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Coveney says he will not legislate for water charges abolition 'as it would be illegal'

The Housing Minister was talking tough tonight, but said Fine Gael were not in breach of confidence and supply agreement.

Simon Coveney speaking to reporters at Leinster House this evening.
Simon Coveney speaking to reporters at Leinster House this evening.

HOUSING MINISTER SIMON Coveney has said he will not legislate for the water committee’s agreement if it doesn’t include a charge for excessive usage.

The majority of those on the Oireachtas joint committee on the future funding of water services have indicated that they are in favour of abolishing domestic charges and are opposed to charging for the excessive use of water.

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.

“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 tonight.

EU law

Last year, the European Commission said Ireland will be in breach of European law should it remove the charges completely.

“We have clear advice from Attorney General’s Office, I have legal advice from my own department and the expert commission’s advice that was very clear – and we have a European Commission that has shown flexibility and willingness to work with Ireland, but are also clear that there has to be some consequences for households wasting large amounts of water,” he said.

Coveney said Fine Gael is willing to compromise, but added that other parties have to be prepared to follow suit.

We have compromised on the Fine Gael view very significantly, and we’re asking other parties seeking a working solution to do the same.

“If that compromise involves exposing the State to legal action, I don’t think as an office holder I can facilitate that,” said the minister.

Fianna Fáil’s position

He said Fianna Fáil had hardened its position on the issue, and accused the party of altering its stance on charges in recent days.

“What Fianna Fáil seem to be saying today is that it is okay by them for the general taxpayer to waste water – that wasn’t the Fianna Fáil position until a few days ago.”

Coveney insisted tonight that the work of the committee isn’t finished, adding that he still wants consensus.

When asked what the outcome would be if the committee’s final recommendation was for the total abolition of all water charges, he said:

I would be very surprised if Fianna Fáil asked a government minister to introduce something that was against the AG’s [Attorney General's] advice.
We cannot ignore independent legal advice… it is hugely irresponsible to ask us to do that.

Breaching confidence and supply agreement

Coveney said Fine Gael were not breaching the confidence and supply agreement (the deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael which essentially keeps the government in power).

The agreement was never intended to instruct a minister to act contrary to the advice of the Attorney General, he said.

We will continue to abide by it and I hope Fianna Fáil will too.

The agreement 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 this 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.”

‘Bullying’ the committee

Sinn Féin spokesperson on water Eoin Ó Broin has accused the minister of “trying to bully the Oireachtas Water Committee”.

Tonight’s intervention by Minister Coveney prior to the Committee concluding our business is wholly inappropriate. He is trying to bully the Committee with exaggerated claims on the supposed illegality of complete abolition of water charges.
While a final decision is expected tomorrow or next week it is clear that the Government is losing the argument.
The minister should stop interfering in the work of the Committee. He should adhere to the process he set up and respect the outcome of the Committee.

He said the minister will have plenty of time to respond to the committee’s final report when it is debated by the Dáil and Seanad later this month.

O’Broin said Coveney’s attempts to influence the outcome of the committee’s deliberations is “wrong and smacks of desperation”.

The committee of 20 TDs is expected to finalise its report either tomorrow or next week ahead of a Dáil vote which is due to take place by the end of March.

Poll: Would you watch Coveney and Varadkar going toe-to-toe in a live debate?>

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