Pressure was last night building on Peter Robinson to “bite the bullet” and scrap the introduction of controversial water bills completely to ease the growing financial burden on Northern Ireland households.
The call came as the First Minister gave his first indication that the unpopular “tap tax” bills could be delayed due to the recent credit crunch across the province.
It was recommended that water charges should be phased in for consumers from next year, but Mr Robinson said that the Government might have to continue to carry the financial |burden.
The DUP leader’s comments come as households in Northern Ireland were hit with a 30% hike in electricity bills and a jump of nearly 20% in gas prices.
However, while the comments have been welcomed by consumer groups, Coleraine SDLP MLA John Dallat said Mr Robinson should blow the plans “completely out of the water”.
Answering a question yesterday, after addressing the Coleraine Chamber of Commerce, Mr Robinson said: “In the present conditions, with rising bills, I believe that fresh consideration must be given to the timing and phasing of the introduction of domestic water charges.”
“To make such a deferral possible will place significant pressure on our budget and may require careful consideration of existing allocations, but it is not credible to place any greater burden on our citizens in the present dire global economic circumstances.”
But Mr Dallat responded last night: “He shouldn’t have a short term view on this — bite the bullet now and accept that introducing water charges is unrealistic and extremely unpopular. People are struggling financially. He is the person who has got the power to scrap these plans.
“He has a golden opportunity now to blow the legacy imposed by direct rule completely out of the water,” he said. “The SDLP would not have a problem in supporting the DUP in doing this.”
Chief Executive of the Consumer Council Eleanor Gill said: “The Consumer Council welcomes today's statement from First Minister Peter Robinson that the timing and phasing of the introduction of water charges should be re-considered as a clear sign that he is in touch with and listening to the concerns of consumers as they face into a difficult winter with the soaring cost of living. Consumers here will greet this news with a sigh of relief.”
Lagan Valley DUP MP and Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson said that postponing the introduction of the water charges for a year was one “of a number of options” the Executive could consider.
“Thinking ahead, we have to look at ways we can ease the pressure and certainly reviewing the water charge issue is, I think, one the Executive should look at,” he said.