State breaking EU quality rules since halting water bills
Ireland is in breach of EU rules aimed at improving water quality by failing to impose domestic charges.
The Dáil Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services has been told by the European Commission that once the decision was taken to suspend charges last year, the State ceased to comply with the Water Framework Directive which aims to improve water quality.
The question of whether Ireland must impose a charge to comply with EU law is central to the committee's discussions.
Opposition TDs have claimed that charging is not "established practice", but the commission warned fines running to "tens of millions of euro" could be imposed unless drinking water quality improved, and wastewater was properly treated.
Representative Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea insisted that Ireland no longer enjoyed a derogation on imposing a charge because in 2009 it told the commission that a tariff would be introduced, which later occurred under the EU/IMF bailout.
However, member states could impose "social tariffs" for "vulnerable citizens" who might not be able to afford to pay.
"Any water pricing policy must comply with cost recovery and polluter pays, but there is wide scope for application," he said.
"There are objective elements to say that currently, Ireland is not complying with the Water Framework Directive once it has suspended the application of water charges."
He also said that if it was decided to impose a charge for excessive usage of water, it should be set sufficiently high to be "dissuasive".
Only by continuing the metering programme could the State assess what normal levels of usage were.
But opposition TDs, including Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen and Paul Murphy of AAA/PbP, said that charges were not acceptable to a large number of people, with many households refusing to pay, and were therefore not "established practice".
This meant the State could avail of the derogation which applied before 2009 and fund water services from general taxation.
However, the commission said a derogation could only be sought where it did not compromise the objective of the Water Framework Directive which was to improve water quality.