Sunday 24 March 2019

Fine Gael claim Fianna Fáil are seeking to expose the taxpayer on water charges

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Niall O'Connor

FINE Gael and Fianna Fáil have become embroiled in a bitter standoff on the issue of water charges.

The two parties are at loggerheads over whether water charges should be scrapped in their entirety in a row that has once again raised the prospect of an early General Election.

At a tense sitting of the Oireachtas water committee today, Fianna Fáil said it would not support a proposal by the Expert Commission for the return of charges for “excessive usage”.

Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen told the committee, which sat in private session, that his party wants charges completely “scrapped”.

He said the country’s water system should be funded through general taxation and within the parameters of the so-called fiscal space.

Mr Cowen also said his party stands by its legal advice that says scrapping charges is in line with the EU directive governing water.

Significantly, Mr Cowen said he does not accept the proposed “excessive usage” principle.

This was recommended by the Expert Commission that said households should pay water bills if their usage is above a certain point.

But tonight, a Fine Gael spokesman accused Fianna Fáil of pursuing a policy that is not budgeted for. Party sources have also accused Fianna Fail of seeking to vote for a proposal that is “illegal”.

"Fianna Fáil are trying to buy off the issue with taxpayer's finances without saying where it will come from. This has not been budgeted for,” the spokesman told Independent.ie.

"The advice the committee has received is if we don't have, at a minimum, charges for excessive usage, we could be liable to lengthy court battles and massive EU fines."

Fianna Fáil is siding with Sinn Féin and left wing TDs - meaning the prospect of water charges returning seem highly unlikely.

If a compromise is not reached, the committee may end up producing separate reports.

One will be a minority report authored by Fine Gael deputies.

Both reports could then go to the Dáil for a vote after St Patrick’s Day.

At today’s meeting, it’s understood ten members expressed opposition to the idea of charges.

This includes the five Fianna Fáil members, two Sinn Féin members, AAA/PBP TD Paul Murphy and Independent TDs Seamus Healy and Thomas Pringle.

Those in favour of a charging regime include the six Fine Gael members,Labour Party TD Jan O’Sullivan and Green Party senator Grace O’Sullivan.

Two members have not expressed a preference, Independent TD Noel Grealish and Independent senator Padraig O Ceidigh, who is the committee chairperson.

Meanwhile, refunds for those who have paid their water bills will be offset against the €100 conservation grant, Independent.ie understands.

This means that in excess of 800,000 that received the grant will not “profit” as a result of being issued with a full refund by the State.

THE KEY PROPOSALS

Here are the key proposals contained in a draft document prepared by water committee chairman Pádraig Ó Ceidigh, which have been seen by Independent.ie.

  • An excessive water usage charge under the polluter pays principle to comply with EU law
  • Refunds for households which have paid their bills
  • Domestic meters already installed to be retained and requirement for all new builds to have meters installed
  • Tax/welfare benefit for those who voluntarily take up a domestic meter
  • Waivers for users with high consumption who have certified medical conditions
  • Tax relief for the installation of systems that reduce water consumption
  • Consideration for those on group water schemes
  • All new buildings must incorporate water conservation fittings
  • Referendum to keep Irish Water in public ownership
  • Establishment of a Drinking Water Inspectorate, similar to the UK
  • Make the Public Water forum an advisor to the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER)

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