Wednesday 20 November 2019

Families to profit from €100 with water refunds but 'money won't fall from the sky'

Legal difficulties in deducting conservation grant from repayments - Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Tom Burke
(Stock photo)

Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

Families are set to make a profit off the ill-fated water charges after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted it will be "extremely difficult" to deduct the €100 conservation grant from refunds.

As Irish Water gears up to repay almost one million households their money, it has emerged they will be allowed keep a 'Burton bonus'.

For months it has been Government policy that the grant handed out by former Tánaiste Joan Burton in 2015 would have to be deducted from refunds.

But Mr Varadkar has now indicated it may not even be legal to do this as the grant was never formally linked to water charges.

Although it was used by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition as an attempt to take the heat out of the water charges debate, it was presented to the European Commission as a measure aimed at encouraging households to invest in water conservation tools for their homes.

And more than 190,000 households who never paid water charges managed to claim the grant on these grounds.

Government sources told the Irish Independent that any attempt to build a connection between Irish Water's records of bill-payers and the Department of Social Protection's record of people who received the grant could delay refunds by months.

Asked yesterday whether the Government will now simply allow people to keep their €100 and receive refunds on charges, Mr Varadkar said: "I agree it would be extremely difficult logistically and legally to net off the water grant."

He reiterated his commitment to have the first refunds issued this autumn, with almost one million households set to get up to €325 back by Christmas.

"The absolute principle we are applying is that those people who paid their water charges, who are law-abiding citizens, who did as the Government asked and the law said, should not be disadvantaged in any way over those who did not," he said.

"When the water conservation grant was paid, it was paid on the basis that it was separate to water charges. And indeed people availed of that grant who did not pay water charges for one reason or another, often people on group schemes."

The Taoiseach was still unable to state where the €170m needed for refunds would come from, but he said by the end of the year money would become available because of underspending in some departments.

But he added: "There's no point in pretending this money is going to fall out of the sky. Any money that the Government spends is taxpayers' money. In this case we're just giving taxpayers back their money."

Fianna Fáil has welcomed news of the refunds but accused Mr Varadkar of being "vague" about how they will be funded.

The party's housing spokesman Barry Cowen told the Irish Independent he wanted to know what departments had underspent and what affect that was having on services.

In relation to the grant, he said Fianna Fáil wanted details as to why it should not be deducted from refunds.

"As was the case with the charges themselves, maybe it's cheaper to pay people back than go after those who didn't pay," he said.

The Government spent almost €6m in administration costs on the controversial grant.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection said that within this cost, an administration system to support queries from customers which required "bespoke builds" to provide "the capacity to solely support the water grant cost €898,000".

Information and communications technology infrastructure cost €691,000. It is intended that this will be reused for the provision of other online services.

Irish Independent

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