I propose to take Questions Nos. 177 to 179, inclusive, together.
School Transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the 2018/2019 school year over 117,500 children, including over 13,000 children with special educational needs, were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country covering over 100 million kilometres at a cost of over €200m in 2018.
The 1975 Summary of Accounting Arrangements form the basis of the payment to Bus Éireann for the operation of the School Transport Scheme. In this regard, the Department reimburses Bus Éireann for a range of costs incurred in the operation and administration of the scheme. Re-imbursement to Bus Éireann is on a cost recovery basis only and the Department of Education and Skills do not pay any profit to Bus Éireann relating to the School Transport Scheme.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) carried out an examination of the provision of school transport and completed its report in August 2017 – the C&AG Special Report 98. The C&AG report referenced a surplus in the Transport Management Charge element of the costs. This amount was held by way of an uncommitted reserve by Bus Éireann to be used solely for the purposes of the School Transport Scheme. The balance on the uncommitted reserve of €6.7m was repaid fully to the Department in December 2018.
The school transport scheme is a demand-led service based on the number of eligible children who apply to avail of transport. My Department works with Bus Éireann to analyse costs to the scheme on an on-going basis while each year the company produces an audited statement of account. This ensures that the financial information provided by Bus Éireann is in accordance with the relevant summary of accounting arrangements.
Bus Éireann provide the Department with an annual projected cost of school transport services together with a provisional spread of payments. These figures are incorporated into the Department’s annual profile of expenditure and are monitored on a monthly basis both in terms of the Department’s monthly profile of expenditure and Bus Éireann information based on actual costs versus projected costs. Expenditure headings and profiles are discussed at monthly meetings held between the Department and Bus Éireann. Where changes in projected expenditure occur a new year-end forecast is submitted by Bus Éireann and reflected in a revised spread of payments.
Actual expenditure is finalised in the Bus Éireann annual statement of account which is independently audited by the Bus Éireann auditors in accordance with the 1975 Summary of Accounting Arrangements. Balances, where they occur, are accounted for in the following year’s projected cost.
In October 2019, I announced a review of the school transport scheme as it currently operates with a view to ensuring funds are being spent in the most effective way to meet the objectives of the scheme. Terms of reference and the scope of the review are being considered by my officials and it is expected that a cross-departmental steering group led by my Department will be established shortly to oversee the review.