Priority Questions.

Railway Procurement Processes.

Fergus O'Dowd


1 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport his views on the Baker Tilly report on procurement processes and fraudulent activity at Iarnród Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39930/09]

The report referred to by the Deputy, which was commissioned by Irish Rail, raises serious concerns about procurement practices in Irish Rail. My initial reaction to the report is that the weaknesses in Irish Rail's procurement policies and practices that are identified in the report represent a cause for grave concern. The systemic deficiencies and weaknesses that have been identified, including a lack of management supervision and direction, poor training, inadequate monitoring and controls and lack of adherence to procedures, created the opportunity for employees and suppliers to misappropriate funds and materials. The report pointed to a high incidence of non-compliance with procedures and referred to many recorded instances of inadequate audit trails. In such cases, there was either a lack of documentation, or documentation was present but was improperly completed. These cases suggest that there is a serious problem in the company in terms of adhering to established procedures.

When I discussed the matter with the chairman of CIE on 22 October last, I expressed my concern about the weaknesses that had been identified and the failure to inform me or my Department. The chairman briefed me on the background to the report, indicated that the actual loss was limited to €2.6 million and confirmed that almost all of the recommendations in the report have been implemented. He informed me that certain staff members have been sacked and some cases have been referred to the Garda. Nevertheless, I have sought a full report from the board of CIE on the circumstances giving rise to the report, the extent to which progress has been made in implementing the report's recommendations and the measures being taken to ensure adequate controls in expenditure areas not covered by the report. In light of the report from the board, I will consider any necessary action on my part.

It is a shame that this report, which was published by Iarnród Éireann on 10 June last at a cost of almost €500,000, never saw the Minister's desk. He did not ask for it because, like many of his colleagues, he does not hold the State companies under his remit, such as CIE, Iarnród Éireann and the National Roads Authority, to account. The hidden agenda of CIE was to use a veil of secrecy to hide this report from the Minister and the Oireachtas. If it were not for the work of Senator Ross and his Sunday Independent colleagues, we would not even know about this report.

The key question the Minister needs to answer relates to his plans to hold his State companies accountable. Over the past five or six years, more than €1.1 billion in taxpayers' money has been invested in CIE companies. The audit under discussion looks at certain aspects of the company only. Will the Minister ensure that any further audits in the possession of Iarnród Éireann or CIE, relating to any or all of their activities, are given to him and to the Members of the Oireachtas? When one considers that the word "fraud" is mentioned 17 times in this report, it is clear that public money needs to be spent in a more transparent and accountable manner. The Minister does not know about these matters because CIE is hiding the details from him. It is the taxpayer who ultimately loses in all circumstances.

All that rhetoric is very nice, but any objective analysis will confirm that it is difficult for a Minister to seek a report from a company if he does not know it has been commissioned and is with the company.

Ask and you shall receive.

As I said to the Deputy in my initial reply, I have asked for a full report on the circumstances that gave rise to the report, which was commissioned by Iarnród Éireann. I am also keen to learn more about the progress being made in implementing the report's recommendations and the measures being taken to ensure that the expenditure controls in areas not covered by the report are adequate. I am confident that I will get a full report from the company on all of those matters. When I get such a report, I will decide on the most effective thing to do.

The key point is that €1.1 billion of taxpayers' money has been given to CIE companies in the recent past. Will the Minister ask for any other audits that may exist in those companies to be brought to his attention and that of the Oireachtas? Will he ask for an exercise to be undertaken setting out the top ten procurement contracts that have been awarded for rolling stock and buses, etc., in each of those companies over the past two years? We need to look at the totality of procurement policy in all the CIE companies. The Minister did not know about this report because he did not ask. He is not holding State companies like CIE and the NRA to account. It is all very well for the Minister to cut ribbons and avail of photo opportunities with the chairman of CIE. The Minister should be aware that the wool is being pulled over his eyes and the eyes of this Government.

He is blinkered when it matters.

I am not sure that Deputy O'Dowd asked a question.

I asked about the top ten contracts.

I have told the Deputy twice that I have asked for a report on the measures being taken to ensure adequate controls in areas of expenditure that were not covered by the Baker Tilly report. The report will cover the work of audit committees, etc. When I get that information, I will decide what I need to do.

The Minister should ask for a list of the top ten procurement contracts to be compiled.

Rural Transport Services.

Thomas P. Broughan


2 Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport if he will confirm that he will maintain the level of funding as set out in budget 2009 for the rural transport programme in view of the level of anxiety among passengers on the rural transport network regarding the proposal to abolish the programme in the report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes; his views on the proposal of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes to abolish the rural transport programme; his further views on a role for the rural transport programme in providing essential transport facilities for rural communities particularly in view of his reported plans to reduce the general blood alcohol limit to 50 mg and to implement other elements of the road safety strategy, including mandatory testing at collisions and the roll-out of the national speed camera programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39739/09]

There are commitments to the rural transport programme in the national development plan, Towards 2016, and in the Department of Transport's sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005. The renewed Government programme contains a commitment to explore the provision of a full-scale transport system in rural areas, using the network expertise of Bus Éireann and the resources of the school and health transport systems. The development of rural transport is a key objective of the Government's sustainable travel and transport plan, Smarter Travel — A Sustainable Transport Future. The primary objective of my Department's rural transport programme is to address social exclusion in rural areas arising from unmet public transport needs. The funding for the programme has increased substantially, from €3 million in 2004 to €11 million this year. The programme operates in all counties and is expected to carry 1.5 million passengers this year. It is an important element of Government policy.

The Government is considering all the recommendations in the special group's report. Decisions will be made by the Government in the context of the budget for 2010 and later years. To assist with that task, the Government has referred the report to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service for its views prior to the budget. It is important that existing resources in the rural transport sector are utilised as cost effectively as possible. A number of initiatives are under way in that context.

The potential for improved synergies between existing transport providers — such as the Health Service Executive for health transport, the Department of Education and Science for school transport, Bus Éireann for rural transport, Pobal for rural transport programme services and other transport providers, such as the Irish Wheelchair Association — is being explored. These initiatives involve pilot transport projects in the north east and the north west, an exercise to map all transport services in County Louth and a cross-Border pilot rural community transport project under the auspices of the British-Irish Council. The outcome of these initiatives will feed into the process of developing future rural transport policy.

The Minister appreciates that the rural transport programme provides a wonderful service. It represents the beginning of what could be a real programme of rural transport in this country. As I said the other night, the Government seems to have forgotten that rural dwellers have as much right to public transport services as urban dwellers. The Minister mentioned that 1.5 million journeys will be made under the rural transport programme this year. One of the 36 rural transport programme companies is based in my local area of north Fingal. As almost 750 drivers are employed under the programme, it is an important source of local employment. It should not be forgotten that these companies meet approximately 50% of their costs through their fare boxes.

The rural transport programme is developing its links with Bus Éireann and other local private operators in the interests of providing a more comprehensive system. Would it not be a tragedy if the programme were to be discontinued? When Mr. Colm McCarthy and his group produced their famous report, the Minister said he found many of its recommendations regarding transport "baffling". Did he find Mr. McCarthy's comments on the rural transport programme "baffling"? Can he state definitively that he will not allow it to be destroyed? All parties have debated the Road Traffic Bill 2009. I think the Minister will acknowledge that when I saw his proposals, I rowed in behind them on behalf of the Labour Party, and with the support of my Labour Party colleagues, on the grounds of road safety. Is it not the case that the rural transport network, through the use of "booze buses" and other necessary facilities, has a tremendous role in combatting social exclusion in rural areas? Would it not be appropriate, for a host of reasons, for the Minister to make it clear this evening that he will oppose, by whatever means necessary, any cutbacks in the rural transport programme's budget? I understand that the budget is €8.5 million, rather than over €10 million as suggested by the Minister in his reply.

When the service operators come to see me and the Joint Committee on Transport, as they have done on a number of occasions, they tell us they receive a net allocation of €8.5 million to run the wonderful service throughout the country. I plead with the Minister to leave the rural transport network alone.

Deputy Mattie McGrath and the Minister's other colleagues, who seem to go to war to support the drinks industry, do not seem to tackle the issue of rural transport with the same seriousness and determination. The initiative deserves support.

Deputy Broughan is being very unfair because he was not present at our meeting in Athlone, at which this was one of the two major issues raised by the backbenchers of the Fianna Fáil Party——

We did not read anything about it in the papers.

——to let me know exactly how important this was.

Nobody in the House needs to lecture a Fianna Fáil Minister on how important the rural transport network is because a Fianna Fáil Government initiated the scheme in 2002. It has increased the money made available to it since then. The initial figure was €3 million and this was increased incrementally to €4.5 million, €5.1 million and €9 million. I increased it further to €11 million. While some groups may talk about net amounts I am sure they do not expect we would ask them to run the service without giving them some money to administer it. If this is what they are suggesting, I will be delighted. I made an extra €1 million available this year and insisted that it be used for services only, not for administration. The gross amount available, taking into account the amounts made available from the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the fare box, as the Deputy mentioned, is close to €16 million.

The service is and has been important. The decisions that must be made in the budget will be made in the budget. The Government has given a clear signal as to the importance of the initiative. This was before we proposed to reduce the blood alcohol limit from 80 mg per 100 ml to 50 mg per 100 ml. I freely acknowledge the Deputy's support in this regard.

The Minister refers to the support the Labour Party has given to rural projects. My party, particularly the Leas-Cheann Comhairle when he was in Government, gave a considerable impetus to local community groups that were self-funded. I know this because I took on a role in this regard outside this House. That is why I am so sympathetic to the bodies in question.

With regard to the safety agenda, which is very much linked to the rural transport programme, what is the position on speed cameras? Will they be postponed continually? Will the Minister introduce them in the interest of road safety?

The roll-out of the speed cameras and the signing of the contract are a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I ask him about it every day, as he will probably confirm. I am told we are very near the signing of the contract. I will leave it to my colleague to make the actual announcement.

Will it be before the budget?

Rail Network.

Fergus O'Dowd


3 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the additional resources he has given to CIE to repair the viaduct at Malahide, County Dublin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39932/09]

Earlier this year, my Department allocated €404 million to Iarnród Éireann for investment in the development of the rail network and railway safety. Of this, €90 million was allocated to the railway safety programme.

As is normal for a programme of the range and complexity of the public transport capital programme, a number of adjustments were made during the year and an additional €2 million was allocated to Iarnród Éireann in July, followed by an additional €7 million in September, arising from other areas of the programme where spending was lower than expected. In addition, Iarnród Éireann was able to re-allocate funding to the railway safety programme from adjustments to its own investment programme such as revisions to the payment schedule for new rolling stock.

These re-allocations allowed an increase in the Exchequer provision for railway safety to €107 million for the current year. Iarnród Éireann undertook the repair of the Malahide viaduct from within this increased provision. The total estimated cost of repairing the viaduct itself will be in the order of €4.5 million to €5 million.

I understand from Iarnród Éireann that it will be in a position to re-open the line later this month once approval is received from the Railway Safety Commission. I welcome the speedy re-instatement of the viaduct.

Issues arise from the accident at Malahide, where 20 m of railway line fell into the sea. I am thankful that due to the action of Keith Farrelly, the train driver who spotted the collapse of the tracks, hundreds of people did not face their death in over 3 m of water. This is a fact and everybody acknowledges it.

Were it not for the sea scouts, nobody would have walked the line at all. Evidence has shown that for ten days prior to the collapse, the line was not walked, as required, three times per week. Following the call from the sea scouts, the engineer who examined the scene looked at the track only but did not examine the structure at the base of the viaduct. The photograph the sea scouts show depicts them on the water at the base of the viaduct supports. Iarnród Éireann never examined these in the week in question, notwithstanding the fact that a track movement detection vehicle passed over the viaduct the day before the accident. I am deeply concerned about the standards in Iarnród Éireann in this regard. I challenge the Minister to challenge Iarnród Éireann on this issue. It is a very serious matter.

It is not acceptable that the accident happened in the way it did when significant issues were raised by the sea scouts. It is not acceptable that the engineer did not look at the structures underneath the track and that the track was not walked at all, as required.

I agree with the Deputy that safety must be of paramount importance. The safety procedures in place should be adhered to at all times by Iarnród Éireann and the rest of the companies in the CIE group. I share the Deputy's concern in this regard but I know from speaking to Iarnród Éireann officials that the track movement recording vehicle passed over the viaduct the day before the incident and recorded very good track alignment and no evidence of subsidence, as the Deputy acknowledged. It is very doubtful that anybody walking the track would have been able to find such evidence.

That is not the point.

I agree. If there are checks to be carried out, they should be carried out. I do not want to say very much more about this until the Railway Safety Commission makes its findings known and we have all the facts. However, I share the Deputy's concern.

In 2006, a review of railway safety and the role and function of the Railway Safety Commission pointed out that there were significant issues still outstanding, notwithstanding the reports in the years 1998, 2000 and 2001. Page 8 of the review states a programme of thorough inspections of Iarnród Éireann's structures should be commenced by the company. What Iarnród Éireann is saying, as acknowledged generally, is that the base of the viaduct was scoured. However, the report states, "However, based on interviews at Divisional level, there does not——

The Deputy may refer to the report but may not quote it.

The report, produced by Arthur D. Little in 2006, states the scour safety management systems were not in place. It states it was a serious issue that was not being addressed adequately by Iarnród Éireann. There is a systems failure. Some €1.1 billion was invested in Iarnród Éireann and other CIE companies over recent years, yet the companies did not address significant safety issues that were pointed out in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2006.

We are very lucky people were not killed at Malahide. The Minister is not doing the job he should be doing. He should be holding those responsible to account but this is not happening.

The role of the Minister in this matter is to ensure that legislation is in place and that finance is available to implement the railway safety programme. The first railway safety programme, which covered the period 1999 to 2003, benefited from an investment of €600 million. Four hundred miles of track were renewed and 220 miles of fencing was erected. From 2004 to 2008, the total investment was €512 million. In this case, 134 miles of track were renewed and work was completed on 429 miles of fencing. The safety culture and safety management systems of Iarnród Éireann were enhanced completely.

A total of €513 million has been targeted for the third railway safety programme, which started in 2009. A total of €443 million of the funding is for infrastructural investment and €70 million is for the continued enhancement of safety management systems. The matter has been dealt with by me from the point of view of the legislation and finance. The Railway Safety Commission will make its investigation and it will report. Anything that arises as a result of that will be pursued by me.

Road Safety.

Fergus O'Dowd


4 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport when he will legislate for mandatory alcohol testing at road accidents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39933/09]

I have included provision for the mandatory testing for alcohol of drivers involved in road traffic collisions in the new Road Traffic Bill, which was published on 30 October 2009. The proposal is that mandatory testing of a driver at a collision will be undertaken by a member of the Garda Síochána where an injury is caused to another person that requires medical assistance. This addresses a specific action in the Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012 to "ensure appropriate legislation and protocols to address the testing of road users involved in collisions". It also meets a commitment I have made on a number of occasions to include a suitable provision in the Road Traffic Bill.

Following its publication, the Bill will be considered by the Oireachtas in due course. Once the Bill has been finalised and approved by the Oireachtas, and signed into law, commencement of the various provisions, including this one, will proceed. In the meantime, the current position is that the Garda Síochána has discretion under road traffic legislation to require a driver involved in a collision to provide a preliminary breath specimen. The discretion was provided in acknowledgement of the fact that urgent medical attention may be required for seriously injured victims, and that must take precedence over breath testing. While that remains the case, the provision in the new Road Traffic Bill makes it clear that a breath specimen must be taken unless there are particular overriding circumstances for not doing so.

A garda may also currently request a blood or urine sample from a driver who is in hospital following a vehicle incident, where the garda believes that the person was intoxicated at the time. The new Road Traffic Bill also strengthens this provision, by placing an obligation on the driver involved in a collision to provide such a specimen while in hospital. Both these provisions are part of the package of issues addressed in the Road Traffic Bill in regard to intoxicated driving in particular.

I welcome the introduction of mandatory testing. On Wednesday, 17 October 2007, on foot of the Fine Gael motion on the issue the Minister changed his mind and agreed to introduce the provision. At that time it was expected that we would have the legislation within three months but it has taken more than two years to get to this point.

I support what the Minister is doing. One of the issues that arises is how the Garda will carry out the mandatory testing and enforce the regulations given the cutbacks in Garda overtime. The Department should also be dealing with other significant issues. For example, the Garda have ceased testing HGVs and some other vehicles on health and safety grounds. A number of inspections have been withdrawn because it is not safe for the Garda to carry them out, as the space is not available for such inspections on the national road network. I support what the Minister is doing, but if we are to continue to have mandatory testing we need to ensure that where the Garda stop people that it is safe and that people are pursued in a safe and proper way.

Statistics from the World Health Organisation website on the proportion of drivers in the European Union checked by the traffic police for alcohol impairment between 2003 and 2006 reveal that this country had one of the lowest levels of testing. At that time approximately 4% of drivers had been tested once and 3% had been tested more than once, whereas in many other countries the figures are approximately 26% and 38% respectively. A significant issue arises about enforcement and resources.

In recent years, in line with a commitment made by this and previous Governments, the number of members of the Garda traffic corps, which was specifically set up to target road traffic offences, has been increased. The commitment was made to 1,200 members and that level has been reached. The members are dedicated primarily to road traffic duties. The effects of that change are clear to see. I accept the point that in the past the level of visibility, testing and enforcement was not as high but that is not something that can be said, especially in the past five years. The traffic corps is proving effective. As the Deputy has acknowledged on a number of occasions we are reducing the number of deaths and injuries on the roads. I expect that the current level of enforcement will be maintained or increased because the traffic corps is a dedicated part of the force and it should be able to organise its work in such a way that testing can be carried out during ordinary hours of duty.

The figures are from between 2003 and 2006 and I acknowledge that random testing has been introduced since then. However, the key point is that while the Garda traffic corps is dedicated primarily to traffic duties, it is not solely employed for that purpose and given the cutbacks in Garda overtime gardaí are not as available as they would like to be, especially at weekends when much overtime needs to be done, particularly late at night. Will the Minister contact his colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, about this issue? I cannot get the facts from him in reply to a parliamentary question on the figure for overtime in the Garda traffic corps. While acknowledging the improvements that have come about, the issue is a serious one and everyone wants to see more compliance and regular testing.

Given the current economic circumstances the Garda overtime bill, which is not a matter for me — so I will not comment on it — has been reduced. There is no doubt about that. In the current circumstances, there is a general acceptance that we must reduce or adjust our expenditure to the tune of approximately €4 billion in this year's budget. That cannot be done without changing work practices.

I acknowledge the role the Garda traffic corps has played. It has been and should be possible to deploy its members during a regular eight hour shift. Admittedly, that will be during unsocial hours but the work has to be organised in that particular way. No one can have any guarantees on overtime, be it in the health service, the Garda Síochána or any other sector in the future. We have to be flexible and change work practices and ensure that the services are available at the time they are needed by the public.

Fergus O'Dowd


5 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the progress made in implementing the commercial vehicles testing review report in 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39934/09]

Under the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 (Conferral of Functions) Order 2006, SI No. 477 of 2006, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has responsibility for matters relating to vehicle testing, including commercial vehicles. One of the early tasks for the RSA was to undertake a comprehensive review of the arrangements for the roadworthiness testing of commercial vehicles in Ireland. In 2008, I approved reform proposals from the authority, which recommended two key courses of action to raise roadworthiness standards on a permanent basis.

The first element is an overhaul of the complete commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing system, addressing the testing process, development of a programme of roadside inspections to ensure continuous compliance, and the introduction of operator premises checks and intelligence-led targeting of operators based on risk. The second element is a proposal that the responsibility for the management and operation of the commercial vehicle testing system be transferred from local authorities to the RSA.

The overall objective of the transformation programme is to make a step change in the quality of commercial vehicles using Irish roads and thereby help improve road safety, reduce congestion, ensure fair competition, develop a much greater awareness of road safety issues and improve the culture of safety within the transport industry. The phasing and means of resourcing implementation of the reform plan is under consideration in light of current constrained Exchequer circumstances.

The key point is that the overhaul of commercial vehicles roadworthiness testing commenced following the tragic crash in Navan where, sadly and tragically, five teenagers lost their lives. Following that, the first task of the Road Safety Authority was to do that report. The Minister's colleague, the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Martin Cullen, was responsible for that. In April 2007, the report was presented to the Government.

In February 2008, the Minister said the overhaul would happen immediately. I have the press statement here. The expectation was that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, would take over responsibility for the future management and operation of the vehicle testing system for local authorities and that there would be a major overhaul of the system. That has not happened to date. The Road Safety Authority is not in charge, does not have oversight and does not have all the facts and statistics relating to the number of heavy goods vehicles, public service vehicles and so forth that are dangerous but are on our roads. It cannot and does not have responsibility for them, because the Minister did not do his job.

That is not correct. Ministers are not supposed to get involved in industrial relations, IR, issues within Departments. The report was presented to and was approved by the Government. It was considered that the best and most effective way of doing this was to transfer responsibility for it to the RSA. That was agreed by Government. I also secured funding through an increase in fees and this is available to the RSA. However, there are IR issues relating to the transfer of this function from the local authorities to the RSA. I am not in a position to resolve those issues. It is another good example of where there must be increased flexibility within the public service to ensure that the public, as the Deputy correctly said, gets the type of service it deserves. The sooner this matter is resolved between the RSA and the local authorities, the better. The roads will be safer. As far as I am concerned, those involved in holding up the process should desist, allow the RSA to take over and allow staff to be redeployed and get on with the job.

I would go further than the Minister. They should be sacked.

The Minister cannot accept that after two years this transfer has not happened. According to the report, testing standards were not applied uniformly throughout the country, there is considerable scope for unscrupulous or careless operators or test centres not to be compliant with current regulations and test results could be retrospectively changed. That could be extremely dangerous. If a lorry or a bus on the road had a bad report, it could be changed retrospectively to a good report. It is a very serious issue and it is not good enough for the Minister to hide behind the officials who might well be frustrating this. He is the Minister.

This arose from the accident that occurred in the Minister's constituency. I am not labouring this point but it was the first task of the Road Safety Authority to get this done. It has not happened and the Government has not delivered on this issue. Does the Minister accept that there are dangerous and unsafe lorries and buses in some parts of the country, because although many of these test centres are excellent, some of them are not doing their job? It is dangerous and unacceptable that the Minister has not insisted on change by now.

The Deputy is being rather unfair. I was talking about the administration of this system. The Deputy is conveying the impression that no testing is taking place or there is a lack of testing.

No, that the problem still persists because the Road Safety Authority is still not in charge.

That would be unfair. It is illegal for somebody to retrospectively change vehicle testing certificates. If the Deputy has knowledge of that——

It is in the report.

If he has personal knowledge of that, he should report it to the Garda or to me, and I will report it.

I am reporting it to the Minister.

The Deputy should give me the details.

It is in the report.

Those are cases that were detected. Deputy O'Dowd is making the case that this is still happening——

I am making the case that the Road Safety Authority is not in charge of these centres.

Allow the Minister to conclude his answer to the Deputy's question.

The RSA vehicle inspectorate participated in 225 roadside checks in 2008, an increase of more than 100% on 2007. Roadside checks were completed on 3,252 vehicles. These checks revealed that 1,350 of the vehicles had some defects. The RSA vehicle inspectorate made 280 vehicle testing network test centre visits in 2008 to ensure compliance with commercial vehicle test centre standards and consistency of testing. The impression should not be created that nothing is happening in this area. There is one major issue that still must be resolved, that is, the staff going from local authorities to the RSA.

Who oversees the system?

The RSA is very diligent in ensuring both the roadside testing and the visits to centres continue.

The roadside testing has stopped.

That concludes priority questions. We will now proceed to other questions.