A referendum on the ownership of Irish Water was in doubt last night after serious concerns over the legality of a vote on privatising the utility company were raised by a senior official in the Department of Housing.
A statement by a key official in Housing Minister Simon Coveney's Department outlined a number of serious concerns about the legality of holding a referendum on Irish Water.
The statement by assistant secretary Maria Graham was due to be read into the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services yesterday but the appearance was rescheduled.
In the statement, which has been seen by the Irish Independent, Ms Graham said her Department was working with the Attorney General's office to draft a Constitutional amendment. However, she warned that the issue around property rights could mean the constitutional changes would have "unintended consequences".
She said central to these concerns are issues around the "plurality of water infrastructure ownership" such as group water schemes or public water services on private land.
Ms Graham also noted that current legislation meant any attempt to privatise water services would have to be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and then a plebiscite vote would need to be held.
"In my experience, having worked in this area for a number of years, the strong policy intent has always been to maintain public water services in public ownership," she said.
Meanwhile, half of all households would still face charges if the proposals of the expert water commission were introduced, according to Irish Water's managing director Jerry Grant.
Speaking before the Oireachtas committee on the future of water charges, Mr Grant said half of Irish Water's customers would still have to pay bills based on an average free daily allowance of 123 litres.
The expert water commission recommended that the majority of domestic water usage should be paid for through general taxation and only households using excessive amounts should face charges.
Mr Grant said 123 litres was "roughly the average per capita consumption" of water for households. "Therefore it follows that half the people use more and half use less," he said.
This would mean huge numbers of people would still face bills if the Oireachtas committee on water charges recommends that the Dáil vote on the expert commission's report.
Mr Coveney recently stated he believed a free daily allowance of 123 litres or little more would be agreed by the Dáil. He said if people were using significantly more on a daily basis, they should be forced to pay.
Speaking to the Irish Independent yesterday, Mr Coveney refused to be drawn on a suggestion from the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) that households that save water should receive a financial incentive.
The minister said he was supportive of the polluter pays principle but said he could face "consequences" if he was seen to interfere in the work of the Oireachtas committee on water.
He insisted there was a "way forward" on water if "people approach it in a constructive way" and said the views of the regulator were important.