Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The debate on this Bill is important because we are dealing with issues of public safety, particularly in the transport and vehicle sector. There is an onus on every legislator and politician to ensure school buses are safe for school pupils and students. The number of Bus Éireann buses with seat belts is 1,539, while 1,493 buses are without seat belts. These figures, which are the most current and accurate figures available, relate to a survey undertaken by Bus Éireann in October 2004. Given that 1,493 buses do not have seat belts, it is evident that we have a major problem. We must face up to this matter. I appeal to the Minister to ensure these buses are brought up to date and provided with proper seat belts. We have already seen the negative impact of this and the many accidents that have occurred.

On a positive note, there are many examples of good practice in providing safety on buses for schoolchildren. My experience is of the services dealing with St. Michael's House, particularly on the north side of Dublin. I witness daily how children with disabilities are supervised in a very professional manner when they are collected from their homes. I commend the staff of St. Michael's House and especially the people involved in the bus company that provides this excellent service. Not only have they safe, up-to-date and modern buses for the children, there are also excellent staff on board the buses. Children are properly supervised before the bus moves off and seat belts are put on them. The staff are most progressive and thoughtful. Thousands of families appreciate that very much. We must examine seriously the issue of buses which still do not have seat belts. If it is not acceptable in a private car, it cannot be acceptable for a school bus service.

Regarding the broader issue of standards and driver testing, it is important that the preparation for testing is professionally done. We must accept that this will be a major issue in coming years as motorways become more common. Motorways are generally safe and have reduced accident levels. It is important that more care is taken on minor roads, particularly in rural areas where many tragic accidents occur. Motorists have a responsibility to be careful and fair to other road users.

Many cyclists can be irresponsible at times. There is a duty on them to act responsibly. When driving into the Dáil, we regularly see cyclists clipping our cars, breaking lights and generally behaving badly. We should not be afraid to say this although it might not be politically correct. The reality is that many cyclists do not adhere to the rules of the road and this should be made plain to them. Motorists have major concerns in this regard. Some people consider that cyclists should undergo a test on road safety because there are many bad ones. Jumping lights, clipping cars and driving on footpaths are not safety options. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists should be responsible. It is very important that we bear a certain amount of personal responsibility.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the assignment of additional related functions to the driver testing and standards authority; the performance by the authority of its functions by means of outsourcing, the establishment of subsidiaries and participation in companies; the making of a "service agreement" between the Minister and the authority which will set the functions and tasks to be carried out and the performance standards to be met by the authority in the discharge of its functions; the placing of a duty on the authority to promote the development and improvement of driving standards and a duty to conduct its business at all times in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

The Bill also proposes a policy direction by the Minister to the authority. I welcome the section that achieves this because it is very important. The Minister must provide leadership on this issue. I urge the Minister of State to do so in respect of public safety because leadership must come from the top.

I am always happy to show leadership.

The purpose of the Bill is also to provide for the appointment of a board of directors and a chief executive officer. I hope this will be achieved in a very professional and objective manner. The Bill will also provide for the auditing of the authority's accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the production of an annual report to the Minister by the authority. I welcome these provisions because they are very positive and secure.

Section 13 provides that the Minister shall designate a member of the board to be chairperson for a term of office of five years. This is a fair provision. It allows the chairman time to settle into the job and, subsequently, to get on with the job. At all times, the chairperson will have a very responsible and key role.

Section 16 provides for the transfer of staff from the Department of Transport to the authority and for the appointment of staff to the authority. The section provides that the terms and conditions of employment of staff transferred from the Department of Transport shall not be less favourable than those already enjoyed by the staff and that scales of pay to which such staff were entitled shall continue to apply, unless agreed otherwise with a recognised trade union or staff association. This section also provides that the number of persons and the grades of staff of the authority shall be determined by the board with the consent of the Minister with the agreement of the Minister for Finance. This section must be considered seriously. We must have the full support of the staff and they must be committed and dedicated. I welcome the provision that the terms and conditions of employment of staff transferred from the Department of Transport shall not be less favourable than those already enjoyed by the staff of the authority.

I also welcome the fact negotiations must be held with a recognised union or staff association as staff interests must be looked after. As a former active trade unionist, I believe this is very important because there is a decline in trade union membership, particularly in sections of the private sector. I recently had the experience of dealing with a company the staff of which were not members of a trade union and who suffered the consequent negative effects. In this regard, section 16 is relevant and a reminder to us all that we should ensure the trade union movement and recognised staff associations are given a positive role in respect of the driver testing and standards authority.

Section 28 provides that the authority will make an annual report to the Minister in such form as he or she may direct not later than six months after the end of each financial year and for the annual report to be laid by the Minister before the Houses of the Oireachtas. This section is very important because it is about accountability and people facing up to their responsibilities and ensuring they will provide a professional and quality service. We have noted examples recently where standards in the public service have not been up to scratch. It is important that an annual report be made to the Minister not later than six months after the end of each financial year and that it be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. This will ensure Members will have the opportunity to debate it and make recommendations. Ultimately, Members are trying to improve road safety and driver testing standards.

It is very important that we consider the Bill in great detail in respect of public safety, including driver safety and the safety of cyclists. As I stated, we have a responsibility to ensure that high public safety standards are set, particularly in respect of the safety of children. Drink driving is no longer an option for the vast majority of motorists. We have made progress in this regard but we must face up to the reality that there is a small minority of drivers who are not adhering to the standards. We must accept responsibility for this, as must the individuals concerned. We must ensure they are guided in the right direction, otherwise there will be major negative consequences on our roads, particularly a decline in safety standards.

The Bill contains some very important constructive elements, which I welcome. We must have standards and a strong emphasis on public safety, including driver safety. It is particularly sad to hear about the high number of people who are injured while driving. Sometimes their accidents do not make the newspapers. One usually hears about the tragic deaths. When the issue of injuries becomes topical, it is usually dropped as a topic in newspapers within a matter of days. Every year, many people are seriously injured and disabled and suffer very badly because of accidents.

The elements of the Bill I have outlined are all very important. It is important that we ensure school transport services are afforded the maximum support and that funding is not an issue in their provision. We must ensure that responsible, careful and professional people are involved in the transport industry. In fairness to many of them, there are examples of good quality drivers in the State. However, we must be constantly vigilant to ensure the safety of passengers, particularly young people.

We should reward good driving practice, be it that of personnel in the private sector or public sector. A reward system should apply to excellent drivers who have served for years without having been in an accident or the subject of a complaint. If somebody who has been driving for Bus Éireann for 30 years has an excellent road safety record and a commitment to the safety of children, he or she should be recognised and rewarded. Any progressive Minister would consider this proposal because it is very important.

A constituent of mine feels there is a number of loopholes regarding the way mechanics and engineers examine school buses. Given that the constituent has made this allegation, the onus is on me to put on the Dáil record the fact that people are concerned that some of the buses on the road might not necessarily be of the highest standard. I urge the Minister to address this.

I welcome the Bill. This debate is very important because the question of public safety, including driver safety, is very important.

Debate adjourned.