We've been fleeced on water and those responsible will walk away
There should be just one item on the agenda of the Oireachtas Committee into water charges when it meets for the first time today - how to emerge from the Irish Water debacle with the least cost to the Exchequer.
It is becoming increasing clear that the overriding concern of politicians responsible for the creation of our aborted water charges regime is how to extricate themselves from the fiasco with their dignity left intact. The danger is that, in the unseemly rush to find a solution that offers an escape route, public interest will be sacrificed on the altar of whatever is politically expedient.
According to a report in a national newspaper yesterday, it is expected that Irish Water will have cost the State more than €2bn by the end of this year. This figure does not include the €570m that was spent installing water meters or loan facilities that have been underwritten by the State.
Among the costs to date have been the €81,000 in legal fees that were spent every week in the first year when Irish Water was being set up, €650,000 on an advertising campaign, €340,000 on external PR companies and €50m on a contract for call-centre staff. Meanwhile, among the more eye-catching expenses that have been spent since charges were abandoned in May are €774,848 on "efforts to improve customer service" and €775,141 on "business change support services".
It is a national scandal that so much money has been expended on a public utility whose business model is constantly in flux. So far, the pricing structure has changed twice in quick succession before being suspended; social protection grants and tax rebates have been introduced before being quietly abandoned and a short-lived conservation grant cost €110m plus €6m to administer.
When the cost of Freedom of Information requests are being assessed, the relevant department calculates how much time civil servants will spend collating information in order to estimate the price for journalists. Perhaps someone in Government Buildings could apply this formula to Irish Water and estimate how much the endless hours civil servants have devoted to this disaster have cost us in lost productivity.
Setting up an enormous public utility, and then unilaterally changing its business model every couple of months, is bad enough, but the most egregious waste of money could be the cost of the water meters.
To date, around €550m has been splurged on water meters, which could end up rotting in the ground. It is a measure of the through-the-looking-glass nature of the recently published expert report on water charges that the cost of abandoning the water-metering scheme didn't seem to feature in its calculations.
In the event, the report suggested that a charge should apply only for those who use excessive amounts of water, but then bizarrely refused to recommend that the water-metering scheme should be continued, leaving one to wonder how exactly levels of waste could possibly be calculated.
Fianna Fáil was rightly pilloried when it embarked on its ill-fated e-voting machine omnishambles, which cost the State in excess of €50m. However, that figure pales into insignificance when compared to the €550m that could be flushed away on water meters.
To put the figure in context, the cost of cystic fibrosis medication, Orkambi, has been estimated at €400m over five years, but we have been repeatedly told that the State cannot afford to provide it.
How can the Government so blithely assure us that life-saving medication for CF patients is not affordable, while at the same time splurging hundreds of millions on a water-metering programme that could soon be abandoned?
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in the Dáil last week, said drug company Vertex was "ripping off the taxpayer" by charging an "excessive" amount for the life-saving drug.
However, when it comes to ripping off taxpayers, drug companies are in the ha'penny place as long as we have politicians who pump masses of public money into ill-conceived pet projects and then just walk away after sticking citizens with the bill.
The drug companies may fleece us, but at least we get something useful in return. What will we have to show for the billions that have been frittered away on Irish Water?
We certainly won't have a robust and reliable water infrastructure, if the current level of investment is anything to go by. The inconvenient truth is that Fianna Fáil, between 2007 and 2011, spent around twice as much on water infrastructure as the current discredited regime.
If politicians think the anger over Irish Water has died down, they are in for a rude awakening. If anything, the problem for them is now worse because they also have the rage of the formerly compliant people who paid their bills, and understandably want a refund, to grapple with.
Given there have been innumerable reports commissioned by any number of experts into Irish Water, can the politicians perhaps commission one more? Ask some experts in good governance to review politicians' own miserable performance when it comes to water charges and then come up with some kind of repayment plan to reimburse the Exchequer for any waste that can be attributed to their ineptitude.
Given the kind of lump-sum payments and pensions that senior politicians can expect to enjoy when they retire from office, some kind of dent could surely be made in the overall figure.