Support for water refunds grows in Cabinet

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is facing mounting pressure to refund Irish Water customers who paid their bills, with growing calls for rebates from within Cabinet, as well as from many of his own TDs.

However, Mr Kenny last night tried to defer any decision on paying back bills until next March, by saying a Dáil vote would by then decide on refunds for almost a million people who have paid some bills.

Cabinet colleagues Shane Ross and Finian McGrath want a system of refunds for bill-payers after an expert commission on water this week proposed most homes should get water for free.

The Government will find it difficult to delay a decision until next March, with many Fine Gael TDs openly calling for a system of refunds, either through taxation or by cash.

Speaking yesterday at Facebook HQ in Silicon Valley, California, Mr Kenny said the Government would wait until a new Oireachtas Committee does its work and the Dáil votes next March.

“I believe that it is right and proper that the issue should be dealt with and a recommendation made by the Oireachtas committee in the context of what the commission said, that people who have paid their water charges should not be treated any less fairly than those who hadn’t. That’s an issue that needs to be reflected upon by the committee, a recommendation made and the Dáil, in due course, will make its decision by vote.”

Mr Kenny said he had a personal opinion on refunds, but did not want to influence the committee.

“I have a very clear view on it, but I don’t want to dictate to a Dáil committee now on what might be deemed to be a policy position.”

However, the Independent Alliance say they want refunds for people who have paid charges to date.

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Transport Minister Shane Ross said he was in favour of refunds: “If people are going to be let off, there’s a very good case for refunding those who have already paid them.”

Ministers John Halligan and Finian McGrath told the Irish Examiner refunds should take place, while Office of Public Works Minister Sean Canney also agreed.

Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats, the Greens, and AAA-PBP all back refunding customers.

However, speaking on Tipp FM, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said as “I believe in people obeying the laws, [the focus] should be on pursuing people who haven’t paid”.

The issue of refunds had to be “weighed up, in the context of overall budgetary issues”, he said.

Fianna Fáil also want a cost-benefit analysis of both refunds and pursuing non-payers to take place.

A cross-party Oireachtas Committee next week will start debating the commission report before a vote on water next year. It comes after a meeting of the Fine Gael party this week heard calls from TDs, senators, as well as some ministers for money to be given back to Irish Water customers.

Over 20 Fine Gael TDs contacted by the Irish Examiner yesterday were split on refunding bills.

Cork South West TD Jim Daly said attachment orders should be used to pursue non-payers. “The law of the land applies.” Galway East TD Ciaran Cannon said refunds were “economically unwise”.

Others, though, back refunds. Kerry TD Brendan Griffin said: “People should get their money, there is no question about that.” Clare’s Joe Carey said he was open to refunds, possibly with a tax rebate.

Drugs Minister Catherine Byrne said this week she favoured refunds and wanted her money back.

Some TDs, though, are refusing to decide until the new committee completes its work next year.

Figures from Irish Water show 989,000, or 65%, of households paid bills, amounting to some €162m. A total of 1.5m households were billed.

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