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Council not liable for unpaid water bills

IRISH Water has denied that Clare County Council will have to pay the water charges of tenants who fail to pay.

The CEO of Clare County Council, Tom Coughlan told a meeting of the council that he understood that the council will have to pay Irish Water, if tenants don’t pay their quarterly water charges, the first of which have been dropping through letterboxes in recent days.

But Irish Water said this Wednesday that this is not the case and under law, “the occupier of the house is liable for the bill.”

“That also applies to private landlords, and once a landlord provides us with the details of the tenant then we will follow up any case on non-payment with the tenant,” a spokesperson for Irish Water told The Clare Champion.

Clare County Council CEO, Tom Coughlan was responding to a series of questions put by Councillor Gerry Flynn after the council gave the names and addresses of tenants to Irish Water, including a query on whether the council would pay Irish Water if tenants didn’t pay their water charges.

Clare County Council CEO, Tom Coughlan.
Clare County Council CEO, Tom Coughlan.

According to Mr Coughlan, “My understanding is that the local authority, as the landlord, will have to make payment to Irish Water in respect of the outstanding water charges.”

Councillor Flynn had told the adjourned April meeting of the council this Monday that he had received “numerous complaints from council tenants”, and asked what the council’s position was in relation to the data confidentiality clause in their tenancy agreements, and if any personal data was given to Irish Water that would be a breach of contract.

The council replied that tenants had been notified that their names and addresses had been given to Irish Water under Section 26 of the Water Services Act 2013, which was exempt from data protection under Section 8 (e) of the Data Protection Act, and the council was therefore not in breach of contract with the tenants.

Councillor Flynn then asked the CEO if he had been given legal advice on the transfer of data to Irish Water and said there was no mention of the 2013 Act in the tenancy agreement.

He said he had been told by tenants that the release of the data to Irish Water had been “very hurtful” and had caused “grief, anxiety and stress to families that had received letters from Irish Water addressed to deceased family members”.

Councillor Flynn continued, “If that is the case, then we could have a situation here where the council released a substantial amount of tenant information and maybe didn’t collate the accuracy of it.”
“That would be a worry to me,” he added.

Councillor Gerry Flynn expressed concern over data confidentiality.
Councillor Gerry Flynn expressed concern over data confidentiality.

The Shannon councillor said councillors had sought information on tenants in the past which had been denied to them but it is okay to release information to a State utility.

He said the problem he had is that people are signing legal documents like “an á la carte menu that’s made up as we go along,” and asked if it was the case that the council would pay Irish Water and the tenants would be held liable in their accounts with Clare County Council.

Councillor Mike McKee seconded the motion and said there was no mention in the tenancy agreements that the data would be handed over to the State. He said it is unacceptable to hand over details of tenants and they should have been told before any personal data was handed over.

He said, for anyone who supports the imposition of water charges, the only way the law could be repealed is for people not to vote in the next General Election.

Councillor PJ Ryan said he believed that people’s rights had been breached and tenants should have been told before it happened.

“They signed a contract with Clare County Council and part of that contract was that none of their details would be released to an outside body. I think that should be honoured,” Councillor Ryan said.

Councillor Christy Curtin said that councillors had been refused the housing lists and details of the manager’s orders, while this is selective application of data protection.

Responding to the points made by councillors, CEO Tom Coughlan said the council had no choice but to hand over the data to Irish Water, while other information referred to, such as housing lists and manager’s orders by the councillors, cannot be handed over, following a ruling by the Data Protection Commission.

“I can’t change the law. I can’t operate outside the law. We must comply with the law,” Mr Coughlan said.

Councillor Flynn said the CEO didn’t respond to some of his questions and, while he believed the “data processor” under the Act was the CEO, he asked if the “data controller” was consulted, as was required, before the data was handed over.

Mr Coughlan said it was his understanding that the data controller is the council. “Not according to me,” Councillor Flynn said.

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Leas Cathaoirleach, Tony O’Brien said.

Councillor Flynn asked the CEO to respond to claims that letters from Irish Water had been sent to deceased members of his constituents’ families, and Mr Coughlan said if there is a particular instance where a tenant of Clare County Council received a water bill which is in the name of a deceased family member, he was not aware of that happening.

He said if Councillor Flynn had such information, it would be followed up. He said the data that they used was checked and is the same as is used in any correspondence issued to tenants.

Councillor Flynn asked for clarification on whether Clare County Council would be paying Irish Water (on behalf of non-compliant tenants) and holding their tenants liable.

Mr Coughlan said his understanding was “that Irish Water would advise local authorities if tenants have not paid their water charges”. He added, “My understanding is that the local authority, as the landlord, will have to make payment to Irish Water in respect of the outstanding water charges. How the council then recovers the water charges from the tenants, we’re not clear on that yet. There isn’t an answer to it yet.”

Councillor Flynn said his questions were on the button and “the possibility is there that tenants will be deemed to be in default of their tenancy agreement, and they could be liable, you don’t know.”

But Mr Coughlan said he didn’t say or intimate that tenants will be in default of the tenancy agreement if they don’t pay water charges.

“What I said clearly is what happens in regard to the collection of water charges is not defined as yet. So, it’s a question I can’t answer,” he said.

Ron Kirwan

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