DANIEL MCCONNELL: Water charges debacle has made a mug of the diligent taxpayer

The FG-led Coalition has twice made fools of people who complied with the law and paid their water charges, and the long-term cost will be a leaky infrastructure, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

HOW can you trust someone who can’t give you a straight answer?

Bottom line is, you can’t.

So, it is safe to say this Fine Gael-led Government cannot be trusted in any way when it comes to water charges.

Not once, but twice have they made fools of the people of this country who complied with the law of the land and paid their water charges.

In 2014, when the first charging was introduced by then minister Phil Hogan, despite the noisy unrest of those who were opposed to water charges, the system was working.

Because of the fear of large bills, people stopped wasting water. Usage levels dropped significantly during that period, which showed the stick of fines works as a means of conservation.

The numbers of people paying their bills, yes started at a low level, but were creeping up.

But after Hogan’s departure and a major row between Labour and Fine Gael, a new regime was introduced in November of 2014.

Alan Kelly was now the minister and in a stroke, he rewarded all those who refused to obey the law of the land.

His revised system, which included a cap on charges, immediately rendered the controversial water meters redundant. Worse still, those who refused to pay were rewarded with the €100 conservation grant, just like everybody else.

The agitators with their tails up, led by the Paul Murphy school of let-someone-else-pay, had taken a significant scalp and were allowed to fundamentally undermine the viability of the now much hated Irish Water.

So the diligent taxpayer was made a mug of.

Fast forward to the general election.

After Fine Gael’s hammering but before the Government was formed, minister and leadership aspirant Simon Coveney went on RTÉ’s Prime Time and said Fine Gael was now willing to talk about a different future for water charges.

He admitted on the programme that Fine Gael would need “to take on board” what Fianna Fáil, who proposed ending charges, thought of the utility as Government talks were under way.

People in their droves stopped paying their bills.

Across dinner tables, over pints in the local, and in the workplaces across the country, his comments had the impact of fatally wounding the second charging regime.

People within Irish Water tell me you could hear the waves of direct debit cancellations in the wake of Coveney’s appearance.

He later denied that he was to blame, but the facts say otherwise.

Almost 8,000 bill payers moved to cancel their direct debit payments with Irish Water in March after Mr Coveney cast doubt on the future of charges on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

The argument soon moved on to “well, if charges are to be suspended — as demanded by Fianna Fáil in return for facilitating the minority Government — do people who paid get a refund?’

No, there would be no refund we were told and those who haven’t paid would be pursued.

The problem was, that very few bills anywhere would have topped the €500 minimum threshold for enforcement actions to take place, so in reality no one was to be chased for the monies owed.

As we know, the suspension of water charges was the price of peace. The sacrificial lamb required for Fianna Fáil support to allow Enda Kenny be re-elected Taoiseach.

So, after six months, we had the publication of the expert-led Commission on Water charges report last Tuesday.

As revealed on the front page of this newspaper last Monday, the report proposed a return of charges but only after very generous allowances are used up. The most significant proposal is that funding for water should come from general taxation and not by a designated charge.

The report’s publication led to a fiery and stormy meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday night. A number of Fine Gael TDs have urged the Government to refund water charges to people who paid them.

Sources said backbench TDs told Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Housing Minister Simon Coveney they should consider refunds to people who have paid the charges since their introduction in 2015.

Noonan is understood to have said the primary objective of the party should be to get the “dead cat” of water charges off the agenda before a general election takes place. He told the meeting that Fine Gael’s position on water charges had cost the party votes and seats at the last election and it is “entirely in our interest” to kill off the debate.

Two ministers of state, Catherine Byrne and Dara Murphy, along with Dublin Fingal TD Alan Farrell, spoke in favour of refunds. Murphy said Fine Gael could not turn their back on people who paid their charges and a path to repayment would be helpful.

Party sources said Fine Gael is divided on whether to refund the households who paid the levies or to focus on pursuing those who did not pay. However, they say there is little appetite in Government to proceed with refunds.

Yesterday, Coveney said he has no intention of making a fool of people who did pay the fees before they were suspended earlier this year. He said the money that was paid has already been spent on infrastructure. Mr Coveney says the issue of non-payment is still being considered.

One of his colleagues, junior minister Sean Canney, is demanding equal treatment for rural dwellers in the debate on water charges.

Canney said if people living in towns are given water for free, some help should also be given to people with their own wells or on group water schemes. He said group water schemes have proven very expensive for people who use them — with little or no help from the Government.

The new Oireachtas committee on water needs to make sure everyone gets the same assistance, regardless of where they live, Canney said.

Ultimately, Coveney has political possession of the poisoned chalice that is the water charges issue.

The 20-person Oireachtas committee now has the task of honing the proposals from the expert group and delivering to Government a workable set of proposals that are also politically saleable, as Coveney said last week.

But, whatever the final proposals are, those people who believe in water charges, who paid their water charges and who wanted to see benefits for conserving water have been made fools of.

Political expedience once again has trumped doing the right thing.

The long-term cost of this grand political fudge will be the continuation of a leaky system of pipes, which at present lose 49% of water produced.

This is disgraceful and the latest reason as to why this current political landscape is deeply damaging for the interests of the country. So when the election comes around again, which is likely to happen sooner than you think, remember the lies you have been told.

I for one, won’t be fooled again.

More on this topic

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Water referendum must 'not be rushed', says Eoghan Murphy Water referendum must 'not be rushed', says Eoghan Murphy

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