Full transcript of the exchange
Deputy John Lahart: I have a few comments, and I thank our guests for their comprehensive documents today, and their presentations. Ms Graham in her opening statement mentioned the initial set up of Irish Water and how it was envisaged that the utility would be a public utility, a State body in public ownership. Some of the contributions seem to suggest that all the problems around this emerged out of nothing, or ex nihilo, as Mr. Ó Tuathail suggested. I am interested in what Ms Graham says was the original intention. It is worth briefly recapping on why we are here, and how it became so muddled and confused for people. It looked suspiciously like Irish Water was being prepared for privatisation through a whole series of actions. This was not something in people's imaginations, despite what the original motivation might have been. The Government at the time went against its own consultant's report in setting up Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis. Parts of Bord Gáis were subsequently privatised and sold off. That gave rise to suspicions. It was given to Bord Gáis on the one hand because it was stated that Bord Gáis had the operational capacity to deal with it yet there was this necessity for huge sums of public money to be paid out to external consultants for Irish Water. Demonstrably, Bord Gáis did not have the capacity to deal with all the aspects of it. There was the speed with which it was set up.
Chairman: Does the Deputy have a question?
Deputy John Lahart: I do, yes.
Chairman: Can he get to it?
Deputy John Lahart: I will, yes, but other people have made statements. There was the speed with which it was set up, there was the Siteserv element. There were a number of issues, not least the guillotining of the debate about it, that have brought us here, unnecessarily to some degree. We are here because of all those missteps that were taken along the way, and I think, Cathaoirleach, that has to be borne in mind by the committee.
Chairman: What is the question?
Deputy John Lahart: I am coming to it now. The public ownership and the lack of confidence the public developed over time in Irish Water were key findings of the commission. That was not something created by the Opposition. It was created by the manner in which Irish Water conducted itself. My questions are these. Was the privatisation of water services ever agreed or discussed with the troika at any stage? Is there anything available on that? Has the Department ever considered a model such as that currently being rolled out in England, and already exists in Scotland, where the network would be retained by Irish Water but where private operators could sell wholesale? If Irish Water or the Department had considered that, would a proposed constitutional protection safeguard against that? That question is directed to Ms. Graham and to Mr. Ó Tuathail. Thank you for your forbearance on this, Chair. We have talked about constitutional amendments, and Mr Ó Tuathail is convinced that that is the only way to handle it, so as a citizen and public representative I am interested in two aspects of this. Did you write the wording for the right to water campaign?
Mr. Séamas Ó Tuathail: Yes, I wrote it.
Deputy John Lahart: Okay. Many of us who are old enough to remember the potential for constitutional amendments to defy the original intentions of their proponents. What kind of controls can be put in place to avoid a referendum result, and therefore decisions on water, eventually ending up being decisions of the Judiciary?
Chairman: Good question.
Mr. Séamas Ó Tuathail: I will let Ms Graham go first.
Ms Maria Graham: If I can reflect in a general way on some of the points. The water services legislation of 2007 was approximately ten years in gestation, and it was considered serious enough at that point to put protections in against the privatisation of assets, before Irish Water was contemplated. That was an important point at that stage. When we moved into the reform process, PricewaterhouseCoopers was specifically asked to report on the use of State utilities. Because of the time available to us under the agreement with the troika to establish the new utility, we were given a series of points which would have to be satisfied were we to have it under an existing utility such as Bord Gáis.
I have been involved in the water sector since 2009. I think I attended all of the meetings with the troika and the issue of privatisation was not raised. The Department only looked at the models included in the PricewaterhouseCoopers report such as the local authority agency model, among others. The question of privatisation or preparing for it was never on our agenda, pre or post-Irish Water.
Chairman: I thank Ms Graham for clarifying the matter.
Mr. Séamas Ó Tuathail: The context of Deputy John Lahart's question was very well informed. Ms Graham has answered the first and second questions. Legislation should be brought forward to reflect the intent and impact of the constitutional amendment, when and if it is carried.
Source: Oireachtas Debate, Jan 25, 2017