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Why won't Irish Water tell us how many people have paid their bills?

AAA TD Paul Murphy has been frustrated in his efforts to uncover payment levels.

IRISH WATER MAY not have been in the news much lately but with people encountering their first bills in recent weeks the issue hasn’t gone away completely.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) TD Paul Murphy has recently criticised the fact Irish Water won’t tell him how many people have paid those bills.

Murphy has repeatedly sought the information from the utility but has been denied an exact number. He raised the issue at Leaders’ Questions last month, sparking a furious Dáil row after the Taoiseach told him to “toddle along” to a meeting with Irish Water in Leinster House later that day.

The matter was raised in the Dáil again yesterday with still no clear answer as to how many people have paid.

Why can’t he find out how many people have paid their bills? 

When Murphy did ‘toddle along’ to that meeting with Irish Water officials at Leinster House, he was refused the information as, according to him, they said it would “not be helpful at this stage”.

What Irish Water said is that they have the billing information, they know how many people have paid – they sent just over one million bills out – and they’re refusing to give us that information.

paul-13-may Paul Murphy has been raising the issue in the Dáil in recent weeks Source: Oireachtas TV

Murphy strongly advocates boycotting the charges and believes that the refusal to disclose the number who have paid is because it would “illustrate a level of non-payment that shows the mass opposition that exists to the water charges”.

He said that at the meeting, Irish Water officials had argued that non-payment would be overstated if they disclosed the figures at this stage.

What did Irish Water say? 

Irish Water said at the time of Murphy’s initial request that the full 8-week billing cycle does not conclude until mid-June. It added:

Billed customers are already using the full range of payment options. Some bills will be reissued during the billing cycle with updated customer information. Bills may be cancelled if issued to households who are not customers but who are telling us this for the first time. Customers who received a default bill but who have subsequently registered have also been reissued with an accurate bill.

In other words, the back and forth between Irish Water and customers over bills with the wrong information or charges would, the utility argues, mean that it couldn’t give an accurate figure of compliance at this stage as people wait to receive a correct bill.

What did Murphy do next? 

Undettered, the Dublin South West TD submitted a Freedom of Information request to Irish Water for details of how many bills had been issue, how many were due for payment i.e. had been sent out more than 14 days previous, and how many people had paid so far.

Did he get a response? 

He did. Irish Water confirmed that as of 18 May it had issued 1,282,067 bills to customers and, of these, a total of 788,831 were due for payment.

But the utility refused Murphy’s request for details on the number of bills paid as of 18 May. In its reasoning, Irish Water cited commercial sensitivity as well as concerns about the impact on its “ordinary course of business”.

In his response to Murphy, Noel Shannon, the FOI officer at Irish Water’s parent company Ervia, said:

Releasing information relating to bill payment rates even before all bills have been issued is clearly premature and would unduly impact upon Irish Water’s ordinary course of business.

irish-water-1 Part of Irish Water's response to Paul Murphy when he asked for details of payment levels last month

Any other reason? 

Yes, Shannon also revealed that the public interest was best served by not releasing the information:

In my view the most important public interest at issue is that Irish Water be afforded the opportunity to operate as a high performing commercial utility company and to bring about reform of Ireland’s water sector, on behalf of all the Irish people.

“Therefore I believe that the public interest is best served in this instance by not releasing the information requested in the third and final part of your FOI request,” he said in his letter to Murphy.

What did Murphy say to this? 

As you can imagine, he wasn’t happy. Murphy said the the most ridiculous reason given is the suggestion that the ‘public interest is best served … by not releasing the information….’

He told TheJournal.ie last month: “Irish Water and the government were very quick to give a running total on registration rates for water charges when they thought it suited them to do so.

Irish Water and the water charges has been the subject of massive public controversy and the Anti-Austerity Alliance and others have called for people to refuse to pay. It is self-evident, that it is in the interest of the public to see what level of people have paid.

He said it was likely that payment levels are so low that if published they would give confidence to others to refuse to pay.

In the Dáil yesterday, Murphy said it is “simply not credible” that the government hasn’t discussed level of payment with Irish Water.

He said the only conclusion he could come to was that the coalition is “hiding the figure, whereas you boasted about the bloated registration figures, because the figures are on the floor”.

Essentially he believes this may all be politically motivated.

So what’s the government saying then? 

screenshot-2015-06-10-at-12-26-10-pm Richard Bruton speaking for the government in the Dáil yesterday

A spokesperson from the Department of the Environment said “we’re not hiding payment rates” and insisted “that’s a matter for Irish Water”.

Addressing Murphy in the Dáil yesterday, Jobs Minister Richard Bruton suggested that Murphy appeal the FOI request. The AAA deputy has already done this and is waiting for a response.

However, it’s worth noting that when he was initially refused the information last month, Murphy told reporters that Irish Water officials indicated it could be available by mid-July.

So, watch this space.

Read: Have you paid your water charges bill? Paul Murphy thinks most people haven’t…

Read: Irish Water thinks it’s better you don’t know how many bills have been paid

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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