The crux of a dispute between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is whether an ‘excess’ charge should remain for using water. Given the Government accepts that households should be given a free allowance for normal levels of water usage, the question is, Do you get charged if your quota exceeds this? Only in recent days have signs of a compromise emerged at the Oireachtas water committee. Fine Gael insists that to comply with EU laws, Ireland must have such a charge to penalise water wastage. Fianna Fáil says 2007 legislation, which includes fines and jail time, could be beefed up and used to discourage excess use. This latter option is being examined now.
Bridging this gap is fundamental for any final agreement and recommendations from the water committee. In the meantime, it will get its deadline extended to April 14 while it awaits legal advice.
Almost 900,000 meters were put in homes by Irish Water in recent years at a cost of almost €500m. Several hundred thousand properties, including many apartments and flats, were not metered. The committee has mixed opinions on installing more. Fine Gael has fudged the issue by saying future metering should be decided by the energy regulator. Fianna Fáil says domestic metering should stop and a €148m underspend there should instead go on district metering, which is how usage is monitored in Scotland. Sinn Féin and the AAA/PBP oppose domestic metering while Labour and the Greens want them.
Most groups and members on the committee agree refunds, amounting to some €162m, should be paid to households. Fine Gael believes the priority should be to pursue non-payments. It also accepts in a draft committee paper discussed this week the “potential administrative costs of recovery” could be substantial. The party’s committee members privately admit they could live with agreeing to refunds. It is unclear whether bills would be returned in a lump sum or through tax credits. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Independents, AAA/PBP, the Greens, and Labour all advocate refunds.
Many rallies against water charges have consistently heard about fears that water services and access to water might be privatised, as happened in other EU countries. The Government is all but committed now to hold a referendum on whether water should be privatised. The issue is set to be debated by a separate Oireachtas committee shortly. It is all but a matter of when and how a vote is held, given most Dáil representatives favour such an option.
— Juno McEnroe