Tuesday, 14 November 2017
Water Services Funding
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, for coming into the House to update us on the Government's plans to provide equity and fairness for group water schemes.
The lack of information on this issue has been frustrating for those in group water schemes. At a time when Irish Water is actively informing all those who are due refunds, there is little detail available regarding how equality for other water users can be achieved. I am hosting a public meeting later this week in Mayo on the issue which reflects the frustration of those who do not yet know how their access to water will be provided and how it will be funded into the future. Even when the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was introducing the Water Services Bill in the Dáil, he noted that the legislation provides clarity on public water and wastewater services but that there is still some distance to go in achieving clarity for the group water schemes.
As the Minister of State will be aware, the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services reported earlier this year and stated that the committee recommends that the principles of equity of treatment and equivalent financial support should be applied equally between households on public water supplies and those on group water schemes, group sewerage schemes and those using domestic wastewater treatment systems and individual domestic water supplies. It is not good enough that many low-income households in rural Ireland have to continue to pay twice for water as matters currently stand. I ask why such a key recommendation of both the expert report and the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services has not yet been implemented. The legislation being put forward at present should have included, as my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, stated, provision for group water schemes.
The key difference is that group water schemes receive an annual subsidy of €70 per household but it does not cover the full annual cost of accessing the water supply. Those connected to a public water supply who are currently customers of Irish Water do not pay an annual charge for accessing that supply and equity would mean that the State would cover the full annual cost of the group water scheme users accessing the water supply.
The submission of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes to the special committee showed the experience and extraordinary voluntary effort that goes into every scheme and this is often neglected in the debate around the water supply. These are friends and neighbours. They are not debt collectors. They have all of their own issues, their own household bills, their own health concerns, etc. These are volunteers and they find it increasingly difficult to collect payment for what is an essential service which should be supplied.
Another important matter is the need for a proper timely programme to be put in place to facilitate the takeover of schemes. This currently takes far too long and the schemes are left in doubt as to when the necessary upgrades and takeovers will happen. There is a need for clarity around that as well.
How far progressed is the review process on the subsidy and will the Exchequer funding in the form of subsidy payments be reflected in the provision of water to households on group water schemes in the same manner as the rest of the country out of general taxation? If the only clarity to come out of the Water Services Bill is that water is now paid for through general taxation, it is only fair to ask for the same regime to apply right across the State.
I thank Senator Conway-Walsh for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Eoghan Murphy, who could not make it to the Chamber today.
Group water schemes is an issue close to my own heart. My late father was a founder member of the group scheme in our area, along with another local man. Both have gone to their eternal reward at this stage. In regard to the specific question asked, in recommendation 6.1 of its report the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services recommended that the principles of equity of treatment and equivalent financial support should be applied equally between households on public water supplies and those in group water schemes and group sewerage schemes, those using domestic wastewater treatment systems and those using individual water supplies. It also recommended that the Department conduct a review, in co-ordination with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and other relevant stakeholders, to quantify what additional investment will be required to equalise treatment between those availing of domestic water services and those availing of private services. It recommended that, following this review, identified investment should be provided.
I am happy to inform the Senator that the Department has already engaged informally with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes regarding the committee’s recommendation for equal treatment for households on group schemes. The Water Services Bill 2017 is currently being considered by this House. Once the Bill is enacted, a working group involving the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and other relevant stakeholders will be formally established to advance the recommendation of the joint Oireachtas committee.
The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is committed to holding this review and to ensuring we have a vibrant, sustainable future for the group water sector. The Minister assured the National Federation of Group Water Schemes of this when he recently met it and also when he addressed the recent rural water services conference. It is also worth highlighting that since domestic water charges for Irish Water customers were suspended, the operational subsidy provided by the Department to group water schemes has been restored to pre-2015 levels.
It is important to note that funding is currently provided to the group water schemes either through subsidy or capital grant, and this is provided for by section 16 of the Water Services Act 2007. Within this framework, the precise subsidy and grant arrangements, and associated eligibility, are set out in departmental circulars. Therefore, no legislation is required to change either the subsidy arrangements or the grant provisions.
To ensure a vibrant future, the rural water sector requires clear funding and governance structures and it was for this reason that the Government reformed the way it funds the sector. The aim of the new multiannual rural water programme 2016-18, with its more scheme-based or project-based approach, is to provide enhanced funding certainty for priority investment needs in the sector. This year, the Department allocated €17.8 million in funding for the rural water programme. In addition to this capital investment, the Department is providing operational subsidies to the group water sector and an amount of some €20.5 million is being provided in 2017. The Department is also engaging with the sector on an ongoing basis on a range of other issues, including improving water quality, supporting a viable future for the sector and facilitating a strong voice for the sector in the national dialogue on water issues. I can assure the Senator that this active engagement with the sector will continue into the future.
I thank the Minister of State for the update. I welcome the initiatives that are being taken in terms of the discussions that are ongoing and the formal group that will be set up. It is very important there is ongoing communication with the volunteers on the group water schemes so they know what is happening and that there is also a line of information to the local authorities so they are able, in particular, to facilitate those schemes that want a takeover and to ensure the investment is available.
I am glad to know that a change in legislation is not required and that, therefore, all it takes is a budget allocation or an allocation to make sure the funding is there for the schemes that needed to be upgraded, so they can be taken over in a timely manner. I ask that the Minister of State keeps this front and centre of all the discussions around water so people in rural Ireland have equity around this very important issue.
I assure the Senator that as long as I am in this office and dealing with the Department in regard to group water schemes, while it is not my direct responsibility, this will have an advocate in me because I know the work that goes into maintaining these group schemes.