The Taoiseach has rejected accusations that he was "arrogant" in how he handled the establishment of Irish Water, insisting he will act on public concerns with changes to the system which may not now be announced for another two weeks.
As his Coalition prepares for a major climbdown on the unpopular charge, Enda Kenny told the Dáil “this could have been handled better” but he has listened to the hundreds of people who have contacted him on the issue “some of them not in very kind terms”.
He said: “Some people don’t want to pay anything. Some people have an ideological view about this. Other people who are quite willing to want to contribute to the upkeep of the water infrastructure need to know with certainty and clarity what it is they are willing to contribute.”
Mr Kenny said he accepted that the current charging regime is confusing, but “having listened to the people and the anxiety of those who say they cannot afford to pay, have difficulties and are in particular categories —we will attempt to address the issue in the fairest way”.
He said: “I do not accept comments about my being arrogant, having an inability to listen or not recognising that people have difficulties in many ways with a change like this where a new contribution cost is introduced.
“I recognise, as do the Government and the parties in government, that this could have been handled better but it is time not just to listen to people, not to have heard them, but to act on it.”
As discussions continue on a new charging regime, which is likely to include a fixed rate up until the end of 2016, a spokesperson for the Taoiseach said nothing has been finalised. He said an announcement “may well be next week, but could be the week after”.
Fine Gael also believes it is “critical” that cuts to domestic water rates must not be made at the expense of plans to reduce the top rate of income tax over the next three years.
The Taoiseach told the Dáil he was “not going to go down the road of having to raise €850m in extra tax increases or cutting other services” by abolishing or postponing water charges.
The Government’s focus in coming up with a new regime is to keep Irish Water off the general balance sheet. This means that government subsidies cannot amount to more than 50% of the utility company’s income. The introduction of a new water support mechanism for households to meet bills would result in an increase in the state subsidy. If it went back on to the general government books, Irish Water would be counted in the budgetary arithmetic and result in cuts of more than €800m–€850m having to be made, according to the Department of Finance.
Earlier, the Tánaiste, Joan Burton told the Dáil that a family with two grown-up children, aged 18 or 19 living at home, will pay less than €200 a year for water — half of what was previously announced.
A spokesperson later said she was expressing her view of what might happen.
A spokesperson for the Taoiseach, meanwhile, said work is ongoing and the issue has not been settled.
While children under 18 would have a 21,000-litre a year free water allowance under the plan announced in the summer, there were no concessions for older teenagers living at home.
Under the assessed charges, in place until meters are installed, the first adult in a house was due to be charged €176 a year followed by €102 for every adult after that.
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