All children to get 'free' water under Cabinet deal
The Cabinet is today expected to agree a deal that will effectively give families free water for every child under the age of 18.
Fine Gael and Labour are close to agreeing a special allowance for children which sources say will cover "100pc of water usage by every child", regardless of the income of the household. This is designed to protect big families who would otherwise be hit with unfairly large water bills.
Under the proposals to be signed off today, households in financial difficulty will be able to apply to their local community welfare officer for help to pay their water charges.
In addition, people receiving a state pension, an invalidity pension or disability allowance will be entitled to a discount of €100 on their water charges.
Sources in both parties insisted that the average family will pay €240 per year.
The Irish Independent has learnt that Fine Gael and Labour appear to have finally agreed on water charges following days of intense negotiations by party strategists.
Parties have agreed on direct payments which will vary for people who are in severe financial difficulties.
The Government had been considering the introduction of waivers for groups such as welfare recipients.
However, senior government sources last night confirmed that the introduction of a waiver for dole claimants was no longer on the table.
Fine Gael is adamant that it rejected such a proposal because a waiver would have resulted in higher bills for middle and lower-income workers.
“A waiver for welfare recipients would also have proved to be a disincentive for those seeking to get back to work,” said a senior Fine Gael source.
Following days of at times tense discussions, both parties appear to have finally agreed on a package, which entails:
* The elimination of a proposed standing charge.
* A special allowance for all children under the age of 18.
* A benefits package for a number of groups, including the disabled, pensioners and carers.
* Households that are not metered will be charged based on the number of adult occupants rather than the size or type of the property
Taoiseach Enda Kenny last night said he expected the water charges issue to be concluded at Cabinet today.
“As we have pointed out, and as the Tanaiste pointed out, there are particular categories within the communities that are vulnerable and we already have referred to those in the past few weeks including elderly. I hope we can conclude that tomorrow.”
Environment Minister Phil Hogan said: “We have an agreement reached between Fine Gael and Labour in relation to the water reform package and it will be released after the cabinet meeting tomorrow.”
Although families will dread the prospect of being billed for water from October, it appears that the Coalition has finally reached a point of clarity on the measures being rolled out.
Significantly, Fine Gael and Labour strategists have reached agreement on so-called hardship payments.
The Government is looking to allow people in difficulty to apply for money from community welfare officers, rather |than receive discounts on their bills.
“The intention there is anyone with a particular difficulty will, through the community welfare system, be able to apply for funding,” a source said.
They added that the Government could not provide direct payments to Irish Water in respect of bills, because it could breach EU state aid rules.
However, allowing welfare officers to make direct payments to individuals – which would be earmarked to pay water bills – was allowed.
“If it was to be done through the Department of Social Protection package it would be considered investment from the Government,” one source said.
“If somebody gets it from a hardship payment, it goes to them and not to Irish Water.”
Details on how the “first-fix free” policy – where Irish Water will repair leaks in people's homes from the mains to the front door – will be discussed at today’s cabinet meeting.
For the 75pc of households who will not be metered before billing starts in October, sources say bills will be levied based on the number of adults living in a property. Some 27,000 meters a month are being installed and these homeowners will be added to the metered billing system over time.
It had previously been suggested that the Government was considering charging these homes, believed to be in the region of one million, based on the type of the property.
However, senior Labour sources insisted this model was “grossly unfair”.
While both parties are claiming credit for the progress made in recent days, ministers are well aware of the difficulty of introducing a new tax during an election year.
Senior Fine Gael sources however emphasised that the agreement on a hardship package will “be of significant assistance to vulnerable and elderly people”.