SIPTU calls for early referendum vote to ensure water supply is kept in public hands

This article originally appeared in Liberty

SIPTU has called for a significant increase in funding to guarantee the highest standards of Ireland’s water supply and for an early referendum to ensure it remains in public hands.

In its submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water services, the union has argued that “retention of the public water supply in public ownership and control of its operation and infrastructure” is essential.

The submission backs the suggestion put forward by the Expert Commission late last year that measures should be taken “to alleviate the concerns of those who believe that the eventual privatisation of Irish Water remains a possibility”.

In its submission, SIPTU points out that none of the parties represented in the Oireachtas have promoted the privatisation of the public water supply.

“All of them now appear to support the concept of a constitutional referendum to amend the Constitution to prohibit privatisation. Despite the fact that none of the parties currently represented in the Oireachtas favour privatisation, circumstances could change dramatically if the solvency of our sovereign debt were to become an issue again.”

SIPTU argued that this could happen if there was, for example, “a disorderly departure from the Eurozone or even the EU by any country”.

The submission continued: “Accordingly, it is imperative that early agreement is reached between the political parties on an appropriate wording for the referendum in order to allow it to proceed well before the end of 2017.

“This entire issue has divided our society for long enough. The amendment should focus on the wider concept of ‘The Public Water Supply’ as distinct from the narrow parameters of ‘Irish Water’.

SIPTU members protest outside Leinster House

“The opponents of water charges have correctly argued that given the essential requirement for water to sustain human life, that it should be available freely at the point of use and funded by progressive taxation.”

It continued: “The statement by the Expert Commission that the Service Level Agreement (SLAs) with local authorities “could become a barrier in the drive towards ever-improving efficiency” is rather unique in the context of the overall report. The other conclusions are generally reasonably well supported by reference and source material. However, this statement is advanced without so much as a scintilla of evidence. It doesn’t withstand scrutiny and is repudiated by the experience since the SLAs came into being. Crucially, given the fragility of much of the current water infrastructure the input of the ‘local knowledge’ of a range of local authority staff will be absolutely essential to guarantee secure delivery of supply for several years until major developmental and remedial works are completed. Indeed, otherwise, on the issue of efficiency, this cross over arrangement also facilitates response in times of extreme weather events and other environmental crises.

The SIPTU submission stated that income tax was “more socially equitable and progressive” than other types of charges or indirect taxes, “despite the distorting affects of various allowances available to the better off”.

“However, the benefits which accrue to those on lower incomes are undoubtedly considerably offset by virtue of the requirement to pay for the water that others waste, even if the payment is through progressive taxation. The concept of a full supply of all the water people require to fully meet all of their domestic needs free at the point of use is virtually beyond reasonable challenge, but it doesn’t hold true in respect of wastage.

“Accordingly, given the need for conservation the idea of a tariff on waste makes sense. However, it should apply only after the level of ‘average usage’ as objectively determined had been well exceeded and generous provision is made for those requiring additional water for health or other reasons.

“It should also be accompanied by a range of positive measures to incentivise conservation. It should not in any circumstances be introduced until after the referendum.”

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