Thursday, 28 September 2006
Question 103: To ask the Minister for Transport when he expects mutual recognition of penalty points to be introduced on both sides of the Border with Northern Ireland; and the other areas of cooperation his Department is working on currently. [30076/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 10 and 103 together.
In December 2000, the transport sector of the North-South Ministerial Council approved a programme for enhancing North-South co-operation on road safety. The council agreed that joint road safety campaigns would continue to be promoted by the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and the National Safety Council in this jurisdiction, with one such campaign envisaged each year. Joint road safety awareness campaigns are particularly suitable for North-South co-operation. They generate economies of scale in terms of production costs and television and other media exposure. The Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and the National Safety Council have well-established co-operation arrangements in this area. Nine joint advertising campaigns have been developed by the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and the National Safety Council since 1999. The campaigns have targeted speeding, seat belt wearing, drink driving, vulnerable road users, motorbike safety, driver and pedestrian inattention and child safety.
The Road Safety Authority has taken responsibility for road safety advertising and promotion. It will continue to co-operate with the Northern Irish authorities in the area of road safety. A further joint campaign relating to child safety and seat belt wearing will be launched in Belfast on 3 October next. The Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, will attend the launch of the joint safety campaign on Monday. The issues of driver disqualification and offences which attract a lesser penalty are being dealt with at two levels. A framework for the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications is contained in the EU convention on driving disqualifications, 98/C216/01. The convention relates to disqualifications arising from a range of specified traffic offences including drink driving, speeding and dangerous driving. Irish legislation to support the application of the convention is contained in the Road Traffic Act 2002.
In advance of the convention fully coming into force and following a ministerial meeting of the transport sectoral group of the British-Irish Council on 9 February 2006, I have formally agreed with the UK junior transport minister to enter into bilateral arrangements on the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications, as envisaged in the EU convention. The UK junior minister wrote to me recently to advise me that the UK and Northern Ireland authorities are working to complete the necessary legislative and consultative processes to enable mutual recognition to be in place by April 2007. The various officials are continuing to work to ensure the necessary administrative arrangements are in place to enable the relevant administrations to recognise and take action on driving disqualifications occurring in the other jurisdiction.
In relation to lesser offences, the North-South work programme, as agreed by the North-South Ministerial Council, includes a commitment to examine the mutual recognition of penalty points between the Republic of Ireland and the North. Not only do separate penalty point systems operate in the two jurisdictions on this island, but the system that operates in Northern Ireland also differs from that applying in Great Britain. Therefore, it was agreed that it would be more appropriate to pursue the question of mutual recognition of penalty points on the basis of the operation of the three systems and that it would be more appropriate to deal with it under the auspices of the British-Irish Council. As Northern Ireland has the lead role for transport matters in the council, the authorities in that jurisdiction are taking the lead in considering this issue. It was agreed at the British-Irish Council meeting on 9 February last that officials should examine the prospects for greater co-operation in the treatment of road traffic infringements where the penalty falls short of disqualification. Arising from the work in this area, I have agreed with the UK junior transport minister the terms of reference which have been proposed for a study of the feasibility of greater co-operation between us on lesser road traffic infringements, with a view to our officials undertaking a study on that basis and reporting back to us next year.
I welcome the Minister's response. The television campaigns that have been promoted by the two road authorities in Ireland to date have been welcome, hard-hitting and quite effective. Road safety goes beyond that, however. Does the Minister agree there is a need to consider the harmonisation of road signs, speed limits, driver education and testing and, as he mentioned, penalty points? Does he agree there is a need to accelerate the recognition of penalty points in the form he outlined? Is there an indicative timeframe for when that will come about? I refer not only to offences which attract penalty points, but also to offences which attract penalties which are less serious than disqualification. Can the Minister indicate when the EU convention on disqualifications will come into effect? He mentioned that he hopes the bilateral agreement will come into effect within a few months. Has any work been done on different road surfaces and signals? It would be practical and effective to introduce measures in respect of a number of different aspects of road safety. All of us on the island of Ireland should benefit from the exact same road safety campaigns, speed limits, road signs and driver testing procedures. We could even bring the criteria used to test cars in our national car test and the test offered by the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland into line with each other.
The convention will come into place when all signatory member states have ratified it. It allows for member states to move ahead with bilateral arrangements if the opportunity presents itself as it did to us and the Northern Ireland authorities. This was discussed at a recent British-Irish Council meeting and several Ministers agreed with it. We have also been to the fore at European level in the recognition of these issues, particularly the recognition of penalty points on a European basis. It is the logical way to go and will provide the best results for road safety.
In this jurisdiction many advances have been made in the past two years with road and signage quality. Similar road signage and so on would be helpful to all drivers on the island. Currently it is difficult for drivers coming from Northern Ireland into the Republic and vice versa. Road safety strikes me as an issue that could be dealt with on an all-island basis. It would have a good impact on road safety for the benefit of all drivers.
We have moved with our counterparts in Northern Ireland on a bilateral arrangement. There are, however, three different systems between the jurisdictions. It was agreed that the best method would be to have a harmonised approach rather than matching one system up with another and unscrambling an existing one. The Northern Ireland Office is the lead party in the British-Irish Council on this and it is working through a system. It keeps in touch with departmental officials and has a timeframe to report back early next year at the next British-Irish Council meeting.
I welcome such co-operation and joint road safety awareness campaigns. I hope we will move towards an all-island road safety strategy. My principal concern is with penalty points. I do not under-estimate the difficulty in co-ordinating the two systems. Much time, however, has been lost. If we are to move on a trilateral or a Europe-wide basis, it will take forever. The urgency is in respect of Northern Ireland and the South. One only has to drive on the M1 to see what is happening. Invariably, cars that overtake on the M1 at enormous speeds are northern registered cars and similarly, on the northern side of the Border, southern registered cars have no regard for speed limits. The accident statistics will bear that out in the northern regions. There is a definite urgency in reaching agreement on mutual recognition of penalty points between Northern Ireland and the South. Will the Minister consider fast-tracking this? If we are looking to the rest of Europe to move with us, it will take for ever.
I do not disagree with the Deputy. That is why we have moved ahead of the European level. I have raised this matter at the EU transport meetings. It is not a question of some countries being more committed than others. However, getting a harmonised system in place is a formidable challenge. Because of that, we felt our immediate target should be on the island of Ireland. That is why I moved with my Northern Ireland counterparts on this. I am only one party involved in this process. The feedback was that it would have to be done on a UK-Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland basis.
The Deputy correctly identified that it will be a longer process at European level. However, we have forced the pace in moving ahead. The primary objective is the island of Ireland result. We have in place the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications, which is a major step. When that is properly functioning, the penalty points issue should be resolved. I want one system of penalty points on the island of Ireland and the laws between the two jurisdictions to be harmonised to reflect this. Road safety and issues of that matter lend themselves to an all-island approach. The appetite is there for progress on the matter but one has to tread at a certain pace in these matters.