Higher water fees as €50 charge ditched

New ‘hardship measures’ agreed for some welfare claimants and pensioners

  Eamon Gilmore: negotiators from parties have settled their differences over water charges

Eamon Gilmore: negotiators from parties have settled their differences over water charges

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00

The Coalition is close to a deal to cut water charges for some welfare claimants, but many householders who do not benefit from new “hardship” measures will have to pay higher fees.

Although Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore have yet to sign off on the revised plan, negotiators from Fine Gael and Labour have settled their differences over some of the most divisive elements of the initiative. They are understood to have reached agreement in principle to eliminate a €50 standing charge, which was to be imposed regardless of usage and other allowances.

Labour, in particular, had major reservations about the standing charge, which would erode the benefit of allowances for households with children, and this had complicated the discussions. Agreement in principle on special provisions for pensioners living alone has also been reached. Under the draft deal, such pensioners would pay between €40 and €48 a year in quarterly instalments of €10-€12. A senior Labour source said this meant certain pensioners would now pay “little or nothing” for water.

Annual fee
At the same time, the source acknowledged that the average annual fee for householders bearing the full brunt of the new water regime will rise.

This is because the Government is still committed to raising €500 million a year from the water charge, which is one of the final outstanding elements of Ireland’s bailout deal with the troika to be implemented. The average annual fee was pitched at €240 at the outset of the latest negotiation, which followed a bitter Cabinet row between Fine Gael and Labour Ministers in the run-up to Easter. However, the extent to which the €240 will rise as a result of the new “hardship remediation package” is still unclear. The ultimate scope of this package and the range of beneficiaries remains to be finalised, it is understood. The draft plan on the table is under discussion between political advisers and civil servants but not yet between Taoiseach and Tánaiste, it is understood. Still, negotiators are working on the basis that settled welfare entitlements – for example, for specific medical conditions – would determine whether householders have the right to benefit from the water hardship package.

Having failed to strike a definitive accord this week, the negotiators are now working to ensure all aspects of the agreement can be endorsed by the Cabinet when it meets next Tuesday. While Mr Kenny pledged many weeks ago that voters would know what fees would be charged before local and European elections on May 23rd, a Fine Gael push for an pre-Easter deal fell foul of Labour claims that the larger Coalition party was trying to railroad the deal through. Two days ago, however, Mr Gilmore said he recognised that the lack of clarity over the water fees was making life difficult for Labour candidates. The campaign started badly this week for Labour with a call for Mr Gilmore’s resignation by substitute MEP Phil Prendergast.

Soundings from Fine Gael sources point to a willingness to provide a measure of relief to Labour over the new water charge.