Water charge refunds must benefit bill-payers, Varadkar says

Minister speaks against householders who claimed water grant without paying levies

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has given his views on the refunding of those who paid their Irish Water bills. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has given his views on the refunding of those who paid their Irish Water bills. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Householders who claimed the water conservation grant but did not pay their water charges must not end up financially better off than those who paid their Irish Water bills, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar made the comments as the Government prepares to refund the thousands of people who paid their water charges.

The Government is seeking to deduct the €100 water conservation grant from any repayment to those who paid their Irish Water bills.

More than 190,000 people claimed the grant but did not pay any of the five bills distributed by the water utility.

Mr Varadkar said the confidence-and-supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil made it clear that those who paid their charges cannot be treated any less favourably than those who did not.

He said: “It is very difficult, so we have to look at what the options are. But the outcome has to be that those law-abiding citizens who paid their bills don’t end up financially worse than people who didn’t pay their bills but still claimed the grant. That’s something I feel very strongly about.”

The €100 conservation grant was distributed by the Department of Social Protection in 2015 in an attempt to entice people to sign up to Irish Water.

The Oireachtas committee on water charges agreed last week that those who paid their charges should be refunded.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have insisted any repayment must be net of the conservation grant.

However, some Government sources have speculated that this may be a logistical nightmare and may prove impossible to implement.

Mr Varadkar has asked the secretary general of his department to compile a report on how the mechanics of such a system might work.

Minister for Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney said it was his preference that the conservation grant was deducted from any refund.

Discussions

Mr Coveney told The Irish Times he would speak to Mr Varadkar, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe before deciding how to proceed on this issue.

The Minister said he did not want to be rushed into a decision, but expected the method of repayment to be clear within the next six weeks.

It is understood he is examining a potential tax credit as a means of repayment, rather than a direct cash refund.

Mr Coveney said: “We need to ensure that people are treated fairly, but also that the State is not paying inappropriately either, so that is why I have always said refunds should be net of the water conservation grant.

“Even though the two were not formally or legally linked, there is clearly a link between the water conservation grant and acceptance of the water-charging system. For me, I am not going to be rushed on it.

“We will speak to the two finance Ministers and try to put [in place] as efficient a way of paying people their money back as we can.

“Ultimately, that will be a matter for Department of Public Expenditure and Reform or Finance to get it right, whether we do it through Revenue or whether we don’t.”