Parties defy Fine Gael over water charges

by Niamh Lyons, The Times, April 5 2017

The government had attempted to introduce charges for excessive usage

The government had attempted to introduce charges for excessive usage

The fate of water charges hangs in the balance after a day of chaos in Leinster House and a series of squabbles among Dáil parties.

Fine Gael abandoned a meeting of the joint Oireachtas committee on the future of water charges after losing a series of votes.

The key amendment lost by the party was its addition of the word “normal” in relation to domestic water usage being charged through general taxation in the future.

The defeat of this amendment means the taxpayer faces picking up the tab for all water usage, including water wasted by householders, if the draft agreement is endorsed in the Dáil

In total, 13 of the 20-member committee voted against Fine Gael’s attempt to implement an excessive usage charge. A further showdown is expected today as the committee reconvenes.

Fine Gael blamed Fianna Fáil for changing its position, having agreed in principle last week that an excess charge would be included. Sinn Féin accused Fine Gael of attempting to bring in water charges “by the back door”. The Labour Party then said it may not support the final report.

Martin Heydon, Fine Gael’s chairman and a member of the water committee, said the country would face fines of “hundreds of millions” of euro unless people were charged for unnecessary waste.

“Fine Gael wants to agree a report that resolves the problem of how we fund domestic water services in Ireland and is honest with the Irish people,” he said.

“We want a report that is a true reflection of the progress that was made by the committee last week.”

The committee had already agreed in principle that domestic water be paid through general taxation and that the Commissioner for Energy Regulation would be charged with coming up with an allowance for individuals that was 1.7 times over the general usage of 123 litres per day.

Simon Coveney, the housing minister, has insisted that unless people were charged for their usage above that level, the state would be in contravention of the EU water framework directive and fines would be imposed.

Mr Heydon said the committee’s stand-off now centred on this issue and that if put to a vote in the Dáil the party could not support it or legislate to implement its findings.

“We won’t be supporting anything that is not legally compliant.

“Irish taxpayers cannot be unnecessarily levied with a fine from the European Union. That fine could amount to hundreds of millions of euro; we have no intention of walking ourselves into that scenario. It is not possible for this government to legislate for an illegal act. We are working towards resolution. We want to go back to the position we were at last week and hope we can resolve the matter.”

The government’s survival relies on the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil which states that legislation must be passed once the committee’s report is sent through the Dáil.

Another sticking point for Fine Gael revolves around the penalties that would be imposed for wasting water, which it claims could lead to householders being dragged through the courts.

“We don’t want to criminalise people for excessive use of water. We want people who use more water than the allowance to make a contribution. Language is important here, if we are going to have a charge for excessive usage that has to be in the report,” Mr Heydon said.

Barry Cowen, Fianna Fáil’s water spokesman and committee member, said his party was not in favour of charging per litre of water used above the capped allowance.

“We believe there should be a fine or levy for those wasting water, the detail of what that is should be agreed in future legislation.

“This is a bad day for Fine Gael. I expect and hope that it reflects on its position and comes back into the committee and moves onto the next section of the report with a view to reaching agreement,” he said.

The committee is running out of time before the March 13 deadline for its report to go through the Dáil. It was initially seeking to have the full report agreed by today.

Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s water spokesman, said he expected Fine Gael to attempt to take yesterday’s key vote again but said that his party would resist.

“The report as it currently stands calls for domestic water services to be funded through existing general taxation and all talk of a separate charge for excessive use, normal and abnormal use, or the state being a customer of Irish Water, has been defeated.

“We’ll go back into committee today, we’ll look at meters, we’ll look at the issue of wilful wastage and we’re hopeful that the report can be concluded this week.”

Paul Murphy, a Solidarity TD, said yesterday’s meeting represented good progress from the point of view of the anti-water charges movement.

“A series of amendments were won in contested votes which saw Fine Gael TDs in a minority.

“Judging from the attitude of the Fine Gael TDs, they will be disappointed about the direction the report is currently headed. The question should now be put to Simon Coveney as to whether he will accept the outcome of the report and bring forward legislation to implement it if Fine Gael don’t get what they want,” Mr Murphy said.

A spokesman for Mr Coveney did not respond to this question last night.