The Coalition is set to cave in to the massive public revolt against water charges by agreeing to more "modest" rates.
A partial U-turn on the charges was indicated after the boss of Irish Water, John Tierney, apologised to the public for how the charge has been handled.
A range of options are being considered and the Government will announce changes next week in an effort to contain the backlash against the “last straw” of austerity.
Ministers insist the charge will go ahead and that the rationale for setting up Irish Water is still sound.
They are eager not to capitulate entirely to public demands to scrap the charge, but accept the need to bring certainty and confidence to the new system of billing for water usage.
A range of measures will be considered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton, and senior ministers in two meetings of the Economic Management Council this week, and a final decision will be made by cabinet next week.
Changes being considered include:
- Retaining a fixed fee until all meters are installed — most likely at the end of 2016. The fee could be at a rate lower than the current assessed charge, possibly in the region of €100 to €200 per household, but no decisions have been made.
The risk of such an approach for the Coalition is that the next general election could be fought on the issue of water charges, if there is a commitment to bring in a pay-per-use system after 2016. However, Coalition sources believe that a lower and fixed charge would be enough to appease public anger.
- A referendum to ensure that Irish Water remains in public ownership. The thinking in Government is that this could “settle the question for once and for all, and give certainty to what the Government has being arguing: that it will not end up being privatised”, said one source.
There are growing calls for such a vote within Labour. However, there is a risk that this would end up as a referendum on water levies themselves, or indeed on the Coalition. There is also a view that if a referendum is to be held on this, there will be clamour for referenda on all other issues.
- Transferring authority for collecting the charge to Revenue after Environment Minister Alan Kelly said it was on the agenda as the Government was “looking at every avenue”.
Mr Kenny said a “clear and accurate” decision on water charges will be made “very shortly”.
He said people will have “confidence in knowing what it is that the contribution they have to make, what it is for, and what they get in return for that”.
Stopping just short of publicly blaming his predecessor, Phil Hogan, for the mess, Mr Kelly said the legislation had been “rushed” through the Dáil and Irish Water given an unrealistic start-up time-scale.
“Being frank about it, there’s been a lot of mistakes made in relation to the set up of Irish Water,” he said.
Mr Kelly said the Government had “listened to the people” and it would “bring clarity” to the situation next week, saying charges would be “modest and affordable”.
“Affordability is the key issue and I think we also need certainty in terms of what that will be for a number of years,” he told RTÉ.
Labour TD Arthur Spring said the public should pay “as little as possible” for water and that fees should be “reduced to the bare minimum”. He also said he would be “delighted” if a guarantee not to privatise Irish Water was protected in the Constitution.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams announced last night that he would not be paying the charge.
Real failureThe Government should also re-read its election manifesto and remind itself that, even if its most cynical members thought it little more than a sales pitch, the sleaze-weary electorate did not.
It should remember it was entrusted with moving our public life beyond the kind of cronyism all too obvious at Irish Water.
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