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What would happen if Sinn Féin scraps Irish Water and water charges?

Here’s what we know about the Sinn Féin alternative to Irish Water…

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams
Image: Stephen Kilkenny/Photocall Ireland

THIS MORNING, SINN Féin said it intended to abolish Irish Water and water charges as its first act of government if in power after the next election.

The party published a short, one-page bill that would repeal all existing legislation around Irish Water and water charges. Under Dáil rules, the Water Services Repeal Bill cannot be tabled by an opposition party as it involves the spending of exchequer money.

But Sinn Féin spokespeople are in no doubt that if the party is in government after the election this would be its first act.

So the question is what exactly replaces it? In an attempt to shed light on this here’s a quick guide to the Sinn Féin’s alternative for water, as put forward by the party in public commentary so far…

So Sinn Féin wants to abolish Irish Water? 

Yes. If in government, it would be the party’s first act, finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty said today. Legislation deleting the two existing pieces of legislation on water was published today and is ready to go when Sinn Féin enters office.

It’s worth noting that last October, the party sang a slightly different tune on scrapping Irish Water during the Dublin South-West by-election.

Outlining her party’s plan ‘The Future of our Water Services’ deputy leader Mary McDonald explained that Sinn Féin wasn’t proposing that Irish Water as an entity be scrapped. It would, instead be funded from elsewhere in the tax system.

But it’s for scrapping Irish Water now?

Yes.

So does that mean water charges would be no more? 

Yes.

What happens to the money I’ve already paid for water or the money I owe? 

Sinn Féin said it would not go after any arrears for domestic water usage but would not be refunding anyone who pays their bill now. A spokesperson said:

The position is that we would scrap domestic charges and we would not go after any arrears for domestic water usage. But those who pay their charges do so in the knowledge that that money will be lost to them.

What about people on group water schemes? 

Sinn Féin has said that those paying for water on these schemes would continue to do so. Commercial water customers would also continue to pay.

How much would this cost? 

In its pre-budget submission Sinn Féin said it would cost €300 million NOT to introduce domestic water charges. New taxation measures, including a third rate of tax (48%) for people who earn over €100,000 a year, and raising capital gains tax and capital acquisitions tax to 40% each, would fund this.

In addition, Doherty said recently that some of the €539 million already spent on installing water meters would be recouped. We weren’t quite clear on this, so we asked party leader Gerry Adams to explain when he visited us recently. See the video below.

Far from the €300 million Sinn Féin said it would cost last October, Adams claimed earlier this year that it would actually cost €141 million to scrap domestic water charges:

Source: Video: Michelle Hennessy/TheJournal.ie

So if Irish Water is gone, who takes over the provision of water services? 

Irish Water effectively replaced the system whereby water provision and infrastructure was the responsibility of local authorities. The government’s rationale for setting it up is that one, centralised utility streamlines the process and, in the long run, saves money as well as improving dilapidated water infrastructure.

Sinn Féin says there would be some involvement for local authorities under its plans, but is clear in saying that it would set up a “new public body” that would be accountable to the government department.

The new body would be underpinned by a number of principles including:

  1. There would be a constitutional “right to water”, which means that public ownership of water services would be enshrined in the Constitution. This would require a referendum – an idea first floated by the Green Party last year. 
  2. There would be no domestic water charges (but you knew that one already) 
  3. It would be accountable to “a government department” – presumably the Department of Environment – and “directly accountable to a minister” – presumably the Minister for the Environment. 

File Photo Irish Water suspects enough water to fill 18 Olympic pools lost daily. Irish Water suspects there are over 30,000 pipe leaks on customer properties. The loss of water is estimated to be 46 million litres every day. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

This sounds like another Irish Water…

No, insists Sinn Féin. The party argues that Irish Water has been set up to charge people for their domestic water. Doherty said:

“That is an entity that is set up to meter domestic customers right across the state and is a quango that is unrepresentative and unaccountable.” 

Sinn Féin’s argument is that this new public body would be focussed not on billing customers but on fixing infrastructure whereby “50 per cent of our water is leaking from it.”

What we’re saying is to make sure that water services are fit for purpose that we’re getting best value for the money but we’re not charging individuals domestic water charges.

Is there any existing public body that would act as a template for this new Irish Water that’s not Irish Water? 

Anti Water Charges Campaigns Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

We asked for an example in the south of Ireland, but Doherty could only talk about what exists in the North where they have Northern Ireland Water.

In the North, for example, you have a publicly-owned, publicly-accountable utility company in terms of NI Water, which invests in water services, which does not doesn’t charge for domestic customers and is directly accountable to the department and makes the necessary investment.

Sounds like a quango? 

It’s not, insist Sinn Féin. Instead, it’s:

A public body with a greater role for local authorities [that] would invest in infrastructure and roll out improvements in water services.

Hmmm, so what happens to all those Irish Water staff? 

Irish Water both directly and indirectly employs thousands of staff between those in management, meter intallers and call centre staff. (We asked IW for an exact number but didn’t get one at the time of publication). Just yesterday we heard about the 750 people it has employed to deal with customer queries as bills begin to land.

Elizabeth Arnett. Pictured Head of Com Irish Water's Elizabeth Arnett keeps her job under Sinn Féin's plan for water Source: Sam Boal

Sinn Féin environment spokesperson Brian Stanley suggests staff would be better utilised repairing leaking pipes:

What we’re saying is if you’re going to employ 750 extra people – such as what’s happened this week, to take calls – surely it makes more sense if half the water is leaking out of the system that you employ 750 extra people to repair leaking pipes.

Sinn Féin is clear that it would honour the contracts of existing Irish Water staff, including those seemingly surplus to requirements if domestic charging is scrapped. Here’s what a spokesperson told us:

Sinn Féin in Government would honour contracts with all staff at Irish Water as agreed, including those providing customer service for all water consumers, and also billing which would focus on non-domestic collection only, in the absence of household charges.

Following Brian Stanley and Sinn Féin’s logic, the hundreds of people Irish Water has employed to deal with queries about bills would be retained but would only be focussed on recouping non-domestic charges.

This, on the face of it, appears to be a pretty bloated customer service department, under SF plans.

What would this new public body be called? 

The name doesn’t matter, according to Doherty:

Obviously the name doesn’t really make much of a difference. But that would be something that would be done in consultation with the Department and so on.

File photo: Water charges are looming Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

How much would all this cost? 

The cost of setting up this new public body is not clear. But Stanley reckons it would actually be more efficient than what currently exists.

He argues that the €270 million that Irish Water hopes to get from billing customers will not actually come to fruition as there will be a “substantial non-payment element there”.

Stanley says that when you subtract the €130 million to be paid in the form of the water conservation grant (which would also be scrapped under SF plans) and the €22 million being spent on collecting water charges (although not all of this would be recouped if all staff are being retained) you would be left with very little money. He said:

Our proposals is (sic) a lot more secure, it’s a lot more real than the €270 million that the government have estimated in for the billed amount, because they will only wind up with a small fraction of that.

pd and bs Pearse Doherty and Brian Stanley explaining their plans to journalists earlier today

Stanley says that Sinn Féin’s pre-budget submission makes for an allowance of €300 million “to make up for the shortfall of what’s collected in domestic water charges”.

In fact, there is no such allowance in Sinn Féin’s pre-budget submission. It does say that it would cost €300 million to scrap the charges. But there’s no specific €300 million allowance contained in the document.

Anything else? 

That’s as much as we know so far.

I’m still not entirely clear on how life after Irish Water under Sinn Féin works… 

You’re not the only one. Here’s what Labour TD Derek Nolan had to say about it all in a statement earlier today:

beermat labour

Read: This would be the first act of a Sinn Féin government

Read: Do Sinn Féin’s numbers add up? We could soon know for sure…

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