Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Ceisteanna (39)

Imelda Munster


39. Deputy Imelda Munster asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the status of progress of the public transport stakeholders' forum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22052/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (10 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Transport)

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Munster. I ask the Minister the status of progress of the public transport stakeholders' forum and if he will make a statement on the matter. In 2016 and 2017, the public transport sector experienced a series of industrial actions by transport workers. These matters were eventually resolved without any input from the Minister. Will he explain whether this forum has been abandoned? He made a commitment to establish it. When will he follow through on this commitment?

I am allowing the Deputy to ask the question but there was no request made by Deputy Munster.

The only request made related to Deputy Pearse Doherty's question. We will take the question anyway.

As the Deputy is aware, on 21 May last year I hosted a round-table dialogue on public transport policy. That discussion was organised in the context of a wider body of work under way in my Department with regard to a review of public transport policy. This work reflects the commitment given in A Programme for a Partnership Government to review public transport policy to ensure services are sustainable into the future and are meeting the needs of a modern economy. The dialogue event held in Dublin’s Mansion House brought together a wide range of representatives of consumer and passenger interests, public transport operators, unions, business groups, environmental interests, research institutes and the academic community, regulators, members of the Oireachtas joint committee, and policymakers.  The event allowed for an open and inclusive exchange of views among interested stakeholders and commentators, facilitated an open discussion about public transport policy, and let everyone put forward their views.

In this area of public policy there are of course some divergent views but, importantly, there is also a lot of agreement. We all agree on the importance of public transport for society and the economy. We all recognise the role of public transport in helping meet our climate action challenge. We all want to see our public transport services and networks improved in the coming years. Discussions at last year's event looked at the potential challenges and competing priorities likely to arise in the future across all aspects of public transport provision, including economic, social and environmental considerations, and this has helped inform the policy review work that my Department has been undertaking. That work has represented a significant commitment of resources to undertake the comprehensive research and analysis this important policy area demands.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that this work is nearing completion and I will launch a public consultation this summer by publishing a comprehensive suite of documents looking at ten of the most important areas of public transport policy and seeking the views of all stakeholders. I look forward to the next phase of this work and to engaging with the public and the Oireachtas as we look to shape the future direction of public transport policy.

I thank the Minister. I am glad to see that a report is coming forward because the Minister did not mention anything about industrial issues. It should certainly be within the remit of this committee to look at such issues. There have been significant developments in public transport recently. Plans have been made for BusConnects and MetroLink, a further 10% of Bus Éireann routes are up for grabs and set for privatisation, and violence and antisocial behaviour on public transport has escalated. All of these issues have added to the problems. With the expansion of bus services, Bus Éireann has made massive improvements in terms of delivery and it is now a very viable company. Public relations and industrial issues should be part of this agenda. From what the Minister has said in the past, I gather that this is not his intention, but it is very important if we are to avoid ending up where we were before, which is in a situation where there is a complete breakdown in which the Minister will not interfere.

I do not know whether the Deputy is aware of the Labour Court or the Workplace Relations Commission. These are bodies which were set up to deal with industrial relations and which have been very effective in industrial disputes in the past, particularly in the transport sector. In the cases of industrial difficulties we had a couple of years ago, these bodies managed to bring the parties together and to reach a satisfactory conclusion. I welcome the fact that many of those involved in those industrial relations disputes came together in the stakeholders' forum we held last year. We had a meeting in the Mansion House and everybody accepted that it was constructive. It covered a wide variety of subjects and, as a result, a wide range of issues are being researched by a working group of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. These issues include active travel, congestion, finances and funding, Project Ireland 2040, public transport accessibility, public transport in rural Ireland, the regulation of public transport, statistics and trends, transitioning the public service obligation, PSO, fleet to alternatives fuels and technologies, and transport emissions and climate change. There are papers on these ten issues. These are all issues on which those involved in industrial relations, by which I mean the trade unions and employers, are very well placed to have an input. I welcome the fact that they did so on that day. That forum will inform the public policy we are developing.

I ask Members and the Minister to observe the clock, please. I hate interfering.

One of the big issues for many people is privatisation. We have been opposed to any attempts to privatise further any of the bus services. Bus Éireann is doing very well at the moment. The numbers using its services have increased massively, and it is now returning a profit for the first time in recent years. I agree with the Minister with respect to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, which we utilise.

However, at times things come to a point of being at loggerheads. The Minister should not abdicate his responsibility by leaving it up to the WRC to negotiate between the bodies. That is not good enough. Sometimes intervention or certainly recommendations or even talks behind the scenes are very important. Public transport now is a major issue. We have climate change. We have all the issues relating to carbon emissions to live up to. This is a very important area.

I do not disagree with much of what the Deputy has said. I agree that climate change is an important topic. He and others are welcome to make an input to public consultations as they arise, but also if we have a further stakeholders' forum. That is a useful subject.

I do not accept what the Deputy said about privatisation. Nothing has been sold. Since I came to office, this has come not just from the Sinn Féin benches but from others on the Opposition benches that there is some kind of privatisation agenda. That is not the case. Some operating routes have gone to commercial interests not owned by the State, but that is for competitive reasons. They have limited contracts and they are also something I defend. No privatisation is going on. Not a single asset of the State has been sold off as a result of this.

I am delighted that the Deputy has acknowledged that the State transport companies are doing much better. I am delighted with that. It is partly related to the economy and the population growing. It is also related to them becoming a great deal more efficient. The PSO we are providing is also helping them.

Privatisation is not part of the agenda. I have to repeat this every time I stand up in this House. There will be competitive interests in that market, but there is no intention to sell off the State silver in any way. That is not the object of the exercise. The object is to have an efficient consumer-led group of transport companies giving a great service to the State, and long may it last, but it is not in any way to privatise them or sell them off.