I would like to start by repeating what I said on Second Stage of the Water Services (No. 2) Bill 2013 on 4 December 2013. It is illustrative of why the Minister is facing opposition and why a hornet’s nest has been stirred up regarding this controversy. I said:
Our party is opposing the Bill for some of the reasons I mentioned. We are not alone in opposing this Bill. The Labour Party’s election manifesto stated it did not favour water charges. On 18 February 2011, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, said the Labour Party did not favour water charges. On 28 June 2010, the [then] leader of Labour Party, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, stated he was against water charges, that water was a necessity, that he always believed essential services like water should be delivered as a public service, that a flat household charge would be unfair as it would not discriminate between houses with five bathrooms or no bathroom, and that metering was unworkable. That comment was made by the Tánaiste three years ago.
Of course, the Labour Party was then in opposition. Therein lies the problem. Is it any wonder people are so enraged over such political cynicism? I understand that when the Water Services (No. 2) Bill was being debated in the Dáil, it was guillotined after three hours. Since the inception in 2011 of the Government of which the Minister, Deputy Kelly, is now a member, its hallmark has been the use of the guillotine on many occasions. Consequently, many issues that have arisen and come back to haunt the Government could have been anticipated had debates been allowed to continue, had there been respect and had the Government listened to what was said during the parliamentary process. That has not happened. It is interesting that every major issue of public concern regarding the legislation introduced last year was flagged during the debate this time last year.
Let me outline where I stand personally. In 1983, Dick Spring, the then leader of the Labour Party, introduced domestic water charges for the first time. I was a member of Wexford County Council at the time. We would have had water charges within the rural area but never within the urban area. As I stated on the last occasion, I did not have a principled objection to a reasonable charge. While we had a majority on our town council, we agreed the charge should be effected by the local authority in the interest of providing revenue for the service. There was long-term opposition at the time among the public, particularly in Dublin, but it had almost petered out by 1996 when current Deputy Joe Higgins, who was probably the lone voice opposing water charges, did well in a by-election. My constituency colleague Deputy Brendan Howlin, who was Minister at the time, abolished the water charges. To some extent, I do not have sympathy for the Government over its predicament because it represents poetic justice. What was done was done for political reasons. This highlights that populist politics eventually comes back to bite one. While there might be a perceived short-term gain associated with the current policy, it is a foolish one to pursue in the medium to long term. I hope all parties will desist from this in the future.
During the debate last year I raised serious concerns about placing this in the stable of Bord Gáis. Bord Gáis is not, and certainly was not, a model of good corporate governance when it came to cost controls, cost-effectiveness and efficiencies. Why it was put in there is beyond me. Unfortunately, the Bill continues this process. It needs a much more commercially well-run corporate focus than it will have. The Government came in on a promise of abolishing the proliferation of quangos which had been introduced over many decades. I certainly subscribe to this. However, here we have the introduction of a super-quango. In fact, it is the mother of all quangos.
One area the Minister should review is the structure which has been established. We not only attached Irish Water to Bord Gáis, but we overstaffed it from the beginning. We told the people who will be paying for it that the number of staff would correct itself by 2026 through natural wastage. In other words, they are to bear the cost for the next 12 years until it comes right, rather than structuring it in a cost-efficient way from the beginning. We have spent approximately €700 million on consultants and metering, and it is very difficult to say how this will be returned. It will take many years to recover the capital costs involved. At any stage last year or this year was a business plan prepared for Uisce Éireann which would illustrate to us the internal rate of return? It is standard practice for anyone in the private sector making an investment to work out initially the internal rate of return. Often the decision will be based on the outcome of this. I hope this has been done, but I would be pleasantly surprised if it was. Unfortunately, it is not how the public service works. While there is a lot of political flak with regard to this issue, when Ministers get themselves into difficulties, and I saw it with many of my colleagues when we were in government, it is not always the Ministers’ fault. People on very high salaries do not fulfil the responsibilities they have. Covering for these people needs to be changed and examined.
With regard to regulation, I have no confidence in the Commission for Energy Regulation or others. None of them has proved to be champions of the consumer.
With regard to the plebiscite, did the Cabinet seek advice from the Attorney General on putting a referendum to the people on this and what was the outcome? I am not happy we have a public monopoly. A private monopoly would be a disaster. Sinn Féin in its budget submission a few months ago included in its figures the part-privatisation of Uisce Éireann to buttress some of its figures. Very little focus has been placed on this by the media or anybody else. It is a question that needs to be asked.
The Minister will respect the fact we will be extremely anxious to ensure this will not become a private monopoly. If we had gone down the route of trying to engender competition, it would control costs because this is generally the recipe for keeping costs right. A suggestion we made, which was not examined at all, obviously, was to have an overarching body which would have ensured efficiency in the local authority system and would have assessed and compared local authorities and ensured best practice applied across the board. I fully acknowledge there is need for investment in the infrastructure and the distribution system. Many local authorities are good exemplars of this, but many are not. The significant difference between those which are good and those which are not is that those which are good had good county managers but the others did not.
I acknowledge the Minister has made a good effort to try to resolve the issue. In the past he has shown good sports judgment and he has applied it to this. If this had been done at the start, we would not have had the uproar we do among the public, who have been burdened with so many costs.
Continuing the campaign on water charges is totally misguided. The most unfair tax we have is the universal social charge. When it was introduced, the Fianna Fáil Minister at the time stated that when the fiscal position improved, it would be the first to be tackled and removed. I get indications from the Government that it is cementing it into the process.