I commend Deputy Cowen on tabling this Private Members’ motion. I agree with him that there should be no payment for water in the current circumstances. As every Member of the House has spoken about the confusion that has arisen around this issue, I am sure they, too, will agree with that. The question that arises is who caused the confusion. Prior to the local and European elections we were promised that the average water charges bill in respect of the average two adult household would be €240. This was later increased to €278, which is a 20% increase. This has led to some of the confusion. While an attempt was made to address some of the issues in the recent budget by way of the household benefits and fuel allowances packages, including a €500 tax rebate on water charges which would equate to approximately €100 per household, what is proposed is a very complex system. It is proposed to introduce a combination of charges per litre, an assessed rate in respect of apartments and other dwellings which have no meters, the free allowance, the tax credits and the benefits package, all of which will result in a very complex system.
Irish Water is being exposed as a badly thought out creation. Its creator, the former Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, has disowned it. The bonus driven culture of Irish Water was mentioned in this debate. We still have not been given answers about that. Rather than paying for a super quango, we should be investing in the water network. It has always been the view of Fianna Fáil that we should be seeking to bring our water network up to standard. We are all aware of the substandard water supply in parts of the constituency of Roscommon-South Leitrim because of which 21,000 people in Roscommon must adhere daily to boil water notices. The data in this regard for the country as a whole are 36,000. People naturally are upset at the introduction of this unfair system. Fairness should be at the heart of this issue. Deputy Cowen’s Bill on water charges was based on fairness. One cannot charge for a service that does not deliver.
Another important issue is the financial burden on people of having to purchase drinking water ever day, as happens in many communities. I commend the National Federation of Group Water Schemes for its advice in its publication, Rural Water News. It makes the point in that publication that while group water scheme households on a public sewer will have to pay an assessed wastewater charge, those with septic tanks will not be liable for any charge by Irish Water. That organisation has also said there is a danger of people being charged for water and wastewater services by default unless they complete and return the application form issued to them by Irish Water. While the registration form was supposed to be returned by the end of October, which is only another nine days away, I understand an additional month’s grace may be provided. I am sure the group water schemes will have the same option. There are measures which group water schemes can take to avoid charges. I hope they will do so.
Another important issue is ability to pay, which issue has been referred to by a number of Deputies. I have read the article by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul about people who are unable to pay water charges. A €240 charge was promised prior to the local and European elections. Charges in respect of some households, however, could be as high as €594. A bill of almost €600 is a huge bill. People are concerned that if the public subsidy in this area is decreased, home owners will be required to pay more each year, a concern I understand. There is also speculation that if sufficient water is not used, the charge per litre will be increased. We need clarity on all these issues.
On the group water scheme issue, there are many such schemes in the west which receive grant assistance from the European Union and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Questions such as whether Irish Water will take over group water schemes, whether funding is available in that regard and whether Irish Water will provide water from public schemes to the group water schemes need to be answered. There are parts of this country that do not have any water supply. I have referred in the past to Kilreekill, County Galway, where people were furious when they received bills from Irish Water for €100 per household for a water supply they did not have. The headline in The Connacht Tribune at the time was: “No water – but here’s your bill anyway”. Obviously, those people will not pay a penny until they are connected to a scheme.
An article in last Tuesday’s Farming Independent included commentary from the IFA and farming organisations on a review of water charges for farmers. Farmers in some counties have been told they will pay annual rent of up to €200 per meter. As the Acting Chairman, Deputy Walsh, will be aware, there are many fragmented holdings in County Galway. This means the cost for five meters would be €1,000. I believe it is wrong that this would happen. I am aware also that at a meeting in Kerry, farmers were told there was no clarity on whether farmers would be billed by Irish Water only or by Irish Water and the local county council. These matters must be clarified. The motion tabled by Deputy Cowen is sensible and practical.