Wednesday, 6 October 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Healy: I dealt with a number of matters earlier when speaking on this Bill and I wish to deal with a range of other matters now arising from some of the comments I made earlier on the possibility of the re-introduction of domestic water charges and waste water charges. I also wish to raise a concern raised in the Seanad, that is, privatisation, whether this Bill makes it easier for it to take place and whether it is the ultimate goal of the legislation. I hope it is not but I have a concern about the manner in which the water services authorities are set up. They seem to be set up in way which would allow for the water services authority to be cut off from local authorities in the future and possibly set up in a private manner. I have a concern about that because there has already been a move to take these sanitary functions from authorities, such as Clonmel Corporation, borough councils and urban councils, and to give them over to the county councils. Now there is a further move in the direction of this water services authority. I know this matter was raised in the Seanad but I am not sure whether privatisation of water and waste water services is the ultimate goal of this legislation. I raise a note of caution in that regard.
A number of other issues come to mind in this area. Over the past number of months there have been periods of bad weather with much rain. In my constituency and, indeed, throughout the country, there has been considerable discoloration of water and long cut offs of water. Many of the intakes are surface based and in heavy downpours they tend to take in all sorts of matter — stones, gravel, peat and other natural materials, which has the effect of giving a strong, dark brown coloration to the water. In many instances, as happened in recent times, the water has had to be cut off completely because it is not possible to treat it to make it safe. I hope in future we will be able to ensure surface sources will be replaced and all sources will be underground. A great deal of cuts in supply has been due to this problem.
Another recurrent problem, with which I am sure Members are familiar, is the lack of available water supply to service new developments. In many cases planning permission has been given for developments and they have been built and tenanted before it is discovered that insufficient water is available to supply them. I hope in future infrastructure will be provided either prior to or contemporaneously with the construction of such developments and that the Bill will co-ordinate the building of developments in tandem with infrastructural requirements, particularly water.
It takes an inordinate length of time for water schemes to be approved. The projects must go through a lengthy design and approval process in the Department before work commences. I am aware of one scheme which took ten years to be approved. Multi-annual funding and the co-ordination of schemes is required. A period of no more than three years should be specified from a scheme’s conception to the commencement of work.
Such delays for new schemes give rise to a situation where existing infrastructure regularly breaks down. Not a week goes by without calls from constituents complaining of water being cut off due to burst mains. This arises because schemes which have been sent to the Department for approval are gathering dust in the Department and causing delays in the commencement of work. Cracks in pipes become endemic and put pressure on other sections of piping which leads to further breaks. This is a commonplace occurrence and is happening on an ongoing basis in the Ballingarry-Commons-Killenaule area of south Tipperary. A further problem with existing piping is that much of it is old style and has an asbestos content. Provision must be made for the replacement of such piping.
I call upon the Minister to use his good offices to ensure local authorities dealing with water have an on-call maintenance arrangement in place. I am not aware of any local authority which has a measure in place for the repair of leaks or breaks out of hours and at weekends. It is usually a case of catch me if you can. It is great if the local plumber is available but if he is playing a match with the local football or hurling club or is elsewhere then the complaint will take forever to be dealt with.
A plan must be put in place for the provision of village sewerage schemes. It is vital that this is done as it gives rise to pollution of water courses and domestic water sources. The lack of such infrastructure is holding up the development of many villages and is delaying the provision of local authority housing in addition to private housing schemes. I hope a proper planned scheme is put in place to ensure villages are serviced by sewerage schemes in the not too distant future. I believe a start has been made in this regard but more work and resources must be put into this area to ensure villages have the necessary sewerage infrastructure.
Reference is made in the Bill to the duty of care of householders regarding water conservation. That is a welcome provision as the wastage of water should be prevented. However, I hope this duty of care will not translate into fines for wastage of water, particularly for non-deliberate wastage. Many local authorities refuse to give reductions even on compassionate grounds in cases where leaks have arisen on private property for those who pay commercial water charges. The vast majority of people ensure they conserve water and that leaks which arise are promptly dealt with. However, on occasion, leaks do not come to notice until a meter is read and in my experience local authorities insist on the full bill being paid in the interests of water conservation.
They will offer no reduction on any grounds, compassionate or otherwise. I hope this matter and the way local authorities deal with it will be changed and that the Minister will talk to them in this regard. I also hope fines will not be introduced in circumstances where there is no deliberate wastage of water.
I welcome the Bill. It is unfortunate, however, that a Bill which has taken 120 years to materialise does not deal with some of the other related matters such as water pollution and river basin management.
Mr. Murphy: I am pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, is present. I also congratulate him and wish him well. I am sure he will put the many years he has spent on Cork County Council to good avail in his new position. Equally, he may understand better than other Ministers for the environment some of the issues I raise in the House.
In general, we welcome this legislation. It updates and clarifies many procedures, but, unfortunately, like much of the legislation introduced by this Government it does not spell out what resources will be made available. The Government has a history in this regard. It seems to believe that a raft of legislation will solve every problem. There are many examples of this. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has introduced Bill after Bill to curb public order offences. Yet the problem of disorder on our streets continues to deteriorate. It seems the Government will not learn. Instead of introducing this volume of legislation all Ministers needed to do was honour the Government’s commitment in the general election to put 2,000 extra gardaí on the streets. That would have done far more towards solving the problem than a continuous stream of legislative measures.
Again, more recently, the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, introduced the penalty points system. This worked well for a few months until drivers realised that there were no resources to successfully implement the system. There were no extra gardaí or traffic cops and with the few resources available the Garda could only hit soft targets on national roads where the least number of accidents occur. This annoyed members of the public who soon lost confidence in the system. The problem with the Government is that it introduces plentiful legislation but fails to provide the necessary resources.
We now have the water services Bill, which has been published solely in response to EU pressure. Everybody is wrong except the Government. The county and city councils are blamed for bad waste management, too many septic tanks and for the failure to manage water supplies properly because of massive wastage. There is no mention that until recently, the Government had no effective waste management strategy and had failed to provide adequate funding for its implementation. The recycling facilities are in poor condition, there are few bring sites, even fewer civic amenity sites and little or no recycling plants or proper transfer stations. Yet, the Government professes to be shocked that ground water is being polluted while the councils are doing nothing about it.
Sewerage treatment plants are totally inadequate in most of the medium and large towns and raw sewage is flowing into the streams and rivers. The local councils would have solved these problems a long time ago if the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government had provided the funds. Even when the Department recognises the urgency of installing effective treatment systems, it takes years to overcome the delaying tactics that sometimes appear to be nothing other than a device by the Government to save money. The council must get the Department’s permission for up to seven or eight different steps before even the smallest of schemes may get off the ground.
The Department, An Taisce and other environmental groups tell us we must build up the towns and villages. Many of them do not have the infrastructure to cope with the demands for new development. Again, the Government professes to be shocked at how careless councils can be and how the ground water is still being contaminated. I am aware of one excellent source of water in my area, yet the council cannot account for 47% of the water that flows from it. Pipes that should have been replaced years ago are still leaking because the council has not been given the resources to replace them.
The cracks in our infrastructure in this area are beginning to show. Ireland is now a rich nation. Everyone in Europe accepts that we are doing well economically, but this is where the problem arises. We can no longer look for derogation after derogation to avoid implementing EU directives, yet after seven years of unprecedented wealth creation, the so-called Celtic tiger, the infrastructure is in many instances closer to that of a Third World country. We need to give the existing councils the resources to deal with waste management and sewage effluent as well as the finance to lay new pipes to contain the massive wastage of water.
While the Bill updates old and inadequate legislation, this in itself will not improve the situation. Section 32 refers to detailed performance standards to be prescribed in due course by the local authorities. How may an adequate performance standard be quantified? Water pressure can be a particular problem in rural areas or at the end of a line. How may local authorities guarantee an adequate standard of water pressure? Setting such standards will be costly for the councils if they are to achieve and live up to the targets that are set.
Section 44 will enable the water services authority on request to repair privately owned services and service connections that pass under private land not belonging to the owner of the premises being serviced. The provisions outlined are not strong enough. Water is a valuable commodity and the authority will not have any resources to get involved in legal wrangles or lose time while it is being wasted on a constant basis. The Minister should ensure that the authority has automatic right to access land where it knows there is a leakage or some other problem affecting water supplies. Changes such as this could save money and time for local authorities and there would be no cost to the Department.
Despite the Bill’s good aspirations, in the end everything comes down to resources. The Government constantly says there are to be no domestic water charges. Long ago the Government gave the management in local authorities power to impose waste management charges. Many households saw their refuse collection charges increase by 300%. More recently they were again doubled by introduction of the pay-by-weight system.
Water is such a valuable resource that a tracking system is necessary. To do this properly metering is necessary. It is no wonder, considering the Government’s track record on stealth taxes, that people are nervous. It comes down to the resources available to local authorities, but past experience has shown that the Government is determined to force local authorities to tax locally to fund their requirements and obligations. Those requirements and obligations are placed on them by central Government without any source of funding or resources.
It is not long since the Government refused to compensate county councils for the huge cost of benchmarking or the national wage agreements entered into by the Government without concern as to how local government was to fund them. Cutbacks or extra stealth taxes were the only way the council could deal with that issue.
Let us consider recent experiences. There have been massive increases in waste collection charges. New regulations from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government pushed up costs without compensation. Funding for recycling facilities is inadequate and without adequate recycling facilities the customers — families and other users — have no choice but to pay these exorbitant taxes.
Recently the Government and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government forced local authorities to impose massive new development charges on new houses, costing from €5,000 to €20,000 in some areas for each new house built. That represents more stealth taxes to fund the Government’s failure to properly fund local government. To add insult to injury, they had already increased VAT, which pushed up the price of housing and abolished the first-time buyer’s grant. We now know that the Government, while claiming to be a low tax administration, has no difficulty in introducing a huge range of stealth taxes that have no relationship to the ability of an individual, a family or a small business to pay them.
That brings me to the myth that this Administration is business friendly. The failure to properly fund local authorities has had a huge negative effect on small business. IBEC and the chambers of commerce have constantly echoed this problem. IBEC clearly stated that a review of local authority funding arrangements is urgently needed as well as a system that ensures business pays only its fair share. Other services such as water charges must reflect the cost of providing the service and cannot be just another stealth tax imposed on smaller businesses.
Because of the Government’s constant refusal to properly fund local authorities, small businesses in particular are paying excessive water and refuse collection charges, in addition to rates, which are far in excess of the cost of providing these services. The Government, in an effort to protect itself as a low tax Administration, forces local authorities to impose stealth taxes on the shopkeeper and the small business.
IBEC claims that, on average, rates have risen by 30% since 2000 despite the fact that waste disposal, infrastructure development, water supply and treatment, once covered by rates, have been removed and have become a significant user charge in their own right. Companies are paying more and getting less for their rates every year. IBEC rightly claims that these stealth taxes will damage the business sector as they are unsustainable, inequitable, punitive and lack transparency and value for money.
Like many other objectives of the Government, aspirational legislation will not solve the problems we face. This type of legislation lays out the path to achieving the objective but without the resources, it is toothless. Local authorities are to be the water authorities but they cannot carry out the Minister’s wish list without resources. Without the resources, this Bill is just another showpiece which will have no real effect on either the supply or the quality of water.
Ms Lynch: We all recognise and appreciate that the supply of clean water is essential for life but it appears it is now essential also in the world of commerce. We get so much from it. If this legislation, which is long overdue, was just about the supply of clean water or how that supply is managed it would be welcome but I have been listening to the debate since it began yesterday and I would like people to take note that on Tuesday, 5 October, Deputy Gilmore spoke on the Bill on behalf of the Labour Party. Anyone who knows anything about local government and the environment will be aware that Deputy Gilmore is considered, in political circles, to be one of the most informed people on that issue. When he speaks about legislation I usually take note. Yesterday, he said that, in the main, this is fairly boring legislation of which people would not take much notice. I listened to speaker after speaker talk about rural water supply and not being connected to a mains supply.
Four minutes from where I live there is what could be considered a substantial village of approximately 30 houses on the only main street, which are still not connected to a mains water supply. They are all using wells and septic tanks. Those people are anxious to be part of the system on which the rest of us, in the main, rely. It was not the local authority but lack of funding which ensured that those houses still have not been connected. That is something we should seriously examine because the type of septic tanks being used now are dangerous in terms of the ground water supply. The older type septic tanks were better, as a friend of mine highlighted when he took me on a detailed tour about a year ago. One need never go back to them and they should not interfere with ground water provided they are installed in the proper manner. That is the type my friend has, and he is very proud of it. The type of septic tanks being installed now, however, are inclined to overflow, rain water gets into them and various problems arise with them.
Most of us would consider speaking on this legislation to be a duty rather than something one would enjoy coming into this House to debate. I believe I speak for everyone on that. It is something that has to be done and the Opposition has to keep its end of the bargain, but having listened to Deputy Gilmore’s contribution I discovered it is far more than boring legislation.
I would like to give the House some history in respect of water charges in Cork city. When they were first introduced there was huge opposition. There continues to be huge opposition to charging for water but I remember the campaign that was run, in which I was involved. I recall contractors being employed by the local authority to dig up what is commonly known as the stopcock outside people’s houses and break their supply of water. The people in the houses would employ a plumber to reconnect the supply and the following week the council contractors would return to go through the same process and finally pour cement into the stopcock to ensure that people could not access it. That was not pleasant and it did not go as smoothly as I suggest, as the Minister probably knows. Some people never quite recovered from the experience. It was not as if no one in the houses relied on water. These were families with young children, and members who were elderly or sick. Cutting off the water supply does not only prevent people from making a cup of tea. In the main, they no longer have a heating system and they cannot cook or wash. We all would rather not undergo that experience.
One can compare the proposals in the Bill with the developments in regard to refuse charges. This topic is close to my heart because last Wednesday my phone started to ring as Cork City Council sent out letters about refuse charges for 2004, almost at the end of the year. Until last year Cork City Council had a very generous waiver system whereby people on social welfare — there are few enough of them as the Minister for Social and Community Affairs can tell us — did not have to pay refuse charges. Most of those receiving social welfare are sick, elderly, or lone parents, none of whom produce much waste, unlike a family of ten. Last year, if there was someone in a household receiving social welfare a quarter of the second income in the household was taken into account in setting service charges. This year because the manager can now proceed independently the method for assessing income has been changed. Has anyone been told this? The entire second income is being taken into account which pushes everyone over the threshold.
One 85 year old woman received a letter in response to her waiver form telling her that she would not get a sticker this year, her bin would not be collected and she owed Cork City Council €355. In panic she paid. Had she argued she would have won the day but she panicked. An elderly couple, both receiving the old age pension, with an adult son who suffers from extreme depression, is now over the limit and must pay €355. That is not much money to the Minister or me but to someone on a very limited income, €7 per week must come from a budget and cannot be afforded.
Considering all that I have said about the transfer of power from councils to managers, which seems to be the Government’s intention in virtually every sphere, the Bill, when passed, will permit water services to be privatised without any further authority from Dáil Éireann. It will also allow water service providers — I am assuming at some stage the Minister will insert the phrase “whomever that may be”— to charge for water. This worries me. Why should not the local authority do it?
Although the Minister protests that water charges are not being introduced, the Bill provides a way around the 1997 Act. It will allow for the introduction of the metering of water and sewage disposal. Many Deputies say water is a valuable resource, which it is, and we must know where it is going and whether it reaches its destination but in some instances it does not. That is not due to leaks but because of roads being washed away and uncontrolled leaks. Most local authorities can give a very good daily estimate of how much water they lose through leaks. That is what they do. I do not understand, therefore, why it must be metered except for commercial users. However, why would domestic water users be metered unless one wanted people to pay for it?
Some years ago I watched an ITV documentary about the introduction of metering in the home by the British Government under Mrs. Thatcher. It showed families who were not on social welfare but on very limited incomes bathing three children at a time because they could not afford to bathe them individually. They were constantly warning the children not to drink too much water. Surely we should be saying drink more water and less Coke if we are serious about the health of our children.
This Bill introduces metering of water and sewage disposal. It authorises water service providers to tell householders how much water they may use and if necessary, to ration it. It will allow further EU water legislation to be implemented without legislation being brought before this House. It is wide-ranging and powerful and the Minister should think very carefully before drawing down the wrath of people on his head again. It will empower county managers to make and amend strategic water service plans without any public consultation and without seeking the approval of the elected councillors. County managers are becoming very powerful people. Soon they will be more powerful than the Minister.
Ms Lynch: They know they are. The Bill will permit water service providers to dig up public roads without having to get a road opening licence. They will require only the consent of the National Roads Authority, a function that was always part and parcel of local government.
The Bill makes individual householders legally liable for the quality of water coming through their domestic taps while it indemnifies the Minister, the city and county council and water service providers, whomever that may be, for any fault on their part. In other words, the water service provider may poison one and one can do nothing about that because it is indemnified. A few years ago there was an incident in which one of the main water supplies on the north side of Cork, where the water was pumped uphill, under pressure, burst very early one morning. It was the luck of God that no one was killed because the water came back down the hill at such a rate it washed entire houses away. The local authority took responsibility and indemnified people for the loss of property. The Bill removes such indemnities.
Section 29 states that nobody can take a legal action against “the Minister, a water services authority or other prescribed persons” arising from any failure to provide water or to fulfil their function under the Bill. Similar immunity is being granted to their officers and employees. Section 56(12) states: “Liability shall not accrue to a water services authority arising from any consequence of the restriction or cutting off of a supply of water in accordance with subsection (11).” People need to take another look at the Bill because it is not as inoffensive as it appears. Today, people are being warned. The Bill is designed to reintroduce water charges and to introduce the metering of water in individual homes. It is intended to remove a key function of elected local government and transfer it to city and county managers. It involves far more than it purports to involve.
People need to take this legislation extremely seriously. It is another rod licence Bill and the Minister knows what were the consequences of that legislation. In my view, he needs to give serious consideration to it. I accept that he has not been in his job for a long period and, in some instances, ignorance can be a defence. However, the civil servants sitting next to him know what is in the Bill because they have given it careful consideration and scrutiny. As was stated at another time and in another place, perhaps the Minister is just not asking the right questions. His civil servants definitely know the answers. Anyone who votes in favour of the Bill or allows it to go through on the nod will live to regret their actions.
Mr. F. McGrath: Before dealing with the legislation, I wish to congratulate the Minister and wish him well in the future in his new job. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Water Services Bill 2003. This is an important Bill because it deals with a vital commodity and national asset, namely, water. We often take this commodity for granted and, sadly, the great old song, “Only Our Rivers Run Free”, is no longer true in light of massive pollution and abuse of water systems. In discussing this legislation, it is important to broaden the debate and not walk away from dealing with tough decisions regarding water and water services in general. Water is a great national resource and must be protected at all costs. Like Deputy Lynch, I have major concerns about the legislation.
The central aims of the Bill are to facilitate a more coherent expression of the law as it relates to water services by means of a single enactment which will represent a comprehensive legal framework. It will develop a modern and progressive approach in respect of the sustainable management of water services. It aims to strengthen the administrative arrangements for planning the delivery of water services at local and national level. It is also designed to introduce a new licensing system and regulatory framework for group water services schemes in order to assist in their development and address water quality problems in the sector.
The Bill also provides that what are currently sanitary authorities will become water services authorities, defined in terms of county and city councils in so far as the delivery of water services is concerned. Each water services authority will be enabled to provide water services within its functional area and, with the consent of the relevant authority, outside its functional boundaries. Such services must be in accordance with “prescribed standards”, which is the key phrase. We must guard and protect those standards.
When dealing with the Bill, we must also focus on the issue of pollution and public safety. Section 30 sets out the functions of the Minister in respect of water services. It places on the Minister the duty to facilitate safe and efficient water services and associated water services infrastructure and gives him or her responsibility for the supervision of the performance by water services authorities of their functions under the Bill. It also provides for the planning and supervision of investment in water services. It is essential to place strong emphasis on the words “safe” and “efficient”.
The sad reality is that many water schemes are under pressure as a result of pollution and of neglect by successive Governments. However, I welcome section 36 which requires each water services authority, every six years, or less, if necessary, to make a water services strategic plan for its functional area and submit it to the Minister for approval. This will deal with appropriate responses and protect human health.
Section 38 deals with the issue of making copies available, which again highlights the need for accountability, transparency and openness. Section 51 enables a water services provider to interrupt services for maintenance purposes or where there is a risk to human health and the environment. Interruptions will be subject to reasonable prior notice and services will be restored as soon as possible. I hope this section will work. However, the reality is a different story. I regularly witness major problems involving burst pipes and water mains, water being switched off without proper notice being given and schools being left without water. This has happened in my constituency on many occasions. These types of complaints must be dealt with in a professional manner.
Part 4 deals with waste water. Section 60 requires all water service providers to keep their waste water works in good order. We have seen the destruction of Lough Derg, which spans counties Tipperary and Clare, and the pollution of Dublin Bay. At present, Dublin City Council is attempting to clean it up. However, there are others who want to destroy and fill in the 52 acres of the bay. As a representative for Dublin North Central, I will fight this project to the end. I am standing by my commitment to the people of Clontarf to save the bay from further disruption. The tradition of Seán Dublin Bay Loftus in respect of this issue goes on in the 29th Dáil and it is particularly relevant to this debate. Saving and cleaning up Dublin Bay is important to the vast majority of the citizens of Dublin and the State and not merely those who live in Clontarf.
I pay tribute to the people of Drumcondra, Richmond Road, Clonturk Park, Gracepark Road and Fairview who suffered a horrific nightmare and damage to their homes following the Tolka River floods. It was a particularly difficult time for all of these people. Not only did they suffer damage to their homes but they also encountered major problems with insurance following the floods. We all worked hard together to resolve these issues and it is hoped that the Tolka River, after major works and investment, is now safer for all of the residents. Governments and city councils have a duty to protect and look after citizens who live adjacent to seas and water systems. That is why I have raised this issue.
As regards water services and the question of public health, it is also appropriate to raise the question of fluoridation. Water fluoridation is the practice of adding compounds containing fluoride to the water supply to produce a final concentration of fluoride of one part per million in an effort to prevent tooth decay. Trials first began in the US in 1945 but before any of these were complete, the practice was endorsed by the US public health service in 1950. Since then, fluoridation has been enthusiastically and universally promoted by US health officials and officials in this country as being safe and effective in fighting tooth decay. However, most countries worldwide have not succumbed to America’s enthusiasm for this practice and their people’s teeth are just as good as those of US or Irish citizens. I have major concerns about this matter and it is important to raise it in the context of this debate on water and water services.
Fluoride is not an essential nutrient. No disease has ever been linked to fluoride deficiency. Humans can have perfectly good teeth without fluoride. Fluoridation is not necessary. Most western European countries do not fluoridate their water and have experienced the same decline in dental health decay as the US. Fluoridation’s role in the decline of tooth decay is in serious doubt. The largest survey conducted in the US of more than 39,000 people from 84 different communities by the National Institute of Dental Research showed little difference in tooth decay among children in fluoridated and non-fluoridated communities. This was from a report by Hileman in 1989. According to the NIDR researchers, the study found an average difference of only 0.6 DMFS, which means decayed missing and filled surfaces, in the permanent teeth of children aged from five to 17 residing in either fluoridated or non-fluoridated areas. The difference is less than one tooth surface. A child’s mouth has 128 tooth surfaces. I raise this issue in a debate on water in the interest of health and safety.
Where fluoridation has been discontinued in communities from Canada, the former East Germany, Cuba and Finland, dental decay has not increased but has decreased. There have been numerous recent reports of dental crises in US cities, for example, Boston and New York, which have been fluoridated for more than 20 years. There appears to be a far greater relationship between tooth decay and income level than with water fluoride levels. Modern research, particularly reports from 1986 and 1998, shows that decay rates were declining before fluoridation was introduced and have continued to decline even after its benefits would have been maximised. Many other factors influence tooth decay. Some recent studies have found that tooth decay increases as the fluoride concentration in the water increases.
Despite being prescribed by doctors for more than 50 years, the US Food and Drug Administration has never approved any fluoride supplement designed for ingestion as safe or effective. Fluoride supplements are designed to deliver the same amount of fluoride as ingested daily from fluoridated water. The US fluoridation program has spectacularly failed to achieve one of its key objectives, that is, to lower dental decay rates while holding down dental fluorosis, a condition known to be caused by fluoride.
The level of fluoride put into water of one part per million is up to 200 times higher than normally found in mothers’ milk, which contains between 0.005 and 0.01 ppm. There are no benefits, only risks, for infants ingesting this heightened level of fluoride at such an early age. Fluoride is a poison. On average, only 50% of the fluoride we ingest each day is excreted through the kidneys. The remainder accumulates in our bones, glands and other tissues. If the kidney is damaged, fluoride accumulation will increase and with it the likelihood of harm. Fluoride is very biologically active, even at low concentrations. It interferes with hydrogen bonding and inhibits numerous enzymes. Fluoride forms complexes with a large number of metal ions which include metals like calcium and magnesium which are needed in the body and metals like lead and aluminium which are toxic to the body. I raise these issues in the interest of public health. Rats fed for one year with 1 ppm fluoride in their water, using either sodium fluoride or aluminium fluoride, had morphological changes to their kidneys and brains, an increased uptake of aluminium in the brain and the formation of deposits which are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. I am not scaremongering; I am just pointing out these matters. These data are based on international research.
Animal experiments show that fluoride accumulates in the brain and exposure alters mental behaviour in a manner consistent with a neurotoxic agent. Rats dosed pre-natally demonstrated hyperactive behaviour. More recent animal experiments by Wang in 1997 have reported that fluoride can damage the brain. Five studies from China show a lowering of IQ in children associated with strong fluoride exposure. These are issues we must address.
The only US Government-sanctioned animal study to investigate whether fluoride causes cancer found a dose-dependent increase in cancer in the target organ, that is, the bone, of the fluoride-treated male rats. The initial review of this study also reported an increase in liver and oral cancers. However, all non-bone cancers were later downgraded, with a questionable rationale. A review of national cancer data in the US by the National Cancer Institute revealed a significantly higher rate of bone cancer in young men in fluoridated versus non-fluoridated areas. This information comes from the Hoover report of 1991. While the NCI concluded that fluoridation was not the cause, no explanation was provided to explain the higher rates in the fluoridated areas.
A smaller study from New Jersey, the Cohn report of 1992, found bone cancer rates to be up to six times higher in young men living in fluoridated versus non-fluoridated areas. These serious matters must be investigated from an environmental and health point of view. Fluoride administered to animals at high doses wreaks havoc on the male reproductive system. It damages sperm and increases the rate of infertility in a number of different species. This information is again based on international research.
When it comes to controversies surrounding toxic chemicals, vested interests traditionally do their very best to discount animal studies and quibble with their findings. In the past, political pressures have led US Government agencies — I am concerned about our Government — to drag their feet on regulating materials such as asbestos and dioxins. With fluoridation we have had a 50-year delay in dealing with the matter. Unfortunately, because Government officials have put so much of their credibility on the line defending fluoridation and because of the significant liabilities waiting in the wings if they admit that fluoridation has caused an increase in hip fracture, arthritis, bone cancer, brain disorders or thyroid problems, it will be difficult for them to speak honestly and openly about the issue. However they must do so, not only to protect millions of people from unnecessary harm but also to protect the notion that, at its core, public health policy must be based on sound science, not political expediency. They have a tool, the precautionary principle, with which to do this. Simply put, this says: “If in doubt, leave it out.”
While we constantly get lectures from Ministers about what other EU countries are doing, most European countries do not fluoridate their water and their children’s teeth have not suffered, while their public’s trust has been strengthened. Just how much doubt is needed on just one of the health concerns identified in my speech today to override a benefit which, when quantified in the largest survey ever conducted in the US, amounts to less than one tooth surface out of 128 in a child’s mouth? Some will call for further studies and I would be quite happy to see those carried out. I respect the dedication of researchers, particularly in the dental and medical field. However, we should take the fluoride out of the water first and then conduct all the studies we want. This folly must end without further delay. I raise these issues in the context of the discussion of water services as addressed by the Bill.
Section 70 of the Bill places a duty of care on occupiers and owners to ensure that waste water from their premises does not cause nuisance or risk to human health or the environment. It also prohibits discharge of anything to a drainage system which would block or damage it or adversely affect a waste water treatment process. Discharge of any polluting matter to a sewer providing solely for storm water is prohibited. I welcome this section. However, I emphasise the need for caution when dealing with waste water. We have seen the untold damage to our rivers streams and communities and to people’s health. We need further research on this matter. The jury is out on the causes of many modern diseases and water must be closely monitored. As someone who was elected on a health and disability ticket, I regard these matters as quite relevant to this debate on water.
The memorandum is somewhat open and windy. It is essential that we be given some indication of the cost of providing water services. The people demand accountability, efficiency and honesty from those involved in water services infrastructure projects. We need to know the approximate cost of providing water services.
Mr. F. McGrath: I am glad that the Minister has said on the record of the House that the door is not being opened for water charges. I do not think water charges should be introduced under any circumstances. People who work every day pay their taxes and do their best. They are paying for their water and their refuse collection. They should not have to pay again under any circumstances. This issue is linked to the overall debate. I welcome the positive sections of the Bill, but I have concerns about other parts of it. I will examine the issues which arise in such parts at a later stage. Water is an important commodity. This country is fortunate that it has enough water because of its climate. We need to ensure that the water we use every day is safe for the people of this country, including our children.
Mr. Stanton: I am sure he is sick of people congratulating him at this stage. I wish him well. I hope Members on this side of the House can debate many issues under the Minister’s remit with him in a constructive and challenging manner.
A great deal of work has gone into this complicated Bill. I pay tribute to those who have been working on it as it cannot be easy to tie all the pieces together when legislation is being constructed. As Deputies, our job is to take an overview of the Bill and to comment on it. I am happy to do so in the few minutes available to me.
Deputy Finian McGrath concluded by speaking about the importance of water. Irish people sometimes take water for granted. I have read that the average supply of water per person worldwide is expected to decrease by one third over the next 20 years, as agriculture becomes more intensive and industry and population increase. Waste management is not keeping pace with such developments. Climate change will also have a global impact in the years to come. While Ireland does not have a problem with water, some 1.2 billion people throughout the world do not have access to safe water. Of a global population of 6.2 billion, some 2.4 billion lack sanitation facilities. Irish people take it for granted that clean, fresh and drinkable water will come out of a tap when they turn it on. In some countries, the water which comes out of the tap is so contaminated that it is not even good enough to brush one’s teeth with. We are quite fortunate in this country.
According to the UN world water assessment programme, no improvement in the proportion of people in the least developed countries with access to water was made in the last decade. Water is not piped to the homes of many people in Europe, especially in the new EU member states. Ireland is fortunate to have fresh water generally. The main function of the Bill before the House is to protect and improve the provision of fresh water to houses as well as dealing with waste issues.
As a medical doctor, the Ceann Comhairle might be interested to know that the number of children throughout the world who have died from diarrhoea in the past ten years is larger than the number of people lost to armed conflict since the Second World War. The diseases which kill such children are water-borne generally. We need to ensure that we continue to protect water supplies from pollution. I welcome the Bill’s measures in that regard.
I welcome the legislation’s application to many EU directives. I understand that the Commission has sent a warning to Ireland about urban waste water treatment. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the matter. I understand that other member states, including Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom, have received similar warnings. I would welcome an explanation of the impact of the Bill on the urban waste water treatment directive which addresses nutrient-based and viral pollution caused by urban waste water. I would be interested in acquiring further information about that matter.
The European Union recognises water as being non-commercial. The preamble of the water framework directive states: “Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.” I have quoted from the directive in the context of the debate on water charges. We are familiar with what happened in England and Wales when the system was privatised and water charges were introduced. It went wrong; it did not work. The privatisation of water supply did not bring about greater efficiency. Fixed costs dominate and little potential is left for efficiency. As other speakers have done, I ask the Minister to clarify this situation.
The Bill contains many sections dealing with meters and metering. I understand that there is a need for monitoring, but it seems that building regulations demand that every new house should have a meter. There is a fear that such meters could be used in future to impose charges for the consumption of water. The Minister might inform us whether the Bill gives him, or the water authorities, the power to impose such charges. I am glad that the Minister is shaking his head. It was not clear from my reading of the Bill whether that was the case.
Mr. Stanton: I thank the Minister for his useful assurance. Water management must be open to scrutiny by citizens, public influence and participation by stakeholders. Will the Minister consider amending the Bill to ensure that all relevant data, including quality and quantity data, leakage rates, short-term and long-term budgets, water resource protection activities, service quality information and network investments information are made available? I take it that the water authorities will be the county and city councils. In his response, the Minister might clarify whether the work they do under this Bill will be open to scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Acts. How will citizens be able to access information such as that to which I have referred? It is important that such data be known. The Bill also includes provisions for collecting data. Although it is not mentioned, I assume such data will be covered by the Data Protection Acts. Perhaps that needs to be stated in the Bill.
I have a concern about an issue that seems to be falling between several stools. I have raised the issue in a parliamentary question. It is not in the Bill, and I know that the Minister said that it covers water in the pipe. However, there may be an opportunity to cover the protection of aquifers in the State. I note that a process of mapping aquifers is ongoing. Everyone realises that they are very important. They are very large deposits of gravel and sand that filter water that comes from underground streams and so forth. The aquifers filter and clean the water.
Unfortunately, they are also very valuable deposits of sand and gravel. I have a very large aquifer, and there are several rivers, streams, wells and so on that start in it. It acts as a filtering system. If a commercial company goes in and starts mining that gravel, one loses one’s natural filtration system that has probably existed for hundreds of thousands of years. When I asked a parliamentary question on this on 10 June 2003, the response, which I welcome, spoke of protecting groundwater against pollution. I was told that it was an offence for a person to cause or permit polluting matters to enter waters, including an aquifer. I also refer to Question No. 883 of 29 January 2003. I was concerned about aquifers being mined and, for want of a better word, destroyed, by gravel and sand companies. The local authorities do not seem to have any power, and they are not taking it seriously enough. Once those aquifers are taken away, they cannot ever be replaced.
Other countries, particularly the United States, have taken an extremely serious view of the matter. Perhaps the Minister might ask his officials to examine the aquifers across the country and commission reports on what state they are in. Are they currently being mined or destroyed? Are sand and gravel being extracted, and, if so, is it in his power to put a stop to it? I believe that it is. Once sand and gravel is extracted the damage cannot be undone.
I have a few points that I would like to raise on the Bill itself. Section 29(1)(b) refers to “a restriction of the provision of water services in a manner which is reasonable for the performance of any functions under the Act”. I would like to know who defines what is “reasonable”. It is probably a simple enough matter, but it stood out when I was reading the Bill. Section 30(8) states:
In several places in the Bill, including section 51, temporary interruption to water services is mentioned. What is in the Bill is quite welcome. Notices must be given in newspapers, on radio and television, or advertised in any such manner as the Minister may direct. I am sure the Minister is aware that very often such public notices appear in newspapers, and I am not sure that people read them at all. They may miss them. I have come across instances where the water has been cut off and people did not know it was going to happen, with the result that it caused them terrible inconvenience. The local authority might very well — I am sure they always do — give notice in the proper manner prescribed, which is a little column at the back of the local newspaper that no one reads.
I ask the Minister to re-examine the issue and see if there is any other way of informing people that the water will be cut off in an area. It may only be one housing estate. The ESB always sends a written notification to every house involved. Where the ESB is concerned it is a matter of life and death because of the danger of electricity. However, surely the same notice might be possible in terms of water supply. Every house could receive a written notification in advance, such as a postcard, saying the water will be cut off on such a day for a given period. People would then know. Some have small babies, and there are households where two parents work. They come back in the evening and find no water, or they put on washing machines or dishwashers and find they get damaged. It is a small point, but perhaps the Minister might consider it and beef up the provision in the legislation.
There is another strange reference in section 30(4)(k), which states the Minister may “seek such information or data from any person whom he or she considers to have such information or data”. That seems very open and a little unclear. Perhaps that should be re-examined.
Section 31 deals with the powers of a water services authority, saying in subsection (2): “Subject to regulations made under subsection (3), a water services authority may provide water services or supervise the provision of water services by other persons”. It goes through a list taking account of aspects of public policy. Subsection (2)(c) mentions “relevant regulations and other statutory provisions made by the Minister [this is the curious part] or the Parliament and Council of the European Union”. I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I thought regulations or statutory provisions made by the Parliament or Council would have to be transposed into Irish law before they could become law here. The section seems to indicate rulings apply to Irish law without being specifically transposed. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems curious.
Subsection (4) states: “A water services authority may not provide water services or supervise the provision of water services if doing so is inconsistent with any of the public policy issues specified in subsection (2)(a) to (l).” That is a very powerful statement. I can see the reason for it, but it is fairly heavy. Subsection (10) states: “A water services authority may provide assistance to any water services provider to facilitate the provision of water services.” What kind of assistance, and who decides? Once again, it is left undefined. I welcome the subsection, which is good, but it seems a little open.
I also welcome the fact that recognition is made in section 32(3)(r) of “measures to facilitate the provision of water supplies for firefighting”, which is very often overlooked. It also mentions strategic plans and so on, which are in the Bill. One issue, which other Deputies may already have mentioned, is that the pace of house building has outstripped the ability of local authorities to provide water. There have been several instances around the country where the infrastructure has not been adequate to supply houses. People with electric showers and so on have not had the requisite water pressure. I have seen cases where water pressure is much reduced on a Sunday morning, since everyone is having a shower together, and there is no water.
At any rate, it appears the infrastructure is not adequate to cater for the high demand. Perhaps the Minister might talk to the local authorities to discuss whether it is right to provide planning permission for hundreds of houses, have them built, and allow people to live in them without water. I am told the development charges fund the water supply. If that is the case, one is building houses, putting people in them, taking the money and then installing the water. That is putting the cart before the horse. Surely the infrastructure should be installed before the houses. Perhaps there is something for the Minister to examine there with regard to the provision of water. I know it is a strategic plan, but I am talking about the finance, since the local authorities do not have the money to do it beforehand. My understanding is that they are building houses, getting the development charges, and then getting a grant from the Department to install water services. In the meantime hundreds of families have no water. In one area I know of, the water supply stopped last Christmas over a period of three days. The other problem is that when the pressure on the pipes is increased, they break, and there are leaks. It is a mess.
Page 39 of the Bill is concerned with procedures for dealing with consumer complaints. The Minister should look closely at that area. I referred earlier to holiday periods. Like many other people throughout the country, I know that over Christmas the water supply system invariably breaks down, or there is a sewage leak. That happened on St. Stephen’s day last year in an area I know. Sewage began flowing down the street, and the people living there found it impossible to contact the local authority. The Minister should insert a provision for every local authority to have a 24-hour emergency number in the case of water supply breakdown or sewage leaks, especially over holiday periods, when such breakdowns or leaks always seem to occur. People should be able to phone someone for help and an emergency team should be available to fix the problem.
Almost every Christmas I am contacted by people telling me their water supply has failed, and asking if I can help. I cannot, but when I try to find someone who can, it is very difficult. I am sure the Minister has had the same experience.
Mr. Stanton: On page 49 of the Bill it is stated that a water services authority may contribute to the cost of the maintenance or renewal of a connection or part of it by another person to such an extent as it may decide. One might have a situation whereby different water services authorities might have different codes of practice, so that provision seems vague. I welcome its presence but it may need to be tightened up.
I am almost certain that the Bill does not cover private wells. Section 54 provides that the owner of a premises shall ensure that the internal distribution system of a premises is sufficient for and maintained in such a condition as to ensure that water intended for human consumption meets the prescribed quality requirements in the tap or taps used for that purpose. If someone turns on a tap and the water which emerges is not suitable, how can the owner be responsible when the water comes from elsewhere? This could also be construed as meaning that someone in a private house with a private well might also be liable in this regard. I am not sure. It seems unlikely, but it should be made clear.
Conservation of water is also mentioned, and the Bill refers to people wasting water and so on. Would the Minister consider an awareness raising campaign for conserving water? He might insert in the Bill a provision that water authorities should raise public awareness. One of the European directives noted that Ireland falls down in terms of raising awareness of the need to conserve water. That is important.
The use of waste water was mentioned by colleagues. It was noted that water running off the roofs of houses could be collected and used for flushing toilets. There are also two-flush toilets, with two buttons.
The Minister will be very busy if he is to bring in all the regulations in this Bill, though some of them may have been brought in already. An entire section of the Department might be needed to attend to this aspect.
Much building has taken place on flood plains, which leads to flooding. Being in charge of environmental matters, the Minister might look at that area and ensure that flood plains are not built on. Fluoride, an important issue about which I have concerns, has also been mentioned. Chambers of Commerce of Ireland is also worried about increased costs of water for businesses, and the Minister might allude to that.
Mr. Connaughton: I have contributed in this House over many years on matters relating to water. I ask to be forgiven for being somewhat amused by these matters. I have no doubt that the intention of the Bill is to ensure that the public get a better water supply of better quality water at a time when they need it. However, I have been listening to discussions on this matter for many years, and I notice that whenever new legislation or recommendations come from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the term always used is “strategic management”. Our efforts at strategic management will have to be better in the future than they have been in the past, because I have seen the most amazing botches. I do not know who was making the rules, who did the ground work, the drawings or the scheme specifications, but modern-day requirements have not been met.
As has been stated ad nauseam over the past day or two, this is a very important debate. I want to bring a number of issues to the Minister’s attention. Nearly everything that could be said about water has been said so far, but the issues differ in different parts of the country. The Minister went to great lengths to ensure that every Deputy understood that this has nothing to do with privatisation. I take him at his word.
Mr. Connaughton: Yes. Nevertheless, if everything contained in the Bill comes to pass over the next few years, it will be a lot easier to privatise the water supply. All the steps suggested to ensure privatisation of the supply would have been taken. That matter is for another day, but it is a little like Aer Lingus and its affairs being put in order.
Getting water to flow from A to B, from the source to where the customer wants it, is an engineering problem. It largely involves pipes on the ground, gravity flow systems from towers, pumping and so on. I am not an engineer, but I spend a lot of my time dealing with water and its problems. For many years I have been a trustee of a group water scheme, and as far as delivery of water is concerned I have seen everything possible that could happen. This has nothing to do with the Minister, who has just arrived in the Department, but what I cannot understand is that despite having Ministers of all types down through the years with responsibility for the environment, we could not manage to put water through a pipe in every townland and village in Ireland. We still have not done so, and there remains a lot of work to do.
What we decided to do a few years ago was worse. Again it involved “strategic management”. It is nothing new to see a few parishes in rural Ireland getting a fine, good quality water scheme, often at great cost to the taxpayer and to the parishioners, and then, a year or two later, to see one or two parishes in that area water-locked. The engineering specification would have ensured that the pipe narrowed so much that there was no room to allow the water to continue on to the next two or three parishes. The Minister has probably seen this also happen in Wicklow.
Mr. Connaughton: The Newbridge regional supply scheme brought water to 300 to 400 houses. However, for some unknown reason it was decided that Ballygar would not benefit from this, although it cost more than £1 million. This is what I mean by bad strategic management. While I hope the Minister will not be in office for too long, he will be remembered if he manages to overcome difficulties such as that at Ballygar, Loughrea and elsewhere.
Mr. Connaughton: We will not mention the Shannon as this is a serious debate. Loughrea town has a population of 6,000 to 7,000 and a huge lake suitable for pumping. However, for 25 years there has only been talk about pumping water to Kilrickle and Craughwell. I attended a recent meeting in Kilrickle where 100 people have an inadequate water supply. A major water project is planned for 2006 for Loughrea town but the adjoining town is to be left out, which is another example of bad strategic planning. I hope the Bill addresses this and forces local authorities to take a wider view of their actions. Even if it were to take longer, the water would go to the right places.
With regard to section 30, the Minister spoke about his duty to facilitate the provision of safe and sufficient water. What had he in mind when he referred to a statutory consultative group? Water monitoring committees are already a part of the local authorities and, in addition, there are also area meetings of county councils. Will all the stakeholders be involved in such consultative groups? If so, will the consumers, the users of the water, be involved? The Minister should explain the composition of the consultative groups. We have no shortage of consultative groups but we need an overall plan and money invested to do the job.
The Minister stated that some €4.4 billion has been allocated in the national development plan to water services generally. He also referred to the influence of the public private partnerships and their first cousin, the design, build and operate, DBO, schemes. I am involved in several design, build and operate schemes under way in County Galway. A financial allocation was made available by the Department almost three years ago and the local authority was informed that the money was available, subject to getting the DBO scheme under way. Three years later, not one hole has been dug in any of the villages involved — Kilkerrin, Dunmore and Leenane — which are grouped together for the purposes of the DBO sewerage scheme. Can the Minister fast-track this DBO scheme? I could accept if on one occasion it took time to tease out difficulties at the start of a scheme. However, a project with a DBO scheme as its core principle will have set rules and specifications. All that could change would be the partners involved and perhaps the size of the project. However, the core principle of the scheme would remain the same. Will the Bill expedite that system as it has been extraordinarily slow to date?
I assume the same applies to public private partnerships, although I have no personal experience of these despite discussing the issue at the Committee of Public Accounts on a number of occasions. Is there a template of a successful project which could be used elsewhere so that each local authority does not to reinvent the wheel and find out for itself? Years have been wasted for no reason, as the Minister will agree.
Mr. Connaughton: With regard to the EU directive governing drinking water quality, the EU, to be blunt, has put in the boot and we have a long way to travel in a short time. However, it is important to note that water quality is improving. Given the significant investment in sewerage schemes and the efforts of the farming community through the rural environment protection scheme, the level of pollution has been dramatically controlled. The Minister should ensure such schemes continue because they are bearing fruit. As I understand the timetable, we will not satisfy the requirements of the directive unless the Government produces a much greater injection of funding for capital projects next year. We know where the water must go and I hope the relevant plans have been drawn up as enough money has been spent on consultants to put water in every house in the country. We need a higher level of spending and await the Government response.
Mr. Connaughton: I move on to the issue of waste water and septic tanks. Given the stringent specifications laid down by the Environmental Protection Agency in its 2001 guidelines, we will not have much pollution if septic tanks are built to the required standard. However, while the specifications deal with new tanks, there are thousands of old-fashioned septic tanks. Perhaps we need an imaginative grant scheme which would get tank owners to make improvements.
Why is it not possible to have an environmentally sustainable system for dealing with the disposal of ordinary detergents given that action was taken to deal with smoke from coal in Dublin? It is a minor matter but I understand the polluting effect is very high and I hope something will be done about it.
On group water schemes, I have no ideological hang-ups regarding whether they are better than regional schemes. However, if we had to wait for a regional scheme we would never have got a water supply. I note the Minister is proposing to license group water schemes in respect of 50 persons. Does that mean 50 participants or 50 persons in, say, ten houses? What does that mean for group schemes? The scheme of which I am a member has more than 50 people. What criteria must be met? Does it mean we will have to do certain things that we have never done before? That is one of the difficulties with this type of Bill. It is a very wide-ranging Bill and if we do not have specific answers to these questions, an official will one day tell me I was one of the people who took part in the debate and allowed everything through. Unfortunately, this is not a sexy debate, but it is a very important one because it affects every citizen in the State. Most people will not see it that way until their water is cut off. When that happens everybody will want to find out what happened.
Regarding group water schemes, a new concept called the bundle system is emerging whereby 12 to 14 group schemes are brought together under a single contractor who will guarantee to provide water that is safe for human consumption. We are trying to organise that in County Galway. It is a slow process but the advantage is that a professional group or person will be in charge of the delivery of water while at the same time the group water scheme members and committees will still be in charge and will still own the pipeline. I hope these will be successful. It has often been said over the years that group schemes were all right in their day but that given the pressures of modern living it was unlikely they would have the same importance in the future as they did in the past. I do not particularly believe that. I believe they can still be well run and can deliver very good quality water most of the time, and possibly be much more cost effective than any regional scheme for the very obvious reason that many chairmen, secretaries and organisers of group schemes do jobs for nothing that one would otherwise have to pay the local authorities to do. The concept of group water schemes is like the concept of credit unions. They involve the same kind of local initiative and togetherness, the meitheal concept that is so important and can always be built into the system.
There is a great onus on the trustees of group water schemes. I and the other two trustees of the water scheme in my area, such as it is, would now want to test our water almost every month, although there was a time when we did not test it from one end of the year to the other. We must pay for testing each time it is done and when it is done 12 to 14 times a year the cost mounts up. However, we do it out of respect for the consumer and to ensure that no baby, young person or elderly person becomes sick from drinking water that is not top quality.
The decision of a former Minister to give autonomy to the National Federation of Group Water Schemes was very useful. I hope the licensing system, when it is introduced, will be even-handed and that it will not transpire that most of the group schemes will be unable to measure up to it. It is extremely important that we supply good quality water. However, it is also important that there are no impediments placed in the way of group water schemes in the form of regulations with which they cannot comply. Many group water schemes around the country, and there are thousands, will want to know where the Minister stands on that issue. Over the years some Ministers for the Environment have been in favour of group water schemes while others favoured regional schemes. Where the money went depended on the whim of the Minister of the day. I would be delighted to know the Minister’s views on group schemes and more particularly on licensing.
Mr. Hogan: I join in congratulating Deputy Roche on his appointment as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and wish him well in undertaking his responsibilities in the years ahead. As previous speakers mentioned, there is much activity in the Department that impacts on people, and whether it is in planning, housing or sanitary services, which we are debating today, there is a huge responsibility on the Minister of the day to ensure the best quality services are available to people through local government and national Government.
The establishment of better local government by one of the Minister’s predecessors was highlighted at the time as visionary. I am sorry to have to say that it could not be further from the truth. County managers have decided that their best option is to act as supervisory authorities and to delegate most responsibilities to directors. There is less accountability, less input from public representatives and glaring difficulties in some local authorities in terms of customer services.
I was pleased to note recent comments by the Minister to the effect that he is focusing on the need to ensure a consistent level of service for customers across the country. I urge him to do so as quickly as possible and, in the context of drawing up a charter of services for the consumer, examine the better local government system that has been in operation for four or five years to see whether changes could be made to ensure the restoration of proper input at local level to public representatives who are elected by the people and who are the only ones who are ultimately accountable to the people.
Regarding the Water Services Bill, we have been forced by our EU obligations over recent years to increase resources and generate more strategic plans to deal with the problem of water quality. My colleague, Deputy Connaughton, mentioned group water schemes, of which there is an enormous number — more than 6,000. I am sure the Department officials and the Minister of the day would prefer to have fewer group schemes because of the potential difficulty of imposing European Union directives on some of them.
Problems also arise with issues such as wayleaves, registration and putting them into a proper legal order. In some cases this has been made more difficult with extensions to existing pipe networks. Many older schemes were not designed to cope with the type of demand seen today. Group water schemes are important in bringing water to customers in rural areas. However, those difficulties with pipe networks and sources must be resolved. The Water Services Bill will provide a statutory framework to achieve this objective.
The Bill is narrow in that it does not take account of environmental issues such as water quality and pollution. Neither does it take into account that many water service systems are ancient or have fallen into disrepair, resulting in poor water quality in many areas. I regularly make representations on behalf of my constituents to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding capital works required for a number of schemes in County Kilkenny. In Kilkenny city, a major conservation implementation programme has been undertaken to reduce water leakage in the system. This is a common complaint in many other towns. There have been a number of difficulties at the Troyswood plant, serving the Kilkenny city area. Just today I was assured by the county sanitary services engineer that the water quality is fine. While an engineer’s assurances are given in good faith, often the customer does not believe the quality of the water is as it should be. A standard needs to be set through a charter for consumer service and water quality. Education is also required about water content and what is good for the customer. Often the fluoridation or draining by chemical means of a system can lead to unintended illnesses. Customers must be made aware of what constitutes good water content. The consumer is now more discerning and expects higher quality and standards. It is not just the EU but also the customer who expects the State and the local authorities to implement water quality programmes.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is aware that water quality in the Castlecomer area in north-east County Kilkenny is poor. The problem lies with the water mains in the town. We are informed that the water is safe even though it is often discoloured, raising concerns among local people. The local authority has presented proposals to the Department and I ask the Minister to examine the scheme as a matter of urgency. In 1994, it was announced that the Gowran-Goresbridge-Paulstown scheme, which services the eastern part of County Kilkenny, would be improved under the national development plan. Ten years on, it has not even gone to contract stage. As Deputy Connaughton said, many of these plans are progressing at a slow pace. Those who lose out are the customers, particularly those in east County Kilkenny. I ask the Minister to urgently review the Gowran-Goresbridge-Paulstown scheme.
There are difficulties with group water schemes in areas with low population bases, particularly hill lands. I am sure the Minister knows of areas in the hills of County Wicklow with a low population base but a large area to be covered by a water network. In County Kilkenny, Castlewarren is an example of an area where it is too expensive for the local people to provide the necessary pipe network and reservoir scheme. The deficit in funding for these schemes is causing financial hardship for those affected in Castlewarren. Another scheme encountering difficulty is the Bennettsbridge regional water supply. The housing explosion in Kilkenny city has made it difficult for the existing schemes to cater for the demands and pressures on water supply. There are plans to augment and upgrade the Bennettsbridge scheme. Other schemes submitted to the Department for augmentation are Freshford, Urlingford and Johnstown. Will the Minister comment on when these proposals will be considered?
The small schemes programme is valuable. The decision of then Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to increase the grants for small and group schemes for individuals to €6,000 per house for water provision allowed many schemes that otherwise would have to be provided by a local authority to be provided by a group scheme. This has been successful in providing high quality water supplies. The same principle must now be applied to small group sewerage schemes. A large number of these schemes are waiting to be started. However, due to the financial outlay required, many people cannot raise the necessary finances. At €6,000 per house, this can be expensive to many individuals who are not part of a sewerage network. Will the Minister bring the grant assistance for group sewerage schemes to the same level as those for group water schemes in the Estimates? By doing so, much good work could be done in waste water management.
I am wary of public private partnerships, though I am in favour of securing as much private capital investment in the system as possible. However, a framework must be laid down whereby those involved in PPPs cannot ultimately charge what they like. The local authority and the Minister must have control over the charges that can be levied. I note the Bill’s provisions ensure that no private investor can rip people off in such a manner.
The Purcellsinch treatment works for Kilkenny city has caused difficulties for residents, fishermen and staff in nearby factories and offices. Though €6.2 million was allocated for its development, nothing has been done to draw down the money. I ask the Minister to review this so as to improve the quality of life for those living near the plant. The smell from the plant is a cause of nuisance to the local people. It is important for the future development of the city that the treatment system is upgraded.
How we deal with waste water treatment plants has an impact on planning and development. The Environmental Protection Agency has produced a report regarding planning in rural areas and waste water treatment. While some local authorities are taking account of it, they all should be obliged to do so and to take account of any environmental report that will improve the quality of percolation and remove the potential for serious problems with water quality. We must ensure we have the highest quality sewage treatment systems, whether that is achieved through individual septic tanks, certification of Pura flow systems or certification from the manufacturers of percolation systems and equipment. These should be written into the system to ensure the highest standards in the community so people’s neighbours will not be polluted and there is good quality water. Now, at planning stage, is the time to do it. Otherwise we will encounter problems in the future similar to those we have had over the years with some group water schemes.
The impact of services on planning and development should be factored into any regulations that might have to be sent to the local authorities. We can have all the plans in the world but we must have the finance. Finance can be mobilised through public private partnerships and design, build and operate schemes. A good method of mobilising more finance is through group sewerage scheme grants. The capital investment required for many of these schemes is, as a result of the explosion of development in this country over the last ten years, putting huge pressure on the resources of the local authorities.
The Department will require extensive contact with local authorities to ensure we not only plan for existing developments, where the authorities are coming under pressure to provide water and sewerage schemes, but also for future developments in major urban areas to ensure we do not encounter the difficulties we experienced in the past. In that way there will be first class water and sewerage systems in cities and towns. The customer will know they are getting good quality for the taxes they pay to the Department of Finance and that they are able to rely on the water systems in place, which should be of the highest quality and standard in the interests of public health.
Mr. O’Donovan: I welcome the Bill. I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him every success in this important office. The Bill is a serious attempt to co-ordinate the fragmented nature of the provision of water services. Under the Bill, water services cover the provision of water through a pipe into one’s house and the subsequent waste water.
The provision of water is a problem in various regions. We are struggling to come to terms with establishing a proper system. Recently, I met a Swiss man who holds a science degree and is now living in west Cork. He told me the basic requirements for a healthy man in his 70s is a healthy constitution and the provision of a clean, uncontaminated water supply. He is using an old style well in the mountains. It was an old spring well and he is very pleased with it. His other advice was that when preparing food one should peel and boil everything. Water, however, was the significant factor for this man who has lived most of his life in Switzerland.
There is a number of problems and anomalies with our water supply. There is an ambitious programme in the national development plan for the provision of water schemes throughout the country. My home town of Bantry has been waiting 30 years for a regional water supply. In 1985, people in the town held a public inquiry into what was required. The town council did not give us much support and the chamber of commerce was ambivalent as to whether it supported us and with regard to what the needs were. In 1989, the Department bowed to a request by an environmental group to protect an underwater rare lily that was found in Drumbroe, where the council had bought the land, carried out its tests and was ready to start a scheme. The last scheme had been undertaken at the end of the 19th century. The underwater lily has gone but in 2004 Bantry is still waiting for the commencement of the Bantry regional water scheme.
The town has a population of almost 6,000 people and it is worrying for a number of reasons that this issue is still ongoing. The town has an important mussel industry, which requires an abundant quantity of fresh water, and an important regional hospital with over 200 beds. It employs up to 400 people. There is also a pharmaceutical industry that has raised concerns about the quality of water in the area. It is a pity that, following a decision taken in 1989 about an underwater lily, several years later and after millions of pounds being spent, we are still having difficulties.
It is probably the most important scheme in my constituency. I do not wish to be parochial but it would serve places such as Durras, Kilcrohane, Glengarriff and outlying areas. I do not expect answers from the Minister today but I hope he will, over the next couple of months, ensure that this long awaited scheme, for which funding is ring-fenced under the national development plan, will commence. It will take a long time to construct and will involve a number of phases. It could be up to seven years before the outlying villages get a water supply, which is a long time to wait.
There are other schemes in my constituency, such as one in Schull and outlying areas, Skibberreen and so forth. I am not being critical of previous Ministers but it is hard to grasp that there are townlands and villages that still have problems with water supply. It would be a huge achievement for the Minister and this legislation if this issue was finally resolved. There is a group water scheme in Lisheen in my constituency whose surviving trustee is well into his 80s. It is 35 years since the scheme was completed but the local authority still has not taken it over. That is a worrying trend. Promises were made to me ten years ago that this would be resolved but it has not. My electoral area is a CLÁR area and I wish to acknowledge that the CLÁR programme has contributed in a significant way to the provision and support of water supply.
The Minister stated that this Bill does not provide for the introduction of water charges. I am from a humble background but when people with significant incomes are prepared to pay from €500,000 to €7 million for a house in Dublin but do not have to pay a bob for water, it must mean we are the laughing stock of Europe. Look at other parts of Europe. People pay as they go. Where people cannot afford to pay they could be given appropriate allowances. I will not get into that debate now since it is more an issue for Dublin than rural areas, but when people can afford to pay, they should do so. A Member referred this morning to the medical card scheme for old age pensioners. There is a need for assessment when one sees fellows worth €10 million and more getting a free medical card while others cannot get one. This is a personal observation, in case somebody claims it is Fianna Fáil policy. It is my personal view after my experience in this area.
Let us consider the provision of water and the issue of getting a pipe from A to B and providing water for houses. I was on a local authority for almost 19 years. There is an average of three pipe breaks per week in Bantry town. There are cast iron pipes dating back to the 1890s.
Recently I attended a function in Germany of friends of Ireland, industrialists who had invested in various places and I got talking to a few of them. A concern of pharmaceutical companies was the quality of water in Ireland. In one instance, a small pharmaceutical plant, which I will not name, employing approximately 150 people had to pay €160,000 for water purification because the water supply was inadequate yet we are trying to create, and to hold on to, jobs. I complained to the local authority and the county council. At many levels, there seems to be a mishmash of services from county to county and from city to urban and rural areas.
The major schemes in the main centres of population have got much attention but the provision of water in many peripheral areas and in the area I represent — I could mention another six or seven towns and a number of villages — has not been adequately addressed. I do not want to be parochial as I am sure the same applies to other areas. I listened to Deputy Connaughton and he mentioned places in east Galway to which, I suppose, the same could apply. I hope that with this new Water Services Bill, there will be a more co-ordinated, streamlined vision which will permeate down to places as remote as Kilcrohane, Sheep’s Head, the Beara Peninsula and elsewhere. In the 21st century, everybody should have a decent, good quality and uncontaminated water supply in their home. I hope this will be a major step in the right direction.
Public private partnerships and the build, design and manage programmes were mentioned. These programmes have a big future. I do not care who is in Government but unless such programmes are brought into the reckoning, we will not catch up for some years in terms of the provision of water and sewerage schemes, treatment plants, schools and other such services. Under the public private partnership, magnificent, state-of-the art new schools were built in Ballincollig and Dunmanway. The amazing thing was that once a site was made available and planning permission was in place, these schools were delivered in just over 12 months in one instance and 14 or 15 months in the other. Given that type of production and delivery, I urge the Minister to go down that road in regard to some of the major water schemes to deliver and provide a service to the community. I encourage that approach.
Another issue is the problem of metering and the provision of water to industry, to the farming community or whatever. Metering is a must but then again we are moving into the area of discrimination. A small subsistence farmer in a remote area, whether in Wicklow, west Cork, Kerry or the west, with 40 or 50 acres would be connected to a meter yet others, the super rich, would not have to pay for a drop of water, but sin scéal eile. The metering system must be kept in place because I know of several instances where people, whether farmers or business people, and sometimes local authorities, misuse much water through carelessness. We have the most abundant supply of fresh water of any country, yet there are problems around which we have teetered over the years but have not really grasped. I am certain that in many of the schemes, the quality of the water remains less than appropriate.
I have come across appalling, once-off instances where mothers have come to me after their children have been sick, including infants from six months to three or four years. The tests have come back and the doctor, through analysing the potability of the water supply, has said the problem was e.coli in the water. That cannot be tolerated. I am not accusing the Minister or the Department but the provision of water has, in many ways, failed us. Over the past 25 years we have talked about resolving this issue once and for all and I have no doubt we are going some way in the right direction. The provision of this invaluable and necessary ingredient for our lives should be streamlined and fast-tracked as soon as possible.
We talk about water conservation and the amount of money being put into the system. I welcome the Minister’s commitment under the national development plan of €4.4 billion which is significant funding. I said at a parliamentary party meeting that many of these schemes need to be delivered this year or next year — certainly no later. If the money is there, they should be rolled out.
In the delivery of some of these major schemes, there is no reason we should not look outside this country for contractors. There was some anger when a Turkish company was awarded the contract for an important part of the Cork city ring, or relief, road by-passing Ballincollig. It competed with other European countries and construction experts. It appears it has completed the job for several million euro less than many other well-known contractors. In addition, it is coming in somewhere between six and nine months ahead of schedule. If that could happen in the provision of water or other services, such as major sewerage treatment schemes, one should not be shy about using the Official Journal of the European Communities, although I believe it is compulsory to advertise large schemes in it. We may have to bring in outside contractors in certain areas.
I welcome the proposal in Part 6 where it is intended to bring in a licensing scheme to regulate and develop the operation of the group water scheme sector. This is not before time. The Minister and the Government have the courage to tackle this issue at last. Group water schemes played an important role throughout the country but they were very shabbily administered. Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, unwitting trustees worked in communities to collect money to get schemes up and running, to put them out to tender, involve contractors and get the best job possible done. Such schemes have been a source of worry for the trustees for maybe 20 or 30 years. I mentioned such a scheme earlier. It is about time this was resolved.
The renaming of the sanitary departments of local authorities is welcome. It is incumbent on the Department, the Minister and local authorities that they be set up as water service providers etc. It is also important that in dealing with the Bill the Minister would not just focus on the provision of water from A to B or from a particular source to the home but would also deal with waste water which is often neglected. As a former councillor, I am aware of problems arising from estates being built where there was little or no provision for waste water.
I compliment the Minister and wish him well in his new brief. I have no doubt he will acquit himself well. Unlike some previous speakers I hope he will have a long-lasting ministry and that it will extend beyond the term of the Government, which will probably end in 2007. Perhaps by the time the Minister is finished with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government we will have water everywhere and instead of all the salt water around west Cork, Bantry Bay and other such places we will also have an abundant supply of decent fresh water.
Mr. Crawford: I congratulate the Minister on his new portfolio. He certainly did an excellent job for the country in his role in Europe and I hope he can continue the same service in the very important role he has now taken on.
Water provision and services, including drinking water and sewerage, are a vitally important part of our infrastructure. Without good water and sewerage services it is impossible for householders to survive or industry to prosper. The Bill is very important and, as the explanatory note states, it is trying to bring together legislation that has been in existence since long before the foundation of the State. It is important that such legislation is updated. However, it is also important to ensure it does not overly impinge on the many people who have done a tremendous service to the country. Coming from a farm organisation background I speak without apology of the major role played by farm organisations in the setting up of group water scheme committees. This structure has become an intrinsic part of water provision and has ensured a water supply to 90% of homes.
Reference has already been made to the some 6,000 group water schemes in existence, some of which are very small but many of which are major in scale. I will return to this point later. Obviously, in discussing the legislation one cannot ignore the issue of metering. I support metering in general and I supported it in my group water scheme in the Rockcorry and Swan’s Cross area of County Monaghan. Whether or not a charge is being made for water it is important that usage and wastage can be monitored. Whether the water is required for agricultural purposes, public houses or whatever, the bottom line is that the charges should only relate to what is being used.
I understand the meter system is being forced on us by European law. I have worked for a long time within EU structures and I accept there is a need for such legislation and guidance, part of which we are now implementing. Last week a small farmer came to my clinic who has only a few acres and eight cattle yet he is paying €300 for the use of a water supply for his cattle for a few weeks in the year as that is the council regulation. However, under a metering system he would only pay for the water he actually used. I support and welcome that provision.
I am fearful that some day the EU may be used as a scapegoat for the introduction of water charges. I put on record that I anticipate grave anxiety among the public on this matter. I accept the Minister’s statement that there is nothing in the Bill to this effect, but it does leave a structure in place for the future imposition of charges. Full capital funding is paid to group schemes but already due to unforeseen costs some schemes have had to impose meter charges among others simply to make ends meet. We should not underestimate the imposition of meters and the dangers they present for the introduction of charges in future.
At rural level, group water schemes and credit unions have played a major role in the well-being of local areas. They have come about because of individuals freely giving of their time and talent to make sure services are available. I am concerned at some of the comments regarding how group water schemes are run. I accept that some of them may not be perfect but it is absolutely certain that if it had not been for them some people would have been waiting a long time for a supply of water. They met a major need and gave a great service.
I also give credit to rural families who had the basic trust to put their hands in their pockets to lodge the required £400 or £500 into a bank account in the trust of a few unqualified individuals that took on the job of organising group water schemes. Credit must be given to the organisers but schemes would not have been possible without people putting their money up-front to make sure the necessary capital was available so that contracts could be signed. We must make sure that nothing in the Bill will damage that sort of go-ahead approach that has proved its worth. As I mentioned on the Order of Business this morning, County Monaghan has no outside industrial investment. It has been a case of people getting up off their backsides and providing services and industries and, in this context, group water schemes.
I have a major anxiety about some of the structures put in place recently. In many cases we have 20-year contracts with outside companies. People came to me recently inquiring as to what would happen if some of these companies did not survive in the long term and if proper bonding and coverage was in place. We need to take account of this matter and ensure that in future contracts the 20-year guarantee is for 20 years and not just for one month after a particular company or organisation ceases to exist.
Another issue, which has come to light in recent days, is the amount of unspent money in this area. I understand that although €120 million was allocated to groups throughout the country, on 15 September only a third of that sum had been utilised.
I would want to ensure if there are schemes that could benefit from this between now and the end of the year that the money is utilised in whatever way possible. We are up against EU deadlines and run the risk of fines. Any group or organisation that is seen not to have utilised every penny available to it will rightly be blamed if that is the case. Some people tell me it will all be spent to within €10 million or so, and I hope that is right. I urge the Minister of State, who is at an early stage in his portfolio, to review the position and ensure that this is the case. Some of these group water schemes produce more water than some of the bigger towns.
That is the case in County Monaghan. One scheme, at Donaghmoyne, has been rather controversial — I make no apology for naming it. It was headlined as producing desperate water etc. It did not join a bundle of schemes and as yet it has not been restructured. I want to put on the record of the House that this scheme supplies more water than the town of Carrickmacross. Carrickmacross was able to get its own water scheme. Is there any reason a scheme such as Donaghmoyne cannot get direct funding without going into a bundle of schemes? This is vital. I can accept there is a genuine case for eight or ten schemes serving 50 houses each being put into a bundle.
I am extremely happy with the work that has been carried out in Monaghan. There has been some brilliant work and many people are extremely happy. However, we must get value for money. As regards this scheme, people believed that what they would have to pay in the long term was too high. They had a low cost base and felt happier to go it alone. Is there any legislation to stop them going on their own? Is there a means by which in taking that route some of the funding which is not being spent at present could be utilised?
Another issue is that of group water schemes being taken over. I have sympathy with the Department which in turn will give structures to county councils, ensuring that where grants are available people co-operate with group schemes to produce the required water quality. Quality water is needed for households. As a dairy farmer, not active but still in ownership, I say it is extremely important for dairying and in the production of food. I am not against rules being put in place to take over schemes either on a temporary or full-time basis. However, it is not clear from the Bill whether there will be compensation for all the pipework, head works etc. that have been paid for over the years if a compulsory order has to be put in place to take over a scheme. Some schemes have, admittedly, been grant-aided but many have been funded by the consumers. I would like that clarified. If a scheme is taken over by compulsory order, will it be through negotiation and will funding be made available to ensure that the trustees are not exposed unnecessarily?
I want to turn to the waste issue. Waste water has been a major contention. I see from my briefing notes that many urban water schemes are not up to standard. There is no longer an excuse for this. I was involved with a group around Lough Egish a couple of years ago and we installed a co-operative system there with INTERREG funding. That sewerage plant is producing water of the highest possible quality. The lake it goes into is nowhere near as good. There is no reason in these urban areas businesses or otherwise cannot install a system that can produce water of the highest quality. I reiterate a comment made by my colleague, Deputy Hogan, regarding the whole issue of local group schemes that would provide a service and improve our water quality. There is a great need for that. There are some areas of intensive individual housing which I strongly support, but nowadays they would prefer to go to a group scheme and it is important that proper funding is put in place.
I want to refer to our single biggest town, Monaghan. It is a hub town which benefited greatly from the installation of a major treatment plant funded from INTERREG, with some Government money, many years ago. Unfortunately, there is no collection system. Failure of Government to provide a collection system there means that private houses and sites in Monaghan are literally as dear as anywhere in Ireland. In an area where employment is based on the furniture industry, fruit industry etc., incomes are not too high. It is unfair of the Government, in effect, to force people into a situation where those prices prevail. Several schemes could be undertaken if proper collection systems were put in place in Monaghan town. The proper mains is there and it is solely a matter of lack of a collection system. I urge the Minister of State to make every effort possible to ensure that is done.
In Clones, a town hard hit by the activities on the Border, for the short time Fine Gael was in office, the Government allocated funds towards a new water scheme there. Unfortunately, that has not, as yet, been finalised. One wonders how, after seven years of planning, building etc. that project is not finalised and people are still without water. There is also a serious problem there with regard to sewerage. Many people are annoyed about the odour. I ask the Minister of State to take note of that and make it a priority.
I urge that funding be granted in the most generous manner possible to low population areas. I spoke about this issue to the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, yesterday as regards a couple of areas in my county, adjoining the Border, where there is forestry, mountain etc. The low population necessitates long-distance piping, at high cost. Those regions are not in a CLÁR area, for whatever reason. I do not believe the EU is at fault, but rather Government bureaucracy. They are therefore not entitled to extra funding. There has to be some understanding that areas such as that must be funded. A region around my village of Newbliss, down towards Clones and across by Killeevan is one of the few areas not provided with a water scheme at present. That must be seriously examined.
I am aware that because of European Union laws priority has been given to the head works in water schemes and that the better grants are directed towards that, but I urge that these low population areas be examined as a priority. I am not just talking about County Monaghan but areas generally where it might be difficult to bore a well because of high ground or whatever. It might be far cheaper to run a pipe along the road if the additional funding was made available. I became aware of a case recently, not too far from my own home, where a young man wanted to build a house but the group water scheme could not afford to connect the water to his house as an individual.
I welcome the Bill. I again urge the Minister to ensure the regulations are dealt with in a caring way. I will re-examine the position again before Report Stage and perhaps come back to the Minister on it. I emphasise that individuals in group water schemes have put a lot of voluntary work into this area but some people at Administration level do not appreciate that. I know that from listening to discussions in my own council. They do not appreciate the voluntary work that was done but I would not like to see those volunteers, who give so much, not being properly appreciated.
Dr. Twomey: I congratulate the Minister on his new post. I hope there is a change in ethos in the Department under this Minister because the word “environment” never sat comfortably with his predecessor. I hope the Bill will set out the Minister’s ethos for the Department because the substance of the Bill and many of the issues that have been commented on in the course of this debate are important for the future of this country. The Minister will have seen many environmental difficulties arise in his own county and I am sure he has done his best to keep those at bay, although it is a difficult job. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on many of those issues.
The provision of clean water is vital for people’s quality of life. We are told the quality of water has improved over recent years but many people remain concerned about the quality of the water coming out of their taps. Residents in major urban areas wonder whether quality comes second to getting a supply of water to their houses.
This is also an essential public health issue. Comments were made earlier about fluoridation, but water can carry a whole range of pathogens and diseases can be carried in polluted water supplies. The way we deliver this water supply to people’s houses is vitally important. We have to examine the way these services will be developed over the coming years.
I am very interested in what are known as functional areas and whether the water services authority will have total control over the areas for which they have responsibility. A year ago I got a request from the residents of ten houses which were supplied with water from a private well but for some reason that well became polluted. Will statutory responsibility be placed on the water service providers to ensure every household has access to a clean water supply or is this something that relates to the large group schemes that are set up? What responsibilities will be given to each of these functional areas in regard to water services and what will be their commitment to providing clean water to every house?
There is an ongoing debate, which again reverts to the Minister’s Department, about once-off housing, ribbon development and the country being overrun with concrete. How will this legislation reflect on that type of planning issue? Will there be a responsibility on county councils to ensure that every house or group of houses built complies with this legislation? In rural areas we often see three or four houses being built, interlinked by a roadway. Will there be a responsibility on county councils to provide water to those houses? I have no doubt that in due course, because I am sure this is where the legislation is leading to, the issue of waste water and sewage treatment from these houses will arise.
That leads me on to another section of the Bill which states there is a duty of care in the provisions which place specific responsibility on owners or occupiers of premises in regard to the avoidance of risk to public health or the environment. In the course of our day to day work it is amazing the way an issue crops up which deals with that type of problem. For instance, there is the issue of septic tanks. A constituent of mine has a septic tank which the local county council deems unsuitable for the house in which he is living. It says effluent is leaking into a lake and causing pollution via a very small stream that runs at the bottom of this man’s house. This septic tank was not installed by this man, nor was it put in outside the planning regulations. There is full planning permission for the septic tank and for the percolation area; the tank was put in about ten or 15 years ago. As far as this man is concerned, everything was done legitimately but because the percolation zone may not be up to scratch and some effluent is seeping into a very small stream, he has been told by the county council that he is causing pollution to the lake. Can this type of legislation be used to bring this man before the courts? The stream in question runs into a lake but if somebody were taking fresh water from the lake to supply water to a house or group of houses, he or she could technically be accused of polluting the water supply.
I raised this issue during the course of the Finance Bill 2004. I asked the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, to consider giving a tax credit to individuals facing this problem to allow them upgrade their septic tanks or percolation zone because this situation will recur. The man to whom I refer could be landed with a bill for a few thousand euro to make these adjustments which, in some respects, are not of his making because he fulfilled the necessary criteria.
The same applies to the farming community because under the nitrates directive, which is being implemented by the Department of Agriculture and Food, the same issue can arise, not relating to nitrates but perhaps to e.coli. If a farm is located upstream from this man’s house, who is to say where the e.coli detected downstream before it entered the lake came from? Was it human or from cattle? What about other pathogens that might be detected in the water? What standards do we set? This man can stand accused of polluting the waterway but just at the point where this stream enters the river there are fish swimming around in the water. Is that water polluted if it can sustain fish life?
We may find this legislation being used by county councils to force people to upgrade their septic tanks, force the farming community to change the way they store their effluent or force through an environmental law which does not appear to be the essence of this legislation. This issue should be cleared up because legislation often goes through Dáil Éireann without its Members having full regard to the consequences. The smoking ban is a good example of that. A vote was not called in Dáil Éireann on the smoking ban because there was unanimous agreement on that legislation. It was only when the legislation was enacted that many Members felt it was unjust or unreasonable and they would go to jail for it. When we have an opportunity to highlight aspects of legislation they should be clarified. We are only on Second Stage of this legislation and we can clarify on Committee Stage whether it could be used in the way I describe. It is stated throughout the legislation that the rules do not apply to Government and that these matters are the responsibility of the individual. However, the individual often finds it difficult to stand up to Government on such issues.
If the Minister is in a position to pay grants to the group water schemes to upgrade their systems, for instance, if there is a failure in the way the system was set up initially to deliver pure water to households, should we not reconsider giving grants or some concession to people who pollute a water supply, even if it is not done intentionally, in order to remedy this? It is a sad fact that all too often our environment is destroyed and polluted intentionally, whether through illegal dumping or run-off into rivers and streams. Many inland towns run raw sewage into rivers and destroy the environment. This legislation would not apply to the local authorities or anyone else who may be running tonnes of sewage into our rivers and lakes. Conversely, the council could use this legislation against an individual using a septic tank. That is a very serious issue.
Section 92 enables a water service authority to direct any person, other than the water service authority or its agents, who is already connected to its water service to facilitate extension of those services to another person through their pipes. A similar direction may be made to facilitate connection of another person’s premises to water storage facilities or related drains. When the Minister was drafting this legislation did he take on board the issue of property rights or business legislation? For example, a local authority might direct a builder who has applied for planning permission for a large number of houses to install a fairly expensive run-off system whether for storm water or waste water, or even a sewerage system for which he might have to cross a major road or difficult rocky terrain at great expense. Later, the same local authority might give an adjoining landowner or developer permission to develop another group of houses and force the first developer to share the waste pipe he installed. At present the two parties would have to negotiate and the second party would incur costs to cover some of the costs of the first party. The first builder could almost go broke in developing this pipe and other developers thereafter would reap the profit of his hard work. I do not see how this could be upheld by the High Court or any other forum dealing with property rights or business issues because it would be anti-competitive and would allow the first person to take most of the rap for what happens.
We are told that water metering is a European initiative to show how we use our water. Our problem with water and water pipes is leakage and waste through the system. People are not letting their taps run to the extent that thousands of gallons of water are running all over the place. We must balance the idea of metering every household with the cost. Have we balanced the cost of installing these meters in every household, as must happen if everyone is to be treated equally, against the cost of using that money to reduce the level of waste in the infrastructure? There is a great deal of water wasted through the infrastructure, some of which is good and some not, and some of which gets damaged, leaving us waiting a long time for it to be fixed.
The rural water schemes have been an excellent addition. Much work has been done on them and the bundling has dramatically improved the quality of the water. Some of these group schemes have achieved a high standard and this legislation may result in even higher standards, which are sought for the most part from private enterprise. We should seek the same standards from local authorities in regard to treatment of their water supplies, waste water and sewerage management. If we could push this legislation in that direction we might effect a dramatic improvement there.
Waste management is, and will remain, a very important issue, not only for the environment but also for the economy. Everyone knows Rosslare Europort in my area in County Wexford. It is the nearest port and the shortest crossing to continental Europe. There are many daily crossings to the United Kingdom and one might expect the area to be ripe for development but for some reason the hinterland of the ferryport has not been developed. People attribute this to poor local politics and lack of interest in the area, or the infrastructure, which is good but could be much better. There is an ongoing argument in the south east as to why Euroroutes 1 and 2 are not being developed, as they should have been over the past 30 years. One problem in the area, however, is the lack of a sewerage system. Raw sewage is pumped into the sea at Rosslare ferryport. The Taoiseach promised €13 million to deal with this but that has not materialised. We should consider how we provide waste water treatment services to the country.
Another village in Wexford with which I have dealings has built its own waste treatment plant. This is intended as a temporary measure until the system is connected. There is a significant quantity of ground water beneath these villages that could be polluted without a proper waste treatment system. Although we are focusing on good quality, clean, safe water for the public, waste water is the other side of the same coin. Management of the sewerage system has a major bearing on management of the water supply. An easy solution was to chlorinate the water to be dammed which would kill pathogens, but that has remarkably disimproved the quality of the water.
These two issues go hand in hand and I hope that, as a new Minister, Deputy Roche will show a more enlightened approach in terms of the quality of services we provide to the people we represent. I hope a different ethos will prevail so the position that existed 20 years ago, when we had better quality water, will be restored. We are making comparisons with what the EPA discovered perhaps five years ago but the standard with many group schemes in the early days was diabolical. We should be making comparisons with the water supply that may have been available to a more sparsely populated Ireland many years ago when there was less pollution, less industrialisation and less intensive agriculture.
I listened to the Minister introducing the Water Services Bill and I noted that at the end of his contribution he displayed generosity in thanking a number of the stakeholders. He mentioned, as one would expect because they deserve thanks, various interest groups, group water scheme operators, local authorities, industrial interests and others. Perhaps it was an oversight on his part but he did not thank the European Commission for keeping the pressure on us and ensuring that we delivered on the drinking water and urban waste water treatment directives, although he did refer to these during his contribution. The Commission deserves huge appreciation for not accepting the progress, such as it was, being made in these areas and for threatening as well as encouraging us to get on with implementing the directives. There was good reason for that.
The OECD report, particularly in terms of rural drinking water, indicated that an astonishing 400,000 people might be consuming substandard drinking water. That illustrates a glaring need for urgent, decisive and comprehensive action. When one considers aluminium, nitrate and even fluoride levels in various places, there is no doubt that this legislation is necessary. However, as other Members stated, more necessary still is the action that will follow its enactment. In 1995 and 1996, during the course of the debate on what is now the Waste Management Act, there was wonderful expectation about the measures that were to address the crisis with which we were then faced. That crisis remains with us and has become even worse, given that we create more waste each year. Many of the measures in that legislation remain mere words and have not yet been translated into action. I hope this will change and that the Water Services Bill will not follow in that tradition of sounding great but delivering proportionately a great deal less than one would expect.
The Minister has given us great cause to expect much of the legislation. He stated that it is designed to protect the integrity of water supplies and related ecosystems. That will be a tall order and it will require a major level of action. I am sure the Minister is aware of the position in An Cheathrú Rua i gConamara. Tá fadhb an-mhór ansin le fada an lá. Má tá aon chur amach ag an Aire ar an áit tuigfidh sé go bhfuil an córas séarachais lochtach agus go bhfuil an córas uisce ag baint uisce as an loch céanna atá truaillithe ag an séarachas.
The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, has stated that money has been provided but the problem persists. I spoke to people in Connemara who have not yet seen action. It is frustrating that money seems to have been provided but that action has not followed in a way in which one would imagine it should have done. The result is that people have no choice but to drink the water which has been so chlorinated to cope with the potential pollution that it is like drinking water from a swimming pool. That is completely unacceptable and this matter must be put on the Minister’s list of urgent things to do. The water scheme in Carraroe is a disgrace.
Not too far from Carraroe is Lough Corrib, which is associated with many activities, from tourism to fishing, that are central to our economy and which is also a source of water for Galway city. However, sewage from Oughterard, Cong and various other centres of population is being poured into it. The water from the lake can only be used for drinking purposes following heavy chlorination.
There are massive problems as regards the standard of water throughout the country. If it was not chlorinated, there would be even further problems. The matter has reached crisis point in many places. The Minister stated there are difficulties with the quality of water, particularly in the rural water sector. He will be aware that he has put the matter mildly. If the Minister visits Kilnaboy in the area represented by the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, I am sure the latter will be quick to inform him——
Mr. Sargent: I am sure the Minister of State can outline the relevant details but I will certainly provide him with a cue. Not only is the scheme there falling apart but, again, as with Carraroe, there are wonderful plans to put matters right. However, those plans have been on the long finger for such an extended period that individuals have taken to drilling their own wells. Not only are matters becoming disorganised but the long-term sustainable supply is being jeopardised.
The Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Cullen, stated that €300 million worth of grants remain unclaimed by local authorities. Although it was stated that this money will be used, it sounds as if the Minister, Deputy Roche, has a serious and urgent job to do to ensure the plans designed to provide improvements to the system are implemented. The Bill sounds great but the level of action does not give huge cause for optimism.
I am interested in hearing the Minister’s remarks in respect of public private partnerships. He used the term “operational reality” in his initial contribution. If that is not what one might term softening up the ground, I do not know what is. The operational reality may well be translated as meaning that public private partnerships seem the best route to take. If operational realities result in PPPs in one form or another, we will then be obliged to discuss commercial realities. This brings us to the thorny question of water charges.
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