Fur­ther State losses... amid alarm at where €170m to pay wa­ter charges will come from

Irish Daily Mail - - Front Page - By Se­nan Molony Po­lit­i­cal Editor

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

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