Water charges: FF and FG pull together as report passes vote
Sinn Féin accuses Fianna Fáil of U-turn and shifting back to Fine Gael position on issue
Minister for Housing Simon Coveney said he would consult with the Attorney General before proceeding.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
A report by an Oireachtas committee which will clear the way for the ending of domestic water charges in the State has been approved by a majority of members.
While Labour, Sinn Féin, Solidarity, the Green Party and two Independent deputies opposed it, the report was passed by 13 votes to seven.
Some members of the committee refused to accept the report’s final recommendations after a number of last minute changes were made to it on the back of legal advice from a senior counsel.
The last-minute alterations including re-introducing a measure to install meters in all new builds and the inclusion of “excess use” levies which would be imposed to “dissuade users from waste of water”, in line with the terms of the Water Services Act 2007.
The vote brings an end to a lengthy dispute between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on the issue and the report will move forward to the Dáil where it will be debated before a vote in the House.
Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said there had been “much posturing” and debate on water charges in recent days and weeks but that the outcome of the process was now clear.
“The hated water charges regime introduced by the last government, and all the contradictions and unfairness attached to it, is now gone. I and my Party welcome that outcome,” he said in a statement.
“The report agreed today is essentially the same report that was agreed over a week ago and provides for a fair system where those who abuse our water service are financially penalised, but water charges for 92 per cent of the population have been eliminated.”
Fine Gael said it had four key principles in relation to water funding and that these had been achieved. The four were the inclusion of meters in all new builds and apartments for bulk metering, penalties for people who excessively use water, keeping Irish Water as a utility and certainty of funding for water services.
“Ensuring that these aspects are in the report will prove to be of great benefit to Ireland - both economically and environmentally,” the party said.
“Fine Gael has made it clear that the amendments proposed last week undermined the credibility of the report. The legal advice to the committee today has confirmed that. On this basis, we made the necessary changes to strengthen the report in a way that has allowed Fine Gael to support it as the basis for future legislation.”
Sinn Féin TD and committee member Eoin Ó Broin TD has said he was disappointed but not surprised by Fianna Fáil’s “latest U-turn on water charges”.
He said the legal advice received had led to a “significant shift back to the Fine Gael position” which the committee rejected by 12 to eight votes last week.
“Fianna Fáil has conceded a number of major issues. The party is effectively now in favour of volumetric water charges for excessive use based on average household usage and mandatory domestic metering in all new builds and refurbishments.”
Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan, a committee member, said she voted against the report due to Fianna Fáil’s insertion of the Water Services Act 2007 to penalise those who use water excessively.
“However, there is much to welcome - public ownership of the water system, which the Green Party was the first to propose, will be enshrined in the constitution. Public health and oversight will be better served by new structures and there are a number of measures to promote conservation of this most precious resource.”
Earlier, there were sharp exchanges between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald in the Dáil over the water charges issue.
The Sinn Féin TD claimed the Taoiseach had no respect for the people who had marched in their “tens of thousands” against water charges and accused the Government of keeping a privatisation plan for Irish Water in place.
In reply, Mr Kenny said to Ms McDonald “don’t come in exuding righteousness”. He said Solidarity TD Paul Murphy had “sabotaged your own view” of water charges when the party had previously favoured their implementation but changed its view with “the sound of marching feet in Tallaght”.
“Now that you have become all lawful in the Sinn Féin party I’m quite sure you realise that some of the implications of what have been proposed” by the committee might not be lawful,” he said.
The Taoiseach also dismissed as “nonsense”, that there was “some sinister attempt to privatise water”, because a referendum on the issue is expected.
Under the confidence and supply arrangement reached with Fianna Fáil the Minister has a month to legislate for the report’s recommendations.
The disagreement on the water report brought the Government close to collapse last week after public disagreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on whose support the Government relies.
Mr Coveney has said he will consult with the Attorney General Máire Whelan before proceeding. Fianna Fáil has said it would not expect a Government to legislate against the AG’s advice.