I thank the Chairman for having us here today. I am here to brief the committee on Part 13 of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (consequential provisions) Bill 2020, which provides for matters relating to cross-Border bus services.
For the duration of the current transition period, bus services between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland, have continued to operate under EU Regulation No. 1073, which will last until 31 December. In the event that no further agreement is made between the EU and the UK, we will face a de facto no-deal scenario on 1 January 2021. In this scenario, and if no EU contingency for bus services is in place, we need to be able to provide contingency for the continuation of these bus services. This is what Part 13 of the new Bill seeks to do.
The objectives of the Good Friday Agreement include the need to maintain connectivity between people, communities and businesses on the island of Ireland. The continuation of cross-Border bus services is essential in maintaining this connectivity. For those living in the rural communities of the Border counties, these bus services are of particular significance as very often they are the only mode of public transport available.
Pre-Covid, on a daily basis, Monday to Friday, there were more than 300 cross-Border bus journeys authorised by the National Transport Authority, NTA. These are what are known as "regular" services - in other words, they operate on set days and times and serve predetermined stops. This figure of 300 does not take into account occasional or special regular services, nor does it include services authorised by the competent authority in Northern Ireland, the Department for Infrastructure. Occasional services are those operating on a more ad hoc basis, for example a bus hired to travel from Kildare to Belfast for a concert. Special regular services are those that operate under a contract such as a bus hired by a company to transport its employees to work on a regular basis. We need to ensure that there is continuity of all of these services and that service standards of the highest safety and quality are maintained.
On a long-term solution, the UK has signalled its intention to join the Interbus Agreement. This is an EU-level agreement that enables occasional bus services to operate between the EU and third countries. There is a protocol to extend this agreement to include regular and special regular services but it is not expected to be in place until the middle of next year. The Department and the European Commission view the Interbus Agreement as the most appropriate solution for cross-Border bus services. We welcome the UK's stated intention to accede to this agreement. We would also very much welcome the UK acceding to the protocol. If the UK does accede to the Interbus Agreement but the protocol is not yet in place, we will use Part 13 as a contingency for regular and special regular services only, with occasional services being covered by the Interbus Agreement. In the event of the UK not joining the Interbus Agreement, or no EU-level agreement or contingency being in place on 1 January, then Part 13 will be needed to allow for the continuation of all categories of bus service between Ireland and the UK as a third country.
Part 13 sets out the changes needed to achieve this, proposing amendments to the Road Transport Act 1978, the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 and the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008.
After the end of the transition period, Ireland will be allowed under EU law to enter into a bilateral agreement with the UK for bus services, so long as no bus agreement exists between the UK and the EU. Part 13 lays out the rules which could form the backdrop to Ireland’s negotiations on a bilateral agreement on bus services with the UK.
As mentioned, the National Transport Authority is Ireland’s competent authority for regulating bus services with other member states. The heads in Part 13 of this Bill will make the NTA the competent authority to similarly regulate bus services between Ireland and third countries.
While the heads presented here are largely similar to the provisions of Part 10 of the 2019 Act, there is a small change under head 13.5 relating to the proposed section 28N, to be inserted in the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009. This provision had provided that services operating under a reciprocal arrangement, this being an interim arrangement while a bilateral is being negotiated, could operate for a period of 12 weeks. We are seeking to amend this to 24 weeks to provide additional time to be able to complete any negotiations in the context of Covid-19 and the additional challenges it might bring to finalising any negotiations.
As with all other Departments involved in this Bill, we have been engaging with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel as a matter of priority and that work is nearing finalisation. In fact, we hope to have it finalised within the next day or so. This engagement has focused on ensuring that the heads provide workable solutions to deal with the long-term implications of Brexit for cross-Border bus services. While the Interbus Agreement and its protocol are the optimal long-term solutions, we need to prepare for any gaps that may arise and Part 13 is key to providing practical solutions in that regard.
The intention of Part 13 in the omnibus Bill is to provide robust primary legislation which, in the absence of an EU-level solution, will help ensure the future continuation of bus services between Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as between Ireland and Great Britain. The Department is grateful for the support this Part has received thus far. We trust that we can continue to work together to advance the necessary legislation.
I thank the Chairman and members for inviting me to make this presentation and look forward to hearing the views of the committee and responding to any questions.