Thursday, 24 September 2020

Questions (1)

Darren O'Rourke


1. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport if his attention has been drawn to the funding shortfall at Meath Local Link, which has led to school bus transport from Ratoath to Navan being cancelled; and his plans to address the matter. [25882/20]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Transport)

Children in Skreen have attended school in Navan for generations and they have been accommodated under the school transport scheme for years. Similar to many others around the country, they found their own solutions when they were left out of that scheme, such is its exclusionary nature. Families managed to work with Flexibus and TFI Local Link Louth, Meath, Fingal to get a bus on the road and share the cost. When the 50% rule was introduced with three days' notice, they were told that the National Transport Authority, NTA, does not handle school transport. How will the Minister intervene to facilitate these 33 children?

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in respect of public transport. The NTA has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally. The NTA also has national responsibility for integrated local and rural transport including management of the rural transport programme, which now operates under the Local Link brand. The school transport scheme comes under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, and is managed by Bus Éireann on her behalf.

My Department provides aggregate funding for Local Link services to the NTA, which, in turn, allocates the funding to the individual transport co-ordination units, TCUs, nationwide, also known as Local Link offices. The TCUs manage the day-to-day requests for and delivery of public transport services. TFI Local Link Louth, Meath, Fingal, that is, Flexibus, operates and delivers rural public transport services on behalf of the NTA in counties Louth and Meath and the Fingal area in north County Dublin.

The NTA has advised that Covid-19-related social distancing requirements have increased the costs on the existing service provided by Flexibus, about which the Deputy has inquired. As such, the company was not in a position to continue providing the service as previously without additional support or grant aid.

Under the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009, the definition of a "public bus passenger service" excludes the NTA from licensing or providing services for carrying children to or from school. Consequently, the NTA does not manage the delivery of dedicated school transport services.

Local Link services are for mainstream public transport services open to all. Dedicated school transport services continue to be funded by the Department of Education and Skills and operated by Bus Éireann, largely via a network of subcontractors. As such, the NTA has advised that it is not in a position to allocate resources to Flexibus for a school-specific service such as the one referred to by the Deputy.

The Government tells us all eligible children will be accommodated. That is a careful use of words, which hides the fact that thousands of children who would have been accommodated in previous years have been excluded from school transport scheme this year. Covid-19 is a factor, but the Government's complete failure to plan, prepare and deliver is a larger one. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, was consulted but the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, was not. That tells us everything we need to know.

This case is particular but it is not unique. The families tried to fund the service themselves this year. The bus company needed €50 per child per week, €80 for two children and €120 for three children. That was a significant expense, which families simply could not meet. It has caused chaos, turning daily schedules on their heads, cramming kids into cars and putting more cars on the road. Will the Minister instruct the NTA and Flexibus to reinstate funding for the service, or intervene with the Minister for Education and Skills and Bus Éireann?

The Deputy is correct that this is not the only example. It is a cruel and critical problem for every family affected. If I recall correctly, 20,000 students throughout the country are on bus services not provided by the Department of Education and Skills. Many of these services are in particular difficulty because of the 50% rule concerning capacity of bus services. The local Flexibus service is a brilliant company, but there is a clear difference between an operation of that type and a bus service run exclusively for a school and its students. That cannot be funded by the NTA. By definition, Local Link services are open to all and are not school-specific. If we changed the rules in this location, we would have to change them for the entire country, which would undermine the public Local Link services everywhere. It is unfortunate that the example the Deputy has raised is caught in the gap between a public bus service and an school service. There is no easy resolution to this, but the NTA will engage with Flexibus to see what steps are possible.

To ensure that as many Members as possible can comment, I will not allow Members or Ministers to exceed their time.

My apologies.

Replies I received from the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Norma Foley, confirmed that as of last Thursday, 97,644 tickets had been issued for primary and secondary school transport, not including transport for students with special educational needs. The comparable figure this time last year was 103,764. That is a difference of 6,120 children. That is a lot of children who have been left without a service by the fixed constraints of the school transport scheme. Of course, the 33 children in Skreen are not included in that 6,120. Neither are the hundreds in Leixlip, north Louth, north Wexford, Donegal or Mayo. I could go on.

Can the Minister confirm the real numbers? He referred to a figure of 20,000. Is that the number of students who have been excluded this year for these reasons? What solutions will he, his Department, the NTA, Bus Éireann, the Department of Education and Skills and the Government as a whole provide for these children?

Those 20,000 children have not been excluded. That was an historic reference to the number of children who were on private bus services not operated by the Department of Education and Skills. In most instances, these children travel longer distances than to the local school.

For that reason, they are not included within the scheme run by the Department of Education and Skills.

The Deputy referred to 6,000 fewer school transport tickets having been issued. That issue, which falls under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills, relates to parents having various views in terms of how they operate within the Covid pandemic period. Indeed, the situation is changing because the Department of Education and Skills is having to look at revising the number of buses that are available in order to meet the Department of Health recommendations regarding the 50% capacity limit. There will be further changes to the school bus system but I do not believe they will solve the local issue raised by the Deputy because the service in question falls outside the catchment of the Department of Education and Skills.