Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 18 April 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Sectoral Plan (2012 Edition): Motion
The only business today is an order seeking the joint committee's approval of the sectoral plan, 2012 edition, prepared by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in accordance with section 31(6) of the Disability Act 2005, which was referred to the committee by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann on Thursday, 28 March. The order has been circulated and members will have received briefing material prepared by the Department and a link to the sectoral plan. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Alan Kelly, and his officials to the meeting and invite him to make his opening remarks.
This is another significant step towards improving public transport provision for people with disabilities. Transport Access for All, the Department's sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005, is the outcome of an extensive review process in which people with disabilities played a key role. The 2012 edition of the plan which provides a roadmap for further advancement in public transport accessibility improvements has been largely shaped by the outcome of such a process. However, advice received by the Department of Justice and Equality from the Office of the Attorney General indicates that, in compliance with section 31(6) of the Disability Act 2005, the 2012 edition of the Department's sectoral plan cannot take effect until a resolution on the plan has been passed by each House of the Oireachtas. Today's discussion, the first of its kind, has been arranged for this reason.
While the plan is a positive step, it is, by no means, a panacea for all of our public transport accessibility issues. However, it represents an honest view of what is achievable. Circumstances being different, we would have liked to achieve much more. In recent years the number of accessible vehicles has increased significantly and access to much of the public transport infrastructure has improved. For instance, the Dublin Bus fleet now comprises exclusively low floor, wheelchair accessible buses and a programme of bus stop upgrades is proceeding. Bus Éireann has met its objectives of having the Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford fleets entirely composed of low floor, wheelchair accessible buses.
On the issue of new or upgraded wheelchair accessible stops outside the greater Dublin area, the National Transport Authority is now managing this programme and provides funding directly to individual local authorities as resources allow on a case by case scenario. While the existing Luas service is already accessible, developments in technology and best international practice are being monitored with a view to enhancing the system. For example, the installation in 2011 of T-coil induction loops on all 64 trams which enhanced access for hearing impaired passengers was possibly a first in the world and the list goes on.
Changes have occurred in the way transport services are delivered, as well as in the research and consultation necessary to provide the groundwork for further accessibility measures to be planned and progressed in the coming years. Many targets have been achieved and significant progress has made towards the realisation of several others. Notwithstanding this success, much remains to be done and work in this regard is ongoing, allowing for the significant economic challenges facing us.
It is recognised worldwide that the provision of accessible, affordable and acceptable transport can make a significant difference to quality of life. People can feel cut off from wider community life and experience serious difficulty in accessing basic services where access to transport is lacking. This is particularly true in the case of older people and people with disabilities, although it also applies to many others. One of the core principles of the sectoral plan is that through accessibility improvements to the public transport system for people with disabilities, access will be improved for everyone. Inclusion, opportunity and participation in social, economic and cultural life should be available to everyone. Design and planning for services and infrastructure should take this requirement into account from the beginning. Social inclusion must never be viewed as an add-on to what we do but an integral component of our work.
The plan was prepared following an extensive consultation process that included many meetings and discussions with transport providers, a wide range of groups in the disability sector and the public transport accessibility committee, PTAC. The latter is the principal consultative forum on public transport accessibility in Ireland and it comprises representatives of older people, the main disability organisations, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, public and private transport operators, the National Disability Authority, the National Transport Authority, the Dublin Airport Authority, the Maritime Safety Directorate and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
Approval and implementation of this plan will help to further address the public transport concerns of people with disabilities. In addition, Transport Access for All will feed into the forthcoming national disability strategy implementation plan which is being developed under the auspices of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. I understand the Minister of State's plan will provide for greater inter-linkages across Government Departments and their agencies. I welcome this development. The implementation plan will address the full needs of those Departments and allow for a whole-of-Government approach to be taken in respect of improving public service provision generally for people with disabilities.
The approval of Deputies and Senators for the 2012 edition of Transport Access for All is a key step in the process. I fully support the plan, on which a great deal of work has been done. In such circumstances, I ask members to endorse the plan because it will make a real difference going forward.
I thank the Minister of State for outlining what the plan entails. We must have aims and goals and I am of the view that the plan is a good one. Unfortunately, we do not always achieve the aims and goals that are set down. There are a number of aspects of the plan which are extremely negative. Dublin Bus has made significant strides forward and massive progress has been made in the area of transport in general. I am concerned, however, with regard to wheelchair-accessible taxis. One of the recommendations in the relevant review was that all taxis should be wheelchair accessible. That is an ambition which probably will not be achieved in the near future. Wheelchair-accessible taxis have a 15-year lifespan and many of them are approaching the end of this at present. Such vehicles cost a large amount of money to replace. If someone's vehicle ends up on the scrapheap after 15 years, he or she will be obliged to purchase a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle and that will cost him or her a fortune. This is a matter to which the Minister of State will be obliged to give careful consideration because the need to replace vehicles will prove a real disincentive for people. Should we not examine the possibility introducing an incentive - perhaps a write down of VAT, VRT or whatever - for those who will be obliged to change their vehicles?
I also wish to refer to the cuts in the disability and mobility grants. These cuts will have a very significant effect on those who live in rural areas in particular because they are obliged to travel long distances to reach various destinations. Will the Minister of State comment on that matter? Will he also outline his view on the position with regard to the motorised transport allowance?
A large number of people are members of the public transport accessibility committee. How will this committee go about doing its work? Will it monitor what is going on in the various Departments with responsibility for transport, housing, etc.?
I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the work that has been done in respect of the production of the sectoral plan. I particularly welcome the fact that there is now 100% wheelchair access on all Dublin Bus vehicles and that Bus Éireann has met its obligations in the context of inter-city bus services. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in respect of some other bus operators. I refer, in particular, to Aircoach, which is now owned by First Bus, the largest bus operator in the United Kingdom. One of my constituents contacted Aircoach on behalf of a wheelchair user who wished to travel to Belfast. The constituent in question was not able to obtain a guarantee that a wheelchair-accessible vehicle would be available and that advance notice would have to be given with regard to the time the person in the wheelchair proposed to travel. Aircoach provides bus services between Dublin Airport and the city centre and I understand the same problem exists on these services. Like Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and every other bus operator, this company is operating under licences provided by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport but it is not meeting its obligations in respect of providing wheelchair access. Will the Minister of State comment on this matter and will his Department contact Aircoach and remind it that it has an obligation to disabled people and wheelchair users?
I welcome the initiatives that have been taken. Great praise is due to Dublin Bus in respect of what it has done with regard to what has been something of a sore point for many years. During the debate on the Taxi Regulation Bill 2012 in the Seanad, Senator Barrett referred to the legal position of existing taxi drivers as against that of those who are coming into the trade now. He pointed out that existing drivers are not legally obliged to provide wheelchair access but that those entering the trade now are obliged to do so. I am not sure whether that is the case but perhaps the Minister of State will indicate what is the current position for new entrants to the taxi industry. Are these people legally obliged to provide wheelchair access? If so, has the process in this regard been successful or has there been resistance to it? Is it the case that, as Deputy Ellis stated, a financial difficulty has arisen for certain individuals? What is the current legal position with regard to increasing the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis throughout the country?
I welcome all the progress that has been made but I support what Deputy Ellis said in respect of 15-year lifespan which applies in respect of wheelchair-accessible taxis. This is an issue for taxi drivers in rural areas in particular. I was contacted by one driver who has a wheelchair-accessible vehicle but who cannot - as he would be obliged to do under the regulations - afford to purchase a new one. A number of people in rural areas will literally not be able to get out of their houses because there will not be enough suitable taxis available to transport them.
I welcome the Minister of State and his team and I support all the good work that is being done in this area. Does an issue arise, particularly in Dublin, in respect of private coach operators in Dublin, to which lesser requirements than those which obtain in the case of Dublin Bus seem to apply? As has been stated, Dublin Bus vehicles are expected to be 100% wheelchair accessible. Will the Minister of State comment on that matter?
It is extremely difficult for people to book wheelchair-accessible taxis and there is a higher cost element involved from the point of view of the drivers of such vehicles. Is this an area in respect of which the Minister of State is giving consideration in the context of providing additional supports and assistance in order to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis on our roads?
We will give the Minister of State the plaudits in any event. The rural bus system has set an example for all transport providers. I am of the view that there is a great deal to be done and perhaps the position with the sectoral plan should be monitored in the coming months. There is a need to put in place the necessary legislation and to ensure that it is implemented. There are many deficits which must be addressed. I presume the Barcelona agreement also contemplates transport systems. We are falling down to a major degree in this regard. There is a need to improve disabled access and general facilities across the board not just in the area of transport, but also in the context of public buildings.
People should have equality of access. This should be expedited as much as possible.
I congratulate the Minister of State on the work to date. It is good to see disabled access being improved on so many buses. Many disabled young students travel to school and college on private and public buses. What is the position in this regard? I am unsure as to whether any such buses are wheelchair accessible. Is there an onus to provide access? There should be, as those students are entitled to access just like everyone else. Are there plans to improve private buses that service primary and secondary schools? In many cases, they are 15 or 20 years old and are not accessible.
I have a short question on changes that might impact on the access of people with disabilities to public transport. For example, will proposals on changing the eligibility criteria for free travel be considered by the monitoring group before a decision is made?
My colleague may have covered my next question, which is on disabled access to taxis. There needs to be a reduction in vehicle registration tax, VRT, or the like to encourage people to do the right thing.
They will not be a problem. I will deal with them as they were asked. Deputy Ellis raised a number of points. The public transport accessibility committee, PTAC, will only deal with issues of transport accessibility. I take on board the Deputy's comments about buses. Indeed, I take everyone's comments on board. I concur as regards Dublin Bus, in that the achievements it has made in recent years have been phenomenal. It should be congratulated.
Deputy Ellis raised the issue of taxis. I am conscious of it and it is being addressed. No Minister has taken as much of an interest in taxis as I have. The Senators present will verify that we have been around the houses as regards the Bill on this matter.
An issue arises. Wheelchair-accessible vehicle, WAV, licences are available because the cars cost too much. I am trying to create a solution in terms of the cars' specifications, which are too costly. We must reach a happy medium and the cost must be reduced. More than €40,000 for a car is ridiculous. Grants were available for a two-year period to people who wanted to begin providing these services. Surprisingly, the take-up was low.
There is an administrative issue. The cars do not need to be new. I am in discussions with the Department of Finance to determine whether a combination of reducing specifications and getting something in return for those who enter this industry is possible. We are trying to get that pendulum swinging.
There is a broader issue with the industry. Often, I deal with a good group that is trying to get wheelchair taxis. It monitors the situation with me. A number of people who drive wheelchair accessible taxis do not provide that service. This is unacceptable. They are taking their golfing buddies out to the airport while someone needs a taxi. This situation must be addressed. I am putting in place a process to that effect because it should not be tolerated. The instance of drivers who receive subsidies to enter the market yet who do not provide the service as intended must be prevented.
We are also considering the creation of a centralised telephone number so that people with disabilities can access cars. We will monitor it. If operators refuse a certain number of journeys, we will inquire into why and examine their licences. There must be respect for the car. We will consider the issue with the Department of Finance. We must ensure that operators do what they have their licences to do.
Rural Ireland does not have enough of these licences. With the National Transport Authority, NTA, which has jurisdiction in this regard, I am trying to create a process whereby more people can be brought into that space. One has fewer options in rural Ireland. I know this only too well, given that I live there.
Deputy Kenny raised a good point. Private operators are slightly different from public operators. We are governed by European legislation. As a result of being approached by the Deputy and others, I am making inquiries into why Aircoach and other private operators are not legally obliged to provide wheelchair access. Under the rules, such services must be provided in cities and large urban areas in which buses operate internally. Dublin Bus is a classic example. This is the reason it has reached 100% accessibility. Even though it could be argued that Aircoach buses travel from one end of Dublin to the airport, it and similar providers are not legally obliged to provide accessibility. We have asked the NTA to examine this situation and I will report on its findings.
Deputy Fleming raised the issue of WAVs in the context of the rural transport scheme, which has been a successful programme. I have been working on it for many months and years. I am supportive of it, but it needs to be brought into mainstream public transport. Some of the best and most impressive people I have met as a Minister of State are involved in rural transport. I have visited, met here or met at national events nearly every rural transport scheme in the country. They should be a part of mainstream public transport because rural Ireland needs integration. They must be placed on a sound footing and be brought into closer alignment with local authorities and the work of same. There is no point in mini-buses going up and down roads in which local authorities have not invested. The authorities should know the routes so that they might invest.
There must also be greater integration with school transport and non-acute health-related transport. It is crazy that school buses travel in and out of towns all over the country for nine months of the year and that there is no one on them for the return trips at 9 a.m. and 2.30 p.m.
When I travelled on a school bus, the bus driver was allowed to stop and pick up people. Obviously, there are various reasons that is no longer possible. As far as I am concerned, school buses are public transport vehicles and they can act as such and provide a service where none exists. It will not be a panacea but it is an example of what is required, namely, greater integration between all the services, which is not the case at present.
The rural transport groups provide much accessible transport as well. For example, Clare Accessible Transport, which is part of the rural transport programme, RTP, does fantastic work. That is just one example. There is another example in Meath and there are many others.
Free travel was raised by one speaker. That is a matter for the Department of Social Protection. I accept the point in terms of coverage. I also accept that certain points must be taken on board. Broadly speaking, they are the areas covered.
As the committee is aware, a report is being conducted by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, on the mobility allowance. I understand an interim report will be available in the near future. To be honest, it must come out soon. My colleagues are participating in the report to find an adequate solution to the problem, which members are aware arose following the finding that the State was operating illegally in that regard. The matter will be dealt with following publication of the report. I expect a progressive solution will be found. It is the jurisdiction of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and we are working closely with her. I do not wish to pre-empt what solution she will find. I apologise as I forgot to deal with the matter.
School transport does not come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I accept that is an anomaly. Much transport for third level is operated by private operators on a licensed basis. Similar to the Aircoach issue raised by Deputy Seán Kenny, there is not an obligation, but in many cases arrangements are made. The school transport scheme is operated by Bus Éireann, which subcontracts many services. Generally speaking, Bus Éireann has knowledge of the requirements and takes them on board in the provision of a service or when contracting out a service. It has to provide a range of services, for example, those requiring 45-seat buses or for a smaller capacity. It also takes into account whether services must be provided to children or teenagers with a disability. We encourage Bus Éireann to find solutions.
I strongly support this comprehensive plan. I commend the Minister of State and his officials on introducing it and, importantly, for improving access to public transport for all members of the public. That concludes consideration of the order. The clerk of the committee will send a message to the Clerk of the Dáil. I thank the Minister of State and his officials, and in particular the members who are present in spite of being under pressure. I extend my sincere thanks to all for being present. I also thank the clerk and all staff.