Opposition urges schools to defer paying water fees
THE government faces an embarrassing climbdown over a €21.5m "stealth" water tax that 80pc of primary schools schools say they cannot afford to pay.
Fine Gael and Labour last night tabled a motion calling on schools to "defer" paying water bills until the government introduces a "fairer" system.
It means Fianna Fail members will be forced to table their own motion or amendment to the controversial water bills scheme.
Metering is being introduced on a phased basis around the country at present.
Former finance minister Ruairi Quinn claimed that when all primary and second-level schools were metered, they would have to pay €21.5m a year. A significant minority of principals say they favour refusing to pay the bills, even though they risk their water supplies being cut-off or severe interest penalties imposed.
Nearly half of the schools surveyed by the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) received bills recently of up to €2,000, while 11.8pc received bills of €2,000-€5,000 and 3.6pc were billed between €5,000-€10,000.
Both the IPPN and Fine Gael called on schools to 'defer' paying these bills until the Government introduces a fairer system. They denied that they were asking schools to break the law.
Labour and Fine Gael have tabled a motion for an emergency meeting today of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science calling for a deferral of charges. The INTO has also called for a moratorium.
The committee has seven Fianna Fail representatives and seven opposition members, and the meeting was called by its chairperson, Green Party TD Paul Gogarty.
Officials from the Departments of Education and the Environment will be questioned at the session. The Fine Gael-Labour motion came as something of a surprise as Deputy Gogarty was hoping instead for recommendations from the committee.
The motion will put the Fianna Fail members on the spot but they can table their own motion or amendment from the floor at today's session.
It appears that Education Minister Mary Hanafin has been wrong-footed by the growing anger in schools.
Urgent talks are continuing between the two departments to resolve the crisis, with Ms Hanafin thinking of establishing a threshold for exemptions, above which schools would have to pay.
However, there are fears that if the limit is too generous, then others will seek similar exemptions. Already Youth Work Ireland has called for an exemption in water charges to apply to the non-formal education sector and to any relevant charities dealing with children and young people.
And farmers in Co Sligo have set up a committee which is taking the case of high charges to the European Parliament.
Government ministers have been blaming the EU's Water Framework Directive which comes into full force only in 2010.
However, commission sources say the directive requires members to prepare the way for implementation.
"The purpose of water pricing is not to charge for the sake of it, but to send a price signal not to waste a resource that requires expensive infrastructure to deliver.
"If there is no water pricing, then there is a high risk of water wastage. That could cause the objectives of the directive to fail," said the sources.
Ironically, the European Affairs Minister Dick Roche has called on local authorities to take the hit on the lost income and give schools a hefty discount on their water bills.
Mr Roche said the costs should be borne by the councils as the water was used by school children who were not charged in their homes.