Bus Éireann: Discussion (Resumed)

I remind everyone to turn off his or her mobile phone as distinct from leaving it in silent mode, as mobile phones interfere with the broadcasting equipment.

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, and his officials, Ms Deirdre Hanlon, Mr. Liam Daly and Mr. Garret Doocey, and thank them for attending. This is the fifth in a series of meetings convened to discuss the challenging situation at Bus Éireann. We heard previously from the acting CEO, Mr. Ray Hernan; the unions; the National Transport Authority and the Department of Social Protection. Since the Minister's last appearance before the committee to discuss the matter, the situation at Bus Éireann has deteriorated further. Workers are entering the sixth day of strike action and 110,000 commuters are being affected daily. Additionally, it is estimated that the company is losing €500,000 for every day the strike continues, giving a total of €3 million to date.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.

While I welcome the opportunity to meet the committee again, it is a source of deep disappointment that this meeting is taking place on a day when members of the public once more face delays and disruption to their travel plans. Last year the taxpayer provided Bus Éireann with approximately €230 million via the PSO, school transport, free travel and capital expenditure programmes. That is a significant amount of money. In the past two weeks we have heard public statements by management and unions in Bus Éireann acknowledging that there were inefficiencies within the company. Let me be clear: I want to see a successful and thriving Bus Éireann that will continue to be at the heart of public transport provision in rural Ireland and regional cities. I am actively working to achieve this. That is why I have made more money available to support the delivery of PSO services, instructed officials in my Department to work with colleagues in the Department of Social Protection to examine the funding of the free travel scheme and committed to further increases in PSO funding as resources allow.

I am playing my part in supporting Bus Éireann, but management and unions need to agree a deal that is fair and acceptable to both sides. That means their agreeing a deal that will safeguard the company's future for all those who rely on it, for a means of transport or a living. I cannot agree that deal, nor can this committee. Only management and unions can, as the deal will resolve the issues that are internal to the company and that those of us on the outside have no business in dictating.

Both I and the committee know it can be done and, deep down, management and unions know it too. It will require difficult discussions and will need flexibility and compromise. It will call for imagination but it can be done. Many people have concerns about policy. There are many who expect me to say the regime for commercial licensing is somehow flawed even though public transport numbers have increased and connectivity is being enhanced. I will not shy away from examining our policy and laws to ensure they are doing the job we expect them to do. There is a report from the NTA, which I and members of the committee have received, on the legal technicalities of the bus licensing system. It has identified amendments that could be made to improve the system as it stands. My Department is reviewing the report. I will consider its review and bring forward the necessary amendments to improve the bus licensing system.

Committee members have received a confidential copy of that report and I have offered a briefing to them on it. I hope the committee will be able to make an informed and detailed submission to me on what it thinks could be improved about the current licensing system. As regards the NTA's route licensing system, it already considers issues such as rural isolation and sustainable competition when considering applications from operators. I am committed to a review of public transport policy which will allow for an in-depth consideration of all relevant issues facing our transport future. The committee will be able to make an informed and detailed submission on that policy review when the consultation period starts. I assure the committee that I am prepared to meet interested parties, which includes the trade unions, about public transport policy issues that are of concern. Any such discussions, whichever form they take, cannot take place during an industrial relations dispute or when a strike is being threatened. I will always welcome contributions from those who wish to influence public transport policy in a positive, informed and constructive manner.

I want to see this crisis resolved. There are those on the committee and elsewhere who believe that a ministerial magic wand can resolve an industrial relations dispute. I have willingly intervened in the areas in which it is appropriate for me to intervene. I have made additional money available for PSO services. I have instructed officials to examine the free travel scheme funding. I have worked with the NTA in assuring rural Ireland transport connectivity will be maintained if commercial services are altered. I will not dictate to management and unions about their internal issues. I will not be involved in discussions about how the company organises itself. These are areas for agreement between management and unions. If they require external assistance, the expert advice of the WRC and the Labour Court can help them.

There is just over an hour for questions and answers. I will keep members strictly to the times we agreed in private session. There are 15 minutes for the Fine Gael group. There probably will not be time to come back in after the initial questioning because there are non-members here who have indicated they want to ask questions. The time will be shared appropriately. There are 15 minutes for the Fine Gael group.

Before we commence, if committee members agree to be concise in their questioning, will the Minister also be concise while responding and not try to talk the clock down?

I will facilitate each member and non-member on the time they have been allotted. If members want to get the best level of questioning possible, I advise them to ask one question at a time rather than grouping their questions.

The last time I did that I only got one question so I will group mine and ask for a reply.

There are 15 minutes for the Fine Gael group. It is up to its members how they share the time. If the Deputy is grouping his questions, he should bear in mind that there may not be time for the other members. That is something for the Fine Gael group to decide. As Chairman, I have nothing to do with that. There are 15 minutes for the grouping. At the end of that 15 minutes, we will move on to the next question.

Was the NTA report provided?

It was circulated to members in February. We have exactly an hour now.

Once again, we are at a stage where there seems to be no solution in sight to the dispute in Bus Éireann. I have been consistent in my views that the Minister must, at the very least, be involved in some fashion in finding a resolution. It is not enough for the Minister to state he cannot get involved and that he has no role in finding a resolution. Over the past week, thousands of people have been affected by this dispute with many unable to find suitable alternative travel arrangements. Commuters in Dundalk and Drogheda were badly affected particularly those who needed transport to Dublin Airport. I ask the Minister to immediately intervene in this dispute and facilitate talks between both sides. It will be too late to get involved if there is a situation where Bus Éireann ceases to operate.

In the Minister's opening submission, he stated he wants a successful and thriving Bus Éireann that will continue to be at the heart of public transport provision in rural areas and regional cities. He has also stated he is actively working on achieving this. Will he elaborate on this and explain in more detail the actions he is working on?

On the free travel scheme, the Minister stated his Department is working with his colleagues in the Department of Social Protection on examining the funding of the scheme. What stage are these negotiations at and when can we expect their outcome? What are the expectations of the negotiations?

In the Minister's opening statement, he called on both sides in the dispute to show imagination to find a resolution. Will he expand on this and give the committee an idea of what he means by this? Does he have any suggestions in this regard? The Minister also stated that his Department has identified amendments that could be made to improve the current bus licensing system. Can he give the committee a timeline of when we can review these amendments? The Minister stated he is prepared to meet the relevant parties, including the trade unions, to discuss public transport policy issues but he cannot meet them during an industrial relations dispute or when a strike is threatened. I disagree with the Minister. It is the right time to sit down with the relevant parties. Surely it is an opportunity to have both parties sit down and take part in talks that will shape public transport policies and address some of the issues that exist between Bus Éireann and the unions.

If other Fine Gael members want to ask their questions now, the Minister can respond after that.

Will the Minister answer those questions first? We have two more Fine Gael people to ask questions.

We have a 15-minute slot for the Fine Gael group so we either take it all together or-----

My questions took two minutes. The Minister has three or four minutes to answer them and then we can move on to the next ones.

It is up to the other members.

I will take Deputy Fitzpatrick's points now. I am familiar with the Deputy's views and he is familiar with mine. I do not in any way doubt the sincerity of anybody who says I should be involved in talks at the moment. That view is further emphasised by the fact we are now in a strike situation whereas we were not the last time we had an exchange. It is a very difficult situation for all public representatives when they see buses closing down and not operating in their area. The Deputy mentioned Drogheda and Dundalk. The Deputy asked me why I will not get involved. One of the reasons, which was addressed on Leaders' Questions today by my predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, is that institutions of the State are available.

The WRC and Labour Court have addressed over 1,000 disputes, not all of this nature and some of a very different sort. They have a very successful record in settling disputes. I am not a mediator. I have no skills in that area at all. My only reason for participating would be because I might, in that situation, be interpreted as bringing the taxpayers' money into the talks. I will not be doing that and I cannot do so.

The Minister will not know exactly what will happen until he joins the talks. One cannot pre-empt the talks. This country was on its hands and knees for the past number of years and all of a sudden the economy is back up. This country greatly depends on tourism and the UK triggered Article 50 today so Ireland will have serious issues to deal with going forward. Our tourism depends on people coming from America and the UK. The tourism industry will suffer if we do not resolve this first round of disruptions in bus transport. What will happen if Dublin Bus or Irish Rail take industrial action? The Minister is an intelligent man and I have great respect for him but he is on the back foot this time. It is important that he get involved in the negotiations. He should not say that he does have the appropriate experience because he does. He also has experience because he has been around a long time. I suggest that he chat with the unions and Bus Éireann. I urge him to make an effort to sort out the strike for the sake of the country.

I thank the Deputy for his remarks. I have made it perfectly clear that I am very happy to talk to the unions, management, the NTA, the joint committee, interested parties and stakeholders but not while there is an industrial dispute going on. I am very happy to sympathetically discuss the wider issues with everybody involved but not while there is an industrial dispute taking place. What does the Deputy think the WRC is for? What does he think the Labour Court is for? What does he think I could add in any way except using taxpayers' money to resolve the problem? The WRC and Labour Court are two institutions of the State that have a fantastic record when it comes to resolving disputes, however intractable. I want to dispel the idea that I would help negotiations. I am of the view that I would give the wrong impression. In addition, other people would then expect a Minister to intervene in this dispute. That virtually has never happened, and - if I am not mistaken - certainly not since the days of Bertie Ahern in 1991. There has been no ministerial intervention and for very good reasons. If a Minister were to intervene, he or she would be sucked into a process in which they have no business being and they would not make the situation better. I believe, very strongly and passionately, that this dispute will be sorted out, however difficult it is, between the two main parties involved under the skilful stewardship of the WRC or the Labour Court.

What timescale will the Minister put on this matter? Will it continue for one or two weeks? What will happen if the staff of Dublin Bus and Irish Rail decide to take industrial action? Will the country be allowed to come to a standstill? I maintain that the Minister has fantastic negotiating skills and I ask him to please intervene in the Bus Éireann dispute. This country was on its hands and knees but it has come a long way since then. Many people have been involved in negotiations but the dispute has still not been resolved. The Minister has the skills and power to assist. The public want him to get involved in negotiations. I am a member of the Fine Gael Party and part of this Government in the same way as the Minister is at the moment. I did not come here to criticise people. The Minister has the negotiating skills so he must get involved. I plead with him not to let the dispute go any further. The economy has come a long way and I do not want us to lose that. Thousands of jobs are affected by the dispute and millions of euro will be lost.

There are six minutes remaining in this slot. I wish to inform Senator Feighan that we have reached the nine-minute mark.

May I make one comment?

I admire Deputy Fitzpatrick's passion. I share that passion in many ways, particularly in light of the difficulties in which people find themselves. I am not sure about the public perception. I do not know what the public perception is on whether I should get involved. I do not how public sentiment is running in respect of this matter. I know that I must make the right decision regardless of the public perception, which is very fickle.

When I first became involved in politics, a very good friend of mine told me that the fight is never what the fight is about. Obviously this dispute is about wider issues. The Minister said that some feel that the commercial licensing regime is somewhat flawed. I ask him to elaborate on the licensing issues. What issues do the unions and other stakeholders have with the scheme? The Minister has made additional money available for PSO services and instructed officials to examine the free travel scheme funding. Is that item one of the issues connected to the strike? Can he elaborate on the matter?

I did not say the licensing is flawed. I do not know where the Senator got that idea. Perhaps he has misinterpreted what I said. Maybe I misread my statement but I do not think so.

No. The Minister did not misread his statement.

I did not say the licensing is flawed.

All I said was that myself and others feel that the licensing is flawed.

Sorry. I thought the Senator said that I had said it.

I do not believe that the licensing system is flawed. I am of the view that we have a competitive and expanding market as a result of the licensing system. The public has responded to the market because they are quickly flocking to public transport, perhaps not in quite the numbers that we would like. Therefore, we have had to lay on more buses, both private and PSO. I do not think the system is flawed. It is a fairly successful licensing system because we have a thriving and certainly expanding public transport service. The industrial action is a very big problem but I do not think it is due to the licensing system. It is due to a lot of other things that we shall discuss in due course.

The free travel scheme is being negotiated by officials in my Department and the Department of Social Protection. The negotiations are at an advanced stage and have lasted some weeks. The officials are considering giving a fair amount back to the people who operate the free travel system and want to ensure that the scheme is updated. The free travel system was frozen in 2010. I cannot remember the exact figure but I think €23 million has been paid every year for the scheme since 2010. That has been wrong because the tourism market has expanded due to more people travelling and the demographics make a difference. All of this means there is a necessity for an adjustment from which all of the transport companies would benefit. I hope to soon report that talks have been concluded with the Department of Social Protection.

I wish to advise Deputy O'Mahony that there are two minutes remaining in this slot.

I shall use up the two minutes. The first thing that crossed my mind when I thought about this morning's meeting was that insults would be hurled back and forth. What would this debate be like if politics was removed for a while? The Minister did not help the situation a few weeks ago by saying, or he was quoted as saying, that transport was doddle. Perhaps he was misquoted but I am not sure.

There was a glimmer of hope in his statement today in terms of policy and licensing. I can see his point that he cannot solve the dispute with a chequebook because other sectors would expect the same. However, the dispute needs to be solved. What can he do? In order for the management and unions to settle the dispute they need to know how policy will influence a sustainable bus transport system. They need to know the views held by the Minister and the Government on transport policy and when subventions will return to the level experienced in better economic times because otherwise they are being hung out to dry. Everyone agrees that the country cannot survive without a public bus service. I would not ask him to resolve the dispute with a chequebook. He called for the use of imagination to resolve it.

I would ask the Minister to also have imagination in the sense of what guarantees he might give to Bus Éireann for policy changes down the line that would make it sustainable.

I will come back on the quotation that the Deputy gave because I would like to nail it. "Transport is a doddle" was a light-hearted remark I made on "The Late Late Show" when they were asking me about sport and I was in the height of trouble about some sporting problem at the time - I think it was the Olympics - and I was coming under fire and it was very difficult. They asked me about transport and I said that by comparison with what I was doing in sport, transport was a doddle. I have been proved wrong.

This has trumped it.

Transport has certainly trumped sport but it was a throw-away remark and that was a fair question. On the issue of how policy will influence Government and the issue of subventions, I am happy to talk in a constructive way to all the parties involved after this is over, but not beforehand. I have increased subventions in the past year and they were increased the year before. They did fall very rapidly in the period after 2008 and 2009. I am committed to increasing them every year if possible and we are looking for increased subventions again this year. I have said that before but if it gives any reassurance to people about the positive direction we see the transport companies going in, we intend as a Government to continue to increase subventions. That is Government policy.

Can I ask the Minister to conclude his remarks? We have to move on, as we have gone over time already.

That is Government policy. We want to give more money to these transport companies, but it does not have any direct bearing on the present dispute.

In the Minister's opening statement, he says that he is working actively to achieve a successful Bus Éireann. To my mind, the only thing he seems to be working actively to achieve is the re-opening of Stepaside Garda station.

This is the Minister's third time to appear before this committee in recent weeks, each time in relation to the challenges facing Bus Éireann. Since then, the only thing that has changed is that where Bus Éireann continued to lose €50,000 a day before the strike, it is €500,000 a day since the strike began. Since the Minister was first here on 1 February, that is €5.5 million of further loses. It is €4.5 million of losses since 1 March. The Minister was given a briefing document, an e-mail, sent by Ms Deirdre Hanlon, to his adviser, Ms Carol Hunt, in September 2016. I got a copy through freedom of information. At that time, the Minister said that the company identified a minimum turnaround of €7 million. What is the minimum turnaround for Bus Éireann as of today?

To answer the last question first about company's losses, the last audited accounts available are for 2015. They show a loss of €6 million. The company's representatives appeared before this committee and stated that the losses for 2016 are in the order of €8 to €9 million. As the Deputy will know, audited accounts for 2016 are not yet available for reasons he will understand.

I know about audited accounts. Since the Minister got a briefing in September 2016, what is his most up-to-date briefing in terms of the turnaround figure that is needed to be achieved in Bus Éireann?

The most up-to-date figure is the €8 to €9 million. That is obviously moving because the accounts are not audited. Do not expect me to make a definite decision about what the figure is until the accounts are audited. The most up-to-date figure is the figure the Deputy has received. Audited accounts are not available for 2016.

Is this problem with the deficit in Bus Éireann, as was originally envisaged, totally and exclusively in relation to the Expressway service or is it, as the unions feel, that the Minister's Department has an agenda to push down the pay and conditions of the workers to allow Bus Éireann to compete more freely with commercial operators?

There is absolutely no agenda on my part to push down wages specifically for any reason at all. What I do recognise, and what everybody recognises within unions and management, is that there are inefficiencies in the company. There are work practices. There have been cuts in other areas which were necessary.

Is it fully and exclusively as a result of Expressway? I am conscious that I only have ten minutes.

There is absolutely no agenda by my Department to bring down wages for any kind of ideological reasons, if that is what the Deputy is suggesting. The company's losses have not yet been audited. Do not ask me questions about the detail of the losses.

The Minister was getting briefings back in September. We know this from freedom of information. Surely if he was getting briefings back in September of last year, he got a briefing before he came in here today.

Of course, but I do not know yet what the audited figures are going to say, nor does Deputy Troy and nor does anyone else.

I am asking what the Minister has been briefed.

I am not going to throw out figures here over which I cannot stand. I do not have the luxury of being able to do that. I am not going to say anything about the 2016 accounts in that sort of detail until they are audited.

Is it exclusively in relation to Expressway?

As the Deputy knows, those particular issues and those figures have been moving on a weekly basis, so let us see the audited accounts before we decide what the losses actually are.

We will get to examinership. In the same document, the Minister was told to use the following only if needed, to the effect that the Minister was aware that the company was at an advanced stage in preparing a full business recovery plan which he expected to be submitted to him shortly. The Minister got that on 24 September 2016. Did the Minister receive that recovery plan? Yes or no? If he did receive that recovery plan, did he give it his sanction or blessing? Yes or no? I have a number of question that I want answered.

I think the particular document to which Deputy Troy refers is a document which had proposals, not a plan. That is what that was about.

The document stated the Minister was aware that the company was at an advanced stage of preparing a full recovery business plan which he expected to be submitted to him shortly. This is in black and white from freedom of information from the Minister's Department. It is not made up.

The Deputy is absolutely correct. After that was produced, we got a series of plans during that year and we got a series of proposals. The Deputy referred to 24 September 2016. The board of the company then commissioned independent consultants, Grant Thornton, to consider the options open to it. I think we have been over this territory many times before. It was not a plan. What Grant Thornton produced was an examination -----

The Minister received no plan.

-----of the options which were open to the company.

The Minister received no plan.

It was not a plan as such.

Has the Minister received any plan? Yes or no? It is a simple direct question. I would appreciate a direct reply.

I have received proposals and I have seen proposals. There is a plan at the moment, as the Deputy will probably be aware, which is being finalised at the moment.

What is being finalised?

A business plan is being finalised. It is in draft form and cannot be finalised until the industrial relation issues have been resolved.

That is for a good reason. A business plan for the company for 2016-17 and for the future cannot be produced until we know what the liabilities and the expenditure will be and what the revenue will be elsewhere.

Has the Minister seen the proposals?

I will be briefed on them tomorrow.

It is a pity the Minister was not briefed on them before he came in because the code requires the State-owned companies to afford the relevant Minister an opportunity to review to any such proposed plans before finalisation by the board of a particular company. The Minister, therefore, will be afforded the opportunity to review the plans.

Of course, I will be briefed on the plans.

In his opening address, the Minister called for flexibility between management and the unions. He is not displaying much flexibility. Precedent has been established. Both sides have been to the WRC and negotiations broke down. In 2013, when the previous Government was in talks with Dublin Bus, Fine Gael and the Labour Party thought outside the box and brought in two independent facilitators who were able to work with the two groups to bring them back to a position whereby they could go to the WRC and an agreement was reached. The report was carried out by Mr. Noel Dowling and Mr. Ultan Courtney. Has the Minister considered using his power and influence as chief stakeholder to provide such a facility?

How much longer can we stave off the company becoming insolvent?

I will get a briefing tomorrow on the state of the plan. I hope the Deputy accepts, because it is self-evident, that the plan cannot be finalised until the IR issue is resolved. I presume he accepts that.

We have not seen the plan. Has the Minister received it?

I have answered that question. No plan can be finalised until the IR issue is finalised because that is a major factor in making a business plan. I will see the draft and I will be briefed on how far it has got, but I will not be able to sign off or approve a final plan until that is resolved. To expect me to do that is just nonsensical.

With respect, I asked a question.

I refer to the Deputy's question about facilitators. I am determined that this strike will be resolved by two mature, responsible parties getting together. No bodies have greater expertise in this area than the WRC and the Labour Court.

The answer to the question is that the Minister is not prepared to consider a facilitator.

The reason the WRC and the Labour Court were set up is they have that expertise and they have a record. It would be wrong for me at this stage to undermine them by appointing two people and suggest that those bodies have not done a good job of work or have not approached this in a sensible and constructive way.

The Government parties assisted the WRC in October 2013.

I have full faith in the WRC and the Labour Court.

How much longer can insolvency be staved off? Has the board taken legal advice on reckless trading? What will be the consequences of examinership on the wider CIE Group?

I have absolutely no intention of speculating on insolvency. It would be utterly irresponsible for me to do that but the board is very aware of its responsibilities to the Deputy, to me, to the taxpayer and everybody else, and it is certainly being advised about that particular issue.

What will be the consequences of examinership on the wider CIE Group?

It is not a time for me to enter into a discussion of that sort and I do not intend to do so. I am spending every hour of every day trying to sort out the problems in this particular dispute, to explain to people and to try to understand what is going on. I monitor this on a daily basis. That is my job as the shareholder and that is what I do, but I will not at this stage address the issue of examinership because we are trying to sort out this dispute.

I welcome the Minister. He has rehashed a statement that he delivered to the committee on 1 March. The words have been rejigged and there has been no improvement in his approach. In my days in college, I learned the theory before doing the practical stuff, for example, in science. The Minister has put his hands up and admitted his concerns about policy issues, about which he needs to speak to others. Why did he not speak about them before we ended up with the workers and management at the WRC? Over the past six months, was he not focused on his job as opposed to interfering in other Departments and allowing this dispute to develop into what it is today?

The Minister seems to treat the rest of the country differently from Dublin. He insinuates that we are turning into the wild west in the country but his approach to the bus dispute will turn the countryside into the wild west. He is not a hands-on Minister but he needs to be. As late as yesterday, I heard Mr. Stephen Kent being interviewed by one of the national stations. He was asked if he would have any problem with the Minister getting involved. He did not reply with a point blank, "No". The Minister should review his position and get involved.

I am somewhat confused by the Deputy's questions but I will try to answer them as best I can. Policy issues are discussed at this committee and in the Dáil.

And we are not happy about them.

Yes, but the Deputy said I am ducking them; I am not. I have discussed them in the Seanad. No Minister has appeared in the Seanad more often. I have taken questions in the Dáil on these issues. Deputy Troy tabled a motion on transport in the Dáil, which we debated. I am blue in the face from discussing the policy issues and I am happy to continue doing so with members.

The Deputy said I am interfering in other Minister's Departments and the Chairman must allow me to respond to that. The Deputy is referring to what is in the programme for Government in other Departments. I happen to be one part of a group and Fine Gael happens to be another part. I have to follow up those issues, which my group and I inserted in the programme for Government. That is not interfering in anybody else's Department; it is simply being loyal to the people who elected me on those issues alone.

The comment regarding Dublin is not fair. I have spent a great deal of time and energy communicating with the NTA and others to ensure there is connectivity if routes are closed. That is self-evident in the fact that additional buses have been deployed on the Athlone-Westport route.

The Minister gave the board an open cheque book and told them the NTA was available to fill the void.

I have to move on.

I wish to share time with Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

We are now in day six of the strike. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that the public and the workers are now suffering the consequences of his inaction. I would like to get back to a factual conversation about how we arrived at the financial crisis we are facing. I would like the Minister to acknowledge that one of the causes of this crisis was the lack of subvention. Ireland has one of the lowest subvention rates in Europe.

The free travel pass subsidy only covers 41% of the average fare and journey cost and there is over-saturation of routes. Until the Minister acknowledges that these are the main factors contributing to the financial crisis, we are going nowhere. I would like him to acknowledge this. They are the bare-faced facts. I worry that if the Minister continues with his current policy, it will result in the decimation of the public transport network. I refer to his plans to outsource and privatise routes and, in general, the public transport network and the race to the bottom in workers' rights, pay and conditions which is under way.

I refer to the deliberate portrayal of the dispute as an industrial relations issue. The Minister knows full well that it is not. Workers are not on strike because they are seeking a pay rise. I want the Minister to acknowledge this. They are on strike because their wages are threatened to be cut by upwards of 30%. Would the Minister accept a cut in his wages of 30%, bearing in mind that he earns three to four times more than the average bus driver? Would Bus Éireann management, on a salary of €100,000, accept a pay cut of upwards of 30% in their wages? The Minister knows full well that workers did not create this crisis. In his opening statement he said:

I assure the committee that I am prepared to meet interested parties which include the trade unions about public transport policy issues that are of concern. Such discussions, whichever form they take, cannot take place during an industrial relations dispute or when a strike is being threatened.

However, he knows full well that for the past six months, he has been asked repeatedly to engage with all stakeholders, including his Department, the NTA, Bus Éireann management and the unions, sit around the table and find a solution to the crisis, but he has repeatedly refused to do so. All he has done is regurgitate his now infamous party piece "I am not getting involved". That is not good enough. He cannot absolve himself of his responsibility.

Does the Minister accept that public transport is a service just like education and health? Does he accept that the public transport network is grossly underfunded and that his increase was minuscule in comparison to what is required? Does he accept that he failed to deliver the free travel pass subsidy increase into which he said his officials would look ? Not only have we seen a minuscule increase in funding but the Minister has also failed to deliver an increase in the free travel pass subsidy. He also refused point blank to carry out a review of all the routes which are now loss making because of over-saturation. Why would he refuse point blank to do this if he was genuinely concerned about getting to the root of what caused the crisis? That lends itself to the opinion that he is only interested in outsourcing and privatisation. Is he aware that rail and tram services receive more in State funding per passenger than bus services. Will he comment on this?

In his opening statement the Minister said he was playing his part in supporting Bus Éireann. Was that a joke? He has done the absolute opposite. He adopted a hands-off approach from day one despite repeated calls to intervene. I will not ask him this question personally because we know that he is not interested, that he does not want to get involved and that he is not willing to find a solution. I have just come from the protest outside and know that the workers are determined not to be part of a race to the bottom. This could end up being the mother of all strikes. If workers in Iarnród Éireann and Dublin Bus join in, the Minister will be directly responsible for the chaos and destruction caused. It will not be the fault of the workers. As such, while the Minister can stay wherever it is he has been recently and stand aloof, will he allow the Department, rather than himself, the NTA, Bus Éireann management and the unions to get involved in negotiations? We are going nowhere if he does not. He is going to be responsible for the grinding to a halt of our public transport network and the disruption it will cause for the general public the length and breadth of the State. In the jaws of the strike, will he give permission for the Department, the NTA, Bus Éireann management and the unions to sit around the table and do the job he is not interested in doing?

There are only four minutes left for the Minister's responses and Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire to come in. Does the Deputy want to ask his questions now or would he prefer to wait? I do not think there will be much time left by the time the questions asked are answered.

My questions are relatively straightforward. The Minister states discussions, whatever form they take, cannot take place during an industrial relations dispute or when a strike is being threatened. Why on earth not? It is only within the gift of the Minister to change the conditions on many of the issues surrounding the subsidy, pay and all the rest. The capacity of Bus Éireann to negotiate with the workers is being restricted by the Minister's failure to get involved in negotiations. It is the Minister and the Government that have the ability to deliver a great deal of what can resolve this dispute to the satisfaction of Bus Éireann drivers and the public. As such, the Minister should absolutely get involved in a strategically important part of the public transport infrastructure which has huge community value. Apart from the official public service obligation routes, does the Minister accept that all Expressway services to a degree involve the serving of a public good in the many towns along the routes where private operators do not have to carry passengers? Does the Minister accept that there is a public service value in the Expressway routes?

The Minister has three minutes in which to respond.

It is quite a lot of questions to be answered in three minutes, but I will try to get through them as quickly as possible.

It is very important that people realise there is a misconception. They talk to me about wages, terms and conditions and ask why I am not doing certain things about it. They should realise I am not the employer. Bus Éireann is the employer. The employer is the person who should be discussing this dispute.

Let me get to Deputy Imelda Munster's questions. I understand what she is saying and we have had this exchange before. She is quite right that I have consistently said the same thing, as has she. It is important, however, to challenge the rhetoric she uses and that we do not throw the blame around this committee as if it is a foregone conclusion that some people have certain objectives. As I have spelled out the following before, she should not have asked me again. I have absolutely no interest in privatising any section, division, subsidiary, or commercial entity owned by the State or CIE. Privatisation is not on the Government's agenda, nor is it on mine. That is an absolute.

Let me make it totally and utterly clear.

Deputy Imelda Munster talked about a race to the bottom. I am as determined as she is that there will be no race to the bottom. She can throw around the rhetoric as much as she likes, but let me say specifically - she can hold me to account as often as she likes - that I do not wish to see a race to the bottom, nor am I promoting one. The company has stated it has no such intention. The unions and the company have stated there are inefficiencies and efficiency improvements and that they must be addressed.

I have stated there are inefficiencies which must be addressed. I want a solution which does not push any of the workforce into any of the rhetorical positions being suggested.

The subvention is lower than I would like it to be and lower than in some comparable transport companies in Europe. I would like it to be higher. It might have been more helpful if the committee had acknowledged the fact that we had turned the corner on subventions in recent years. There was a terrible period for these transport companies after 2009 or 2010. Subventions are actually going up, although not fast enough and there are financial pressures that make it very difficult.

The free travel scheme is being addressed as a matter of urgency and we should have a result in the next few weeks which will benefit the transport companies. While it is not part of the industrial relations issue, I am working towards this in order that there will be a benefit to the transport companies.

Is the Minister aware that rail and tram service funding is higher per passenger than it is for bus services?

I need to move on to Deputy Mick Barry. Did the Deputy ask that question?

I did, but I did not receive an answer.

It is a PSO issue. It is according to the contracts as they are set out.

The Minister says he has no interest in participating in a race to the bottom and that there is no race to the bottom. There is a proposal on the table to establish a panel of part-time and temporary drivers at Bus Éireann working off a type of zero-hour contract. The proposal will bring some of the worst excesses of private sector exploitation and make them part of the semi-State sector. How does the Minister square this with the comment he made two minutes ago? What is his view on that proposal?

I know that the Minister is a supporter of outsourcing, but I did not expect him to outsource the difficult questions to Ms Hanlon, something he has been doing for the past hour. Can he answer the question himself?

I am quite happy to answer it. I am just trying to get a little detail. The issue is very simple. The details of the negotiations are for the company. I am not the employer and I do not decide wage levels. I will not be negotiating and the Deputy should not ask me to get involved in the nitty-gritty of wage negotiations in front of this or any other audience. That is not my role.

The Minister says he does not want to see a race to the bottom, but in the next breath he says the proposal to have a type of zero-hour contract is not his responsibility and that it is a matter of indifference to him.

I do not know where the Deputy gets his information from about zero-hour contracts.

It is included in a discussion document from the Workplace Relations Commission.

I have been told by the company that it has no such proposals whatsoever to have zero-hour contracts. If the Workplace Relations Commission has a document of that sort and has discussed the issue of zero-hour contracts, that will be for it to deal with.

Does the Minister have full confidence in the commission?

Let us see the document.

I referred to a type of zero-hour contract. It states part-time and temporary drivers will form part of the weekly rosters. It states a minimum fixed-hour working arrangement will be agreed to in advance with part-time and temporary drivers. It states payment will be for revenue hours covered and that the company may, on a short or longer term basis, utilise part-time or temporary staff to avoid inefficient duty workings and-or to fill staff vacancies. If that is not an example of the exploitation of the private sector being brought into the heart of the semi-State sector, I do not know what it is.

The Minister gives the impression that he has about as much responsibility for resolving the dispute as the man on the back of the No. 8 bus to Mayfield. He is the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the sole shareholder in the company, and has a responsibility to its workforce, its 100,000 passengers and the small businesses that are already taking a hit. He has a responsibility to the schoolchildren who were left stranded at the side of the road in New Ross, County Wexford on Monday when their school bus broke down and there were no mechanics or inspectors available to intervene.

I do not subscribe to the view that the Minister's refusal to intervene is because he is lazy. I think he knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that a failure to intervene will lead to massive pay cuts, privatisation or Bus Éireann going to the wall. He knows that intervention means bringing a cheque book and increasing the public subvention for a public transport service which is severely underfunded. I think he has an agenda. Will he comment on this?

Yes. It is rubbish.

What did the Minister say?

It is complete and utter rubbish. I have no privatisation agenda whatsoever.

I will read from something and do not know whether the Minister will think it is rubbish. A few years ago someone said Ireland's trade unions had subverted our democracy. He said:

What a pity there was no strike last Thursday. Some of us were longing for it. If the trade union leaders had called a strike they would have suffered bloody noses.

I think the person who said that has an agenda. It was the Minister who said it on the pages of the Sunday Independent. Does he still believe trade unions subvert democracy? Does he still want to see union leaders getting bloody noses? Is that still part of his agenda?

I have answered the Deputy's question. I have no privatisation agenda whatsoever. If I have had tussles with various individuals in various strikes in the past, it does not mean that I have a privatisation agenda today. I do not.

We all have tussles with various individuals. It is more than a tussle to say:

What a pity there was no strike last Thursday. Some of us were longing for it. If the trade union leaders had called a strike they would have suffered bloody noses.

It does not seem that the Minister has changed his views one iota in the year since that article was written. The stakes are very high in this dispute and it is no longer simply about the take-home pay of Bus Éireann workers, the future of Bus Éireann or public transport services, important as all of those issues are. The dispute is about the culture of work we want to have. Do we want to have a culture in which a chief executive hotshot can be appointed and, less than a couple of months into the job, propose cuts of between €3,000 and €6,000 in the take-home pay of men and women who have worked in the job for more than 30 years and then tell them to take it or leave it?

Do we want a culture of low pay, zero-hour contracts and privatisation? Alternatively, do we want a culture that involves half-decent pay rates, good public services and the right to an effective trade union representation? That is what is at stake. All who want a civilised option will back the Bus Éireann workers and any action that they, in conjunction with Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann workers, deem necessary to win a victory for workers' rights, decency and justice. That is all I want to say on the matter.

I thank the Deputy.

I thank Deputy Barry for his contribution. I have heard it before and no doubt I will hear it again. I wish to find a solution to this problem. That is my agenda and I think we are addressing it in the best possible way. As far as I know, there is no intention of introducing zero-hour contracts. I will repeat that I have no privatisation agenda. It is unhelpful for Deputy Barry to come into this committee room and repeatedly state that. Let me give the evidence and members of the Government can contradict me if they wish. I have never discussed or raised the issue of privatisation either formally or informally, in private or in public, with any member of the Government. It has never been suggested. There is no hidden agenda. Our sole objective is to sort out this dispute and to have a thriving company.

If I may be very brief, the Minister states that he comes in here and hears the same points from me. I come in here and hear the same points from the Minister. It is a stalemate, but I suspect that it will not be settled in here but outside when Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann workers display their solidarity with and support for their colleagues, which I know they will display, in defence of public transport, take-home pay and workers' rights. Then the Minister and his Government will be forced to listen and change their tune.

A number of non-members are in attendance and the best I will be able to give them is one minute each, with the Minister then to respond. Deputy Catherine Murphy has her ten minutes as normal.

I apologise for interjecting, but would it be possible to start the select committee meeting and then defer it to let the other members in? It is an important issue that is affecting all of the regions?

All members of the committee will have contributed once Deputy Catherine Murphy concludes. There are four non-members who are in attendance. I am conscious that Deputy Healy-Rae has been here since the start as was Senator John Dolan, who had to leave for a vote. In fairness, every member has had their time. If the select committee meeting does not start by 3.15 p.m., the meeting falls. Under Standing Orders it has to start by 3.15 p.m. Alternatively, we could reconvene as a committee if the Minister's schedule allows, but we would have to reschedule the meeting on the Estimates.

Could we have an adjournment for a few minutes to give him a chance?

My understanding is that is not possible. If we want to start the meeting, the reels will have to be changed for the broadcasting unit. A lot of work is required to just get the meeting started.

Perhaps we could just add an extra ten or 15 minutes.

Under Standing Orders the next meeting has to start by 3.15 p.m. The non-members are now already down to 30 seconds. I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.

We all agree that there has been an extraordinary degree of industrial peace given the years of austerity and the punishment people have taken in their take-home pay. It has been said before, but this dispute is not about people seeking a wage increase. It is about people being asked to reduce their take-home income, which is a significant ask of them where they have built up rights over the years.

There are not two sides in the dispute, but three. If there were two sides to the dispute, the Minister could justifiably state that the industrial relations mechanisms are available. As there are three sides to the dispute, however, Government involvement is required. I have previously stated that we have good industrial relations mechanisms and that is where this should occur. I am not seeking the Minister's direct intervention. However, it is absolutely ridiculous to think the dispute will be resolved without some Government intervention. There was Government intervention in the dispute with the Garda that was resolved and quite a sizable amount of money was involved. I wonder if it was that the Minister for Justice and Equality successfully argued at Cabinet for the additional €50 million.

The settlement of this dispute will not just involve savings that might be made. Has the Minister some indication that the magnitude of the savings would not impact on workers' take-home pay? Will the Minister answer that question first?

I will take the second question first. I have not yet made this point but I presume it is sticking out and everyone knows it. I cannot give money to Expressway. It is as simple as that. Therefore, I have no role to play. It is a commercial organisation. It would be against the rules for me to do it. I cannot go in and sort out this problem for Expressway by just giving it a subsidy. As the Deputy knows, it is a commercial organisation and we cannot give it to one without-----

Some of the routes are not profit-making routes. The Minister knows that. It has already been said. From that perspective, it is not commercial. Transferring them into PSO routes is one mechanism for intervention and provision of resources.

That is true, but that is up to the NTA. That is what has happened already. As the Deputy knows, it happened with the Athlone-Westport route. Expressway closed it down and the NTA moved in and put in extra buses.

At the last meeting, the Minister told me that the NTA has a capped amount and, essentially, it would have to stretch it beyond what is possible.

I do not think that is the case at the moment. The situation is that the NTA does not have to stretch because of the proposals on the routes that are to be closed down. It can be covered by the NTA itself. I will check the matter for the Deputy. I am pretty certain though.

I ask the Minister to come back to me on it as a matter of urgency. On the free travel scheme-----

I will come back to the Deputy now on it. I am correct. The Deputy can be absolutely certain of it.

The free travel scheme is not covering the cost of travel on these commercial routes and often some private carriers are not taking those who hold a free travel pass. We cannot allow this to drift by, for example, doing a report and having the results of the report in six weeks' time. When will the Minister have the results on whether there can be provision under the scheme?

The Deputy is right that some of the private carriers do not carry those who hold a free travel pass. When will we do it? The last time I inquired about it, it was pretty well imminent. It was coming down the line. A few things remained to be settled but I think it will be probably in a week or two. We can probably be sure that we will get it within a week or two.

That week or two could be another week or two of people on strike and not being paid and the travelling public having to wait. That presumably is an element of what could resolve the dispute.

This is separate. That is a bit like saying that the subvention can sort the dispute. The subvention cannot sort out the dispute. Nor can the free travel scheme sort out the dispute.

To be perfectly-----

Let me finish. The issue of free travel should have been sorted regardless of this dispute and would have been sorted regardless of this dispute. It is an issue that affects the other transport companies as well. The Deputy should not just target Bus Éireann as part of the free travel area. It also affects the others.

I will move on.

I would like to explore this further but we have very limited time. I believe people are not going to get the fact that this company has been pushed to insolvency. One can very easily envisage a situation of an examiner being obliged to go into a semi-State company. We could end up with a very significant cost on foot of the company becoming insolvent. The settlement of this dispute would be a relatively minor affair compared with the potential cost to the State. Is the Minister being briefed in that regard and has contingency planning been done? Does the Minister know the bottom line in this regard? For example, what would happen in the event of the company being wound up in respect of redundancy payments, breaches of contracts, property interests and the fleet? Has the Minister been briefed on any of that?

Let me answer the Deputy's question but first I shall contradict something she said. I do not believe the company is being pushed to insolvency. That is an unfortunate turn of phrase. There is a danger of insolvency and we are trying to keep it out of insolvency. It is unfortunate the Deputy used the phrase "pushed to insolvency".

How is the Minister keeping it out of insolvency?

We are trying to persuade the workforce and employers to get together and sort it out by themselves. That is our objective. Do not say it is being pushed to insolvency. The Deputy is right when she says it is in danger of insolvency but the rhetoric is really misleading.

Can I just say to the Minister that I remember an old song from when I was a child. It was called "There's a Hole in the Bucket". This is what the situation sounds like; there is a hole in the bucket and no matter what the Minister does, he keeps coming back around to same thing again.

No, because I think the company has a good future and a viable future. I am very much hoping it has a viable future.

A lot of the workers will have a future in which they will not be able to pay their mortgages or keep their kids in college. Essentially, they are the ones who are being asked to foot the bill. They are being asked to take an unacceptable reduction in their quality of life and living standards. I do not believe that anybody goes out on strike intentionally. People think about it long and hard and it is a last resort for workers and trade unions as there is a cost to the trade union side also. I do not see this strike being resolved unless there is an intervention. I am not saying that the Minister should get in and negotiate directly as I do not believe that would be appropriate. There are good mechanisms there. This will not be resolved, however, unless there is an intervention around the income. It is not going to be just purely down to savings and efficiencies. If there were savings and efficiencies to be made of the magnitude referred to by the Minister then they would have been made by now.

I do not disagree with quite a lot of what Deputy Murphy has said. I am totally on the same page as her about people who may not be able to pay their mortgages and I saw a lot about this on television recently. It is a really tough situation for them. The problem is that there are inefficiencies in the company, which is acknowledged by the staff and the management. I cannot give money to Expressway. Full stop. I cannot do that. It has to be sorted out by them. Those inefficiencies are a common mantra they use and I cannot intervene by paying money because it is totally against the rules. That would be state aid and illegal.

I now invite the non-members in the order they presented themselves. Deputy Healy-Rae has less than one minute. Deputies Fitzmaurice and Boyd Barrett are after that, also with less than one minute each please.

I thank the Chairman very much. I respectfully ask the Minister to intervene in whatever way he can, to get involved or to mediate between the unions and management for the simple reason that the Minister is responsible for public transport in the State. Whatever happens we must have public transport for the people who do not have cars or those who are not able to transport themselves. We are already seeing that school transport is affected. The bus driver who does the passenger run also does school transport, and he or she is not doing that either, so in many places the school transport facility is already being hit. We remember what happened when Bertie Ahern got involved in disputes. He wore them out all night, and he stayed there the next day and the day after. I have every faith in the Minister, Deputy Ross, that he could do this. One bus driver showed me his payslip today. It showed €626 as his net pay. Surely he cannot be asked to take a 30% cut. I ask the Minister to intervene and to mediate because he is responsible for the fallout. We still need public transport. The Minister is responsible for it. I respectfully ask the Minister to get involved and not to blame me for asking. Everybody out there is asking for him to do just that.

I thank the Deputy. I call on Deputy Fitzmaurice.

I have one last thing-----

No Deputy, you cannot. Deputy Fitzmaurice-----

I am not asking the Minister to bring money; I am asking him to get involved. I am asking something different to other requests and for the Minister to get involved to see if he can sort out the situation.

I have two quick questions. The Minister must realise that in small rural towns around Ireland, and where I come from, there is no bus at all now. There are private buses in some of the larger towns but we have no bus service now. Does the Minister believe that a Bus Éireann driver who goes from Waterford to Galway, for example, should be on the equivalent wage as a Dublin Bus driver? I am not asking the Minister himself to go in but as the largest stakeholder in Bus Éireann, is the Minister prepared to instruct Bus Éireann to go into talks - and if it is not through the Workplace Relations Commission that the Minister would appoint an independent person - and to invite the unions? In another room the Minister could put the National Transport Authority and his Department. I believe there are routes that may not be profitable and the Minister may have to get support on that. Is the Minister prepared to do that?

Senator John Dolan has been here from the start and must leave for a meeting. The Senator has one minute.

Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister also and I appreciate that the Minister responded back to me since the last meeting. These are very trying times for drivers and their families. They feel vulnerable, as would anyone in that situation. People who have a disability would have empathy with that situation because they are folk who feel vulnerable a lot of the time, or all of the time, around a public transport system that is often a hit-and-miss service for them - and I do not mean that in a derogatory sense. The Minister has acknowledged to me that there are issues in this regard and I have heard him also acknowledge this to Deputy Boyd Barrett in the Dáil recently. We have issues such as wheelchair accessibility, as well as audio and visual concerns, and the Minister has given some assurance in the reply to me. To cut to the chase, I would certainly welcome an opportunity to meet the Minister as a first step to move things on. There are different standards of provision between public and private transport operators. I raise this as an issue-----

The Senator must conclude his remarks.

-----and it is the same between city and rural services. I believe it would be quite useful, and it is a matter for the committee, that there might be a dedicated space in which to look at the access issue, this year, next year or the following year and some outlining of the stepping up of access for people who have a disability.

Deputy Boyd Barrett must be very brief please.

I have just come from the demonstration by the bus workers. One of the bus workers told me that if Bus Éireann gets what it is looking for, the workers will lose hundreds of euro a week. The workers cannot do this. Does the Minister accept that they cannot do this and, therefore, they have no choice but to escalate this dispute? If we are looking at an escalating, prolonged dispute by people who have no choice but to fight then the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport would have no choice but to intervene. Will the Minister explain how he can claim that the low levels of subsidy compared with our European counterparts - 70% in Belgium and 50% in Holland as against just over 20% in Ireland - is not the Minister's responsibility and is not an important factor?

I call Deputy Mattie McGrath.

It is not a level playing field with the private operators against Bus Éireann because it has to carry a range of responsibilities.

Deputy Mattie McGrath has 30 seconds.

It is getting less subsidy for the free travel scheme than private operators. These private operators are running Bus Éireann out of business and the Minister is allowing that to happen.

On a point of clarification, is the Minister happy to stand over a situation where somebody from Bus Éireann management locked the drivers out of their bus depot in Clonmel on Saturday last at 1 a.m. after the buses were parked there? Is he content to allow that to happen?

Is the Minister also aware that 12 senior managers in Bus Éireann are getting over €100,000 a year and 11 more managers are getting just under €100,000?

Is the Minister content to allow a situation from this Saturday, which I note is April Fool's Day, where there will be no Bus Éireann services anymore serving Clonmel, thereby throwing the bus drivers on the scrap heap?

We do not have time. Under Standing Orders, I must start the select committee meeting at 3.15 p.m. Perhaps the Minister could respond to the members in writing as soon as he can. I must adjourn the meeting now.

We have maybe two or three minutes.

The joint committee is now adjourned and the select committee will meet at 3.15 p.m. sharp.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.01 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 5 April 2017.