Bill extends water charge block
Household water charges will not be imposed in Northern Ireland for at least another three years, the Assembly has agreed.
However, the Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) Bill, which offers relief to hard-pressed families, was described as a sticking plaster which failed to address major issues on the future of the water industry.
Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson, who sits on the regional development scrutiny committee, said: "We are signing off hundreds of millions of pounds expenditure without any meaningful debate or discussion about the future of our water system.
"We have to pass this because we actually have no alternative because successive ministers have failed to accept the reality that the current arrangements are unsustainable. This legislation is another sticking plaster put on with no idea how we are going to heal the wound."
Under its Programme for Government, the Executive ruled out domestic water charges until 2015. This new legislation extends that delay by 12 months.
It also means the Department of Regional Development will continue to subsidise Northern Ireland Water, which has dual status as a non-departmental public body and a government-owned company, by up to £282 million over the next three years. The bill received cross-party support.
Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swan said: "People across Northern Ireland worried about their heating bills; worried about their fuel bills; worried about the rising cost of food and essentials; worried, even, about making their mortgage payments will be reassured they will not have to worry again about separate or additional water charging bills during this Assembly term."
Although he too supported the Bill, SDLP MLA John Dallat warned that it should not be seen as a get out of jail ticket to be used to avoid taking hard decisions in the future.
Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy said: "This Bill does make good our commitment not to introduce additional household water charges during the current mandate. It does not and should not seek to address longer term policy issues about how water and sewerage services should be governed in Northern Ireland."
Debate on governance and financial arrangements for Northern Ireland Water has been remitted to the budget review group at Stormont.