€100 WATER GRANT WAS €90M DOWN THE DRAIN
Further State losses... amid alarm at where €170m to pay water charges will come from
THE €90million handed out in a bid to smooth the introduction of water charges will not be recouped, the Irish Daily Mail can reveal.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Mail yesterday that it would be ‘extremely difficult and logistically unfeasible’ to claw back the funds paid to householders in €100 conservation grants. The blow to Exchequer funds has come as ministers have promised that they are determined to press ahead with plans to reimburse €170million to the law-abiding citizens who paid their charges.
While the refund will be welcomed by those who obeyed the law, opposition politicians are alarmed at Government confusion over where the money will come from. Fianna
Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath warned that €170million ‘is a considerable amount of money considering that over four-fifths of Government expenditure is in the critical areas of health, education and social protection’.
Mr Varadkar promised that households would get the refund – as much as €325 in some cases – before the end of the year, as he reversed his previous position that the grant funds would first have to be taken back.
Roughly €89million was paid out to households as part of the water conservation grant but Mr Varadkar conceded to the Mail yesterday: ‘It was done on the basis that it was separate to the water charges, and there were people who availed of that grant who don’t pay water charges for one reason or another, being on group schemes, for instance.
‘So yes, I agree it would be extremely difficult and logistically unfeasible to net off the water grants.’
Close to 1million customers of Irish Water paid, or partially paid, water charges before they were ended.
However, there were others who point-blank refused to,
‘Refunds before Christmas’
even though they claimed the €100 grant.
Mr Varadkar said: ‘It would be the intention to repay water charges before the end of the year. We anticipate that it will start in the autumn and everybody will be refunded before Christmas.
‘There may be a few cases where we run into difficulty, like people who have deceased or left the country. But in the vast majority we intend to have water charges refunded.’
Fianna Fáil’s Mr McGrath questioned where the money would be coming from and pointed to apparent contradictory statements from the Taoiseach, and Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty, whose Department handled the water conservation grants, under a different minister.
He said there seemed to be Cabinet confusion, after the Taoiseach said that he had mentioned the issue of refunds at a previous Cabinet meeting, while Minister Doherty said on radio yesterday, ‘We haven’t had a Cabinet meeting to discuss it.’
Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Mr McGrath said Mr Varadkar should outline at which Cabinet meeting the issue was discussed, and why the minister was not aware of this.
He also sought assurances that there are no plans to impose cuts to vital public services to fund the repayments.
He said: ‘Obscure references to savings and underspends are not acceptable; €170million in savings is a considerable amount, considering over four-fifths of Government expenditure is in the critical areas of health, education and social protection.’
Earlier, Education Minister Richard Bruton told Morning Ireland the money for the refunds will come from within existing resources, suggesting various departments might make contributions. And on Sunday, when Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was asked where the money would come from he replied: ‘You’ll have to ask Paschal Donohoe [Finance Minister].’
When the Mail asked the Taoiseach about it, he said: ‘It comes from the Exchequer. It
‘Cabinet hasn’t even discussed it’
comes from taxation, and already there are areas where we have underspent, but there is no point in me pretending to you that it is going to fall out of the sky. Ultimately, it is all taxpayers’ money, and in this case we are giving back to the taxpayer.’
Fianna Fáil’s environment spokeman Barry Cowen said he was surprised that refunds, apparently, weren’t discussed at Cabinet. He said: ‘The Cabinet hasn’t discussed these issues, hasn’t been briefed on these issues and is not aware of what progress, if any, has been made in relation to the provision of legislation or the funding that is needed to meet the commitment in relation to refunds.’
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has described the Government’s announcement as a ‘public relations kind of approach’ to the matter, especially when there was no legislation to seriously address water quality.
‘I think the refund is actually reasonably easy through other budgets, but the bigger, wider question is: Where is the legislation that will introduce the charging on excess use?’ he said. This had been agreed months ago by the Oireachtas Committee, he said.
ANOTHER day, another new chapter in the water charges fiasco.
This newspaper has already highlighted the glaring absence of any proper plan to refund the €170million paid by almost 1million households to Irish Water. Yet Leo Varadkar maintains they will all be refunded by the end of 2017, even though he still seems uncertain whether legislation will be required to facilitate this.
Now Mr Varadkar has indicated it is highly unlikely that householders who availed of the €100 water conservation grant will be will be asked to repay it. Such a move, he said, would be ‘extremely difficult both legally and logistically’.
Even though this will be welcomed in many homes nationwide, it is only good news in the very short term. The statistics speak for themselves. When all is said and done, this single aspect of the Irish Water catastrophe will cost almost €90million.
It would be apposite in the circumstances to describe this as money being flushed down the toilet by the Government. And, of course, that figure doesn’t include the administration costs involved in refunding the water charge payments themselves.
It is beyond question that Irish Water was a disaster right from the beginning, and matters were made worse by the chaotic response from Government Buildings. The conservation grant was brought in as part of a failed attempt to quell opposition to the charges. That showed serious weakness on the part of our political leaders.
By now passing up on the opportunity to recoup it, the Government is performing yet another U-turn. The irony is that a water levy could have been introduced without any great fuss if the powers-that-be had gone about it in a professional and consistent manner. Instead, the approach combined arrogance with inefficiency and a fatal lack of sure-footedness.
Contrast that with the way in which the controversial USC was introduced. Even though it is a tax that remains deeply unpalatable to vast numbers of the workforce, it was successfully implemented because former finance minister Michael Noonan simply faced down his critics.
Among the many reasons for the failure of water charges is the fact that nobody in the Government was prepared to stand their ground. And there is no sign of that changing under Mr Varadkar.
His announcement that households won’t be pursued for the €100 grant isn’t a cause for celebration. Rest assured, he will claw back every single cent – and more – in some shape or form over the next 12 months.
Leo Varadkar: No clawback