Ireland North: ‘We Won’t Pay!’ anti-water charges campaign grows

Build non-payment in working class communities

With just under six months left before water charges are introduced in Northern Ireland, the Westminster government is about to launch a well-financed propaganda campaign attempting to cut across the support growing for mass non-payment.

After the St. Andrews Agreement was announced [an agreement between the main political parties in Northern Ireland – for more details, see earlier article on] the parties claimed to have won significant concessions on social and economic issues.

The British government has conceded to changing some of its policies to secure the restoration of the Assembly [local ‘power-sharing’ government], but the changes all favour the wealthy and big business. A cap on rates will mean that millionaires will pay relatively less in rates than low-paid workers. A reduction in corporation tax for big business will also be considered. All of the main parties are in complete agreement when it comes to implementing right-wing economic policy. However, one of the biggest issues facing working class people was ignored by the parties. The introduction of water charges and the privatisation of the service are still on course for 1 April 2007. It cannot be ruled out that the main parties may push for some further concessions on water charges, but they do not oppose them in principle. Whether there is an Assembly up and running next April or not, the building of a campaign of mass non-payment of water charges is still an urgent task.

Government liars

The government is worried there is no support for water charges. Not only is there outright opposition to water charges, but the We Won’t Pay Campaign’s call for mass non-payment is receiving mass support. Most people now see mass non-payment as the only way water charges can be defeated. Direct-rule ministers have already been exposed as liars who tried to con the people of Northern Ireland into thinking that they do not currently pay for water. Everybody now knows that we pay for water through the rates [local taxes]. But that won’t stop the government from spreading more lies and half-truths to cut across mass non-payment.

Over the coming months, every single household and business will receive an ‘information pack’ on water charges. There is no doubt this literature will be used to portray water charges as ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’. Most probably they will concentrate on the first water bills people will receive next April. This is because these first bills will actually only amount to a third of the water charge. The average charge will amount to roughly £340 a year. The government believes that by phasing in the introduction of water charges over three years, they can have a ‘softer’ impact over a longer period. So the average bill will be £110, in the first year, £220 for the second year, and finally £340. But what the government will fail to highlight is that after charges have been fully phased in, there will be a price review. In other words, water charges will keep rising.

The government will also try to portray the ’affordability’ tariff as a form of protection for people dependent on welfare benefits. This tariff will limit the amount the unemployed and poorest householders pay, so no more than 3% of their income is spent on water. In reality, this will mean a 3% cut in income for the poorest households. The affordability tariff was announced to dampen opposition and non-payment. There is no such tariff in Britain, where the water service was privatised in the late 1980s. After the service was sold off, private water companies were permitted to make huge increases in water charges by the regulator ‘Ofwat’. As a result, there is massive debt to the private water companies in Britain. According to a recent House of Lords report: “2004-05 figures show that the total amount of outstanding household revenue was £962 million – an increase of £38 million on 2003-04.”

The water companies would prefer it if the government paid them the £962 million in water charges which are now uncollectable in Britain. That is why they have been disturbed that the government has chosen to cover the costs of the affordability tariff by compensating the new company ‘Northern Ireland Water Ltd’. The government is not prepared to introduce a similar tariff in Britain to the water companies and so has decided to ’review’ the tariff in N Ireland, after water charges are fully phased in by 2009/10. If the government was honest, it would tell working people that the affordability tariff will be ditched, leaving the most impoverished families with massive water bills.

‘N Ireland Water Ltd’

The legislation required to transform the Water Service from a part of the civil service into Northern Ireland Water Ltd. (which will operate as a private company under the Companies Act) has been put to parliament. This will be voted on at the Northern Ireland Select Committee at Westminster. All Northern Ireland MPs have places on this committee but they represent a minority. There is no doubt that the legislation will be comfortably passed. The MPs from the North will be forced to vote against it because of mass working class opposition, but they will vote against it in the knowledge that it will still be passed. It should never be forgotten that N Ireland politicians agreed to introduce water charges in the first place when they last shared power in the Assembly Executive. They are equally to blame for water charges.

When the new water company is formed, it will be fully owned by the government. However, much of the work is already contracted-out to the private sector, in the form of long-term ‘Public Private Partnership’ contracts. Ownership of the company will also be “reviewed” in 2009-2010. In other words, the government has the option of selling shares or the entire company to private companies. This exposes the lie that Peter Hain, Secretary of State, has tried to spin, claiming the government has no plans to privatise the water service. Most people understand that water charges are needed to privatise the service and see a mass non-payment campaign as also a campaign against privatisation.

There is massive opposition to the ‘water reform’ plans. This has been reflected in the trade union movement, where unions, such as NIPSA (the main public sector union) and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) now nominally support mass non-payment. The Irish Regional Conference of the T&GWU (transport and general workers’ union) has also passed a motion in support of non-payment. However, adoption of these positions came as a result of pressure from below. The leaderships of these unions vehemently opposed mass non-payment but were overturned by conference delegates. In reality, the majority of trade union leaders oppose mass non-payment and will do all they can to stop a genuine campaign from developing.

If the leaders of the unions genuinely supported mass non-payment they would put the huge resources of the unions into popularising non-payment, encouraging their members to organise local non-payment groups in their communities, and they would offer financial and other assistance to a mass non-payment campaign.

The unions would have to urgently convene meetings to discuss and agree a strategy to build support for mass non-payment of water charges. Part of such a strategy should be a direct appeal to every trade union member to actively build local non-payment groups in the areas they live.

Material should be distributed to all union members explaining that a campaign of mass non-payment is the most effective tactic which can force the government to scrap water charges. The unions could co-ordinate the distribution of a ‘non-payment pledge’ in all workplaces. Copies should also be distributed in workplaces for workers to take and to sign people up in their communities.

The trade unions should also publicly call on people to stand against water charges and to refuse to pay. The unions’ resources and facilities should be offered to assist local campaigns. They should also make significant financial donations to a legal defence fund, to assist with the payment of legal expenses in the event of non-payers being issued with legal action. And finally, the unions should follow a policy of non-co-operation in the event of non-payers benefits and/or wages being reduced from source, as a result of an ‘Attachment of Earnings Order’.

For a democratic mass non-payment campaign

If this approach were adopted, it would give huge confidence to communities not to pay water charges. A sustained mass non-payment campaign must be a membership-based campaign, democratically organised in the local communities: where organisation of non-payment will be based. That is the task the We Won’t Pay Campaign has set itself. At a members’ meeting in Belfast, activists from many parts of the North gathered to discuss how to build the campaign over the next six months, in preparation for April 2007. 60,000 people have, so far, signed the non-payment pledge. The campaign has set itself the target of reaching 100,000 signatures by the end of 2006. This is easily achievable, if the campaign is built energetically in all areas.

The potential exists to build a mass movement, uniting Protestant and Catholic working class communities which can defeat a central neo-liberal project of New Labour. The consequences of such a movement would have major political significance. It would give confidence to workers, who face attack after attack from the bosses and New Labour, to organise and to fight to defend their conditions.

The role of socialists today must be to build the We Won’t Pay Campaign into a mass campaign which can defeat the hated water charges and stop the outright privatisation of the water service. Socialists must also raise the need for a socialist political alternative, which would be capable of uniting communities, based on fighting on behalf of working class people’s interests. None of the sectarian parties can provide a way forward for workers and youth. The building of such a new party will emerge from the struggles of the working class and the conscious intervention of socialists raising the need to fight for a break from capitalism and to transform society along socialist lines.

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December 2006