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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Dec 2021

Vol. 1016 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Driver Licences

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

6. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Transport the-up-to-date position on changes to the medical certificate form requirement for 70 to 75-year-olds renewing their driver licences; if all the relevant legislation is in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62312/21]

There was agreement on legislation to increase the age limit for people who were renewing their drivers’ licences and would need medical certificates. The age limit was to be increased from 70 to 75. The Road Safety Authority was reviewing the draft legislation and it was being sent on to parliamentary counsel. There was an expectation this would be delivered earlier this year. Will the Minister of State outline the up-to-date situation on it and how soon it will be in place?

The standards for and issuing of driving licences are covered by EU directives, transposed into national law by member states.

EU Directive 2006/126/EC on driving licences sets out, among other matters, minimum standards of driving fitness for all drivers, covering medical conditions that affect driving and setting out restrictions on the ability to hold a licence. Member states may, if they choose, apply higher standards in their own jurisdictions.

Under Irish law, a person aged 70 or over must provide a medical report from their GP when applying for or renewing a driving licence, regardless of health status. Depending on the report, the applicant may be granted a licence for one or three years. On consideration of the current position, I have accepted a recommendation from the Road Safety Authority, RSA, that the initial age for mandatory medical testing, where an applicant is not otherwise required to supply a medical report, should be increased from 70 to 75. This change will require amendments to the relevant regulations. The regulatory amendments required are being progressed and the estimated date of implementation is currently February 2022. However, this will depend on legal advice and the availability of drafting resources.

In Ireland all driving licence applicants must complete a self-declaration on driver fitness. Drivers aged over 70 and those with a specified condition must produce a medical report with their application. The National Office of Transport Medicine wrote to the RSA in January 2019 recommending that the requirement for routine medical certification of drivers over 70 be lifted. However, the authority noted that public perception of mandatory medical testing for older drivers is reasonably favourable, even if it is not supported by available research.

We hope that the new regulation will be in place by February 2022.

I thank the Minister of State for that update. I am concerned at the February date because when previously raised, there was an expectation that this would be in place by December of this year, assuming that there were no wobbles or hold-ups. I ask the Minister of State to outline the delays that emerged over recent months to cause the date to be pushed out to February. Has it been sent to the Parliamentary Counsel for advice? How quickly would the Minister of State expect the counsel to respond?

Realistically, GPs are up to their eyes administering vaccines at this stage and to be drawing perfectly healthy people into GP surgeries to get medical certificates confirming that they are perfectly healthy does not make any sense. Similarly, at a time when respiratory conditions are more widespread, to be drawing vulnerable people into GP surgeries does not make sense. There needs to be greater speed in bringing this change about, if possible.

I hear the Deputy's concerns about trying to expedite this. The February 2022 date will depend on the legal advice and the availability of drafting resources. I take Deputy Moynihan's point regarding the pressure on GPs at the moment. In order to address the social distancing requirements and the additional burdens on our medical services during the pandemic, the requirement for those over 70 to provide a medical report was temporarily removed in order to protect our citizens and take pressure off our medical services. From March 2020 to June 2021 people aged 70 or over could apply to renew their driver licence without a medical report where they did not have an identified or specified illness. To date, there has been no indication of any negative effects on road safety because of this concession.

I take the Deputy's points on board and if I can get more information on that February 2022 timeline, I will revert to him on it.

I acknowledge the extensions which were a very practical and meaningful measure but many of those extended licences will fall due for renewal soon. I have been contacted by many people who are waiting to renew their licence. Their dates are up now or will be fairly shortly but they are holding off on renewal, pending this change. Where do they stand? Will it be based on their date of birth? If a person's birthday falls now but this new measure does not come in until next February, where do they stand? Will they still need to have a medical certificate or can they wait until February? Is there a danger that they would lose their licence if they wait too long? I ask the Minister of State to clarify the situation in that regard. Will it be based on birthdays from a specified date going forward and where do people whose renewals are now due stand? It really is case of getting this provision available as quickly as possible because it is a very practical and positive measure.

My understanding is that regulatory amendments will be required to progress this. This change will not come into force until those regulations are progressed. That will depend on legal advice and the availability of drafting resources. If people have any questions, they can go to the RSA website for updates. This change will not happen until the amended regulations come into force.

Rail Network

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

7. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport if he has read the recently published Navan rail line assessment report; if he will now prioritise this important project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62399/21]

I wish to ask whether the Minister of State has read the recently published Navan rail line assessment report, if she will now prioritise this important project and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I have no doubt Deputy O'Rourke welcomes the inclusion in the draft transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, GDA, of a new rail link to Navan as one of its many projects and programmes to be delivered by 2042. I know the issue of a rail link to Navan was one of several that generated a significant number of submissions during the original public consultation held by the National Transport Authority, NTA, in November 2020. The GDA transport strategy is subject to a formal statutory approval process and will ultimately be submitted for ministerial approval in 2022. Therefore, it is not appropriate at this juncture to speak about prioritisation of one particular project over another.

As the Deputy is aware, there is a long lead-in time for big projects like this. If it is included in the final strategy, this project will require significant planning and design before it is shovel-ready. As it stands, the draft strategy, which covers all modes of transport and all counties in the GDA, proposes delivery of the Navan rail line in the latter half of the strategy period. On the proposal itself, the background report prepared for the NTA considered again the strategic rationale for such a rail link. It considered rail and bus options, re-examined the potential alignments of a rail link and provided a high-level assessment of cost and demand. While the benefit-to-cost ratio returned by the economic assessment was less than that seen for some other projects, the report concluded there was a strong strategic rationale for the proposal and that is why it has been brought forward for inclusion in the draft strategy.

Consultation on the draft strategy is currently open and is running until 17 December. I encourage the Deputy to make the case for the rail link in the final version of the strategy, which will be submitted for ministerial approval in 2022.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. As she said, thousands of people from right across County Meath made submissions in support of the proposed extension of the rail line to Navan via Dunshaughlin. The evidence base has now been built for this project. It was contested for some time but anybody who recognised the opportunity that was there knew that the business case for the proposal would stand on its own two feet. Indeed, it does that and more. I ask the Minister of State to outline the opportunity, within the constraints that exist, to expedite and deliver this project ahead of the indicated timeframe of 2031 for the construction stage.

The NTA is working closely with Meath County Council to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the benefits of the Navan rail project encapsulating economic, environmental and societal benefits in addition to a multi-criteria analysis of options in accordance with the common appraisal framework for transport projects programmes. It is due to commence shortly.

It is expected that the revised transport strategy will be ready for approval and publication by mid-2022. Alongside the national development plan, NDP, the Department's forthcoming land transport investment framework will put in place a strategic framework to ensure that investment in the transport sector in the coming decades aligns with the overarching Government policies such as spatial targets for 2040.

It is a major project that will require significant design and planning. We have to wait for the strategy to be completed first.

We welcomed the initial consultation. We engaged extensively in it and encouraged others to do so. We are doing the same for tomorrow's deadline. There is serious frustration in the community that the project has been delayed to the extent that it has been. We understand the process but it is incredibly frustrating that the Government is moving from one review to another to a framework to a strategy. The case has been made in black and white. The project needs to be delivered. People want to see a date where rather than driving and sitting in traffic on the road to Dublin, they can get on a train.

I recognise the investment and the commitment in the NDP but it is backloaded. The Department is down money this year. It has had a 6% reduction in funding. Will the Minister of State commit to ensuring this project proceeds as quickly as possible?

There is a requirement under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 that the preparation of a transport strategy for the GDA is carried out. The current strategy was published in 2016. That extends to 2035. The Act requires that the strategy be reviewed every six years in line with the statutory framework. The NTA's transport strategy for the GDA is under review. This is the process that we have to go through. It is a major project that will involve significant planning and design. It is important that people feed into the second round of public consultation, which is open until 17 December.

Haulage Industry

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

9. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Transport the proposals that his Department is working on to assist the Irish haulage industry to reduce its carbon footprint; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62237/21]

My question is on the all-important haulage sector in Ireland. What supports are under consideration by the Department? What work is it doing to help the sector to transition to a more carbon-friendly model? This is a huge issue that we must deal with and on which we must work directly with the sector.

We can all acknowledge that transitioning the haulage sector to low or zero carbon will be more challenging than other road transport sectors given the size and weight of trucks and the distances they travel. Ireland’s HGV fleet is particularly reliant on fossil fuels, specifically diesel. Biofuels will help with the transition. The renewable fuels for transport policy statement which was published last month sets out a future trajectory of increase in biofuels use in land transport in line with climate action plan targets to 2030, as well as a range of measures and incentives for future supply of renewable fuels such as biomethane and green hydrogen.

As the initial investment in alternative fuel technology for HGVs is expensive at the moment, the Government is providing incentives to the sector to make the transition. The alternatively fuelled heavy-duty vehicle purchase grant scheme, which is administered by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, is intended to help to bridge some of the difference in purchase price between conventional heavy-duty vehicles and those powered by alternatively fuelled power-trains. Some €2 million was allocated to this scheme in 2021. Given the excellent response to the initiative, the Department allocated an additional €1 million in funds this year to assist the heavy-duty vehicle sector in its transition to zero-mobility. Funds for 2021 have now been fully allocated, but the scheme will continue in 2022 with further funding available.

The Department has also commissioned a number of studies to identify actions that haulage operators and companies can take to reduce carbon and other emissions. These include a road freight decarbonisation study co-funded with TII and three research projects with Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork. Collectively, these projects will form a substantial evidence base on which a longer-term decarbonisation strategy can be developed. We are also developing our ten-year haulage strategy, which will be focused on improving efficiencies and standards, and on helping the haulage sector to move to a low-carbon future.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is interesting to hear the initiatives that the Department is bringing forward. There will be many challenges before the haulage sector. Internationally there has been much difficulty in logistics, which is the Minister of State's area of responsibility. We have to be conscious that there is another key demand on the whole industry where it is expected to try to reduce its carbon footprint. If the Government is going to insist on that, and if that will be insisted on at European level, it is important that we introduce a suite of measures and supports to help the sector. It is interesting to hear from the Department that efforts are being made. There is also the issue of autonomous vehicles. Ireland could be an international test bed in that area. It would potentially reduce a lot of stress on haulage workers in the very near future as technology advances. That could be one area that might help to reduce the overall greenhouse gas emissions from the sector, which would be important for the Department to consider.

The ten-year haulage strategy is focusing on a number of issues. Reducing emissions in the sector is one issue. The other issues include how we are dealing with the driver shortage and how to make the profession more attractive. There has been the first phase of a public consultation, with further consultation on the draft strategy next year. Between Covid, Brexit and other challenges facing the industry, this is a really good time to get the feedback from the industry on how we can support the sector and the supply chain. We have seen how reliant and flexible it was through the Brexit transition. Our supply chain was robust. They were flexible, as they told us they would be. We were all fearful about the transition on 1 January but the sector has really done us proud. We need to ensure we support it in every way possible. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I met representatives of the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, last week to discuss many of these issues.

I want to add my words on the very hard work that has been done throughout the pandemic. That is important to acknowledge. It has been one of the areas that we relied on. New additional pressures have been put on.

On emissions, the Minister of State has said that the Department will do more public consultation, which I welcome. It is important that there be a grassroots level engagement also. As we have seen recently, there has been a great degree of friction between the Government and hauliers in Ireland. That must be worked on and improved. Fuel prices must also be acknowledged as the elephant in the room. They are a concern for many families but especially those who are on the road daily, keeping our shops supplied and businesses going, and working to get our exports out of the country.

As this will be my last contribution before the holidays, I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the staff of the House a happy Christmas.

At our meeting with the IRHA last week, we discussed issues around fuel prices, the decarbonisation of the HGV sector and the HGV driver shortage. The Minister and I agreed at the meeting to consider a proposal from the IRHA to expand the relief available to hauliers under the diesel rebate scheme, but with a link to the phase-out of older, more polluting vehicles and an overall reduction in emissions from the sector. Details of the proposal are to be submitted to the Department for further consideration and we will meet the IRHA again in the new year.

It is a sector that is very challenged and needs to be supported. One way is through the alternatively fuelled heavy-duty vehicles scheme, which is a medium- to long-term solution for the sector as new technologies come on board. In the meantime, the sector does need our support. I have engaged with it a great deal over the last 12 months since I came into this role and that is something I will continue to do along with the Minister.

Transport Policy

Kieran O'Donnell

Ceist:

10. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked the Minister for Transport the steps he is taking to extend the roll-out of the safe routes to school programme in 2022; the current status of the implementation of the programme for successful schools in counties Limerick and Tipperary; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62254/21]

I refer to the safe school scheme in Limerick.

There were eight schools granted entry in a recent round. Of those, two were secondary schools and six were primary schools. They were all city-based and that is to be welcomed. When will the Department expedite the roll-out of this scheme to all the schools that have applied in Limerick and north County Tipperary? We have villages like Newport, Castleconnell, Moroe, Caherconlish and Birdhill as well. The Minister of State might give us an update on where the scheme is at.

In March 2021 the Minister and I were delighted to launch the safe routes to school, SRTS, programme which will support active travel infrastructure for selected schools around the country. The programme aims to support walking, scooting and cycling to primary and post-primary schools and to create safer walking and cycling routes within communities. This will help alleviate congestion at school gates and increase the number of students who walk or cycle to school by providing the necessary infrastructure.

All schools were eligible to apply to the programme and information was circulated from the Departments of Education and Transport to schools nationwide. By the deadline of 16 April, 931 applications had been received from schools in every county in Ireland. Following that, 170 schools were notified on 21 June that they have been selected for inclusion in the first round of the safe routes to school programme, including eight schools in Limerick and two schools in Tipperary.

Funding of €15 million has been allocated for projects at the 170 schools included in round 1. The subsequent schools will be engaged with on a rolling basis in each local authority area. This funding is being provided from the €1.8 billion funding earmarked in the programme for Government to support sustainable transport. It is important to note that all active travel funding looks to improve links to schools where possible, not only the safe routes to school programme. The required investment at each school will be dependent on the changes required in each particular case. As most interventions at or near applicable schools will take time to implement, especially if they require planning permission, the €15 million budget will extend beyond 2022. The budget for the cycle parking element of safe routes to school programme in 2022 will be €3 million.

The schools selected were assessed against a range of criteria including school type, location and the school’s commitment to sustainable travel. Schools that have applied this year and that have not been included in the first round of funding will not be required to reapply as they will be included on a rolling basis. Thus, we will get through the first 170 and then it will be rolling after that. Hence there are no plans for an additional call for schools to join the programme.

On the rolling basis, let us say eight schools in Limerick were selected with two being secondary schools and six being primary schools. If one school is completed, does another school automatically come in then in Limerick? It is great we see eight city-based schools being included in the safe routes to schools programme under this round. However, we have schools in villages in rural areas. In north County Tipperary we have the likes of Newport and Birdhill. In County Limerick we have Castleconnell, Moroe and Caherconlish. Then we have rural schools. When do they come into the programme?

It is such an innovative idea. It ticks every box with respect to climate change, active travel and health. It should be expedited. Extra funding should be put in to get this rolled out faster. I note there are extra staff being taken on by the Green Schools initiative in An Taisce, the NTA and the local authorities. Will the Minister of State explain the mechanism for when the works will commence for the other schools that did not get on the first list but have been approved? Is it based one school joining when another finishes?

I know the Deputy is very aware of the schools in Limerick that were selected. They are Gaelscoil Sáirséal, St. Nessan’s National School, Scoil Íde, St. Paul's National School, Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ, An Mhodhscoil, Limerick School Project National School and St. Munchin's College in Corbally. In Tipperary they were Gaelscoil Chluain Meala and Loreto Secondary School. It is important to note the other 29 schools in Limerick and the 22 in Tipperary that have applied this year but have not been included in the first round of funding will not be required to reapply. They will come into the programme on this rolling basis. There are different stages. Once a school is completed the local authority moves on to the next schools that have been successful as part of the roll-out to the first 170.

It is also important to say safe routes to school programme funding is only one part of the active travel programme. Schools can work directly with local authorities around other active travel projects outside the programme. As the Deputy knows, we have €360 million funding per year for walking and cycling infrastructure that local authorities can tap into also, within towns and villages.

I welcome the fact 29 schools have been included under the 932 and that there are 32 in Tipperary. It is about the mechanism for me. Is there a time limit on when the local authorities must have the eight schools in Limerick and two in Tipperary that have been selected done? I ask that the Minister of State, as she has responsibility for this programme, look to see how we can expedite it. This is a win-win. This is something every parent, child and local area would buy into. The fact we are doing 170 schools this year is to be welcomed but I would like to see an awful lot more done. Will the Minister of State commit to looking at the programme to see what can be done? There is €260 million provided every year for active travel. What can we do to expedite the roll-out? Of the 29 schools in Limerick, is that the number yet to be done or the total number in Limerick? I will assume 29 is the number that got through. Of those, eight have got it. When can the 21 remaining schools be completed? In Tipperary two schools got it and 20 remain. When will they be reached? I ask that the Minister of State look to see how we can expedite the roll-out of the programme because this is something that is welcome in the city and urban areas and in villages and rural areas.

This is a priority for us. At the moment, the six infrastructure officer teams in An Taisce Green Schools are currently working on stage 4 of this process. That is the communication and liaison interventions. The infrastructure officers have now met the majority of round 1 schools to discuss the situation outside those schools, any new information on school locations etc. and possible solutions. In addition, the work that has been undertaken includes a survey of all the schools, parental surveys, front of school audits and walking and cycling audits that are being carried out to assess the existing pedestrian and cycling infrastructure within 500 m of a school. This information is going to inform the process so it is being captured as well. Speed surveys are also being carried out to assess the existing speed outside schools. This data will then help inform the delivery plans and further engage with the school population. The NTA and safe routes to school teams have produced a draft safe routes to school design guide to assist the local authorities to provide the technical guidance.

The infrastructure officers are holding weekly meetings with the active travel engineers to update on the safe routes to school programme in Limerick. There are on-site visits to schools, except for Scoil Íde and St. Munchin's College, with executive engineers to discuss the possible measures. Tipperary is holding its discussions. It has weekly meetings in relation to schools in Clonmel. With the roll-out of the resources to the local authorities, we will be monitoring this to ensure these 170 are progressed as quickly as possible. Part of that was to give them the staffing that many of them said they did not have.

Transport Policy

Imelda Munster

Ceist:

8. Deputy Imelda Munster asked the Minister for Transport the measures being taken to incentivise public transport use for commuters in the Laytown and Bettystown areas of County Meath in order to ensure increased use of public transport and a reduction in car journeys; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62106/21]

I ask the Minister of State what measures are being taken to incentivise public transport use for commuters in the Laytown and Bettystown areas of County Meath in order to ensure increased use of public transport and a reduction in car journeys. Will she make a statement on the matter?

The Minister holds responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. It is the NTA that 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 operates under the Transport For Ireland Local Link brand. The NTA works with the relevant transport companies that are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the services.

From a policy perspective, the Minister has made his beliefs clear that there is a need for a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. The Department has been undertaking a review of sustainable mobility policy, which incorporates public transport in rural areas. We intend to develop a new policy framework for the next ten years that can provide a strategic backdrop to the increased investment planned by this Government across the sustainable mobility programme and we hope to publish our new sustainable mobility policy early next year.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Covid-19 public health emergency has had a profound and swift shock on the public transport sector. Government support for all public transport services in 2020 amounted to €620 million. For 2021, more than €670 million has been provided in public service obligation, PSO, funding in order to ensure the existing level of public transport services, albeit at a higher cost, continue to operate in a safe manner. By comparison, the level of PSO and LocalLink funding provided in 2019 was in the region of €300 million.

I know of the Deputy's deep interest in the development of public transport services generally and more specifically in respect of the two areas she mentioned. I am advised by the NTA that, in addition to rail services from Laytown, commuter services are provided from Bettystown and Laytown by Matthews Coaches. These are commercial services and are licensed by the NTA. The NTA has no role in the setting of fares for commercial services.

On bus services, the NTA has indicated that Bettystown and Laytown are considered suburbs of Drogheda when planning their public transport services. Routes D1 and D2 provide four bus services linking both centres to Laytown station to the south and the town of Drogheda to the north west.

I tabled this question because there has been a major increase in population in the Laytown-Bettystown area. The majority of those people have relocated from Dublin and travel to Dublin every day. We have a situation where the cost of an adult monthly train fare from Laytown to Dublin is €247. The fare from Balbriggan to Connolly Station in Dublin is €145 a month and Drogheda to Dublin is €264 a month. The average cost of an adult return ticket to Balbriggan is €11.05 and the equivalent to Laytown is €21.15. There is a distance of 10 km between Laytown and Balbriggan.

The issue is about reducing our carbon footprint. I have asked the NTA on numerous occasions to extend the short hop zone to Laytown and Bettystown to encourage more people to leave their cars and get on the train. The NTA has refused to do this, but the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is responsible for policy. We know that at the stroke of a pen he could direct the NTA to extend the short hop zone. Will that be done?

As the Deputy knows, Laytown station is outside the short hop zone, which goes north as far as Balbriggan. Such stations have fares that are not well suited for the pay-as-you-go service provided by the Transport for Ireland, TFI, Leap card because cardholders would need to maintain a high minimum balance on their Leap cards before they could use them. The best fare for such intercity services is typically obtained by booking in advance, which again is not suited to the TFI Leap card. The NTA is actively investigating alternative ticketing solutions that would be better suited to intercity rail services as part of a next-generation ticketing initiative.

The NTA has adjusted a number of fares in order to mitigate the fares charged at the outside edge of the short hop zone. A number of tickets between Gormanston, Laytown and Dublin have either remained at the same price level or seen a reduction since 2018. The NTA is actively engaged on the development of a very flexible TaxSaver ticketing product suitable for occasional use in response to the change in public transport use as a result of Covid-19. It is hopeful of bringing something forward early next year.

The NTA has no interest in extending the short hop zone to Laytown and Bettystown. The Minister is responsible for policy. When we talk about getting cars off the road we are happy enough to slap a carbon tax on people, but not to make a basic adjustment to extend the short hop zone to that area to encourage more people to leave their cars at home. Is the Minister of State seriously saying that the Minister cannot direct the NTA to extend the short hop zone to Laytown and Bettystown? If that is the case, it is farcical because he can of course do that. If there is any sincerity at all in climate action and reducing our carbon footprint, he would extend that short hop zone in order to get the volume of cars off the road that are travelling to and from Dublin every single day. Will he do that? Will he instruct the NTA to do precisely that?

I will relay the Deputy's comments to the Minister. My information is that I understand the Deputy has written to the NTA. The Minister's office has referred the correspondence to the NTA, which wrote to the Deputy on 12 July advising that the position with regard to extending routes D1 and D2 to serve the ecology centre remains the same. They stated-----

That is a separate issue.

I apologise. I will relay the Deputy's comments to the Minister. Unfortunately, he cannot be in the Chamber today for personal reasons.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Duncan Smith

Ceist:

11. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Transport the specific policies he has to address the issues presented by the Covid-19 pandemic in the taxi industry in 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62295/21]

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

33. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Transport the steps he will take to support taxi drivers whose work has been impacted by the recent changes to Covid-19 restrictions. [62309/21]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

48. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Transport his plans to provide supports for the taxi industry at this time. [62417/21]

I am interested in continuing the discussion on plans to help drivers in the small public service vehicle, SPSV, and taxi industry into 2022.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 33 and 48 together.

I recognise that the SPSV industry has been badly affected during the Covid-19 pandemic that, for an extended period, brought about an almost complete collapse in passenger demand for taxi and other SPSV services. While recent months saw a welcome return of demand, with the NTA reporting 86% of drivers back at work in October, the recent increase in infection rates has given rise to the necessary reintroduction of a number of restrictions. Conscious of the potential impact of such restrictions on affected sectors and society in general, particularly as we approach what is traditionally a busy period around Christmas, the Government has sought to ensure that any restrictions are targeted and appropriate. It is continuing to monitor the situation closely as it develops.

In the meantime, I confirm that the vast majority of measures that we have taken to support the taxi industry from the start of the pandemic remain in place. I understand that as many as 70% of SPSV drivers availed of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, at the height of the pandemic. As the Deputy may be aware, the PUP reopened for a limited period to support people who lose their employment as a result of Covid restrictions from Tuesday, 7 December. Self-employed SPSV operators can continue to claim the PUP and earn up to €960 in any given eight-week period, net of expenses.

Drivers coming off the PUP can avail of the Covid-19 enterprise support grant, worth €1,000, which will meet the costs associated with returning to work and that will remain in place for the rest of the year for self-employed people who close their PUP claim. Taxi drivers can use this grant for the purchase of personal protective equipment, protective screens and cleaning materials. The employment wage subsidy scheme, which provides a flat-rate subsidy to qualifying employers based on the numbers of eligible employees on the employer’s payroll and gross pay to employees, is now expected to continue until 30 April 2022.

In addition, support for SPSV operators continues to be available, both now and into 2022, through a series of specific measures designed to support the sector, with a view to addressing statutory costs faced by operators that cannot be deferred. Standard licence renewal fees for SPSVs were waived in 2021 and they are being waived again in 2022 at an estimated cost of €3 million. The NTA has put schemes in place to refund motor tax paid by SPSV operators in the period 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2022 and to waive national car test fees for the same period. Further details on these schemes are available on the NTA website. The NTA has also waived standard age limits for taxis and hackneys through to the end of 2022, thereby ensuring that no operator exits the industry simply because of the need to replace a vehicle. Many of the major costs faced by SPSV operators, such as insurance and dispatch operator fees, can be deferred or cancelled during a period of inactivity.

Recognising that the replacement of a vehicle is the single largest cost faced by any SPSV operator, and in view of my commitment to support the transition of the SPSV fleet towards zero- or low-emission vehicles, we have confirmed that there will be a further reiteration of the current eSPSV grant scheme in 2022, following the allocation of funding for next year as part of the budget 2022 process. There has been an exceptionally high uptake of this grant scheme in 2021. It received a total of 1,488 applications and, at the beginning of November, €8.5 million had been paid to applicants, with the remainder of funding allocated to applicants with current provisional grant offers.

In addition, Microfinance Ireland announced in September that loan finance, up to €25,000, is now available to support applicants to the scheme, as many SPSV owners were finding it difficult to secure finance from banks and other commercial lending providers. Further information on this facility is available from Microfinance Ireland.

The Minister of State listed an awful lot of supports and there is no doubt some effort is being made but taxi drivers constitute the only cohort which is having difficulty, as far as I can see, in reaccessing the PUP. Many are being refused it. I got a message while I was sitting here ten minutes ago from another taxi driver who has been refused access to the PUP.

Overnight when the restrictions came back in, all late night work disappeared. I was struck by a response that Deputy O'Rourke received from the Taoiseach last week to the effect that just because the late night work is gone, it has not entirely dried up. Anyone who knows or lives near a taxi driver or canvasses where a taxi is in the driveway looks up to see whether the blinds are down because everyone knows how important the night-time economy is for a viable income for a taxi driver. We need to stop treating taxi drivers like second-class citizens in our public transport network. They are vital and the job they have done during Covid has gone underappreciated in government.

Taxi drivers feel that when it comes to transport issues, they are last on the agenda and the last group to be listened to and heard. They felt like that again. I welcome that they can now apply for the PUP, though as Deputy Duncan Smith said, there seem to be difficulties in practice. I am not even sure the Government would have done that except for pressure from taxi drivers, and indeed the Opposition, to ensure they got the PUP.

More than that is needed. As has been said, the late night sector is crucial because bringing people home from night clubs and social events is a large portion of their business. The PUP on its own is not enough without being coupled with the regulatory reforms needed to help them weather this loss of business. Overhead costs have remained essentially the same and the assistance from the Government has been totally inadequate. If action is not taken, there will be fewer taxis on our roads. There does not seem to be a coherent plan to ensure taxi drivers can stay viable and on the road.

I agree with everything that has been said. We all accept our public transport system would not operate without taxi drivers. Taxi drivers feel they are the last to be considered in any way. Even when taxi drivers got back to work, elements of that work are no longer there to the same degree and that was before we were worried about Omicron and the current situation. The factory runs they would have done in the mornings as a considerable part of their work are not there due to the way people are remote working. We could not survive in relation to school runs and health and hospital runs. We can talk about all the necessary supports but taxi drivers are being refused the PUP. We are not putting those supports in. The idea of the supports was to keep those industries and families right through those periods so everybody could do the right thing from a health perspective. We need to ensure we have this service afterwards.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met as recently as 25 November with the advisory committee on SPSVs. It was a valuable opportunity for him to get first-hand information on the issues affecting the industry, as well as an initial assessment of the impact of the latest restrictions brought about by the recent public health advice. This committee brings a broad range of stakeholders, including taxi drivers and passengers, together to advise the Minister and the NTA on policy. In the past, taxi representatives have played a constructive role on the committee and many measures taken to date, including the extension of the taxi age limits and the waiver of licence fees, originated as recommendations from the committee.

That is an appropriate forum for dealing with issues in the sector but it is important to say a number of measures are still in place, including the refund of NCT and motor tax, the waiver of licence fees at a cost of €6 million, the PUP, where they can earn up to €960 over an eight-week period, and the €1,000 enterprise grant scheme. The Minister will continue to engage with the sector on supports as the pandemic continues, as we are doing across government.

I am glad the Minister of State mentioned the taxi advisory committee because the feedback I get from taxi drivers in my constituency is that it is a paper tiger which is not fit for purpose or representative. It is dominated by other interests, such as hospitality, hotels and the apps. It is not that they should not be taken into account but it is a taxi advisory committee and the taxi drivers feel they are a relatively marginal voice in it, that the committee has no real power or weight and is a fob-off, gesture and fig leaf. That area is in urgent need of reform. We need a representative body that has a serious influence on policies and is properly representative of taxi drivers, co-ops and so on around the country.

On the ten-year rule, many taxi drivers are still concerned about having to replace their vehicle. Further flexibility is needed there.

I will put two things to the Minister of State. She and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, have to deal with the issue because Deputies Duncan Smith, O'Rourke, Ó Laoghaire and I are all getting engagement from taxi drivers being refused the PUP. That needs to be dealt with. I believe the Minister and the Minister of State need to meet with the taxi representative associations. There are other issues but these are the issues they face at this point. We need to keep this vital part of the public transport infrastructure in place.

There are other issues to be dealt with. We need to look consistently at the ten-year rule. There have been short-term fixes. We need a long-term electric vehicle, EV, scheme that makes sense and is reviewed consistently. The sector has called for a look into and timeline on the new fares agreement. The big thing is the Minister of State needs to meet with them, see their needs, keep the show on the road and ensure they are able to avail of the PUP. The difficulties about people being refused, it is just not good enough.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has met with the taxi representatives. They have played a crucial role in the current supports, including the refund of NCT and motor tax and extending the vehicle age. At the start of the pandemic, the industry regulator the National Transport Authority immediately extended age limits for taxis and hackneys and has done so three times. The most recent extension is up to the end of 2022, thus ensuring no vehicle will be forced to exit the fleet due to age limits during the pandemic.

These are considerations that the Government is taking on board, noting that one of the huge costs for taxi drivers is the replacement of vehicles, as well as the other measures in place. The Minister will continue to engage and work constructively with the sector, as have the Taoiseach and other Ministers across government. There is a recognition that restrictions are having an impact on this sector and others.

Bogaimid ar aghaidh go dtí ceist Uimh. 12 in ainm An Teachta Duncan Smith.

I will take a written reply to Question No. 12 if we could move on to No. 13 from Deputy Bríd Smith. That would be a good one to hear.

Question No. 12 replied to with Written Answers.

Pension Provisions

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

13. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Transport if assurances can be provided to CIÉ workers in the regular wages scheme who have retired since June 2020 that the delay in his signing the statutory instrument to give effect to changes in the regular wages pension scheme will not result in them losing any of the improved benefits or lump sums once the statutory instrument is signed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62351/21]

I thank Deputy Duncan Smith for allowing me to raise this important issue as we hurtle towards Christmas. I think five times this year I have asked the Minister for Transport if and when he will sign the statutory instrument that will allow for an improved pension for CIÉ workers. Currently a CIÉ worker takes home a pension of €130 per week. If the Minister signed the statutory instrument, it would raise that pension to €160. It may not seem much to a Minister or Teachta Dála but it means a huge amount to those workers who spend a lifetime driving buses, trains etc. Will the Minister please address this?

I am taking this on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I thank the Deputy for her question and the opportunity to update Deputies on the status of my Department's work on the CIÉ regular wages scheme.

As many in the House will be aware, the CIÉ Group has two pension schemes, namely, the regular wages scheme, RWS, and the 1951 superannuation scheme, and issues around the schemes are primarily a matter for the trustees of the schemes, the CIÉ Group and its employees. The CIÉ Group is actively engaged in introducing changes to both schemes aimed at rectifying the significant deficit in order to meet the statutory minimum funding standard required by the Pensions Authority.

A ballot of RWS members on a Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, proposal took place in June 2020 and was carried by 83% of those who voted. The proposed changes were agreed by the trustees of the schemes, the employees and the CIÉ Group following extensive and prolonged engagement between all parties. Following this process, CIÉ prepared and submitted draft statutory instruments to my Department to give effect to the proposed amendments, to establish a new defined contribution scheme and to consolidate the existing statutory instruments comprising the main scheme. These changes involve significant amendments that are necessary to address the minimum funding standard requirements. There are a number of steps involved before a statutory instrument can be made, including the statutory consultation process. Further, under the Transport Act 1950, the Minister must consult with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on any amendments to CIÉ pension schemes. I can advise that this consultation is under way and I expect that the details will be settled shortly.

Once the final details have been settled, we will direct CIÉ to publish the amending schedules or schemes in Iris Oifigiúil for a consultation period of not less than 28 days as required under the Transport Act. The Minister must then consider any objections or representations which have been made during this period, prior to confirming a scheme or any amendments to such schemes. I am not in a position to comment on proposed aspects of the scheme prior to the approval of both Ministers and subsequent publication as part of the statutory consultation process.

I would also like to take this opportunity to again reassure the Deputy that officials in my Department, in conjunction with advisors from NewERA, have been working on the draft statutory instruments as expeditiously as possible. In this context, we hope to be in a position to confirm the schemes in early 2022.

I was told it would be confirmed in September. I have asked about this matter five time this year.

I am sorry, Deputy, the time is up.

The change would mean €30 a week to a CIÉ worker. It is not a patch on the pension the Minister of State or other Ministers will get. This is not good enough.

We are treating workers with disdain and disgust. That statutory instrument should have been signed off earlier this year and it needs to be done as soon as possible.

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