Thursday, 25 May 2006
Question 9: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if officials in her Department have had discussions with the officials in the Department of Transport with regard to carrying out an independent audit of all public and private school buses, in view of the continuing safety concerns that exist. [19960/06]
An independent review requested by my colleague, the Minister for Transport, is currently being carried out within Bus Éireann. This review will look at the arrangements and systems in place for the management, operation and maintenance of the fleet of buses owned and contracted by Bus Éireann to ensure ongoing safety and roadworthiness. My officials will liaise with the Department of Transport regarding the outcome of the review.
Regular discussions are held between officials in the two Departments on matters pertaining to school transport operations. These discussions focus on such matters as seating and seat belt installations on school buses. Arising from contacts involving the two Departments, it was possible last year to announce a package of measures designed to enhance the safety of school transport operations. These measures include the phasing out of three-for-two seating arrangements and the installation of seat belts on all school buses. Arrangements are in hand to have these measures in place by the end of this year.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply. If she has any further light to shed on the issue, I would appreciate a description of the nature of the discussions which have taken place, given that a number of fatal and non-fatal accidents have occurred over the past year. I would like to be assured that a dialogue is taking place between the two Departments. I need to know, for example, that the Minister is fighting vociferously for a more stringent system of testing for school buses in particular, given the demographic and the youth of the children being carried by the buses. I have seen responses by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, on the independent review being carried within Bus Éireann on the management, operation and maintenance of its own and contract buses. Will this review be general for all buses or will there be a separate review for school buses? If so, what additional areas will be examined?
The responsibility for legislation on safety is with the Department of Transport. That is why the Department of Education and Science is in constant touch with the Department of Transport regarding school transport. In my initial reply I named two issues that we have discussed at length with the Department of Transport, namely the phasing out of three seats for two and the question of the installation of seat belts. That has been ongoing. I also referred to the independent review in Bus Éireann, to which the Deputy referred, and which is being carried on the instruction of the Minister for Transport.
Separately, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, has requested the chief executive designate of the proposed road safety authority to undertake a fundamental review of the arrangements for compulsory, periodic roadworthiness tests of goods vehicles and buses, so it is a wider issue. As part of that review, the matter of Bus Éireann undertaking such roadworthiness tests on its own vehicles will be examined.
As I said, the situation is being reviewed independently within Bus Éireann. This review was instigated by the Minister last Tuesday. He has asked Bus Éireann to look at the management systems and operation and maintenance of school buses.
I am glad to hear the Minister of State's upgrade aims are still on target for December this year. Can she, in her discussions with the Department of Transport, reinforce that we want a higher standard for our children and demand that we get the best, not just what passes the tests? The system of reviewing and issuing certificates must be checked as a matter of urgency. Surely it is a given that every school bus should have a fire extinguisher. Can the Department of Education and Science issue a set of rules that go beyond what is in place and pre-empt what might result from the court case on last year's Navan bus crash? That might lead us a certain way and set out better examples. Can the Minister of State pre-empt that and set out certain rules and standards, the least being that the bus driver is told what is on the bus to protect young people and required to check it every few days, separate to any certificate of roadworthiness?
Does the bus driver have overall responsibility for safety on the bus and is the decision with him or her or with the area depot manager? One hears stories about drivers being pressurised to drive buses to areas where they are uncomfortable or when they know there are faults. Is the Minister of State aware of any children being left behind owing to the new changes in regulation? If so, are there any proposals to increase the numbers of buses in those areas?
The phasing out of the three children for two seats rule will mean one seat per person with a seat belt. We have always believed that the pursuit of those two issues is important. Work had been ongoing before the tragic accident in Navan on both those issues. The one for one seating means we will have to find an extra 3,500 seats to provide every eligible child with his or her own seat and seat belt. We all wish to see the highest possible standards and would all work to those standards. The standards are set by the Department of Transport and we in the Department of Education and Science wish that those standards be followed to the highest possible level.
People feel strongly about seat belts, which would lead to a safer regime in the buses. That is why we have gone one step further than the directive, which came into law this month and says seat belts must be worn in all buses that have them. We wanted to go far beyond that to ensure that seat belts would be provided for each seat and each child. That underlines the importance my Department places on the allocation of a seat belt for each child. I do not wish to comment on any particular accident because there are ongoing Garda and other investigations which must be allowed to continue without any influence. As far as I am aware, there must be fire extinguishers on buses.