Burton defends ‘cowardly’ water plan

Social welfare claimants who could have their dole deducted for not paying water charges cannot have payments reduced below €186 a week under a new debt collection regime.

Tánaiste Joan Burton yesterday defended the plan, to be enacted by July, and claimed many households were in fact ‘beating the cap’ and so will pay less than their expected bills.

However, Ms Burton faced accusations of using “sneaky and cowardly” measures to deduct unpaid bills from people.

Under the plan, jail time for unpaid bills or small debts is being abolished.

Instead, utility companies such as Irish Water can use attachment orders and deduct people’s pay or welfare — but only as a last resort, said the Coalition. The measures will also let landlords withhold tenants; deposits if they do not pay their bills and prohibit property owners completing sales unless debts are resolved.

The Cabinet this week also approved proposals to allow attachment orders to be applied to wages for unpaid debts.

RELATED: Tánaiste defends plans to deduct Irish Water bills from wages

A Government spokesman confirmed yesterday that, under existing legislation, welfare payments could not be reduced below €186 a week when penalties or deductions are applied.

He also said the Government did not expect many cases to go before the courts.

The courts service previously expressed concern about an “excessive burden” on being placed on the courts. However, sources say the measures will apply as civil proceedings.

The Government yesterday said the new civil debt bill, as well as compliance measures for tenants, will come into effect before the Dail rises in mid-July.

Ms Burton said that 1.2m people had registered for charges, and the new measures would remove the threat of jail.

The opposition accused Ms Burton of measures akin to “sticking your hand into the purse” of struggling families “barely able to make ends meet”.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said the legislation was a “low, sneaky, and cowardly proposition in the face of mass opposition” to the bills.

She said it was “contemptible” that a Labour party would introduce such a “Thatcherite” policy, and that the Coalition did not understand the impact an extra €65 every three months would have on “a woman raising young children who doesn’t sleep at night out of worry of paying bills”.

Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher said the “draconian” bill would become Labour’s “legacy”.

Ms Burton hit back at the criticism, saying she would not take any lectures from a party that “bankrupted the country” and claiming Ms McDonald was a “coward” for not raising other legacy matters with her party’s leader, Gerry Adams.

“Have you ever had a conversation with your party leader in relation to issues with him, or are you a coward?” she said in response to Ms McDonald.

“Do you think, deputy, you’re running some kind of kangaroo court where you can just tirade?”

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