Wednesday, 7 June 2006
Question 60: To ask the Minister for Transport the terms of the new deal to allow the outsourcing of the driving testing service; when this scheme will commence; the impact it will have on the waiting times and numbers awaiting a test; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21915/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 60, 81, 117, 141, 147, 151 and 285 together.
This question should have been taken earlier as it is repetitive. I refer to Priority Question No. 55 which I answered earlier.
As I have consistently indicated, the delay in providing driving tests is a matter of regret to me. It not only represents a poor service to the public but it also hampers the development of initiatives which I wish to pursue and which will contribute further to road safety. The driving test and those who deliver it are a key element in the road safety strategy.
It is my objective to eliminate the backlog of driving tests by mid-2007. That means having a waiting list of no more than 50,000 that can be scheduled in a ten to 12-week period. The measures in place to deal with this are as follows. Seven civil servants from the Department of Agriculture and Food commenced working as driver testers in April this year and will conduct tests in 2006 and 2007. This gives an annual additional capacity of about 10,000 tests. Six further driver testers on two-year contracts are due to commence training on 12 June, with another five being trained shortly thereafter. These will provide additional capacity of approximately 15,000 in a full year.
A bonus scheme for driver testers has been operating since February 2006. The testers have the potential to deliver up to 40,000 driving tests over the course of the year in the evenings and on Saturdays. The final element in the package to eliminate the backlog of driving tests was to outsource a block of tests to an outside agency. Negotiations on this aspect reached a position last week where Mr. Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, acting as an agreed mediator, recommended proposals which would enable my objective of using this option to be implemented. I have accepted the proposals and I understand these are to be considered by union members this week and I sincerely hope they will accept them.
The proposals envisage that a contract would be in place by 1 July of this year. This would be a contract solely for the purpose of achieving a defined number of completed tests to assist in eliminating the current backlog of applications. It could be extended to 45,000 tests if necessary. I expect to see a marked reduction in the waiting list by the end of this year and will formally review the position, taking account of all the above measures, at that stage.
Does the Minister accept that, on the basis of these figures, his proposals to cut the waiting list will not work and will not reduce waiting times to ten weeks by 2007? Does he intend to end the provision for unaccompanied drivers? Why has the effect of this not been factored into the projections for the next few years?
Is there not a serious problem with the IT system, contributing to the lack of return for the investment in the service? I presume the Minister is aware the head office in Ballina is incapable of communicating with other test centres by e-mail. It must use the postal system. Even though one can apply for a driving test on-line, each application must be input manually in Ballina. Operating as if we were not in the computer era is a ridiculous waste of resources in what is supposed to be a modern service. What is the Minister's intention in respect of the IT system? When does he intend to replace it?
They will have a substantial impact on the backlog. Both sides agree this. I have agreed to review the process and the achievements later. We need to radically overhaul the driver testing system from two points of view — the system of delivering tests, and the criteria for someone driving on the road and the licensing system that should be in place. The new chief executive and the board of the Road Safety Authority are examining both systems and policy. The process is well under way. We need a new modern system to deal with the necessary changes, of which the public is conscious. That someone can receive a provisional licence and drive a vehicle without doing a test is fundamentally flawed. We need a new learner permit system.
I responded directly to what the Deputy asked. The new chief executive, the board and over 300 members of staff of the Road Safety Authority have been put in place. It is their job to run the authority and they are well paid to do so. I will deal with the policy area. I have agreed that the systems are not capable and that more modern systems are needed. I have agreed our policies are poor in respect of the ease with which those with provisional licences can drive. I have changed this. I do not know what Deputy Shortall wants me to do, apart from travelling to Ballina and running the Road Safety Authority headquarters.
The Minister has presided over the shambles that is driver testing for over two years. When I ask if funding is available for a new IT system, it is a little rich for him to state he will ask a chief executive appointed only a few weeks ago.
It is over a year and a half since the Minister first proposed outsourcing 40,000 tests, a meagre and timid ambition which would not have solved the problem at that time. It certainly will not work this year because each year an additional 40,000-45,000 test applications are made. Currently, approximately 130,000 people are awaiting tests. If the Minister's proposals are agreed, there is no prospect of more than 40,000-45,000 being cleared. That is the limit of the agreement mediated by Mr. Kieran Mulvey. Some 130,000 test applications will remain. The only contribution to clearing the backlog is the promise of increased productivity. Does the Minister really expect that increased productivity will clear the backlog of 130,000 people awaiting the test and reduce the waiting time to ten weeks? Even a ten-week waiting list is grossly inadequate for the systems referred to in the legislation to function. A waiting time of two weeks is required, such as exists in Britain. As Deputy Shortall states, if the measures envisaged in the legislation are announced 4,000 drivers on provisional licences will apply. How does the Minister propose to clear the backlog of 130,000 and the 45,000 applications that are made every year? The Minister's proposals have no hope. He may be able to walk off into the sunset but this problem will persist unless he increases the capacity of the current workers to do the work.
I hope we will carry out 180,000 tests this year. I agree the system as it was would not eliminate the backlog. In spite of every effort to thwart my plans to outsource tests, I stuck to my guns. I was successful at every level in terms of resolving this issue but I wish I had received better co-operation. Despite people telling me to abandon the matter and to give up, I did not do so. There will now be a three-pronged approach involving driver testers testing at night and at weekends, additional staff from the Departmental of Agriculture and Food and contracted staff being put in place and outsourcing. We are now in a position to see a radical reduction in the backlog.
I agree with the Deputy that ten weeks is not satisfactory and, ultimately, the period between a person applying for and sitting a test must be reduced to six weeks. That would be a good system. I expect, in light of the figures factored through the system, that this will work if all of those involved deliver on their commitments. I expect that they will do so.
The Minister referred to radical reduction and a significant effect on the backlog. I accept his statements on the difficulties involved with regard to human resources etc. In the context of current difficulties, has the Minister considered prioritising those areas where substantial backlogs exist? I refer, in particular, to areas where significant numbers of road accidents occur. Has there been any attempt to reduce the backlog in those areas? The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher, is sitting beside the Minister and the area in which he resides would be an example. Is there a way of examining the position regarding areas where many accidents occur and the provision of resources therein?
I also wish to refer to areas where there may be high unemployment or a lack of transport. People need transport in order to travel to work. Is there a possibility, taking into account existing problems, of prioritising testing in those areas? It may be outside the scope of the question but perhaps something could be done, even in the context of the resources currently available.
I agree with the Deputy. I have made my views known to the Road Safety Authority, RSA, that it should prioritise areas that are clearly in a bad position regarding the number of tests that remain to be completed. I hope the resources used will be allocated on a basis that will tackle the worst areas and take into account some of the factors to which the Deputy referred. That is common sense and I hope the authority will apply it when the position in respect of tests is finalised.
The new system has been in place since in February, at least on the existing driver testers' side. There has been a large increase in the number of tests carried out, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. If we can maintain the high level of productivity and the pace involved into next year, there will be a substantial reduction in the backlog. I intend to review the position at that stage to consider how to proceed.
Cancellations and those who do not attend for their tests are making the system even more inefficient. I have heard from some people waiting for tests that they are almost afraid to go on holidays because they fear that notification of their tests will arrive. Those to whom I refer have waited a substantial period for tests.
It seems that market research could be carried out in respect of people who have not attended for or who cancelled their tests. People often schedule tests when they obtain provisional licences because they know that it will be a long period before the test comes up. It may not prove, in such cases, to be sufficient time to prepare for the test. This adds to the inefficiency. It would be quite a useful exercise to query the people who have cancelled or not attended.
The matter will not come down to something as simplistic as increasing the cost of the test. There is a financial advantage for someone with a full licence with regard to insurance or the freedom to drive without a full licence holder in the car. I would not like to think that such a factor would exclusively be a reason for no-shows or cancellations. People have to wait a long time in any event.
Will the Minister consider carrying out research among those who have cancelled their test or not attended in order to see if issues are arising which, if taken into account, could reduce the number of cancellations and no-shows?
I agree with the Deputy in that the number of people who are not attending for tests or who are cancelling them is unacceptable and it has a significant impact on the efficiency of the system as it exists. There is no doubt about that. On the system side, we require mechanisms that are far more capable of dealing with cases where people do not attend in the context of obtaining replacements quickly. In some other countries, modern text messaging systems are used and there are lists of people on the systems who can be reached quickly if there is a short-notice cancellation. Such people may be available within an hour or two hours to sit their tests.
The Deputy is correct to argue that the system should be better and more efficient. However, there is a blasé approach to applying for a test and turning up to take it. There are a number of people who do not bother to show up at all, and they do not telephone or send any notification. That number is unacceptably high, and it impacts on the ability of the system to deal with people who legitimately want to sit their tests. We want to facilitate people who need and want quick facilitation for a test.