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FactCheck: How many people boycotted water charges?

The AAA-PBP says almost three quarters of Irish Water customers refused to pay during the most recent billing cycle. Is that true?

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WITH THE PUBLICATION of the Expert Commission’s final report on water charges, the issue has been front and centre of political debate all week.

On Wednesday’s Morning Ireland, AAA-PBP TD Paul Murphy claimed that nearly three-quarters of those presented with water bills had boycotted them.

And on Tuesday night’s RTE Late Debate, UCD sociologist Kieran Allen made a similar claim.

Is this true?

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim: 73% of those subject to water charges did not pay them
Verdict: UNPROVEN (but likely to be quite close to the mark)

What was said:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

You can listen to excerpts from the two interviews in question, above.

On Morning Ireland, Paul Murphy stated:

…The majority of people in Ireland…who were charged water charges, participated in a boycott. 73% of people.

On the Late Debate, Kieran Allen, who was AAA-PBP’s director of elections in this year’s general election, said:

75% of the Irish population are refusing to pay water charges.

The Facts

29/8/2015. Anti Water Charges Campaigns Protests Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

In response to FactCheck, both Paul Murphy and Kieran Allen clarified that their claims related specifically to the fifth billing cycle (April-May 2016). During this cycle (the most recent) it was announced that water charges were to be suspended.

Since this is a clarification of what Murphy said on air (73% of those “who were charged with water charges”), rather than a contradiction, this is the version of the claim we will be checking.

Murphy’s argument was as follows:

  • Irish Water’s stated billing target (what they were owed) in Cycle 1 was €66.8 million
  • This target was the same in Cycle 5
  • In Cycle 5, €18.3 million was paid in domestic water charges – equating to 27% of the €66.8 million target (27.4%, to be exact)
  • Therefore, the non-payment rate during Cycle 5 was 73% (72.6% to be exact).

For the record, FactCheck also asked Kieran Allen for evidence to support his very similar claim, and he presented a very similar rationale to Murphy’s.

There are two major points to note, here.

Firstly, Irish Water today gave FactCheck revised figures for the amount of water charges paid in the fifth billing cycle – €20.9 million, rather than €18.3 million – and its billing target in each cycle – €68.5 million, rather than €66.8 million.

These figures are different to those previously stated by Irish Water itself, and have never been published before. You can download a spreadsheet containing all the data, here.

So Paul Murphy was accurately citing the figures put on the public record by Irish Water, before their correspondence with us for this fact check.

The net result of this is that in Cycle 5, Irish Water was paid 30.5% of its target, rather than the 27% presented by Murphy.

Secondly - how much was paid does not necessarily equate to how many people paid.

This is because, in any given billing cycle, some customers are liable to pay €160, some €260, and because – akin to credit card debt – individuals often don’t pay their entire bill for each cycle.

Instead, they often pay what they can, which is then deducted from their arrears.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

So the question is: how many people paid at least something, during the fifth billing cycle?

The answer, despite our best efforts, is that we don’t know.

For each cycle, Irish Water gave FactCheck the cumulative total number of customers who had paid at least part of at least one bill, up to that point.

That could be one bill, the second and fourth bills, 100% of all five bills, or €20 off their third bill, but nothing before or since.

Which means that when you hear someone say “65% of people were paying when the charges were suspended”, be aware that that actually means “65% of people (customers) had paid something, in at least one cycle, since the very beginning”.

Irish Water did not give us the number of customers who paid something (at least part of at least one bill), in each cycle.

This is the crucial piece of information, which would allow us to know for certain how many customers paid something in the most recent billing cycle – the subject of Paul Murphy’s claim.

Despite several follow-up requests from FactCheck, Irish Water told us:

As domestic billing, and therefore our billing system, is now suspended it’s not possible to attempt to extract this kind of information retrospectively.

Irish Water did not keep track of the number of customers paying something to it, during each cycle.

Instead, the utility told us, they kept track of the number of customers in each cycle who haven’t yet paid anything.

Irish Water, like most other utilities, bills on an accrual basis. i.e. We record the total amount owed by customers, not the number of bills paid by customers.

This is the only figure that can answer our question, so without it, we are obliged to give a verdict of UNPROVEN.

However, we can make some rough estimations.

Paul Murphy’s method

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

The Dublin South-West TD told FactCheck:

They [Irish Water] didn’t collect 73% of the revenue they expected to collect in bill cycle 5. That demonstrates a non-payment rate of 73%.

So he’s roughly equating the percentage of revenue with the percentage of paying customers, although he himself acknowledged, in his response, that this was somewhat imprecise.

He added, however, that the evidence from Cycle 1 lent support to his methodology.

In the first billing cycle, Irish Water stated that 43% of customers (675,000) had paid 46% of the billing target (€30.5 million out of €66.8 million).

As Murphy explained to FactCheck, this suggests that payment levels skewed slightly higher (since 43% of customers accounted for 46% of revenue).

These numbers were accurate up until this morning, when Irish Water revised what it says its billing target was, from €66.8 million to €68.5 million.

Furthermore, in its press release for the first billing cycle, Irish Water said 675,000 customers had paid something, and that this represented 43% of customers.

But this would suggest that the utility’s customer base is 1.57 million. And since then, Irish Water has confirmed that its customer base is, in fact, 1.522 million – a discrepancy highlighted by Murphy in the past.

In fact, it was 44.35% of customers who paid 44.54% of water charges in the first billing cycle.

So in Cycle 1, the percentage of customers paying was indeed almost identical to the percentage of possible revenue paid.

If we extrapolate from there, assuming that that congruency was maintained throughout all five cycles, we arrive at an estimate of 30.34% of customers paying something in Cycle 5.

That’s 12% (three percentage points) off Murphy’s figure of 27%, and 21% (five percentage points) off Kieran Allen’s figure of 25%.

But remember, they had not had the advantage of seeing the revised figures given to FactCheck this morning.

We evaluate claims based on how closely they reflect the best evidence publicly available at the time they were made.

And since their rationale was based on Cycle 5 revenue as a percentage of billing target (the two figures revised by Irish Water), it stands to reason they would have presented a figure of 30%, if equipped with this new data.

Growth in customers vs growth in revenue

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

So the percentage of customers paying something matched almost perfectly with the percentage of possible revenue paid, in Cycle 1. Did this trend continue?

Again, we don’t know, because Irish Water could not provide the data necessary to calculate this.

However, we do have a clue.

For this, we’re going to look at the growth in cumulative revenue from one cycle to the next, and compare that with growth in the cumulative number of paying customers.

(All this data is included in a spreadsheet that you can download here).

  • In Cycle 2: There was 23% growth in cumulative customers, and 124% growth in cumulative revenue
  • Cycle 3: 11.8% growth in cumulative customers, 61.8% growth in cumulative revenue
  • Cycle 4: 5% growth in cumulative customers, 30.2% growth in cumulative revenue
  • Cycle 5: 1.4% growth in cumulative customers, 14.4% growth in cumulative revenue.

You may have noticed a pattern here – the ratio between rates of growth is consistent, until the final cycle.

  • Cycle 2: For every 1% increase in cumulative customers, there was a 5.42% increase in cumulative revenue
  • Cycle 3: For every 1% increase in cumulative customers, there was a 5.24% increase in cumulative revenue
  • Cycle 4: For every 1% increase in cumulative customers, there was a 5.95% increase in cumulative revenue
  • Cycle 5: For every 1% increase in cumulative customers, there was a 10.08% increase in cumulative revenue.

This indicates that the average payment in Cycle 5 skewed higher than in the previous four cycles.

This would translate into a smaller number of customers paying in Cycle 5, and therefore a boycott rate of higher than 70%.

However, we don’t have the information we need, in order to say for certain what that rate was.

The claims made by Paul Murphy and Kieran Allen are therefore UNPROVEN. But based on the best evidence available, they are more likely than not to be quite close to the mark.

To download a spreadsheet containing all the relevant data, click here.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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