Currently, NI Water has dual governance arrangements. Legally, it is a regulated utility, and, financially, it is treated as part of the public expenditure regime. That has arisen because NI Water did not become self-funding, as anticipated when it was established. In the Programme for Government, which was published on 12 March 2012, the Executive made a continued commitment not to introduce household charges during this Budget period. Given that commitment, I will bring forward legislation later in the year to extend current temporary subsidy arrangements.
In the longer term, the preferred form of governance will depend on how the Executive decide NI Water should be funded.
If the Executive continue majority public funding indefinitely, it might be consistent to make legislative changes to reflect that; if they intend that water should become more self-funding, a model along the regulated utility lines would be logical. It is my intention to put a paper to the Executive in the near future on the implications of the Programme for Government commitment.
I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. All of us are aware of the Alliance Party’s position on those matters — the introduction of water charges and, indeed, advocating the mutualisation of NI Water. That is plainly on the record. What is equally plainly on the record is that the current Programme for Government, agreed not only by the Executive but by the Assembly, made it clear that there will be no additional charges in this mandate. The purpose of my paper to Executive colleagues will be to explore — helpfully, I hope — how we can begin a mature debate as to the best options that are available for the future of NI Water and how it is funded and governed.
I am grateful for the Member’s supplementary question. I welcome him back to his position in the House and to his role as Chairman of the Regional Development Committee.
I have been actively looking and consulting already on models available in Scotland, Wales, other parts of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland. All of that has given me a very useful insight on a potential way forward for the Northern Ireland Executive. It is an important matter that the Executive should reflect on and, I hope, come to consensus on. That is what I will seek to do and, obviously, the Regional Development Committee will have a role in that too.
I congratulate the Minister on the calming effect that he has had on NI Water. Can we be assured that, in future, whatever the governance, there will be less of the turbulence of the past and the tsunamis that robbed people of their water supply and caused so much grief to people who either worked for the company or were part of it?
I am grateful to the Member for his carefully phrased supplementary question. I will attempt to equally carefully phrase my answer. [Laughter.] Stability is in everybody’s interest, and there has been a high degree of stability with NI Water over recent months. The current chief executive, Trevor Haslett, has, in no small measure, contributed to that. I am very much looking to the future to see how we can put NI Water on a proper footing as it faces the challenges of the future. We enjoy record levels of quality drinking water and sewerage, and those are positives. However, there are issues of governance and funding that need to be addressed and, with good will on all sides, we can attempt to do that.
I thank the Member for his supplementary question. Amongst the issues that the Executive need to decide on is how NI Water will operate. Will it be a privatised company, will it be part-privatised and mutualised in some way, or could it, potentially, be brought back into public ownership through nationalisation, which is, I think, more complex and more difficult?
Those are the issues. However, ultimately, there has to be a degree of political accountability. I am conscious of those issues, and, with Executive colleagues and members of the Regional Development Committee, including Mr Lynch, I will seek to explore avenues for how best to achieve that.