Taoiseach says water grant too difficult to recoup

Some 190,000 households who paid no water bills availed of €100 grant

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has confirmed that people who paid their bills are to have the money returned by the end of the year. The repayments are expected to cost the state approximately €170 million.

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has all but ruled out the likelihood that householders will be asked to repay the €100 water conservation.

Mr Varadkar disclosed over the weekend that householders who paid water charges will be reimbursed in full at a cost of €170 million to the exchequer.

Speaking on Monday he said the repayments will begin in autumn and that all householders who paid bills will be refunded by Christmas. Larger households should expect to be repaid €325 if they paid all their bills.

However, the Taoiseach accepted that for the Government to recoup the conservation grant it paid out to hundreds of thousands of households would be “extremely difficult both legally and logistically”.

The conservation grant was announced by then minister for the environment Alan Kelly in late 2014, partly as a mechanism to reduce water charges in the face of increasing public opposition to Irish Water.

The grant was treated separately to the water bills and was claimed in September each year. The grant was paid in 2015 but suspended in 2016 pending the deliberations of a special committee that investigated the charging system.

It emerged that 190,000 households who paid no water bills (albeit many of these were in group water schemes) availed of the grant.

Speaking at Dublin Castle on Monday, Mr Varadkar said: “We now believe it will be possible to do the refunds this year, and we would anticipate it will start in the autumn and everybody will be reimbursed by Christmas.” He said he mechanism had not been worked out yet but added: “The absolute principle we are applying is those who paid their water charges, and who obeyed the law, should not be disadvantaged in any way.”

Asked about the conservation grant, he said: “When the water conservation grant was paid, that was done so on the basis it was separate to charges. It would be extremely difficult both logisitically and legally to net off the conservation grants so we have yet to work out the details.”

When asked how it would be paid, he said: “Unfortunately, as is the case with any Government spending, it comes from the exchequer. We need between now and the end of the year to see if money coming in from taxes is better than we expected or there are areas where there has been an underspend. There’s no pointing in pretending the money will fall from the sky.”

Gateway payments

It is understood that the €170 million required for the refunds will come from the Social Protection budget, where there have been savings due to the fall in the number of unemployed people.

Funding that had been set aside to help long-term unemployed people return to work could also be used to pay back water charges.

The Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said the Gateway scheme had not worked and as a result there was money from this year’s budget that could be used for the water charge repayment.

The Gateway scheme is a local authority labour activation plan that provides short-term work and training opportunities for long-term unemployed people who have been on the Live Register for over two years.

Gateway is managed by local authorities for the Department of Social Protection, which has overall responsibility for the scheme.

Unemployed people who are eligible to participate in the scheme are selected and contacted by the Department of Social Protection.

‘Wiggle room’

Ms Doherty told RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke Show that the money to repay people who paid their water charges will not come from Budget 2018.

“As far as I am aware it will come from monies not used in this year’s departmental allocations. I’m sure it’s the same in other departments.”

However, Minister for Education Richard Bruton maintains that there is “wiggle room” within the budgets of all government departments to provide the funds to repay water charges.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland Mr Bruton said the money will be found “within existing resources”.

“Important financial targets have been met, spending has been less than predicted and savings can be made.”

The process of reimbursement is likely to begin in October, but those who have moved home or changed address since the last payments were sought may not have their money returned by the end of the year.

The Department of Housing believes this will prove to be a logistical nightmare and require additional time.

Householders who paid their five bills and lived alone will be entitled to €200. and those who live in a household of more than one person will be entitled to €325.