Tuesday, 4 April 2006
Road Safety Authority Bill 2004: Report Stage.
The purpose of this Bill is to establish a road safety authority and to amend section 9 of the Road Traffic Act 2002, which relates specifically to the implementation of the European Convention on Mutual Recognition of Driving Disqualifications. I have been advised that, in this context, it is not appropriate that this Bill be used as a means to amend the Road Traffic Acts which constitute a legal framework for the regulation of traffic, vehicles and drivers.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 5, line 25, to delete "1963 to 2005".
This is a technical amendment that arises from the provisions of the Interpretation Act 2005, which allows the Companies Acts to be referred to collectively without reference to the dates of the Acts.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 6, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:
2.â(1) An order or regulation made pursuant to this Act shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made and if either such House resolves that the order or regulation be annulled within 21 days after the order or regulation is so laid it shall be annulled accordingly but without prejudice to anything previously done thereunder.
(2) Within 1 month from the making of an order or regulation under this Act, and without prejudice to the operation of the Statutory Instruments Act 1947, a copy of the order or regulation shall be published on the Minister's website and shall be delivered to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport.
I raised this matter on Committee Stage. This amendment aims to ensure there is some formal notification process when a statutory instrument comes into operation. It is very difficult to keep track of statutory instruments. Not only should statutory instruments be put before both Houses, they should also be put on the Department of Transport's website. In addition, the relevant committee, in this case, the Joint Committee on Transport, should be formally notified. It is an example of good practice which should probably be applied to all legislation and I hope the Minister will agree to it.
I stated on Committee Stage I would consult further with the Parliamentary Counsel in respect of this amendment. I have been advised by the Parliamentary Counsel that a change in the existing provisions regarding the laying of statutory instruments can only be considered in the context of the Statutory Instruments Act 1947. I am not prepared to allow the amendment as proposed as it could have unforeseen consequences which must be carefully considered in the context of the Statutory Instruments Act 1947. One particular concern of the Parliamentary Counsel was that a statutory instrument published on a website cannot be proved in court or have judicial notice taken of it. There may also be circumstances where a statutory instrument may not be capable of being published on a website. However, in an effort to be helpful to Deputy Shortall, I am happy to give a commitment that my Department will publish statutory instruments made by me on the Department's website where possible. However, according to the Parliamentary Counsel, this can only be dealt with in the context of the Statutory Instruments Act 1947. It would need to be changed therein and not on an ad hoc basis to deal with one Bill. Under no circumstances would the Parliamentary Counsel accept the proposed amendment.
The idea is to facilitate the giving and sharing of information and enable people to keep abreast of changes to the law. I am not sure the Minister's undertaking to lay an order or regulation before the Houses where possible goes far enough. I would be much happier if the Minister gave a commitment to formally notify the Joint Committee on Transport of all new statutory instruments, which would be more helpful. There would be no question of misinterpretation in that instance, as it would be a matter of merely notifying the committee with an interest in the issue.
As the Deputy knows, I did not have a problem with the amendment and gave a commitment to examine it, which I genuinely did, but the response from the Parliamentary Counsel was quite explicit. I am trying to go a bit further with the matter even though it might not have the weight of law, as it were. The Parliamentary Counsel has clearly pointed out an issue in terms of examining the Statutory Instruments Act 1947. If it is open for me to do so and there is no question of imprimatur, I do not have a problem with notifying the committee. The more information people have the better.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 6, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following:
4.âThe Minister shall, notwithstanding the status of the Authority, remain politically accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas for all matters that fall under the Ã¦gis of the Authority, and nothing in this Act shall be used to diminish the level of that responsibility or his or her accountability in that regard.
As far as I am concerned, this is the most important amendment that has been submitted during the Bill's progress through the Seanad and DÃ¡il. It seeks to ensure that the Minister answers parliamentary questions on the new road safety authority. This is absolutely essential. I support the legislation and the establishment of the new authority and would like to strengthen its functions. I welcomed the appointment of Mr. Noel Brett and, to the chair of the authority, Mr. Gay Byrne. However, the buck stops with the Minister. The authority is not an elected body and the Minister must be responsible to the DÃ¡il and answer questions on this body once it has been set up. No Member of the House can support a replication of the situation that arose when we established either the NRA or HSE where information became unavailable to the public or Deputies who represent the public. When Deputies get information in answer to parliamentary questions, it is inadequate and months after the questions have been asked. The head of the HSE, the unfortunate Professor Drumm, has become the fall guy for the Government.
This is exactly what the Minister is setting up for himself. He will never need to answer another question and will be able to duck and dive as he has done successfully even when he was responsible to the DÃ¡il. The opportunities to avoid responsibility for road safety will be enormous once the Minister has handed it over to the authority and he has somebody to blame. Before entering the House, I heard the Minister on television passing blame to his officials yet again, stating he would not spend money until they sort something out. For the Minister, the buck always stops with someone else. In this case, I insist that my amendment is voted on. It is incomprehensible to the public why the DÃ¡il should pass on its responsibility to ensure the public is represented and the Minister answers its questions.
I will speak to amendment No. 8, which is along the same lines as the amendments of Deputies Olivia Mitchell and Crowe. The Minister must bear in mind that he will not always be on that side of the House. I see how it might be attractive to be able to pass the buck on responsibility for various aspects of his portfolio but a time will come when the Minister will be over here looking for information and trying to establish the accountability of the Minister of the day. If the House is to remain relevant, it is critical that Deputies retain such responsibilities. As Deputy Olivia Mitchell has said, the public cannot understand why Members cannot raise issues of public concern or, for example, get answers in respect of the health area.
My fear is that this new organisation will develop as a quango and we will soon find ourselves looking for answers to questions about various aspects of road safety, driver testing and so forth but receive replies to the effect that the Minister is not answerable to the DÃ¡il for the work of the road safety authority. This should not be allowed to happen. The theory that these different organisations, including the RSA, will be obliged to appear before the relevant Oireachtas committees is not good enough. In practice, it means an organisation will appear before a committee once per year at best, which would be entirely unsatisfactory in terms of getting ongoing information or challenging any aspect of the performance of the organisations. The Minister is politically accountable and should not set up an arrangement whereby he could dodge that accountability. I feel strongly that there should be no dilution of accountability.
I apologise for being late. I agree with the previous speakers. It is crucial this matter is addressed by the Minister. I understand why the Minister is establishing the authority and believe he wants it to do its work, but it is vital the Minister will respond to questions on this issue.
The Minister is no different than other Ministers. The TÃ¡naiste refuses to answer questions relating to the HSE and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, says something or other is a matter for the board of An Post and has nothing to do with him. All of these groups are being established on the basis that there is something wrong. Clearly, we do not have our act together in terms of road safety, which I presume the Bill attempts to address, but if the Minister is not prepared to stand over those decisions and he tells Deputies that questions will be passed onto the authority, the Bill has no potential and people will not get answers, as Deputy Shortall said. It is unacceptable and takes away the powers of Deputies to ask specific and important questions of the Minister. It passes the buck and responsibility. Rather than adopting that position, the Minister must give a clear answer to his responsibility in this area.
I understand the Deputies' points. From my point of view, I have no wish to avoid any responsibility for the matter of road safety. I certainly would not be able to avoid it even if I wanted to. I am always happy to deal with the issue before the House.
The CEO is accountable to DÃ¡il Ãireann for the operation of the RSA. Subsections 17(15) and 17(17) of the Bill provide that the CEO will be accountable to the committees of the Oireachtas regarding the performance of the authority's functions. However, under section 9, I have the power to give general policy direction to the road safety authority and will retain overall responsibility for road safety. I am not ceding that responsibility. The Bill provides that the road safety authority may make recommendations in respect of improving driving standards and requires it to submit road safety programmes to me. In these circumstances, I consider the amendments unnecessary because they would not change anything.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 42 (Bernard Allen, James Breen, Tommy Broughan, Joan Burton, Paul Connaughton, Paudge Connolly, Joe Costello, Jerry Cowley, Seymour Crawford, Seán Crowe, Jimmy Deenihan, Damien English, Olwyn Enright, Martin Ferris, Eamon Gilmore, Séamus Healy, Michael D Higgins, Brendan Howlin, Enda Kenny, Kathleen Lynch, Shane McEntee, Olivia Mitchell, Catherine Murphy, Gerard Murphy, Dan Neville, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Fergus O'Dowd, Jim O'Keeffe, Brian O'Shea, Jan O'Sullivan, Séamus Pattison, Willie Penrose, Pat Rabbitte, Seán Ryan, Trevor Sargent, Joe Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Liam Twomey, Mary Upton)
Against the motion: 65 (Bertie Ahern, Michael Ahern, Barry Andrews, Seán Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Johnny Brady, Martin Brady, John Browne, Joe Callanan, Pat Carey, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Michael J Collins, Beverley Flynn, Mary Coughlan, John Cregan, Martin Cullen, John Curran, Noel Davern, Síle de Valera, John Dennehy, Jimmy Devins, John Ellis, Michael Finneran, Dermot Fitzpatrick, Seán Fleming, Mildred Fox, Pat Gallagher, Jim Glennon, Noel Grealish, Seán Haughey, Máire Hoctor, Joe Jacob, Cecilia Keaveney, Billy Kelleher, Peter Kelly, Tony Killeen, Séamus Kirk, Tom Kitt, Brian Lenihan Jnr, Tom McEllistrim, John McGuinness, John Moloney, Michael Mulcahy, M J Nolan, Éamon Ó Cuív, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Charlie O'Connor, Liz O'Donnell, John O'Donoghue, Denis O'Donovan, Noel O'Flynn, Batt O'Keeffe, Fiona O'Malley, Tim O'Malley, Peter Power, Seán Power, Dick Roche, Michael Smith, Noel Treacy, Mary Wallace, Joe Walsh, Ollie Wilkinson, Michael Woods, G V Wright)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Neville and Stagg; Níl, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 6, line 18, after "driving" to insert "schools and".
I am seeking to ensure that the provisions in the Bill will apply not only to driving instructors but to also driving schools because there is a distinction. While a requirement of driving instructors is set down in the legislation, a way can be found to circumvent it by establishing a driving school. Such schools should be licensed or regulated in the same way as driving instructors. This point was made recently at the Joint Committee on Transport by Mr. Noel Brett who referred to the need to regulate schools as well as instructors. I hope the Minister will accept the amendment.
I have spent some time dealing with this issue. Section 4(1) provides that the road safety authority will have functions in regard to registration of instructors that will be designated in regulations made under the Road Traffic Acts. The road safety authority will be an approved body that will be able to issue instruction certificates for the purpose of regulating driving instructors. Deputy Shortall's proposed amendment would convey no power to regulate driving schools. It is incorrect because the subsection only refers to the functions of the road safety authority in accordance with the Road Traffic Acts 1961 to 2004. There is no power in the Road Traffic Acts to regulate driving schools.
The provision in section 18 of the Road Traffic Act 1968, as amended by section 19 of the 2002 Act, is intended to regulate individuals while giving driving instruction. If driving schools were to be regulated, it would be more appropriate to provide the power to do so by way of an amendment to the Road Traffic Acts, which provide the power to regulate driving instructors. It would also require a much more extensive provision than that proposed by the Deputy. It is the quality of instruction that is important in this context and the regulation of driving schools as trading entities should be adequately covered by other legislation.
At a recent meeting, the driving schools indicated that the delivery of instruction by individuals is the key issue to be regulated. I agree that the quality of driving instructors is the key issue. The representatives of the schools felt that if individual instructors were registered and monitored, it would address the issue. This will happen under the road safety authority. I asked them to consider if there was any other aspect of driving schools which needed to be regulated and which was not covered by existing regulatory provisions relating to companies. They said that most driving schools were single person operations and that no other areas, other than instruction standards, needed to be regulated further. We have pursued this aspect specifically.
I will introduce a new Bill that will revisit the issue because the legislation before us is clearly not the mechanism by which the matter can be addressed. As stated on Committee State, I am still somewhat sympathetic to the Deputy's view. However, we are bestowing upon the road safety authority the power to deal specifically with standards, quality, registration, certification or whatever of instructors and that is the core issue which gave rise to the legislation's introduction. The section in question is not the vehicle to facilitate the Deputy's suggestion because it deals specifically with that matter and the road safety aspect. I suspect that we will revisit the matter in a couple of weeks under a new road traffic Bill, which will be the road safety Bill.
The Minister's initial reply was that his advice indicates that the amendment is not necessary. When the issue of road safety arose in the UK, the authorities there legislated for driving instructors and driving schools.
Perhaps we will continue the debate tomorrow because it is a genuine issue which needs to be dealt with. If the Minister is giving a commitment to deal with the matter in later legislation, that is fine. I would like to debate the matter further.