My comments in Dáil debate on Irish Water

I spoke in the house today during the debate on Irish Water. My full contribution is below:

“Deputy James Lawless: I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate, although with only two Members on the Government benches, I am not sure it qualifies as a debate. I am glad, however, that this issue is now being brought to a head. It is an important issue but by no means the most important. The amount of airtime it has received in recent weeks has been disproportionate. Other matters such as health, education, transport, energy, broadband and housing are huge issues that have suffered owing to the inordinate focus placed on water provision in the set-up of this Dáil. Nonetheless, it is an important issue, one that has united and divided both this House and the wider public.

Let us be clear that Irish Water and the water model used have been a catastrophe from start to finish. I am not going to pre-empt what may or may not emerge this evening, tomorrow or in the coming days based on media reports on how a minority Government might be put in place and what might stem from this. If it is accepted, as appears likely, that the Irish Water model is considered a failure – that is acknowledged at this stage on all sides – it may be a sign of things to come in a minority Government. On some issues the Government will win, on others it will lose.

Would we be in this mess if more than a few hours had been dedicated to the issue when it came before the Dáil, if the legislation had not been railroaded through and if a proper, full and frank debate had been allowed, with credence and time being given to opposing views? In the turbulent and tempestuous five year period of the last Government the debate on Irish Water marked one of only two occasions on which the entire Opposition walked out of the Dáil Chamber en masse. However, I wish to be constructive and acknowledge some basic facts. Let us learn from our mistakes. I recognise that water is a scarce resource and have no difficulty in principle with putting in place a mechanism to fund water services. I wholeheartedly support investment in the water network and endorse any measure that encourages or incentivises the conservation of water. I believe the majority of the people accept this and value the resource. I am not opposed to water charges in principle, but I am virulently opposed to waste, incompetence and the abject failure to tackle the underlying problems.

In an effort to be constructive, rather than considering all of the problems of the past and pouring oil over the coals of the previous system, I would like to consider what a functional water system would contain. A functioning water system should reward and incentivise conservation. Any form of charging regime should be based on excessive usage rather than basic consumption. A metered but flat-rate charging system, as we now have, appears to be the worst of both worlds. The cost has been borne of installing meters, but none of the savings in actually using them for any monitoring conservation programme has been gained.

A fair water services system should be based on the ability to pay. The most fundamental concept in any charging regime is that progressive charges should be based on one’s means. That is contained in every piece of economic legislation introduced by Fianna Fáil in the past 50 years, but this is completely lacking from the Irish Water model under which flat rates are levied regardless. A fair water charging system should include allowances based on medical need, family size, family stage, life stage and basic usage parameters. A mother of six children or a sufferer of Crohn’s disease should not be assessed in the same category as a single person with no health conditions.

A functioning water system should invest more in the network, not less than was invested prior to charges being introduced. The idea that a dedicated new utility firm which has introduced a charging model and begun collecting charges would actually plan to spend less on the network after it was set up summarises the entire fiasco. The Fianna Fáil Government in 2010 spent more on the network than was projected to be spent in the Irish Water model in 2015 when charges were being levied. That is the ultimate paradox. A functioning water services system should recognise the different challenges faced by urban and rural dwellers and work with both to achieve appropriate outcomes. Group water schemes and those with their own wells should be accommodated and served just as efficiently as those living in urban estates.

In north west Kildare last night I attended a meeting at which I heard that the members of Balyna group water scheme had been told they would have to wait a minimum of ten years before receiving priority from Irish Water. Why are they at the back of the queue?

A functioning water services system should be capable of dealing with issues such as private and public property, easements, wayleaves and accessing property when repairs need to be made. That is another basic technical issue that it has not been possible to overcome and has further complicated the entire model.

A functioning water services system should not operate as a quango, with wanton waste, excess and an incompetent manner to lose more money than it has made, giving free money to people via a conservation grant paid without any link with the need for conservation or compliance. This is the first tax in history which has actually resulted in a loss of money, where the profit in collecting the charge does not even cover the cost of bringing it in.

A functioning water services system should be introduced following more than a token debate in the House. It should be subject to scrutiny, governance, oversight and the considered input of all groups and interested parties inside and outside the House and only rolled out following agreement on same. This is too important to get so wrong. The people deserve better.”

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