Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Questions (43)

Marc MacSharry


43. Deputy Marc MacSharry asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he has engaged with his Cabinet colleagues and UK counterparts to ensure that returning emigrants who hold UK licences will continue to be able to swap their licences for an Irish driver licence even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. [40154/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

Has the Minister engaged with his Cabinet colleagues and UK counterparts to ensure that returning emigrants who hold UK driver licences will continue to be able to swap their licence for an Irish licence, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit? There are between 50,000 and 70,000 UK driver licence holders in Ireland, many of whom have yet to swap their licences. Furthermore, the figure does not account for the 400,000 Irish citizens living in the UK, some of whom, if not many, are making arrangements to return home.

I thank the Deputy for asking this topical question, which is a hot issue in the light of Brexit.

Motorists resident in Ireland with a UK, including Northern Ireland, driver licence are being advised to exchange that licence for an Irish driver licence before 31 October 2019. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK will no longer be a member state and, therefore, the UK driver licence will not be recognised. People resident in Ireland will no longer be able to drive on a UK driver licence. Contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit has been considered by Cabinet on many occasions since 2016 and the matter of UK driver licences was included in the issues under consideration. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, has run a number of media campaigns this year including a radio campaign, which commenced on 23 September 2019, to encourage those living in Ireland and holding UK driver licences to exchange them in good time before 31 October 2019. The RSA is also running an ongoing social media campaign.

At the start of this process, as the Deputy noted, it was estimated some 70,000 UK licences were held by people resident in Ireland. Some 34,000 of these have been exchanged to date. The RSA will increase its opening hours at the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, centres, commencing on 7 October 2019, as will be advertised on Additional resources are also in place at the application processing centre to cater for the expected increased demand. At present, the average waiting time for the exchange of a UK driver licence for an Irish driver licence is three days.

Once the UK leaves the EU, the exchange of driver licences will become a national competency rather than an EU competency. My officials have examined the technical issues that will arise in such a scenario and will seek to put in place alternative arrangements for the exchange of licences, including in the case of returning emigrants currently holding a UK licence. This cannot be completed, however, until after the UK has left the EU. Therefore, I urge any persons who are resident in Ireland and who hold a UK licence to exchange it for an Irish licence and to do so without further delay.

There seems to be a certain dilatoriness and a rather large gap has opened up, given that 70,000 people should take such action whereas more than 30,000 have yet to do so. I regard that as rather disturbing but I hope that in the next few weeks it will be remedied.

The real answer is we do not yet know how we will accommodate the people in question. As the Minister noted, 34,000 people have exchanged their licences while 36,000 remain to do so. Will the Department put in place additional resources at the driver licence centres to manage the additional demand when it arises? A nurse told me she planned to return in December to take up a new position, having completed her studies and a short working career in the UK. She is unsure what she will be in a position to do but all the Minister is in a position to say is the Government will consider those technical issues after the UK leaves. That is not sufficient for people such as that nurse. She might find herself in the ridiculous position where, having had a competent driving career heretofore, she has to engage in mandatory training on her return, obtain a learner permit and be accompanied while driving. There is a severe absence of common sense to that.

It is clear the introduction of a transitional period may be needed. Common sense demands that should there be a no-deal Brexit, transitional arrangements will have to be in place after 31 October to facilitate people for a period.

As I outlined, preparations are being made for the sort of scenario the Deputy described. It is anticipated that increased opening hours at the NDLS centres will commence next week and will be advertised on the NDLS website. Additional resources are in place at the application processing centre to cater for the expected increased demand, which the Deputy should recognise. At present, the wait is fairly slow but we expect a rush as the end of October approaches, and we will provide for that.

On the Deputy's question about non-residents, under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, drivers from contracting states carrying a valid driver licence can drive on one another's roads for up to a year. As Ireland and the UK are contracting states in the Geneva Convention, the position applies and will not change following the withdrawal date. This means that motorists who are not resident in Ireland but who drive in Ireland with a UK driver licence may not be affected by Brexit. It does not matter whether they are emigrants. What matters is where the licence is held and what licence the driver holds.

Will all classifications of UK driving licence be converted to Irish licences? After the fact, does the Minister intend to conclude a bilateral agreement with the UK? While we are speaking specifically today about UK licences in the context of Brexit, there is an overall absence of common sense in our approach to recognising the competency of drivers from elsewhere in the world. I give the example of someone returning from the USA after 30 years who had a licence in Ireland before he or she left. That person cannot get an Irish licence again without being forced to undergo mandatory training, a driving test and status as an accompanied driver simply because we do not have a particular agreement with the USA. We have them with South Korea and East Timor. Broadly speaking, the Department must instruct the driving licence authority to conclude bilateral agreements with these other nations which are not covered. There are a great many people in this position but while we say we want to welcome returning emigrants, we make it very difficult for them to obtain licences when they come home. That has implications for them getting insurance. More broadly, the Minister must be more proactive about acknowledging the competency of returning emigrants, not just those from the UK.

The Deputy can be certain that the RSA and the Department will respond to increased demand. If there is increased demand, as the Deputy anticipates, from returning emigrants, they will respond to that. In my opening reply, I said the average waiting time for the exchange of a UK driving licence for an Irish one is three days, which is a very short period. If there is a rush of emigrants returning from the UK and looking for licences, I have no doubt that the RSA will respond. It has already responded fully to the anticipation that 70,000 people would apply and, in fact, they did not all come. As such, the speed with which the RSA is delivering new licences is commendable.

As the Deputy knows, although I do not think it is the intention behind his question, I cannot involve myself in any bilateral negotiations with my British counterparts on this because the EU is carrying out those negotiations. If the UK departs from the EU on 31 October, which I hope it will not, there will then be an opportunity for us to make an agreement which will sort out the problem anticipated by the Deputy.