Wednesday 7 December 2016

Cabinet split as no quick resolution over unpaid water charges expected

Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

Published 02/12/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny refused to rule out refunds. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Taoiseach Enda Kenny refused to rule out refunds. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

A major split has emerged within Government over how to deal with the fallout from unpaid water charges, with ministers and the Taoiseach openly expressing different views.

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Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has emphatically backed his Fine Gael leadership rival Simon Coveney's position that there should be no refunds for people who paid water charges - but Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Transport Minister Shane Ross have refused to rule it out.

Although he did not state a firm view on the issue, Finance Minister Michael Noonan has told TDs he wants the "dead cat off the field" before the next election. But Mr Varadkar said he did not believe the issue would be resolved that quickly.

"I think ideally we would like to resolve every pressing issue before the next election. I'm not sure if that's realistic," he said, noting that legislation will be needed to change the existing regime.

The minister has proposed applying attachment orders to houses which could see Irish Water collecting the unpaid bills over years and even decades.

"Certainly my own view is that they shouldn't be refunded," Mr Varadkar said. "There are other legally established charges or bills, for example the household charge, management company fees, previous water charges and bin charges.

"All of those are outstanding debts against an individual or a property and they are all ultimately recovered.

"There are still people even today who are selling on houses and are finding out that they have a bill that they have to discharge before they sell the house."

However, Mr Ross said he believed there was a "good case" for paying out refunds because it was "unlikely" that Irish Water would be able to collect the outstanding money.

Read more: 'I don't want to commit to anything' - Taoiseach doesn't rule out refunds for water charges

Read more: 'No refund for water billpayers' - Coveney says it would set ‘dangerous precedent’

"I think that there's a very good case for refunding them. If people are going to be let off, then I think there's a very good case for refunding those who have already paid them, yes I do," he said.

And speaking in San Francisco, Mr Kenny repeatedly refused to rule out refunds, saying he wants to see what the Oireachtas committee on water proposes.

Mr Coveney has insisted since the publication of the Expert Commission on Water's report that Fine Gael's position is that everybody should pay their outstanding debt.

But when asked directly if he agreed with his minister's line on refunds, Mr Kenny avoided the question.

"I don't want to commit to anything now until such time as the committee is allowed to do its work," he said.

He pointed out that Fine Gael's position during the negotiations to form a government was that there would be a national public utility for water, metering to determine usage and to find leaks, and a "fair and affordable charging regime".

Meanwhile, junior minister Seán Canney has said rural families who use their own well or a privately funded group water scheme must be treated equally with their urban counterparts.

"The current debate is unfortunately ignoring the hundreds of homes across Ireland who are connected to group water and waste water schemes," the Independent Alliance TD said.

"Group water schemes are run on a voluntary basis and provide water for thousands across the country.

"People are paying into these schemes on an annual basis through a charge. The schemes are managed on very small budgets in order to keep costs to a minimum."

Mr Canney said if the majority of the population were to receive water that was paid for through general taxation, "we need to make sure that those people on private water and private waste water treatment plants are not unfairly penalised".

"People are calling for a fair and just method of providing water to our citizens - I have heard very little about the people who have been paying for decades through private group schemes and it would be a complete disservice to them if we did not take on board their concerns," he said.

Irish Water moves focus away from bills - but won't be drawn on refunds

Irish Water has not made any significant reduction to its staffing levels despite not issuing any domestic bills since May. The utility has a contract with Abtran to provide a range of services, including billing.

A spokesperson said that since the suspension of charges the focus has been on providing information regarding leaks, outages, boil water notices and other incidences and events affecting water supply and usage.

"Abtran also handle non-domestic billing which is currently transferring from local authorities on a phased basis from this month as planned.

"The contract can be scaled up and down to reflect the service needs of Irish Water, such as the suspension of domestic billing," the spokesperson said.

Asked whether the resources would be available to administer a refund scheme, they said: "Decision on refunds or outstanding debt are a matter for government."

Irish Independent

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