A Government Senator has described his own party’s legislation to suspend water charges as a “backward step” and a “classic kick to touch”.
Fine Gael Senator Paudie Coffey criticised the Water Services (Amendment) Bill, which suspends billing on domestic water charges for nine months while a commission investigates a sustainable funding model for the future provision of water services in the State.
“We’re essentially postponing the day,” Mr Coffey said, that water charges would inevitably be introduced. “It’s a classic kick to touch and I’m saying that as a Government Senator.”
It was a “regretful day” but it was happening “simply because Fianna Fáil over-promised on water during the last general election”.
There were heated exchanges and repeated interventions during the debate on the legislation as Mr Coffey hit out at both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin over their stances on water charges.
He claimed Fianna Fáil had taken a “hypocritical stance” but “they will woe the day when the commission finishes its report, because I predict that either Fianna Fáil will do one of the biggest climb-downs and U-turns in the history of the State or essentially we’ll have another general election”.
The Taoiseach’s nominee also claimed Sinn Féin was inconsistent and that the party said people should pay “but then the byelection happened in Tallaght and ye got outflanked by the left. Ye lost a seat ye thought ye’d win,” he said to Sinn Féin Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, who rejected his claims.
Fianna Fáil Senator Jennifer Murnane O’Connor who rejected his claims, had earlier pointed to the cost to the State of Irish Water.
“Ireland is €758 million worse off than it would be if it had not set up Irish Water,” she said, where €540 million was spent on water metering. A further €172 million went to set up Irish Water and €46 million on running it.
Ms Murnane O’Connor supported the Bill which “sets out a clear route to end failed water charges”.
“It’s time to draw a line under this fiasco and end the water charges regime. We now have a path forward that we can now end these water charges,” Ms Murnane O’Connor said.
Mr Ó Clochartaigh said the Bill was “merely a suspension of charges from April to December. It was one of the “cosy arrangements” in the deal between Fianna Fáil and fine Gael.
He said Sinn Féin wanted an end to domestic water charges. “We want the public ownership of Irish Water and water services enshrined in the Constitution. We want water services to be delivered by an accountable and democratic public body. We want water to be delivered on the basis of need and not the ability to pay.”
Minister of State Damien English, who introduced the legislation, said the Bill provided an opportunity to seriously debate how water services should be provided.
The Minister said “I totally and utterly believe in the concept of a single water authority”. He believed it “wasn’t very well explained and there were issues of transparency”.
But referring to the issue of bonuses for Irish Water, he said it was a logical part of the scheme to achieve efficiencies and he called on people to take the time to read the original business case for setting up a single water utility.
It analysed all the figures and the utility was never going to pay for itself in one year, but in eight to 10 years. Mr English said that “one way or the other water has to be paid for”.
Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell said "I have always supported the notion that water must be paid for but I have never supported Irish Water."
He described the utility as “the de factor bible for how to do things wrong. Irish Water is a failed model.”
Independent Senator Frances Black said "thousands and thousands of ordinary households are willing us on to pass this Bill to formally suspend water charges. But we need to scrap them for good."
She said “they have been suspended in the hearts and minds of people anyway as we can see from the fall in payments being made to Irish Water. “
Labour Senator Kevin Humphreys hit out at the "dishonesty" of Fianna Fail, who he said had agreed water charges at Cabinet when the party was in government. "They signed the memorandum of understanding," he said.
They got “scared in relation to Sinn Féin in the rush to get popular”.
He said he was deeply disappointed with Fine Gael. “It’s the Minister of State who comes into the Seanad to take the kicking.”
He said they no longer had a government “we have officer holders”, and everything was being kicked to a committee and “down the road to another election”.
“Nobody’s talking about the 340,000 people in rural Ireland who pay water every day.”
He asked if legal advice had been taken from the Attorney General about whether the Bill was legal.
The European Commissioner had been very clear that once the Bill was passed a letter would come from the Commissioner that the bills would start to arrive.
“They are building up a substantial debt for this country. Shortly we’ll be paying more fines than interest on our debts.”