Thursday, 9 November 2017
Water Services Bill 2017: Second Stage
I present the Water Services Bill 2017 before the Seanad. The Bill provides for the repeal of the 2014 domestic water charging regime and introduces a new regime focused on the promotion of water conservation under which a levy will apply in certain circumstances for usage of water above a reasonable threshold. In making these changes, provision is made in the Bill for the extinguishing of liabilities under the current regime and the issuing of refunds to the 99,0000 customers who paid in accordance with the 2014 Act. This will give rise to a new funding model for Irish Water, which is underpinned by the Bill. In so doing, the Bill reflects the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, which was adopted in April by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The publication of this Bill brings us towards completion of an extensive deliberative process about the funding of domestic water services. Through this legislation, the Government is seeking to protect Irish Water as a single public water utility, and to continue to work to improve and modernise water services throughout the country. Whilst there may be many opposing views on the appropriate way to fund water services, this Oireachtas has had a full examination of the matter and came to a compromise that is reflected in the Joint Oireachtas Committee report. This Government is following through on its commitment in the Confidence and Supply Arrangement and is bringing forward the necessary legislation to reflect the outcome of the Oireachtas decision. This Bill offers clarity and certainty to the water services sector about how services will be funded in the future and how Irish Water will implement the Government’s objectives and priorities in this area. The Bill will also help to increase transparency and accountability in respect of Irish Water and its performance, and will facilitate greater civic and public engagement on the issue of water as a natural resource to be protected and a service vital to our economic and social progress.
Over the past year we have seen an extensive policy debate on how we fund domestic water services. Last July the Government enacted the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2016 to provide the political space for a calm, comprehensive and detailed debate on water services. In the same month an expert commission was established comprising international and national experts on water services, which dedicated five months to examining the various issues concerning the funding of domestic water services. Last November, the commission produced its report, which provided the basis for the work of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. The Oireachtas committee's deliberative process, comprising public meetings and detailed submissions from a range of public bodies and organisations, involved a welcome discussion on the many deficiencies in our public water and wastewater system, including: the reliance of 736,000 people on public water supplies in need of remedial action; the discharge of raw sewage directly into local waters in over 40 urban areas at the end of last year; and the loss through leakage of approximately 45% of all water produced. The debate also outlined evolving challenges that Irish Water faces, such as dealing with the presence of trihalomethanes, THMs, a potentially harmful by-product of the chlorination process, in public water supplies for about 400,000 people. It also underlined the need for sustained investment so that we can address these problems and provide a secure safe water supply and the appropriate level of wastewater treatment to protect public health, the economy and the environment.
A year of political and policy debate on water services also provided a further opportunity for Irish Water to outline the improvements it has made to our water and wastewater infrastructure during the first regulatory period. These included such projects as the national programme to reduce boil water notices, and by the end of 2016 Irish Water had removed long-term boil water notices that had been in place since January 2014 and that had affected more than 20,000 people. Further improvements included almost 860 km of pipeline replaced or repaired - to put this in context, this average of 286 km per year compares with an average of approximately 149 km per year during the final ten years of local authority responsibility for mains rehabilitation; 28 new or upgraded water treatment plants; more than 60 new or upgraded plants for wastewater treatment; and the daily saving of 89 million litres of water through the customer-focused First Fix repair scheme and related customer repairs, which amounts to the equivalent water needs of Galway city and county. These initiatives have all helped to improve people's daily lives, whether it be the quality of the water they drink, the ability to drink it without boiling it, or simply living in an area free of raw sewage discharge. Ultimately, we are having this funding debate because we are trying to improve people’s lives and their environment, to facilitate business and industry, and to enable social and economic progress. Irish Water is doing this and I want to acknowledge the progress it and the local authorities have made.
The deliberative process identified the problems, the progress and the need for funding certainty if we are to continue upgrading and modernising water services and infrastructure. In legislating for the Joint Oireachtas Committee's recommendations, we have devised a policy and funding framework through which the utility can implement national objectives and priorities within an economically regulated environment. This framework provides funding certainty from Government whilst maintaining a regulatory environment that demands efficiencies of Irish Water through the targets set by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, formerly known as the Commission for Energy Regulation.
While the processes of the expert commission and the joint Oireachtas committee resulted in enhanced debate on water services, the Government recognises the need for greater public confidence in the work of Irish Water, as well as for further transparency about how it is funded and where that funding is invested. That is why we are providing for a water advisory body in order to give the Oireachtas and Government assessments on the performance of Irish Water in implementing its business plan. The Government also recognises the importance of the role of civic society in safeguarding water, be it for services to urban and rural areas or for water in the aquatic environment. For this reason, and in line with our commitment in the draft river basin management plan for 2018 to 2021, we are providing for a water forum. Through its advice, recommendations and observations I am confident that the forum will increase public support for water services investment; public awareness of and participation in increased water conservation and initiatives to protect water quality in our rivers, lakes and coastal waters; and national appreciation of the links between water and public health, economic progress and environmental protection. These key aims will advance if wider civic society debates and analyses these issues on an ongoing basis. Though the forum will advise the Minister of the day, it will also have an independent voice to communicate directly with wider society.
I will now outline the purpose and operation of each section of the Bill before us. Section 1 sets out the Short Title and provides that the various provisions of the Bill may be brought into operation on such day or days as may be appointed by order of the Minister. Section 2 sets out the definitions required to give effect to the provisions of all parts of the Bill. Section 3 is a standard provision enabling expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the Act to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.
Section 4 provides that every order and regulation under this Act shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made and, if a resolution annulling such order or regulation is passed by either House within the next 21 days on which that House has sat after the order or regulation is laid before it, the order or regulation shall be annulled accordingly. Section 5 outlines the legislation and regulations that are repealed or revoked. Section 6 provides for the insertion of certain definitions into the Water Services Act 2007. Section 7 provides for the inclusion of the proposed water advisory body and the water forum in bodies that can be funded by the Minister.
Section 8 provides for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, formerly known as the Commission for Energy Regulation, to carry out a review to assess the average consumption by customers of water services provided by Irish Water to dwellings, a review that shall be used by the Minister to set the threshold over which excessive usage payments may apply. The commission will also recommend to the Minister, based on consumption trends, the level of allowance to apply for usage by larger households where five or more people are ordinarily resident in a dwelling. The first such review will be carried out and completed within one month of the coming into operation of this section, with provision for future reviews prior to the expiration of the water charges plans.
Section 9 sets out the process for specifying the threshold amount and the allowance amount, following receipt by the Minister of the report from the commission. It specifies that the threshold amount shall be calculated by multiplying by 1.7 the amount assessed by the commission as the average rate of consumption of water services in a 12 month period. Allowances will be provided where the excessive use of water is caused by the size of the household or medical needs in the household. Provision is made that the multiplier of 1.7 may be reduced in time, but not within the first five years of the Act, and not without a positive resolution of the Oireachtas. Guidance is given in the Bill as to the factors that might be taken into account in such a change to the multiplier in the future, which are primarily based on promoting water conservation and sustainable use of resources, reflecting the objectives of the water framework directive.
Section 10 provides for the insertion of a provision into the Water Services Act 2007 to preclude Irish Water from charging a customer for water services provided by Irish Water to the customer’s dwelling where that customer does not consume water services in excess of the threshold amount. Section 11 inserts a provision into the Water Services Act 2007 for lrish Water to give notice to a customer where the threshold amount has been exceeded. A customer who continues to consume water in excess of the threshold amount after a period of six months following a notice from Irish Water will be liable to pay it for the provision of any water service that exceeds the threshold amount. The payment levels will be set by the commission having regard to the costs of Irish Water. This period of time will allow the customer to adust his or her consumption patterns or avail of the Irish Water first fix scheme where the usage is caused by a leak in the grounds of his or her dwelling.
Section 12 provides that a customer who receives a notice of the provision of water services exceeding the threshold amount can seek an allowance related to the size of his or her household to reduce or eliminate his or her liability. The allowance amount set will be multiplied by the number of persons above four in a dwelling.
Section 13 provides that a customer who receives a notice of the provision of water services exceeding the threshold amount can seek an exemption from payment where the usage arises from a medical need of a member of the household giving rise to an additional demand for water services.
Section 14 provides for an amendment to section 2 of the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 to insert definitions for "dwelling", "strategic funding plan", "threshold amount" and "water services policy statement".
Section 15 provides for the charging of customers of Irish Water for services that exceed the threshold amount for which a customer is liable to make a payment, services related to the connection of a dwelling to water services and the reading and testing of water meters when requested by a customer of Irish Water at the dwelling.
Section 16 provides that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities will have regard to a strategic funding plan prepared by Irish Water when considering a water charges plan submitted by Irish Water.
Section 17 provides that Irish Water will amend its code of practice to make additional provision for the making of complaints to Irish Water by persons about notices received related to the provision of water services exceeding the threshold amount and about refunds being made by Irish Water to customers who paid water charges.
Section 18 provides that the Minister shall prepare a water services policy statement before the expiration of the water charges plan. The statement will contain information on the policy objectives and priorities of the Government in the provision of water services in the State and will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
Section 19 provides for Irish Water to prepare and submit a strategic funding plan outlining the arrangements for implementation of the objectives of the water services strategic plan for the duration of the water charges plan being prepared by Irish Water. The strategic funding plan will include an estimate of the costs associated with the provision of water services for dwellings and the recovery of these costs; the costs associated with the provision of water services for premises other than dwellings and the recovery of these costs; the income of Irish Water and its operating and capital expenditure. The plan will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and furnished to the commission.
Section 20 provides for grants to Irish Water, sanctioned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, towards the expenditure incurred by Irish Water in the provision of water services for a dwelling. Before deciding whether to make a grant, the Minister shall have regard to the water charges plan last approved by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, the strategic funding plan last approved by the Minister, the refunds plan, the need to ensure the recovery of the cost of water services in line with the Water Framework Directive and the environmental objectives of the Water Framework Directive. The Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services recommended that there be funding certainty and long-term stability for the water utility. The proposals contained in sections 18 to 20, inclusive, are in line with these recommendations.
Section 21 provides that no liability arises for Irish Water domestic customers in the period from 1 January 2015 to 30 June 2016, that is, the period prior to the suspension of domestic water charges, or to any related late payment charge.
Section 22 provides Irish Water with the power to make a refund payment to a customer who paid a charge for the provision by it of water services to a dwelling.
Section 23 strengthens the role of the commission in disputes between Irish Water and those seeking a connection to the public water or wastewater network.
Sections 24 to 32, inclusive, provide for the establishment of the Water Forum and set out the provisions relating to its membership, functions and operation.
Sections 33 to 41, inclusive, provide for the dissolution of the Public Water Forum and the National Rural Water Services Committee and set out the transitional arrangements in moving towards the establishment of the Water Forum.
Sections 42 to 53, inclusive, provide for the establishment of the Water Advisory Body and set out the provisions relating to its membership, functions and operation.
Part 8 gives effect to the changes in funding sources to and from the local government fund and the Central Fund arising from the report of the working group on the future funding model for Irish Water. The aim is to simplify the funding of local government and the changes which are on an Exchequer neutral basis have been designed to improve the transparency of the funding of Irish Water to ensure that, as recommended, it will be funded from general taxation. From 2018 onwards, all State funding to Irish Water for domestic water services will be channelled through my Department's Vote.
Section 54 provides for the Minister for Finance to pay into the local government fund the local property tax collected during the financial years 2014 to 2017, inclusive. Commencing in 2018, the Revenue Commissioners shall pay directly into the local government fund an amount equivalent to the local property tax received by them, including any interest or penalties.
Section 55 provides that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport can issue directions on the collection of motor tax under sections 5(3) and 7(1)of the 1998 Act.
Section 56 amends section 4(6) of the Local Government Act 1998 to provide that from 1 January 2018 all motor tax collected by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport shall be paid into the Central Fund.
Section 57 provides that from 1 January 2018 motor tax collected by local authorities shall be paid to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. It also clarifies that all motor tax collected up to 31 December 2017 shall continue to be paid into the local government fund.
Section 58 amends section 6 of the Local Government Act 1998 and provides for the deletion of subsections (1A), (2A), (2AB), (2B), (2CA) and (9). It also amends subsection (2C) to provide for a payment to the Exchequer in 2017.
Section 59 inserts the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport as the relevant Minister. It also adds a provision that any direction in force will remain in force.
Section 60 deals with consequential amendments to the water charges plan in force to give effect to the amendments made in the Bill.
Section 61 provides for Schedule 4 to the Valuation Act 2001 to be amended by the deletion of paragraph 21. This deletion will provide for the entire network used for the provision of water services by Irish Water or a person who holds a water services licence or land and buildings occupied by Irish Water or such a licence holder to be rateable.
Section 62 provides for the removal of the requirement provided for in section 70B(5) to register a domestic wastewater treatment system every five years. Associated subsections (6) and (7) are also deleted.
The Bill I have outlined to the House represents a comprehensive policy and funding framework to bring settlement and certainty to the funding of domestic water services. The framework should also improve transparency and accountability in respect of Irish Water, providing greater information for the Oireachtas and the public on the utility’s work. This transparency and information will be underpinned by stronger public and civic engagement on water issues through the new Water Forum.
The Bill provides for the retention of the incentive among households to conserve water and will help Ireland to meet the objectives of the Water Framework Directive and other water directives. To be clear, the aim is not to establish a new domestic funding stream for Irish Water. The objective is not to raise revenue for lrish Water through the excessive usage levy but to tackle the 8% of households which use 30% of our water. They are using this much water either because of leaks or because they are wilfully wasting it. We want to cut out both, not to get money for this waste. Again, it is not about new funding. If someone has additional people in his or her home, his or her allowance will be increased. If his or her water usage is excessive owing to medical needs, he or she will be exempt entirely.
The Bill provides a framework through which Irish Water and the water services sector can plan to deliver a modern, reliable public water and wastewater system. This is vital for families, communities, the economy and the environment. To some degree, the ongoing debate on the funding issues has diverted attention from the core challenge of fixing our weak water infrastructure. It is time to give certainty to the sector. The Bill reflects the outcome of serious consideration of the issues involved by the Oireachtas. It is time to implement the changes and support Irish Water in focusing on making the changes and investment required to build a modern public water and wastewater system, of which we can all be proud, building on the progress already made. I commend the Bill to the House.
Fianna Fáil supports the Bill which will give effect to the recommendations made in April by the Joint Committee of the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. The legislation will abolish water charges and introduce fines or levies for those who waste water. Abolishing the last unfair water charging regime was a key manifesto commitment for Fianna Fáil. With this Bill, 92% of households will not pay a charge, while those who waste water will have until July 2019 to apply for exemptions for excessive water use. There is also a first-time fix policy available. In that time the regulator will determine normal usage. It was agreed by all parties that homes could use up to 1.7 times that level. As this formula can only be changed with the agreement of the Dáil, accusations made by the hard left that water charges will return are completely false and populist.
The new Bill complies with EU water directives, will prevent water wastage and allow for investment from the Exchequer in the country's water infrastructure. While Fianna Fáil secured a commitment in the confidence and supply agreement that Irish Water would be kept in public ownership, it was also agreed at the all-party committee that a referendum would be held to ensure this would be enshrined in the Constitution. The Bill also provides for a refund of water charges. In addition, the committee agreed that there would be equity for those participating in rural water schemes and that a working group would be established to pursue that aim. There will also be also be extra usage allowance for large families of five or more and those with medical conditions. People will have time to moderate their usage as an information campaign, which is part of the agreement, will commence soon. It is crucial that there is a campaign because people need to know. It is a lack of information that causes confusion.
The new framework will draw a line under the water charges fiasco which occurred under Fine Gael and the Labour Party and which cost the country €22 million in 2015. The new system which this Bill puts in place will end this disastrous process.
It is important that we agree with the report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. The existing regime will be abolished, 92% of householders will not pay charges, any households which go above the 1.7 multiplier will have opportunities to rectify the problem or arrive at an agreement, water services will be funded by the Exchequer, households which have paid their bills will be refunded, and a detailed report will be published regarding how to ensure equal funding for those living in rural and urban areas. That is crucial because we must make sure that rural people are not forgotten. That is something I will ensure happens. There will be no future metering programme for existing homes. There will be a referendum on the ownership of Irish Water.
The Department will pay for every household's water as well as providing capital funding for Irish Water. This has been built into the calculations of the fiscal space for 2018 and so will have no direct impact on the budget. People ask where the money will come from. This is crucial information that the public needs to know. Funding for water will go through the Exchequer rather than local government funds, which is to compensate for the Department paying for water usage.
Under the legislation, refunds will be issued within a month of the Bill passing. Some 30,000 cheques may be dispatched daily. There will be 970,000 refunds. Christmas is coming and many people have contacted me to ask when they will receive their refund. Many people are waiting for it because Christmas is coming and people find it hard to make ends meet and pay their bills. Will the Minister confirm this today because it is crucial that the 30,000 cheques per day can be sent out?
According to various Departments, there is no need for customers to call the Department or Irish Water. The only time that customers need to contact them is in the case of a change of address. Everything else will be on the system. If a person has moved house, he or she must ring Irish Water to let it know. That is the only information that it needs.
Fianna Fáil has already boosted funding to group water schemes under the confidence and supply agreement. We will press on with this working group as a priority to ensure equity between urban and rural dwellers in this Bill.
Fianna Fáil believes that it is time to draw a clear line under this fiasco and move on. That is why we drew up a detailed roadmap to reform Irish Water and abolish water charges. It is great that we are here today and can say to people that we in Fianna Fáil delivered on this, working with other groups.
People are finding it very hard to meet their bills. We spoke about local property tax this morning, people trying to pay their mortgages and the many bills people have that they find they just cannot pay. Life can be hard at times. We understand that people should not overuse water which is a precious commodity and that we must appreciate it, but we are also paying for water through other taxes. It is crucial that people get their refund. There is a limit. Everyone should work together to ensure this.
Tá sé deas an tAire a fheicéal anseo. I commend the Minister and his Department on their work on drafting the Bill. It reflects very closely the recommendations of the joint committee. From my perspective as Chairman of the committee, the Department, the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, and the Certified Public Accountants Ireland, CPA, were very co-operative and supportive and made a very significant contribution to generating the information to enable us to come up with the document with which the Minister is working. The Minister's colleague, Senator Paudie Coffey, played a significant part in it, as did everyone on the committee. I wholeheartedly support the Bill. I support the Minister and his team in bringing this Bill through. I am very disappointed that it has taken so long. It is not the Minister's fault that repayments have not been made to those who did pay. It appears somewhat as though people who do what they are told are penalised and those who do not are not penalised. I am really disappointed and surprised at some of the political parties who decided to play political football on the matter. It is far too important for that. It has nothing to do with politics. It is about people's health. My view from the beginning was that it was all about health. From my engagement with the Department, the CER, Irish Water and so on, that was also their attitude.
The public utility, Irish Water, will be one that we will be very proud of in time. Let us give it space to grow and develop. It had a very difficult induction period, so let us support it now. I ask the media to give it some space. It will take five or six years to turn this around but I believe its CEO, Jerry Grant, and his team will get there.
I am very encouraged to understand that we appear to be meeting the EU water directive framework. I had some concerns on this but I understand there is a comfort factor, at the moment at least, in relation to the framework, which is very important to us in every way.
This is a public utility and it will remain in public ownership. That was the first recommendation that we made as a committee in our document. There is a Bill currently at Committee Stage on that. I believe it will be heard in December, and the committee supports that.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House. I have the greatest of respect for Senator Murnane O'Connor but I will not allow the rewriting of history on what she described as the "water fiasco". First, if one looks at the Fianna Fáil record on water services in this country, we were spending in excess of €1 billion of public money annually and more than half the water was leaking into the ground, there was pollution in rivers and lakes and along the coastline, and our water infrastructure was a shambles. Second, in 2008, Fianna Fáil signed this country up in an agreement with the Troika to water charges of €400 annually per household. It bankrupted the country and tried to abolish the utility, Irish Water, which is the solution to all the problems we are hearing about.
I did not interrupt the Senator. I ask her to let me continue. That is the legacy of Fianna Fáil on water provision in this country. I do not want to revisit all the old arguments but there were obvious reasons Irish Water was established, new legislation was required and funding streams were required to invest in our water services. The legacy of Fianna Fáil on water is not something to be proud of.
I will not even mention Sinn Féin and the left because we are aware of their populist positions on the subject.
We see it how they have tried to stall the legislation in the Dáil. I agree on one thing. There was much concern in this House yesterday where Senators debated the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which is a matter of public health, for over eight hours. I agree with my colleague, Senator Ó Céidigh, that water provision is a matter of public health in that we are providing clean, healthy water for citizens.Some Opposition parties take contradictory stances in respect of alcohol control and water provision.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services did a valuable and good job under the chairmanship of Senator Ó Céidigh. I commend him on the independent and firm way in which he chaired that committee because it was a very difficult time. The various views and perspectives were heard in a fair manner and were taken into account. There were many alternative and opposing opinions but a majority report was issued to the Minister and the Department. I commend the work of that committee, whether the members agreed or not. There was opportunity for rows to take place, divergent views of be put forward and the aspirations of our citizens to be heard because we have an obligation to citizens to provide a quality water network not just for this generation but for future generations. We also have obligations under the EU water framework directives, as has been mentioned, and if we do not meet them, we will expose the country and taxpayers to huge fines, which, if Senators will excuse the pun, will also represent water down the drain.
I welcome this legislation once and for all. I also welcome the charges for excessive use above a reasonable threshold. The latter has been agreed at 1.7 times the average rate of consumption as set by the independent Commission for Regulation of Utilities. That is fair and a political compromise. That is what politics is about. I hope it provides a way forward.
Irish Water, as a utility, deserves our support. It is a national utility like the ESB, for which I worked for 20 years and of which we are all very proud. Irish Water deserves the same support. It deserves certainty in the context of both its funding streams and the capital investment it will need to make regarding water infrastructure.
I live in Waterford, a coastal county, which struggled for years to retain blue flags in respect of its beaches. We all speak of our pride in our tourism industry and our environment. It was a national disgrace that raw sewage was flowing into the waters of Dunmore East and Tramore, beautiful, scenic tourist spots that could not get blue flags for their beaches until recently. As a Government Senator and a former Minister of State who supported Irish Water all the way, I am proud to say that Irish Water ensured that the necessary investment in water treatment infrastructure for Ardmore, Dunmore East and Tramore was made. As a result, these towns can now proudly fly their blue flags because the waters there are clean. That is the legacy of difficult decisions taken by my former Government colleagues in Fine Gael and Labour. They made the decisions in the interests of our citizens and our environment. They were not populist decisions. We did not oppose anything for the sake of attracting easy votes. Instead, we decided to invest in order that our citizens might have the infrastructure they deserve. That is one example.
Galway city suffered a serious outbreak of cryptosporidium some years ago and this led to businesses and restaurants being obliged to close. Cryptosporidium has affected many villages and towns in the interim and boil water notices were issued in many parts of the county. In addition, there are capacity problems in Dublin. Unless we invest in infrastructure, those problems will continue to obtain.
It was ironic to hear Opposition politicians screaming when a water main in Meath burst and Drogheda and the whole of east Meath had no water for several weeks, possibly months. The first people out screaming were those who opposed the establishment of Irish Water. It was so ironic. I kept my mouth shut at the time but members of the electorate are intelligent people and they know that without investment in the necessary infrastructure, this type of problem will continue to arise.
I urge the Minister to ensure that the refund scheme is put in place and I acknowledge those who paid their water charges. It is important now that they are treated fairly, as recommended by the joint committee. The Minister is setting up an online system to inform people about when they will receive their refunds. It is important that this happens. It is also important that water provision for rural dwellers is not forgotten. By means of co-operative and group schemes, these people provided funding for water provision in rural areas. We need to ensure that they are continuously supported by Government grants and subsistence aid. Those people have their own wells and septic tanks and they should also be treated fairly in order to ensure that said wells and tanks are maintained to a high standard. They should be treated in the same way as urban dwellers, particularly in the context of investment in water infrastructure.
I wish the Minister well with the Bill. It is important that we move on from this sorry saga in our political history and get fully behind the great utility that Irish Water will prove to be. I am sure it will serve the country in the same way the ESB has done for many decades.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo le cuid de na rudaí atá ráite a cheartú. We are back to unpick some of the mess presided over by the previous speaker when, as a Minister of State, he sat in the chair currently occupied by the Minister. We raised many of the issues to which reference has been with him and the then Minister, Ireland's EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan.
I find it ironic that there have been several references to Galway and to political parties but it was people power on the streets that brought about this change in the legislation. We welcome much of the change those people brought about. They forced political parties, particularly Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to make U-turns on many of the mistakes relating to the establishment of Irish Water. People were very angry when the guts of €1 million was spent on water meters to a company owned by Denis O'Brien, who must have made a very nice profit out of their installation.
Senator Coffey spoke about the blue flag beaches in Tramore and we all welcome those. What about the blue flag beaches in Spiddal and Carraroe where we still do not have a sewerage system? What about the delays in Inis Oírr and Oughterard where there are no sewerage systems? The Senator spoke about the outbreak of cryptosporidium in Galway city. Why did Irish Water not spend money on replacing the lead pipes there before the installation of water meters? It might have attracted more buy-in from people if that had happened. Why has it taken nearly two years to ask Irish Water to put a pipe underground in Connemara so that a road can be fixed? The county council and residents have been waiting for this for two years because the road is in rag order. That is why people have absolutely no faith in Irish Water. We brought all of this to the attention of Senator Coffey, the then Minister of State, and Phil Hogan, the then Minister and current EU Commissioner, at the time.
I agree with Senator Coffey's analysis of Fianna Fáil's legacy on water because it left a lot to be desired as regards investment in the water system. Táimid ar ais ag plé cúrsaí uisce arís, agus an tír ar fad ag smaoineamh gur socraíodh an cheist seo. Ní cheart go ndéanfaí dearmad gur tháinig deireadh leis na táillí uisce ionas go dtabharfadh Fianna Fáil tacaíocht don Rialtas seo sa chéad áit. Tá tacaíocht Fhianna Fáil fite fuaite leis an gceist seo. Níl aon fhoráil sa Bhille seo nár thug Fianna Fáil cead dó. Má tá rud ar bith in easnamh ón mBille seo, is mar gheall nach raibh Fianna Fáil ag iarraidh é a áireamh ós rud é nach raibh sé tábhachtach go leor dóibh. Is é ceann de na ceisteanna seo an tacaíocht a thugtar do na scéimeanna grúpaí uisce, ar a bhfuil go leor cainte faoi láthair.
Here we are again discussing water charges, a matter the public thought had been resolved. We should not need to have this debate. Water charges and metering should never have been introduced. Fianna Fáil's deal with the troika led to the establishment of the charging regime, which has now proved to be a massive waste of time and money. It was never a question of conservation but of privatisation. It was never a question of investment but, rather, one of commodification. Water is essential to life. Whenever that commodity has a price attached to it, there will be people who will be well able to pay and those who will not. Water inequality impacts on the most basic of human functions and is wrong. Even though the Government claimed that it never intended to privatise Irish Water, the evidence from all other countries is that privatisation creeps in. Once it is in the hands of companies with shareholders and directors the customers become secondary. We have only to look at England where competing water companies deliver poor quality and bad service to customers.
I commend the Right2water campaign and all those citizens, which ultimately defeated these charges. It was a campaign that saw mass participation, including by many who would rarely have been seen protesting on such an issue before. This strengthens the argument of Sinn Féin and others that water is exceptional.If one commodifies or privatises such a basic necessity, one leaves citizens at the mercy of market forces and private capital, which have scant regard for human need.
As far as the Bill itself goes, I will point out a major omission. Fianna Fáil, in the Special Committee on the Future Funding of Water, was at pains to stress the inequality regarding rural water group and private schemes. I heard Senator Murnane O'Connor on that song again today. I agree completely. If there is no standing charge for people accessing domestic water services for their homes in urban Ireland, there should be no standing charge for those in rural Ireland. Where additional costs are incurred regarding the installation and maintenance of private or group water schemes, that should be covered. Níl rud ar bith sa Bhille seo maidir leis na scéimeanna tuaithe. Sin mar gheall ar fhaillí Fhianna Fáil. Is éard atá i gceist ná gur cuma leis faoi na daoine atá ar na scéimeanna seo nó gur ghéill sé roimh fhathaigh mhóra Fhine Gael. Is cur i gcéill é le rá gur bua ar son an phobail an Bille seo.
There are significant areas which remain unclear. With regard to an allowance for households of five or more, where does that leave the four-person household, which is particularly disadvantaged under the proposal? It also creates perverse incentives for the one-person household, which will have the same allowance as two, three and four-person households. Nor do we know if the excessive usage is a charge or a penalty. If it is a metric charge based on how much is used then it is a charge not a fine. It does not take a genius to figure out why my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, tabled an amendment in the Dáil seeking to have this Bill renamed "the water charges by the back door" Bill.
If there is to be a charge for those households excessively using water, which Fianna Fáil claims will be only a tiny fraction of households, what of those that have no meter? One could end up with a house on a street with a meter being charged for excess use based on that meter's reading while another house on the same street with no meter is subject to an estimation which could greatly under or overestimate their excess use. I am glad that the money set aside for metering has now been diverted. I am pointing out the stupidity of the metering process in the first place, as we did when debating these issues ad nauseamwith the former Ministers, Senator Paudie Coffey and Commissioner Phil Hogan. The percentage threshold above which excessive usage kicks in can only be reduced by the Oireachtas. If we reduce this ratio, more people will be liable for excessive usage. The ratio could be reduced so low so as to include everyone who would have been liable for charges ion the first place. An é seo an bua a bhain Fianna Fáil amach ar son an phobail?
There is no detail on how to assist families to reduce leaks because nobody knows whether the idea that 8% of households are using 30% of water is because of excessive leaks in the piping system, excessive use, wilful use, large family size or other reasons. There is no additional support after the first-fix facility to assist those families. If we allow this legislation to pass, the infrastructure for domestic metered water charges, and all of the negative consequences that come with that-----
I did not interrupt Senator Coffey. All of the negative consequences that come with that remain in place and a future Government - which may even be, after the next election, a fine coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - can come back and do exactly what it wants, which is to extend that charge out to ever-increasing numbers of people, commodify a valuable service that is water and revert to the bad model of water services delivery that is becoming the norm across the world.
The consequences of this are that there will be water poverty, increased charges and poorer quality services, particularly for those in need. For those reasons, not only will Sinn Féin be absolutely opposing this legislation but we will be doing as much as we can to ensure that those problems with this Bill are fully exposed in committee in order that when they start to hit people in the streets, they will know to blame Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I wish to acknowledge the great work of Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, who really was a superb Chairman in the face of adversity. It was a very difficult task and long hours were put in. I know he personally went over and above the call of duty. I agree with one aspect of the presentation by my colleague, Senator Ó Clochartaigh. Water is essential to life.
I am speaking today as a member of the Green Party and as a member of the Special Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. I must admit I am a little disappointed with the provisions contained in this Bill. I did not support the conclusions of the committee, as I felt that there was far too little support for conservation and careful use and that the provisions were inadequate to the task of fixing our water system. We all know of the leaks that have long plagued our water network but most seem less aware of the pretty remarkable process in leak prevention that a national roll-out of meters has managed to deliver to date.
The Bill will establish Irish Water on a secure footing for the future by securing its funding through public taxation. As Members are already no doubt aware, the Green Party is not completely in favour of this position. We support the principle that wastage of crucial natural resources should never be subsidised or rewarded and that penalties can be beneficial to affect people’s behaviours. I appreciate that a penalty for overuse did finally make it into the committee’s recommendations and note that the way it is structured in the Bill, with a six-month notice period, will serve almost exclusively as a deterrent, and will almost certainly never actually be applied. As long as it leads to reductions in waste, I have no objection to that. Our aim is to create an environment of careful and efficient use, not to charge for charging’s sake.
I am also supportive of the extension of the role of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, and trust that it will finally assess the actual level of average usage of water in Ireland. As a member of the committee, I pushed hard for the alteration of the work of the public water forum to include more public awareness about the issues under its consideration, and I am supportive of its incorporation into the new water forum. It is my hope that this body can be instrumental in drawing a line under the huge public anger we have seen over the past few years and lead to a more positive engagement between Irish Water and the public it serves.
There is so much missing from this Bill. The most glaring omission is any mention of the need to secure Irish Water in public ownership. A Bill regarding the constitutional protection of water services in Ireland is working its way through the committee process, too slowly in my opinion, but we need to prepare for what was one of the most adamant and the primary recommendation of the committee — that privatisation of water services be made entirely impossible.
The Bill contains no provisions at all in regard to metering. I did not support the committee’s recommendations on this issue. I believe that we have seen the huge benefit individual meters can provide in leak detection and prevention, quite apart from their function in more effectively, accurately and easily detecting excessive usage. There is nothing about the drinking water inspectorate, nothing about water conservation incentives, no more resources for the EPA or local authorities to ensure compliance with the Water Framework Directive, something that we are seeing the serious effects of lately in health, in the environment, and in the financial impacts of serious fines. Nor is there anything on multi-annual financial planning for Irish Water, including the prospect of accessing funding from the National Treasury Management Agency.
I and the Green Party will vote to support this Bill because I believe that we do need to take action to control wastage of any natural resource, including water. I will support it because Irish Water needs long-term certainty regarding its funding for the foreseeable future if it is to tackle the challenges of providing a secure and sustainable water supply to all in a warming world that will be affected by a changing climate and the attendant challenges. However, I would have liked to see the Government put into effect the many other provisions and recommendations from the committee, especially guaranteeing the public ownership of water in Ireland, and I hope that the Minister will strive to do so in the near future in order that we might finally draw a line under this contentious issue that has been water in Ireland.
The Minister understands that clean, fresh water is essential for life. It is time that we as a nation appreciated the wonderful resource that it is, and recognise that we have to pay for the services attached to it.
I thank the Senator. I note that we were all sent a timely email from Irish Water in the last hour on the Irish Water national water resources plan, consultation No. 1. I do not know if the Minister organised for that to happen in the middle of our debate. There is work being done.
I call on the Minister to conclude the debate.
I will be brief in my concluding remarks. I thank Senator Ó Céidigh for the incredible and important work he has managed and steered by chairing the committee. His public service has not only aided the stability of our politics and political system at the moment, given that we are in a minority Government, but has also aided the stability of our water system and future investment. It has put them in a safe and strong place and this is as a result of the good work performed by him and his committee. I thank the Senator for that.
We can get into the details of the amendments to different sections of the Bill next week when we take it through Committee and Report Stages. I hope we can do that next week. The payment of refunds is dependent on the legislation passing both Houses of the Oireachtas. If we can do that next week, we will get more refunds paid out before Christmas. Not every refund will be paid, unfortunately, but there will be a service available on the website whereby people can find out when exactly they are getting a refund.
For those who have paid their water charges in full, the amount is €325, which is not an insubstantial amount of money. They will want to know when that is coming in to enable them to make plans around that on how they might spend it or what they might choose to do with it. It is important to get the legislation passed quickly and that there are no unnecessary delays like those we have seen in the passage of the Bill through the Lower House, unfortunately.
In essence, the Bill is a conservation measure - it is important to note that. There will be a need for conservation measures in future as we change our water use and practices. The water forum and advisory bodies will be in place to advise not only me, but the Oireachtas on how best to pursue further conservation measures in future.
Reference was made to public ownership of Irish Water, water services and infrastructure as well as to water as a public good. Legislation is coming to the Oireachtas joint committee next week on the possibility of a referendum to change the Constitution and put that safeguard in place. In any event, given the structure of Irish Water today and as it will exist once this legislation has passed, the idea of private ownership of water is basically impossible. I have no problem with a referendum being put to the people about public ownership of water in the country, but I would caution people that we need to have other referendums that are, I believe, far more important and pressing. I do not believe we would be doing good service to the public if we were to proceed before those referendums with a referendum on public ownership of water, which is not necessarily essential at this point. While we will be debating that in committee next week, I wish to remind people that other referendums are considered more important by the public, and perhaps they should proceed before we have a referendum on public ownership of water.
I thank Senators for their contributions and I look forward to the further Stages of the Bill next week.
Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Ray Butler, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Paudie Coffey, Martin Conway, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Frank Feighan, Robbie Gallagher, Maura Hopkins, Gerry Horkan, Colette Kelleher, Tim Lombard, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Rónán Mullen, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, David Norris, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Kieran O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, Grace O'Sullivan, Neale Richmond, Keith Swanick, Diarmuid Wilson.
I am only human, Senator Ó Clochartaigh. It often happens that there is too much noise in the Chamber – there is a lot of giddiness when a vote is on. I have made a ruling so I am not retracting it. I hope you will accept my situation.