People refusing to pay their water bills are set to escape any legal punishment after Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil said they will not introduce new laws to prosecute people for debts under €500.
Both parties last night confirmed they have no plans for new legislation to tackle non-payers, as it emerged the Labour Party is drafting legislation for a referendum this summer guaranteeing the future public ownership of water services.
Under the rules of the Civil Debt Procedures Act, households can only be legally forced to repay debts once the money involved exceeds €500.
The base figure is meant to ensure the cost of any court hearings to agree attachment orders on an individual’s income is not higher than the debt itself.
Since the publication on Tuesday evening of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s deal to form a government, both party leaders and a number of senior TDs have insisted debtors must pay their bills.
This includes the quarterly bill due to arrive in the coming days, despite the fact charges will be suspended six weeks after a government is formed.
In separate statements to the Irish Examiner last night, both parties specifically ruled out any legislation lowering the €500 debt threshold.
As non-payers owe at most €160 in charges, plus a €60 fine which begins one year after the first bill is not paid, and with all charges suspended until a Dáil vote in April on Irish Water’s future, this means non-payers will escape punishment unless the law is changed.
A Fine Gael spokesperson said while “all outstanding bills will remain valid and outstanding payment will be pursued”, there is “no decision to amend legislation at present”.
A Fianna Fáil spokesperson said the party has “no plans to amend the Civil Debt Procedures Act 2015”.
Their positions mean existing debtors will face no threat of court action until at least autumn 2018, when the parties’ minority government deal is due to be reviewed. However, their stances also contradict claims that people must continue to pay their existing bills, and are likely to increase pressure for a refund for those who have paid.
Fine Gael TD Pat Breen told RTÉ radio that non-payers will be “pursued”. Fianna Fáil TD and negotiating team member Jim O’Callaghan said “the law requires that those who have not yet paid water charges will have to do so”.
Fellow negotiator Barry Cowen backed Micheál Martin’s position that under the current system, debts will have to be paid.
Pointing to an agreed line in the government formation deal that states payers will not be treated “less favourably” than non-payers, Mr Cowen said the government must decide whether to pursue debtors and ignore calls for refunds or else ignore debtors and repay money.
John McGuinness (FF) said any suggestion people will still have to pay their next water bill will put the government “at war with our own citizens”.
Meanwhile, the Irish Examiner has learned Labour is drafting legislation to force a referendum on public ownership of water.
Labour is furious with its former coalition partner’s decision to accept Fianna Fáil plans to suspend water charges. In opposition, it is planning to introduce a private member’s bill on keeping water in public ownership.
Party chairman Willie Penrose is drafting the bill, which is also supported by outgoing Environment Minister Alan Kelly.
Given the issue of a referendum on water charges was omitted from the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil deal, it is understood Labour wants to pressurise the new government into agreeing to such a vote.
In a separate development, it emerged last night that Irish Water is refusing requests made under the Freedom of Information Act to release its latest water charge payment/cancellation figures for at least a month because of the scale of requests on the issue.
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