Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Bus Éireann: Discussion (Resumed)
I remind everyone to please switch off their mobile phones completely as they interfere with the recording and broadcasting equipment. We now turn to considering the current situation in Bus Éireann.
I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to our meeting which is the fourth in a series convened by this committee to discuss the very challenging situation that presents itself at Bus Éireann. We have heard from the acting chief executive officer, CEO, of Bus Éireann, Mr. Ray Hernan, the unions and most recently the National Transport Authority, NTA, and the Department of Social Protection. I am delighted to welcome the Minister and his officials, Ms Deirdre Hanlon, Mr. Liam Daly and Mr. Garrett Doocey. I thank them for giving us their time this morning.
I draw the attention of witnesses 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 the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 and 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.
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 House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the committee again today. At this very delicate time of a potentially serious industrial relations dispute, I believe we are all required to exercise great care so that all opportunities are taken by the company and its employees to resolve the issues that have led to this threatened strike. However, I am happy to dispel some of the often well-intentioned but incorrect claims that have been made by some committee members about the causes and origins of this dispute. In particular, I want to rebut suggestions that I am not doing enough to enable a settlement to be reached by the parties. I will also deal with the false claim that the dispute stems from policy failure by my Department.
Let me address the issues one by one. First, Deputies have criticised the level of public service obligation, PSO, funding and called on me to increase the allocation. That is exactly what I have done. This year the total PSO has increased by 11%; last year it increased by 13% overall and Bus Éireann itself actually benefited from a 21% increase in its subvention in 2016. As committee members are repeatedly informed, however, subvention is provided for PSO services only; under law it cannot be provided for commercial services.
Deputies have raised the issue of the funding of the free travel scheme and have called on me to examine whether it requires modification. Again, that is exactly what I have done. Both the Minister for Social Protection and I have instructed our Departments to examine the funding levels of that scheme and report back to us very shortly. That examination is a short and focused piece of work and is progressing well. I expect that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and I will resolve the issue satisfactorily.
Some Deputies have alleged this Government is attacking the public bus service in rural Ireland. That is nonsense. We are actually expanding the public bus service in rural Ireland through increasing the amount of PSO funding to Bus Éireann, as I have already pointed out, and also through providing a 24% increase in funding to the rural transport programme. Again, we need to stop confusing issues. The vast majority of people in rural Ireland who use a bus travel on a PSO service or a commercial operator other than Expressway. There are no threats to those services. In fact, they are expanding. They are seeing increasing passenger numbers, and in the case of PSO services, increasing taxpayer funding.
In relation to rural Ireland, I have been consistently clear in assuring rural communities that the NTA will step in and assist in cases where connectivity is threatened. That was confirmed to the committee by the NTA itself. That is exactly what has happened. In response to Bus Éireann's announcement of a small number of route changes to some Expressway routes, the NTA has published its assessment of the impact and has taken action as it deemed appropriate. This includes extending PSO services for Athlone and Westport and better timetabling for rural transport services in Clonmel. The NTA has said it will keep the situation under review and would welcome feedback on its proposals. However, let us be clear - those actions by me, actions which this very committee has called for, will not resolve the issue.
Expressway is a commercial business unit run by Bus Éireann and it is losing money. The committee has heard that the company estimates around €9 million worth of losses in 2016 with no improvement forecast. Expressway services account for 10% of all Bus Éireann passenger journeys in a given year. The vast majority, 90% in fact, of Bus Éireann passenger journeys are made on a taxpayer funded service: either a PSO service provided by the company under contract with the NTA or else a school transport service provided by the company under an agreement with the Minister for Education and Skills. There are no funding issues with either PSO or school transport services. Bus Éireann is fully compensated for those services it provides.
The core issue that must be resolved is how to tackle the unsustainable losses on Expressway commercial services, which of course cannot be subsidised by the taxpayer. Contradictory assertions have been made about what should be done to deal with these losses in Expressway. Some committee members seem to think that I should intervene directly in internal matters of the company. To do so would mean cutting across the role of not just the company but also trade unions in terms of agreeing work practices and terms and conditions. I believe that the employees and the company are best placed to agree those types of issues and that external interference is unnecessary and unhelpful. Obviously, I recognise that any such agreement will of course require flexibility and realism on both sides.
Such calls for ministerial intervention overlook the established role and expertise of the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court in assisting employers and employees in settling often very contentious disputes. These bodies are best placed to assist the company and trade unions in reaching an acceptable agreement. I believe we should be willing to learn the lessons of the past and recognise the benefits of allowing the industrial relations bodies to act in accordance with their statutory mandate and best professional judgment.
My view should never be mistaken for a lack of concern about the very serious financial problems that have beset Bus Éireann or an indifference to the genuine anxieties of employees about their future. I want the company to return to a path of viability and I wish to see the company prosper in the interests of its employees and its customers. This can only be done by the company reversing the losses in its Expressway business and targeting those elements of its business model that are not competitive.
Negotiating with its trade unions is crucial to ensuring the company can compete effectively and return to profit in its Expressway services. I am as impatient as any member of the committee to see a return to stability in the company's industrial relations. A willingness to engage constructively and a spirit of compromise on both sides is critical to achieving this. I also reject any suggestion that I, as Minister, or my Government colleagues are seeking a very low-cost employment model for Bus Éireann. This is not the case nor is privatisation part of the agenda.
I welcome the company's statement on Monday that it is committed to protecting basic pay rates and enhancing these as circumstances permit. In order to compete, I consider that Bus Éireann must continually adapt, modernise and respond to customer demand. Some Deputies seek to blame Bus Éireann's current problems on the reforming Public Transport Regulation Act 2009, which was brought forward by my predecessor, Mr. Noel Dempsey. I think that shows a lack of understanding of what that Act seeks to do, which is to promote public transport and put the passenger at the heart of public transport policy. I believe that the growth in the commercial bus market that we have witnessed shows that the customer is responding positively to these changes and that, fundamentally, more people using public transport is a good thing. That is not to say that I am unwilling to review the effectiveness of existing legislation. I hope to have opportunities to engage with the committee and other stakeholders on how the legislation can be strengthened to promote further the interest of passengers.
I know, and hope that the committee knows also, that different stakeholders have different roles to play as we move forward with resolving this issue. I have taken actions which are proper to my position as Minister and which I believe will assist with the overall resolution. However, my actions cannot substitute for the actions of others. Those others are the employer and employees. Their brief now is to engage in serious discussions and reach an agreement that will restore Bus Éireann to a sustainable future.
The ongoing dispute between Bus Éireann and the employers is continuing to escalate and it seems likely that it will spread to other areas. That is a situation that nobody wants to see. What steps is the Minister, as the major shareholder, taking in order to bring both sides closer to an agreement? As I have stated on numerous occasions, I urge the Minister to take a more proactive role in this dispute in order to halt any strike action that may take place. The Minister has stated previously that he cannot and will not get involved in this dispute. One of the reasons he gave was the involvement of the Workplace Relations Commission. It is claimed that should we have a prolonged period of strike action, we will face a very real possibility of Bus Éireann having to close completely. I put it to the Minister that should this happen, it will be too late to take action. What we need now is the Minister's intervention in this dispute.
With regard to bringing them closer to an agreement, I have consistently said that I will not intervene directly but I have urged them to come to the table together, which they did last week. As Deputy Fitzpatrick and everybody listening knows, there are institutions and State bodies that have the expertise, ability and enthusiasm to bring these two groups together. It would be absolutely wrong, and would play no helpful role, for me to suborn them and take their job and role, which they are paid and set up to do.
Deputy Fitzpatrick asked what I have done to resolve the situation.
I have done several things which should be able to help. I have increased the amount of PSO funding. It increased last year and it is increasing this year. I am looking for it to increase again in the coming years. I have consistently addressed the problems in rural Ireland that have been raised by many members of this committee. I have consistently said that any routes which are closed will be filled in a way that ensures no area of rural Ireland lacks connectivity. This was confirmed by the NTA here last week. I think it successfully sets a firm foundation for the two parties to meet. As I said in my opening statement, the review of the free travel funding is a necessary adjustment that probably should have been done some time ago. It will make the situation more acceptable and will make it easier to reach a settlement.
Will the Minister ask Bus Éireann to withdraw its letter to staff dated 16 January 2017? In my view, the letter created a situation that could only lead to strike action. If Bus Éireann is serious about resolving this dispute, the letter must be withdrawn. Will the Minister confirm to the committee that he supports our call to Bus Éireann to withdraw the letter? This committee wrote to the Minister to ask him to make such a request to the company, but we have yet to get a reply. Will the Minister ask Bus Éireann to withdraw the letter?
I will not ask Bus Éireann to withdraw any letter as to do so would be to get involved in this dispute, which is something I do not intend to do. I am afraid I will not be able to do what the Deputy is asking. I do not feel it would be the right thing to do. As the Deputy knows, the WRC talks have adjourned. The company and the unions have both stated that they wish to return to the WRC. I see no reason that opportunity to return to the WRC to re-engage should not be taken up at the earliest possible opportunity. I think that should be done without any preconditions on either side.
I understand the views of the Deputy and everyone else on this issue. There are some very strong feelings involved. It would be wrong for me to say I am on one side or the other in this dispute. Such a statement could be misread. I will not enter into this situation by taking sides. This is a matter for the company and the unions. They must resolve it by themselves without my intervention. I do not doubt that this is what will happen sooner or later.
I have always operated on the basis that solutions can be found if all parties are making a genuine effort to participate. Bearing this in mind, I feel it is unreasonable to change the terms and conditions of Bus Éireann drivers so drastically, as suggested by the company. What does the Minister see as a realistic solution to this issue and to the current crisis in Bus Éireann?
I have to repeat what I have already said. I do not intend to get involved in the nitty-gritty. I am not going to make any judgments on any claims, bids or suggestions being made publicly by the unions or the management. That is up to them. I understand what the Deputy is saying and why he is saying it. I understand where he is coming from. As Minister, it would be absolutely wrong of me to make any comment in public or in private on what is going on in the negotiations.
Does the Minister believe that where the same routes are being operated by Expressway and by private operators, this is happening on a level playing pitch? If the Minister does not believe Bus Éireann and private operators are competing on an equal basis, does he have any suggestions for ensuring this can happen?
I refer the Deputy to the NTA guidelines in this regard. The detail of any route is not a matter for me. It is an operational matter. It is not a matter for me. I assume the Deputy addressed this question to representatives of the NTA when they attended a meeting of this committee last week.
Yes. I think it is wrong that the Minister is not intervening by asking Bus Éireann to withdraw the letter I have mentioned. The last thing we want is a prolonged strike that affects the people of Ireland. We keep hearing about rural Ireland, but I am talking about the whole of Ireland. Will the Minister ask Bus Éireann to withdraw the letter?
I will not. The calls for my intervention are very understandable. The frustration felt by the Deputy is very understandable as well. Those who are calling for me to intervene are not explaining what they think my intervention will do. That is the difficulty I see here. I think any such intervention would be a distraction and a signal that I am somehow going to come into this industrial relations battle with money to offer. I do not have money to offer. Perhaps I can ask the Deputy a question. What would be my role in intervening?
I am asking the Minister to take the letter away because it is an obstacle and its removal would create a level playing field. Sometimes there are obstacles in disputes. The main obstacle in this dispute is the letter. I do not mean to keep repeating myself. As a former businessman, I think the letter is wrong and is not achieving anything. The Minister is a good Minister who does not want to see Bus Éireann closing. The letter is not achieving anything and should be withdrawn as a gesture of goodwill. The removal of this obstacle would get the talks going.
I think both sides should come to the table without preconditions. The suggestion that any movement they make should involve diverting from something they have already done is a matter for the two institutions in question.
I am conscious that Senator Feighan wants to come in as well. I do not want our questions to overlap. I have an observation for the Minister. He mentioned that PSO funding has been increased. I previously helped local communities in disputes when Expressway services were bypassing particular villages. A solution was found that was agreeable to all sides to establish connectivity to Expressway services. I ask the Minister to leave aside the industrial dispute for a moment. Is he saying he will increase the PSO subsidy sufficiently to solve all the problems around the country? The issue for Bus Éireann, particularly in rural Ireland, is that its Expressway services cannot compete because they have to call to every town and village. I imagine that if all these issues are to be solved, the solution will involve a drastic increase in PSO services. The Minister spoke about a passenger-centred approach in the context of the announcement that the Athlone-Westport service is to be discontinued. Is he saying that the people along the route will not be disadvantaged by the closure of that service? Will a PSO service be put in to replace this service?
I suppose that is an example of what I am asking about in my bigger question. Can the Minister increase the PSO sufficiently to overcome the disadvantage to affected passengers and as a solution to the Expressway dilemma, which is really at the centre of this dispute?
I hope it will be increased. I cannot guarantee anything but that is our objective. It is on an upward trend and I am very hopeful that it will continue as such.
We are talking about three routes being closed down and two being revised with reduced numbers. As the Deputy will know, when that happens the NTA has committed to making an immediate assessment of whether people will be disadvantaged, how bad it is and whether the NTA needs to move in and substitute or put in more buses. What happened the other day when the Athlone to Westport route was closed down, as the Deputy mentioned, the NTA reacted fairly quickly. Let me read out its statement. The Deputy will be familiar with the numbers. The review reads:
Bus Éireann have announced a withdrawal of route 21 which currently provides 28 services per week from Westport to Athlone. The Authority has determined that there is a public service obligation to continue to provide services between Westport and Athlone.
The Authority is considering amending the existing PSO service 440 to provide 4 services per day in each direction from Westport to Athlone supplemented by 2 services per day in each direction on route 440A from Westport to Ireland West Airport Knock. This would result in a doubling of the existing services.
A more detailed assessment report will be published later with details of the route and timetables.
That is a pretty proper response. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have seen in that case, and in all other cases, an immediate response by the NTA. Maybe it was prepared for all of these routes but I do not know. It did say yes and provided a pretty fast replacement fleet.
It would provide some comfort to the passengers if the actions of the NTA could be repeated. On the basis of the figures that the Minister has given, it seems pretty acceptable. Like himself, I am not sure of the nitty gritty.
We are in the middle of a crisis but we should note that the NTA has done great work in rural areas to provide a service, particularly where there was never one before. That fact could be missed because people are very angry about the current crisis.
I see that the Expressway only provides 10% of school transport. What percentage is school transport in terms of the remaining 90%?
It is welcome in a sense that the Minister is here again. It is disappointing that he needed to come back here, only four weeks after his last visit. On the last day he said that he would share with us the NTA's review into the licensing system. Perhaps the review is full of commercially sensitive information that he might need to redact. Four weeks ago he promised that we would receive the review and we received it late yesterday evening. The delay shows that he did not prioritise this issue. We now realise, despite what he said at the time, that the review has more to do with procedural and compliance issues than the commercial viability of the Expressway service.
I have confidence in the unions, that represent the workers, and the management working together under the auspices of the WRC. I do not have confidence in the Minister due to the level of commitment that he has shown regarding this problem since he assumed office nine months ago. I remind people that he has been aware of this issue since then and his Department officials have been aware of the issue in excess of 12 months yet we are where we are today.
The Minister mentioned the PSO increase. Has the number of passengers availing of the PSO service increased over the past number of years? On the last occasion the Minister was here he claimed that the number of passengers using public transport had increased and that the majority of them used PSO services. Has the PSO increased? Incidentally, the PSO figure is less than it was in 2008. How is that an increase?
Of course I will. The number has increased by 4 million since 2010 or 9%. Last year the total number of Bus Éireann PSO passengers was 32 million.
I shall answer the Deputy's question on the report that was received last night. I concede that members will not have had time to digest the report. Members will have plenty of time to digest it soon. The report could not be just produced for members. It needed redaction, which I had warned and told members about. It was not just a matter of producing the report. The report had to be perused very carefully because it contained commercially sensitive information, which members accepted.
The report contains stuff that is very commercially sensitive. I know that the Deputy is very concerned about this matter. Therefore, I will ask that he is briefed by the people in my Department or the NTA who compiled the report. They will give him a full idea of what has been redacted. It would be a pity if commercially sensitive information got into the public arena. I know I can rely on him not to put the information in the public arena when we have assisted him. I offer the Deputy a briefing on the redactions at a time that is convenient to him so that he is fully aware of matters. I ask him to be reasonably discreet with the information when he gets it because it has been taken out of the public arena specifically for commercially sensitive reasons.
The Deputy mentioned the Dáil motion. It is not quite true that I ignored the motion. I can see his point but he has made several calls for me to do certain things in that Dáil motion that he introduced.
I have done them. The Deputy talked about a public transport network being adequately funded. That is why I have increased the PSO subvention and will continue, hopefully, to increase the PSO subvention.
The subvention is lower now than it was in 2008 despite the fact that the Minister has acknowledged this morning that the number of people availing of the service has increased by 9% in the last year alone.
Yes, it has, but it is not very helpful to take these figures completely out of context. The Deputy is well aware that 2008 was the high point and of why it fell. The economy and the country's finances were in absolute turmoil, something on which we will not comment now. The Deputy is well aware that during the recovery the subvention has increased. It has been increasing for the past two years and will increase during the next two. The Deputy should acknowledge this.
In his motion the Deputy addresses the issue of free travel. As I said, I have instructed my officials to undertake a short and focused piece of work, with their colleagues in the Department of Social Protection, to analyse the funding associated with the scheme and make recommendations to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and me.
The Deputy addressed the NTA's licensing system. The NTA already considers issues such as rural isolation and sustainable competition when considering applications from operators. These are all included in the Deputy's motion which I am addressing and to which I have responded. He should not tell me that I did not respond to it. I have not responded where he requires an intervention, about which the Deputy is correct.
The Deputy addressed the NTA's power to approve or reject route amendments. He is aware that it has completed a review of the legislation and submitted a report for my consideration. The report, a copy of which he has in his hands, focuses on the process and procedure of the licensing system. I will consider what amendments are required.
I made a number of statements. The Minister has answered the one question I asked.
The rate of subvention has not kept in line with the numbers using the route. It is welcome that it appears that there is an extension to the PSO service to Athlone and Westport to compensate for the removal of the commercial route. A number of months ago, when we suggested some of these routes would never be commercially viable, although they were socially viable and required, and that they might need to transfer from Expressway to PSO provision, we were told it might need to be put out to tender. Has the Minister confirmed that the routes do not need to be put out to tender? When will the changes take effect?
The Deputy was here last week. He should have addressed the question to the NTA and I presume he did. It is an operational matter. I am not here to answer questions about operational matters. The NTA decides and it is independent of me. Presumably, the Deputy addressed the question to it.
The NTA stated it might need to put them out to tender. I presume that before coming here today the Minister would have asked whether they needed to be put out to tender and cited it as a victory and an answer to the problem. Surely, he should know whether they need to be put out to tender. Surely he would have asked when it would be put into operation.
Therefore, it does not need to be put out to tender. My lack of confidence in the Minister to date stems from the fact that he has not got involved, but he can redeem himself by establishing a forum for all stakeholders. The unions and management cannot address the huge deficit. We need matters of policy, legislation and the licensing regime to be addressed. Only the Minister can do this by bringing together the NTA, his Department, the Department of Social Protection, management and the unions. The deficit of €30 million will not be addressed through the WRC. Surely the Minister will acknowledge that he does not expect a deficit of €30 million to be worked out at the WRC.
It is very easy to call for getting all of the parties together. I am interested in an industrial dispute being sorted out by the two parties involved. If all of the parties were to come together and discuss policy, it would be a completely different matter. For now, it is imperative that the two parties get together to avoid a strike. If I was to call together all interested parties in a large forum, it would make it almost impossible to solve the dispute in the time allotted. I never said I was against speaking to various stakeholders or parties, as the Deputy knows. I am perfectly happy to do so. However, I will not get involved in an issue which is a matter between two parties. The Deputy's suggestion is perfectly reasonable. It is a perfectly reasonable request outside the heated atmosphere of an industrial dispute. My place at a table with all of the parties involved would be inappropriate and improper as they would ask me to do things I could not do.
That is very regrettable. The Minister has a role to play. He did not answer the one key point of the question as to whether he believes the €30 million deficit which management states needs to be addressed can be addressed at the WRC? If not, where does the Minister believe it can be addressed? It must be addressed through increased PSO payments by the Department of Social Protection and how licences are issued.
What will be addressed at the WRC are the industrial relations issues. The Deputy is right. The deficit of €30 million to which he referred will, presumably, be addressed in a business plan which the company is composing and will produce shortly.
In his contribution the Minister said, "Some Deputies seek to blame Bus Éireann's current problems on the reforming Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 which was brought forward by my predecessor, Deputy Noel Dempsey." I never realised the Minister was such a fan. He never was when he was a newspaper columnist. I have scanned through the document which we received late yesterday evening. I have not read it in detail. One of the points made in the document on the regulatory framework, which is crucial, deals with how Bus Éireann competes with the commercial provider. Commercial providers have a role to play. I am not against them. It states:
The definition of what comprises a public bus passenger service lies at the very heart of any regime to regulate same. The experience of the authority to date has identified that the current definition has substantial shortcomings which undermined both the operation and enforcement of the regime.
When can we expect a process to be put in place whereby these shortcomings can be addressed? Does the Minister have plans to bring forward legislation to address them in order that we can ensure competition on the routes and enforcement in a fair and equitable manner?
The report which the Deputy only received last night for reasons I have explained addresses procedure, enforcement, scheduling, compliance, the efficiency of applications and such issues. The NTA is required to produce a report every five years. The Deputy is asking me when we will address the issues dealt with in the report. The report was only produced last month.
It is being examined by my Department.
Sorry, it was October 2016. It is being examined by my Department. I will be very happy to look at the recommendations that will come to me shortly, consider them and bring legislation forward if it is recommended.
I presume the Minister has seen a non-redacted version of the report and studied it in detail given he has had it since October. I know he thinks he has only had it for a month but he has had it since October.
Everything in this report has been and will be given serious consideration. It is not a trivial matter. It is a matter that has to be treated very seriously because it is a matter that might provoke and prompt legislation.
I would like the Minister to accept that there were four contributory factors to this financial crisis. The first was the lack of subvention. The subvention to our public transport network is the lowest in Europe. The second was the deliberate saturation of routes. The third was the gross underfunding of the free travel scheme whereby just 41% of the average journey fare is covered. The fourth is the fact that Bus Éireann's accounts show that €41 million was pilfered, if one likes, from Expressway services and pumped into the PSO services because of State underfunding. I ask the Minister to accept that this financial crisis was caused by bad policy and mismanagement. I ask him to acknowledge the workers had no hand, act or part in creating this crisis.
Does the Minister accept the unions' contention that the motorway network was saturated to over-capacity? The NTA has claimed there is enough service volume to cover reduction in frequency on the Dublin to Limerick and the Dublin to Galway routes. If there is enough volume of service there, does it not prove that it can comfortably say that it can reduce and remove the public transport network. That just proves the saturation policy. Does the Minister want me to repeat what the NTA stated?
I ask the Minister to give detail on the NTA service replacement on the portion of the Dublin to Clonmel route. The NTA has repeatedly stated that it leaves no rural community behind. However, it is talking about removing an existing service and replacing it with another that will also cost money - perhaps even more. There is no logic to that.
The Minister had previously said that replacement services might not be as frequent or as comfortable as current services. The Minister is saying to the people that they need to be prepared to accept a second-class service. Does the Minister feel putting out such a statement is acceptable? It is not something to be proud of to say the people need to accept a second-class service that will not be as frequent or comfortable.
Does the Minister accept that EU Regulation (EC) No. 1370/2007 provides enough scope for the State to provide support for Bus Éireann if it could be established, through a review of all Bus Éireann current commercial services, that some of its services could be deemed as socially necessary? Since taking up office did the Minister ever call for such a review given that it could be a mechanism to save the service?
We are blue in the face from asking the Minister the same questions over and over again. Is he still prepared to sit back and do nothing? He has repeatedly refused the call for all stakeholders, including his Department, involved to sit around in negotiations to try to find a resolution. I ask him not to give the spiel that he will not get involved in an industrial dispute. It is not necessarily an industrial dispute. It was forced into this situation. The Minister was asked if representatives from his Department, the NTA, and Bus Éireann management and unions as the main stakeholders would get involved and he repeatedly refused.
Today, in the jaws of an all-out strike across the public transport network on Monday, he is still refusing, knowing full well the disruption and chaos it will cause along with the worry for people living in rural communities that services will be cut. While knowing fully that the unions had pleaded with him to get into negotiations and knowing what lies ahead on Monday, he still refuses point blank even to send officials from his Department at the 11th hour to try to prevent this disruption.
Given that I and others have repeatedly asked the Minister and have listened to him repeatedly refuse, if he still sits here today and says he will not call for all stakeholders to be involved, then he and the Government will be directly responsible for the chaos that will ensue across the public transport network on Monday. The Minister has been given every opportunity to try to resolve this. Bus Éireann's management bulldozed ahead with its cuts on 16 January. This week it then sent out a further inflammatory letter knowing it would fuel the situation and the Minister still sat back and did nothing.
I will take the last question first. It is somewhat rhetorical language that the Deputy is using, saying that I sat back and did nothing. That is patently false. I can see what she is saying but that is absolutely untrue. I have been extraordinarily active in this area. What I have not done is the one thing she has asked me to do. That does not mean inaction - quite the opposite. I do not believe at what she calls the 11th hour it would be helpful. It may be the 11th hour-----
I do not think it would have been helpful then either. I do not believe it would be any more helpful at the 11th hour to do that. I am very hopeful that the parties will get together again in the next few days and behave in a responsible manner. That is the consistent position I have taken. The Deputy holds a different point of view but it is not one the Government shares. I reject that I am doing nothing or sitting back. The evidence is there; I have been extraordinarily active in this particular area but not in intervening in an industrial dispute.
The Deputy spoke about a review on social services. The NTA decides what is and what is not a social service. That is not a matter for me. However, I would say our PSO services have been expanded and the NTA has already decided to extend PSO in response to the change on the Athlone to Westport route, which is a pretty aggressive and rapid response.
The Deputy referred to a second-class service. I do not accept that. That is not necessarily true. It is an alternative service. The overriding principle is that there must be some service for rural communities and there must be some service for people where routes are withdrawn.
I am not talking about saturation; I am saying it was because there were too many.
Let me address the Dublin-Clonmel situation. In Clonmel, to which the Deputy referred, the NTA determined that no action was needed at the minute except for changes to the rural transport timetable to facilitate connectivity to commercial services. That service calls at more towns and villages than Expressway. According to the NTA, a detailed assessment is carried out in a separate report of the Dublin-Clonmel situation because the conclusion of that report is that there are sufficient services offered by Kavanagh's route 717 which operates 98 services per week from Clonmel to Dublin via Kilkenny. The NTA states that some amendments will be required for local links service 817 C serving Carrick-on-Suir to Grangemockler to maintain the public service obligations, PSO, and connect to JJ Kavanagh's 717 service. One could not possibly say that Clonmel is in some way isolated as a result of those cuts. It is not.
Here we go again. This is back to licences given to private operators who can amend their licence a couple of weeks later if the route does not turn out to be financially viable. They can amend it. They can pull it and the public service route is then gone. The Minister is standing over that.
Yes, but the Minister is removing it. He is removing public transport routes across the country and replacing them with private operators to which the NTA has given licences, knowing full well that they can withdraw those licences or amend them to lower frequency services. Meanwhile, the Minister is abandoning parts of rural Ireland and leaving them at the mercy of private operators who can pull the plug at any stage.
Where is the sense of urgency? I am not waving at the Minister, I am holding up my hand. There are five days to go before a national bus strike which may well be the prelude to a national public transport strike. Last year, the Minister said being Minister for transport was a doddle. The Minister came to the committee on 1 February, exactly one month ago, and I asked him what the cost to the taxpayer would be were Bus Éireann to become insolvent. I asked him the cost in terms of payroll taxes forgone from 2,600 workers, redundancy payments for 2,600 workers and social welfare payments for those workers. The Minister replied that off hand he could not give me those figures but could probably get a figure worked out. He said he would get back to me. It is not a week or two that have passed, it is a month. I am asking the Minister to get back to me now. What would it cost to make Bus Éireann insolvent which, as Mr. Hernan says, could be on the cards by May, which is in a matter of weeks?
The company is looking at a business plan and at those options. Presumably, we will be able to come up with a figure. To talk about insolvency at the moment, however, might not be the most responsible attitude to take. While I know it is convenient to paint a situation in which there will be Armageddon-----
I am not painting any situation. The situation has been painted by the acting chief executive officer of Bus Éireann, Mr. Hernan. He has painted the situation and said we are looking at the possibility of the insolvency of Bus Éireann by May. We are now in March. It is a matter of weeks. I am asking a straight question. What will it cost the taxpayer for that insolvency in terms of payroll taxes forgone, redundancy payments and social welfare costs? The Minister has had a long time to work out the answer. I ask him to give us the figure.
I thank Deputy Barry. The figure is being worked out by the company, which is looking at that option. As far as I know, the figure is not available at the moment, but we know it will be very high and it is not an option-----
We have a national bus strike on Monday. Will the Minister get back not just to me but to the people of Ireland before next Monday and tell us the cost of the disastrous policy the Minister and the Government are pursuing. I do not care if he does it on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, but get back to us by then. Can he do that?
Deputy Barry would love to see it. Ever since I have come to the committee, he has been painting disaster. Whether the wish is the father of the thought, or the thought is the father of the wish, I do not know, but that is what he wants to see. What we are trying to do is avoid exactly that situation which Deputy Barry is painting. There are people working night and day to avoid that. That is not a situation which we wish to see and it is not one we envisage happening. We are working to ensure as far as we possibly can that the two sides come together and that that does not happen.
Let me finish. Deputy Barry had a go. We realise the disaster it would be if this company had to close down. That is what we are trying to prevent and it is why we are asking people to be reasonable and to realise how difficult a situation that would be.
To avert disaster, there should be increased funding of the free travel pass, not 41% and not next year after these tortuous negotiations end. That should be moved up the agenda as a matter of urgency as I said at the start. After five days, where is the urgency? Also, Bus Éireann should be compensated for having to go off the motorways to service towns and villages while competing with private operators. A way must be found to do that and where there is a will, there is a way. However, there is a lack of will here, which is the real issue. Rather than find €9 million or €10 million to avert the strike and the crisis, which is peanuts in the greater scheme of things, the Minister prefers to put at risk €59 million in payroll taxes from 2,500 Bus Éireann workers, hundreds of millions in redundancy payments and hundreds of millions in social welfare payments. He does so in order to make Bus Éireann a low-pay company and to facilitate his privatisation agenda.
The Minister will become the first sole shareholder in history to watch his company head towards insolvency and over a cliff, all the while proclaiming there is nothing he can do. Since Bus Éireann was established in 1987, we have had many Ministers for transport. We have had Jim Mitchell, Ray MacSharry, John Wilson, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Charlie McCreevy, Brian Cowen, Michael Lowry, John Burton, Alan Dukes, Mary O'Rourke, Martin Cullen, Noel Dempsey, Pat Carey, Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe, with Seamus Brennan having served twice.
There are some proper tulips in that group, but none of them ever brought the national bus company to the brink of insolvency. It is happening on the watch of the current Minister, Deputy Ross. Where is the urgency?
I do not know if the Minister considers himself to be a gambler. Tesco gambled that the public would not support the Tesco workers if they went on strike, and have learned something in recent weeks. Business was down by 80% in the shops where pickets were placed. Business was down by 30% in other shops with no pickets. There is a mood among the public of sympathy for ordinary working people who have not had pay increases for years when they stand up for their rights. Bus drivers have not had any for eight years. These are men and women who drive ordinary people to work, into town, to the next village, and who live in their communities. There is a real danger that the Minister is misjudging the public mood here. Fine Gael put out the slogan coming up to the previous election, "Keep the recovery going". It got it completely wrong and misjudged the mood. If the Minister thinks the public will not be with the bus drivers and against him and his Government, I suspect that he is misjudging the public mood as well.
It is quite depressing to face Deputy Barry when he is making statements which are patently false to back up an argument which is irresponsible and reckless. To say that I wish to create a low-paid company is in direct contradiction of what I said in the statement I just read to him. There is no intention to do that at all. That is not the model.
That is not the model. I want to answer the Deputy's question. That is not the model which we want to pursue. The Deputy also says that I have a privatisation agenda. I specifically added to the script, although the Deputy probably did not notice, and I said in my opening statement that privatisation is not part of the agenda. I have said that quite simply and give my word on that. I would not be trying to increase the public service obligation, PSO, subvention annually if that was the case. If the Deputy wants to say things like that, he should back them up with evidence. The credibility of what he says-----
I will back it up with evidence. A bus driver who has worked for decades for Bus Éireann, provided the best years of his life and given good service to the company is, with many others I know, facing pay cuts of €6,000, €7,000, €8,000 or more on the basis of the company's proposals. How can the Minister tell me that is not a proposal for a low wage company?
Public transport is a public good. That is why we provide a PSO levy. Not all people live at either end of an Expressway route. They live in the towns and villages in between and the Expressway services offer transport provision to those people in a way that many other transport providers do not. Will the Minister address that particular issue with regard to there not being a PSO levy? That particular aspect is not wholly commercial. In addition to that, just under 20% of the population carries a travel pass. Some commercial operators do not operate with the travel pass, so Bus Éireann and the Expressway services would provide in the absence of that.
Where is the Minister's responsibility in this as a shareholder? It was defined by the National Transport Authority, NTA, at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts that he attended a couple of years ago that, "The primary function of the Government, as a single shareholder, is to manage the company." The NTA also stated that:
We simply advise the Department on what might be the appropriate levels of subsidy for public transport if we want to grow public transport in the State. [...] However, the Department manages the finances of CIE, as companies, because it is the shareholder.
I ask the Minister, as the shareholder, if there is sufficient capacity within Bus Éireann to find savings that can help to resolve this dispute. It looks to me as if there are only three things he can do. He can increase fares, cut services or find savings. Is there sufficient capacity identified within the company to provide services or to plug the gap? Otherwise, what is being negotiated is simply something that involves cuts in the incomes of those who on the front line.
No. I have not. I do not believe it is up to me to do that, as a shareholder. I believe it is up to me to monitor what is going on, but not to identify the issues, because that would be getting involved in the nitty-gritty of the wage negotiations. That is a matter which will have to be resolved. I think it is acknowledged by both sides. I heard the union say last night that there is room for efficiencies, and the management is looking for savings elsewhere. My view is that the company has to be run on a commercial basis, but the cuts which can be made or extra revenue which might be raised is a matter for the company. That is why we have it there. I have not identified specifically what can be done, and I will not be doing that.
The Minister said in his opening statement that some Deputies seek to blame Bus Éireann's current problems on the reforming Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 which was brought forward by the former Minister and Deputy, Noel Dempsey. That shows a lack of understanding about what the Act seeks to do, which is to promote public transport and put passengers at its heart. The Minister asks us to take in good faith what he is saying in the statement. He seems to have changed his opinion on the NTA. He has left a trail behind him, showing his attitude to CIE and public transport. He said in 2013 that:
The National Transport Authority is a captive, a quick learner of the quango culture. It was set up in 2009 to supervise Ireland’s public transport shambles. It went native immediately. It has been highly politicised from Day One. Its board is picked by the Minister.
The article continues:
It serves a real purpose. It shields the Government from the political charge that it was the villain that put up public transport fares.
The fares went up because the subvention was cut, which is something the Minister lauded at the time. He was supportive of the cuts because he thought it would force a change in the governance of CIE and would bring savings. Those savings have not materialised. Does he believe there are savings that can materialise to avert this strike? If not, the only thing being negotiated is cuts in incomes.
I am delighted that Deputy Catherine Murphy has joined the merry band of those who say I have given hostages to fortune in the past. Nobody would understand it better than the Deputy. I do not know how many parties she has been a member of in the past, but they include the Social Democrats, the Workers' Party, Democratic Left-----
The Minister has an ideological hang-up about public transport and that ideology is governing his attitude to this strike. He is using the workers as a battering ram to get to his objective, which is CIE. He has a long trail of correspondence, articles and so forth in which he wrote about it.
The Minister is the shareholder. Is there sufficient in CIE to make savings whereby the Minister can meaningfully ask the Workplace Relations Commission, the Labour Court or whoever else to negotiate and there is sufficient available on which to negotiate? I am well aware of how many parties of which I was a member. It is a matter of public record. It is not something I am concerned about hiding.
I wish the Social Democrats well and I wish the Deputy well in her new venture.
On the matter of whether there are savings, I am optimistic that this can work. I am optimistic that Expressway has a future. That is what we are all aiming for. It will be done by a combination of savings and perhaps increased revenue in various places. Yes, I am confident it can be done. The Deputy asks me to identify the areas for savings. That would be an interference in which I will not get involved. I will certainly not fall into that trap.
We have a management in Bus Éireann. What does Deputy Murphy think it is there to do? It is there to manage and identify where commercial decisions should be made. I am not there to identify the detail of the cuts.
The board and the management have made it quite clear, and I assume the trade unions feel the same, that there is a platform and basis for negotiations which will enable them to come to an agreement, hopefully in the next seven or eight days. That has been made quite clear by both parties and both of them are seeking the same objective. The Deputy is trying to draw me into the same situation as others, which is to get involved in something where it would not be helpful. I am optimistic that the parties who are employed by the State to identify and solve problems of this nature will do so. It is not the shareholder's job to do the job of the management.
I have said on the record that we have industrial relations machinery in the State. I am not asking the Minister to become involved in the industrial relations. However, the parties must have something to negotiate. There must be the funds to negotiate. Other than that, what the Minister said in his opening statement about low wages and so forth is nonsense. If the only thing that is available to negotiate within the industrial relations framework is a sizeable cut in the income of some of those who are negotiating, is it really a negotiation? I am asking the Minister if he has identified a tolerance within the company that there is a sufficient income, because it says it is almost insolvent. Is there sufficient tolerance within that company to have a basis of negotiation that is different from cuts for the people who drive the buses?
It says it will be insolvent if the situation continues. I am glad Deputy Murphy, like everybody else, realises the gravity of the situation. The company is also saying that, unfortunately, it will be painful. Saving this company will be very difficult. However, it is an absolute imperative that a commercial company behaves commercially. Wherever the savings have to be made will be decided by the two parties, not by me.
When I learned that the Minister was appearing before the committee this morning, I thought there was an air of hope in the engagement but it has turned out to be more like a scratched record of the previous engagement with the Minister. The authority I wish to criticise is the NTA. It has acted like a widow whose husband was only buried in the past week and who walks out the following day with a new man. The NTA has stepped in and straight away proposed alternative replacements to the routes that Bus Éireann proposed to abandon. There is no doubt that the Minister's constituency would like to see the Luas extended but what would happen if the NTA told the Minister's constituents that it would give them a couple of horse-drawn trams to fill the void? I am sure there would be uproar. There is a proposal to abandon some major Expressway routes and there is the issue of private operators on the so-called same routes. I ask the Minister to take two days out of his diary to travel the Expressway route on one day and travel with the private operator on the next day to the same destination, for example, on the Cork to Dublin route. The Minister will see a big difference in the time and alterations in the route. How can that be a like-with-like comparison? We seem to be up against a stone wall on this issue. That is the reason we are saying some finance should be made available. It is not like with like in terms of routes and competition. It is not the same. The NTA is doing its best to defend its role, telling the Committee of Public Accounts as late as last week in response to Deputy Aylward that Bus Éireann can alter its Expressway routes.
What we are trying to convey is that we want to maintain these routes because they provide a social service as much as a transport service. The Minister mentioned that he was not in a position to wave his cheque book. That is fine, but at the same time he is talking to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, to look for more money. How can Bus Éireann talk to the unions and talk to the NTA about routes when it does not know what Deputy Varadkar will give it down the road? It has not approached Deputy Varadkar and said, "Perhaps if you gave us this amount of money we could compromise or deal with the workers and save some routes in the meantime". It is a loaded comment, but I believe the Minister should get involved.
It is not loaded at all. The question has been asked previously. It is fine. I will address the Deputy's questions as well as I can.
He is talking about how individual routes like the Cork-Dublin route are operated. The like-for-like comparison of individual routes is a matter for the NTA and not for me. I see the point the Deputy is making. As I have said previously, if there are problems in a particular area, the NTA will move in to ensure there is connectivity in that area. It has done this in the past. It is perhaps a little unfair to criticise the NTA for what it has done. It was very prompt in its response. I do not normally congratulate semi-State bodies or State agencies too rapidly because I do not think it is a particularly necessary thing to do. However, I should say that the NTA's response in each of these cases has been commendable. When the closures or reductions were announced, the NTA moved in and said what it was going to do. It should be noted that the private operator on the Clonmel-Dublin route calls to more towns and villages than the Expressway service does.
It has been suggested that Bus Éireann is negotiating without knowing what the situation is in respect of free travel. As this dispute is not directly linked to the free travel negotiations, it would be somewhat difficult to say how much the company is going to get. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has made it fairly plain that he does not want the issue of free travel to be exclusively linked to an industrial relations problem. We have been very active on this issue. We will continue to regard it as a matter of urgency. We can be optimistic that the talks between my officials and the Minister for Social Protection's officials are going ahead in a very satisfactory way. I hope we will be able to resolve these issues reasonably soon. I think everybody recognises that because the levels, charges, prices and fares were fixed and frozen in 2010, there is a need for reforms in this area. We do not yet know whether those reforms will take place immediately or next year, but the talks are progressing well. Regardless of our political differences, we all want the anomaly that needs to be remedied to be addressed.
Deputy Bríd Smith, Senator Dolan, Deputy Ó Cuív and Deputy Fitzmaurice, who are not members of this committee, have indicated that they wish to speak. As there are 16 minutes left in this part of the meeting, I will call them in that order and give each of them four minutes for questions and answers. I ask them to stick strictly to the time limit I have outlined.
I thank the Minister. I want to comment on what I have heard so far. I am listening to this with my hat from outside of the Dáil on me. The public is listening to us as we prepare for the buses to be pulled from the road next week. It is possible that this will have a contagion effect on other bus, DART and rail services. I cannot imagine how angry people must feel as they listen to a highly-paid Deputy who has been appointed as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport saying that it is not his job to intervene, that he does not identify the actual positions of cuts here and there and that it would be inappropriate, unhelpful and improper for him to have anything to do with interfering in this dispute. The Minister's comments do not make an iota of sense to individual members of society who will be standing in the lashing rain throughout the month of March as they wait for some kind of bus service, or to workers and their families who will be on the picket line and left without wages, security or certainty. I ask the Minister to listen to what he is saying. I know he is not lying to us, but I suggest he is failing to take responsibility for a national disaster. He is not making an everyday decision about whether there should be a route here or an increase there. If this strike takes place, it will be a national disaster. The Minister needs to listen to what he is saying. He should think about this issue from the point of view of Joe Public and indeed the workers.
I have given the report a cursory glance because we received it at a late stage. I would like to ask a number of questions and make a few points. There has been a 111% increase in capacity on the Dublin-Limerick route over recent years. That capacity was awarded to private operators by licensing through the NTA, but the Bus Éireann service on the route is being cut. The NTA's comment on that cut is that a high volume of services already exists on the route. Of course that is the case.
I have a final question for the Minister. What will happen to the Dublin-Derry route if Translink services are cut as a consequence of Brexit? There are cuts coming down the track in Northern Ireland. Translink provides some of these services in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to comment on those two routes.
I can answer the Deputy's question about the Limerick-Dublin route by quoting from the NTA review. It states:
Bus Éireann have announced a withdrawal of 24 services per week from a total of 130 on their Limerick to Dublin via Nenagh, Roscrea and Portlaoise service.
There are a number of alternative services available such as JJ Kavanagh Route 735 which provides 112 services per week ...
Translink said in a press release yesterday that it intends to continue its service. I would like to respond briefly to some of the Deputy's other points. She said that the buses will be pulled from the road next week. We do not want to see that.
No, I am not going to intervene. None of us wants to see this happen. I accept the bona fides of Deputies Bríd Smith and Mick Barry. They come from a particular background and have a particular point of view.
I thank the Chairman and the Minister. We do not have much time. I have two questions for the Minister. I would also like to make a few points. Have the cuts to services that have already been announced been risk assessed in terms for access for people with disabilities, who are stakeholders in all of this? As members of the public, they have a right to use a public service. As we have heard, it is a public good. I asked the Minister about this in the Seanad recently. It would be useful if he were to set out what he intends to do to on a year-by-year basis to make public transport accessible for people with disabilities in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. My understanding is that the private operator which provides the route 717 service from Clonmel to Dublin Airport, which has been mentioned by the Minister and others, does not have accessible vehicles. An accessible fleet is used on the X7 Expressway service from Clonmel to Dublin Airport, which is being taken offline.
Both those operators are licensed as public service operators and should be operating on an even keel and making sure disabled people can participate in that.
I understand that the automated voice system alerting passengers with hearing and visual issues is in place and is not being used. These are some of the issues that are not going to get solved in the next week or two but they are issues about the accessibility of a public service for all members of the public, young and old.
Drivers are not being trained to use the wheelchair lifts. In professional bus driver competency training there is a module on drivers being able to assist people with disabilities. My understanding is that the module is not being provided to drivers and it is supposed to be under the EU regulations we have taken on. I have also mentioned the issue that in Dublin Bus and other city fleets there is long-standing provision for people with disabilities and people in wheelchairs having accessible spaces. They are often used by other people and at the moment there is no way of preventing other people from using those spaces when people in wheelchairs need them.
All new infrastructure is built to be accessible, for example, the Luas and others. It does not answer the Deputy's questions in terms of specific routes or breaches of or non-compliance with disability rules, but I will respond to them. I do not know the answers now because it is too early to say.
Regarding the new arrangements for Clonmel to Dublin etc., is it a fact that people with disabilities or mobility impaired passengers are not going to be able to use the new arrangements? That is a very important question today.
I am very clear about what the Minister is saying about not getting involved and managing for managers, but he is the person who stands over the public interest. Is it the case that there was an accessible service that is now gone because of the changes? I am not trying to score. It is a real issue.
Will the Minister confirm that he has given no policy direction whatsoever to Bus Éireann since he was appointed Minister last year? No policy direction has been given to the NTA in relation to Bus Éireann since he was appointed Minister last year. That is what the NTA has said to us.
Short questions and short answers. Will the Minister confirm that the subsidy to Dublin Bus per head of population is four times that of Bus Éireann? The subsidy is approximately €11 per head per annum to Bus Éireann and approximately €46 per head per annum to everybody who lives in Dublin and uses Dublin Bus.
I will explain it for the Minister. Will the Minister confirm that the subsidy to Bus Éireann last year was approximately €40 million, and that even if we discount Dublin, despite the fact that Bus Éireann does come in to Dublin, about 3.5 million people live outside of the greater metropolitan area?
One would expect a higher subsidy because of lower use in the rural areas. That is exactly the point. The Minister gave €60 million to 1.3 million people in Dublin. That is the reality. I am all in favour of what is done in Dublin - 150% in favour.
Will the Minister tell us if it is his policy to provide rural bus services after 6 p.m. outside of the major towns, for example, on regular routes out of the likes of Galway and the rural services? Is it the Minister's policy to extend services after 6 p.m.?
The fact is that €60 million is given to Dublin Bus and €40 million is given to Bus Éireann. The Minister's officials can confirm that. The population of the rest of the country is 3.5 million. Much of the €40 million is spent in the cities of Galway, Cork and Waterford. The population of Dublin is approximately 1.3 million, according to the figures given by the NTA, and it gets €60 million.
The subsidy is provided as per the contracts and is based on EU regulations. The subsidy is not provided, as the Deputy was calculating there, by head of population. It is based on the continued levels of service provided. It is not done per capitaor per population or anything like that.
Is it the Minister's policy to ensure comprehensive services late into the evening, as is available in the urban areas, are provided in the rural areas of Ireland? Yes or no? This is very important.
We could go on forever with crises in Bus Éireann until we get to the root of the problem. I compliment Deputy Barry and Deputy Catherine Murphy on the wages issues. I will not get a chance to deal with that issue. It is basically a race to the bottom in terms of wages.
-----and the committee with a detailed response regarding the questions Deputy Ó Cuív is asking. We simply do not have time to get into the specifics and the detail of it here, but perhaps the Minister could give as detailed a response and breakdown as possible in terms of the figures involved and the methodology used in arriving at those figures.
The most important thing is that the Minister could advise me on what policy basis the subsidy is allocated. Could the Minister explain why the policy followed by him determines that per kilometre the charges on rural services far exceed those per kilometre on urban servicess, if one takes a rural bus, non-Expressway? Will he explain why that is his policy? I look forward to getting his written reply.
Let me finish and I will answer the Deputy's other question. The subsidy is provided as per the contracts which are drawn up. It is based on EU regulations and on those contracts and it is not provided per head of the population, it is based on the contracted levels of services provided. That is the answer.
I will be very quick. Does the Minister accept that the PSO model that is in place is broken and outdated and that on the Expressway routes, the losses to Bus Éireann, ironically, are artificially inflated. Take the Limerick to Dublin route, which I know. On that route there are private operators and there is Bus Éireann. Private operators do not take people with travel passes; Bus Éireann is required to take them yet on that route, no PSO subsidy is provided. On a fairness basis, are we seeing a situation where the losses are artificially inflated because no PSO subsidy is given but Bus Éireann has to take people who have a free travel pass? Would the Minister accept that the PSO model in place is outdated, needs to be looked at again and needs to provide for a modern Ireland?
It is optional for them to do so. It is worth looking at the model on a continual basis and we are happy to do that but at the moment there is an enormous amount of criticism at the way the model operates. The results we have recently are very good. Passenger numbers are going up, revenue is going up so there is something to be said for it. The models are working in parallel and in tandem.
If I could just finish my very quick point, that the greater majority of passengers travelling on the Bus Éireann Expressway routes are people with free travel passes and by definition, then, Bus Éireann cannot make a profit on those routes. Its losses are artificially inflated. Does the Minister accept that point?
I will answer that as clearly as I can. The under-funding of free travel is being addressed as we speak, so the answer to the Senator's question is yes but it is being addressed this week. The officials in my Department-----
Has anyone from the Minister's Department or from the NTA or some independent person gone in to look at the salaries of senior management in Bus Éireann? I am led to believe that in one depot, there are 19 people on over €1,500 per week. There are four people as managers on €100,000 a year. Rather than looking at the lowly paid bus driver, has anyone gone in to examine redundancies or the salaries that are being paid at senior management level?
Does the Minister agree that under the PSO situation around rural Ireland, fewer and fewer Bus Éireann buses will be able to compete and are competing on runs? Are we moving towards a fully privatised system in rural Ireland?
No member of my Department has gone in and done a full examination of what the Deputy refers to, that is a matter for the board of Bus Éireann. Who they employ and what they pay them, within guidelines, is a matter for the board. It is something the Deputy justifiably raises as an issue. I do not know whether it is a matter of contention but it is a fair thing to comment on. It would not be that hard to find out but no member of my Department has done that. It would not be up to them to do it. That is why there is a board, to look at those things and to approve remuneration.
On being fully privatised, no, we are not moving towards privatisation of PSO services. I do not know where the Deputy got that impression but that is not the intention.
Should a Government then make sure that a certain percentage is always kept with Bus Éireann buses to make sure that we have competition. I come from the private sector but I know that if there is a monopoly at one end or the other it is not good.
There is certainly no policy to privatise, if that is what the Deputy means. It looks to me as though it is on an ad hocbasis and that they subcontract them where it is convenient. Sorry, what was the last question, I missed it?
Should there be a certain percentage to make sure that competition will be retained? As I see it, we are heading towards an awful lot of private buses. There will be private buses and they will be there but we are losing a lot of Bus Éireann, or what we would call CIE buses down the country. Do we not need to make sure that a certain threshold of buses are kept in all parts of the country to make sure there is always competition there?
That would be the ideal but of course if there is very small demand there is not much point in having competition and having two loss-making operators which might be the result of that. I am in favour, and all recent Ministers have been in favour of competition. That is fine but not to have competition where the route is making a loss. That would not make sense and the private operators would not do it anyway.