Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 6 Dec 2007

Vol. 643 No. 2

Priority Questions.

Air Services.

Fergus O'Dowd


1 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the further steps he will take beyond altering the Aer Lingus articles of association to protect Aer Lingus Heathrow links to Dublin and Cork Airports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33197/07]

Arrangements to safeguard Heathrow slots are built into the company's memorandum and articles of association of Aer Lingus. The effect of these arrangements, at present, is to provide for the possibility that any disposal of Heathrow slots by the company can be prevented by 30.2% of the votes cast at an extraordinary general meeting. Some 25.2% of the shares in the company are held by the Minister for Finance on behalf of the State and I understand that the ESOT holds 12.5% and Ryanair 29.3%. The remaining 33% of shares are held by various private bodies and financial institutions.

Also, under the memorandum and articles of association, the State is entitled to appoint three directors to the board of Aer Lingus. Currently, there is only one State-appointed director serving on the board and it is proposed that two further appointments be made in the near future. The State appointees will seek to ensure that all future decisions of the company that have implications for wider Government, aviation or regional development policies are considered and decided at board level. This will give the State appointees the opportunity to raise the public policy implications of each decision and to ensure the full commercial implications for the company are taken into account.

The Minister's reply is inadequate, particularly given the fact that, on 7 October, he told The Sunday Tribune he would immediately appoint the directors. We are now in December. Is it not a fact that there have been vacancies for State nominees on the board since October 2006? It is a measure of the failure of this Government and of the Minister that he has failed to act.

The Minister did not respond to the specific question I asked, which was what further steps he would take. He said he was going to appoint directors with a new mandate. However, what mandate did his current board member have? The fact that two seats have been left vacant means the Minister did not use his mandate.

Everybody seemed to know about the transfer of slots from Shannon, such as the Civil Service, Dublin Airport Authority and Aer Lingus, except the Minister and his predecessor. Does that not represent a complete failure of the Government?

As I said to the Deputy, the appointment of directors will be made in the near future. As I have told him previously, the question of whether the directors had been appointed would not have affected this decision. On the question of what further steps can be taken, that is the only one we can take. Some people seem to have great difficulty getting into their heads the fact that Aer Lingus is a private company, not a semi-State company controlled by the Government or the Department of Transport. It is what it is. The decision has been made and we are satisfied that the alteration to the articles of association to protect the Heathrow slots from disposal are robust. However, we cannot go any further than that.

The articles of association state that if the Heathrow slot was sold or leased, for example, to British Midland, and was moved to Belfast the Minister would intervene, yet the same thing has happened with regard to the slot in Shannon. The primary purpose, as stated by the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, when he first proposed the sale of Aer Lingus, was to protect the national and regional interest. The Government has failed to do that.

The Secretary General of the Department of Transport said, in an article in the Irish Independent of 29 November, that the Government would be helpless if Aer Lingus moved more airport slots. Is that not an absolute admission of the failure of the Government, particularly given that Deputy Denis Naughten, the Fine Gael spokesperson on aviation, secured a commitment from the Minister to a White Paper on how the slots would be accounted for as part of the privatisation of the company?

The holding of shares in a company does not give the holder the right to run the company on a day-to day basis. The Government's shareholding does not confer any right to influence commercial operations in the company. It would, therefore, be totally inappropriate for a Government to intervene directly in the commercial decisions of the company. Aer Lingus must now operate in a very competitive environment and act in a commercial manner. The directors must ensure it does so and that is the reality we must face. There is no place to hide as regards competition in the aviation sector.

As I said previously, the reasons for launching the IPO are well known. It was a decision that had to be made to ensure there was an Aer Lingus at the end of the day. I have no doubt that, in two or three years, the Deputy would be talking about the failure of Government policy on Aer Lingus if we had not injected the necessary capital to allow it to compete in the sector in the future.

Driving Tests.

Thomas P. Broughan


2 Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport the number of people who have the new learner permits driving licences; the number who will have the new learner permits by 30 June 2008; the estimate of the number of people who will still have provisional driving licences after 30 June 2008; the number of citizens currently on the driving test waiting list; the way he will ensure the Road Safety Authority’s guarantee of a driving test by 30 June 2008 for all provisional driving licence holders; his target for the number of driving tests to be carried out per week over the next eight months to clear the waiting list backlog; the number of provisional driving licence holders in total who will sit their driving test by 30 June 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33023/07]

Fergus O'Dowd


5 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the progress that has been made in testing those on their provisional licences before 30 June 2008 since his statement on 28 October 2007; the additional resources he has committed to reach his target; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33200/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 5 together.

Responsibility for driver testing was transferred to the Road Safety Authority in September 2006, under the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 (Conferral of Functions) Order 2006. The arrangements for testing, numbers of candidates and licences are therefore a matter for that agency.

The new framework for the reform of the provisional licence system and for the changeover to a learner permit system, introduced by me in October, is the first step in a fundamental reform of arrangements for the formation and licensing of young drivers. This reform is a major element of the new road safety strategy and one which holds out the promise of a significant dividend in terms of reduced deaths and injuries in this most vulnerable category of young drivers.

Following the changes to the driver licensing laws for learner drivers which were introduced in October this year, both I and the RSA have confirmed that all 122,000 applicants on the waiting list at the end of that month will have been tested by early March 2008 and that by the end of June 2008 all applicants for a driving test will be able to get a test on demand, that is, within a ten-week period. This does not mean there will be no waiting list at the end of June 2008.

I have also requested that the RSA ensure that all 120,000 people who were holders of second provisional licences at the time the changes were introduced in October will have been offered a test before the end of June 2008. As we know, from that time, these drivers will be required to be accompanied by a qualified driver, a requirement which applies to all other learner drivers in any event. The national vehicle and driver file, NVDF, section of my Department, based in Shannon, is directly assisting the RSA in this objective.

Since its establishment in September 2006, the RSA has introduced a number of measures to reduce driving test waiting times, including contracting SGS Limited to provide additional driving tests on its behalf. Over the last year or so, the average waiting time for a test has come down by about one third and the RSA continues to drive that waiting time down. Additional testers have been recruited by SGS Ireland, the first cohort of which have commenced training in recent days. A large number of applicants responded to the SGS recruitment campaign and SGS is confident it will find significant numbers suitable for rapid training and deployment. The RSA and SGS will ensure that these additional testers come on stream between now and next March. At that time, the capacity of the testing service in terms of numbers tested per week will have increased by approximately two thirds.

I confirm that the RSA has carefully examined the pattern of application and pass rates, and has taken into account the significant spike in applications which has occurred in recent weeks, but which is tailing off. Having considered all factors, the RSA continues to believe that the undertakings given will be honoured.

As regards the issue of resources, the amount of funding to be made available to the RSA in 2008 amounts to €39.8 million, which includes an additional amount of €11 million to help address the driving test waiting list in 2008.

The RSA stated a few days ago that it would publish a guarantee that all second provisional licence holders would be given a test by 30 June but since then there has been no word or publication to that effect. I note that the Minister is shifting responsibility carefully, once again, on to the Road Safety Authority.

Yesterday, the Minister provided an additional €11 million in the budget, but the Budget Statement states, in the section on transport, that the target date of ten weeks will be achieved at the end of 2008. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between what the Minister told the House in his speech on the Financial Resolution a few minutes ago and what he told the House in response to this question.

Given the considerable public interest in this and that he is Minister for Transport, I do not see why he cannot give details of facts and figures on the numbers of testers and tests. Is it not still the case that around the country there is a significant backlog of waiting times for tests? For example, I note that in Athlone, Skibbereen and Raheny in my constituency, the waiting time is still 28 weeks. In Clifden, County Galway, people face an astonishing wait of 39 weeks for a test. In Wicklow town, the waiting time is 29 weeks. Is this not astonishing, five weeks after the Minister's incredible faux pas at the Hallowe’en break?

On the testing that has been carried out, there seems be an incredible discrepancy between the percentage of applicants passed by testers of the Road Safety Authority and by testers of the contractor company, SGS. I understand SGS, for example, has an average pass rate of 62%, which ranges from 58% in Drogheda to 64% in Naas, 78% in Charleville and 81% and 84%, respectively, in Nenagh and Cahir, whereas the pass rate in the RSA centre in Carlow, for example, is only 42%. The Minister will be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to the regional discrepancy in testing a couple of years ago. Does this concern the Minister?

Mr. Bobby Dunphy, from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's constituency, contacted the media last week about concerns relating to the standard of testing. Given that the number waiting for a test shot up to 158,000 and the number of provisional licence holders is approaching 500,000, can the Minister guarantee that everybody on a second or subsequent provisional driving licence who wants to do a test will have been tested by 30 June because that is the matter for which this House will hold him responsible?

It would suit Deputy Broughan to hold me responsible for something which I did not promise but I am not going down that route with him.

The Minister just made a promise.

Neither am I shifting responsibility to the RSA. The RSA has had responsibility for this since it was set up.

On the question about facts and figures which Deputy Broughan requested, I do not make decisions about parliamentary questions, nor do I make the rules up in this regard. If Deputy Broughan wants those facts and figures, I found, even before I came into this job, that the RSA is more than obliging in providing as much information as possible to Members of this House and that is the route to go.

This is Dáil Éireann.

There are long waiting lists——

On a point of information, the Labour Party had approximately seven questions ruled out and it is not acceptable to hear this kind of guff.

If Deputy Broughan allows the Minister to conclude his reply, I will get an opportunity to call him again. The Minister, without interruption.

We do not have a monopoly on guff here. If you give it, I will give it back to you, do not worry.

The Minister started it.

I would be obliged if the Minister would refer through the Chair and not engage with any individual Member.

I would not engage in guff with the Chair.

I thank the Minister.

Deputy Broughan's final point about the waiting list is true and nobody has ever tried to deny it. The waiting lists in various areas are published. That is why we are strengthening the RSA. That is why we took in the contractors. The Department's testers within the system have responded magnificently to the commitments the RSA has put in place to deliver on these, and they have increased their output. I acknowledge that and I acknowledge the trade union for being so co-operative. My commitments, which I outlined in my answer to Deputy Broughan, are ones that we can stand over and no doubt the RSA and the testers will deliver on them.

Recently, I received a report of tests being cancelled in Raheny where people, who had test appointments and were ready to go, were notified by telephone that no tester was available. There may be an issue with that.

I agree with Deputy Broughan. While the Minister has accepted this mammoth task of meeting his deadline of 30 June, at the same time a question to his Department has been disallowed in respect of the standards of testers and the pass rates. The Minister should be responsible for the efficiency and effectiveness of those tests and the differences that arise between the RSA testers and the SGS. I will give three examples. In Finglas and Fonthill in Dublin, where the RSA and the SGS tested approximately 5,000 applicants each, the pass rate is 18% higher with SGS, which is a significant difference. In Limerick, where slightly fewer people were tested by SGS and 3,500 were tested by RSA, the difference in the pass rate is 19%. In Naas, where the RSA pass rate is 50%, the SGS pass rate is 14% higher. Allowing for the fact that there may be reasons that the SGS is getting applicants who would be longer on the list and longer waiting to get their tests initially, and who would therefore have had more driving experience, nevertheless, this variation is a matter of deep concern.

I spoke to the Road Safety Authority and I acknowledge that it is extremely helpful, but I am still concerned. I ask the Minister to discuss the matter with the RSA. There must be accountability to the Minister and, through him, to us on this testing issue. It may appear to some that a person going to the SGS rather than to the RSA has a much better chance of passing and that is not acceptable. We need the Minister to be accountable here for those issues.

Constituents of mine have had tests cancelled. It happens occasionally. A driver tester may not know he or she requires sick leave until the last minute and people must be contacted. There are a variety of circumstances where a test must be cancelled. What Deputy O'Dowd outlined in the case of Raheny has happened in other test centres but it is not a general practice.

On the questions that have been disallowed, I wrote to a number of Deputies who raised this matter with me. From recollection and reading through written parliamentary questions, I thought the matter was allowed.

The matter was raised by me with the RSA, which replied stating that it is satisfied that there is no great discrepancy. When one looks at the overall pass figures around the country, there is no imbalance between them. If I understand correctly what the RSA stated, the SGS sample to date is a small one. The RSA will obviously keep the matter under review, as I will.

I did not get a chance this morning to raise this with the Ceann Comhairle, but the Leas-Cheann Comhairle also has an intense interest in Dáil reform. Approximately seven questions on a variety of matters such as PPPs in transport were ruled out. These are matters one would think are this Minister's responsibility.

If the Deputy sends them to my office, I will ensure the Ceann Comhairle receives them.

Given that 40,000 people are on their fifth provisional licence, is the Minister sure that all those at the top end of the provisional licence scale will be in a position to undergo a test by 30 June and how emphatic is he about that deadline?

I welcome the Minister's commitment to keep the testing rate, as between the RSA and SGS, under review. When he has a definitive response to it, will he circulate correspondence on it?

We have confirmed that all 122,000 applicants who were on the waiting list at the end of October, when we made the changes, will have been tested by early March 2008, presuming they all turn up. They have been offered a driving test, to be completed by March 2008. All applicants for a test will be able to get a test on demand — that is, within a ten-week period — by the end of June 2008.

How many tests will be held each week at that stage?

Approximately 10,000 tests will be held each week at that stage.

Public Transport.

Fergus O'Dowd


3 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport his views on the future of the Government subvention to CIE and in particular to Dublin Bus; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33198/07]

The 2008 Estimates provide for an Exchequer subvention to CIE of €313.4 million, including €81.8 million for Dublin Bus. This provision represents an increase of nearly 65% on the 2000 provision of €190.183 million. This growth in the annual compensation paid to CIE towards the operating costs of its public service obligation services has been complemented by a major increase in capital investment, including an investment of more than €460 million this year in railway network upgrades, new rolling stock, the commencement of work on the western rail corridor and the Kildare route and the purchase of new buses for Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. Therefore, it is clear that the Government has been and remains committed to maintaining a high level of capital and current investment in the upgrading and operating of public transport infrastructure and services.

It will continue to support strongly the provision by CIE of bus services in the Dublin area through Dublin Bus, as well as a comprehensive network of other public transport services. I am reviewing the arrangements for the provision of the subvention to CIE to take account of the recently adopted EU regulation on public service obligations.

The Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Transport, which was announced yesterday, revealed that there was an under-expenditure — a return to the Exchequer — of €55 million this year. The Government has failed to spend that money, which it intended to invest in public transport. It could have used the €55 million to put 196 additional buses on the streets of Dublin and our other cities and towns. It is unacceptable for the Minister to suggest he is doing the best possible job for consumers. Perhaps we should reform the 1932 Act, in line with many of the commentaries of the Minister and his predecessors, to provide for more effective decision-making on public transport. Can the Minister give his views on opening the market and increasing competition? Such measures would give consumers more choice and lead to better buses and cheaper fares.

The relevant figure for public transport is €58 million. As the Deputy is aware, a ten-year envelope for transport projects, including public transport projects and roads projects, is provided for under Transport 21. The €58 million that was not spent has not been lost to Transport 21, as arrangements are in place to ensure it can be spent at a later time. It was not spent this year because of delays associated with railway orders and consultation on public projects. It was anticipated that land would be bought to facilitate the development of certain public transport projects, but that did not happen as a result of delays in the planning process. I assure the Deputy that this money has not been lost to public transport. There would not be much point in providing 196 extra buses in the absence of additional bus drivers to drive them.

A number of the buses provided under Transport 21 are in operation, in line with the requests made to the Department. Some 100 buses have been replaced with new buses, all of which will be brought into operation when the recruitment process for drivers has been completed. I reiterate my previous statements about the 1932 Act, which is in need of reform, as Deputy O'Dowd said. I will concentrate initially on producing the Dublin Transportation Authority Bill, which will affect public transport services in the greater Dublin area. I will transfer my attention to amending the 1932 Act as soon as the DTA Bill has been published and is being discussed in the House.

A sum of €55 million was not spent. The Minister is announcing extra public transport funding even though he did not spend the money he was given this time last year. That is the point I am making. Some 196 buses could be provided from this year's under-spending. Perhaps it could be used to invest in other quality indicators relating to bus services, such as the development of competition in the market. The Minister did not address that issue when I raised it. These funds could be used to pay for better service indicators, such as real-time information. The Minister could invest this money in improving the quality of service. He could do a great deal with this money. Deputies on both sides of the House who live just outside Dublin have made the case for park and ride facilities — no such facilities are available as things stand. The Minister has not provided for integrated ticketing. The Government's public transport policy is a failure. The Minister cannot deny that he had to give back €55 million.

It might have suited the Deputy to repeat the incorrect statement he made earlier. I suppose I will repeat the answer I gave then. There are very good reasons the €58 million was not spent. One does not lash money around for the sake of it. It would be wrong to spend this money on 196 buses because they could not be brought into operation this year or next year in the absence of drivers.

What about competition?

What about the money being spent on the West Link Bridge?

We have gone over time on this question.

The Minister is avoiding answering my question about competition.

On the quality of services, there is a memorandum of understanding between the Department and CIE. The integrated ticketing project is proceeding apace. There would be no point in spending the €58 million on that project, given that its total final cost will be €49 million. It would be rather silly to spend money on a project that does not need money at this point in time.

The Minister did not spend the money on anything.

The money is safe.

The Minister has failed.

The envelope that is available under Transport 21 will be used during the window for that project, which lasts until 2015.

I give the Minister nought out of ten.

It is not lost.

Road Safety.

Shane McEntee


4 Deputy Shane McEntee asked the Minister for Transport the reason for the delay in receiving a new legal blood alcohol recommendation as the revised target time differs from what was announced by his Department at the road safety strategy launch; his plans to introduce new legislation to provide for a new legal blood alcohol level; the role his Department had in setting up the committee to recommend a new blood alcohol level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33199/07]

The Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012 identifies the need to legislate for and introduce a reduction in the legal blood alcohol level content for drivers, but it does not specify what the level should be. I am awaiting the advice of the Road Safety Authority on the matter. I am aware that the authority has sought the advice of its policy advisory panel and expects that recommendations will be made to its board in early 2008.

The advisory panel, details of which are published in the road safety strategy, was independently established by the Road Safety Authority. The panel will take into account known driver behaviour, past offending rates, analysis of Medical Bureau of Road Safety data, enforcement practicality and best international practice. Its advice on the most appropriate blood alcohol content level will be aimed at delivering the optimum road safety dividend. The target completion date in the strategy for the reduction in the legal blood alcohol content level is the second quarter of 2009, to allow for the enactment of legislation and the adaptation of enforcement technology. As I mentioned at the launch of the new strategy, I intend to complete the implementation of this measure earlier than 2009, if possible.

I wish the Minister well with his allocations under the Vote of the Department of Transport. It will be money well spent, regardless of whether it has to be borrowed, if it leads to safer road and rail facilities. I wish the Minister well — the M3 will be finished shortly, please God, which might bring many of the campaigns against it to an end. I do not doubt that I will meet the Minister at tomorrow's meeting with the road safety officer for in County Meath, Mr. Michael Finnegan. Perhaps every county should have a road safety officer, and the Minister might look at that. When I contacted Mr. Tom Dowling about appointing such an officer in County Meath, he had the ball rolling within three weeks. The Minister and I know that Mr. Finnegan is probably the best road safety officer in the country. It all leads to the one thing at the end of the day.

It is Question Time.

I know it is, but it is Question Time in respect of safer roads.

It sounds like Meath County Council.

I want to get to the point. Sometimes, I am a bit slow in doing so.

Unfortunately, the time is ticking.

In respect of our question, I am a bit like a dog with a bone, as the Minister knows. If I had not seen the recommendation that the blood alcohol limit be lowered from 80 mg to 50 mg given to the Government in a document on 17 May 2007 by the Road Safety Authority, only to find it omitted when we went into our briefing, I would not be that dog with a bone.

It is in everyone's interest. The Minister and everyone here knows that if the level is reduced from 80 mg to 50 mg, we will reduce road deaths by 20%. By delaying it until 2009, 120 people will die on our roads.

As road safety spokesperson for Fine Gael, I have said that I will never play politics with my position but somebody has played politics with that position on the Minister's side. We got the gist of it on the day of our briefing when we were told about the effects it would have on rural life. Why was this not implemented on the same day as something that could not have been implemented? Now it will be implemented after the local elections in 2009. It could have been done based on the recommendations of 17 May. Why was that not done? It is terrible and it makes a mockery of the Road Safety Authority and the whole idea of saving lives. Only two other countries have not reduced the limit from 80 mg to 50 mg. It is not in my or any other rural Deputy's interest to say this but our young people have said it quite clearly in the poll that was carried out. Young people want it so why did the Minister not act on the recommendations of the Road Safety Authority?

The only recommendations on this matter I received from the Road Safety Authority were contained in the road safety strategy published at the end of October. The Deputy is referring to a draft document that was for discussion and part of a series of discussions that took place in respect of all the road safety strategies and all the 126 recommendations.

I was not and am not privy to what happened with the Road Safety Authority in those discussions. However, I presume, as I said before in the House, that a number of drafts on a number of different issues were brought up initially, discussed and then decided upon at a later stage. The Road Safety Authority advised me that it wanted a bit more time and expertise to decide the optimum level to which this should be reduced.

These are sensitive areas for some people. Some people will say that they are in favour of reducing limits and forcing drivers on a second provisional licence to be accompanied by another driver until one actually does it. I am not referring to the Deputy, who has been very strong in this regard, but some people take that attitude. One of the remarkable things about road safety is that everybody believes it is the actions of the other person that cause the problem rather than their own actions. This is externalisation.

As soon as I get that report — we will probably even discuss it at the committee with the Road Safety Authority because we said we would do that on a quarterly basis or thereabouts — we will bring it forward and legislation will have to be put in place. It is not my desire to delay it and the quicker we can get it done, the better.

Question No. 5 answered with Question No. 2