Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 21 September 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
School Transport Issues: Engagement with Minister for Education
On behalf of the committee, I would like to welcome the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, and her officials here today. The Minister is here to discuss the school transport issue. As we all know, this issue has dominated the headlines, especially in rural communities, over the last two months. The format of the meeting is that I will invite the Minister to make a brief opening statement. This will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has a five or six minute slot. We will see how we are getting on as other Members of the Oireachtas have indicated they want to join us today. As the Minister is probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statement on its website following today's meeting.
Before we begin, I remind members 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.
The Minister has five minutes.
Deputy Norma Foley (Minister for Education):
I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to appear here today. To assist me, I am joined by officials from my Department, Ms Conduit, who is an assistant secretary general, and Ms Kearney, who is a principal officer.
The school transport scheme is an administrative scheme that was established in 1968. It was created to facilitate access to primary and post-primary education for children who, because of where they reside, might have difficulty attending school regularly otherwise. The scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the 2021-22 school year, over 121,400 children and young people, including more than 15,500 with special educational needs, were transported daily to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. In 2021, the total cost of providing school transport amounted to €289 million. This includes direct transport services and grant payments. It also includes funding to schools for the employment of escorts to accompany children with special educational needs whose care and safety needs require this support.
In July 2022, the Government announced funding for the waiving of school transport scheme fees for the 2022-23 school year as part of a wider package of cost-of-living measures. In the context of increasing costs of living, with a view to easing the financial burden on families, I announced measures to reduce the cost to families for school transport services. These temporary measures were in addition to the reduction in the family cap announced by the Government in February 2022 to mitigate the cost of living and provided for the waiver of ticket charges for the 2022-23 school year. These measures will provide families with savings of up to €500 on the cost of tickets. Originally, this was €650 prior to the introduction of the cap.
School transport ticket registration for the 2022-23 school year closed on 29 July, by which time almost 130,000 applications or registrations were received for mainstream school transport. This figure includes 44,299 new applications, as well as rollovers from the previous school year. Some 124,000 tickets for the mainstream scheme alone have already been issued to applicants for the 2022-23 school year. At the beginning of the last school year, approximately 103,600 children were carried on mainstream school transport services, so in the region of 20,400 additional places have already been created. The temporary waiving of fees has led to an unprecedented expansion of the scheme, with many more eligible and concessionary applicants receiving tickets than ever before. There has been an increase in tickets allocated across all counties, with an increase of 18% in the number of tickets issued to eligible pupils compared with the position at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, and an increase of 27% in the number of tickets issued to concessionary pupils compared with the 2021-22 school year. Notwithstanding this, I acknowledge that the huge increase in applications has led to frustration over delays issuing tickets in some instances.
I assure the committee that Bus Éireann will continue to work intensively in all regions to process applications and issue tickets as soon as buses and drivers are sourced and become available to provide transport for the higher numbers qualifying for the service. It is important to note that the normal eligibility criteria of the scheme still apply and tickets continue to be allocated in line with these criteria. Pupils at primary level are eligible where they live no less than 3.2 km from, and are attending, the nearest primary school. At post-primary level, students who live no less than 4.8 km from and are attending their nearest or next-nearest post-primary school are deemed eligible. Any pupils or students who do not meet these criteria are deemed not eligible, or otherwise known as concessionary applicants and are allocated a ticket based on the availability of a seat when all eligible children have been catered for.
There has been an unprecedented increase in applications from families whose children are eligible for school transport this year. These children must be prioritised as the scheme dictates. I am aware that this has led to particular frustration this year for some families whose children attend their third-, fourth- or even fifth-closest school or live within the distance limits, who held tickets previously and did not receive one this year. This is directly due to the much higher numbers of eligible children applying. These children must be facilitated. I know that many families, whatever their eligibility status, rely on the scheme and this consideration is being factored into the analysis under way as part of the review of the scheme.
For this year, in line with normal practice, all eligible children who completed the application and ticket registration process on time for the 2022-23 school year will be accommodated on school transport services, where such services are in operation. In addition, pending completion of the outcome of the full review of the school transport scheme, temporary alleviation measures at post-primary level will continue for the 2022-23 school year.
Under these measures transport is provided for post-primary pupils who are eligible for transport to their nearest school and are attending their second nearest school. They must have applied by 29 April 2022 and registered for a ticket by 29 July 2022. The online account management system, known as the family portal, which had been closed since registration shut, on 29 July, reopened on Thursday, 25 August 2022. The reopening of the portal will enable account holders to check the status of applications which have been processed. While the reopening of the portal also facilitates the late applications process, it is very important for families to note that the application deadline for the 2022-2023 year was 29 April 2022 and the deadline to confirm registration was 29 July 2022. Any application completed after this date is a late application. Therefore many school transport services are already operating at full capacity. Late applications can only be assessed after all on-time applications have been processed. Places are not guaranteed for late applicants.
The Department is continuing to conduct a review of the school transport scheme which includes an examination of the current scheme and how it currently operates; its broader effectiveness and sustainability; and whether it adequately supports the provision of services to students and their families. The review encompasses the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs. The review of the primary and post-primary school transport schemes will examine each element of the schemes including eligibility criteria, trends, costs, cost-drivers and overall effectiveness in meeting the objectives of the scheme. The review will also examine the potential for integration of different strands of the scheme and a more co-ordinated approach with other Departments that also use transport services.
Wider considerations relating to the operation of the scheme are taking place in the current phase of the review. As part of this, the technical working group has undertaken extensive consultation, including running a public survey for parents, guardians and students who use the service as well as those who do not use the service but would like to. These engagements have yielded extensive data for consideration. The group has also consulted with a broad array of stakeholders including schools, special education interest groups, industry representatives and other Departments. While work on the review was impacted somewhat by the challenges of the pandemic and the impact of the current conflict in Ukraine, it is anticipated that the final phases of the review will be completed shortly with recommendations on the future operation of the Department's school transport scheme. The steering group will continue to report to me on an interim basis as the review progresses.
Once again I thank the committee for the invitation to appear here today and I am happy to answer questions and deal with any queries that committee members have.
I very much welcome this opportunity to discuss school transport. As the Minister will appreciate, we are all aware of difficulties and I will bring those to light. Fundamentally, the waiving of school transport fees is a good thing for two reasons. It is a good thing because of the cost of living, and I appreciate that the Minister took that step. The second reason relates to climate action. Is climate action taken on board in the terms of reference of the review? I will come back to the review. I ask that the Minster answers quite briefly and then I will come back in.
I briefly referred to the this in my opening remarks. The review constituted significant engagement and I believe that is what we all wanted. We have had more than 8,000 engagements from parents, 2,000 from students, engagements from bus operators, bus providers. We have also engaged directly with our European counterparts to examine best practice and alternative practice in other areas. An enormous body of work is involved. It has been impacted somewhat by the war in Ukraine but we expect that it will be completed shortly, but a considerable body of work has been------
I know I have mentioned the eligibility criteria on numerous occasions which I have an issue with anyway. I have mentioned to the Minister that ethos is taken into consideration, even though it was not mentioned in her opening statement. However, the extent to which it is taken into consideration varies depending on the area and 4.8 km is simply too far for anyone to travel to a secondary school.
I think we have to be realistic. Some 30% of the traffic in Galway city is people bringing their kids to school. I would hope the outcome of this review, and something the Minister would take on board, is that school transport will address all of that and will reduce the distance, because I do not think it is viable at the moment. Is that something that is being looked at, that is, reducing the-----
If we are looking at one of the things in the programme for Government, it is about increasing multi-denominational schools and that is a serious issue for us in Galway, where people are travelling a distance to go to a school that is multi-denominational. They do not have a bus available because it is not their nearest school. I know of instances where that is happening. I would hope that would come out in the wash. I suppose the main reason we are here is around the fact that people are not getting the school bus who got the school bus before. Even within my own family, we got a ticket despite the fact the school has moved and is now closer to our home, so there is no need for a school bus. We did not apply for a school bus but we got a ticket. Can the Minister address the issue of the failures within the process? The first is that we have people who are getting the school bus who do not need it and did not apply for it. What has happened there? Second, surely there should be a system which would have prioritised those who applied in the first place. That did not happening and everybody had to reapply and be put back into the same bundle. Why was that decision taken?
In the first instance the decision that was taken was to waive the fees for those who met the eligibility criteria. It is fair to say that 124,000 pupils in mainstream are availing of that as opposed to 103,000 last year is a significant achievement, particularly in terms of the cost of living. People are asked to apply, to register and complete registration by 29 July. If there have been-----
No, the system was that they applied and they completed the registration by 29 July. The registration closed at that point. Anybody who was eligible at that point and who had registered on time was eligible for a ticket. The criteria did not change as part of the cost of living measures-----
In a small number of instances - it concerns just over 600 people who are eligible - Bus Éireann is currently seeking to find buses, bus drivers or whatever the case might be. They will be provided with bus transport if they have applied on time and they are eligible. It is important to say that in some areas there are constraints in the same way that we have seen in other sectors which are finding particular challenges in terms of staffing, whether in business, hospitality and so on. Bus Éireann is not immune to those challenges. I assure Senator O'Reilly that that limited number who are eligible and who have not yet received transport will receive transport if they are eligible and have registered on time.
Like many parents, I am in a WhatsApp group and I know that daily people are left at the side of the road. The management of the whole process is flawed. This happens every year but is exacerbated this year. I will leave it there. I thank the Minister.
I will let the Minister come back in. There will be loads of time at the end of the meeting but I want to bring in other members because other Deputies and Senators will wish to speak. Deputy O'Laoghaire is next.
I thank the Minister, Ms Conduit and Ms Kearney for coming in. School transport is a no-brainer. Expanding it makes sense in terms of traffic, emissions and the money in parents' pockets. It also makes sense for the Department and the system. Senator Pauline O'Reilly made the point that there are difficulties with this every year and decisions arrived at or allocation of places for local communities are very hard to fathom. It certainly has been exacerbated this year and I have to say to the Minister that the Department should have seen this coming and should have anticipated the impact of this and prepared to find the additional capacity over the course of the summer months.
Many of the stories the Minister and the rest of us have heard about this matter relate to families and children who feel particularly let down and who have come to rely on school transport in recent years. One builds one's life around the school run or the school bus and the arrangements that have to be made. There are five, six or seven things that must happen each a morning, as I am sure the Minister knows. Those people feel particularly let down. Many of them would have applied on time and would have got a place on the bus only for somebody else to apply later on after the process was reopened. Why were those who applied on time, and who would have got a concessionary place in other years, not prioritised over late applicants?
I thank the Deputy. I agree with his comment that the school transport system is beneficial and important. The Deputy referred to capacity. We have already seen an increase of more than 21% in capacity. As I said, 124,000 young people are now availing of that transport system, as opposed to 103,000 this time last year. Those who qualify to avail of it meet the criteria. The criteria for eligibility, as the Deputy is aware, are that the child must live within 3.2 km of a primary school or 4.8 km of the nearest or next nearest post-primary school. The criteria are clear. We are in the throes of considering the criteria, going forward. They are subject to review. It was not possible at this time to change the criteria because that would not have been fair.
The Deputy specifically referenced concessionary places. Children receive concessionary access to transport where there is additional capacity on the bus. That happened last year and is happening again this year. It is interesting to note there has been an increase of one third in concessionary availability this year. The Deputy and any other public representative will be aware that there can be late application for eligibility. There can be individual circumstances in a family that mean there is a need for a late application. Something may have happened. Perhaps there is an illness in a family. There are myriad circumstances that could mean someone who is eligible was not in a position to apply on time. They remain eligible if they meet the criteria. Concessionary places will, of course, be accommodated where there is additional capacity. As I have said, some children who may be allowed a concessionary place have not been successful. It is difficult to ascertain why people fall under the concessionary label. Some do not meet the criteria for eligibility. Others are attending their fourth, fifth or sixth nearest school. In the context of the upcoming budget, I am in discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to see if there is potential to accommodate the cohort who have previously availed of a concessionary place, where there is capacity. We may have an opportunity in the context of the budget to do something in that regard.
I apologise for interrupting but I have one more question. I accept that the criteria are the criteria. Could the Minister put in place a system whereby everyone who applied on time and was eligible would be accommodated first, followed by those who qualify for concessionary places and those who applied subsequent to the closing date. We should prioritise those who are eligible at that stage subsequent to filling the places with those who applied on time. As I say, those are the parents and children who have been the most let down. They are being left at the side of the road to try to figure out how to drop hours and things like that. I have an email from Bus Éireann which states that additional capacity is not being sought for concessionary pupils who did not secure a ticket for the school year 2022-2023. Whatever about decisions that were taken over the summer, the solution here is additional capacity. How is it acceptable to say to those parents that we are not even trying to find solutions for them? Bus Éireann is not looking for additional capacity for those parents. How can that be justified? Will the Minister ask Bus Éireann to review that and to find additional capacity for those parents and children who lost out?
To go back to the Deputy's point about the eligibility criteria, it was not possible to make a change. If we had changed the criteria midstream, prior to the completion of this review, it would have been challenged at this committee and elsewhere. If we were to change the criteria, it would mean that others who are currently eligible would become ineligible.
I just wanted to make that point. Bus Éireann is following the eligibility criteria.
I am in discussions specifically on that cohort who were concessionary ticket holders previously. They are not eligible; I must say that. I would not wish for any family to find themselves in that circumstance, but they are not eligible. They were concessionary ticket holders. I am in discussions to see if there is scope to do something for that cohort.
I understand, but again I have to say to the Deputy that anyone who eligible is being provided for, and will be provided for, concerning transport. We are now looking at the people who are not eligible, but were concessionary ticket holders. There has been a one third increase in the number of concessionary tickets this year. Where there is no capacity for concessionary ticket holders, we will specifically seek, where there is capacity, to address that via the budget. It is the only mechanism I have for additional funding.
Thank you, Chair. I would like to welcome the Minister. I will ask my questions together, so I will not need to come back in.
I really appreciate the good intent behind the 5 July announcement. As a cost-of-living measure, it has certainly had a huge impact on many families, in that there are 124,000 students availing of it. Many families have had savings of up to €500, which is significant. Unfortunately, there are a number of families for whom this has come at a cost. Despite the 21% increase in capacity, which is very welcome, there have been consequences - unintended, I have no doubt. I have spoken to families and public representatives in Kildare and around the country about this. People are at a complete loss. There are families that have had concessionary tickets for years, but now do not. There are families where some children have received tickets and some have not. There are families that have had to take annual leave to try to ensure their children get to school and there are some families that are envisaging getting a second car to bring their children to school. This is a cost-of-living measure, but we are trying to take extra cars off the road.
The fact we are debating this in the fourth week back to school is simply is not good enough. All these issues should be resolved in July and August. The fact is that children and their families are trying to deal with this on a day-to-day basis and are being stressed by it.
I totally accept the Minister has inherited this system and that she has undertaken the review, which will, I hope, see some changes brought in. We should not be using words like "eligible" or "concessionary". This should be a demand-led service that anybody in need should be able to avail of to get to school. We should call it "public transport" as opposed to "school transport". The Minister is correct in what she said about looking at other types of public transport and seeing where we can be in the future.
When does the Minister anticipate that the review findings will be published? Will we, as a committee, have an opportunity to be part of that process? That is going to be significant and will, I hope, overcome many of the challenges that we have at the moment.
On this particular issue, I want to ask the Minister about planning. While numbers are going to vary from year to year, surely the Department and Bus Éireann should be in a position where planning takes place the previous year. On the consultation with Bus Éireann, was there any analysis of data from previous years in terms of the number of people who would possibly avail of this? I would contend that those who applied before 29 April should have gotten their tickets prior to it being reopened.
Communications have been poor. I appreciate that both the Minister's office and Bus Éireann have received an onslaught of communications from families and public representatives, but the fact that people are not receiving responses from Bus Éireann is not good enough.
As regards procuring buses and drivers, while I appreciate the situation with tour buses is different now, we were able to provide extra buses during Covid. I ask that the Minister considers allowing drivers over 70 years of age to drive school buses as they are banned at the moment. The same drivers can bring youngsters to school matches, on tours, etc., but they cannot drive school buses.
Anecdotally, I have heard of tickets being issued to people who did not apply. I have also heard, although I cannot prove it, that some people have used incorrect or previous addresses to be able to meet eligibility criteria. The suggestion has been made to me that proof of address, via a utility bill from the previous year, should be requested.
My final point relates to county borders. A person cannot apply for transport to a school within their county if a school across the border is the nearest school to them. A number of areas must be looked at.
The Senator mentioned the timing of this. To be clear, this is a cost-of-living measure. The Government has introduced a package worth in excess of €2.4 billion. A previous school transport measure reduced the cap from €650 to €500. We were alerted to an opportunity for further measures to be put in place. In consequence of that money becoming available, we looked at a variety of options, most notably school transport.
The Senator is correct to refer to the review. Nobody is more conscious than I am of the necessity for the review. I initiated this root and branch review. As I have previously articulated, it involves engagement with all of the stakeholders, including parents, students, bus providers, our European counterparts and a significant body of analysis is involved in that. I expect it will be completed before the year's end. That is what we are working towards. Having said that, we have been impacted by some issues, most notably the war in Ukraine, but we are proceeding and the work continues.
Bus Éireann acknowledges the communication difficulties because of the unprecedented demand and it has apologised for these. We engaged with Bus Éireann and provided additional resources, including staffing, so that a call centre could be put in place. It is my understanding that all calls to that centre are now being answered in a timely fashion.
The issue of the over 70s has been raised previously. Bus Éireann makes that decision from a health and safety point of view. It is its call. Its view is that the threshold is particularly high when it comes to children and young adults being transported in the bus. It states that it keeps everything under review but that is its health and safety judgment at this point. However, everything is kept under review.
I am not aware of people providing false addresses. If the Senator is aware of any specific instances, she might communicate that to the Department.
Consultation with Bus Éireann happens on an ongoing basis, particularly with my officials. Consultation regarding how things would operate took place in advance of the announcement. I wish to acknowledge that Bus Éireann has a track record of service and flexibility in service. I have previously made this point. Only a few days before the return to school, we were informed by public health that we would have to move to 50% capacity on buses. Bus Éireann embraced that and worked through it. We have seen a 21% increase-----
I thank the Chair. There was a joint Commencement matter in the Seanad last week and this evening we have a Fine Gael motion on school transport. We are calling for an additional budget to manage the shortfall in respect of students. There are more than 6,000 students and behind each application there is a family with a story to tell. The Minister has had a fantastic initiative to reduce the cost of living but I refer to the process alone - the rollover of applications, parents paying for tickets, refunds being given and suddenly no spaces available. Everyone now knows what concessionary and eligible mean but there was a level of expectation among parents whose children have had that ticket for the last four to five years. There was not proper notification to families and that is a responsibility that lies with Government. There is a level of expectation, and that is one of the key parts to everything that has happened this year.
Rural areas, in particular, have been impacted, including in Galway and Roscommon. We want to see more families living in the west but we need the services. There are have huge issues for families whose children have been trying to get to secondary schools, particularly around Mountbellew, Ballygar, Athlone and Ballinasloe. The Minister has heard some of the stories, but some of the stories I hear include one where a mother literally gave up work nursing in a hospital because she could not go to work because she had to bring the kids to school. There is family facing an extra 60 km per day in travel to bring the kids to school. There is a single mum with three children, one getting the bus, one who cannot, and one with special needs. There are parents who do not want their children on the bus because of the shame of the children being asked to get off the bus by the inspector or the bus driver.
The majority of these issues are at post-primary level. It does not appear to be an issue at primary level but it is at post-primary level and in rural areas. I have been at public meetings and I have spoken to the Minister about those issues. Parents are angry and frustrated.
What is the extra cost for the additional 6,000 students? The Minister mentioned on "Prime Time" last night that more than €300 million has been spent. Is the budget going to be allocated? Is it coming from the budget that is happening next week? What are we going to do about those families who children need to get to school?
I am dealing with issues where the nearest or next nearest school is at maximum capacity. If that school is at maximum capacity, what can be done for those children to get them to their P3 school? What are we saying to parents where there is no existing bus route or service? There are areas in east Galway where there is no bus service for anyone. What is going to be done for parents where there is no existing bus route to their P1 or P2 schools?
We are working with Bus Éireann through the Department of Education. What can be done here to improve the public bus transport services in those areas? What else can Bus Éireann do because it is not the fault of the bus drivers or the inspectors? This plan that was put in place is a fantastic initiative and, as the Minister said, there has been an increase, but we have left 6,000 students standing on the side of the road. Hopefully, there will be solutions in place. I thank the Minister.
I thank the Senator. I just want to be clear that this is a measure introduced as a consequence of an unprecedented cost-of-living challenge. We could have envisaged this cost-of-living challenge or that we would have almost come out of Covid-19 and go into a war in Ukraine, something that we would have hoped we would never have seen. However, because of that turmoil in the world, there has been a knock-on impact not just for this country but for other countries. Government has stepped up to the mark in terms of additional funding of more than €2.4 billion. As part of that, there was an opportunity to do something within the Department of Education that would benefit families in terms of saving them money. We were given and took that opportunity in late June. It has resulted in savings for many families. Originally, the cap was €650 and then €500. The cap was reduced and 124,000 children and young people are benefitting from it at this point.
In terms of concessionary tickets, I hear and know of the individual cases. I would not want any family to be in that position. However, in any system there is an eligibility criteria. Every year there are concessionary tickets and where there is capacity, students get a place on the bus. Some have been very fortunate to secure that year on year. However, they also know that year on year that can change. There can be a new housing development in their area, which means more eligibles come on stream, so there is less availability for concessionary tickets. More families could move into an area. That is the issue with concessionary tickets. We are looking at everything in the round as part of the review, and eligibility criteria is part of that review.
The Senator referenced her own area. There has been a 23% increase in the availability of tickets in Galway; 33% increase in Roscommon; an increase of one third nationally in concessionary tickets alone made available; and a 21% increase in the overall number of tickets being made available.
I have been clear on the 6,000 who have been impacted as concessionary ticket holders. I had a budget made available to me and we sorted all of those who were eligible, who now have free tickets. I recognise that there is a cohort and I recognise their individual circumstances, and I have said I am engaging to see if there is an additional pot of funding that can be used specifically to address concessionary ticket holders who previously had tickets and what capacity is available. Those discussions are now being held in the context of this budget. It is the only mechanism open to me. There are ongoing discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The focus is on addressing the concessionary ticket holders. They are concessionary tickets because they did not meet the criteria, but I understand that there are individual circumstances, and for that reason I am progressing it.
I welcome the Minister and her officials.
She is going to have to accept that this was grossly mishandled and an apology from her to those who have been affected would go a long way. She said apologies have been issued by Bus Éireann, but she has to take responsibility for how this has been handled. How much is the new initiative costing?
We are dealing with an extra €40 million. I imagine that, when the Minister makes an announcement in July that is going to cost €40 million, she would do a little bit of homework and make sure that it works correctly. Bus Éireann management say that the first time they heard about an entirely free scheme was after the Cabinet decision. The Minister is suggesting that consultations were taking place beforehand. Bus Éireann says those were not in the context of an entirely free scheme and that it was about driving down the cost for individual parents and families. That is what Bus Éireann management are saying. What does the Minister say to that?
If the Deputy asks a question, I would appreciate the opportunity to answer it. There was mostly certainly engagement and ongoing engagement with Bus Éireann. We looked at a variety of different opportunities of what could be done. Of course, Bus Éireann were informed officially once the decision was made by Cabinet-----
There was discussion, communication and ongoing engagement with Bus Éireann in advance of the announcement by Government. Of course, they were formally informed of the decision. There is no decision until it is passed and verified by Cabinet. That is exactly what happened in this instance. That is true of any other initiative that is taken by Government. It does not come to pass until it is ratified by Cabinet. There were discussions. My officials engaged in discussions about a variety of options with Bus Éireann. There was no question about its ability to meet the challenge, given that it had previously met it right throughout the Covid-19 pandemic at 50% capacity. At no point was there an issue that Bus Éireann could not meet what was being requested of it.
I have no issue with that. They do not have to come in. I am just saying I was not the one who was present; my officials were. I have no issue at all in telling the Deputy that all options were discussed with Bus Éireann.
I find myself unconvinced by the Minister's answer. I was unconvinced by her presentation last night as well, because Bus Éireann seemed to be slightly surprised by this announcement made in July. Be that as it may-----
I thank the Minister for that clarification. I will ask about the roll-out of the scheme. What type of intensive conversations took place in the month of August between the Minister, her officials, her Department and Bus Éireann to ensure that this €40 million scheme would be rolled out successfully?
-----as opposed to 103,000 who availed of the scheme last year. This scheme is a success for all those who are eligible. Let us not mistake the issue. The difficulty is for those who are not eligible and have not met the criteria. I have acknowledged and acknowledge once more that the number of concessionary ticket holders has increased by one third this year, but a cohort who are not eligible are having difficulties. I have told the Deputy that we will seek additional funding for them. They do not meet the eligibility criteria but they are dependent on the system.
These are young people who have been on the bus for the previous three or four years and now because of the Minister's new €40 million scheme, which was not properly prepared, they are now on the side of the road. The Minister is not in a position to apologise to those families for what is clearly a failing by her Department.
I will finish my point and the Deputy is free to come in. The nature of concessionary tickets is that a child can avail of a ticket if the bus has capacity. However, in the interests of fairness, those who meet the eligibility criteria must be catered for first and that is exactly what we have done.
I have just said to the Deputy that they were not eligible; they were there by virtue of being concessionary ticket holders. There can be different circumstances from year to year, and I have referenced this previously. For example more families move into an area or new housing developments are built. Concessionary ticket holders are there on the basis of additional availability on the bus. More than one third additional concessionary tickets have been provided this year but a cohort is not being catered for this year because there is no availability on the bus. We are looking at a mechanism for them. However, I repeat, this cohort is outside the eligibility criteria and outside the loop. As regards the work that has been done, the 124,000 families who are now not paying for the bus welcome that. They see it as the lifting of a significant burden, a payment of up to €650 for many them. We will seek to address the issue of the cohort of people who have not met the eligibility criteria in the context of the budget. However, they are outside the eligibility criteria.
What is unfortunate about this is it could have been avoided with proper budgeting and planning. For the Minister to put the blame on Bus Éireann and to state that she looked at all the options and the company did not raise any issue is deflecting responsibility. It is the Minister's responsibility. It was referred to earlier that the Minister inherited the criteria. We must be mindful that she inherited them from her own Government, from Fianna Fáil, when the former Minister, Mary Coughlan, set out in 2009 and 2010 to destroy school transport in the way that it has been done. She segregated children into those eligible for concessionary tickets and those eligible for free transport. The school transport system was working perfectly well until the Minister's own Government got its hands on it. The Government must take responsibility and there must be accountability for how we have ended up in this situation. We are forcing children to attend schools that do not teach the subjects of their choice, to go to all-boys or all-girls schools and to attend particularly religious schools. This is what we have done to school transport. These are the criteria that we have presented. This year, families had a reasonable expectation that they would have a seat on the school bus and their work patterns and commitments reflected this.
We talk about the impact on the cost of living, which absolutely was the intention. However what has happened to these parents is that they now have the additional cost of petrol and diesel, as well as having to give up jobs and to cut their working hours. How can that be helping them with their cost of living? Or are they just collateral damage, or the cohort, as we refer to them?
Does the Minister understand the impact on these children who are left on the side of the road? The Minister was in Mayo last week. There are children in Strade who were trying to get to Castlebar and who were refused a seat on the bus. As for the impact on their mental health of not being allowed to get those seats on the bus and indeed on the bus driver who has to refuse them the seat on the bus, the damage that has been done here is absolutely enormous. As has been said, the Minister needs to apologise to the parents who have paid for a seat on the bus year on year. The inflexibility around school transport is absolutely atrocious and what we are doing to our children is not acceptable.
Could this have been avoided and what is the Minister is going to do? I know that the Minister said it will be allowed for in the budget but had sufficient funding been there in the first place in the planning and budgeting stage, all of this could have been avoided.
I thank the Deputy for her remarks. Bus Éireann has fulfilled its obligations and is working to fill outstanding obligations. The company's obligation was to cater for those who applied on time and who fulfilled the criteria. It would not have been appropriate to change the criteria midstream in the midst of an entire review of the school transport system. It would have thrown up other issues and challenges. Bus Éireann has been charged with providing the transport for those who fulfilled the criteria and who registered on time. They are doing that. Some 124,000 children and young people are benefiting from that, which is a 21% increase on where we were last year. Equally, when the Deputy speaks about concessionary tickets, they are for those who do not meet the criteria. Concessionary tickets are for those who receive a seat on the bus where there is availability after those who are eligible have received a seat.
Despite what is being discussed here, this year alone there has been an increase of one third in concessionary ticket holders receiving seats on the bus. Notwithstanding that there are those who may have received concessionary tickets in the past, that can change year on year. It is not unique to this year. I have referenced the fact that there can be changes in the locality whether it is families moving in, housing developments or whatever, concessionaries know that and are aware of that. I do not take from the difficulties and challenges it is providing for families.
Therefore we are doing all that we can to go an extra mile, no pun intended, for the families who are currently outside the system who are concessionary ticket holders, that is, not eligible. I am in discussions with the Minister for Finance to see if there is scope in this budget. As always in the school transport system, the initiative initially was to meet the obligation to those who are eligible and who meet the criteria. That has been done and is being done. As I say the discussion in terms of those who are outside-----
I am aware that in instances around the country, there are examples of those who received concessionary passes for the bus in the past and who have not received them this year. I am also aware that throughout the country, there are those who received concessionary passes last year and in previous years and who have received them again this year. As I have said there has been a one third increase in those concessionaries. I have made it clear to the Deputy that we will see what we can do in the context of this budget for those particular cohorts who find themselves outside the system.
What is the Minister doing to bring the review forward? The review is now really urgent. It is probably one of the most urgent things. What is the Minister doing to bring the review forward so that it is published and the recommendations within the review can be implemented to change these crazy criteria?
Again, I have answered the question in terms of the review previously. I instigated the review and know there are opportunities to do things differently within the school transport system. No one knows that better than me. I come from a rural constituency and appreciate the value of the school transport system. Interestingly, this whole debate has highlighted the value of the school transport system. We have engaged extensively. At this point, we are analysing the various engagements we have had.
There have been stakeholder engagements with parents, students and bus providers and operators. We have even gone beyond the expertise within the country and gone to our European counterparts. There is a significant body of work and we are working as quickly as we can to complete it.
I thank the Minister for attending. I do not want to rehash the discussions that have gone before. Ultimately, the recent announcement was motivated by the right reasons and was very much welcome. The nub of the issue is the children who have been displaced, to whom the Minister alluded.
I listened to the Minister's interview last night on "Prime Time" in which she stated that the scheme must be driven by need. That brings me to my first question, which relates to the ongoing review. I have pleaded privately with the Minister in the past to have a demand-led service, rather than the situation we have inherited with nearest school, second-nearest school, etc. I hope that will be included in the review. I know the Minister cannot give us a date for completion of the review but she stated it would shortly issue its recommendations. Will that be at a date this side of Christmas or the other side of Christmas? At the very least, will the review's recommendations be brought forward in time for next year's intake? I would like some clarity on that.
My second question relates to the Minister's comment that she may be able to cater for concessionary ticket holders, subject to the budget next week. Like all Ministers, the Minister for Education will meet the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance over the coming days, as they prepare the budget. Can the Minister give the committee some reassurance that this is one of the priority issues she will raise with both Ministers? If she could give that clarity, it would be welcome as it would give comfort to parents who are still waiting that there may be a solution in the coming weeks.
Concerning the scheme, the Minister noted that Bus Éireann makes preparations in July. Is there any way that could be brought back to May or June in future schemes? Time is of the essence in all of these matters, and school transport takes a lot of planning. Logistically, it is a tough gig for Bus Éireann every year. If that could be brought forward, that would be a help. Bus Éireann has a difficult task regarding the routes and the criteria used. Sometimes they drop a route and children could move into the area. Somebody should revise the routes and attendance on the buses. That should be ongoing, not just something that is instigated in July. If the Minister could answer those questions, I would appreciate it.
I thank the Deputy. We are working through the review. As I stated, it is a significant body of work. People wanted extensive engagement. They wanted all voices to be heard and all views to be considered as part of the review. We have thrown the net wide and there have been 8,000 engagements with parents, 2,000 engagements with students and engagements with bus providers, bus operators and other interested parties. The review was open to all of society and, as I said, involved our European counterparts. It is a significant body of work. We are currently working through the analysis and it is my hope and expectation that it will be completed in the coming months. We are doing all we can to ensure that will be the case.
Regarding the budgetary considerations, I have made clear that we were tasked with and had the opportunity to introduce free transport or waive transport fees for those who were eligible for the scheme. That has been achieved but the Deputy is correct that there is a cohort of students who are not eligible for the scheme but were previously in receipt of tickets as concessionary holders where there was capacity.
I have confirmed that I am in discussions with the Minister, Deputy McGrath, in that respect on the upcoming budget to see if there is an opportunity for that cohort of students who are outside eligibility but have previously received tickets as concessionary ticket holders and where there is capacity. That discussion is ongoing and will be completed before next Tuesday. That is a definite I can give. It is the Department of Education going a step beyond the eligibility criteria, and that is important.
On the review, the eligibility and the timing of different things, everything is part of the review at this time and it will all be considered as part of the review.
I would like to ask a supplementary question about the budget discussions that will be going on. If I were booking a bus to matches or for an event, and the Minister was a schoolteacher so she is familiar, I would book it months in advance, ordinarily. Maybe it is just the optimist in me, but I hope there will be good news in the budget next week about this. Can we take an optimistic approach to it and say to Bus Éireann now to plan for a best-case scenario, to start looking at those routes, booking those buses, and getting those bus drivers? A week is a long time in this kind of scenario. I know it would give reassurance to people if they felt that heaven and earth were being moved, with the good news to come next week, I hope. If we did that, we would be ready and there would be a week to our advantage.
To confirm what I have said previously, we are in ongoing daily discussions with Bus Éireann about all opportunities and what we are doing. I do not in any way to pre-empt the Minister, Deputy McGrath, and those discussions, but I am freely admitting and confirming that this is very much part of my discussion with him. We will have to see how that unfolds, but our engagement with Bus Éireann is ongoing.
Deputy O'Sullivan hit on a lot of the points I wanted to make. For as long as I have been in politics, and I am sure for as long as the Minister has been as well, there is almost a certainty that, come the end of August, there will be problems with school transport and we will all start to receive phone calls. It is not the parents who have been granted tickets, including the concessionary tickets, who are going to ring. It does not matter how many tickets there are, and there are a record number, if your son or daughter or family member does not get the ticket, he or she is going to feel particularly excluded. As colleagues have said, this is especially the case for those students who were in receipt of concessionary tickets and had a legitimate expectation right up to sixth year that they would have those tickets. This has manifested itself in unusual ways. I know in Tara Hill National School in County Wexford a significant number were in receipt of concessionary tickets, but because of the demand this year, that presented a problem. While it was done entirely for the right reasons, I wonder whether it may have been correct to have charged even a small fee to those who would have been in receipt of automatic tickets this year. One of the concerns, as a lot of the bus drivers will say, is that not every seat in every bus is taken up. Is there some way to develop the system so that, if we know there are spare seats on buses, others can take them up?
Senator Malcolm Byrne: Go raibh maith agat Cathaoirleach, and I would like to the Minister. Deputy O'Sullivan hit on a lot of the points that I want to make. There is almost a certainty, for as long as I have been in politics, and I am sure the Minister has been as well, that, come the end of August, there are problems with regard to school transport and we all start to receive phone calls. It is not going to be the parents who have been granted the tickets, including the concessionary tickets, who are going to ring. I would say to the Minister that it does not matter how many tickets - there are a record number - if your son or daughter or your family members does not get the ticket. They are going to feel particularly excluded. As colleagues have said, particularly for those students who, where they have been in receipt of concessionary tickets, and there was a legitimate expectation right up, indeed, to sixth year, that they would have those tickets. This has manifested itself in unusual ways. I know in the Tara Hill national school in Co. Wexford where a significant number were in receipt of concessionary tickets but because of the demand this year, it presented a problem. I wonder, and I think it was done entirely for the right reasons, whether it may have been correct to even have charged a small fee for those who would have been in receipt of the automatic tickets this year. I think one of the concerns, and a lot of the bus drivers will say, is that not every seat in every bus is taken up. Whether there is some way to develop the system, that if we know there are spare seats on buses that others could take them up.
My second question, which follows on from Deputy O'Sullivan's, relates to whether we could move to a system next year where we maximise the numbers using public transport to get to school. I appreciate the Minister may not be able to give us a guarantee on that. What kind of assurances could there be that we would move to a situation next year whereby we could try to make provision if there are early indications and if we know in May or June of each year how many kids want to use the bus to a particular school? Deputy O'Sullivan's point was very valid about this. It is a case of whether there is any way of developing a system to do that It is a bit unfair, because I think it is acknowledged that what the Minister did was with good intent, but there was surprise at the level of demand this year, even in spite of the increase in supply.
I thank the Senator. It is important to say, and the Senator referenced it, that there are 124,000 children and their families benefiting from this system.
It is a cost-of-living measure, which delivers a saving of up to €650. I acknowledge that concessionary tickets have always been a challenge. That is one of the reasons, though not the only one, that we are carrying out a root-and-branch review of school transport. I am fully cognisant of that.
As regards the opportunity to introduce a fee, this was a cost-of-living measure. It is very difficult to constitute a reasonable fee that would not place an additional burden on families. Every single family has been impacted by the cost of living. The opportunity to waive the fees presented and that has been welcomed by the 124,000 ticket holders who are benefiting from the measure, notwithstanding some of the discussions.
As regards the review and what it will entail, with regard to spare seat capacity, Bus Éireann operates at full capacity. It is not possible to get inside the minds of parents to find out what decision they will make on a Monday as opposed to a Friday on whether their child will travel on the school bus. Those who are eligible receive the ticket. Recommendations on opportunities to do things differently will form part of the review. As I previously stated to Deputy O'Sullivan, we are looking at completing that review as early as possible.
On the plus side, I can say that the number of children taking up school transport tickets has increased by 21% this year. Concessionary tickets have increased by one third, which should not be forgotten, and many concessionary ticket holders are being facilitated on school buses. A cohort of students falls outside the eligibility loop. I am in discussions in the context of the budget to see what we can do for those individuals and we will continue to work on that between now and next Tuesday.
The challenge is that many of those who were in receipt of concessionary tickets, while they certainly welcome the reduction in fees, would have been prepared to continue to pay some sort of fee as it would still have represented a reduction. The fear is that many people may have applied for tickets simply because the service is now free. I am not discounting the fact that it is an enormous benefit to families. It is difficult. We all know of people who had been getting a concessionary ticket up to fourth or fifth year suddenly being told they no longer have a ticket. Families are prepared to pay for tickets but they are unable to access them.
I welcome the introduction of the school transport waiver. It has helped low-income families. However, the capacity of school transport should have been increased in tandem with the waiver because it has led to a situation where many children are without a bus seat. I have been informed by parents that some of these children had been using school transport for the previous four or five years.
One parents' group based in Emo, County Laois, has serious concerns about the existing issues. For example, I am told there are eight empty seats on the route from New Inn and Emo to Scoil Críost Rí and St. Mary's Christian Brothers School in Portlaoise but five children who had concessionary tickets for the past five years are without seats. I would be grateful if the Minister would look into that issue as I am sure it can be resolved quickly, given that there are eight empty seats.
The school bus service from Emo to Mountmellick Community School needs to be re-established. No service has operated since 2016 and it is my understanding that 19 children are eligible under the existing Bus Éireann scheme. This service must be urgently reinstated. We can resolve lots of issues that went wrong with school transport this year. We have problems with it every year. I raised these issues with previous Ministers for Education. To be fair, the Minister has tried to alleviate hardship on families by bringing in the waiver. Again, however, capacity is the real problem, as it has been for a number of years. I would greatly appreciate if the Minister would look into the two issues in Laois that I highlighted.
I acknowledge that Deputy Nolan has a particular understanding of the issues here. Capacity has been increased, specifically for those who are eligible on the basis that they meet the criteria. There has been a 21% increase in the number of tickets issued. In the Deputy's area, County Laois, the figure has increased by 31%. In every county we are seeing an increase in the number of children receiving tickets. I do not for a minute wish to take away from the cases raised by the Deputy, including that of five children in need of concessionary tickets in a particular area.
As regards empty seats, places are allocated on the basis of eligibility. We can look at this further. As I stated, it is not easy to get inside the minds of families to determine why a child may travel on one particular day and not travel on another, or may not travel for the first few weeks of school. Parents may bring a child to school until he or she settles in and the child may travel on the bus after that. It is difficult to ascertain but we can follow up on the issue. Tickets are allocated on the basis of who is eligible to have a seat on the bus. Circumstances may vary from day to day and that may explain why a child does not travel on one particular day but may travel on another day.
In response to the question about an additional route, the review is examining eligibility and the various criteria and there is an opportunity for those matters to be considered. I will revert to the Deputy on ensuring there is full capacity and that it is being met on the bus service to which she referred.
In the limited time I have, I would like to raise a few issues. The budget is only one week away. Despite the challenges we have with school transport this year, this measure was born out of goodwill and a wish to ease the financial burden for parents as children return to school. It would be wonderful if we could implement it again next year and fix the teething problems we have experienced. In every town, village and city in the country, be it in Tralee or in my neck of the woods in County Clare, people can get from one end to the other with relative ease in the months of July and August because school traffic and the mile-long queues of parents dropping off their children are absent. Earlier today, the transport committee discussed the western rail corridor, which could take ten years to develop. Metro north could take 15 years to develop. All of these important but rather extravagant projects will take an inordinate amount of time to complete. In relative terms, it does not take as much time, effort or money to put a bus carrying 50 children on the road and bring it up the narrow roads to Parteen National School or any other school in the country. That takes many cars off the road and relieves the financial pressure on parents, on a par with childcare costs. Parents have to factor into their daily routine not only childcare costs but also school pick-up and collection. I ask that the Minister champion at Cabinet level rolling out this measure more extensively next year. Does she have any views on that?
I absolutely see the benefit of the school transport scheme. I referred to this earlier and nobody knows it better than I do given the constituency I come from. It is an integral part of the system. I also know there are opportunities to do things differently. That is the reason I instigated the review of the entire scheme. The Deputy is correct that this measure is an enormous addition for families who are benefiting from it on a waived-fee basis. It addresses climate action and eases the burden for families as regards pick-up times. Whether we have the opportunity to do it next year will be a financial and budgetary consideration. Irrespective of some of the challenges we face this year, and even despite them, the system has worked well for 124,000 children in mainstream education. We are working through the challenges for those in need of concessionary tickets. Everything will be taken into consideration but it will be a budgetary decision.
Some European countries have made their entire public transport system free in response to climate change. We do not have that kind of advanced, integrated system at the moment but it makes a massive difference to send a bus to a school. It keeps 50 cars off the road and unburdens parents in the mornings. This is key.
I am sure that each Minister pitches for their Department. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, will be looking for certain projects. However, this is far more urgent. Yes, there are issues with drivers and with concessionary and other tickets, but lessons can be learned from this summer. While we work through these current problems, we should be looking at rolling this out again in the summer of 2023.
Quite a number of Ukrainian children are in County Clare at the moment. In fact, outside of Dublin, we have the largest Ukrainian population in the country. On census night, 2% of the Clare population was Ukrainian. These children have been welcomed into communities, particularly in north and west Clare, which are very rural communities. They have been placed in hotels where there happens to be a large capacity of rooms but not necessarily the infrastructure to support them thereafter. School buses have become a major issue. We have dealt with most of the primary and secondary school queries in Clare at the moment with Ms Stephanie Ryan in the regional office of Bus Éireann, who has been fantastic. The major outlying issue has been getting Ukrainian students from their accommodation centres to schools. It has become a bane for school principals. They have all been in contact. The Minister might have particular oversight of that. I know she Minister cannot drill down in every single case, but where large clusters of students are placed, the Minister needs to look at bus accommodation for those students.
That is what is being done. For Ukrainian students it can be facilitated by a singular collection in most instances because they are coming from a hotel setting. We have more than 1,800 students being accommodated and we are working through. That will increase as time goes on. It could go to even greater numbers. A significant body of work has already been achieved in provision for Ukrainian students, and where there are issues, we will continue to work through them, but they will be provided with transport.
I thank the Minister. There are some positive tales. Quin and Doora in County Clare fought for a for ten years to get a bus service. The temporary alleviation measure which now allows someone to go to their second year school has qualified all of them for a bus. Will the Minister be interested in making temporary alleviation permanent because that has been the big positive of the past 12 months?
Temporary alleviation has solved some of the many issues that would have come to the table heretofore. It is very much a part of the review to see what we can do. I know the benefit of this scheme. I know the benefit of waiving of fees, as the Deputy Crowe has outlined. I know the benefit of extending it to allow the maximum number of children and young people to get on a bus. That is all part of the motivation behind the review. That review will be completed shortly. It will also be a budgetary thing. There will be a money message with it all.
Before we bring in the non-members of the committee, I know Senator Flynn still has to come in. I also have some questions myself. The school transport issue has dominated the headlines both locally and nationally for the month of August and into September. Every town's secondary school has been greatly affected and the students thereby. It is definitely not an isolated incident. It has left both pupils and especially parents with huge upset and frustration and has put stress on a large number of families. I felt sorry for students starting secondary school. There is a large amount of anecdotal evidence but I have some real evidence. Following from Senator Malcolm Byrne and perhaps it is a Wexford thing but if something is given for free, it is like finding something in a lucky bag and everyone will be looking for it for free and that is the way that it is. It was a huge mistake not to have some sort of nominal fee charged. I know it was a cost-of-living measure but the Minister has put a huge amount of financial stress on other families.
The Minister talks about climate change but I think it has put additional traffic on the road rather than taking traffic off the road due to parents driving ten, 15 or 20 km round trips every day to bring their children to school where those children had concessionary passes. I have evidence of four pupils who got bus tickets and who have no intention of ever using them. One is in fifth year, another in third year, another in second year and one went into first year. Both parents in each case live in the town. That is happening throughout the country. Because it was free, the parents thought it would be great have the tickets in case they needed them some day. Someday will never come. Their parents have brought them to school for the past five years and will continue to bring them to school. They have blocked off concessionary tickets on the route.
On one route in County Wexford, the bus driver lets everybody on the bus. It is not his job to check who has tickets or to refuse access. Are people who get on that bus with no tickets covered by insurance?
I need to respond in the context in which the question is asked. In the first instance, the Chairman spoke of an increase in the number of people taking to the road. I am telling him that there has been a 20% increase in the number of tickets issued in his constituency, specifically in relation to the bus-----
Other members wish to come in. I have asked a direct question. It is not that I accept or do not accept something. I am giving what I have been getting from my constituents. I have asked the Minister a direct question and it is-----
No. I do not know the circumstances to which the Chairman is referring. It is the responsibility of the bus driver to ensure that every child on the bus has a ticket. The Cathaoirleach has raised a very serious issue-----
The Chairman said he is aware of a family who have no intention of using tickets. We would be very happy to make direct contact with the family if the Chairman wishes to provide the name and details. It is not possible for us to get into the minds-----
It is not up to me to police this. The Minister is responsible for what I would describe as a mess. She has made school transport free and I have said that as part of that, there should have been a nominal fee of perhaps €100 or €150. In such circumstances, I do not believe any of the students I have been talking about would have applied for a ticket. On the review-----
The review is ongoing. It has not been completed yet. We have had significant and substantive engagement across the sector, so when the review is complete the impact in terms of financial requirements will be a matter for the Government.
On the issue of school of choice, if the closest school for which a student can get a bus ticket is coeducational and the student wants to go to an all-female or all-male school, should he or she have that choice?
All eligibility criteria are being looked at in the review. Every opportunity will be and has been given to people to express views, including the Chairman and the committee. All aspects will be covered in the review.
What research or work has been done now that the tourism season has finished? Have the Minister's officials or Bus Éireann been in contact with some of the bus tour operators to try to alleviate the ongoing problem?
The Minister stated there was difficulty in communications with Bus Éireann. I have to say there is ongoing difficulty in communications with Bus Éireann. My colleagues to whom I have spoken in the past few weeks are absolutely, totally, frustrated with the communications of Bus Éireann. I know the Minister addressed email problems earlier but I ask that her officials, when they are in contact with Bus Éireann, ask that it improves its communications with Oireachtas Members because we are a conduit between a great number of parents, families and Bus Éireann. Much could be solved if they communicated with the Members of the Oireachtas. It is unfair of me to take up other members' time. I will call on members who have emailed me first of all.
The Minister appeared before the Joint Committee on Disability Matters last night where she spoke about taxi services and said that children with additional special needs and wheelchair users could get minibuses and taxis to meet their needs. How will her Department ensure that these students do not fall between the gaps in the services?
The Minister spoke about rural Ireland and said that she understood the levels of stress especially for transport in rural Ireland. There has been an increase in school demands in Ardara, County Donegal, where I live, obviously as the numbers are growing due to the numbers of Ukrainian refugees in the local communities. The demand is growing in rural Ireland in particular with regard to rooms and buses. What extra services is the Department putting in place for villages such as Ardara and Glenties to make sure that children are able to get on the bus and that the bus facilitates all children, including Ukrainian refugees? Yesterday the Tánaiste said that there needed to be more buses put in place. What is the Department of Education doing to ensure this does not happen again and that this time next year, we will not be in the same situation we are in now with regard to the crisis of children and buses?
This extra €40 million was brought about for the cost of living. Single parents in rural communities and Dublin are impacted more greatly, having two or three children and not having the finance for these children to be on school buses. I understand we are talking about the review. The Minister's Department really needs to reflect what has happened. I support my colleagues who called for an apology. How does this not happen again? We could be back here this time next year talking about the same crisis. Will the Minister ensure this will not happen again?
We need to be very clear here that all of those who are eligible and have met the criteria are being provided for by Bus Éireann. All those who have met the criteria and have satisfied the eligibility that is required have been provided for in terms of transport. Where there are ongoing issues for a few, they are guaranteed that they will be provided for. Some 124,000 are in receipt of places on the bus this year, free of charge, as opposed to this time last year when there were 103,000.
The issue that the Senator and others have raised is an issue around those who are not eligible and do not meet the criteria. They are what we call concessionaries. The concessionaries receive places on the bus when the eligibles have been catered for and if there is additional capacity.
This year, and again this is something that has been lost in the debate, there is an increase of one third of those who have received concessionary places on the bus. I am very conscious that there are those who did not meet the criteria and who had previously received concessionary tickets and who have not received them this year.
I have made it clear that, in the context of those people, the obligation to satisfy those who meet the criteria has been achieved but I am in discussion with the Minister, Deputy McGrath, to see if there is scope to meet the needs of those who received concessionary tickets in the past, and where there is capacity, to satisfy former ticket holders. I want to be clear that those who reached eligibility have been and are being provided for on an ongoing basis.
When we talk about making life easier around the cost of living, it is at least 9 km from Ardara to the camp in the Glenties. How are those families being supported to make savings as some of those students are not eligible to get on the bus?
In the first instance, the criteria are that students are 3.2 km from the primary school and 4.8 km from the post-primary school or next nearest post-primary school. I am not familiar with the individual case that the Senator is raising, but if the students meets those criteria, they will be catered for. If she wishes to raise specific instances with me she can come back to me, and I will look at them as I cannot look at the specific case mentioned as I am a not familiar with it. Those are the criteria and where students have met those criteria, they are being provided for with the fee waiver this year.
Specifically, in respect of Ukraine and the provision for children who are arriving from there, they are also being accommodated with transport being provided for them.
On the Senator’s reference to more buses being put in place, there has been a 21% increase in capacity this year already. I return to the issue around concessionary tickets, but as part of the entire school transport review, the entire eligibility factor is being looked at. It is not accurate to say that those who are entitled to a bus place have not received one but the issue is in respect of those who do not meet the eligibility criteria and we are addressing that now.
I thank the Cathaoirleach very much for the opportunity. I welcome the Minister and her officials, and I thank her officials for their engagement and correspondence in the past number of weeks. I am sure it has been a stressful period. Like many other Oireachtas Members, my constituency office has been inundated with calls, anger and frustration around the lack of engagement from the online portal, with it being down, and with constituents looking for answers and no one being at the other end of the phone. Certainly, the public deserve a great deal better in that regard. It is up to us as public representatives to hold people to account in this area.
School transport provision is specifically designed around eligible pupils. Those outside the eligibility criteria - and I welcome the cost-of-living measures in providing free transport and the waiver - have certainly been forgotten in this conversation. The message being put out is that it is not a real problem but it absolutely is. We need to recognise the families who bought tickets in previous years. The reality now is that for some families, their children attend their second school. However, for instance, as has been mentioned previously, Straide and Ballyvary, outside Castlebar, are not their third, fourth or fifth closest school; they are their second. They live within the distance limits, have paid for and held tickets previously and have not received them this year.
I will certainly give one instance, as explained to me by one constituent, of the overwhelming effect the policy change has caused her family, where additional childcare is now required in the morning to take her second-level children to school costing €100 a week, which will cost more than €4,000 per annum. The additional fuel costs are estimated at an additional €70 per week. While I welcome the cost-of-living measures, there is a certain consequence for people who are non-eligible and for that type of family.
Does the Minister have an indication as to how many concessionary ticket holders were still without a ticket which has been paid for?
I thank the Deputy very much for his question. I would like to comment briefly to the issue of the portal closing. The portal closed on 29 July because that was the final day on which to provide a confirmation. It opened again at the end of August but that was the cut-off point, which was well-advertised and flagged.
I acknowledge the point on communications and I believe that Bus Éireann has also acknowledged that. We have given additional resources to Bus Éireann to ensure that it can put a call centre in place. I am assured now that calls are being answered in a timely fashion but I take the Deputy’s point.
On the concessionary tickets, I completely hear what he said on them and I do not take from any of the individual cases that have been raised. The issue of concessionary tickets is one of the greatest impetuses for the entire revision I have instigated around school transport. The Deputy must accept that in the first instance that criteria are laid down for those who are eligible. Those who have met the eligibility have been satisfied.
On that question, there has been a one third increase in concessionary tickets this year, to give the issue its context. There were 130,000 applications, and 124,000 of those applications have been provided with tickets. A number of concessionary ticket applicants did not meet the criteria. That has been an ongoing issue and is one of the key reasons for the entire review. Those who met the criteria are being satisfied. There is scope, as I said, in the budget and we are hopeful to provide for them.
I ask that the Minister replies directly to the Deputy and deals with him through a full reply, please, or to come back to the committee and we will forward the reply on to the Deputy, as we want to allow other members to contribute to the committee. I call Deputy MacSharry.
I thank the Chairman very much for allowing me to make a few points. I welcome the Minister and thank her for her responses.
To save time, I call on her to ensure, with Deputy McGrath and her colleagues at Cabinet, that there is a measure in the budget next week to alleviate the anxiety and hardship on the 6,000 applicants who were discommoded this year.
I acknowledge that all eligible applicants received this transport, there has been a 21% increase in numbers, 124,000 tickets have issued and the review is ongoing and, therefore, I do not need to cover that ground.
Is it an assistant secretary or a principal officer or who is responsible within the Department for school transport? The Minister does not need to name the person but she might just confirm if there is one.
I do not know whether it is appropriate, or whether it is done at this committee, to put questions directly to officials. No, I can see that it is not and that is okay. Did anybody indicate to the Minister at the time that there was an issue, or that one would arise, with those people who had concessionary tickets in the previous years?
I have to say, with the best of respect, that the one thing that has been missing in this, and the Minister can ask my parliamentary assistant and secretarial assistant in Sligo, or each of the representatives present, or everybody throughout the House, or indeed county councillors, and this is why I announced the successes at the beginning and welcomed them so that the Minister did not have to repeat them, but she has repeated them for everybody, is a bit of humility around the fact a major mistake was made. When you fail to prepare you prepare to fail. If we announced this evening that the tickets for the All-Ireland final next year were to be free and were stupid enough to expect that only 20% extra capacity would be required, then there is a real problem. I have to say there should be a little bit of humility.
We have had examples from everybody but one example regarding concessionary tickets is in Knocknahur, County Sligo. The Healy family have had concessionary tickets for 16 years as the children were being raised. They paid for them but were told they were too late. They cannot ring their employer and say "No". Those people are equal citizens, by the way. They all have votes in Kerry as well as in Sligo-Leitrim.
There is a need for a basic acknowledgement from Government that while it was set up with the best will in the world to help families and while 124,000 are being helped, as the Minister tells us ad nauseam, 6,000 have been discommoded, and whether it was the fault of the Minister, an official or Bus Éireann, that failure needs to be acknowledged. We do not need to be told constantly how great things are, because we are in the help business in politics, as the Minister knows. We are not here to slap each other on the back. We are here to identify problems and seek solutions. I call on the Minister to acknowledge the mistake and to ensure, in the interests of everybody, that those 6,000 people are looked after from a transport perspective in the budget next week.
Even before this I had made the very clear assertion that there is an opportunity to do things differently in terms of school transport. It is for that reason we have the review. Second, on announcing a cost-of-living measure, it was not possible to change criteria in recent weeks. It would have not been fair to everybody who meets the criteria. What we have done is provided for those who have met the criteria. That is fair. I do not take from the fact there are some who were concessionary ticket holders and who have not received tickets this year, despite the fact there has been an increase of one third in those receiving concessionary tickets.
-----but we also have 6,000 freeloaders, as the Chairman has mentioned, who hoovered up the spaces because they might need it and sure it would be nice to have it. We did not deal with that and, even now, with respect to the Minister, and her a long time, there is no humility here. It is a case of, "Look at the great job we are doing and you should be happy with it."
Would it not have been a legitimate approach in this year to treat late applications differently from those who applied before 29 April? We have a scenario where people who applied after 29 April, eligible and concessionary, have been accommodated ahead of those who applied before 29 April. I think that would have been a fair approach and I know there are specific eligibility criteria. Was that an option the Minister considered? Was it ruled out and, if so, why was it ruled out?
It would. It would have changed the criteria mid-stream while there was an ongoing review. What was done was the waiving of fees for those who were eligible and for those who were in a position to receive concessionary tickets should there be capacity on the buses. That is what was achieved.
Why did the Department not consider applications received before 29 April first and then fill the remaining seats with applications received after 29 April? That would not have involved changing criteria. It would have been a fair approach.
That is not the case. That has never been the system. The system has always involved application followed by final registration, which has always been on a particular date in July. We also consider eligibility rollovers. It would have involved changing the system. The priority was to ensure families who were eligible for tickets had their fees waived and to provide concessionary tickets where the potential for that existed. Concessionary tickets have increased by one third. I accept individual situations exist and individual families have been discommoded even though they did not meet the eligibility criteria.
What is the Minister's intention as regards accommodating those 600 applicants? Obviously they must be accommodated. When does the Minister think they will be accommodated? What are the challenges in doing that? The Chair mentioned that transport contractors have said this year is very different from last year. I know a number of them. They had buses laid up last year. This year they are coming towards the end of a busy tourism season. Does the Minister intend to accommodate the 6,000 applicants or the approximately 600 remaining concessionary ticket applicants? What are the financial and practical challenges of accommodating the 6,000? I expect that significant challenges exist in providing buses and drivers. Is the Minister considering increasing the 70-year-old threshold?
The 600 applicants who are eligible will be provided for. I absolutely concede that there are challenges in some pinch areas in the provision of buses and drivers. That is not unique to school transport. We have seen similar staffing challenges in business, hospitality or wherever it happens to be. However, Bus Éireann is working through that and those 600 applicants will be provided for. I have indicated that I am in discussions with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, about the 6,000 applicants who have not met the criteria - they are applicants for concessionary tickets - to see what scope exists.
I will have to come back to the Deputy with that figure. I am specifically discussing with the Minister the scope to accommodate those who previously held concessionary tickets and to provide for them where there is capacity. That discussion will be ongoing between now and next Tuesday.
The issue of the over-70s has been raised consistently here and I hear it. I have to say that it is a consideration for Bus Éireann. It has made a health and safety judgment on the 70-year age threshold. It has said it will keep everything under review but at this time its view is that 70 years of age is the cut-off. However, obviously everything is under review.
I appreciate the time to contribute. I welcome the Minister. I was glad to accidentally bump into her officials before this meeting. We had a good chat about a sensitive issue and I will send on the details. It involves a school of a particular ethos in my county, which I will not name, where students had eligible, not concessionary, tickets. Some families had received tickets for brothers and sisters for many years and ten of them still do not have a ticket today. I will send on the details. I thank the Minister's officials for their help in that regard.
My second question relates to the overall budget. I am sorry I was not here for the Minister's presentation. I inform the Chair I have to leave after this to attend a presentation by a representative of North Macedonia at the EU affairs committee.
What is the overall budget for this year for school transportation?
Obviously, there are many special needs students who need to go to special schools. I totally appreciate that, but there are a lot of students passing their local primary or secondary school to go to another school. What I am asking for today, and no doubt it will be incorporated into the review, is to ensure that the building unit has a very proactive role in that review, because I believe that figure of €150 million on special needs is going to increase. The way around that would be to be more focused on using money to build extra additional ASD classes in local schools, where young people could go to school with their brothers and sisters on the same bus. There is a lot of empty space and empty capacity on many of these buses. The sad thing for a lot of people today, for the 6,000 figure mentioned and the ten students in my own county of Donegal I mentioned as well, is that they were entitled to tickets in the past, but they are not being afforded that opportunity. Additional buses will be needed. I wish the Minister well with the negotiation with the Minister, Deputy McGrath. I had a history of very tense communication between the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform when it came to bus transportation. They talk about long-term sustainability, but at the end of the day, if we are going to get more cars off the road and be more green-focused in relation to buses and electric buses and so on, bus transportation is going to be part of that sustainable future. I wish the Minister well and would ask her to look closely at that very important issue in my own county, County Donegal.
I thank the Deputy and want to acknowledge his huge contribution in this Department. On the building unit, we have ongoing engagement between school transport and the building unit. As the Deputy will be aware, it is our absolute priority that we would ensure that children are being facilitated as close as possible to their homes and to the schools that are being attended by their siblings.
On the specific case the Deputy raised with officials, we will certainly come back to him on that.
I want to raise the issue of people with concessionary tickets who previously were on a school bus and are no longer able to avail of that because of the effect of the Minister's announcement. I specifically want to raise the situation of Whitegate in County Clare. It is the last village in County Clare before reaching the Galway border, in the east of the county, on the Shannon. The nearest secondary school is in Scariff. According to some of the Department's calculations, the nearest secondary school is in Woodford, in the very south-east of County Galway. People typically do not go to Woodford secondary school from Whitegate in great numbers because Scariff is in County Clare and Scariff, like Whitegate, is a hurling area and hurling is quite important. The main point is Whitegate and Scariff are in County Clare. That vast majority from the national school in Whitegate go on to Scariff secondary school. If you put these locations into Google Maps, you will see that Scariff is the nearest and fastest place to get to. You can get to Woodford by a back road through Derrygoolin. I would highly recommend that the Minister go to Derrygoolin if she is interested in woodcock shooting or snipe shooting; other than that, there is nothing there. It is essentially a forest track that will take you to Woodford. You need a four-wheel drive and certainly would not be driving a school bus there. I have raised this issue with the Minister before in the context of Broadford students being told that the nearest school was across "the gap", as it is called, which you certainly would not drive on in any type of vehicle at certain times of the year. The Minister agreed to look into it and she did, in fairness. I want the Minister to look into the position of Whitegate and the school bus.
Ireland is full of roads because of British crown forces, which we are viewing differently as time moves on. They built loads of roads in Ireland. We have more roads in Ireland than any other country in western Europe for a variety of military as well as socioeconomic reasons. Many of those roads are not kept, and it would not be possible to keep all the roads and boreens across Slieve Aughty. Many of them have become forest tracks, so the idea that school buses would be taking those morning and evening or that children would be penalised because British forces built a road because they wanted to subdue a certain group of people at a particular time is an absolute nonsense. There are roads that Google would recommend people use and that are used, and there are roads that, while you could bring your cattle along them or use them if you wanted to go shooting snipe or woodcock, nobody is driving regularly. They are certainly not fit for school buses. The Minister's Department needs to get real about that. It is almost like a desperate attempt to find a road somewhere - anywhere - that can take people. Therefore, I want the Minister not only to look at the issue of Whitegate but also at the broader issue of the identification of these roads, which may be faster in theory but might in fact take an extra half an hour. I do not know if the Minister wishes to reply or if she can.
I thank the Deputy. On the specific incidence he raises, I can certainly take a look at it but I cannot give any definitive answer on it. In terms of the broader scope around routes and roads, the criteria are clear about nearest and next nearest, but certainly all of that features very much in and is part of the entire review. I take the point the Deputy is making in terms of back roads as opposed to main roads. Everything can feed into this review and we can see where we are going forward. Many of the issues he raises have been raised by Deputy Crowe and Senator Dooley. I am conscious of the significant difference and challenge for rural transport, and nobody knows that better than the Deputy himself. The purpose of the review is to ensure we have a system in place in order that we do all we can to ensure the maximum number of children and young people avail of a transport system, not just from an economic point of view but also from a climate action and accessibility point of view. There is a strong body of work under way, recognising there are new opportunities to do things differently. That review will be completed in a short while and we will take it from there. I appreciate the Deputy's ongoing interest.
I imagine a significant amount of this has been dealt with, and we all get the logic of the cost-of-living move, but that only works if people are getting the saving by being able to get their kids on the buses. We know the issue with concessionary tickets. It is a mess every year and we need a review that will deal with that. I used to think at times that politicians were quite happy with this element of chaos because we could be busy with people in communities who would not necessarily interact with us. It is something that is very annoying and particularly difficult for those families. We all have areas we can mention, like Annagassan, which is, unfortunately, almost equidistant between the school in Dunleer, the school in Ardee, and Dundalk. This has created an anomaly where people who usually got concessionary tickets now have not. It is a major issue. We are talking about 20 and possibly even 30 families, because there are probably a number of them who are already making difficult logistical fixes. Either way, we need that dealt with as soon as possible.
We are all glad this is moving in the right direction, and whatever has been has been. Are we talking about looking at those 6,000 concessionary tickets, and if that is the case, how much and what are the obstacles to delivering for them?
I am somewhat worried about the position with regard to those who got concessionaries before. I have a difficulty with the possible treatment of someone who has only started in first year and whose siblings may have always got concessionary tickets. I ask the Minister to answer that.
I thank the Deputy. He is right with regard to the concessionaries. That is the rub of it. The needs of those who have met the eligibility criteria have been satisfied and they are in receipt of the waiving of fees. There has been a one third increase in concessionaries this year. The Deputy and others can raise individual cases. I am very conscious of the individual circumstances of particular families who are outside of eligibility. I refer to those who would traditionally have received concessionary tickets, but because of the increased eligibility have now missed out. I am in discussions with the Minister in the context of the budget to see if we can go a step further to look at measures for concessionaries, in particular for those who have previously been in receipt of such tickets but have not met the eligibility criteria this year, where there is capacity on transport to cater for them. Those discussions are ongoing in advance of next Tuesday. I am hopeful that we will be in position to meet that need but it is an additional need. It is additional because they did not meet the criteria in the first instance.
Yes, where there is capacity. People have mentioned specific instances. I have met individuals who previously received concessionary tickets and might have done so for a number of years. As they received the tickets each year, they were always mindful that the circumstances could change, for example if a new family moved into the area or a new housing development took place.
This means it is concessionary. I am mindful of their particular challenge. This is a cost-of-living measure that was introduced. Where there is scope to address their needs in my discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, we will do that.
That figure included special needs. The figures I have given - I mentioned that 124,000 pupils are availing of the service now, compared with 103,000 this time last year - refer to the mainstream. I referred to those figures because there has always been a free transport system for those availing of special education needs transport.
In terms of capacity, I am mindful that there are challenges in some instances for Bus Éireann in terms of the provision of buses and bus drivers, etc. As I said previously - I know I am repeating myself now - these challenges are not unique to the transport sector. There are issues in hospitality and in businesses across many different levels of society. We are meeting those challenges to the best of our ability. We are already spending in excess of €300 million on the school transport system. That is an increase of €40 million from last year. I am in discussions on what we might be in a position to do next Tuesday.
I have two brief questions. First, we need to see movement on the concessionary pupils next week. We will all support the Minister in trying to secure the funding to help families who were traditionally able to avail of services.
The reason I want to talk to the Minister this morning is in relation to autistic children. As she knows, some children, particularly in the Athlone and Roscommon areas, did not have a school place until July of this year. Eventually they got offered a school place, but now they have no school transport. I know of a family who are travelling 120 km a day to bring their son outside of the county to and from an autism unit. They have another child with a disability who is travelling 20 km in the opposite direction. They are in crisis at the moment. A number of autistic children still have not got a school transport service. They have been issued with a bus ticket, but they have no bus service. These children have been neglected by the Department. They were denied school places until the summer.
They are being left high and dry on the side of the road without a transport service in place. When will they get the transport service that they have a right and entitlement to?
In the first instance, significant progress has been made in the provision of school places and school transport for children and young people with additional needs. Some 25% of the budget is expended on special education. That is right and proper. We are coming from a base where more and more work is required. I appreciate that and absolutely understand the importance of it. Specifically in regard to the provision of the bus transport service, as members are aware, there is a free bus transport service available to children with additional needs. As highlighted earlier, there is a difficulty in procuring buses or drivers in certain areas. Bus Éireann is working through that. There will be a service provided for these children. They are entitled to it and they will receive it. In the interim, I am not aware of the individual cases raised but we can look at providing a grant to the family until the actual service is put in place. It is an absolute given.
I thank everyone for their forbearance in getting through the meeting. I thank the Minister and her officials for attending. The Minister will leave with an understanding of people's absolute frustration. This is one issue that I, as Chair of the Committee, have had many calls about in the context of bringing her before us. Many other people would have liked to have attended the meeting but were unable to do so..