Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 September 2023
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
National Car Testing: Discussion
The purpose of today's meeting is for the joint committee to discuss an update on national car testing, including staffing issues and driver licence issues with representatives of the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS. On behalf of the committee, I am pleased to welcome from the Road Safety Authority, RSA, Mr. Brendan Walsh, chief operations officer; and Ms Alison Coleman, director of people, development and culture. From Applus Ireland, I welcome Mr. Mark Synnott, managing director.
I will read a note on privilege before we start. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside of the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I remind members of the constitutional requirement that members must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where he or she is not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I ask any member participating via MS Teams to confirm he or she is on the grounds of the Leinster House campus prior to making his or her contribution.
I invite Mr. Walsh to make his opening statement on behalf of the RSA.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I would like to begin by thanking the committee, through the Vice Chair, for the opportunity to speak to members today to discuss issues impacting the national car testing service, NCTS, and the driver testing service. Given recent events on our roads and in relation to Ireland’s road safety performance so far this year, it is with great sadness that we acknowledge the tragic loss of life on Ireland’s roads in 2023. On behalf of myself and my colleagues in the RSA, I extend my condolences to all of the bereaved families across the country at this most difficult time. Over the period from 1 January 2023 to today, unfortunately there have been 121 fatal collisions that have resulted in 131 deaths, which represents 26 more deaths compared to the same period in 2022. In addition, almost 850 people have been seriously injured in road traffic collisions so far this year. The RSA welcomes the committee's invitation to appear before it next week for a focused discussion on road safety. Along with other delivery partners, we will provide more detail in relation to our road safety performance and we will outline our short- and long-term priorities to reverse this trend, including progress on a number of priority actions identified within the Government road safety strategy. I will begin by providing the committee with an update on the NCTS.
The RSA has overall responsibility for the operation, oversight, development, quality assurance and delivery of the NCTS. The national car test, NCT, was introduced in 2000, and over the past 23 years it has played an important role in improving road safety in Ireland. It has also played a vital role in protecting the environment, as the NCT also enforces regulations around vehicle emissions. The service is provided at 49 test centres nationwide, with a new NCT centre due to open in the coming weeks in Castleisland in County Kerry, bringing the total number of test centres to 50. In addition, there are plans to open new test centres in other locations to cater for future long-term needs. These centres are planned in Limerick or Clare, Cork, Cavan or Monaghan, and Dublin.
Responsibility for the delivery of the NCT service lies solely with the contractor, Applus. Applus's managing director, Mr. Mark Synnott, who is here with me today, will provide a comprehensive update on the service to the committee shortly. The RSA's statutory obligations in respect of the NCT are to exercise a supervisory and oversight role to ensure the service is provided in line with the service’s project agreement. We also work with our parent Department, the Department of Transport, in assisting it in relation to the development of policy around vehicle roadworthiness and vehicle standards, which is a key factor in road safety in Ireland.
To assist the RSA in our supervisory role, we appointed a supervision services contractor, SSC, Deloitte, to carry out certain supervisory services on our behalf. This involves monitoring the contractor’s achievement of performance and service levels and reporting on these regularly to the RSA. Another structural approach to performance monitoring and oversight that the RSA has put in place is the appointment of AA Ireland as technical inspections services provider. It regularly monitors delivery of the service at the 49 test centres nationwide and at the contractor’s headquarters. This includes observing tests and conducting independent tests. In 2023, as of the end of July, AA Ireland had carried out more than 2,654 observed tests and 2,063 independent tests. The results show that more than 99% of testing is carried out correctly.
In addition to regular strategic oversight meetings, we meet the contractor on a weekly basis to facilitate and monitor progress on changes to work practices designed to increase capacity following the disruption caused by Covid and other challenges faced by the service since early 2020. I acknowledge that Applus is not currently meeting the waiting time service level of 12 days, as per the project agreement, due to demand and capacity issues, which Mr. Synott will expand upon. It is important to reflect that there are a number of key service levels being met, and exceeded in some cases. These include customer satisfaction, telephone response times, numbers of customer complaints and test accuracy.
Turning to the issue of the backlog, the service faced serious challenges in 2020 and 2021 as a result of deferred tests due to Covid-19. To address deferred tests, the NCTS required a significant increase in its testing resource. However, the constraints of the local labour market, particularly in 2022 and this year to date, resulted in a significant shortfall in the available testers Applus was able to recruit, a point shared with this committee on my previous appearance. With the support of the Department of Transport, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the members of this committee, the State has approved 200 work permits to date. This has allowed Applus to recruit testers from the Philippines, of which 90 are in situ, and a further 50 have had work permits approved and are expected to be operational in the service by the end of November 2023.
I am acutely aware that a commitment was given to this committee, the Minister and the public that the service would return to normal operating levels by June 2023. Regrettably, this was not achieved due to a prolonged overseas recruitment process, given the interdependencies of multiple Government Departments and the necessary due process. All stakeholders have learned lessons from this process and the current recruitment process is progressing well. It is our expectation that the NCTS will be back to normal operational levels by the end of this year. The average lead time for an appointment for a test is currently 18.6 days against a target of 12 days nationally. Mr. Synnott will outline the extensive plan and measures the NCTS has taken to increase capacity within the service. These include an extensive recruitment programme in Ireland and abroad, increased overtime and extending opening hours. I acknowledge the frustration and confusion customers have experienced as a result of delays in securing a test appointment. I wish to tell our customers that we are on track to return the service to normal by the end of 2023. I thank the committee and ask for patience as we work with our contractor to achieve this.
I will move to the driver testing service and the position at the end of August 2023. I will give an insight into the current position of the service. As of the end of August this year, 16,043 people have been scheduled to sit a driving test in the following four weeks. The figure has increased from 13,980 in October 2022, as per my statement at my first appearance at this committee. In addition, there are 71,554 learner drivers waiting to receive an invitation to book their test, which is up from 44,545 in October 2022. In quarter 2 of 2019, there were 230,729 active learner permits in the State. This average was the same in the previous two years. As of the end of quarter 2 of 2023, there are 352,887 driver learner permits active in the State, representing an increase of 53%. We are experiencing increases, particularly in those aged 17 to 20, where the increase has been 64%, and in those aged 30 to 39, where the increase has been 54%. A further 28,459 learner drivers have applied for their driving test, although they are not eligible to sit a test yet, usually because they have not completed their 12 mandatory lessons or the six-month rule applies, whereby they cannot sit a test in the first six months of having received their first learner permit.
To be clear, therefore, the actual number of learner drivers available, eligible and waiting for an invitation to book their driving test is 71,554, up from 44,545 in October 2022, representing an increase of 61%. At the moment, the national average time to invite for a test is 30 weeks, which is unsatisfactory. The service level agreement in place with the Department of Transport is to maintain an average waiting time of ten weeks. Where a learner driver fails their test and reapplies, we endeavour to invite them to book another test date between six to eight weeks after their failed test. This is longer in some centres due to exceptionally high demand. Those waiting for a truck, bus or motorcycle test are generally invited within ten to 12 weeks of applying.
To put this in context, the RSA currently provides an average of 4,000 tests per week, up from 3,186 in October 2022, when we first briefed this committee. The number of applications for a driving test in 2023 is averaging 5,024 per week. This increased from 3,254 applications per week in 2018, which, for the purpose of the driver test, is the historical reference period. The backlog of applications which built up throughout the pandemic was effectively cleared earlier in 2022 and reduced to six weeks. This new demand was being met up until July and August 2022. Since then, unfortunately, there have been challenges to meeting increased demand. These challenges include a 16% increase in applications for a driving test versus the same period in 2022, owing to the increased level of drivers passing through the essential driver training cycle, the need for dedicated training of staff to conduct tests in higher categories to meet the demand for truck, bus and motorcycle tests and a reduced workforce owing to staff retirements and contracted staff reaching the end dates on their contracts. To meet increased demand, we were given sanction by the Department of Transport to increase the number of permanent driver testers from 100 to 130 in early 2022. All of these posts were filled by an open competition. The RSA made a request to the Department of Transport for additional driving testers, which was approved on 29 March. The RSA was granted approval to recruit up to 75 additional driving testers for a period of two years. My colleague, Ms Coleman, will be happy to take questions on our recruitment process, which commenced immediately after this approval. We are delighted to say that the first 14 recruits have successfully passed through their training and have been operational since 18 September.
Over the past 20 months, applications for driving tests have been at unprecedented levels. For example, to the end of August, we had received 170,826 applications versus 169,237 for the full year in 2018. This is driven by a number of factors, including population growth, inward migration and an increase in drivers under instruction by approved driving instructors, ADIs. The number of applications for learner permits has also increased to record levels and currently stands at 53% versus the same period in 2019, and it continues to grow.
Our indicators, which we track through the service from learner to licensed driver, will provide us with the information that will allow us identify the number of driving testers required in the future. We are working with our colleagues in the Department of Transport to monitor the data points and to ensure that we are staffed correctly to deliver the ten-week SLA after the temporary sanction expires. I know the committee wants to know when we will be in a position to meet the SLA of ten weeks. I want to be clear. Based on our permanent and temporary staff, the driver testing service SLA is expected to be achieved in mid-2024.
I will reiterate the position with regard to requests for urgent driving tests. If a customer is a critical front-line worker employed by the HSE, a private hospital or the emergency services, and needs to drive in the course of his or her duties, he or she may submit a request using the form on the RSA website. If that request is approved, then the customer will be prioritised. In the interests of fairness and transparency to all customers, invitations to book a test slot are issued in strict rotation, with those who applied and are eligible being invited first. Where customers have previously failed their car test and reapplied, they are fast-tracked and sent a new booking invitation six to eight weeks after their previous test. This is longer in some centres.
This concludes my opening statement to the committee on requested matters. I am happy to take questions from members on our submission and my opening statement.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to provide an update on the NCT service. I am pleased to report that all test centres have shown significant improvement in terms of reduced waiting lists and increased availability of appointments since the last time I was here. Our plans outlined to the committee in February continue to be implemented and are proving effective.
I will start by acknowledging the efforts of the entire NCTS team, both management and staff, in test centres, the call centre and the back office, for their continued support in very challenging circumstances. We continue to try to source qualified mechanics in Ireland and across Europe, with limited success. Our recruitment team has been successful in sourcing qualified mechanics in the Philippines. We initially secured an allowance from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to bring in 100 roadworthiness inspectors from outside the EU and recently secured an increase in the limit from 100 to 200. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Richmond, and his Department for this constructive step in helping us to address the challenge.
The first eight months of 2023 saw the highest throughput in an eight-month period in the 23-year history of the NCTS. Almost 200,000 more inspections were carried out compared with the same period in 2022. As anticipated, vehicles with a test due date in the past rose to a peak of 436,000. This has now dropped back to 363,000 and reduces further to 338,000 when compliance with motor tax is included. Of these 338,000 vehicles, 52,000 have already been tested, have failed and require retesting; 198,000 have been provided with a booking; and 4,200 are on a waiting list for an appointment. Notification of the obligation to have the vehicle tested has issued in all cases. In the case of approximately 84,000 vehicles, therefore, no effort has been made to become compliant even though we have issued notification. This could possibly be because the vehicles are on a garage forecourt awaiting sale or otherwise off the road. Almost 40,000 vehicles have been tested which are not due for testing until later this year or next year.
In February, I reported a figure of 47,000 vehicles on our priority list. Within a week of the media attention surrounding the Oireachtas joint committee meeting in February, the list rose to a peak of almost 65,000. I am pleased to report that the list is currently under 9,500, with many of those remaining on the list due in the future, or with specific booking requirements. While not quite at the level we would call business as usual, it is more than manageable. The booking lead time for each test centre is reported on the NCTS website under the statistics section. For the first two weeks of September, the average booking lead time was under 19 days, down from 27.1 days in March. We understand that this is short of what we committed to, but we have made significant progress in recent months.
More than 88,000 vehicles have failed to show for appointments so far this year. Additionally, over 42,000 more customers have cancelled immediately prior to their appointment. This is almost double what it was in pre-Covid times. As previously advised to this forum, the NCTS is looking at ways to incentivise customers to attend their appointments. We developed plans to move the service to prepayment in quarter 4 2023. This plan was prompted by a continuous level of customer no-shows; to reduce the threat of armed robberies and break-ins; to improve transparency; to align with the principle of digital first; and to align with our contractual obligation to remove cash payments from NCTS centres. It is useful to note that a vehicle owner who has prepaid is almost three times more likely to attend an appointment than one who has not.
Members should note that the chronic shortage of qualified mechanics in Ireland reported in February continues to be an issue and can now be noted in the service and repair side of the industry. Some 103 qualified mechanics have joined the NCTS so far this year. Fifty-one vehicle inspectors have joined due to recruitment in the Philippines, on top of 44 in November last year; 52 vehicle inspectors have joined from recruitment activities in Ireland and the UK; and we expect 48 more Filipino recruits who are in the process of joining us to arrive before the end of the year. Finding accommodation for new recruits from outside the EU remains a significant challenge.
The high level of voluntary staff attrition noted in 2022 has moderated and returned to normal levels. Despite the recognised shortage of qualified mechanics in Ireland, we currently employ approximately 630 vehicle inspectors. This is the highest volume of vehicle inspectors ever within the NCTS and we are the largest employer in the automotive sector in Ireland. Other measures to address the backlog include offering overtime to inspectors; recruiting additional test centre administration staff to allow vehicle inspectors to focus on testing vehicles; and continuing to explore alternative resourcing solutions for the NCT.
As discussed at this meeting in February, our adherence to our customer charter obligation had been questioned. At the time, the NCTS advised that it had been operating in compliance with our charter obligations since they were reinstated, post Covid, in October 2022. This was subsequently confirmed by the RSA’s supervision services contractor, which has carried out a series of independent audits. I am delighted to announce that we are opening a new NCT centre in Castleisland, County Kerry. It is the 50th NCT centre. We expect to commence inspections there on 9 October. We continue to look for suitable locations in Limerick-Clare, Cork, Cavan-Monaghan and Dublin to build new centres.
The year 2023 has been very tough for our staff. However, I am very proud that despite the challenges, we have maintained our very high quality standards. The authority’s external technical service provider has conducted more than 4,700 audits on our testing staff so far this year and our target of 99% test result accuracy has been exceeded.
While recognising that the NCTS has a specific issue with availability of appointments, it is important to note that our customer satisfaction scores remain very high and are improving further. Our survey, with more than 7,500 respondents in the year to date, shows almost 90% overall satisfaction with the service and greater than 60% satisfaction with booking wait times. We were delighted to read in The Irish Timeson 19 June that according to research from the CX Company, the NCT was acknowledged as the customer excellence champion in the public service.
In summary, the NCTS has seen significant improvements in service delivery in recent months; waiting lists have massively reduced; booking lead time for appointments has improved; availability on the website has improved; and our calculated risk to bring qualified mechanics in from the Philippines has proven successful. I thank our customers for their patience.
I thank the witnesses. They are very welcome. I will ask Mr. Walsh about the driving test centres. He mentioned that the average wait time for a driving test appointment is currently 19 weeks, which is well above the target of ten weeks.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I will bring us back to summer 2022, when the service was at six weeks. A number of temporary testers were deployed to deal with the post-Covid numbers that needed to be dealt with. They were released because they had reached the end of their contracts. What has happened in the past three quarters, if we go back 18 months, is we are seeing that the number of people being educated to drive and applying for learner permits is at an unprecedented level.
In my opening statement, I referred to how, compared with 2019, we have seen an increase of 53% in the number of people on learner permits. In the younger age group, from 17 to 20, it has increased by 64%. That represents the highest single number. We reduced the capacity because it was there to deal with the surge that had resulted from Covid. Those contracts had come to an end and we spoke about that the last time we were here. What we had not foreseen, which we have only got our heads around in the past 12 months, is that the level of demand for that service is now at unprecedented levels. We have 2,400 approved driving instructors, ADIs, operating in the country. That is a significant increase above pre-pandemic levels, when it was around 1,700. The number of people who hold learner permits, as I referred to, has increased by 53%. The number of applications coming in for the physical driving test has increased significantly.
As part of our normal business, we have hired an additional 30 permanent driving testers, which took us from a base of 100 driving testers who were permanent to 130. It was our expectation that that would satisfy the future demand for the service. As I have said, the levels we have seen are unprecedented. We have been working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Transport, who have granted us sanction to bring in additional temporary testers for the next two years. We will take what appears to be effectively the new trend, which has been there for six quarters, and we will continue to monitor that for the next nine months. After that, we will enter discussions with the Department of Transport about maybe further increasing the permanent representation of our driving testers.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
First, it approved a sanction to increase our number of permanent testers from 100 to 130. An open competition was run and those 30 permanent testers were brought into the service. What we have seen over the past six quarters is an extraordinary level of demand. We went back to the Department of Transport. We had a very robust discussion. We had some great support from the Department and the Minister. They have agreed to grant us a sanction for up to 75 further testers to allow us to deal with this backlog we have.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
During Covid, there would definitely have been restrictions. We have carried out an analysis based on our current footprint and we believe that to meet the expected number of driving testers that will be available, we will have enough desks and capacity. If that is not the case, if, for example, one site has an additional couple of testers, we will look to set up temporary accommodation for those driving testers so they can carry out their work.
On the NDLS, how seriously does the RSA take public concerns about a move towards a cashless society? There was news this morning that the Minister for Finance was writing to all State bodies to ensure cash is used as legal tender. Will this ensure the RSA revisits the issues and concerns in its NDLS centres?
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
The NDLS is 100% cash free. There is no cash currently in the NDLS. I listened to the comments this morning and read the piece that was published. We are a State body. If we are directed that we need to make sure there is a cash facility in future and if it is required, it is definitely something we will work on with the Department to make sure we meet our obligations.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
On the NCT and Applus today, the current contract we have with Applus allows for the movement to a cashless service based on our agreement of how we do that. We are in ongoing discussions about how we can make that work for the consumer. It is in the contract. However, with regard to offering a cashless service, if we are mandated, we would have to revisit it because it is in the contract that we have entered with Applus that it could move the service to be cashless at some point in future.
The next slot is a Fianna Fáil slot. I will take it if that is all right with everybody. I thank the witnesses for being here. It is not that long since they were here. As a committee, we had hoped we would have Applus with us before the summer, but I think it was not willing to come in without the RSA beside it. Everyone is here today. I point out to all members that we have a full three-hour slot next week on road safety, so I will not let people discuss road safety generally other than where the NCT is there to promote and improve road safety by making sure defective cars are not on the road and defective cars are found and so on. We can refer to that.
On the driving licences, we had the coach transport people in from Bus Éireann and so on. They said that one side of the Department of Transport is promoting active travel and public transport while a different part of the Department of Transport seems to be frustrating people getting public service vehicle licences, particularly in the last part, where people actual pass their test and are waiting for a little bit of plastic. That can take five or six weeks to get. What is the RSA doing to make sure that the throughput of commercial driver licences, especially for public transport licences but also for any other D licences, including hauliers and so on, is addressed? What is happening there? It seems that people pass their test and there is nothing to stop them from driving except for the possession of a piece of plastic.
I think it is called a certificate of competency. Yet, they cannot drive without it. They are just waiting for it to arrive in the post. Why is that backlog so big and why is that waiting period so long?
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
There are a couple points I can speak to there. First, we have met with all of the bus agencies, such as Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, etc. We have engaged with them following our previous engagement with this committee. We are working with them to ensure we maintain a meaningful booking system. There is a block booking system in place for them where they work with us. In my opening speech, I referenced that for truck and bus it is within the SLA. We have kept it within the SLA, being very mindful of that. The challenge that my team and I face in particular in carrying out a truck or bus test is the equivalent of a minimum of two car tests and could even be two and a half car tests. We may only get two or three of those tests carried out on a day when we may get car tests carried out. We have engaged with the buses. I recently met the Irish Road Haulage Association before the summer break. We will continue to work with those agencies and representatives to ensure they have what they need. On the physical licence itself, they do get the licence. I am not aware of any major delays-----
They told us. We actually went as a committee. Some of us went out and visited Go-Ahead Ireland, but we have also been in touch with them. We had the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, Bus Éireann and so on before the committee. They are saying that is taking up to five weeks, or that is generally five weeks, from the time of sitting the test and passing it to receiving this piece of plastic that then allows them to sit in the cab and drive.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
The CPC card is different from when you pass your test. The CPC card is the certificate of competency. In relation to that, we have taken that away. We are working internally. We actually have a process internally within the RSA to look at how we can optimise our internal processes at the moment.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
It can in a lot of cases, but I was made aware of a couple of instances, and we discussed it with the representatives, particularly those from the bus group, where there were some challenges around how the licences were applied for, whether the individuals were out of the State and whether they had satisfied the requirements within the CPC process. What I can say is that we are now looking to overhaul that complete area of our business to try to find a way to optimise it.
That certainly seems to be a source of great frustration to them, and it was reflected to us that they were really having a problem with this. They were more or less telling us that the average – it was not that it was an exceptional case – was generally taking five weeks. Mr. Walsh might come back to us on how long it is taking and if most people are getting it within a week, ten days or whatever. I would like to see those figures, if that is possible.
I am conscious of time and the fact there are a lot of people here. In terms of the driver licences generally, what future planning is the RSA putting in place? They are kind of saying that it was a big surprise that there has been an enormous increase of 65%, I think, in the 17- to 24-year-old category and a 54% increase. Are the witnesses looking at national statistics? Are they looking at how many people have licences? Are they looking at the expectation that most people in this country probably do want to have licences, particularly those who are outside urban areas, where the public transport options are limited? It is unlikely these figures will go down in future. They are huge, enormous figures. They are enormous increases, but they are happening, and the RSA does not seem to have been ready for them.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
First, the sanction we originally received from the Department of Transport for 30 permanent driver tests was based on statistical data. Over the past 12 months, we looked into other areas. We looked at the number of people who were teaching people how to drive. We were looking at the number of people who were applying for learner permits who were on their journey. Rather than just taking a flat look at who was applying, we looked at the pipeline that was leading in. It can take somebody 12 to 18 months to go through that pipeline before they will actually sit their test.
Certainly, over the past three quarters in particular, I expected or hoped to see the number actually decrease, but it has increased in some areas and has stabilised in others. For me, if there are six quarters that are at a sustained level, that is bordering on a new trend. That new trend is significantly above the previous ten years. We have to be mindful that if we were to increase the number of our permanent driver testers, and then that number dropped, we would not be doing our job. We would be exposing the Exchequer to a resource that may not be utilised. I believe the approach we have taken with the Department of Transport is the correct one. We have 130 permanent testers. They have provided us with a sanction to recruit up to 75 more on a temporary basis. During the period of that sanction, we will now look and decide what the new norm is. If required, we will go back to the Department of Transport and ask for a further-----
I just want to point out that the RSA is currently doing 4,000 tests per week, but the number of people who are eligible and waiting for an invitation to book is almost 72,000. That is a backlog of approximately 18 full weeks. If nobody applied, it would take 18 weeks to clear the backlog, leaving aside people applying and so on. I therefore think it needs to be looked at.
I will touch on the NCT, representatives from which have no doubt been sitting there and waiting for a few questions. Lots of the statistics are improving and we should acknowledge that. There are lots of statistics we are being told people are very good on, such as answering the phone, etc. However, ideally, I do not want to go near the phone. I have had to ring the NCT and I found the people involved very pleasant and easy to deal with, but the website should be able to deal with most of the queries. At the moment, I am looking at a date in Deansgrange for 18 April 2024. I know that I can probably get one faster, but why is the website not letting me do that?
I think that would be useful. Obviously, every time someone makes a phone call, it is going to put more work on the NCT. Nobody has mentioned this yet, but the NCT has been fined €3 million. I do not know if the accounts have been published, but what does Applus generally make in a year in Ireland on the NCT service?
Exactly. It is in the NCT’s interests to make things more efficient, and I would have thought that if the website were easier to use, the NCT would not need to have as many people in call centres waiting for people like me to ring them to readjust tests or whatever.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
We are facing a new normal, so we should reflect on the fact that our contract changed mid-2020 and we have new targets to reach and new methods of calculating them. We have been a long way away from that and we are now counting in days, and not weeks or months, which is good news. We can now see almost daily how the service is improving. We have knocked our waiting list down from 65,000 to under 10,000-----
I actually paid in February for a slot in August, even though my NCT was not due until October. I had to adjust it in August because I was not going to be in the country for it. I am getting it in October. However, I actually paid for it way back then. To touch on two points, only about 3% of people were paying cash anyway.
People going online, which should be less costly for the NCT because they will not have to talk to people in call centres and so on, are being punished for paying in advance.
There was a time when credit card details were taken and money was not taken until a customer turned up.
That point was made at our last meeting. People going through the system cost the company more by ringing up and are getting away with not paying until the day of the test, whereas people who go online are being stuck.
It is more the responsibility of the RSA to put in place a process where people who flagrantly ignore reminders are targeted more than people who happen to be a month over the time. The witnesses should take that point away and come back to us about it at our next meeting.
I do not suggest that any of the accidents over the summer were caused by a car that was defective. A car that has not been tested for a long time is more likely to have things wrong with it than a car that has been tested.
I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee again and continuing this work and engagement with us. It is clear to me that multiple efforts have been made by the RSA and the NCTS to catch up and meet the challenges they face. On the NCT, Mr. Synnott mentioned that the company made a loss of €1 million last year and that, with a fine, there could be an increased loss this year.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
I think it is secure, accepting that penalties have been applied this year, etc. I am assured that "penalties" is not the correct term to use. Looking into the future, there is no doubt that we are a low-margin, high-volume business and we do an awful lot of inspections. As a business, there is a natural desire to do as many inspections as we can. That is clear.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
What I can share is that Applus has the right to indexation within the contact, which may not move the price. It can receive a fee increase but the authority will maintain the price as it is. The levy that Applus pays to the authority for the purpose of road safety initiatives compensates for any increase we would pay to the contractor. Unfortunately, these are commercial contractual arrangements that I have no control over.
On pricing for the public, we have discussed the matter with the Department of Transport. We have had some discussions with our colleagues. A decision has been made that we will not be moving with the increase in our pricing for our services because, to be honest, everybody is very mindful of the inflationary times in which we live.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
No. The systems that run all our services are complex. We could not just switch it off. There would have to be a lead-in period. I expect the RSA will have more discussions with the Department on ways that we could increase the price. At the moment, however, it is not something we are going to do.
That is good to hear.
The RSA is looking for new NCT sites in Dublin, Monaghan and Limerick-Clare. It is great to learn that a new site will be opened in County Kerry. Have sites been identified in any of these areas? Are sites close to being secured in these areas or is the RSA still on the look-out? I know the process is difficult.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
It is difficult. These sites are with a long-term view to how demographics might change over the next five to ten years. We have heavily advertised and sought responses with suitable sites, which included a blast of radio advertising last week. We received a considerable response to that but I have not seen the list consolidated just yet. We are still very much looking in the Limerick-Clare area, in County Cork, ideally a satellite town outside of Cork city, in Cavan and Monaghan and in Dublin north.
I welcome that as a north countyman.
The RSA has got through the Covid backlog so its existing challenges are similar to the ones faced by other sectors in terms of labour force recruitment. Mr. Walsh mentioned staff retirements, which I understand. He also referred to "contracted staff reaching the end dates on their contracts". Where did those staff go? Was it not possible to extend contracts or did staff reach the age at which they had to retire?
Ms Alison Coleman:
To respond to the Deputy's question, the contractors in question had been recruited and on-boarded as part of our response to the Covid backlog. The contracts had reached the stage where, legally, we were not in a position to continually extend them. We are bound by fixed-term legislation. As such, we were in a place where we were at six weeks. We were in a really good position so we felt it was timely that those contracts ended, in line with the cessation date on those contracts. However, within a number of months, it became clear with increasing waiting times that the capacity decrease, in addition to possible pipelines of demand that we had not really factored into our demand modelling in the past, needed to be looked at again. Our immediate response, as my colleague Mr. Walsh alluded to, was to go to our Department and we got our head count increased to 130 testers. The competition was an open national one to which we received quite a good response. Even with that measure, however, we are still not meeting demand.
We find ourselves in a difficult environment. We ran a competition for temporary testers and received more than 450 applications. We now have a panel which we are working our way through. We are at a sensitive stage at the moment, with offers being made to many people. We hope to have 170 testers by the end of the year. The absolute best-case scenario, as Mr. Walsh referred to, is 186 testers. That is where we hope to be.
We have found that the demand is largely in urban areas, in Dublin and its surrounding counties, including Kildare, and Cork. We ran a nationwide competition and are offering positions in parts of the country where demand suggests we need more capacity. We have found that a number of people have refused positions because they are not in a position to find accommodation in those urban areas to allow them to move. They are unable even to find digs to stay in for the week and return to their families at the weekend. The situation is not ideal but that is the position in which we find ourselves. We might not meet the golden number of 75 even though we will do our best to do so. That is the challenging recruitment area in which we find ourselves.
While I have the floor and may not have it again-----
Ms Alison Coleman:
That is a good question. The recent competition for driving testers required a minimum level 5 qualification, which equates to a leaving certificate. We were finding that many guys and ladies, thankfully, were approved driving instructors, although the number was not huge. Bus drivers also came with fantastic qualifications. Others wanted to enter the public service more generally. They might have been waiting for a competition for a while. There were also testers who previously held contracts with us. Such people reapplied and were successful, thankfully. Those are the kinds of candidates we have had.
As HR director, I will say that we have a fantastic team in the RSA in Ballina and Loughrea, across our driver testing, enforcement services and call centre. Those comments apply to everyone. It has been a difficult few weeks for the RSA. We do not like to see tragedy on our roads, including fatalities and serious injuries. We are all working hard to realise our vision zero ambition. I take the opportunity to thank those staff.
I thank our guests for their contributions and opening statements. Car testing is an issue across the country. Averages are a tyranny in these situations. Someone said one time that if a billionaire moved into your parish, the average income of everyone would go up by an awful lot but it would not do a lot for everybody else. It is a similar scenario here. We find that in certain areas, people are waiting very long periods for a car test. I booked one today in Carrick-on-Shannon for 13 October. That, in fairness, is pretty good. I have talked to people in other places who have been waiting for four or five months. That is the difficulty.
I appreciate that a lot of work has been done on recruitment to try to resolve these issues. The last time the witnesses were before the committee, there was a backlog and it has, in many cases, grown. Those comments apply not to the NCT but to the driving test. The issue is going to continue to be a problem unless something radical is done to resolve it. There is one thing that annoys people and I wonder if there is a temporary or partial solution to it. Consider a person who books a test on 1 January. That person will have to wait three or four months before the test. When he or she does the test, the next test is due again on 1 January. One would expect that the next test date would be scheduled for a year from the date the car was tested because on that date, the vehicle was deemed roadworthy and the test is sufficient, rather than the next test being scheduled for six or seven months later. That would also have an impact on the waiting lists because it would push those dates out a little further. I would like to hear the response of our witnesses to that point.
I have another suggestion that could resolve these issues in a temporary way. I do not mean to suggest that we should in any way take our eyes off the ball in ensuring that vehicles on the road are roadworthy. However, beyond a certain age, a car falls into a category that requires it to be tested every two years or every year. Could those requirements be pushed out by a year under the circumstances we are facing until we catch up with the backlog? We could then try to take it back to the standard we have at the moment. Those are two suggestions and I wonder why they have not been considered in the context of the difficulties in recruitment and spending €1 million to try to bring people in from abroad to try to solve those difficulties. I understand that must be done but we should be looking at other ways of trying to resolve this problem.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I might begin to respond and will pass to Mr. Synnott to respond to the first of the Deputy's comments. The Deputy suggested pushing the test out by a year. We are a couple of months away from bringing the service back within the 12 days agreed in the terms of the SLA. That will allow us to get back to normal service. I am an ex-mechanic and my fear would be that if we allow individuals to take a hiatus, it will not do the vehicle, its owner or the public road user any good. We have gone through an extraordinary period since I joined the authority just over a year ago. We are now in a situation where there is light in front of us whereby we will have the service back to normal. I believe the frequency structure for the test at the moment is adequate. I am certainly of the view that we should look to change and consider new technologies, examine how they can be tested and how we need to legislate for future technologies around autonomous driving and all that type of stuff. I do not believe that now would be the right time to make the changes the Deputy has suggested because we are almost there. Mr. Synnott will speak to the first part of the Deputy's contribution.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
I will make a couple of points. The Deputy is correct about averages and how they can mask a lot. However, customers who want an appointment have the ability to add themselves to our priority waiting list and we are able to get them appointments with 28 days or they get their tests free. I do not necessarily share the narrative that people have to wait four, five or six months to get an appointment.
The Deputy suggested remodelling the NCT to work from the testing date and a new expiry date. That is widely recognised as poor practice within road safety initiatives in other countries. Many other countries have made that mistake. It introduces an incentive to delay testing. From my understanding of other jurisdictions, that typically increases the non-compliance rate. Customers only present their vehicles for three out of four tests. It is not good practice and not something I would propose to the Road Safety Authority. I do not think, wearing a road safety hat, it would be given genuine consideration.
I would accept that in normal circumstances but we are not in normal circumstances. We need to look at reality. I acknowledge that Mr. Synnott said he is not aware of the delays to which I referred but the committee members are aware of it. Our constituents have told us that and I do not think they are ringing up to tell us lies. They have issues.
Our constituents feel a great unfairness that they have to wait. They are being told they cannot get a test for a number of months and once they do, it is only a short number of months later that they have to go back for a second test. In the circumstances we are in now, perhaps a process could be put in place. If, due to no fault of the person who owns the car, he or she has had to wait an undue period of time to get a test, a mechanism could kick in so the next test would not fall due until a full 12 months after the car was tested. Something like that needs to be considered to bring balance back to the situation. There are an awful lot of angry people out there who have waited to get their cars tested for a long time and find that when it happens, it is only a short period until they have to get it done again. A car that passes the test is obviously roadworthy and should be roadworthy for at least 12 months thereafter. That is what the test is supposed to establish.
That is why we give people a piece of paper to put on their windscreen, to say their car is roadworthy for the next 12 months and has passed its test.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
I will take issue with the Deputy's final point and accept all the other ones. The NCT is a roadworthiness check on the day of the test. It is not a guarantee or a warranty. That is something that is put forward sometimes by vehicle owners and it is certainly a theme that comes through in the small number of complaints we receive. It is a check on the day; it is not a guarantee.
If that is the case, how can it be that if a person has a car accident and the car has not undergone the NCT, the insurance company will take issue that the car is out of NCT, whereas if there is an NCT on the car, it does not take the same issue?
If all the emphasis is on car owners to ensure vehicles are safe at all times, and it is in their interest and everybody else's, why have an NCT at all? It does not make sense to me to have a test to say the vehicle is roadworthy today and the NCTS will give a piece of paper saying it will be another 12 months until it needs to be tested, while if a person has an accident, the insurance company will tell him or her it is an issue if the NCT is up but if not if it is not up. I just do not get the logic of suggesting that somehow or other it does not last for 12 months. It does last for 12 months. The piece of paper on a person's windscreen tells them it is a 12-month test.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
The certificate represents a 12-month period from when the vehicle was due a test to when it will be due another test. That is what it is. The test itself is designed to ensure we have a high-level standard of vehicles on our roads. I think this year, or maybe in 2022 - Mr. Synnott may be able to correct me - approximately 80,000 vehicles were identified as having serious defects.
Absolutely, and I concur with Mr. Walsh on that. I have no issue there and I have no issue with recommending that everyone should have their car tested. I just have the issue that if the car is tested in November and is a couple of months late getting tested through no fault of the driver, the driver only has a short period of time before they have to get the car tested again. I just have an issue with that and a lot of people out there have that problem. The old thing will be thrown up, that it is only to make money for the testers and that is that is why they keep doing it that way. I am not sure that is the case because I understand the pressure the NCTS is under, but it is something that needs to be considered in the context of the huge backlog we have now.
I am conscious of time. The other issue I wanted to raise is in regard to the driver centres and the driver test centres. Particularly in Dublin, I know there is a huge delay and backlog in Tallaght and that area, and there have been suggestions in the past of having a second driver testing centre there, or in that general area. Are there any plans in regard to that?
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
We continually assess where the needs are. In relation to Tallaght specifically, it is very high but Dublin is in general. As part of a full overhaul we want to do within our driving test curriculum, we will also look at the need to increase capacity where it is done. At the moment, bringing in the extra testers, the facilities themselves are there but we need the bodies to do the tests. If we need to increase the number of rooms available, for example, in Tallaght or in any other area, which we have done, we will continue to do that to make sure we get the service back to the SLA of ten days. If I could man the 59 physical sites to capacity, we would not have a problem.
In regard to the manning or the staffing of the sites, I know some headway was made in recruiting more staff. Are there still issues? Does Mr. Walsh still find it difficult? Was it up to 186 staff he said he needs to have?
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
At the moment we have 146 active. By the end of November, our expectation is we will have 170 active. Then our best guess based on what is left on the panel, because we are still pulling in and we still have offers out with candidates, is that we may get to 186. That is our best case scenario. If those remaining on the panel accept, we will get to that figure. To be honest, would we have liked to have utilised the full 75 on the sanction that was granted to us? The answer is "Yes", but the reality is that of the panel we created, when we offered roles, many people took them but for some people it was not suitable to their needs. We are confident that with the number we will have in place by the end of the year, we will get the service back on track by the middle of next year.
In regard to commercial vehicle testing side of it, it has such an impact. In the past week, I had a case in my constituency of a child with disabilities who needed to have a special taxi to take them to school. After a lot of going, they were sanctioned to get that. However, the person who was awarded the contract cannot find a driver. It is the same all over the country and all of us are experiencing that. Yet, there are people out there who say they want to do that but find it a very onerous task to get to the situation where they can get a licence.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
What I can say in relation to the commercial vehicle section is that it is within the SLA. We are operating at approximately ten to 12 weeks on commercial vehicles. We have made sure there is an adequate supply of tests in the commercial vehicle sector to service the needs of public transport, of the Irish Road Haulage Association, and of anybody who needs that category of licence. As I stated during my opening remarks, the challenge we face is that to carry out one of those tests means approximately two and a half car tests cannot be carried out. It is a balancing act we have to perform but we are maintaining it within the SLA. As we further expand and bring in these new testers, those testers will also help us to improve our position on that SLA, which is being achieved.
I welcome our guests and thank them for their presentations. It is not an easy situation Mr. Walsh finds himself in, presenting to the people of Ireland or the people who are waiting for a test that the RSA is more than 300% over where it would like to be, and that it is at 30 weeks where it should be ten weeks on the service level agreement. I am not so sure that the RSA has figured out what actually happened or where it is going. We all got and understood what happened during Covid-19. The fact the RSA did get down to six weeks after that is a testament to its planning at the time. Mr. Walsh spoke about an additional surge, and I wonder if the authority's data analytics are up to standard. If it is mapped against the previous four years and project what happened, so if we go from 2019 back to 2016 and look at the number of tests that were carried out then and spread that across the four years of 2020 to the end of 2023, would there be an increase of 63%?
I am wondering about the impact of Covid-19 on testing, which Mr. Walsh identified as those that were within his sphere. If we look at the number of people across the two four-year pieces, run the numbers on that again, and spread it over the period of time, I suspect the differential will not be as great. However, I can only surmise. In any event, it is just a comment on the RSA's planning because it clearly is not fit for purpose. I ask the RSA to look at this, or perhaps bring in external expertise, to try to ensure that what it is now planning will meet the demand because we cannot have this situation. All I can do is share with Mr. Walsh the frustration of people who come to my clinics. We have a housing crisis and nobody around here needs a lecture on that.
Kids are going to college who are unable to get accommodation. Their parents are driving them to college every day, up to 30 km, 40 km or 50 km in the rural areas. In County Clare, those people are going to Limerick and Galway. Ordinarily, these students would be able to drive. Now they are not. I am not being critical here. I am just trying to explain the extent to which this is a major problem for people who live in rural Ireland and do not have access to the kind of public transport that people in the capital city and other cities do. This is the reality. Their frustration is absolute. Having listened to him, Mr. Walsh is doing his best, but it would be cold comfort for me to go back and tell somebody who does not have accommodation in Limerick or Galway or who has just got a job in Ennis and is living in Kilrush, Scariff, Tulla or wherever that this problem will be sorted by the middle of 2024.
What I want to hear from Mr. Walsh, therefore, and I am not getting it, is that he appreciates the seriousness of this issue, that a system is being put in place which will be more finely tuned to changes in demographics and different elements that might impact on the cycle, that an early warning system is in place and that there is a methodology to respond in this regard. Mr. Walsh made one comment that I may have misheard, but it kind of shocked me. He said that to hire above a certain level might not be fiscally prudent because it might expose the State to regret. With the greatest respect, and if he does not mind me saying so, this should not be his concern. That is the job of the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform. I am sitting here beside a former Minister who well knows the line Department's job is to get its work done. In my view, Mr. Walsh should be trying to meet the service level agreement and doing everything in his power to get it back on track. Therefore, if the Department tells Mr. Walsh to hang on a second in this regard and he then comes back to this joint committee and tells us the Department will not provide the requisite sanction, then that is the position I think he should be in. Does Mr. Walsh not believe there is any irony in the fact that, on the one hand, the RSA is levying, or imposing, a fine on Applus for failing to meet its service level agreement, when, on the other hand, the RSA's service level agreement is so far out of kilter?
While I am talking and before I calm down, Mr. Synnott indicated that he did not think some of these timings were that long. I just had a text message from a constituent trying to book a car test for today, yesterday or whenever it was and the soonest it is possible to get one in Ennis is next February. This is in County Clare and it tells its own story. Mr. Synnott spoke about there being an additional facility in the Clare-Limerick region. I understand there were plans to build one in Shannon. I ask Mr. Synnott to update us on where that situation stands. I have left a few minutes for everybody to come back in and answer.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
Senator Dooley made several points and I would like to try to take them in the order in which he put them forward. Regarding data, when I came into the RSA last year, I looked at the way the previous sanctions were together. I challenged that with my team. We identified new ways to identify risk and where there are going to be problems in the future. We looked at new metrics that went outside of the driving testing structure and we have brought those to bear. It was based on those metrics that we worked with the Department of Transport to secure up to 75 additional testers, which we are currently in the course of recruiting.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I have it here and I am happy to share it. I came to the public service from a very different world. The world I came from was all about forecasting. I applied that logic and those methodologies I had worked with all my life. We have been able to look robustly at the data sets we have, but also examine information outside the driving test context. I believe that information source has now provided us with a substantial means to correctly forecast.
In respect of the seriousness of the situation, I have family members who live in Ennis. I have family members who live all over the country.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I am acutely aware of this situation and I can see it reflected in one of the new data points we have brought in. I can see that applications from 17-to-20-year-olds are at the highest volume in what looks like six years. The data do not go back further than that, but these applications are at a significant level. I sympathise 100% with anybody having to wait for a driving test, but the reality is that I am bound to ensure that the service is offered fairly. To that end, the only mechanism we have allowed for is where somebody is within the emergency services' structure, which would mean we would allow the person concerned effectively to be brought further up the queue.
I get many different communications and everybody tells me they need to have a driving test done, have a priority and a reason in this regard, but I cannot prioritise. If I did that, then I would be doing the State a disservice. I will, however, give a 100% commitment to the Senator. We are bringing in more people to deliver these tests and my existing team members have already worked significantly above and beyond this year. I think they have delivered an extra 9% of tests above the forecast level because they are working overtime. I have even had to have some discussions with people because they may actually go over the allowable hours they can work in any calendar year. My team members are giving everything they can to get this waiting list reduced. We will get this list down, but it is going to take time. I can tell the Senator here and now, though, that I will never allow this situation to happen again.
Turning to the topic of funding, what I was referring to from that perspective was a situation where we had received sanction from the Department of Transport for 75 permanent testers. In that case, if the trend we are seeing now, and that has been there, albeit for six quarters, went down all of a sudden, it would mean we would have a substantial number of staff for whom there would be no work. I do not think that is the right thing to do. I believe the approach we have taken is the correct one in bringing in a temporary cohort of new staff. During the time we have these people available we will then redesign the process and re-examine the permanent number of additional staff needed to allow us to prevent this from ever happening again.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
We will get the service back on track. I give the Senator this absolute commitment, but we must do it in the right way and in a fair way. Our colleagues in the Department of Transport have worked very well with us. Again, they had provided us with a permanent sanction previously. We went back and asked for more, but this request was based on the new data we were able to share with them and they worked very well with us in that regard. We will ensure, therefore, that these people are in place and that testing facilities are made available for the State.
What I will say as well, however, which is unfortunately probably a product of the country we live in, is that the number of people I see seeking tests even in the group aged from 30 to 39 is the second highest after those in the 17-to-19-year-olds category. It has increased by over 50%.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
It is, and this could never have been considered. This aspect is not going to be in the data from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, or shown in our traditional ways of forecasting. What we do see these data reflected in, though, is in those people applying for their first-time permit and under tuition in the context of the essential driver training lessons. Again, we are exploring these additional data points and looking at these helps me to pick up the net inward migration, which, let us be honest, we need from a workforce perspective.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
The Senator had two questions. One concerned the waiting time in Ennis. For the first two weeks in September, that figure is an average of 19.09 days. The constituent who emailed Senator Dooley always has the ability or the right to go onto our priority list, in which case we will provide an appointment within 28 days. If the Senator wishes to pass me the registration number of the car concerned, I will look after it for him. Turning to the test centre in Shannon, the Senator is correct that we had a centre built there prior to 2020 and the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. Unfortunately, however, when it came to signing the lease the developer had other plans for the building. It has not therefore progressed. We have been continuing to advertise in that location to see-----
Mr. Mark Synnott:
I am not sure why this happened. We had the heads of terms agreed, but ultimately the contract was not signed and that is what it came down to.
We are continuing to look for an additional centre in the Limerick–Clare area, and we have been doing some radio advertising in the past week or so trying to find suitable locations. I believe we have got some responses but as of now they are being evaluated.
Welcome back, everybody. I apologise for being late. I had another meeting that ran over.
I thank the delegates for the information I have just learned. I encounter the same issues, obviously. It is quite hard for people to understand delays until April, May and June next year, but I appreciate that everything is being done to fix this.
On a separate note, my question today is about a story in the Irish Examinerduring the summer that was actually really hard to believe, although I probably should not have found it really hard to believe. It was about the increasing number of complaints of harassment by driving instructors.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of complaints are made of male driving instructors by women. One driving instructor told a 28-year-old woman who was getting lessons in his car that she was drop-dead gorgeous and asked if she was single. Apparently, he asked "Who's your daddy?" 15 times during the course of one lesson. The woman has made a formal complaint to the RSA. Another approved driving instructor, ADI, who was in his 60s, apparently told a 22-year-old girl that girls on their period never do well during their driving tests because they get flustered and confused at that time of the month. These are only two examples. I do not need to say how despicable that kind of behaviour is.
One hundred and twenty-eight complaints were made by learner drivers about certain instructors last year, but it was particularly notable that the number of complaints made was seven times that made in 2021. Maybe that was because of Covid or maybe there were not as many driving instructors involved in 2021, but it is awful in this day and age that any lady, girl or woman would be subjected to the kind of behaviour in question in the very narrow confines of a car, where they are vulnerable because they are learning and with somebody considered an expert. The delegates might not be able to speak about these specific points. In general, what is the due process for people making the kinds of complaints in question? What is the response of the RSA when complaints are made against drivers?
Ms Alison Coleman:
With respect to the question, I will not get into the cases. I believe the article was about ADIs. I saw it as well. The RSA has responsibility for the regulation and maintenance of the register of those individuals. We would vet those individuals when they come on, and we maintain the register. We re-vet every two years and, in addition, we regulate the register. My colleague who will be here next week manages that particular area. With respect to our own directly employed driver testers, I am nearly certain that it was ADIs who were involved in the unfortunate behaviour. A number of complaints were made against particular ADIs.
To state as much as I can to the Senator, we will be reporting to our board on this. It is quite interested in having an update on what we do in such circumstances. We do not have many powers over the group in question. As I said, we are a regulator. However, when complaints are made to us – they can be made directly to us – we refer them to the proper body if we feel it is required. Alternatively, we engage with the stakeholder group of ADIs, which we meet regularly. Our managers would meet that group regularly to discuss these issues over and back. That is like the representative group for that particular area. The matter is taken quite seriously and, as I understand it, our board has actually asked for an update on how we manage the kinds of complaints in question when they come in. For the most part, when they are so serious and of the nature in question, we refer them to a body such as An Garda Síochána, which may be in a position to assist.
-----and the register is under its control. Where there is a complaint such as that against the who's-your-daddy gentleman, does he have his registration removed or is he is he allowed to carry on? After the complaint, is he still on the register? I do not even know his name, or want to.
Ms Alison Coleman:
I would not know that detail here and now, but we can obviously come back to the committee on those particular cases. If the complaint were to come directly to the RSA, which I am not even sure was the case on this occasion, it would be managed very sensitively and we would give advice to the individual on what the best next steps would be. I am not even sure if the complaint in question actually came through the RSA.
According to the story in the paper, it did. Obviously, I can rely only on that. I am not trying to be smart here – I honestly mean that – and I get that a case must be reported to the Garda, which is fine, but the RSA is the authority that allows the person to have another lady in his car the next week or month. There should be repercussions. Behavioural standards have to be of a particular level or kind, and drivers should come off the register if they are not.
Let me ask a more general question: has anybody been taken off the register because of complaints that have been made?
Ms Alison Coleman:
I know people have come off the register but I am not sure as to the reason. It may have been on foot of vetting that would have meant they were not suitable for the role they were asking to be allowed to continue to fill. I am not sure if they came off the register on foot of an actual complaint following an investigation. I would not have that information here.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
One of the things we have to ensure is the investigation of any allegation made. That investigation will follow a process. From our own perspective, if we ever thought there was any risk and believed there was anything we could do to stop behaviour of the kind in question, we would do it. However, our challenge, particularly with those ADIs who may be in question here, is that they do not work for us. They are on the register. There would have to be a complaint. We would have to investigate that complaint and then we would engage with them.
Ms Alison Coleman:
We do review. We have a quality review. We have a number of individuals employed as supervisors or examiners who check the quality of the ADIs, the instruction delivered, the detail, the content and the log books being completed. Complaints that come in would obviously inform how our examiners would look to sit in on the back seat and observe how instructors conduct themselves in those situations. Therefore, we do have supervisory input regarding ADIs and ADI instruction.
That is really good but what is lacking in what I am being told is that the RSA still does not know whether people who have had complaints made about them are on or off the register. I appreciate that the delegates do not have the information now, but-----
What is worrying is that the RSA cannot say whether people who have had serious complaints made against them are still on the register. That is a little concerning. It is mostly kids and young people who feel they are in a vulnerable position. Many kids, because they go through insurance companies to get their 12 lessons as part of being put on their mother's or father's insurance, do not get to pick their instructor. Therefore, we need to be confident that there is an authority – it is the RSA – that ensures the expected standard is upheld and that where it is not, there are repercussions.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
What I can share with the Senator is that my team and I have recently started a process, on the back of ongoing discussions with the Department of Transport, of looking at the entire driver testing curriculum from the education side all the way through to when you surrender your licence, at whatever age, if you are unable to drive. A particular concern of mine relates to ensuring that all those being tested or educated have safe mechanisms available to them and that there is a process available. We will come back to the Senator on the specific cases. If they have been reported to us, we will come back to her on them.
I also believe there is a situation where they may have reported perhaps to the business that may represent that individual, which we may not have sight of. We will take that point away with us because I am acutely aware that anyone who is in a car on their own, whether they are male or female-----
-----is vulnerable. I appreciate that Mr. Walsh is new and there are new processes and so on, which are all very welcome. Does he think it would be appropriate that, for argument sake, if I made a complaint to my car driver instruction company, it would be incumbent upon them, as part of the regulation of the industry, that they would report something like that to the RSA, whose job it is to make sure that a person is either on or off the register?
Ms Alison Coleman:
I should have noted that there is a provision in the new road safety Bill, which provides for and hopes to give the RSA the power to be in a position to enforce fit and proper guidelines. That would allow us the power to take people off that register when we are provided with information to the extent-----
I address this question to Mr. Synott. There was a time when if the car was not taxed, it could not go be put through the NCT. Is that still the case or is Applus+ Car Testing Service Ltd. inspecting vehicles that are not taxed?
Obviously in Dublin, there are a number of centres and people might not get the centre they want. If they do not get the Deansgrange centre, they might go to Fonthill and a couple of things may need to be retested. Can a person go to a different centre for the retest?
That is something I was not aware of. If people book Fonthill, that is fine, and if the centre says the car has two things wrong, they can come back and can present the vehicle then in Deansgrange, be that a visual inspection. As for the other retests, they have to book a lane in any event.
I would like to ask Mr. Walsh about the historical reference period for the RSA. He stated in his opening statement that 3,254 applications per week were received in 2018. Is this the normal service level the RSA hopes to achieve into the future, or what is the new baseline it hopes to achieve in respect of tests per week? The RSA is currently conducting 4,000 per week. There is a need for up to 5,024 tests per week while the RSA hopes to return back down to 3,254 tests when normal service resumes. I am trying to understand the logic to this.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
On the number of tests, our objective is to deliver the number of tests the service requires. At the moment, the number of applications that had been made on average, up until the end of August from the start of the year, was just over 5,000 and we are delivering 4,000 tests. The need is 5,000 tests. With the new staff coming in, we will exceed that 5,000 level, which is our objective, but again, based on the data points we see at the moment, if the continuation in the level of demand for the service continues as is, I expect that there will be requests and requirement to deliver, when service returns to normal, around 5,000 tests in any given week. Does that answer the Deputy’s question?
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
We will go above it but we have to go above it to bring the level of testing back down. If the demand continues as is, we have to exceed that demand, recover the backlog, and when we have the backlog recovered, we will probably then see the need for approximately 5,000 tests in any given week.
There are a number of factors, as Mr. Walsh has previously mentioned, relating to inward migration and other population increases. I am sure that that will possibly be the target into the future. This is not to take away from where the RSA currently is but we need to see a concrete plan with regard to what the acceptable number of testers will be into the future and maintain that level to ensure that the population has a service on hand-----
-----because at the minute, from this side of the table, I do not feel that the urgency is there at present. Some 30 weeks of a wait time is absolutely ridiculous, especially for people who are starting a new job or who want to go to college. I do not feel the urgency there from the RSA to implement emergency measures that should be implemented to get us to mid-2024 when normal service can resume. Some 30 weeks is an awful long time for a young person not to have access to a car on his or her own. It is very difficult for a person in rural Ireland.
I also ask that the RSA revisits the retirees who were testers previously, the contract staff who were previous testers and to explore all avenues to get them back in place to ensure that the backlog is addressed in some way. We cannot wait for a situation where we invite the RSA back to appear before the committee next January or February and we still have an issue trying to address the backlog. We have seen from when the RSA previously appeared before this committee back in February that there has not been much improvement. The authority was giving us an explanation by way of the increased demand for tests. We accept that but on workforce planning, it should be exploring every avenue to drive down the wait times, especially for young people because it is very concerning.
The feedback we are getting, as referred to by Senator Dooley, in our constituency offices is that people expect a public service. The RSA is not providing that now. If this happened in the Passport Office, it would not be acceptable or tolerated if we had wait times exceeding what they currently are for online applications or for written applications. The Passport Office increased its headcount nearly twofold where at this stage the Passport Office has more than 900 staff. Whatever needs to be done to address the driver test backlog needs to be done. If the Minister or the Department are not engaging with the RSA in this regard, we need to convene another meeting to ensure that we explore all solutions to the problems.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I want to be clear that the seriousness of this situation is not lost on me because, unfortunately, I have seen a degradation in the lead time since I joined the authority a year ago. That is driven by the factors both we and the Deputy has also outlined. We had 100 permanent staff operating within the authority at the end of August last year. We now have 130 permanent staff. We also have the approval, through the Department of Transport and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, to have a sanction for up to 75 temporary testers. That sanction was granted to us on 29 March. Immediately after that we entered into a competition to recruit and train those individuals.
The first 14 individuals took up testing two days ago. By the end of November, we will have 170 testers. Additional offers are still out with people on the panel. If all these people were to accept, it would mean that we would have around 186. This represents an 86% increase above where we were from a permanent perspective so we are going to get there. It is not good enough that the service is at its current level but it takes time. We have engaged successfully with the Department of Transport, which has been very supportive of us. We now have what we believe is the required number of people to get this service back on track by the middle of next year.
We have taken this very seriously. It is top of my current agenda because the reality is that while the NCT is still not achieving the SLAs we are required to achieve, the improvement is there and the plan will deliver improvement in that service by the end of the year. Whether it is driver testing or my administration team, I assure the Deputy that getting this fixed is the only show in town for me at the moment and we will have it fixed by the middle of next year.
Ms Alison Coleman:
Those decisions are all made based on demand. The higher the demand, the more likely it is that those temporary sanctioned positions will be placed in that area of high demand. However, we are acutely aware of that rural versus urban piece. A number of new recruits will be based around the country in areas such as Clare, Louth and Waterford, although they will mostly be based in Dublin. There is a focus on where the demand says we need more temporary testers in the rural environment. We are filling those roles and they are not as hard to fill as those in urban areas. The majority of the posts are needed in Dublin. At last count, 13 or 14 new testers were coming into the Dublin region before the end of the year. The remainder will be in all our other 60-odd test centres around the country.
This is a very important debate. Ms Coleman said that the majority of the testers would be delivered to Dublin. I regret that because people in rural areas such as Killarney and Cahersiveen have distances to travel. It is not good enough for young lads who need a licence to go to work or to travel long distances to college because they cannot not get places to rent in Limerick or Cork to apply last January and be told their test will be next January. These young lads are driving distances because they must travel from remote areas in the hills and glens of Kerry. Perhaps some of them get on a bus but they must travel as far as the bus because the bus does not come to the door. A father contacted me last Saturday whose son applied for a driver test last March. He needs him to drive his van. He has a furniture business in Killarney. He has been told that he will get the opportunity to apply for a date for his test next January. He is not getting the test in January. He will be allowed for apply for a date then. He is waiting longer than from January to January and from March to January. This is a regular occurrence and people are outraged. I hear about the number of youngsters who are awaiting a test. If they cannot be provided with tests, it is an emergency. They are needed for work. Businesspeople cannot get people for anything. These young fellows have a job but they cannot drive legally on the road. Sadly we hear a lot about accidents on the road and we do not want any more of them but a drastic measure is being taken to sort that out. Not enough drastic measures are being taken to help these youngsters. When you are young, you need to get a chance to go on the road. They have done the 12 lessons and to be waiting for so long is not fair. I call on the Minister to do something drastic or to take emergency action to help these people who have done the 12 lessons. They are told they must then wait 12 months before they can actually apply for a driver test. God almighty, they must be allowed to drive if they have done 12 lessons until such time as their date comes.
It is too long to wait. I am sure our witnesses are reasonable people. Surely it is not acceptable to be told that it will take 12 months, having applied to do a test. The whole thing has fallen asunder. Killarney is a desperate problem. It is just impossible and Tralee is just as bad. I am talking about Kerry. I heard Deputy Dillon talking about Mayo but we have a desperate situation down in Kerry at the present time. I am asking the witnesses to do something.
I was not enamoured to hear that the majority of new testers would be given to Dublin because public transport is available in Dublin. We do not have that level of public transport in rural areas and people need a car to go on the road. Parents or siblings cannot drive these people to work or college. I am making the strongest case possible, even to the Minister, to take some urgent action to deal with the emergency that exists at the present time. I hear people saying a year and a half but a year and a half to a young fellow is a lifetime. It is a lifetime and that is why they are emigrating. They are going away because they cannot wait. They need to make a few bob and to make themselves useful and they cannot do this or that without a licence in rural Kerry and even in urban Kerry, in places like Killarney. One cannot get out of it if one does not have a car.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
The essential driver training, EDT, process that a driver goes through is designed to take in the region of six months. We believe it takes six months to become competent before one should sit a test. The 12 lessons to which the Deputy referred need to be complemented by a minimum of three hours in assisted driving after each lesson.
In relation to the Deputy's specific question about Kerry, our role is a national one. Our objective is to ensure that we achieve the national service level agreement. We are still working on the level of individuals who will be coming on board in the future and at those from whom we currently have applications. We will see if something can be done along the same lines to ensure fairness across the rest of the country. If we have a mechanism by which we can assist further in Kerry, we will definitely take a look at it.
I do not think that Mr. Walsh really comprehends the situation that we have. It is just not acceptable and I am asking Mr. Walsh if he thinks it's acceptable to have to wait 12 months before one can apply for a test.
That is an awful long time for youngsters who have their lessons done and who have done all that it is required, including the theory test and so on. All Mr. Walsh can tell me at this point is that he hopes the thing will be in order by the middle of next year, the middle of 2024. God almighty, that is like the story, leave horse until you get grass. It is not good enough. If Mr. Walsh cannot not do something urgently about it, about people waiting for three and six months, and is telling me that it will be the middle of next year, then he had better get out of it all together. On behalf of the people who have done their 12 lessons and who have already been waiting for nine months, or for 12 months in many instances, I am calling on the Minister to enact some emergency legislation to give them a licence until the NDLS can give them a test. What is there now is not acceptable.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
The Minister has worked with us and has granted us a sanction of up to 75 testers to deal with this situation and to recover the service to where it needs to be. I would like to remind the Deputy that the service is only in the condition it is in for the last 12 months. There was a six-week lead time this time last year, in August. We are dealing with a very unique situation and it will take us a little bit of time to fix it. I appreciate everyone's patience while we get there but we will fix it.
The NDLS needs to focus on this. What it is doing is just not good enough. Again, I am calling on the Minister to do something for people who are waiting for 12 months and are being told that they will have to wait for 12 months before they can actually apply for their driving test. The Department should forget about it and let them on the road now until such time as the NDLS comes along with the test and gives them the opportunity to sit it. It is not good enough to tell me that it will be the middle of next year before the thing is sorted out. It is just not good enough.
Thanks very much. It is good to be back in action following the recess. I thank the representatives of RSA and Applus for being present today. We have had a fair amount of exchanges with them in recent months. However, while time has moved on, the issue has not subsided in the area that I represent. I know that there have been some limited improvements made in certain areas which were referenced in the opening statements but I want to run through a couple of facts. I understand the lead-in times have dropped to a number of weeks from where they were but let us take the example of Youghal town. I live just outside Youghal in east Cork. If I was booking an NCT today, the earliest appointment I would get is on 16 January 2024. We are in the middle of September now and 16 January is the earliest appointment available on the NCT booking system. That appointment is in Charleville, which is about an hour and a half from Youghal. The next available appointment is on 8 February and that is in Cahir in County Tipperary, which is about an hour and 20 minutes from Youghal in east Cork. Little Island is up the road, near Carrigtwohill, Midleton and Cobh and also serves the city area. The earliest appointment in Little Island is on 10 February. After that, Macroom comes in on 8 March, Blarney on 20 March, Waterford on 21 March and finally, the bonus ball for Youghal, County Cork, the town I referred to at the beginning, the earliest date available is 26 March. For people living in east Cork, north Cork or Cork city, if not the entirety of the county, the earliest date available is 16 January, which is appalling. Deputies Healy-Rae are famous for advocating for Kerry but this goes beyond Kerry. The problem is over the border in County Cork as well. It affects Deputy Lowry's constituency in Tipperary and Deputy Cathal Crowe's constituency in County Clare. Everywhere one goes across rural Ireland, the service that is provided by Applus is in disarray. There are no facts to prove that is not the case in the area I represent. There is nothing the witnesses can say today that proves that the service has improved because it has not.
What I am hearing within the test centres is deep frustration about the staff and how they are being treated. It is just not acceptable. There are issues with pay arrangements, the treatment of staff, absenteeism and the recruitment campaign that Applus ran which involved going to Spain and the Philippines rather than trying to look after the staff already in the organisation. Maybe that is a port of call for the Department of Transport and Communications and the RSA. They need to sit down with the operator. I have said quite a bit there and am interested in the response from the RSA. I would also welcome a reply from Mr. Synnott but would like to hear from Mr. Walsh first.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
With regard to the sites the Deputy named, based on the latest information I have, Youghal is leading one of the highest times in the country at 26 days. Littleisland in Cork is now at 20 days. It was much higher in recent weeks but there has been significant refurbishment and reworking at that facility. Cahir is at 25 days. What I can say is that all of these figures are a significant improvement on where they were when I was here last. They are not good enough. That is why we are holding Applus to account. What I can say is that we will have the service back within the national service level agreement by the end of this year. We have made significant inroads, as has Applus, in recent weeks to improve the lead times. I can tell the Deputy, particularly with regard to Littleisland, that at one point four weeks ago my data showed it was at 35 days. This has been returned to 20 days.
An additional 50 resources - Mr. Synnott referenced 48 - are on their way from the Philippines. When I initially sat in front of the committee in October, we had 551 testers in the service. In the coming weeks the service will grow to approximately 675 testers. They are spread throughout the country. I will let Mr. Synnott speak about where the plan for the new testers is coming in. I have in front of me the figures for what we have seen, particularly last week, with regard to Cork and it is not in line with our average. It is above the average. We have other sites that are better. Clearly a specific effort is required in Cork in the coming weeks to reduce this figure and keep it down, and we will keep it down.
To be clear, when a member of the public goes to the website to book an NCT on the nearest available date, even when clicking "refresh", it is 10 February for Littleisland, 8 March for Macroom, 20 March for Blarney and 26 March for Youghal. Over the border in Cahir in Tipperary it is 8 February, in Charleville in County Cork it is 16 January and in Waterford it is 21 March. The timelines Mr. Walsh is giving me are not accurate according to what is on the website today.
To be quite frank, in saying that, it would still involve a drive of an hour and a half, which is not acceptable. It is obviously the closest available date unless someone wants to go on a two-hour drive up the country, which Mr. Walsh knows is not an option for people living in most areas. It would be a major undertaking for somebody who might have a disability. People who are retired or old age pensioners might not like to be driving those distances. This is not acceptable. It is not practical. What it tells me is that there is systems failure by Applus in this area. Mr. Walsh said the RSA is holding it to account. Would he like to explain to the public what the RSA is doing to hold Applus to account? I have not seen anything and I would like Mr. Walsh to reference this.
This is important. We need to break this down because it is significant. The SLA has not been met. There has been a significant breakdown as per the terms we spoke about, such as regarding refunds. I believe those commitments were not met when it came to people who were waiting beyond a specific window of time, which I believe is 28 days. No substantial refunds were provided to people who waited in excess of 28 days. There are instances where this has been broken. I am asking what the RSA has done. This issue has been going on for more than 12 months. It is more than 12 months since it was first raised at the committee. What has the RSA done in the interim? I am not asking what it will do. What has happened over the past year? Is it nothing?
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
No, absolutely not. There is a myriad of things we have done. With regard to accountability, we have applied service credits. These are financial credits that we make against Applus for non-performance of this particular SLA. This is but one SLA of approximately 22 it is failing. It is passing the rest of them.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
This one in itself carries a service credit. Those service credits were applied in 2022 and in 2023 and will continue to apply until the service is rectified.
We have also worked with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and our colleagues in the Department of Transport to ensure staff are available to meet the increasing demand in the service. This has resulted in 200 work permits being made available to bring in workers from the Philippines. In addition, Applus has carried out ongoing recruitment nationally and in other EU countries to bring in staff. We have done quite a lot. I accept that as we sit here today we have not achieved the SLA. When we were here in February, we were looking at a lead time of 27 days. As we sit here today it is at 18 days. It will be 12 days or fewer by the end of the year.
With regard to the specifics on the website, I will ask Mr. Synnott to take Deputy O'Connor through them.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
I thank Deputy O'Connor. The waiting time in Waterford for the first two weeks in September was 27 days. The waiting time in Youghal was 25 days. I can go through the rest of them if they are of interest. This means that every booking in scope for us that we have done looks at the first point of contact until the appointment time people could have got. These are thoroughly investigated by the authority and its supervision services contractor, and it is signed off as an appropriate mechanism for measurement. These are the dates. In terms of what we have done, certainly when I was here in February, the critical area was Dublin. We deployed many of our new recruits in the Dublin area. It is now average. The next critical area was Littleisland in Cork, which from memory was close to 40 days at one point. It is now close to 20 days. There has been a significant improvement in the Cork area.
Deputy O'Connor raised several other points, including pay for staff. For the first time we have been able to complete our wage negotiations with staff without referral to the Labour Court. The agreement that was made was balloted by the union and overwhelmingly passed. This is a healthy indication of the attitude in the staff.
Deputy O'Connor also raised a point on refunds, but I believe he was speaking about our charter obligation to give a free test if one cannot be provided within 28 days. This is a point Deputy O'Connor has made several times in the past. Again, it has been thoroughly investigated by the authority and its supervision services contractor and it has been confirmed that we have been compliant with all obligations under our charter.
To insinuate that the waiting time in Youghal is less than 28 days is disingenuous. I will not say it is anything else. When members of the public, no matter where they live in County Cork or Munster, go online today, the closest available appointments in almost all south Munster testing facilities are in January at the earliest. Nothing else is showing up. I do not know where Mr. Synnott is pulling these figures out of because they are certainly not being pulled out of the website. I invite Mr. Synnott to check the website now if he does not believe me. The nearest date I could get is 16 January. For the testing centre that is physically closest to people living in Midleton, Cobh and Youghal, the closest date they can get is 10 February in Littleisland. They could be waiting up to 26 March for Youghal.
The dates that have been provided to us are not accurate. Nowhere have they appeared on the NCT site. I have had my staff check and I have checked as well. It is utterly disingenuous to come in here and claim those dates are true, as they are not. Nowhere have I seen that information.
One second. I am not doubting the Deputy. I am trying to be helpful to him but also to the witnesses. We had a discussion earlier and I raised the same matter. The date for my centre is 18 April on the website. What I think Applus and the RSA are going to say is that the website – I made this point previously – is not reflective of what they are telling us. They have pointed out that there is a back operation whereby, if I ring up, which I should not have to, I will get a date within 28 days. However, the website does not reflect that, which I believe is the Deputy’s point.
-----I have just been asked to mention that an accusation of someone being disingenuous is a relatively serious one to make. I sense the Deputy’s frustration. I have the same frustration. In my opinion, the website does not reflect a positive position at all. However, Applus has stated multiple times today and previously that there are loads of slots but it just does not put them on the website for people to see because it is holding them back for people who ring. Is that reasonably fair to say?
I would like to reply to the Leas-Chathaoirleach’s point. I come here elected by the people of Cork East and I represent them without fear or favour. I stand over my comment. I have no interest in withdrawing it. I believe that what I have said is entirely accurate. If you are a member of the public and you go on the website that is provided by Mr. Synnott’s company, and which the RSA stands over, to try to book the nearest available date, you will not get a 28-day service. Throughout Munster, the closest date you will get will nearly be in January. The information being provided to us as public representatives is not accurate, as it is not reflective of the service that ordinary members of the public receive. Of course there are roundabout ways for people to try to find closer dates, but that is not a genuine way, to use the most politically correct term possible, of providing a service funded by taxpayers.
This situation has been ongoing for more than 12 months. The unfortunate consequence is that someone’s NCT will only be valid for two years at most from the day the car test takes place. It is a rolling mess and it is not being addressed in the area I represent. I do not understand this. What is the closest date the RSA can put the contract for NCT testing out to tender and potential contractors can bid for the service?
Does Mr. Synnott wish to clarify about the website versus alternatives? There is a frustration, one that I have expressed myself, albeit possibly not as well as Deputy O’Connor. We have discussed priority booking, whereby I would have to cancel an appointment before I could reapply. I did not know anything about that until today. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of people do, but that information is not on the website. As a proportion of the entire system, how many people book via the website? Do most go to the website or do most ring?
Would it not be more efficient for Applus to have everyone go to the website and to have a decent website that gives everyone the opportunity to get slots within 28 days? Mr. Synnott is telling us that every test centre has slots within 28 days. Is that correct?
Deputy O’Connor went on the website and found dates in January and February. I went on and found dates in April. An ordinary member of the public will try to be less costly to Applus by doing the work himself or herself, as would be the case when booking with Ryanair, Aer Lingus and so on, instead of ringing a very pleasant person in a call centre that meets all SLAs and so on. The call centre was fine the day I rang it, but I should not have had to have done that. I should have been able to get a slot within 28 days on the website, but that was not the case. Why is that so?
Mr. Mark Synnott:
The booking lead time takes into account the point of first contact, be it going onto the waiting list or successfully getting a booking, up until the appointment that is next available to someone. It is an accurate representation of how long a customer has to wait to get an appointment.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
They are, but I think the Leas-Chathaoirleach is misunderstanding the scale at which we operate. We handle close to 50,000 bookings per week. Slots that are made available are consumed. There is no dispute about the fact that we face a significant demand – we have faced it for quite some time – but it is getting better. All of the statistics prove that. The waiting list has virtually vanished. The situation is improving constantly.
I have been dipping into the site all the time, for example, at midnight and 10 o’clock. I have it on in the background on my laptop and have been dipping into it regularly. Occasionally, one or two slots will appear in November or December, but that is not a large number.
Deputy O’Connor will probably agree with my point of view that the website needs a big overhaul. It should be slowing slots. If Mr. Synnott is telling us that every centre has slots available within 28 days, those should be showing up automatically.
The section on priority bookings is very well hidden. When I make a booking, there is no option to say I would prefer an earlier one as a priority.
I agree with Leas-Chathaoirleach that the website must be made more manageable and easily understood. Having listened to Mr. Synnott, this would confuse a nation. The public find it confusing and the sooner that Applus+ realises this, the better. I am a public representative dealing with the public every day and the anger, resentment and frustration directed against the organisation is palpable. I get this expressed every other day. This is why politicians and everyone else providing a service to the public are angry. I am angry with the Applus+ operation.
Turning to Mr. Walsh, I put the responsibility back on the RSA. It negotiated the contract and set the terms and conditions. I am shocked to hear today that this is a ten-year contract. Do we have to suffer another eight years of this mess? All I could describe it as is a total mess. I have a reasonable understanding of business and I know no one in the private sector who would give out a ten-year contract. Is there a break clause in this contract? If so, what is it, when can it be initiated and has that point been reached? Alternatively, is it the case instead that there is no break clause and we must suffer this situation for the remainder of the contract? Obviously, Applus+ has the RSA over a barrel legally in terms of both parties having obligations. I do not know what discussions there have been behind the scenes, but I am sure there has been plenty of agitation and friction between the RSA and Applus+, but they are stuck with each other now and we are stuck with the whole lot of them. This is the problem.
Mr. Walsh mentioned his organisation's national role and objectives. All I have to say in this regard is that the situation is a shambles with driver tests and NCT tests, and somebody must take responsibility for this. Every time he comes in here, we are told improvements are being made and that these are being pushed out. There is no point in telling me about improvements. I am getting letters every other day, from young people in particular, on this subject. We also have this safety campaign on our roads. We have young people being stopped by the Garda. We have young people trying to get around the country, including young nurses trying to get to their hospitals, young apprentices trying to go to their places of work and young students trying to get to college, but they cannot get a driver test. It is incredible.
The other aspect is that as a public representative I write to Mr. Walsh's organisation regularly. I could bring in a truckload of those communications to him, but all we get are these bland responses. A generic letter goes out to everyone. The attitude seems to be to just change the name and send it out and that will shut up the correspondent for a while. This is not good enough. I have made representations on several cases concerning people who should get a driver test on compassionate grounds. How is it possible to send such a letter in this context? I have a letter from a girl who submitted an application in April and the estimated test date was set for September. It was then delayed and pushed out to November. It was then delayed again and pushed out to December. As late as this morning, this person was told the test will happen in the first week of January 2024. What kind of a professional service is this meant to be? It is not a professional service but an incompetent one. Now, I made a case for that same girl on compassionate grounds because she is a third-year nursing student and has an upcoming eight-week placement, before and after Christmas. She is currently employed as a healthcare assistant in Kilkenny. Her father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and has been rendered incapable of driving. There is no one else to drive her. I asked that some measure of compassion be shown to that young girl to allow her to proceed, and, of course, I got the generic reply that it is not possible for her to jump the queue and she will be dealt with as the dates go on. There needs to be some bit of-----
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
There is a mechanism for her to access on the website. There is a form available when she goes in that she can complete. She will then be expedited in the queue as a member of the HSE.
Yes, I will send the information to Mr. Walsh. To give him an idea of why we are frustrated, I have another case here. This gentleman applied for a driver test on 8 March. He was given an estimated invitation date of 11 September. That date was then changed to 11 October. It was then again postponed until 27 November. I checked this yesterday, and it has again been pushed back to 11 December. This means five different dates have been pushed around. People have to plan their lives and make their own arrangements because they have commitments. This kind of stuff is simply not good enough.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
On the waiting time for driver tests, I said in my opening statement, and I continue to say this, that where we are now is absolutely not good enough. What we have done now, however, is put in place a structure to ensure we return the service to normal. We have our first block of new testers in place. They started on 18 September, two days ago. We will continue to bring more testers in, as we have outlined. I agree with the Deputy that the situation now is not good enough. We are, though, working with the Department of Transport. We have a sanction from it to bring in up to 75 additional testers. This would bring the service back on track by the middle of next year. I do realise and understand the public's frustration and I wholeheartedly sympathise. My team, our board and I are doing everything we can. The Department of Transport has been really good in helping us to give us what we need, but it is going to take some time. I apologise for that.
I understand that Mr. Walsh is operating in good faith, but this situation is very demoralising for people. I have another letter from a young fellow who tried to get a test. I tried to help him to get it, but he ended up losing his electrical apprenticeship because he could not get a driver test in time. These are the kinds of real and practical difficulties being created by these delays. The first thing that needs to happen is that the system must be upgraded, without a doubt, because it is confusing and people find it difficult to navigate.
It would be good if we at least got a commitment in this regard. I do not know when the RSA will be able to report back to us, but we need a dramatic improvement in this process. I am talking about places like Thurles, Clonmel, Cahir and Nenagh, which all have long waiting lists. They are all in the same boat. People are just hopping from one county to the other trying to get a test and finding the same problems all over the country. It is a national problem, but it seems to be particularly acute and problematic in Munster.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
This is certainly no defence, but County Tipperary is actually below the current average waiting times. It is certainly, though, still too long. We have people coming in and we are adding to the service. The service and my team are working extensive over time. I outlined earlier in reply to Senator Dooley that we are at risk with some of our workers that they may go over the number of hours they are allowed to work in a calendar year. We are, therefore, doing everything we can and we all have our shoulders to the wheel. I do sympathise, but, as I said earlier, I still have to be mindful that unless someone is a front-line worker in the HSE, we cannot give preference to one person over another because everybody has unique situations. I have nephews waiting for driver tests, and that is it, they must wait. We must be fair. We must fix the service for all. I cannot prioritise one individual over another. I do understand that this causes frustration because the Deputy has his constituents speaking to him about this situation. I apologise for that, but I give him my commitment that this service will be back to normal by the middle of next year.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
Regarding the NCT service, it will be back within the terms of the SLA by the end of the year. The normal service will resume in the NCT testing programme. Turning to the contract itself, it is for ten years. I would have to get into the legalities and speak to our lawyers around it because I was not party to the original drafting of it around a break clause, but it is a ten-year contract that is in place.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
On this point, we have worked extensively with our colleagues in the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Transport to ensure that Applus+ was able to secure additional work permits to ensure we have enough workers in the NCT service.
The first time I sat here we had 551 testers operating in the service; today there are 629. We will grow that up to around 670 towards the end of the year. Regarding the non-performance of Applus+, we have applied service credits that are allowed for within the contract which are a financial burden that Applus+ has had to pay the RSA.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I do not believe so. The service will be back to normal by the end of the year. At that point we believe we will be entering into normal SLAs with Applus+. We have come through the worst of it. We have reached a point now where nationally we have a national waiting time of around 18.6 days. That will continue to improve as we bring more people into the service. We have done that. We sat here in February this year and in the following couple of weeks, we approached a lead time of almost 30 days within the NCT, so we have seen significant improvement. However, from the perspective of Applus+, service credits are still applied against it for non-performance of the contract. We will continue to apply them. I will ensure that the service is brought back to the way it should be and will be kept there for the future.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
Yes. I wish to add that it is important to recognise that while there is a degree of frustration about the performance of the NCTS, our customer service scores are excellent. We have almost a 90% satisfaction score from our customer surveys that we have run this year. Overall, within the NCTS, I accept that it is just a little in excess of 60% with respect to the length of waiting time for an appointment. Overall, there is a good deal of positivity about the performance of the service.
It is similar to the HSE about which people say, "It is great once you get into it", but the problem is getting into it. This situation is somewhat similar. We are not quibbling with the men on the lanes, or the women for that matter, who are doing the test. I will say it again, that when I look on the website and see a slot of 18 April 2024-----
This is not something that people get for free. People are paying for this service. It should be a profitable service if it was not for all the ancillary problems that exist at the moment. I presume that it is fair to say that the driver test service should also be a self-financing service.
The public is paying for this; this is not something the State subsidises. It is subject to the public. All of us pay for the service when we apply to do our driver test. The current 30-week wait is not acceptable. We have had a good discussion. I will let Deputy Kenny in shortly. However, it is fair to say that people are paying for a service. People expect a level of service for any service for which they pay. It is an issue in urban Ireland. We saw the palpable anger of some of the members here, in particular from our many members from Munster. However, the Dublin lists are probably longer than the rural lists in many cases but some of those people at least can have the opportunity to use public transport in a way that those in rural areas cannot. I presume there are people driving on permits that they should not be driving on because they are unable to get the permits they should have. That is not something I advocate or suggest should be the case. However, I do not doubt that it is happening.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
I would like to add that the service for driver testing was at six weeks in August last year. We have gone through an extraordinary year between staff leaving and the unprecedented level of demand for the service. We got the sanction from the Department of Transport not long after we were here in February. We have acted on that. It takes time to recruit and to go through a panel. As Ms Coleman outlined, 500 people applied. They now have to be trained properly so that they can evaluate a driver test. Unfortunately, it took a long time to get us to where we are. However, we now believe we have people in place either in training or recently introduced to the service, or who will enter training in the next couple of weeks.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
Yes. We are doing everything we can to deal with the service and to bring the service back on track with the support of the Minister and the Department of Transport. We will have the service back on track by the middle of next year. However, that does mean we are going to go from 30 weeks to the SLA level. We expect to see an improvement this week from the 14 individuals who were brought into the service. I hope that the curve, which has been going up, will turn this week and will continue to run down. It is within our gift to run that down faster.
I will come in briefly because I have a vote and another meeting to attend. Some questions were answered in regard to staff and the permanent contracts they are on. The staff from the Philippines are on permanent contracts, I take it, although they only have two-year permits.
Ms Alison Coleman:
In support of Mr. Synnott, Applus+, the RSA and a number of other organisations have gone in this year to address critical skills. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment did a recent review to ensure that a number of job roles that were deemed ineligible for permits would be removed from the list. We are trying everything we can in that regard. That would mean that mechanical technicians could be recruited without having to go through the whole permit process. We have submitted and the Department of Transport is supporting us in that regard. We wait to see whether that will help us in the future, and help Applus+.
I cannot remember now what I was to say about the other issue. I had a point regarding the numbers of people waiting for tests and all of that. The number that then do not show up is always an issue for both driver tests and NCTs. I know the stuff about cashless payment and payment in advance was partly a response to try to deal with that issue. Have there been any other efforts to come up with an alternative way of dealing with that issue and ensure that compliance with turning up for the test is going to be adhered to? At the moment people get put at the back of the queue but that does not seem to be a deterrent.
Mr. Brendan Walsh:
We are actually in a situation when it comes to the slots we lose where it has actually decreased. Let us be honest; we have heard from the passion from everybody that people want a driver test so when they get their slot they are turning up. We have seen a decrease from January 2022 when we had around 9% of lost slots down to around 5% at the moment. It has declined. People are taking their tests and presenting for their tests. The number of lost slots so far this year is around 6,000. If you put that in context, we have delivered 170,000 tests this year. It is a very small figure.
With regard to the cash facility, there may be ways people can pay cash but go by the post office or get a voucher or something rather than the NCT having to do it. Presumably there are a large amount of cash-handling costs in terms of getting the cash to the bank and all the rest of it. It is an overhead the NCT does not need.
Mr. Mark Synnott:
It does not go away if the NCT goes cashless, for the most part, because the NCT is not the only thing we operate from NCT centres. We also do import and export conformance inspections on behalf of Revenue in about 30 of our 50 centres. They require us to take up to €200 in cash as a result but virtually zero actually happen that way in reality. There will always be that element.
I get all that. It is very important that people who do not have credit facilities or credit or debit cards are included but there may be another way. When I was on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, we had to have a cash office for paying rent and we said we would just move it to the post office. The post office got business out of doing it and we had a cash office that was not taking very much. Equally, the staff were redeployed elsewhere and we were not paying Group 4 or whoever it was €180, I think it was at the time, to take away maybe €30, which made no sense for anybody. There are ways of doing it that encompass cash that do not mean you have to have cash on site. It is very important that people who want to be able to pay in cash can pay in cash in whatever way they have to do it, whether that is buying a voucher in the post office or something along those lines. I get the prepay thing.
I thank the witnesses. The frustration here on behalf of people is genuine. We appreciate how much the witnesses are doing and the journey they are all on. I know the management of such large numbers is difficult and we thank them for all they are doing. The better the figures get, the less often they will be in here so maybe that will be an incentive in itself to improve, not that they necessarily need one. I thank them very much for being here today.