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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Nov 2007

Vol. 641 No. 4

Local Government (Roads Functions) Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

There are enormous anomalies with the national vehicle and driver file, NVDF. It is a database of national strategic importance as it contains details of the 2.4 million registered vehicles and 2.5 million licensed drivers in the State. It is critical to the management of the national motor tax and driver licence services, including the optimisation of services for the motoring public.

Recent disturbing reports in the media have highlighted the impact of uninsured drivers on road deaths and safety. The Irish Times recently reported 1,351 vehicles recorded as written off on the NVDF, were back on the road. Has the Department of Transport led investigation into this matter been concluded? If so, what recommendations were made?

Will the Government introduce a new non-national driver file to maintain a record of penalty points for those producing foreign driving licences following motoring offences? I am concerned about the type of accountability that will arise in the building of non-national roads. Will the Minister clarify who will be accountable if problems emerge in their construction?

With the amount of funding being transferred to the Department, I am disappointed the Minister did not address local government funding. Many reports have been published on local authorities but there has been no reform. City and council councillors believe they do not have much responsibility as it all lies with county and city managers. The National Roads Authority will not be as sympathetic as the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the pleadings of local government. It is worrying that the NRA is not accountable to this House and does not reply to parliamentary questions about funding for various projects. Does the Minister plan to reform the way in which it engages with Deputies and councillors?

Although significant progress is being made on our national roads in my constituency of Dublin North-East there are some bad roads with severe potholes such as the stretch of the Howth Road from Sutton Cross to Howth. I have reservations about the transfer of responsibilities to the Department of Transport but I hope I may be proven wrong.

The purpose of this Bill is to provide for the transfer of functions relating to non-national roads and the national vehicle and driver file from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport. I am concerned about the implications of this transfer. Will the Department of Transport be able to deal with its new responsibilities? Will it fund non-national roads in the same manner as the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government did? Some years ago the Government gave responsibility for national primary and secondary routes to the NRA but it is difficult to get a response from the NRA, which has no responsibility to local or national representatives. I oppose this further erosion of the powers of local government. Will we have any say in where this money will be spent? Local authorities will hand over responsibility for all roads to the Department of Transport but what will happen in the Gaeltacht and CLÁR areas where the Minister seems to have personal choice in the allocation of money for minor roads? There is no provision in Transport 21 for the maintenance or upgrading of national roads. Where will the money come from?

Up to 25% of drivers who incurred penalty points did not receive them because they did not hold Irish driving licences. Many of them hold British or European registration plates and can give two fingers to gardaí.

I recently read a report in a national newspaper about 1,351 written-off vehicles on the NVDF which were already back on the road. Has the Department of Transport concluded its investigation of this matter and will the findings be made public? It is estimated that 100,000 vehicles on the road are not insured. Do drivers of foreign registered cars without insurance get away scot free? Taking powers from the local authorities and transferring them to a Department which is hardly able to run itself is a step in the wrong direction.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill which is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Department of Transport is not able to handle what is on its desk without having further responsibilities. People who pay car tax expect their roads or lanes to be in good condition at all times. I read in the newspapers at the weekend that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will raise revenue by increasing road tax.

Where will that money go? Will it stay in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or will it go to the Department of Transport? Maybe the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Killeen, will include a reply to that question when he concludes the debate.

The community involvement and local improvement schemes are underfunded. This is the case in my county and my Oireachtas colleagues speak about it. If the Department of Transport is going to look after everybody, as we are told, it should give more funding to these schemes.

The Government has often promised safety outside schools, an issue I have raised on many occasions. If the Departments of Transport and of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are serious about road safety they should be serious about it outside schools. Thousands of kids come out of primary school daily. When these responsibilities are transferred the Department of Transport should urgently carry out a safety audit outside primary schools around the country, working with the local authorities.

I do not want to hear the excuse that the local authorities fall under the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Department must work closely with local authorities. There is no point referring us to the NRA. When I put down questions to the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, or Transport about the Enniscorthy or Gorey bypasses or the New Ross river crossing I am told the NRA has sole responsibility for them. It is unacceptable that a Deputy cannot get some kind of reply from a Department which is spending taxpayers' money when a taxpayer wants me to get that information. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that roads for which people pay tax are kept in good order and that money is forthcoming for county councils.

This is a serious step. The Green man has gone yellow by letting power move from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport. The environment and roads were always connected with local authorities and this is a step in the wrong direction.

The train service in the west is the worst in the country. I have been listening to Iarnród Éireann promise new trains for the past 20 years. The trains are dangerously overcrowded every weekend. This is a health and safety issue and it is time something was done about it. Thirty years ago when there was nothing in the country there was a dining car on the train from Westport to Dublin, now we cannot even have a trolley where people can get a cup of tea on a three and a half hour journey. What has gone wrong? We are going backwards and that is why we are taking these responsibilities from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and moving them in to the Department of Transport. Last week I asked the Minister for Transport how many people had provisional licences for one, two or three years and he told me he had no responsibility for this. When we put down questions about roads the Minister takes no responsibility for anything. If he did he would not be Minister for Transport but in any other jurisdiction would be out the door. I cannot understand why Ministers will not take responsibility. They talk about reform in the House but it is time we had real reform and that Ministers were accountable.

We have waited 20 years for the N5 from Westport to Castlebar and the Minister of State was there last weekend and had a joyous time. He saw the traffic problems we experience between Castlebar and Westport. After ten years of planning and funding we were told by the National Roads Authority last week that a dual carriageway from Westport to Bohola is possible, but I will be drawing two old age pensions by the time such projects reach Westport. We wanted the Minister last week to announce funding for the N25 and N26 because it is needed. We are aware of the problems that exist and if the Government wants to build a dual carriageway that is fine but we want the funding in place first.

When we contact the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government we will be told the matter is the responsibility of the Department of Transport. When we contact the Department of Transport we will be told it is not the responsibility of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, because he is no longer responsible for anything in this country.

Some discussions are needed in this House and one relates to the responsibilities of Ministers. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, is not really Minister as that position is filled by Professor Brendan Drumm. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will not take responsibility. County managers in local authorities hold power but will not answer letters, though it is specified in legislation that they should. What will the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Tony Killeen, do about this? When we were forced off local authorities the legislation stated that we would receive responses from local authority managers and officials within a reasonable timeframe. I now must contact the Ombudsman when I require a response and it is time for a debate on local authorities in this House.

Why must I follow that contribution?

It will not pose a difficulty for the Deputy.

The Minister for Transport was Minister for the Environment and Local Government in 1999 when I was first elected to local government. I heard great pronouncements about local government reforms and, to his credit, some took place. However, one of the key factors affecting the reform of local government autonomy is funding and, post rates, the major source of finance has been the local government fund; revenue that is supposed to come from drivers' licences and motor tax to be repatriated to local authorities.

In the intervening years, while the Minister took charge in other Departments, decentralisation was announced, certain services, including the health service, were re-centralised and the NRA was established. The latter has shifted more money and responsibility from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and represents a two-step procedure to move all non-national roads into the remit of the National Roads Authority and from the remit of local authorities. It is very unclear where funding for local government will come from. Will the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government provide it from the local government fund or will we establish a new fund from the Department of Transport?

The Department of Transport is already responsible for the national development plan and seems to be behind time and over budget on every project. If this is to be the new framework it is hard to be confident. The NRA chief executive has already acknowledged he will seek another €500 million from the Government, bringing his budget to €2.1 billion, to spend on roads projects in the national development plan. Will the projects in the national development plan that seem to take precedence over all else be topped up from local government, non-national road funding as established?

The port tunnel went over budget and completion of the N11 in Wicklow was delayed. People can say the delay was caused by many factors but one reason was that money for it was transferred. There are still ten miles of very dangerous roads. They are unfinished and no commitment has been made to address the issue until after 2010. Primary regional roads were funded as a priority in the context of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's overview of non-national roads. If this responsibility no longer lies with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, it seems all responsibility for the roads fund has left that Department and therefore local government representatives and officials will have no say in these matters. The key to this issue is funding. If local authorities do not have funding they will not be autonomous and will not be able to spend money on their roads.

We are in the dark on this matter. This is allegedly a technical transfer that is at the behest of the Department of Transport, but it seems there is more devil in the detail than is evident at the moment.

I am sorry to inform the Deputy that his time has expired.

I am having difficulty familiarising myself with faces given the change in Chairman that has just occurred.

Time passes quickly.

From where will local authorities receive funding? Will there be one, two or three streams of funding?

I call on Deputy Brendan Howlin and inform him that I will be calling on the Minister of State to speak at 4.15 p.m.

I will not need that much time because I am multi-tasking today and will only make some brief points.

I am anxious to make a contribution to this legislation that was presented by the Minister yesterday as technical legislation, a minor matter so logical that it hardly requires debate. The Taoiseach had the same view on the Order of Business this morning and considered the subject so technical that it should be a matter of ministerial diktat, rather than require the scrutiny of this House.

I will focus on an aspect of this, touched on by Deputy Doyle, that causes me concern and on which I seek reassurance. On the face of it, bringing all road systems under one Ministry seems a logical thing to do but there are some difficulties with this, one of which was well rehearsed by my colleagues on the Fine Gael benches and by Deputy Ciarán Lynch yesterday. Local authorities have a wealth of experience relating to the development of county roads and the difficulty was always the lack of money to bring about such development. Local improvement schemes are a fantastic agent for dealing with roads that serve communities and families in isolated areas. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's intimate knowledge of this area and its integration with the local government system makes it the obvious Department to deliver this type of small scheme.

In my experience the Department of Transport thinks on a grand scale in terms of metro and Luas systems, and motorways and smaller projects tend not to be on its list of priorities. The Department of Transport does not think in terms of boreens and small local improvement schemes nor access to individual households on the myriad of roads that exist in my county. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Tony Killeen, comes from a rural county like mine, but if he visited parts of south County Wexford he could well get lost. One would not wish to be lost on some of those roads because, despite the best efforts of Wexford County Council, they are not in the standard the rural community deserves. I believe that the proper home for those services is the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

My greatest concern, however, is a different one. In my time in the Department of the Environment I established a programme called Better Local Government — in the local government system it is sometimes referred to as the purple book. Many people subsequently sought to interview me on the detail of that book. At the core of all the reforms was the proper funding of local government. I sought to have a ring-fenced system of funding established, but it was resisted by the Department of Finance, which abhors ring-fenced funding because it sees itself as the collector general and dispenser general of the State's fund. The notion that the Oireachtas would have the temerity to ring-fence any particular source of funding for a specific purpose is something that grates on its nerves. I know how difficult it was to establish this ring-fenced funding.

My concern about this proposal, logical as it may seem and confident as I am that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is well intentioned in it, is that it will strike at that ring-fenced funding for local government. We will soon see that the local government fund, which is funded significantly from the proceeds of motor tax, is being re-channelled through the Department of Transport. This weakens the argument that it is a local government fund. The bulk of local government funding is from motor tax but a chunk of that will now go from the local government fund to the Department of Transport. As a vehicle for delivering a funding mechanism to local government, the basis on which the local government fund was founded in the late 1990s is thus undermined.

I alert the Minister of State to this serious concern. I seek his assurances that the basis of funding to local government will not be eroded, that this is not the thin end of the wedge that will eventually lead to a significant shift away from this ring-fenced fund for local authorities. I am deeply concerned that it may be so.

We have all seen what has happened in regard to the administration of marine policy where it was seen as logical that all marine related activities should come under the remit of one Department. That has not worked, however, and we now have a situation where part of fisheries is in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, inland fisheries are assigned to another Department and ports and port development to a third Department. It is a ludicrous way to go.

I seek the Minister of State's assurance that this provision will not undermine the local government fund. I am also concerned that this legislation will undermine the delivery at local level of strategically important but low-key programmes such as the local improvement scheme.

I thank Deputy Howlin for sharing time. This is an important Bill that will affect every road in my constituency of Cork South-West. The wrong Minister is driving the Bill through the House this last two days. Along with all my constituents, I want to know how this legislation will improve 1 km of road in Cork South-West. We do not even have 1 mile of national primary road but must make do with national secondary and non-national roads. We have the largest road network of any county. My county occupies one eighth of the territory of the State but we in Cork South-West have not had our rightful share of the cake for the past 30 or 40 years. Our rail service was decimated, the tracks pulled up and the bridges knocked down and sold to a Third World country where I understand the rail service has been running handsomely for the past 50 years.

I was not a Member of the House at that particular time but those who came before me were promised that the status of our road system in west Cork would be upgraded to national primary status. Some 50% to 60% of the regional roads have not seen a litre of tar or a shovel of chips in the past 30 to 40 years for lack of funding. How in heaven can the Minister now wash his hands of this? He is like Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of responsibility and handing it over to the Minister for Transport, a man who had no appetite to come in here to accept this legacy from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is a sad reflection on ministerial policy to transfer blame from one Department to another.

I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate on this Bill. Before I address some of the points raised, I emphasise that the Bill is technical in nature. It provides the legislative framework to facilitate the transfer of non-national roads and the national vehicle and driver file functions from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport. The transfer of functions will be effected by a transfer order to be made by the Government. Drafting of the necessary transfer of functions order is well advanced and the order will be made to coincide with enactment of this Bill.

Several Deputies raised issues in regard to responsibility for non-national roads at national level. I clarify that responsibility for non-national roads is not transferring to the National Roads Authority but to the Minister for Transport. The transfer of functions in this instance has nothing to do with the NRA. Deputy Ring and others who are concerned about accountability to the Dáil and the possibility of NRA involvement can rest assured that these functions are merely coming under the remit of the Minister for Transport.

Concerns were also raised about the future role of local authorities and whether they would have less power under the new arrangements. The position is clear. The Bill proposes no change in the powers and functions of local authorities in regard to the improvement and maintenance of non-national roads. Local authority powers are not affected.

How will they deal with transport?

Several Deputies raised issues about the level of funding for non-national roads. This year the fund is providing €520 million for this area. For 2008 and subsequent years, it will provide the same level of funding plus an element of the annual increase in buoyancy in motor tax receipts.

Deputy Howlin and others highlighted the importance of various road schemes and the relationship between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the local authorities. For example, issues were raised about the local improvement scheme. There has been a substantial increase in funding in this area in recent years.

That is because the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government knows what these schemes are. I am not sure the Department of Transport does.

Since the local government fund was introduced in 1999, annual allocations have increased from some €6 million to €30 million in 2007. This represents a 400% increase in funding in that time.

Questions were also asked about the management of the local government fund. Deputy Howlin also spoke about the need for improved local government and the ring-fenced system of funding. I assure Deputy Howlin and others that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will continue to have responsibility for the management of the fund. I also confirm that the full proceeds of motor tax and driver licence fees will continue to be paid into the fund. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, made it clear last night that the integrity of the fund will be assured into the future.

The local government fund will continue to provide significant funding to local authorities through general purpose grants. General purpose grant allocations from the fund to local authorities for 2007 totalled €948 million. This represents an increase of 8% over the record amount provided in 2006 and is an increase of some 180% over the 1997 allocation.

Several Deputies raised issues in regard to vehicle write-offs, penalty points and uninsured drivers. I heard Deputies Tuffy, Naughten, Crawford, Cyprian Brady and Kennedy speak about this yesterday, as did Deputies Flanagan and McCormack today. There has been some media coverage relating to vehicles that were deemed total write-offs by motor insurers but which subsequently returned for use on the roads, with the obvious implications for the safety and well-being of both vehicle owners and other road users.

The arrangements covering the treatment and notification of write-offs are currently being examined by the RSA, the Garda Síochána, and the Revenue Commissioners, which are responsible for the registration of vehicles, and my Department in its current role in respect of the national vehicle and driver file. This examination will be concluded as soon as possible and any recommendations arising from it will be considered.

The national vehicle and driver file plays a critical role in the administration of penalty points. For persons who receive penalty points but do not have a driving licence, mainly non-nationals, the facility exists on the NVDF to create a skeleton record so penalty points can be applied and the notices issued. There are currently 122,000 such records on the NVDF.

Imposing penalties for road traffic offences on foreign registered drivers raises many legal, organisational and procedural issues, which make it very difficult for any one State to enforce such penalties. For that reason, the Department of Transport, which has responsibility for driver licensing, is pursuing this issue at European level, British-Irish level and North-South level, where mutual recognition and cross-Border enforcement possibilities are being considered.

Several steps have been taken in recent years to reduce the level of uninsured driving. The Garda traffic corps has been substantially expanded to improve compliance with all road traffic legislation, including motor insurance requirements. Legislation has also been put in place to extend the powers of the Garda to permit the seizure of uninsured vehicles. In addition, since the introduction of the penalty points system, 6,539 persons had received penalty points for uninsured driving up to the end of September 2007. It is also planned under the recently published road safety strategy to establish a system to ensure current insurance details for all drivers can be accessed in real time by the Garda to facilitate enforcement.

A number of Deputies referred to motor tax. In the 2007 budget, plans were announced to introduce changes to the current vehicle registration tax and motor tax systems to take greater account of environmental issues, in particular carbon dioxide emissions. The programme for Government reaffirms the commitment to introduce measures to further weight VRT and motor tax in favour of cars with lower emissions. Work on the matter is ongoing and a range of possible options is being considered. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, will make an announcement shortly on motor tax.

I thank Deputies for their co-operation in facilitating early consideration of the Bill. Having been a Deputy who has welcomed the opportunity to speak on Second Stage on numerous occasions, I appreciate that it afforded Deputies the opportunity to raise issues of real concern to their constituents. Deputy Howlin, a former Minister, raised issues he would consider important as a result of his experience in a number of Departments and his concerns relating to the strong relationship between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authorities across a range of issues.

I understand and have some sympathy with the concern expressed by some that functions would be transferred to the NRA. I will clear up that misconception because that is not the position. The functions are merely transferring to the Department of Transport, where I am confident they will be dealt with as sympathetically as was the case with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authorities. We all wish this will be the case.

With regard to the integrity of funding, Deputies on all sides can be assured that the intention and effect of this legislation will be to leave the functions between local authorities and the Department directly. I appreciate the points made by Deputy Sheehan and others on other modes of transport, with railways being a case in point. We have cause to be somewhat happier than Deputy Sheehan along the west with the impending opening of the western rail corridor, but it is interesting to consider the developments and the significant move away from rail transport which occurred in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It is imperative we move very strongly back in that direction.

I listened to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, speaking about the significant incremental increase in the number of cars on the roads, of which many of us are aware. An interesting offshoot of this is the extraordinary increase in the number of road journeys made by people to and from work. The average distance people travel to work has increased in the past ten years from about 7 km to a little over 15 km. The amount of travel people undertake relating to work has naturally increased exponentially as the number of people at work has increased from 1.1 million to 2.1 million, virtually doubling. People must get to and from work.

Returning to the point made by Deputy Sheehan, there is clearly a major opportunity to provide transport for people, particularly from dormer towns to centres of population and employment. That issue has been worked on with some success along the western corridor. Despite the difficulties outlined by Deputy Sheehan and his long-lamented contention that there is no national primary road in his constituency, responsibility for roads across all the areas within the Department of Transport will facilitate better consideration of areas that do not have national primary roads.

The imperative arises somewhat more from issues relating to the road safety and the enormous difficulty successive Governments have faced in trying to address the number of deaths and level of serious injury that occurs on our roads. That is an element of the transfer and a matter with which all of us wish the Department well. We encourage all our constituents and others to play an active role in achieving such progress.

People can rest assured the Bill only provides the legislative framework for the transfer of these two functions from one Department to the other. People will not be dealing as a result of this legislation with bodies which are somewhat less accessible.

Question put and agreed to.