Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My Department and I are in regular communication with the Utility Regulator on a wide range of issues relating to the regulation of the water and sewerage industry, including charging. We communicate regularly through written correspondence, bilateral and stakeholder meetings, informal telephone conversations and e-mail correspondence. We also communicate through formal processes such as the regulator’s approval of NIW’s annual charges scheme, the water stakeholders’ steering group and the various price control working groups.
The Member is correct that I submitted a paper, but the members of the Executive have yet to discuss it. I do not set the Executive’s agenda; I merely request that matters that I want to be raised be put on the agenda. I have yet to secure that matter on the agenda, and I am not sure whether it will be discussed at the next Executive meeting. If it is and a decision is taken, I will inform the Member of the outcome.
As regards the delay in the introduction of domestic water charges and the subsequent reduction in budgets generally, is the Minister confident that there is enough money in his Department’s budget to allow for proper investment in infrastructure, particularly in water and sewerage, over the next number of years?
The overall Budget is some £8 billion, so there is enough money to cover the £1 million needed for investment in water and sewerage infrastructure over the next number of years. The question is whether the Executive will decide to pay for that investment, because that will have implications for the money that they have to spend on other areas. They have yet to make that decision; however, I am confident that sufficient finances are available for the work. My Executive colleagues and I must consider what impact that will have on other spending plans.
As I said, domestic payments beyond 2010-11 remain a matter for the Executive. However, I advised the Utility Regulator that, for the purpose of the price control process for 2010-13, assumptions around the introduction of additional household payments should be removed from NIW’s draft business plan until the Executive’s policy direction has been established. My officials are working with the Utility Regulator on the detail of that.
I note the Minister’s confidence that his budget will be protected despite the deferral of water charges, and I hope that he will act to ensure that that is the case for all Departments. Will he confirm that separate water charges for domestic properties will not be part of his agenda?
I must correct the Member: I did not express any confidence that my budget will be protected. I said that an Executive decision along the lines of what I proposed will have implications for all budgets and for the amount of money that the Executive have to spend on public services.
The Executive have been considering the issue of domestic charges since the day and hour that we entered office. We deferred the charges once, and then we decided to defer them again because of the economic circumstances that people, particularly families, face. I have proposed that the Executive continue that deferral for a number of years and reassess the decision in light of the economic circumstances at the conclusion of the deferral period. The Executive must make a decision on that issue, and I look forward to an early discussion and decision.