“The Executive appears to be paralysed on this issue.”

The Chairman of the Northern Ireland Assembly Regional Development Committee, the UUP’s Fred Cobain, had previously criticised the relevant NI Minister, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy, after his unilateral declaration of intent to defer new water charges for a further three years. That was in April. In the Belfast Telegraph today Fred Cobain describes the issue as “a ticking time-bomb” that the dysfunctional NI Executive has, to date, failed to address. And the cost of a further deferral? Up to £2billion.

The £2bn total comprises the total cost of running the service and essential investment, as well as the addition of the VAT and annual capital costs. A private paper seen by this newspaper argued: “The Department is not in a position to engage with HMRC until the Executive has decided its long-term approach. The additional VAT costs could be up to £60m in 2009-2010 if the existing agreement no longer remains in place.”

“Up to £130m would be involved if HMRC sought to recover VAT payments for 2007-2008 and 2008-2009.” Ministerial guidance papers, released for consultation, said: “The costs of deferral for a three-year period, excluding risks, are of the order of £1bn. “That is, the total projected cost for water and sewerage services/investment over the 2010-13 period is of the order of £1.6bn (excluding risks)”.

And also from the Belfast Telegraph report

Fred Cobain, who heads the scrutiny committee overseeing the department which would implement the charges, said: “It is not good enough just to make a decision to defer and leave the worrying about the implications until later.”

But the UUP MLA said: “At this point in time I don’t think they have a clue what they are doing. But they just cannot close their eyes and hope this will go away.”

The Department for Regional Development Committee, on which all parties apart from Alliance are represented, has been taking evidence from Northern Ireland Water, the billing firm Crystal Alliance and others in recent months but members are angry that key questions remain unanswered.

“There is at the most between eight and 10 weeks for this decision to be taken, at least if Crystal Alliance is to have the time it says it needs to prepare bills to go out,” Mr Cobain said. The North Belfast MLA, who opposes water charges, said: “The Executive appears to be paralysed on this issue.

“The Regional Development Minister (Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein) announced he was bringing forward proposals for another three-year deferral in April for the Executive, but so far it appears this has not even been discussed.

“The fact is they have had two-and-a-half years to think about this. The original plan was to introduce the charges on a one-third, two thirds and then full charge basis. But now we just don’t know where we are.”

“I am very concerned at the potential impact of this on pensioners in particular, and families already in poverty.

“A responsible government has to plan properly for the future. They should not just be making announcements and planning policy on the hoof. If they are going ahead with a further three-year delay to the introduction of water charges we are entitled to know where the money to pay for that will come from.”