Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 22 Oct 2015

Vol. 894 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

Student Grant Scheme Eligibility

I am delighted this Topical Issue is being taken. There is an inherent unfairness in the operation of the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, higher education grant scheme in respect of certain citizens, and I ask that it be put right. Irish citizens who have been resident in this jurisdiction but leave to work as volunteers overseas, doing charitable development work for a number of years in some of the world’s least developed and poorest countries, who then wish to continue their education in Ireland, may be considered ineligible for a student grant solely because they do not meet the residency conditions under SUSI, which require them to have been resident in the State for at least three years out of the five-year period ending on the day before they start their approved course of study. I refer to cases in which these erstwhile volunteers do not have the financial means and cannot afford to pay for fees and maintenance at third level. Interestingly, had they stayed at home and been in receipt of social welfare for the three years, they would have qualified for a SUSI grant.

To volunteer in this manner is a response to a noble call. While the experience is uplifting, personal sacrifice is required from the volunteers, as they give their time, knowledge and skills to empower and improve the lives of others and help in a practical way to counter some of the inequalities and hardships experienced by others just because of where on this planet they were born. These individuals should be supported by the State, not disenfranchised. The work of these volunteers, including emergency humanitarian action, is crucial to ensure the delivery of the Irish aid programme in various parts of the developing world. Delivering change for the better is one of the central priorities of Ireland’s foreign policy, and their work contributes to it. The 2016 budget has confirmed a commitment of €640 million for official development assistance, such is our commitment to overseas development.

In 2013, the Government, as part of its commitment to volunteering, launched the Irish Aid volunteering initiative, which recognised the major contribution Irish volunteers have long made. The aim of the initiative is to strengthen support for overseas volunteering from the time when a person first considers going to when he or she returns home. The SUSI criteria which can see these volunteers deemed ineligible for higher education grants offends all the recognition and support that Government foreign policy strives to provide for them. Previously, an exemption from the residency clause had applied to overseas aid workers, which allowed them to qualify once they had passed the means test. This must be provided again. In September, the Minister, responding to an unfair discrimination which particularly affected youngsters in direct provision accommodation, extended the SUSI grant scheme to allow them to go to college.

I ask the Minister of State, Deputy English, to work with the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Education and Skills to extend fair play to our overseas volunteers immediately. Although they are very few, it is unfair that after they have spent many years abroad doing voluntary service without making money by any standard, they find themselves disqualified on account of the fact that they have not been resident in recent years, especially given that we are telling them to go abroad. Something needs to be done.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The student grant scheme will benefit some 80,000 students in the 2015-2016 academic year at a cost of approximately €350 million. In order to qualify for supports under the scheme, students have to meet a number of eligibility requirements, which are outlined in the Student Grant Scheme 2015. One of these requirements is the residency requirement, with which the Deputy has difficulty.

The residency requirement provides that a student, as defined in section 14 of the Student Support Act 2011, must demonstrate that he or she has been resident in the State for at least three years out of the five-year period ending on the day before the start of his or her approved course of study. Students must meet this criterion in order to be considered eligible for a maintenance grant. The rationale for the inclusion of a residency requirement in the student grant scheme is to ensure that those applying for a maintenance grant will have an established linkage with and be integrated into the State. This is a concept that is accepted across the EU. The residency requirement is also designed to obviate the risk of so-called grant tourism and prevent any abuse of the student grant scheme. There is, therefore, a very clear and robust rationale for including a residency requirement as part of the student grant scheme.

The Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, is satisfied that the existing residency requirement contains sufficient flexibility to ensure it does not have an adverse impact on students. A student can meet the residency requirement if he or she has not been outside the State for more than two of the previous five years. This takes cognisance of students who may wish to take time out to travel or work outside the State, including in a voluntary capacity as in the case mentioned by Deputy Mulherin. It is important to note that students who do not meet the residency requirement at the outset of their studies have an opportunity to qualify for a maintenance grant if they meet the residency requirement during the course of their studies.

In many respects, the requirements of this country's student grant scheme are more flexible than those of the schemes in other EU countries. To be eligible for support in Northern Ireland, a student must be resident in the UK, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man for the three years immediately before he or she starts his or her course. A similar provision applies in Scotland and England. Access to student supports is even more restrictive in other parts of the EU. In Denmark, for example, an applicant for state education support must have resided in that country for a continuous period of at least five years. In light of the importance of a robust residency requirement as a precondition for accessing student supports, and the fact that the student grant scheme already provides a considerable degree of flexibility for students, it is not the Minister's intention to change the relevant criteria at this time. I know the Deputy has raised some specific issues, but the view is that the five-year rule allows for enough room for people to be able to manage these matters as well as possible.

I disagree totally with what the Minister of State has said. This issue was brought to my attention by an individual who is affected by it. The person in question, who has been doing excellent voluntary aid work with the likes of Médecins Sans Frontières in Africa and Afghanistan, wants to come back to Ireland to further their education in the field of overseas aid and development, but is unable to do so. This individual has no money and is trying to rely on the help of various family members. The current absurd approach runs contrary to this country's foreign policy and is incompatible with the esteem that has been afforded to volunteers, particularly by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the Irish Aid volunteering initiative, which I mentioned. All of this means nothing if the various Departments do not talk to each other. It has been suggested that if we make the change I am proposing, people will shop around as part of what has been described as "grant tourism", but surely we can verify whether someone has been working for a non-governmental organisation overseas, having previously lived here. Any time one travels to work in one of these countries, it is all very well documented. It seems to me that there would be no abuse of the approach I am proposing because the circumstances of voluntary work overseas lend themselves to standing up to scrutiny. Such an approach would still allow our talented young people, who have enjoyed many privileges while living here, to give something back by going to these countries. I remind the House that their efforts are not an incidental part of the delivery of this country's aid programme. There seems to be no recognition of the crucial role they play.

On the question of showing flexibility to students, I reiterate that no flexibility is being shown in the case I have highlighted. This person has been left high and dry. I have referred to the Minister's enlightened decision to open the higher education grant scheme to youngsters living in direct provision who have been through our education system but whose residency and citizenship status is in limbo. I agree that these young people need to be looked after, but why can we not look after our own people in the circumstances I have outlined? The change I am recommending would not affect thousands and thousands of people. I remind the Minister of State that a means test is required in these cases. Anyone who is paid a salary for working for an Irish aid organisation overseas will obviously have that money in the bank when they come back. I am talking about volunteers, however. Can we not do something better for them? I find the Minister of State's response very unsatisfactory. I have written to the Minister on this issue. I cannot change my view on account of anything the Minister of State has said. These are real cases involving real people. We should not discourage them from doing a very worthwhile thing on behalf of this country in order to improve the circumstances of people in other parts of the world.

I want to make it clear that I was not trying to change the Deputy's view. I completely understand and empathise with the circumstances of the case she has raised. We try to encourage people to do voluntary work when they have time to do so, as many people have had in recent years. The difficulty is that there is no discretion with the residency requirement. The Student Support Act 2011 makes no provision for any exemptions in the cases of those who do not meet the residency requirements. Those requirements apply equally to everyone in respect of their individual circumstances. That has to be the case. The requirements of most of the schemes we operate have to be applied equally across the board. Regardless of whether one was working abroad, one was overseas as a volunteer or one does not meet the requirements because one was in some other scenario, those requirements have to be applied equally. I remind the Deputy that in recognition of people's movements in recent years, the rules were changed in the 2010-11 student year. Under the previous scheme, one needed to have been resident in Ireland for the year prior to one's application to go to college to do a course. Now that the rules have been changed to make the scheme more flexible, one needs to have been resident here for two of the previous five years. I think the rules were changed to allow for certain scenarios. There will always be cases in which people do not meet the criteria. These things are always under review. There is no scope for flexibility under the current guidelines or regulations. New legislation would be needed to-----

I think that is what we require.

That is a debate we can continue to have. While I acknowledge the case the Deputy is making, I do not think she can say there is no reason for the current approach. I think she will accept that all our schemes need to have criteria. She mentioned the changes that were made to facilitate asylum seekers. The condition that applies to them is that they must have been resident in the State for the previous five years. It is even more strict. It is not the case that an easier set of rules applies to asylum seekers. They are now allowed to apply if they have been here for five years. That was announced in August.

They had it before, so there has been a derogation from what was in place previously.

There has been a change.

It is a new pilot scheme. I think most people welcome the new rule. To be clear, they have to be resident for a full five years whereas an Irish or EU citizen has to be resident for just three of the preceding five years.

Schools Building Projects Status

I want to speak about the urgent need for new school building projects in Monasterevin, County Kildare. Everybody in the town knows that the primary schools and the secondary school in the town need new buildings because of the old, cramped conditions that prevail in both school locations at present. I have visited all the schools in Monasterevin on a few occasions. My first visit was in the presence of the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, and my party colleague, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl, who emphasised to the Minister the urgent need for these projects to be moved along. During those visits and on various subsequent occasions, I have met, spoken to and had a great deal of contact with the principals and staff members of the three schools in question. I thank the principals for their determination in pushing these important projects forward. If principals do not push these things, they can sometimes be left behind. The three principals in Monasterevin are working in a dedicated manner in the interests of the students in their schools. There is nothing in it for them; it is all about the children of the schools. It has to be acknowledged that the boards of management in all three schools are very supportive. Equally, the parents' council in each school is very much behind what the school authorities are doing.

There are two separate issues in Monasterevin. The development of St. Paul's secondary school, which has a large number of students, is a bit more advanced. That school is based on a very cramped site and its buildings are very poor. I would call many of the structures glorified prefabs. In this day and age, we should be long past having projects and schools like that in operation. That is why it is good that everyone has agreed to the Moore Abbey site. This site has already been provided and dealt with by the Department of Education and Skills. Kildare County Council is happy with it. Traffic issues will arise because the site is on a busy road in the centre of the town as one comes into Monasterevin from Athy via the Kildangan road. This project has been on the building programme prior to now, but it has not been moving very fast. Other school projects have moved much more quickly. It is important for this project to be given priority now. We really want to ensure permission is given for the project to proceed to construction in 2016. At this stage, the detailed designs have been completed. A report was submitted to the Department on 25 September and is currently under review. I have raised both of these issues in parliamentary questions in recent times. I ask the Department to clear the report immediately on the basis that there are no issues arising so that a planning application can be submitted; the fire safety certificate, the disabled access certification and the tender documents can be prepared; construction can start as early as possible in 2016; and the school can come fully into operation.

Everybody in the locality is aware that there are over 500 students in the two primary schools - a girls' school, Scoil Eimhin Naofa, and a boys' school, Scoil Náisiúnta Naomh Pheadar - in Monasterevin.

The schools have done the right thing by agreeing to amalgamate. The principals, teaching staff, boards of management and parents should be rewarded for this by having the project relating to the new school fast-tracked. They intend to move onto the site of the current girls school where there is more space available. I ask that this project be included in the six-year construction plan that the Minister for Education and Skills is expected to announce in the coming days. It is essential that this project be included in that plan and that it be fast-tracked, with construction commencing in 2016.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter because it gives me the opportunity to remind the House of the significant challenges facing the Department in terms of meeting increasing demand for pupil places throughout the country in the coming years. It also presents me with the opportunity to clarify the position regarding the provision of school places in Monasterevin, County Kildare.

The Deputy will be aware that the country has experienced an unprecedented population increase in recent years. This demographic growth has posed a significant challenge regarding the provision of school places and that challenge is set to continue. The demographic projections show that enrolment at primary level will continue to increase substantially until at least 2019. Primary school enrolments, which stood at 509,652 in July 2011, are expected to increase to 570,000 by 2018, which equates to an increase in enrolments of over 64,000 since July 2011. Post-primary school enrolments, which stood at 317,432 in July 2011, are expected to increase to 385,000 by 2022, which equates to an increase in enrolments of some 68,000 since July 2011. The demand for additional school places in the post-primary sector will continue to increase until at least 2025, when enrolment figures are expected to reach in excess of 400,000.

In the context of school provision in Monasterevin, the Deputy is aware that architectural planning has commenced for two major building projects that are intended to meet current and future demand at both primary and post-primary level. In the case of primary school provision, a new 24-classroom school will be constructed to host the amalgamation of Scoil Eimhin Naofa and St. Peter's Boys' National School. The current position relating to the proposed building project is that the pre-stage 1 meeting was held with the school and its design team in November 2014 and the Department requested that they address a number of points as part of the stage 1 report. Subsequently, an addendum to the stage 1 report was furnished to the Department by the board of management and design team on 18 August last and the project has now been authorised to progress to stage 2(a), which is the developed sketch design stage. Upon successful completion of stage 2(a) and subject to no issues arising, the project will be authorised to proceed to stage 2(b), the detailed design stage, which includes applications for planning permission, fire safety certification, disability access certification and the preparation of tender documents. While the project was not included in the current five-year construction programme, school building projects, including this project, are being progressed to the final planning stages and are available to be considered in the context of the new six-year construction plan which the Minister intends to announce in the coming weeks.

The position relating to post-primary provision in Monasterevin is that architectural planning is also advancing to provide a replacement school for St. Paul's secondary school. When complete, the school will not only cater for the current pupil cohort but will also provide for additional post-primary school places to meet future needs. Following the pre-stage 1 meeting in February 2015, this project was authorised to progress to stage 2(a), which is the developed sketch design stage. The stage 2(a) meeting was held in the Department last June and the school and its design team were requested to complete and submit the stage 2(a) report to the Department. This report was received in the Department on 25 September and is currently under review. Matters relating to services to and from the site remain under discussion between the design team and the local authority. Upon successful completion of stage 2(a) and subject to no issues arising, this project will then be authorised to proceed to stage 2(b), the detailed design stage, which includes applications for planning permission, fire safety certification, disability access certification and the preparation of tender documents. This project is included on the current five year construction programme announced in 2012 and is listed on the programme to proceed to tender and construction in 2015/16. To be clear, the money for that project is ring-fenced and has been set aside, as the Deputy is probably aware. It is important that the project progresses through all of the stages so that we can spend the money in 2016.

The Deputy will also be aware that significant capital funding will be invested in our education system through the Government's €27 billion capital programme announced on 29 September last. In the next six years, some €3.8 billion in direct funding will be invested in education projects. By comparison, the initial allocation under the previous five year capital programme was €2.2 billion. We are certainly making a lot of progress in terms of allocating resources to various projects. This means that there has been a significant increase in funding to match demand. This level of allocation allows the Department of Education and Skills to deliver some 19,000 additional permanent primary school places required by 2019 and 43,000 additional post primary school places required by 2022.

I thank the Minister of State for putting this up-to-date report on the record of the House. It corresponds substantially with the information I received in response to a parliamentary question I tabled on 13 October. I have been following this issue carefully and I raise it again today to try to ensure that the primary school project progresses to the next stage and is included in the next capital plan to be announced in the coming weeks. I know that there will be pressure from many schools in that regard. I will not even ask the Minister or Minister of State to visit the school in question because the case for a new building is well made and proves itself. Indeed, the need for both projects to proceed as quickly as possible is undeniable.

I wish to provide the Minister of State with additional information regarding the boys school. Such is the level of enrolment at the school that an extra classroom was approved based on the numbers at 30 September 2014. The school has made a planning application for that classroom. While we know this is only a temporary arrangement, the classroom must be provided before the new amalgamated school building is provided. The school is awaiting permission from Kildare County Council to commence the building works. It is waiting for the fire certificate to be approved and the disability access certificate to be granted by the local authority. It cannot issue a commencement notice until this documentation is provided but it is not expected before 15 November, which is awful. This will delay the construction of the new classroom which pupils should be in by now. The principal wrote to me and said that a class of 31 six and seven year olds is currently housed in the school library on foot of what the school believed would be a very short-term arrangement. The school believed that the classroom would be in place by now. The library stock of books and other resources had to be put into storage. This is not an acceptable situation but it illustrates perfectly the growing pressure on the school.

Another issue arises with regard to the proposed new school. I stood on Drogheda Street outside the girls school and the traffic situation there is unacceptable. There is very little space for cars to pull in, which makes dropping children to school very difficult. It is very important that a proper traffic management plan be included in the planning application in the interests of the children and those who are dropping them off.

I urge the Minister of State to push both of these projects on in the context of new construction programme that will be announced shortly.

As the Deputy knows, the money for the second level school is ring fenced. That project is included in the current five year plan so there is no reason why it cannot progress to construction next year. The proposed amalgamated school is progressing through all of the stages and that project is in a strong position for inclusion in the forthcoming six-year plan to be announced in the coming weeks. That plan is evidence based and aims to provide additional accommodation for students in areas of need. The fact that enrolment in the schools in question has been increasing will help their case. Decisions will be made on the basis of research into future needs in various areas conducted over the last six to eight months by the relevant departmental unit.

Regarding the classroom that the school wishes to build this year, my Department does a lot to magic up the money to build schools but local planning decisions are the responsibility of local authorities. That issue is best left to the Deputy and his party's local councillors. The Department cannot solve that particular problem but the money is available for the classroom.

Car Theft

I thank the Minister of State for remaining in the House so late on a Thursday evening. He has drawn the short straw.

Crime is an issue that needs constant and careful consideration and investment. It is an ubiquitous issue that invariably becomes heated in advance of a general election but there is a real security threat that can be dealt with simply by better use of technology. Much of the recent hyperbole surrounding rural crime fails spectacularly to offer real solutions.

During a recent debate in the House I referenced the fact that one can install software on a mobile phone so that should it be lost or stolen it can be tracked down, even if it is switched off. This can be done very easily and cheaply. There is one common denominator linking almost every crime, including rural crime.

Criminals do not use their own cars when travelling to commit crimes. They steal vehicles to do so, sometimes weeks or months in advance of committing the crime. I propose that tracking devices or software be installed or retrofitted on a phased basis on all cars and vehicles. Where a vehicle with tracking software was stolen, the owner could report the theft to the Garda, providing either a password or key that would allow the Garda to track the vehicle electronically. Owners would not track their vehicles as to do so would expose them to great risk. The criminals involved are at their most vulnerable in the period between the theft of the car from an innocent owner's driveway and the point at which it enters a secure lock-up or breaker's yard. Criminals know that stolen cars can blend in with other traffic on the streets, highways and motorways. However, if a tracking device is activated, a stolen car will, from a technological perspective, light up like a Christmas tree. Garda resources, which are in great demand, could then be targeted at tracking stolen cars, rather than used in a random manner.

The installation and activation of tracking software requires the support and co-operation of the Departments of Justice and Equality and Transport, Tourism and Sport. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, to raise this matter with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, in the first instance, and request that it liaise with the Department of Justice and Equality. Tracking technology could be rolled out alongside the new technology to be installed in Garda stations under the capital plan.

The Society of the Irish Motor Industry, SIMI, would also have to co-operate with the roll-out of tracking software. While SIMI will deny this is the case, its members benefit from car theft because stolen vehicles must be replaced or, in the case of damage, repaired. The co-operation of the Insurance Federation of Ireland would also be key.

I ask the Department to introduce incentives and legislation to commence the immediate roll-out of tracking devices and software to enable one link in the chain of crime, the stolen car, to be removed. If one takes stolen cars from criminals, one removes a vital cog from their apparatus.

I am replying to this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, who could not be present and conveys his apologies.

I welcome the Deputy's intentions in raising this important issue. While the offence of taking a vehicle without the lawful authority of the owner is provided for in section 112 of the Road Traffic Act 1961, matters relating to the investigation and consequent recovery of stolen vehicles are a matter for An Garda Síochána. As the Deputy indicated, this issue comes within the remit of two Departments.

Setting aside any civil libertarian or data protection considerations related to statutorily providing for the fitting of such tracking devices to motor vehicles, from a vehicle standards perspective, the Minister is not aware of any European Union proposals mandating the fitting of location tracking devices for the specific purpose of tracking stolen vehicles. European regulations set out the type approval requirements for member states to adopt, so that no member state may impose any additional requirements that would present a barrier to the cross-border trade in motor vehicles in the European Union.

While such tracking devices are currently available for purchase by individual car owners for fitting to their vehicles, the choice to purchase and use such a device is entirely a matter for the individual citizen. To legislate for the fitting of such devices would require that the appropriate standards, testing and verification procedures, as well as the enforcement of a failure to fit such a device, would have to be carefully determined. In essence, providing for a legal requirement to fit such a tracking device would also involve making the failure to fit such a device a criminal offence.

The Minister's primary function in respect of road traffic is to promote and ensure that the most appropriate and best practice road safety and vehicle engineering safety standards are implemented in order that any potential road traffic collisions and consequent injuries and fatalities on Ireland's road network are reduced. Given the primary remit of the Minister and Road Safety Authority in promoting road safety and the necessity to meet EU type approval requirements for vehicle standards, the Minister has no proposals to introduce regulations mandating the fitting of locations tracking devices in order to track stolen vehicles.

The Deputy raised an interesting example and this technology would have benefits across many Departments. I will convey his idea to the Ministers for Justice and Equality and Transport, Tourism and Sport. It may be possible to raise this matter at European level. I will join the Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Environment, Community and Local Government in meeting the Commissioner with responsibility for the competition agenda next week. The recent issue concerning Volkswagen will be discussed at the meeting. I will raise the matter at the meeting and I would be pleased to pursue or investigate it at European level. If such a step were to be taken, it would have to be done at European level.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I acknowledge that devices are available for purchase by individual car owners and that it is entirely a matter for owners if they wish to do so. What would be the point of tracking one's stolen vehicle to a lock-up or breaker's yard that is being manned by criminals? The car owner would probably not be able to pass the information to the Garda because it would be too late. The tracking devices currently available can generally be dismantled. While it may well be easy to dismantle them, at least under my proposal Garda would have access to information on stolen vehicles at the critical time, namely, in the period between theft and storage. If criminals believe or realise that one of these devices is fitted to a car, would they be prepared to risk coming under immediate Garda surveillance and getting caught?

I accept that a multi-agency approach is required, specifically co-operation between the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Justice and Equality. Deputies repeatedly encounter the silo aspect of Government. Different Ministers have responsibility for different Departments and problems arise when one raises an issue that traverses Departments. This culture needs to be addressed.

Tracking technology is improving and becoming cheaper all the time. We need to find a legislative solution for implementing a technological framework that would revolutionise the capacity of the Garda Síochána to combat crime, particularly mobile crime, by taking the legs from under the criminal. The Government must give this issue much greater priority, especially against the background of the earlier debate on criminal justice legislation and the public discussion that has taken place in recent weeks.

I urge the Minister of State to raise this issue with the Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Justice and Equality. I suggest that a feasibility study and pre-legislative work be done to assess whether there are any pitfalls in my proposal. A legislative solution could be found that enables the use of this existing technology. Additional resources are being provided to the Garda, including new recruits and extra vehicles. Smart policing means we must give serious consideration to using technology to beat criminals. Investment in tracking technology would deliver a significant return to the State. I urge the Minister to take my proposal to the appropriate Departments.

As I stated, I have no problem conveying the Deputy's proposal to both the relevant Departments. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport would have liked to have been in the House to respond on this issue. This matter is not one for national governments as we are subject to clear European regulations in respect of type approval requirements for vehicles. I stress, therefore, that any solution needs to be provided at European level. That is not to say the Government cannot push the issue. However, European regulations would be required before the Deputy's proposal could be implemented. I do not have a problem raising the issue on behalf of the Deputy when we meet the Commissioner next week.

I am also happy to bring this to further meetings and to encourage the two Ministers to take it on.

It is not at all a case of silo government. In the last three or four years, there has been a great deal more joined-up thinking in Departments. I am a vivid example of this as I am at two Departments. It is very stressful when one is trying to work in two Departments. Joking aside, we recognise that we need to have cross-government decision-making and Departments working together. That will not be a blockage here. It is doable, it is not a blockage that it needs to be sponsored by two Departments. It is something that needs to challenged at a European level. There are two and more excellent MEPs the Deputy can link with to drive the agenda. I will certainly raise it at EU Commission level and our Ministers will bring it forward here. Something like this needs a co-ordinated approach across the board, but it is doable when it is co-ordinated properly.

Road Traffic Offences

At the end of August of this year, working in collaboration with Ms Susan Gray and the PARC road safety group, I received a reply from the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to my Parliamentary Question No. 511 of 14 July. The reply detailed by district court the number of persons listed and convicted and licence numbers recorded for drink driving offences between January 2013 and May 2015. Ms Susan Gray and PARC have done and, indeed, continue to do Trojan work in the area of road safety, highlighting loopholes in our legislation and the failure to implement our traffic laws. It was through representations by PARC and its analysis of the figures that we uncovered the shocking level of drink driving prosecutions not resulting in convictions as highlighted by The Irish Times this week. Of the 20,000 plus cases listed between January 2013 and May 2015, just 8,391, or 40%, received a conviction while a minuscule 1,647, or 20%, had their licence details recorded in court. County Offaly had the highest rate of convictions at 68%, County Kerry had the lowest at 29% and 21 out of the Twenty-six Counties had lower than 50% conviction rates. These figures are unacceptable and compare very badly with our UK and other EU neighbours. The UK has a 97% conviction rate for drink driving prosecutions.

The response of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, to the media in light of these worrying figures was that his Department's officials had begun work on consolidating our comprehensive Road Traffic Acts. I remember asking the Minister about this previously and he told me in reply to Parliamentary Question No. 611 on the 24 January:

As I indicated to the House in December last, I propose to begin the process of consolidating road traffic legislation this year. A considerable amount of work is involved in this exercise involving as it does the examination and review of all primary and secondary legislation going back to 1961.

He re-iterated that the work would commence this year, but we are still waiting. This type of behaviour by the Government in kicking the can down the road has become commonplace in a range of policy areas including housing, health care, Irish Water and, now, the safety of road users in Ireland. Yet another example of this was the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and, specifically, its Minister misleading the Dáil on the issue of breathalyzer test reports being produced and presented in both English and Irish. A month ago, Mr. Justice Seamus Noonan in the High Court ruled that these reports must be provided in both languages. On 24 March of this year, however, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, in response to concerns of PARC and myself, reassured me in a reply to Parliamentary Question No. 984 on this very issue. I had asked him to amend Statutory Instrument No. 541 of the Road Traffic Act 2011 to close any possible loophole. He said, "I am satisfied following consultation with the Garda that there is no requirement to change the Road Traffic Act 2010 to make amendments of the kind suggested by the Deputy". Yet, six months after this statement, a High Court judge disagreed with his interpretation of the law. It is unfortunate that the Minister is not here to take part in this debate. It is clear he misled the Dáil. The Acting Chairman is a senior parliamentarian and will agree that he should come to the House and correct the record. He misled the Dáil.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

I am loath to interrupt, but the Deputy cannot accuse someone of misleading the Dáil. It is a serious allegation. I ask the Deputy to withdraw it.

He misled a Member of Dáil Éireann in this regard.

The Deputy must withdraw the remark.

He gave wrong information to Dáil Éireann on this very serious matter in relation to drink driving. Today, The Irish Times covered another shocking story and reported that between January 2013 and March 2015 521 drivers were already disqualified at the time of conviction for involvement in a collision causing serious injury or death. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, could not tell us how many of these drivers were actually disqualified when these serious crashes took place. Figures released to me by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, show that 17,481 drivers were disqualified for road traffic offences in the same timeframe. However, on 9 April this year, the RSA reported to me that it had informed the Garda of just 48 disqualifications. These are also very serious figures.

We have heard from sources in the Courts Service that it considers that there is no requirement in law to record the licence when a driver is disqualified in court. While the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, has been thrown in at the deep end by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, I ask him to confirm if it is the case that there is no requirement in legislation for the Courts Service to record the licence of a disqualified driver. That will be a key aspect of the Minister of State's reply.

A key aspect of this issue is the cut in personnel and resources of An Garda Síochána carried out by this and the previous Government in the austerity years since the great recession. There has especially been a cut in the traffic corps. The figures released also put the spotlight on the Courts Service, the performance of some district judges and the seemingly Flann O'Brien or Kafkaesque atmosphere of some District Courts. It is time for accountability and for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House to clarify two important points of law which I put to him this afternoon. I put them to the Minister of State now albeit I know he is not briefed to reply. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Donoghoe, come in at the earliest opportunity. The Acting Chairman was making these very points today and is the very man to ask the Minister to come to the House and correct the record.

Where do I start? About 20 topical issues were raised there. I understand that most of them are very topical and we will certainly get the Deputy answers to them. I will not be able to give him the answers as most of them are above my pay grade. I will get the Deputy the answers he requires to some of the questions he has.

Get me the Minister. I want the Minister.

I am here to respond to the issue the Deputy raised which was the urgent need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to bring forward consolidated road traffic legislation before the end of the Government's term given the recent revelations. That is the issue the Deputy raised and that is the issue I am responding to. I apologise on behalf of the Minister who could not make it here this evening. The Deputy knows that the nature of his office means it is not always possible to change his diary and attend here. I have no doubt that he would like to be here. I record that it is not in the nature of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to mislead the Dáil. I have no doubt that he will address the issue the Deputy raised there because it is not in his nature. The Deputy knows the man well and that it is not something he does. The Deputy will be willing to admit that.

We are currently working on a road traffic Bill 2015 with the intention of enacting it before the end of the year. It is being drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel at present. This is the current priority in road traffic legislation and will be dealt with before consolidation can begin. The principal focus of the Bill is on measures to address driving under the influence of drugs. The new provisions will enable gardaí to conduct roadside tests for the presence of drugs, make the presence of certain specified drugs while driving an offence, and provide for tougher penalties for those driving under the influence of multiple drugs, or drugs in combination with alcohol. The Bill will also include measures to ensure mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between Ireland and the UK and create an option for road authorities to introduce a 20 km/h speed limit in built-up areas. After the passage of the 2015 Bill, the Department will begin examining the process of consolidation, which is the issue the Deputy has raised. This will, as a first step, involve a scoping exercise to estimate what is necessary, how much time will be required, and what resources will need to be allocated to the project.

Road traffic legislation in Ireland is based on the Road Traffic Act 1961. This has been amended numerous times. There have been 15 Road Traffic Acts since that of 1961. There have also been other Acts which have made material changes to road traffic law including the Local Authorities (Traffic Wardens) Act 1975, the Dublin Transport Authority (Dissolution) Act 1987, the Taxi Regulation Act 2003, the Road Traffic and Transport Act 2006, the Road Safety Authority Act 2006, and the Road Safety Authority (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Act 2012. There has been widespread agreement for some time that the legislation in this area has become extremely complex and is in need of consolidation. That is exactly what the Deputy is raising tonight and we all agree with him. Certainly, the Department agrees. We are committed as a Government to doing this. However, this is not a short-term project. It cannot be completed in a couple of months. As someone who was involved in the Companies Act consolidation process, I note that it is a lengthy process if it is to be done right. Consolidation will require more than passage of the legislation as it currently stands in a single Act. It will entail careful review of the legislation being consolidated in order to identify points where it can be clarified, simplified and improved. Consolidation will lead to much stronger legislation.

A project of this kind will require time and resources, and will take a number of years. This, for example, has been the case with the Companies Acts and the Finance Acts previously.

None the less, as these precedents have shown and as I can attest to, having been a part of that process, it is worth doing. It is worth taking the time to get it right as such a consolidation can be expected to be the basis of road traffic law for many decades to come.

While consolidation will be a major step forward, we need to be realistic and remember that it will not solve every problem. Road traffic legislation is perhaps the most frequently contested legislation in the land and is likely to remain so. This is only right as people are entitled to challenge the law in the courts and it is the proper constitutional role of the courts to interpret legislation. We should be aware that consolidation, while it should simplify and improve matters, will not bring an end to this process. However, it will help outcomes.

To date this year, 127 people have lost their lives on the roads and many hundreds more families have been traumatised by serious injuries. When I was transport spokesperson, it was calculated that each fatality cost our nation €2 million plus. It is a costly and terrible situation in terms of the personal pain of those individuals and families. Therefore, why does the Government not get the requisite number of young barristers and solicitors working on this issue and introduce a consolidated Bill? The Minister of State could at least give a commitment to the effect that this would be a priority given the large death toll. If a single incident caused 127 deaths or the almost 200 deaths last year, the House would launch major commissions of investigation that would last for months.

Will the Minister of State have the Minister clarify the two points of law I have raised concerning drink-driving printouts and disqualified drivers? Will he confirm that these are not included in the legislation? The Minister of State referred to the 2015 Bill on the legislative programme. It relates to drug driving and the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between Ireland and the UK. Would it not be possible to address in that Bill the two matters I raised as well as issues such as the non-presentation of licences in court and references by judges to court poor boxes despite senior judges' assertions that the latter is incorrect in law?

What of addressing the registering of fixed charge notices in order that people cannot claim they did not receive one? We are living in the e-mail era and have passed beyond the pony and trap and bicycle for mail deliveries. Why can we not have notices which we all know are actually being received by the intended persons? Will the Government address the fixed charge processing system? The working group recommended that if someone could not pay after the 56-day period, he or she would get a third payment option and not have to waste the court's time. Could these issues be addressed in the forthcoming legislation?

Some 77% of drivers summonsed for penalty point offences between 2013 and early summer 2015 were not convicted. Of those convicted, 72% did not present their licences. Some 60% of drunk drivers were not convicted. Of those convicted, 80% did not have their licence numbers recorded. Some 71% of drivers using mobile telephones were not convicted while, of those convicted, 41% did not have their licence numbers recorded. Some 96% of drivers disqualified in court did not surrender their licences and 89% of those convicted did not present their licences. The court poor box is still being used despite a High Court ruling.

As someone who has served with distinction for decades in the House, the Acting Chairman will agree that road traffic law is in crisis. Given the horrendous deaths and casualties on our roads, we need to grasp this matter, deal with it effectively and change a culture that still permits many of our fellow citizens to die on the roads needlessly.

I agree with Deputy Broughan that this is a cultural issue. All the changes in the world to road traffic law will not be enough to stop every tragic death. Even one road death is one too many. Thankfully, there has been considerable improvement in road safety and the numbers killed in the past ten or 15 years. This has been due to successive Governments.

This is a cross-party issue that we all buy into and there is no problem in this regard. I assure the Deputy that tackling it is a priority for the Government. The consolidation process will form part of that work. The Deputy is right that we should try to fast-track it and learn from other consolidation processes. For example, I was involved in the company law consolidation process which we were able to move along more quickly in some cases than we anticipated. We should do that in this case. Extra resources were found in terms of man hours for that work. Likewise, the same should be done in this regard.

There will be a drive to make this happen. It makes it easier for the interpreters of legislation and will undoubtedly lead to better outcomes if the law is consolidated. Road safety and deaths on our roads from accidents or, as I call them, incidents-----

Most incidents on the road are avoidable, so they are not accidents. It is a cultural issue that goes way beyond transport, law or the Department of Justice and Equality. It stretches into education and awareness of the problem. Most people try the lottery every now and again because they believe they can win. They see the ads that say, "It could be you." They roll the dice and try, but they never consider the negatives. Most people assume they will never be in road traffic incidents, yet the chances of it are much higher than of them winning the lottery. There is something wrong with people's mindsets. It is in all of us. We have an attitudinal issue towards road safety. This is an issue that must be driven by every Department. I am in the Department of Education and Skills which has a major role to play in this regard.

Incidents and accidents can happen to anyone. It is in everyone's gift to prevent them on our roads. Legislation is a part of that work. I will bring the Deputy's questions that I could not answer to the relevant Ministers and reply to him with detailed answers.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.35 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 23 October 2015.