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FactCheck: Did Right2Water this week support charging for excessive water use?

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen made the claim this week, and the AAA-PBP’s Paul Murphy accused him of “mischief making”. FactCheck steps in.

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AN EXCHANGE AT an Oireachtas Committee this week prompted a public row between the AAA-PBP and Fianna Fáil.

Barry Cowen, Fianna Fáil’s environment spokesperson, claimed on Twitter that the anti-water charges campaign group Right2Water had confirmed they are “in favour of charging households for excessive use of water”.

In response, AAA-PBP TD Paul Murphy said Cowen was “out to create mischief” with his claim, which he said was based on “selective quoting”.

And Right2Water itself later said they didn’t believe a charge for excessive use “makes sense”.

So who’s right here?

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

Claim: Right2Water this week expressed support for charging households for excessive water use

What was said:

The claim in question was made by Barry Cowen in this tweet on Tuesday:

The Facts

You can watch an excerpt of the exchange at Tuesday’s committee hearing, and part of an interview with Right2Water activist Brendan Ogle, in the video below.

This is what’s most relevant:

1. Comments of Brendan Ogle

90429388_90429388 Right2Water activist Brendan Ogle. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

In the committee, Barry Cowen quoted from an interview by Right2Water activist Brendan Ogle on RTE Radio One’s Today With Seán O’Rourke, after the release of the expert commission’s report on water services, last November.

To avoid duplication and confusion, we’re quoting here from that interview, and not Cowen’s paraphrasing of it.

Seán O’Rourke: …What about charging wasters?
Brendan Ogle: …Education – and the report highlights, actually, Alan [Farrell] – is the way to deal with waste. We are not a wasteful country, we are a water-rich country…
SOR: Will you deal with the question about charging wasters?
BO: Of course I’m opposed to people who waste water.
SOR: That’s not the question.

(Later)

SOR: Are you opposed to charging wasters?
BO: I am not opposed.

2. David Gibney’s preferred method of penalising excessive water use

At the committee, Barry Cowen then asked Right2Water representatives David Gibney and Steve Fitzpatrick:

How would you penalise those who use excessive amounts, if and when we have identified what is excessive…?

Gibney reiterated the position that Irish households are not wasteful, by European standards, and added:

In terms of penalising people for excessive use of water, there is provision there already under the 2007 Act, as I’m sure the committee is already aware.

Gibney is referring here to the 2007 Water Services Act, which contains a provision whereby local authorities can, essentially, ask an individual to stop wasting water, or make repairs necessary to stop leaks.

If the individual persistently refuses to comply, they are open to conviction.

Gibney then said that Right2Water would not be opposed to the government introducing a “swimming pool tax”, stated that the overwhelming majority of wasted water comes from leaks, and not excessive usage, and added that it was a “false argument that households are wasteful”.

3. First confirmation by Steve Fitzpatrick

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 10.34.29 Right2Water activists Steve Fitzpatrick (L) and David Gibney (R) Source: Oireachtas.ie

Referring back to Brendan Ogle’s interview in November, Cowen then put it to the Right2Water representatives that:

Brendan [Ogle] speaks, like yourself, for the Right2Water movement. He was asked specifically if he was opposed to charging people for excessive use, and he said he is not.
Is that not the viewpoint of the Right 2 Water movement, or it is?

Steve Fitzpatrick replied:

It is the viewpoint, Deputy Cowen…

He went on to emphasise the way industry and agriculture use water and contribute to pollution, but added:

…The “polluter pays” principle has to be applied to everybody, not just to individual citizens.

The “polluter pays” principle is an environmental principle that involves financial disincentives for pollution and waste. In the context of water services, a charge for excessive use is an enactment of the “polluter pays” principle.

While his primary motivation may have been to emphasise the waste and pollution caused by agriculture and industry, Steve Fitzpatrick did state that the principle must be “applied to everybody, not just to individual citizens”.

By definition, this means it should be applied to individual citizens and domestic household water users – another strong indication of support for an excessive use charge.

4. Second confirmation by Steve Fitzpatrick

Cowen further crystallised the position in a follow-up question, asking:

If this committee was in a position to agree a process by which people who use excessive amounts – in the opinion of this committee – were charged, you’re happy with that?

The reply to this is inaudible, but appears to have been in the affirmative. In the official transcript of the committee hearing, Fitzpatrick replies “Yes”.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 16.49.43 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Furthermore, Cowen immediately responds to this by saying “Thanks”. If Fitzpatrick’s response had been in the negative, it’s highly unlikely Cowen would have simply thanked Fitzpatrick, and allowed the next member of the committee to begin their questioning.

So on two occasions, a Right2Water representative (Steve Fitzpatrick) confirmed to Barry Cowen that Right2Water would not be opposed to, and would be “happy” with a charge for excessive water use.

5. Criticism of excessive use charge by David Gibney

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 10.36.02 Source: Oireachtas.ie

However, later on in Tuesday’s committee hearing, and in response to Fine Gael TD Martin Heydon, David Gibney said he did not believe imposing a charge for excessive use would make economic sense.

If you were to, say for instance, have an excessive charge [charge for excessive use] of over 150% of domestic usage, that potentially – potentially – could raise between €14 million and €30 million.
Now to me, economically, it doesn’t make sense that you would try to raise €14 to €30 million chasing down probably 7% of households, if you’re spending €270 million to do that. So spending €270 million for a return of €30 million just makes no economic sense.
In terms of environmentalism and conservation, there is no evidence – and it say, again, in the report – there is no evidence that there’s any excessive wastage of water in Ireland.

We’re going to set aside the accuracy of Gibney’s figures, because what’s at issue here is whether Right2Water expressed support for an excessive use charge at Tuesday’s hearing.

While David Gibney did not explicitly state he was opposed to a charge for excessive water use, he certainly issued a strong criticism of such a charge, albeit based on one particular cost-benefit analysis.

Conclusion

Sequence 01.00_01_23_26747.Still001 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Paul Murphy is right to say that Barry Cowen quoted selectively from Brendan Ogle’s interview in November. The Fianna Fáil TD didn’t include all relevant context, or Ogle’s insistence that Irish households are not wasteful of water, in relative terms.

But crucially, Cowen did not misleadingly quote from Ogle’s interview, and accurately recounted the key moment when Ogle said he would not oppose a charge for those who waste water.

And the fact remains that at Tuesday’s hearing, Cowen twice asked the Right2Water contingent whether they would oppose, or would be “happy” with a charge for excessive use.

On both occasions, a Right2Water representative confirmed that the group would not oppose such a charge, and would be “happy” with it.

The other half of the Right2Water contingent at the committee offered a view that was critical, and strongly skeptical of a charge for excessive use, and when asked how he would penalise those who waste water, expressed a preference for implementing provisions of existing law, not a charge.

However, he did not explicitly state that Right2Water would oppose such a charge, and did not contradict the confirmations given earlier by his colleague.

His criticism was also based on one specific cost-benefit analysis.

Cowen’s claim, in his tweet, was that Right2Water had confirmed to him at the committee that they are “in favour of charging households for excessive use of water”.

On balance, we rate this claim Mostly TRUE. As our verdicts guide explains, this means:

The claim is close to accurate, but is missing significant details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs in favour of the claim.

This verdict does not mean Right2Water’s definitive position is in support of a charge for excessive water use, or that the group might not in future take a different definitive position.

The verdict means only that their remarks at this week’s committee hearing mostly bear out Barry Cowen’s description of them.

This is the first time we’ve fact-checked a claim by Barry Cowen. In future, you’ll be able to find his FactCheck File here.

You can read the full transcript of Tuesday’s Water Services Committee hearing here.
You can watch the hearing in full here.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

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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Dan MacGuill

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