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So many questions... what's happening with water charges?

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are at loggerheads over water charges… again.

Updated 8pm

90406061_90406061 Anti-water charges protester. Source: Rollingnews.ie

IS IT THE end of water charges? Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) members think so, but Fine Gael isn’t giving up without a fight.

“We are on the brink of a historic victory,” TD Mick Barry told reporters yesterday.

We are in the last 10 minutes of the cup final now. Our team, the Anti-Water Charges team, holds the lead but we’re not in the slightest bit complacent on this and we will fight like men and women possessed over the month of March to ensure that when the final whistle goes, we will be the winners.

Yesterday, members of Fianna Fáil stood with their colleagues in the Future of Water Services committee who are seeking the abolition of all domestic charges – including those mooted in cases of excessive use.

In a private meeting, TDs discussed the committee’s draft report, with Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and AAA-PBP agreeing that there should be no re-introduction of charges.

The committee has made no formal decision on the matter and there was a twist late last night when Housing Minister Simon Coveney stamped out any celebrations of the AAA-PBP group by stating that he would not be legislating for the abolition of the water charges regime, claiming to do so would be in breach of EU law.

“I will not introduce legislation that potentially exposes the country to very severe penalties and fines from the European Commission – I won’t do that,” Coveney told reporters.

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen had words to say about that – speaking to Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 described Coveney’s intervention as “extraordinary intervention”, which “undermined” the work of a committee put together to deal with the issue.

He also rejected charges of populism, saying that his party clearly stated in its party manifesto that water charges should be abolished.

Why was the committee set-up in the first place?

The 20-member Joint Committee was set up after government formation talks last year.

Water charges was one of the main issues that could have prevented Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael signing up to the confidence and supply agreement (which basically keeps the current minority arrangement ticking along).

Ultimately, an agreement was reached and an expert commission was established to make recommendations to allow for a ‘sustainable long-term funding model for the delivery of domestic water and wastewater services by Irish Water’.

It delivered its report in November and recommended that “the vast majority of consumers will not have to pay direct charges for water”.

The cross-party committee was then established to discuss the future of water services, with a commitment that a report be delivered in March.

TDs will meet again today to discuss its final recommendations for the future funding of domestic water services.

There are still many questions to be answered… so we’ve taken a look at what is likely to happen. 

Will there be future charges for households? 

It’s unlikely there will be water charges for all. With Coveney’s late intervention last night, a compromise might have to be reached to avoid the government being brought down.

While the idea of people paying for excessive water usage was previously floated, critically yesterday, Fianna Fáil indicated they are opposing any charges.

Coveney believes this is a complete U-turn by the party. As it stands, Fine Gael’s position is that there should be consequences for those who use excessive amounts of water, namely a charge of some kind.

This would tick a box for the European Commission, ensuring the State would not be in breach of any EU law. That would, in turn, mean Ireland avoids any fines from Europe.

Last year, the European Commission said Ireland will be in breach of European law should it remove water charges completely. (Once introduced, the EC says water charges cannot be discontinued.)

Yesterday, the AAA-PBP was optimistic but cautious about the committee’s final report, noting there were concerns about Fianna Fáil backtracking on its position.

Barry said the party’s policy has not always been consistent and he was wary of possibly deals being struck with Fine Gael.

On the offensive following Coveney’s late night remarks, Paul Murphy issued a statement saying the Minister has declared he will not introduce legislation to scrap water charges even if the majority of the Dáil votes in favour of it.

Is it the end of the water meters programme? 

This report could certainly mean the end to household water meters as there is a clear majority on the committee in favour of halting the domestic installation programme.

O’Dea indicated his party favoured a district metering system, rather than household meters – something Murphy agreed with.

He claims it would cost a further half a billion euro to complete the current water meter installation programme. To date, they have cost €500 million.

The AAA-PBP TD said the committee heard overwhelming evidence from water service providers in other jurisdictions, such as Scotland, that district metering was a better option over household water meters.

So, does this mean refunds for those that have already paid?

This has been the big question since the suspension of water charges – and the cessation of Irish Water bills. Should those who paid be refunded or those who boycotted be chased for payments?

As of last night, it’s understood the majority of the committee is in favour of refunds but the method of doing so has not been decided.

Murphy believes the €162 million collected by Irish Water should be refunded.

This figure does not include what it would cost to administer the refunds, though some are speculating the easiest and most straight-forward way of giving people their money back is through a tax rebate.

Coveney told the media last night that Fine Gael is willing to compromise on some issues, such as refunds, but not on the issue of charging for excessive use of water - an indication that refunds could be on the way.

What about the €100 water conservation grant?

Fianna Fáil has insisted that people who received the water conservation grant should have that deducted from their refunds.

However, speaking to the media yesterday, Murphy said it was time to draw a line under the water conservation grant.

I don’t think we should go after the conservation fund – it is what it is.

It’s understood more than 800,000 customers applied for the €100 payment.

Will Irish Water still exist?

“Irish Water will be retained as a single national utility in public ownership responsible for the delivery of water and wastewater services.”

This is the first line in the FF-FG agreement on water services. So, it has always been the case that Irish Water will continue to exist in one form or another.

What next?

Another private meeting was held today, and still there was no agreement. In fact, by all accounts it was rather heated, with the meeting having to be adjourned at one point.

This argument is going to roll into next week.

Fine Gael has been left in an isolated position. The party believes the recommendations from the expert commission should be followed.

Coveney dug in his heels last night while admitting that this is a “difficult political issue to resolve”.

However, looking back again at the confidence and supply agreement, it states that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil “reserve their right to adopt differing positions on any consequent legislation or resolutions being debated by the Oireachtas”.

This could spell trouble ahead if they can’t reach a compromise.

The agreement merely states that the government will “facilitate the passage of legislation” for the implementation of the recommendations in relation to domestic water charging (whether it be abolition, a reformed charging regime or other options).

This line was put to the minister yesterday evening and he was asked what would happen if the Oireachtas approved and voted in favour of the abolition of the water charges regime.

“Facilitating is not the same as introducing,” he clarified.

“What I am saying is I cannot introduce legislation that I regard as effectively illegal.”

He said he wanted a “fair outcome” for all – but one that is legally sound. Sources within the Fianna Fáil party have indicated that this move by Coveney could be a breach of the agreement.

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen said today if the government does not abide by the confidence and supply agreement with his party on the issue of water charges, it could bring down the government.

When asked last night if Fine Gael was gearing up for a possible early summer election, Coveney said he didn’t think that was the case.

“I hope not.”

Read: Coveney says he will not legislate for water charges abolition as it would be illegal>

Read: Leo v Simon: TV3 ‘very interested’ in hosting a Fine Gael leadership debate>

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