Households ‘will not be chased’ for unpaid water bills

Households will not be chased for unpaid water bills or arrears in paying the levy while a nine-month freeze of the charge is underway, housing minister Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney also passed amendments to water charges legislation yesterday which could allow the suspension of charges to go beyond nine months if the Oireachtas desires this.

The minister was speaking at the committee on housing and faced demands to overhaul a Water Bill to suspend charges, which is currently going through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The committee heard that amendments to the water legislation mean the cancellation of bills and charges will now be aligned so they are both stopped for nine months at the same time as of from July 1 to March 1 next year. However, Irish Water, in the meantime, will now not pursue hundreds of thousands of people who have refused to pay their charges, the committee heard. Mr Coveney told TDs at the committee: “There isn’t going to be a pursuing of bill or arrears during the nine-month period.”

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There would be no liability for charges or arrears before the Oireachtas votes on the future of water charges, TDs were told. This will happen after an expert commission examines water charges for nine months and a committee then takes another three months to make recommendations.

There were complaints from opposition TDs at the committee about the limited nature of the Water Bill.

Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Ruth Coppinger warned the continued installation of water meters would impede debate.

Mr Coveney said there was a defined period for the suspension and anything beyond that could be recommended by the Oireachtas Committee for a minister to consider. TDs complained that amendments had been ruled out of order by the bills office, including suggestions for a referendum to be held on keeping Irish Water in public ownership.

Mr Coveney, though, said he would be open to listening to suggestions about water charges, including the suggestion from Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan for the referendum. He outlined plans to meet EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella over the next week about suspending water charges, adding: “Anybody outside of Ireland needs to understand this is a sensitive political issue.”

Asked if Ireland may be fined for the suspension of charges, Mr Coveney said: “I would be surprised if we didn’t get facilitated.”

Original article: Juno McEnroe, Irish Examiner, Wed 5, 2016