I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter, which has to do with the significant challenge facing school bus operators and the wider coach industry. The considerable increase in the cost of petrol and diesel has had an impact on every aspect of the transport sector but is having a particularly severe impact on the coach industry. From what we hear, the school transport system is on the verge of collapse because of a lack of Government support. The Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, which represents many school bus operators, gave a stark warning to the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications last week when it stated that 95% of school transport providers were unable to guarantee service provision to the end of the school year in June.
I appreciate the Government has cut excise on petrol and diesel but that is not enough. More needs to be done given the record fuel prices. The Government stepped in immediately for the haulage sector and provided €100 per vehicle per week for two months. In contrast, the same has not been done for the school bus sector. School transport is an essential service. Almost 120,000 children use the scheme daily, with 90% of journeys carried out by private bus companies. From a climate perspective, school transport is something we should be encouraging and expanding radically. Without it, parents would have to take time off work or give up work altogether to drive their children to and from school. The knock-on impact on the wider economy of a collapse in these services would be significant. These operators cannot be left without support any longer.
School bus operators do not have fuel variation clauses in their contracts. This has made their businesses unsustainable. Many are operating under the terms and conditions of contracts signed as much as five years ago when fuel was far cheaper than it is today. Due to the lack of a surcharge or fuel variation clause, they have had to absorb the hike in fuel costs, which has wiped out any profit for the service they provide and has left very many of them making losses. Representatives of the CTTC stated that the current situation was unrealistic, unsustainable and unaffordable. Operators need support.
This is a vital service that serves communities throughout the country. All Deputies and councillors know the importance of the school transport system because they know people who are excluded from it every year and the major inconvenience caused by that for families in terms of organising their working week. What does the Department intend to do to support the school transport sector and get it to the end of this school year and beyond?