The Bill is being brought to the House as a matter of urgency to deal with a number of issues that arise from the coming into force of EU regulations on road transport operators on 4 December. I thank the House for facilitating me in this regard. Those largely technical issues arise to a large degree from the introduction of EU regulations replacing a previous EU directive. In changing the basis for national implementation, some matters previously provided under national regulations must now be provided for in primary legislation. I have also taken the opportunity in the Bill to introduce a small number of new provisions and to make minor amendments to provisions such as false declarations and conditions on licences.
I will give the House an outline of the road transport sector and the context for the legislation. We are talking about the commercial road transport sector, that is the sector that provides road haulage and road passenger transport for hire and reward. This encompasses a considerable amount of the freight traffic within the State and the greater part of road passenger transport, including Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus services. All operators for hire and reward require a licence from my Department and the licensing of operators is an EU requirement. This reflects the trans-European nature of the business of many operators and the interests of all member states in having a sector that is reliable, safe and accountable.
There are approximately 7,000 licensed operators in Ireland using approximately 25,000 large vehicles. The sector clearly is important to our economy, both in the movement of goods and people, and as a significant employer. High standards in the sector and the good reputation that goes with them are important for its competitiveness, both at home and across Europe. The public must also have the assurance that the operators they engage are licensed, safe, reliable and amenable to the law. It is equally important that legitimate operators are not undermined by those operating without licences or by those who are licensed but do not comply with the licence conditions, including vehicle and driver safety on the roads.
A strong and competitive road transport sector is important for our economy and the road transport legislation must to support that. It must set the standards, influence positive and responsible behaviour, and eliminate financial gain from non-compliance by setting effective deterrents. Road transport is regulated by various Road Transport Acts since 1933, augmented by EU legislation and national regulations. From time to time consolidation of the legislation is needed and regular review is good practice to take into account developments in the road transport sector, the nature of the business and EU policies among others. I am currently looking at all road transport legislation and I hope to bring forward an updated and comprehensive road transport Bill next year to replace the existing Acts and to set the direction for road transport policy for the coming years. The Bill before the House is a small step in that direction. While Senators may have a number of more general proposals to make about the sector, I may not be able to take them into account in this Bill, but I will consider them for the next Bill.
The Road Transport Bill 2011 introduces three improvements immediately. First, it strengthens the existing provisions on the fitness and suitability of road transport operators. Second, it provides greater access to information in order that the public can find out who is, or is not, licensed. Third, it provides for much greater penalties for unlicensed operators and introduces some new offences to improve compliance by existing operators.
As I indicated, the Bill is needed to ensure certain existing provisions remain in force after 4 December. Those provisions are as follows: road passenger transport operations require a licence, and operation without a licence continues to be an offence; fees can be charged for licences; the appeal provisions where an application for such a licence is refused or where such a licence is withdrawn will continue to apply; and exemptions from the requirement to have a road transport operator licence will continue to apply. These include such things as the carriage of mail and funeral transport.
The reason these provisions will otherwise cease to have effect is somewhat convoluted, but I can summarise it for the House. The licensing of road haulage provisions is in general set out in the Road Transport Acts. When EU Directive 96/26 came into force, certain passenger transport licensing provisions were provided in national regulations made under the European Communities Act. As that European Union directive will be replaced by new European Union regulations with effect from 4 December, any national regulations which relate to the directive will cease to have effect on the same date. EU regulations have direct effect and apply automatically, usually only requiring national regulations on such matters as providing for offences and penalties, designating the national authority and so on. In preparing those national regulations, the advice was that for legal reasons, certain elements of EU regulation require primary legislation, rather than national regulation as previously thought. I will go into more detail on particular provisions when outlining the individual sections of the Bill.
I have mentioned three additional provisions which the Bill will introduce. The fitness and suitability of operators are key licensing criteria, given the nature of the road transport business in transporting goods or passengers, travelling across national boundaries and with regard to safety on the road network. This comes under the heading of good repute and it is the case that not all applicants will satisfy this requirement. For example, certain convictions or penalties in respect of road safety, vehicle defects, excessive driver errors or smuggling must raise questions about good repute in a road transport business. They potentially can give grounds for refusing an application or withdrawing a licence and this already is part of national policy and legislation. Convictions relating to a range of serious and violent offences, such as murder, human trafficking and drug trafficking, also have a direct bearing on good repute. The Bill provides for this specifically in primary legislation. It extends the range of positions within an operation to which it applies and allows the Minister to take into account any of the offences whenever they occurred. My objective in doing this is to strengthen the good repute provisions and the powers to refuse applications or withdraw licences where this is necessary.
Existing national regulations relating to serious convictions are affected by the European Union regulations. They will cease to have effect on 4 December and even a restatement could not, as previously, provide for automatic disqualification for five years from the date of conviction. The European Union regulations allow applications to be made and require member states to engage in an administrative process whenever they are considering refusing or withdrawing a licence. In other words, a person cannot be prohibited from applying for a licence. The good repute consideration can be a rigorous process and an application can be refused. An appeal process to the District Court already is provided for in the Road Transport Acts regarding the refusal or withdrawal of haulage licences and this has been restated and updated in this Bill and combined with passenger licences.
The existing regulations related only to serious convictions of the operator but the Bill extends this to include other positions in the business such as directors, business partners and transport managers and, crucially, to drivers with passenger firms. This is particularly important since such drivers can have access to children, the elderly and other vulnerable people in the course of their work. Any convictions for serious or violent offences, such as murder or serious sexual offences, should quite rightly be taken into consideration in the licensing process.
The availability of information on who is or is not licensed is important for the public and customers of the haulage and passenger transport services. A register of operator licences already is kept by my Department and is available for public inspection but its accessibility can be improved. In this day and age, such information should be available online and the Bill provides for that. Online information will help identify to the public if particular operators, large or small, are currently licensed and if the vehicles they are using are authorised on the licence. Licensed operators must meet certain financial and competence requirements, their vehicles must be compliant with all safety requirements and licensed operators are subject to checks and inspections. Unlicensed illegal operators are potentially less safe and less reliable, with consequent risks for any goods or passengers carried. The Bill will also make it an offence for anyone to claim they are a licensed operator when they are not. This should deter any operators from putting words such as licensed haulier on a truck when they have no haulage licence. Having the register in place will make it easier for enforcement authorities to confirm this and to enforce the licensing rules in general.
Realistic penalties must be in place to deter illegal activities and operators and the Bill significantly increases the penalties for operating without a licence and introduces some new offences. Currently, for example, the maximum penalty for operating without a haulage licence is €6,350, and there is no provision for a prison term. That penalty was set 25 years ago and is hardly a deterrent any more. This Bill will provide that the maximum fine for operating without a licence is €500,000 or a prison term of three years or both. This demonstrates clearly that we are serious in tackling illegal and unsafe operators.
The Bill also will provide the same maximum penalty for consignors who engage illegal operators. For every unlicensed operator flouting the law, there is an unscrupulous consignor willing to save a few euro by employing an unlicensed operator, thereby putting unfair pressure on compliant and legally licensed operators and putting questionable vehicles on the road. The message I want to give out is clear — unlicensed operators are far more likely to be unsafe, less reliable and to be poor employers. Anyone who gives them business is complicit in their activities and will be liable to the same staff penalties.
The Bill also introduces new offences. It will be an offence to operate a vehicle which is not authorised on a licence, even if the operator is licensed, and the maximum penalty will be €500,000. It is important that the vehicles used are known and authorised, not just in relation to vehicle safety but in regard to motor tax and insurance. Another new offence relates to making false declarations to obtain a licence, or forging or altering licences. This latter kind of activity is on the increase and needs to be made an offence with appropriate penalties.
These and other provisions of the Bill will help my Department, the gardaí and the RSA to improve compliance in the sector. They should also help the great majority of hauliers and passenger operators who are responsible, law abiding and willing to compete fairly on a level playing field. I do not claim to address all road transport issues or concerns in this Bill, given its particular time imperative. It is, however, my intention to take a wider and more long-term perspective on the sector in a road transport Bill next year.
I now turn to the specific provisions, which set some of the context for the Senators. Section 1 deals with definitions. These are standard provisions. Section 2 deals with the obligation on a operator to inform the Minister of certain convictions. This is the main section relating to certain serious convictions. It requires an applicant or a licensed operator to inform the Minister of certain serious convictions and it relates those convictions to the operator, to certain positions within the operation such as directors, business partners and transport managers and to drivers with passenger transport operations. The serious convictions are murder, manslaughter, drug trafficking, certain non-fatal offences against the person, human trafficking, certain sexual offences, certain money laundering, theft and fraud offences, firearms offences, and aiding and abetting any of the above. The section relates to convictions in Ireland or in another jurisdiction, and the Minister must be notified of certain details, including the nature of the offence, the penalty or sentence and if the offence was committed in the course of, or connected with, a road transport business. Failure to inform the Minister or providing false information will be an offence and grounds for refusing an application or suspending or withdrawing a licence.
Section 3 deals with the obligation to inform an operator of certain convictions. This section requires those holding certain positions to inform the operator of any of the specified convictions which apply to them and makes it an offence to fail to do so.
Section 4 requires the Minister to consider certain convictions. This section provides that the convictions set out in section 2 are to be considered by the Minister in relation to good repute of an applicant or an operator. This is one of the four criteria for a road transport operator licence, the others being financial standing, professional competence of the transport manager and establishment in the State. The section restates the Minister's powers to decide in relation to good repute that a licence can be refused, suspended or withdrawn.
Section 5 covers appeals. The section maintains the current provisions relating to appeals to the District Court against refusal, withdrawal or suspension of a passenger transport operator's licence by the Minister. It is one of the provisions currently in national regulations which now require primary legislation. I have also taken the opportunity to combine the appeal provisions with those for road haulage operator licences.
Section 6 deals with evidence of foreign convictions. This sets out the nature of evidence of foreign convictions required in proceedings for an offence in section 2. These proceedings relate to the failure to inform the Minister of specified convictions.
Section 7 deals with continued compliance in terms of an operator's licence. For the avoidance of doubt, this section restates and clarifies existing provisions. The Minister may request and must be given any necessary information from an applicant or a licence holder so that the Minister can be satisfied the person meets or continues to meet the licensing requirements. It also provides that a licence is the property of the Minister and must be returned where the licence is suspended or withdrawn.
Section 8 deals with a change of details in an operator's licence or application. This is a new provision which requires an applicant or licensed operator to notify the Minister of any changes in details or circumstances, which would mean he or she no longer meets the requirements for a licence. For example, changed circumstances might mean an operator no longer meets the financial standing criteria or no longer has a suitable transport manager.
Section 9 deals with the requirement to hold an operator's licence. This replaces existing provisions for road passenger transport which now require primary legislation and it combines them with similar existing road haulage provisions. It provides that a person may not carry on the business of a road transport operator without a licence, a licensed operator may not operate a vehicle that is not specified in the licence, a person may not engage in the services of a road transport operator for hire or reward unless the operator is licensed or the services are exempted, and the types of carriage listed in the Schedule are exempted from the requirement to have a licence. The Schedule lists activities such as carriage of mail, carriage of refuse and funeral transport. This is not the full list of exempted activities, as others are already included in the Road Transport Acts. This is a good example of the need for consolidation of the legislation which I hope to address next year.
Section 10 prohibits purporting to operate other than in accordance with an operator's licence. This is a new provision for passenger transport operators but reflects existing provisions for road haulage operators. Section 11 refers to the obligation to carry a copy of an operator's licence and display a transport disc on a vehicle. This section relates to enforcement and easy identification of licensed and unlicensed operators. It requires operators to ensure that all appropriate documentation is kept in their vehicles and that the vehicles properly display their transport disc. It also empowers the Garda and transport officers to inspect such documents when required. Again, this is a restatement in primary legislation of an existing passenger transport provision, and combines it with existing road haulage provisions.
Section 12 refers to registers and restates and adds to existing provisions relating to a register of operator licences and certificates of competence for transport managers. It repeats existing provisions which establish the register, require the register to be available for inspection and enable the public to obtain copies of entries. It adds a provision that the register may be published on the Internet on the Department's website, and clarifies that the information provided may include vehicle details. The facility to publish online is not possible without primary legislation, but such an arrangement will improve public access to information on licensed businesses.
Section 13 replaces existing provisions relating to fees for passenger transport licences. It is another example of an existing provision which now requires primary legislation and combines it with similar provisions for road haulage licences. I have also taken the opportunity to provide for the payment of fees for a wider range of documents such as duplicates and replacements, and to include the fees paid for transport manager training and certification which is carried out on my behalf.
Section 14 on false declarations extends the existing provisions on offences for making false declarations or providing false information when applying for a licence to include offences for altering or forging documents. Section 15 on prosecutions and body corporate offences restates the standard provision on offences by bodies corporate to cover the offences under the Bill. The section also provides that a summary offence under the Bill may be prosecuted by the Minister or by the Road Safety Authority.
Section 16 on transport officers restates the existing provisions on the powers of transport officers of the Road Safety Authority to include references to the Bill, EU regulations, and any road transport regulations made under the European Communities Acts. Section 17 relates to search warrants and restates existing provisions on the road transport enforcement powers of RSA transport officers to search premises under warrant; therefore, they are linked to offences under the Bill. Section 18 on transport managers combines existing provisions on requirements for transport managers of passenger and road haulage operations.
Section 19 amends section 2 of Road Traffic and Transport Act 2006 to include "established in the State" as a criterion for obtaining a road transport operator's licence, as required under the new EU regulations. The other criteria are good repute, financial standing and professional competence. It also takes the opportunity to allow application forms to be determined by the Minister, rather than be prescribed in regulations as is currently the case for passenger transport operations, and to state for clarity that any conditions attached to a licence must be complied with, and that the Minister may refuse to grant a licence until the applicant has complied with the application regulations.
Section 20 is on the community licence and amends a definition in the Road Transport Act 1999 to include reference to the EU regulations. Section 21 is a standard provision on the service of notices and notifications, such as those in section 5 on appeals. Sections 22 and 23 refer to expenses, the short title and construction. These are standard provisions. My intention is that the Bill will come into operation immediately on being signed by the President. The Schedule exempts certain types of carriage from the requirement to hold a road transportoperator licence.
This, in essence, summarises the Road Transport Bill. As I outlined, the Bill is being brought to the House as a matter of urgency to deal with a number of particular issues that arise from new EU regulations on road transport operators which come into force on 4 December.A small number of additional provisions have been included to improve some elements of licensing.
I fully recognise that the circumstances of the Bill do not allow a full consideration of the many and varied aspects of road transport, which could potentially provide material for lively debate, new ideas and amending legislation. However, as the Bill deals with the most urgent issues, I see it as the first step in a comprehensive review process, and I have a more detailed road transport consolidation Bill in mind for next year. I look forward to the co-operation of Senators in facilitating the passage of the Bill, which I commend to the House.