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Water bill debt must be paid: Simon Coveney

Households should be pursued for unpaid water bills, Housing Minister Simon Coveney has said as an expert report cleared the way for most homes in the country to avoid future charges.

The recommendations by the expert commission on water that most homes do not pay for it puts an end to a charging regime for the moment, but non-payers may still be chased for bills.

It has also emerged that at the last minute in the commission’s work the EU warned about Ireland scrapping water charges altogether. A system of allowances and wastage charges will instead get around the EU’s environment rules.

The Duffy report recommendations will now be considered by a 20-member Oireachtas Committee before a Dáil vote ultimately decides the future funding of water services next March.

For the moment, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have initially welcomed the proposals which include:

  • Normal water usage should be paid for through general taxation and not by users;
  • Excessive or wasteful use be paid through special tariffs applied to households;
  • Normal usage be assessed by the energy regulator and public water forum;
  • Waivers should be agreed for households with medical conditions or other needs;
  • A referendum on keeping Irish Water in public ownership should be considered by the Oireachtas;
  • The proposals, complying with the polluter-pays principle, satisfy the EU directive on water.

The proposals clear the way for TDs and senators and the major parties to do away in the main with water charges, where only excessive use would be subject to a cost or special levy. Most TDs oppose or wanted to abolish the charges system.

The money already paid by two thirds of households up until July this year will not be returned, it was signalled last night.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney said he hoped the divisive issue of water charges would be “put to bed”, with the proposals that ensure taxpayers would not pay for wastage.

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask the taxpayer to effectively pay for somebody down the road who is leaving the taps on or who has a sprinkler in their garden or is washing their car every second day,” he said.

Mr Coveney denied suggestions by Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin that the proposed wastage charge could lead to water charges being “reintroduced by the back door”.

However, despite the prospect of charges being done away with, Mr Coveney then ruled out a system of refunds.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “The Fine Gael view on this is that anybody who paid their charges, they were paying what they were legally required to pay.”

Instead, non-payers should be pursued, he said.

“That money should be recouped,” Mr Coveney told RTÉ news.

His stance is in line with the Duffy report which concludes that that “those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably”. However, it does not say how.

Irish Water says €144m was paid by 64% of households liable for charges last year. The prospect though of non-payers still being pursued for bills will leave a divisive issue for the new Oireachtas Committee to resolve. Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen last night said the Duffy report would require consideration, but, he added: “It seems clear that these water charges will not be reintroduced.”

A letter from the EU published last night with the report also shows how the EU warned Ireland about abolishing water charges.

The European Commission’s environment section warned the Duffy commission in a letter last week that the conditions were not there for Ireland to be exempt from the EU water directive, as it had previously committed to a charging regime in July 2010. Mr Coveney said Ireland would comply with the EU rules once water wastage was charged for under a new system.

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