For over six months the government has been saying that it understands the scale of public anger about Irish Water and water charges. There have been near constant meetings of the cabinet and cabinet sub-committees to find a way off the hook. This issue was central to a budget announced little over a month ago. After large-scale demonstrations throughout the country, there have been emergency meetings and there has been a desperate scramble to rescue Irish Water.
Yet for all of this, the crisis will continue because the government will still not acknowledge that its entire water policy is a shambles and should be scrapped. This will not be the final announcement because it leaves in place a policy which wastes large amounts of public money, is inefficient and still obliges people to pay for unacceptably poor services and poor water quality.
Less than a year ago the government was pushing through legislation with claims that it would herald a new and positive era for water services. Speaker after speaker from the government benches hailed their visionary leadership and claimed that everything would be transparent, fair and deliver public confidence.
After the latest of a dozen U-turns and a massive climb-down we are still left with charges for a flawed service and an expensive, unnecessary and arrogant bureaucracy. We have the absurd situation where €1/2 billion is to be spent on installing meters which no longer have a purpose.
We are paying for the construction of a billing infrastructure which is not needed. We have a regulator which will not be regulating.
The charge which the government continues to obstinately insist on will bring in a paltry amount and do so at the maximum possible cost. At less than 0.3% of the budget it shows an almost perverse insistence on maintaining a policy which not only has no public legitimacy it will continue to cause serious damage.
The net effect of the latest government policy will be that scarce resources will be diverted from vital public services in order to fund Irish Water’s work. The only credible policy now is to call a halt to Irish Water and the charges. To scrap them and stop the damage now rather than wait for the inevitable final climb-down next year.
Today was supposed to be about drawing a line under the issue; all it has done is to keep it going.
From the very beginning the government has tried to claim that there was no alternative to this policy. They said it was the only way to get essential funding and to improve services. This was false when the policy was announced and it has been proven to the extent that even the former Fine Gael minister responsible for the policy has admitted it by describing it as “an unmitigated disaster”.
This is no accidental shambles. It is not an unexpected policy error. The establishment of Irish Water and everything it has done was set out by Fine Gael before the general election.
In fact it is one of the longest-established and most detailed parts of Fine Gael policy and it was incorporated in full in the Programme for Government in spite of Labour’s pre-election promise to veto it.
There was nothing in the now-ended troika agreement which obliged the government to proceed as it has done – and it is now over a year since the government began a three-month celebration of how that agreement was over.
The scale and intensity of public resistance to Irish Water and these charges has been clear since Barry Cowen began forcing the Minister for the Environment and Irish Water to answer specific questions about their work.
What was supposed to be a low-cost, highly effective entity was exposed is a highly wasteful and ineffective bureaucracy offering indecent bonuses and focused primarily on creating an infrastructure for charging people for water rather than delivering them clean and reliable water supplies.
The particular intensity of the reaction is not solely because of the charges or the waste at Irish Water – it is because of the cumulative impact of government policy.
As every independent study has confirmed, the only decisive shift in policy when Fine Gael and Labour came to office was that they introduced significantly more unfair and regressive budgets. From day one their policy has been to place a larger burden on those with middle and lower incomes.
The one consistent part of their policy has been to ignore the ability of people to pay when introducing and extending taxes and charges.
This was also combined with non-stop spin from the government about how, contrary to the evidence, people should thank them for being fair and visionary.
That is why the water charges became the last straw. An unfair and wasteful policy constantly sold as progressive and visionary. Of course people were going to be alienated and they were not going to stand for it.
The protest of people was seen in their votes in the local elections and has been unmistakeable since.
And let us be clear, even though some candidates and parties have tried to exploit the issue, there is a genuine, widespread and entirely legitimate public opposition to this policy.
The aggressive behaviour seen on some protests in the last week does not reflect the broad mass of the public.
There are some who cynically want to be in democratic assemblies yet at the same time pretend to be outside them. If you’re elected to this House you don’t need a bull-horn to be heard.
There is nothing peaceful about trapping someone in their car for two hours. There is nothing democratic or legitimate about harassing a public official as they carry out their public duties.
In this country there are more than enough opportunities for people to have their voices heard without resorting to aggression.No one who participated in any of the actions which have rightly been deplored can say that they have no alternative.
If certain political parties were genuinely sincere about supporting the public’s outrage on this issue rather than trying to exploit it for their own ends, they would allow genuine local voices, people who are members of no party, to be heard more rather than looking for opportunities to promote their own candidates.
At the core of this shambles of a policy is Fine Gael’s New Era policy first launched in 2009. In this they introduced the idea of placing more services into commercial holding companies and funding investment through a combination of the sale of state assets and charges.
As we’ve seen in relation to gas supplies and our forests, there has been a creeping privatisation agenda implemented from the government’s first days in office.
There has been no commitment to the idea of how as a small and peripheral country the impact of commercial monopolies in public services could prove disastrous in terms of both costs and services. There has been a refusal to commit to the long-term future of maintaining state assets.
As things stand there is no investment case for Irish Water. There is no water-quality case for Irish Water. There is no fairness case for Irish Water. All there is a wasteful and damaging quango which should be abolished before it does more damage and wastes more public funds.
It is also obvious that there has been a consistent policy of giving Bord Gais preferential treatment. The only independent review of policy which the government allowed, which was carried out by PWC, explicitly recommended against attaching Irish Water to Bord Gais.
They said that it would be a wasteful and inefficient approach yet the government proceeded anyway.
We also know that the government worked to withhold for as long as possible details of the costs associated with Irish Water and excluded other potential operators without detailed consideration.
Why has Fine Gael in particular been so eager to put Irish Water under the control of Bord Gais? Why has it moved so quickly to do so and why has it spent so much time defending the decisions?
I think it is owed to the Irish people to explain where the ideas for the New Era approach came from and what discussions were held by Fine Gael with Bord Gais before and after the Election.
Our system of water supply needs investment. No one questions that. However it is absolutely untrue to say that there was no investment in the past and there can be no investment without starting first with a policy of establishing Irish Water and introducing charges.
From day one we have pointed out that a policy of ‘fix it first’ was the only way to proceed. This is now truer ever.
The case for Irish Water falls apart when you see that most of the planned improvement work for the water network is to be undertaken by the existing structures. The water staff of local authorities are the ones who, under the current plans, will deliver the improved service which has been promised.
Irish Water’s principal activity is actually the construction of a method for metering and billing. Its only significant contracts and investments relate to metering and billing. Irish Water will not in itself do anything at all to improve water quality and supply.
In fact, Irish Water will divert significant public funding from other services. There was a time when the government intended to raise €300 million per year in charges and to take €500-600 million off the General Government Balance and General Government Debt. It was argued that this freed up money for other services, but the opposite is now true.
While the formal decision on how the debts of Irish Water will be treated will be made by Eurostat next March, today’s announcement questions whether the accounting exercise trick will actually work.
If the investment remains and the charge remains capped the shortfall will have to come from somewhere. It will have to come from government funding and, therefore, it will be accounted for in the normal public finances. This blows a hole in the budget figures announced last month. This money will come directly from other services.
It is an accounting trick which is backfiring spectacularly – something which is now common from a government which refuses to do even basic long-term planning.
One of the most appalling things about this shambles is that huge public funding will continue to flow to install meters even though there is no need for those meters. Contracts for €500m have been signed. Is it not close to obscene that given the scale of investment needs in our economy the installation of water meters will now be eating up funding which should be going into improving vital services?
Today’s package has been put together in a panic and will not last. It leaves in place charges for a failing service and it entrenches the position of Irish Water.
Instead of putting in place the most complex system of charging for water ever invented, for the sake of a paltry amount which will be collected at great cost, the charge should be scrapped.
Irish Water should also be scrapped immediately. It has no positive role to play and it is fatally defined by the arrogance and hubris of those who established it.
We do not need a company like this. It is not required to improve services and increase efficiencies. Its primary purpose was always to make it fit for privatisation.
Fine Gael and Labour were wrong to establish it and Sinn Fein were wrong this September when they called for it to be retained.
Given Sinn Fein’s obsession with what Deputy Adams calls ‘electoralism’, this policy may have changed as did his own position in relation to whether and where he would pay the charge.
As Fianna Fáil pointed out before, the alternative is to establish a different type of public utility. We have experience of success in the past for example the National Roads Authority. This type of utility format would provide greater regional coordination and investment and avoid the commercial mentality which has given us the bloated bonus-culture and focus on billing which we have seen in Irish Water.
This government refused to listen to the opposition on the 19th December last year .They rammed through the Water Services Bill in three and three quarter hours. They refused any amendments and even refused to listen to criticism and worries from their own back benchers. They are now reaping the rewards for this bull headiness and arrogance.
This has been a massive climb down by the government and it was forced within 11 months of a Bill being voted by the government and its back benchers through this Dáil .This is a master piece in failure and the pause button should be pressed before any more tax payers money is wasted.
The government has yet to explain what incentives there are for people to conserve water or how much they are actually going to invest in infrastructure. They prefer to pick out tens of billions out of the sky without having any specific information in what is needed or what will be spent.
The government has to wait until next March before they are told whether they can borrow off balance sheet which we are still being told is the main reason for setting up Irish water in the first place. At the same time the government are continuing to pay back interest on the €500 million borrowed to install the meters that are not now required.
Former Minister O’ Dowd was right when he described the setting up of Irish water as ‘an unmitigated disaster’ and unless the government stops all of this now we will have more of the same in the future.