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Schools turn to second Minister in water row

Primary schools have pleaded with the Environment Minister to intervene after their protests about annual water charges of up to €10,000 were rejected by Mary Hanafin and the Taoiseach.

The Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA) is writing to John Gormley this week after the Minister for Education insisted there was no way for the schools to avoid the local authority fees.

According to the association, many schools will be forced to spend a large proportion their capitation grant to cover the cost of massive water bills. It emerged last week that many schools may face bankruptcy this year because they are being forced to pay the water charges.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that such levies were unavoidable under the European Union's Water Framework Directive.

Just days later, a spokesperson for the European Commission said there was room within the water directive for flexibility.

She added that exemptions could be argued so long as the objectives of the directive were not undermined, and there were socio-economic reasons to do so.

Integration minister Conor Lenihan said yesterday: "There is room for John Gormley as Minister for Environment to knock heads with local authorities up and down the country and thrash out a deal."

Difficulties

He said one idea was that schools didn't pay up to a certain threshold and beyond that there could be charges.

General secretary of the CPSMA, Monsignor Dan O'Connor, said 46 schools had been in "serious" financial difficulties since 2006.

"If this continues, the increase in the recent Budget on capitation will be used solely on water charges," he added.

"Schools are not business, it is compulsory to go to school, we are asking them to look at this situation. It is very serious for schools."

In the letter to the minister, he said that Ireland should follow the example of France, where water charges have been wavered because they are seen as charitable institutions.

It is believed that the Environment Minister and Ms Hanafin will meet later this week to discuss the situation.

The situation is also set to be thrashed out at an emergency meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee meeting on Education and Science tomorrow.

The Green Party have called for the meeting in an attempt to find a resolution to the controversy. However, opposition parties last night accused the Europe minister Dick Roche of sowing further confusion in the crisis.

Speaking to Marian Finucane on RTE radio, Mr Roche suggested that the EU had no role to play in forcing Irish schools to pay water charges.

The comments were seen as a direct contradiction to remarks by both the Taoiseach and Mary Hanafin earlier in the week, who had both categorically stated that such charges were unavoidable under the directive.

Decision

When asked to clarify his position on the situation, Mr Roche said: "It is the Irish Government that is responsible for that decision. It is nothing to do with Brussels. It is our decision how we fund our schools."

Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes said that someone in Government must clear up the "confusion" and settle the matter.

Speaking on RTE's 'The Week in Politics', he said that the Government had adopted a policy of "don't flush, don't wash" and were effectively regarding schools as businesses.

"We are asking parents and voluntary groups to fund our schools when we are supposed to have a free education system. It's an absolute disgrace."

The chairman of the Oireachtas Education Committee, Green TD Paul Gogarty, said that it "beggars belief that schools should have to pay the full charges for water".