Anger at ‘back door’ to water charges

The Government has been severely criticised after it left the door open for a return of water charges in legislation it published yesterday.

Solidarity TD Paul Murphy

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy published the Water Services Bill, which will pave the way for water charge refunds to be paid before the end of the year for a majority of homes.

Householders who live alone and who paid their five bills will be entitled to €200, while those who live in a household of more than one person will be entitled to €325.

In total, the Government has to pay back around €175m in refunds.

However, controversy has erupted over a provision in the bill which allows the minister reduce the figure of what can be deemed “excessive use” if he sees fit, which has led to stinging criticism from the opposition.

Under the bill, the Commission for Energy Regulation will determine the financial penalty applied to householders after they breach the excessive usage limit. The bill does provide for future governments to increase that figure by way of a Dáil vote.

Solidarity TD Paul Murphy said the draft water charges legislation amounts to a stitching in of a back door to return to full water charges. Mr Murphy said section 9 of the bill clearly outlines how the minister can reduce the “excessive usage” figure, thereby allowing for the full re-introduction of water charges.

“We will be fighting this proposal on the floor of the Dáil — in particular piling on pressure on Fianna Fáil, which is clearly breaking its election promise to abolish water charges and Irish Water,” said Mr Murphy.

“If they get this through the Dáil, they will be unable to implement them in reality. Water charges are politically toxic. They will face mass opposition if they attempt to re-introduce them. That is not even to mention the important obstacle of the fact that 40% of homes do not have meters and cannot be charged.”

A spokesman for Mr Murphy, speaking to the Irish Examiner, said there is absolutely no intention by the Government to reintroduce water charges.

“Technically it is possible to bring them back but everyone accepts water charges are dead,” he said.

He said future decisions about charging levels would be a matter for the Dáil of the day to decide upon.

Mr Murphy’s spokesman said 8% of water users face being hit for excessive use charges because, at present, they account for 30% of all consumption.

According to the published legislation, Irish Water shall not charge a customer for water services over a 12-month period unless the water services so provided exceed the threshold amount.

The act provides that the minister shall calculate the threshold amount by multiplying the average rate contained in an expert report furnished to him by a multiplier of 1.7.

The average individual usage has been set at 133 litres per person per day.

The legislation also provides for allowances in extraordinary circumstances such as medical conditions and above average household size that falls beyond the threshold allowance and taking into consideration that average usage is 133 litres per person per day.

Households will be charged for excessive use of water from January 2019 if found to have used 70% more than the average household.

The Commission for Energy Regulation will determine what is average consumption levels. It is currently set at 127 cubic metres, meaning the figure for wilful waste would be 215.9 cubic metres — 1.7 times normal usage.

The new billing system will come into force from January 2018, but it will be January 2019 before bills will be issued.

The bill also provides for the creation of a Water Advisory Body.

Among its functions will be to advise the minister on the measures needed to improve the transparency and accountability of Irish Water.

It will have to furnish, on a quarterly basis, a report to the Oireachtas committee on the performance by Irish Water in dealing with infrastructure delivery and leakage reductions; cost reduction and efficiency improvements; improvements in water quality, including the elimination of boil water notices.

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