Water Meters Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 5th December 2016

I beg to move

That the draft Water Meters Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.

The regulations that I am bringing forward today remove the requirement on NI Water to install water meters at domestic properties connecting for the first time to the public water supply. The practice of installing meters currently costs the public purse around £200,000 a year, and, given that they are not used, it is a nugatory expense, and one that cannot be sustained in the current financial climate. The Assembly will be aware of the commitment of the Executive not to bring in water charging. It is the intention of the Executive to continue to bear the cost of water charges, on behalf of domestic customers, for the next five years. In addition to the regulations, I have instructed my officials to prepare the necessary legislation to extend my Department's powers to pay the subsidy to NI Water up until March 2022. It therefore makes sense to cease wasting valuable resources by installing water meters. The motion demonstrates the Executive's commitment to protecting people's personal finances and to reducing the financial burden on NI Water. I commend the motion to the Assembly and ask that it approve the regulations.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Water Meters Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016.

The Committee considered the proposal for the statutory rule at its meeting on 21 September 2016 and raised no issues. On 26 October, the Committee was briefed by representatives of Northern Ireland Water on its annual report and accounts and took the opportunity to inquire about the arrangements surrounding the installation of water meters. The Committee asked Northern Ireland Water to provide the amount of money — resource and capital — spent on installing water meters until the Minister told it to stop. It has yet to receive that information. The Committee asked Northern Ireland Water for clarity on when water meters stopped being introduced to domestic homes, and it was explained that the legislation instructed that meters continue to be installed until the changes in the legislation had taken effect and that Northern Ireland Water was bound by that legislation.

The statutory rule is the outworking of that. It suspends the requirement to install water meters for all new domestic water connections requested after the regulations have been made and where a connection notice has been served but no meter yet installed at the commencement date of the regulations. The requirement to install water meters for future connections may be reinstated, if required, at a later date. It is for that reason that, at its meeting on 16 November 2016, the Committee considered and offered no objections to the statutory rule. The Committee for Infrastructure is content with the rule.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 5th December 2016

I welcome the regulation brought to the House today by the Minister. I thank him for his expediency in bringing forward the regulation to end the installation of water meters in domestic properties. It is a welcome development in what has been somewhat of a scandal in recent years in the North; over 40,000 water meters have been installed in domestic properties, which has cost the taxpayer here in excess of £13 million. The revelations have made for uncomfortable reading, especially for the underprivileged families in our society who are struggling to survive, pay bills and make ends meet; they were worried about that train coming down the track and the uncertainty around whether water charges would be applied.

The SDLP has always been and will continue to be completely opposed to water charges for domestic properties. The regional rate includes such water charges. We do not need any additional charges for families at this time. However, Sinn Féin will be most uncomfortable of all due to the fact that a total of 26,510 meters were installed in family homes on former Minister Conor Murphy's watch. We have seen the highest level of hypocrisy; Sinn Féin continued to oppose water charges in the South — it even protested on the issue very strongly publicly — while, all along, behind the back door, Conor Murphy was installing meters. Why he allowed such proliferation of water meter installments during his stewardship of the Department for Regional Development will remain a question from our party.

When we consider the significant financial challenges facing the Department, we see that we cannot continue to preside over wastage on this scale. For that reason, I welcome fully the Minister's statement today. It brings some clarity to this long-standing issue. I am glad that today's regulation has come forward and that Sinn Féin has finally listened to the SDLP and others who have highlighted the debacle for some time. I welcome today's announcement.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

It will come as no surprise that I am against the motion, as is my party. When the issue was debated almost exactly a year ago, the then DUP Regional Development Minister stated:

"subsequent subordinate legislation required to enact the power to cease the installation of water meters will be subject to draft affirmative resolution, and a full consultation will take place." — [Official Report (Hansard), 8 December 2015, p92, col 2].

As has been outlined, there was only statutory consultation, and there were three respondents. The motion does not allow people to have a clear understanding of the impact that this will have. We have heard that water meters will no longer be installed in new domestic properties at a saving of about £140,000 a year to Northern Ireland Water and that that will come out of its budget. However, Northern Ireland Water said that the only reason it is installing meters is to use them to identify leakages in the system in domestic properties. Has that stopped? Are there no more leakages? How much money are we putting down the drains because of leakages? That is not being considered.

All of us in the House have talked about the lack of money available for hospital waiting lists, for life-extending drugs for people with cancer, and for children with special educational needs, which means that those children cannot access services through schools. The money that is being spent out of our block grant from Westminster on water is the very money that we should be using to pay for those essential services.

I heard Mr McCrossan talking about underprivileged families being scared of water charges. That was brought up a year ago; the then Regional Development Minister said:

"the public will be further assured on the position in respect of water charging, should the installation of water meters cease." — [Official Report (Hansard), 8 December 2015, p92, col 2].

That gave the green light to say, "Well, there'll be no discussion; there'll be nothing there on water charging". We are protecting the rich while the most vulnerable suffer from a lack of access to services. It ensures that the most wealthy in society are protected from paying water charges, even though they can afford to, while the most vulnerable face a more difficult future. I believe that those who can afford to pay should. Every single person in the House can afford to pay, but we are protecting them by not bringing forward an open and transparent debate on water charging. Taking away water meters means that we are not even going to measure leakages in the system.

This is a poorly considered motion. It is populist and short-sighted. The fact that we have already heard that Northern Ireland Water will be paid to the end of this mandate means that there will be no changes on this, and we will still continue to have cuts in services while we flush water and money down the toilet.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I thank the Members who have commented on this motion. Some points have been made on general and specific issues, and I will turn to them now. I want to thank the Chair of the Committee, not just for his constructive comments today but for the way in which the Committee has approached this issue from the start. I welcome that.

Mr McCrossan made a number of points, the first of which was that there was wastage of some £13 million. The actual figure is £1·3 million, Daniel, so you might want to look at your figures again a bit more closely. He said that Sinn Féin is now, somehow, following the SDLP's example and finally doing the right thing. It was your party that walked away from the Executive, Daniel. It could have been you standing here today and not me doing this, but the SDLP decided to do otherwise.

Just for clarity again, no meters have been installed in domestic properties since 6 July, and that has saved £100,000. Ms Armstrong wants to talk about wasting public money, but this is public money that we have actually saved. Again, straying from the points raised here today, the Alliance Party goes back to its fervour for introducing water charges. Water charges have been rejected by the people, as we saw in Alliance's recent performance at the last election. The people do not want water charges, and that is something that this Executive will stand up for.

Finally, I believe that these regulations will reinforce the Executive's commitment not to bring in water charges for households. I thank Members for their support today and ask the Assembly to approve the regulations.

Question put.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Do you want to divide the House on it?

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I do, actually, yes.

Question put a second time.

The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 79; Noes 9

AYES

Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Ms Archibald, Mr Attwood, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Carroll, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Ms Dillon, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Ms Gildernew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Ms Hanna, Mr Hazzard, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Mr E McCann, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Miss McIlveen, Mr McMullan, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Mr McQuillan, Ms Mallon, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Lord Morrow, Mr Mullan, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Poots, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Ms Seeley, Mr Sheehan, Mr Stalford, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann

NOES

Mr Agnew, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mr Ford, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle

Tellers for the Noes: Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson

Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That the draft Water Meters Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)