The Assembly has kept its options open on water charges after passing legislation allowing them to be put off for another three years.
The law would allow Government to subsidise the cost of water while a long-term solution is considered. Its passage through the Assembly comes amid recent speculation on whether the Executive will be able to defer water charges any longer because of the heavy financial burden.
Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy recently said it is not in his gift to rule water charges in or out. This was after Finance Minister Sammy Wilson conceded the Executive will have to re-examine the issue of charges because deferring them in 2011 could cost up to £420 million.
The Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) Bill was launched by Mr Murphy who said yesterday the long-term financial implications of deferring water charges were for further Executive discussion. No decision on deferring or imposing charges has been taken and the Bill simply keeps all options open.
Mr Murphy said: “It (the legislation) provides for the continuance of a sound legal basis for the Executive to pay domestic customers' bills on their behalf.
“It gives financial stability to Northern Ireland Water (NIW). The extension of the subsidy by three years simply provides for the continuance of current funding arrangements.”
The legislation would allow subsidy for delivery of water services to continue from Government.
But North Down Alliance Party MLA Stephen Farry said the Executive needed to be straight with the public and not lead it “up the garden path” into expecting never to have to pay charges.
He added it was costing around £200m a year to defer public payments.
The regional development scrutiny committee at Stormont supported the minister. Chairman Fred Cobain, of the UUP, said the committee will be seeking clarity on the cost of continued deferral.
“The committee will also be seeking clarity on what financial impact ongoing deferral may have on the Northern Ireland block (grant) as a whole, on the Department for Regional Development budget and on the budgets of other departments,” he added.
SDLP MLA Tommy Gallagher was concerned about the handling of the legislation.
“There is this question. Have the Treasury put this Executive on notice that they will not allow us to continue paying subsidy to NIW? And that is a question that needs to be answered here and if we get the answer to that there will be a wider debate on just how this issue is going to be handled,” he warned.
Brian Wilson of from the Green Party said opportunities for alternative funding had been missed. He said service, green and land value taxes had not been considered.
“What we are going to see is a reduction of other services,” he said.
“We are now left in the last few months before the funding runs out that we have got to rush this particular piece of legislation through the Assembly.
“We should have looked at other forms of taxation, they should be based on ability to pay.”