Sunday 4 December 2016

Referendum on water would put the issue to bed, but this deal is a complete cop-out

Published 05/05/2016 | 02:30

'Holding a referendum on water at an estimated cost of €15m would put the issue to bed once and for all' (stock photo)
'Holding a referendum on water at an estimated cost of €15m would put the issue to bed once and for all' (stock photo)

Anyone who believed that clarity would finally be brought to bear on the water question following weeks of negotiations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be bitterly disappointed.

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Among the worst aspects of this sorry mess is that the parties didn't even have the gumption to commit to the one measure which would have put one of the most contentious aspects of the water controversy to bed.

There is no reference to holding a referendum to retain the water network in public ownership.

If this were held, and presumably passed, the concern about Irish Water and the network being prepared for sale would end, and a proper debate on funding services could begin.

It's curious that the tracks and infrastructure for Luas is publicly owned but operated by a private company - but this doesn't foster a debate over privatisation. Holding a referendum on water at an estimated cost of €15m would put the issue to bed once and for all.

On water, the so-called 'Confidence and Supply Arrangement' is lacking detail and includes no less than three committees or advisory bodies which will help shape future policy.

The first is a statutory external advisory body charged with building public confidence in Irish Water. It will advise on the measures needed to improve transparency, to include the utility's performance, staffing numbers and remuneration, efficiency and network improvements.

But there is no question of using the advisory bodies already in place.

There is no mention of asking the water regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), or Irish Water to publish or provide data on cost savings, efficiencies achieved and procurement. Given that the CER and Irish Water also has information on staffing numbers and salaries, it could also provide information in this regard, which could be independently verified.

The advisory body could, of course, report that Irish Water is hopelessly overstaffed and completely inefficient, and that could present the Government with an even bigger headache.

Why? Because the CER is tasked with ensuring Irish Water operates efficiently and effectively. If the advisory group says it is not, what does that mean for the regulator, which also looks after the gas and electricity markets?

A second group is the expert commission tasked with making recommendations on the long-term funding model for water services.

It will report to a third group, an Oireachtas committee, within five months. The Oireachtas committee will lay out a series of recommendations to the Dáil. TDs will ultimately decide if bills are back on the agenda. But it's curious that the Public Water Forum isn't referenced in the agreement.

No contact has been made by the parties, which seems to be a missed opportunity given the forum is made up of both paying and non-paying domestic customers - and other stakeholders - and could certainly have advised as to the issues of most concern.

Finally, the agreement says nothing about paying, or not paying, bills. This is an appalling situation for households. The parties simply aren't brave enough to state in print that the law of the land is that bills are due and must be paid. And so they instead provide this asinine line: "We affirm that those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably than those who have not." Like the rest of this mess, it's a cop-out.

Irish Independent

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