Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Questions (28)

Joe Sherlock


113 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Transport his views on recent reports that there is a lack of consistency in the testing equipment used in national car test centres; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6797/04]

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Oral answers (17 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport)

As required by EU law, testing of certain passenger cars has been mandatory in Ireland since January 2000. The National Car Testing Service Limited holds a ten year contract to carry out testing on behalf of the State. The company was awarded the contract following an international public tendering competition conducted in accordance with EU procurement law.

I understand the equipment used to carry out NCT tests was selected by NCTS on the basis of its capability to accurately and consistently test vehicles in accordance with detailed technical specifications prescribed by the then Department of the Environment and Local Government which had responsibility for vehicle testing when introduced. I am also advised that all NCTS vehicle testing staff are qualified vehicle mechanics. This requirement accords with the contract specifications which additionally requires all testers to undergo rigorous and comprehensive initial training before they commence testing customers cars and undergo regular review and developmental training. A primary purpose of the initial and ongoing training is to ensure that each tester follows standardised test procedures.

The test process is subject to regular internal scrutiny by NCTS management. Where operational deficiencies, such as a need for retraining, equipment recalibration or for procedural improvements, are identified these are addressed immediately. Furthermore, all elements of NCTS test operations are subject to continuous external supervision by the Department of Transport. The detailed supervision is carried out on behalf of the Department by a consortium consisting of PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Automobile Association.

During the ongoing supervision process, particular attention is paid to ensuring that the various performance standards set out in the contract between the company and the Minister are complied with on an ongoing basis. These standards apply to premises, test equipment, staff, test arrangements, facilities management, information technology infrastructure and operations, customer service and provision of public information.

More than 630,000 first tests and 300,000 retests were completed in 2003. I am satisfied that the measures I have outlined ensure that as far as is possible in such a high volume repetitive process, the test results reflect the condition of the vehicles at the time of testing.

My question does not relate to staff or staff training, it relates to recent newspaper reports which indicated a lack of consistency in the equipment being used in test centres. Several examples were cited in the reports of cars having failed the NCT in one particular lane and passing it in another. Will the Minister of State explain the inconsistency in that regard? What is the Department doing about it? What is the Minister's view in this regard?

The report states that a person whose car fails the test in a particular lane has the right to have his or her car tested in another lane. Is that the case? Do people have the right to have their cars tested in an alternative lane? How can the Minister explain the inconsistency in the results between lanes in the same test centre?

I remind the Deputy that there are currently more than 300 testers undertaking one million tests every year. Of course, there will be some variability involved. The Deputy's question relates specifically to the lanes. I am frequently updated on such issues. The calibration is regularly tested and there should be no difference between lanes. A car which fails a test in one lane should fail in the others. In regard to the case referred to by the Deputy, I have grave suspicions about whether there was anything wrong with the lanes and will follow up the matter with the possibility of taking disciplinary action.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his visit to Roscommon at the weekend and on his success in getting my namesake nominated.

Will the Minister agree that the perception exists that national car testing is a money making racket and that the objective is to ensure a high failure rate within the system? Will he also agree that media reports such as the ones referred to by Deputy Shortall give rise to serious concerns regarding the integrity of the system? The Minister previously indicated he was considering the introduction of an appeals system. Has he given further consideration to that idea and, if so, what plans does he have to put such a system in place?

On the Deputy's point about national car testing being a money making system, I remind him his party introduced the system in 1996 when in coalition government. I believe we are using the best method of testing and that a singular entity should undertake the tests. Again, on the Deputy's point about national car testing being a money making system, that is always the case when one puts such a service in the hands of one company. I agree with the system introduced by the Deputy's party when in government.

The Deputy asked about media reports and the integrity of same. I have been castigated on a number of programmes for supporting the NCTS. It is a case of the big bad wolf company taking on the little people. There are 57 elements to each test and a person who fails to comply with them is breaking the law. The Government and others have been consistently castigated for not enforcing the law. The NCTS is enforcing legislation in this regard and the Government is being castigated for catching people who are breaking the law.

On the Deputy's third point, the system is examined every year. The contract is a ten year one of which there will be a mid-term review next year. I and the NCTS favour the introduction of an independent appeals system. The company has no hesitation in standing over what it is doing and would welcome an independent appeals system.

Is the Minister aware of the concern, arising from such inconsistency, to the effect that even a new car off the assembly line would pass no more than two or three tests in one week? In other words, vehicles are often damaged in the course of a test while others pass readily.

Will the Minister comment on why cars displaying the word "taxi" as gaelige are being refused an NCT?

I would like clarification from the Minister on an earlier point. Newspaper reports, which seem factual, indicated there are inconsistencies between lanes within test centres. Is the Minister saying that is not the case? Does he stand over the system in respect of consistency between lanes?

I will take Deputy Shortall's question first. Calibrations are regularly checked but there can be inconsistencies between lanes. I believe the case referred to involved human as opposed to mechanical error.

By the tester?

Yes. I mentioned earlier, before the Deputy came into the House, that disciplinary action may be taken in that case. The NCTS does not refuse to test cars displaying the word "taxi" as gaelige.

I am told it does.

I will look into the matter though I understand that is not the case.

Deputy Durkan mentioned new cars. New cars do not undergo the——

That was only for the purpose of comparison. A brand new car in mint condition put through the test three times would fail a subsequent test.

They do not have to do the test.

Thanks be to God.

Before 2000, all cars had to be tested and there was a very high failure rate. However, the pass rate for cars registered in 2000 coming on-stream now is up to 69% or 70%. We are getting to the stage now where the pass rate will be much higher because we do not have the older models to test. That is the line being followed at present.