U-turn won’t stem water protests - Organisers to continue with ‘mass boycott’ despite fee cuts
The public will not be dissuaded from mass protests against water levies, according to organisers and opposition TDs, despite the Government’s massive climbdown on the charges which will be significantly less than what was previously planned.
The Coalition is pinning its hopes on a range of measure announced yesterday to persuade most households to sign up for the deeply unpopular charge after months of controversy and a major U-turn that has left its authority significantly undermined.
Under the revised plans, charges will be capped until January 2019 at a maximum of €160 for a person living alone and €260 for all other homes of two adults or more.
A ‘water conservation grant’ of €100 will be paid to all households who sign up for the charge as well as those on group water schemes.
This will be paid by the Department of Social Protection by way of cheque or into bank accounts. However, bill-payers will not be able to apply for the rebate until September next year and it is unknown how long it will take to issue the grant.
Households have until February 2 to register with Irish Water and, instead of giving PPS numbers as previously planned, they will make a self-declaration of how many people live in the house which will be subject to an audit.
Those who do not register will be subject to a “default bill” of €260 and will lose out on the €100 rebate.
Late payers will be subject to penalties of €30 for a single adult household and €60 for other households, which will apply to bills three months following the year of non-payment. Irish Water will be able to bring non-payers to court.
Renters will be forced to pay for the charge, with legislation being introduced to allow landlords deduct unpaid water charges from tenants’ deposits.
Laws will also be introduced to ensure that no future government can privatise Irish Water without holding a referendum on the issue.
Announcing the changes, the Environment Minister Alan Kelly said the Government had made mistakes, but has “listened carefully and lessons have been learned”. He denied the changes were prompted by electoral concerns, saying he wanted his legacy to be based on his concern for “the long-term needs of the country and the needs of future generations and not by the electoral cycle”.
He told a press conference that: “History has shown, in fairness to the Irish people, they do pay their bills. But like any utility there will be people who decide they will not pay and Irish Water will have the capacity to deal with that over a period of time.”
During six hours of Dáil debate, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: “There is no good time to take decisions that have a financial implication on households, least of all as we are emerging from one of the worst recessions that this country has ever endured.”
He added: “I commend those who have done this in a peaceful and in a respectful manner, their voices have been heard and their voices have been listened to.”
However, the campaign group Right2Water said a national demonstration is still planned for outside the Dáil on December 10. It accused the Government of introducing a “flat-rate home tax which will see a low-income family in rented accommodation paying the same as an affluent household in an owner-occupied mansion”.
Another anti-water charge group ‘We Won’t Pay’, led by Socialist Party TDs, insisted the bills will be met with a major boycott.
Independent TD for Kildare, Catherine Murphy, said Irish Water has lost the confidence of people. “I don’t think there will be an acceptance of Irish Water and there will be a lot of people on the streets on December 10, what will you do then?” she asked the Taoiseach in the Dáil.
Independent TD Clare Daly, said people are “utterly sick of managing” and of “working longer hours for less”.
How will it all work?
- New capped charges of €160 for a single person and €260 for a house of two or more adults.
- A water conservation grant of €100 will be paid to all homes who sign up, meaning no family will have to pay more than €160 a year.
- These charges will be capped until January 2019.
- Late payers will be hit with penalties of €30 for a single adult and €60 for other households, added to bills in the following year.
- People can pay in regular installments in their local post office.
- Landlords will be able to take unpaid bills out of tenant’s deposits.
- Households have up until February 2, 2015, to register, or else face a default bill of €260 for the year.
- PPS numbers will no longer be required. The new system will be based on self-declaration and audit.
- First water bills will arrive on doormats in April 2015.
- New laws will ensure future governments will not be able to privatise Irish Water without holding a referendum.
Charges boycott ‘made easier’By Shaun Connolly Political Correspondent
A mass boycott of water charges has been made easier by the Government’s retreat on penalties for non-payers, left-wing TDs insisted.
Socialist deputy Ruth Coppinger said the Government’s revamped package was not enough and only abolition of water charges would quell public protests against payments.
Branding the charging regime a “con job” intended to soften people up for much higher prices later, Ms Coppinger said removing the threat of cutting water supplies to those who boycotted the levy would swell the ranks of a boycott.
Instead of cutting supply to a trickle, non payers will face penalties of up to €60 under new Government proposals.
“It will make it easier for people to engage in a mass non-payment protest in April.
“Penalties of €30 and €60 won’t frighten anyone, and they will come in just at the time of the next general election in 2016,” Ms Coppinger said.
Fellow Socialist TD Joe Higgins expressed outrage that landlords would be able to take money from the deposits of tenants who do not pay water charges.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald insisted that she would refuse to pay the charges.
“Everyone has the right to a water supply — it is not a luxury,” Ms McDonald said as she insisted Irish Water was a bloated, unnecessary construction.
Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen said the Government’s “massive climbdown” had come too late after the opposition been pointing out flaws in the legislation for nearly a year.
Mr Cowen also scoffed at Environment Minister Alan Kelly’s decision to remove threats to reduce water supply to non-payers to a “trickle”.
The Fianna Fáiler said it was a pity the minister and his colleagues did not raise objections to the provision when it was introduced last year.
Independent MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan said: “Surely people won’t swallow this latest scam?”
Former Labour minister turned independent TD Roisín Shortall said the Government had not explained how its so-called water conservation grant of €100 for each household would work.
“So in the latest water charges U-turn, we now have a “conservation grant” — what exactly does it conserve?” Ms Shortall asked.
The Dáil had to be suspended for 45 minutes after opposition TDs expressed outrage that Mr Kelly left the chamber as the debate was getting under way in order to attend a press conference.
Anti-Austerity Alliance’s Paul Murphy predicted large-scale street protests against the charges would grow as a result of the Government’s partial climbdown.
What you need to know about the new charges
By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Q. What will each person pay Irish Water?
A. A two-person household will pay €260 and a single person household will pay €160. These rates will be capped until the end of 2018, and can be paid in instalments of as little as €5.
Anyone who registers can also apply for a €100 Water Conservation Grant on their primary dwelling from the Department of Social Protection, bringing the charges down to €160 and €60.
Registered households with children will also receive a 21,000-litre free allowance for each child — one flush and one hand wash a day — while Irish Water will cover the first call-out to fix a water supply problem, although plumbing remains a household’s responsibility.
In cases involving houses with meters, charges could be lower if there is proof less than the allowance was used. Owners of “not permanently occupied” houses will pay €125-€260.
Q. How do I claim my €100 discount?
A. Those registered can claim the grant by applying to the Department of Social Protection, which will administer the fund either through a rebate, a cheque or a payment into individuals’ accounts next September.
Q. So, is the confusion over?
A. Well, yes, no and maybe. Environment Minister Alan Kelly confirmed yesterday that water charges will be capped at their current level until the end of 2018. Legislation will then be implemented to continue a cap.
The coalition expects this move to calm concerns over any future rises once the current row subsides.
However, those opposed to the concept of water charges have noted legislation can be changed, adding the only way to ensure this does not happen on a Government whim — a referendum — has been dismissed.
Q. I’ve already given private information such as my PPS number to Irish Water. This is now no longer needed. What happens to my details?
A. You don’t have to contact Irish Water to destroy your private details; they will do it for you. Irish Water has confirmed that, to “protect customers data”, it will “remove PPS data already collected to the satisfaction of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner”. This will be “independently verified” by Ireland’s data watchdog.
Q. Do I have to register again, and do I have to register with both Irish Water and the Department of Social Protection?
A. If you have already registered you do not have to do so again, provided the number of people living in your home is unchanged.
Q. I have registered as a single household. Can Irish Water check if I really am living by myself?
A. Technically, no. The company has committed to “self declaration”, meaning it is up to you to be truthful. However, for those who wish to be factually liberal, it is worth noting Irish Water will be open to audit, so any registration “mistakes” could still be picked up.
Q. I’ve not registered and have an “old” Irish Water pack. What do I do?
A. If you have yet to register, you should fill it in and send it back — but leave the PPS number blank.
Q. I haven’t registered yet. If I want to, when is the new cut-off date?
A. The new registration cut off date is February 2, 2015, instead of the end of this month. People will be billed from January 1, with the first payments expected on April 1 — April Fools Day.
Q. I still won’t pay. Can I be brought to court?
A. Yes. However, in the first instance Irish Water will fine people who do not register. A two person non-paying household will be hit with a €60 fine if the charge is not paid three months after a bill, with an extra €60 added on every year after.
The figure will be €30 for single households. In a stroke of good fortune for Government, these fines will only come into effect after March 2016, in other words after the next general election.
Irish Water has also said it “can pursue debt through the courts in the normal way”.
Q. Will water meters still be put in place, and are they now of any use?
A. Irish Water will still install meters as they are “essential” for detecting leaks and checking water usage.
The firm says the equipment — which is already in place in one in four households nationwide — could in fact save you money if it shows you are spending less than your allowance. However, those opposed to charges believe it is a sign increases are on the cards in the future.
Q. I’m a landlord and my tenant is refusing to pay. What happens?
A. Legislation will be drawn up to allow landlords to take the Irish Water charge out of their tenants’ deposits if they choose not to pay, meaning the landlord will not be left out of pocket.
Q. Only my sewage water supply/drinking water supply works. Do I still pay?
A. No. If you are only supplied with water for sewage purposes you will only pay for this, and visa versa.
Q. My water is undrinkable. Do I still pay?
A. If your drinking water supply is undrinkable you will not have to pay anything for the service. However, you will still have to pay for any sewage water supply.
Q. All these discounts mean Irish Water will bring in far less funds than planned. Who will fill gap?
A. Well this is awkward: us.
In an effort to convince people to register, the Government is providing a €100 Water Conservation Grant to Irish Water customers. Taxpayers will pay for the grant, meaning you will be paid with your own money.
A Tour de Farce that could spark revolutionBy Shaun Connolly, Political Correspondent
The capitulation on water charges was absolutely nothing to do with the “electoral cycle”, Environment Minister Alan Kelly assured us — the fact he was furiously back-pedalling like the exhausted rider of said cycle as he made the announcement was merely an unfortunate coincidence.
As the Government’s handling of the Irish Water fiasco has always been less Tour de France, more Tour de Farce, it befitted this tragi-comedy that not even Mr Kelly could keep a straight face as he delivered his electoral cycle line.
A lopsided smirk adorned the minister’s face as the opposition benches erupted in laughter and scorn as he berated previous governments for “focusing on little else than the next election”.
As his entire speech was engineered as a panicked attempt to try to salvage some sort of showing for Labour at the next election — and position Mr Kelly as party leader shortly after the polls close, whatever there may be left to lead — the minister was playing with fire as he desperately tried to wash himself politically clean of Irish Water.
Attempting to cast himself as the touchy-feely water fairy in contrast to the pantomime villain of his predecessor, Phil Hogan, Mr Kelly laid into Big Phil’s threats to turn supply for non-payers down to a “trickle”.
“I don’t think that is appropriate. I don’t think that should have happened,” Mr Kelly said.
So, why did he, and every other Government TD, vote for cash-strapped families to have their water supply reduced to a “trickle” when the Coalition ram-raided the legislation through the Dáil in a matter of hours last December then?
Did Mr Kelly suddenly find his social conscience at the back of the cupboard where he came across the €130m bribe — sorry water conservation grant — that is to be thrown at voters in the hope they will forget the unbelievably cack-handed manner this Government has gone about imposing its new tax?
The minister revelled in his insistence that some people will actually be better off if they cut their water use enough to pocket the surplus from the €100 a year payment being handed out in a bid to blatantly buy off the mass protests on the streets by paying people back with their own money.
But, unfortunately for him, voters realise that for all its talk of “listening”, the Government has appeared weak and out of touch, and only crumpled on the water tax by imposing what amounts to a second property tax in its stead.
With Fianna Fáil originally agreeing to water charges when they surrendered economic sovereignty to Brussels in 2010, the party’s environment spokesman Barry Cowen had something of a credibility gap to make up.
And branding Irish Water a “bonus-driven-gold-platted-super-quango” in the manner of Mary Poppins’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” did not really do the trick.
But every time Mr Kelly referred to “my legacy” in an almost regal fashion, the opposition benches would bristle with splutters of “Ooooh, who does he think he is?”-style interruptions.
And when Mr Kelly then haughtily left the chamber as the debate had barely begun in order to court the media limelight, his hubris provoked an opposition walk-out which Fine Gael scrambled to spin into an agreed suspension in order to spare Government blushes.
Curiously, Mr Kelly’s trademark “my” when announcing how great his reforms were suddenly became “we” when the minister acknowledged failure, stating: “Of course we have made mistakes as a Government.”
But then this is probably not the best slogan for the electoral cycle: “Re-elect us. We make mistakes. Of course.”
Water tax-weary voters are more than likely to reply: “On yer bike” to that one.
Households ‘could make money from new water charge’By Juno McEnroe, Political Reporter
Households could actually make money from the new water charge arrangements, the Government has claimed.
People who save water under the reduced charge system could be better off after they draw down their annual grant, Environment Minister Alan Kelly said.
He announced that homes could ‘beat the cap’ or end up paying less than the new fixed rate of charges, if they saved more water.
Only households with meters will be able to make these savings.
As of last night, only one-third of all homes were metered. Where consumers with a meter use less than the fixed rate, they will be entitled to refunds.
The new fixed rates mean no home will pay more than €160, no matter what amount of water they use or how many adults are in the home.
But homes can begin applying for a €100 supplement payment or ‘water conservation grant’ by next September, which they will then later be paid by cheque or into their bank account.
This means Irish Water customers who conserve their usage and receive their grant could profit from the new charging regime, the Government claimed.
Mr Kelly explained: “In fact, some people will be able to get their bills below €100, and when taken with the water conservation grant — they will likely be slightly better off because of the introduction of water charges and meters.”
The Labour minister said that it was still up to Irish Water whether they pursued households in the courts who refused to pay charges.
But he warned: “That can have an impact on people’s credit ratings, I wouldn’t encourage it.”
Households are being asked to sign up through an “honour system,” he said, adding that there was a “matter of trust” there with how many occupants in a home were declared for charges.
During a press conference, he said he would consider future legislation which would require newly built homes to have rain-harvesting facilities in them.
The Government yesterday also brushed aside criticism that it was wasting €539m installing meters around the country that would matter little to how bills were calculated, with fixed rates in place until the beginning of 2019.
Mr Kelly said the meters were also needed to help Irish Water identify where the big leaks are around the country. He said yesterday that it had been discovered that 22 households with newly-installed meters were leaking a million litres a day into driveways — enough to serve needs in a day in the town of Gorey.
Mr Kelly said the Government estimated that as many as half of Irish households could be able to “beat the cap” and have bills lower than the fixed rates, but only if they reduce their water consumption by between 10% and 15%. However, the energy regulator has told the Government Irish Water’s initial estimates conclude that water usage is only expected to fall by 6% in homes with meters.
Cork hotel refuses to host FG party meeting over fears of a blockadeBy Sean O’Riordan
Fine Gael has found another venue for an important meeting after a Cork hotel refused to host it amid fears it could be blockaded by anti-water charge protesters.
The party had booked a conference room for a regional meeting of its members at the Rochestown Park Hotel, Cork for tonight, which was to be addressed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
But it was cancelled by the hotel and Fine Gael has been forced to change venue to the Oriel House Hotel, Ballincollig.
A Fine Gael spokesman said the party was surprised by the move as there had been a similar regional meeting at a hotel in Navan on Tuesday night which resulted in no trouble, even though around 30 protesters turned up.
The Rochestown Park Hotel took the decision based on recent events when Enda Kenny’s car was blocked by protesters in Sligo and Minister Joan Burton was penned in by protesters for more than two hours in Dublin.
A hotel spokesman said the party had booked a large room as it had expected hundreds of people to turn up to its meeting.
The decision not to host it was made by hotel management on Tuesday afternoon.
“It was done for security and safety reasons.
“It was for the safety of staff, in-house guests and our neighbours,” the spokesman said.
It’s understood that Minister Simon Coveney has revealed gardaí are providing increased security for some ministers following the recent incidents.
It’s expected the Taoiseach will attend tonight’s meeting which takes place at 8pm.
Tomorrow, anti-water protesters have vowed to picket Mr Kenny when he arrives in Blackpool to visit online gaming company, Xanadu, where he is expected to make a significant jobs announcement.
It is expected gardaí will be out in force in both Ballincollig and Blackpool.
Levy a ‘second flat-rate home tax by another name’By Juno McEnroe Political Reporter
Anti-water charge campaigners have claimed the Government’s new water charge package is a second flat-rate home tax by another name — and have vowed to continue with protests nationwide.
Socialist TDs also accused the Coalition of engaging in “political trickery” with the climbdown on water charges announced yesterday for what the Socialists said were election reasons.
As the Coalition made a last-ditch attempt to ease public anger, opponents of the levy pointed out the changes in the main ignored people’s incomes, their water usage or household size.
Campaign group Right2Water said a national demonstration was still planned for outside the Dáil on December 10. Responding to the new fixed rate of charges in place for the next four years, it added: “The Government has introduced what is basically a new flat-rate home tax — one which will see a low-income family in rented accommodation paying the same as an affluent household in an owner-occupied mansion. At the same time, any pretence at conservation has been abandoned.”
Socialist TD Ruth Coppinger said new charge arrangements would be the same for millionaires as well as the poorest.
The Government had looked at special allowances for the low-paid and those on welfare payments. But under changes announced, all homes will get the annual €100 supplement, or what is being termed a ‘water conservation grant’.
No homes that register with Irish Water will pay more than €160 a year in charges for the next four years, regardless of their circumstances. The grant will only be paid to those who register.
Ms Coppinger said she and other campaigners were not in favour of violent protests. But she said protesters had a right to “get up close” with ministers if they arrived at events in their areas. “These meters are going to go the way the e-voting machines did, and be useless.
“With these changes, it doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire or have a swimming pool; you pay the same as the poorest.”
People would still come out on the streets, she said, and would “protest by not paying their first bills” which will arrive in April.
TD Joe Higgins said the lower fixed rates were “political trickery” and would be hiked once the cap was lifted. He and other TDs are arranging a protest outside Irish Water’s HQ in Dublin on Saturday, November 29.
“The Government’s threats against people to pay the charges won’t have the desired effect as they will be facing into a general election when they come.”
Union: Stand-off over staff bonusesBy Stephen Rogers
Siptu has said there is now a “stand-off” over the decision by Irish Water to withhold employee bonuses for 2013 and 2014 and that industrial action cannot be ruled out.
After meeting with Irish Water management in Portlaoise yesterday, the union, which represents 100 of the company’s 400 directly employed workers, reiterated that it will not accept any unilateral changes to its members’ terms and conditions of employment and that the withholding of employee bonuses equated to a pay cut.
Siptu’s sectoral organiser Adrian Kane said very little progress was made in the talks and there appeared to be a “stand-off” between the two sides.
He said the union will hold a series of meetings with staff members over the next two weeks to decide on their position before reverting to management.
Mr Kane said the workers were not going to be made scapegoats for what was an unpopular tax.
He said industrial action was “within their rights” as the withholding of the bonuses had been uni-laterally imposed though he said it was not their intention to go “gung-ho”.
Non-payers will be pursued through courtsBy Juno McEnroe, Political Reporter
Households who refuse to pay their water charges will still be pursued in the courts and unpaid bills will be attached to people’s properties.
Under proposals to overhaul the water charge regime, the Government is also considering new legislation to allow landlords to take unpaid water bills directly out of tenants’ deposits.
Penalties of €30 will also be added to one-adult homes with unpaid bills, while households with two adults or more face penalties of €60 for not paying the levy.
But these will not kick in until after the next general election.
The penalties form part of the Coalition’s new water charge package.
Environment Minister Alan Kelly said it was not the intention to drag people through the courts yesterday but that it would be up to Irish Water whether they used that option. No new legislation will be drafted for this, his officials said.
However, new legislation is being drafted which will allow Irish Water to apply the charge to a property in the event of non-payment. This will affect the sale of properties.
The Government said under the new plans homes with one adult will face a €30 penalty if their bill is unpaid for a year while multi-adult homes will face a €60 penalty.
This means that the first penalties applied to people will only be applied after the next general election, as the first bills are not due to arrive in people’s homes until April of next year.
Mr Kelly said yesterday said that previous plans to cut off or reduce people’s water supplies were being dropped.
Explaining the new rules, he said: “I intend to legislate to remove the power to cut off or reduce the supply of water to premises where water charges remain wholly or partly unpaid.
“Instead, unless the customer enters into a payment plan, late payment penalties of €30 for a single adult household and €60 for other households will be added to bills three months following a year of non-payment.”
He also said his department and Irish Water would be consulting with landlords before deciding on legislation to penalise tenants who do not pay charges.
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