senator has changed his mind. He was against the penalties about a half an hour ago. He was against the criminalisation process and Senator Byrne stated there should be no prosecutions.
I was consistent in my view when the Bill was in this House a number of weeks ago and prior to Christmas. This legislation should be incentive-based rather than with a basis in criminalisation. If the Minister wanted to incentivise the legislation, why did he not publish the details on grant aid and standards? Why does he not seek buy-in from rural Ireland? The people would follow the Minister if he went with an incentive-based scheme.
People will have the household charge of €100 and rural households will also have the €50 charge. The issue is not about the €50 or €20 for registration but rather the financial assessments that went with the legislation and were published by the Department. They categorically outline how this process could cost householders up to €17,000 to bring a septic tank up to standard. Those figures do not come from me but from the Minister's Department.
That is where the crux of the issue lies. That is all I have to say. I wish to make the point on criminality, which is staring people in the face if we go down this road.
We will publish standards and provide for a grant scheme. The Minister has taken the ruling of the European Court of Justice and the directive and lazily copied language from it, which the Government is not required to do. It is required to specify cases in which people would be guilty of non-compliance. The Minister has taken a general provision from a European directive-----
The Government Members think this is funny. It will be funny at the next election because they were the champions of rural Ireland. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, in my constituency spoke in favour of stag hunting. He said that is what rural Ireland is about. Now the Government is closing small schools and introducing septic tank charges.
It called for a system of registration and exempted County Cavan from the legislation. Many members of the Government seem to be completely ignorant of the facts because they say it all goes back to 1975. In the court case in Europe the Cavan situation was one of the defences put forward by the Government along with planning permission and general environmental regulation. Many arguments were put forward and one of them was successful, namely, the Cavan precedent.
For the benefit of Senator Byrne, as a legal man I am surprised he does not understand legislation and what we have to do to comply with a European Court of Justice judgment. He is advocating that we should pay €26,000 a day and €20 million in fines for non-compliance.
I draw Senator Byrne's attention to article 4 of the judgment which specifies that member states shall take the necessary measures to ensure that waste is recovered or disposed of without endangering human health and without using processes or methods which could harm the environment and, in particular, without risk to water, air, soil, plants and animals and without causing a nuisance through odours or noise, without adversely affecting the countryside or places of special interest. In the judgment this country is explicitly in the dock and we must file our defence by next Friday. If we do not file our defence we will be paying those fines.
In paragraph 47 of the judgment, as the Commission points out, Ireland admitted in court to not having expressly and specifically transposed Council Directive 75/442/EEC on waste water and submitted that Irish law as a whole ensures compliance with all obligations arising in that directive. We submitted that we were not in compliance with the directive on ground water and contamination and now we have legislation, which is our defence, which must be filed by next Friday. Hence, the urgency of the legislation, in order to ensure that we do not have fines clocking up. Fines may still be imposed upon us by the court. We do not know, but we have no chance of mitigating those fines with the attitude taken by some Senators that we should not bother rushing the legislation. We must file a defence by 3 February.
If everyone on that side of the House knew as much then as they know now I am sure we would have a different country. An Taisce has issued a statement welcoming the legislation.
I remind Senator Ó Domhnaill that under the 2007 Act, which is the principal Act, fines for section 70 in the Bill which relate to owners of system are set out in section 8(4) and the legislation specifies fines of up to €15 million and-or five years imprisonment.
The subject of group 3 amendments is the inspection of domestic waste water treatment systems. It is the subject matter of amendment No. 4 and the amendment thereto. I invite the Minister to explain the group 3 amendments to the House.
The amendment states:
In page 12, lines 5 to 8 deleted and the following substituted:
"70H.—(1) (a) An inspector shall inspect such domestic waste water treatment systems as he or she is directed by the Agency, or a water services authority, to inspect.
(b) The Agency or a water services authority shall notify in writing the owner of a premises connected to a domestic waste water treatment system of a proposed inspection at least 10 working days before such inspection.".
We have dealt with amendment No. 3 which means that we must deal with No. 4 in this fashion, which has a consequence arising from amendment No. 3. I propose the amendment in order to ensure that householders receive adequate notice of the inspection of their on-site waste water treatment systems. Section 70H(1)(b) was not previously included in the Bill.
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 4:
To delete lines 1 to 6 inclusive of the Government amendment and substitute the following:
"70H.--(1) An Inspector shall inspect such domestic waste water treatments but not without the authority of a warrant issued by a judge of the District Court or without the prior written consent of the individual.".
I thank the Minister for tabling the amendment as it is something which we sought. I support the Minister's change in that ten days notice will be given. We called for that on Second Stage and we tabled a number of amendments on the issue. It is important to acknowledge that the Minister has changed his position and taken on board a number of the practical suggestions made by the Opposition parties. It brings me back to the start of the debate when we called for such measures as a proper registration system and a fair inspection system with notice given. The Minister has moved on that. We called for a risk-based approach. The Minister has said he is in favour of that. We called for grant aid. We do not know the detail but the Minister has indicated he will look at that.
It is outrageous for the Minister to suggest, that when one looks at the track record of my party on the issue and what we have sought in this House and in the Dáil, that we are not in favour of protecting ground water. That must be put on record because we have stated over and over again that we have no difficulty with inspections.
We have no difficulty whatsoever. We are as clear as the water that I hope will come from all of the septic tanks across the country. We have been absolutely crystal clear on this issue right from the start. We have been crystal clear on this issue right from the start. Rewind to the start of the debate and listen to our comments. It is great that the Minister is finally getting closer to the Sinn Féin position. We are getting there.
According to the legislation, the inspectors will be appointed by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, which would make it a case of private inspectors calling out to inspect waste water treatment systems. Until such time as the maintenance standards are published, we cannot allow an army of inspectors to inspect registered septic tanks. It is ludicrous, given the inspectors' powers to examine systems and carry out soil tests, surveys and excavations.
We do not know what we are dealing with in terms of the standards to which the Minister referred. He must be in cahoots with An Taisce as regards the standards. Maybe An Taisce knows more than we do.
The Minister is probably trying to get the green vote in County Kilkenny. It has no Green Deputy. That is probably a good move. Until such time as the standards are published and everyone knows what we are dealing with, we cannot allow a situation in which inspectors are allowed onto property without the owners' written consent or warrants from the District Court.
I fail to understand why the Minister and Fine Gael and Labour Party Deputies did not allow the EPA, the Irish Rural Dwellers Association and other interested stakeholders to make a presentation to the Select Sub-Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government during the debate. Senators were not allowed to attend. The request to hold a discussion with the stakeholders was voted down by Government Deputies. What is the Government trying to hide?
-----but we are not getting any information. We are being told that standards will be introduced, they will be fine and no one need worry about anything. The fact of the matter is that we have not seen the standards or the maintenance plans to which people must adhere, yet inspectors will be allowed to conduct selective inspections. Does this mean that some or all septic tanks will be inspected?
We will press the amendment because we cannot accept inspectors with statutory powers carrying out inspections and forcing people to upgrade to standards that no one in this room bar the Minister and his officials knows. We have not seen them, yet Senators will vote for the legislation based on the Minister's assurances. Quite frankly, those assurances do not wash with me.
As it is now 1.15 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Seanad of the day: "That the amendment to amendment No. 4 is hereby negatived, that Fourth Stage is hereby completed, the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and the Bill is hereby passed."
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 31 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Fiach MacConghail, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan)
Against the motion: 19 (Thomas Byrne, John Crown, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Darragh O'Brien, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Averil Power, Feargal Quinn, Kathryn Reilly, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe; Níl, Senators Paschal Mooney and Diarmuid Wilson.
Question declared carried.