Thursday 23 May 2019

Water charges to be scrapped - but no refund on bills

The latest from the ongoing Government talks

Water issues continues to dog Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Water issues continues to dog Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Niall O'Connor, John Downing and Kevin Doyle

Water charges are to be scrapped for the foreseeable future after Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil edged towards a deal that will see Enda Kenny elected as Taoiseach.

The parties have agreed to suspend bills for all Irish Water customers and to kick the issue to a commission of independent experts.

However, households who have paid their charges up to now will not get refunds. Instead Irish Water will continue to chase those who have boycotted bills for arrears.

The findings of the commission, which will sit for up to nine months, will be referred to a cross-party Oireachtas committee which will have the power to call witnesses.

No definitive timeline has been agreed for when the committee would finish its work, but one senior sources suggested tonight the issue should be resolved by the summer of 2017.

The committee will have full scope to advise the Dáil to abolish charges, introduce a new model of charging or stick with the existing system.

The Dáil's 157 TDs will then debate and vote on the issue - but sources in Fianna Fáil said that given the make-up of the 32nd Dáil, they do not envisage charges being reintroduced.

A senior source told the Irish Independent: "This means the effective end of water charges for this Dáil term."

From Fine Gael's perspective, the deal on water will ensure Enda Kenny is re-elected Taoiseach, possibly as early as next Wednesday.

The Irish Independent has learned that as part of the compromise Fianna Fáil has accepted that Irish Water will remain in place as a public utility.

A new statutory advisory body is to be set up to monitor the company's work and "to improve transparency" at the utility.

It will operate independently of the company and report directly to an Oireachtas committee.

The commission is also likely to examine the rural-urban divide when it comes to water charges, meaning there could be some financial relief down the line for householders who are part of group water schemes.

Fianna Fáil will describe the deal as a victory as it now prepares to support a minority Fine Gael government for three budgets.

But party leader Micheál Martin is likely to still face criticism from Sinn Féin and other left-wing TDs when the Dáil sits today.

Both party leaders must also persuade their respective parliamentary parties to back the deal today.

Meanwhile, a Fine Gael TD has slammed the acting Government over their inability to let rank and file members know what is going on with the negotiations

Fine Gael Wexford backbench TD Michael W. D'Arcy admitted he was in “the dark” regarding the Government negotiations and what is happening with the water charges.

“Unfortunately Fine Gael backbenchers have in the dark for some time.

"I am hearing conversations  that a deal has been done and that could be the case. As of now of I don’t have information on that deal.

In an interview with Morning Ireland, Mr D’Arcy said that there are “difficulties” for the people who have already paid their water charges

“If we are suspending charges, those people should get their money back. It is sending out all of the wrong signals. It is going to be very difficult to charge people for anything now. It will be difficult to get people to pay taxes.”

Mr D’Arcy said that Fianna Gael have “rolled over on water charges”.

“Ten days we were told in the Parliamentary Party that we weren’t going to accept any changes to Irish Water. We decided it was the correct thing to do. Here we are – less than two weeks later – doing a complete U-turn.”

The two negotiating teams are due to meet again in Trinity College to finalise the detail of the minority arrangement.

There are a small number of outstanding issues still to be teased out by the two parties including rent supplement, mortgage interest relief and in education.

But a source said: "If we can crack Irish Water, we can work through those."

It is expected that it will take another two to three days for the final deal to be thrashed out, with Mr Kenny now likely to be re-elected as Taoiseach towards the middle of next week.

Fianna Fáil has said it will agree to facilitate a Fine Gael-led minority government until the summer of 2018, but they are willing to extend this until the autumn so that three budgets can be passed.

Mr Kenny had earlier surprised his ministers after claiming that they had attended their last Cabinet meeting.

He told the meeting that "history will be kind" to the Fine Gael/Labour Party government and thanked his ministers for their service.

One minister present said had he interpreted Mr Kenny's remarks as meaning a second election was imminent.

Irish Independent

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