The first thing for people who are watching this Bill to note is that this Bill keeps and maintains Irish Water intact.
Irish Water is currently outside the terms of this Bill. That may be familiar territory to Members in the House, but people outside might be surprised by that.
This is effectively the first broken election promise by Fianna Fáil, which had posters across the length and breadth of the country about abolishing Irish Water and which has instead opted to maintain it.
The second key issue is that the Bill is silent on water metering. By anyone's standards, the idea that metering is taking place in housing estates as we speak, when we in here are debating whether to suspend water charges, is ludicrous. If the Minister is serious about listening to people, he should agree to amend that in the next Stage of the Bill. It is a complete and utter waste of money that €500 million is being spent on a metering programme that nobody ever asked for or wanted.
Full text of speech
The reason I hesitated in beginning my contribution on the Bill is that, according to the new leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Brendan Howlin, during Leaders' Questions this morning, there is a doubt as to whether we can even be discussing this Bill. According to Deputy Howlin, it is potentially unconstitutional because the EU Commission has declared, in its opinion, that Ireland does not have an exemption from water charges and has an established practice of recouping the charge for water. I just wanted to check that it was okay with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government that we proceeded.
It brings out the farcical nature of this Bill and of this whole charade by the Government. If EU law overrides Irish law, as Deputy Howlin is trying to contend, I wonder how seriously the Minister and the Government are going to take the issue of fighting the EU Commission on this. Or, as I suspect may be the case in nine months' time when the commission that is being set up deliberates, is this designed to take the steam out of the anti-water charges campaign and movement and to look for new ways to try to bludgeon the people into submission, using the EU ruling to do so in the process? If that is the case, I warn the Minister that under no circumstances are the people who became very exercised and activated on the issue of water charges going to allow that to happen. The fact that a democratic decision taken by the electorate in February to elect 70% of TDs who made a declaration to oppose and abolish water charges is going to be ignored by the EU Commission says it all about how the EU is behaving lately.
I turn to the Bill itself and to the Minister's speech made on Friday. The first thing for people who are watching this Bill to note is that this Bill keeps and maintains Irish Water intact. Irish Water is currently outside the terms of this Bill. That may be familiar territory to Members in the House, but people outside might be surprised by that. This is effectively the first broken election promise by Fianna Fáil, which had posters across the length and breadth of the country about abolishing Irish Water and which has instead opted to maintain it. We could be discussing a Bill now about abolishing and burying Irish Water but we are not.
The second key issue is that the Bill is silent on water metering. I ask the Minister to agree to amend the Bill and insert a provision to the effect that water metering will be suspended and ended for the duration of the process in this Bill. By anyone's standards, the idea that metering is taking place in housing estates as we speak, when we in here are debating whether to suspend water charges, is ludicrous. If the Minister is serious about listening to people, he should agree to amend that in the next Stage of the Bill. It is a complete and utter waste of money that €500 million is being spent on a metering programme that nobody ever asked for or wanted.
The Government keeps telling us it is serious about conservation. I draw attention to a section of the Minister's speech from Friday and to the legacy of successive parties - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats - who were in power for the last number of decades. I quote the Minister's own words: "We are guilty of having underinvested in water infrastructure and services for decades". It goes on about "often financially constrained circumstances". We were not financially constrained in the 1990s or the 2000s. I was on a council, as I sure other Members present were, during the period of the biggest building programme in this country. On Fingal County Council, for example, most of the housing - at least 50% of it - was built during this time. None of the recommendations of councillors from the left or of environmentally-concerned councillors were taken on board by councillors of Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. There could have been a whole raft of water conservation measures in those new homes. These parties should really stand indicted for their lack of investment.
The other issue in the Minister's speech is an acceptance that there was not enough debate on the previous water services Bill, which is obviously welcome. There was a clear bias in the Minister's speech when he spoke of those who want water services to be funded by the Exchequer and how they must essentially realise that water in that case is "competing with hospitals, schools, roads and other services for budgetary allocations". There is another option. Just for a change, the Government could look at taxing the significant amount of wealth and profit of big business in this country. The Minister and his party consistently say that people on the left who oppose water charges have offered no alternatives. I am about to offer the Minister at least five of them.
The first alternative is to stop opposing the EU Commission on one issue on which I do support it: the idea that Apple, one of the largest companies on the planet, ought to be pursued by the Government for back taxes it owes this country of an estimated €17 billion to €19 billion. That is one suggestion.
My second suggestion concerns a millionaires' tax on income above €1 million. It would allow people a fair degree of spending power. Let us start there. These are just basic ideas to show where there is wealth. If we were to impose a 2% tax on all income above €1 million, we could bring in €2.7 billion. The European Commission has recommended that the Government introduce a financial transactions tax; however, the Government picks and chooses which of the European Commission's recommendations to which it should listens. It could raise €500 million if it introduced a minimal financial transactions tax, or €1 billion if it was to introduce a more moderate one.
How about enforcing the headline corporation tax rate at the effective minimum rate? That would bring in €2 billion this year alone, which would go a long way towards funding the water infrastructure we need. How about a 10% increase in the effective rate of income tax paid by the top 10% of earners? Again, it could bring in €2.7 billion. We could introduce a change in the rate of employers' PRSI towards the EU average. I am not suggesting we go above it. It would raise billions of euro every year. These are just some of the new ways by which we could increase the so-called fiscal space and enlarge the pie significantly in order that we would have money and would not be competing with hospitals, schools and all other services.
There are other sources of finance in the country which are seldom mentioned. The Irish Strategic Investment Fund which others and I have highlighted has €5.4 billion in cash which should be used to build houses for the 140,000 families on housing lists. The National Asset Management Agency has €2.4 billion in cash. Could we use some of it to fund water infrastructure? The Irish banks which were bailed out at huge cost by Irish families have €6.5 billion more on deposit than they have given out in loans. Could we ask them to supply some of it?
Although there are major sources of funds, the Government and Fianna Fáil have their minds fixed on making ordinary workers and families pay water charges, but there are other ways. It is often said the Opposition does not propose alternatives. I have just given approximately six and would love the Minister of State to comment on some of them.