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Thursday 31 July 2014

Taxpayers take soaking over water allowance for children

Liam Fay

Published 05/07/2014|02:30

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14/01/2014 Irish Water chief executive John Tierney arrives for a special meeting of the Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht at Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
John Tierney

Moses may have parted the Red Sea but Irish Water bosses have succeeded in summoning up a much more audacious aquatic rift: splitting the water-metered populace into opposed factions. Far from helping anyone escape to the promised land, however, this particular parting of the waves will simply ensure that taxpayers on both sides get soaked.

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The revelation that Irish Water is seeking a reduction in the amount of free water to which children will be entitled when water charges kick in was greeted by public outrage.

Just about everyone recoiled at the idea that any of the nation's kiddiewinks – the little angels with dirty faces for whom geysers of cleansing water are an hourly necessity – would be denied a single drop of the original proposed allowance of 38,000 litres per year.

However, the debate's apparently crystal-clear simplicity was soon muddied. It emerged that Irish Water wants to reduce the free allocation because of evidence suggesting it's an over-generous figure that will unfairly increase the tariff imposed on householders who do not have children. Suddenly, the controversy was transformed. We were no longer dealing with a standard bout of hostilities between the hard-pressed public and hard-hearted officialdom.

What we had instead was a new front in the deeper, more elemental battle between freeloaders and the self-reliant. A just war.

The rationale for Irish Water's rethink is straightforward. Data from the water meters which have been installed thus far indicates that 38,000 litres is an exaggeration of the average child's annual usage.

Funding this 'free' allowance increases the charges on homes without children so, in the interests of fairness, the company wants a smaller allocation. Fairness, however, is in the eye of the householder, and the move has sparked an outbreak of water-consumer faction fighting. While it would be pushing things to claim that Irish Water deliberately raised this contentious issue as a diversionary tactic, there is no denying that the hoo-ha comes as a relief for a utility which was hitherto mired in scandals about gross overspending. The spotlight has already fallen on Irish Water chief John Tierney who has rejected requests to appear in front of TDs in relation to his role in the disastrous Poolbeg Incinerator.

Mutual resentment between parents and the childfree – especially those who choose to be childfree – is one of those underlying social tensions that occasionally erupts with startling vehemence. The intentionally childless are often denounced as lazy, selfish and feckless by the more truculent parents, many of whom seem enraged by the thought of all the guiltless, unrestricted fun that childfree people are supposedly having. The reality, however, is that a sizable number of these would-be blissfully childless couples appear to have nothing better to do with their abundant leisure time than complain about the iniquities of 'the breeders', with their footpath-blocking buggies and paid maternity leave. A row over childfree households subsidising the water charges of homes where children live was always destined to be noisy and furious, and that's precisely how it turned out. The topic provided plenty of fodder for radio phone-ins and, predictably, the discussion wandered all over the place. From Irish Water's perspective, however, this unseemly squabble was a PR triumph: for the first time since the utility was established, water charges were being talked about without any reference to the shortcomings of the water charge collectors.

'Divide and conquer' is a maxim that has served the ruling class well for centuries. Its usefulness as a tool of modern-day austerity imposition is grossly underestimated.

Sometimes, the divisions are forced on the citizenry by outside agencies but, more often than not, they are of our own making. It's a perfect example of how Irish people love to join forces against a common enemy: each other. Irish Water admits that reducing the free children's allowance would result in only a slight decrease in the bills of childfree households – and that's the real point. By falling out with one another over a drop in the bucket, we lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the population is trapped in the same leaky boat.

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