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Haulage Industry

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 3 July 2012

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Questions (23, 24)

Heather Humphreys

Question:

93Deputy Heather Humphreys asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if he will provide an update on the progress that has been made in addressing the difficulties facing the haulage industry following his engagement with the industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32109/12]

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Heather Humphreys

Question:

153Deputy Heather Humphreys asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport his plans to support the haulage industry and to address some of the difficulties that the industry is facing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32110/12]

View answer

Oral answers (30 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 93 and 153 together.

These questions relate to my engagement with the haulage industry. I know that Deputies Áine Collins and Heather Humphreys have been seriously involved in issues relating to the haulage sector since their election. I recognise the important role of the sector in the transport of goods and the difficulties it is facing in the current climate.  My officials and I have met representative organisations on several occasions and I am due to meet them again in the coming days.

One of the main concerns of the sector is fuel prices. My colleague, the Minister for Finance, has established a working group to examine taxes and duties on fuel. I understand this group has completed its work and reported back to the Minister. The industry has also expressed concerns about unfair competition from illegal and unlicensed hauliers which I was able to address in the Road Transport Act 2011 which substantially increased fines for illegal hauliers and consignors who use them, of up to €500,000 and three years in prison.

To improve services for operators, my Department is working on a computer project to go live in early 2013.  It will provide an online licence application system and also allow operators to view and manage their own fleet records with the Department.  The project will also support compliance monitoring and enforcement by facilitating communication with enforcement authorities throughout the European Union.

Another issue of interest to some haulage operators is cabotage carried out in the United Kingdom.  I have met my UK counterpart on this issue and the two Departments are working together to identify what progress can be made on a bilateral basis.

Road safety is clearly important for the haulage sector.  The Oireachtas recently enacted legislation that will transform the system for the roadworthiness testing of commercial vehicles. This will lead to an improvement in the quality and safety of commercial vehicles on the roads, thereby enhancing the reputation of the haulage industry. In addition, following representations from the industry and consultation with the relevant road safety and enforcement agencies, earlier this year I signed a statutory instrument into law increasing the maximum speed limit on motorways for heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, from 80 km/h to 90 km/h.

I thank the Minister for his answer and acknowledge his efforts to assist the haulage industry, as well as recognising its important role. As he stated, Deputy Áine Collins and I have been involved in a working group set up by the Minister for Finance last February to discuss and find solutions to two of the most pressing problems facing the industry, namely, fuel costs and fuel laundering. The group included members of the Irish Road Haulage Association and officials from the Department of Finance and Revenue. I thank the members of the association for their commitment and honesty in trying to resolve the issues, as well as the significant amount of work they did and the information they provided for the Department of Finance. The working group's findings have been submitted to the Minister.

As an exporting country, the haulage sector will play an essential role in our economic recovery through the delivery of goods to the United Kingdom and across Europe. We need the industry to be strong, vibrant and competitive. This is particularly true of the Cavan-Monaghan region because we have no rail service, which makes it completely dependent on the haulage industry. Has the Minister had an opportunity to look at the findings of the working group? When will he discuss the matter with the Minister for Finance?

The Deputy is absolutely correct in drawing attention to the importance of the haulage industry. Even for parts of Ireland with a rail service, 95% of all freight is transported by road. This will always be the case in a country of this size and with such dispersed settlement patterns. Haulage is absolutely essential as the country would not function without such a service. We all remember during the heavy snow two years ago how shops were literally on the verge of running out of food because the haulage industry could not function in the bad weather. I have seen the report but have not yet had an opportunity to discuss it with the Minister for Finance. I will certainly do so in advance of the budget.

I would like questions to be brief because many Deputies want to come in on this issue.

Is the Minister aware of the issue of the essential user rebate of which other countries such as Belgium, France and Luxembourg avail and the effect it has on Irish hauliers? We have many hauliers filling their fuel tanks abroad, which means a loss of revenue to the State. What are the Minister's views on this rebate and would he support the reintroduction of such an initiative here?

I am aware the essential user rebate was abolished several years ago. It was of great financial benefit to the haulage industry, as well as to private bus operators and CIE. Its reintroduction would improve the financial position of CIE, private bus operators and the haulage industry, but it is a matter for the Minister for Finance to consider. In coming to a decision on it, he would have to weigh up several factors. On the plus side, if we could reduce tank tourism, we might gain more revenue for the State. However, on the down side, there is the cost of the rebate. It is a matter I will discuss with the Minister for Finance.

Deputy Áine Humphreys referred to the significant issue of fuel laundering. Does the Minister have an update on the progress made in solving this problem? In the past it was predominantly a Border issue. Now, however, it is like Shaws in that it is almost nationwide. It poses a serious problem for the industry. Has any progress been made in ensuring those causing the problem are brought to justice?

I am aware of the issue, but I cannot answer the Deputy's question as it is handled by the Department of Finance and Revenue.

I congratulate my colleagues, Deputies Áine Collins and Heather Humphreys, on their work with the working group on fuel prices. I thank the Minister for his comments on his work with his UK counterpart on cabotage. When it was introduced in Europe, the knock-on implications for Irish hauliers in the United Kingdom were not envisaged. We now have the ludicrous situation where Irish hauliers need to come back from there with empty trailers. It is killing the industry. I know of specific cases of specialised Irish hauliers who in transporting parts for wind turbines in Scotland, owing to the cabotage rules, were forced to return with empty trailers. I encourage the Minister to continue his work in finding a solution to this problem. We cannot lose hauliers at a time when the economy is in a difficult position. It is hauliers we are going to need to transport goods and produce as the economy grows.

The rules on cabotage are absurd in what is supposed to be a single European market. In a nutshell, they mean an Irish haulier in Britain or a British haulier in Ireland can only take three journeys between the two countries within a period of seven days. This is absurd, given that there is free movement of people, trade and goods across the European Union. The Benelux countries have an arrangement which means hauliers can operate freely in the three countries in question. It seems to work well for them. It appears it predates European law and is, therefore, an exception to the cabotage regulations. What we are working on is a bilateral agreement to create a common haulage area of Britain and Ireland. However, it may be difficult to do this because it may be contrary to the European directive on cabotage. The other option, supported by the European Commission, is to get rid of cabotage and have a common European area for haulage. However, some larger member states, in particular, are resisting this. It is the Government's policy to eliminate these restrictions. To do so, however, it would need the co-operation of our British and European colleagues.

Local authorities are spending up to €4 million on the environmental clean-up of the sludge from fuel laundering, most of which is dumped on farms and roadsides. Is the Minister in contact with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on whether a grant may be made available to local authorities to meet these clean-up costs? Is he in contact with the Department of Justice and Equality on increasing prison sentences or the fines for those found guilty of fuel laundering?

I have not been in contact with the two Departments on this matter. The issue of washed diesel and so on falls to Revenue and the Department of Finance. While it is not one we have discussed around the table yet, the Deputy's suggestion is valid. It is one of those matters that does not necessarily fall to any one Department and is not addressed for that reason. It is an issue about which the Departments and agencies involved need to have a conflab in the next few weeks.

It is welcome that the Minister acknowledges the significant positive impact of the haulage industry on industry in general and the country's commercial future. Does he accept the elephant in the room for the haulage industry is high fuel prices and that it is a major concern in terms of employment in the industry? Does he accept that many HGVs regularly breach the prohibition on driving through residential areas? I have experience in Dublin bay north of HGVs breaching the regulations by driving down Griffith Avenue, one of the nicest avenues in Europe. What they are doing is completely against the law. Will the Minister take action on this issue?

Fuel prices are very high. That is not just the case for hauliers, however. They are high for all of us. High fuel prices do not just impact on hauliers; they also have an impact on motorists and bus companies. While prices are high, they are by no means the highest in Europe. For example, fuel prices are higher in the UK and France. Ireland is not the worst offender in this regard but I acknowledge that prices here are high and that this is putting pressure on households, in terms of their income, and businesses.

The enforcement of the law relating to HGVs is entirely a matter for the Garda and local authorities. That is not a matter in respect of which I can provide assistance.

Apart from issues such as VAT and rebates, the cost of fuel in general is of concern to companies which use vans and other large vehicles. One action we can take is to ensure the best level possible will be set in the legislation which is being debated by the European Parliament and which relates to new limits for manufacturers in respect of van emissions. The level currently under discussion in this regard is not as good proportionately as that which relates to smaller vehicles. I am informed that the level to which I refer is based on a miscalculation of the emission figures for vans in production at present. Moves to improve the efficiency of vehicles used in the road haulage industry would lead to major long-term savings for the companies involved. If such moves are not made, this could lead to a dramatic increase in the cost of doing business in the future.

There have been reports in The Sunday Business Post to the effect that progress has been made in the context of combating the major problem of fuel laundering through the use of new dyes, etc. We must find a means whereby we can stop people tampering with fuel.

The Minister referred to the cost of fuel in general and our level of dependence on road haulage. What progress has his Department made in the context of trying to get freight back onto our railways? I refer, in particular, to the possibility of routing freight through our deep water ports. In my constituency we have one of the deepest ports in the country and an unused rail line. Has the Department made any progress in the context of getting the rail line to which I refer reopened for either bulk or container traffic or both?

It is interesting that Deputy Ellis appears to know a great deal about fuel laundering, etc. He certainly seems to know a little more about the subject than I do.

I do not know where the Minister got that impression.

Deputy Ellis also reads The Sunday Business Post now.

Is that what they read in Dublin Bay north?

Perhaps Deputy Ellis might agree to meet me in private in order to inform me about the tricks of the trade and so on.

I do not know what the Minister is implying but I take offence at what he said. I have never supported anyone who has been involved in fuel laundering. I want to make that clear. The Minister should withdraw the remark he made. There has been an insinuation that I am doing something illegal and that is just not acceptable.

I assure the Deputy that I am not insinuating that he is doing anything illegal.

Well, what was the Minister saying?

I am just impressed by the Deputy's level of knowledge with regard to what is happening in the area in question.

(Interruptions).

I do not know how the Minister can be impressed, particularly as I have not imparted any knowledge to him.

Fuel laundering is a matter for the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. There are a number of things which could be done in terms of adding markers, etc., to fuel. Isotope markers appear to be an option in this regard.

The level of freight being carried by rail is increasing slightly. Irish Rail's business in this area is now quite profitable, which was not the case in the past. Dublin has been connected to the port railway network, with the rails running under the crane for the first time. Preliminary discussions have taken place with Irish Rail in the context of reopening the line to Shannon-Foynes. However, the Deputy will accept that those discussions are commercial in nature.

Is the Minister in a position to assure the House that none of this illegal diesel is making its way into the school transport system, possibly through its use by private operators? Is there a mechanism in place to monitor the position in this regard?

I am afraid I cannot provide assurances in that regard. Again, this matter does not fall within my remit. The Deputy's question would probably be best answered by the Minister for Finance and the Revenue Commissioners.

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