Irish Water: Thousands cancel direct debits amid uncertainty

Ralph Riegel and Paul Melia

Thousands of Irish Water customers have moved to limit their exposure to financial loss in the light of ongoing discussions about the future of water charges.

The Irish Independent has learnt there has been a flood of cancelled direct debits in the last number of weeks as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were embroiled in government formation talks.

Irish Water is refusing to release the exact figures, saying they are not available at this time, but sources have suggested that up to 80pc of all calls involve customer queries over repayments, direct debit cancellations and refunds to their bank accounts.

One source said people were desperate to recoup some of their payments made to date.

"I'd estimate that eight in 10 calls now involve people questioning direct debit cancellations, refunds or how exactly the SEPA banking refund system works," the source said.

"Last year there was significant anger over the bills. But at the moment people just seem to want information about how they can get some of their money back."

Irish Water last night declined to comment on the scale of direct debit cancellations it has faced since the 2016 General Election and the confusion over water charges.

One utility official said it does not comment on "hearsay".

However, the number of payment cancellations is understood to now be running to thousands each week. It is also believed the numbers cancelling have increased amid repeated warnings from major political parties that there is no question of immediate refunds for the 928,000 households who have paid their charges to date.

More than 1.5 million water bills are currently being issued, with some 750,000 expected to be posted or sent electronically over the coming weeks. The bills are being sent because Irish Water is legally obliged to continue to charge for water and wastewater services, and customers are expected to pay under current legislation. New legislation will be enacted after a minority government is formed, which is likely to be next week, after which charges will be formally suspended for at least nine months.

It has also emerged that Irish Water workers and contractors are also seeking emergency meetings with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Independents over the implications of the deal on the suspension of charges on their jobs.

Aside from its directly employed staff, Irish Water's operation provides employment for more than 1,000 contractors both in terms of meter installation and bill processing.

More than 750 specially trained contractors operate with Cork outsourcing firm, Abtran, on handling Irish Water bills and payments. Contractors are also involved in the installation of water meters and various maintenance functions.

Separately, the chair of the Public Water Forum has said that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael made contact with the group over the agreement struck between both parties in relation to the water charging issue.

Dr Tom Collins, (photo above)  who chairs the forum which is designed to address consumer concerns, said he saw the value of an entity which would advise on best practice. He said in education, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) was tasked with helping to shape policy, and that could be helpful in the water debate.

"They (the parties) didn't talk to the forum," he said. "I could see the value of an organisation in relation to developing proposals for drinking water and wastewater, and not just confined to Irish Water."

Original article:   Irish Independent May 5, 2016