Deputy Conor Lenihan was in possession and he has 14 minutes left. As Deputy Lenihan is not in the House, is anyone else offering? I call on the Minister of State to reply to the Second Stage debate.
Road Transport Bill, 1998: Second Stage (Resumed).
In replying to the debate on Second Stage I would like to thank Deputies for their thoughtful and helpful contributions. I will endeavour to respond to the many useful suggestions that have been made. We will have an opportunity to examine further the provisions on Committee Stage.
A number of colleagues referred to the review of the road haulage sector, which is currently nearing completion. There was quite a welcome for that much needed review. We are coming to the end of nearly six months work which involved a most thorough examination of the haulage industry and, just as importantly, the needs of its customers. The review has also carried out an exhaustive benchmarking exercise with countries such as Holland and the United Kingdom, which have strong haulage industries. The success of the haulage sector in Northern Ireland was also looked at. All in all it is a most comprehensive exercise and will be vital in putting in place a framework for the future development of the sector. As I indicated earlier, to proceed to make decisions without the back up of this detailed and comprehensive review would have been quite wasteful.
A number of Members, including Deputies Yates and Stagg, raised points to which I would like to refer. Members raised many important and relevant issues concerning the structure of the sector. I was particularly impressed by the contribution of Deputy McGuinness in this regard. A number of operators skirt the law in their operations. I am hopeful that the review will address many of the issues mentioned by those Deputies. I adverted to most of those issues in my opening speech.
I have no intention of getting into the area of speculation on what the consultants will recommend. Suffice to say that the consultants are completely independent and work with the assistance of a review group which consists of experts from a wide range of interests in the industry. I anticipate that the report will be available soon and I will be going to Government, first, for approval to publish and, second, for sanction for the implementation of recommendations which fall within my ambit and for the financial and human resources required for such implementation.
The likelihood is that some of the recommendations will require legislation. I assure colleagues that I will return to the House as soon as possible with measures which require statutory backing. In the meantime, I would stress that there are many good provisions in the Bill and that we should move quickly to implement them. Many of the measures were also the policy of the last Government and, therefore, it should not prove difficult for colleagues on the Opposition benches to support the legislation.
Deputy Yates raised the issue of consignor liability as set out in section 17 of the Bill. First, I would like to confirm that this provision was in the Road Transport Bill, 1997. There are two savers in the provision. The first saver deals with a consignor against whom a prosecution is brought under section 17. If there was no saver his defence in court would likely be that he was unable to estimate the weight of the load. The effect of the saver is to place the onus on the consignor to prove that it was not practicable to estimate the laden weight of the vehicle. This provision makes it difficult for a consignor to plead that he could not estimate the load unless he genuinely could not do so. A number of colleagues welcomed that new measure of ensuring consignor liability, along with the liabilities on the other parties which have been obtaining.
Deputy Yates, Deputy Stagg and others raised the crack down on illegal haulage last year. They referred to a very successful campaign waged by my Department in the course of the last year, aimed at transport and quality managers in businesses that employ haulage. We wrote to named individuals in 500 top firms advising them of their statutory obligations in employing hauliers. It is an offence for firms to employ illegal hauliers. The exercise was very successful. Many firms began checking haulage licences and checking with my Department concerning their obligations. We had a very encouraging response and we will be embarking on similar campaigns in the future.
I am glad that Deputy Yates raised the issue of illegal haulage. I am aware that the IRHA has stated that illegal haulage is at 20 per cent. In their work on the roadside, my Department's transport officers find that the figure is nowhere near that. Because of the difference between my Department and the IRHA about this issue, and in order to ascertain what the real figure is, we have specifically asked the consultants to carry out research on this issue and get a true figure of the situation.
A number of Deputies also asked whether it is intended to publish the review of the sector. I can confirm that it is intended to do so and I will endeavour to have the review published before Easter.
The matter of compensation claims during the French dispute was raised. A firm of solicitors with transport expertise was employed by the IRHA to process the claims and this was certainly the correct approach. A sample of the best supported claims were submitted to the French. Sums of money in compensation were paid to a number of hauliers last year. I made representations in that regard to the French Minister for Transport and the EU Transport Commissioner, Neil Kinnock. The outcome has not been totally satisfactory, or anything approaching that. It is a very difficult area and I hope there will not be a need for such claims in the future. The fact that payment was effected was a start. It meant the issue was addressed and there was a recognition that the hauliers had been inconvenienced. It is a difficult area.
Deputy Yates referred to the current statutory regime governing road passenger issues. As I said at the outset, the Bill deals with operating licences and not route licences. There has been substantial competition between public and private operators which has been of real benefit to consumers. As outlined in the Department's strategy statement, it is planned to carry out a review of options for the effective regulation of the bus market with a view to introducing legislation to replace the antiquated 1932 Act. The review will focus on improving customer service, effective enforcement, fair competition and appropriate integration of services.
I thank Deputy Stagg for his support for and gracious comments about the Bill. While it is similar to the Bill which the Deputy and his officials introduced when he was in Government – they did much excellent work – there are a number of improvements. It is good that has been recognised. Deputy Stagg asked about the change in policy leading to the granting of licences of five year duration. The Deputy was not pleased with that innovation but the 1997 Bill proposed that licences should be granted for an indefinite duration.
The change in policy has been heavily influenced by an amending directive which has been adopted to harmonise the laws and regulations on access to the profession. The new directive requires member states to check once every five years the access criteria, which include good repute, financial standing and professional competence. It is also believed that the discipline on operators being required to pass the criteria every five years is a positive move. As I said, this policy change has been discussed and agreed with the representative associations.
I thank the other Members who contributed, including Deputies O'Flynn, Sargent, Seán Ryan, Conor Lenihan and the main spokespersons Deputies Yates and Stagg. Deputy Ryan raised the question of legal difficulties with CIE pensions, some of which are dealt with in section 18. There are two sets of legal difficulties associated with CIE superannuation schemes which have been under examination in the Department of Public Enterprise for some time. These have proved very difficult to resolve. However, I am happy to state that the first of these difficulties is being addressed in section 18.
The problem was that there was doubt as to the legal basis of the Salaried Officers and Clerks (GNR, CDR and IRCH) Superannuation Scheme, 1977, because the order enabling it was based on section 14 of the Transport Act, 1950, which was repealed without a saver by the Transport (Reorganisation of Córas lompar Éireann) Act, 1986. Section 18 will remove the doubt as to the legal basis of this scheme by deeming the enabling order, and other orders over which there may also be doubt, to continue in force as if made under section 25 of the 1986 Act.
I assure Deputy Ryan that we have not lost sight of the legal difficulties associated with the proposed amalgamation of the CIE salaried superannuation schemes. The difficulties in this regard relate to the absence of a statutory power to make these amalgamations. Departmental officials have been in discussion with officials of CIE and the Office of the Attorney General for some time with a view to drafting an appropriate statutory provision. It is the intention to introduce an appropriate amendment to this Bill during its passage through the Oireachtas if such an amendment can be drafted in time. I assure Deputy Ryan that the officials in question are currently working towards that deadline. I would welcome suggestions on Committee Stage from all Members on how this matter could be solved.
I have endeavoured to cover all the issues raised by Deputies on Second Stage. There will be an opportunity to deal with the Bill in further detail on Committee Stage. I thank all those who contributed to the debate. We want decent legislation to emerge from our efforts. If constructive amendments are proposed on Committee and Report Stages, I undertake to give them full consideration.