Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Tensions between public watchdogs over water charges

A clear gulf is today evident between the organisations that will guard the public's interests when water charges hit Northern Ireland.

The Consumer Council and regulatory body Ofreg have both been given formal oversight roles regarding the Government-owned company (GoCo) that will run the water service from next April.

But while Ofreg is seeking to reassure householders on its powers, the Consumer Council is still lobbying for a delay in the introduction of the controversial "tap tax".

The council believes that water charges legislation going through Parliament is not sufficiently strong on long-term consumer protection and regulation of the GoCo.

Tensions between Ofreg and the council can also be detected from papers lodged in the recent tap tax High Court battle.

This judicial review was taken by the Consumer Council against the Government over the consultation process.

The judge agreed that the Department for Regional Development (DRD) had given the Consumer Council insufficient time to consider proposals when the legislation was being finalised in September.

The full judicial review ruling has not yet been published but papers from the case have been obtained by this newspaper.

These include an affidavit submitted to the court by Ofreg chief executive Iain Osborne, in which he stated that his organisation was satisfied with DRD's "effective and meaningful" consultation process with it.

He said the department had been "open to reasonably expressed arguments" on the contents of the Water Order and had changed its position from mid-September in response to Ofreg concerns.

Mr Osborne's affidavit also expressed anger that an email he sent to the Consumer Council about the consultation process had been served in evidence.

The Consumer Council has maintained that it had a duty to disclose all relevant information, including the email.

The Ofreg chief executive has stressed to the Belfast Telegraph that his organisation did not take sides in the legal case.

He added: "Our intervention was to set emails from us into context so that they were correctly understood."

The Consumer Council has, meanwhile, said Ofreg appeared to have given up its demand for "primary legislative powers".

Council chairman Steve Costello said: "The Consumer Council believes that water consumers need a strong and independent regulator with the full powers to protect their interests.

"The Consumer Council does not agree with Ofreg's assertion that they will have the necessary consumer protection powers in law."

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