Adjournment Debate. - National Car Test.

Acting Chairman:

I understand that Deputy Gerard Reynolds, who gave notice of his intention to raise a matter, is on his way to the House. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, to bear with us for a moment.

I apologise to the House and the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, for my delay. It was not totally my fault.

I raise this issue due to the number of old age pensioners who contacted me concerning the national car testing scheme. Most OAPs drive older cars and few of them can afford to change their cars for new ones. The Government provides free travel to all old age pensioners, which is very welcome, but in rural Ireland there is no adequate public transport service. Old people in rural areas must rely on their own vehicles to go from one place to another and get to shops and other essential services. With the introduction of the car test, they are now being penalised by extra charges. Old age pensioners believe the scheme is necessary because the safety of their vehicles is of paramount importance but they feel the Government is discriminating against them by charging for car testing.

When my colleague, Deputy Timmins, recently submitted a parliamentary question regarding the cost of introducing the car test, some interesting figures were given in reply. One of the surprising aspects of the information received by Deputy Timmins was that the cost to date of supervising the national car test service is £155,000. I do not suggest that extra money should be found but that money already in the system should be set against the charges which old age pensioners are asked to pay for their car tests. For example, the monitoring of the service is carried out by the Department with the assistance of the supervision services contractor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Belfast, which was awarded the supervisory contract for a term which extends to 30 June 2000, at a cost of £155,000.

I accept that the cost had to be put in place when the scheme was introduced but I do not believe that once the scheme is successfully in operation it will be necessary to have a supervisory scheme in place. It would be more equitable if the Government used the money allocated for the supervision of the service to waive the charge on old age pensioners in rural areas who need transport.

I hope the Minister of State will relay my suggestion to the Minister. It is not necessary that PricewaterhouseCoopers continues to supervise the national car test over the coming years. The test is being carried out adequately and the money could be better spent on waiving testing charges for old age pensioners.

I thank Deputy Reynolds for raising this important matter. My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, is unable to be in the House this evening to respond to this matter and has asked me to do so on his behalf.

The introduction of the compulsory national car test is required under EU Directive 96/96/ EU. Ireland sought and received a derogation under this directive, which provided for a significantly later commencement date for car testing compared with most other member states. The derogation has expired and, as a consequence, it was necessary for Ireland to fulfil its obligations under the directive and commence testing on 4 January 2000.

The successful introduction of car testing is a key vehicle-related measure in the Government's strategy for road safety. The national car test, or NCT, will ensure that the essential safety elements of cars are in good condition. However, the full safety benefit of the NCT can only be realised in an overall framework of responsible behaviour by road users. This means not only making sure that cars are safe to drive but also driving them safely.

There has been a high level of public acceptance of the need for compulsory car testing. The results of tests should give owners reassurance that the test is a reasonable one. Some 50% of all cars tested have passed at the first attempt. Test certificates have been granted for 80% of all cars following the test or a first repeat test. This gives the lie to the fears of some motorists at the outset that the test was designed to fail older cars so that they could not be used again on the road. These results will have a beneficial effect on road safety and on air quality at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency is signalling the growing need to tackle air pollution from road transport.

Car ownership and use has always involved significant private costs and the £35 for a test every two years must be seen in the context of overall costs. In the case of a small to medium sized car, typical maintenance costs are estimated by the AA to be in the order of £800 to £900 per year. It has always been accepted that responsibility for costs of this kind should rest with the private motorist. Indeed even without the introduction of the national car test there has been a long-standing duty on motorists to maintain cars in a safe condition.

The test and re-test fees for the national car test arise from the self-financing nature of the service. The company has a legal obligation to provide tests to a high standard and is remunerated by the fees alone. The reduction in fee income because of free tests for some motorists would have to be compensated for from other sources of revenue. An Exchequer subvention funded by taxpayers generally would mean taxpayers who cannot afford a car themselves subsidising others in a more favourable position than themselves. Furthermore, it is recognised in all other European Union countries and in the wider international community that responsibility for motoring costs is a personal one. It is also highly likely that any Exchequer assistance relating to the costs of complying with the vehicle testing directive which is binding in all member states would be subject to a legal challenge by the European Commission. For these reasons there are no proposals to make changes to the fees for the national car test at this time. However, proposals being developed by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, in conjunction with the Department of Finance, on the development of a rural transport scheme will address many of the mobility problems of elderly rural dwellers.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 May 2000.