Private Members' Business. - National Car Test: Motion.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Hayes, McCormack, Kenny, Coveney, Perry, Jim Higgins and Belton.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann deplores the extra burden placed on pensioners by the national car test system and the restriction on mobility and independence which this will entail for a great many elderly people, and therefore calls on the Government immediately to:

–provide that all testing and re-testing of cars owned by persons aged 65 years or more be carried out without charge;

–provide a subsidy for the acquisition of a compliant car not over three years old in any case where the cost of ensuring compliance of a car owned by a person over the age of 65 years is greater than £250;

–provide that the cost of medical certificates required by drivers aged over 70 be refunded to such drivers by the Department of Health and Children, and

–provide that three-year licences issued to persons aged over 70 who are certified as fit to continue driving be made available at the same cost per annum as a normal ten-year licence.

Most Members of the House supported the introduction of the national car test. It is amazing that the introduction of such a scheme had not taken place previously. It promises to deliver safer cars on our roads and the removal from those roads of cars that are not safe and that are a danger to life and limb. However, in the rush to get the scheme up and running, the Government overlooked a small but, for those affected by it, hugely important problem. I refer to the difficulties the scheme, as it currently stands, is causing for the elderly.

The problem is straightforward and with a bit of imagination – if the Government is capable of it – it is easy to solve. How do we enable pensioners and older people to meet the costs they face in paying test fees and having to upgrade or replace their cars? It would be a disgrace if, by ignoring their plight, we ended up forcing them off our roads, turning them from citizens, who in their golden years can travel to the shops, to mass and to visit their relatives, into prisoners in their own homes. Effectively, this would mean they would have to rely on others for transport and no longer have their independence. This would not be because they are no longer physically able to drive or cannot put petrol in the tank or pay their insurance like anyone else, but because, if they survive on their old age pension, they do not have the money to pay for the necessary upgrade to get their car through the national test.

They could all go to their local bank manager and ask for a bank loan, but is that what we want? Do we want queues of elderly people, begging their local bank manager for help to be allowed to be able to keep driving their cars? What reaction would those with an old age pension get from the banks, particularly when they do not have Ansbacher or similar accounts to offer the bank manager? At best, they will spend the rest of their days paying off bank loans to give them the privilege of keeping their cars on the road.

Older people deserve better treatment and respect. Fine Gael's proposal is that a basic subsidy should be offered to those over 65 to enable them to meet the costs of the test and any reasonable costs above a certain amount that they may face in upgrading or replacing their cars to make them national road test compliant. The costs would not be prohibitive and, in any event, the average citizen will have paid many times the subsidy in road taxes, car taxes and various other taxes over their working lives. All we would do is give back to some of our senior citizens some of their own money to enable them to keep their independence.

However, we should go further. In considering the problems the national car test is creating for senior citizens, we should note and correct some other discrepancies, for example, the problem of the driving licence. Most of us must get our licences renewed every ten years. However, if one is over a certain age, one can only get a licence for three years. In many ways this makes sense because older people suffer a more rapid deterioration in their physical capacities than younger people and they need to have their abilities reassessed more often.

However, it is not sensible that the average older person has to pay exactly the same fee for a three year licence as younger people, possibly with greater means, pay for a ten year licence. I understand there may be some movement on this issue and I hope that is the case. If so, the Government should take into account that, because of the system, senior citizens have further costs to bear in obtaining medical certificates, which I understand cost £20 each, for the renewal of such licences. Often they must also get such certificates, at a further cost of £20, for insurance purposes. In addition, there is a further loading, I understand, of up to 25% of the insurance premium because of age.

It makes good and moral sense to treat our senior citizens with all the respect they deserve. Some 30 years ago, in an inspired act, the State gave senior citizens the right to travel free on public transport. It cost little but it made a monumental impact on the lives of many people. Today, we are faced with a similar choice and similar potential. At little cost, we could help many of those who live away from public transport, to retain the right to travel by their own means and retain their independence. There is no greater gift that we could give, and that we owe, to those who in their day helped to create the Celtic tiger we now enjoy and have a moral right to share with our senior citizens.

The national car test was introduced as a result of EU regulations. However, we are introducing European standards in a situation where we do not have roads up to European standards and where the cost of a new small car is almost £2,000 more than in many other European countries. The test fee of £35 and the retest fee of £20 will bear particularly heavily on the elderly, many of whom are pensioners. The cost of a test and then a retest would consume more than half of a weekly pension. Furthermore, the burden will be much greater in a situation where it will be more expensive to bring old cars up to the test standard or have them replaced. The Fine Gael approach is that some support should be given to the elderly in such situations from the point of view of the cost of the test and retest by way of subsidy where it is necessary to expend more than £250 either repairing an old car or purchasing a compliant car.

Many rural population profiles tend to be characterised by all too familiar patterns of scattered settlement, disproportionate numbers of elderly people living in isolation and low numbers of young people. Therefore, there is a deficit in the number and quality of services available. In concrete terms, transport services are among those items which are restricted for many rural dwellers. Even for the elderly who are entitled to a free travel card, it is not of much use if there is no railway or bus service available in their area. For this reason, many of them rely particularly on motor transport.

The real problem is that many of these cars fail the test because they have to be driven through potholes and on badly maintained county roads. I am sure many of my colleagues will deal with this aspect. Many of the horror stories from the western counties and County Cavan will indicate why many of the cars fail the test. However, the response of the Government to date has been strictly bureaucratic. The Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, has pointed out that the national car test has been established as a public private partnership and on a self-financing basis and that it is envisaged that all users of the NCT should pay for their tests as part of the general costs of private motoring. In general, I do not quibble with this approach, but it does not preclude the State providing support for those who need it and who are particularly badly affected by the introduction of the new national car test.

The attitude of the Government, and particularly the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, can only be described as heartless. He has not shown the slightest hint of understanding for elderly people whose car is literally their freedom and whose budgets are severely limited. Merely repeating the mantra that private motoring costs have not in the past received public subsidy is not an answer to the motion. The same could have been said in relation to telephone charges and ESB charges prior to the introduction of the free telephone rental allowance and the free electricity allowance. In any event, a subsidy is available for private motoring through the Department of Finance's scheme for the disabled, where there are substantial reliefs of VAT, VRT, motor tax and fuel tax for those who qualify. I favour further special measures for the disabled either through an extension of that scheme or by including them in the proposals I am making on behalf of the elderly.

There is a reasonable case to be made for support for the elderly which I, on behalf of Fine Gael, have outlined. The costs involved would not be substantial but the relief to many of the elderly affected would be great. The funds are available to provide that relief and all that is required is the political will to put such a scheme into operation. The time to provide the relief is now.

Mr. Hayes

The strategy behind the introduction of the national car test is fundamentally flawed in so far as pensioners have to pay for the test. If the Minister for the Environment and Local Government had thought through the cost implications of the scheme for pensioners there would be no need for my party to sponsor this motion.

As with so many of the announcements which emanate from the Government, virtually no consideration was given to the ability of fixed and low income groups to pay for the test. It is clear that charging pensioners to have their cars tested for road worthiness is unacceptable and mean-spirited. By means of this motion the Government has an opportunity to right the wrong. I expect, in line with the Government's stated support for pensioners in its programme for Government, that charging for any testing and re-testing of cars owned by persons aged 65 and over would be abolished by resolution of the Dáil. This motion attempts to make sense of the Government's stated position in respect of protecting and enhancing the role of the elderly in society.

No one could have predicted the colossal increase in the sale of new and second-hand cars as a result of the general buoyancy in the economy. I understand that in the first 20 days of this year over 31,000 new cars were sold – an increase of 60% over the same period in 1999. It is certain that only a tiny percentage of pensioners could afford the luxury of a new car, yet a car is the only source of transport available to many elderly people, particularly in rural areas but also in urban areas.

For many the car represents not just a way of transport but a vital form of independence. In the main, pensioners are not a group who can be seen speeding around our roads in the latest BMW and one does not hear them boast loudly about the horsepower of their latest run-around vehicle. For an elderly person a car is not a virility symbol, as it is for others, but is essential for keeping in contact with others. The vast majority of people cannot understand why the Department of the Environment and Local Government decided so selectively to discriminate against pensioners in charging for the national car test. Some might argue that the £35 cost does not place a huge financial burden on most people but the additional costs in preparation for the test are considerable. Given that the majority of cars are failing the test, this leads to more expense for motorists.

Motorists over 65 are not clocking up the kind of mileage which Government Ministers and Formula 1 drivers put up on a regular basis. Their mileage is based on short journeys around their communities, journeys which represent vital links to family and friends alike. The EU directive, as Deputy Jim O'Keeffe said, which requires the Government to establish a national car test scheme is silent on the subject of who should pay. As I understand it, the owners of taxi plate licences are the only group excluded from the test. The decision to charge pensioners had nothing whatsoever to do with the European Union or the Commission. What percentage of the 400,000 vehicles due to be tested over the next year belong to people in the age category stated in the motion? I suggest this is an imposition on a group of drivers who probably have more driving experience and, as such, actually increase safety on our roads. It is ludicrous to penalise experienced drivers through the imposition of this scheme which is setting out to discriminate against a group which is not responsible for the horrific carnage on our roads.

I regret the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, is not present and has regularly decided not to present himself to answer the charges, but I hope he comes to the House before the debate concludes tomorrow evening. He has told the House on numerous occasions of the seriousness the Government attaches to the issue of tackling road safety. It has been suggested by the Minister that the national car test is part of the Government's strategy on road safety as set out in the document, The Road to Safety.

I accept the need, as does my party, to test the road worthiness of older cars but it is not true to suggest that people are being killed on the roads because of mechanical problems in cars. This point was correctly highlighted recently when a spokesman for the National Safety Council said car safety standards are not one of the major causes of road fatalities. Members on all sides would agree that in the vast majority of cases, the reason for an escalation of accidents and deaths on the roads is due to speeding, drink driving and the non-wearing of seat belts, not mechanical or exterior problems with cars.

This motion provides me with an opportunity to assess the work of the Department in the area of road safety. While the Department talks up the national car test regime more fundamental questions should be posed concerning a range of measures which were proposed last year but not yet implemented. For example, where is the much promised legislation to introduce the penalty points system? What action will the Minister take to enforce proper national standards for driving instructors? Precisely when will a learner driver be able to obtain a driving test within a year? Why does the State allow about 250,000 provisional licence holders to drive without an experienced driver? If the Government was serious about improving road safety a much greater percentage of the time of the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, would be devoted to dealing with the real causes behind road fatalities in Ireland instead of introducing a scheme which penalises the most experienced group of drivers in our community.

The national car test is important in terms of improving the general standard of vehicles. It is wrong that the test should be portrayed as a panacea to the problems of road safety because nothing could be further from the truth. If an analysis of cars were to be taken I think it would show that the vast majority of such vehicles had passed the national car test. If we are serious about reducing road deaths and accidents, the issue of driver competence and performance must be prioritised in any national campaign. The mechanical and external condition of cars cannot be used as an excuse for poor driver concentration, speeding or drink driving. Some have suggested that the car test might well contribute to road carnage. A survey conducted in the US has shown that drivers tend to drive more aggressively and take more risks when assured of the safety of their vehicle.

The Government should act at international level to compel car manufacturers to produce vehicles which are not a danger to all road users. Television advertising which boasts the performance of cars which can go from 0 mph to 60 mph in ten seconds or less helps to create the environment of danger which surrounds the manufacture of cars.

In November 1999 the Government published the review of its programme, An Action Programme for the Millennium. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats specifically mentioned the contribution of the role of the elderly. The review states that "Our older people have made this country what it is". We must ask where the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, who has responsibility for the elderly, was when the national car test proposals were submitted to Government? Did he or his colleagues raise any questions concerning the additional financial burden to be placed on the elderly? The Government should have foreseen this problem. It now has an opportunity to undo the damage by supporting the Fine Gael motion.

The motion also calls on the Government to provide a subsidy for the elderly. If people over 65 years of age have to acquire a new or second-hand car to ensure compliance with the new national car testing scheme it is only fair that a subsidy is provided to enable them to do so. This proposal would, in effect, reintroduce the scrappage scheme but under very strict criteria. We have already established a range of free schemes and benefits for the elderly, such as the free bus pass and free TV licence. It is only right that these provisions are extended to take cognisance of the national car testing scheme.

I encourage the Government to respond to this motion with generosity. The motion provides Ministers with an opportunity to translate their platitiudes into tangible benefits for the elderly.

While we all agree that cars should be road worthy and safe, not all accidents are caused by older cars. Some of the most serious accidents involve high-powered new cars. Such cars, travelling at high speeds, do much more damage than older cars travelling at modest speeds.

Consider the case of an old age pensioner in an area like Connemara, far removed from towns and cities and with no rail or bus service, in such an area the car is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. The typical driver drives a 1980s Escort which he uses to take his wife and himself to Mass on Sunday and to go to the mart or elsewhere once or twice during the week. A person who uses a car for such purposes should not be asked to pay £35, half his weekly income, for a first test and £20 for a second. He cannot be compared with a driver who uses his car every day and who earns £200 or £300 per week. If a motorist in such an isolated area hits a pothole on his way to the car test – I am sorry the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, is not in the House for this debate – his wheels will be out of line and it will fail the test. If he is lucky enough to have his car pass on the second or third attempt and hits a pothole on his way home, his wheels will be out of line for the next two years. The test does not ensure that cars are safe and it defeats its purpose.

Exempting old age pensioners from the car test fee would be a mere token gesture. The Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, will be familiar with the hardship this fee will cause to many people in the constituency we both represent. Older people are generally very independent and do not wish to rely on their neighbours to drive them to Mass or to the mart. They are entitled to maintain their independence and to have their cars tested free of charge.

Mr. Coveney

I am in favour, in principle, of the introduction of a national car test in order to ensure that vehicles are of a consistent, high standard. The number of road accidents is unacceptably high relative to other European countries and if by improving the standard of vehicles on our roads we make a small contribution to overall road safety, I welcome that positive progress. However, we should not over-emphasise or exaggerate the effect of the introduction of a common safety standard on the roads. As several Deputies have pointed out, the impact of the national car test on road safety is not great.

The main factor influencing the timing of the introduction of the car testing system was the necessity to be in line with European standards. However, the introduction of a car test in Ireland does not have the same implications as in other European states. This is primarily because of the quality of our road surfaces, particularly in rural Ireland where the condition of roads is far below the standard of other member states. As a result, the expense involved in preparing a car for a successful test in Ireland is very high compared with other European countries because of the damage our roads do to cars. A number of rural Deputies and councillors even suggested that we delay the introduction of a national car test until the quality of our roads has been significantly improved.

New car prices are much higher then in other EU countries. This also adds to the cost of driv ing. Our grossly inadequate public transport system means that many people are forced to drive their own cars because they have no alternative. This is particularly true in rural areas and even in my own constituency which borders the second largest city in the country.

The motion concentrates on assisting one section of society, our senior citizens and pensioners, perhaps the most vulnerable section of all. Many pensioners, particularly in rural areas where public transport is limited, have cars which do not do a high annual mileage but which are a vital link with neighbours, shops, the church and the nearby town. This is a vital link for which pensioners should not have to pay. I ask the Government to look on this motion sympathetically and generously and ensure that pensioners do not suffer a financial burden in order to use their cars when they have no alternative means of transport.

I support the Fine Gael motion ably proposed by Deputy O'Keeffe. Our senior citizens have experienced hardships unknown to the younger generation and they deserve to be shown flexibility and leniency by the Government.

A pensioner brought to my attention an anomaly in the car testing scheme. When this man went to buy a car from a registered car dealer he found that there is no facility within the national car testing scheme for a registered car dealer to have a test carried out on a car when it is being sold. The pensioner buying the car cannot be given a certificate from the national car test by a registered car dealer. The car must be tested when it becomes due for a test. It would be much more realistic to allow a registered car dealer to have the road-worthiness of a car independently validated before it is sold. This would be good for the purchaser who can be sure the car is road worthy It is good for the dealer because it enhances his reputation and it makes good common sense.

If a pensioner decides to buy a second-hand car he cannot be given a certificate by the dealer. They must wait to have the car tested and will probably have to bring it back to the dealer to have the matters identified attended to, doubling the expense. As Deputy O'Keeffe and others indicated and to use a pun, we are deliberately driving down the elderly at a time when they should be free to enjoy themselves and appreciate their independence. To an elderly person a car is a priority. It gives them the independence to leave their home, drive to town, go to mass, do the shopping, visit friends and go for a walk by the lake or at the seaside. At a time when the coffers are overflowing and there is unprecedented wealth, the Government is asking the elderly to pay the same charge as everybody else. That is unfair, it hurts their pride, stabs at their independence and is wrong.

A new era in road safety has begun. It has been said that this measure will result in lower insurance costs and reduced emissions but it will definitely lead to an increase in new car sales and a greater demand for car servicing. In the next 12 months an estimated 500,000 cars registered before 1992 will be tested. In 2001 all vehicles registered between 1992 and 1996 will be liable for testing. From 2002 onwards all cars four years and over, including those examined this year, will be tested. This is major business. Of the 500,000 cars it should be possible to determine the percentage owned by senior citizens. The cost of the test is £35. However retests which do not require the use of computerised equipment are free.

Primary and secondary safety criteria are applied. What this means is that cars with defective important components such as headlights, brakes, steering, tyres and seat belts automatically fail the test. It is the owner's responsibility to rectify minor faults, for example, problems relating to the speedometer, door locks, horn etc. It is stated that it is anticipated that over time many of these advisory defects will become a mandatory reason to refuse a test certificate. The national car test centre is currently failing cars on these grounds. It is also stated that car repairs should not cost in excess of £100. Currently it is nowhere near this. This matter needs to be clearly assessed. It is further stated that previous failure defects such as poor wipers will be reclassified as advisory, but I know for certain that cars are being failed on these grounds. It is said that cars can have a range of relatively minor defects and still pass the test, but that is not the case.

Deputy Kenny made an important point, that the will of senior citizens is being broken. They take great pride in their cars. As the mileage is often relatively low they are being penalised unfairly. I appeal to the Minister to accept this excellent motion.

(Mayo): As a nation we are never satisfied to be good Europeans, we have to prove our European credentials. We have to be better than the best. That is certainly the case when it comes to enforcing EU regulations. I am all for hygiene and sensible hygiene standards to ensure cleanliness in food safety, but the punitive level at which we have pitched our interpretation in enforcement of the so-called EU regulations relating to hygiene has been farcical. Irish officials' over-interpretation and implementation of diktats from Brussels have put hundreds of small clean family butchers out of business, closed down dozens of cottage food manufacturers and put the “for sale” sign on a countless number of food outlets, and all the while the traditional bistros, crêperies and charcuteries of France continue to trade merrily because of the French authorities' liberal interpretation of exactly the same rule book that we enforce so stringently.

The situation is exactly the same with the NCT system. The first seven and a half weeks of the new scheme seemed to be designed to prove to the rest of Europe that "anything you can do, we can do better." It is absolutely ridiculous to reject a car because one windscreen wiper is of a different colour, and that has happened. It is a nonsense to turn somebody down because the rear seat belts have slipped down behind the upholstery, and that has happened. It is farcical to turn somebody down because an indicator bulb blew en route to the testing centre, and that has happened on more than one occasion.

The credibility of the scheme is being seriously undermined. I fully support the principle and concept of the test, but it is clear that the standards here are more exacting than those in Britain and other EU countries. The fact that only a small fraction of accidents are caused by defective vehicles is clear evidence that the general standard of motoring maintenance is quite good. The harsh reality is that for hundreds of experienced and careful drivers they will be banished and permanently off the road because of the manner in which the standards are being applied. Many of these individuals are on modest incomes and use their cars to travel to and from work. Many are old age pensioners on a pension of £80 per week who cannot afford to replace their cars or pay the bills to rectify the so-called defects. The vast majority use their cars to travel to town once a week, go to church or visit relatives. Without a car they are lost, isolated and immobilised.

That is the reason Fine Gael is pleading a special case for senior citizens to help them remain mobile in their twilight years. I ask the Minister, therefore, to adopt the Fine Gael resolution and to examine critically the standards being applied to ascertain if they synchronise with those in Britain and other EU countries. As Deputy O'Keeffe said, so what if we devise an Irish solution to an Irish problem. We cannot have European standards unless we have roads of European standard. While we have a few major Euro routes, the vast majority of our roads are pothole marked and crater ridden. What we are asking for is consistency and common sense.

I support the motion. One cannot argue against the overall policy of car testing, a most important factor in road safety. There has been a huge increase in the number of cars and it is vital, therefore, that all cars are up to standard. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government should establish a special committee to investigate the causes of fatal accidents. The Garda Síochána has tried to enforce speed limits by way of introducing speed traps, but the carnage continues. Most fatal accidents and the majority of serious accidents happen in the early hours of the morning, a time when old age pensioners are seldom out. The Government has, therefore, made a fatal error in not considering the elderly in introducing the scheme. The same cannot be said of benefits such as free travel, free fuel, free television licence, free electricity and the living alone allowance. Good and bad Governments make mistakes. An error of judgment has been made in this case. As in the case of the credit unions, the test is whether the Government will do the honourable thing and honour our senior citizens.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Would the Minister of State like to share it with Deputy Molloy?

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann endorses the arrangements now in place for the National Car Test which ensure an efficient and affordable quality service to all customers and provide benefits to road safety and the environment; and notes the commitment already made by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to introduce legislation, as soon as practicable, to permit more equitable driver licence fee arrangements for persons over 70 years of age.".

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe need not worry. The Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, will answer him tomorrow night.

Motoring is the transport mode serving the greatest part of the country's mobility requirements. Some 29 billion vehicle kilometres are travelled in Irish cars each year. Rapid economic growth is generating a corresponding increase in the car fleet. At the end of 1998, there were 1.2 million cars registered, compared to 750,000 at the end of 1988. The benefits of this widespread use of the car are obvious in terms of business, social and personal mobility and convenience, but there are also disadvantages, among them the greater threat to road safety, traffic congestion and increased pressure on the environment and amenities.

Car ownership and use has always involved significant private costs. The latest estimates by the Automobile Association of standing and operating costs of motoring indicate a typical figure of £5,000 to £6,000 as the total annual cost of running a small to medium sized car. Approximately £800 to £900, or some 15%, of this amount relates to servicing and part replacement costs necessary to ensure that a car remains in good and safe running condition. Based on CSO household budget surveys, it would be reasonable to estimate that in households which run a car, up to 18% of the household spending can be related to it.

Since the commencement of motorised transport, it has been accepted that responsibility for all costs of this kind, including servicing and part replacement, should rest with the private motorist. Private motoring has received no public subsidy in Ireland, or in so far as my Department is aware, in any other country.

There has been a long-standing legal duty to maintain a car in a safe condition and in compliance with specific requirements as to construction, equipment and use. This obligation on car users is not new and it long pre-dates the introduction of the national car test. None of this has been considered by successive Governments to justify a departure from the general principle of non-subsidy of private motoring costs. Against this background, I wish to explain the recent history of the national car test project and indicate the Government's position on the matters addressed by the motion.

Many countries, within the European Union and beyond, have been operating mandatory car testing regimes as a means of reinforcing the general legal duty to maintain a car in safe condition. In 1991, a harmonising EU directive was introduced in relation to testing, which included for the first time mandatory requirements of car testing on the basis of specified safety parameters. EU testing requirements for heavy goods vehicles had already been introduced in the 1970s and were later extended to light goods vehicles.

In the case of member states which had no previous experience of mandatory testing of private cars, the relevant EU directive provided for delayed implementation of a new testing system beyond the generally applicable deadline of 1 January 1996. A number of members states, including Italy, Denmark and Ireland, which had no tradition of mandatory testing, availed of that derogation. Ireland was, therefore, among the last of the EU member states to introduce compulsory car testing.

The then Government decided on 8 October 1996 that car testing would be introduced to meet the requirements of the directive. The then Minister for the Environment was authorised to seek competitive proposals to operate the car testing system nationally on a self-financing franchise basis. This decision was without reference to any question of subsidy. The party proposing the motion was in Government when that decision was taken. To the best of my Department's knowledge, no age related or other subsidy or discount operates within the mandatory car testing arrangements of any other EU member state.

The charges now associated with the NCT arise from an international competitive process undertaken by the Department of the Environment and Local Government, and are designed to ensure the selection of the most efficient and economically advantageous tender offering the lowest test fees over the life of the contract. What the NCT will add to motoring costs is a fee of £35 every two years and an additional £19.80 for a re-test if the car fails on a limited number of safety critical items. For this relatively modest outlay, motorists will receive a top quality highly computerised diagnostic assessment covering some 57 different items.

In accordance with the Government's specification, operation of the NCT is self-financing by way of test and re-test fees. The contracting company, National Car Test Service Limited, is obliged to operate the service in a way which is, at all times, free of any actual or potential conflict of interest arising from any commercial association whatsoever with any aspect of the motor industry. High standards of test integrity and excellent standards of customer service are also obligations set out in the contract between the NCTS and the Minister. These are enforceable by way of financial and other penalties where the agreed performance standards are not achieved and maintained.

The Government is well aware that costs will arise from the NCT process in order to prepare cars for a successful test or rectify them for a re-test. In so far as these repairs relate to safety critical items, it is wrong to relate them simply or principally to the NCT. The repairs involved are required more fundamentally by the legal duty to maintain a car in a safe condition so that the safety of all road users is respected.

The Government has taken considerable care to ensure that the NCT is not operated bureaucratically or in a way which would emphasise minor and non-safety related faults. The car testing regulations distinguish between primary and secondary safety critical items. A test certificate is refused where lights, brakes, steering, tyres, seat belts are in a dangerous condition or where exhaust emissions are beyond acceptable environmental limits. Other reasons for failure will be advised to the owner for responsible action by him or her. This approach will help to reassure car owners that essential safety is the fundamental reason for the national car test.

I want to refer to the environmental benefits arising from the introduction of compulsory car testing. We are all familiar with the smoky fumes associated with poorly maintained engines. They are an infringement of social responsibility and a polluter of the environment. As well as smoke from diesel engines, car engines will also be tested for emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon. These tests will assist in the protection of people's health and the environment.

So much of industry and tourism is founded on Ireland's clean and green environment that we should not hesitate to welcome measures which act to protect it. The Government's amendment to the motion, therefore, duly welcomes the introduction of the national car test because of its environmental benefits.

In 1997, there were 472 fatalities on the roads. This is an appalling toll in tragedy visited on families year in and year out. That is why the Government in 1998 launched its strategy for road safety. The strategy specified a minimum 20% reduction in fatalities to be achieved by 2002 as its primary target. A number of new policies and actions were also adopted to support the strategy. These included the extension of the use of automatic speed detection systems, including the installation of fixed speed cameras, the commencement of evidential breath testing for drink driving, the extension of on-the-spot fines to non-wearing of seat belts and other offences and the development of a penalty points system which would trigger disqualification following repeated driving offences.

Progress is being made with these measures and Members will probably be aware of the substantial improvements in road safety which have been taking place over the past two years. However, what can be overlooked is the host of other less prominent supporting measures, which are also being introduced. The regular roadworthiness testing of private cars is one such measure. It stands to reason that all road users are safer if we are assured that the national private car fleet, in addition to all commercial vehicles which have been subject to testing for some years now, will also be subject to a regular road-worthiness test. Only in this way can all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians, be assured of the increased safety status of the vehicles that they meet on the road.

The motion before the House asks that the test and re-test fees for those 65 years and older should be free of charge, and that where repairs to a car would cost more than £250 a subsidy should be given so that a replacement car can be bought that would be at most three years old. What is being proposed is that subsidies should be taken from general taxation, paid by many who cannot afford to own a car at all, and given to those who would qualify by virtue of having reached 65 years and being in possession of a car.

It is not clear what size of subsidy is in mind, but a full subsidy could mean up to £10,000 per claimant. It would seem also to be open to benefit from the subsidy on a recurring basis in the event that the car later failed the test and necessitated repairs above £250. This feature could be seen as affording reward to persons who do not maintain their car as conscientiously as others. It could become hugely attractive for individuals to put their cars in the name of a parent or friend of 65 years or older. It would be impossible to police such a scheme and the drain on the taxpayer would be enormous.

In contrast to other areas of private expenditure, motoring costs have not been the subject of social subsidies, except for the case of drivers with disabilities. For example, older people or other social welfare assisted classes enjoy no concessions relating to motor tax or fuel tax. It would be invidious and socially divisive to provide for subsidies to car owners from moneys raised from general taxation including the contributions of those who cannot afford to own a car.

Part of the motion refers to driving licences issued to persons over 70 years of age. As Deputies are aware, the driver licensing regulations provide that such persons must undergo medical review for driving licence renewal purposes and are restricted to either one or three year licences depending on the opinion of their respective doctors. The requirement to have a medical report submitted in respect of persons aged 70 or over is not at issue. These requirements are reasonable and necessary in the interests of the individuals concerned, other road users and road safety generally.

Deputies should be aware that this is not a new requirement imposed by this Government. This requirement dates back to when the Road Traffic (Licensing of Drivers) Regulations, 1964, introduced the concept of requiring persons who suffered from prescribed medical conditions, and persons over 70 years of age, to submit certificates of fitness for driving licence renewal purposes. At that time, persons generally had the option of applying for either a one or a three year licence. However, those who suffered from prescribed medical conditions or were over 70 years of age could be restricted to one year licences if, in the opinion of their doctor, they required annual medical review.

Between 1964 and 1989, the average annual cost of driving licences was the same for all licence applicants, irrespective of whether a one or three year licence was obtained. The Road Traffic (Licensing of Drivers) Regulations, 1989 introduced the concept of ten year driving licences. Such licences are not available to persons required to undergo more frequent medical review on account of a prescribed medical condition or to persons over 70 year of age.

Deputies should also be aware that such reports are not only required in the case of those over 70. They are also required where an applicant for a driving licence is suffering from certain diseases or disabilities specified in the Second and Third Schedules of the Road Traffic (Licensing of Drivers) Regulations, 1999 or has suffered in the past from epilepsy or alcoholism or is taking, on a regular basis, drugs or medicaments which would be likely to cause the driving of a vehicle in a public place to be a source of danger to the public. In addition, all applicants for driving licences for the higher categories of vehicles, trucks and buses, must submit a medical report each time they renew their licence.

The question of the refund of the cost of these medical reports is primarily a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, who has advised me that the general medical services contract, which governs the provision of general practitioner services for medical card patients, does not include the issue of medical certificates or reports relating to driving licences and that he has no plans to amend the contract in this respect. For those who are ineligible for the medical card, there can be no justification for meeting a cost which, albeit medical in nature, is nevertheless discretionary and does not relate to medical need,

I fully appreciate the issue being raised regarding the annual cost of a driving licence. Persons under 60 years of age can apply for a ten year licence at a fee of £20. This works out at an average annual cost of £2 per year, while persons aged between 60 and 67 can apply for a licence expiring on the day preceding their 70th birthday at a fee of £20. The average annual cost of such a licence is determined by the age of the person on the date of issue of the licence. However, persons aged over 70 years can only apply for either a one year or three year licence at a fee of £4 and £12 respectively. This results in an annual average cost of £4 per year as compared to £2 per year for a person who has the option of taking out a ten year licence.

Although the licence fee has not increased since 1989 and the cost is relatively low by today's standards, there is an inherent inequity in the way that the licence fee structure applies to persons over 70. I am also conscious of the fact that they incur additional costs by having to undergo a medical examination and provide photographs on a more frequent basis.

Having regard to all these factors, my Department carried out a review of the overall driving licence fee arrangements with a view to developing a more equitable licence fee arrangement. Arising from this review, it was decided to introduce revised licence fee arrangements which will be structured more favourably towards persons aged over 70 years. The Minister of State for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, conveyed this information to the House in his reply to Parliamentary Question No. 123 on 27 January 2000. As indicated then, legislation is necessary to implement this change.

Until 1998 such change could have been implemented by way of an amendment of the Finance Act as driving licence fees were an excise duty set out in the Finance (Excise Duties) (Vehicles) Act, 1952, as amended by section 52 of the Finance Act, 1989, and could be varied as part of the annual budgetary process through an amendment of the Finance Act. However, since the Local Government Act, 1998, driving licence fees now accrue to the local government fund and it is no longer appropriate for the fees to be varied by means of an amendment of the Finance Act as part of the national budgetary process. It will be necessary to amend this provision by means of an amendment to the Local Government Act and my Department will avail of the earliest suitable opportunity to provide for the necessary change in the licence fee structure.

The Government is at one with this motion relating to providing a more equitable driver licence fee structure for persons over 70 years of age. I reject the other elements of the motion which attempt to introduce Government subsidy, or other cross-subsidisation, of private motoring costs in a way that would be unprecedented in the Irish experience or that of other countries.

The national car test will provide a fair and customer driven service and will benefit road safety and the environment. Its framework was designed by the last Government and continued by this Government. We must allow it the freedom to operate to the benefit of Irish motoring and other road users. I commend the amended motion to the House.

As the Minister has conceded, in some respects this Opposition motion is good, specifically the point about driving licences mentioned at the end of his speech. It is easy for me as a mere backbencher to say this. It is different for a Government to take action. When in Government one has to do what is right rather than what is popular. A motion such as this is not really typical of Fine Gael, but more like one I would expect the Labour Party to put down.

Mr. Hayes

There he has it—

Love them or hate them, Fine Gael always act like a Government in waiting, whether waiting for a year or ten years.

Mr. Hayes

It is part of the programme for Government.

However, they usually act fairly responsibly and like a party capable of taking over the reins, should the opportunity come. They act in a fairly statesmanlike way and do the right thing most of the time, but this is pathetic.

Where does that leave the Labour Party?

I am ignoring the Deputies. This is populism at its best. They should be sharpening their teeth for the next general election, not turning into populist pussycats.

Mr. Hayes

That is a great line.

That is what I put this down as. I agree that the point made by the motion is echoed by many elderly people. The NCT has brought hardship to some elderly people. The cost of the car test is not really the problem but what happens when the car fails? Many cars are failing and that is a problem. The 15 year old car of a person I know well, failed a couple of weeks ago. There was no way he would get hurt while driving it because it was a large car. He used to drive about 30 miles an hour and if he had ever run into anything, he would not have got hurt. If, however, a little gurrier stole his car some night and drove it on the M50, it might be a different ball game. That is what we must look at.

I accept many elderly people say their car is not great but it will do them as long as they are able to drive. That attitude exists, and probably more so if they live in a rural area. However, the Government has introduced this test, although Governments stalled it as long as they possibly could.

The Deputy quoted our programme for Government. We have given effect to the needs of the elderly, specifically in regard to the old age pension. We have given increases of £5, £6 and £7 over the past three years which compares favourably to the increases given by the previous Government of £2.20, £3 and the princely sum of £1.80. That is how we have given effect to our concern for the elderly and not by this measure. I accept some of the points Deputy Hayes made are valid and are being made outside the House. If the Deputy's party wishes to include them and implement them in its programme for Government, that is fine.

I feel sorry for people with large cars which are failing on emission grounds because they are probably doing only 2,000 miles per year while the rest of us are doing 20,000 miles per year. They will probably say we are all entitled to discharge a certain percentage of emissions into the air, that they drive only 2,000 miles per year and that they are not the cause of the emission problem. They have a point. I wish there was some way to deal with this but I understand the Minister's point about controlling usage. How does one manage it and how does one ensure that car is driven by one person only? If that was possible, I would like to think something could be done.

The introduction of the NCT and the booming car sales have created an enormous problem in parts of Dublin. I do not know whether this problem was looked at, but nothing was done about it. There is a large number of bangers around and nobody knows how to get rid of them. Basically, people cannot get rid of their old cars or their NCT failures. It may not be an issue for the Department of the Environment and Local Government alone but a number of Departments need to get together quickly to deal with this issue.

If one goes to trade in an eight year old car, a garage will not take it, particularly if it is taxed for six months. A garage cannot sell it on to somebody else because people will not buy without a clear certificate and it cannot get a national car test done on it because the disc has six months to run. That should be changed – it is a stupid regulation.

People are selling their cars to scrap yards and travellers. Travellers are taking a few parts out of them and are selling them on to kids and to anybody and everybody for £40. Kids are driving around in these cars and this will become a much more serious problem when a few people are killed. These kids are being stopped by the gardaí who are confiscating their cars. The gardaí cannot cope with the number of cars. The gardaí in Finglas have stacked these cars outside the Garda station and the residents are complaining. They could try to bring them to the large compound in Santry which holds 300 or 400 cars, but it is packed to the rafters. They must hold these cars for six weeks even if they are junk, which is crazy.

If we are bringing in a national car test, which is creating a problem, the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform need to pull together and do something to get those bangers off the road. We need more compounds where cars can be held. We need to change the law so that any car which is more than five years old could be disposed of in ten days. Perhaps newer cars could be kept for a couple of weeks. We need other such changes because the situation is ludicrous.

I said this to somebody the other day and he asked what could people do with their old cars other than bring them to Dunsink Lane. We need an advertising campaign run by the Department or the local authorities telling people where to bring old cars or cars which failed the NCT, whether to Hammond Lane or the corporation yard. Perhaps we should give people £25 or £50 to provide some carrot to encourage them rather than allow these cars to litter the streets.

This is a considerable problem, although it may not relate directly to the issue about which we are talking tonight. The Department, however, has introduced this measure and it must look beyond it. Kids are driving around in cars but the gardaí cannot stop them anymore because they have nowhere to put the cars. Keeping cars for six weeks is crazy. There will have to be a more formal procedure for people who wish to decommission their cars and the laws need to be strengthened in this regard. I know one must fill in a form but that does not seem to work. We will have to get tough in this regard and pursue people.

If I sell a car to the travellers, a scrap yard or a back lane or a front street garage, it is not good enough if that car ends up in the hands of a 15 year old. We are sitting on a potential time bomb whereby people will be injured or killed by kids driving some of these cars. This has always been a problem and is not one which emerged the day the NCT came in. However, it has become greater and the supply of such cars has gone through the roof. I am sure Deputy Hayes, who is from a similar part of Dublin, faces the same problem.

The Department of the Environment and Local Government and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform need to sit down, bring forward amendments, change the regulations and find somewhere to put these cars which are potentially very dangerous when they end up in the wrong hands and are liable to cause terrible injury.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ryan and Deputy Moynihan-Cronin. I support the Fine Gael motion which deals specifically with the impact of the new national car test on elderly people. The impact of the national car test, however, is not confined to the elderly. It affects poor people in particular. It also has environmental consequences which have not yet been adequately addressed, although Deputy Ahern touched on some of them.

The Labour Party is not opposed to the national car test. This country has had to introduce it on foot of EU regulations and, arguably, we have been late in implementing them. We all agree that with road deaths running at more than 400 per year, unsafe vehicles should not be on the road. We agree that vehicles which are found to be unsafe should be taken out of use. The issue which has to be addressed is how this desirable objective is to be achieved and who will pay the penalty.

It is not good enough, and is certainly not fair, to implement such a policy without taking into account the impact on those who are most likely to be affected by it. There is no doubt but that the national car test is a test which hurts poor people. By and large, those who own the 440,000 cars which are more than eight years old are people who cannot afford a newer model. They are people on low incomes who can just about afford to buy a second-hand car and keep it on the road, elderly people many of them living in remote rural areas who need a car to keep in contact with relatives and to drive to the nearest village, the stay at home parent who needs a small cheap car to do the shopping and run the children to school and to their out of school activities and the woman in the middle of some soulless suburban estate who is trying to rear her children on her own and can just about afford a car which gives her mobility, independence and a measure of freedom. In virtually all such cases the journeys undertaken by the motorist are short and local and contribute little if anything to the rate of road accidents or to the overall level of pollution.

The national car test will put many of those people off the road or, failing that, force them into debt to finance the purchase of a newer car. This is not the first time a measure has been introduced by a Progressive Democrats Minister, which has been ostensibly about improving the environment but which has had a damaging effect on poor people. It reminds me of the way in which bituminous coal was banned in this city to rid it of smog, something with which I, and I am sure most people, agreed, but the way in which that measure was introduced took no account of the impact it would have on poorer people, many of them elderly who could not convert to cheaper fuels. I recall there was a grant to enable people convert to cheaper fuels but that was abolished and many poor people, particularly elderly people, were literally left in the cold. Many statistics highlight the impact on health of the smoky air we had prior to the banning of bituminous coal. Since its banning, however, very little attention has been paid to the impact on the health of those people who have been literally left in the cold because they have not been able to afford to heat their homes or convert to cheaper fuels. They have been forgotten about.

The same principle is being applied to the national car test. I am not arguing against these measures. Smoky fuel had to be banned to clear up our air and the national car test must be intro duced to make our roads safer and to reduce pollution, but the impact on those who are most affected, poorer people, should have been adequately assessed before this test was introduced and balancing measures should have been put in place to lessen the impact it would have on them. In particular, there has been a continuing necessity to improve public transport and provide an adequate school transport system. The Government should consider the proposal not to charge for the test for a period of time so that those switching to the car test regime and are first to be hit by it are not penalised. The motorists who are being penalised immediately are those with older cars. The motorists who can afford a newer car will not have to pay for the test until 2002 or thereafter, but the motorists who have to pay for it now and will have to pay for it in two years' time – if their cars do not pass the test the first time, they will have to pay a second charge and, ultimately, if they fail the test, will have to bear the cost of replacing their cars – are the poorer people who can just about keep their cars on the road.

There is no point in the Minister of State blaming the previous Government for this type of car test. The Government produced the regulations and the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, signed them. Instead of shifting blame every time a controversial issue is raised, it is time Ministers had the courage to take responsibility for their actions, but the way in which this test is designed will encourage car replacement rather than the conservation and prolonging the life of cars.

An environmental case has been made for the test on the basis that it will possibly reduce the level of emissions. That is a difficult case to make when, as Deputy Ahern said, one questions whether a motorist who drives 2,000 miles a year in an old banger contributes as much damage to the environment as a motorist who drives 30,000 miles a year in a high speed chariot that guzzles gas.

An environmental aspect that has not been adequately considered is the concept on which this test is based – that a car starts to become dodgy after it is four years old. That suits the motor manufacturing industry. It suits the motor industry to have a regime whereby after four years a car owner must get his or her car tested and after another two years it may fail the test, so that by the time a car owner has paid off the loan on the car, it is obsolete and must be replaced. This test will encourage more and more of that. We should have a test that puts the onus on the car manufacturer and on the car industry to produce a better quality vehicle that does not have inbuilt obsolescence as is the case at present.

One way of doing that might be to address an issue Deputy Noel Ahern raised about what to do with old cars. Responsibility for the removal and management of old cars should revert to the manufacturers and suppliers. As long as responsibility for that is left with the motorist, the car industry has an inbuilt incentive to continue to produce poor quality cars with inbuilt obsolescence, cars designed and manufactured to become obsolete after four, five or a few more years. If there was a regime whereby responsibility for the removal, destruction and management of the waste of old cars was put back on the manufacturers and suppliers, we might well get motor vehicles that would last must longer and that would not fail the current test.

The argument for the car test has been made on grounds of road safety. Anything which makes our roads safer, evenly marginally so, is welcome. Evidence has not been produced by Government to show that older people driving in older cars contribute most to road accidents. The new rich whizzing around in high speed chariots are much more likely to contribute to road accidents than a motorist who drives a short distance, often locally, in an old banger. If the Government wants to seriously address road safety, it should address the length of time a provisional driver must wait to do the driving test, the state of our roads and the introduction of the new road safety Bill that was promised as a result of the Government's review of road safety measures which reported last year. That legislation has still not been produced and it should be produced very soon as evidence that the Government is serious about addressing road safety and is not simply administering a test to fuel the vested interests of the motor industry.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I support the motion. In principle, the national car test is a welcome new initiative. It will improve road safety and environmental standards and bring us into line with practices common among our partners in Europe. The introduction of the national car test is causing genuine problems for many people in our community, especially the elderly and people living in poverty.

Should any of us be surprised at the way the Government treats our elderly, paying lip service to them? With great fanfare, Members and the representatives of the elderly were brought together for the launching of the United Nations International Year of Older Persons. The aim was the development a society of all ages, a new and positive vision of ageing in Ireland so that through inclusion, recognition and representation, the rights and needs of older people would be asserted in all aspects of Irish society. It was about independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment and dignity. However, time and time again the Government has paid lip service to the elderly. The principles include independence for older people – older persons should be consulted and supported on how and where they want to live; participation – older persons should be valued members of their community with opportunities to remain active in political and social life and in the life of their community; care – older persons are entitled to the same standard of health; self-fulfilment – older people should not be denied the opportunity to get involved; and dignity – older persons are entitled to respect and fair treatment.

Can older people say that since this Government came to power it has recognised the needs of the elderly? It had a unique opportunity this year to provide the elderly with a pension of £100 a week. A £6 billion surplus was available to the Minister for Finance. The Government decided not to give it to the elderly but to hold on to it for an election year and to try to con the people. However, the days of conning the people are gone. The way the national car test has been implemented is another indication of how uncaring and unthinking this Government is in relation to the effect of its decisions on communities.

The national car test involves a flat rate fee for individuals, regardless of their means. These fees amount to £35 for the original test and £20 for a re-test. For thousands of people in Ireland these costs, in addition to the cost of repairing a car that may have failed the first test, are punitive. It will force people off the road and increase the growing isolation which older people currently experience, particularly those who live in rural areas where public transport is non-existent. We in this House are aware of the lack of public transport and the utter dependence on private transport to go to church, to the pub for a drink in the evening or to socialise with a friend or a relative. In the implementation of this scheme, no consideration was given to the knock-on effect.

We hear the same old refrain from the Minister when he answers questions in this House. It has become the standard response of a number of Government Ministers when confronted with their policy failures to deny all responsibility and blame the last Government. It is evasion and cowardice which would try the patience of any national school teacher. The Minister is charged with introducing the regulations which govern the national car test. He was not bound by any decisions of the previous Government and the mess he has created cannot be passed off like that. The Minister cannot duck his responsibility and the House is holding him to account for his actions.

The motion before the House calls on the Government to recognise the burden placed on older people by the fees involved in the national car test and to introduce a waiver in respect of them. As Deputy Gilmore pointed out, the imposition of test fees also affects low income families living in poverty. I hope the Minister will address this matter in a reform of the regulations. On behalf of the elderly, I hope the Minister will take on board the consensus view in evidence here and amend the scheme.

Many older people have cars which are in fine condition but are a number of years old. Most of these cars are used only a few times a week. Trips are generally not made during rush hour and do not add to the chaos that clogs up our cities and towns during peak hours every morning and evening. An analysis of road traffic accident statistics shows clearly that such vehicles are not generally involved in the appalling carnage on roads that costs so many lives today. However, a large number of elderly motorists are now faced with the prospect of being forced off the roads due to the expenses involved in this new national car test. If this happens it will be a tragedy for our older population. Simple tasks, such as getting the shopping and visiting grandchildren, will suddenly become major logistical events. Older people will be forced to depend on the charity of neighbours and relatives just to get about and do their business. It will restrict the freedom and independence of our older population and increase their feeling of isolation, especially in rural areas. The Minister should be well aware of the effects in his constituency. I am delighted that there are Government backbenchers who are prepared to tell the Minister what effect this will have on rural life and on the lives of our elderly.

We owe the elderly a large debt of gratitude for sacrifices they have made which have contributed hugely to our current economic success. However, the Minister has ignored this and has decided to impose significant charges on older motorists, charges which will take a large chunk out of the fixed weekly income on which the vast majority of them have to depend. The Minister had the means this year to give the elderly a pension of £100 per week. He decided to give to the super-rich rather than to the people who have made a significant contribution to building up society. The Minister had an opportunity to acknowledge this contribution, but he has failed to do so.

This evening the Minister has an opportunity to recognise his failings and agree to redraft the national car test regulations so that older people are not penalised. He would have the full support of the House and of older people. The amount of income foregone due to this progressive reform would not obstruct the overall operation of the scheme and could easily be provided for from the Exchequer. The scheme is important and should be brought in. However, the Minister should take cognisance of the problems it is causing for people who have worked to bring this country to the point it is at. The Minister will have failed if he does not take account of the clear message that is being sent to the House on this matter. He should accept the principle of the motion and act upon it accordingly.

Debate adjourned.