Water charges prove to be a fluid concept

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 00:00

There can be no doubt about the Government’s zeal to get out of the bailout programme and to eventually reach that nirvana of a maximum budget deficit of 3 per cent.

All the ingredients of that focus are there – the unpopular property tax, a commitment by the last government and being implemented by the current Government; the budget cuts including social welfare and disability allowances; and Croke Park II, with further public sector pay and allowances cuts.

There are the modest cuts to huge ministerial pensions and the breaking of pay guidelines for some advisers. Little bumps on the road.

And then there are the water charges. Yes, they had been temporarily forgotten about because they’re next year’s problem.

But on the day the Revenue Commissioners announce details of the letters that will go out next week to consumers on the estimated value of their property, how to respond and the timetable for payment, the Dáil debates the Water Services Bill, which sets up Irish Water and allows the regulator to start work.

They say timing is everything. Maybe not always, but it does have an impact. And it certainly does not help any Government party looking to win a byelection in the not- quite-middle of the worst recession in the history of the State. But then the recession corner has been turned, hasn’t it?

Independent TD Catherine Murphy pointed out earlier this week that Meath East voters would be getting their property tax letters at the same time as their election literature.

Of course the Revenue is independent and no Minister is going to interfere in that process, but it has been a tsunami of bad news. But even with the pressing need to exit a bailout, sometimes it might be better to phase the bad news, if only for the optics.

One TD on the corridors of Leinster House said the debate on the Water Services Bill was mostly ignored because of the property tax.

The Minister with responsibility, Fergus O’Dowd, told the Dáil they had to put the Bill through to set up the authority and for the regulator to start work.

Murphy said during the debate on the water authority: “We all know the Government will tax fresh air to reach that 3 per cent target.”

But despite this latest water legislation it has still not been made public how much free water people will get, what the charge will be or what the cost of metering will be. That’s for legislation down the road, later in the year.

When Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley pushed the Minister to say if the charges would start from January 1st, pointing out that the local elections were in June next year, O’Dowd said the previous government had made the commitment.

But when the Opposition said it would have to be January 1st, he replied “not necessarily”.

Maybe they’re hoping the recession corner really will have been turned.