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Celia Larkin: What we need most from the Government is clarity

I UNDERSTAND that savings have to be made. I understand that the Government has its back to the wall in terms of finding money to pay our way.

And though I don't like it, I understand that it's unrealistic to expect services free of charge. Equally, I know it's the working poor, the middle man on the income scale who is being squeezed all the time. He's feeling angry. He's frustrated. But most of all he's frightened. Frightened of what the future holds employment-wise. Frightened of the rising costs of feeding and educating the family. Frightened of not being able to make ends meet.

What I don't understand, and what really annoys me is the fact that the Government, (to be fair, Fine Gael more than Labour,) has completely ignored, or is oblivious to the fear its ill-thought-out, on-

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the-hoof remarks cause. Creating unnecessary worry and trouble for the law-abiding citizens who take payments of their levies and taxes seriously. It's the fast track to a massive, measurable drop in public approbation. As we saw last week.

As they say in Dublin, 'How many are ya?' (meaning: at your age you should know better). It's not so much age in years, but political experience. Even experience earned in the very recent past should have equipped Big Phil and Taoiseach Enda Kenny better for the rollout of water metering. There is a definition for continuously doing the same thing but expecting a different result. You'd think both men would know it by now. Yet what have they done? They have copied and pasted to water metering the exact same procedure from the rollout of the household charge. It would have been unrealistic to expect anything other than perplexity and rage.

Confusion, contradiction, rumour and speculation. It's no way to run a government. What beats me is why they didn't co-ordinate their delivery. They have a precedent on this one, so there's no excuse.

If they were going to say anything about meter costs prior to the setting up of Irish Water, would someone please explain why the detail couldn't have been worked out before all this uproar? It wouldn't have taken genius IQ to ask the obvious questions: will there be an allowance for each person in the home or will it be a straight household allowance? Who will be exempt? Will a holiday home have the same allowance as a private principal residence? Will they give a reduction to landlords who have multiple meters? Will each individual unit be metered? Yet nobody seems to have asked those questions. As a result, you had the Taoiseach making statements that contradicted what other ministers were saying. End result? A widespread impression of incompetence on the part of the Government.

Now, let's be clear on one thing. The public mandated this Government to take and implement tough decisions. But the public won't tolerate tough decisions incompetently managed.

Big Phil said the decision to set up Irish Water was one of the biggest taken by any government since the establishment of the ESB. That might be the case, but what he has failed to grasp is the one glaring difference between the two. The ESB was set up to provide a new service to homes. Irish Water has been set up to charge for services that, heretofore, were free.

You'd think that with all the advisers and experts and think-tanks and steering committees, someone would have thought of working the detail out before the drip-feed of contradictory bits of information started.

Farms that are on mains water have been metered for over 25 years, from what I can gather. The system is quite straightforward. A meter costs around €200 a year in Limerick, €50 per year in Monaghan, €145 per year in Clare; it averages out at €105 per year throughout the country. You have a household allowance of €125 and you're charged per cubic metre of water thereafter. If your land is spread out, then two, three or even four meters might be required. I understand you get a reduced cost for installation as the number of meters increases. Water is charged at €1.15 per cubic metre. (The average cost of water for a farm with 60 dairy cows is €3,990 per year.)

Taking prices as they are at present in the farming community, and given that there are 1,000 litres in a cubic metre of water, you can work out what water would cost your household. One bath or power shower takes 80 litres, one toilet flush takes eight litres, one cycle of the dishwasher takes 25 litres and a washing machine 65 litres.

Costs can mount up, but there is considerable scope to save water. (God help us, I can just hear the teenagers say, 'I'm not unhygienic, I'm saving your water bill.')

Humour aside, in times of crisis and uncertainty, what people need most from their government is structure and clarity. A sense that it knows what it's doing. Unfortunately, that is sadly lacking.

The household charge debacle appears to indicate that civil disobedience has paid off. There's no clear plan on how to follow through when people don't register for the household charge, leaving law-abiding citizens feeling stupid for paying their taxes. Why should people comply with water metering?

This Government has adopted the political tactic of announcing bad news now but implementing it later to allow for a cooling down period. It's as if it's kicking to touch. Changes in the pension age and pension entitlements will come into effect later. Changes in single parents allowance will happen later (childcare facilities permitting?). Water charges will happen later. Equitable household charges will be introduced later. It sounds awfully like the 'buy now, pay later' philosophy that got us into this mess. And, as what happened when 'later' came along and people found they couldn't pay for what they had bought, the public will not be able to pay for all the charges with reductions in pensions and entitlement when the day of reckoning arrives.

The Government might have advisers, experts, think- thanks, specialists and steering committees, but from where I'm standing what it really needs is a focus group.

Sunday Independent