Government concerned filibuster may delay water charge refunds

Legislation scheduled to finish initial debate this week but 12 TDs, mainly SF, yet to speak

Anti-water charge protesters in 2012: the Water Services Bill seeks to draw a line under the Irish Water debacle. Photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill

Anti-water charge protesters in 2012: the Water Services Bill seeks to draw a line under the Irish Water debacle. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The Government is concerned that refunds to households who paid water charges may not be made before the end of the year, because of delays in the passage of the legislation.

Leo Varadkar confirmed when he took over as Taoiseach that cheques would be issued by Christmas to approximately 990,000 individuals and families who paid the controversial charges.

The Water Services Bill seeks to draw a line under the debacle and provides for the repayment of €173 million with households expected to receive up to €325.

The legislation had been expected to complete second stage, the introductory debate, in the Dáil on Wednesday to allow it to proceed next week to the committee stage, when amendments are discussed.

But 12 TDs have yet to speak on the legislation, mainly from Sinn Féin but also from the Social Democrats and Fianna Fáil.

Phone discussions were ongoing within the Dáil business committee on Wednesday night to allow a further two hours of debate on Thursday but were abandoned following the announcement of the death of former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the suspension of the House as a mark of respect.

Concern

The Government wants to refund the €173 million by the end of the year with as little fuss as possible but sources have expressed concern that refunds will be delayed if there is an attempt to filibuster on the Bill.

Sources disclosed: “We are ready to rock” and begin issuing cheques once the legislation is passed.

But they warned that all cheques could not be issued simultaneously and the legislation would have to be enacted by Halloween to ensure every paid-up household is refunded by year end.

After the Bill is passed by the Dáil it then has to be scrutinised by the Seanad before it goes to the President.

The more controversial element in the legislation is the provision to introduce fines for households who use excessive water.

Opposition parties including Sinn Féin have expressed concern that the fine is a means to reintroduce water charges at a later date.

A number believed that the legislation could in time still lead to the eventual privatisation of water services.

‘Impossible and absurd’

The Taoiseach, who earlier this week ruled out a referendum on privatisation, said it was “impossible and absurd” to think the service could be privatised when it required a €1 billion subvention just to exist.

Debate was scheduled for non-peak times and just seven TDs were present when Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy introduced the Bill during a late night debate.

So far 25 TDs have spoken on the Bill including nine from Sinn Féin, the largest group of speakers. Mr Murphy and the former minister with responsibility for Irish Water, Fergus O’Dowd, were the only two Fine Gael speakers.

Asked if scheduling the debate late at night and on a Thursday afternoon when most TDs headed back to their constituencies impacted on the issue, a spokesman for the Minister said TDs were obliged to be in the Dáil during Dáil hours.