Watching officials from Irish Water, Ervia and the Commission for Energy Regulator duck questions at last week's meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Water Funding, in Leinster House, was like watching Pochards and Grebes diving and ducking in the murky waters at Inch Wildfowl Reserve, Co Donegal. Now you see them, now you don’t.
Irish Water was represented by Mr Jerry Grant (CEO), Ervia by Michael Mc Nicholas (CEO), Cathal Marley (Finance Dir). CER was represented by Paul McGowan (Commissioner) and Sheenagh Rooney (Dir of water).
Despite elaborate documents supplied by Irish Water and CER Committee members seemed to be having a hard time pinning down illusive and somewhat contradictory information.
At one point Jan O’ Sullivan, Lab, added “We are not opposed to truth, we are a truth, truth committee and we need evidence before we can make decisions”.
She was supported by the chairman who told the officials “all we can do is have evidence provided and make decisions based on information that can be reasonably made available to us”
On another occasion David Cullinane, SF, requested a New Era report prepared for Government on funding options which the Expert Commission said was essential to complete an accurate assessment of financing options. He said that SF was refused an FOI request for the document but that a redacted version may be available in future. The Chairman Pádraig Ó Céidigh said he would request this report.
Below is a clip where Seamus Healy (Workers and Unemployed Action Group), like a good bloodhound, doggedly pursues the officials about the potential costs of metering just for excessive use and questions the economics.
Mr Jerry Grant, Irish Water replied “ we can only assess the costs when we know what the allowances and the tariffs are” . A somewhat evasive answer.
Below in another clip, we see Thomas Pringle trying to sniff out details from the officials such as whether a single utility can provide water at a lower cost than the previous 34 local authorities. He asked"All you can actually say is that Irish Water has reduced it’s costs by 14% since 2014.”
Mr Jerry Mc Nicholas replied“we can absolutely say that we are providing it at a lower cost. What we can’t show is the quantum that the deputy is saying that that is by. We have looked at the benchmark going into 2014 based on 2013 costs and we know that we are delivering at less. We know we are delivering at less”
Absolutely muddying the waters again and no facts or figures in sight to back up the claim. Just for clarity when Mr Mc Nicholas refers to ‘quantum’ he possibly means ‘amount’ and ‘benchmark’ is probably ‘best performance’.
Overall the lack of detail and adequate time for questions was not helped by Pádraig Ó Céidigh insisting on moving things along quickly. Each member of the 19 member committee was allocated approx 5 minutes question time. This constraint and the fact that the committee has only until the end of February to deliberate and investigate, does not seem adequate for such a serious mater involving billions of euro as opposed to the amount of time and resources invested by both the Government and Irish Water to date.
However, a fundamental flaw in the whole process has to be the committee’s ‘terms of reference’. This was highlighted in the following video clip when John Lahart, FF, was stopped in his tracks trying to ask about commercial charges and metering, information anyone would believe an integral part of assessing funding and operational costs of Irish Water.
Mr Jerry Grant dived for cover and evaded the question by appealing to the chair “non domestic charging”. Immediately the Chairman Mr Ó Céidigh intervened and adamantly refused to let Mr Lahart ask the question. Mr Ó Céidigh's reasoning was that of the 'terms of reference' of the committee. “ It’s purely domestic charging, that’s our brief, that is the direction, me and you have been given. Go and read it.” he said.
Illogical terms of reference and only when it suits
Mr Ó Céidigh when he opened the meeting described the session as “We will now consider the funding, operation, maintenance and investment services in the water services.”
He ignored Paul McGowan’s (CER) while reading out CER's submission which more than likely was also in it's written submission. Mr McGowan read;
“We also provide economic regulation of Irish Water and this is essentially achieved by approving Irish Water’s proposed water charges plan. The essential elements of that are the approval of setting of a revenue cap that Irish Water is allowed to earn and how that translates into tariffs whether they be domestic tariffs or non-domestic tariffs. And also how that translates into a connection policy which domestic or non-domestic customers would pay for connections to Irish Water system.”
Another instance of the Chair looking the other way was during the very last question of the session from Fine Gael’s Martin Hayden. Mr Hayden closed the meeting by asking“in relation to the figure of €232 million for the funding of Irish Water for 2017, does that take account ongoing commercial water rates that were incoming.” Ironically Mr Hayden was not brought to book for bringing up 'commercial charges' but rather was supplied a 'Yes' answer.
Finally it may be a coincidence or maybe just a notion but it seemed that committee members, Kate O’Connell and Martin Hayden, both Fine Gael, by the way, had the first and last input of the session, respectively.
One could easily be forgiven for concluding that it was a contrived manoeuvre. A wily tactic maybe other members of the committee should consider especially when often times the first and last contributions are picked up by the media.
This show is going to be on the box i.e. Oireachtas media, for the next four weeks. We think from watching the antics and especially Ms O’Connell, that it is going to be riveting viewing. Those medusa eyes are captivating and indeed would turn any opposition to stone.
Details about the Joint Committee:
Viewing and video archives of Committee sessions: