Dáil debates

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

3:00 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Question 102: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the increased cost of school transport proposed to take effect in 2009. [38360/08]

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The school transport scheme, operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of my Department, is primarily a rural-based scheme which facilitates the transportation of more than 134,000 children to primary and post-primary schools each day.

The Deputy will be aware that the school transport system is a significant operation involving approximately 42 million journeys of more than 82 million km on 6,000 routes every school year. The 2008 allocation for school transport was €175.2 million and this has been increased by 12% to €196 million in 2009, an indication, given the difficult fiscal conditions, of the Government's commitment to maintaining the scheme. The allocation to school transport services has increased almost threefold since 1997.

Despite the escalating cost of the service, charges for school transport had not been increased from 1998 until the third term in the 2007-08 school year. A further increase was necessary at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year. The budget 2009 increase applies from the beginning of the 2009-10 school year. In the overall context and in order to minimise the overall effects, these increases have been confined to the 55,000 eligible post-primary children availing of concessionary transport. Charges will continue to be waived in respect of post-primary children whose families are in possession of a valid medical card, or to a further 19,000 children. Eligible children attending primary schools and children with special needs, approximately 54,000 children, will continue to travel free of charge. A maximum family rate will also be applied. The total contribution from parents will continue to represent only 7% of the overall allocation for school transport in 2009.

This scheme aims to provide comfortable and safe transport for children travelling to and from school. Measures to ensure the highest standards in this regard include the phasing out of the three for two seating arrangement on primary and post-primary services, providing all children with a seat; the addition of a considerable number of vehicles to address capacity shortfalls arising from the decision to provide each child with an individual seat and the equipping of all school buses in the scheme with seat belts; and inspection by Bus Éireann, using an independent agency, to satisfy itself that all buses entering the school transport scheme are fitted with seat belts which meet the standard agreed with the Department of Transport. In addition, Bus Éireann has put in place a random vehicle inspection process conducted by a leading independent external expert in this field.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply although I am dissatisfied with it. At the commencement of this year, the cost of school transport for junior cycle students was €99. This increased to €138 at Easter, to €168 in July and to €300 under the budget, an increase of 203% in less than seven months.

Will the Minister reverse these charges? If not, will he state that there will be no further increases in charges during the lifetime of this Government? I believe this charge is anti-family and anti-rural. Young students in the Minister's constituency have available to them public transport to take them to school. This charge is a huge burden on families in rural areas. Will the Minister say if further increases are proposed or if he will reduce the cost?

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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School transport charges are escalating all the time owing to expanding numbers and the growing diversity of schools, and in order to meet the transport needs of special needs children. The allocation for school transport has increased from €51.1 million in 1998 to €175.2 million in 2008, a 340% increase. Major improvements, some of which I referred to earlier, have been made to the scheme since 2001. All of these improvements cost money.

Obviously, as we have only recently dealt with the Estimates for 2009, I am not in a position to say what will be the case in the future. However, as I stated earlier, school transport charges had not been increased for ten years. I take this opportunity to inform the House that my officials are currently examining, in conjunction with Bus Éireann, potential options in regard to the payment of the maximum family charge of €600. For example, the financial implications of spreading a portion of the payment for this specific group of parents into 2010 will be of central importance. I assure the Deputy that parents will be given ample notice of any options agreed in this regard.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Issues have arisen in regard to the fuel rebate scheme. The Government made many promises in regard to the replacement of this scheme but no replacement mechanism has, as yet, been put in place. Public transport operators are concerned they may not be able to fulfil their duties over the year owing to them not having received the fuel rebate as promised on numerous occasions.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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A final reply from the Minister of State.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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Unfortunately, it was not possible, in the current fiscal climate, to make additional funding available in respect of an increase in contractors' rates for the 2008-2009 school year. As announced in the budget, the increase provided allows for payment of a compensatory allowance to private contractors who may avail of the fuel rebate scheme until the end of the month. My officials are currently in discussions with Bus Éireann in this regard.

The three contractors' groups, the Private Association of Motor Bus Owners, Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland and the Federation of Transport Operators, have been fully apprised of the position. We hope to finalise discussions in this regard during the coming weeks.