Fintan O’Toole: Spend my water charges on reversing austerity

Instead of being the last act in a long-running farce that made a mockery of our democracy, the money we paid should be used for a decent democratic experiment

Fight poverty and homelessness? Let us debate how to spend €178 million cost of refunding  the water charges. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Fight poverty and homelessness? Let us debate how to spend €178 million cost of refunding the water charges. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Last month, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe told the Dáil that the total amount likely to be available to increase current public expenditure in 2018 is €200 million. And last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told us the Government intends to give back all the money that was paid (by some of us) in water charges. This will cost €178 million but if you count the expense of setting up the technology and staff salaries, it is surely close to, um, €200 million. And all to bury the rotting corpse of a political fiasco. It is the most expensive wake in Irish history.

I am one of the eejits who paid the water charges, not because I was ever less than apoplectic at the antics of Irish Water’s superbly entitled bosses, but because I’m sick of living in a supposedly developed country where people have to boil tap water to make it drinkable and where raw sewage pours into the sea. And I don’t want my money back. I don’t want a cheque to frame as souvenir of my own eejitry. I don’t want to spend the money toasting the pride of being a citizen of one of the very few developed countries incapable of creating a fair and stable system of local taxation that funds decent local services and a genuine local democracy.

Democratic experiment

What I would like is that instead of being the last act in a long-running farce that made a mockery of our democracy, the money we paid be used for a decent democratic experiment. There’s €178 million in a pot and the Government has decided that it belongs to those who paid their water charges. So let us (and us alone) decide collectively how to spend it.

Give us the chance to draw up a list of options, let us debate them and let us vote on how we want our money to be used. (Most of this can be done online and would cost no more than the online system that would have to be set up anyway for the repayments.) One of these options would, of course, be simply to pay the money back to the individual householders. But I suspect most people would be much happier to see their money used to achieve something.

Like what? Let’s just take a few examples.

The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance goes out at this time of the year and it’s a great benefit for kids in poorer households. It helps them to be dressed in the same way as their peers in the classroom – a tangible way of fighting the stigma of poverty. But it is way too low. So what would it cost to increase it by 50 per cent? €14 million a year. We could, if we chose, use the €178 million to pay for this for 12 years – effectively for the foreseeable future. It wouldn’t be spectacular but it would really help the most vulnerable of our kids and their stressed-out parents.

Or a small chunk of €178 million would immediately get all the homeless kids who are currently incarcerated in hotel rooms and B&Bs into more suitable family accommodation. The Government recently allocated €10 million to create new family hubs to get “at least 200” families out of hotels. But there are 695 families currently in this dire situation, and an extra €15 million would get the rest of them out of it. (These family hubs are far from ideal and it is vital that they do not become a long-term “answer” to homelessness but at least they are a better emergency response than what is currently available.)

Fully restoring the number of guidance counsellors cut from our schools in the austerity years would cost €13 million a year, so that could be done for the foreseeable future. Or €178 million would pay for eight years for a €9.50 a month increase in the living alone allowance that helps older people stay in their own homes. Or it would pay for seven years of an increase of three weeks in the period of the fuel allowance that stops older people worrying about whether they can turn on a second bar in the electric fire. Adding two weeks to maternity benefit would cost €20 million, so we could fund that for nine years. The Leader programme that does such great work in rural communities could have its funding doubled for the next four years.

Proper recompense

Lots of people will have lots of other ideas for exciting or innovative or compassionate things that could be done with our €178 million. That’s the point. Government in Ireland is adrift and the Irish Water debacle is a perfect expression of the ineptitude of its top-down command- and-control mindset. The proper recompense for that is not a cheque in the post. It’s an experiment in doing democracy differently.

If the State can set up and staff the web-based technology to process refunds, it can use the same resources to allow us to make some meaningful choices for ourselves. After all, those choices could not possibly be as wasteful as the ones that have been made for us.

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