Solving water row may take months

A solution on defusing the row over scrapping water bills could be delayed until April or even May as an Oireachtas committee resolves legal obstacles hampering an agreement between parties.

A deadline of Monday week to pass a report to the Dáil for a vote on the future of charges is now unlikely to be met, committee sources have confirmed.

Instead, an extension to the committee’s timeframe of a “number of weeks” is likely to be sought.

The development comes after tense exchanges between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week, in a row which had threatened to breach the government support deal and collapse the Government.

The 20-member water committee is prepared to meet almost all of next week so a last-minute deal can be hammered out.

A failure to decide if water bills should be scrapped or not has left TDs and senators with just days to sign off on a report for a Dáil vote by the end of the month on the future of a charging regime.

Fianna Fáil yesterday, in a submission to the committee, proposed beefing up 2007 laws so “wilful abuse” of water supplies can be penalised. The party hopes this may be a compromise that members may agree on to curb excess use. However, it wants an end to household metering and paid bills to be refunded.

Fine Gael says it is against EU law to scrap charges and that an excess charge must remain. It also wants further legal advice from the Oireachtas and for committee chairman Pádraig Ó Céidigh to meet with the Attorney General.

With a deadline of Monday week, the committee will assess a draft report all of next week.

However, informed committee sources have confirmed an extension is now likely to be sought of “weeks rather than days”. This is because the legal advice and the likelihood of further witnesses being called will “not happen overnight”, said the Oireachtas source. The extra time will be added to because the Dáil rises during the week leading up to St Patrick’s Day. It rises again for another two weeks for Easter in April. This means any deal on water charges could be delayed until the Dáil returns in early May. Such a move would anger anti-water campaigners who say charges are finished.

Several committee members are conscious about any report recommendations meeting legal requirements and want to ensure those proposals are legally sound.

“We’re not going to get legal advice overnight. It’s weeks we need, not days,” said a source

Meanwhile, Housing Minister Simon Coveney yesterday did not rule out a system of refunds, potentially costing €162m, but said any solution on future charges must comply with the EU water framework directive.

The minister also left open the door on the possibility of a referendum to keep water in public ownership. Anti-water campaigners plan to protest on March 25 if charges look set to be kept.

Editorial: 16

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