Monday 27 May 2019

Irish Water latest: Non-payers will not be pursued for water bills

Irish Water latest: Micheal Martin, Simon Coveney and Enda Kenny
Irish Water latest: Micheal Martin, Simon Coveney and Enda Kenny

Niall O'Connor and Kevin Doyle

Householders who did not pay water charges are unlikely to be pursued, while those that did stump up the money are set to be denied a refund.

Existing legislation says arrears must be above €500 before a person can be taken to court, meaning non-payers are likely to escape sanction.

And it is doubtful that those who have paid will get refunds - as it would require Irish Water to reprocess more than two million financial transactions.

There was widespread confusion within Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil last night as senior sources in both parties struggled to explain how they will deal with the fallout from the suspension of charges.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney and Finance Minister Michael Noonan assured Fine Gael's parliamentary party that Irish Water will continue to seek arrears from anyone who has not paid a bill.

Their comments echoed the approach taken by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin earlier in the Dáil when he indicated the focus would be on chasing non-payers rather than refunds.

Simon Coveney. Photo: Mark Condren
Simon Coveney. Photo: Mark Condren

"Unlike others our position is that you don't get to pick and choose what lawful payments you make. What is lawfully owed should be paid," he said.

However, sources last night told the Irish Independent that this could prove problematic as the Civil Debt Procedures Bill, which allows unpaid bills to be taken from wages and social welfare payments, applies to debts between €500 and €4,000.

A family's annual water bill was capped by the outgoing government at €260, meaning a household would need two years' worth of unpaid bills before they can be taken to court.

Water charges only came into force on January 1, 2015.

It has also been suggested that the issue of refunds could be assessed by the all-party Oireachtas committee on water which will be set up as part of the compromise deal between the two parties.

However, that would mean that it will be at least a year before a decision on giving 900,000 people money back.

A meeting of Fianna Fáil TDs was last night split on how to address the issue. And there was significant concern expressed over how the party will approach votes of confidence on ministers when the minority government is appointed.

Mr Martin told the party that if Sinn Féin consistently table motions of no confidence in the Taoiseach or ministers then Fianna Fáil will be obliged to side with Fine Gael.

During a sometimes fraught meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators, acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny assured his party that the deal done with Fianna Fáil was the "best possible option".

There were angry contributions from a number of TDs, with Wexford deputy Michael D'arcy saying the decision to suspend charges "will come back to haunt us".

And Sports Minister Michael Ring warned water charges will "never be returned" if the party proceeds with suspension.

Earlier, during a four-hour Dáil debate on water, Mr Coveney said Fine Gael was still committed to charges. He said that once the all-party committee reports back to the Dáil, TDs will need to make a decision.

"Do we accept independent expert advice about what is best for the country and vote accordingly or do we retreat behind party political positions designed for electoral gain?" he asked. "Fine Gael will vote for a charging regime that supports the best principles of water conservation and the provision of clean water."

Asked about the potential implications for its staff of the latest developments, Irish Water said: "When we are informed by government of any policy decisions that affect Irish Water or water charges we will assess the implications of those decisions for our customers, our operations and for our staff."

Irish Independent

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