Truth hurts as parents pay price for water

With uncertainty over children’s free water quotas, parents of over 18s living at home face a bigger shock, writes Political Editor Mary Regan

OF ALL the hostages to fortune in Enda Kenny’s opening comments to the Irish people as Taoiseach, the “Paddy likes to know the truth” line is the one that comes back to haunt him with increased frequency.

It’s a promise that is going to ring increasingly hollow to parents in the year running up to the next general election — planned in 2016 — when they realised that bills for domestic water look a lot different to what they expected.

In the night before the charges were discussed at Cabinet at the end of April — in the height of an election campaign — the Fine Gael side of Government strongly spun that the average charge would be less than €240.

The provision of the information to the media was seen as an attempt to bounce Labour into signing up to the plans, which were not, incidentally, agreed at the next day’s Cabinet meeting.

But Mr Kenny had succeeded in getting the message out that he was telling people the costs before the election, and that it would amount to €240 for the average family.

He told the Dáil, during Leaders’ Questions on May 6, that his Government had “taken into account that children obviously bring with them costs and charges in the daily running of a household”.

For that reason, a free allowance of 38,000 litres a year would be given to children “which effectively makes all children under the age of 18 years free,” he said.

On the same day, Environment Minister Phil Hogan echoed the same message on RTÉ Radio: “In the case of children we are giving an additional 38,000 litres per child up to the age of 18 because we know how many children we have on child benefit, so therefore effectively children are free,” he said.

When the charge structures were published by the Commission for Energy Regulation last month, Regulator Paul McGowan revealed that the average would take into account holiday homes which have no full-time occupants and will have minimum water charges.

It emerged that the average household — if taken as consisting of two adults and two children — will have annual water bills of €279.

The free allowance for children was reduced from 38,000 per year to 21,000 — enough for one toilet flush and one shower per day.

The regulator argued that the level was reduced based on updated analysis by Irish Water of consumption levels — based on homes in Ireland that already have meters installed.

The Economic and Social Research Institute carried out analysis of these figures and said that further research would be needed to understand the relationship between water consumption and other variables such as income, appliance-ownership, social class, employment status and age.

Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen has called for the CER to explain what analysis it did of Irish Water’s figures, or if it accepted the reduced allowance “at face value”.

Despite the uncertainty around the allowance for children, the biggest shock is likely to be for parents of teenage children — those over 18 still living at home — who will be charged full adult water rates.

There are more than half a million 18 to 27-year-olds in Ireland. And some 41% of 18 and 19-year-olds still live with their parents, according to recent research published by Eurofound.

Many of these will be working and probably in a position to contribute to household utility bills. Many more — particularly men who lost their jobs in construction — will be out of work and largely reliant on their parents.

Then there is the cohort who are in college and have little or no income.

Their third level registration charge — or college fees by another name — is due to increase to €3,000 in 2014 from €2,500 in the last academic year.

The back-to-school allowance of €200 which applied to students up to the age of 22, will no longer be paid to dependent children over 18 in third -level education from next term.

The Department of Social Protection estimates around 13,500 people over 18 attending third-level who qualified for the allowance in 2013, will not get it this year.

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