Monday 22 July 2019

Water commission's message is clear - bottle the charges if you want to save your political skins

A woman holds a sign at a water protest outside the Dáil back in March. Photo: Justin Farrelly
A woman holds a sign at a water protest outside the Dáil back in March. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Ten years ago when people were dying unnecessarily because of deficiencies in our cancer services, Professor Tom Keane, a Canadian expert, was hired by the government to improve the situation. The nub of his advice was to reduce the number of hospitals delivering cancer services from around 30 to eight specialist units. This was not a money-saving exercise but a transformation that would deliver fairer, faster access and safer services.

Prof Keane's advice met with a storm of protest around the country. Such was the degree of opposition that two TDs lost the party whip in Sligo for trying to hold up the initiative. However, with courageous political leadership from Mary Harney, in particular, and Prof Keane's authoritative, patient communication of the benefits of his proposals, people's concerns were gradually allayed and in the end the right thing was done for the people of Ireland.

For once, especially in health, we didn't end up with an 'Irish solution to an Irish problem', with politics trumping the evidence and the longer-term public interest.

This story is worth recalling when judging the 'Report on the Funding of Public Water Services in Ireland', just published by the Expert Commission, which was chaired by Kevin Duffy, ex- chairman of the Labour Court.

In setting up this commission the Government indicated that an Oireachtas Committee would subsequently be established to tease out the advice of the Expert Commission in a political forum. Ultimately the outcome of these political deliberations would go to the Dáil for a vote.

The role of experts such as Prof Keane, the Expert Commission on Water Services, and, say, the Fiscal Council or the National Competitiveness Council, is to provide impartial, evidence-based policy recommendations, without fear or favour, and not advice tempered by political considerations.

Regrettably, the commission fundamentally breaches this principle. It overstepped its terms of reference and knowingly crossed the line between dispassionate, expert advice and consideration of the politics of the situation. In section 4.7.7, which is the only paragraph in the entire report that is in bold print, an overtly political frame of reference is adopted, as follows: "The Expert Commission believes that making recommendations that meet the standard criteria and that may theoretically align with best practice but do not take account of the relevant background in Ireland - including the criterion of acceptability - would not be useful."

Having set this politically loaded context, the commission's recommendations then fail to accurately reflect the evidence in the body of their own report. For example, sections 2.4.8 and 4.7.4, which clearly assert that a volumetric charging system, based on metering, supported with a well-targeted affordability system is the approach that is in line with best practice and international trends.

Instead of sticking firmly to this kind of evidence, it produces a set of watered-down, easier-to-sell recommendations. By straying into politics, the authority and credibility of what we badly needed - expert advice - are compromised. The recommendations read more like an attempt to resolve an industrial relations conflict than an expert input to assist the parties in their deliberations.

This politically tinged advice is already being quoted by politicians as the authoritative views of a group of specialists whose expertise is in water systems. It is noteworthy that both Kevin Duffy and the relevant minister, Simon Coveney, have focused on this bold paragraph as being pivotal. Thus, Mr Coveney welcomed the advice for being "pragmatic".

"Standard criteria" and "best practice" may work everywhere else, but this is Ireland and we need to be practical about it.

How deeply depressing.

We all know why "acceptability" of a unified water utility and a charging system is a big problem, specifically in Ireland. After the catastrophic failure of our political system and vital national institutions, legitimate public anger was heightened by the cack-handed introduction of water charges. Water charges became the lightning rod through which pent-up public fury was vented. This was seized upon during the General Election when one party after another did a U-turn and jumped onto the vote-winning anti-Irish Water bandwagon.

What was a patently populist, nasty campaign spooked practically every politician, such that there is now little support for what the commission clearly says in the body of its report is the best system.

The reason "acceptability" is a current problem is because of this wholesale caving-in to populist argument and the corresponding absence of any significant political leadership on the matter. Imagine if Prof Keane, in cahoots with Mary Harney, had bottled it and said, "look there isn't much support for this out there, so let's be pragmatic and give them what they want". It is to their eternal credit that they stood their ground, communicated relentlessly, and did the right thing.

It is worth recalling that by the 2016 General Election, 65pc of householders had signed up for water charges and it was trending to 70pc. Ironically, Sinn Féin doesn't accept this figure as a mandate to have persisted with the process under way at the time, while they interpret a 54pc majority in favour of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU as a clear-cut democratic mandate to remain.

Irish Water has detailed maps of the programme of work it plans to carry out in every county to improve drinking water and to deal with the disposal of raw, solid sewage into our rivers, lakes and beaches. For example, in Donegal alone there are 75 projects to fix the system from Gortahork to Pettigo and Portnoo to Fanad.

If such information were communicated to communities across the country, this certainly would go a long way towards increasing "acceptability". The Harney-Keane story shows there is a large constituency among the Irish electorate for doing the right thing, once it has been explained to them.

Now that the report is going to the Oireachtas Committee and then the Dáil, the prospects of our finally getting a water system that meets "standard criteria" and reflects "best practice" look dim, unless, that is, a leader emerges from the pack. It would have to be a leader who recognises that the people of Ireland deserve nothing less and who also believes that the idea of funding water from "general taxation" is a scandal when the billions needed to fix the system over the next five-to-10 years will compete with the desperate needs of a health service that saw a 103-year-old woman spending 15 hours on a trolley last week in Tullamore.

Irish Independent

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