Parties have no plans to change legislation to tackle water bill non-payers

People refusing to pay their water bills are to escape any legal punishment after Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil said they will not introduce new laws to prosecute debts under €500.

Both parties have confirmed they have no plans for new legislation to tackle non-payers, despite repeatedly warning the public in recent days that non-payers will be “pursued”.

Last night, as talks to form a Government edged closer, Fine Gael were pushing to conclude a “tri-party” document between themselves, the Independent Alliance and the Rural Alliance with a hope of having the vote for Taoiseach on Friday.

Fine Gael remains hopeful that a deal could be agreed by today.

But in relation to water charges, under existing Civil Debt Procedures Bill rules, households can only be legally forced to repay debts once the money involved is more than €500.

This is to ensure the cost of any court hearings to agree attachment orders on an individuals’ income is not higher than the debt itself.

Both Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin have insisted debtors must continue paying their bills until charges are suspended in six weeks’ time. However, in separate statements to the Irish Examiner last night, the parties ruled out any legislation lowering the €500 debt threshold.

At this stage, people who have not paid water bills will owe at most €160 in charges plus a €60 fine which begins one year after the first bill is not paid.

Given the deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that all charges will be suspended until a Dáil vote on Irish Water’s future, non-payers will not face punishments unless the law is changed.

As a result, non-payers will face no threat of court action until at least autumn 2018, when the parties’ minority government deal is due to be reviewed.

This refusal to reduce the threshold calls into question the party’s claims people must continue to pay their existing bills, and will increase pressure for some form of refund for those who have paid.

In terms of the government formation talks, it emerged that Independent TD Shane Ross had threatened to “walk away from it all” over a row about appointments to the judiciary and to State boards.

Parties have no plans to change legislation to tackle water bill non-payers

Mr Ross was locked in meetings with Ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Michael Noonan for more than four hours, but progress was described as painfully slow.

At one stage, such was Mr Ross’ frustrations, he signalled his desire to withdraw from the talks. “Shane could walk on this. He is going to the wall on this one,” an Independent Alliance member said. A second source confirmed meetings had gone poorly.

But Mr Ross remained in the talks late last night, and it was seen as positive that Waterford TD John Halligan was still at the table, despite his major issues with cardiac services at Waterford General Hospital.

Parties have no plans to change legislation to tackle water bill non-payers

Despite the setbacks, the Independent Alliance have won major concessions on agriculture, health, as well as rail and road links as a government deal neared conclusion. The Rural Alliance were discussing a 122-page document with Fine Gael, with progress described as “very slow”.

Pizzas were ordered shortly after 9pm to feed the hungry delegations.

Maureen O’Sullivan also met with Fine Gael on her own yesterday.

Last night, a Fine Gael source said: “I think mid-morning [today] will be when we see some sort of clarity.”

Dublin Bay North TD Finian McGrath secured more funds to keep elderly in their own homes while the rural TDs received promises on a full review on home help services.

Parties have no plans to change legislation to tackle water bill non-payers

Meanwhile, the Irish Examiner has learned Labour is drafting legislation to force a referendum on the future public ownership of water this summer.

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