I am pleased to have the opportunity to open the debate in this House on the Local Government (Roads Functions) Bill 2007 which passed all Stages in the Dáil yesterday. On the formation of the Government in June 2007, the Taoiseach announced that responsibility for non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file, commonly referred to as the NVDF, was to be transferred from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport. This Bill provides for minor legislative changes to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for these functions from my Department to the Department of Transport.
Following the Taoiseach's announcement, my Department engaged with the Department of Transport and the Office of the Attorney General to work out the legal and practical arrangements for the transfer. Normally, transfer of departmental functions can be proceeded with by way of the making of a transfer of functions order under the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1939. The advice received from the Office of the Attorney General was that the transfer of functions relating to non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file required the making of some minor amendments to the primary legislation and the enactment of a transfer of functions order. It is intended that the making of the order, the drafting of which is well advanced, will coincide with the commencement of the Bill.
The provisions of this legislation, which has been introduced to reorganise Government functions, are technical. The Bill provides for the amendment of the Local Government Act 1998 to allow payments from the local government fund to be made to the Minister for Transport in respect of non-national roads and the expenses associated with maintaining NVDF records, administering the motor vehicle tax system and issuing driver licences. Such expenses are being met from the local government fund at present. This legislation provides for the continuation of these arrangements following the transfer of functions. The Bill also provides a statutory basis on which the Minister for Transport can make regulations in respect of the NVDF functions that are being transferred to him. The legislation also provides that future ministerial consents in respect of railway orders are to be vested in the Minister for Transport as the responsible Minister where the works involved are likely to affect public roads.
I would like to explain the need for the Bill to be enacted within a short timescale. The Department of Finance has set out a deadline of mid to late November for the enactment of the Bill so it will have time to make the necessary adjustments to the 2007 and 2008 Votes of the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport prior to budget day. The enactment of this Bill and the making of the transfer of functions order will allow the spending provisions for non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file to be definitively transferred to the Vote of the Department of Transport. Therefore, statutory responsibility for these expenditure provisions will transfer to that Department. I thank Senators for their co-operation in facilitating early consideration of the Bill.
The Government made a number of changes in the structures and functions of Departments after the 2002 general election. As part of that reorganisation, most of the departmental administration and ministerial functions relating to roads, road traffic and road safety were transferred from the then Department of the Environment and Local Government to the then Department of Public Enterprise, which is now the Department of Transport. At that time, it was decided that functions relating to regional and local roads would remain with the then Department of the Environment and Local Government. The primary reason those functions were not transferred at the time was that State grants for non-national roads were mainly financed from the local government fund, which is administered by my Department. The origins of Ireland's extensive road network are clearly linked to the low density and dispersed nature of its population. While we have experienced increased urbanisation and a move from agriculture in recent times, the network of non-national roads is still necessary to provide mobility within and between local economies and to provide links to the strategic national road network and the ports and airports which are our links with the wider European economy.
The impact of the non-national road network on regional development takes on added importance as we make progress with the implementation of the national spatial strategy. The 20-year strategy, which was published in 2002, is designed to promote more balanced regional development and allow all regions of the country to achieve their full economic and social potential. The strategy designates 18 cities and towns as gateways and hubs — regional centres of growth in which development will give a lift to their hinterlands and the regions as a whole. Investment in strategic non-national roads is critical if we are to develop our gateways, hubs and other growth centres. Investment within and between these centres and their hinterlands plays a key role in improving connectivity and circulation and facilitating the development of strategically placed landbanks.
The programme of developing and maintaining the network is not confined to urban centres. It is vital for rural communities that improvements in transport infrastructure continue to be implemented. Regional and local roads are very important in this regard. The overall aim is to make the regions more attractive places in which to live, work and spend time as a visitor. It is intended to raise their level of development, support their economies and contribute to balanced regional development.
Under the current arrangements, overall responsibility for the planning and supervision of works and the construction and maintenance of national roads is vested in the National Roads Authority, which operates under the aegis of the Department of Transport. Responsibility for the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is vested in individual local authorities, with State grants being provided through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Government has decided that overall responsibility for the non-national road investment programme should be vested in the Minister for Transport, as the Department of Transport is responsible for road traffic, road safety and overall transport development and policy. There is no longer any rationale for giving two separate Ministers and Departments responsibility for different aspects of public road network policy.
One of the primary purposes of this Bill is to facilitate the transfer of the non-national roads function to the Minister for Transport. It will also facilitate the payment of associated State grants by that Minister. As a recognition of the importance of the non-national road network, the new national development plan provides that €4.3 billion will be invested by the local government fund and the Exchequer in the network over the period of the plan. The main emphasis of the investment programme will be on improving and maintaining the existing network and investing in strategic roads. While responsibility for non-national roads is transferring to the Department of Transport, the local government fund will continue to provide significant finance for such roads. A sum of €520 million is being provided from the local government fund this year. This will be the benchmark for future non-national road funding from the fund.
The national vehicle driver file, NVDF, is a database of national strategic importance which contains details of all 2.4 million registered vehicles and 2.5 million licensed drivers in the country. The NVDF is the product of a major computerisation project which was completed in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2002. The system allows all vehicle and driving licence transaction processing to be done by motor tax authorities in real time. The NVDF is a critical part of the management of the national motor tax and driving licence services, including the optimisation of the services to the motoring public. NVDF data play a key role in vehicle and driver regulation. They support the critical road safety agenda. In that context, the Government deemed it appropriate that the system and its support staff should transfer from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport.
I would like to outline some aspects of the wider context in which the NVDF now operates. The Garda Síochána receives NVDF data to assist it with road traffic and driver law enforcement as well as crime prevention and detection generally. There is interaction between the NVDF and the Office of the Revenue Commissioners which, in the context of its role as the national vehicle registration authority, provides details of recently registered new and imported used vehicles to the NVDF. Such details provide the basis for the core NVDF vehicle details. NVDF data are available to the Revenue Commissioners to assist them with their tax enforcement initiatives. NVDF data are also made available to national car test service providers to enable them to fulfil their vehicle testing obligations. Motor manufacturer and distributor companies receive NVDF data to help their vehicle recall initiatives if it is found that faults present potential danger to vehicle owners or road users in general. These are some examples of the manner in which vehicle data play a key role in regulatory enforcement and road safety implementation.
The NVDF also plays a critical role in the administration of penalty points. The driver records on the system are updated with penalty point data received from An Post, which act as an agent for the Garda Síochána, and the Courts Service when penalty points are applied upon conviction. Penalty point notices covering the allocation and withdrawal of penalty points, as well as disqualification notices issued when drivers reach the requisite number of points, are generated using the NVDF system. The NVDF also provides the basis for a number of customer-focused services. For example, a process of issuing reminders to drivers whose licences are about to expire has recently commenced as a pilot project and will become fully operational in early 2008.
The on-line motor tax service, which is one of the real success stories of e-Government, has captured the public imagination to the extent that it is now regarded as a flagship example of the provision of efficient and effective services to the public. The competent and efficient operation of the service was acknowledged when it won the "Government to Citizen" category at the 2004 Innovation Through Technology awards.
Regarding the specific provisions in the Bill, the primary purpose of section 1 is to amend the Local Government Act 1998 to allow for the payment of moneys from the local government fund to the Minister for Transport in respect of non-national roads and the Minister's expenses in maintaining NVDF records, administering motor vehicle tax and issuing driver licences. These expenses are being met from the fund and they will continue to be met from the fund following the transfer of functions. Section 1 also ensures moneys received by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Transport in the context of motor tax, driver licences and NVDF functions continue to be paid into the local government fund.
Senators will be aware of the significant role which the local government fund has played in the financing of local government since it was established in 1999. The fund is financed from a combination of an Exchequer contribution and the full proceeds of motor taxation. Total funding for 2007 amounts to some €1.5 billion, which represents approximately 30% of local authority current funding. The fund comprises an Exchequer contribution of €537 million and the proceeds of motor tax, which is projected at €944 million for 2007.
The ability of local government to respond to the ever-increasing demands for improved services made on it in recent years demonstrates the success of the local government fund. These demands have arisen owing to an expanding population, unprecedented economic growth and higher customer expectations. Not only has the fund been successful in delivering resources locally, it has succeeded in limiting the direct financial contribution required of local communities and businesses through rates and charges.
Local authority current expenditure amounted to €1.8 billion in 1997. Ten years on, current expenditure by local government will amount to in excess of €4.7 billion. The general purpose grant allocation from the fund to local authorities for 2007 amounts to €948 million. This represents an increase of 8% over the record amount provided in 2006 and is an increase of 180% over the 1997 allocation.
It is very important for the improvements that have been brought about in the financing of local authorities, both current and capital, to be built upon. In this context it is important that the local government fund, which has been pivotal in this success, is not compromised by the transfer of functions. I assure the House that the integrity of the fund is not compromised in any way by the transfer of functions as motor tax and the Exchequer will continue to provide resources to the fund. In this way, the fund will continue to provide a robust, buoyant and dedicated source of funding to local authorities by way of general purpose grants and grants for non-national roads.
With respect to section 2, amendments are required to the Roads Act 1920 to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for the NVDF function to the Minister for Transport. Under current legislation, the power to make regulations for the control and regulation of the motor tax system, which includes change of vehicle ownership, is vested in the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government under the 1920 Act. Arising from the transfer of functions with respect to non-national roads, I will no longer have any function in respect of public roads.
Section 3 provides for a minor amendment to the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001 to provide that ministerial consent to the granting of a railway order where the works in question would affect a non-national road is to be vested in the Minister for Transport as the responsible Minister.
This Bill is a technical measure to amend the legislative framework to facilitate the transfer of the non-national roads and the NVDF functions to the Minister for Transport. The actual transfer of functions will be effected by a transfer order to be made by the Government to coincide with the commencement of the Bill. While the responsibility for non-national roads and the NVDF is transferring to the Department of Transport, I can assure the House that I will continue to be statutorily responsible for the management of the local government fund.
I thank Senators for their co-operation in facilitating early consideration of the Bill which I commend to the House.