Attempts to clarify water charges backfire

The first attempts by ministers to bring "clarity" to water charging ended in more confusion as the Government appeared to backtrack on how much a family of four adults could expect to pay.

Despite Cabinet attempts to get a grip on the situation, Environment Minister Alan Kelly refused to rule out bringing in Revenue to threaten non-payers, even though the Taoiseach’s spokesperson said that the “mechanisations of the involvement of Revenue” have not been worked out.

And Enda Kenny also seemed to move the goal posts when, after repeatedly promising to bring “clarity” to the charges next week, he indicated to the Dáil that target could be missed.

Coalition differences over the sensitive pricing issue emerged after the Tánaiste, Joan Burton, told the Dáil that, in her view, a family of four adults — or two parents and two older teenagers — would pay less than €200 a year for water.

Responding to claims from Socialist TD Joe Higgins that a family of two adults and an 18- and 19-year-old would pay just under €500 a year for water, Ms Burton said: “I am perfectly happy to say it is my view that the charge in relation to the type of family or household you have indicated will be below €200.”

Fine Gael sources branded the figure as an “under-estimate” of what such a family would eventually have to pay. And a spokesperson for the Taoiseach said that work is ongoing and the cost issue has not yet been settled.

Ms Burton’s spokesperson later said the €200 amount was not a firm prediction, but rather her view. He said the €200 figure was a net amount that would be applied after water support payments had been awarded.

Mr Kelly insisted the Government would not back down on the controversial insistence that customers hand over their PPS numbers to Irish Water.

He also said it was still being decided whether to unleash Revenue on non-payers as the threat of a mass boycott of the charge continued to be urged by campaigners.

“I’m not ruling it in or out,” said Mr Kelly.

Mr Kenny also moved to rule out a referendum to enshrine in the Constitution that Irish Water be kept in public ownership and not privatised at a future date.

Such a nationwide vote had been called for by opposition parties and some leading Labour figures amid concerns that the utility would eventually be sold off to the private sector.

However, Mr Kenny indicated that he was prepared to look at strengthening the law regarding the status of Irish Water via Oireachtas legislation.

The Taoiseach dismissed calls from Sinn Féin to scrap the charge, saying: “The Government will not drop water charges but will introduce a regime that is clear, fair and affordable.”

Mr Kenny said he accepted that people have “legitimate concerns and anxieties” over the new levy.

He said he accepted that the current charging regime is confusing, but “having listened to the people and the anxiety of those who say they cannot afford to pay, have difficulties and are in particular categories — we will attempt to address the issue in the fairest way”.

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