Irish Water worried about charging 'optics' during Covid-19

More than 180,000 business customers would have been hit with tariffs

A spokeswoman for Irish Water said the decision to defer the charges had been done with the support of government and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities.

A spokeswoman for Irish Water said the decision to defer the charges had been done with the support of government and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities.

 

Irish Water delayed introducing a new charging system for business customers as it was concerned about the “optics” of being seen to introduce the during the Covid-19 crisis.

The new charging system had been due to be introduced on May Is but has been delayed indefinitely by the water utility.

Internal records obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) show how Irish Water were worried about “overall public perception” of a state body not supporting the business community.

A memo described how the project – which would have involved new tariffs for more than 180,000 non-domestic customers – was “on track” to start billing from May 1st.

Consideration

However, the utility said the impact of the message Irish Water would be sending out needed to be given consideration.

It highlighted the fact that many of the companies they would be contacting, including restaurants, hotels, and small- to medium-sized businesses had been particularly hard-hit during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Irish Water was also worried about the availability of staff within the company and their third party call centre to deal with an upsurge in “call volumes” about charging, work which was deemed “non-critical”.

The memo said this could put a demand on resources that would divert from the company’s priority work of “maintaining water and wastewater services”.

It added: “Finally, in light of the Taoiseach’s recent announcement, we would have concerns about overall public perception of a ‘government body’ not supporting the business community, and contradicting other government departments’ advice.”

In one email, a senior manager wrote: “Although disappointing from a project perspective, I feel that given the current climate it was exactly the right decision.”

Minutes of a meeting from March 9th on deferral of the charges describe how plans for the new tariffs needed to be “parked” pending further discussion.

An official raised the “major concern . . . as to whether or not it was prudent to be issuing letters to businesses on potential tariff increases when many are being hugely impacted by the current virus outbreak”.

Irish Water had approached the Department of Housing for their views on what to do. “The message was that the Minister had been briefed and that they [the department] had no preference either way at the time,” the minutes said.

The minutes also describe how if charges were deferred, Irish Water would need to produce “revised budgets” saying “revenue implications will also have to understood over and above the €5 million estimated budget”.

Notification

By March 20th, the Department of Housing was fully behind the plan to defer the charges, according to emails, and that it was too early for a decision on “a date to recommence”.

“It was agreed that customers would be given a minimum of three months advance notification before commencing billing,” an email said.

A spokeswoman for Irish Water said the decision to defer the charges had been done with the support of government and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities.

She said: “Irish Water remains focused on working in line with the government and other state agencies supporting the business community during this unprecedented time.

“During this time, Irish Water has focussed our staff and resources on the maintenance of water and wastewater services on the public network.

“This included ensuring that staff in our third party call centre could prioritise queries regarding critical issues such as water outages or drinking water quality.”

She said a new implementation date for water charging had not yet been determined. “Irish Water will keep in touch with businesses and representative groups as the situation develops,” she added.