Monday 19 November 2018

Customers feel chill of Irish Water 'cold calls'

Minister criticises boss John Tierney and admits that 'mistakes were made'

Irish Water MD John Tierney: received letter on costs
Irish Water MD John Tierney: received letter on costs

Daniel McConnell and Allison Bray

Irish Water has begun using collection agents to cold-call tens of thousands of householders, but denies claims that they are threatening customers, including pensioners, with disconnection.

The under-fire utility has begun "within the past week" calling customers who haven't paid their first bill issued in April.

The move to personally phone customers at their homes has come far earlier than expected, and only weeks after the utility confirmed that less than 50pc of the first water bills have been paid.

Irish Water says it is "proactively contacting customers who have an outstanding balance on their Irish Water account and who are beyond the 14 days credit terms."

The revelation of cold-calling customers comes as a government minister strongly criticised the head of Irish Water, John Tierney, as well as saying that former environment minister Phil Hogan "made mistakes" in the setting up of the super-quango.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, junior finance minister Simon Harris says the Government made some serious errors and as a result "p***ed off" the public unnecessarily.

"There is no disputing and doubting we got issues wrong in relation to Irish Water," he said. "There were mistakes made. People like the head of Irish Water [John Tierney] going out and saying things like consultants' fees costing €85m when actually, when this was broken down, these were local contractors providing vital services.

"Were mistakes made? Yes. Were communications mistakes made? Yes. Was there a lack of clarity which caused great concern? Yes."

The process of cold-calling was not expected to begin until later in the year, but it has now been ramped up, the Sunday Independent has learned.

Only 46pc of charges were collected in the first quarter of this year.

The move also comes a fortnight after Irish Water lost a European ruling as to how it is funded, in a major embarrassment for the Coalition.

It meant the €500m already spent on the utility must be included in the national debt.

Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy, speaking yesterday to the Sunday Independent, branded the cold-calling exercise "a gross waste of public money."

"Irish Water is dying on its feet," he said. "This is a desperate attempt to try and get the compliance numbers up.

"But it is also very intimidating for some people to be pressurised in this way. Our message to people who get these calls is to be polite and explain they are not paying and hang up."

In response to the criticism, an Irish Water spokeswoman said the purpose of the collection calls is to "encourage payment and to work with customers so that they can include their water bill in their household budgets".

"This is a normal approach for any utility," she added.

Mr Harris said the Government's failure on Irish Water forced thousands of people who had never marched before on to the streets in protest. "I take the point. I accept we caused unnecessary concern over charges," he said. "I met those people, I met people - busy people who didn't really have the time to be out protesting, but felt the need to be out protesting."

While insisting that all of the Government as a collective has to take the blame for mistakes made, Mr Harris said that includes former environment minister Phil Hogan, who was in charge at the time.

"This is a collective issue. Success has many parents, but failure is often orphaned," said Mr Harris.

"Everybody who was in government has to accept the responsibility - and last time I checked, Phil Hogan was in government at that time."

Sunday Independent

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