Friday, 19 December 2014
Water Services Bill 2014: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government back to the House on this sunny morning. I hope we are all of a sunny disposition this morning.
In page 4, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following:“Plebiscite on the dissolution of Irish Water
2. (1) Where the Government has 90 days from the enactment of this Act to cause the initiation in either House of the Oireachtas of proposed legislation to allow the alienation of the shares in Irish Water issued under section 5(4) of the Water Services Act 2013 to the Minister and the Minister for Finance or the share in Irish Water issued to Ervia, where it is proposed to transfer that share to either the Minister or the Minister for Finance for such purposes of the dissolution of Irish Water, such proposed legislation shall be initiated by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government by—(a) a Resolution of each House of the Oireachtas passed approving the alienation, and(2) Whenever Resolutions are passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in respect of the proposal referred to in subsection (1), the Minister may by order appoint the day upon which and during which the poll at the Plebiscite on the proposal shall be held.
(b) if such Resolutions are passed, the proposal of the dissolution of Irish Water may, if the Government decides to proceed with the proposal, be submitted by Plebiscite to the decision of the People, and if, consequent upon the proposal having been submitted to the People by Plebiscite, a majority of the votes cast in the Plebiscite shall have been cast in favour of the proposal, legislation may (if the Government so decides) be initiated by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government in either House of the Oireachtas in respect of the proposal.
(3) An order under subsection (2) shall be published in the Iris Oifigiúil.
(4) On such Resolutions being passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Clerk of the Dáil shall immediately inform the Minister accordingly.
(5) A person who has the right to vote at a referendum on a proposal for an amendment of the Constitution shall have the right to vote in the Plebiscite.
(6) The Plebiscite shall—(a) put a proposal for a decision of those persons entitled to vote in the Plebiscite as to whether the Government may, if it wishes to, cause the initiation of legislation as referred to in subsection (1), and(7) The Minister shall publish details of the proposal and the reasons for it to be submitted to the people in the Plebiscite not later than 30 days before the day fixed as the polling day for the Plebiscite.
(b) be held in accordance with regulations made by the Minister providing for the holding of the Plebiscite and for other requirements and arrangements that will apply in relation to the Plebiscite.
(8) The Minister or the Minister for Finance have an obligation to ensure the orderly alienation of Irish Water and to provide an audit statement on the financial and operational state of Irish Water to each House of the Oireachtas.
(9) Following the alienation of Irish Water to the Minister or Minister for Finance the responsibilities and powers of Irish Water will devolve, within 180 days from the day fixed as the polling day for the Plebiscite, to the Local Authorities as enumerated by the Minister.
(10) No punitive actions to a dwelling, such as the reduction or cessation of water services on a temporary or ongoing basis, will be permitted by Irish Water or Local Authorities.
(11) Tenancy agreements will not be subject to change as a result of this legislation. Landlords cannot take punitive actions against residents on behalf of Irish Water with respect to a charge by Irish Water that in respect of a dwelling being wholly or partly unpaid.
(12) In this section “Plebiscite” means the Plebiscite to which subsection (1)(b) refers.”.
This amendment is on the plebiscite for the dissolution of Irish Water. This has been a matter of contention outside of the House. There is a substantial amount of agreement between me and the Minister on the avoidance of the privatisation of the utility. We all interpret that as the wish of the people.
The amendment’s purpose is to allow for the alienation of the shares in Irish Water currently held by Ervia. The presence of shares vested in Ervia is where the problem has arisen with the concerns about privatisation. I want these shares to be transferred to the Minister for Finance. Accordingly, this amendment is a stronger protection in the common goal I share with the Minister to prevent the privatisation of Irish Water. The shares are the vehicle through which this fear of privatisation exists. If we put them firmly in the provenance of the Minister for Finance, it will afford a protection against the shares’ sale.
Nationalisation of the sector is the defence against its privatisation. By having Ervia removed, the amendment would allow the Minister for Finance to reallocate its functions to the local authorities. This would allow a different set-up than heretofore. Having listened to the debate, I am aware of some local authority areas that had bad records in water wastage and others with good records. Perhaps we have not given credit to the latter. We should look more at the good performing local authorities and county engineers.
As water service provision will involve, for now and the foreseeable future, taxpayer funding as well as funding from charges, the amendment proposes no punitive actions against dwellings where, or tenants whose, charges have not been wholly or partly paid, as it involves general taxpayers.
Appreciating as we do that public opinion is so strongly against privatisation of Irish Water, alienating those shares from Ervia to the Minister for Finance, essentially nationalising the company, would be a belt-and-braces approach to what the Minister also wishes to achieve, namely, the protection of Irish Water from privatisation in the future through the mechanism of a plebiscite.
The amendment allows the possibility of reconfiguring water services in whichever form the Minister wishes, stresses the role of local authorities, which have a good record on wastewater services - the measure used in the McLoughlin report on non-performing water authorities - and recognises that people will still make substantial payments for water through general taxation. This is an obstacle to cutting off people's water supply, which the Minister and I both oppose. I table the amendment in the spirit of being of assistance to the House and Minister.
I strongly support the amendment tabled by my colleague, Senator Barrett. It is notable that it is the only one of the first four amendments to have survived, with the other three ruled out of order because they make reference to referendums, which is precluded under the Constitution. There is no reason the Seanad should not be able to move an amendment on a referendum. That is what the House is about. I am aware that it was not the current Government but Mr. de Valera who created the Constitution. As I pointed out some time ago-----
Not at all. It is the season of goodwill, jolly ho-ho, rum, raisins, holly berries, mistletoe and the rest of that jazz.
A previous Minister - I cannot remember which one - took up very strongly my point that it is idiotic that Members of the Seanad and Dáil cannot move a resolution that creates a charge on the Exchequer. I urge the Government to examine this issue. Given its taste for holding referendums, it should hold a referendum on the matter.
In any case, I congratulate Senator Barrett on negotiating the line between a referendum and a plebiscite. What he has produced is a plebiscite which has all the characteristics of a referendum. Well done to him.
The amendment will also be a test for the Senators who I would describe as the "Enda-pendents", although I note that two of the Independent Senators who are taking an interest in proceedings voted with their consciences despite having been nominated by the Taoiseach. I pay tribute to them for exercising their consciences and wish their approach extended to their fellows.
The most important elements of the proposed new section are subsections 8 to 11, inclusive. Subsection 12, the final subsection, is simply a definition. Subsection (8) reads as follows: "The Minister or the Minister for Finance have an obligation to ensure the orderly alienation of Irish Water and to provide an audit statement on the financial and operational state of Irish Water to each House of the Oireachtas." The lack of prudent financial oversight is one of the reasons for the current mess. This provision would at least give us a glimpse at the figures and a definitive statement, in as far as that is possible. This welcome proposal should be implemented in any case and notwithstanding any alienation of Irish Water. The company should be required to make an annual statement on its financial state.
Subsection (9) proposes that the powers of Irish Water be returned to the local authorities. I hope this will also mean shedding the additional Irish Water staff. There is no point in shovelling a load of people down to rural Ireland and having them on the payroll when they are doing sweet damn all.
Subsection (10) provides that no punitive actions, such as the reduction or cessation of water services, are to be taken on households. The Minister has been firm and convincing on this issue. As I stated yesterday, he was handed a poisoned chalice and I cannot imagine why he accepted it because he is heading straight for the graveyard, although he does so with insouciance and a smile on his face.
I compliment him on stating from his first day as Minister that there will not be any reduction in or cessation of the supply of water to dwellings or individuals. Not only is it outrageous, in a democracy, to cut off a person's water supply, but it is also outrageous to cut off someone's gas or electricity supply, particularly given the parlous state of the country.
Subsection (11) prohibits landlords from taking punitive actions against residents. Landlords should not be required to become involved in this matter. It is up to legal tenants to make whatever arrangements they please with Irish Water. I strongly support this crucial amendment, on which I hope we have the numbers to defeat the Government.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I expect the House will discuss the Bill for some time today and on Monday and I hope we will have constructive debates on the amendments and sections.
While I accept that the fault does not lie with the Government, it is still outrageous that a number of amendments on the section have been ruled out of order and that Senators must confine their remarks to Senator Barrett's amendment. All amendments tabled by Senators Craughwell, Zappone, Mary Ann O'Brien, James Heffernan, Healy Eames, Ó Clochartaigh, Reilly and me, which provided for a constitutional amendment, have been ruled out of order. While Senators are precluded from tabling proposals that provide for a constitutional amendment, the Government has the right to initiate a constitutional amendment on this issue. Instead of exercising that right, as it should have done, it chose to provide, in section 2, for the possibility of holding a plebiscite on the ownership of Irish Water. As Senators pointed out in the Second Stage debate yesterday, the plebiscite promised by the Government is not worth the paper on which it is written. The previous two water services Acts are being amended by this legislation, making it the third Bill on water services. If a Government decides in future that it wants to privatise or sell off parts of Irish Water - full privatisation is not necessary, as we can see from the ESB case - it need only introduce amending legislation to delete section 2. The promise that has bought off some Independent Senators would then vanish.
The position is comparable to that of a Government promising to insert in legislation a provision that it will not reduce child benefit. All it would have to do to break its promise is specify a child benefit rate in a social welfare Bill and produce amending legislation the following year to reduce the rate. These types of commitment are not worth the paper they are written on, and the commitment to hold a plebiscite on Irish Water is a charade. The Government and a number of Independent Senators are engaged in a little choreography on this issue.
I support the amendment and would like the Government to hold a constitutional referendum on the issue. Why is the Minister preventing such a referendum? Why is the Government refusing to let people have their say now? What is the difficulty with holding a constitutional referendum? I remind all the Independent and Labour Party Senators that, not so long ago, they voted for a Seanad motion that called specifically for a constitutional referendum on the ownership of water. That motion has not been vindicated in the Bill and, as such, the logic of their position does not stack up. If they wanted to be true to the motion passed by the House, they would vote against section 2.
As the Minister is aware, there are a range of opinions on Irish Water and water charges. I accept that some people do not mind paying for water and believe it is good to do so. I also expect the Minister to accept that some people have difficulty with the idea of paying for water twice and the charges element of water provision. As the Leader has stated on the Order of Business on several occasions, all political parties are against the privatisation of the water service. Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have all expressed opposition to privatisation.
I am not sure whether any of the Independent Senators have. I hope most, or all, of them are against the privatisation of water. If the political system, in its entirety, is at one on this issue, why can we not have a conditional referendum?
We will have a number of them in May next year. We could also have one on this issue. Nothing is stopping the Minister or Government from doing that. It adds to the confusion for people. Why is the Government not committing to that? Why are we simply putting something in a Bill which, the Minister would have to concede, can be reversed, deleted, amended, taken out or dispensed with if a Government was minded to privatise water services?
The Government also said it has no intention of privatising water. People have experience of other public services, which were once paid for through progressive taxation, as water was, and were delivered as a right. One paid ones taxes and one's water was provided. We are now changing that to a system of water charges and the so-called "polluter pays" principle.
We had the same arguments about waste collection. When bin charges were first introduced in Waterford, it was nothing to do with privatisation. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and other councillors all said it was about improving the service. The argument was made that a body cannot be a regulator of a service as well as a provider. The charges which were introduced started at a very low base and in most areas were £30, but they increased every year. At a certain point the service was privatised, local authorities left and I do not think a single local authority in the State now provides waste collection services.
It is quite obvious that once the concept of charges is introduced, water is commodified and water services are commercialised, it will inevitably lead to privatisation. People have experience of bin charges and the health service, where they have been forced to take out private health insurance. Once the concept of charges is introduced, inevitably private operators and profiteers come in, and services like water become commodities rather than a public or human right, which is what I believe water to be.
Can the Minister explain why water will be any different? We know, because it is anchored in European policy, that what Europe wants is for the full cost of water to be recovered. People will end up paying more. Once they are paying higher charges, things become easier for profiteers and it becomes profitable for companies to buy up our water infrastructure or for the State to get out. Will we then hear the same arguments that we cannot be a regulator as well as a provider of our water services?
I cannot understand why the Government is so fearful of a constitutional referendum on this issue and allowing the people to have their say. If all of the parties in the House and the State are genuinely committed to ensuring that we do not have privatisation, then they should have no difficulty whatsoever in supporting a constitutional referendum on this issue. Ruling out amendments is not the fault of the Minister or Government, but refusing to hold a referendum on the issue is clearly the responsibility of the Minister and Government.
I have more to say on this issue, but others wish to contribute. I would also like to hear the response of the Minister. I ask him to answer some direct questions. Can he confirm that if a future Government wanted to privatise water services and not hold a plebiscite, all it would need to do would be to introduce a water services (amendment) Bill that would delete the relevant section? That would negate the need for a plebiscite. Can the Minister be honest with people and say that is all it would require?
Can the Minister explain why he will not hold a referendum on the issue? Of what is he fearful? What is the problem with it? People want to have their say on this issue. Why would we fear the people and a referendum?
I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House. The fact that we have an opportunity to discuss this issue is because of the Irish people who voted to retain the Upper House. Without their support, this issue would not be debated here today. It is an important point and the 60 Members of the House have a unique opportunity to put forward ideas to the Minister. He is very attentive and willing to listen to ideas.
The Bill refers to a plebiscite. Senator Barrett has tabled a very good amendment, which we will support. Senator Craughwell's amendment was extremely good, and I respectfully suggest that on Report Stage he changes the term "referendum" to "plebiscite" with the same wording. The wording is very precise.
The idea of a plebiscite or referendum is academic, to some extent. In reality, the imposition of charges is the straw that has broken the camel's back. Many people spoke to me about the household charge, which has been implemented and paid. Why could the Government not have incorporated water into it to fund water provision and services? It would have been much more acceptable. Instead, there is a charge on a charge, which is causing problems.
Yesterday, I heard a clip in which the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, committed the Labour Party to opposing the imposition of water charges. That is a real betrayal of the electorate. It is misleading the people. The former Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, has said that is what people say during elections. I remember commitments given in manifestos in 1977 which, for better or for worse, were implemented. It was the first time I was elected. The other parties also went down the same road at the time, but people do not realise that. I remember advertisements were taken out in certain newspapers by Fine Gael and others. Let us not discuss history; we are where we are at this point in time.
If there is a widespread decision by people not to pay under any circumstances, will that negate all the efforts being made in this regard? The system will be unworkable unless it has the will and support of the Irish people to pay for water. There were large protests in every town and city in the country. The message should be clearly heard. We have received a large number of e-mails in the past few days. Will people decide not to pay and let everyone else carry the can?
It is the first time I have not yet filled out any form, and will not until I get clarification on the situation. I do not know whether the situation regarding those with a second house has been clarified, in terms of whether they are legally liable to pay the charges, irrespective of the tenancy arrangements. Paying back retentions is not acceptable.
Families with children in college, in particular those from towns like Roscommon which have no universities, have to pay for apartments and water charges, on top of charges at home. There is no provision in the Bill for a cap on the amount any family would have to pay, whether children are living at home or in rented accommodation.
I refer to the Minister's dismissal of a referendum and unintended consequences. It would be fair that the advice of the Attorney General is put on the record of the House.
Any explanation should set out exactly why the proposal for a referendum was turned down.
I understand the complications. Water is a complicated issue. Several contracts have already been given out to private organisations such as Veolia in Roscommon as well as other companies that are now managing water schemes in some of the cities in a partnership set-up. They have a certain control over water at this point and whether we could nationalise these arrangements now is for the Minister to explain.
Another question is the matter of the ownership of the River Shannon and the waterways. It is proposed to extract water from the River Shannon to provide water for Dublin. Is provided for in the Constitution? Could that be provided for by amendment? Could that be regulated for? I understand the complications of the issue. It is complex, but it is coming to the fore. I know as a former Minister of State that Ministers get excellent advice, and the Minister has tremendous officials with him today. I imagine the Department is altogether aware of the issues. I always found that I relied totally on the civil servants who advised me. I found them to be of the highest quality and they offered the best advice and I respect the advice being given.
It is a complex issue. The Constitution contains a right to private property. I understand that if we have a well, we can extract water and sell it. There is a question arising if we have a referendum and decide that we all own that water and that individuals cannot own it. I understand these things. It is not as simple or straightforward as having a referendum and then deciding everything will be solved. One unintended consequence is the position of an organisation providing water, for example, Ballygowan Water in Limerick, which has some lovely wells.
The kernel of the situation is the overall question of charging, the willingness of people to pay and the efforts by People Before Profit and anti-government types of all sorts suggesting we should pay for nothing and do nothing. I remember the same people suggesting that there should be no charge for the collection of waste in Dublin. They said they would go to jail and never pay for the collection of refuse. I do not hear a word about them any more. They moved on to the next issue, which is water.
It is fundamental and important. I emphasise that people in my area have been paying for water up to now. We pay for water for farming and for business. We are excluded from the household charges for water. There is an exemption of 40,000 gallons per year.
There is a difference. Furthermore, there is an urban-rural divide in this regard. If the people in the urban areas of Dublin, Waterford, Galway and Limerick decide not to pay, what are the consequences for this or any future Government? Put frankly, are the Government charges enforceable at the end of the day? If not, then the Minister will have to avoid a situation whereby those who are paying will say they will not pay either.
Senator Barrett has made a telling case for his amendment. We had an exceptionally good debate in the House yesterday evening. It was clear in the House and outside beforehand that there was a fair degree of tension. This was because people come at an issue like this from different points of view. That is what democracy is about at the end of the day. Then people vote and accept the result. Many people in the House, even those who voted for the legislation, would have been far happier if we had promised a constitutional referendum in order that the issue of the ownership of Irish Water was sacrosanct, beyond question and enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann.
In the heady days of Irish patriotism the slogan was: "The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland". James Fintan Lawlor, Michael Davitt and such people knew precisely why that had to be acted on. After all, the land was one of the most important and essential resources that the country had. They did not want to see it being used as a cash cow for absentee landlords, which was the case at the time. When the State got the opportunity, it did a particularly good job in ensuring that the land was available to the people and could be used in a productive manner.
The same issue arises with water, there is no question about that. More so than land, it is an essential resource for the people. Senator Barrett has made some exceptional contributions to the House. Members will agree that he has been most investigative and analytical. He has put his expertise at the service of the House on many complex issues in his time in Seanad Éireann.
In this case he is trying to ensure that in the absence of a constitutional referendum, some class of block is put in place in respect of the shares of Uisce Éireann. Senator Barrett would admit that this is not the ideal route to go. Let us suppose we agreed that we must protect the water of Ireland for the people of Ireland and ensure that it does not get into the hands of private interests and become a cash cow once again. If there were privatisation, Irish people might not be in charge of that process. This is especially relevant today given the disappearance of international borders etc. People from China, America or anywhere could control Irish Water if that were the case.
On the face of it the plebiscite might seem like a good idea. However, we all agree that legislation is what it is: it is legislation. Every day and every week in this House we make amendments to legislation. Given the pressures that have been on the economy during the recession and those that are and will continue to be on the economy, it is not beyond the power of imagination to envisage that whoever occupies these seats in any future Seanad Éireann would have legislation before them regarding the privatisation of, or, rather, removing the ownership of, Irish Water from the people. Of course, that is a possibility.
This raises another question. If we are all agreed on the ownership of Irish Water by the people, surely the only way to copperfasten that beyond question is to have it in Bunreacht na hÉireann. While I am supportive of Senator Barrett's contribution, because I know where he is coming from, there is no doubt that we cannot still accept that we are not going to have that. It is within the power of Government to do that.
Of course there are complexities. When Bunreacht na hÉireann was first brought into being in 1937, there were many challenges facing the emerging State a short time after the Civil War. It was one of the greatest challenges and it is to our credit as a people that we handled all those complexities at the time. The small number of changes which have been made to Bunreacht na hÉireann in the intervening years provide an indication of how to overcome complexities when we are faced with them.
We deal with complex issues in the House on a weekly basis. Surely, nothing could be more demanding of our attention, time and energy then this issue of water, which belongs to the people and without which we could not live.
My appeal is that we would be supportive of the interim measure that Senator Barrett has put before the House. I complimented the Minister yesterday on the valiant efforts he has made. I made the point then and I make it again now.
We must avoid political partisanship because if we do not, we will not truly reflect what the people are saying, the unrest on the ground and the fears and suspicions. If we do not reflect honesty and respond with integrity, we are not doing what we should be doing as legislators. Given the valiant stand taken by the Minister, will he go one step further and reflect on what he has heard in the debate?
A motion has been passed seeking a constitutional referendum and during the Christmas recess we will hear all about the efforts made to encapsulate all options, ideas and concerns, which are complex. It is, however, straightforward to use the legal brains at our disposal to come up with a solution to include Irish Water in Bunreacht na hÉireann. If we do not do this, as Senator Terry Leyden and others have said today and yesterday, even when all of our work is done and the legislation is passed and has to be implemented, some measures will not be acceptable to everyone. However, this is one issue on which there is huge hostility. When I raised it yesterday, a few heads nodded. If people do not pay, will they be brought to court or put in jail? Some Members shook their head and said, "No." I will pay the water charge and get good value for money, but that is not the issue. The issue is changing the ownership of Irish Water which belongs to the people. I am sure the Minister has tried, but I ask him not to give up and to return to the Cabinet to discuss again the possibility of holding a referendum. The proposed plebiscite and legislation will not put people's fears to rest, but, at the same time, I compliment Senator Sean D. Barrett for trying to plug a hole which is likely to burst if we, as legislators, do not find a proper, positive and constructive way forward on this issue.
I again welcome the Minister to the House. I appreciated many of his comments yesterday and his willingness to engage with the Seanad in the light of the contributions he was expecting to be made. There has been a great deal of expertise this morning reflective of what the Minister anticipated. I support Senator Sean D. Barrett's amendment on which he has brought his economic expertise to bear. We have also benefited from the expertise of politicians on the other side of the House who have significant experience in politics. We have also heard from cultural historians who speak with great eloquence and there has been legal analysis. It is great, therefore, to participate in the debate.
I am also one of those who argue that public ownership can ultimately only be guaranteed by a constitutional referendum, an issue on which I commented yesterday, but if we cannot have this, the amendment would represent a way to plug the gap, as Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú said. There are still a few holes in the proposal to have a plebiscite. It should be made as strong as possible to reflect public opinion. I appreciate the Minister's comments both at the beginning and the conclusion of the debate yesterday evening and his bona fide commitment to oppose the privatisation of Irish Water. That is what the amendment and others are trying to do. The only amendments we can make to this section relate to holding a plebiscite. Deputies tabled amendments in the Dáil to provide for the holding of a constitutional referendum. My understanding is that they were ruled out of order because constitutional referendum proposals could only be accepted if the legislation solely related to them. Several of us made efforts this morning which were also ruled out of order to move beyond the holding of a plebiscite to a constitutional referendum. Article 46.2 provides that every proposal "for an amendment of this Constitution shall be initiated in Dáil Éireann as a Bill". The Dáil and Seanad amendments seeking the holding of a referendum have been ruled out of order for different reasons; therefore, Deputies and Senators do not have the power to change the Government's view that a plebiscite is the best way to guarantee public ownership. The Constitution guarantees that we, as law-makers, can privatise but internal rules block us such that we cannot propose a constitutional guarantee of public ownership. Only the Government can do this, which is a pity because via this single decision the Minister could secure the goodwill of a huge swathe of the people.
In his opening remarks the Minister offered us a few paragraphs on why that was not possible. The first paragraph related to complexity, an issue on which Senator Terry Leyden elaborated, which was helpful. The second paragraph indicated a slippery slope argument in that if we were to do this in respect of water services, what about similar referendums on other infrastructure considered to be strategically important?
In his concluding remarks the Minister mentioned the problem of unintended consequences. He said he had consulted the Attorney General, which I appreciate, and mentioned a few arguments coming back. Did her office conduct a scenario analysis of unintended consequences? One can only think about such consequences if one has a wording. Was it using this wording that the Minister had thought of unintended consequences or did he have another wording? I wonder whether that happened while acknowledging it is not the Government's habit to make the Attorney General's advice available to law-makers, although I still do not understand this. It would be helpful for him to provide us with a little more by way of rationale in that regard. He is nodding his head and I look forward him to doing so.
In the absence of having any power as Senators to continue to find ways to secure a constitutional referendum in order that Irish Water can be placed in public ownership, our position is that we can only ask. It feels a little like begging because the Government has the power to reconsider. I strongly support the amendment to strengthen the plebiscite. I am looking forward to, and anticipating, some of the arguments from Senator Thomas Byrne whose amendments might be a creative way of ensuring a referendum. We will debate them later. I affirm the questions asked by Senator David Cullinane and hope the Minister will reply to them. Will the Government bring forward amending legislation to propose the holding of a referendum?
We have some good examples of wording as proposed by Members of the Dáil, Senator Craughwell and the Sinn Féin Senators. If that is not the case, why will the Minister not do this? I hope the Minister will answer those two questions and will affirm the encouragement of Senator Ó Murchú that he will not give up and will go back to Cabinet on this issue.
Like other Senators, I am disappointed that the amendments proposing the holding of a referendum on protection from privatisation of our water resource have been ruled out order. I would like an explanation for their being ruled of order.
I believe the problem could have been worked out. The Minister in his response yesterday in this House asked if Senators were seeking that Irish Water or water be protected from privatisation under the Constitution. We are seeking the protection of the water resource. We should have debated that issue.
What are we afraid of? Why are we not willing to stand up for the Irish people and say that water is a life resource that needs to be protected? It is proposed to hold a referendum providing for a reduction in the age for candidates for the Presidency. Is it more important to hold a referendum on that issue than it is to hold a referendum that seeks to ensure protection of a resource for life that, as stated previously by Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, should be "referendum-ly" ours?
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú that we need to protect the water of Ireland for the people of Ireland. I am delighted that Senator Barrett has put forward a measure that could strengthen the weakness of the plebiscite which the Government is offering the people. Senator Barrett's middle ground protection is a wisely and judiciously sought strengthening of the plebiscite, which is nothing in that it is reliant only on a resolution of both Houses. When have the Houses got right what the people want? We are aware of the desire and will of the Irish people that water be protected and not subject to sale.
The Government and Independent Senators who last night voted against this measure sold out the potential for the protection under the Constitution of our water. They sold us out and they sold out our resource. In so doing, they sold out the potential sources of our lakes that supply the water, including Lough Corrib in Galway, the Shannon and other midland lakes. This is a serious issue. What we are trying to do here is ensure we are never again beholden to others. The Irish people are of the view that we are too beholden to Europe and European regulation. Unless Senators give serious consideration to and vote in favour of the measure proposed by Senator Barrett we will be leaving ourselves open to Ervia selling off its shares in the future. That is what this is about. Ervia can sell its shares. Senator Barrett's measure would ensure that the Minister for Finance or the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government hold those shares. Nationalisation of those shares would be a bulwark against privatisation into the future. Who in this House would disagree with that? We must act for the Irish people and our natural resource of water which we cannot live without. As stated earlier if, in the future, a Chinese company buys the Ervia shares it will put its needs ahead of the Irish people.
Let us give serious consideration to this legislation and do our business well by including the necessary protections. I welcome that debate on this amendment, which provides some protection, has been agreed to. I thank Senator Barrett for his wisdom in tabling it.
I tire of the manner in which things are done in this country. A constitutional referendum was proposed to ensure protection of the right of the people of Ireland to their water. Article 10.3 of the Constitution states: "Provision may be made by law for the management of the property which belongs to the State by virtue of this Article and for the control of the alienation, whether temporary or permanent, of that property." I sought amendment of Article 40 of the Constitution to protect water. Many Senators have said they would like to ensure protection of our water by way of referendum.
The Minister said yesterday that there was a difficulty in providing for protection of water under the Constitution because of property rights. In this regard, he adverted to private wells and so on. No Government has been slow in moving to nationalise or take possession of any asset it felt it needed at a time of crisis. If in the morning a particular area was without water the Government would not be slow in coming forward to seize all the wells in that area to provide water. Thus, I do not accept the Minister's argument.
Is the Minister aware that a company was established in October of this year in the UK named "Irish Water-Uisce Éireann"? I wonder if it is in any way related. Everything I have read or heard about water services provision in terms of the several attempts already made to get legislation in this regard through the Houses has been hamfisted and a total mess. I admire the Minister in that he has at least tried. However, when tens of thousands of people in this country came out to protest he had the unique opportunity to at least appease a substantial number of them by providing for protection of Irish water by way of referendum.
Perhaps the Minister will when responding show himself to be a brave Minister and indicate that he will bring forth a Bill to the Dáil and then to the Seanad to provide for a referendum not only on water but on all our natural resources and ownership of them?
Senator Barrett's amendment is being debated.
At least it goes some way towards meeting the requirements that I would have had. I intend to ask Senator Barrett not to push for that today because I am going to see if there is a way I can reintroduce a wording similar to what I have in my amendment for a constitutional referendum. I will deal with the Cathaoirleach's office and some of the experienced people around this House to assist me in that regard.
Senator Cullinane asked a couple of questions to which I, too, would like an answer. Will the Minister remove section 2 and initiate a referendum? I would like to know the advice of the Attorney General and I would like to know what the Department officials advised. Will the Minister publish those advices?
Every time I see something like this I think of the grey beards, the Sir Humphreys, somewhere in the background, dictating how things are being done. They do not have to put themselves before the people as the Minister will, and he will answer for this Bill-----
Maybe the Minister should go back and have a look at it. Let us all try to find a way that we can guarantee ownership. We cannot guarantee ownership with this plebiscite. I would like the Minister to give a direct answer to Senator Cullinane's question. Is it possible for the Minister to introduce an amendment now or at some stage in the future or for any Minister to do so?
We did not like Lisbon I and we did not like Lisbon II. Are we going to have plebiscite one, two, three and four, until such a time as some future Minister gets the answer he or she wants?
I have huge reservations about this. I support the Minister in trying to fund water but I cannot support this Bill without a referendum. While I would like to stay on my feet talking, I am just totally and utterly depressed by what I see here, so I will leave it at that.
This whole Irish Water situation is a national shambles. It is our policy in Fianna Fáil to abolish Irish Water and suspend the charges pending a full review of the policy. Fianna Fáil has consistently opposed the creation of Irish Water, and the controversy of consultancy costs, bonuses and over-staffing of this super-quango has borne out our fears. Irish Water is top-heavy in management, which has been placed on top of the existing water services in the local authorities. It has lost the confidence of the Irish people and it must be abolished.
As I said yesterday, it has caused anarchist groups to arise and create a potentially difficult democratic situation in the country. If these people on the extreme left get into government the country could be destabilised and it would give out the wrong message around the world, particularly with regard to foreign direct investment, which would run away quickly if there were any break in the continuity of centre-right or centre-left governments. We need foreign direct investment and if they see all these anarchists becoming part of government we will be on a rocky road.
The new delivery model should be a mutually owned holding company owned by the customers. The company would set national standards, be responsible for capital investment planning and borrow on behalf of local authorities. Delivery of services should be restored to the local authorities in order to ensure local knowledge and direct democratic accountability, and the company should be a slimmed-down provider of national water infrastructure.
The Minister will agree that the national road network is outstanding as a result of the partnership between the NRA and the local authorities. I do not why the same cannot be done with regard to water services. The national routes are world class.
I understand it is very difficult for the Government to face up to the fact that Irish Water is such a shambles, but if this were a business the decision would be to cut losses and start from scratch. I wish the Minister good luck.
I voted to have the Bill read but I did not vote on the Bill. I wish to point out to other Senators that if they intend to quote me they should quote me correctly.
I think we should preserve our water, purify our water, supply our water and pay for our water. I have said this from the beginning. I also think it should be fair, just and affordable and it should be ours. This is very important to me, because it is the argument I made here a month ago about it being ours and nobody else's. I have researched the World Bank and the way it walked into countries all over the world and, in order to help them pay off their debts, took their water. Some countries were left without water and some were left with a trickle; some were left with cholera; some were left badly supplied, while others had to repay fortunes to the World Bank to re-nationalise their water. It was vulture funds, bank speculators and corporations who did it, and they beggared the poor. Today, large companies own 34% of water. This is an extraordinary statistic. The World Bank rushed in to congratulate the multinationals in Argentina, but the government in the end had to re-nationalise.
When I hear the word "privatisation", I am apoplectic. I am in four minds about this Bill. I understand we have to pay for water but I do not understand the way it was set up, which was so outrageously bad that Noddy and Big Ears and some people in Toytown would have done a better job of it. I understand that what the Minister had to take was a poisoned chalice and I know what he had to try to realign. I know he made some attempt with regard to a plebiscite but I want him to explain to me the watertight nature of the plebiscite. I want him to explain to me the legality of the plebiscite. I know that it is at least something, because I can tell the House about the last legalisation with regard to Irish Water, which was so wanton and so loose that it could have been changed overnight. I want to know where does the Irish public and public ownership stand in relation to section 2, which provides for a plebiscite on ownership of Irish Water. That is where I stand and fall on how I vote. That is what I have to be convinced of. I know we have to pay. I would prefer if we were metered and I know that will come into play in 2019 or before. I agree with paying for water and with the conservation, purification and supply of water. However, things were done very badly. In all my days of working in the public sector and with the public, I have never been as upset and abused - as I know the Minister has been - on all kinds of social media. That is the game, and as a public figure one cannot hide from it. However, many of the people who write and e-mail are correct. This is very difficult. While I know that, generally speaking, the Government is trying to clean up the pipes and clean up supply, clean up effluent, clean up waste management and create a great supply, the way it has gone about it has absolutely undermined the trust of the Irish people, to the point at which they are not even listening now to any form of reasonable argument, and I do not blame them.
I need the Minister to convince me that the plebiscite will work, will be watertight and cannot, as some Senators have suggested, be realigned like the lottery was realigned overnight and given to Camelot and the teachers of Canada. I was a lone voice in the wind on that issue. I continue to hold to the idea that water should be retained in public ownership. Some people think this is not as important as the charges but it is important to trust something that we can own and develop into a world class service over the next 30 years. I would come closer to believing in it if I thought it was ours and that we could take pride in it. In the Netherlands, one would nearly be jailed for mentioning privatisation because it is so watertight. If the Minister can convince me that the same will apply here, I might be able to take the abuse with a little bit more heart.
I thank the Minister for the assiduous attention he has shown to the debate and for listening to the robust and differing views expressed by Senators. I suggest to Senator O'Donnell this provision could be changed in exactly the same way that the national lottery was dealt with. It is the same procedure and the national lottery sets a precedent in this regard.
The provision on the plebiscite has already been amended. I pointed out this morning that it is an example of a political bait and switch. There was an obvious error in the first version of the provision and the Minister subsequently introduced a more detailed proposal. However, the revised provision will not make a huge difference because all legislation can be changed by future legislation. We might think in terms of two or three years but Senator O'Donnell reminded us that the national lottery was privatised 30 years after it had been established. That was a big issue for the Senator and for many people around the country. We have to think about what the fourth or fifth Government after this one might propose. The political tempo could change and we have a responsibility to ensure that what we do holds fast until the people decide otherwise. The only way to do that is by means of a referendum.
A large number of amendments have been ruled out of order but I urge my colleagues not to get hung up about them. A specific provision in the Constitution prevents the Seanad from initiating a constitutional referendum. We are governed by the Constitution in this regard. It is not the fault of the Cathaoirleach or the Minister. I would like a constitutional provision to prevent a future Oireachtas from discussing the alienation of Irish Water. That is what is at stake in this debate. A Bill is only as watertight as Government policy dictates. The whip system is rigid and if a future Cabinet decided to sell Irish Water, the necessary legislation would be passed by the Oireachtas. All that is required is the deletion of section 2. I acknowledge that the Minister will never initiate such legislation and I fully accept his bona fides and his political views. I would never introduce such legislation, although Senator Quinn indicated that he might do so.
I have the greatest of respect for Senator Quinn even if I might not agree with him on everything. We are not looking at this or the next Government; we are looking at the distance between the establishment of the National Lottery and its sale. The Bill does not deal with that distance.
I have suggested that the public water forum be turned into a constitutional convention on the issue of privatising Irish Water, and would make recommendations that the Government could implement. This was an attempt to come some way to meet people's concerns while recognising that the Seanad cannot introduce legislation providing for a referendum. Even this proposal is not watertight but it is better than the Minister's proposal because at least we would be allowing for the possibility of a referendum in legislation.
The Minister's proposal on a plebiscite refers to the alienation of shares but it does not deal with the assets of Irish Water. We have sold shares in Bank of Ireland but we sold the assets of IBRC, namely, its loan book. There are different ways of privatising public bodies. We could sell the shares, the business or the physical assets. That is a significant lacuna, and I would like to hear the Minister's response to an amendment I will move later on this subject.
As I did not get an opportunity to speak on Second Stage, I wish to commend the Minister on the clarity he has brought to a cloudy situation. He has introduced fairness and ensured affordability for all customers of Irish Water.
It is important to clear the air in regard to section 2. We need to forget about scaremongering because the reality is that the section guarantees public ownership of the utility by providing for a plebiscite. As one of the Labour Party Senators who voted to allow for a debate on the possibility of holding a referendum to safeguard Irish Water, I am satisfied that the Minister's proposals will safeguard it from privatisation. With respect to my colleagues, I think we are fighting the wrong battle. We should save our strength and depth of feeling for future Governments because Fine Gael and the Labour Party have ruled out privatising Irish Water. If Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and a plethora of Independent Members want to privatise Irish Water, we should fight that in the trenches. I speak for myself in regard to the day I voted on the Order of Business. Retaining Irish Water in public ownership was paramount for me; the mechanism by which that would happen was not as important. I am reassured by the strength of the language in the sections of the Bill we are currently debating. The word "shall" makes a demand, as opposed to "may", which is merely persuasive. This shows a definite intention on the part of the Minister to safeguard this utility for the Irish people. I ask my colleagues in Opposition whether Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or Independent Members would delete section 2 if they are elected to Government.
I apologise that I was not here to hear the Minister's contribution on Second Stage but I have followed this morning's debate with interest. Senator Higgins brought her legal background to bear on the issue and expressed her satisfaction with the language used in the Bill. All we can ask from each other is honesty. I ask the Minister to confirm that it would be possible for a future Government to simply amend the Bill by removing section 2.
That is correct, is it not? I want to put it in context. I take the point made by Senator Higgins that at present, there is no proposal from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin or anyone else to privatise Irish Water. I ask my colleagues to reflect on what happened in late 2009 and 2010 when this country was absolutely broke and desperately needed a huge injection of funding to pay salaries and pensions, including those of our gardaí. If some wealthy businessman who is lauded at home even though he does not pay his taxes or pays them offshore - I am not referring to anybody in particular; we would have a menu of such characters to choose from - had offered €20 billion or €30 billion for the Irish water system when the then Government had no money, I wonder how the various political parties would have responded. I suggest we would have been challenged on whether we wanted to pay nurses, doctors or teachers and whether we wanted to keep the State solvent. We would have been presented with this proposal as a way of solving our problems.
We do not know what this country's economic circumstances will be five or ten years from now. There could be another repeat of disastrous economic policies. We could reach a set of circumstances in which we desperately and urgently need €15 billion, €20 billion or €30 billion. Nobody can know what the political reaction would be if the Government of the day were to decide, in what Charlie Haughey once memorably called "the higher national interest", that Irish Water should be sold. That could happen without any referendum - it would merely require a short Bill to amend this Bill to be brought before the Dáil and the Seanad. I would hate people to vote on the basis of misinformation or misinterpretation, for example, in the belief that this Bill somehow prevents the sale of Irish Water. Irish Water can be sold without consulting any member of the public. All that would be required is a simple majority vote of the Dáil and the Seanad.
I agree that no party today, and possibly no party next year, would countenance such a measure. Having been in this House at the time of the bank guarantee, and having been in the Oireachtas when the State was essentially bankrupt and people were desperately seeking a way to fund it, I ask my colleagues to reflect on how we might respond to the temptation to sell Irish Water if another emergency were to arise and a national cash injection of €10 billion, €15 billion, €20 billion or €25 billion - whatever the worth of Irish Water might be - were needed. The brutal reality is that under such circumstances, Irish Water could be privatised and sold within two days - a day in the Seanad and a day in the Dáil - without the public being consulted.
The change in language from "may" to "shall" might make the text on a plain sheet of paper look stronger, but we all know it makes no difference in the context of the political reality. If people want to support the legislation on the basis that they are happy with it, that is fair enough, but we should not fool ourselves into believing this legislation offers any assurance about the future ownership of Irish Water. It cannot do so. The legislation as written cannot allow any assurance. The law can be changed by any future Government that commands a one-vote majority in the Dáil and a one-vote majority in the Seanad. We should admit to ourselves that the Irish public would not be consulted, or would not need to be consulted, if some sort of emergency situation were to arise.
The Minister has heard all of these arguments being made in the Dáil and the Seanad. He has responded in the Dáil, so we know where he is coming from. I hope we will not be making an adjudication on this worthy and detailed amendment today. I suggest we should reflect further on it in advance of Report Stage. We should not try to cod ourselves into believing we are offering a triple-lock solution. The Minister and the Government can use their key to open the triple lock at any stage without needing to consult the public. The reality is that there is no guarantee to the public in the absence of a constitutional referendum. We should vote on what we know to be fact, rather than what we would wish it to be. It would be much more convenient for colleagues on the other side of the House who have doubts to believe this legislation provides some sort of guarantee about the future ownership of Irish Water. Sadly, that is not the case and we know it. At the end of the day, in politics one has to be true to one's self. If Senators want to support the legislation, that is fair enough, but they should not allow themselves to be fooled into believing something that is not in the Bill is in it. This is not George Orwell. It is not a case of language meaning what one wants it to mean. It means what is in the legislation.
The provisions in this legislation can be changed next week, next month or next year. That will remain the case unless we provide for a stronger and more binding constitutional provision. That is what we have to vote on.
The Minister and others have said that nobody in either House - not a single person - has ever spoken in favour of privatisation. The Minister heard two people doing so yesterday. Regardless of how one looks at this issue, one cannot deny that Senators Quinn and White said clearly that it would be a good idea to discuss it and that we should not be closed to it. There is the Minister's answer. I would say there is a hell of a lot more of them in the bulrushes. Certainly this is a Fine Gael point of view.
I was down in my little office, working for the people and slaving my fingers to the bone, when I heard the plaintive tones of my long-time good friend, Senator O'Donnell. I hope nothing I say causes her to burst into tears. I suggest that when she said she "voted to have the Bill read", it was dissimilation of the most obvious kind. I remind her that she was voting for the Second Reading of the Bill. Everything that needed to be said in terms of Second Stage speeches had already been said. We did not vote on the reading of the Bill - we voted on the Second Reading of the Bill, which involves moving on towards the amendments.
Yes, all right. I understand, although I cannot verify it, that my good friend, the greatly admired Senator O'Donnell, had dinner with the Taoiseach the night before. I hope the price of her conscience was more than a plate of chips. I hope that when she wrestles with her conscience on this occasion, her conscience will win. I have to say directly to you, Senator, you made-----
Through the Chair, I wish to say that Senator O'Donnell made a most thrilling, passionate and informed speech about water. I really took her seriously. I think the plaintive note in her voice today suggests that a little bit of a struggle is still going on. I look forward to the successful outcome of that struggle.
The very good discussion in the House on this section of the Bill has been brought about by the worthwhile amendment proposed by Senator Barrett. The amendment cuts to the bone of Irish Water in its current form and where we want to see water in the future. It touches on financial transparency and the transparency or clearness of the water as well. It relates to who will own the water into the future. We must accept that water is a fundamental human right. According to the World Health Organization, each individual needs between 50 and 100 litres of water to live each day. If we are to accept the UN declaration on the right to water and what it states, surely we have to make sure that right is not diluted by future ownership or by the costing of future unaffordability issues.
While they are both interlinked, the charging is a matter for section 3. Section 2 is about ownership. Senator Bradford outlined very clearly the fact that a simple resolution by both Houses of the Oireachtas could in effect lead to an equity stakeholding to permit outside interests to takeover control of Irish Water whether that be a controlling interest or another level of interest. Given that there will be a worldwide scarcity of water over the next 30 to 40 years, water will be a valuable investment opportunity for speculators and those who might want to export water from Ireland to other jurisdictions.
We are going into uncharted waters, if colleagues will pardon the pun. While I accept his bona fides and acknowledge the work the Minister has done to tidy up the mess left by Phil Hogan, the fundamental issue is the ownership of our water and that has not been tidied up sufficiently. The issue of public ownership of a water supply is fundamental to why people marched on the streets. While they are concerned about the charges, people's opinions should not be reduced to that. People are cleverer than that. The Irish people know the importance of water not only now but for future years. They know there will be a scarcity and they are concerned about the future ownership of the resource.
If we learn anything from other jurisdictions, we should be aware of what happened in England where there are 11 regional monopoly companies dealing with water. In the first ten years of their operation from the late 1980s, they increased the price of water by 100%. In the following ten years, they increased the price of water by a further 102%. Under the Labour Party in England, the British Government wanted to call a halt to spiralling prices and the monopoly situations that existed in each region, but it was too late. The Government under the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, failed because it had gone too far. The establishment had been created and the precedent was there. The Government was unable to go back and reverse what had occurred. That will happen here because in 20 or 25 years Irish Water will still be there in whatever form - public, semi-public or private, no one knows - and in control of the drinking water supply in every domestic or business premises. It will be too late then to break it up and bring it back into public ownership. If we accept that water is a fundamental human right and necessary, according to the World Health Organisation, just to live, this is a fundamental decision that will affect future generations. It is not like food; it is more important than that as it is necessary to live on a daily basis.
We are going down the wrong road and I agree completely with where Senator Barrett is coming from. The steps initially taken by the previous Minister, Phil Hogan, in moving control and the decision making responsibility away from local authorities and councillors was the wrong way to go. It was to take decision making on a precious and scarce resource away from the closest level of democracy and centralise it. One can argue that there are economies of scale and critical mass, but that does not add up when one looks at how much water is being lost. When the Minister was last in the House on 5 November, he outlined that 49% of all water was lost through the pipe network. We do not know how much it costs to produce water as half of what it is produced is lost. In that context, the €1.2 billion which people are currently paying and which we will discuss in relation to section 3 is not an accurate figure. In County Kilkenny, 56% of water is lost and in County Donegal, 43% of water is lost. These are huge losses and the first thing to do is surely to carry out a complete cost-benefit analysis of the network to find out how much water is being lost and what the monetary value of the loss is, and put in place an investment programme funded by borrowings and Exchequer returns contained within the local government sector under the control of the Department of the Environment, Communities and Local Government and the local authority audit section. At least then, decisions would be made locally. Individuals who have a pipe leading up to their houses have to ring a call line with all that goes along with that.
Irrespective of the Minister's best efforts and what he is trying to achieve, we are still going down the wrong road and creating a dangerous situation. There is speculation in the international market looking at investments that will yield returns. According to US investment firms, one of the most lucrative currently is water. Water is deemed to be a necessity but it is also deemed to have investment potential which can yield huge returns if not immediately then in future years. We are going down the road of creating a situation where a majority of Members of Dáil and Seanad Éireann could in future years provide for a lucrative financial position. We have a very party-oriented political structure in Ireland. I am not throwing anything across at any Government party. My party is as much to blame. We have a party system in which the whip rules and, ultimately, those in leadership roles give directions to backbench Deputies and Senators to vote legislation through. We have seen it many times from all parties which have also sought to coerce Independent Members to go with them. It is inevitable that will happen in future when an international investor comes along and offers the billions needed to satisfy interests in certain constituencies to build football fields and other amenities.
We are going down a dangerous road. It is wrong. It is a public water supply currently but we are changing that. Deep down in his own heart, the Minister believes it is the wrong way to go too. He might say that Fine Gael and Labour are not going to change it, but there will be election after election and change after change. Offer after offer will be made and the Minister should be under no illusion about it. There are speculators out there now, some of whom are known to Members, who may be interested in purchasing equity stakes in Irish Water in future because it is about profit. The world revolves around finance. I rest my tuppenceworth at that and ask the Minister even at this late stage to allow a referendum to be held. There is nothing to fear in that. The people are entitled to express their opinion and to allow them to do so would strengthen the Minister's position by allowing him to stand up and say the right to water has been galvanised in the Constitution. It is an opportunity that will be missed if it is not availed of.
I welcome the Minister to the House. While I did not have an opportunity to speak on Second Stage yesterday, I will not make a Second Stage speech. Like the Minister and many Senators, I have received abuse on social media and via emails, etc. That is part of what we do and we must accept it when we put our names on ballot papers and sign up for public life.
I listened intently to yesterday's debate, which was like a ping-pong game over and back across the House from Opposition to Government. Many good points were made on both sides of the argument. I believe water should be paid for. I believe we need a utility company to run it but it needs to be run properly. I have seen people get exercised over this, people who would not normally get exercised. I do not think at this stage it is about payment for water. I think it is years and years of austerity having beaten down on people. They have been gradually hit with charge after charge. I think people have reached the point where they can take no more. This is the final straw.
It is not easy to impose a charge on people. However, as the economy grows, it is incumbent on us to put something back into the people's pockets that helps them to pay these charges. The universal social charge should be looked at. I know we have taken 80,000 people out of the universal social charge net, but we need to take many more out of it. It was introduced as a temporary measure. Further changes on the universal social charge would put money back into people's pockets enabling them to pay for these facilities.
In Kerry we have had 18 years of not paying for water. I accept that Labour was party to abolish the water charges back then. We have seen what 18 years of not paying has done for the water in Kerry. The pipes in mid-Kerry are constantly breaking, leaving people without water. Many houses receive their water through lead pipes. There are constant breakdowns at the pumps. All of these have to be paid for when they have to be replaced. We need to get money in to address this.
In the area where I live the cost of water for me is €30 year for the year. I have no sewerage facilities. I have my own bioCycle unit. I have mains water. The charge is €130 for two adults and we will be refunded €100, so the cost for the whole year is €30. I do not think people are on the streets protesting about the €30 but about what it stands for.
For once rural Ireland trumps urban Ireland because the cost to us is less, which does not happen very often. People in rural areas have been paying for water for many years. Many people I talk to are not going on social media, e-mailing, going on the radio and voicing their opinions. They have been paying for it for years and cannot understand what the hype is about. There are two different opinions out there. We hear the ones from the people who are most vocal through the newspapers, television and Internet, but many other people are not.
I believe that water has to be paid for and we have to set up a utility company to provide the service. However, it is the composition of that utility company that has incensed people. Using the word "bonus" at this time is inappropriate. I know the Minister will refer to the increments, which I understand. I know there are workers on low pay who are depending on that. However, the word "bonus" drove people off their heads at a time when they were being hit in their pockets and paying left, right and centre for everything. It is very hard for the public to take that word.
Will the Minister do whatever he has to do to ensure that Irish Water will never be privatised? The Labour Party group here in the Seanad voted to ensure that Irish Water would never be privatised.
I spoke on the plebiscite on Second Stage to demonstrate how weak that provision is. I echo what Senator Cullinane said and ask the Minister to give us a clear answer to the two black and white questions. Senator Bradford has outlined how an amending Bill can be introduced and within two days the word "plebiscite" would be gone. Senator Bradford also spoke about George Orwell and 1984. I want to talk about the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and 2050. I accept the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, does not want ever to privatise Irish Water and that he would never do so. However, he will not be here. Senator Reilly will probably be here because she is still in her 20s.
I would like to quote the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on 2050. He stated:
New Zealand had not privatised its water. As Senators will know, the milk quota is about to be lifted. New Zealand is turning €3.7 billion in its dairy produce. If we look back over the past 30 years, did we imagine at Christmas we could pick up an iPhone and Skype someone in Australia? Did those of us with modern homes imagine that we could pick up an iPhone and control the central heating? Can Senators imagine what it will be like in 2050?
The global population is forecasted to grow by 2 billion people by 2050 resulting in substantial increased demand for food, while at the same time there will be ever increasing pressure on natural resources such as water and biodiversity. Ireland is fully committed to playing its part in addressing these global challenges whether it be through enhanced production of sustainable and healthy food products.
In response to Senator Ó Domhnaill, we are all saying it is a precious natural resource. I am not just talking about us drinking it and bathing in it today. We will be centred in the world. We are so fortunate to have the perfect temperate climate. We will be the target for the oligarchs of Russia and will be the targets of the Chinese to privatise it and the Minister, Deputy Kelly, will not be here to defend us. I would love if he were but he will not be. He has a chance to go back to the Government to revisit the option of a constitutional referendum, which is the only way that we can be absolutely 100% certain.
To go back to the cartoons and movies, the Wizard of Oz has gone to Brussels. The rainbow has a crock of gold at the end of it, but it will end up with the Chinese or Russians unless the Minister gives us a referendum.
Senator O'Donnell will be interested in this. The national lottery was not actually sold. The Government issued a licence. Having checked that, I have now submitted a Report Stage amendment. A licence could be issued in the same way the national lottery licence was issued regarding the business and undertakings of Irish Water without having anything to do with section 2 and leaving section 2 completely intact. I ask the Minister to respond to that.
I am glad to hear that. I have listened to Senators Ó Domhnaill and Mary Ann O'Brien. Senator Mullen said yesterday was a momentous day. He made a comparison with the setting up of the ESB, which was crazy and off the chart.
We have an opportunity on Committee Stage here. While some Senators, who have spoken at length about the importance of not privatising Irish Water, with which I agree completely, had an opportunity to reject the Bill yesterday, unfortunately, for whatever reason they decided not to. There is now a real opportunity to tie into the legislation the absolute necessity for a referendum.
A plebiscite in the Bill does not do it. This amendment is good in that it addresses what is at stake. Senator Barrett will decide as to whether it is to be re-tabled on Report Stage for Monday, but all of us are in agreement with it. If, as I am hearing from colleagues, none of us wants to privatise, and the Minister does not want to see water privatised, we should tie it in by way of a referendum. It is as simple as that.
I thank the Senators for their comprehensive contributions. I will go through this amendment and, I dare say, probably this section, because it broadens out into the section as well.
I have a couple of initial comments. I had nothing to do with amendments being ruled out of order. If they were ruled in order, I would debate them as much as I would debate any of these. This is merely to make that clear.
To deal with the amendment first, Ervia is owned by the State. It is owned by the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It has two subsidiaries, Irish Water and Gas Networks Ireland, which are also owned by the State. Ervia has no financial rights of ownership. These shares are wholly-owned by the Minister for Finance and myself and there is no way that Ervia can dispose of Irish Water because in a sense Ervia does not own it.
I will not be supporting this amendment even though it is put down for the right reasons. I accept all of the amendments, even those ruled out of order, were put down in the right spirit, but I will not be accepting this amendment.
The amendment states it will give functions back to local authorities. This would create issues. There are serious economies of scale in what Irish Water is doing. I quoted yesterday that in the case of the Ringsend plant there is a saving of €170 million because Irish Water is doing that piece of work and there is five or six such examples across the country. There are many economies in tendering. Also, the financial capacity of one utility to borrow is one of the most fundamental reasons Irish Water is necessary because of the scale of investment that is necessary in the future.
The Constitution is something which every one of us holds dear. When I took my seal of office, it is something on which I reflected. I must uphold and protect the Constitution and I always will to the best of my ability. I hope everyone accepts my bona fides in that regard. I am doing everything to the best of my ability, with the advice that I can take, as a member of the Executive.
Bunreacht na hÉireann is the fundamental legal document of the State. It includes the fundamental rights of Irish citizens and establishes and documents the main institutions of State, etc. It describes the legislative branches of the State, including this House, the Executive branch of the State, the Judiciary - the three pillars of the State. It also lists key officers, such as the Attorney General. However, it does not seek to describe the structures of the State which are mainly provided through legislation, for example, the education system, the health system, the road network. In this House I made a commitment, which I honoured, that I would bring the resolution of this House to the Cabinet and state clearly what this House told me and discuss it, and we did in great detail.
Senators will be familiar with Articles 10.1 and 10.2. Article 10.2 states:
All land and all mines, minerals and waters which belonged to Saorstát Éireann immediately before the coming into operation of this Constitution belong to the State to the same extent as they then belonged to Saorstát Éireann.Under that article, all natural resources and all water is vested in the State. I will not do anything to change that or to ensure that the water resources of the State do not belong to the citizens of the State.
In the Dáil debate, a colleague of mine who is legally qualified, Deputy Penrose, stated that he would allow Irish Water and the water of this country to be privatised over his dead body. I want to repeat that. I would allow the privatisation and sell-off of Irish Water and of the water service in this country over my dead body.
I must work, as part of the Executive, within the advice I get and with the terms of that advice as well, and everyone here appreciates that. I come from the Labour Party. We all are politicians at the end of the day. I am a Member of a Government involving Labour and Fine Gael. From my ideology, the idea that we would privatise Irish Water is against everything I stand for. Let me be clear about that.
A couple of colleagues referenced - I do not know whether they quoted them fairly - that there might have been two Senators who stated yesterday that they would privatise Irish Water. That is not what I heard. One of them said maybe in the future but not now and the other wanted a discussion on it. Be that as it may, I have not heard of anyone in these Houses, particularly in the other House, or any of the local authorities - I have been around a lot of those because I am responsible for them - who wants to do this. The Bill provides that this cannot happen and now we are providing that it would need a resolution of this House and the other House, and then it would have to go to a plebiscite of the Irish people. We are stating clearly that this can never happen.
In response to many who have asked, including a number of Senators here, all legislation in the State can be changed. I am a straight talker. All legislation can be changed. However, what future government, no matter who its members are, would change this? I would respectfully say that Senators should have a little more confidence in the fact that the people know whom they vote for. People know whom they vote for and they know what they stand for. If every party in the State states it would not do this, what future government would potentially take away the right of the people to decide on the ownership of water if, which I can never see happening, they were so minded to do it in the first place? What government in its right mind would even consider that? I do not know what public would elect a government to make that decision in the first place. Even if one parks the privatisation of Irish Water, what people would decide to elect a government to take away the right of the people to decide to do something that they never wanted in the first place? It is illogical.
One can trace the line of saying that legislation can be changed. I say it out straight. Of course, legislation can be changed. Senators need not even respond. I am acknowledging that. I am straight up about it. Of course, it can be changed. However, what Government will do that based on this?
The threshold is up at ceiling level.
I also want to repeat, and I did it deliberately. I have been in this House previously and I am not saying this in jest but I have always believed that the best debates, in many ways, come from this House. I deliberately in my response on Second Stage went over this item because I knew it was the item that most people had a lot of interest in and we discussed it before in this House. I have referenced the fact that we went to the Attorney General, we went across Government, took advice and took legal advice and remember the Attorney General, like all the rest of us, is the guardian of this sacred document in this country. Therefore, we have to look at the law of unintended consequences. We should learn lessons, in this space, from other referenda that we had in the past in another area.
If we were going to have a referendum, what would it be on? How would we define it? Would we have to go back at it again and again? Would we be having a referendum on Irish Water? Would we be having a referendum on Irish Water as an organisation? Would we be having a referendum on water services? Would we be having a referendum on water? Would we be having a referendum on water plus something else or what? Those are real questions and I do not say them in jest but honestly.
If we were to have a referendum, what would be the inventory of what we are protecting? Would it include boreholes, private wells, pumps, land which pipes go through, aquifers, group water schemes, infrastructure co-owned by many different people and by different companies, companies' infrastructure, infrastructure owned by commercial organisations that are working and using large quantities of water, that are even producing water and selling it?
It is not irrelevant but very real. In fact, it is very important. What is the component of what is protected? What unintended consequences and what issues could potentially arise from this matter? These are very real questions. As regards property rights, which are also protected in the Constitution, there are issues for same.
Let us remember what I said earlier on what is in the Constitution, what usually falls in the Constitution and what does not. If we did this, should we not be doing it for many other areas? I do not ask the following in jest. Should we be doing it in relation to roads, CIE, bogs and a whole range of other areas? Potentially the same argument, in many ways, would stand up for one issue as for another but perhaps not to the same degree because I accept and understand that we cannot live without water and air. I still must pose the question.
The argument has been well made in terms of the surrounding issues say in 20, 30 or 40 years' time.
The Senator is right that I almost certainly will not be here. I do not think the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, will be here either because he is older than me. I will be 75 years old in 2050.
That is another question. After the past few months I am not too sure about that but we will see.
Let us be honest about this matter. Do not forget that I sat here in 2008 when we debated the bank guarantee which was one of the most fundamental nights in the history of this State. I personally think the wrong decision was made and voted against it.
People have put forward arguments in relation to Europe. Last night I read Article 345 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union about the principle of neutrality and these issues. I know that will not satisfy everyone and accept that because people will say circumstances can change and all of that but the principle exists.
I want to convey the following. In reaching this decision, trust me, I did not filter all of this down in a flippant way. I filtered all of this down with my colleagues, and with everyone, in a comprehensive way. I probably spent more time on this matter than on most of the Bill put together, to be honest, because it is a fundamental issue.
Coming from my philosophical beliefs, it is obviously something that has to be 100% accurate and dealt with. Working within all of the advice we can get in Government, I believe that the threshold created absolutely protects Irish Water. I also need to say to Senators that before they put a provision into the Constitution they would need to be absolutely certain it could achieve what it sets out to achieve and dealt with all the issues that I have just said need to be dealt with. Given my role, given my philosophical beliefs, given the fact that I represent the Government, given the fact that I honestly take this matter seriously to the nth degree, given the fact that I have brought what the Senators decided some time ago to the Government, I can tell Senators, absolutely hand on heart and in all conscience, that I have gone as far as is possible in terms of this issue. I hope Members appreciate that and I have said that in the right spirit. I genuinely acknowledge the fact that the amendments, ideas, concepts and proposals put forward by Senators - and I have read the ones that where ruled of out order as well and I would have had no issue dealing with them either - but all were put forward in the right spirit. Through the process that we have undergone, I believe what we have in front of us is as far as we can go and ask Senators to support the legislation. Therefore, I will not accept Senator Barrett's amendment.
I did not interrupt the Minister and it is time he sat back and listened to the response. He made a lengthy and passionate contribution but, in reality, it was meaningless for the following reasons. It was easy for him to say, as a Minister, as a citizen and as a person, that "over my dead body will our water be privatised". Any Senator in this Chamber could stand up and say exactly the same. This issue is not about the Minister, me, his party, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, any political party or any Independent but about the process. We have been asked to deal with here a process that could, potentially, allow for the water services to be privatised at some point in time in the future. That is the question.
The Minister also said that he found it very difficult to imagine a set of circumstances in which our water could be privatised. He asked what government in their right mind would privatise our water services.
I am sure six weeks, six months or even six years before the bank guarantee the same question could have been asked. What Government in its right mind would put €90 billion of taxpayers’ money into private banks?
I respectfully ask the Minister to listen to me. He will have a chance again to respond to me. What Parliament in its right mind would put €90 billion of taxpayers’ money into private banks, not public banks, to pay back private bondholders? We emptied the National Pensions Reserve Fund and borrowed money to put into the banks. Leading up to that, no one would have foreseen a set of circumstances in which we socialised the debts of private banks.
It is not, therefore, beyond the realm of possibility that some Government in the future may want to privatise our water services. What the people want is the ultimate protection that the only people who can give permission for our water to be privatised or sold off are the people of the State, not a politician or party. That is the very point the Minister is missing.
I asked the Minister a straight question when I was on my feet the last time but he did not answer it.
No, he did not. I will repeat the question and the Minister might respond. I accept that the Labour Party and the Government do not want to privatise water services at this point. What if, at some point in the future because of an economic crisis, a Government was minded to privatise water? Would it be possible for it to do so? Is it possible for a future Government to introduce an amending Bill to remove section 2?
Essentially, this is meaningless. All it is is a promise by the Government put into legislation which can be undone by one simple vote of the Oireachtas. Accordingly, the people do not have any say.
Earlier, Senator Lorraine Higgins of the Labour Party said we now have a guarantee that there will be a plebiscite on the ownership of Irish Water. There is no guarantee. This is smoke and mirrors of the worst kind. The Government cannot give that guarantee. The only way such a guarantee can be given is if we have a referendum for an amendment to insert into the Constitution the right of the citizens to make such a fundamental decision. The Minister, along with other Senators, claimed getting the right wording for such an amendment would be a difficult. We had a Constitutional Convention, of which I was a member, that examined difficult and complex issues. It made several recommendations to hold referendums on a range of issues. It properly teased out and ventilated all of the concerns about certain constitutional amendments and any potential unintended consequences that may arise. The Minister could have reinvigorated the Constitutional Convention or a similar forum to properly ventilate all the issues, explore unintended consequences and then come up with a formula of words that would protect our water.
This issue is being made very complicated when, in fact, it is very simple. Senator Bradford made a very good contribution earlier when he essentially said the same. There is no point in any of us here pretending and codding ourselves, because nobody outside this House believes the Government. There is no point in any Independent Senator pretending that, if we pass this Bill today, the concerns people have about privatisation are gone. The people are not silly. The Minister has just conceded that all it would take is a repeal of this section and it is gone. It is all hocus-pocus.
If we want an absolutely watertight guarantee that our water infrastructure and services will never be privatised, then we need to have a constitutional amendment, not a plebiscite.
It is inevitable that a dynamic will be created once the charge is introduced. When a service is provided free at the point of delivery, funded by progressive taxation, it cannot be privatised, as there is no incentive for anyone to buy it. Once charging starts - once water is commodified - in time, the dynamic changes. That is when the political approach will also change, with huge pressure brought to bear. Then we will hear that we need competition and it is a slippery slope. We have seen this in all the countries that have introduced water charges. One only has to look at Britain, where water services have been privatised because the concept of charges was introduced.
Senator Darragh O’Brien is right that the Minister will no longer be a Minister in two years’ time.
It is easy for the two parties in government to say what they will do now. However, they cannot legislate for what any future Government might do. What Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell and Independent and Labour Party Senators wanted when they voted for the motion some time ago was a constitutional referendum on the ownership of Irish Water. We are not getting that, however. It does to matter what the Minister says. All the fighting talk from the Minister means nothing if a future Government just tears this Bill up.
The amendment does not propose a constitutional referendum. Those that did have been ruled out of order. Senator Barrett’s amendment only strengthens the plebiscite aspect of this section.
If the Minister accepts that this legislation can be undone, will he agree it is it not worth the paper on which it is written?
There is something edifying about a Minister who comes into the House showing passion and expressing idealism.
That must be welcomed at any time and we should not distract from or denigrate that in any way. Public life could do with much more of that. I could see the passion he had in expressing his position on changes in the ownership of the water of Ireland in the future, but I remind him that the archives of current affairs programmes are littered with pronouncements like that. People, through no fault of their own - they can do nothing about it - cannot live up to them, and subsequently one finds them being used very often in a method of ridicule with which I do not agree. Very often, through ridicule, they are being shown in a context.
The Minister confirmed what we all believe, which is the most important thing of all: that the plebiscite, when enshrined in legislation, can be changed by any future Government through amendment. That is the bottom line we are dealing with. There is a degree of histrionics about using Bunreacht na hÉireann and holding it aloft. I accept the Minister's credentials and that he has done and will continue to do, what is correct and right as a Minister. However, while we all accept there is a degree of sacredness about that document and sometimes it does put an end to a discussion, the article the Minister read out would tell me that, even if there is some indication within the Bunreacht that the people of Ireland already own the water. One could extend that argument quite easily legally. One elects people to do whatever is required and that ownership by extension is handed over to the people. The Minister might be overly idealistic, if he does not mind me saying so, not to be able to imagine any Government doing what the people do not want. There was an Irish statesman one time who said that when he wanted to know what the Irish people wanted he looked into his own heart.
When I look into my heart on the plebiscite, I see a contradiction straight away. If the Minister was happy that the Bunreacht provides us with a safeguard, then there is no need for the plebiscite in the first place.
If that is the case, is it merely a cosmetic exercise? If the Minister looks into his own heart, which I am sure he is doing regularly, he knows that people do not want a cosmetic exercise. The anger, the suspicions and the lack of trust are real. Senator John Crown made the point yesterday that we are not talking about any single lobby group. We are talking about the middle ground. We are not talking about extreme lefts or rights or anything else. Senator Cullinane and I know it in Tipperary as we listen.
That is why the debate on Senator Barrett's amendment is so important. We cannot argue for a constitutional referendum, but surely given the logic of what he is suggesting, even if it is only to shore up the plebiscite and subsequent legislation in a minimalist way, the Minister would have to accept what he has put forward. I do not hear much party politics at all, in this Chamber, buíochas mór le Dia, but I must say this: if the Minister had heard what we were saying on the plebiscite and admits the weakness of that plebiscite and its supporting legislation, surely he would be very pleased to go back to the Cabinet and to the drawing board and take what is being put forward. The fact that this is not the case and he is not open to doing that is worrying and adds to the lack of trust and the suspicion that is out there at the moment.
I have no doubts about the Minister's credentials. I do not know how he took on the task. The Government has an unenviable job to do. I must say that. We all want pure water. We also want to ensure the availability of that water and its conservation. We must pay for it. None of these are the issue here. The methodology that has been used from the first time that legislation came into the Dáil has been the problem. If there is one lesson I have learned from the people of Ireland, it is that they are quite astute. They listen very carefully. They took their time on protesting, but now they begin to realise that whatever is put before us now must be questioned because there is a possibility that in a very short time, even under a new Government, we will be back here debating this again. The bottom line must be that the plebiscite is minimalist at best. The constitutional situation must be looked at very clearly, but I do not at all accept that we should balk at the idea of harvesting the view and the sentiments of the public because it is difficult, or that we are not capable as legislators, with all the legal advice and help that we have.
What do we say to the people? The Minister tends to intimate that a constitutional referendum is a good idea, but that as a democratic, sovereign, independent state, we are not capable of harvesting that sentiment and that requirement. I do not believe he meant it like that, but that is how I heard it and that worries me as well. That is why we are here as legislators - to pool our expertise, our intelligence and our experience on the ground, to reflect the views of the public and to use every agency at our disposal to do what the people want. I hope the Celtic tiger has not taken that tenacity from the Irish character. I do not believe it has. I believe it is still possible to capture what the people want and enshrine it in Bunreacht na hÉireann and then to debate ends at that stage.
Senator Cullinane raised the issue of the bank guarantee. Who could have imagined us taking on those debts? Who could have imagined an Irish Government would have to do that? If it had been prohibited by the Constitution they might not have done that, but the reality is that if someone had made that proposal 30 years ago, we would have had the same answers that the Minister who was sitting there gave us. What Irish Government would do this?
I refer to the issue of taking part in EU defence missions. What Irish Government would take us into war? What Irish Government would have us involved in conscription? We changed the Constitution in order to allay the fears of the Irish people in that regard. We introduced the triple lock under the United Nations mandate, and approval of the Dáil and this House is required before we enter into EU defence mechanisms. This is normal. The law of unintended consequences is not a law. In fact, many of the consequences of the Eighth Amendment - I support the Eighth Amendment - were outlined in the Dáil and Seanad debates at the time and are available to be read. Some of the issues that arose as a result of that amendment were predicted. They were not all unintended consequences. People opposed it and were cautious about that amendment. It is well known that there were changes to the amendment and that the Government had concerns, both in the Fianna Fáil party and in the Fine Gael party at the time. If the law of unintended consequences is now considered by the Government as a reason for not amending the Constitution, then we would never have a Constitution in the first place and nothing would ever be changed in case someone would interpret it differently in the future. As a Legislature all we can do is to do our best to encapsulate the values which are permanent and unchangeable except with the consent of the people. This section does not do this. The more I read the section, the more I regard it as minimalist - as Senator Ó Murchú said - because it only talks about the alienation of shares in Irish Water; it does not talk about the sale, lease, letting or licensing of those shares or of the business or assets of Irish Water. As I said previously, the national lottery was effectively privatised by simply issuing a licence to a private company to operate it. Who would have imagined, in the Labour Party of the 1980s - which was in government with Fine Gael and which established the national lottery at the end of its term - that a private company would be asked to run it and to take the profits from it? The then Minister - it may have been Barry Desmond, but I cannot remember, as I was only a child at the time, like the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey - who introduced the national lottery, had he been faced with Senator O'Donnell, as someone who has expressed trenchant views about the privatisation of the lottery, would have given the same answer that the Minister, Deputy Kelly, gave, which is "Who could have imagined it?". The issue of the national lottery is not an issue of principle for me, as it is for Senator O'Donnell, but she is entitled to her view and she has expressed it eloquently. She would have been given the same answer at the time by the then Minister, which was "What Irish Government would do this?", but 30 years later it was done. I have no particular difficulty on that issue. However, we are looking at 30 and 40 years down the road. We are looking at those values that set us apart as a society, the values we hold dear.
The minimum change I am looking for, which does not really change the substance of it, is to have the water forum at least discuss this issue and bring forward recommendations to the Minister and for the Minister to report back. This is the proposal in my amendment. I ask the Government to consider my amendment. At the very least, it gives the forum a substantial job to do, and there is a precedent in the Constitutional Convention.
The Minister has said more than half a dozen times here that he accepts the good faith in which these arguments are made. It is very ungenerous, in particular, of my Sinn Féin colleagues, not to afford the same sincerity to the Minister. Senator Cullinane said it was easy for the Minister. It is not a bit easy for a Minister to come in here. This is the biggest mess that has happened in a generation, apart from what ye lads did - ye created it-----
I wish to comment on a point made by Senator Ó Murchú when he said the Minister sounded very idealistic. What is wrong with that? It is better than some of the old cynicism we are hearing from the lads over there. I am not referring to Senator Ó Murchú as being cynical, because I know he is not. However, plenty of his people are cynical.
It is a thing to be praised, not criticised, and I apologise if I misinterpreted what the Senator said. Here in this House some time ago we voted in favour of holding a referendum. I voted in favour. I thought it was a good idea at the time. We discussed this matter long and hard in the Labour Party and with the Minister and his officials. Having explored the possibility of holding a referendum, it turns out that it is not the simple thing I, for one, thought it to be at the time. There are many unintended consequences, as the Minister said. For instance, there is the question of pipes going through private land or privately owned treatment plants or water pumps, which leads to a discussion on the rights of private property, which in this country are held very dear. If it was agreed to have a referendum and that referendum was not passed - it may be an outrageous suggestion, but who would have thought a year ago that the Seanad would not be abolished? Everyone was of the opinion-----
I remember having conversations with many people in this House around Christmas before the referendum, and it was universally held by every speaker who contributed to the informal meeting in the ante-room that the Seanad was a cooked goose. Everyone was of that view, so who would have predicted that-----
I make the suggestion that if we did have a referendum and that referendum failed, the unintended consequences would be that some Government in the future might use that to achieve the exact objective we are trying to prevent and to argue that the Irish people have spoken in a referendum about public ownership of Irish Water and have rejected it, so the Irish people are obviously in favour of it. What if that were to be the future scenario? These are some of the dangers and risks and challenges that face us if we go to the Constitution to secure the rights of something. I refer to the rights under the Eighth Amendment and the absolute mess that has caused. It is the most divisive thing in Irish society - perhaps not now, but it has been in the past. Although it was flagged that there were problems associated with it, it was well-meaning, but it has caused huge division and controversy in Irish society over the years.
During a debate on the Order of Business some time ago, I thought it would be an easy thing to support a referendum to change the Constitution in order to support the public ownership of Irish Water. While we are all in favour of public ownership of Irish Water, in my view, a referendum is not the way to go. It is a basic tenet of democracy that no government can legislatively bind its successor, but we have to have some confidence in our politicians and in the electorate who vote for them, to say that they will take the decisions in the best interests of the Irish people.
There is one further guarantee we could get. Senator Cullinane and others say that the Labour Party and Fine Gael will not be in government next time. Will Irish Water be sold in the next 18 months? What about the boys on the other side? God help us if they get into government. Why do they not give a commitment in a programme for Government that the very first thing-----
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin - God help us. Would there be anything left in the economy within 12 months if both of those parties were in power together? A referendum certainly seemed a good idea to me when we were voting here two months ago or six weeks ago.
However, when we reflected on the intricacies and logistics of holding a referendum that would achieve the objective everyone hopes would be achieved, it was not as simple as it appeared. As well as considering practical options in this regard, the Minister has explored this option; the Attorney General has given legal advice, while the officials have given practical advice, which shows that it is not the simple option being proposed. That is all I wish to say, except that, of course, I support section 2 and believe that while holding a plebiscite is not ideal, it is as far as the Government can move on the issue.
Before I turn to the Bill, I note that the Leader has returned to the Chamber. I ask him to consider breaking for a few minutes to facilitate the officials. While one official has just come into the Chamber, another has been sitting there for as long as the Minister and he is entitled to a break. I would expect this for any employee at any time. Will the Leader consider doing this before I speak? If that is the case, I will speak immediately afterwards.
This morning I asked a question about the establishment of a company called Uisce Éireann or Irish Water Limited which was established in October in Wales. I would be grateful if the Minister of State were to advise me whether that company had been set up by Irish Water in Ireland or whether it had been set up by a director or person associated with it. I wish to establish whether there is any relationship with that company.
I will revert to the issue of a referendum and some of the arguments brought forward with respect to the difficulty with it. Senator John Gilroy has just adverted to the pipe structure through private land. I note that Bord Gáis Energy has overcome this problem; therefore, it is not an issue. All such private property issues can be resolved.
In Ireland the Office of the Attorney General is paid to give advice and I am sure it could find a way to come up with a wording that would meet all of the doubts the Labour Party has. I am delighted its members have doubts about the way in which the wording of a constitutional amendment might be brought forward because the example of what happened with the eighth amendment to the Constitution demonstrates how much a job can be made of this. I have never viewed the Constitution as a place in which to deal with certain issues, as it is too cumbersome. However, on the issue of property, property rights and, in particular, the right of the people of Ireland to own their own water, it is not too cumbersome for it and I have not heard an argument to support that view.
My colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne, recently observed that there was nothing to stop the new company from licensing its services. There is nothing to prevent it from bringing in a subcontractor for the production of water. There is nothing to stop it from introducing a subcontractor for the maintenance of the country's water infrastructure.
It does not matter. If such a subcontractor fails in its job, we will not have water services. Consequently, I am not at all satisfied with the manner in which things are going.
My colleague, Senator David Cullinane, asked for the withdrawal of section 2 in its entirety and that is not a bad idea. Let Members get rid of the plebiscite proposal totally and return the Bill to the Dáil. Before it proceeds any further, Members should instigate or initiate a Bill for the holding of a referendum on the ownership of Irish Water. I reiterate that the expertise to do this already resides within the Government which suggests a plebiscite would protect us. Were the European Union to decide at some stage that competition law was not being met with respect to the ownership of Irish Water, would it protect us? Can the Minister guarantee that the European Union will not, at some point in the future, use competition law to force this country to sell off part or all of Irish Water or the company to have a subsidiary private company to produce water or to have private companies maintain the water supply? While the Minister argues that this cannot happen, I refer to the Lisbon treaty, the Lisbon 2 treaty and all of the other re-runs during the years and I am not at all satisfied. In fairness to the Minister of State and his senior ministerial colleague, they are trying desperately hard in a desperately hard situation. At this point, I compliment the Members on the Government side who took an extremely difficult decision to support section 2 yesterday, as did a number of Independent Members, who have received the most horrendous backlash for their vote yesterday. That is unfair because people do what they believe is right. Members must acknowledge this and one must admire them for doing so.
I constantly hear about how no Government ever will do this or that. The only thing of which one can be sure and certain is the moment or second in which one is living. In two seconds time I could be dead, as could anybody in the Chamber. It is possible that in one year's time, no political party currently represented in the Chamber will be in government. Members must protect the system of water in public ownership and enshrine this in the Constitution. That is the only way in which they can be sure it will happen. I again tell the Minister of State that the Government must stop. It has already angered the entire population, including ordinary, decent people who would never take to the streets and never get involved in any protest. The Government has angered them to the point where they are turning out in their tens of thousands at the drop of a hat. This is only going to get worse and the Government should move to try to appease them by dealing with some of the problems. The easiest way to do this would be to enshrine this in the Constitution. At this point, I have not received an answer from the Minister of State that would satisfy me on any issue Members have raised and perhaps he might have a sos. He should go outside to have a chat and find a way to answer these questions.
The Minister of State is welcome. A common theme throughout the Committee Stage debate on this section and the amendments and throughout the entire debate is trust. As Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú has referred to this issue in some detail, I will not go over old ground. However, the overwhelming majority of the more than 4,000 e-mails I have received in recent days about this issue were certainly about whether the Government could be trusted not to privatise Irish Water. Essentially, I suggest this is at the core of all of the arguments being made in respect of the holding of a constitutional referendum. While listening to Senator Gerard P. Craughwell and after talking to Senator Thomas Byrne, I could not help but reflect on the various State utilities that had been created since the foundation of the State. Since Ireland joined the European Union, nearly all of them have been deregulated. The European Union, effectively, has forced Ireland to deregulate in the telecommunications sector and I was in the House for the debate on the legislation which was passed to deregulate it. Similarly, the electricity sector has been deregulated to a large degree. What is there to say about Irish Water in the future? It, unquestionably, will be successful or else it will disappear and go into bankruptcy and neither the Government nor a Government of similar ideology would allow this to happen. What would be the scenario were the European Union to state Irish Water was anti-competitive or not compliant with anti-trust regulations and that, therefore, the Government must deregulate it and sell off some of its services? I note that the Government decided to sell off elements of Bord Gáis Energy to generate money.
Are Members on the Government side surprised that there should be such massive distrust and a disconnection between swathes of the people and the Government on this issue? That is the message I am getting and it is sad because, in a way, it is a matter of some concern for Members as democrats on all sides of the House. To put it in another way, a Government governs with the consent of the people and if it does not have that consent, democracy is in danger. That is at the core of this issue and while it may sound somewhat melodramatic, the trends that have been developing in Irish society in the past year or two are a source of great concern. Now that it is being reflected in a mass movement across the country - despite suggestions on the Government side of the House that it is being orchestrated by one particular grouping or ideology - it is a fact of life that the ordinary, common people of Ireland have come together and are united on this one issue.
They do not believe the Government when it says it will not privatise Irish Water. They might be prepared to give some concession to the current Government's promise not to privatise it but what about the future? The same question arises in respect of charges. They are being frozen until a certain date but what will happen after that? This is all bound up with the banking debt which continues to hang over our heads. The distrust began to emerge when people asked themselves how they ended up in a situation whereby their children will be responsible for paying off this money. These issues have all come together under the heading of Irish Water but the distrust of the Government and even the democratic process grows from a wider base. For this and other reasons, the Government should be alert to the dangers of going down the road of a plebiscite. It seems to me the worst of all possible worlds. As Senator Byrne and others have observed, it is meaningless because it will not address the concerns about privatisation. I acknowledge that the Minister has come a long way in listening to the people but we are dealing with a huge movement on this issue. In my entire career in public life, I have never before received so many communications on an issue as I have on this one. Even the pro-life issue did not give rise to as many communications. I have replied to people in my own constituency but it would be impossible to reply to everybody. It is the same answer in many cases because I understand a certain website allowed people to use templates. I also received replies to my own responses. If it was a party motivated movement, it would be most unlikely that people would bother replying to me.
As has been pointed out time and again, the plebiscite is not going to resolve this distrust. A disconnect between the people and their government is an extremely serious issue in any democracy. I wish it were otherwise because I do not think it will reflect well on any of us as we head in to an election over the next 15 months. We are already seeing the rise of Independents and independent issues. There is nothing wrong with those who were elected to these House. The people are sovereign. They decide who will be elected. However, people are elected not just because the single issues for which they stand but also due to a continuing disconnect with the mainstream parties. I do not want to labour the argument but I am trying to give another view on the arguments against section 2 and the holding of a plebiscite. The Government should pause and reflect on the outcome of this provision.
Senator Byrne gave the best example of what might happen when he cited to the triple lock introduced after the Nice referendum. The Nice treaty had nothing whatsoever to do with militarism. It was nothing more than a housekeeping exercise at European level. I will argue that against all comers because I was actively involved in the campaign. Somehow, a significant number of voters got it into their heads that there was a military dimension to the treaty and that their sons and daughters would be joining a European army. Twelve years on, I have heard nothing about a European army. At the time, however, I met mothers in my own town who genuinely believed their sons and daughters would be conscripted into a European army. They voted against the treaty on that basis. The Government was forced to reassure the people by vesting authority in the United Nations and the Houses of the Oireachtas. That was the most controversial issue and, once it was addressed, the people accepted the treaty. That is what I believe is going to happen with this plebiscite, and I urge the Government to withdraw this section and return to the drawing board.
Ghandi once said that the future depends on what we do today. Our future depends on what we do today about water. I accept the assurances offered by the Minister and this Government that they will not privatise water but that is not the point. The Minister will not be there forever. Any measure we put into the Statute Book should be strong enough to prevent unintended consequences in the future. Given that legislation can always be changed, the only way to prevent privatisation is by offering the Irish people an opportunity to put it into the Constitution. We are all saying the same thing but what problem are we trying to solve? Water and its sources should remain in public ownership and in the hands of Irish people in perpetuity. We all agree that is what we want to achieve but we disagree about the best way to achieve it.
At times like this, it is a pity that we did not have political reform. The whip should have been lifted because I am sure a number of Fine Gael and Labour Party Senators who do not want to introduce any sort of risk of privatising water into our Statute Book. We are leaving the door open to privatisation. Senator Gilroy put forward valid arguments about how we would handle water passing through private property but Senator Craughwell observed that we have already addressed this issue with gas lines. What about European competition law? Senator Heffernan outlined interesting figures yesterday which revealed that after the grants and subventions to Irish Water, its revenue would be €60 million per annum even if everyone signed up. What infrastructure would that fund? If only 50% pay, Irish Water will be in the red. If Irish Water is in the red, it definitely will be open to privatisation. Please think again. All we are trying to do is protect water as a resource, as well as its sources, including Lough Corrib, the River Shannon and lakes in the midlands. Why would we leave even the slightest doubt that they could be taken over?
I support the amendment proposed by Senator Barrett. Unfortunately I was unable to speak on Second Stage and I do not intend to make a Second Stage speech now. Issues have been raised include the unintended consequences and the provisions of our Constitution. The Constitution is not cast iron that can never be changed.
The Constitution is not a cast-iron thing set in stone that can never be changed. So many things have changed in the 78 year period since 1937. I will not go into the history, but at that time about 60% of the Irish economy was based on agriculture. That has totally turned on its head. Another simple point is that at that time, according to statistics and figures, 3% of the children of this nation were born outside wedlock. That is well over 30% now. Somebody mentioned the unintended consequences of enshrining the right to water in our Constitution. I see no difficulty whatsoever in doing that. I have been listening as carefully as I can to the debate and I respect what the various people say. Somebody referred to the right to property, which is enshrined in our Constitution. Maybe there should be a rethink of that.
I was chairman of a committee on the Constitution which, to make it as broad as possible, we enlarged to 16 members. I requested the then Taoiseach, former Deputy Bertie Ahern, to do that in order to be inclusive. We brought in an Independent Member of the Oireachtas, a member of the Green Party and a member of Sinn Féin. My colleague up in County Louth was on that committee just to have it all-inclusive. The man who was our advisor at that time was probably the greatest exponent of constitutional rights and knowledge in this country, Mr. Justice Gerard Hogan. It is being seen here as impossible to enshrine the right to water in the Constitution. I have heard Mr. Justice Hogan and other constitutional experts say that maybe we should expand and look again at the Kenny report.
The right to property was watered down in a local government Act which allowed for social housing needs. Maybe we should think outside the box. What about the right to shelter and housing? We should not be buried in the back of what cannot be done, but should look at what can be done. We had a big debate recently on homelessness when somebody died close to this House. We should be looking outside the box and seeing how we can make our Constitution more appropriate for 2027 rather than 1937. The Minister of State should stand back, have a referendum in April or May, and instead of the potential of this Bill kicking in on 1 January or 1 February, it can be put back to 1 June or 1 July. Then we can put this thing to bed for once and for all.
Senator Craughwell mentioned earlier that when the gas pipelines were brought from Kinsale all over the country that was not a difficulty. There was a piece of legislation tailored to meet that. A simple amendment to the Constitution could uphold and enshrine the basic right to water, then that could be regulated by law.
It is not saying that we cannot go left or right. We even looked at an example as well as a corollary in the notion - which I still think is necessary for this city - of providing an underground train from the city centre out to the airport. In doing that we looked at every person who has a house, a barn or a commercial building from here to the airport. Every person who owns a piece of property owns the land right down to the core of the earth and the air up into the sky as far as possible, even going down 5,000 feet. We looked at the possibility that, like in Spain and other countries, the amount of territory under the house that is part of the property - subject to doing no structural damage - should be no more than ten metres. All these possibilities can be done.
It is not my style to be in any way derogatory against the Minister, Deputy Kelly, or the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, but I must put on record that this provision in the Bill about a plebiscite, however well meant, is a political manoeuvre. It is intended to indicate to the thousands of people that have not alone e-mailed and phoned us but have come out and marched. That is probably 250,000 people altogether, the biggest movement since Daniel O'Connell back a couple of hundred years ago. By ignoring that the Government is saying look, this is going to satisfy them, it has already been seen to. The Government is under the impression that by putting this section 2 into new legislation it will ease the minds of lots of people. I think it is disingenuous and that the Government should go back. This was not agreed by the Dáil, it was agreed because the guillotine was used. It was forced on the Dáil; Members had to come in and the Whip was cracked. As a member of a party I know that feels and I know how it feels to break it as well.
A lot of people in this House may not realise that under our Constitution we have a right to light. Which is more important? We have a right to support, so that our houses do not fall down. We must remember why the right to property was devised in our Constitution. It was to support the landed gentry, the settlers and the rich people. How many people in the street in Dublin have nothing at all to their name? Look at the people in mortgage difficulties at the minute, and banks repossessing, what have those people to their name only headaches, problems and stress?
I sincerely ask the Government to go back and defer this, it is not going to kill off the Bill. I am not going to go into the amount of money involved, the amount of the charges, the propriety of Irish Water or the catastrophe in setting it up and how badly it has been handled - probably disastrously handled - for the last months. I think we should step back from the brink and bring the proposal through the Dáil for a referendum. There are already suggestions from a number of Ministers - maybe the Cabinet is not agreed on it - that there will be a multiplicity of referenda held possibly in April or May. This could also be incorporated into that.
I am just making the point that I would prefer to have a referendum. I am supporting Senator Barrett's amendment because there are all sorts of possibilities out there. As we saw in the referendum to abolish the Seanad, the public are no fools. I personally thought that would succeed but they were put to the vote and they decided listen, we cannot trust the boys in the lower House. We want another House to keep an eye on what is going on. We are here to act as a hand brake to the system. For anybody out there to think there is a promise of a plebiscite in legislation, however sincerely meant, whenever a Government comes in of whatever hue or colour in ten or 15 years, by one simple debate in the Dáil and Seanad they can, as Senator Byrne suggested, have that section deleted in two sitting days. That is important to put on the record.
If we really want to put the status of the Senate in a better place - maybe we are there already - we should be seriously looking. It is something I said 15 years ago in this House about upgrading our Constitution. The 1937 Constitution with all due respect is not fit for 1917 or 1916. We are in a different society for many reasons.
Well 1937, whichever, but I am saying it is not fit for 2016. My apologies. I think we should enshrine the right to water in the referendum and I am asking that, if Senator Barrett's amendment is not accepted or agreed to by Government side, we defer this Bill.
I am so far away from my little abode in west Cork that I might as well stay here tomorrow, Sunday, if it is possible, and Monday and Tuesday.
If we want to deliver proper legislation and if we are to be honest with ourselves, look into our hearts and be honest with the people who are marching - people who cannot afford to pay mortgages and who cannot have a happy Christmas because they have nothing in their pockets - we should be here, and say, with regard to this notion of having a promised plebiscite on legislation, that it is pie in the sky. Let us step back from the brink, and this legislation can kick in on 1 June next year.
This legislation has been held up for over 12 months. The reason it was held up for over 12 months is we have lengthy debates. I spoke ad nauseumin this House when the Bill was introduced before Christmas and, to be honest about it, at least the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, his colleagues who have been here and the Minister, Deputy Kelly, are listening. They are engaging with us. I remember comments made by Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill. The chickens have come home to roost. We were not listened to, like a hoo ha. They thought what of the Senate. It will be gone next year. We are going to abolish it; now we will move into the Dáil, the real Chamber. The Taoiseach got a wallop. If this matter is not sorted out properly - I am not getting into the ratio about charges or their propriety - the greatest wallop of all is going to come. I have got wallops myself politically on many occasions, from my own crowd and from the people. The greatest wallop of all is going to come, but the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are not prepared for it. This will not go away. I am saying they should step back from the brink. The Government should either accept Senator Barrett's very genuine amendment or alternatively defer this issue and have the referendum in the spring of next year.
Like Senator O'Donovan, I forewent my opportunity to contribute on Second Stage yesterday due to the exigencies of the debate. I do not wish to produce the same speech that I had prepared but there are two points I would like to get across while speaking to the amendment.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, back to the House. Many people have said that he and the senior Minister, Deputy Kelly, have inherited an almighty mess and they are doing the best they can to straighten it out. I sometimes feel I can almost hear and see Commissioner Hogan over in Brussels, as he moves onwards and upwards, chuckling at the dilemma he created for them and the mischievous smile he must have on his face. That is the way things are and the whole thing has been one hell of a hames from start to finish. There was a lot of controversy and hoo-ha, when Fianna Fáil was in government, at the time of the voting machines. It turned out to be a costly error. I remember the Fine Gael speakers at the time being particularly scathing. That is a hill of beans compared to this particular situation we are in now.
There is no doubt about it; the people have spoken. They have spoken in a new way. There is a new type of politics in the country. They are no longer speaking through their Dáil representatives. They are speaking with their feet and with their placards. To a certain extent, democracy in practice is always to be welcomed. However, I have to temper that by saying that I believe that parliamentary democracy is supreme and shall always be supreme.
I seem to have cleared out all my own benches here.
Some of the activities of the protesters - including some of the TDs, who have the unique privilege of being in Dáil Éireann to make their point on behalf of constituents but who seem to prefer to leave the precincts of the House and to go to some place with a megaphone under an oxter-----
I am sorry to interrupt my distinguished friend, who did so generously yield, but I am concerned that not sufficient of my colleagues are here to gather up the pearls of wisdom that are being so profusely spread on the floor of this august Chamber.
I will not belabour the House. It is late in the year and we have had quite a lot of debate on the airwaves, on the television and in the national print, and it was morning, noon and night. I was just making the point about the new type of democracy we are seeing in Ireland. It is a new phenomenon. It is interesting in one way and it is worrying in another. If parliamentary democracy fails the people, the people will find a way of getting their point of view across. We saw some very unpleasant events. I think I was the first Opposition spokesperson in either of the Houses to condemn the disgraceful behaviour and manner in which the Tánaiste was treated in Jobstown, and also the Taoiseach in the same week. It is a sad day, if that will be tolerated, particularly where it is tolerated and almost condoned by elected Members of the Lower House. This is something we have to worry about.
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Seanadóir. There was a famous debate in 1948 when another coalition debacle led by Fine Gael, the mother and child scheme, was being debated. De Valera was the Leader of the Opposition, and at the end of it -----
Just a small bit. De Valera was giving the final speech on behalf of the then Opposition. People were expecting a big long Churchillian kind of a speech from Dev and all he said was, "I think we have heard enough". People have heard enough from us. They have spoken first. The question is whether the Government has heard the message. Has the Taoiseach and his Cabinet finally got the message that the people are giving them? Have they come up with the right solution? I have said it before and I concede that they have made the best fist they could of it. One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Senator Barrett's amendment has great merit in it. It would help to allay the genuine concerns of the public. At the end of the day, they will have the final say if there is to be a constitutional referendum. That would be seen as a safeguard and would answer the worries people have that the political system currently is failing them.
The provision of water services, historically, has been a bit of a mess, and I acknowledge it did not start with this Government. I was a shopkeeper for many years in the provincial town of Listowel, County Kerry, and I had to pay water rates although I had barely a washbasin in the premises, as I lived in my private home. There were families with seven and eight children four or five doors down the street and they were using what water there was in the country and not paying anything for it. There was every kind chicanery going on, with people piping water from one person's supply to their own supply in order to escape payment. Clearly, madness has prevailed in the water services area for a long time. At least this Bill is attempting to put some shape on things, but it is not perfect. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, a former great colleague of ours, and the Minister, Deputy Kelly, to find some way of answering the genuine fears of the people.
The only reason I would consider voting for this Bill - although I cannot and will not vote for it - is that I am not happy with the activities of some of those who are most violently opposed to it. Reference was made to the way our communications system has been held up over the last week, with Members getting an average of 200, 300 or 400 e-mails per day on their iPhones and other systems.
We are sick of them. As I was trying to delete them yesterday, however, I found that I had deleted some important and valid representations from my own county of Kerry. I am sure others may also have experienced that. I found out that there is a way of dealing with those particular e-mails.
I wish to make a few points in response to what the Minister said. He read from Article 10.1 of the Constitution and implied that water was already protected in the Constitution when he stated: "All natural resources, including the air and all forms of potential energy ... belong to the State," but he stopped reading at that point. What he did not say was the phrase, also in the same article, "subject to all estates and interests therein for the time being lawfully vested in any person or body". Article 10.3 states: "Provision may be made by law for the management of the property which belongs to the State by virtue of this Article and for the control of the alienation, whether temporary or permanent, of that property." The Constitution clearly envisages that the State has the power to alienate and to sell the natural resources, and that has happened. If that article were taken to mean what the Minister has interpreted it to mean, wind farms would not be allowed to operate, the Tara Mines would be in State control, and so on.
The ESB is in State control, but there but there are also private generators of energy and private extractors of natural resources throughout the country, and that is as it should be. It was a bit disingenuous of the Minister to read partially from Article 10 of the Constitution. He said that we all know what is in Article 10 without reading the entirety of it. What is needed is an amendment to Article 10 of the Constitution which would protect Irish Water.
The Minister and Senator Gilroy also made great play of property rights. Of course, property rights are not absolute, but they made an issue of wayleaves and pipework going through private land and how that would affect us. In fact, Irish Water - it was the local authorities previously - owns the sewerage pipes. The private landowner does not. It has a wayleave or a right of way through that land. These are the rights we want to protect in public ownership, the rights we do not want sold to the highest bidder and the rights we do not want somebody in the private sector to be able put a toll on to allow sewage to go through or water to flow to people's houses. Those pipes are not in private ownership; they are already subject to the rights that Irish Water has. That argument about property rights is bogus. It is the property and assets of Irish Water that we want to protect, not just the shares in the company that is Irish Water, for which the Act provides. It is the assets - the pipes, the treatment plants and access to people's homes - that we do not want sold. That is what we do not want to happen. This section does not provide for that in any way. It is a minimalist approach.
The Minister spoke about the difficulties and possibilities presented by referendums and the reasons we should not hold a referendum, but these reasons would also apply to the holding of a plebiscite. It would be exactly the same, except that at least with a referendum something is put into the Constitution. Those are the points to which I wanted to respond.
I want to make a point briefly because I have already spoken on Second Stage on this topic, and we have been speaking on this for some time. Clearly, the idea of enshrining in law the principle of public ownership of Irish Water is hugely attractive to all of us, and we are all on the same side on this in this House. It is a question of how it is best done. Like others, I had another look at this following our discussion in the House on the constitutional idea. It is attractive until one starts to look at the complexity of the wording and how we would construct a wording that does what we all want without having any other unforeseen implications. We spoke before about the difficulty with a constitutional referendum. The big contrast between that and a plebiscite is that we are inserting a wording into a constitutional text that is there until further amendment. We want to ensure that there is a popular vote before any government can seek to sell off any aspect of Irish Water in the future, and that is what a plebiscite would do. I am convinced that is enough. No government would bring in nuclear power, because the people spoke on that. The clear groundswell of support for public ownership of Irish Water is so overwhelming that no government would contemplate changing or privatising that, and a plebiscite is a way of copperfastening and safeguarding that through a double resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas and a popular vote.
I wish to pick up on what Senator Byrne said, because it was a valid point. An element of confusion was brought into the debate by the Minister in regard to property rights and the law of unintended consequences. Senator O'Donovan pointed out that there is no such law, because it does not exist legally. It is merely a knock-on effect, an externality, or an inefficiency of a property right. Therefore, the property rights issue is a separate element entirely. It is not linked to this issue. The only property rights in question here were those outlined by Senator Byrne - that is, the rights associated with the infrastructure, land and networks that have been transferred to Irish Water. For example, in my county, assets worth €155 million were transferred from public ownership to Irish Water overnight on 1 January this year. Those are the property rights about which we should be concerned - the vast array of the public drinking water network, together with all the treatment facilities and all the sewerage infrastructure, which have been transferred to Irish Water. If Irish Water had not been established we would not even be having this debate on the section. It would be irrelevant, because the water system would be held within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the local authorities and it would be within the control of public representatives. A public monopoly is being established with rights over the control of our water supply, and decision-making is being centralised away from the local authorities, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Houses of the Oireachtas and into an agency, which is being provided with all the infrastructure to supply the network of water to every premises in the country. That is what is in question here.
What is being provided for in the legislation is extremely weak. A plebiscite is not worth the paper it is written on. It is only one of the options available under the proposed legislation. The other option is a simple resolution of Dáil and Seanad Éireann, and the equity stake in the company that is Irish Water could be transferred to any private stakeholder or stakeholders who wish to invest. We know that, inevitably, that is what will emerge down the road.
We can dream that the realm of politics does not work that way but I do not believe that. If an outside investor with serious bang for his buck is willing to provide billions of euro I do not believe that a future Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will resist, particularly if an election is coming and the Government is struggling. It might be different if the money was used for something beneficial to the country. This applies irrespective of party allegiance and that future Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government could represent my party. We all know what would happen if this outside investor approached, given the party system; the Whip would be enforced, backbenchers would be silenced and the Minister would get his way. In these circumstances private sector rent-seeking behaviour would take control and we saw what happened with the bank guarantee.
I agree with what my Sinn Féin colleague said on the bank guarantee because it was disgraceful but I think it will happen due to this legislation too. At the time of the bank guarantee outsiders had more information than the regulators, the Minister for Finance and the Department of Finance officials so those outsiders called the shots and got their way. The same will happen with this legislation. I will not name the outsiders in this matter, though I suspect their names are on every Senator's lips, because those outsiders will come at this issue with the best legal financial, economic and financial brains in their corner and run rings around the system. Politics, Government and decision making would be captured by these outsiders. I am not blaming any political party in Government or in Opposition but I have set out the future if this legislation proceeds. We should not put our water network infrastructure in a position from which it might be captured in the manner I have outlined. At the end of the day, money talks and finance walks - that is what is at stake.
I could go on and on but the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and the Department give me the feeling they are unwilling to examine this. The referendum has been ruled out but why not disband Irish Water before it gets going? Establishing a public monopoly that is not fit for purpose, like Irish Water, is a bad decision and I base this observation on the fact that it has squandered so much money to date. Some €200 million of taxpayers' money has been spent on consultants and legal experts to replicate a structure that exists in other jurisdictions. The referendum would at least enshrine in the Constitution the human right to water, as defined by the UN. We must see that the right to water is enshrined in the Constitution so it cannot be sold for private gain and if we do not do so I believe Irish Water will be sold at some point in the future. It could be sold partially or wholly but, ultimately, elements of it will be sold because private equity investment will be required to fund infrastructure. It seems the Government is hell-bent on not providing funding for infrastructure, as evidenced in the recent announcement.
Like my colleagues, I am concerned about the tokenism of the plebiscite provision and the fact that it does not address the real issues raised by people around the country on the provision of water. I do not believe the assurances on infrastructure not being sold are sufficient because, when it comes to the privatisation of Irish Water, the money will not be made in the infrastructure. As is the case now with providers of electricity and gas, money will be made through the provision of the service. The Government wants to call the people using the service customers, rather than citizens. The provision of water could be regionalised under privatisation. The privatisation of infrastructure is a different issue as that mistake was made with Eircom but an imaginative financial institution could approach a future Government on the issue of the right to bill customers and offer to do it better. That institution could offer to provide water more cheaply and take responsibility away from the Government. I am sure there would be a tendering process but, as evidenced with broadband provision, the least economically viable areas would get the poorest service. This is already evident in how water is provided in rural areas where communities must provide their own water using their own methods.
The wording of the plebiscite pledge and the Government's reluctance to guarantee a constitutional referendum on the matter concern me. The right to water is the most basic right and a plebiscite on this matter is merely tokenism of the highest order and a reaction to an outcry by the people on the Government's lack of trustworthiness. The plebiscite offer is clear evidence that the Government cannot be trusted because, as I read into the record previously, in June 2010 the former leader of the Labour Party said water is a right. He did not believe it should be metered, that there should be a flat fee or that people should pay for it. For the record, I will read the exact quote from Deputy Eamon Gilmore in the Irish Examiner of 28 June 2010.
I am against water charging. Water is a necessity. I have always believed essential services like water should be delivered as a public service. A flat household charge would be unfair. It does not discriminate between houses with five bedrooms and those with none and metering is unworkable.Why should people believe a plebiscite would be held on the sale of shares in Irish Water, though shares are part of the assets of Irish Water? Inventive financial engineering of the kind evident on Wall Street, around the world and here in Ireland, which created the financial catastrophe, would be invoked to manipulate Irish Water in selling off its customers to private equity investment companies. Those companies would reap the benefit of Ireland's water infrastructure because one need not own the infrastructure. Owning infrastructure is a liability and having the ability to collect the money is the real asset.
The Minister, Deputy Noonan, stated he only governs for reasonable people, which goes to the Senator's point in his interruption about who would pay for the infrastructure. As I stated, the infrastructure is a liability, in that the maintenance-----
I have already cautioned Senator Brennan. He is not helpful to the debate. He is being disrespectful to the Chair and, in my view, he is also being disrespectful to the Minister who will either answer Senator Daly or not. Senator Daly please continue.
-----the infrastructure will be a liability to the taxpayer because maintenance of the infrastructure will be done by the citizens, or the customers according to the Government. The Government is supposed to represent all of the people, but those who disagree with Irish Water and the Government's approach are not, according to the Government, the people whom it represents. It only governs for reasonable people according to the Minister for Finance.
The point on the infrastructure and the requirement for a referendum as opposed to a plebiscite is there are many ways in which the customers, according to the Government, could be sold on to a financial institution, and while the billing would not be done by the State the infrastructure would remain with it as a quasi-asset on the books, but a liability, as Senator Brennan has stated, to-----
In this regard, as I have stated, the assurances of the Government are not worth the air on which they are written, because all that counts is what is in the legislation and what is in the Constitution. The lack of will in the Government to ensure not only public ownership of the infrastructure but also of those who would be billed is why the amendment is required. Not having it in the Constitution leaves open the sale of Irish Water and the people being billed to third parties.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore made his famous statement that he did not believe in flat charging or metering, and that he believed it was a public service. All we are trying to do is give fruition to his beliefs and to the beliefs of the Labour Party. However, it seems that if it does not like those principles it has others. The biggest problem for many people with regard to the billing and the €3 a week for water charges is they simply cannot pay it. A referendum will be held in May so there would be no charge to the Government to include another issue on the ballot paper with regard to Irish Water. It would give people genuine assurances, as opposed to words and the promises of leaders of political parties in the run-up to an election that it is an essential public service which they do not believe should be privatised. Deputy Rabbitte made a famous comment about making promises at election time. All that really counts-----
That is a matter for me. Allow Senator Daly to continue please. Because of the interruptions Senator Daly has had twice the normal speaking time. There were five interruptions. If Senators do not like his contribution, or what he is saying, they can leave the Chamber. The Minister is listening to him. We have been speaking about one section for four and a half hours. If we keep going the way we are we will be here on Christmas Eve.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his ruling. We will have a plebiscite, which is unheard of in the history of the State, as opposed to having water as a right and a guarantee to the citizen. We believe this should be enshrined in the Constitution and should be included in the referenda to be held next year. It would give assurance to people no matter what Government is in place or who is in charge.
The problem with the wording on shares is that it is possible to have subsections of shares, and assets, infrastructure, companies and sub-companies can be manoeuvred. Subsidiaries of Uisce Éireann could be moved, as could customer billing, and legal people would be able to argue Irish Water was not actually sold. This could well be the case as a technical point of the law. People want to be assured the State will maintain control over all aspects, from the provision of water to customer billing, if the Bill is passed. All that people can really believe with regard to what is being said about Irish Water is what is written in the legislation, and not what is being promised in speeches in this House and other places, or what was being promised in advance. The Government previously stated it was not possible to deal with ten different issues. We were told these were absolutely impossible. However, U-turns were made on all of them.
There was a U-turn on the suspension of the charge. A household benefit payment, a winter fuel allowance and tax credits on payments were introduced. There was a replacement of the water conservation payment, a side-lining of the free allowance, an expansion of water application packs, the introduction of flat fee and the temporary abandonment of water meters and the bonus system for Irish Water. We were all told this could not be done yet it was done. The CER has been sidelined and now the Government is fixing pricing and not an extra cent in capital investment. Now the Government is telling us that there is all the capital investment in the world. When people see those U-turns and what the Government said could not be done being done, and when they were told that we could not have people having a say in Irish Water and the Government doing a half measure on a plebiscite, one needs to understand how people have no faith in the Government's assurances on the privatisation. The wording and phraseology by Minsters is quite clear. They talk about the infrastructure. There is no money in the infrastructure. The financial houses are looking at how they can maximise an investment on taking over the billing and that is where the money is. There is no provision within Irish Water to stop that from happening because the U-turns that have happened in the past 12 months can happen again.
As we know from plebiscites and the Constitution, the wording here can be interpreted in so many ways that it will not prevent them from retaining the infrastructure and at the same time, ensuring that the Government, which has abandoned Irish citizens and which says that it does not represent people who do not agree with it, cannot assure them that at some future date without a plebiscite or a constitutional amendment, it could not sell them down the Swanee and sell the billing rights under the great auspices and guise of the ever-demanding European search for the all-mighty euro and the belief that someone must make a profit at all times and that there should be competition. On the altar of competition, we would then see many of the people that the Government has abandoned and turned into customers would then be required to pay not to Irish Water but to some third party which has won a competitive bid.
We see in rural Ireland how disastrous the provision by private entities has been when it comes to broadband. I would imagine that in respect of our famous and much-lauded infrastructural improvements that the Government said could not happen but now there is capital investment in the water services, we would not see that happening. We will never see a plebiscite but I can guarantee that at some future date because of the requirement for money and Europe's instructions, we might end up having to look at a situation where there will be four different providers of the service who do not own the infrastructure but who will end up billing the customers nonetheless. In that case, the Government will say that it is within the legislation. Therefore, the U-turn will go from ten to 11 and the Irish citizen, who is our main concern, will be no better off.
One of the fundamental flaws in this and one of the biggest concerns people have is the ownership of water and whether it can be sold on. I heard the Minister say that no Government in its right mind would do this, that or the other. I do not agree. One can go back to the Minister of State's party and look at the NewERA document and the proposed establishment of the strategic investment bank which can be funded by the sale of State assets and the fact that this Government under a Labour Party Minister wanted to sell the harvesting rights for Coillte. These things were done very recently.
In an earlier contribution, Senator Byrne outlined how the fact that people think that no Government in its right mind would declare war on anyone else does not mean that we say that we do not need to copper-fasten that in our Constitution because nobody would actually do it. Ownership of water is a real and genuine concern. Senators on Second Stage who rightly called for that and supported the motion calling for a referendum did so on a cross-party basis. They were people from all parties and none with the exception of Fine Gael which supported that. This is what people want.
The Minister said earlier today that effectively the Government would not do it because it is complex. It is not that it cannot do it. If one looks at the referendum that related to this very House over 12 months, one can see that it was an extremely complex referendum that the Taoiseach and Cabinet had officials working on the wording of that referendum for the guts of a year. I believe over 70 amendments to the Constitution and Standing Orders would have been required to remove any reference to the Seanad. That was an extremely complex referendum to put together yet the Government did it because it wanted to do it. In this instance, where the people overwhelmingly want the Government to have a referendum to ensure that Irish Water cannot be sold or privatised in future, the Government will not do it. It is not that it cannot do it; it simply will not do it. I do not accept some of the comments from Labour Party Senators earlier who effectively said while they supported the motion that was within the House, they went back, studied it and were effectively told that it was not possible.
I do not believe that is true. The Senators thought it was not necessary. Why was it necessary only a matter of weeks ago but it is not necessary now? My opinion as to why it is believed that it is not necessary is because within the Labour Party, the party leader and Tánaiste in discussions with Ministers at Cabinet, told Labour Party Members that this was causing too much difficulty, that they had to toe the Fine Gael line on this and that there would be a halfway house whereby the Government would promise some type of plebiscite. The Minister openly acknowledged, and I welcome the fact that he did, that this piece of legislation can be just changed, as we all know. Nothing is tied in. What cannot be changed that easily is if one has a referendum and it is tied into the Constitution. If it is tied into that, only the people can decide.
I agreed wholeheartedly with Senator O'Donnell only a matter of weeks ago when she spoke so eloquently in here about the ownership of water and why water should not be privatised. I do not believe she could be convinced that what Government has come up in this Bill is sufficient to deal with her concerns and the concerns of probably over 80% of the people in the most recent poll. I do not believe her fears could have been assuaged by what the Government has come up with in section 2 of this Bill which can be removed by any future Government. That section could be stood down. They are real concerns.
Senator Daly outlined ten different U-turns. Since the Government set up Irish Water, things that could not be changed have now been changed. Here is another one the Government said could not be changed. The Taoiseach said only a matter of weeks ago that there was no need for anything and that this was fine. Now it is in the legislation. Let us remind ourselves about what is being done here about Irish Water. The Government has spent €172 million on setting it up. That does not include €540 million on the meters themselves. I am supportive of metering because in future-----
The Government spent €540 million plus €172 million. It will probably raise a maximum of €140 million per year. It will probably be way less than that - some people are saying it will be €20 million - and for what? It has transferred 4,000 staff to a utility that is-----
We will get to that section later. I am not convinced by the argument made by Government and those who support this section that what Government is proposing with regard to a plebiscite would in any way, shape or form deal with the future ownership of water.
While commentators might say now no Government would do it, I do not agree. Fine Gael, in particular, would be a party about which, should it be in government again, I would be concerned would sell Irish Water because that has been the party's track record. Fine Gael tried to do that already in the term of this Government. Look at Fine Gael's NewERA document that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, put together in 2009 in advance of Fine Gael's election manifesto. Way back then, Fine Gael talked about the creation of a utility. Look at what has happened in Britain with regard to privatisation of water, the problem they have and the cost. Once one gets the people into the net, as Senator Cullinane mentioned, they are treated as customers, not citizens. The people own the water and it is not up to the Government to come up with some half-baked measure like this.
We all are supposed to feel confident in a Government that has utterly failed,-----
-----particularly in this instance. It has been an absolute disaster. Anyone who is honest about it would say of the mess created - by both the former Minister, Commissioner Hogan, and the Cabinet - that Deputy Kelly comes in here, beats his chest and states correctly that he will sort it out, he recognises mistakes were made and it was a mess but his party leader, the Tánaiste, and others all sat at Cabinet and made the decision together. There is collective Cabinet responsibility. Because the former Minister has gone to Europe, they can blame him for this mess and state it was nothing to do with them.
While I acknowledge that the Minister has moved some way towards rectifying some of the issues, the fundamental issue that relates to this section and that Senator Barrett's amendment would deal with, has not been dealt with sufficiently. I listened to the Second Stage speeches yesterday. I listened with interest to some of the Independent Senators who decided, for their own reasons, to support the Government on the Bill, particularly around the area of ownership, and I was not convinced. I remain unconvinced.
For those who may be frustrated with the fact that we are still on Committee Stage a number of hours in, I would say that this Bill should have been defeated on Second Stage. That is why we are perfectly within our rights to table amendments on Committee Stage and to debate those amendments, and we will continue to do that.
As for all the thousands of people who have made contact with each of us - I do not subscribe to what the Minister and some Senators stated earlier about these computer-generated e-mails - I have spoken to some of those who e-mailed me and responded to many of those e-mails. People are genuinely concerned about this. As for this idea that in some way it was an annoyance that we received hundreds of e-mails per day,-----
----- I say, "Big deal". That is the job. I agree with Senator Cullinane. I myself do not share that view. People are entitled to contact their Oireachtas Members about issues that concern them and that is what people, in the hundreds and thousands, have been doing over the past number of days and weeks.
I will conclude shortly.
I would invite the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, if he could, - I would invite the Minister, Deputy Kelly, to come back in to contribute sooner rather than later on this specific issue - to explain the complexity of having a referendum about the ownership of Irish Water staying with the Irish people in perpetuity. He cannot publish the Attorney General's advice but he can state the issues in real terms. This idea of private wells, bore holes, aquifers is a load of nonsense. I assume that Cabinet received formal advice from the Attorney General but I have not received a proper answer to that either. The Minister stated that the Attorney General advised and was contacted. Did formal advice go to the Cabinet? Did the Cabinet meet specifically about the issue of a referendum following the passing by the Seanad of a motion on the issue? The Minister, Deputy Kelly, stated he brought that to Cabinet and it discussed it. Was it dealt with formally as an item on the agenda at a Cabinet meeting? Did the Minister formally get advice from the Attorney General? What are the real areas of complexity and how are those complex issues so insurmountable that we cannot deal with them when only last year a number of civil and public servants were sent away for the guts of a year to prepare for a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad which was far more complex? It showed when the Government wanted to do something, it could. The reality is that they do not want to hold a referendum on this issue. They should because that would clear up a major part of the concerns that people have.
Let us return to look at Irish Water right now and everything that was said. The local property tax was mentioned. Not one cent of what was collected in this country this year under what the Minister calls the local property tax has gone to the local authorities. Furthermore, to get around EU rules, the Government has taken another €60 million from the local authorities to cook the books to ensure that its subvention to Irish Water does not go over 50%.
It is a disaster. I acknowledge that the Minister tried to go some way towards fixing it but he has not gone far enough. The Government should hold a referendum next May. With the other referenda that it has announced and with the by-election, it can be done. It might be the one referendum on which the Government would get the support of the people. It is important. People are genuinely concerned about it.
Section 2 does not do it for most people. If the Bill is passed, the Minister could introduce an amendment next year, if he wanted to, to remove the section. That would be it, job done. It does not matter about a plebiscite or two thirds of the Dáil and Seanad. None of it matters. It is completely irrelevant. The Minister could come in and change it. If he holds a referendum and it is enshrined in the Constitution, the Minister would have to go back to the people to get their approval.
That is the real belt and braces. That is what is required, namely, that the Government put it into Bunreacht na hÉireann. The people want the ownership of the water in this country to be retained by the people of Ireland in perpetuity. Let them vote on it. What is the problem with them voting on it? I have not yet got an answer to that.
The Minister of State should tell me what the problem is. Is it a political decision that Fine Gael and the Labour Party have made or are there really complex areas that the Government cannot deal with, or is it that the Government will not deal with those areas? I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, or the Minister, Deputy Kelly, whenever he returns this evening, to answer that question. What is so complex about this that the Minister cannot do it?
I still think, even at this stage, that this section in its entirety should be deleted. My party is opposing it. My colleagues in Sinn Féin and others on the Independent benches are opposing the section. The Government should delete this section, take it out of the Bill and go back to the drawing board. They can still do that.
They have set themselves a false deadline of January for charges. They have changed that previously. They changed already the deadline for the return of applications forms to be sent in to Irish Water. At one stage we were told that it was an absolute necessity that PPS numbers be sent in to get allowances and, lo and behold, it is not and Irish Water is deleting all the PPS numbers that it holds. Why should we trust the Government with the advice the Minister is giving us on this important issue when it has got so much of it wrong up until now? The Minister of State should tell us why the Government cannot hold a referendum. Is it a political decision, did the Government merely decide that it does not want to and it is against doing so, and what are the areas of complexity in that regard? Even if Deputy Coffey stated the Government could not hold a referendum next May and it will take longer than that, he should prepare a referendum for next year. He should clear up that issue and deal with other areas of concern, such as charges.
I am yet to be convinced by those who argued vociferously, in my view, rightly, for a referendum only a short couple of weeks ago who now believe that this section on a plebiscite is sufficient. I still remain to be convinced as to why that is.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach might advise me as to whether it is appropriate that the Minister of State respond at this stage to answer queries that have been put already.
Sorry; I have not concluded yet. I am yet to be absolutely convinced on that. I know the Minister has taken a note. I do not know whether it is the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, or the Minister, Deputy Kelly who is coming back in.
Ninety-eight years after the founding fathers of this country declared the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, we are here pleading with the Minister to call a referendum in order that we can enshrine one tiny part of the ownership of Ireland to the people, and that is water. Water is the single commodity we cannot live without. A lot of people are repeating the same things, but the more I hear going on today, the more I demand that the evidence that this cannot be put to a referendum be brought before the House and made public. This notion that we get legal advice from some person with a wig who can hide behind his gown and never make himself or his opinion known to the people - or worse still, offer an opinion and hide behind anonymity - is totally unacceptable. Somebody made the point that we did not sell off the ESB, which is correct. How many companies are supplying electricity in this country at the moment? How many companies can contract from the ESB and supply electricity? I just had a quick look on the internet and can pick any one of six companies. I can go to uSwitch.ieand pick a company at random. I can do the same for gas, TV and telecommunications.
We keep referring to people as customers. How can I be a customer of something I own? The Minister says he is going to enshrine ownership through a plebiscite, because he cannot flog it off unless the plebiscite is passed. We all accept, and the Minister himself accepts, that a plebiscite has no legal basis whatsoever. I agree it would be a brave Government that would run a plebiscite, win or lose it and then go off and do the opposite thing, but there is absolutely nothing to stop this from happening.
Meters that we do not need have been installed around the country to the tune of €540 million. We are told they will help people control their water usage. I can assure the Minister of State that there will be a meter outside my house in the next few days and it is not going to change one jot the amount of water we use in the house. My wife will still go out and water the garden and I will pick up the cost. It is a nonsense. The Minister has gone off and decided to spend this money when he could have put that €540 million into repairing the system. A flat charge does not in any way inspire or enthuse people to cut down on their water usage.
It strikes me, based on what Senator O'Brien has just said, that there will be insufficient funding from the fixed charge. The fixed charge is already discriminatory, because I am paying €40 a year more than my single neighbour - an extra €20 each for myself and my wife. The bottom line is that the Minister is not going to collect enough money to pay off what he has borrowed, so how is he going to fix the infrastructure? Some smart suit over in Brussels is going to stand up and insist that he bring in competition in order to fund his infrastructure. It is going to happen. They have already forced him to make our electricity system competitive. They will force him to make our water system competitive unless we have something there to protect us.
My colleague, Senator Daly, said we must ensure that we have control over Irish Water. I disagree with him. We must not ensure we have control over it; we must ensure that we own it. That is not control; it is absolute control. We must own everything - every pipe, every production plant, everything.
Perhaps Senator Norris is right. Perhaps it has been a tiresome morning for all of us. I cannot even begin to explain to the Minister of State the level of frustration that I feel today. I have two telephones beside me here. I have contacted country councillors all over the country and none of them wants anything to do with Irish Water. The level of frustration they feel as a result of starvation by countless Governments down through the years that refused to fund water properly is palpable. My phone is hopping off the table here. I am tired. Bring me the evidence. Show me and the Irish people what legal advice the Minister - I am glad to see the Minister, Deputy Kelly, is back in the Chamber - has. He should bring that advice in and read it into the record and let the people know. Otherwise, he is hiding something. That applies to both the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey. If there is nothing to hide, why not just bring it in and read it out? You does not have to read the name of the person who gave it to you. If you asked the Attorney General to give you advice, I am sure the Attorney General contracted some other senior counsel or legal entity.
Is dócha go mbeadh an leasú seo an-tábhachtach don Bhille atá os ár gcomhair inniu.
I would like to commend Senator Barrett on this amendment. A plebiscite on the ownership of Irish Water is essential if water is to remain within the ownership of the Irish people. I said on Second Stage, and would have said again on Committee Stage, that I am certainly not enamoured with monopolies. Public monopolies are not quite as bad as private monopolies. What we have in Uisce Éireann is a public monopoly. Unfortunately, it has started in the worst possible way, with all the excesses we would associate with some of the longer-established public or semi-private sector companies. Mention has been made of ESB, for example-----
I made much reference to Bord Gáis during this debate, because it is the body in which Uisce Éireann has been placed as a subsidiary. If we look at the ESB, though, the average salary there as of about six years ago was €70,000 per year.
If one compares this with any other industry one will see a huge disparity. During the terms of the last Dáil and Seanad I was a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and I sought to obtain figures on the salaries of the top ten executives in each of the semi-State companies under the remit of that committee. I met some resistance but we also got figures for the average salaries. It is fair to say that people were handsomely paid because I doubt that people in the same positions in the private sector got half the amount of money. There is a historical record on this and, ultimately, when it comes to public utilities, taxpayers and householders foot the bill for egregiously handsome pay packages in semi-State companies.
Mention has been made of the privatisation of water but water is one of our great natural resources and I think we all acknowledge that it is valuable. It will become increasingly valuable because climate change will have a significant bearing on the need for water around the world and will adversely affect water supply in many regions. All of this will enhance significantly the value of our water resources. We are fortunate to live in an area with a plentiful supply of good quality water. I visited Jordan as part of a delegation of American and Irish politicians some years ago and I attended a meeting with King Abdullah where he predicted that the next general war in the Middle East will be about water rather than oil. Huge issues in that region at the moment have given rise to tensions that could lead to conflict over the supply of water.
If there are to be charges, it is essential that we ensure water continues to be available to the people of Ireland at a competitive rate. The cost of water must be reasonable and affordable but if Irish Water is privatised, customers, householders and the people of Ireland will be fleeced. This could be avoided if there was sufficient competition under privatisation but I do not know how that could be achieved.
Much reliance has been placed on section 2 and I will return to the wording and the weaknesses of the section shortly. The weaknesses of section 2 are apparent irrespective of the intent behind the section, which is unachievable anyway. The previous speaker mentioned the European Union and I welcome the fact that the EU has protected the consumers of this State in various areas but greater efforts are required to ensure competition and consumer protection in a range of areas where monopolies or dominance exist. Energy provides a good example because we pay far more in Ireland for electricity than those in other countries. The cost of telecommunications is very high in Ireland but efforts have been made through the EU to introduce more competition to tackle the issue of cost. As stated, water is an area upon which the EU will focus attention in the not-too-distant future. The EU has increased its levels of intervention in all areas of society but I do not welcome intervention on social matters because I think that is ideologically driven rather than in people's best interests. The sovereignty of individual states must be respected.
Ireland has signed up to the powers of the EU through various treaties that were approved by the people of Ireland in referenda. The State will not be able to contest any challenge by the EU in the area of water because the people of Ireland have already endorsed the various treaties from which the EU derives its powers. Fine Gael and Labour Party Senators have said that their parties have guaranteed the people of Ireland that Uisce Éireann will not be privatised. I do not know how reassured the people will be by such a commitment from these parties but it is only a couple of months since one of the parties in these Houses, Sinn Féin, stated that it would buttress any shortfall in funds by part-privatising Irish Water. The by-election in Dublin South-West changed the view of the party but it could make another U-turn on this in future, as could any party. I am concerned by this and do not believe the people of Ireland will find comfort in the assurances of any politician from any party.
I was in this House when the economic crisis began in 2008 and it is the biggest emergency the State has faced in my lifetime. The future of the country was at stake and the parties in the Opposition at that stage were happy to play politics by promising to burn bondholders and show the people of Ireland a better way. Yesterday I read into the record assurances from the then Opposition that there would be no charges for water because the then Opposition opposed such charges. However, the Bill before us and the Bill we dealt with this time last year aim to impose water charges on the people of Ireland.
The standing of politicians in public opinion is very low and, while this is somewhat exaggerated and media-driven, there are good reasons for it. Politicians say things without any intention to follow through and give no thought to reversing direction when the time comes. I heard rumours yesterday that public moneys and soon-to-open public positions are being used to secure the passage of this Bill through the Houses. I do not know if the rumours are true and I sincerely hope they are not because, if true, they would further undermine the standing and credibility of politicians. This would not be good for democracy at a time when many people in society are almost anarchists who are happy to undermine the democratic process by stoking public opinion. If we lose the democratic process we lose everything.
I know that section 2 was added with good intent and to assuage fears held by the people who campaigned against the legislation. They feel that Irish Water could fall into private ownership and impose unaffordable costs on hard-pressed taxpayers. As many Members have asked, is section 2 any more than a fig leaf?
I will give two reasons for my saying that and raising the question. First, as many speakers have said, any legislation can be overturned at any stage by any Government purely by bringing amending legislation through the House. If there is another Government such as the current one, with a huge majority in the Lower House, legislation may be overturned at the whim of a Minister or, perhaps, a Department. This presents a serious risk for the public.
The next issue I wish to raise was highlighted by my colleague. If the European Union, for example, imposed a requirement on us to ensure an element of competition in the interest of the consumer, the Government would be obliged to take it on board. No Government would be able to resist that. In such circumstances, there would be a credible argument for changing the legislation without a plebiscite. The latter would leave us offside with the European Union and we could be fined for contravening its laws and regulations. This point has been made by many others.
Let me raise a point I have not heard made yet but which seriously concerns me. I refer to the complete undermining of the Government's intent. Section 2(1) states a Bill providing or allowing for the alienation of any share or shares in Irish Water to a person other than a Minister of the Government shall not be initiated without a resolution on a referendum coming before the House. That deals specifically with the transfer of shares. As we all know, one does not have to transfer shares to transfer business. The business could be transferred.
In this regard my colleague, Senator Byrne, referred to the lottery, in respect of which a licence to operate or a lease for a period could be given. In this instance, however, one could go further. There could be a transfer of the business of Uisce Éireann. Perhaps it would retain the distribution system but there is nothing in this section that would prevent it from transferring the treatment plants or reservoirs, for example, or from determining the water charges. Perhaps Uisce Éireann would retain the network of pipes, for which it would apply a charge to the new private entity. There is nothing in this section that would prevent that from happening. A Government could have to act under duress based on a requirement of the European Union. If what I describe happens, a Government could proceed without any reference to the Oireachtas. It would not even have to go to people. The business could be transferred under the legislation. That is a very serious lacuna in what is drafted. This would be the case even if it had the force of sustainability in the future, which, obviously, no legislation has because it can be changed.
I ask the Minister to reconsider. It is not as if we are asking for something very unreasonable. Everybody I have heard speak, including the Minister, talked about keeping our water supplies in Irish ownership in perpetuity. If we are ad idemon that, there will be an opportunity next May, at no extra cost to the people or at very little cost, to hold a referendum with the others the Government is proposing to hold. There is actually an avenue to achieve what we are asking for if the Government is of a mind to do it.
To date, I have not heard how the Government could give us absolute assurance on this without underpinning that assurance with an article in our Constitution. One of the greatest legacies of Éamon de Valera and the Government of the 1930s was a Constitution that has really stood the test of time, as the Minister acknowledged. It was extraordinary a few years ago, when we were introducing in our laws the European Convention on Human Rights, that all the protections we were adding to our laws were already invoked and covered under the 1937 Constitution. It is remarkable that there was such foresight and vision almost 80 years ago. Today we urge that some of the vision of the founding fathers of this State be applied by our current Government and all politicians. I do not just point the finger at the Government. We all need to renew our sense of commitment to the people and this country, in which we are fortunate enough to have been born and to live.
He should not do that. I am extremely aware of the difference between the privatisation and public ownership of water. I have watched Nestlé walk through Africa and, as I told the House, bottle African water under the guise of Pure Life and sell it all over the world. I am extremely aware of what happens when vulture funds take over, in whatever capacity, especially in respect of something as important as water.
Senators talk about how important water is. We are water. Some 73% of one’s heart is made up of water.
I am right. Water is us; we are water. We come from water and we are water. The idea that it is important is insufficient as one cannot find a word to suggest how important it actually is.
I suggest to Fianna Fáil, because it has been thumping at us over here all morning-----
The party drew up a manifesto which offered the electorate a string of financial and economic sweeteners, encouraging them to vote for Fianna Fáil. Some of the promises that were offered included the abolition of rates on houses, the abolition of car tax and the promise of reducing unemployment, and the abolition of water rates.
On the plebiscite, the Bill as originally published was so wanton and loose about who could in the future own Irish Water, that I actually felt that it was nearly a ready-up for privatisation.
I just need a little more convincing on the Bill as it stands. I ask this question of the Minister and of the Senators. Section 2(1) states:
A Bill providing or allowing for the alienation of any share or shares in Irish Water to a person other than a Minister of the Government shall not be initiated by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government in either House of the Oireachtas unless—It states each such House, so that is a double lock.
(a) a Resolution of each such House is passed approving a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation,
The section continues:
(b) a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation is submitted by Plebiscite for the decision of the PeopleI am a selected Member of the House. However, are other Senators, as elected Members of the House, saying they will not know the force, thrust, ideas, belief and values of the people? Is that what they are saying?
Are those Senators, who go home to their local areas every evening, saying they will not know that? Are they separating the dancer from the dance? Are they saying they would do something in absolute contradiction of what the people want, feel and value? Is that what you are saying? It that the way you are saying that people elected in the future will act and ignore the what the people feel and value?
You cannot because you are elected as the voice of the people. That is why you are here. That is why you will be here in the future when I am long gone through the revolving doors to the delight of many and the despair of others.
----- issue of the privatisation versus public ownership of Irish Water, which I think is the nub of the problem. I believe we should pay for water. We should purify it, conserve it and supply it. As Senator Mary Ann O'Brien has said, we have gone a Wizard of Oz way around it. I believe we should pay for it, but this is the nub of the problem - having pride in our water and holding it. However, we cannot dismiss the people's voice from that or their value system from that or what they think about it from that. It is a third lock in this plebiscite.
Senator O'Donnell raised an important point in asking us to consider if we would go against the people. She only has to go back to the Oireachtas inquiries referendum where every party in this Oireachtas was in favour of that amendment, but that was against the wishes of the people. The parties got it completely wrong with the wishes of the people regarding giving the Oireachtas more powers to inquire and that is a recent precedent.
Every party except Fianna Fáil was in favour of the abolition of the Seanad. That was against the wishes of the people.
Senator O'Donnell asked if we are out of tune with the public. Yes, elected politicians can be out of tune with the public. That is why we have a Constitution - to protect the people and protect the institutions of the State from the whims of politicians. They cannot just go in there and change things at whim, which they can do with this section. They changed the national lottery that Senator O'Donnell cares so much about on a whim - on a policy change. Things change.
We had a lottery Act that did not allow for the issuing of a licence to a private body and then we simply had a section in the other Act repealing the previous Act. That is what will happen here. In fairness to Senator O'Donnell, I think that point is unanswerable.
The Minister has repeatedly said that no party has proposed this. Actually Senator Walsh reminded me of the Sinn Féin policy document which has been buried very effectively since September. Sinn Féin called for equity investment in Irish Water as a way to avoid charges. That went completely unnoticed by the media at the time and I think Sinn Féin is very embarrassed about it now. That document was only issued in September before the two by-elections.
I am not sure they even understood what equity investment was. The amendment would attempt to prohibit it because equity investment would mean the alienation of shares in Irish Water. It is a fact, as Senator Walsh has helpfully reminded us, that parties have proposed this and may propose it in the future. That is why we need something much stronger than what is contained in the Bill.
There is another problem with this section. I do not know if the Minister or his officials have given any thought to this. There is no definition of a plebiscite.
The reality is that we have plebiscites in other legislation. There is a plebiscite in planning legislation whereby there can be a plebiscite to have a housing estate taken into charge. What is the practice with those plebiscites? The practice is that the residents just fill out a form and submit it to the council. It is not a vote. It is not a referendum of the residents of the housing estate in my experience of those types of plebiscites in County Meath. There is no definition of a plebiscite. There is an implication here that there are votes, but there is nothing specifying that this event, whatever it is, will be akin to a referendum for changing the Constitution. It mentions votes.
The Minister is given extraordinary powers under section 2(6) to make all the rules relating to this plebiscite, whatever it is. With constitutional referendums, not only do we have the Constitution of Ireland to guide us in how to carry out those referendums, but we have so much legislation to deal with all the related issues. It is important that is dealt with by primary legislation because the Minister does not have the powers to make all the rules I believe this legislation purports to give him.
With referendums, we also have the benefit of a referendum commission, which ensures equal treatment of both sides of the debate. Presumably if any future Government were to come to holding a plebiscite, it would be advocating for the plebiscite and would be proposing the sale of a share or shares in Irish Water. It would then be in its interest to persuade the public as best it can.
There is nothing in the legislation to prohibit the spending of Government money to promote a "Yes" vote on the sale of shares in a plebiscite, whereas there is for a referendum. There is absolutely nothing about that.
There is a provision that the Minister can make regulations, but it is such a broad provision that is almost as if the Minister is taking upon himself the powers of the Oireachtas to legislate for this. If the Minister were allowed to do that, why do we have Referendum Acts? In that case surely the Minister of the day could just issue regulations instead of having detailed provisions about polling places and ballot papers. The issue of ballot papers in referendums has been a contentious issue. There is nothing about that here.
We are talking generally and not talking about the present Minister, Deputy Kelly. That is the whole point as to why we want absolute protection on this.
There is simply nothing here. The Government could decide - probably 30 years later - that it wants to sell it and that it will go to a plebiscite. It would be open to it under this legislation simply to put a leaflet in the door of every house stating "Sign and return if you want Irish Water to be sold or not". That is the precedent we have for plebiscites in this country under the Planning and Development Act. As I understand it, what happens is that the forms are signed and put back to the council. There is no vote taken in the local community hall.
Tá brón orm. Níl aon rud sna Buan-Orduithe a deir go gcaithfidh mise stopadh, nó go bhfuil teorann ama ansin dom ach an oiread. Senator Landy has disagreed with my interpretation of "plebiscite". My interpretation of "plebiscite" may not be right, but Senator Landy's may not be right either. The point is that there is no definition of "plebiscite" whatsoever in the section. That is a major failing in this legislation. The reason that there is no definition of "plebiscite", the reason we do not know what a plebiscite actually is, is that this was done as a rushed job after the public said no, and we are being asked to rush this through, and to endorse it before Christmas. My colleagues and I have been calling to stop this in its tracks, to think about it more carefully and the Minister should listen to the arguments that are being made.
Níl aon rud le rá agamsa faoin alt seo. Suffice to say that I have never been to a fortune-teller. I do not know whether anyone else has been, but I have never listened to so many fortune-tellers as in this House, speaking about how Irish Water should be operated or the difference between customers and clients. The person who pays the bill is the customer and that customer might be paying for a number of citizens living in the one house. I have not much to say on this section. I have a few words to say on a couple of other sections.
There is a problem. It is difficult for the Minister to be sitting here for very lengthy contributions. We started at 11.30 a.m. and it is 4.15 p.m. It is the reason the Ministers have switched over and back and the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, has been in. The problem is that questions are being asked and are not being picked up on and not being answered. That is why we come back in. We cannot leave. There is no sos. We have to stay here. That is not our fault. At least the Minister-----
My point is that we are asking questions. Some of them are being picked up by the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, and some by the Minister sitting there, and then they are not being answered because there is no communication between them.
The Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, also sat here for God knows how long. How many points were made that the Minister might not even be aware of?
That is not the point I wanted to raise at all. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell asked a question earlier and I want to address it through the Chair. She read out a section of the Bill relating to the holding of a plebiscite, which is the first paragraph of section:
A Bill providing or allowing for the alienation of any share or shares in Irish Water to a person other than a Minister of the Government shall not be initiated by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government in either House of the Oireachtas unless—and so on. None of that means anything. None of it means a damn thing, because it can just be repealed, amended or taken out of a future Bill. She must accept that. The Minister has already acknowledged it so she must accept that. The reason we are going around in circles on this issue is that we have some Senators trying to pretend this is something that it is not.
(a) a Resolution of each such House...
It does not mean anything. There may not be any vote in the Oireachtas, there may not be any plebiscite, there may not be anything, because it could just be amended if a Government wants to do that. That is the simple reality. Examples were given earlier of industries that were deregulated and it does raise concerns about Irish Water and what could happen there in the absence of a referendum. The example was given of telecommunications, when Telecom was deregulated and we then had multiple operators. The example of the ESB was also given and we now have a number of different operators operating in that market. How can the Minister say the same thing will not happen with water? How can he say categorically that we will not see the deregulation of our water services?
The Minister has not at all dealt with the root of this problem, which goes back to the European Union Water Framework Directive and the wider policy in Europe, which is to liberalise, deregulate and privatise services. That is where all of this is coming from in the first place. We had a derogation for years in relation to water charges. The Minister knows that the thrust of European policy is to take us in this direction. I have already articulated what will happen once the charges are introduced. I made the point in my Second Stage speech to the Minister, and I will make it again: he is like a second-hand car salesman, coming in here, trying to ask us buy-----
-----trying to sell something that is like asking us to buy a pig in a poke. I was here for the 17 hours that we discussed the Water Services Bill and not once in all of the discussions we had at that time - this was only a year ago and we had 17 hours - was the holding of a plebiscite mentioned by the Government. Now it is an issue because they are saying they are listening to the people, but it is only a sop. It does not mean anything. That is the point. They are trying to tell us that we cannot have a constitutional referendum because of so-called unintended consequences. The point is that they are not serious about it. The Government does not want this. It never wanted it. Go back to the very start of this. It never wanted a plebiscite. It certainly does not want a constitutional referendum, and if it were serious, we could have one. If the Government wanted it, it would happen. They are coming up with all sorts of excuses because they do not want it. Not one single excuse has been given by the Government so far as to why we cannot have a constitutional referendum. That is why we must keep coming back to the Minister. He has not given us the excuse.
I asked a straightforward question about whether section 2 could simply be withdrawn. I know the Minister has not come back yet, but hopefully he will answer it. How meaningless does that make the section? I would say that to all the Independent Senators. I know they are in a difficult position, but they are being asked to make a big decision that at some point in the future could have profound consequences. We can all say whatever we want in this Chamber. The Minister can say what he wants, I can say what I want, Fianna Fáil can say what it wants and Senator O'Donnell can say what she wants. We can all say whatever the hell we want, but at the end of the day, if, at some point in the future, any future Government wants to privatise Irish Water, or any element of it, or through the back door with a licence, as was said earlier, it can be done by way of legislation. What we want, and what we should have, is a cast-iron guarantee in the Constitution that goes back to the people. Then we will have certainty. Any words on this paper, with the greatest of respect to any of the Independent Senators, are not worth the paper they are written on. I said at the very start of the Water Services Bill, mark 1, that I was not buying a pig in a poke. I was right. The Minister is now saying that we were right, because the Government made mistakes. I said on the Water Services Bill, mark 2, that I was not buying a pig in a poke, and I was right. I am saying it again with the third attempt by this Government. I am not buying a pig in a poke because I will be proven right. It may not be in three weeks time or three months time or three years time - it could be ten, 20 or 30 years time - but at least I can say I fought for the people. I fought for a constitutional amendment. I did not buy a formula of words that was in legislation that could be overturned by one day of debate and the passing of one Bill. This will be my final contribution on this amendment, but I have listened to a lot of nonsense from the Government Senators.
Not one single contribution, either from the Minister or anybody from the Government, has persuaded me that we cannot have a constitutional referendum. The Minister can dismiss it all he wants and we may have a long night, but the reason for that is that he is not prepared, willing or able to provide us with the information we ask for. We had exactly the same problem when we debated the Water Services Bill for 17 hours. We had the same sighs and grunts from the Minister and Government Senators who said we were filibustering, raising amendments and asking questions that should not really be asked. All of those same questions are now being asked by the Government Senators and we are being told that they were legitimate. I have no doubt we will be back here and I am putting my position on the record, which is that I am not going to be fooled by anybody.
I am not going to be fooled by any three-card trick by this Minister or any other. What we should have and what the people demand is a constitutional referendum. It could easily happen if the political will was there. The Minister can make this happen and it is the only way we can guarantee that the people will decide. There is no other way. If the Minister or anybody else suggests otherwise, he is trying to con and fool people and I certainly will not be conned or fooled.
I thank the Senators again for their contributions. First I want to deal with the amendment rather than the section, because we are on the amendment. Regarding amendment No. 1, tabled by Senator Barrett, the opening piece deals with the passing of the shares to the Minister for Finance for the dissolution of Irish Water. It sets out the resolution on a plebiscite, in section (8) it talks about ensuring orderly alienation of Irish Water and in section (9) about powers of Irish Water going to local authorities within 180 days. To be quite clear on ownership, Ervia has no shares in Irish Water and no capacity to sell Irish Water. The shares in Ervia are vested in the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, and the shares in Irish Water are vested in the Ministers for Finance and Environment, Community and Local Government. There is no need for a transfer of shares, they are already owned.
Regarding the proposals put forward on putting this to the Houses and the plebiscite, there is a pre-determined outcome possibly in the plebiscite but be that as it may, there is also a determination here that water services would go back to local authorities. For many different reasons I do not think that would be appropriate. There are greater economies with Irish Water. We have huge investment and borrowing capacity because of Irish Water instead of 31 water utilities and it is by far the best way to go.
Regarding the contributions by Senators, I made commitments on this previously that I would bring it to Cabinet and to the Government. I have brought the possibility of a referendum to the Government and spoken for a good period of time with them. Every single part of that was vetted through the Office of the Attorney General, which is the normal way, and Senators can be sure of everything in that regard.
It was strange that Senator Cullinane suggested on two occasions that the legislation we pass in this House is not worth the paper it is written on. I have never heard a Senator say something like that in my time in public life.
Regarding the phrase about disposal of assets, section 31(12) of the Water Services Act 2007 prohibits the disposal of any assets. That Bill was brought in by Fianna Fáil and I think it was worthwhile. Regarding legislation changing in this Bill or any other, of course all legislation can be changed. Does that directly answer the Senator's question? I have said it four times now.
No, check the record. I have said it a number of times. Senator Cullinane just chose not to listen as usual. I am not going to repeat the whole thing. I outlined earlier regarding the Constitution and how we have to be very careful about putting amendments into the Constitution, about the consequences of that and the fact that Article 10 already says what it does on water. We have to be very careful about any potential changes of our Constitution. It is essential that anybody who makes or considers to make any changes to it bears in mind every single potential consequence. It was brought up by some people as regards the potential to license services. Irish Water has a statutory function to deliver water services and cannot really get involved in asset transfers as stated under the previous Act. They cannot contract out their statutory responsibilities. I would like to give that assurance to the House.
Regarding the European Commission, which was referenced on a number of occasions, in 2014 the Commission issued a communication in response to the European citizens' initiative on the right to water. I referenced it yesterday and spoke about it again this morning. In the communication the Commission stated that it would continue to ensure full respect of treaty rules regarding the EU remaining neutral in respect of national decisions governing the ownership regime for water undertakings. The Commission also stated it would remain attentive to public concerns about the specificity of water services. It is clear there is no agenda of privatisation. Ownership of water services is always a matter for the Government or for the country on its own terms.
Some Senator, I am not sure which, brought up a reference to a company of a similar name in Britain. I understand it has nothing to do with Irish Water here. That is the information I have been given.
I believe what we have proposed here is as far as we can go. I say that hand on heart and given the genuine proposals put forward by Senators. I say it on the basis of the spirit of each amendment and the spirit in which it has been proposed by all the Senators. I would like to point out that I have faith in the Irish people, as there are two resolutions to be passed by each House, to elect people who will represent the fact that they never want to see this privatised.
I believe in the people. Whatever decisions they make, I believe they will elect people to reflect the fact that they have no wish to see this company ever privatised in any way, shape or form, and it is important that we acknowledge that. I cannot see how any government would not only behave in that manner but, through this threshold, take away the right of the people to make the decision in that instance, which, in any event, I do not believe would actually arise.
I wish to affirm and restate the serious issues in respect of what we are discussing and the need to define what we are discussing. Even defining what we are discussing is difficult. Can Senators imagine the unintended consequences if we went down that road? Can anyone in this House absolutely guarantee that any wording put to the people would not have unintended consequences? I cannot. Can anyone guarantee-----
I have already referred to the fact that we really need to reconsider the matter. There are serious issues, potentially, in respect of what we are trying to protect through a constitutional amendment and in respect of property rights, joint ownership of infrastructure and infrastructure that is privately owned.
There are a range of issues in these areas. Where do we go from here? Is there a necessity to have similar referendums for a range of other issues? I accept how important this issue is.
I stand in the House as a representative of the Government. I have been honourable in the sense that I have taken matters from here and brought them to Government. I have made the views of the House known to the Executive, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. I have gone through it in detail with them. I am saying to the House, clearly, that this is as far as we can go on the issue. It is something that has taken a great deal of time and something we have considered in great detail, obviously, because it is a serious issue. I will not be accepting the amendment.
I thank the Minister. While I have been absent from the House of late, down at the banking inquiry in the basement, I have looked up at the monitor. From that purgatory I have seen the heaven of the Seanad Chamber and I have wished I was here at the debate. Perhaps, when the Lord wants to punish one, he grants one's wishes. Therefore, I have come here for this great debate. I am pleased that the amendment has provoked approximately five hours' worth of debate. It is important to assess the matter. The Minister may have suggested that people are in favour of the plebiscite. Not many people have been, but there is a reference to a plebiscite in the amendment as well. This is one of the problems we encounter. Let us consider the text of the Bill. Section 2(8) states: "In this section “Plebiscite” means the Plebiscite to which subsection (1)(b) refers." However, section 2(1)(b) refers to a plebiscite as: "a proposal to provide or allow for such alienation is submitted by Plebiscite for the decision of the People". That is not a definition. By contrast, the definition of a plebiscite in section 2(1)(b) of the proposed amendment states: "if such Resolutions are passed, the proposal of the dissolution of Irish Water may, if the Government decides to proceed with the proposal, be submitted by Plebiscite to the decision of the People, and if, consequent upon the proposal having been submitted to the People by Plebiscite, a majority of the votes cast in the Plebiscite shall have been cast in favour of the proposal, legislation may (if the Government so decides) be initiated by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government in either House of the Oireachtas in respect of the proposal." I humbly submit that this is a far better definition of a plebiscite than the definition in the Bill. For this reason alone, between now and Report Stage, the people in the Custom House might actually acknowledge that sometimes there are good people in Seanad Éireann coming forward with ideas. The last time we proposed amendments, the Custom House, that beautiful Gandon building, was turned into a bunker. They would not accept anything we said. I appreciate that this Minister has brought in changes and I welcome it.
The first debate I had with the Minister was on taxis. We both changed the Bill substantially and we remained good friends afterwards, but it was a better Bill and there was no personal animus in it. We are always prepared to do that.
The Minister said in his reply that there is no such thing as shares in Irish Water. The first line of section 2 refers to: "A Bill providing or allowing for the alienation of any share or shares in Irish Water". I would need to examine the record to see why the Minister believes there is no such thing as shares in Irish Water, because it is in the first line.
I will be dealing with Ervia as well. The Title refers to alienating the shareholding Irish Water as well. I am keen to get that clarified between now and Report Stage.
The Minister referred to Ervia as a protection against privatisation. The explanatory memorandum refers to "Irish Water as a State-owned company, established as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann (now Ervia)." Substantial parts of the gas industry have been privatised. I am taking for a far more sensible route to prevent privatisation by vesting those shares in the Minister. I submit to the Government and Independent Senators that we should consider that between now and Report Stage.
The Minister said several times in his first appearance and again now that he has gone as far as he can. Last night, several of the Independent Senators were under the impression that there would be movement today, and they were looking forward to that movement, but it has not materialised. That has to be discussed. The Minister claims he is giving an undertaking that no one ever in the future of Ireland will privatise the water industry. Yet, apparently, a commitment the Minister gave to some Independent Senators not 24 hours ago is now gone. Is it true? Is this as far as the Minister can go and no further? That is not the impression that was given to the House last night. That is a matter for communications between those directly involved, but I speak as someone who listened to what was said.
There are major public finance implications. The Minister's welcome reduction of the charges will reduce the income of this company by €21 million in 2015 and €56 million in 2016. The grant will cost €130 million. There is provision in sections 10 and 12 for €460 million in payments to local authorities and €59 million for the alleviation of rates. Fully €500 million has been paid for the installation of meters. We must have the Minister for Finance involved rather than Ervia, which, subject to my research between now and the next day, was associated with the part-privatisation of Bord Gáis Éireann. That is not the protection that the Government Senators seek and in respect of which Independent Senators were reassured.
We have not referred at any stage to aquifers and all the other things that have been discussed. The purpose of the amendment is to put the shareholding in the hands of the Minister for Finance and the Exchequer. Our proposed amendment would nationalise Irish Water to ensure no one else can privatise it.
This is belt and braces. I submit very strongly that our amendment in regard to the deficiencies elucidated is stronger than the Minister's section 2. I will not move it today because we should all have time to consider it. I want to consider what is happening with EUROSTAT and with Ervia but I will re-enter the amendment on Report Stage if a similar amendment is not tabled by the Minister.
I move amendment No. 6:
This comes to the nub of the issue. Unfortunately, for him, the Minister let the cat out of the bag in his previous contribution. My amendment seeks to ensure that the assets of Irish Water are also subject to the same plebiscite provisions, flawed as they are, that the Minister proposes. When I raised this issue previously the Minister answered by saying that is prohibited by the Water Services Act 2007. That is the whole point. We are bringing in a plebiscite so that we go further than legislation. Previously the sale of shares in Irish Water was prohibited by legislation and now the Minister is introducing the belt and braces approach that he prefers.
In page 4, line 4, after "Water" to insert "or any of its assets or any part of its assets,".
On top of it, only for shares in Irish Water not for the assets. In fairness, the Minister's officials should do some research on this issue. I am raising a valid point which the Minister has dismissed out of hand privately here in the Chamber. The reality is that shares, assets, business, undertaking, licence, all aspects of what Irish Water can do, are not subject to the plebiscite provisions. It is true to say that Irish Water cannot contract out of its statutory obligations. That is absolutely correct. However, the Minister is purporting to make sure that if a future Oireachtas wants to contract Irish Water out of its obligations by issuing a licence to somebody else to carry out the functions for profits or whatever to a private body, it will have to go before the plebiscite and that the plebiscite provisions would apply.
In the same way that the Minister part privatised the national lottery by issuing a licence - that is the most recent precedent - that would not be subject to the plebiscite provisions if he did something similar to Irish Water. If the Minister sold the assets of Irish Water by passing legislation to overrule the 2007 Act, which could happen, that would not be subject to the plebiscite provisions. That is a matter of statutory interpretation and it only relates to shares in Irish Water. The Minister is shaking his head but the Bill refers to "any share or shares in Irish Water". Why does the Minister want to exclude assets? I will table a further amendment on Report Stage to include business, undertaking and licences in the event that anything is proposed in that area. It is not good enough to say that the transfer of assets is prohibited under the 2007 Act. We are trying to get beyond that.
I urge the Minister, if he is not willing to accept my amendment, to look at the issue and realise that is a significant gap in the legislation. I ask him to look at my amendment for Report Stage which attempts to look at wider possibilities in terms of privatisation and to accept this is a gap. I reiterate the point Senator Sean D. Barrett made. I heard the Minister say very clearly that amendments would be accepted. He said it in public and he said it here.
I heard colleagues say they would support the Minister because of that. One of them who spoke privately to me voted with the Minister; he said that it could change during the course of the debate. The Minister seems to have ruled that out entirely. I think I have spotted a significant gap. The Minister cannot say that assets are covered by shares - they are not. A limited company can sell its assets without selling its shares. The State could sell the assets of Irish Water without selling its shares. The State could sell the assets of Anglo Irish Bank, the loan books. The State could sell the shares in Bank of Ireland which it owns. It could sell the shares in Aer Lingus which it owns. It owns control of Aer Lingus but it cannot sell the assets but it can sell the assets in Anglo Irish Bank. By saying it only relates to shares in Irish Water, the Minister is leaving a significant gap in the legislation. I appeal to the Minister to look at this issue at the weekend, to realise this is a mistake and to come have and include it in the plebiscite provisions.
I am afraid I cannot comment on what other Senators have said but I have been deafened by the financials of our colleagues. However, I would say briefly that the Minister has brought this amendment on himself because, during his speeches, he frequently separated Irish Water from its assets. Who on earth would have an appetite for a collection of leaky pipes, lead pipes, out of date water works and so on? I deplore vulture capitalism but I do not see the vultures circling for this heap of-----
I will be supporting the amendment. In these amendments we are seeking to go as far as we possibly can in the absence of a commitment from the Government to have a constitutional referendum. Anything that strengthens the Bill is welcome and that is what this amendment does. A fair point is being made that the assets are separate from the shares. However, I wish to correct something the Minister said earlier in respect of some of my contributions. I make no apology for saying-----
Leaving that to one side, we are sticking to the issues. Perhaps we can at least make our contributions. I made a comment earlier that promises in whatever part of this Bill are not worth the paper they are written on. The Minister knows full well the point I am making that they can be undone. Whether it has to do with the assets in this or the previous amendment in respect of a constitutional referendum it can be undone by an amending piece of legislation as opposed to a referendum where the people decide. That is the distinction between any piece of legislation, any amendment and a constitutional referendum. The Minister know that and he knows full well the point I was making. I wanted to reiterate that point.
The amendment is important. There is a distinction as has been drawn by the proposer of the amendment between the share holdings and the shares themselves being disposed of, which is essentially what the section protects. It protects the shares but not necessarily the assets of the company. That is what the amendment seeks to do. For that reason I will be supporting the amendment.
I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say in his reply and I readily acknowledge that he was honest in respect of section 2 that it is only enforceable so long as a Government does not decide to repeal it. Therefore, it is meaningless in the context of giving any assurances to the public that this natural resource will remain in public ownership, which is the kernel of what we are seeking. I looked at the wording of the amendment and would question the fact that the security provided for only relates to the shares and that the distribution system parts of the essential infrastructure, the network, the reservoirs, the treatment plants could be transferred, without any reference to the Oireachtas. I ask the Minister to confirm that is in fact the case and, therefore, what we are doing will not achieve as Senator O'Donnell said, namely, a fig leaf under which she could cast her vote.
A more serious scenario is more likely to develop. The Government said that the purpose of the establishment of Uisce Éireann was to attract investment to improve substandard infrastructure by dealing with ageing pipe and treatment systems and I accept this. The aim was to ensure an environmentally sound and sustainable water supply. It is inevitable that to achieve this investment it will be necessary for Uisce Éireann to borrow money on the markets. It is very likely that the security sought by lending agencies in this regard will be securitisation of the revenue stream. The revenue stream controls the business in the event of default.
I commend the Minister on the changes he has made as he was left in an invidious situation on coming into office. He has taken major steps to correct the mistakes made prior to his appointment and has presented a more reasonable package than the previous one. Having said this, the Minister's actions have put the viability of Uisce Éireann under the microscope and lenders will want to ensure that any loans given are repaid. The dangers of default on loans are higher now than under the previous proposals. I am concerned that, despite our efforts in these Houses and the efforts of this and future governments, there is a risk that control of some assets of Irish Water, including the revenue stream, may move elsewhere. The Government may not be capable of stopping this. This is a real fear among members of the public and I ask that the Minister acknowledge these facts because together we can explore a resolution.
I cannot see any way to ensure that Irish Water is not privatised other than by adding such a provision to an article of the Constitution. I am in favour of such a measure but there is a down side as it might canonise a public monopoly that has a bad track record over the 12 months since its establishment. We cannot be sure that the interests of consumers will be at the heart of Irish Water's mission statement. If the Minister can address my points, we can then discuss a resolution.
The amendment relating to section 2 and the plebiscite, which was tabled by the Senators, states "or any of its assets or any part of its assets". I understand that the Senators may table further proposals on Report Stage and if they do so, I will look at them.
Of course. I consider all proposed amendments and accept them when appropriate.
Irish Water's assets are owned by the company and I have already outlined how the ownership of the company is constituted and in whom shares are vested. Any potential alienation of the shares covers the assets.
It does. We can debate semantics and Senator Byrne may make another proposal, as is his right, which I will consider in detail. I give Senator Byrne my word on that but I have outlined the facts. The assets are part of the ownership of the company and I have explained previously the ownership structure of the company. The assets are covered as part of this structure and the shares will never be vested elsewhere, as I outlined, so there is no need for this amendment.
I will quote from the website of a law firm in the UK giving the basics on the sale of a business:
We must cover both options and all of the lawyers on the other side of the House know that I am right.
The sale of a business may be structured in one of two ways. The business may be transferred by way of a sale of the shares in the company which owns and operates the business or by the sale of the assets, which are necessary for the continuance of the business.
On that point, which goes to the core of this amendment, owning the shares in a company is only as valuable as the company itself. A company owns assets consisting of fixed assets, goodwill and revenue stream, which is probably classified under goodwill. I notice the Minister did not answer my questions so I will ask them for the third time and will continue to do so until I receive answers. Does the Minister accept, in this scenario, that the company can dispose of any of its assets that could realise shareholder value? For example, the company could sell goodwill or sell off some assets and retain others. We have seen what other public utilities, such as EirGrid, have done with assets, such as distribution. My point is that models exist so we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Nothing in this legislation prevents such a disposal of assets and the shareholder, the State, could benefit from the capital sum accruing from the revenue stream. We are merely asking the Minister to acknowledge that this is the case.
My other point must be of concern to the Minister and the Department. Investment in infrastructure is required and this will be secured on something; I do not believe Irish Water will obtain unsecured loans of the hundreds of millions of euro necessary to improve infrastructure. This brings the revenue stream into play as I do not see any other valuable assets from a lender's point of view. In a default situation, a lender could gain control of the revenue stream and charges. Given its management system and financial structure, Irish Water faces issues relating to its future viability. This all arises due to the changes that have been made to the original proposal, although I agree with those changes. Charges can change and that can affect viability.
On Second Stage, I asked whether an exercise was carried out in the Department prior to the establishment of Uisce Éireann but this was not answered. If such an exercise was carried out, what internal rate of return was predicted? What internal rate of return is now predicted, based on the changes to the revenue stream?
I believe the Bill is sufficiently robust and I have taken advice on this. I reiterate that the assets are part of the ownership of the company and the alienation of shares covers the assets of Irish Water.
Shares in Ervia are owned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Shares in Irish Water are owned by the Minister for Finance and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
Irish Water is a statutory company and, as such, is covered by statutory rules. As it has statutory functions, it is owned by the State, and that is how it will remain. It cannot pass these functions to others. I understand the reason the Senators have put this argument forward. I will give them a commitment that if they put forward an amendment for Report Stage that expands on what they are saying I will consider it or look at it and see if there is some way in which it can be embellished. I will take it in that spirit. However, I do not believe it is necessary.
The Minister has not. In fact, his response on this occasion is a total misunderstanding of company law. The Minister will not have control over the assets of the company. I ask him to get advice about that. The Minister has control over the shares of the company - they cannot be disposed of - but not over the assets.
No, the Minister owns the company. The assets can be disposed of by a decision of the board or perhaps the CEO, depending on what rules are in place for the governance of the company. The assets can be sold by any company without reference to the shareholders. I have had ownership of companies in the past where we sold the company by selling the shares in the company. I have also seen situations where we sold the assets of the company, rather than the company. That is quite common in normal commercial trading. Often, it hinges on the wishes of the purchaser as to what will suit their requirements.
This is the point that the Minister has not referred to in any of his replies. This section deals exclusively with the ownership of the shares, and even if this was enforceable it would do nothing to safeguard the assets. That is the reason we must have it embedded in the Constitution in a properly worded amendment stating that the supply of the water and all of the infrastructure remains in the public ownership. I believe the Minister shares that view. It is in our interest to do that now, because there is a possible scenario over which neither the Minister, I nor anybody else in this House will have any control. Lenders could get securitisation, which I have no doubt they will as a condition for the significant sums of millions that are due to be invested in the infrastructure. We have all seen what happened with the banks, how assets were secured and how people's houses were taken from them. People did not realise that in the past. We must learn from these things and ensure that we safeguard what is a natural resource in the interests of the Irish people.
I welcome the Minister's response to Senator Byrne, that if we can propose a properly worded amendment he will seriously consider it. However, there is also an onus on the Minister and his Department to consider what might be appropriate to meet the concerns we have in this regard, and I appeal to him to do that.
The Minister refers to his colleagues who are trade union officials and to the transfer of undertakings regulations and the protection of employees. Employees are protected not just for the sale of shares of a company but also the transfer of an undertaking. An undertaking could be a part of a company or an asset that somebody works on which is moved to another company to generate income elsewhere. The employee can move with that asset if that is the business or undertaking that is moving. It is not just confined to the sale of shares. There is an absolute distinction here, and it is not covered. Is the issue Senator Walsh raised, that these assets will, by the nature of the project, have to be secured by way of mortgages, the real reason that the Minister is not prepared to cover it?
We have raised a very serious point that has not been dismissed by anybody on the Government side. The lawyers on that side have spoken up previously and have spoken well. The officials have worked really hard today and I compliment them on that, but they should check this point.
I have listened carefully to all the debate for almost five hours. Much of it has been helpful but there has been a great deal of repetition. I try to avoid repetition, which is why I made my contribution yesterday. Senator O'Donnell was the best speaker I heard today. She did not repeat herself once.
From now on, repetition on this amendment should be banned. We are discussing shares and asset management. Irish Water is vested in the State and the Minister has outlined the ownership. Only 3% of Ervia is owned by the staff. It is an all-Irish owned company and nothing will change that. In addition, the management and the assets are vested in Irish Water.
Therefore, the assets management is vested in the company, Irish Water. I am confident at this point - perhaps there is other legal advice that would say otherwise - that the assets, structure and management are all vested in Irish Water, which we have spent five hours discussing today.
Somebody mentioned the definition of "plebiscite". It came from the word "pleb"-----
I am just stating where the definition came from. It came from the Latin word. The Seanad has been complimented previously on the quality of its debate and I would like that high quality to continue, without repetition.
We have been around the houses on this. I have given as much of a commitment as I can give. With regard to the shares, the shares in Ervia are owned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, while the shares in Irish Water are owned by the Minister for Finance and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. I take the advice of the Attorney General very seriously and I believe it is sufficiently robust. Assets are part of the ownership of the company and the alienation of shares covers that. Irish Water is a statutory company so it is covered by statutory rules. Given the shareholding, assets cannot be sold without the shareholders agreeing to do so.
I do not wish to delay this any further. I welcome the fact that the Minister will examine this in more detail. Senators Byrne and Walsh have tabled an expanded amendment for Report Stage. It is clear from the Minister's response and from the contributions of others in the course of the past hour that what is in the Bill is more than likely insufficient. I cannot understand how the Minister can say that any financing sought by Irish Water for investing in infrastructure will not be held against any assets of the company. How can he say that? Has the Government already sought private potential investors outside?
The only way the Minister would know that is if Irish Water was already seeking expressions of interest in investment in water infrastructure. I do not understand how the Minister can say that, in no way, shape or form, will there be any lien on any of the assets. No one will be prepared to loan €500 to €700 million without some type of security, be it on the revenue stream or on the assets. I will not labour the point but I do not understand how the Minister would know that. If the Minister knows, then he should tell us. If he has had initial discussions or preliminary discussions with private equity firms and investors we need to know that. I am not against private investment, by the way, but we need to have that information. I welcome the Minister's commitment to look at a further amendment on Report Stage but if the Minister reviews the discussion over the past half an hour or 40 minutes on this amendment, I think it shows very clearly that he will need to strengthen the provisions of the Bill in this regard, to include what Senator Byrne and my colleagues have proposed, which refers to any of the assets or part of the assets of Irish Water. I ask the Minister to clarify this point further before we move on.
I note and welcome that the Minister has said that none of the assets will be securitised, including the revenue stream. That is what I understand from what he said. On what basis is the Minister conveying that information to the House? Is it an opinion or is it based on, as our leader has asked, some discussion and negotiations with lenders, to ensure that the assets will not be secured and are therefore at risk?
Of course Irish Water is involved in discussions because it is its job to be involved in discussions relating to how it plans to create capacity for investment into the future. It must be borne in mind that Irish Water is statutorily debarred from agreements which involve the transfer of its assets. Therefore, it can only raise finance external to that by loans because it cannot be done by assets or equity. I remind the Senator that is the premise because Irish Water is debarred by statute from transferring assets. Those are the terms under which it must act. Any future borrowing is based on its revenue model and it will have to raise finances in the furture. The investment levels which will be needed in the future are quite huge and this is one of the primary reasons that Irish Water was established in the first place.
The issue is not that there is a statutory prohibition on the sale of assets; the issue is whether that is covered by the plebiscite proposal. It is not covered by it in plain black and white in the first line of the section. On the basis that the Minister and his officials intend to look at this issue and to consider the serious points I have raised-----
I move amendment No. 7:
This amendment adds a subsection to the so-called triple lock relating to the plebiscite. We propose that a resolution of each city and county council is passed approving the alienation. For many years the local authorities had control over water services and the provision of water. It is accepted that some local authorities did a very good job while others did not do as good a job. I do not have a big problem with the creation of a single water utility, as such; I just have a problem with the way Irish Water was set up and the whole fiasco that went with it. Whether multiple local authorities or a single water utility provide the service, we want an infrastructure and the ability of whatever organisation to provide people with good quality drinking water, and in my view, this should be provided without charges.
In page 4, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:
“(b) a Resolution of each City and County Council is passed approving the alienation,”.
It used to be under the control of local government for many years. While the Minister has ruled out any possibility of a constitutional referendum, he is sticking to the provisions in section 2 by which a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas would be required and followed by a plebiscite of the people. We are seeking a provision in the Bill that there would need to be a resolution of each city and county council. I do not think this is unreasonable. The Minister stated earlier today when he was speaking on this issue that, "over my dead body would Irish Water be privatised or water services be privatised or the shares be alienated". If that is the logic of what he says, then surely he would not object to a local authority having its say. Some local authorities are much larger due to amalgamation and they have, on average, 30 elected councillors who, in my view, should have their say. If we want to make these provisions as watertight as possible - which the Minister says he does - then I do not see why allowing the city and county councils have their say would prove to be a difficulty. Unfortunately it is a difficulty because I have listened to the Minister's Committee Stage discussions with Sinn Féin in the other House. I was not at all persuaded by his arguments. That is why we agreed we would re-table this amendment which Senator Ó Clochartaigh will second. This is an important issue. In our view local government has been devalued and has lost significant powers over many years. This amendment would give local councils their rightful place and if there ever were to be a Government minded to privatise our water services a resolution would be required to be passed in each local authority in the State.
To follow the logic of what the Minister said earlier, that he cannot envisage any circumstances where any Government at any time in the future would ever consider privatising water services, then accepting this amendment should not matter to him as it provides another safeguard which fits with that logic. I appeal to the Minister to listen to those points and to strengthen section 2 in as much as possible. Any future Government can dispense with it in any case but if that is the road the Minister is going down and he has ruled out a constitutional referendum, we think that this amendment would add value to the section. I await the Minister's response.
I second the amendment. Tá áthas orm bheith in ann labhairt ar an rún agus ar an leasú áirithe seo atáimíd á chur chun cinn. Sílim go bhfuil an tábhacht a bhaineann le seo léirithe go rí-shoiléir ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Cullinane. I have been listening to the debate most of the day and I note some very interesting points raised. Our amendment is in line with what the Minister has been saying with regard to ensuring that people know that both he and this Government are adamant they do not want to sell off Irish Water.
Many local politicians who are members of local authorities have significant experience with regard to the water infrastructure in their areas. For example, in Galway and Mayo, a number of public meetings have been held on the issues around Irish Water and on the impact on group water schemes and non-group water schemes and on local authority housing. Even though the water function has been taken out of the local authorities, the provision of water has a very great impact on other areas of the work of local authorities. In my view they are very valid stakeholders in any future discussions about privatisation. This point must be included in the debate about a plebiscite. I refer to the democratic mandate of elected councillors. If we really intend to put people first in this scenario, this amendment will provide a triple lock which would be very welcome and I cannot see why the Minister would not want to put it in place in order to reassure all those who do not believe what he said earlier.
The amendment proposes that the holding of a plebiscite would require a resolution from local authorities in addition to the resolution of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I obviously do not believe any future Government will want to privatise Irish Water, but It is important to point out that the will of the people is paramount. A decision in a plebiscite represents the will of the people; it is a straight vote on a proposal. The people will be asked to make the decision on the ownership of Irish Water in a plebiscite. That is the best means to do it. Accordingly, I will not support the amendment.
I agree that the best way to do it would be in a straight vote of the people, but, unfortunately, we are not going to get this because the Minister has refused to hold a constitutional referendum on the issue. That is a clear contradiction of what he said in the past five hours. I wish the people will have a say, but, unfortunately, they will not if any future Government is minded to do so. We have discussed this issue ad nauseamand know the reality. In the first instance, there would have to be a situation where a Government would be of a mind to privatise the service. Second, the people would have their say in a plebiscite. Taking this at face value and discarding the notion that any future Government would be of a mind to privatise water services would not in any way dilute or repeal section 2, why will the Minister not consider including a resolution of each House of the Oireachtas as also being required? That would be a good development because the Seanad and the Dáil should have their say and it would introduce several locks. What about local authorities? They always seem to be forgotten. We are taking more power from them. We gave them powers to nominate candidates to become President.
Yes, they also elect Senators which is obviously an important function, even though Senators should be elected directly by the people. I do not believe there is any contradiction in what the Minister and we are saying, other than about the hypothetical situation that may or may not arise. He believes it will never happen, but I believe it could potentially.
- Sean Barrett
- Thomas Byrne
- Gerard Craughwell
- John Crown
- David Cullinane
- Mark Daly
- Fidelma Healy Eames
- Terry Leyden
- Paschal Mooney
- David Norris
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Brian Ó Domhnaill
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Darragh O'Brien
- Denis O'Donovan
- Ned O'Sullivan
- Feargal Quinn
- Kathryn Reilly
- Jim Walsh
- Mary White
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Katherine Zappone
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Mark Daly
- John Gilroy
- Aideen Hayden
- Lorraine Higgins
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Fiach MacConghail
- Marie Moloney
- Mary Moran
- Tony Mulcahy
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- Catherine Noone
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan
- Jillian van Turnhout
- John Whelan
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 4, between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following:
“(8) The Forum established under section 7 of this Act shall not later than seven months after the passing of this Act, meet and consider a proposal to amend the Constitution of Ireland to incorporate a provision prohibiting the alienation of any share or shares in Irish Water or its assets or any part thereof and the Forum shall lay a copy of its recommendations in relation thereto before each House of the Oireachtas.I have tabled this reasonable amendment to try to bridge the gap between the Seanad's powers on referenda and what the Minister is proposing. As we have already acknowledged, the Seanad does not have the power to initiate a referendum to amend the Constitution. Mar a dúramar cheana, níl an chumhacht ag an Seanad leasú a dhéanamh ar an mBunreacht nó reacht a thosú sa tSeanad chun leasú a dhéanamh ar an mBunreacht. Ní féidir leasú a dhéanamh ar an mBunreacht nó togra le sin a dhéanamh a chur i mBille eile nó rudaí eile uile. The Seanad's powers are quite limited with respect to constitutional referenda. We cannot initiate legislation to amend the Constitution and a proposal to amend the Constitution cannot be contained within other legislation.
(9) Within one month of the recommendations of the Forum under subsection (8) being laid before each House of the Oireachtas, the Government shall outline to each House its proposals to implement the said recommendations of the Forum.”.
People are very frustrated that their amendments have been ruled out of order. However, we are subject to the Constitution and we cannot do that and that is the reason. As I said earlier, I would like us to be subject to the Constitution and I would like our successors in the Seanad, and the Oireachtas as well, whether it is in ten, 20 or 30 years time, to be subject to a constitutional prohibition on selling Irish Water or any of its assets. We are looking for the prohibition on us initiating legislation to amend the Constitution to be imposed on both Houses of the Oireachtas and that both Houses would be prohibited from legislating to sell Irish Water or its assets. The Minister has not accepted that. He has gone for a plebiscite option which we say is deeply flawed.
My proposal is to ask the water forum that the Minister establishes in this legislation to look at this issue in a manner similar to the constitutional convention. I have suggested that it would report back within seven months. The legislation provides that the regulator has six months to get the administration up and running, or to announce it is up and running. I have therefore proposed seven months, to be reasonable about it. I ask that the forum would lay a copy of its recommendations - its report - in relation to its consideration of a proposal to amend the Constitution - to incorporate the provision that Members are talking about - before each House of the Oireachtas, and the amendment then would call for the Minister, within one month of the forum laying its recommendations before the Houses of the Oireachtas, to outline to the Houses his proposals to implement the recommendations.
I am trying to come half way in this amendment between what we want to do and what we cannot do, which is initiate a referendum. We cannot do that in the Seanad. What the Minister is suggesting, to hold a plebiscite, is deeply flawed. This is a body that the Minister is setting up in this legislation. The water forum has a specific function. I grant that. However, I suggest that we mandate it to statutorily do this, almost as a first task. It would look at this issue, get advice, consider it and then it can come back to the Houses of the Oireachtas and then the Minister can come to us. There is precedent for this - the constitutional convention. There are, of course, alternatives to this. The Constitutional Convention could be reconvened to discuss this. The committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas could discuss this. I am acknowledging in putting forward this amendment that there are issues concerning it. Some issues have been raised, such as where does one stop. Should the forest be protected? Should the fish be protected? Who should be protected in terms of an anti-privatisation agenda. However, that is an issue for discussion and it can be discussed.
How do we do it? I think it is reasonable. It is an attempt to come half way and the Minister should give it serious consideration. I will listen to what the Minister has to say but I am interested in hearing what colleagues have to say. Have they any other improvements to it or other alternatives they could suggest to meet the Minister half way?
We support these amendments. It is a decent attempt at meeting the Government half way and trying to strike that balance between the plebiscite, which Sinn Féin believes is flawed, the inability of the Seanad to propose a constitutional amendment, and all of the amendments that have been ruled out of order. What is interesting about this amendment is that the Minister has said on a number of occasions that he has gone as far as he can in respect of giving a commitment to hold a plebiscite. If the Minister had re-constituted the Constitutional Convention, set up a similar mechanism or allowed the forum, as this amendment suggests, to look at the issue of a constitutional referendum and all of the issues associated with it and ventilate all the concerns and issues that have been raised by the Minister and Government Senators as to why we cannot have a constitutional referendum or why it would be very difficult to do so, he would be able to say that the Government has done as much as it can. In the absence of that, I do not believe the Minister has done what is possible. This is a reasonable amendment and one that we will support. The Minister should reflect on this. I am guessing the Fianna Fáil Senators may withdraw the amendment and resubmit it on Report Stage. I will listen to what they and the Minister have to say. The amendment is a genuine and decent attempt to do our best and use whatever mechanisms are open to us to make sure that there is a constitutional referendum as opposed to the plebiscite, which I also believe is flawed.
It is quite clear from the debate we have had for the past six or seven hours that a void exists in this debate regarding including protection for the water of Ireland in Bunreacht na hÉireann. It is even clear in the comments generously put forward by the Minister. It is also clear to those of us who are trying to find a resolution with regard to this that we must find a mechanism. It will not be sufficient to just walk away knowing that there are issues, be they the legal advice from the Attorney General, the opportunity for us to hear that and debate it or whether it is a question of a plebiscite and the extent to which this plebiscite has been properly described or how it will operate. There are so many issues outstanding. I have seldom noticed so many inadequacies in a debate here.
It is also clear from Senator Byrne's comments that a huge effort is being made to accommodate the Minister and Government. This is where we will be aware of whether or not the Minister and Government will accept in partnership co-operation from everybody in this House to find a solution to the logjam that exists. The rationale and logic put forward by Senator Byrne cannot be ignored. On one hand, we cannot put forward an amendment regarding a constitutional referendum. This is as it is, we are bound by that and there is no point in wasting too much time in that regard.
On the other hand, the Government can do that. Interestingly, the Minister has said here on a number of occasions that he will go away and study seriously some of the points that are being made. We take it in good faith that this is his intention. That indicates that there are questions coming to the fore where the Minister is concerned as a result of the debate and the ideas and views. He would not be saying that only for those questions arising. I see no reason why it could not be done through the Constitutional Convention considering the seriousness of the issue and the passion the Minister showed in this Chamber today. It is hugely serious. Do we want to go away for the Christmas break and put people's minds at ease? If we think closing down the Houses of the Oireachtas at Christmas will in some way close down the debate and put people's minds at ease, the Minister knows that is not true. I have no doubt that when he gets down to Tipperary, many a person will want to have a word in his ear because of the uncertainty, suspicions and lack of trust which exists.
He knows that. I know it. Everybody in this House is aware of that. Given all the unanswered questions, doubts and lack of trust which seem to be coming forward in the messages we are receiving; what Senator Byrne said; and the work and thought he has put into this without standing up in any confrontational way - I admire his logic and it is quite clear he is trying to be helpful - would it not be wonderful if the Minister could make an announcement to the thousands of people who came out on to the streets and are worried and the thousands who have not yet taken to the streets? Would it not be great if he was such a Minister that he was able to go out this evening and say that he had listened to what seemed a very informed debate, that questions were raised that he had to think about, which he has already admitted himself, and as a result of that, he will show himself as a new breed of Minister - independent-minded and listening to the people, which is what we are supposed to be about? Would it not be wonderful if he went out and said that the Government would not road-block everything and that the idea of a forum or using the Constitutional Convention is a great idea? Then all the questions that remain unanswered, all the information that was not provided to us today and all the doubts that are building up could all be focused in that forum. Is there something unreasonable about that? Is that not what we have been talking about all day - listening, reflecting and representing the people? Is that not what we have all been saying? Let us prove that we mean it when we say that.
The amendment put forward here is very reasonable. It might be worthwhile at some stage to have a break in our deliberations and let the Minister go away and reflect, discuss with his officials, get on the phone and talk to An Taoiseach. That is what it is about. I would love to see democracy and the democratic process being opened up in that way and not stuck in straitjackets with people with whips lining us to put us into the seats. That is what the people want. If the Government wants to look at the polls, everybody is telling us and the media is reflecting the fact that a new type of politics taking centre stage. There is no question about that.
For the first time today, I have seen something the Minister cannot refuse. I see him sitting there and shaking his head saying he will refuse because the grey beards - the backroom boys - have told him to come here and reject everything because they have written the Bill and he is not to change it because if he does, they will really screw him up. This is a wonderful idea. The Minister cannot take a referendum amendment.
In fairness to Senator Byrne, I am sorry he got to this before me. It is a fine piece of work on his part. It costs the Minister nothing to commit to this. It allows for a review of the possibility of enshrining in the Constitution the desire that Irish Water be in the hands of the people forever. The Minister has nothing to be afraid of. He is a brave man to be here at all. I would have expected him to have gone underground by now but he is a brave man and is sitting it out; fair play to him for that. He should do the brave thing, follow the advice given to him by Senators Byrne and Ó Murchú, take on board the amendment and show that he is a man. He does not even belong to Fine Gael so he can go back and tell the Taoiseach he is not one of his boys and has just proved it. I do not want to see the Minister unemployed after the next election.
Senator Byrne, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil and with the support of many Senators, has given us a roadmap to resolve the particular issue arising over the ownership of Irish Water. We have debated today whether a referendum is required and the complexity of the matter. Section 7 of the Bill, on the public water forum, presents what is actually a pretty good idea. Should the Bill be passed, the forum will be established. All Senator Byrne is doing is giving to the forum that is to be established the power to assess whether a referendum should or can be held on the public ownership of Irish Water. The Minister would just be giving it another job to do. Whether there should be a referendum could be decided independently by a group appointed by the Minister, irrespective of our debate and its merits. It would consist of at least 12 and not more than 60 members, including a chairperson. The Bill states the Minister shall appoint a person to be chairperson of the forum. I await the Minister's response but genuinely cannot envisage any reason the amendment cannot be accepted.
In fairness to the Minister, his Labour Party colleagues in the House supported some weeks ago a motion tabled by a number of parties on a referendum. Senator Gilroy said this earlier. Since then, some questions may have arisen. The best way to ensure the question of a referendum will be dealt with outside the political sphere and independently of Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin or the Independents is to let the public water forum consider it. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment. The only reason for not accepting it is simply because it would discommode the Dáil as it would have to come back on Tuesday. That cannot be the reason for not accepting it. What Senator Byrne has proposed is eminently sensible. It will actually assist the Minister. I am interested in hearing what he has to say.
This Chamber could certainly do with having more female members because of the testosterone-fuelled cheers coming from the opposite side, which are only a display of machismo. I had a long chat this morning with Senator Byrne about this amendment. It is a decent attempt to reach some sort of compromise on the matter. I have put a lot of thought into this since we spoke this morning. While I feel I should support the amendment, I have one or two genuine questions that mean I cannot support it in its current form. I will explain why if the Members opposite can listen without tut-tutting and whatever else they want to do.
Section 7, which establishes the public water forum, is probably not the right forum for dealing with this subject. The very thrust of the forum concerns customer participation, customer advice and customer protection in an operational away. I do not believe we could constitute the forum such that it would have the expertise needed to examine the intricacies of a constitutional referendum. That needs to be done by a specific body with the required legal expertise and authority. For that reason, I will not support the amendment as it stands.
The other argument concerns what body should have responsibility. I believe it should be the Constitutional Convention. However,
I understand that but we should not legislate to refer this to a constitutional convention because doing so would be interfering with the autonomy of the convention. We would be obliging it to consider something it may feel is not appropriate. The Senators opposite may shake their heads but my remarks comprise a genuine attempt to address the concerns that arise. If we want to start slagging each other across the floor, that is fine, but Senator Thomas Byrne and I sat down this morning and had a long chat about this, as he will confirm. We entered into our conversation in a spirit of trying to seek a resolution.
Instead of having to legislate for sending this to a constitutional convention-type organisation, perhaps the Minister, as a member of the Cabinet, could give some sort of non-legislative commitment to consider doing so. That might address everyone's problem instead of tying up our institutions by some form of what would necessarily be tightly scripted legislation. It is not appropriate to send the matter to the forum under section 7, nor is it appropriate to legislate for sending it to the Constitutional Convention. However, the matter could be considered by the Cabinet. Perhaps the Minister will commit to this and, if he feels it is appropriate, the matter could be referred, in non-legislative way, to the Constitutional Convention.
I believe there is some merit to the Senator's amendment, particularly the sentiment behind the consideration of a proposal to amend the Constitution, but I am just not sure. My concern over section 7 is that the public water forum could end up comprising narrow vested interests. The Constitutional Convention has a track record, albeit a slow one. However, we can see that the recommendations of the convention since the beginning have resulted in referenda, and will result in referenda on the age of citizens eligible to run in presidential elections and marriage equality.
I would like the Minister to consider, either now or on Report Stage, what kind of response is required. He has put his views on the record, both in the Dáil and very clearly in the Seanad. Unlike some of my colleagues in the Seanad, I am an Independent. Senator Norris should note that this means we differ constantly in the way we vote.
The Minister is not an Independent but a member of the Labour Party. The track record of any Independent is evident from how he or she differs from others in votes. An Independent is someone who considers each section of a Bill or each issue on its merit and does not constantly vote against or for the Government. A considerable number of the 14 Independent Senators have voted consistently against the Government. I argue that Senator Norris is perhaps not as independent as he would like to believe.
In fairness, when a dear colleague of mine impugns my independence by accentuating the first syllable of the word , I need to address it on the record.
The distinguished Senator is a former lecturer of mine and knows the works of Flann O'Brien and James Joyce better than I do. It is in the nature of being an Independent Senator that one will differ from other Senators in how one votes. I have a better and stronger record than Senator Norris on this occasion.
To return to Senator Gilroy's suggestion, I had the privilege of being part of the precursor to the Constitutional Convention, the We the Citizens movement, which examined evidence-based results regarding how a constitutional assembly with 100 members can deliberate and make tough and clear decisions over a defined period. The vexed issue of ownership of Irish Water is one that concerns all 60 Senators and the Minister who has been clear on the matter. We are trying to find a way to convince and reassure the citizens we represent or with whom we engage and work that public ownership of Irish Water will be maintained and the company will not transfer to private hands without eligible voters taking a decision to permit such a transfer.
On Second Stage, I set out the reasons I am in favour of holding a plebiscite. I acknowledge, however, the reasonable point made by Senator Byrne on how we can assuage public anxiety on this issue. I and Senator Mary Ann O'Brien, my colleague on the Independent benches, have frequently voted on different sides when the House divided.
I make that point by way of providing information to Senator Norris who is not independent.
What we are trying to do here is reassure citizens who are following the debate that it may be possible to make a civic gesture that could be enshrined in a Constitutional Convention. It could be argued that the Minister's idea of having a public forum on Irish Water is a little narrow. A convention of 100 people could show a greater sense of difference and discretion.
I did not realise I was showing any such anxiety.
The Minister should consider consulting his Cabinet colleagues on this issue before Report Stage. He has highlighted issues concerning Irish Water, the water network, water pipes and so forth. I accept that the Attorney General has advised that the idea of enshrining public ownership of Irish Water in the Constitution by means of a referendum could give raise to serious complications. Having heard the Minister's argument on that issue loud and clear, I will not press that option. However, the Government must consider the ongoing anxiety about public ownership of Irish Water. To assuage this anxiety, the Minister should examine the possibility of finding a halfway house, as it were, between Senator Byrne's interesting amendment and a public water forum.
I disdain to acknowledge the fractious contribution of my dear friend, Senator Mac Conghail, save to remark that I did not mention him by name. I am glad, however, that he mentioned me by name five or six times. My ego flourishes under his attention.
I can well see that the Leas-Chathaoirleach is flourishing.
A frightful amount of political posturing has been going on for the whole bloody day. I have been a Senator for about 30 years and there is no way on earth that the Government will recall the Dáil to pass an amendment by the Seanad. I have never known that to happen so what makes anyone think it would happen now? It is rubbish to believe this would be done before Christmas or in response to reasonable arguments made by the eminent Senator Byrne. Reasonable arguments do not matter a fish's tit in this place. The Senator is wasting his time and whistling in the dark. I do not know why he is doing it. Perhaps he is posturing or hoping that some member of the gullible public is watching this debate online. There must be very few members of the working class left if they are spending the whole afternoon this display of political imbecility. I am not directing it that remark at Senator Mac Conghail whose production of Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer" is absolutely wonderful. He should stick to the night job.
While I had no plans to speak to the amendment, I will take the opportunity to do so given that this is the season of goodwill. The Minister has repeatedly informed the House that he is sincere and means what he says. He even used the term "over my dead body" in reference to possible privatisation of Irish Water. Perhaps it is time he came out of the bunker and ceased being a prisoner of the Department.
I agree with one point made by Senator Mac Conghail - this debate provides us with an opportunity to make a civic gesture. The Minister should accept this amendment and allow the debate to proceed. If, as he states, he is sincere about listening, I ask him to show sincerity by accepting the amendment and allow a forum to consider this issue for seven months. The amendment does not dictate what the Minister must do but states what the forum should do. Surely the Minister would have more control over such a forum than the Seanad would have. It will lead me to doubt his words if he cannot make a gesture and defer the decision on this matter to the forum. I await his reply.
If the Minister, Labour Party and Fine Gael Party agree that every citizen is entitled to a degree of openness and transparency, the provision of information, standards on accessibility and non-discrimination of public services, surely the foundation on which Irish Water should operate must be feedback, transparency and openness. The United Kingdom established a citizen's charter that is founded on feedback from citizens. While it could be argued that Parliament, whether in the Seanad or Dáil, can provide feedback, that is in the eye of the beholder because such feedback would amount to anecdotal information coming from Members.
Senator Byrne's proposal would provide a statutory footing to a forum that would relay information from citizens on what types of services they want. This is what public service is all about. The Senator has hit the nail on the head on this issue. People deserve a say in what type of future they want for themselves and their children. Politics is often about taking a narrow approach where one looks six months ahead or to the next election. What about looking forward to 2030 or 2040 or creating a vision that would give everyone an equal say on what type of country they want, whether in respect of water, roads, schools, education or jobs?
It is time politics changed in this country. What Senator Byrne is proposing touches on a new type of politics. Prior to the last general election people spoke of a new type of politics but suddenly the next election is fast approaching and this new politics has drastically diminished. This is sad. We can speak about reforming the public service, but we will never reform it if we do not first reform politics. When those at the top of the Civil Service at the top are answerable to the Minister and the needs of the Minister, the future direction or vision of the public service will always be the direction of the politics of the day.
I commend Senator Byrne for tabling the amendment and I ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to accept it, or at least provide us with a commitment to reflect on it over the weekend. It is a damn good amendment. If we subscribe to providing decent public services to the Irish people I do not see why they cannot be given a say in the type of services to be provided.
Last night I voted with the Government. I found this difficult to do because I did not agree with everything, but I did it on the basis of an answer the Minister gave me when I spoke. I stated I would vote with the Government if he gave me an assurance he would listen to what happens in the House and take into account something he believes worthy of support. If it turns out he does not find anything worthy of support I will believe I have been misled. This morning Senator Craughwell tabled an amendment which was not allowed. It was with regard to what Senator Byrne proposes in this amendment.
I made this point yesterday. I got an understanding from the Minister, as he nodded his head, that he would consider changes if he heard something. He may tell me he has found nothing. Senator Craughwell tabled an amendment which was not allowed, but Senator Byrne has found a way to allow the same thing to be achieved. This is an example of where the Minister can keep his word, which he gave me last night.
Four more Senators wish to speak again. The proper procedure is that the Minister will respond and if Senators wish to speak again they can do so. I do not want to bring in people twice at this stage. I have taken their names.
I enjoyed this contribution. It was a good debate. In all honesty, I say to Senator Quinn that I stand by the commitment I have given with regard to anything brought forward. I do not say these things for the sake of it. However, it must be for the right reason. I can see the logic behind the amendment tabled by Senator Byrne, but there is a problematic core issue. The amendment states the forum established under section 7 of the Bill shall, not later than seven months after the passing of the Bill, meet and consider proposals to amend the Constitution of Ireland, but as I outlined a number of hours ago the Government does not believe this is the course of action to take. The Government has gone through this.
Let me finish. It is not necessary and not the route to go down.
I welcome the comments made on the forum. In fairness, Senators of all political colours have said it is a good idea. I very much welcome this, and when we will discuss the section later I will welcome Senators supporting it. All that is in the Bill is the principle of it. The regulations on what will be in the forum will be decided later. It is my intention to make proposals and send them to the joint Oireachtas committee and let it come back to me on it. This is the right and appropriate way to deal with what should be in the forum and what it should discuss.
The forum will not be about constitutional issues. I will come back to the amendment. The forum will be about customers, feedback to Irish Water, Irish Water's capital investment plan, strategies and priorities, and what it is doing wrong and right. Many changes have been made in Irish Water in recent months. There has been a vast improvement with regard to customer feedback and how it deals with customers, and this was necessary. I had to have very difficult conversations with Irish Water. Representatives of Irish Water are in the AV room every week and this is not by accident. There is a new line for Oireachtas Members to call Irish Water.
I have just outlined what the forum is for and I do not believe doing something like this should be legislatively prescriptive. Senators have asked me to reflect - and they can laugh if they want - but I can only be honest with them. I will examine whether there is a process whereby the constitutional convention, or another body perhaps not of that scale, could examine this and what the Government is proposing. I must speak to Cabinet colleagues about it.
The forum outlined in section 7 is a forum for customers. It will be prescribed after I send regulations to the joint Oireachtas committee and it sends them back to me, and then the forum will be established. It is for customers to give feedback on Irish Water's plans. I do not believe it is necessary to amend the Constitution on this issue, and I do not believe I can accept an amendment which proposes this, considering what I already outlined in very clear terms with regard to how far the Government is going on the plebiscite and all of these issues. In light of the amendment, the spirit of the House and the time of the year I will reflect on it, speak to my Government colleagues and see whether there is a process or forum which can discuss this item.
I welcome the last comment made by the Minister, because essentially this is what we have been seeking for some time. It is a pity it was not done months ago. If it had been done and the Minister had such discussions with his Cabinet colleagues we might be in a very different position whereby the Minister would be bringing forward a Government amendment which established a mini-constitutional convention which would have allowed us discuss how we would hold a constitutional referendum on this issue. This is the point we have been making for the past six or seven hours. This is exactly where we want to be with regard to all of the complexity involved and the potential unintended consequences about which the Minister spoke earlier. I do not know whether the Minister has just made a genuine offer. It has struck me that up to now the Government has not been interested in ever holding a constitutional referendum prior to any intention to sell privatise Irish water.
I accept the forum may not be the best body to make such a recommendation.
What the amendment calls for is not a binding recommendation on the Government, but that the forum would "consider" and then "recommend", and like the Constitutional Convention, the Government could then accept the recommendation or not.
It is regrettable that we are in a situation where we have now, at the eleventh hour, had an offer from the Minister to go back to his Cabinet colleagues. It is never too late.
I accept that, but the point is that we have been calling for this for months. Had the Minister done this earlier, he might not be in the mess he is in now. Why could he not have done that months ago, when the Cabinet met on the issue of the ownership of water and whether we needed a constitutional referendum? Whether something could be done was obviously discussed. The Government had the advice from the Attorney General and knew this was an issue and that there was demand from the public for it. Why was the option of a mini constitutional convention not agreed at the Cabinet then so that we could have that debate and a recommendation could be made, which the Government could accept or reject?
I welcome the commitment the Minister is now giving to go back and look at that, but my problem is all of the promises made and the number of times previous Ministers have said that if we pass a Bill, they will reconsider the situation. We were told that in regard to the water charges plan. I remember a lengthy debate last year in the Seanad when we said we wanted to know what the water charges plan involved and how it would work and we were told to trust the Commission for Energy Regulation and let it make the decision. However, the Government came along and ripped that plan up and did its own thing anyway.
If the Minister is serious about going back to his Cabinet colleagues and asking them to reflect on this, the logic is that we would not pass this Bill. Why would we pass the Bill and then hope the Minister will get something from his Cabinet colleagues? What the Minister has done is to let the cat out of the bag. What he said up to now is that this was not possible and that he had gone as far as he could. However, he has now said that he will go back and talk to his Cabinet colleagues about the possibility of some forum that could look at this. This indicates to me that the Minister has not gone as far as he could have gone. Clearly he has not; otherwise, why is he giving this commitment now?
I welcome the commitment at one level, but I question why it was not made a lot earlier and wonder whether it is just another attempt to get some of the Independent Senators on board.
Last night, Senator Feargal Quinn set out his stall clearly, independently and courageously in the House with an open mind on the issue of possible privatisation. This was good as we should hear every opinion here. He had an addendum to his contribution, that when the Minister came in today, he would hold his counsel until he saw the reaction we would get from the Minister on the amendments being put before the House.
Many of us get weary of the cut and thrust of political debate here and of the "them" and "us" syndrome between government and opposition and the posturing and choreography inevitably and invariably ends up in a cul-de-sac.
Senator Norris is quite right that the chance of any amendment being passed today is very small. However, the Minister is beginning to hear positions here that he did not hear in the Dáil. I watch the body and face language and the responses we are getting and get the feeling a new narrative is being provided here to the Minister. The first chink of light I got out of all of this that gave me some hope came from Senator Gilroy today, when I heard him put forward a new position. He suggested that while it may not be in the legislation, he would support a forum like a constitutional convention.
This has broadened the debate beyond our expectations and the Minister's response also came as quite a surprise to me. I agree fully with Senator Cullinane that if we had received those responses yesterday and before the Bill concluded in the Dáil, we would be having a totally different debate.
That is the reason I say the Minister has listened closely to the positions put forward here. What would be helpful at this stage to decide our position on the amendment - this is up to Senator Byrne to decide - would be for the Minister to formalise what he has said in some way. That might provide a worthwhile position to Senator Quinn and would certainly help Fianna Fáil. Above all else coming up to Christmas, it would send a message from Seanad Éireann to the people who are waiting to know what is going to happen that we realise that if they went out in their tens of thousands of people in inclement weather and at short notice, that was only the tip of the iceberg. If we went down to the communities, we would see the same situation and that way the figure of those who say they will not pay the water charges is way beyond the 30% stated in the polls. It could be 50% or 60%. Therefore, we cannot treat this legislation in the normal posturing way when we come in here to debate it. We cannot just know the Government's position and then just do what the Whips tell us.
I hope that, for once, Seanad Éireann, which was saved by the electorate, will now respond to its concerns. The lack of trust, the suspicions of the people and the 4,000 messages that we have been getting from the public are only the tip of the iceberg. I have been a Senator for 17 years and I have never experienced anything like this before. We are dealing with a totally new position. If what the Minister is now saying is that there is a possibility, if not in the forum, in the Constitutional Convention, we can, after eight hours debate, take some consolation from the fact that we are taking steps towards an inclusion of a provision in Bunreacht na hÉireann and we are making progress. Can the Minister formalise this in some way for us today? This would be the best thing the Seanad ever did and would reflect what the people expect of us. Above all else, it would return, rescue and salvage some credibility for the political system if this was to happen here in this august assembly this evening.
I believe the Minister's political antenna have let him down a little. He was not aware that two Members of this House are in favour, to some extent, of privatisation and thought everybody was in favour of the forum. I am not a bit in favour of it and believe it is a waste of time. It is a talking shop - a load of hoo-ha.
I have a bit of news for the Minister; the Constitutional Convention is over. It is kaput. This caring, listening Government did not pay a blind bit of odds to something that went through with 98% support in the convention, the opening up of the Presidency to the will of the people and to nomination, in some form, by the people. I was accused by a Government spokesman of having a personal interest in that, but I have no intention of going next nor nigh the Presidency again. I am far too bloody old for a start. It is up to younger people to do that job.
I have an issue with regard to the use of the word "customer". Customers are usually voluntary. We have not volunteered for this. We did not all rush up to Irish Water and say, "Please, take us on as customers". We were involuntarily enlisted into this damnable entity. The Minister has said he will reflect on the issues and consider them. I am sure he will look at them, but he will do damn all. He cannot do anything. I know the Minister's hands are tied, but they are pretty firmly tied if he cannot even take a proposal to allow the forum to "consider" an appeal. Hello, is there anybody out there? That is not extravagant and should not stretch the political muscles too far. I am not taken in by this charade at all. In fact, I am considering going home quite soon.
I will be brief. I am not going to match that style of speech.
This was a genuine attempt to use a vehicle in the Bill to come halfway between our position and the position of the Government. Labour Party Senators did a brave thing in supporting a Seanad motion calling for the non-privatisation of Irish Water. This is one way we can put that into action. We cannot initiate legislation in the Seanad, but let us have some action.
Like Senator Norris, I hate the word "customer," but that is the word used in the legislation. The forum is tasked with complicated functions, including providing comments and suggestions to the Commission for Energy Regulation on the performance by Irish Water of its functions, and commenting on any policy document produced by Irish Water or any consultation document produced by the commission in respect of public water and waste water services. That is highly technical work, as the legislation recognises in the provision that the commission shall provide the forum with administrative services, including technical advice. The legislation envisages that the forum will carry out a wide range of complicated and technical work, and I am simply mandating it with one other function pertaining to the Constitution. I presume the commission will be able to provide the legal advisors necessary to help the forum with that task.
I think it is a reasonable amendment and I thank my colleagues for their support. I fear some Members opposite are trying to kill the amendment with kindness and I urge them to be radical. I ask the Minister to forget about 23 December. I presume he will be in Dublin that day. If the Parliament is called, Members have to be here. That should not be a consideration. The Minister has one other option under section 7, which allows him to order the forum to carry out activities in respect of such other matters as specified by ministerial order. He could order the forum to consider my proposal without amending the legislation. If he was able to assure me that he will have a draft order prepared by Monday, I would certainly withdraw my amendment. Otherwise, I am afraid I will have to press it to a vote. I urge Labour Party Members to think carefully about their previous vote and ask Independent Senators to carefully consider what I have done. This is their only opportunity to put their kind words about the amendment into practice.
I detect a shifting of the sands with the Minister. As we tire, he is becoming more reasonable and we are becoming more demanding. It is not a big demand. Senator Byrne's amendment does not seek a recommendation on a constitutional referendum from the forum; it merely provides that the forum may consider the matter and bring a recommendation to the Government. I understand the Minister has to take his instructions.
Senator Quinn gave his conditional support, and that condition still arises. I have stated that a referendum is a red-line issue for me. It is a red-line issue in all the text messages I have received today. This is an opportunity to get over that hurdle. If it is the case that, as Senator Ó Murchú observed, the Government has no intention of accepting any amendment, I ask the Minister to tell us now so that we can all go home before taking Report Stage on Monday. That would put us all out of our misery. There is no point in continuing this charade if none of our amendments will be accepted. The Minister already knows which amendments he is prepared to accept.
It is Christmas week and I would love to go home, but we are not going home until we get a reasonable response to our concerns. The Minister has repeatedly claimed that he is sincerely and genuinely listening and that he will accept any reasonable amendment. With respect to Senator Byrne, he is offering the weakest possible amendment. The Minister need do nothing but consider it. If he does not have the power to permit a forum to consider something, it is absolutely pathetic. He indicated that the forum was about customer feedback rather than constitutional issues. Has he heard the cry of the conscripted customer who does not want water to be privatised? That cry is loud and clear. Is he listening to that feedback? He has just said "No."
I was checking. At the end of the day, actions will speak louder than words. This amendment would allow the forum to consider the issue of keeping water as a public resource. It will be given seven months to consider that issue. If the Minister does not have that power, I am concerned. I accept that he may wish to consult his Cabinet colleagues on this, but we will press the amendment. We cannot let anybody have the right to our water. We cannot allow a chink that would make further room for privatisation. That fear exists. The Minister's words matter, but he must act on them.