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Water poverty

David Cullinane (SF, labour) warned of the danger of ‘water poverty’ arising from the forthcoming water charges, in the course of the debate on the committee stage of the Water services Bill (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 29th January 2013, 472-502).  Earlier, he and his colleagues had argued how the household charge would affect low income families who were already sick and tired of new taxes, stealth charges and regressive charges.  He predicted that just as we had fuel poverty, Uisce Eireann would bring us water poverty, because we did not know what waivers would be in place.  He proposed an amendment to the Bill to delay it until a poverty impact analysis had been carried out.  People who lived on the poverty line had already seen the household charge of €100 (and were about to see the family home tax of €300 to €500), a VAT increase, a reduction in the fuel season from 32 to 26 weeks, increases in transport costs – and now they were being asked to pay water charges.  It would cost between €500m and up to €1.2bn to install the meters, money better spent on improving the system.  The water charge would push more people into poverty.  The government must go back to the drawing board and make sure, when it introduces measures like this, that it poverty and equality proofs them.  


Responding for the government, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government Fergus O’Dowd told the Seanad that issues of low-income households and poverty-proofing would be taken into consideration and there would be transparency.  The effect of the amendment would be to halt the work of the regulator and he did not accept it.  It was defeated 24-13.


David Cullinane told members that they must be conscious of the impact of such decisions on families who were struggling or already in poverty.  He did not know what supports would be in place for low-income families, but he did know that there would be a charge.  They would find the charge disproportionately tougher.  If poverty-proofing had been carried out, such information might be available.  The minister of state undertook to revert to him with greater clarity about this.  For example, the issue of family size would be important, because five people would use more water than two, so issues would arise in respect of low income and high numbers.  Things would be as transparent as he could make them.


Separately, on the order of business, David Cullinane drew attention to the report by the Society of St Vincent de Paul which showed that the number presenting to the organization for help had passed the 100,000 mark (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 30th January 2013, 510).  This was a shocking indictment of six austerity budgets and the figure had doubled in the past three years.  It was no surprise, granted the ESRI’s statement that the most recent two budgets had been the two most unfair and unequal of the six.  Although calls for poverty-proofing might be greeted with derision by members of the government, they were genuine enough when considered in the light of the human tragedies outlined by the society.  It included the story of an elderly couple of 82 and 85 who now had to ask the society for help for the first time ever.  Families needed help for heating oil and were unable to put food on the table: this was what was happening in this state now.  Although he had asked for a debate on poverty on several occasions, but it had not yet happened.  We needed to have such a comprehensive debate on poverty, its causes and what actions could be taken to collectively help people who were struggling to make ends meet.