Oireachtas Committee Report On Water – The Latest Irish Political Failure

Joe Dalton offers his thoughts on the Draft Report of the Irish Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee on Water and why the Government should have no fear of an election on the issue.

The draft report of the Irish Oireachtas Committee on Water represents a complete victory for the anti-water charges campaigners. They have got their way on just about every issue that was up for discussion. Personally, I think this is but the latest example of political failure in the Irish water sector stretching back several decades to when Fianna Fáil abolished domestic water charges following their victory in the general election of 1977.

Draft Report – Oireachtas Water Committee

It has led to extraordinary political rows between the two traditionally dominant Irish political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and has the potential to collapse the “Confidence and Supply Arrangement” by which Fianna Fáil in opposition facilitates a Fine Gael minority government. Two unfortunate background factors appear to be the Fine Gael leadership issue, which I have very limited interest in, and Fianna Fáil’s fear of the electoral threat of Sinn Féin.

While groups like Solidarity (previously the Anti-Austerity Alliance) and People Before Profit are entitled to the greatest political credit for this victory, it is Sinn Féin which has the organisational strength and discipline, and with the largest Dáil representation of the anti-water charges campaigners (except for Fianna Fáil based on their current position), who look best positioned to challenge the traditional parties.

If Fianna Fáil were to adopt what in my view would be the sensible position in support of water charges, they would leave the field clear for Sinn Féin to take the simple message into working class communities that there are no differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Whether Fianna Fáil in private wish they could be less hard line on the issue I don’t know, but I suspect at least some of them wish they could be, especially those from rural areas connected to Group Water Schemes.

That is the current political reality, however frustrating it is for a water policy wonk like me. In simple terms the Government has two choices, to implement the recommendations of the report or not to implement them. Here I will try to outline both options, seeking to make the best of a bad situation.

Option 1 – Implement the Recommendations

Some aspects of the report are not contentious and could be implemented without too much difficultly.

Expand the Public Water Forum

Probably the least contentious section of the report is its call for greater public engagement and transparency. The disaster that this entire process has become was in large part due to the lack of transparency, the failure to communicate with the public what exactly taxpayer’s money was being spent on by Irish Water and why it might have been necessary. I totally agree with the recommendation that the Public Water Forum should be expanded to play an enhanced role in representing the interests of citizens, as users, owners and financiers, and of holding Irish Water to account.

Public Ownership

All parties agreed on public ownership of water services. As lobbied for by the anti-water charges activists, the report recommends a referendum to create a constitutional protection against privatisation. In terms of unintended consequences, the report recommends scrutiny of any such amendment to ensure that Group Water Schemes are not detrimentally affected. No mention is made in the report, and only fleeting mention of it was made during the Committee proceedings, of what impact the constitutional amendment would have on the procurement of private sector involvement in water services provision. There is a world of difference between the full divestiture model of privatisation, as practiced in England Wales, and leveraging expertise from the private sector in a more limited way. What exactly we want to prohibit is something I feel needs to be discussed further. This issue has been deferred to another Oireachtas Committee, that of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, where I hope this aspect gets the scrutiny it deserves.

Refine the Regulatory Role

The report correctly highlights the importance of the regulatory bodies, the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It sensibly recommends the setting up of a Drinking Water Inspectorate, specifically to ensure water supplied to households meets quality requirements and is fit for human consumption. Currently this is the responsibility of the EPA, who would be better left to focus on their environmental responsibilities. (As an aside, I recall attending a lecture by a former Director of the Drinking Water Inspectorate of England and Wales in which he described high flying Executives from privatised water utilities trembling with fear when confronted with evidence of water supplied that was unfit for human consumption, which is a criminal offense.) I think it was highly unfortunate that the potential role of the EPA in water abstraction licensing was outside the scope of this Committee, one of the surprisingly many things I happen to agree with the anti-water charges campaigners about.
Fund through General Taxation

Anti-water charges campaigners scored another victory with the recommendation to abolish domestic water charges as a source of utility funding in preference for funding through general taxation. They were helped in this regard by the flawed recommendation of the Expert Commission to charge only for so called “Excessive Use”, a unique concept created by them for political expediency. All that achieved was ensure that the merits of charging for water per se were hardly even discussed by the Committee. “Excessive Use” looks set to join the “Water Conservation Grant” and indeed the Expert Commission themselves as footnotes in the long-term failure to develop and articulate a water policy in the best interests of the country.

Having been unable or unwilling to escape from the needle of “Excessive Use” the Fine Gael led Government is now faced with continuing to fund water services through general taxation. The Committee recognised the need for “funding certainty” over “multi-annual budgetary cycles” to meet infrastructure investment needs, something that has not happened in the past, regardless of who was in power at the time. The most optimistic outlook is that the political focus on water in recent years will increase the likelihood that adequate funding will be sustained in future. The retention of the national water utility ensures that organisationally the capacity exists to identify, prioritise and effect capital investment needs. (Though most anti-water charges campaigners, including Fianna Fáil assuming they haven’t changed their minds, still want Irish Water abolished. How they think water services can be delivered without a water utility is beyond me).

Conservation and Metering

After making some eminently sensible statements about the importance of water conservation, detecting and repairing leaks and increasing awareness of the issue, the report makes a series of inconsistent statements that show that political expediency overcomes logic in Ireland. The report states that “all new domestic buildings should incorporate water conservation fittings”. Yet the single most useful device in this regard, a domestic water meter, is not to be insisted upon for new builds.

Achieving universal metering is costly and challenging. Despite the benefits, there are indeed strong arguments why it should not be insisted upon. But the failure to insist on domestic meters for new-builds, with no financial burden on the exchequer, is absolutely shameful and wilfully ignores the evidence presented before the Committee. If Section 5 (Conservation measures) of the report is to mean anything other than hollow political rhetoric, then domestic meters must be installed on all new-builds. For me, this really is a deal breaker.

Combating “Wasteful/Abusive Use” of Water

Furthermore, unless meters are to be insisted on in new-builds, notions of combating “Wasteful or Abusive Use” of water, through the strengthening of the Water Services Act 2007, are nothing more than a contemptible and cynical attempt to appear to be doing something. (“Wasteful/Abusive Use” is the preferred term of the Committee, as opposed to “Excessive Use” preferred by the Expert Commission). This is cosmetic window dressing that is of no practical value.

Equity and Fairness

The report recommends equitable treatment for Group Water Schemes, who have paid water charges for many years, and for customers of Irish Water who paid their water bills until their suspension last year. This will most likely result in increased subsidies to Group Water Schemes, to a level where water charges for such schemes could be phased out, and refunds to Irish Water customers. Given the recommendation of the Expert Commission to fund through general taxation, such refunds were practically inevitable, notwithstanding that it represents a complete failure of policy.

Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the rest of opponents of domestic water charges have been presenting themselves as doing their duty by the Group Water Schemes in pushing for full subsidisation. In actual fact, they choose to disregard the, as initially acknowledged by Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen Teachta Dála (TD), very impressive evidence from the National Federation of Group Water Schemes who clearly articulated to the Committee the benefits of a domestic meter combined with a reasonable charge.

Compliance with EU Law

I am not going to rehash the legal arguments for and against water charges in this article (truly one of the most tiresome aspects of this entire saga) other than to point out that the practicality or usefulness of the charging policy gets completely lost in such legal arguments.

Despite the fact that the funding model through general taxation has not delivered up to now, and has led to infringement proceedings being taken by the European Commission against the state, the Government could just accept that it is in a minority view on this issue and run with it. Who knows, maybe against the odds Irish Water and future Irish Governments will ensure that the capital programme is met and that water services are brought up to standard.

Option 2 – Refuse to Implement the Recommendations

The alternative option is to refuse to implement the recommendations. If the recommendations, as they currently stand, get passed by the Dáil (Parliament) then the Government would be duty bound by the Confidence and Supply Arrangement with Fianna Fáil to legislate for them. To refuse to do so would be to move into general election territory. Fine Gael Minister for Social Protection and leadership candidate Leo Varadker TD has said it would be ludicrous to go to an election over the issue. But would it? It depends on what arguments would be made.

The anti-water charges campaigners regularly claim to represent “the people”. But do they? They certainly represent a large section of the people and have successfully mobilised tens of thousands of people in protest. But a majority of the people? I’m not so sure. So, why not put it to the test? This really would be an election about water. The disadvantage is that most people probably do not want an election on the issue and there is no guarantee that the outcome would be decisive.

It has been a feature of this saga going back many years that short term political calculations were put before the long-term interests of the country. Whether it is true or not, perceptions that the Minister for Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government Simon Coveney TD and Leo Varadker are trying to outdo each other to demonstrate their suitability for the Fine Gael leadership are an unhelpful distraction. If it does go to an election, they really need to sort that out.

Similarly, the perception that Barry Cowen is determined to score a political victory against Simon Coveney would, if true, be a very poor reflection on the Fianna Fáil man. The anti-water charges campaigners have won on just about every issue that was important to them, domestic water charges abolished, referendum on public ownership, universal metering programme abolished. Not to compromise on domestic meters for new-builds would, in my view, be unforgivable.

If it does go to an election I would like to see those who support water charges articulate the case from first principles. Don’t rely on obtuse legal arguments but make the case for why it is the best policy for Ireland. And please ditch this charging only for “Excessive Use” mantra. There exists a case for charging per se, combined with a well targeted affordability program to guard against water poverty. Make the case, otherwise there is no point.

It would be refreshing to offer electors with a genuine choice. It really could be an ideological battle that means something. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Solidarity, People Before Profit lined up on one side. Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party lined up on the other. If they make their case with passion and vision, I think the Government would have nothing to fear from such a prospect.

1 comment:

  1. Turns out that what was trumpeted as a 'Final Draft Report' was not really final after all. More like a 'daft report', maybe a 'false flag' or some kind of nefarious scheme or agenda. Anyway it was not even a 'draft report' after all since there was nothing agreed and no vote taken. But those outside the Pale were never informed about the nitty gritty. It was a media circus, a 'he said, she said' sort of thing and it still goes on.
    Questions arising, of which there are many, how did the first report come about and who wrote it? Why was it put out that it was agreed? And then there is my observation concerning the photo (http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/simon-coveney-accused-of-issuing-threat-to-water-committee-1.3039634), the best of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and the statement by R2W Oireachtas delegates exclaiming 'Victory'. Kind of reminds me of the 'Victory' claims after the 1994 ceasefire. If you say it loud and often enough it's true. It is one thing ordinary Joe and Jane to be managed by the MSM but another entirely when done by comrades.