Concern water agency may be privatised

Renewed concern has been raised that the new State agency Irish Water could be privatised as the Dáil passed legislation to give…

Renewed concern has been raised that the new State agency Irish Water could be privatised as the Dáil passed legislation to give the authority statutory powers.

Minister of State for Natural Resources Fergus O’Dowd insisted existing legislation protected the State and local authority water assets from privatisation. In further legislation “there will be a legal guarantee to give an absolute assurance as best we can that there will be no question of privatisation arising as an issue”.

Sinn Féin’s environment spokesman Brian Stanley accepted it was the Government’s intention not to sell the authority, “but if the Government is prepared to sell trees, the Lotto and the profitable parts of Bord Gáis, it tells me that it would have no qualms about selling the water company if the need arose”.

They were speaking during debate on the Water Services Bill which was passed by 79 votes to 48. The Bill gives statutory powers to formally establish the water authority, provide funding and allow the regulator to begin work.

Further legislation will be introduced this year to deal with categories of people who will be exempt, affordability cost and medical issues, according to the Minister.

Mr O’Dowd said the ownership by the State of water infrastructure was internationally “the rule rather than the exception, and that will be the position here. I am not aware of any other model, apart from that in the UK, of which there is significant criticism.”

However, Mr Stanley said: “The day we establish Uisce Éireann will be a bad day for democracy” because while local authorities were responsible there was democratic control, and however inadequate the system, people were able to get a response during the “big freeze”.

‘Major battle’

He warned of the difficulties in the North where it was a “major battle” for the Sinn Féin minister to get any kind of response and Co Louth had to supply parts of Co Down with water during the cold weather.

“That is how far the water was moved because of the separate company involved, Northern Water,” he warned.

The Laois-Offaly TD said “we must have democratic control in the local authority system, particularly with regard to essential services like road, water, sewerage and housing”.

Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen said his party had no objection in principle to the concept of water charging, “but we do object to the absence of information on the setting up of Irish Water and the costs associated with it”.

He called on the Minister to confirm that the cost of metering would be €500 million. Based on the existing cost of water at €1.2 billion and the installation of meters, charges could be about €600 a household.

Mr O’Dowd insisted that water poverty was high on the Government’s agenda. He said water poverty was defined as having to spend more than 3 per cent of one’s income on water charges.

‘Detail we need’

Independent TD Catherine Murphy said the legislation was being dealt with “in the absence of the sort of detail we need”.

She acknowledged the obligations the EU had put Ireland under but she was also concerned about privatisation and insisted there had to be “a sufficient free supply so people can live”. The Kildare North TD said the level of investment required would be “significantly less if more than 48 per cent of water treated arrived in people’s houses”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times