Water Services Bill 2014

The opening point we all need to accept and address is that water will have to be paid for by some process. The question is how. In other words, the water that comes to us naturally from the sky, and is a free resource in that sense, must be treated, there must be an infrastructure to deliver it and there must be expense around creating pure, drinkable water. It is disingenuous and cynical, and verging on dishonesty, to create an illusion for people that free water is a possibility. There is no free water, there will be no free water and there cannot be free water. The question is how to pay for the water.
It is the proposition of this legislation that we would broaden the taxation base and bring more people into paying, and that we would not land everything on the income tax base and on the backs of working people exclusively. When it is done through income tax, a number of problems are created in that it makes us less attractive in terms of inward investment and makes work less attractive. There is a strategy that exists in every other Western democracy and that was recommended by the best of experts here, namely, that we broaden the tax base. That is the issue here.
People on the left and on the Independent benches are very cynical in several ways. First, they neatly jump over the fact that we must pay for water by direct or indirect taxation – by some process, water must be paid for, either by charges of this type or otherwise. Second, related to that, there is a cost in delivering pure, clean water to people’s homes, which is their entitlement. Third, there is a failure to address the fact that equity is best achieved by broadening the taxation base, which they are not prepared to accept.
There are water charges in virtually every other country in Europe. I recognise, as we all do, that the Irish people have made enormous sacrifices. Over the past three years, people made great sacrifices in keeping faith with this Government and those sacrifices have been richly rewarded in that one in three of the people who were unemployed are now in work or, in other words, we have reduced the unemployment rate by one third. People are going back to work and it is an accelerating process with a domino effect. We have taken many people out of the universal social charge and we have reduced the top rate of tax by 1%. We have made it a longer jump into the basic rate of taxation or, in other words, there has been an increase of €1,500.
This is all a response to and an understanding of people’s sacrifices and suffering, of which we are acutely aware. That is why the charges outlined in this legislation are affordable. In net terms, the charge will be €60 for a single person, or some €1 a week, and €160 for a household with multiple persons, or some €3 a week. If we needed any proof that the charges are now reasonable and affordable, and are set in stone until 2018 and can be capped after that, it is the subtle, cynical, populist effort of the people on the backbenches opposite to try to broaden out the issue and to ask people to march next week on other considerations. The people trying to organise the crowd for next week know there is no justification in asking people to march against charges of €60 and €160 respectively for water, which is just €1 or €2 a week. They know well that could not be justified for clear water and a uniform water supply. As that is not justifiable, however, they try to hone in on other people’s suffering, discontent and difficulty around the fact we have had to make enormous sacrifices. The very subtle movement of the campaign is an indication that the charges are now reasonable.
I said the first premise of this legislation is to broaden the taxation base. The second is to achieve conservation. People on group schemes tell me that when meters were installed in the private group schemes, water conservation increased enormously. The metering system will ultimately lead to greater conservation as there is an incentive for people to beat the charges by using the meters.
We need uniformity. I come from County Cavan and am very proud of the fact it has an exceptional local authority, which is very avant-garde and very much to the front in the water services area. Sadly, there was no uniformity across the country. There were boil-water notices, sewerage outlets running into fresh water and lead piping throughout the country. That needs to be addressed in order that we can achieve uniformity, in addition to broadening taxation and achieving conservation.
In order to do all of this, we need to raise money outside of conventional methods. In other words, we need to source private money and not put the cost exclusively on taxpayers. In answer to a parliamentary question from Deputy Liam Twomey some months ago, the Minister for Finance stated it would take €850 million extra this year in direct taxation to raise what will be raised by this method, which is important.
I said I am proud of County Cavan’s delivery on water and the excellent job my local authority has done. I am also proud that County Cavan has a wonderful network of group schemes. My good friend, the new Minister of State with responsibility for rural affairs, Deputy Ann Phelan, will be interested in this as someone who is now involved in empowering these communities. Right across Cavan, we have a necklace of great co-operative community group water schemes. I am happy those people will now get €100 in recognition of their special costs. I am happy that people across my county of Cavan and in other counties who have bored their own wells, with the extra electricity costs, the costs of pumps and so on, will get €100 for conservation.
That is, if one likes, a bonus for people who were ahead of the game and paid for water directly long before this legislation was introduced, who conserved water and who had put in meters. They are now being recognised with the payment of €100 directly into their hands. People I know in my area who dug their own well will receive a conservation grant of €100 to recognise their great efforts. People in the group water schemes will receive €100 in recognition of the work they do in conservation. It is a win-win for them, as I am proud to recognise. They needed that recognition and empowerment, which is a happy consequence of the legislation. It also brings the delivery we enjoyed in our local area to a national platform through providing for uniformity.
There are Deputies who come into the Chamber to engage in cynical populism, knowing that there is a cost in the delivery of fresh water and that health and safety considerations dictate that we need a healthy water supply. They agitate against water charges knowing that were they to succeed – thank God, they will not – the bill would be paid for through a greater amount in direct taxation on the backs of ordinary working people whom they claim to champion and who will make up the deficit. They play on people’s sympathies and the fact that they have suffered as a consequence of the deepest recession in the history of independent Ireland. Of course, we know the people have suffered and that there is real pain and difficulties as a consequence of what has been a very deep recession, but we are coming out of it. There is a record level of job creation; the return of the Christmas bonus, of which I am so proud; and money coming back to ordinary people in lower taxes, but just as we are coming out of it, there are Deputies in this House who try to undermine this achievement, make us unattractive to inward investment, make this a banana republic and bring us to a place that is worse than the one we were in. Instead they should do the patriotic thing and accept that one cannot have free water because it must be treated, that one cannot put public health at risk and that there is an honesty and reasonableness about this argument which merits repetition. People must be straight in this House.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website