10 February 2005 Edition

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Sinn Féin opposes water charges

BY MITCHEL McLAUGHLIN

At our weekly Assembly Members meeting at Stormont, Sinn Féin unanimously backed the industrial action initiated by the trade unions in opposition to proposals by Direct Rule Minister John Spellar that will lead to the loss of over 600 jobs in the Water Service in the Six Counties.

The direct consequence of the strategy that Spellar has embarked on will be the privatisation of our water services. Water charges are only the first step towards the creation of a GO CO (government owned public liability company), which is nothing less than a holding company for future privatisation. Once upgraded at ratepayers' expense, it will be sold on to one of the multinational water companies who will be interested only in maximising profits rather than investment to maintain an efficient and quality Water Service.

The results of this same agenda of privatisation that the British Government is intent on imposing here has had major detrimental results in areas of Britain in which it is already in operation. We must stop its imposition before it gets to the stage of having to fight the charges.

Sinn Féin will support the workers in whatever action they take to protect their jobs and we are calling on all other parties across the political spectrum to put aside differences and concentrate on how to stop the plans to impose these unfair charges. Our focus must be on stopping these British Government plans, because their impact will be devastating. We can stop their introduction if all parties make it crystal clear to Direct Rule Minister Spellar that a future devolved administration will seek to reverse his decision. I would call on all parties to state publicly that they will support such a reversal.

Campaigns calling for people to refuse to pay are assuming that it is not possible to stop the charges from being introduced in the first place. I don't believe this to be the case. Once parties pledge their determination to stop the charges being introduced, then a co-ordinated campaign can be mounted, possibly under the aegis of a body such as NICTU, to collect a minimum of 100,000 signatures calling on John Spellar to drop the planned imposition of this regressive form of taxation.

If the political parties were to be joined in this exercise by trade unions, the community and voluntary sector, business interests, church leaders, educationalists and health practitioners, then the pressure to reverse the situation would be immense and more practical than waiting until the charges are imposed before attempting to have them rescinded.

I have no doubt that the imposition of water charges would have a devastating effect on those least able to pay. The most vulnerable people in our society, such as the elderly subsisting on state pensions, people living on disability allowances and single parents, could find themselves having to decide between paying unjust water charges or putting food on the table or heating their homes. This is totally unacceptable.

There will be no exemptions for those unable to pay. If we do not stop the introduction of water charges, it could result in water supply being cut off, with all of the dangers to health that would ensue from such arbitrary action.

It is dishonest for British Ministers to suggest that we do not pay for our water at present. It has always been the case that a percentage of our Regional Rates were specific to infrastructural upgrading of the water and sewage system. A former Direct Rule Minister for Regional Development, Alf Dubbs, increased the Regional Rate by 2%, which at the time he said would be ring fenced for the necessary development required to bring the water and sewage system up to modern standards. This money was, of course, collected but successive Direct Rule Ministers have redirected this money to other uses, including so-called security measures.

In any other walk of life this would be construed as misappropriation of funds and those responsible would be liable to prosecution. Now John Spellar proposes to make every householder in the North of Ireland pay for this incompetence and mismanagement.

What all parties and campaign groups should collectively be demanding from the British Government is an injection of cash by its Exchequer to repair the damage done by its negligence and underinvestment of rates money collected from ratepayers under false pretences.

It should not be down to the people to pay for the investment that successive British Governments have failed to deliver. This is an issue that unites politicians, trade unionists and community activists from across the spectrum. I believe that if we pool our resources and influence, we can force John Spellar to reverse his intention to impose this regressive form of taxation and have delivered the Peace Dividend that we were promised.

A march is to be held this coming Saturday in Derry in support of the Water Service workers and in opposition to water charges. I will be attending the Sinn Féin National Women's' Conference in Newry but it has my unqualified support and my party colleagues will be in attendance.

I also urge everyone in Derry who can attend to come out in support of the workers and in opposition to water charges.


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