On a day of farce within Government, Cabinet members appeared to have very different positions on what had been decided.
The Department of Environment first said that consumers would have to pay installation costs for the meters. Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore then insisted that no decision had yet been taken by the Government, and that it was the Cabinet, and not the department, which would have the final say.
The Taoiseach then said consumers would not have to pay installation costs, but would have to pay for the actual meters themselves.
The issue overshadowed the final day of Labour’s centenary conference in Galway as Mr Gilmore faced repeated questions about the issue.
The matter first arose when the Sunday Times reported that consumers would be hit with installation costs of up to €300. The department then said this indeed would be the case with a spokesperson for environment minister Phil Hogan stating: “Similar to how other regulated utilities are funded globally, the cost of the meters and the delivery of service will be passed on to the consumers.”
But when quizzed on the issue, Mr Gilmore insisted no such decision had been taken. “It’s a matter for the department to bring its proposals before the Government and then the Government will decide on it. And to date, no proposals have been brought in respect of that matter before the Government.”
Asked if it was possible that consumers would end up paying for installation costs, he replied: “Well, we’re making suppositions now based on — I don’t know on what basis — but there’s been no proposals put by the department about the costs of the meters.”
Adding to the farce, the Taoiseach then said householders would definitely have to pay for the meters but not the cost of installing them. Any upfront costs, such as for the meters, would be entirely separate to the ongoing charges consumers would have to pay depending on the amount of water they used.
The issue looks set to feature prominently at tomorrows Cabinet meeting.
Senior Labour sources questioned the timing of the story, suggesting Fine Gael had leaked it to cause difficulty for Labour on the final day of their conference.
“We expected something,” one Labour source said. He pointed to the fact Fine Gael had faced questions at its own conference last month about the party’s links with Denis O’Brien after Labour ministers had questioned the wisdom of Cabinet members associating with the businessman.
He pointed the finger at Fine Gael generally rather than Mr Hogan specifically. But others in Labour vented considerable anger at Mr Hogan because of his department’s handling of the household charge.