I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House.
School Transport: Statements
I am delighted to have the opportunity to explain to the Seanad the changes that will take place in the provision of school transport in September next and in September 2012.
It is no harm to set in context how exactly we have arrived at a position where we need to impose these changes. Ireland is in a difficult place. In an ideal country, all of us would dearly love to have school buses calling to the front door of the house of every child who requires school transport and dropping him or her at the front gate of his or her school. However, we do not live in an ideal country. We live in a country that has lost control of its chequebook. In fiscal terms, we are now policy takers rather than policy makers and as all Senators will be aware, every fortnight the Governor of the Central Bank must report to Frankfurt to state that our fortnightly returns, in terms of Revenue and cost reductions, are meeting their targets. We are borrowing €350 million per week merely to keep the public services functioning and if we do not meet those fortnightly targets, then we will not have any reason to transport our children to school because there will not be any schools for them to attend.
Michael Collins, the first Minister for Finance of the State, had more room to manoeuvre than his successor, Deputy Noonan, has today. How we arrived at this sad and vulnerable place is not up for discussion this evening, but I intend to play my part in getting us out of this place and in fully restoring our independence. When my son and the Senators' sons and daughters leave school in a few years' time, I want all of them to be able to hold their heads high and to feel part of a proud nation that has regained control over its national spending and is ready to build a bright future purely on its own terms. Our children need to be masters of their own destiny and we need to bestow upon them the freedom and independence to succeed in whatever field they choose without having to look over their shoulders to paymasters in Frankfurt and Washington. For that to happen, all of us here need steely determination to rein in our spending and to balance our books.
School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on my Department's behalf. In the region of 123,000 children, including more than 8,000 children with special needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to schools throughout the country, covering more than 82 million kilometres annually. I am very aware that this scheme has been the subject of much comment and debate recently in various parts of the country. I attended a meeting in a hotel in Listowel last night at the invitation of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, where I spoke to and engaged with approximately 400 parents.
These changes derive from a value-for-money review of the school transport scheme which was finalised in 2010 and from decisions of the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government to implement recommendations in that report. Before I outline the changes in more detail for the benefit of Members, I stress again today that they are being implemented at a time of serious and long-term economic challenges. In the short period since we assumed office it has been — it will continue to be — necessary for this Government to make tough and unpopular decisions. We have little or no scope, or no intention, of reversing an earlier Government decision. Against this background, under the four year recovery plan, this year's school transport budget of €180 million assumes savings of some €4 million in 2011. This savings figure will then rise by a further €14 million up to 2014. These are minimum required levels of savings and, like every other area of expenditure, are liable to revision.
In the 1997 to 2011 period, the budget for school transport increased from some €50 million per annum to nearly €180 million per annum or an increase of 260%. Bear in mind, as that increase incurred, we ended up in that period from 1997 to 2011 carrying approximately 30,000 fewer pupils in the system. This massive increase in the school transport budget, while heavily influenced by factors such as safety and the transport for children with special educational needs, is significantly greater than the inflation rate or the rate of increase in the overall education budget during that period.
It now costs €1 million per school-going day to transport our children to school. Given our present circumstances, and the fact that this is a significant expenditure area, it is not possible to exclude such an area from serious evaluation and from the impact of essential cutbacks in expenditure. The aggregation of the primary and post-primary transport measures being implemented arising from the value for money review will be an important element in achieving these savings.
On a positive note, the changes to the operation of the scheme also aim to ensure a more simplified, modernised and streamlined application and administration system managed by Bus Éireann. I accept that, because of the rural nature of the school transport scheme, which this year is providing transport for 123,000 children or 15% of the overall primary and post-primary school-going population, the impact of the changes will obviously be significantly more visible in some rural communities.
I will outline briefly the five key budgetary changes being implemented. First, the ceasing of the closed school rule and the central school rule is happening in two phases, namely in 2011, the uniform application of the distance eligibility requirement of 3.2 kilometres and in 2012, the cessation of eligibility for school transport based on the closed school rule for all new children entering primary school. Second, the minimum number of eligible children needed to establish or retain services increases from seven to ten, which change generally represents a reversion to 2002 levels. In 2001, a decision was taken by the then Minister to reduce that number from ten to seven and a year later, our bus transport costs had risen by €23 million. Third, there will be changes to charges, including the introduction of charges for eligible primary pupils. Fourth, we are ceasing the catchment boundary system at post-primary level. Administrative arrangements with Bus Éireann for the operation of the scheme are being updated.
For those Senators — approximately 115 days ago, I was that person — who was not familiar with the closed school rule, I will briefly give a short outline of it. The closed school and central school rule for school transport eligibility purposes was introduced in the 1960s in circumstances where a primary school was closed and amalgamated with another. Under the closed school rule, where a primary school is closed and amalgamated with another, pupils residing in the closed school area are eligible for transport to the school of amalgamation even though they may be residing less than 3.2 kilometres from that school. The central school rule resulted from the amalgamation of a greater number of schools. In these instances transport is provided for children residing not less than one mile from the new central school.
No time limit was ever applied to the closed school-central school rule. In some cases the primary school in question was closed up to 40 years ago and amalgamated with another school. In some instances a newer school has subsequently been built in the general area of the original closed school.
There are quite a number of parents — my Department tells me this has been the subject of many representations in recent years — whose children are attending a central or amalgamated school who have a school closer to them but yet cannot gain access to that school because the transport system and the special arrangements in place for amalgamated schools dictate that the bus runs to this amalgamated school only. In fact, in 2005, the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, commented on this.
She asked that serious consideration be given to putting a time limit on this amalgamated school rule. I wish to quote from her letter. She stated:
I understand from discussions with the Department that a time limit of eight years is proposed. However, the Ombudsman considers that this time limit may be unduly excessive. Under the circumstances, the Department is requested to provide a substantive reason as to why a time limit of eight years is proposed or alternatively to consider reducing the proposed time limit. The Department is also requested to amend this provision of the scheme without further delay.
She also included the following comment in her letter. She considers that "to allow the concession for an extended period may lead to decisions concerning the provision of transport to be based on irrelevant grounds and which would be contrary to the intention of the scheme". These are the circumstances surrounding the amalgamated closed school rule process. The closed school rule operates to deny rather than grant school transport eligibility to children travelling to the nearest school and those who meet the requisite distance criterion.
As part of forward planning policy to meet pupil places each year, the Department of Education and Skills assesses school accommodation needs in each area based on local demographic trends, current and projected enrolments, recent and planned housing developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet demand for places. Therefore, rather than help the situation, often the closed school rule can operate to distort parental decisions and result in pupils travelling longer distances than necessary were they to go to the nearest school.
The first element of the change to the closed school rule, which will be implemented from September this year, involves the application of the distance eligibility criterion to all children travelling under the primary school transport scheme. This includes not only those children travelling under the closed school rule but also a number of Traveller pupils on exceptional transport arrangements up to this year. This change to school transport provision means that the distance eligibility criterion of 3.2 km or two miles will be applied uniformly and equitably on a national basis. The practical impact is that children categorised for transport under the closed school rule who reside less than 3.2 km from their school and who are availing of free transport to that school lose their transport eligibility. Currently, there are exactly 16,000 families attending amalgamated schools in the country. The change whereby they will lose that transport eligibility inside the two mile radius will affect approximately 2,400 families. Bus Éireann has notified us in recent days that 1,300 of those 2,400 families have applied for school transport and are aware that their transport eligibility under the rule has now ceased. Bearing in mind the charge of €200, it remains to be seen whether they will go on to buy a ticket for that service. In such cases, these children may apply for concessionary transport where there are spare seats available on services for which, as I mentioned earlier, a fee of €200 applies. A family maximum of €650 per annum applies in these circumstances.
The second element of the change is scheduled to take effect fully in September 2012 and will apply only in the case of children commencing their primary education from that date. The change means that school transport eligibility for junior infant children entering in September 2012 will be restricted to those children who meet the distance eligibility criterion and who are travelling to their nearest school. However, to assist parents, in cases where a junior infant child is starting school this September coming and the parents choose to send that child to the nearest school rather than the amalgamated school, we are now allowing eligibility to happen provided they meet the requisite distance criteria.
Existing primary pupils availing of transport under the closed school rule will retain transport eligibility for the duration of their schooling. In other words, if one is already attending an amalgamated school one will retain the right to do so all the way to the end of one's primary schooling, provided the requisite distance is met. A sample survey undertaken as part of the value for money review on transport arrangements for pupils availing of transport under the closed school rule showed that the majority of pupils are already attending their nearest open school. If one is living in an amalgamated school area, the value for money review concludes that 95% of children attending those schools will in fact attend their nearest school once the new distance criteria are applied. The figure was arrived at by carrying out a sample survey of schools throughout the country on a random basis.
The September 2012 change is momentous and will not be taken lightly, but it must be taken with the most accurate of information to hand. To have this accurate information to hand, I have requested Bus Éireann to carry out a detailed analysis of the on the ground impact of this for each individual school and the rural community it serves. This analysis will be based on the most up-to-date information available on current school transport usage patterns, and I expect to have this information available to me in the coming weeks. The Department and I will then have ample time to consider this analysis and act on it, if necessary, in advance of September 2012.
The long-term practical consequences of these changes are as follows: a simplified primary school transport scheme and one in which the principle of using the distance criteria as the key eligibility criterion, having regard to language and ethos, will be applied equitably and fairly throughout the nation; transitional arrangements for a maximum period of up to seven years will be provided to cater for the eligible primary cohort attending the amalgamated school to allow them complete their schooling at the school; in the case of primary school amalgamations in the future, eligibility will be based on the distance criteria applying at that time and attendance at the nearest school; and from 2011, junior infant children residing in a closed school area, for whom the amalgamated school is not their nearest but who enrol in their nearest school, will be eligible for school transport provided the requisite distance of 3.2 km is met.
To put this issue fully into context and drawing on the report of the value for money review, the following facts are relevant. In the 2009-2010 school year, transport services under the closed school rule operated to more than 800 primary schools with almost 26,000 children, or 55% of the mainstream tickets issued, deemed eligible for school transport under this rule. I referred to the sample survey earlier. The transport of such a significant number of children, some of whom would not qualify for transport on the basis of the distance criterion alone, involves a significant cost. We are also changing the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service. This change means that services under the minimum numbers of ten eligible children, either single services or part of double tripping arrangements, will be discontinued. A pick-up density of pupils in a distinct locality on a particular route increasing from the current minimum of seven to ten eligible children will be required to establish or retain a service. Thus, all services transporting less than the minimum number of eligible children, either single or double services, will be discontinued with effect from the 2011-2012 school year. In general, this means that the minimum number required to establish or retain a service goes back broadly to 2002 levels.
Bus Éireann has undertaken a detailed examination of all such services to establish the routes in question, and some 150 schools are being notified of the changes. When the first analysis was carried out of the impact of this provision increasing from seven to ten, more than 500 routes were identified for possible closure. However, further analysis and assessment of the savings to be made on those routes concluded that of the 500 routes, only 150 closures would generate genuine savings. Thus, the figure of 500 was reduced to 150.
Parents and guardians of pupils affected will also be notified of changes when it is certain their service is being withdrawn. They will be informed that eligible pupils are eligible to apply for the remote area grant. This is paid directly by the Department on submission of a certificate of school attendance. The amount payable is based on a maximum grant of €5.10 per day per family in respect of a distance travelled of 9.7 km or more. This equates to €933 per school year based on full attendance.
An annual charge for eligible primary pupils is being introduced from the commencement of the coming 2011-2012 school year. This charge is set at €50 per eligible pupil with a maximum family charge of €110 for eligible primary pupils. The charge of €50 represents some 5% recoupment of the actual cost of €1,020. Pupils with valid medical cards will be exempt from this charge in primary and post-primary schools. The charge is being introduced to ensure school transport services are fully utilised in an efficient and cost effective manner. In the past, it was the practice that school principals would prepare a list for Bus Éireann of the pupils to attend the school in each coming September. Bus Éireann would receive that list, plan the routes associated with the list of children and families only to find they were providing seats on buses that were not availed of by families.
In the past no assessment was done as to whether each family wished to avail of school transport. The seats were simply provided and no further analysis was done. This charge will discourage that type of wasteful action and will ensure all school bus seats provided are availed of by families who need them. Pupils with valid medical cards will be exempt from the charge.
From the 2012-13 school year, the use of the catchment boundary system for determining transport eligibility at post-primary level will cease. School transport eligibility for all new children entering post-primary education will be determined according to attendance at and the distance they reside from their nearest post-primary centre or school. Existing pupils already in the system will retain transport eligibility for the duration of their schooling. A sample survey undertaken as part of the value for money review on arrangements for pupils availing of post-primary transport showed that the majority attend their nearest open school. Therefore, most pupils will not be impacted by this change.
Updated arrangements will be put in place with Bus Éireann on a phased basis for the operation of the scheme. These will include arrangements for an increasing proportion of routes to be provided by private operators. Bus Éireann transports one third of the 123,000 children availing of school transport services using large buses. The balance of services is provided by private operators, which account for 85%, or some 3,400 vehicles, used in the scheme. These are predominantly smaller vehicles such as medium and mini buses and taxis. Some 20% of these routes will be re-tendered each year to secure the most competitive prices. That is a rolling tendering process.
In addition, from the 2012-13 school year, Bus Éireann will assume responsibility for the operation of the school transport system, including the processing of transport grant applications, a function currently carried out by my Department's school transport section. This will fully centralise the school transport application process. Where transport services are not provided, the remote area transport grant or special transport grant will be payable by Bus Éireann to eligible families. With the introduction of the new application process at primary level and the evolving online payment facility, my aim for the general school transport system, outside of transport requirements for children with special educational needs, is to have it operated to the greatest degree possible in a streamlined and modern way.
These various material changes to school transport provision derive from the value for money review and are taking place in a most challenging financial context against the background of a requirement to secure savings in the operation of the scheme while also enhancing its efficiency. I look forward to hearing the views of Members on the school transport scheme.
I propose to share time with Senator Paschal Mooney.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. School transport is a vital service to communities, especially in rural areas. There is a need for modernisation and I acknowledge the difficulty in making changes to the service. When the last Government introduced a very positive change some years ago to remove three-for-two seating, it was incredibly difficult to implement and necessitated examining different options to ensure it was done as compassionately as possible, taking account of local needs and preventing, as far as possible, disruption to pupils and families. The Minister of State says the number of families affected by the change in the closed school rule is small. I appreciate the constraints under which he is operating, but I hope he will do his best to apply the change as compassionately as possible and to take into account local needs.
I heard an interview on RTE radio this morning with a person speaking about how the allocation to Bus Éireann under the school transport scheme is used. I understand €180 million in total is spent on the scheme, with €108 million going to contractors and some €70 million to Bus Éireann. This individual claimed that the money allocated to Bus Éireann is not properly accounted for and goes into the general budget. I am not sure whether there is any foundation to this claim, but it might be worthwhile to look into it. I would be surprised if it is true, but perhaps the Minister of State will raise the matter with his officials. In the current environment, we must ensure every euro spent by the State is properly accounted for in order that the public can have confidence in the system. In the midst of such high-profile changes and the difficulties they are causing for some users of the service, the Government must respond to this type of allegation.
I urge the Minister of State to ensure nothing is done to upset provision for children with special needs. It can be difficult, despite all the changes that have been made in recent years, to accommodate students in their nearest school. We must ensure children with special needs are not in any way disadvantaged by the changes being made.
I welcome the Minister of State. The last Government initiated these changes to the school transport scheme under the value for money initiative to improve the efficiency of the service. The Government is now implementing the measures it opposed last December. Likewise, it has refused to reverse decisions taken by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government in respect of a cap on special needs assistants and other issues. I mention this only because the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, stated recently in the Dáil that the Government's opponents, particularly in Fianna Fáil, will say that while they announced the budget, the current Administration is implementing it. The reality, however, is that Fine Gael voted against the 2011 budget. The Taoiseach, as leader of the Opposition, described it as a budget "devised by bean counters to meet the fiscal targets set by outsiders". The Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, said at the time: "There is not a single progressive idea in the budget to support job creation to get our economy growing again." Now, however, the Government is happy to claim ownership of it. Such is the way of politics, but it is important to put it on record.
The value for money review was initiated by the last Government to introduce efficiencies across the public service. In that context, we support the changes proposed thereunder; it would be churlish and hypocritical to change our position, as the Opposition has done. Nevertheless, I wish to raise several points with the Minister. We are all aware, especially those of us who have operated at local authority level, that school transport has been an emotive subject since its inception and through the changes introduced by successive Administrations. There is surely no Member who served in local government who did not, at some time or other, make representations to the Minister responsible for the scheme, most likely on the issue of boundaries. The media has picked up on this with the emotive story of a mother of two in County Kerry who is just outside the boundary. There is certainly a problem in that there has always been a lack of flexibility in the system. Despite the straitened circumstances, will the Minister of State consider introducing some degree of discretion or flexibility in respect of genuine cases of hardship?
The Minister of State indicated that under the uniform application of the distance eligibility criteria, the rule change not only includes those children travelling under the closed school rule but also a number of Traveller pupils in respect of whom exceptional school transport arrangements were in place up to this year. This is an issue I have raised on the Adjournment. What is effectively happening is that the Department of Education and Skills is withdrawing the special exemption that applied to Traveller communities whereby they were not obliged to comply with the distance eligibility rules. That exemption will disappear from September, however, and the onus will be placed on parents living on halting sites to ensure their children can get to school to continue their education. The Department of Education and Skills will save €1.5 million on foot of this measure and for that amount of money, the social consequences of this decision will permeate down to the point where I respectfully submit that some Traveller children will not pursue their education. They will not initiate it because their parents' culture differs from that of the settled community. This is no reflection on them but is a fact of life and is the primary reason that successive Governments have recognised that there should be an exemption in this regard. I plead with the Minister of State to return to the books and to reconsider the sum of €1.5 million. He should try to find it elsewhere from all the savings that will be made from the wonderful initiative by the Minister, Deputy Howlin. Surely the Department of Education and Skills, through saving on paper clips, on tendering and on outsourcing can find €1.5 million from its massive budget to at least ensure that Traveller children can continue their education.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach agus gabhaim buíochas leis as bheith anseo. Fine Gael opposed the budget because it was a poor budget that did not address the existing problems and not specifically because of the provisions for the primary school transport scheme announced therein, which the Minister now is implementing. I welcome and acknowledge the constructive support of Fianna Fáil for the Minister in implementing these changes. However, I caution against too much flexibility because questions on whether flexibility may exist may lead to asking whether a stroke may be pulled and one must be fair to everyone.
In addition, on the Traveller issue the proposed changes in the transport scheme for Travellers are for the purposes of inclusion and are not based on financial criteria. I have a personal interest in this, given that difficulties exist in respect of the issue of Travellers, education and inclusion. We must be more inclusive when considering Traveller education and must avoid suggesting they are children of a lesser god. While I acknowledge this is not what the previous speaker was implying, we must consider new ways because the old ways are not working.
I welcome the cessation of the closed school rule. More than 50 years have elapsed since it was introduced and it is time to review it. Many families who now live within closed school rule areas were not there in 1960 and a completely new situation has arisen. As the Ombudsman noted, it is long past the time for a review of this rule and consequently I do not perceive a problem in this regard. Everyone must be treated equally, particularly given the new fiscal position in which we unfortunately find ourselves. On the minimum number of eligible children to have a bus service being increased from seven to ten, I note this number was decreased from ten to seven in 2002. That year was the year of years, by which I mean it was the year in which foreign direct investment, sustainable and small businesses and competitiveness were forgotten about and all faith was placed in an unsustainable building boom in which capital gains taxes were used to falsely sustain the economy. Consequently, we must move back and reconsider matters because the aforementioned capital gains taxes are no longer available to falsely sustain the economy. The point is that people now are being asked to give of their substance rather than of their surplus to correct the fiscal deficit. As we cannot tax any more, Ministers are being asked to rationalise and to consider ways of saving money and I will support fully the Minister in that regard.
It is a good idea in principle that Bus Éireann will assume responsibility for the operation of the school transport system. I pay €650 per year for the secondary school system for three kids and a couple of years ago, I contacted Bus Éireann for the first time. I was told that I would be obliged to apply to the VEC, which would handle my application after which it would be forwarded to the bus company. I did not think very much of that system at the time. Were tenders invited for the operation of the school transport system? With reference to the point made by Senator Power on the administrative costs associated with the school transport system, are they audited or accounted for separately or are they included in the general Bus Éireann pool?
I again thank the Minister of State for his attendance to outline what is involved in the changes in such precise detail to Members.
I thank the Minister of State for sharing his decision with Members today. I have yet to hear of a person who is opposed to the school transport system. While I realise the predicament we are in, I equally recognise the unprecedented financial times in which we find ourselves and that we have not been obliged to face such decisions heretofore. Moreover, I agree with the need to rein in expenditure. Although all these points are a given and are not up for debate, one must be careful in the actions one takes to avoid incurring additional expenditure in other areas through unintended consequences. My question to the Minister of State pertains to the displacement of pupils to which this decision potentially could give rise and which could lead to the need to increase school buildings in some areas and to the closure of schools in other areas because parents will take a decision, based on school transport costs, to change their children's school. As it is known that such potential unintended consequences could occur, the Minister of State should indicate whether there has been an assessment of the school catchment areas. My understanding is they last were closely examined in the 1960s. How do we know what impact these decisions will have?
Moreover, although I listened carefully to the Minister of State's contribution, I found it difficult to understand the issue and as a parent, I am trying to envisage how do parents understand the impact this decision will have. If one considers the constitutional right that the State shall provide for free primary education, I note that parents are being asked for voluntary contributions for water charges, school books and other costs, on to which another cost now is being heaped. These costs are being heaped upon the same parents and children. While one might state that this is a single charge, that is not the case as additional charges are being heaped upon the same households and families. The Minister of State noted that school transport eligibility for all new children entering post-primary education will be determined by attendance at and distance they reside from their nearest post-primary centre or school. I listened carefully last week to the Minister talking about parental choice at the forum on patronage. However, it is not parental choice if one then states the only way in which one can avail of school transport is based on distance to the school. Does this mean that children in urban areas will get to have parental choice and will get to choose the schools they wish to enter but that those living in rural areas will not have the same choice? Equally, parents and children will tell me about the fact they have changed schools because a bad situation, such as bullying, has occurred in their school and all of us, at times, need a fresh start. Are we to say that those children will not be allowed that same fresh start, that they will not get an opportunity? These are the unintended consequences. Listening to the Minister of State, I note he very carefully outlined some of the questions to which we need answers. However, we should take these decisions with these answers in hand because I agree there could be a short-term gain for us but I question at what price and whether there will be long-term pain. I am thinking of the child and the impact on that child when a parent has decided the child is going to a school because it is within the 3.2 km catchment area rather than looking at what is best for our children and the future of their education.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I acknowledge that this policy was inherited by the Minister of State. As a former primary school teacher I believe the introduction of these charges could have a detrimental effect on many of the amalgamated schools. From next September, all children travelling on school buses will have to pay €50. Those living less than two miles from the school will have to pay €200. From September next year, all new children will have to pay €200. Many people are in difficult financial circumstances but as I understand it, only medical card holders will be exempt from these new charges.
I do not think the issue of charges is the main issue but rather it is an issue about changes to eligibility. From September this year, ten eligible children will be required in order to maintain a bus service. Under the previous amalgamation agreement, seven eligible children were required. If there are not ten eligible children, the bus service will cease. To be counted eligible, a child will have to live more than two miles from the school but not near to another school. As the Minister of State has outlined in his statement, those amalgamation agreements were made between the local communities and local boards of management along with the Department of Education and Skills. The main feature of these agreements was the guarantee that free school transport for the pupils would be given in return for the closure of the smaller schools. Under these agreements, distance was measured from the pupil's home to the closed school in order to determine the eligibility for free transport to the central school. Under the new system, distance will be measured to the nearest school. Pupils will be eligible for a bus service to the nearest school only if they live more than two miles from it and if there are ten eligible children living in that bus route area.
We must also consider the possible social implications this measure may have as these could be divisive in rural communities as the majority of amalgamations in the past were based on parishes. We all know that savings have to be made but as a result of this savings initiative, many pupils will be left without any transport to school. Parishes, in some cases, will be divided. This will have a knock-on effect and I am sure it will lead to problems as regards local GAA clubs, community games and other parish-based groups and activities. There is a possibility that serious situations will arise when people from the closed school catchment areas find they cannot get a ticket for a bus service which they understood would be available for their community.
This measure could also have an effect on the environment by eliminating school buses and increasing reliance on private cars. This increase in road traffic will lead to increased danger for pupils, both on the way to school and outside the school. We are all aware of the situation outside some schools which lack adequate parking facilities and dropping off and picking up areas and as a result, the collection of children at the end of the school day can be a hazardous procedure. It is nothing short of dangerous. How does the Minister of State propose to alleviate this type of problem which will be exacerbated by the additional private cars being used to bring children to school? When the bus service to the central school is withdrawn due to the fall in the number of eligible pupils, will a new bus service be established by the Department to bring children to an alternative school? If this is to be the case I must question the economic sense of replacing an established bus service with another service to a different school. If a new service is to be established, will the receiving school be permitted to take on new pupils or will it be required to apply for an extension while the original central school could be left with empty classrooms? I share the views of Senator van Turnhout because this aspect of the proposal does not make sense. Considering the likely savings as a result of these changes, will the Department then be required to fund extra capital projects such as additional parking facilities and additional classrooms in other schools?
A cousin of mine informed me that she runs a coach and bus service around the rural schools in my area and these proposals will have serious implications for her business. At best she considers she will lose two out of five routes and she will be forced to let her drivers go and to sell buses in a non-existent market. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that Bus Éireann will put school bus runs out to tender. We do not want a situation where operators using older or substandard buses will be able to tender at low prices and in so doing possibly put children's safety at risk. Some things are much more important than money and the safety of children travelling to and from schools is one of these. Can the Minister of State guarantee the House that school buses will continue to be safe and comfortable? We all know that savings have to be made but I ask the Minister of State to outline what other alternatives were considered by the Department.
I wish to address a number of aspects of this problem. The costs have risen from €50 million to €180 million since 1997. I do not know of any other costs that have increased. The number of pupils has not increased very much so we must ask what the problem is with this service and question how it is organised. The Minister of State referred to the marginal cost of €1,000. The total cost of the scheme at €180 million for 120,000 people is €1,500. Where parents organised a school bus themselves it was possible to do it for between €300 and €400 a year. The operators tell me that the competitive tendering regime has meant they have been receiving less. Therefore, one must question whether it is a problem with the overheads. The operators provide 85% of the vehicles and they carry two thirds of the children, as the Minister of State said in his contribution. If parents organised transport themselves, it could be done for €300 to €400 whereas it is costing €1,500. Senator Power and others raised this issue and I wonder if we have looked at how the scheme is organised. The Minister of State said, "From 2012-13, Bus Éireann will assume responsibility for the operation of the school transport system." Was a competitive tendering process considered? Should this matter have been debated in this House prior to the decision? The evidence seems to be that parents themselves and the independent operators who provide 85% of the vehicles in any case and carry two thirds of the children, could have put in a much better tender bid. I refer to the Minister of State's reference to the value for money audit. Was this audit carried out since the IMF came in on 1 December 2010? Value for money audits of the school bus service were carried out in the past but have not arrested its growth in costs from €50 million to €180 million in just 11 years. I hope that the Ministers of State, Deputies Cannon and Perry, might consult with each other. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in its report Buying Innovation, the 10-Step Guide to SMART Procurement and SME Access to Public Contracts states: "Given the importance of SMEs to the Irish economy a level playing field is needed for all economic operators wishing to participate in public tendering."
I would love if we could reduce the amount of money spent on the school bus service and put the money into education instead. Its cost base has to be seriously questioned because it is growing far more rapidly than any other transport cost, as the Minister of State knows because he drew our attention to the fact. Is it wrongly organised? How many layers of bureaucracy do we need? In the post-IMF context should we not see that this is a service which we could provide for €400 per pupil and not the €1,500 it is now costing.
I wish to share time with Senator Conway.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment him. He is one of the most accessible Ministers in the Government and I thank him for coming to the House today.
The Supreme Court has constantly ruled that one of the primary responsibilities of a Government is to decide where and where not to spend public money. Prioritising some areas for spending is never an easy task but the current Government is truly faced with the most severe challenge of any Government in the history of the State.
Even when this country was in ruins after the War of Independence, the Civil War and the economic war, a new Government was not constrained by the terms of an economic agreement of the nature of the EU and IMF deal. The Ministers of this Government face an arduous task. They must turn around the public finances and in order to do so they must address the fact that the country is currently borrowing €350 million each week to keep the show on the road.
In this context, the Minister of State faces the unenviable task of cutting the school transport budget. No Deputy or Senator would want to be in his shoes as he pushes through budgetary savings but if we are to be honest with ourselves we would recognise that he has little choice. The changes in question were introduced by the previous Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government in the last budget after the school transport value for money review.
I am from a rural village in Kilkenny and know that school bus transport is important to rural communities. It is desirable and parents do not want to face an increased charge or lose bus routes. However, the sad reality is that this country cannot afford to continue the same levels of services as in the past. The situation which the Government is faced with, which is sadly the same faced by many families in the country, is that there is not enough money to pay for all the things we could afford in the past.
The sad truth is that the economy was mismanaged and run into the ground. Charlie McCreevy's mantra, "When I have it, I spend it," rings hollow today when a new Government has to implement harsh cuts to pay the price for such an irresponsible regime. I welcome the local survey which the Minister of State has asked for. He has to find €17 million in savings in school transport between now and 2014.
People will ask why we do not cut other things or increase taxes. The reality is that every area of Government spending is to be examined and savings must be made. The task we face is too large for us to hone in on one area or another. As Senator Barrett pointed out, the cost of the school bus transport system has risen from €50 million in 1997 to €180 million last year despite the numbers using the service falling during that period.
The annual cost per pupil for school transport is €1,200. The situation is not sustainable in the current economic climate and these rises should be examined by the Minister of State. As he has pointed out, from next September primary school children will be charged a minimum of €50 per year for bus transport, rising to a maximum of €650 per family. The minimum number of children required to establish a bus route will rise to ten.
Children who had free transport to amalgamated schools will now have to pay and from next year children starting primary school will qualify for transport to the nearest school, which may not be in their parish. I add to the call by Senator Heffernan for the Minister of State to examine this aspect of the scheme as siblings from different families could be split under the measure.
These are not measures any Government would wish to introduce. However, many people can understand that in a situation where we are dependent on the IMF and the EU to function from day to day, the menu of choices before the Government is not pleasant. With Fine Gael and the Labour Party working together as a competent Government the future of the country will turn around. We will right the ship of state. It will not be easy and cannot be done overnight but the new Government has the courage and ability to address the economic challenges currently facing the State.
I welcome and concur with others who referred to the breath of fresh air that is the Minister of State. The fact that he came to the House on short notice to deal with this issue is very welcome.
I welcome that children with special needs will be exempt from any changes. There has been enough talk in recent times about children with special needs, the difficulties they face, the cutbacks in SNAs and so on. At least getting them to school is not up for grabs. The Minister of State has asked for reviews. I ask him to allow some flexibility. If local arrangements have been proposed by parent groups, school principals and so on that are workable and financially prudent he may be able to incorporate them in future.
The fact that the cost of the service increased from €50 million in 1997 to €108 million in 2010 while the numbers using the service dropped by 30,000 means questions have to be asked. In the current climate there is no area of Government spending on education where questions cannot be asked about value for money, whether we are getting the best return for children attending school and whether there is a better way of getting a return on the money spent or using it in a more efficient and prudent manner.
It is the responsibility of Government to ensure that the money is spent prudently and in the best interests of children.
I wish to share time with Senators Reilly and Ó Domhnaill.
I welcome the Minister of State back to the House, which he is very familiar with. I do not envy him in the fact that he was in Kerry yesterday and explained the current situation. Everybody here knows of schools that are affected.
Areas such as Réalt na Mara and Lauragh are particularly affected by the change. What is most disturbing is the fact that for 18 months prior to the budget the then Department of Transport was reviewing school transport. It took a long time to issue a report which was not discussed or debated. The practical measures should have been discussed by a school transport committee to tease out the problems we are now facing.
The biggest mistake was that this issue became a matter of budgetary savings rather than considering the practical implications locally for everybody involved. I ask the Minister of State to bring together all those concerned into an Oireachtas committee to discuss the practical implications. A review is currently taking place and submissions are being sought. I am afraid that in the budget that was passed in 2010 and which is now being implemented, the effects on school transport were categorised as a financial measure and saving.
Places like Réalt na Mara and others are suffering the consequences. There is still time to reverse this decision. I note my colleagues opposite now seem to be wholeheartedly endorsing a budget they were against. I know we have to get value for money. There are ways of achieving savings without affecting the school transport system. Most importantly, rural schools will be closed.
Some of the measures will prevent parents from sending children to the schools which their siblings attend. It will have the long-term consequence of closing some schools. That is the information I have. It will not have a positive effect on rural schools. I ask the Minister of State as a matter of urgency, because some of the measures will be introduced in September, to ask an Oireachtas committee to examine the finer details of this issue. The people who proposed these budgetary measures to the previous Minister with responsibility for school transport should be asked to explain how we can make changes to this scheme that will have a positive outcome for what is a disturbing situation for many families throughout the country.
I thank Senator Daly for sharing time with me. Fortunately, I had this discussion last week with the Minister of State but I would like to have a few issues clarified concerning it. Last week, the Minister of State said that the changes implemented this year are expected to produce a saving in the order of €3.5 million and there will still have to be another €13.5 million in savings over the next three years. This week he is telling us that savings of €4 million are expected in 2011 and €14 million up to 2014. I would like to know which figures are correct because these figures differ from those provided by the former Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, in reply to a parliamentary question tabled last year by my colleague Deputy Martin Ferris. Where will the further savings come from? Families struggling from one week to another — one in five of which have only €70 at the end of the month after paying bills — will be unable to send children to school safely. The minimum number of children needed to retain a school bus route will rise from seven to ten, so how many children will be left without a bus service due to this stroke-of-the-pen exercise? It seems to be the tip of the iceberg when we examine the €13.5 million to €14 million savings that are coming down the line. What is next? Will we be imposing road tax on schoolchildren's bikes when they cycle to school? Clarification is needed in this regard.
The Minister of State said he will be getting the forthcoming Bus Éireann study soon but when exactly will he receive it? In addition, how will that study feed into the impending crisis in September? If these findings are supposed to inform the Minister of State, we should get them as soon as possible.
I am delighted to see the Minister of State in the Chamber to address this matter. School transport is not an easy issue to deal with. There have been massive increases in the cost of school transport in the past 15 years, yet the number of pupils has not increased much or at all. Savings must be made in the public purse this year, involving painful decisions. As an element of public expenditure, we are taking on board that savings will have to be made in school transport as well.
The issue causing most concern with rural school transport is the closed school rule, which has remained relatively unchanged since 1968 when it was introduced. The previous Government brought in this recommendation on the closed school rule, but I believe the decision was wrong because the implications of the decision were not fully thought out. According to the Minister of State, it could affect 26,000 primary school children. The consequences of that are major.
A full review should have been carried out on the implications of the closed school rule criteria for road safety. Many of the schools that were closed back in the 1960s and 1970s were in rural areas, so the children involved were forced into urban schools. If children are now asked to travel inside the 3.2 km radius, they have three options. Their parents can bring them to school, they can hire a private bus operator or they must walk to school. Much of the rural road infrastructure is unsuitable for children walking to school. In addition, if cars are to replace school buses, we will end up with traffic congestion at the school gates. This could lead to fatalities at or near urban schools which replaced the closed rural ones. A review of the safety implications should therefore be carried out.
We should examine the possibility of savings arising from the manner in which Bus Éireann administers the school transport scheme. In that way we might find the few million euro required rather than penalising schoolchildren. I am not blaming the Minister of State who has inherited this situation, but I am asking for a review, if that is possible.
I welcome the Minister of State. Many of the relevant issues have been covered, but a number have not. The minimum number of pupils required to retain a bus service is being raised from seven to ten, which will create a serious problem. Would it be possible to amalgamate a couple of rural school runs to overcome that problem? Not many children may avail of school bus routes in rural Ireland but it is vital to retain such services. In my area, a school bus service has been operating for 40 years.
It is proposed to increase the charge from €50 to €200 outside the two mile radius, yet the bus will still be running. That means that some parents will have to drive children to school, although the bus will still be operating. It does not make much sense to have a school bus service that does not carry a full load.
Before summing up, I will deal with a number of questions put to me by some Senators. Senator Power asserted that public moneys funnelled into Bus Éireann to cover the cost of providing school transport somehow find their way towards subsidising other loss-making operations within Bus Éireann. I was most concerned when I first heard that assertion being made and I immediately sought clarification. I understand that Bus Éireann operates the system on a cost-recovery basis. The accounts associated with the provision of school transport are completely separate from the main accounts or other income streams of Bus Éireann, and the accounts are audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers each year.
What I cannot figure out is why these accounts are not available online for all of us to scrutinise. It is our money that is being spent. I will meet Bus Éireann representativeson Thursday to raise a number of issues with them. If there are no legal reasons or reasons concerning commercial sensitivity that the audited accounts cannot be provided online, then they will be online soon. If there are no reasons that cannot happen, they should be available online.
Senator Mooney raised the issue of flexibility, which is a wonderful word and it is certainly an ambition that we all seek to pursue. Getting 123,000 pupils to and from school every day, across 4,000 routes, is a massive logistical operation. When one starts tinkering around the edges of such a system, however, flexibility can somehow lead to chaos. We are trying to provide a streamlined, transparent system that is easily understood and accessed by parents. The current system is complicated.
In two or three years time, parents of children starting primary school should be able to log on to the Department's or Bus Éireann's website. They will be able to click on a map to find whether they are entitled to school transport and, if so, the fee involved. They will then click on a "submit" button, pay with a credit card or other method, and print out a ticket. We are ultimately aiming for such a situation and we hope to move towards that model soon. When one tries to provide flexibility in such a system, it does not work. In addition, one begins to chip away at the edges of the genuine savings we are trying to make.
Senator Mooney also said that a special school transport concession which had been given to the Traveller community in the past has now been removed. That concession is being removed because it was recommended that we do so in the Traveller Education Strategy of 2006. The production of that strategy had an input from all the Traveller representative groups. The conclusion of that strategy report was that we were engaging in what they would describe as positive discrimination — but discrimination at the end of the day — by providing this unique and special service for Traveller children. It is an unhealthy discrimination and one that should be brought to an end. That is the primary reason we are removing the service.
Senator Jim D'Arcy spoke about the auditing of direct costs. I refer to my recommendation that if there are audited accounts, as I understand there are, we should examine them. The Senator also spoke about tendering. If we are to achieve the best possible value for the taxpayer, we need an ongoing rolling tendering process. It is not possible, logistically or physically, to seek tenders for 4,000 routes every year, but there is a rolling tendering process as part of which about 20% of these routes are methodically reviewed each year.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout spoke about the unintended consequences of these measures. I do not believe there are any. The value for money process has been both methodical and forensic. As part of it school transport provision in a number of jurisdictions, particularly Northern Ireland, our closest neighbour, is examined. A number of groups in the education sector feed into the process and everyone concerned has an opportunity to make their views known. There will be minimal displacement as a result of the changes that will happen in September. If one was denied school transport to a particular school, one could not then say one would go to another school instead because that was not an option open to an individual. If one's nearest school is the one to which one cannot gain access, one cannot then claim access to another as an alternative. All of the changes that will happen in September will not lead to the displacement or movement of pupils from one school to another.
Senator James Heffernan referred to the commitments in respect of the closed school rule made back in the 1960s and 1970s and perhaps more recently in the 1980s and 1990s. They were commitments given by the State at the time, but we are not in a position where we can continue to honour them. That is difficult, but it is a fact. We must also acknowledge that the imposition that a child can only access school transport to a central amalgamated school often denies the child the opportunity to gain access to school transport to his or her nearest school, a school that might have been built in the locality post the amalgamation process.
Senator James Heffernan also spoke about how the changes might impact on safety in rural Ireland. Every school is located in a unique position geographically; some schools are located on the side of a minor local road, while others are located on the side of a national primary or secondary route. It is difficult, therefore, to make sweeping statements on the safety implications of the changes across the school network. Many of us who live in rural areas and have to travel to an under 12, under 14 or under 16 hurling match on a Saturday afternoon car-pool. We meet at the local pitch and four or five parents legally bring four other children with them in their car. We travel to and from the match in complete safety.
I recall a time in rural Ireland when such a meitheal or community spirit was the norm. I live beside my local national school in east Galway. A plethora of cars with one parent and one child arrive at the school every morning because coincidentally it is not served by any school transport service. We should reflect on what was important to us in rural communities in the distant past when people worked together and came up with solutions in difficult times. These are also difficult times. I encourage parents to once again engage and show that meitheal or community spirit by pooling their resources. Parents whose children have been denied access to the school transport service following the reduction in the qualifying distance from 10 km to 7 km will be allowed a grant per family of up to €942 per year which they could use as a resource in providing for collective services.
Senator Barrett referred to the provision of €1,020 per child. The figure of €180 million applies across the school transport network and includes a figure of €60 million for special needs children. When that dedicated budget figure is stripped from the total figure, it brings the amount down to €120 million which, for 123,000 children, roughly works out at a provision of €1,020 per child. I acknowledge the paragraph included in my speech covering the matter is quite confusing. It reads: "In addition, from the 2012-13 school year Bus Éireann will assume [complete] responsibility for the operation of the . . . system, including the processing of transport grant applications. . ." The processing of transport grant applications is a tiny piece of the logistical challenge facing Bus Éireann. In essence, it has been running the system for decades. At this time there is no other entity in the country with the necessary corporate knowledge or logistical experience to move 123,000 children to and from their homes to school every day. Bus Éireann is the entity which is doing this work, but that does not necessarily mean it will remain the said entity into the future.
I apologise if I did not get to reply to all of the questions raised by Senators. There is no question that this is a difficult time for all of us. The Government has set out to be, continues to be and will be honest, forthright, frank and fair in every statement it makes. If I had latitude to change any of these provisions, I would be seriously examining the making of these changes, but I do not have such latitude. The changes will happen in September. We may have tiny latitude in regard to the changes that will be made in 2012. Therefore, I ask people to work with me and the Government to bring us to a place where we will not have to be looking over our shoulder to Washington and Frankfurt and where we will be fully in control of our future. That is where we want to be and this is one small step in getting to that place.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.