Monday 18 December 2017

Labour rounds on Noonan in blame game over €100 grant

Michael Noonan
Michael Noonan

A serious rift has emerged in the Coalition after the Labour Party rounded on Finance Minister Michael Noonan over the latest Irish Water debacle.

Both Fine Gael and Labour have entered a blame game over claims the controversial €100 Conservation Grant is to be linked to the payment of bills.

It's emerged that the proposal, which was being driven by Fine Gael figures this week, had previously been tabled by Environment Minister Alan Kelly.

But it's understood Mr Noonan "overruled" Mr Kelly's plans to limit the provision of the €100 grant to households who settle their bills, as well as homes with private wells, septic tanks and those on group water schemes. Mr Kelly tabled the proposal during a meeting of the Government's Economic Management Council (EMC) last November. However, Mr Noonan and Department of Finance officials argued such a move could be in breach of State rules.

It's understood the concern at the time centred around the looming Eurostat Market Corporation Test, which the Government subsequently failed anyway.

The grant instead was designed on the principle of "universality" and is therefore due to be paid to any household that registered with Irish Water by June 30 - regardless of whether they have paid their bills.


A view has hardened within Fine Gael in recent weeks that the payment of the grant to customers who refuse to pay their bills is deeply unjust.

But Labour has reacted angrily to alleged Fine Gael "leaks" that changes to the system is on the cards.

In a statement yesterday, Minister Kelly said there are no proposals to bring such changes to Cabinet.

The news has come as an embarrassment for Fine Gael after party figures demanded that the grant be linked to the payment of bills - just months after the proposal was shot down by their most senior Cabinet minister and his officials.

A senior Labour source accused Fine Gael of causing "confusion" for the public and said the party was to blame for the latest controversy.

"The fact is Alan Kelly pushed for this measure prior to the unveiling of the grant but he was overruled by Noonan. So Fine Gael would want to look towards Noonan for an explanation," the source said.

It's now expected that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton will intervene to defuse the latest set of tensions between the Coalition partners.

While figures within both parties last night said linking the grant to bill payment cannot be ruled out in the future, it is a proposal that would involve a significant body of work.

Among the difficulties is the fact that thousands of households do not have to pay water bills to Irish Water because they have private wells, septic tanks or are on group water schemes.

Therefore, any attempt to limit payment of the €100 grant could impact negatively on this cohort, most of whom are rural-based.

But the latest controversy surrounding Irish Water has sparked a furious response within the Labour Party.

Longford/Westmeath TD Willie Penrose accused Fine Gael of trying to "make up policy on the hoof".

"The fact is there was an attempt many months ago to implement this policy objective and it wasn't a Labour minister who blocked it.

"Fine Gael should realise it has an obligation to act cohesively with the Labour Party," he told the Herald.

Fianna Fail environment spokesperson Barry Cowen yesterday described the latest controversy as a "total farce".

"Sure it's a joke and a laugh," Mr Cowen said.

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