We sought this debate because we believe it is important for Deputies to be able to outline their approach to the broad issue of water services.
If we want this debate to be useful it would be constructive if Deputies concentrated on outlining their own policies.
This is very far from being the single most important issue facing our country, however it is important and the handling of it in recent years represents a dramatic public policy fiasco.
It is also one of the few areas where there was a substantial policy debate during the election and a decisive result in favour of ending current policy.
There has been an enormous amount of ill-informed and highly skewed coverage of this issue in recent weeks. The scale of lobbying and media briefing by commercial state firm using public money has been unprecedented. This has distorted the debate and ensured that manifestly false claims are being made on behalf of existing policy.
During the past five years and during the election Fianna Fáil was clear in setting out its policy and addressing various eventualities. Many have presented distorted and superficial claims about our policies, but distorting and misrepresenting our policies has been a consistent part of why so many failed to anticipate growing public support for our party.
We opposed the establishment of Irish Water and the introduction of the charge. Leaving aside the issue of the arrogant failure of the outgoing government to justify the model of a national commercial utility or to outline the actual costs involved in the administrative and charging regimes they imposed, we had other substantive problems.
We accept the need to invest in improving our water services – but to say that the existing framework is the only way you can deliver and fund this work is simply not true. The comparison with the ESB is fatuous. The ESB does not require state subvention, it is a genuinely commercial firm, albeit providing a vital public service. More importantly, the ESB does not demand that you pay them for years before they can guarantee an acceptable service.
The outgoing government’s policy was to allow Irish Water massive commercial freedom even though it would be funded primarily by direct state subvention and would take many years to bring services to the level they themselves define as acceptable.
Irish Water is very far from being the accepted model of water service provision and development internationally. Northern Ireland and Scotland are very much the exceptions in Europe. Comparable countries to Ireland manage to deliver major water infrastructure developments without a commercial utility like Irish Water as it is now constituted.
A service delivered with ongoing public investment should most properly be delivered by state agencies.
Had Irish Water been a state agency the uncontrolled expansion of management, the bonus culture, the waste, the secrecy, the 1/3rd million spends on polling, the massive and rising payments for lobbying and many other practices would not have been possible. And equally the disdain for democratic accountability would never have been allowed.
The consistent claim for Irish Water was that this was the only way of raising the funding required for investment. This is simply false – in fact the commercial state firm has reduced potential funding for investment.
Not only has Irish Water’s investment programme failed to be taken out of government borrowing figures there is no plan on the table from anyone which shows how this could happen.
Commentators who say that we are facing a choice between off-balance sheet borrowing and public funding need to go and look at the facts. There are no proposals from anyone which show how Irish Water could potentially ever meet the arms-length borrowing test of Eurostat.
So please, let’s hear no more of the nonsense that water services will be deprived of funding unless current policy continues.
The entire case for Irish Water and the investment figures published has been based on putting spin first. Far more time and money has been spent on co-opting the support of commentators than on ensuring that the policy stands up to scrutiny.
Conservation and quality are core objectives for water policy – and this is where the funding and the priority should have been rather than on constructing a metering and charging regime which is profoundly wasteful. By Irish Water’s own estimation, the fixing of elements of the supply system is the single most important element of conservation and quality improvement.
On the matter of charges specifically, we believe that there is no basis for asking the Irish people to pay a regressive direct charge which is at present marginal to achieving conservation and quality objectives.
Unlike others our position is that you don’t get to pick and choose what lawful payments you make. What is lawfully owed should be paid. As democrats it is up to us to use legitimate democratic means to change policies. This is exactly what I said repeatedly when questioned on this topic during the election.
On the issue of a constitutional referendum on public ownership, we are fully supportive of a stand against privatisation. There is, however a need for all those advocating this to explain how it would work. How would it be proposed to give constitutional status to a service which is not universal? What about water services not provided directly by state agencies? We’ve had enough of water policy being made up on the hoof by the outgoing government that we don’t need to spend years on something which is all about soundbites over substance. Clearly, detailed work would be required in exploring such an option in the meantime. Moving Irish Water on a pathway to effectively become a state agency is the most effective and pragmatic way of copper-fastening the public ownership issue.
Nobody here has been given the mandate to dictate policy or to tell others what their mandate represents. We’ve had too much of that nonsense in recent weeks.
I believe that the legitimate place for the future of water policy to be settled is here in the Dáil. Let’s first of all do what should have been done five years ago, and have an independent report on key elements of water policy. Let’s then debate it. Those who believe that the current model of provision and funding is the only possible one make their case. Let them seek to persuade others and the Irish people.
We welcome the fact that Fine Gael acknowledges the new reality and may agree a suspension of charges. They would be free to argue and vote for the recommencement of charges after the suspension – and equally we and others would be free to argue and vote for the non-imposition of charges during this Dáil term.
I would encourage other Deputies to put aside their fake outrage and distorting spin for the rest of this debate. The policy we are committed to for the Dáil remains a scrapping of the commercial state firm, no charges for at least the duration of this Dáil and a major national investment programme in developing this vital public service.