Private Members Business – Irish Water

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Dáil Éireann 16 January 2014

 

 

 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this issue.

 

The establishment of Irish Water aims to modernise the way water services are delivered throughout the country. Water is an extremely valuable natural resource and must be protected as it is critical to the health and well-being of our citizens and the environment.

 

I very much welcome the government commitment to place Irish Water under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. This is a most welcome and important step in terms of ensuring that the new system is as transparent as possible because it is spending money that has been hard-earned by taxpayers.

 

Setting up a completely new state utility company was never going to be a simple process, especially given the time constraints involved in the setting up of Irish Water or Uisce Éireann. This was an essential provision of the deal agreed upon with the Troika, but even leaving aside the arrival of the Troika in Ireland and the subsequent deal reached, if we are serious about delivering a clean, safe water supply to households across Ireland, the current model is outdated and in many cases has failed to provide a continuous supply of water fit for human consumption, especially to households in rural areas.

 

 

Much of the commentary on Irish Water over recent days has related to the cost of consultants. When people think of the word consultants, they think of advisors and the compilation of reports that gather dust on shelves. During the economic boom, we had nothing but reports by expert groups which cost the Irish taxpayer huge sums of money and it’s very easy to see why people were outraged when they heard the figures being spent on consultants in relation to the establishment of Irish Water.

 

It is important to note that this money was not spent just on advice, it was spent on the logistics necessary to set up this utility company, the business, the networks necessary and the systems which have to be in place.

 

We are setting up a new state utility company and there are going to be significant new costs, which will be one-off costs. However, what is imperative is that there is proper oversight of the money being spent and proper accountability for the actions of Irish Water.

 

The Energy Regulator is to conduct an analysis of the spending and set-up costs of Irish Water and this analysis will be crucial in terms of financial oversight and also in terms of communicating with the public on the value for money aspect of this spend. A much smaller report was undertaken at the end of last year and that revealed no major issues with the costs involved. It is important that the Energy Regulator’s examination is very detailed and also that the Regulator’s assessment of whether this represented the cheapest way possible of procuring these services is widely communicated to members of the public.

When all is said and done, the aim of this entity is to save taxpayers’ money by providing an efficient and centralised service.

 

Irish Water came into being on January 1st and it is now crucial that this company sets out its role in terms of how it will interact with group water schemes and county councils and also what will happen in terms of new sewerage schemes. Communities where sewerage schemes are planned are currently at a loss as to who they should deal with in terms of planned new schemes and these communities must have an avenue in terms of communicating with Irish Water.

 

The issue of group water schemes is crucial to many rural householders. We have heard a lot of talk about the ‘polluter pays’ principle, but it is crucial that members of group water schemes, who had the initiative to set up water schemes where the state failed to provide a water supply, are rewarded rather than punished for their initiative. If payment is based on consumption of water, then it is imperative that the system is fair and that those on group water schemes are not forced to pay twice for their water.

 

In recent months Irish Water has run a significant campaign in an effort to inform the public of how and why water meters were being installed. In order to boost public confidence in this company, which we must remember is less than three weeks old, much greater efforts must be made by the company to explain how and why such significant sums of money were spent on consultancy fees and the process which was undertaken to ensure that those services were procured at the best price possible.

 

The key issues in relation to this new state utility company are value for money, accountability, transparency and communication. Householders, who are ultimately the people who will be paying for the costs incurred, need to be assured that value for money is a top consideration at all levels throughout the business, the public also need reassurance that there is proper accountability and transparency within the structures and the company needs to communicate with the public to ensure that its work is properly represented.

 

I believe that bringing the company within the remit of Freedom of Information is an important step in achieving greater transparency, accountability and communication and look forward to on-going oversight of its work in the months and years to come.