You can watch and read Senator Zappone’s speech in the Seanad on Tuesday Nov 25th on the issue of water services reform.
On 11 October, I marched peacefully alongside thousands in Tallaght. I listened to many people's warranted outcry over water charges and other matters. Since then I have spoken to many people in my community, including a grandmother in Jobstown who is willing to pay for water but knows that her adult children starting their own families simply cannot afford to do so because they are in negative equity. The Government says it has heeded public concerns. Has it listened fully to the concerns of its citizens?
No, I do not think it has.
I support a single public water utility rather than 34 separate entities. One body allows for an efficient and equitable supply of water and for adequate investment in infrastructure. Everyone has a right to clean water and no one should face regular water cut-offs due to burst and outdated pipes. A unified public utility also has the potential to promote conservation. We need to create an infrastructure that we can leave for our children, but the establishment and management of Irish Water has been an unequivocal failure. Oireachtas Members and the public were not and still are not sufficiently involved in influencing the creation of Irish Water. These issues must be rectified immediately.
What do we do now? How do we move forward to design a system that provides value for money, encourages conservation and guarantees fairness? We need to establish who is in charge at Irish Water. The merger of the boards of Ervia and Irish Water will require legislative amendments to the 1976 Gas Act and the 2013 Water Services Act. The new board needs to be chosen in an independent manner based on expertise. The voice of the consumer - of the citizen - must be represented on the board. Also, it should have a mandate to cut costs, but these savings for the taxpayer must be achieved as quickly as possible and not over the prolonged period the Government is allowing.
Other concerns, such as the competencies of senior management, must be addressed immediately in order to restore public trust. There should be a complete review of the management and operations of Irish Water. Public ownership has not been guaranteed. I do not understand why the Government has not agreed to put the public ownership of Irish Water to the people through a referendum.
The regressive model of water charges proposed must be scrapped at once and replaced by a fair system based on ability to pay. The capped charges are a flat rate that do not account for ability to pay or encourage conservation. Many people in Ireland simply cannot afford to pay water bills in their proposed form. Government subsidies should ensure that no more than 0.5% of a household's disposable income is spent on water. Penalties would be applied to those wasting water to ensure conservation, but we should not charge people who cannot afford to pay.
The Nevin Economic Research Institute has also proposed innovative solutions for progressive water charges by providing household subsidies, not rebates, for water charges. The funding of water should not come from general taxation alone, as this places the burden of water service funding primarily on the working population. Establishing Irish Water as a separate entity is a good way to attract investment. The system needs between €12 billion and €15 billion in investment to fix infrastructural issues over the next decade. This money simply cannot come solely from the Exchequer. Therefore, investment in water needs to be obtained from a combination of general taxation and water charges in a fair and equitable manner. This is not double taxation but rather complementary taxation. A public water utility and water charges, when designed, governed and managed properly, can promote economic efficiency and conversation of a precious resource. Until this happens, we should halt the installation of meters.
Short-term fixes must not be determined by a small group of Government Members. Irish Water must serve the public interest. The taxpayer has paid for these failures. Decisions must be made not only in the public interest but in consultation with the public.
The proposal for a bill-payers' forum to liaise between ordinary people and Irish Water, as proposed by the Government, misunderstands public opinion. In a time of unprecedented protest and historic civic engagement, we should not be defensive but should invite activists and community leaders to engage directly with Oireachtas Members in an event similar to the Constitutional Convention.
Upbeat ministerial assessments of reform measures have not fooled people. Both the establishment of and the attempts to reform Irish Water demonstrate a broad lack of a reform culture in politics. Now it is clear that the Government's attempt to end the water crisis has failed. As a result, people will return to the streets in protest on 10 December, and I will be alongside them, peacefully working towards a solution.