My Speech on Irish Water in the Dail – 21/10/14

Irish Water square image

Deputy Willie O’Dea:   I thank Deputy Cowen for tabling this motion. A total of 750,000 people in the country, that is one in six, live below the poverty line.

Hundreds of thousands more are struggling just barely above that line. The population as a whole has been battered by year after year of austerity, cuts, charges and impositions of all sorts, both covert and overt. Against this background the least that people are decently entitled to expect is that where the Government establishes a body, regardless of what type of body it is, to impose another charge on these battered taxpayers, the interaction between this body and the taxpayers who will be charged should be clear, transparent and coherent. Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, among others, has told us, and we do not have to take his word for it because we see it every day, that Irish Water is acting in a way which is the polar opposite of this transparency, accountability and openness.

It is opaque, distant and even disinterested.

I will give the House some examples of my interaction with Irish Water to illustrate what I am saying. Some time ago I telephoned Irish Water with a simple query. I am lucky enough to own a second house in Limerick and I have it converted to use as a constituency office. I wanted an answer to the simple question as to how that is treated for water tax purposes. Is it in the same category as a holiday home? Is it an unoccupied building? What is it exactly? The gentleman who answered said, “Well, Deputy, that’s a very interesting question, but I can’t answer it. I’ll have to put you on to somebody higher up”. He duly put me on to somebody higher up and the reply I got from the somebody higher up was, “Well, Deputy, that is a most interesting question, but we don’t have the answer to it. I’ll have to put you further up again”. So I went up and up; I almost finished on the roof. Eventually when I got to the key man he told me – guess what – “That’s a very interesting question. I don’t have the answer, but give me your mobile phone number and I’ll ring you back within the hour”. That was five weeks ago and I have not heard a word back from that man since.

Undeterred by my failure in that regard, because of countless constituents who have queried why they need to submit their PPS numbers, I contacted Irish Water again with a simple question. Why do people, for example, those who are being assessed and who know what their liability will be, have to submit their PPS numbers? As a matter of fact, why do I, as a citizen, have to submit my PPS number? I got straight through to the top on this occasion, I am glad to say. The gentleman’s first response was shameless blackmail. He said, “You go and tell your constituents that if they don’t give their PPS numbers, they won’t get their allowances”. I reminded him that was not the question I asked him at all; I wanted a clear rationale for why people had to submit their PPS numbers. He went into an explanation and to my amazement I could not understand the language he was speaking. After a while I figured it out; it was a variant of the English language, called incoherent gibberish. I would have been better off if the man had been talking Swahili because then I would know why I did not understand what he was saying. George Orwell said that the function of political language is often “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. If that is the case, the function of the language of Irish Water is to give the appearance of pure balderdash to – well – pure balderdash.

Undeterred by my failure at verbal communication, I sent an e-mail and got a response back late last night that stated, “The PPS numbers have to be submitted to ensure that correct water allowances are allocated to the correct recipients”. That is a very interesting answer because it tells us that Irish Water is starting from the premise that the entirety – or almost the entirety – of the population are shysters, fraudsters and gangsters who will deliberately submit false returns and poor old Irish Water will give 5 million allowances to 1.5 million houses.

The Revenue Commissioners, who collect tax in this country, take people on trust. A person fills out a tax return outlining his or her circumstances. In most cases that will not be examined as they take people on trust. There is a spot-check, and anybody caught cheating the system will be dealt with very severely and properly so. I cannot understand why Irish Water cannot do something similar.

The Minister ought to be aware of a court case in the past three weeks where two people were successfully prosecuted and convicted for obtaining information from the Department of Social Protection – namely people’s addresses – by giving the Department of Social Protection PPS numbers which they had got from credit unions. That should illustrate, if illustration was needed, the danger of people’s most confidential information – their PPS numbers – getting into the hands of a third party.

I have received no coherent explanation from Irish Water as to why I, as a citizen, should submit my PPS number and I have absolutely no intention of doing so. At the end of the day, when I get my water bill I will pay it, but I will deduct the allowance to which I am legally entitled. At that point Irish Water with its serried armies of consultants laden down with taxpayers’ largesse, employees laden down with bonuses and directors, who regard their responsibility as of such importance that it is only secondary to driving the Minister’s car, can all come after me if they wish.

In addition I made a further effort to get information on this by tabling a parliamentary question to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, who is sitting across from us now looking pensive. I asked him what my constituents – and constituents of very other Member of this House – are asking. Why do people have to submit their PPS numbers? I was not alone; in fairness, Deputies Clare Daly and Catherine Murphy tabled similar questions. I had to laugh out loud at the sheer irony of the Taoiseach’s statement this morning that the real problem here was that there was not enough communication. What sort of communication did we get from the Minister, Deputy Kelly? We got a one-line arrogant reply stating that the situation was unchanged and outlining Irish Water’s telephone number with a recommendation to use it. That is some example of communication.

It gives rise to a number of very interesting questions. Is that the Minister’s version of accountability?

Is that his version of the democratic revolution for which people voted in such numbers in the last general election? I remember a grandiose statement from the programme for Government: “We believe that in recent years an over-powerful Executive has turned the Dáil into an observer of the political process rather than a central player and that this must be changed”. How hollow that sounds? Is it any wonder there is such cynicism about politics and the political process when people measure that performance against the promise?

I have no doubt the Minister in his speech will refer to the hoary old chestnut the Taoiseach always drags up when he is asked about this – that Fianna Fáil signed some sort of a deal with the troika for some huge amount of money to be paid by the citizens.

I cannot remember exactly the amount because it seems to change every time he answers the question. However, the Minister should remember that nobody signed up with the troika for somebody on the dole with four or five kids to end up paying €400 or €500 in water charges year-in year-out. Nobody signed a deal with the troika or anybody else that the people of this country would be forced to shell out tens of millions of euro in payments to consultants – no doubt very well connected consultants. Nobody ever signed an agreement with the troika or anybody else that the battered people of this country would have to pay bonuses to people simply for turning up – many of them retired senior officials of local authorities on gold-plated pensions.

The system is broken. The man who brought the legislation through the Dáil told the Minister that. I urge him to fix it, but I must say my confidence is not great.

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