Oireachtas committee fails to reach agreement on water charges

Simon Coveney says European law requires charges

Oireachtas committee fails to reach agreement on water charges

File photo: PA Image

A meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Water Charges has failed to reach agreement about the possibility of scrapping the charges entirely.

The 20-member committee will instead be given another draft of a final report next Tuesday.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have continued to clash about the legality of water charges being scrapped for all customers.

Earlier, Minister Simon Coveney said he was 'hopeful' the Government will not collapse over the issue.

It comes after Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen warned that is a possibility if the Government refuses to implement the findings of the committee.

However, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is insisting the Government cannot introduce legislation which it believes would break EU law.

But Mr Kenny hinted in the Dáil that legislation to scrap water charges could be facilitated, as long as it was tabled by someone else.

The post-election deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil included setting up an Oireachtas Committee to decide the future of water charges.

The agreement states: "The Government will facilitate the passage of legislation (whether it be a money bill or otherwise) for the implementation of the recommendations in relation to domestic water charging supported by the Oireachtas."

The Oireachtas committee met again Wednesday to discuss whether excessive users should be charged.

Mr Cowen says the deal requires Fine Gael to implement whatever the committee wants - and Mr Coveney will bring down the Government if he refuses.

"If he refuses to legislate, if he refuses to adhere to the Confidence and Supply agreement and what's contained within it... it's him that's tearing it up, and it's him that's bringing down the Government," he suggested.

Minister Coveney insisted he would not introduce any laws to totally scrap water charges, claiming it would be illegal under EU law.

He says European water rules require those measures, and he will not legislate to get rid of them.

And he says there is no need to collapse the Government over it.

“Well I certainly hope not – I think people would be very surprised and annoyed if there was a general election on this issue.

“We’ve got big issues to solve: whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s housing, whether it’s homelessness, whether it’s healthcare reform, education.

“So many other things that the Government is working on, and working with Fianna Fáil on – in some cases”.

Last year, an expert report recommended water charges should only be applied for excessive use. 

Yesterday, Sinn Féin's Eoin Ó Broin said a majority of the special water committee set up to examine the expert group's recommendations appeared to be in favour of the total scrapping of water charges.

It is also expected to recommend that people who paid their water charges should receive a full refund.

Legal advice 

Speaking to Newstalk Breakfast earlier, Fianna Fáil's Michael McGrath called for everyone to be respectful to the Oireachtas committee members.

He argued: "What Simon Coveney said last night means that Fine Gael would be flagrantly breaching the agreement that they entered into with Fianna Fáil.

"He seems to prepared to throw that out the window. We are honouring our agreement, and we are not going to be derailed by Simon Coveney's efforts to come across as the strong man in all of this."

Fine Gael Deputy Alan Farrell is a member of the Oireachtas committee.

He dismissed any accusation that Minister Coveney had acted disrespectfully as 'hilarious' - and says he is hopeful the issue can be resolved.

"The committee has a considerable amount of work yet," he observed. "We're not at a point where we're drafting the final remarks.

"We're not done yet, and I hope that this matter can be resolved."

Charges are currently suspended, but are set to return in a month unless an agreement is reached over the future of water services.

Several major Dáil opposition groups - including Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and PBP-AAA - are in favour of abolishing charges.