Water deal back on table as FG softens its stance on wastage penalties
The prospect of a deal being struck on the issue of water charges has moved a step closer after senior Fine Gael figures said they are now open to the idea of using existing legislation to penalise wastage.
A report by the chairman of the Oireachtas Water Committee, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, will today set out a series of compromise proposals in a bid to end the stand-off between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
It's understood the report will call for a "scoping exercise" to take place to determine whether a little known 2007 law could be amended in order to deal with households that waste water.
The scoping exercise into changes to the 2007 Water Services Act will be carried out in conjunction with lawyers for the Oireachtas. Mr Ó Céidigh will also seek more time so that the committee members can resolve their differences.
The 2007 act provides for a €5,000 maximum fine and /or a prison sentence of up to three months for offenders.
Fine Gael, through Housing Minister Simon Coveney, has insisted that EU law is understood to require water charges at a minimum for those who excessively use or who waste water.
Mr Coveney has said this is his advice from the Attorney General - and the Government cannot allow arrangements that break EU law and could lead to heavy fines.
But Fianna Fáil has produced its own legal advice which contends that the EU legal requirement can be met by the 2007 law.
In an indication that Fine Gael is to budge on the issue, party sources said they could go down the proposed route provided that the amendments were "significant".
"There needs to be a compromise found this week. But we would only back an option that is legally sound," one source said.
Fianna Fáil has maintained that it will not support a proposal to roll out an excess charge, with sources last night insisting the party's position won't change. It has proposed a penalty points-style system to deal with the issue of wastage.
But Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe yesterday rowed into the row as he criticised Fianna Fáil over the stance it has adopted to date.
Mr Donohoe said there could be consequences for the taxpayer if people were pursued through the courts.
"For any government to find itself in a situation where it has to deal with fining people for excess water usage, or taking them to court for excess water usage, but is not in a position to be able to charge them a moderate amount for that usage, would present even greater difficulty for water policy than what we have at the moment," Mr Donohoe said.
The Dublin Central TD is understood to have begun analysing the potential impact on the State's finances resulting from any decision to issue refunds to households that have paid their bills.
A draft report circulated to committee members last week states that householders have paid €100m to Irish Water and that "those householders be refunded in the most effective way possible".