Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 2 October 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
EU Transport Matters: Discussion with Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport
The purpose of this part of the meeting is to hear a summary from the Secretary General on EU matters in the Department, so that the committee can gain an insight into overall developments in EU legislation.
On behalf of the committee, I wish to welcome Mr. Tom O'Mahony, Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and his officials. I wish to draw their attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009 witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise the witnesses that any submission or opening statements they have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now call on Mr. Tom O'Mahony to make his opening remarks.
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
I thank the Chairman and other members of the joint committee for their invitation to address today's meeting. We are covering two six-monthly reports for January-June 2012 and July-December 2012. Taken together, they involved more than 40 legislative proposals which were submitted to the Oireachtas. I have separately submitted the current status of each of those to the committee and I will not dwell on them in this opening statement. Instead, bearing in mind that we are now getting towards the end of 2013, I would like to examine what has happened to all these proposals and where they now stand. Given that Ireland held the Presidency of the Council in the first half of this year, a lot of what was happening in 2012 was laying the foundations for what we ourselves progressed in the Council earlier this year. I will therefore look at the more important issues and how they have progressed. In that way, I can bring the committee up to date.
In advance of the EU Presidency, the Minister and the Department set out the priorities we had in transport for the six-month Presidency. We targeted eight dossiers for agreement with the European Parliament. These covered the following: the Connecting Europe Facility, CEF; the Trans-European Networks for Transport, which everybody refers to as TEN -T; the Maritime Labour Convention on Flag State Responsibilities; the Maritime Labour Convention on Port State Control; Tachographs; Galileo; the Recreational Craft Directive; and the Airports Package. Of those eight dossiers, seven were successfully negotiated during the Irish Presidency including two key priorities - Connecting Europe Facility and Trans-European Networks. Agreement on the Airports Package was not possible owing to delays in the European Parliament dealing with the dossier. In addition, five general approach agreements were achieved including a significant component of the fourth rail package and the remaining elements of the road worthiness package.
I will now look briefly at those key priorities, the Connecting Europe Facility and TEN -T. The Connecting Europe Facility, CEF, was Ireland's top priority. It went to the wire but in the final week of our Presidency a deal was brokered between the Council and the European Parliament. The CEF sets out the general rules for granting financial aid in the field of the trans-European transport, energy and telecommunication networks. The CEF has a budget of almost €30 billion and is part of the next Multiannual Financial Framework. It is underpinned by sectoral policy guidelines which determine priorities and complementary measures of implementation. It is a key instrument for targeted infrastructure investment at European level to ensure the smooth functioning of the single market and boost sustainable growth, jobs and competitiveness across the European Union. The CEF also provides for innovative financial instruments as a means of attracting the private sector to play a greater part in delivering key infrastructure investment.
As regards the TENS-T, or Trans European Transport Guidelines, in the transport sector the CEF will fund the development of the core network - and some elements of the comprehensive network - as set out in the new TENS-T Regulation that was also agreed with the European Parliament during the Irish Presidency. This regulation sets out the framework for identifying individual projects of common interest contributing to the development of a transport network that is fit for purpose over the next 35 years. It seeks to tackle the main problems encountered, including: missing links - in other words, networks that do not join up - in particular at cross-border sections; infrastructure disparities between and within member states; insufficient multi-modal connections; the ongoing problem of greenhouse gas emissions from transport; and inadequate interoperability.
The fourth rail package is a key priority in the second Single Market Act and featured high on the Transport Council agenda during our Presidency. While the Commission proposals were delayed, the Presidency still managed to achieve a general approach agreement on the key interoperability dimension of the package. The technical aspects of this file are the building blocks to achieving a fully-integrated rail system in Europe. Work is continuing on the remaining elements of the package.
As regards the maritime sector, the Minister highlighted the status of proposals relating to the Maritime Labour Convention in his report of July to December 2012, which was sent to the committee. In preparing for the EU Presidency, the Department placed particular importance at the outset on the implementation of that convention. Specifically, the two directives are designed to ensure the EU takes a lead in delivering better safety standards and working conditions for the thousands of seafarers in Europe and around the globe.
The Flag State Implementation Directive ensures that EU member states monitor and enforce the Maritime Labour Convention provisions for the working and living conditions of seafarers on board ships flying the flags of those states. The Port State Implementation Directive ensures that all ships calling at EU ports are inspected for compliance with those working and living conditions. Both directives were agreed with the European Parliament during our Presidency and they represent a significant step forward in enabling the EU to take a lead and be a credible voice in this sector.
There were also a number of technical files which the my Department's programme sought to advance. Agreement with the European Parliament on the Recreational Craft Directive was a significant achievement given that the file had been under negotiation for almost two years. This directive will improve exhaust emission standards from water craft engaged in sports and leisure activities, as well as increasing the competitiveness of European producers exporting to third country markets.
Galileo is a European satellite navigation system. Agreement was reached with the European Parliament on the EU regulation on the financing and governance of Galileo and EGNOS, which is the other European satellite navigation system. That covers the next financial period 2014-2020 and beyond. The final sign-off on that will be done once the overall MFF deal has been formally agreed.
There was a lot of activity in the aviation sector. The Transport Council agreed on the Commission's new Occurrence Reporting Regulation at its June 2013 meeting. This new regulation will make a major contribution to safety in the aviation sector by improving the reporting system for incidents and therefore contribute to a more proactive and evidence-based aviation safety management system in the EU.
The main objective of the proposal is a further reduction of the number of aircraft accidents and related fatalities, using civil aviation occurrence reporting to correct safety deficiencies and prevent them from recurring. The incidence of air accidents in European aviation is now very small. Incidents are a different matter. It is very important that any irregularity that occurs over the course of a flight, including landing, is properly reported. In 999 cases out of a thousand it will not give rise to an accident.
While it may not give rise to an accident, it may highlight that something is not working properly in one of the systems and an accident may occur in future if it is not addressed.
The Presidency also facilitated an initial exchange at the June Transport Council meeting on the Commission's new air passenger rights proposal. Support was expressed at the meeting for the objectives behind the proposal, which attempts to clarify grey areas in existing legislation that have led to litigation, inconsistencies and loose standards in the application of the law. The new proposal will make clearer the rights and responsibilities of parties for passenger air transport.
Owing to delays in the European Parliament's deliberations on the airports package, the Presidency was unable to advance negotiations with the European Parliament on this matter as originally intended. The Parliament did not reach a conclusion on the package until April, which did not leave sufficient time for us to deal with the matter before the Presidency concluded in June.
Transport safety was an underlying theme for the Presidency and a number of significant advances were made in this regard, particularly on the road side. The remaining two elements of the roadworthiness package were agreed at Council and we also managed to broker agreement with the European Parliament on the new tachograph regulation. From Ireland's perspective, securing agreement on the tachograph regulation was a good result for the European road haulage sector in terms of addressing tachograph fraud, improving drivers' working conditions and promoting greater levels of safety and competition in the road transport sector.
Significant progress was also made on a proposal from the Commission to reduce environmental noise for motor vehicles by introducing a new test method in the type approval procedure for motor vehicles. The proposal also introduces a minimum sound level to address safety concerns regarding electric and hybrid-electric vehicles. The primary concern in this regard is that the vehicles may be silent, which carries an obvious risk. Despite diverging views from member states, significant progress was made during the Irish Presidency on this complex and sensitive file which provides the incoming Lithuanian Presidency with a clear mandate to negotiate with the European Parliament.
The Department also has responsibility for sport, an area in which the European Union's agenda is limited, although some important work is being done in this area. The key objective on the sport agenda was to make progress on the EU's work plan on sport, focusing in particular on dual careers for elite athletes, the sustainable financing of sport and issues around protecting the integrity of sport, in particular anti-doping. The Minister attended the World Anti-Doping Agency Foundation board meeting as one of three European Union ministerial representatives. At the sports Council in May, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, facilitated a very useful exchange of views on combating the increased sophistication of doping in sport. The Council was addressed by Mr. Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, which led the investigation into the US Postal Service pro-cycling team and Lance Armstrong case. The Council also agreed Council conclusions on dual careers for elite athletes and adopted a mandate for the Commission to participate in negotiations towards a Council of Europe convention against match-fixing.
I trust this provides the joint committee with a useful progress report on developments at European level. I am accompanied by a number of colleagues who were directly involved in detailed discussions in various EU working parties on the proposals, as they were developed and negotiated. Between us, I hope we will be able to address adequately any questions members may have.
I thank Mr. O'Mahony for his presentation. What will be the effect on Ireland, if any, of the failure to conclude an airports package during the Irish Presidency? How does Mr. O'Mahony foresee negotiations developing under the Lithuanian Presidency? Will he expand on the recreational package to which he referred?
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
The lack of progress will not affect Ireland because the area which was delayed related to ground handling. I do not expect the Lithuanian Presidency to progress the issue as it has been concentrating on other aspects of the package. The issue may be progressed next year. In terms of practical effects, only one Irish airport, Dublin Airport, is sufficiently large to come within the scope of the directive. We will not have any difficulty with any issue and none of the issues will have a significant impact on Ireland.
I will ask Mr. Hogan to address the recreational craft issue.
Mr. Brian Hogan:
The recreational craft directive was a reworking of an existing directive on recreational craft. It applies to all craft of less than 24 m, which are used for recreational purposes within the European Union. The directive is related to the placing of such craft on the market. It is essentially a CE marking for recreational craft and covers safety aspects as well as emissions. The emissions measures were the major achievement we secured. The directive also contains a market surveillance provision.
I thank our guests for their presentation. My primary interest is in tourism and I note the statement that the European Commission did not have any significant tourism initiatives planned during the Irish Presidency. I ask Mr. O'Mahony to elaborate. Given the current economic position, any initiatives delivered in the area of tourism would be very welcome. Will this matter be addressed? Is tourism a priority?
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
The European Union does not have competence across all areas of policy and tourism policy is primarily left to national governments to deal with. There is no EU legislation in place on tourism, although legislation is in place which has a direct or indirect bearing on tourism. For instance, in the aviation area, we are examining issues surrounding air passenger rights, which would obviously be of practical relevance to anybody who travels by air. Tourism is a matter for national rather than European policy and national legislation where legislation is required. Having said that, given that we are the Department with responsibility for tourism, the fact that there is not a major EU dimension in this area did not limit the colossal effort that was put into revitalising the tourism industry in the past two years. As the Deputy will be aware from recently published statistics, this is one area where current efforts are working and the Department is extremely pleased with the success recorded in this area thanks to a number of policy initiatives, including the reduction in the VAT rate and, in particular, The Gathering. We still have some distance to travel if tourist numbers are to return to the levels we experienced five years ago but we are certainly moving in the right direction.
I apologise for my absence at the start of the meeting. Has the Department quantified, with the assistance of the Department of Finance or other entities, the net tax take arising as a result of the reduction in the VAT rate from 13% to 9%? Do we know the net contribution to the Exchequer of the increase in employment in the tourism and hospitality sectors since the reduction was introduced?
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
I am conscious in answering this question that I am disobeying the stricture imposed by the Chairman at the start of the meeting to the effect that I should not address matters that are not directly related to the subject matter under discussion. What I can state is that a detailed cost-benefit analysis was carried out by Deloitte on behalf of the tourism industry and has been provided to the Department of Finance. While that Department will have to do its own analysis of the report, the view expressed by Ministers in our Department is that the analysis supports the position that there is an economic benefit to the State in maintaining the current rate. The Ministers also made clear, however, that they accept the State is in extremely difficult budgetary circumstances and drawing up the budget will be very difficult for the Minister for Finance who will have to do as best he can within current constraints.
I thank Mr. O'Mahony and have a few questions for him. In respect of the Connecting Europe facility, CEF, priority, he mentioned that a budget of €30 billion was allocated under the multi-annual financial framework. Has this amount increased or decreased as part of the multi-annual financial framework directive? In a linked question regarding the European transport guidelines and the maritime sector, I refer to European Union initiatives such as the Marco Polo programme and the Motorways of the Sea initiative. Have they had an impact and is Ireland tapping into them? Obviously, as an island nation, maritime access is of huge concern, as is any support Ireland may get from the European Union through the aforementioned initiatives. Has Mr. O'Mahony been briefed on what is the status of these initiatives with respect to Ireland? On the maritime sector and maritime safety in particular, the Marine Survey Office, MSO, obviously would be directly responsible here. Is there a drive towards common standards such that the MSO in Ireland would have the same safety issues as its equivalent office in Germany or its counterparts elsewhere in the European Union? Is there a move towards common agreements on safety directives through the maritime safety directive? As for the Maritime Labour Convention, one hears periodically of vessels entering a European Union port and being detained because they have issues of insufficient labour. In the opinion of the witnesses, is European Union legislation or directives having a global impact? While these regulations exist within the European Union, anecdotal evidence invariably suggests that those vessels being detained are operating under flags from south-east Asia, Central America or wherever. Are European Union regulations having a positive global impact in the context of the Maritime Labour Convention?
On the aviation sector, I note a debate is ongoing at present, arising through media reports, about safety, etc. While we obviously will not get into that here, Mr. O'Mahony mentioned statistics on incidents and accidents. How does that relate in the context of transport movements throughout the European Union? While one would hope the trend is positive, rather than taking a snapshot, how is the trend of aviation statistics moving? Finally, is a level playing field being ensured with regard to the issue of tachographs? Haulage from Ireland evidently is more expensive than is the case on the Continent and it is important that we are not at an unfair competitive disadvantage on foot of issues surrounding tachographs. While we already are at an unfair disadvantage as an island, we should ensure there is a level playing field throughout the European Union.
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
I will ask Mr. Brian Hogan to deal with the maritime questions. As head of the MSO, he is best placed and should be able to deal with everything the Acting Chairman asked. I might ask Mr. Kieran Baker to deal with the issue concerning tachographs. On a general point about aviation safety, I commented earlier that the European aviation safety record has been tremendously good in recent years. Aviation generally is referred to as being statistically the safest way to travel. If one is flying, one is more likely to be in an accident on the way to the airport than when one is on the plane itself. While I am uncertain what sources we have, I am sure we can supply something to the joint committee, because it is interesting information to have. However, I wish to make a particular point. Like the Acting Chairman, I have no desire to go into recent controversies but I make the point that the aviation safety record of the Irish airlines is exceptionally good. The Irish Aviation Authority, which is responsible for monitoring aviation safety and which itself is audited by both the European and international aviation organisations, has confirmed that the safety record of the Irish airlines is on a par with the very safest in Europe. While we may have issues with individual airlines from time to time on various items, one area about which there is no issue is safety and it is important to put that on the record. I will then ask Mr. Eddie Burke to come in on the issue about the CEF. Perhaps we will turn to Mr. Brian Hogan first.
Mr. Brian Hogan:
On the first point the Deputy raised about the European transport guidelines and the Marco Polo initiative, that was not specifically addressed during the Presidency. However, one issue that was addressed was the Blue Belt initiative, which addresses the concept of short sea shipping. The idea is to reduce regulatory burden on board ships when they call into ports in the Union, that is, the amount of paperwork is reduced to a single submission, which then is shared with all the relevant bodies. On the question of maritime safety, we work closely with all the European Union bodies. We do this in the International Maritime Organization, which comprises 190 member states, and a big part of our Presidency entailed co-ordinating Ireland's position on a global level through the International Maritime Organization, whereby we adopted a lot of international conventions throughout the world. Consequently, Ireland had a role in co-ordinating the 27 member states in that regard. In addition, when it comes to the Maritime Labour Convention, we also are involved. One of the objectives regarding the port state control directive and the Maritime Labour Convention was to co-ordinate with the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on port state control, which actually co-ordinates beyond the European Union. It includes the European Union maritime states, as well as Canada, Russia, Iceland and Norway, and we share information about inspection of ships. When the maritime labour directive on port state control was adopted, members will see in the text that it was done with the co-operation of the Paris memorandum of understanding. We have great co-operation in this regard and in this context, as I chair the Paris Memorandum of Understanding and so am familiar with the details, since the Maritime Labour Convention entered into force on 20 August, six ships have been detained throughout the 27 member states of the Paris Memorandum of Understanding, for non-compliance with the convention.
Mr. Brian Hogan:
No, some of them may have been flagged within the European Union. However, they were inspected in other EU member states. Some of them may have been from the EU but a number of them were non-EU as well. The standards can vary throughout the member states and we can inspect a ship from another EU member state when it comes into an Irish port and similarly, they can do it in our ports.
Mr. Brian Hogan:
Yes, there is. That is the reason for having the two directives in the Maritime Labour Convention, MLC. One was the port state directive, which essentially was an enforcement directive. The other was a flag state directive, which is addressed to the member states themselves, to have them raise the standards for their individual flags. This has been done in respect of the MLC and there was a previous set of directives, including a flag state directive, whereby all the member states had to achieve a particular standard as a flag state. In addition, within the Paris Memorandum of Understanding, we published a black-grey-white list for the performance of the states. Obviously, one wants to be on the white list and Ireland is, as are most EU member states. We have an obligation, through the directives and Council decisions, that all member states should be on the white list of the Paris Memorandum of Understanding. Through the European Union and co-operation with the Paris memorandum of understanding, there are constant efforts to try to improve the standards of the European Union's fleet. This is done through both constant meetings in Brussels and through working with the European Maritime Safety Agency, EMSA, in Lisbon, which carries out audits of all the member states to ascertain how they comply with the directives and then we all must increase our standards.
May I ask another question? It pertains to the rail markets and the comment that the European rail markets currently are facing stagnation or decline and that the Commission therefore is proposing far-reaching measures to encourage greater innovation in European Union railways by opening up EU domestic passenger markets to competition. The witnesses should expand a little more on this as it relates to Ireland and on what that idea might entail. While I have no evidence to hand, in Ireland we tend not to use railway lines at all.
I come from the Carlow-Kilkenny area and I am sometimes amazed to see the train passing at the station in Gowran with very few people aboard. It seems we still have not made that switchover in our heads, that to use public transport is better, if only from the point of view of carbon emissions. What is the Department doing in this regard to try to encourage people to use the public systems?
Mr. Eddie Burke:
On the CEF, the figure is €30 billion, part of the multi-annual framework which has yet to be agreed. Of that some €13 billion is earmarked for transport, outside the cohesion fund. I will come back with a detailed note as to how that varies in comparison with previous rounds in terms of trends.
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
I will make two points on rail. First, there is a difference between Ireland and Europe and a consequent limited application of much of this to Ireland. This was recognised by the committee when it commented on the regulation. Within Europe, given its scale as one large continent where large rail lines can be run throughout, there is much more scope than there is in Ireland for having high-speed interoperable rail as an alternative to other methods of travel, in particular for moving freight. There is less scope in this country. To give the obvious example, we have seen the impact of the motorways on the rail services. My personal preference, if I need to go to Cork or elsewhere, is to travel by train because I can sit back and relax, do not have to concentrate on the road and can use my Wi-Fi and all that sort of thing. With the motorways now, however, travel times are such that one can make the journey as quickly as by train. As to moving freight, although there has been some degree of shift towards making slightly more use of rail for certain types, in most cases because the distances are so small the time and cost involved in loading the train and unloading it at the other end just do not work.
Iarnród Éireann is trying to compete with the motorways, and the very fast bus services that do very well because of them, by doing many kinds of promotional fares. Clearly, we would like to see a viable rail network maintained. To do this, the company must operate on a much tighter cost structure than was the case in the past. Much of what is happening in Irish Rail now, as in the other CIE companies, is about streamlining costs. Much of the automation that has occurred has reduced the need for previous numbers of staff so there is a lot of voluntary severance and so on. All of those things are necessary and the company is trying to do them as best it can to get to a level where it can compete with the express bus services and so on.
On opening up to competition and how that would apply to the railways, when the legislation relevant to us was introduced in 2008 which provided for the potential opening up of PSO services in bus and rail, the bus companies, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, were given a derogation until 2014 and Irish Rail was given a derogation until 2019. The then Government accepted, as does the current Government, that in the period post-2019 there exists a possibility that some services might be operated on a competitive basis. Of course it will depend on an operator being interested and willing to come into the relatively small market in Ireland to provide services. However, the possibility is there.
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
The main interest at present is in seeking where possible to have those routes preserved for potential other purposes that would fit in with the sustainable travel agenda or with the promotion of tourism. The obvious example is cycleways or greenways, of which a number of developments are already in train. In my own area, Dunboyne, as Deputy McEntee will know very well, when it came to reopening our rail services a number of years ago one of the issues was that some land had to be reacquired because it had been lost. Clearly, even if a service is not running there is a benefit in preserving the rail way or route, as much as is possible.
I congratulate Mr. O'Mahony on negotiating seven of the eight packages during the Presidency. What is the Department's current focus for the future? Lithuania now holds the Presidency. What issues are being focused on now and what is most important for Mr. O'Mahony? That is a broad question.
Mr. Tom O'Mahony:
There is always a rolling programme. We came in at a particular point when there was quite an agenda. In the note we sent to the committee last year we stated there were 40 different items. We chose a number to prioritise. Most of these things take two or three years to get through the entire process so many of the things we got to a particular point, for example, to a point of general approach, the Lithuanians are now seeking to progress to the next stage in developing the proposed political agreement. I would not say there is anything that is a major departure from we were doing - it is just carrying the same material to further stages of the process. Given the way the EU works now, when the Lithuanians took over our people, particularly those in Brussels, stayed very much involved in working with them so there was continuity.
I am very pleased to have the presentation before us, with particular respect to how the EU matters have been dealt with through the Department. I make a general point but it is one we hear all the time, about how Ireland interprets or implements EU legislation. One often hears it said - anecdotally - that we jump higher or faster than most EU countries. The regulations and directives have to be implemented, however, and it is particularly pleasing to hear of the achievements of the Department during the Presidency and to know the legislation will have positive impacts for our economy even though we are a peripheral region of the European Union. Issues such as transport costs probably impact on us more than in mainland Europe. The Department must bear that in mind in terms of having a level playing field when it comes to implementation of directives and regulations from the EU. We are conscious of this as public representatives because we hear the stories. It is very good to get the message from the Department about the positive impact in terms of safety the legislation is bringing.
I sincerely thank Mr. O'Mahony and his officials for their presentation today. We will consider the contents as very important and will continue to have dialogue between the Department and the committee in the coming time.
As there is no further business the committee will adjourn until next Wednesday when the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, will attend for a pre-Transport Council meeting.