€100 water grant to be deducted from refunds but delays possible
The €100 conservation grant given to households is to be deducted from water charge refunds that will be paid out in the coming months.
Housing Minister Simon Coveney is to begin work on a refund scheme after the Dáil's Easter break, but will face a major headache in devising a fair process.
The report of the water committee states the Department of Housing ensures "equity of treatment for those who have paid and have not paid water charges".
The maximum amount paid by a family for water during the charging regime was €325.
But the committee has told the minister to factor in payments made by the State through the water conservation grant into "consideration".
The Department of Social Protection forked out over €89m in water conservation grants to 890,104 households in 2015.
This figure included an unknown number of households that had not paid their water charges and households that relied on a Group Water Scheme and therefore never had to pay charges.
Informed sources told the Irish Independent it will require "a heavy workload" to match those who received grants with those who paid their bills.
Such a move would be likely to delay the refunds by months and would also raise questions about whether people who got the grant but didn't pay bills should now have to hand it back to the State.
A spokesperson for Mr Coveney said there has been "no discussion on it as yet" but added he is committed to enacting the report's recommendations.
Almost one million households will be entitled to refunds worth a total of €162.5m.
Only 20pc of Irish Water customers paid using direct debit meaning a significant administrative effort will be required to give households their money back.
Irish Water outsourced the operation of its domestic billing to customer care company Abtran, but has scaled down its contract over the past 12 months "to reflect the service needs as a result of the suspension of domestic billing".
Fianna Fáil's water spokesman Barry Cowen last night described the grant as a "bribe to sweeten a rotten deal".
He vehemently defended his party's stance on water over recent days, saying the country "did not want another election that would resolve nothing".
"The water charges regime introduced by Fine Gael and Labour was a complete and utter failure. By any metric it had failed to achieve its objectives.
"After a dizzying series of over 12 U-Turns the government actually lost money on domestic water tariffs," Mr Cowen told the Dáil. He also attacked Sinn Féin and the Labour Party, saying: "While other parties were content to take a 10 week holiday we sought to lead and then help facilitate a government."
Mr Coveney told a meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators that the country had "moved on" from the water debate.
He went on to tell the Dáil that the water committee's report delivers a coherent way forward "that will not only enable us to demonstrate compliance with our environmental obligations but will also secure a sound future for the delivery of high-quality water services to households throughout Ireland".
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar yesterday refused to describe the outcome of Fine Gael's water battle with Fianna Fáil as a win for his leadership rival Mr Coveney.
Mr Varadkar said the Fine Gael team on the water committee "achieved the best deal that was possible based on the Dáil arithmetic".
However, he refused to engage to say whether it was a "win" for the Housing Minister, telling reporters: "I'm not going to get into that space."
Sinn Féin's Eoin Ó Broin criticised the deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but said people who were "bullied" into paying charges will get refunds.