More than three months after the News Letter revealed that NI Water’s hosepipe ban had no legal standing because of an incredible gaffe by the utility company, it has finally admitted that was the case.
In July, this newspaper reported that the publicly owned firm – whose executives are now operating without any democratic oversight because of the collapse of Stormont – had used a law which does not apply in Northern Ireland to implement a sweeping ban of everything from washing windows to cleaning paths.
The company was then threatening members of the public with criminal records for non-existent ‘crimes’.
In fact, the legislation in Northern Ireland – which has not been updated in line with GB – only allows a ban on two activities: watering a garden and washing a private car.
NI Water, whose chief executive Sara Venning is paid about £150,000 a year, slipped out its admission that it exceeded its legal powers on Friday afternoon just before the half-term break – a classic slot in which to ‘bury bad news’.
The company did not alert newsrooms to the statement, as it normally does, nor did it appear on the home page of its website, making it difficult for the public to find.
The legislation in Northern Ireland under which a hosepipe ban can be imposed – Article 116 of the Water & Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 – mirrors what had been the law in the rest of the UK.
However, the GB legislation was amended in 2010 after Parliament decided that there were too many loopholes in the existing law and extended the available powers.
A Parliamentary research briefing at the time made clear that under the law still in force in Northern Ireland “companies can only ban or restrict the use of hosepipes when they are used to water private gardens or clean private vehicles – but not when they are used for other purposes such as for filling swimming pools or to clean patios”.
NI Water, however, used the sweeping powers available to water companies in GB, setting out the precise list of prohibited activities from the new GB law.
But when the News Letter highlighted the clear discrepancy, NI Water refused to admit that it had gone beyond its legal powers, insisting that it was allowed to interpret the words “private garden” to include walls and windows, and that “private motor car” could include “leisure boats”.
When asked about the situation, NI Water said at the time it was “content that the prohibitions contained within the hosepipe ban notice are in line with Article 116”.
The publicly owned utility set out the terms of the hosepipe ban in full page newspaper adverts on June 30.
The layout and language of the public notice gave the appearance of an extract from legislation. However, the words are not from legislation and appear to just have been written by NI Water staff.
The situation is particularly significant because NI Water was telling the public that breaching the ban could lead to not only a £1,000 fine but a criminal record – with the ‘offence’ prosecutable by NI Water, rather than by the police.
The statement published by the company on Friday said: “Following the lifting of the ban on July 19th, NI Water conducted a review of their interpretation of their powers under Article 116.
“As a result of this review, which included getting further legal opinion, NI Water now accepts that its interpretation of Article 116 was too broad and that it therefore had sought to ban certain activities that were not envisaged under the legislation, as currently drafted.
“Accordingly, NI Water wishes to apologise to its customers for any inconvenience caused during this period.
“NI Water would again emphasise that at no time did it seek to mislead the public, rather its primary aim was to ensure all customers remained in supply and that businesses could function efficiently.”
The company did not explain why it was only making the statement now, so long after the event, or whether anyone within the organisation would be held to account over the debacle.