Seanad Éireann - Volume 179 - 10 February, 2005
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This matter is about the need for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to place an obligation on local water treatment schemes to put a full technical analysis of the water provided in the public domain, on the same lines as is provided to French consumers. This issue arose when I saw the water bill of a person who has a house in France. The back of the bill was given over to a list of results for the latest scientific evaluation of the water supplied to the customer. The details included covered matters like the bacteriological state of the water, its hardness and the presence of fluoride, nitrates and pesticides. The figures were followed by a summary paragraph setting out their significance. The total effect was that  each individual consumer was given a scientific evaluation he or she could understand about the recent quality of the water received.
In Ireland, we do not charge residential households for the water they consume, although the EU is pressurising us to do so in the interest of conserving an increasingly scarce resource. However, even in the absence of bills, this idea of giving regular feedback on water quality to customers is something we should think about emulating here. The quality of water we use is an issue about which people feel very strongly. Water quality is not something that can be judged subjectively by the customers when they turn on the tap. Water that looks and even tastes alright might not be alright. On the other hand, water that looks or tastes a bit off may in fact be pure by scientific standards and perfectly suitable to use and to drink.
In many of the water schemes installed around the country over the past decade, we have heard that the water quality did not come up to scratch. Given the amount of money invested in the schemes by our Government and by the EU, this is simply not acceptable. I suggest that customers themselves have a role to play in raising the standards of water quality. The first step towards such an involvement is to provide them with the scientific information on which they can judge the quality of the water they get. Every operator of a water scheme should be required by the Department to put a public information system in place that would regularly inform all of its customers on the ongoing state of the water they receive. A website could be used for this, backed up by press releases to the local media. It would not cost very much, especially since I assume that all this scientific information is already available to the operators of every water scheme. If it is not available, then we are really in trouble.
When people are better informed on the issues of water quality, they can play a more active role in exerting pressure to raise standards where that proves to be necessary. In the absence of such information, people do not really know where they stand and must rely on others to watch over the quality of the water for them. That is an unsatisfactory situation. I commend this approach to the Minister and I look forward to hearing his comments on the issue. I brought along the French water service bill with the information provided on the back. I found it fascinating to read. Since I assume the information is available, there should be no cost to this. In Paris, there are parallel water systems — one for drinking water and one for non-drinking water. They have put much effort into this and have had much success. I am sure more could be done here.
Mr. B. O’Keeffe Mr. B. O’Keeffe
Mr. B. O’Keeffe: I thank Senator Quinn for raising the important issue of keeping the public informed about the quality of the water supply. Delivery of a quality customer service has been a  central objective of the modernisation programme that has been under way in the local government sector for a number of years. A customer service group was established in May 2003 as part of the overall process. A list of 42 service indicators was published in January 2004 under the title Delivering Value for People — Service Indicators in Local Authorities. I am committed to the service indicators initiative because it will identify good practice and under-performance across the range of local authority services. It will allow for good practice to be shared and under-performance to be addressed. In essence, it is a management tool with a very public face.
All 34 city and county authorities have been asked to measure their performances against the 42 indicators which span all the main service areas. There is a specific indicator on drinking water quality which requires local authorities to report on the percentage of drinking water analysis results in compliance with statutory requirements with regard to both public and private schemes, where appropriate. These figures are derived from the sampling results local authorities are obliged to submit to the EPA. In turn, the EPA publishes an annual report on the quality of drinking water nationally. The report is available to the public directly from the EPA and may be downloaded from its website.
The performance results for each year, starting with 2004, must be sent to the Local Government Management Services Board by the end of March of the following year. The board will report directly to me on the 2004 results by June 2005, including the outcome of a verification process, under which an independent assessment panel will examine and assess a number at random.
Local authorities will be expected to publish performance results in their annual reports and any other appropriate medium to allow all stakeholders to gauge performance. They are also being encouraged to post them on their websites. Any other local initiative to further publicise the results will be very welcome and encouraging.
I am glad to note that the latest Environmental Protection Agency report, which focuses on drinking water quality in 2003, has confirmed the fundamentally good quality and continuing improvement of standards in Ireland. The report is based on the results of 235,042 individual tests on 26,987 samples of drinking water which were taken by local authorities and the EPA in 2003. The tests demonstrated a compliance rate of 97.7% in public water supplies which is an increase from the 2002 rate of 97.4%. There was  further welcome improvement in the overall compliance rate among group water schemes which rose to 91.8% from 91.5% in 2002. The Senator will be aware of the major programme of targeted investment by my Department to ensure that group water scheme supplies will soon be of the same quality as their local authority counterparts. Many of the major schemes have come to an end and there is a greater focus on local schemes to ensure they meet the required standard.
Under the drinking water regulations which came into force in January 2004, a local authority must ensure there is no potential danger to human health in the event that it discovers a water supply to be non-compliant with a prescribed standard. The regulations require the provision to consumers of information on the precautionary measures and remedial action to be taken in such cases. My Department completed recently a drinking water national monitoring study to assist local authorities to implement the requirements of the drinking water regulations. The implementation programme is intended to ensure uniformity of sampling, testing and reporting of drinking water quality. It is expected to result in the provision of more robust and accessible data for comparison and analysis than has hitherto been available. In addition, the Water Services Bill 2003 will, when enacted, enable me to provide where necessary for the general availability of records of monitoring and inspection of water supplies.
It is clear from the foregoing that a substantial amount of information is accessible by the public on the quality of the water supplied by local authorities. Nevertheless, the Senator’s contribution has been significant. I will certainly bear it in mind and consider it carefully to ensure local authorities are more proactive in making detailed analytical data available in the context of the forthcoming report of the Local Government Management Services Board and any future revisions to the indicators.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: I appreciate the information. Interestingly, my daughter told me that in France the price of houses in certain areas are increasing and decreasing solely on the basis of the quality of the local water supply. The designation of a “defined area” is very useful. When is the Bill likely to be processed?
Mr. B. O’Keeffe Mr. B. O’Keeffe
Mr. B. O’Keeffe: Committee Stage will take place this term.
The Seanad adjourned at 12.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 16 February 2005.
Seanad Éireann 179 Water Quality.