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Darling, we just can't afford water charges

Published 10/04/2008

If it hadn't been for the non-payment campaign, we'd have been hit with the full force of water charges last week. The introduction of charges had originally been set for April 2006. We were to pay one third in the first year, two thirds from April 2007 - and the full whack from this month.

Without the determined intervention of the trade union movement, backed by street-level campaigning, there's no doubting the charges would have been imposed. Thousands of families would by now be pondering what bits of their budget they'd have to cut back to meet the bills that had just dropped on the mat. The lesson is, direct action works.

But, although the plan to collect the charges by household billing has been beaten, the idea of water charges hasn't gone away.

In the Assembly on February 18, Finance Minister Peter Robinson announced that a sub-committee of the Executive had been set up "to take forward the review of water and sewerage services".

The members of the sub-committee are Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy (chairman), Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie, Employment and Learning Minister Reg Empey and Mr Robinson himself.

Intriguing. What has Employment and Learning, for example, to do with water and sewerage? In fact, the membership has not been selected on any rational basis of relevance, but, obviously, so as to give each of the Executive parties a place. Nobody wants to be left out of the loop on this one.

Having felt on the doorsteps the strength of feeling generated by the non-payment campaign, each of the parties last year gave the electorate to understand that, in office, they wouldn't tolerate water charges. If they are now to back off from this pledge, they want to back off together, lock-stepped, leaving none of their number exposed.

The current state of play is that the Regional Development Committee (RDC) is considering the report of the Independent Water Review Panel (IWRP). The RDC will convey its view of the report to Minister Murphy. The Executive sub-committee chaired by Mr Murphy will then try to find cross-party consensus on how to proceed.

Not the most streamlined of decision-making mechanisms. But that's what comes from enforced coalition and nobody talking straight.

In its deliberations, the RDC will have the benefit of a paper prepared by the Assembly's Research and Library Services (RLS). The paper has been making the rounds of eager community groups in the past fortnight, its popularity arising as much from the vigour of its language as from the rigour of its analysis.

The IWRP report suggested not the abandonment of water charges but a different method of collection. Instead of household bills, the charges would be collected alongside the rates. An 'affordability tariff' was devised, supposedly to cushion the least well-off from the worst effects.

Referring to the affordability tariff, the RLS paper draws comparison with The Walrus and the Carpenter: ' "The Time has come," the Walrus said/"To talk of many things/Of shoes and ships and sealing wax/Of cabbages and kings/And why the sea is boiling hot/And whether pigs have wings."' The ploy of the walrus was, of course, to distract the oysters' attention with nonsense before eating them up.

The RLS paper endorses the argument that to impose water charges — affordability tariff or no — on people living on what the Government has determined is the minimum acceptable level of income is plain wrong and bound to deepen poverty.

The paper rubbishes the counter-argument of the IWRP that benefits are the same across the UK and that water and sewerage charges are included when benefit levels are set.

It points out that some costs — child care and energy costs come to mind — are significantly higher here than for the UK as a whole, but are not factored into benefit levels.

Food and fuel costs, too, are higher here than in Britain, which impacts disproportionately on people on benefits and low pay — the lower your income the higher the proportion you're likely to spend on food and fuel. But there's no question of higher benefits or allowances for the North to take account of this anomaly. We must come into alignment with Britain when the effect is to make the less well-off worse off. But when alignment might benefit the people at the bottom, the notion just never comes up.

Campaigners against charges argued from the outset that the water service should be kept in the public sector and funded through general taxation — in practice, through the rates. All the main parties said, or implied, that this would be their ideal solution, too. The reason they can't deliver, they now say, is that the Treasury would impose penalties if they tried. A dilemma, surely. One possible way out, which so far has led nowhere, is through this painful, futile, tangled process of consultations, review panels, committees and sub-committees.

Wouldn't it be simpler and preferable, not to mention more dignified, to travel in all-party array to the Treasury and tell Chancellor Darling that the people have spoken, that they just won't have water charges, and that if New Labour wants to bludgeon the North into accepting them, go ahead, just try?

Belfast Telegraph

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