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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 18 Feb 1999

Vol. 500 No. 6

Ceisteanna – Questions. Priority Questions. - Road Transport Liberalisation.

Olivia Mitchell


5 Ms O. Mitchell asked the Minister for Public Enterprise the plans, if any, she has to review the provisions of the Road Transport Act, 1932, in order to liberalise the law and facilitate the involvement of the private sector in the delivery of an urban bus service by means of competitive public service contracts. [1376/99]

The Road Transport Act, 1932, as amended, is the legislative basis for the licensing of scheduled bus services here. This legislation governs the provision of passenger services other than those provided by Bus Éireann and Bus Átha Cliath.

In considering an application for a licence under the Act, my Department is required to have regard to whether the proposed service is "required in the public interest having regard to the passenger road services and other forms of passenger transport available to the public on or in the neighbourhood of the proposed service". This legislative requirement has meant in practice that licences have often been refused to private operators in urban areas where a service is already being provided, usually by a CIE company.

There is widespread acceptance that there are a number of difficulties associated with the implementation of the 1932 Road Transport Act. It is clear that this is a very complex matter and that there are no simple solutions.

As outlined in my Department's statement of strategy 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 1932 Act. This review will focus on improving customer service, effective enforcement, fair competition and appropriate integration of services. Preliminary work has started on the review and all possible options, including those referred to in the Deputy's question, will be considered.

I wish the Minister a speedy recovery from the flu.

I thank the Deputy. This is wonderful; I may get another bunch of flowers—

A modest bouquet.

—from Paddy Reilly.

The Minister of State's reply did not address my question. At what stage are preparations to provide public service contracts to Dublin Bus and following that, to have competitive public service contracts? The Government has been in office for 20 months and Dublin city is scarcely viable.

What is the Government doing?

We are lying on satin sheets all day.

The Government's response to traffic congestion has been wholly inadequate. Putting yet another review in place is an inadequate response. We know what the problem is.

The Deputy is making a statement.

Does the Minister understand the urgency of the matter?

Both Ministers are implicated in this.

Will the level of service being provided by Dublin Bus be raised other than by the provision of 150 extra buses or must we wait four or five years before we have competitive tendering for bus routes? Who decides the level of service to be provided? Is it the Minister or Dublin Bus? Dublin Bus said it cannot respond while the Minister makes much play of the 150 buses which have been ordered. Is the Minister aware the 150 buses will provide only one extra bus on each route in Dublin? It is an insult to ask people to wait 18 to 20 months for one additional bus. Is the Minister aware of the demand for additional routes and the revolution brewing in virtually every area in Dublin?

Not in the chauffeur driven section.

Did the Deputy never walk?

A switch to public transport is the only solution to the traffic congestion but the service is inadequate. Has the Minister given up responsibility for it?

The Deputy has made a rather long statement. There is provision in Standing Orders only for short supplementary questions.

The Minister is very quick with a good story.

The Deputy has gone off on a tangent because the question asks if the Minister will liberalise the law and facilitate the involvement of the private sector. That is what I have endeavoured to address. We agree with the Deputy regarding the existing difficulties. The Deputy has mentioned our time in Government. It is not such a long time since the party of which she is a member was in Government.

It might not be so long until we are in again.

I do not say that to be confrontational, that is not my style, but to portray the difficulties with this Act. The previous Govern ment addressed this issue and I want to be complimentary rather than confrontational given that Deputy Stagg, my predecessor, did much work in this area but did not succeed in getting the job completed. Previous Governments have addressed the difficulty presented by the antiquated 1932 legislation. The criteria for licensing decisions are basic and do not allow for sophisticated assessment of the actual situation on proposed routes. The work done in this area by Deputy Stagg is benefiting me and my Department in the review embarked upon. He met with the various groups representing the private sector. He heard their views about possible mechanisms that might be put in place. Those activities were carried on by previous Ministers. It is my intention to prepare a policy analysis of the regulation of the bus market for presentation in the first half of this year. The review—

The Minister has had a fair few reviews.

—will be done in two phases. I am in the Department only a short time and because of its importance we are addressing this issue. The first phase will deal with rural transport.

Even Deputy Roche is in favour of that.

A consultative document for consideration by the interested transport bodies will be produced. The second phase will deal with urban public transport. The EU Commission will be seeking further liberalisation in the not too distant future. That is the reason we want to be prepared in advance.

I thank the Minister of State for his acknowledgement that some progress was made during my period in office when a difficult examination of the 1932 Act was carried out. There were files, which would reach almost to the ceiling of this House, of all the Ministers who had reviewed the Act since 1932. We came to a point where we were close to the heads of a Bill. I am pleased to hear progress is being made on this issue. Will the Minister agree one can consult until death? I did much consulting and found the private sector did not have the capacity to do what it would wish to do. That was apparent from their entry into the market and their inability to enter the Dublin market. If the Minister goes for it along the lines indicated he will have my support. It badly needs to be done. Will he agree that in his Department a group of civil servants, in an effort to implement the 1932 Act which effectively is redundant, is refereeing rows between small private operators who want to provide minibus services to bingo etc.

The Deputy should confine himself to supplementaries.

Will he agree the real problem is that the private sector is not capable of delivering a service in the cities? The danger is that British and European operators will move in rather than Irish private operators.

I agree with the substance of what Deputy Stagg has said. As proof of what he has said with regard to his own consultations, none of the main groups representing the private sector submitted written submissions, as requested, in support of their respective cases. Consultation has to come to an end and the nettle must be grasped. This matter has been reviewed going back to 1932. We have embarked on the review and will stay with it because of the particular difficulties that obtain.

This is a topic on which we have been consulted to death. We cannot continue to consult and carry out studies and reviews, we must repeal the Act and start again. The public do not care whether it is Dublin Bus, private operators or British private operators who provides the service so long as a service is provided. The economy depends on a proper service. Given that there is nothing on the track to offer relief, can a different attitude to applications for licences be adopted? If Dublin Bus is providing a service, I recognise a private operator cannot be given a licence. In many cases licences are refused where a service is not provided or at least until somebody else tries to improve the service. We have an emergency. What is wrong with giving licences to private operators? It is not the long-term solution but in an emergency surely we can accommodate both public and private services in meeting the demand.

I agree totally with the Deputy. The public want a service and that is what we are here to provide. We should not oversimplify the issue. The Deputy has not done that nor has any other Member. The matter is complex. The Deputy asked about adopting a different attitude to applications for licences. I have specific cases before me which bear out what has been said. I am endeavouring to apply a different attitude but it is difficult in the context of the legislation. I hope we will remedy some of those specific cases in the near future.

Will the Minister acknowledge that in the unit of his Department responsible for bus competition there has been legislative constipation, which is blatantly unacceptable and to which he is contributing? Will he look at the 1988 Act, which established the Independent Radio and Television Commission which has successfully regulated independent radio, and put a similar ten person board in place and let it get on with the job of looking at the balance between Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and private operators? Will he consider that model?

Irrespective of that, when will public service contracts be issued, whereby the amount of subsidy attached to a given route is a decision for the Department and CIE to make and is being paid for on a year on year basis?

The Deputy's question incorporates an oversimplification. However, what he is talking about is under consideration. We will consider that and everything else that is relevant to dealing with the situation, in the context of the review we have embarked on. I hope we will be able to produce something in the shorter term rather than in the longer term.

Deputy Roche is in favour of this – what more does the Minister need to know?