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Is non-payment the magic bullet?

Report on Coalition Against the Water Charges public meeting at Belfast City Hall

JM Thorn

3 December 2006

Last week’s public meeting on water charges at Belfast City Hall fell at an opportune time.  With the legislation paving the way for water charging being rushed through the Westminster Parliament, the revelation that civil servants are discussing the full privatisation of the Water service, and the leaking of a document from the private company responsible for collecting water charges branding poor people as “rock bottom”, the issue of water charges was firmly on top of the news agenda.  ICTU has also chosen this moment to announce that it would be calling on people not to pay the water charge.  Given this background it might have been expected that the public meeting called by the trade union backed Coalition Against the Water Charges would have attracted a big crowd.  In the event, while bigger than any previous meeting, it still attracted only 100 people. 

The meeting took to form of a panel of speakers addressing the audience, followed by a short period for contributions from the floor.  First up was the Mayor of Belfast Pat McCarthy.  He said that people from across the community were opposed to water charges, and that they were being introduced to set the Water Service up for privatisation.  He claimed that that water charges were another example of direct rule “strong arming” and that the British Government had ignored protests from local politicians.  The Mayor concluded by saying that the decision on water charges and the future of the Water Service should be taken by local politicians, and that the only way to ensure this was to restore the Assembly and Executive.  He then excused himself and left as he had another engagement to attend. 

The second speaker was John Corry of NIPSA.  He said that the trade union movement was part of a broad campaign that has been running for over two years, lobbying Government and making responsible and reasoned arguments. But with legalisation on the water charges being pushed through, it was clear that the Government was not listening.  This was why the trade unions were now coming out to urge people not to pay the water charge.  John slammed the comments by Dennis Skinner in the Westminster debate on water charges about people in the North not paying their way.  He said that people here had always paid their way, and that in any case water was a fundamental right not a commodity to be bought and sold.  John claimed that water charges were a form of double taxation as people had previously paid for water through the regional rate, and that during the previous decade nearly £1 billion went into the Water Service from the rates. He said that the real agenda of the Government was the privatisation of the Water Service, referring to leaked memos between a previous Secretary of State and the British Treasury.   These memos had discussed the possibility of privatisation. The NIPSA leader also criticised the £18 million spent on private sector consultants for advice on the future of the service. 

John dismissed suggestions that trade unions were being irresponsible in calling for non-payment.  They had taken legal advice – it was not a criminal offence not to pay your water bill and non-payers could not be disconnected. John believed that a non-payment campaign would make it clear that people were opposed to privatisation and force the Government back to the drawing board.  He finished off by revealing that the slogan of the campaign was - “don’t pay twice, its all right” (an adaptation of the title of a Bob Dylan song).

The third speaker was Ciaron Mulholland of the We Won’t Pay Campaign.  He claimed that the last few days marked a turning point in the struggle against water charges.  The debate over what charges represented was now over; the only question was how to stop them.  For him the only way was mass non-payment.  He then went through the lies the Government had told over water charges, such as: that people didn’t pay for water, there were no plans for privatisation, it was bringing the North into line with the rest of the UK; or that the finance raised through the water charges would go into improving the network.  Ciaron said that the We Won’t Pay campaign was set up by the Socialist Party, the FBU and community groups.  He claimed that the campaign had a large membership and wide support.  He said that the tactic of non-payment could be successful, giving the example of the poll tax revolt in Britain and struggle against water charges in Dublin.  What was needed was for local communities to get organised, it was in the communities that the struggle would be fought. 

Ciaron said that a trade union campaign was not enough and was not the main focus of opposition.  He said that opinion polls and responses on the doorstep showed that there was strong support for non-payment.  Already the We Won’t Pay Campaign had distributed 300,000 leaflets and signed up 70,000 people to non-payment pledges.  Ciaron finished by urging people to join the campaign and support the We Won’t Pay picket of Peter Hain the next evening. 

The forth speaker was Frances Dowds of Communities Against Water Charges.  She said that the North was already one of the most unequal societies in Western Europe, and that water charges would further deepen inequality.  She referred to the recent Joseph Roundtree Foundation Report which warned that water charges, along with increased rates bills would push thousands of households into poverty.  As an example she gave the case of a single unemployed person living on their own having to pay £4 for water out of a weekly allowance of between £44 and £55.  She said that is was not a case of people not wanting to pay water bills, the fact is that many will not be able to pay.   While the government had promised relief for the poorest households this would be in place for three years only.  After this period, and with the prospect of privatisation, water bills could increase dramatically. Frances finished by calling for local communities to organise and for political parties and trade unions to give them their full support. 

The final platform speaker was Albert Mils of the T&GWU.   He noted that there were very few politicians at the meeting, and that given the importance of the issue the hall should really be packed with MLAs and MPs.  Albert said that people had to realise that the Water Service was already in the process of being privatised before water charges are even brought in.  Parts of the service had been sold off and jobs were being outsourced to private contractors.  He said that as a result morale among Water Service workers was very low with many looking for transfers and redundancy. However, this was not just in the Water Service, the whole public sector on the North was being steadily eroded and public sector workers were under attack.  Albert said this was just one part of Gordon Brown’s agenda of cuts across the public sector in the UK. The consequence of those cuts would be fewer jobs and poorer services.  To counter this required a collective effort between trade unions and communities.  Albert also said that we had to counter the argument for water meters, that there was no water shortage and that people should be able to use what they needed.   He finished by lambasted the Government for what it was doing to the Water Service and also the local politicians for jumping on the anti-water charges bandwagon at the 11th hour. 


The meeting was then opened up to contributions form the floor.  First in was Jim Barbour of the FBU.  He said that people were tired of the spin from the Government and local politicians.  Jim said that while public meetings were all well and good, verbal opposition was not enough. People had to be honest with themselves and accept that the only viable strategy to defeat water charges was non-payment.  He urged everyone to unite behind this strategy.  Eamonn McCann of Derry Trades Council said that there was now no doubt that water charges and water reform were about privatisation, an the Water Service management were quite open about this.  He said that the critical point of water privatisation unlike other privatisations, was the introduction of charges.  Privatisation of the Water Service could only go ahead if there was a secure revenue flow.  It is for this reason that the tactic of non-payment could be effective. No other strategy could work. 

Eamonn said that, while he had differences with the trade union leaders over how workers could fight water privatisation, these arguments were in the past.  Now was the time to unite.  He said that that a non-payment campaign could also break down sectarianism divisions, and that if people stick together they could win. Eamonn urged trade unions to organise within communities.  Terry Robson of Communities Against the Water Tax said that people should challenge local parties to commit themselves to revoking water charges if the Assembly reconvened.  If they didn’t then campaigners should consider running anti-water charge candidates in the upcoming Assembly elections in March. 

Peter Hadden of the We Won’t Pay campaign claimed that the argument for non-payment had been won, and that it was now time to move on to how it can be organised.  He said that local parties had agreed in principle to water charges, and preferred that the British Government did their dirty work before the executive was restored. Also, the budgets that the parties had accepted had water charges built into them. Peter said that the trade unions had to get their members to organise in the communities.  The higher the level of organisation, the higher the level of non payment.  Gary Mulchay, from the same campaign, said that politicians would not support non-payment.  He recognised that the legacy of the rent and rates strike by nationalists in the 1970s had made many people sceptical about non-payment.  But he said this non-payment campaign would be different because it cut across both communities.  He also said that the Repayment of Debt Act was no longer in force, and that a mass campaign would clog up the courts system.  Gary called on the trade unions to give practical support to non-payment, such as contributing to a legal defence fund. 

A speaker from a Dunmurry based group said there was a need to unite all the campaigns and to get a critical mass of people not to pay.  He also warned that the argument against metering has still to be won.  Margaret Ritchie of SDLP was the only politician other than the Mayor to speak, although all parties were represented at the meeting.  She said that her party was opposed to water charges and privatisation, and that there was another opportunity to challenge water charges when it comes before the House of Lord on 11 December.  She said that water charges were also on the agenda of the Preparation for Government Committee.  Stung by the hostility towards politicians, she said that the local parties did care about water charges, and that it was unfair to say that they had done nothing. 

Lynda Walker of Belfast Trades Council said that the recent introduction of private company to enforce parking regulations, which resulted in the doubling of the number of tickets issued was another example of privatisation. She called for trade unions to sponsor a public information campaign to counter the spin from the Government.  Anne Monaghan of the NI Fair Rates Campaign claimed that the water charges and rates were similar issues in that the bills were being calculated on the capital value of a person’s home.  Jim Welch, a former DRD civil servant, said he knew that politicians had been working behind the scenes to minimise impact of water charges.  He also said that the Water Service was already being privatised through PFI/PPP and that over £10 million had been spent on the preparation for the creation of the GoCo – the government company that would precede privatisation.  This even included the employment of a PR firm to persuade people of the merits of water charges.  There was also an executive salary review under way.  Before the meeting ended John Corry came in again to response to Margaret Ritchie.  He said that the trade unions would work with all those opposed to privatisation and hoped that political parties would give a positive response to the campaign.


This meeting was encouraging in that it is now widely recognised that privatisation is the key issue in the struggle against the water charges.  However, the problem is that the process of privatisation is well underway.  It is therefore wrong for people to claim that non-payment can stop privatisation.  This is particularly true of the trade union leaders who have consistently refused to challenge privatisation at the most immediate workplace level.  If workers in the Water Service are demoralised it is the trade union leadership that bears a great deal of responsibility for that.   Their non-payment campaign doesn’t seem to be anymore than an 11th hour gesture. The We Won’t Pay campaign is also full of hot air. Making exaggerated claims about angry householders on a talk radio show or on their doorsteps does not translate into a campaign.  This is more about building the Socialist Party than an effective campaign; come next March we can expect to see them running in the Assembly elections. 

It is also ridiculous that there should be two campaigns saying ostensibly the same thing, but it suites the Socialist Party and the trade union leadership to make diplomatic gestures while keeping one another at arms length.  While there is increased agitation and anger around the water charges, and this may increase as the 1st April date for their introduction comes closer, there is no sense that there is an organised opposition to them.  In the absence of this a mass non-payment campaign is unlikely to develop.  Undoubtedly, the weakness of the opposition against water charges and privatisation is the weakness of the trade union movement and the absence of action from workers in the Water Service. If they had been struggling against water privatisation they could have been the focus of a campaign and would also made it easier to build within communities. 

The task remains what it has always been, to build a mass campaign against water privatisation.  If there is a mass campaign then many tactics can be considered, if there is no mass campaign then individuals who refuse to pay will have no effect. The government acknowledge that roughly one in eight people in England aren’t paying water bills and may eventually reintroduce ‘trickle meters’ to force payment, but there is no sense that even this level of non-payment can be considered a political campaign or that it creates any political pressure against privatisation.

Irish militants hesitate to face this.  They see non-payment as a quick fix that will defeat water privatisation now, and fear a political campaign will take too long to organise.  However the threat of privatisation hangs across all of public service in the North.  The vast majority of the population will be affected. The threat will not go away and requires a mass mobilisation of working people, both in their workplace and in the community.  The issue is politics – not simply payment.


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