Tuesday, 5 October 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
I am pleased to bring the Water Services Bill 2003 before the Dáil. The Bill has been passed by the Seanad and has benefited from the debate in that House and a range of amendments agreed by it. I wish to explain what is meant by the term “water services” as it is used in the Bill. If one is to appreciate the overall thrust of the Bill, it is helpful to visualise water services as pertaining to “water in the pipe”— from the time following abstraction that it first enters a supply pipe to the point of its subsequent discharge to the environment as treated waste water. The Bill does not seek to take a broader environmental view of water resources issues, such as pollution control, water quality in its broadest sense and river basin management. It is intended that the legislation will complement other legislation in this area.
The term “water services” encapsulates the provision of water supplies and the subsequent collection and treatment of waste water. Water supply and waste water services were generally provided for separately in earlier legislation, but such an approach is no longer considered to be appropriate as continued separation could lead to legislative anomalies and would run counter to the ongoing programme of reforming and simplifying the legislative code. Water supply and waste water services are inextricably linked. While each contains some unique elements, they are two sides of the same coin, in effect. Water services are provided by county and city councils acting as sanitary authorities. The Bill provides that, where water services are concerned, county and city councils will cease to be known as sanitary authorities and will become known as “water services authorities”. References to water services authorities in the Bill are, in effect, references to the relevant county or city council acting in its capacity as the provider and guardian of water services in its functional area.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to establish a comprehensive and modern legislative code governing functions, standards, obligations and practice in respect of the planning, management and delivery of water supplies and the collection and treatment of waste water. The Bill, which consolidates and modernises the existing legislative code governing water services, is the first root and branch consolidation and modernisation of water services law for more than 120 years since the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878. While some of the older texts have stood the test of time, much of the language and concepts are outdated and arcane. Many quaint terms used in the 1878 Act, such as “water-closets” and “water undertakers” are no longer in common usage. Other provisions, such as those in the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878 referring to “earth closets, water-closets or privy accommodation”, have echoes of past centuries and have long since been overtaken.
The legislative code is being consolidated to provide a modern and easily accessible code governing all aspects of water services in a single text. Those undertaking research on water services law are required to trawl through a maze of different enactments, many of which have been amended or superseded by later enactments. The Bill sets a baseline behind which legislators, practitioners, the courts and the public will no longer be required to search if they wish to ascertain the legal foundation for requirements relating to the provision of water services.
Having introduced the House to the Bill’s key terminology and familiarised Deputies with its objectives, it is appropriate to clarify what the Bill is not about. This is necessary to correct any misunderstandings, or deliberate or untruthful efforts to create misunderstandings which might exist in respect of its objectives and to better inform the upcoming debate.
I wish to deal first with the suggestion that the Water Services Bill is linked to privatisation in some way. Nothing in the Bill is intended to move water services policy towards privatisation. The Bill retains the present public ownership arrangements and provides the necessary supports to foster the development of those arrangements into a top-class service. The privatisation of water services would require significant additional legislation to provide for an independent regulator to oversee service delivery, for example. That is not attempted in the Bill and is not its intention or purpose.
The Bill anticipates the growing involvement of public private partnerships, PPPs, in the provision of water services. Neither PPPs nor related design, build and operate arrangements are precursors to the privatisation of water services. Such arrangements involve the contracting of private sector expertise to perform functions on behalf of contracting water authorities. Assets remain in the full ownership of the relevant authority or group water scheme. Such arrangements represent the best way forward for the development and renewal of our water services infrastructure. They can provide value for money and the application of the latest specialist expertise. They give independent assurance that legal obligations relating to the protection of human health and the environment are being complied with when water services are being delivered. All my Department’s capital funding of new water supply and waste water treatment infrastructure is subject to an assessment of the suitability of the project for procurement as a PPP. That is a long way from privatisation.
I would like to discuss the issue of domestic water charges. If I may be excused the pun, it seems that there has been a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters in this regard. I stress that the Bill before the House does not provide for or facilitate the re-introduction of domestic water charges. The Government’s position on water charges is not changed in any way by this Bill. The Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1997, which specifically precludes charging for domestic water services, remains in force and will continue to apply after the Bill has been enacted.
Mr. Roche: Before I outline what the Bill is about, I wish to address concerns which have been expressed about provisions on metering of water services. The power to install meters is provided for in existing water services legislation. The metering of water services is a long-standing policy for non-domestic users and a prerequisite to effective water management. Local authorities are well on the way to metering all non-domestic users of water services by 2006, which was the target set out in the Government’s 1998 water pricing policy framework. Surveys have indicated that non-domestic consumers would prefer to be charged on the basis of the amount of water consumed rather than at a flat rate because such a system of measurement offers due regard for those involved in water conservation efforts. Water metering promotes the sustainable use of water resources and reflects the proper application of the polluter pays principle and the cost recovery requirements of the EU water framework policy directive. I repeat that the Bill is not a Trojan horse for domestic charges. Such charges are specifically prohibited under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1997.
It may be helpful at this stage to give a brief overview of what the Bill provides. It establishes the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as the national authority for regulating the provision of water services. I envisage a hierarchical system of regulation and supervision extending from my Department, through the water services authority sector, to the group water services scheme sector.
Section 30 sets out the functions of the Minister for that purpose. It places a duty on the Minister to facilitate the provision of safe and efficient water services and associated infrastructure. The Minister is also required to supervise and monitor the performance by water services authorities of their functions under the Act and is given responsibility for planning and supervision of investment in water services.
So that he can carry out those functions, the Bill provides the Minister with a broad range of powers, including regarding the provision of guidance, the issue of binding directions, and the monitoring of the performance by individual authorities of their functions — including their own supervisory functions as necessary. To assist and advise the Minister in that regard, the Bill also enables the Minister to appoint statutory consultative groups and committees. That will allow the Minister to involve a broad cross-section of expertise and stakeholder interests in the ongoing evolution and implementation of policy and best practice regarding water services.
The main functions of water services authorities are set out in sections 31 and 32. Those two sections provide the basic statutory framework for water services authorities to deliver water services, assist others in providing water services and supervise the delivery of water services by other persons. The Minister may make regulations specifying performance criteria and quality standards which must be achieved regarding those functions. It is envisaged that most of the EU directives concerning water services, including the drinking water directive and relevant elements of the urban waste water treatment directive, will be transposed into national law under those provisions.
Consistent with the EU drinking water directive, each water services authority is obliged to ensure that water intended for human consumption in its area meets prescribed standards and is provided with powers to prohibit or restrict the use of a water supply, where necessary, to protect public health or the environment. It is envisaged that those powers could be applied either to follow up a water quality incident or at times of drought to protect the integrity of the water supply and related ecosystems.
The Bill provides that each water services authority will carry out its functions in the context of a strategic management framework for the delivery of water services in its area, drawn up in agreement with the Minister. Strategic planning is the cornerstone of all successful enterprises and provides a structured approach to anticipating and responding to demand. It is an essential prerequisite for the efficient and effective delivery of services to required standards, at the right point, at the right time and at the least cost. The hallmark of that approach is evident in the operations of many of our major companies and other public utilities, and it is no less relevant to water services.
Strategic planning has already been introduced on an informal basis in the rural water sector. Section 36 provides for the introduction of an operational planning and review cycle across both rural and urban areas in the functional area of each water services authority. Each water services authority will be required to draw up a water services strategic plan for its functional area at intervals of six years, or after such shorter period as the authority may decide, and to submit it to my Department for approval. The plan will outline the situation regarding water services in its area of application, both current and projected, and identify appropriate responses with a view to protecting human health and the environment and supporting ongoing sustainable development.
The strategic planning process will be based on a partnership between my Department and each water services authority to ensure that national and local water services agendas are fully synchronised. Such co-ordination is essential to ensure that water services plans are fully integrated into national investment planning for social and economic development. The provision in the Bill to enable two or more authorities to prepare joint plans will also ensure that plans for adjoining authorities’ functional areas are properly integrated with each other in order to maximise potential synergies and efficiencies and guard against any cumulative impacts that might have an adverse effect on sustainable development or environmental protection in the surrounding region.
The Bill also puts in place a framework of provisions to protect the integrity of water services distribution and collection networks. Unauthorised connection or discharge to a waterworks or waste water works is prohibited. Section 103 prohibits building over another person’s water distribution system or drains without the consent of the relevant water services authority. New powers in sections 55 and 61 enable a water services authority to require a developer to open up water supply pipes and drains for inspection before connection to its services. Water services authorities will have powers to specify technical requirements regarding such connections, and it will be an offence under the Bill to make any such connection without the prior approval of the relevant water services authority.
The Bill places a new duty of care on owners and occupiers regarding the sustainable use of water services on their premises and prohibits discharge of anything into a sewer which would block or damage it or adversely affect a waste water treatment process. Water services authorities are provided with powers to direct owners to undertake remedial works, or may themselves carry out any necessary repairs and recover their costs from the owners of the premises.
This suite of provisions is essential to protect the integrity of the water services infrastructure. It is also essential from an environmental and public health perspective and makes sound economic sense. Over the course of the current national development plan, some €4.4 billion will be invested in the provision of water supply and waste water infrastructure. It is vital that our investment in these new and upgraded water services assets be protected. Duties of care on owners and occupiers are also an essential prerequisite for sustainable rural development. Those provisions are a necessary precautionary measure to help strike a sustainable balance between the potentially adverse environmental impacts of development and the social and economic benefits deriving from such development. Accordingly, section 70 in addition specifically obliges occupiers and owners to maintain septic tanks — referred to as treatment systems — in such condition as to avoid nuisance or risk to human health or the environment.
Section 56 provides extensive new powers for the purpose of conserving water supplies. An authorised person is enabled to direct the owner or occupier of a premises to take corrective action to prevent water from being wasted or consumed in excessive amounts. Such officers will also have powers of direction regarding the restriction of water use. Exercise of those powers will be subject to appeal to the District Court, except in times of emergency, and the authorised person will have power to cut off or restrict supply pending compliance.
It is essential that adequate powers be available to water services authorities to prevent the wilful waste of water and maximise the benefits of the national water conservation programme. Some €276 million is being invested in the current round of a national programme to identify and substantially reduce the levels of unaccounted-for water in Ireland’s water supply network. The investment must be supported by effective enforcement powers to prevent its being undermined by user-side leakage and waste. That is particularly relevant to the household sector, which, because a charge is not levied for its water supplies, has little or no incentive to conserve them.
I hasten to repeat once again that there is no intention to re-introduce household water charges. On the matter of costs, the increasing demands on water supplies and levels of cost associated with the provision of this essential public utility is a matter of concern, and everyone must recognise that water is a valuable and finite resource. With that in mind, I intend to bring forward a national water conservation publicity campaign to increase public awareness generally and encourage practical water conservation measures. Sustainable living is a shared responsibility. The fact that water is provided to a household free of charge does not mean that it is free of cost. Water conservation measures will not be fully effective until there is broad public awareness of that fact.
The Bill has been drafted with a specific customer focus in mind. Section 32(3) enables the Minister to make regulations on procedures for dealing with consumer complaints. The Bill also contains several new provisions to address long-running problems for consumers that have been brought to the attention of my Department. Section 51, for example, regulates the temporary interruption of water services and obliges water services providers to give reasonable advance notice of interruptions, except in an emergency. Alternative supplies are required to be provided where domestic drinking water supplies are interrupted for more than 24 hours. To ensure unimpeded access to services, water services authorities will also have powers under section 92 to facilitate the connection of individual premises to water services networks through neighbouring connections.
Of particular interest to some customers will be the provision in section 43 in relation to the repair of private connections, linking premises with a sewer or water main. Up until now, responsibility for such repairs has rested with owners and occupiers, resulting in particular problems and inconvenience where faults or breakage occurs outside the boundary of the premises. In the absence of clear legislative authority, sanitary authorities have experienced difficulty in providing assistance to households, even where it was considered appropriate to do so. This anomaly has been the subject of much complaint, including in parts of my constituency, and has attracted adverse criticism from the Office of the Ombudsman. I am glad to be in a position therefore to provide in section 43 for a balanced package of measures to address the issue, enabling water services authorities to intervene, to repair or take into their own charge such service connections as they consider appropriate.
Detailed provisions in relation to rural water services are set out in Part 6 of the Bill. Chief among these is the proposed introduction of a licensing system to regulate and develop the operations of the group water scheme sector. Problems with the quality of drinking water supplies have been a matter of concern to all involved in the rural water sector for some time. My Department, in consultation with the national rural water monitoring committee, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and relevant local authorities, has undertaken or facilitated a series of initiatives to address the issue. Record investment has been put in place under the rural water programme of the national development plan. Rural water strategies have been prepared for all relevant county councils. A national source-monitoring programme for schemes serving more than 50 persons has been completed and a comprehensive drinking water monitoring programme is currently under way for these schemes.
While these initiatives are having a progressive beneficial effect, it is evident that a stronger regulatory regime is also required to ensure compliance with the relevant operational standards. Part 6 provides accordingly for the introduction of a system of licensing for the group scheme sector. Each water services authority will be the licensing authority for its functional area, and it will be an offence for any person, other than a water services authority, to provide services other than in accordance with the terms of a water services licence.
It would be neither practical nor necessary to licence all of the 6,000 or so group water services schemes across the country, many of which serve only two or three households. To do so would place an inappropriate and excessive administrative burden on smaller schemes. It is intended therefore only to apply the licensing requirements of the Bill to the 1,500 or so larger schemes serving more than 50 persons. Provision is therefore included in section 79 to exempt smaller schemes from licensing. However, there are powers to make regulations to provide for alternative requirements with regard to the registration of smaller schemes and their general compliance with specified standards, as required.
Individual scheme managements have nothing to fear from the introduction of water services licensing. I intend that water services authorities will use their licensing powers in a proactive manner to support and nurture the development of best practice throughout the group water services scheme sector. The objective will be the progressive achievement of the necessary standards. This will be a developmental and supportive regime, not a bureaucratic one. When operational, it will provide a structured mechanism for each scheme to assure itself of its compliance with its obligations.
The Department consulted widely with the group water scheme movement during the course of drafting the Bill, and has its general support for the new provisions, which will serve to underpin the viability of the sector into the future. The group water scheme has been one of the cornerstones of community development in rural areas for the last 40 years or more. It is a prime example of what can be achieved when communities band together to achieve a common good. The many volunteers who have given so generously of their time, talents and energy over the years to improve the lot of rural communities deserve our deepest respect and admiration for their efforts. The group water scheme sector came into being at a time of great need in rural Ireland. It provided an impetus to develop water services infrastructure at a rate far in excess of what central or local government could have achieved if left to their own devices at the time. While the country has changed beyond all expectations in the meantime, the sector is still an essential component of rural water services delivery, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Licensing is only one of the supports for the development of rural water services provided for in the Bill. Additional administrative powers are also included to enable a water services authority to intervene directly in the operations of a scheme where it considers that its expertise could be applied to the resolution of a particular problem. Section 91 enables a water services authority to take over the operation and management of a waterworks or waste water works on a temporary basis, where it considers that its operation could constitute a risk to public health or the environment, or where a scheme is experiencing operational problems or is consistently in breach of a licence. Such powers, which may be exercised with or without consent, will enable a breathing space to be established to allow individual schemes to continue to function as going concerns while particular problems are resolved.
I have outlined the main provisions of the Bill. Metering, to which I have already adverted, is dealt with in Part 5. This Part provides for necessary powers of access for installation, reading and maintenance of meters, and investigation of possible offences pertaining to interference with meters or fraudulent use of supplies. Part 7 of the Bill provides for general powers of acquisition for water services purposes and synchronises these functions fully with local authority powers of acquisition under the Planning and Development Act 2000. Existing powers of acquisition for water services purposes currently dealt with under the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878 will now be repealed. Such simplification and standardisation of procedures is a key objective of the Government’s ongoing regulatory reform process.
Among the miscellaneous provisions in Part 8 are savers to prevent older, often obscure, pre-1922 statutes from frustrating the application of the Bill. This is a pragmatic, fail-safe device to avoid undermining of the Bill by ancient and long forgotten legal provisions enacted in another era but which may still perversely be applied against the interests of the common good by a petitioner with a particular vested interest.
Provision is also included in section 102 to enable An Bord Pleanála to determine fees for appeals to it in relation to licensing of effluent discharges to sewers and waters. This is in line with similar provisions under the planning code, and will facilitate the application of similar procedures by An Bord Pleanála in respect of the various appeals processes for which it has responsibility, and further streamline the regulatory process.
I place on record my appreciation of the valued input of the various stakeholders who contributed to the development of this Bill. Key stakeholders, including business interests, the local authority sector, the national rural water monitoring committee and other social partners, were consulted during the drafting process, and helped to ground the provisions of the Bill in a practical reality, reflecting modern-day requirements which the Bill is intended to address. A series of public forums around the country was organised under the auspices of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, and these also facilitated a wide-ranging exchange of views and helped to fine-tune the provisions of Part 6, in particular, to the needs of rural consumers.
The final shape and content of the Bill owe much to these consultations. It is in effect a synthesis of expert views on best practice requirements for the development and delivery of modern water services in a modern society. The Bill is a testament to the interest and effort of those who were asked to contribute to it, and I value and appreciate the contribution of all who have made an input.
Publication of the Water Services Bill marked another milestone in the ongoing process of regulatory reform undertaken by the Government, and in which my Department has played a leading role. The process has already seen the planning and the local government codes updated and consolidated by my Department. It is now the turn of water services. I am aware that related matters such as water abstraction and management of water bodies such as lakes and river basins are not directly addressed in the Bill. A further consolidation exercise will be required to gather together a comprehensive volume of legislation on the protection and management of water resources generally. However, for the moment I am giving priority to this long overdue element of the regulatory reform process. I will give further consideration to the next phase of the ongoing consolidation and modernisation programme at a later stage.
It is interesting and perhaps instructive to reflect on events here and abroad when the legislative code which the Bill replaces was originally enacted. In Ireland, the Fenian rebellion had not long been suppressed, Isaac Butt was in the process of establishing the Home Rule movement and the GAA was yet to be founded. Abroad, slavery had only recently been abolished in America and, in science, Charles Darwin was working on his The Origin of Species. One may marvel at the technology available to this House today but at that time Alexander Graham Bell was only setting about inventing the telephone.
I make these points because the Bill is intended to bring ancient provisions up to date. Many events have occurred over the past 150 years and we need a new code. While the outgoing code stood the test of time, its time has now past. In commending this Bill to the House, therefore, I hope the new code will prove as robust and long-lasting as its predecessor. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Allen: I agree with the Minister that the Bill is a comprehensive package of reforms dealing with water services. It modernises a significant amount of legislation dating back through the centuries, some of which bears little relevance to the present. The key objective in any water services Bill is that the highest possible standards are achieved to ensure compliance with European Union guidelines and that these standards are complied with at all times.
The Minister — perhaps he protests too much — has denied that the Bill is a vehicle for privatisation of our water services or paves the way for the introduction of water charges. However, I am concerned that the Bill may be used as a Trojan horse to introduce water charges, maybe not before the next general election but, if this Government by any chance were successful in that election, we could see the introduction of water charges shortly afterwards.
Mr. Allen: Those on the Opposition side have some wisdom also, as well as experience in the House and on local authorities. The Minister should listen and not quickly dismiss opinions and suggestions from this side of the House. If he does, it will be his downfall as it was for his predecessor who did not listen to the suggestions from this side regarding electronic voting and other issues. The Minister may have the expertise of the Civil Service behind him but the Opposition has advantages also. We are committed to hard work on legislation, listening to representative groups and giving views that reflect our experiences on local authorities. The Minister should take this on board so we can begin on an even keel, with respect for each other. He should not be so quick to shout the moment I begin to speak.
Mr. Allen: Without being nasty, assurances from a Minister in a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government are worthless because of the deceit and broken promises given before the 2002 general election. Even promises made during the local election campaign this year have in a short time also been broken — I will deal with one of those broken promises in the Adjournment debate. The Minister protests too much and I will not accept assurances from a Minister in this discredited Government.
Mr. Allen: The Bill deals with many issues, one being the metering of premises. The charges for non-domestic water consumers at present are hefty and those users bear the brunt of increases on an annual basis at local level. There is no respite for them in the Bill.
From time to time people are critical of EU directives but directives on the environment, particularly with regard to the quality of drinking water and the treatment of waste water, have transformed the way we think and, more importantly, act on these issues. They have served the country well by ensuring greater care, management and accountability on environmental issues. Significant resources have been spent on the delivery of water and EU funding has assisted greatly in co-financing many of the schemes. The water services authorities seem to be presented in such a way that they can be easily cut off from the umbrella of the local authorities and the definition of functions and powers leaves me to suspect that the ultimate goal of the Government is the privatisation of the water services.
I have no problem with the requirement of a six-year strategic plan for the purpose of improvement, management and operation of water services infrastructure. This is a sensible approach and one that can be measured to provide a maximum return on the significant investment of public finances in this area. Reports coming from the Environmental Protection Agency state that some public water supplies are regularly in breach of standards for nitrate pollution. What is the up-to-date position on this issue? The Government has long prevaricated in regard to the nitrates directive. When will it make up its mind on this issue? The previous Minister conceded that Ireland is not yet ready to meet the terms of more stringent regulations on drinking water quality. When will we be in a position to comply fully with these regulations and to state what EU directives we are still not implementing?
Group water schemes contribute less than 10% of the country’s water supply and problems have sometimes been recorded with the quality of water from such schemes, although I accept that major improvements continue to be made in this regard. It must also be acknowledged that the voluntary group schemes have played a major role in rural areas and I hope the new licensing system will assist in their development and address water quality issues in that sector. The Minister is aware that in many areas raw sewage is still entering rivers and the sea, which is a disgrace. He should tell the House when he expects sufficient waste water treatment plants to prevent raw sewage entering the waterways.
In the 1980s and 1990s a water charge for domestic and non-domestic uses was in place. However, in 1997 the Government decided to abolish domestic water charges and this was given legal effect in the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1997. Commercial and industrial users of water and waste water continue to be charged for it on both a metered and non-metered basis.
The capital cost of major infrastructure was traditionally borne by central Government. Planning contributions levied by local authorities were used mainly for small capital improvements. In the late 1990s the capital cost of providing new infrastructure was part financed through securing major contributions from industrial and commercial users of water and waste water services, especially given that the required investment in water services infrastructure through the national development plan was estimated at about €10 billion. Could the Minister provide analysis in regard to the slow progress of developing some of the major infrastructural schemes? For example, the waste water scheme at Little Island, County Cork, has been ongoing for approximately seven years and is still being commissioned. Has any analysis been undertaken regarding such projects being kept within their cost projections and estimated completion times? Has the Comptroller and Auditor General carried out any analysis of the cost overruns for this type of infrastructure projects?
One cost which is of major concern relates to the charges to be imposed on local industry as a result of newly built waste water treatment plants. One example of this is the charges being imposed on local industries in my area of Cork following the building of the waste water treatment plant at Little Island. IBEC has been in consultation with the two local authorities, Cork City Council and Cork County Council, over the past number of years on this issue to ensure that industry is equitably charged for that plant. I am sure the same arrangement exists in other locations throughout the country.
Under the polluter pays principle, the non-domestic sector in Cork city and Little Island will be expected to pay charges towards the construction, operation and maintenance of the plant. The process to determine exact charges for industry has been slow, and it has not yet been fully resolved. However, I am aware that industries will be issued with bills shortly in relation to the operation of the plant.
IBEC has a steering group comprising its own representatives and member companies to monitor the progress of the charging mechanism and engage in dialogue with the local authorities concerned. Again, there is an example in the Cork region where the IBEC steering group has engaged with the Cork Chamber of Commerce which is fully supportive of the need to ensure fairness, transparency and equity for local industry which provides many jobs in the region. To give an indication of the seriousness of the situation, one company has been quoted charges of approximately €400,000 per annum. That level of charging is unsustainable for many companies and will lead to job losses if not total cessation of operations. Many companies in my constituency are facing an increase of at least 400% on their current water bills. That matter must be addressed.
Approximately €4 billion has been allocated under the national development plan for water supply and waste water treatment infrastructure for the period 2000-06. Under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive 1991, local authorities are obliged to construct secondary and tertiary water treatment plants by 2008. The Water Framework Directive 2000 establishes the polluter pays principle as the method of payment for Ireland’s much needed water infrastructure. Customers can be differentiated into domestic and non-domestic based on who pays for their share of the infrastructural costs. Domestic consumers will not pay for water supply or treatment as their share will, at least for the moment, be funded from the Exchequer under the National Water Pricing Framework Policy 2000. However, all non-domestic customers must pay both capital and operational costs for the infrastructure, and a capital contribution is their marginal cost which is the cost of providing the facility over and above the cost of levy being incurred if it had to service the domestic sector only.
In dealing with the question of charges, customers in the non-domestic sector can be subdivided into two types of users, significant and general. Significant users are defined as those who have a significant impact on the provision of the service and their number for each treatment plant will depend on the thresholds set by each local authority. Significant users must individually negotiate a contract with the local authority to pay, first, capital costs over a 28 year period and, second, operational maintenance costs per annum. The quantity and nature of output will be metered from each significant user’s facility.
General users are defined as those companies whose water consumption and waste water production is relatively small and similar to domestic waste water in quality. The quantity of water used will be metered and general users will pay a consolidated charge which covers both capital and operational costs based on metered usage.
Have the costs for each local authority been defined? To my knowledge they have not been defined in the Cork area, and arriving at the costs is a complex task. Some local authorities currently define a significant user as an enterprise whose effluent floor rate is in excess of 100 cubic metres per day and which has a loading of 100 kilograms per day of BOD. In the Cork area the local authority has identified 18 significant users and they are being charged accordingly.
It seems that where spare capacity has not been provided for non-domestic customers at waste treatment plants, any new industry locating in that area needing treatment capacity will be required to pay the full cost of expanding the treatment plant rather than just a marginal cost as is the case at present. It is believed that this will have very serious implications for industries already located in certain areas that wish to expand their plant facilities. I am also informed that west of the Shannon, areas of lower population density are becoming less attractive to new industries because of these requirements. Will the Minister set out his views on how this arrangement impacts on job creation in areas of less dense population?
I know from discussions with businesses that the business community is extremely concerned about the steady erosion in the competitiveness of Irish companies in recent years because business costs have risen extremely rapidly in Ireland and have far outstripped inflation. The very large rises in non-pay costs such as insurance, energy, waste and rates have made the business environment in Ireland very difficult. Further large cost increases such as those associated with waste water treatment must be examined to ensure the costs do not threaten the viability of companies or hinder future capital investments in certain areas. The scale and range of cost to companies in the Cork region is very substantial and onerous — the annual costs for significant users amount to between €250,000 to €800,000. This is a further tax on businesses and employment. Businesses and their representative bodies are suggesting that, given the business community will be contributing a significant portion of the cost of the treatment plant, the issue of ownership needs to be clarified. In addition, the question of liability in the event of incidents in relation to both the plant and pipework servicing the plant is of significant concern.
The reality is that, in order to comply with very strict EU water quality standards, member states will need sophisticated treatment plants in all urban areas by 2008. However, the quantity and nature of Ireland’s treatment facilities are well below what is required and there is need for ongoing upgrading of our infrastructure. Significant investment in water infrastructure will be required in the future.
While water infrastructure predominantly serves the domestic sector, the usage by non-domestic customers is between 10% and 20%, and the full cost recovery from all non-domestic customers could result in business facing a bill of between €500 million and €1 billion in capital charges alone. A recent survey carried out by IBEC of 450 companies showed that the average increases in water costs were in the region of 47% between 2001 and 2003 while a similar survey of local authority water charges showed average increases of 90% since 2000. The impact on hospitals, schools and farms will be significant. Schools are now under tremendous pressure to meet their liabilities as non-domestic consumers and much of the fundraising done is to meet these and other liabilities.
This brings me to the subject of design, build and operate arrangements. If we are not careful regarding design, build and operate arrangements, up to five major companies will control significant areas of our water services. Will the Minister give details of the extent of design, build and operate arrangements that are in place and what are his plans in that regard?
In 1998 the Government adopted a water services pricing policy. Its key principle aimed to make the full cost of water and waste water services transparent and to secure the cost recovery from customers. There would be no cross-subsidy of domestic services from non-domestic charges. Non-domestic charges were to include a maximum 20% allowance for leakage. Another key element was the recovery of average operational and marginal capital costs of water services from all non-domestic users. The framework planned for the completion of the metering of all non-domestic users by 2006 and the maintenance of non-charging for domestic water users. Domestic operational costs were to be met through the local government fund and capital costs through the capital programme of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The impact of the development levies imposed since last year has been well-documented. These are effectively a tax on house buyers, particularly first-time buyers. Will these be used to supplement funding from the Department’s capital programme for water services?
In addition to public schemes, there are approximately 2,500 group schemes providing a water supply for 145,000 households nationwide. Since 1997 the National Federation of Group Water Schemes has made substantial progress in addressing the widespread water quality and distribution problems in that sector. A large number of schemes have been bundled into design-build-operate contracts in partnership with local authorities, the national federation and the groups themselves. I also acknowledge the research carried out by the Institute of Engineers of Ireland in this area. It has pinpointed key issues in the challenges facing Ireland in delivering water services at 21st century standards. High standards are essential to the economic and social well-being of the country. I agree with the institute that, in order to comply with new legislative and sustainability standards, major changes in the organisation of water services must be introduced. I agree with the institute’s key objectives of the delivery of high quality water services to best international services; the reduction of leakage losses from a 2000 average of 47% to 20%; the upgrade of the water pipe network, much of which is in poor condition; and meeting the challenges of climate change.
There are approximately one million domestic and 160,000 non-domestic water consumer connections. However, the level of water use and leakage in Ireland is higher than that pertaining in Europe, including the UK. In Ireland, daily domestic consumption of water by customer is approximately 160 litres compared to 125 litres in England and Wales and 115 litres in other European countries. While the percentage of water loss in distribution through leakage in Ireland stands at 50%, it stands at 24% in England and Wales and at less than 10% in other European countries. To have a sustainable high quality water service, the need to account for the impact of global warming on rainfall patterns and water storage requirements must be recognised. Ongoing major capital investment must be introduced to meet water quality and waste water standards. The pipe network, much of which is in poor condition, must be renewed. We must ensure the environmental management of water resources in accordance with the objectives of the European water framework directive. We must ensure best value for money while recognising the need for economic and environmental regulation in order to protect the consumer.
In addressing water quality and supply, the Institute of Engineers of Ireland has stated that a comprehensive review of the organisation arrangements for delivery of water services should be carried out with the adoption of a regional approach based on river catchment. It has also recommended the establishment of local and regional water authorities for the management and delivery of water services. It has called for the establishment of a water services regulator to set standards and targets for service delivery by these water authorities and to approve water charge mechanisms and charges. Will the Minister give his views on these proposals?
The Minister has denied that this legislation will be used as a Trojan horse to introduce privatisation and water charges. While it is not a reflection on the Minister’s judgment, I do not have his confidence in the Government.
In future debates, I hope the pressing issues and challenges in complying with all EU directives on water quality can be addressed. I hope this Bill will be dealt with constructively on Committee Stage. However, on principle I cannot accept it because I fear the worst. The only way to stop the creeping privatisation of our water services and the introduction of water charges is to ensure that the Government is not re-elected.
Mr. Gilmore: As I listened to the Minister’s reverie about the 19th century, I too was struck by how times have changed. The Minister was struck by the contrast between the rudimentary nature of the Victorian world and the modernity of present day society. I was struck more by the contrast between how much more was achieved in the 19th century in the provision of infrastructure in this country by a foreign government during the poorest of circumstances and how little has been achieved in the past seven years by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government during the wealthiest of times this island has ever experienced. Contrast the Victorians’ achievement in the building of national schools, a road and rail network and the provision of water and sewerage schemes for towns with what this Government has done, with all the technology and moneys available to it. There is no decent public transport system. Instead, the rail system between our cities is less efficient and frequent than it was in the Victorian era. Why are there places where water quality is still poor and supply inadequate? Why must the people of Corke Abbey and Woodbrook Glen in the Dún Laoghaire constituency endure the stench of sewage every summer because of the inadequacy of the treatment plant in that area? Every once in a while, a boring-looking Bill appears on the Order Paper, the contents of which appear to be non-contentious and the debate on which promises to be pretty pedestrian. The press disappear from the Press Gallery, Deputies use the opportunity to raise issues of mainly local concern and eventually the Minister and the party spokespersons are despatched into committee to consider technical amendments that never fire the political imagination.
On the face of it, this is one such Bill. It consolidates and modernises all the arcane 19th century legislation on water and sewage; transposes to national law a battery of EU directives and regulations; introduces a licensing system for water services and puts the national rural water monitoring committee on a statutory basis. Until the Bill is examined more closely, this seems to be all good, solid law making, but boring politics. When one peels back the misleading rhetoric of the Minister’s speech and reads the text of the Bill that bears little relationship to what the Minister said about it in the course of his speech, one finds a Bill that may have significant implications for every household but the implications of which may not be felt for a number of years to come. At that stage, press and politicians alike will wonder where the extraordinary powers came from and how this happened, only to find that it all emanated from a dull-looking Bill called the Water Services Bill 2003.
This seemingly boring, technical Bill will permit water services in Ireland to be privatised without any further authority from Dáil Éireann and will allow water service providers to charge for water. Although the Minister protests that water charges are not being introduced, this Bill provides a way around the 1997 Act that abolished domestic water charges. The Bill introduces metering of water and of sewage. It authorises water service providers to tell a householder how much water he or she may use and if necessary to ration the water. It allows future EU water legislation to be implemented without further primary legislation being brought before the Oireachtas. The Bill empowers county managers to make and amend strategic water service plans without any public consultation and without having to obtain the approval of the elected councillors. It permits water service providers to dig up public roads without having to obtain a road opening licence. They will simply need the consent of the roads authority, I presume, with just a telephone call. The Bill makes individual householders legally liable for the quality of water coming through their domestic taps, while at the same time it indemnifies the Minister, the city and county councils and the water service providers for any fault on their part.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Bill is what is omitted from it. One would expect that the first water services Bill of the 21st century, in a State that, according to economists, intends to be the most prosperous in Europe, would have something to say about the citizen’s right to water. Water is essential for life. This Bill acknowledges and legislates for European directives that emphasise water quality and hygiene, but nowhere does it state that the people have a right, subject to compliance with planning law, to a connection to a public water supply or to access clean water. This legislation should define access to water as a right and the consequential obligations should be placed on the relevant public authorities.
If anything, this Bill faces in the opposite direction. Sections 6 to 14, hammer out what a person may not do in respect of the provision of a water supply. These sections set down heavy penalties for non-compliance. I appreciate the intention of these sections is to confine the provision of water services to the public water authorities or to authorised or licensed water service providers and that such a regulated framework is in the public interest. However, it is at least very odd drafting to begin a Bill with what is being banned, before setting out what is being provided. In the absence of a clear statement of a statutory right to water, the effect is to turn water into a commodity and to give water service providers a role that is at least potentially commercial.
The provisions that make the Minister, the water authorities and other water services providers, immune from legal action reinforces the omission of a statutory right to water. Section 29 states that nobody can take a legal action against the Minister, a water services authority or other prescribed person, arising from any failure to provide water or failure to fulfil their functions under this Bill. Similar immunity is being granted to their officers and employees. A water services authority can cut off a water supply to a household or to a business and under section 56(12):
If this Bill is passed, the individual person or householder will have no statutory right to water. The supply of water will be legally confined to the public water authorities and to those licensed or authorised under this Bill and those bodies cannot be made accountable through the courts for any failure or omission. They can deny us water, they can even poison us with the water they supply and we cannot seek remedy in a court of law.
We will not be able to do much about it through the democratic system either. The provision of water at local level will be governed by the water services strategic plan. This will be analogous to the county development plan or the waste management plan. Section 36(3) states:
In other words, the water services strategic plan will be decided by the city or county manager, and under section 37, it will be approved or amended by the Minister. There is no provision for any public consultation about the plan. The elected council will have no function at all in respect of the plan. Lest there be any doubt, section 36(5)(b) prohibits the council from exercising its powers under the Local Government Act to give any direction to the manager about the plan.
This Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has habitually transferred local powers to city and county managers. The unique feature of this Bill is that there is not even a pretence of public involvement or democratic accountability. Strategic planning for the provision of the most basic necessity of life, water, will be done in secret by appointed officials who will not have to tell the public what they are doing; will not have to subject their plans to a vote of the people’s representatives and will be immune from action in the courts for the consequences of their actions.
According to section 38, it is only when it has been made by the manager and approved by the Minister that the plan must be published. Under section 38(3), the only right being granted to the public is to get a copy of the plan after it has been made and then only on payment of a fee by the member of the public. Even then, the person can be made wait for 21 days before the council forwards it to him or her.
Apart from the lack of democracy and even courtesy to the public that this process demonstrates, it is wide open to abuse. The strategic planning of water mains and sewerage services and the lands through which they pass or service, are critical factors in the development of land and in the consequential speculation and value of land. I ask the House to imagine what a George Redmond might do if he had the power given in this Bill to make strategic water services plans and decide where and when water and sewerage pipes were to pass through whose lands and where.
The powers of the Minister and manager are not confined to making strategic plans. In this Bill they are also being given the effective power to privatise water services without further reference to this House. The Minister protests it is not the intention of the Bill to privatise water services and that it is mischievous to say otherwise. All I can do is rely on the text of the Bill. Section 27 states:
It is quite clear from that that the Minister has the power to prescribe any other person to do anything the Minister or a water services authority has the power to do under this legislation. That enables the Minister to prescribe that a particular water service be delivered by, for example, a private company.
Sections 6, 7, 24 and 25 all refer to the Minister, water services authority and what is called “any other person prescribed” as having duties and responsibilities under this Bill. The question that must be asked is, what is meant by this “any other person” referred to in this legislation? The term is not defined in the legislation. I am sure the Minister would have us believe that what is intended is the group water schemes, that is, that this is what “any other person” refers to. However, section 16, which deals with the allocation of grants, draws a distinction between the “any other person” frequently referred to in the legislation and the providers of water under group water schemes.
The right to privatise water services under this legislation will not be confined to the Minister. Under section 31, a water services authority or a local authority can privatise its own water supply, a reservoir, a water treatment plant or an individual sewage treatment plant. I draw the Minister’s attention to section 31(5) which states: “Without prejudice to the State Authorities (Public Private Partnership Arrangements) Act 2002, for the purposes of fulfilling all or any of its functions under subsection (2), a water services authority may make arrangements with another person, including entering into an agreement or arrangement with another person in relation to the provision of water services by another person or jointly with it in part or all of its functional area.” As I read it, that is not, as the Minister purported to tell this House, simply the public private partnership arrangement. This subsection makes it clear that, while it may be public private partnership, it may be much wider than that as well.
It is nothing new. We already know, for example, that many local authorities have privatised their waste collection services. The process of privatisation in the area of water services has already begun. International water companies have already become involved in the upgrading of group water schemes. I understand there have been cases where group water schemes have been grouped together with some smaller public schemes. I have no objection to that. The design-build-operation formula is already being used effectively to privatise parts of the water services provision. It is meaningless for the Minister to try to assure the House that there is no issue of privatisation of the water services supply in this country when the process has already started and when this Bill clearly sets down a blueprint for it.
Section 34 clearly anticipates that privatisation will occur. It provides for the Minister to issue guidelines and codes of practice to water service authorities and to what is called “the provision of water services by any other person”. If water is to become a commodity and privatisation of water supply is to become a reality, then the issue, inevitably, arises about charging for water. Again, the Minister protests that water charges are not being introduced and that the 1997 Act, which abolished them, is not being repealed. That is true up to a point but this Bill clearly anticipates and provides for a charging regime. It is not surprising that it should do so.
The Bill deals with the implementation of, or the giving effect to, European Union directives. We know the European Union water framework Ddrective requires cost recovering in regard to water supplies and that certain exemptions were made in making that framework for this country in that provided the Government could show there was cost recovery by some other means, it would not necessarily insist on the re-introduction of domestic water charges. We also know that is subject to review in approximately 2008 or 2010.
It is interesting that that provision of the water framework directive should be singled out for special mention in the legislation. After all, if the water famework directive is being given effect anyway in the Bill, why list this provision and highlight it as a matter the Minister must take into account in carrying out his or her function? It is to underline the fact that this Bill provides for a charging regime.
An interesting and significant feature of this Bill — it is an unusual feature and one which I do not think has precedent in any other legislation I have seen — is section 28(2) which, as I read it, effectively means that this Bill is putting into Irish law future European Union directives in regard to water services before they are even made. Section 28(2) states:
It is the first time I have come across primary legislation giving effect to international obligations, or to legislation drawn up by the European Union, before they have been made. That is happening in anticipation of a change in the water framework directive which may make it mandatory for this country to re-introduce domestic water charges.
Section 30(4)(d) states the Minister may specify standards, issue guidelines and codes of practice and give directions on matters relating to the provision of water services, including pricing mechanisms. Section 36(8) requires a water services strategic plan to include a provision dealing with income and expenditure. Where is the income to come from in the water services strategic plans of local authorities if there is not some form of charging? Section 52 gives to a council, water authority or any other person acting jointly with it or on its behalf, the power to recover sums due to it in respect of the provision of water services. Why would councils or other persons providing water services need to have the power to recover sums due to it if there were not to be some kind of charging regime?
Part 5 deals with metering. Section 72, which specifically permits the provision of water meters, sets out that subject to any direction of the Minister under this Act, a water service authority may supply water by measure and meter for it and so on. Section 72(1)(b) states that a water service authority may, subject to complying with the provisions of other enactments in relation to charging for water services, charge a rent or otherwise recover from a user the costs incurred by it in respect of every meter or other instrument provided for measuring the water supply to or the waste water discharged by that user. That is the way the Minister has found around the 1997 Act. He is leaving the 1997 Act in place. He said he is not re-introducing domestic water charges but he is obliging the householder to have a meter and he can charge the householder a rent for the meter.
Section 72(5) outlines regulations governing the operation of meters. Section 72(5)(h) is interesting in that it refers to the Minister’s power to make regulations relating to the rental of meters and related charges. Meters will also be used for sewage purposes which will give a whole new meaning in the domestic household to the concept of spending a penny. The implications of this Bill for householders is very clear. There will be a charge for water and sewage. Those charges may yet have to be paid to private companies if the provision of those services is privatised as this Bill enables the Minister and the water service authorities to do.
Section 54 outlines general duties on owners of premises. From a water conservation point of view I can understand why they are being introduced. It allows the water services authority to give a direction to a householder regarding how much water he or she is using and to ration water. Householders would be well advised to become acquainted with this provision because it puts a legal obligation on them regarding the quality of water in the home.
As Deputy Allen stated, the Bill is most comprehensive. The Minister outlined how it provides a new regulatory framework for the delivery of water services. It places a serious obligation on the Minister and the Department. The new licensing regime and administrative responsibilities will also place new obligations on local authorities. A significant investment programme of €4.4 billion has been allocated for the introduction of the changes. However, I question whether the Minister and the Department will be in a position to implement the legislation. The Government has proposed to decentralise the Department to Enniscorthy, New Ross, Waterford and Wexford.
Mr. Gilmore: According to the figures published for the number of people interested in decentralisation, only 38 staff of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have volunteered to be decentralised to Enniscorthy, New Ross, Waterford or Wexford. On the assumption that those 38 people are fairly evenly distributed throughout the Department, if the decentralisation programme proceeds, we will find that the staff and expertise which has built up in this rather complex area will have to opt for transfer to Departments remaining in Dublin and the Minister will have to start afresh with new people who may have considerable experience in Army barracks, school buildings and the fitting out of hospitals but will not have assembled a great deal of experience on water treatment plants. I submit that the same applies to other divisions of the Department. I wonder — as I am sure the Minister does — how this ambitious programme based on the new regulatory framework and costing €4.4 billion will be achieved within the time limits required by our European Union obligations, given that the staff dealing with the matter would be entirely inexperienced in the area.
I accept there is a need to modernise and update water services legislation, introduce new procedures and implement European Union directives. However, I very much regret the inadequate legislation before us. For all the guff about consumer rights, no statutory right of access to water is being given to the public. The legislation is a thinly disguised attempt to privatise the water supply. Going hand in hand with that is a formula to get around the 1997 Act and re-introduce water charges by another name, be that a rent for the meter or a straight-up charge. It is our duty as an Opposition to oppose this legislation and, accordingly, the Labour Party will oppose the Second Stage reading of the Bill.
Mr. Morgan: I have extreme reservations about this legislation. While I accept that a consolidation of the various legislative measures relating to water services dating back to the 19th century is long overdue, I question whether it was necessary to produce a legislative tome of this nature. I refer to its content rather than its size. I wish to focus on a particular concern relating to the introduction of legislation that is designed to pave the way for water charges and the privatisation of water services. The former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, stated in the Seanad that it was not the Government’s intention to bring in water charges.
Mr. Morgan: I do not believe a word of it. It also causes me considerable concern that this Bill has emanated from a Department under his guidance and probably explains why it is so extremely right-wing in terms of its proposals. The Water Services Bill should not have been intended to facilitate the privatisation of water services. However, given the Government’s record on promises and in particular the previous incumbent’s attitude to the Opposition, we can be forgiven for being sceptical particularly given that the Bill contains measures specifically related to the provision of meters.
Part 5 has rightly raised eyebrows and a number of questions, as indicated by previous speakers as regards powers of access for installation, reading and maintenance of meters. Why are meters necessary if it is not the intention to bring forward water charges? I accept that meters have been used in strategic locations by local authorities for many years in terms of attempting to measure the volume of water going through systems. However, increasingly meters are being affixed to all new housing schemes. Why is this happening? Are people to be asked just to reduce the consumption of water? Are they going to be asked to use the toilet less, take fewer showers etc.? Why is there a meter on every home? It certainly raises suspicions on this side of the House as do a number of proposals contained in this Bill.
Section 29, for example, gives complete legal immunity to the Minister, the local authority or the water authority in terms of access or even damage to property in the course of such inspections. Why is such a broad provision included in this Bill? Why is it necessary? On the issue of local democracy in section 36(3) the Minister is taking away the power of members of a local authority to make a plan in respect of water and waste water. That is now to be the complete reserve of county and city managers. We know why this is, because the last two Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey and Deputy Cullen, both rowed back significantly in terms of the powers of members of local authorities. They loaded those powers onto the executive, the county and city managers. I wonder if the current incumbent will attempt to reverse the trend that has been emerging under those two previous Ministers.
Why should people seek election to a local authority? Increasingly members are being left with no authority. They cannot even sweep the streets, given the current trend. Section 56 prohibits an appeal to the District Court in certain circumstances. Is that not draconian?
My party is completely opposed to the introduction of water charges. We view it as a regressive stealth tax. Given that we oppose direct charges for domestic rates, we cannot support proposals for metering of domestic water supplies. We are firmly of the view that everyone has the right to an adequate supply of safe, clean water as a basic entitlement. Ability to access safe clean water cannot be based on a person’s ability to pay for it. The provision of water services is a key responsibility of the State and we are fundamentally opposed to the privatisation of water services. We would point to the disastrous record of privatisation of water services in other states.
Many people believe that water will probably become the “new oil” at a point in the future when the good clean water supply will dictate the wealth of an economy or country. Is this legislation a case of the Government getting its boot in early? I ask the new Minister — he did not do so at the outset in his speech — to reaffirm the position outlined by Deputy Cullen, that water charges will not be introduced and that services will not be privatised. The best way the Minister can assure us that this is his belief would be to amend the parts of this Bill that indicate footsteps leading to privatisation and the charging for water services.
We would also be particularly concerned that water charges may be introduced as a prelude to the making the water services attractive to privatisation, in the same way that waste charges have resulted in the privatisation of waste services in many parts of the State.
One of the biggest concerns, apart from pollution of drinking water, is the problem of leakage which is responsible for the loss of between 30% and 45% of all water, particularly in urban areas. Obviously the situation is improving somewhat. Only two and half years ago there was a report from the Department indicating that between 47% and 53% was being lost. It is absolutely vital that a comprehensive leakage control strategy is put in place to address this. Vast quantities of water are being treated and simply allowed to leak into the ground because of faulty piping. Treating water for public consumption is expensive and losing treated water through leakage is a waste of a valuable resource. Although it is obviously not practical to eliminate leakage completely, we should aim for the lowest possible level. Addressing leakage is an area of savings that has not been fully explored, particularly as a mechanism for releasing extra resources for capital expenditure.
I note section 36 provides for the making of the plan by the executive. I wonder if the new Minister, given that this is not his Bill, will give that little power back to local authority members and reinstate it as a reserve function.
Water quality in this State remains a problem. As I said, I welcome the provision in Part 6 providing for the introduction of a system of licensing for group water schemes. This is particularly important in the light of the fact the EPA reported in February of this year that the overall quality of drinking water supplied by group water schemes remained unsatisfactory. Worryingly, that report also found that some public water supplies consistently breach standards such as aluminium and nitrates.
Before I leave the subject of group water schemes, I commend those members of the community who for many years have been strong in terms of delivering on such schemes and providing an excellent service. Unfortunately my time is up, but I look forward to Committee Stage.
Mr. J. Higgins: The Water Services Bill, under cover of modernising the legislation, provides a framework for the privatisation of the water supply in this State and for the introduction of the hated water charges which a magnificent movement of ordinary people power forced out in 1996. A water tax may not be introduced before the next general election. The Government remembers what happened in the mid 1990s and the reaction of decent taxpayers in Dublin to the hated bin tax, for example. It may not want to risk introducing them before the general election, but the Minister should be honest. The Government wants a water tax. Senior people in various Departments want water tax, not as a conservation but as a revenue raising measure. Public private partnership, as provided for in this Bill, is a preparation for privatisation. Outsourcing is invariably a preparation for privatisation of public services. Witness Aer Lingus. The Comptroller and Auditor General in his recent report exploded the myth that public private partnerships gave value to the taxpayer. In the case of the six schools which he examined he found a stunning 13% to 9% greater cost than if they had been supplied in full public ownership.
The supply of water is a crucial service. It is a life and death matter in many countries where billions of people do not have access to clean drinking water but it is wrong of elements of the media to hint, as did even the Minister, that this is a free supply. Householders, working people and taxpayers have paid for the infrastructure that provides clean water to our homes and other premises. That is the point and that is why it is available.
Mr. J. Higgins: Yes, but as I will show in the limited time available, the suggestion is that water is free and, therefore, having it supplied to our homes without a specific tax or charge on it means we will wantonly waste it. That is always the subtext for saying we must have direct water charges. I reject that.
The explanatory memorandum states the Bill deals with management of water in the pipe from abstraction to discharge as treated waste water. I am bitterly disappointed with the lack of any originality in the Bill in respect of the significant measures that could be taken with regard to conservation and avoiding the waste of huge amounts of pure drinking water. Section 53 states a person who wilfully wastes or permits wastage of any water supplied by a water services authority is guilty of an offence, but the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Government and local authorities throughout the country are guilty of standing over the wastage of huge amounts of pristine drinking water.
For example, they could prescribe building regulations, and I want the Minister to reply to this at the end of the debate, that would ensure design of water systems in homes and other premises which could save massive amounts of drinking water on an annual basis. It is incredible that a single flush of a toilet to remove a fraction of a litre of waste liquid water wastes gallons of pure drinking water because of the huge capacity of toilet systems. Other countries have a dual flush system to remove liquids and greater amounts to reduce solids. In my estimation a simple measure such as the modification of toilet systems alone, and in Dublin alone, would conservatively save at least 500 million gallons, or 1.5 billion litres, of pristine drinking water each year. I preached that seven or eight years ago when I was elected to the Dáil, and before that in the local authorities. It is a massive dereliction of duty that nothing has been done. I am so frustrated I put an object about a litre size in my own toilet system as a personal saving measure but personal gestures are not what is needed. Similarly, in regard to the design of buildings, rain tanks in every home would save hundreds of millions of gallons of water that is wasted in gardens, washing cars and so on.
Dr. Cowley: As someone who has lived in rural Ireland for many years, I have first-hand experience of the wonderful people involved in rural communities. The greatest example of that is the group water scheme system, of which I have personal experience. I saw the wonderful effort made by so many people not only to set up those schemes but run them around the clock, no more than a rural general practitioner who is out at all hours of the day and night. That work was done by people whose cousins lived in the towns and had everything provided for them. I want to record my admiration of the wonderful and continuing effort by those people in rural areas.
I became aware of a case involving two elderly ladies who were trustees of a particular scheme. They were being pilloried by the media, the Government and the local authority because there was contamination of the water in Ballycroy. Those ladies were put under terrible pressure but it was obvious that the money had not been made available by successive Governments to allow the necessary investment to bring those schemes up to the proper standard. The same investment available for local authorities was not made available to communities and that tells the story very well. What happened in that case was very unfair.
I was involved in the setting up of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes. I was chairman of the federation until I was elected to this House. I was involved in negotiations on the rural water programme when I first suggested the idea of a quality control standard. I welcome that and the progress made on a charter of rights for group water schemes and so on. As a result of the threat of a large European Union fine, money was made available but that investment needs to continue. It would be a terrible injustice if the money was not put invested.
I am concerned about the various penalties now being introduced. Many people involved in group water schemes were expecting this legislation, which is necessary to a point, but the concern is that it will be used as a stick to beat those very people who have made Trojan efforts. Those people need to be kept on board because if they are beaten down, so to speak, they will simply give up and this major voluntary effort will not be replaced by Government. Somebody else will then take over this work at a major cost to the State.
I have also met many older people in particular throughout the country who have put their hearts and souls into these schemes, as well as those who were involved in the setting up of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, people like Sean Clerkin, the current national co-ordinator, Brendan O’Mahoney, the current chairman, and so on.
I welcome the fact that the national rural water monitoring committee is getting statutory recognition under the Bill. I ask the Minister to ensure in particular that the county monitoring committees are equally strengthened because they are key to ensuring fair play and that a democratic deficit does not arise. I suggested that scheme should be extended to the planning system, in which there is a major democratic deficit.
A major infrastructure deficit exists also. We agree it has to be quality focused and the most money should be put into ensuring quality but there is a major problem with the lack of infrastructure. These communities have been deprived over the years. The systems are run down and with the exacting EU standards they are expected to perform. The penalties involved are severe but it would be a travesty if those people were penalised in any way.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment but I ask him to consult widely with the group water scheme activists, ensure there is fair play, that those involved in the group water schemes are not bullied or coerced and that the licensing system is fair. If the Minister allows any injustice to creep in, he will kill the goose that lays the golden egg, and the State will be the loser. The Minister should strengthen the county monitoring committees and ensure the system works in a democratic fashion.
Mr. Cuffe: I welcome the Bill. I am mindful of the great line from the late W.C. Fields about not drinking tap water on the basis that fish fuss in it. It is worth noting that the Bill contains many excellent recommendations for improving the management of our water supply systems.
I wish to pay tribute to those entrusted with the management of group water schemes throughout the country who have done Trojan work over the years and whose role, in a sense, is elevated by the demands of this legislation, not to supersede the work they are doing but to recognise that and put a good regulatory system in place, which is necessary.
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