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Monday 20 November 2017

Irish Water will pay former council staff to do nothing

Workers can't be made redundant even if they are no longer needed

John Tierney, Managing Director, Irish Water. Pic:Maxwells-no fee
John Tierney, Managing Director, Irish Water. Pic:Maxwells-no fee
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

COUNCIL staff who are no longer needed to run water services will be paid to do nothing, under deals agreed between Irish Water and the country's local authorities.

Legal agreements signed in recent months – and seen by the Irish Independent – also show that councils could be in line for bonuses from Irish Water for meeting specific targets, such as cutting the cost of operating the network.

The controversial deals are in place because Irish Water is not allowed to make staff redundant under agreements with trade unions.

The revelations come amid mounting controversy about Irish Water, which will pay the salaries of more than 4,000 council workers who currently run the water network.

Economic think tank the ESRI claims that this is twice the number the company needs – and customers will pay higher water charges as a result.

However, Irish Water questioned this figure last night, and asked for further clarification on it.

"Irish Water was in contact with ESRI today in relation to the figure and we understand that ESRI accept that the figure was not put forward by Irish Water," said a statement.

The ESRI, however, stood over its calculation and said it was based on savings that could be achieved when efficiencies were introduced.

The number of people likely to be paid to do nothing has not been quantified.

As more plants become automated and operations are streamlined, a number of existing workers will find themselves surplus to requirements.

But under the agreements between Irish Water and the 34 local authorities, those workers will not be made redundant.

The options of redeployment or changes in duties will have to be explored by both sides.

The latest revelations about the start-up of Irish Water come in the wake of widespread criticism of how the company was established, including an ¿86m spend on outside consultants and plans to pay bonuses to staff of as much as 15pc.

Service level agreements (SLAs) between councils and Irish Water show:

* "Incentive payments" can be made if councils meet performance targets, such as reducing the cost of operating the network.

* Local authorities must provide car parking to Irish Water staff "where reasonably feasible".

* They must also provide other "support services" including IT, human resources, pensions, legal services and facilities such as offices.

* Irish Water and councils will undertake a "pragmatic" re-branding strategy, introducing the Irish Water logo at treatment plants and other facilities over time.

* Local authority staff will have to take part in "customer service workshops" to help improve services.

* Irish Water can suspend or terminate the agreements in the event of "significant failures" by the local authority.

The ongoing revelations have sparked consternation at the top level of Government, with some Labour TDs expressing frustration with Environment Minister Phil Hogan's attitude towards the new body.

Irish Water is a new utility company that is responsible for delivering safe drinking water and sewage facilities to 1.8 million customers including 220,000 businesses.

It will also oversee the controversial metering programme with water charges to be introduced from next October.

The SLAs, which were signed in recent months, will be in place for the next 12 years and councils will be paid an annual sum to cover their costs.

The SLAs state that in cases where local authorities have changed work practices to reduce costs or meet performance targets, but the expected savings have not been achieved, then Irish Water will continue to pay the higher costs.

This includes, according to the documents, paying the "costs of staff that are surplus to the local authority's staffing requirements".


Irish Water insisted it would not pay for "excessive" numbers of people being employed but said where savings or efficiencies were identified, which "proved incapable of being achieved in the time envisaged", there was provision for both sides to decide how to address the issue.

This included redeploying staff or giving them additional duties, and only "legitimately approved costs" would be used by the regulator when deciding household bills.

"Ultimately Irish Water will at all times be in control of the budget and will have governance and oversight of all expenditure," a spokeswoman said.

She added there was "no intent" at present to pay incentives to local authorities, but said it was provided for in the future.

Local authority workers are protected by the Haddington Road agreement between public sector unions and Government.

However, Irish Water said that a voluntary redundancy package could be introduced to help reduce numbers, and that numbers would fall as older workers retired.

The SLAS set out the responsibilities of the country's 34 city and county councils which will operate the water network on behalf of Irish Water for 12 years.

The SLAs are in place until 2025 and will be subject to review in 2016 and again in 2021.

Annual reviews will also take place, where specific targets will be included and details of capital works and cost-saving measures identified.

The deals provide that Irish Water pay the costs of operating the network, including staff costs and payments towards pensions.

Some ¿490m will be spent on operations this year, and another €240m upgrading the network and completing capital projects.

Local authorities will invoice Irish Water for the operational costs every month, and sources insisted that "robust systems" were in place to control costs.

"If we can make significant savings by changing work practices, that's to the benefit of Irish Water," one said.

"The SLAs provide a flexible framework. Performance targets will be set out in terms of what we're trying to achieve for individual schemes.

"I think it's very sensible. There has to be something in this for the local authorities."

Irish Independent

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