Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Road Transport Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)
It is like many of the votes I needed on the last occasion; they were not transferred as one would have wished.
I spoke about the potential impact of the budget and further cost increases on the road haulage business. In recent weeks, I spoke to tour bus operators and their representatives throughout the country. They, in addition to hauliers, have expressed very serious concern over the Government's expected decision to increase the rate of VAT on diesel. They referred also to other potential increases, for example, increases in the duty on diesel and the rate of carbon tax.
The operators have made it very clear to me that rising costs will have an impact on the dispersal of tourists around the country. As the Minister is well aware, Dublin Airport is the entry point for many tourists. They use the capital as a base and then take bus and coach tours to various destinations. Some of these tours are one day in duration and others are longer. There is real concern in the industry that if the cost of travel increases, there will be an impact on tourism activity, including regional tourism. The Minister, who is responsible for tourism in addition to transport, has a role in making the case to ensure the appropriate dispersal of tourists around the country. He will be familiar with the Cliffs of Moher in the constituency with which I am most familiar. It is often a disappointment for tourism operators in the region that people travel there on a day basis. This has been the case for some time. It is, however, better than their not travelling to the region at all. Any increase in cost will have an impact.
The tourism sector is concerned that any additional cost, including a regulatory cost, that may arise from this Bill will have an impact on the coach tour market, which constitutes a separate category within the sector. For this reason, I ask the Minister to review this Bill and any other to come before the House to ensure there will not be a greater burden of cost imposed on a sector that is already under pressure. If the policy of this Government is to corral the bulk of tourists into the capital city, it is going the right way about it by making national tours cost prohibitive.
I return to the provisions of the Bill. The Schedule sets out the exemptions from the requirement to have a licence. The list appears to be quite exhaustive but when one compares it to the list in the current A Guide to Road Haulage Operator Licensing, one notes some that are not in the legislation. The guide states that a road haulage operator's licence is not required if one proposes to carry, in the State only, the following goods: cattle, sheep, pigs, turf; livestock by farmers for neighbours locally; milk to a creamery or a cream separating station; separated milk from a creamery or cream separating station; milk containers to or from a creamery or a cream separating station; newly harvested wheat, oats or barley during the period 1 August to 30 November. These are provided for in the existing guidelines but there is no reference to them in the Bill. Does the Minister intend to table an amendment to include them? Am I to take from their omission that they are no longer covered? Will the Minister clarify this?
Sections 2 and 3 set out the obligation on the operator to inform the Minister of convictions of certain named individuals in the sector. This only applies to passenger transport operations. Why is this the case? The Minister sets out the offences very clearly. They include murder, manslaughter, certain non-fatal offences against the person, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, certain sexual offences, certain firearms offences and aiding and abetting perpetrators of all these offences. This is a reasonably exhaustive list of the serious crimes the Minister has rightly identified as not being helpful in establishing the repute of certain important players in the passenger transport industry, be it the transport manager, director or other individual. A driver comprises an integral part of the industry. While the Minister clearly states the necessity to notify the authorities of certain convictions in respect of transport operations, he does not do so in respect of road haulage operations. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for a convicted owner-operator or director of a road haulage company to resign as a director and then become a driver. I presume there is a good reason this is possible. Will the Minister outline it?
Section 3 sets out the obligation to inform the operator of certain convictions. The requirement is imposed on the individual concerned, be it the transport manager or otherwise. I would have believed a driver would also be obliged to inform the operator of any convictions he might have. While I accept the requirement applies in respect of passenger transport operations, it does not apply in respect of haulage operations. Why can the provision not extend to hauliers of goods? Ultimately the Minister has discretion in section 4 to refuse or withdraw a license based on the good repute, or otherwise, of the operator. In the event of a failure to establish the operator's good repute, and when there is no obligation on both the driver and operator, the Minister will not be in a position to establish the full bona fides of the operator and driver. Will the Minister clarify why a driver who transports goods is not seen as an integral part or major component of the operation? I cannot understand why that is not the case and am, therefore, clearly missing something.
Concern has been raised over own-account operators. Approximately 60% to 70% of haulage vehicles are owned by such operators. They engage in the transport of their own goods with their own vehicles and are, therefore, not subject to the provisions requiring that one have a licence. There is a view that some of the bad publicity associated with the haulage sector is associated with the own-account sector based on the supposition that inspections of own-account operators and vehicles are not as rigorous as they might be. Has the Minister any plan to introduce a licensing regime for the own-account sector? I understand that, in other jurisdictions, legislative provision is made for the licensing of own-account operators. It is not a huge issue but it is a question of ensuring uniformity of approach to safety regulation and management. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the concerns I have raised. While I have certain concerns about the Bill, I do not intend to delay its passage and will assist in whatever way I can. If the Minister can assure us that the gaps we have identified will form part of the Bill he has proposed to introduce at a later date, we will accept his commitment. I also ask him to indicate when he proposes to bring that legislation before the House. Time is of the essence, particularly in regard to the issue of cabotage and the distortion of competition among Irish road hauliers.
I will share my time with Deputy Martin Ferris.
I welcome the Road Transport Bill 2011 in so far as it deals with the character of licence holders and the people they employ in a similar manner to the legislation on private security firms. I ask the Minister to consider updating the taxi regulation legislation to put in place a similar regime to ensure the reputation of that industry and protect the safety of customers, pedestrians and other road users. The Bill provides for a number of housekeeping reforms in the area of road transport. I have little difficulty with the intentions behind the Bill.
However, I will table an amendment on Committee Stage on behalf of Sinn Féin. Under the Good Friday Agreement signed by the Government of this State in 1998, this House recognises: "the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, re-training and/or reskilling, and further education." The Agreement recognises the political context of the conflict which happened in Ireland between 1960 and its signing and that actions carried out by IRA volunteers were politically motivated. As such, IRA prisoners were political prisoners and following the ceasefire they were released from prison as part of a process of peace building. This has been a massive success for society, North and South. We now have a more inclusive society in which sectarianism is on the back foot and the days of the orange state's oppression of the Nationalist people of the North is over. There will be no more Bloody Sundays.
Unfortunately, many former political prisoners are finding it difficult to secure a place in their communities, whether North or South. Despite the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement, the Hillsborough Agreement and the St. Andrew's Agreement, along with the guidelines that have been published subsequently, political prisoners continue to suffer discrimination. Obstacles continue to be erected in the way of their search for employment or business opportunities. This Bill neglects the plight of these ex-prisoners. It puts in place rules which would make it difficult for them to obtain a road transport operator licence or work in a licence holder's business.
I am a former political prisoner. All my life I have worked for my community and I continue to work with local people for better services and to defend their rights. In February 2011 I was elected to the Parliament of this State and, as a Deputy, I can speak on this Bill and table amendments to it. I was elected with thousands of votes from the people of Finglas, Ballymun, Glasnevin, Whitehall, Beaumont and Santry. However, if I seek a road transport operator's licence or a job with a licence holder, this would count for nothing. Members from other parties have been imprisoned for political actions, including some of the Minister's colleagues in the Labour Party.
There are thousands of former political prisoners in the State, the vast majority of whom are pillars of society. They have obtained further educational qualifications and include in their number doctors of every subject one can imagine. They are respected in their current fields of activity and they helped to build and keep peace. The State has failed to comply with its end of the bargain in terms of respecting the political context of their imprisonment. It alleges they are not of good repute. Anyone who knows former political prisoners, works with them or has had any dealings with them will be aware this is not a fair claim.
The St. Andrew's Agreement, which progressed the peace process and brought about the renewal of power sharing, states: "[t]he Government will work with business, trade unions and ex-prisoner groups to produce guidance for employers which will reduce barriers to employment and enhance re-integration of former prisoners." A working group established under the agreement to focus on the issues arising for prisoners stated: "that conflict-related convictions of 'politically motivated' ex-prisoners, or their membership of any organisation, should not generally be taken into account [in accessing employment, facilities, goods or services] provided that the act to which the conviction relates, or the membership, predates the Agreement."
The Government must uphold its side of the bargain with the prisoners who took risks for peace. It must treat them fairly and allow them to live normal lives in this new dispensation, which they have played a major role in creating. It is 13 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It is time this commitment was part of all legislation dealing with this type of issue. Sinn Féin cannot accept the Bill as long as it discriminates against former political prisoners in contravention of the principles set out in the Good Friday Agreement and its successors. I ask the House to support this amendment so that the Bill can pass without delay.
I take this opportunity to raise other issues with the Minister. The Bill aims at improving safety on our roads by controlling who can hold a road transport operator licence, with the aim of filtering out undesirable elements. I ask the Minister to consider an NCT system for motorbikes and scooters, such as Lambrettas and Vespas. It is time we rolled out the NCT to all registered vehicles, whether trucks, cars or motorbikes. Penalty points should also be introduced to deal with the illegal use of these vehicles for dumping or other offences.
I support the amendment proposed by Deputy Ellis to allow people who were imprisoned as a result of the conflict in this country to work in the area of road transportation and taxi services. At matters stand, Deputy Ellis, who was elected by the people of Finglas, and I, who was elected by the people of Kerry North-West Limerick, would not be able to get a taxi licence because we are former political prisoners. It is amazing that more than 9,000 people could vote for me yet I would not get a licence. If the same criterion applied to Deputy Durkan he would be unable to get a licence because he is also a former political prisoner, albeit in 1966.
Certain Deputies on the Labour Party benches would have difficulties in getting a licence because of their support of or involvement in the conflict in our country.
I was there when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The British and Irish Governments both gave commitments that once conditions had stabilised, legislation would be introduced to give an amnesty to anyone who had convictions during the struggle. We took that in good faith and yet people who had convictions that occurred as a result of the Troubles in the Six Counties and were involved in the campaign still find themselves in this position of discrimination. These are people who were sentenced in the Diplock courts in the North and the other non-jury courts in the Twenty-six Counties. Under the special powers Act, those who were convicted received very long sentences and were released under the Good Friday Agreement on the recognition by both Governments that these were special category prisoners.
In July I had the opportunity to go and speak in five cities in Australia. In order to go there, I needed to get a certificate of compliance from the Garda containing all my previous convictions. It effectively meant that I had to get a special visa in order to enter that country as I have had to do up until now in order to enter the United States of America, even though I was going there to promote the peace process and to convince people who had reservations about the whole peace process. There are many others in similar positions. It also means that, for instance, a person who was sentenced as a result of the Troubles and released 20 years ago cannot get a visa to go to the United States, Australia or Canada. They cannot even go for a holiday to those countries because they have had these sentences as a result of the conflict.
The Minister should accept the amendment proposed by Deputy Ellis. If that amendment is accepted, some decent and honourable people would be able to get jobs in road transportation, as taxi drivers or any similar job. Based on their previous conscience, I hope Deputy Durkan and other Members in government parties might be able to support the amendment. I trust the Minister will take this on board.
I welcome the Bill as far as it goes, although I recognise its limitation because I gather it needs to be enacted by 4 December and the Minister is promising a much more comprehensive road transport Bill in the coming year, which will be welcome. It is not fair to criticise the details of the Bill because we accept it is minimalist. I take in good faith the Minister's promise to produce a more comprehensive and important Bill next year.
I am somewhat staggered by the obvious need for the Bill. Reading between the lines of what the Minister said, whereas he said there are approximately 7,000 licensed operators of approximately 25,000 large vehicles, we do not get a picture of the number of unlicensed operators or the number of vehicles on the roads that are operating either below par or without licences. It would be very helpful to have that information. Across Europe the problem is extensive and based on what we have heard from the Minister, it would seem self-evident that a large number of cowboys are operating in this market and need to be dealt with.
I welcome the detailed provisions in the Bill. It is important that those in this industry should be of good repute, which is the first principle of the Bill. I welcome Internet access to the register which will provide greater accessibility. There is an obvious need to update the penalties. The staggeringly small penalties in this area were hardly a deterrent to people breaking the rules or becoming unlicensed operators.
I was particularly interested to note that the Bill covers Bus Éireann. I was not aware that Bus Éireann even needed to apply for a licence. I would be interested to know how often it is required to apply for a licence and the terms under which it is granted. I am concerned that the State sector may be the biggest cowboy in the transport industry.
I am not specifically talking about Bus Éireann, but am talking about CIE and Iarnród Éireann. If we are strict about our criteria towards the private sector, which I welcome, we should be equally strict about the criteria for giving licences to those involved in public sector transport.
The two main principles of the Bill are that those operating in this area should be of good repute and should have a good safety record. If Iarnród Éireann were to make an application, it should be refused on grounds included in the Bill because it is not an organisation of good repute.
I do not say that without great consideration and without experience. Deputy Dooley was on the committee of which I was a member and which certainly cast considerable doubt over the good repute of Iarnród Éireann. I am not talking specifically about safety, although that should be mentioned. The Minister will be aware of the disgraceful incident involving Iarnród Éireann - the Malahide viaduct case. In 2009 the viaduct collapsed and it was quite obvious that safety rules had been neglected. Lives could have been lost and it was a miracle that they were not. If that sort of offence and negligence had occurred in rail or road transport in the private sector, anybody applying for a licence would undoubtedly have been refused at the next application. We need to apply the same principles to the State sector, as the Minister mentions in terms of Dublin Bus, as we have in the private sector.
Of course it is unthinkable that a State monopoly of that sort in practical terms should be refused a licence. On the other hand, it is unthinkable that it should behave in the cavalier way it did and not be accountable for it. Iarnród Éireann is a case in point. It is not accountable and does not deserve to receive a licence under these criteria for several other reasons. What was unveiled about Iarnród Éireann at that particular committee was devastating and proved conclusively that it was an organisation of ill repute. It was an organisation not being run properly either for the benefit of the taxpayer or for the benefit of its customers. I refer specifically to the Baker Tilly report with which the Minister will be familiar. This report looked into the functioning of Iarnród Éireann and found evidence of backhanders, procurement breaches and theft inside this semi-State body. Any damage that could have been done to the reputation of the company was done but the report was buried. Iarnród Eireann is a sister company of Bus Éireann and CIE overlooks and supervises them but if can happen in Iarnród Éireann, it is questionable that the company should be given a licence. That is a difficult reality to face but the chief rail operator in the State operates in a culture of secrecy and issues accounts, which are not transparent and are almost impossible to understand. They did not reveal the fact that the company paid €500,000 for a report in which it is damned in every paragraph and, therefore, we have to ask whether it should have a licence. I am interested in the Minister's response to that because there are equal requirements on the private and public sectors and just because a semi-State company is a State monopoly does not mean it should not meet the same high standards of safety and probity as a small operator giving little employment.
I applaud the fact that the Bill has been introduced and that it applies to Bus Éireann but let the Minister in future be fair in his judgment of Iarnród Éireann and Bus Éireann, even if it is unthinkable to refuse a licence in both sectors.
I am a little uneasy about the ministerial power provided for in the legislation. My understanding is that all powers rest with the Minister of the day. I acknowledge the power of appeal but the Minister has the power to refuse licences, to question offences committed and to even consider offences such as murder, drug trafficking and other political offences, to which my friends in Sinn Féin have referred. The difficulty is that the Minister can make a subjective judgment on the so-called offences. Such a power is open to political abuse, particularly in the case of people in Sinn Féin, but also in the case of giving commercial preference to people operating within the Minister's influence and sphere. I do not for a moment suggest that the Minister would ever get involved in anything like that but law of this sort should be secure against future bad and corrupt Ministers who will abuse it. The way the provision is phrased gives enormous potential for abuse politically and commercially.
The Minister will not recall the time the Minister for Local Government had the power of appeal over planning permission. That was abused by unscrupulous Ministers and I am worried, having listened to the contributions of Deputies Ferris and Ellis, that there is potential for political and commercial abuse in future in the powers given to the Minister in the legislation. I ask him to give these powers to a more independent political person or institution.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I compliment the Minister on introducing this Bill. Mr. Gay Byrne, Mr. Noel Brett and the previous Minister were more interested in putting every rural driver off the road and they succeeded. I met the former Minister last night and he is doing well in his retirement. These men succeeded in closing rural Ireland and locking the gates. Rural towns and villages are desolate, which is a travesty.
I welcome what the Minister is trying to do in this Bill and his promise to introduce a more comprehensive Bill in the future. Road safety is of paramount importance for every user, whether he or she is a pedestrian, tourist or a motorist. I always acknowledged that when I opposed the Minister on issues relating to the Road Traffic Bill 2011. I did not advocate breaking the law but there must be balance. As Senator Ross stated, the powers in this legislation are draconian. I do not cast aspersions on the Minister but we do not know what might happen with future Ministers.
I refer to a road haulier in my county who employs 100 people and who featured in a "Prime Time Investigates" programme. It is interesting that this has come to mind on the day the programme has rightly been stood down. I wonder whether we will find out, as has happened with the newspapers in England, whether phones were tapped and other outrageous practices were carried out in the name of another bastion of our society, RTE. "Prime Time Investigates" did a programme on road hauliers and their drivers. While the programmers were entitled to do that, they have to abide within the law. We have witnessed what they did elsewhere recently.
I would like to revisit this programme and the outrageous attack on a businessman employing 100 people in Tipperary. I will not point to the current Minister or the Minister at the time but to a senior official in the Department, whom I will not name but with whom I fought. The haulier had a good reputation for 30 years, since licensing began, and he wanted to renew his licence, which must be done every five years. His trucks were impounded in Europe because an official would not sign off on his licence. The official had nothing to do only watch "Prime Time Investigates" and this was nothing short of blackguarding by a public official. Unfortunately, it goes on all the time. There are many good officials but this fellow sat in his armchair one night having come home from playing golf or whatever and watched the programme. He then decided he would not give a licence to this company owned by a decent hard working man employing 100 people. He was almost closed down.
When the deadline arrived, I was told the official could not be found because he had been transferred to Nenagh and then to somewhere else. I welcome the Government decision to scrap decentralisation because it was a hiding place for these faceless bureaucrats. This senior official decided he was all powerful and would not renew the licence, despite the fact that the gardaí in Thurles, Tipperary town and Templemore had given the haulier the highest recommendation. The trucks travelling to the continent for ten days needed licences. They were pulled in by police and the drivers had to pay on-the-spot fines. This almost brought the company to its knees. It was pure, sheer blackguarding. Deputy Ross's comments made me go down this track on this Bill because of the potential for wrongdoing and blackguarding by the Minister of the day or an official who is not accountable. There is no accountability, even in RTE. No one will be sacked or suffer wage cuts. No one will be dealt with; we are the only people who have to face the public about this quango. These people are above and beyond reproach.
Deputy Ross also mentioned Iarnród Éireann and the Malahide viaduct. There is a viaduct in my home town, Cahir, and it has collapsed twice in my lifetime. I was only a kid when it collapsed first and there were fatalities but this time it collapsed with a train crossing it. Thankfully, the train was almost over. The back carriages fell down and the driver was able to hold the train on the track but there could have been awful consequences. There is a lovely, scenic walk under that viaduct from where anybody can see that it is not in good condition. One does need to be an engineer or an official. It is an ornate limestone structure but stones are missing from the pillars. They were put there by hand 200 or 300 years ago. The viaduct has been neglected like many other structures overseen by Iarnród Éireann. Many structures look decrepit and while I do not say they are unsafe, I question the practice of assessing them, who assesses them and what qualifications they have. How can a structure that must bear such a load be assessed through a visual inspection? Like Coillte and other bodies, Iarnród Éireann does not maintain properties because it does not have the staff; they are neglected. I am worried about this.
I support the Sinn Féin amendment and compliment my colleagues on putting it down. Why should they now be penalised if they for the best of motives helped to fight and tried to seek the freedom of our country? I am interested to hear from other colleagues. If the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement is in place, this should be dealt with in the Bill and they should be allowed to take up whatever occupation is necessary and should not be victimised.
I worry about the Garda vetting process. Apart from the delays, the system is now decentralised in every county and Garda vetting no longer operates as it used to. I was glad to see people from Cork today protesting about rural Garda stations. The local garda knew everybody, which is the only way to vet people. He knew a person's character and he knew the family. Now, a person fills in a form but the garda does not know him, so Garda vetting is not worth the paper it is written on. There is nobody a person can telephone to ask: "Who is Mattie McGrath? Is he of good standing and has he done whatever?" If some people had their way, I would not get a licence either. I would have been away for a holiday as well, if some got their way, but thankfully the jury in my own constituency decided otherwise. We must make haste slowly, as I often say. This is a very tricky area and should be examined very carefully.
I know something about the issue of school buses as my family were involved in this area. Given the cuts and charges that have been imposed on students by this Government and the previous Government, the buses are now passing students' homes but they cannot afford to use them. In addition, the whole area has been greatly opened up. While there was a good relationship with Bus Éireann and the route licence holders, that is all gone and it is a case of undercutting, and Bus Éireann introduced its own cut last year. People are now going in at prices at which they just could not provide a service. There will be accidents, God help me, as I hate to say that, but short cuts are being taken.
I spoke recently to a person who used to drive a big bus but was never checked. If a bus driver refuses to drive a bus because it is unsafe, that person will simply be let go or moved out of the company. There are no checks on Bus Éireann buses or many big passenger buses, just as it is with the taxis. We entrust our lives and our families to large 55 seater buses but there are no proper checks on them, whether for Bus Éireann or private operators, which is very dangerous. This is too important an area and must be examined very seriously.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Before I go into the detail of the legislation, I must say the recent Cabinet decision to exploit the principle of our quality bus corridors for ministerial car use is totally off the wall. It is out of touch with the real world and it is an arrogance which shows how out of touch some of these Ministers are. While I take the point that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, opposed it, we should all put down a marker on this issue.
There is an urgent need for common sense in the context of the debate on this Bill and other debates on the transport issue. It is an important debate as the whole issue of transport is an important part of our recovery, particularly getting the right infrastructure and, specifically in regard to the Bill, the right operators. Let us remember in this debate that good practice has to be top of the political agenda. When we examine the details of the Bill, we can see the issues emerging, as some of my colleagues have noted.
The purpose of the Bill is to amend provisions in the Road Transport Acts, first, to give effect in primary legislation to a number of issues which are currently provided for in regulations but which will be affected by the coming into force of EU regulations and, second, to make provision for amendments to the so-called good repute aspects of road transport. I want to focus on section 2, which deals specifically with the obligation on the operator to inform the Minister of certain convictions. This requires an applicant or licensed operator to inform the Minister of certain serious convictions which apply to the operator, certain specified positions within the operation and to drivers with passenger transport operations. Serious convictions, whether in Ireland or in another jurisdiction, are the following: murder; manslaughter; certain non-fatal offences against the person; drug trafficking; human trafficking, which has not been raised so far in the debate; certain money laundering offences; certain sexual offences; firearms offences; and aiding and abetting the above.
This is an important section. I have major concerns and strongly support it because of my experience of the drugs issue in particular and the transport of drugs into this country. We have a major crisis whereby drugs are smuggled into the country in containers, vans and even potted plants, which is appalling. This must be highlighted and I am glad it is being dealt with in the Bill. There is also the issue of people being intimidated to carry drugs in their small business operations, which leads to crises within families and within communities. A family member is told that if their van or truck is abroad, the person had better bring a load of drugs into Ireland, or else. That kind of situation must be dealt with.
I welcome and strongly support the Sinn Féin amendment as it deals with a seriously different situation. We have made the Good Friday Agreement and we must stick to the reality of it. In terms of peace building in this country, I see the amendment as part of the conflict resolution process. I know there are people, particularly in the Twenty-six Counties, who have still not got over the fact we have the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, and that we have people on this island working hard every day to ensure they deliver on that process. The recent presidential election highlighted for me that there is a mindset in the Twenty-six Counties that has a long way to go before we start developing conflict resolution and peace making on the island. The Sinn Féin amendment deals specifically with this.
I know many ex-prisoners, in particular some who are involved in the education sector, and I know the work they do in community and voluntary groups in the area of education and special needs. I welcome the massive contribution to their country and society of ex-prisoners from the conflict in the North whom I have met in the past ten years. Some of them have gone on to attain very high standards in third level education, with some becoming doctors and so on. They have made and still have a major contribution to make to this country. I strongly support this important Sinn Féin amendment.
I referred to human trafficking, the discussion on which has gone quiet in the past year or two but which was a major problem some years ago when large sums of money were taken from poor families from abroad who wanted to get into Ireland during the Celtic tiger era. Some of the incidents and cases, where people were squashed into containers and trucks, with some family members dying owing to lack of oxygen, were shocking. We must be able to deal with such cases and ensure that those responsible do not get licences under the legislation.
Crime is a huge issue in the area of transport, particularly in regard to drugs and human trafficking. We must all be vigilant in this regard, in particular the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Garda and Customs and Excise. There are still major problems, with huge gaps that have to be plugged. I see this debate and the Bill as part of that, but the rest is down to hard work, effective implementation and good practice. We must have the right people in the right positions to implement the legislation. We all know there are very serious people still at large, and it is a very complex and dangerous issue.
As I mentioned, the drug gangs exploit the transport industry and intimidate transport workers, and many innocent people have suffered. I know of a case in which an innocent man with a family was detained in France because drugs had been found in one of his lorries. He took the hit and was locked up for months before it was eventually proved that somebody else was involved and that he had been set up. The tragedy and harm caused to his family and business was very upsetting for them.
On the points made about Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann, when people make mistakes, it is important that they accept responsibility for them and that there is accountability. I accept this, but I do not go along with the argument that everything in the private sector is rosy and that everything in the public sector is bad. What we need in this modern society is good practice in the public and private sectors. I strongly believe these are the issues we also have to examine.
Deputy Shane Ross made a valid point about the Minister's powers being open to political abuse in the future. He was not hinting at the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, in this respect. However, there were people who had a dodgy record and there are people who could be open to exploitation. I also take the point that people could be damaged because of their political views.
Section 10 deals with the issue of purporting to operate other than in accordance with the operator's licence. It prohibits a person from advertising himself or herself as a licensed haulier when, in fact, he or she has no such licence. We must have certain standards in this regard.
Section 15 deals with prosecutions and body corporate offences. It restates the existing standard provision relating to offences by bodies corporate. It also provides that under the Bill an offence may be prosecuted by the Minister or the Road Safety Authority. It is important that the Road Safety Authority is mentioned in regard to this issue because of its the major influence and impact on transport issues.
The overall objective of the Bill is to maintain in place current provisions relating to the licensing of transport operations for hire and reward. I look forward to future legislation to be brought forward by the Minister. I urge him to deal with the competitiveness issues, about which he spoke. If we had better standards in this sector, there was easy availability of information on licensed operators, this would contribute to increased competitiveness in the State. One of the tactics that will help us to get out of the economic crisis is improving our competitiveness, particularly as regards the operations of those directly involved in these small businesses.
When the Sinn Féin amendment to the Bill is proposed, I will strongly support it. The party has a valid point. We need to recognise that we have all moved on. There has been a major change in this country in last few years and we need to bed down the peace process once and for all.
I welcome the Bill and thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me this opportunity to speak to it.
Yes, I am.
I welcome the opportunity to address the Minister and thank him for his presence. I also welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. Many Members of this House travel the roads on a daily basis, clocking up many kilometres in the process. I probably live the furthest away from Leinster House in that I have to travel 390 km each way door to door. To be selfish about this, I declare an interest in that I hope I will make sure the roads other Members and I travel are safe; that drivers, particularly of heavy vehicles such as HGVs and buses, are competent, of good character and perform their work in the best possible and safest conditions on the roads.
The Bill is being introduced on foot of EU regulations dealing with road transport operators who carry passengers and freight which will come into effect on Sunday, 4 December. In that context, this is rushed legislation. While it is never a good idea to rush legislation, I understand the Minister's point that, regrettably, we have no choice but to put this legislation through the Houses quickly to have it through by 4 December.
The Bill presents an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the work hauliers, bus drivers and HGV operators do not only for themselves but also on behalf of the economy. They are its lifeblood in terms of trade and the movement of passengers throughout the country. We should not underestimate the important role they play in the economic life of the country and in terms of social well-being.
One of the reasons the legalisation is being introduced is the awarding of a road transport operator's licence in June 2009 to a person who had been convicted of a serious criminal offence. The regulations were later amended to prevent a person who had been so convicted from holding a licence for a period of two years following summary conviction, or five years following conviction on indictment of various stated acts.
On a lighter note, I take the opportunity to raise a matter not clearly stated in the Bill, but sometimes it is nearly as important to examine what is not included in a Bill. I ask the Minister to confirm something for me when replying. For example, fishermen who have committed very minor offences have their first legal sitting at Circuit Criminal Court level and such an offence often leads to a criminal conviction. If they were to move from the fishing industry, I ask the Minister to confirm that they would not be hit with such provisions under this legislation. This is a bugbear of mine and I know other Deputies would raise the same issue. Some of the secondary legislation in the form of statutory instruments has been repealed giving rise to the need for the Bill. I understand it contains no time limit in respect of previous convictions and the Minister is now determining if this would be a disproportionate response considering the nature of the offences involved in deciding to grant or refuse a licence application.
I take the opportunity to mention to the Minister that the previous Government had indicated its intention to introduce a spent convictions Bill to determine for how long a conviction should stand on a person's record. With respect, I suggest the Minister might protect himself by drawing up guidelines or legislation for consideration on these matters that could be amended if such a Bill were to be passed by the House in the future. There is a statistic to back up my suggestion. Some 40% of those convicted of dangerous driving had previous convictions. It is a startling statistic, one of which we should take note.
Taking account of the work done and contribution made by such operators to the economy, I am concerned the Bill will add to the red tape small independent transport operators, in particular, will have to cut through before they will be able to operate. I ask the Minister to reflect on the volume of red tape that has to be dealt with by operators and minimise it in any way he can to maintain a competitive advantage for our operators who work in tremendously difficult circumstances on local and regional roads which in many cases one could argue are not fit for purpose, particularly for the carriage of loads of 22 tonnes or 24 tonnes. It would be remiss of me not to ask that the volume of red tape be examined. I cite as an example restaurateurs who may well have to report to 20 agencies, which involves 20 examinations or inspections and the payment of 20 fees. The amount of red table involved can be over the top for the people concerned, but I am cognisant of the need to maintain high standards of safety, competence and trust within the industry. I hope the Bill will go a long way towards achieving this.
Many local authorities are grappling with a decision taken by a previous Minister on the metrification of speed limits. A default speed limit was set for roads throughout the country. However, some of the patchwork efforts made within local authority areas have led to confusion and dangerous situations in some cases. A HGV or bus operator, particularly when travelling in less familiar environments, may not be aware of the speed limit as it changes so often. There is a good deal of road signage on local, regional and national roads but very few speed limit signs. Perhaps there is a way to place fluorescent colour coding on much of that signage, which would indicate to experienced or professional drivers the speed limit zone they are in, rather than having to wait for the next indicated speed limit sign, particularly where speed limits no longer apply.
I also wish to address some of the issues that have come to my office in recent months. A major issue is with regard to competent commercial drivers returning to Ireland from the United States and Australia. I know of a mature commercial driver who returned from the United States earlier this year and who holds licences to a very competent level. He is licensed to drive motor cycles, cars, vehicles for up to 15 passengers and HGVs, and he has held these licenses accident-free for 20 years. Because we do not have an exchange agreement with any of the United States he has been informed he must undertake driving lessons for each licence which will cost approximately €2,000. Although the legislation does not provide for a change in this situation it must be examined if we are to deal with this in a rational and effective way.
Another Irish national who worked for an international organisation linked with the United Nations held driving licences in 15 countries inj the past 20 years. His last post was in an eastern European country which does not have a driver licence exchange agreement with Ireland. He must also undergo the same courses and lessons and pay the same fees. This is very onerous, unfair and unreasonable.
I also know of an Irish citizen who lives in Australia for six months of every year and who wishes to keep an Irish and Australian driving licence. The person does not want to surrender the Australian driving licence for economic reasons. There should be a way of recording convictions and penalty points in both jurisdictions.
I do not suggest that Irish driving licences should be given out willy-nilly without tests, but we should have a basic competency test to ensure Irish people returning here are allowed to continue working as HGV operators. The people in the examples I have given have no convictions or criminal records. They have done nothing wrong. All they have done is returned. They are very competent in their work. The only difference is they must drive on the left-hand side of the road. I will continue to pursue these issues and I ask the Minister and the Road Safety Authority to deal reasonably with them as soon as possible.
I have not even started yet.
There has been a two year delay in addressing this issue and we now have to deal with it at the last minute. I am not blaming or criticising the Minister but it should not have taken this amount of time to deal with legislation. The legal obligations of the State should not be dealt with at the eleventh hour; it is bad business and bad practice.
I am glad the Bill is non-contentious because it is important that we bring about clarity. It is also important that the Oireachtas is allowed time to consider and debate the matters addressed in the Bill. We should consider whether the proposal is a fair way of implementing legislation. This leads to questioning how we run the business of the House, and we are all obliged to do so. We often seem to put EU legislation rulings to one side and hope they go away; they do not do so and we must recognise that they cannot do so. I hope this Dáil will be more proactive in implementing EU legislation than the Oireachtas has been to date.
The issue of hauliers has become very political in recent years. I met a number of hauliers in Cork who are genuinely concerned about the plight of their industry and the way in which it is going. The price of fuel has increased as has the cost of their insurance. Fewer people are being employed in the industry due to the downturn in the economy and road conditions are not what they should be. It is important to highlight that those who operate in the State are very important to our economy in the context of the movement of goods and people. They are still significant employers. We expect and demand the best from them and therefore it is incumbent on us to carry out our business transparently.
Deputy Harrington raised the issue of red tape and this has been raised with me, particularly by small operators who are concerned about bureaucracy. I hope the job of the Government will be to assist them and work with them in the implementation of legislation.
I appeal to the Minister to leave the Jack Lynch tunnel without a toll. It is a very important intersection and is a key part of the road and transport infrastructure in Cork. It has served the city and county well.
It is important that we work with the local authorities and people in Cork on this issue.
Deputy Harrington raised the issue of fluorescent colour coding and people have raised this issue with me as they seek measures to prevent a decline in road safety. Many of those to whom I have spoken have said it would be a way to assist drivers. A tangential point on road safety is that our haulage drivers are very safe drivers with great road awareness and savvy. They are also some of the most courteous drivers on the road. Other people who use our roads should look at the hauliers as an example of how to conduct themselves. I say this as somebody with no vested interest but who travels between Cork and Dublin every week and who recognises the importance of safety on our roads, in particular on the motorway between Cork and Dublin. I commend our hauliers for this.
The Bill targets the owners and operators of vehicles for transporting goods for hire or reward, and we expect high standards and proper behaviour. It is important that we communicate and engage sufficiently with those involved in the business. This will allay some of the fear and suspicion people have. If we have a vibrant and strong road transport sector which engages with the Government and participates, we will find that legislation coming before the House will be enhanced by this participation.
The transport of goods by rogue operators must be addressed and to this end it is important that we welcome the more vigilant approach and proactivity by the customs service and the Garda. This may not be a popular thing to say. In imposing larger fines, a stricter regime will force people to think before acting illegally. Anecdotally we are told that the black economy is increasing in certain sectors; therefore, it is incumbent on the Government and this House to ensure it does not flourish and prosper.
I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House. It is essential that we do not allow European directives to be left until the last minute before dotting the i's and crossing the t's. It has to be done better than this. Whether it is because of a cynical relationship with the European Union or because we think it might go away, the reality is that we are now a part of the Union. As EU directives have consequences and implications, it is critical for us to work in partnership with Europe rather than in isolation. By working in collaboration with Europe we can bring about change, including a better cohesion in the implementation of policy for all concerned.
I welcome the Bill and share Deputy Buttimer's concerns about the rush involved. However, I welcome the fact that the Minister is committed to introducing a much wider road transport Bill next year. I will address a few matters concerning that later.
Given the importance of trade and the transportation of goods across Europe towards making that trading area work, it is surprising that we are only now introducing these directives across the European dUnion. It looks relatively simple but we have a fantastic record in this country of making simple things complicated when we implement them, particularly European directives. I hope that in implementing this, we will not add serious business costs to a sector that is already struggling for its very survival, as is the case with many haulage companies.
There is nothing to object to in the conditions which basically amount to relevant housekeeping. As many Deputies have said, there is no doubt that in this area, HGV drivers in particular tend to give an example to those of us with smaller vehicles. They also provide an example to public service organisations drivers who can learn from them how to handle large vehicles in an urban context. On an island nation the haulage sector is absolutely essential for getting our goods to other markets. It is the basis on which our export trade is beginning to flourish and is leading the country out of its current economic situation.
Hauliers are under huge pressure, however, and feel increasingly that there is nowhere for them to turn. We have a greater preponderance of international operators coming in and using their international might to drive local operators out of the market. We have a cost regime that, because we are an island nation and also owing to regulation, is much higher than international operators are paying in other jurisdictions. It now seems that we are proposing to add 2% to fuel costs, in addition to adding to the cost of employees by changing sick pay rules. In addition, hauliers are utterly frustrated by the bureaucracy they face, and that feeling is shared across Europe. If these regulations are not properly implemented, the situation may become worse.
The introduction of this Bill gives us a chance to reflect on the transformation of road transport and road safety in recent years. In 2010, there were 212 road deaths, which is 212 too many. Last Sunday, ceremonies were widely held to remember those who lost their lives on the roads. We remember all of them. That figure, however, is a huge decrease in terms of where we were four or five years ago. The Road Safety Authority team, led by Mr. Noel Brett, and the chairman, Mr. Gay Byrne, deserve tribute for doing a great job in this area. It is not the easiest job because they are challenging decades of driver behaviour. In addition, they are challenging a driving culture which did not necessarily put safety first. It is not that it ignored it, but it did not regard it as an issue. The RSA has tackled that successfully in the past few years. In conjunction with local authority road safety officers, they have managed an education programme with robust legislation to change driver behaviour and attitudes in order that safety is now very much on people's agenda.
There is no doubt that the improvement in our road stock is another positive addition, although much work remains to be done on that. The greatest change, however, is in driver behaviour. People now know that if they break the law by committing a motoring offence they will be caught. There are no ifs, buts or maybes about this.
I heard some criticism earlier of Iarnród Éireann's management of freight, which is an issue I have raised before. It is not just Iarnród Éireann but the power of the State's transport monopoly and the manner in which it has choked private bus operators in particular. However, I must also defend Irish Rail. I am from Ballina which has one of the biggest freight depots in the country, in addition to being the location for the RSA's headquarters. The Minister visited Ballina during the summer when he saw the freight depot from the RSA offices. Irish Rail has been able to develop that depot in response to demand from local enterprise and multinationals. They met that response and have changed routes to bring produce directly into Dublin Port instead of Waterford where it went previously. They have also offered options to the various operators in Mayo who are now using rail to transport their goods from Ballina to various ports.
The issue of cost is an ongoing challenge. In this instance, however, it shows what can be done when heads are knocked together in the semi-State sector to put them in partnership with the multinational sector to offer a service. We would all rather that the service was cheaper but there are services there now that were not even envisaged six or seven years ago. I wish to put that on the record in the context of criticisms that were made.
The Minister is committed to bringing in another road transport Bill next year, which is how we will move on and get that figure of 212 road deaths down further. We must get it into our heads that road safety is a vital issue. A split second can, literally, change our lives forever in a road accident if we take our eye off the road when driving any type of vehicle.
The Minister should examine the situation where somebody breaks the law, thus causing a fatality, by either driving under the influence or speeding. Such drivers may be arrested and put on remand until their case is heard but in the interim they can drive around without restriction. It is very difficult for the families of road accident victims to see that happening. We have strengthened the law and have tightened up regulations, but in the forthcoming legislation we should consider the victims and their families, and how we can give them some legal standing and recognition of the pain they are going through.
I agree with Sinn Féin's proposals on the restrictions on prisoners. There might be an argument to be made for those convicted of serious motoring offences, or even sexual offences, being so restricted. However, for political prisoners or prisoners on relatively minor offences to be so restricted harks back to a different era. It also raises the matter of spent convictions. Legislation is waiting to proceed to Committee Stage and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, has promised to bring his version of it to the House. While there is a debate going on in the House concerning spent convictions for relatively minor offences, it is wrong to continue bringing legislation forward which restricts licences for those who have such convictions. I certainly agree with the amendment that will be proposed by Sinn Féin tomorrow.
I welcome the legislation but regret that it is being rushed. That is not good and I hope that in this Oireachtas we will learn from past mistakes. It is only a precursor to what the Minister has indicated will be major legislation for road transport next year. I hope that in that debate we can challenge ourselves as a State on fatalities and behaviour on roads throughout the country.
This is an opportunity to speak on a few issues relating to road transport. I welcome the legislation but agree with the previous speaker, Deputy Calleary, that it is a pity this is being introduced in a rather rushed fashion on the eve of the implementation of the new European Union directive on road transport. The legislation is rather uncontroversial, with three basic areas of reform proposed. I am glad the Minister has indicated he will examine road transport in greater detail on a date in the near future. The proposal to change the criteria by which people will be eligible for licences based on their record is pretty self-explanatory, as is the proposal to increase the accessibility of information with regard to those who hold licences. The increase in penalties is also appropriate.
It is a difficult time for those who are involved in road transport because of the cost of the business and regulation being imposed. It is not an easy time to be in the business, no more than it is to work in other sectors now. I agree with Deputy Calleary and join him in welcoming the reduced number of serious accidents and road fatalities in the past 12 months. That is largely down to improved driver behaviour and it may also be a result of an improved road network across the country, which is at least one legacy from the Celtic tiger years.
I emphasise for the Minister the importance of ongoing funding being provided for local roads projects in a budgetary context. There have been recent announcements on the capital budget and most of the significant capital expenditure has been completed. Most of the inter-urban routes are finished and as a result, there is not as much funding for major national capital expenditure. Nevertheless, it is important to provide funding for local authorities to keep up regional and local county roads which carry a large volume of traffic, including haulage and public transport. In so far as is possible, that funding should remain in place.
There is also the issue of signage on the new motorways. This is an ongoing saga in many parts of the country and my constituency colleague had a result in the provision of signage for Carlow town on the local bypass. There is ongoing saga on the edge of Waterford city, where I live, regarding some of the signage provided when that bypass and the M9 was completed. It seems to be very difficult to get co-operation from the National Roads Authority on the signage to be put in place. Nobody wants a proliferation of advertising signage on motorways but directional signage would seem to be essential, as it is grossly inadequate in many parts of the country. I ask that funding for that area would be protected in the upcoming budget and that there might be some more co-operation by the National Roads Authority with local communities seeking access to villages to be signalled on the new motorway network.
The testing of commercial vehicles, such as lorries and buses, is also an issue. There is an existing network of privately operated testing centres throughout the country, with a review of the licensing system under which they operate having been completed. Proposals have been drawn up and the owners of these facilities will have to apply to provide the service. Up to now, the granting of the licence was, in effect, open-ended, but it will now be renewed every ten years. Does the Minister have any information on how that will develop in the course of the next few months, as the new practice has not come into effect?
It is important to continue funding for local authorities in order to provide signage on local and regional roads. I welcome this legislation and I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak. Will the Minister come back on some of the points raised?
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Road Transport Bill 2011. This Bill not only supports the previous legislation but also enhances it with three new additional provisions. It is these new stronger measures, allied to the maintenance of selected previous provisions, that I feel make this excellent legislation.
A strong and competitive road transport sector is important for the economy, and the road transport legislation has to support that by setting standards, influencing positive and responsible behaviour and eliminating financial gain from non-compliance by setting effective deterrents. In these times of economic challenge, there is a greater need than ever to reward compliance and set both strong deterrents and even stronger penalties for those who wish to disregard regulations. The people concerned who decide on their own to act outside the confines of the law are undermining the recovery and efforts of this country to regain its rightful competitive position.
Road transport is very important to the economy, both in terms of the movement of goods and people as well as being a significant employer. High standards in the sector and the good reputation that goes with them are important for our economic competitiveness. It is important that the public has the assurance that the operators it engages are licensed, safe, reliable, and amenable to the law. It is also very important for legitimate operators that they are not undermined by those operating either without licences or without complying with the licence standards, including safety on the roads.
The first of the three new provisions relates to strengthening the criteria of good repute for applicants and holders of licences, particularly taking into account serious and violent convictions. The fitness and suitability of operators is one of the key criteria for obtaining and holding a licence. For example, if an applicant were to have a record which contained certain convictions or penalties relating to road safety, breaking health and safety legislation or smuggling, this would raise questions about good repute in a road transport business and potentially give grounds for refusing an application or withdrawing a licence. It is hard to see how this would not be of benefit to the process. Any convictions relating to a range of serious and violent offences such as murder, human trafficking, firearms offences and drug trafficking also have a direct bearing on good repute. It applies whether the offences were committed in Ireland or in another jurisdiction, and failure to provide this information in an application will be an offence. As a result, this legislation has an inclusive element and will ensure greater transparency and co-operation among European states.
The second addition relates to the greater accessibility of information in the national register of licensed operators by enabling details to be published on the Department's website. Currently this information is available for public inspection but is not published online. By publishing it online, accessing the information will be easier and the public will more easily identify if a particular operator, large or small, is currently licensed and if the vehicles being used are authorised on the licence. This could also mobilise the public to assist An Garda Síochána, which enforces road transport legislation.
The last aspect deals with significantly increased deterrents. It increases the penalties for unlicensed operators and provides for new offences relating to the use of a vehicle not authorised on a licence, forging or altering licence documents, and claiming to be a licensed operator when that is not the case. For example, the current maximum penalty for operating without a haulage licence is €6,350, with no prison sentence. This penalty dates back 25 years and it is proposed in the Bill to increase the maximum fine to €500,000 and-or a prison term of three years. Another provision will make operating a vehicle not authorised on an operator's licence subject to a fine of up to €500,000. These and other provisions will send a clear message of support to those operators who are compliant with the law and legally licensed, and will represent a significant deterrent to unlicensed operators and those who flout the law.
As with all good legislation, those who are compliant with the law and have nothing to hide should not be fearful. However, those who chose to disregard the institutions and laws of the State should and will have a lot to fear from the Bill. I have no hesitation in recommending it to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the legislation. The Bill is technical and while the changes are few in number, it is nonetheless important. As previous speakers indicated, it gives us an opportunity to bring the road haulage business and private bus operators into focus. The two previous speakers referred to some of the difficulties experienced by hauliers. There is no doubt that we are living in completely different times. Most haulage businesses are family owned and, in some instances, sole traders who are also trying to look after a family. We must be cognisant of the burden we are placing on road hauliers in terms of increased levies or further regulation. We must also be mindful of the cost implications and the bureaucratic burden already imposed on the industry.
When one considers the ability to transport goods within the jurisdiction and in and out of the country, we are totally dependent on the road haulage industry. A very small amount of freight is transferred by rail. We are, therefore, totally dependent on hauliers. There is an opportunity to engage with them in a much more constructive manner and to listen to their concerns because there is no doubt that the economy is totally dependent on their being able to function. Similarly, there is a need to engage with private bus operators who consider a considerable burden is being placed on them from the public transport perspective. In rural areas such as the constituency I represent there is no public transport other than along the main arterial routes. The public transport provided is provided by rural bus and private bus operators who do school runs and bring pensioners to local towns to collect their pensions. There is an opportunity to engage with the people concerned and I urge the Minister to do so.
I agree with what Deputy John Paul Phelan said about the previous debate we had in the House on other road traffic legislation which was addressed under three headings, namely, enforcement, engineering and education. There is no doubt that when it comes to engineering, the rural road network is not in good condition. I would be the first to say the previous Government deserved credit for building the motorway network. Deputy John Paul Phelan referred to the appalling state of directional signage on the rural road network. If one were dropped from outer space into the midlands and asked to find one's way to Newcastlewest, there is no way one would find it because of the lack of adequate road signage.
Deputy John Paul Phelan alluded also to the problem of maintaining road margins which represent an added cost for road hauliers and bus operators owing to the colossal wear and tear on lorries and buses. We depend on the people concerned on an annual basis to ensure the people and goods can move around. Secondary and tertiary rural roads are shovel-ready projects. In most cases the problem is that we do not have enough staff in local authorities to maintain roads and open drainage systems. I receive a significant amount of representations from road hauliers on this issue. Local authorities and county managers especially should begin to take the matter more seriously. Significant tax contributions are made by road hauliers on diesel, in VRT and the annual road contribution.
The Bill is necessary because it harmonises what is needed from a transfrontier perspective across the European Union in streamlining the regulations from an Irish point of view to make it easier for people with an Irish licence to travel abroad. I would like to see a simple driver's licence being brought forward much faster and I am aware the Minister has proposals to do this. When one presents an Irish driver's licence in America, for example, the response is to look at one as if one had about four heads when people see a pink sheet of paper on display. Such changes will improve the position.
I welcome the opportunity to speak, but I urge that the road safety issues I raised, in particular about the quality of roads from an engineering point of view, be taken into consideration.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. The House is aware that it is being introduced to deal with a number of issues which arise as a result of the coming into force on 4 December of EU regulations dealing with road transport operators.
I support the provisions contained in the Bill and will take the opportunity to speak on a number of them. It is worth noting some interesting facts pertaining to road transport. In 2010 Irish registered goods vehicles transported a total of 126 million tonnes of goods by road. A total of 1,457 million vehicle kilometres were travelled in the same year. The average number of goods vehicles surveyed was 84,025. The fleet size has increased by 31% since 2000. These goods vehicles completed 11 million loaded journeys in 2010. That is a sizeable amount of economic activity and operators of transport businesses need to be regulated and licenced. I welcome the requirements introduced in the legislation in this regard. We are all aware of the difficulties for many people involved in business in Ireland and the transport business is no exception. In fact, many would argue that it is even more challenging. While I would like to highlight the difficulties, I agree with the proposal that transport companies must be licensed and ensure they are run by professionally qualified managers. When one considers the number of kilometres travelled and the tonnage transported, it is imperative that the management of such businesses is undertaken by competent people. Matters such as road safety, vehicle safety and roadworthiness, the description of goods, type of goods, the regulation of particular products and security of transport of certain products are the responsibility of the said transport managers which, by any standard, are responsible positions in a company.
As has been well documented, illegal drugs are plentiful on the streets of the country, despite the very best efforts of the Garda, Customs service officers and the Naval Service which have intercepted large amounts of narcotics at various ports in recent years. However, it is inevitable that drugs will find their way into the country through the commercial truck and transport network. I hope this legislation which copperfastens the position of transport managers and the licensing structure will help to ensure rogue transport companies and individual drivers who have in the past engaged in this activity will be scrutinised more closely in the future.
Human trafficking has been evident in the country. Tragically, families have travelled here in containers on the back of trucks returning from central and eastern Europe, and many have either suffocated or almost died because of dehydration. Rogue transport operators have often collaborated with eastern European gangsters in bringing such persons here in other circumstances we have seen innocent drivers caught who were unaware of their return cargo.
I note the Farrelly report of June 2009 which examined the awarding of a transport haulage licence to Mr Kieran Boylan after it had come to light that Mr. Boylan who had been convicted of a serious criminal offence had been awarded a road transport operator's licence. The report recommended new regulations be put in place to help to prevent this happening again. They were introduced in September 2009. The Bill proposes that the Minister decides if the person who has been convicted of an offence under the stated Acts should be refused a licence or, if already a holder, whether the licence should be withdrawn or suspended. The Minister must determine if these actions would be a disproportionate response, considering the nature of the offence involved. The Bill means that all offences under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, not just those under sections 4 and 5, and the other Acts listed must be notified to the Minister and could impact on the refusal or withdrawal of a licence. Unlike the current situation, the Bill includes no time limit in respect of when the offences were committed.
I also welcome the proposal to publish up-to-date details on the Department's website which will become more accessible to the general public. Clients and large companies engaging in contracts with transport carriers can instantly check the up-to-date details of these companies before engaging in contracts with them.
I take the opportunity to highlight to the House, and the Minister, the difficulties created for many transport operators by the rising price of fuel and, in particular, the proposal to raise the price of fuel through the carbon tax introduced by the last Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. The rise in the international price of fuel, coupled with this increase and the increase in costs that will be passed on to companies which produce goods for either export or the domestic market, will challenge transport companies to stay in business. We must be aware that with a large dependence on our export companies to create and retain jobs the Government must keep a tight eye on fuel and transport costs. I, therefore, ask the Minister to consider some form of rebate on carbon tax for transport companies engaged in the provision of industrial transport to ensure there would be some control on transport costs. A scheme similar to the VAT rebate scheme should be examined on carbon tax for certain sectors. I urge the Ministers for Transport and Finance to ask their respective Departments to examine such a proposal before next year's budget. I ask the Minister to comment on this idea if he has the opportunity to do so.
It is worth noting that bus transport companies cannot avail of the VAT rebate which is very frustrating for operators in that business. If this facility were available, if might reduce the cost of transporting many of our tourists around the country and would reduce the cost of holidays in Ireland for many of our coach tour visitors.
It is essential that operators of good repute succeed in the transport business in Ireland. I am glad the Bill strengthens the position for the people concerned and that penalties for unlicensed operators and non-compliance are being increased.
While the Bill contains many positive measures, I regret the imposition of a guillotine on this debate. In the case of this Bill, the use of the guillotine will prevent a robust discussion with operators and others who have an interest in the Bill. Furthermore, insufficient time has been allowed between the debates on Second and Committee Stages for the tabling of amendments. That is regrettable. Some Deputies now on the Government benches complained bitterly about this practice when they were in opposition. This is not the way to do business, although I understand there is a time constraint on the Bill which contains good measures which it is necessary for us to enact within a timeframe.
Licensing arrangements have developed in a haphazard manner. In many cases, it is a mere box-ticking exercise, as opposed to achieving the genuine intent of licensing, which is to ensure the utmost safety. It is not enough to make provision for the issuing of licences. We must look at who the licensing authority is, how licensing arrangements will be enforced, whether the authority has the necessary resources and the licensing system can be properly complied with, as opposed to conforming to a paper exercise. Licensing requirements should not impact unfairly on the trade and should allow for a free operation of trade.
An industry servicing the safety and licensing requirements has sprung up and associated fees charged for annual renewals can be high. Licensing is haphazard. A driver needs a driving licence and several types of licence, depending on the vehicle being driven. A driver must have a driving licence, a driver card and a certificate of professional competence, CPC, which is an annual licence. There can also be specialised licences. A driver must carry all of these in the vehicle at all times. When the legislation is being looked at again, a more consolidated arrangement could be put in place, whereby one card would be sufficient.
This matter has been on the back burner. It was known since 2009 that primary legislation would be required to comply with EU regulations, but legislation is being introduced at the eleventh hour. We must examine why this happens.
I would like to have heard from the Road Safety Authority, the Irish Road Haulage Association, the Garda and other interested bodies on how the legislation will work for them in practice. Much of what we do in many areas does not work in practice, although it is very good in theory. It does not work because we do not match the academic with the practical and this leads to difficulty in delivery.
I do not wish to be too critical of the Bill because there are good things in it, but I am focusing on the areas in which I have concerns. We have an over-bureaucratic approach to documentation. Drivers of road haulage and passenger vehicles are required to obtain a certificate of professional competence and pass an annual evaluation in order to keep the certificate. The examination is not an actual driving test and can be taken over a period over one week. It must be taken on an annual basis. It is right that there is ongoing scrutiny of competence. There are further competency tests for more specialised haulage services, requiring additional certificates. It would be simpler to require that a driver carry a single document containing all the required information.
Some of the tests of competence are carried out by private sector companies. I do not have a particular problem with this, except that they give different types of certificates. A garda or someone involved in enforcement has to scrutinise various types of documents and a driver must carry several pieces of paper. We must examine the practical aspects of this.
The Bill places an onus on the operator to present drivers with the required documentation, but it provides no defence for the driver. The Bill assumes that every driver is a full-time and permanent employee and can challenge his or her employer. Many drivers work on a casual and seasonal basis. The Bill places the entire obligation on the driver to challenge the employer. An employer might decide such a driver is too much trouble and simply say, "You are not needed next week." When so many are unemployed, we must consider such difficulties. A driver might be glad to get two or three days work, particularly in a sector which is always under pressure. I understand road haulage is traditionally one of the riskiest sectors in which to survive. Will the Minister consider this matter?
Due diligence in the mandatory reporting of offences is important, particularly where a driver might have access to vulnerable persons. Nevertheless, the requirement placed on the driver to supply in writing his or her criminal record, if any, might not work in practice. Given the casual nature of the business, would it not be better to put emphasis on the operator seeking the information?
Will the Minister refer to an inconsistency in the Bill, namely, that the minimum age at which someone can drive a heavy goods vehicle, HGV, is 18 years, whereas the minimum age at which someone can drive a passenger vehicle is 21 years? A certain level of maturity might be required in the latter case, as the load is more vulnerable, but we must consider whether the same kevel of maturity is required to drive a HGV in the light of the need to be aware of pedestrians, cyclists and so on. I do not know why there is a three year difference. Will the Minister revert to the House on the matter?
I welcome the provision allowing the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to prosecute offences. Anecdotally, there are sizable problems with the enforcement - or lack thereof - of licensing. I would be the first to say the RSA does great work, as attested to by the decrease in the number of road deaths. However, the lack of resources means that, at best, only spot tests are possible. Once drivers become aware of the limitations, enforcement arrangements will be impacted on. People will take risks if they know there is a chance they will get away with it. While the traffic corps does good work, the reduction in Garda numbers will impact on the corps and reduce its effectiveness. We should keep in mind the practical versus academic test of whether a measure can be enforced properly.
I encourage the Minister to examine the websites of tour operators. They offer terrific tours with drivers who, in many cases, are also guides. Given the itineraries presented on these sites, their drivers could not possibly be taking the rest periods required under the law. It would take the Minister ten minutes to figure this out in examining their websites. People are, undoubtedly, being put at risk by this practice.
The Minister will retain the power to set the level of fees people must pay for the amendment, duplication, grant or replacement of licences. Is it intended that the administrative cost of the process will be the only amount charged or will more be charged? I would not want anything other than the cost of administering licences to be charged. Given the casual nature of the job, it should always be borne in mind that the cost of going to work is a significant issue.
I welcome the opportunity to have my say on this important Bill, as it deals with an industry at the heart of most Irish businesses. Road haulage services are used by many involved in agriculture, tourism and so on. Whatever the sector, almost everyone must use road transport. That is what makes it so important and the House has an opportunity in this debate to acknowledge the great work being done by road hauliers.
The Bill is being introduced to address a number of issues arising from EU regulations dealing with road transport operators. Due to come into force on 4 December, the regulations will require a number of changes, including to the basis for national implementation. Some matters previously provided for under national regulations must now be provided for in primary legislation before early December. In this respect, the Bill seeks to maintain the requirement that transport operators be licensed, provides the basis for charging fees for licences, sets out the appeals provisions where licence applications are refused and details exemptions from the requirement to have a road transport operator licence in certain circumstances.
The Bill introduces a number of amendments to existing road transport legislation. It strengthens the existing provision on the criterion to be of good repute, provides for greater access to information contained in the national register of licensed operators, increases the penalties for unlicensed operators and provides for new offences relating to vehicles not authorised on licences. It is important to note that the regulations will not apply in certain circumstances, those being, any operators who use vehicles less than 3.5 tonnes in weight, not-for-profit road passenger transport services and road transport operators using vehicles that cannot exceed 40 km/h.
Few industries are more important than road haulage. It is the backbone of Irish businesses, small and large, and has gone through a difficult period in recent years. We all know of expert drivers who set up their own businesses and did well for many years. Unfortunately, some of these dedicated and able drivers have gone out of business. It is to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport that I am speaking; therefore, my next suggestion is a little far-fetched. The people in question run their own businesses. They might be good drivers and know the mechanics of a truck, but some of them are not the best at business - collecting money, dealing with taxation matters and book-keeping. The county enterprise boards, CEBs, and other bodies should help them to run their businesses. I have known young people who, despite wishing to start a business with one or two trucks, were not the best business people. They were good drivers and knew the roads and where to go, but they did not succeed because they did not have the requisite business skills. There is an opportunity to help such individuals, as every small operator is necessary if we are to keep the road haulage sector competitive.
Many young people are now expert drivers, but they need to be helped with the financing of trucks and assisted with the payment of VAT, as well as at the administrative end of the process. We must examine this issue in the future, as it is not right to see transport firms getting bigger and bigger. Those of us who travel the roads see them everyday, but we need smaller operators. We talk about protecting small businesses, but road hauliers are one of the greatest examples of firms which county enterprise boards could help using the Leader programmes.
One of the positive aspects in recent times has been the improved road network which has allowed for a massive increase in the movement of goods between cities, ports and towns across the country. We can all talk about the new roads built. The road on which I travel most is the Dublin-Cork road and there is no doubt the movement of trucks and goods between our two major cities is something of which the country can be proud. People are also proud of other roads. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport was under pressure recently because the money was not available for other transport projects in the pipeline, but there was no way around the problem. In this discussion we should consider some of the towns seeking bypasses. We should seek a cheaper way of facilitating traffic movement through these towns. A small amount of money spent to provide car parks, one-way street systems and for various traffic management measures could secure the movement of traffic throughout the country. I refer to a town such as Tipperary which is a major blockade on the route from Limerick and Waterford. From 4 p.m to 6 p.m every day there is traffic congestion; traffic tails back for one mile outside the town. It is an important tourism and business link and I constantly hear industrialists and those interested in investing in the region complain about traffic in the town. There is potential for the Department and local authorities to collaborate on an interim plan to help towns such as it. Other Deputies may mention other towns. Knowing the Minister's record, he will lend an ear to the local authorities with cost-effective plans that would benefit these towns. There is potential, but local authorities and the NRA must come forward with plans.
Road improvements have allowed significant growth in the road haulage industry and passenger transport operations. I have seen a substantial rise in the number of tour operators visiting places such as the Rock of Cashel and Cahir. If we are to overcome unemployment difficulties, tourism will make a major impact on all regions. As Ireland becomes more competitive, more tourists will travel here. We have a country of which we can be proud, with its good food and beautiful scenery; it has everything tourists want. There is great potential and we should not do anything to stop it being fulfilled.
This leads me to believe the regulations and legislation dealing with this industry have become increasingly important. I welcome the new emphasis on the role of transport managers who shall be responsible for continuously managing the transport activities of undertakings. Like all industries, the road haulage sector has faced a severe decline in activity. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome this technical Bill which is also welcomed by the haulage industry. There will be stiff penalties for unlicensed hauliers, which is to be welcomed because there was frustration in the industry at the fact that only licensed hauliers were compliant It is a welcome move to see unlicensed hauliers facing stringent penalties. I acknowledge the Minister's work in this regard.
We must also acknowledge the role of hauliers, as we sometimes forget their contribution on the roads. While we are on a quest for excellence in our jobs, others use their vehicles on the roads for their respective jobs in travelling from A to B. By contrast, hauliers are the ambassadors and professionals on the roads. Car salesmen, van drivers and hauliers know how to drive and make a unique contribution to ensuring road safety. A lorry driver may have years of experience or minimal experience, but he or she will still have the lorry driver skill set. He or she can anticipate danger every minute he or she is on the road. Such drivers are watching out for anti-social behaviour, anticipating and witnessing risky behaviour by oncoming vehicles. I recommend that the Minister sit down with a dozen randomly selected hauliers to ask them what is needed to ensure improved road safety. The hauliers representative groups have a job to do such as lobbying on different issues such as carbon tax, fuel smuggling and fuel laundering. While the Road Safety Authority is doing good work, with a budget of over €22 million, a tremendous insight and an invaluable source of knowledge can be provided by hauliers who know, anticipate and avoid dangers on the road. They can drive onto the hard shoulder or anticipate cars overtaking on corners or overtaking lorries on a continuous white line. They anticipate a danger, but we do not monitor this aspect. As speed cameras do not anticipate this risky behaviour, we have an invaluable resource in hauliers and it is only right that we should ask these ambassadors of the industry for their opinions. We all think we know how to drive and everyone who gets behind the wheel thinks he or she is a good driver without comparing himself or herself to those who are good at the job. Hauliers are an untapped resource that we should examine.
I acknowledge the economic role of hauliers. There is a workforce of 50,000, including technicians and persons working in warehouses.
It is time to stamp out the practices of hauliers who wash diesel, smuggle, do not register for licences and undercut legitimate drivers because they create a playing field that is not level for those who are compliant. I have mentioned the issue of cabotage and acknowledge the Minister is examining it. I encourage him to examine the British-Irish Council as a vehicle for considering how we can co-operate more closely on an east-west and North-South basis. The United Kingdom and Ireland have different interpretations of cabotage rules, meaning that Northern Ireland hauliers are considered domestic hauliers in Britain while having full domestic level access to the Irish market. Irish hauliers, on the other hand, can only carry out three operations in Britain per week. That might suit long distance hauliers and companies which only work on the basis of making three journeys per week, but it is difficult for hauliers in Border counties who work in the sand and gravel industry and must travel over and back frequently. I, therefore, ask the Minister to look into this issue.
There is room for impediments to b e examined on an east-west basis. If there is anything I can do as co-chairman of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly and in my work with the British Irish Chamber of Commerce to eradicate red tape and make business easier on an east-west basis, I will be glad to do it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. The amendments are welcome regarding the criterion to be someone of good repute and the national register to create a website of licensed operators.
In the business in which I operate I deal with road hauliers on a daily basis. During the years I have been struck by how hard road hauliers work. They are committed to their businesses and will provide a service at all costs. If it means working until the early hours of the morning, they will do it. They are vital to the economy and as such the model we have of smaller operators must be protected. It is a competitive industry, but it is also fragile. Road hauliers have lost out indirectly in the fall-out from the financial meltdown. The loss of our indigenous industries has hit the haulage industry very hard. Mallow is a pale shadow of its former self since the loss of the sugar beet industry. We might have complained about dirty lorries on the roads travelling into Mallow in the winter, but we would gladly take them back today. They created huge business for everyone who repaired them to the people who sold them to those employed to drive them.
The loss of quarry work has been difficult for the industry, but it is still going, as the people concerned are resilient. It is our job to get back indigenous industries, but we must look at the price of diesel which is a massive cost and making it hard to survive. The people concerned are defying the laws of gravity by offering lower rates as the price of diesel goes up, but this cannot continue. I was shocked to hear last night when speaking to a representative of the Whitegate oil refinery that a barrel of oil could be traded 500 times. The speculative value included in the price of diesel is shocking. People ask me how diesel and petrol can be the same price at the pumps and say it does not make sense. There is a speculative element that must be looked at which is crippling all of Europe. When people speculate in commodities, they should be made to put down money instead of there only being variants which the price may reach. They should have to put down real money, preferably 10% or 20% of the speculative price. That would result in real savings throughout Europe, not just in Ireland.
The problem is that the reduced rates mean we have older fleets of lorries on the roads and they are costly to maintain. People are caught because they bought the gear and have to pay the money back and they are being exploited to make runs at a loss. We should put in place a minimum price for haulage because one cannot operate a system that runs at a loss. It will cost in the long run. Young people will not enter the industry and larger operators will push aside smaller operators, which will be to our loss as a state.
I compliment the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. I dealt with it during the year on behalf of a driver who was looking for a licence. The man in question had dyslexia and the institute was very good in how it dealt with him. He was a tremendous operator, but his dyslexia was an impediment to him. We got him his licence and he is doing perfectly well.
I welcome the regulation dealing with serious convictions. We must make sure drivers do not have serious criminal records that might lead to serious incidents further down the road. The website will attract competition, while allowing us to identify legitimate road hauliers.
We have new roads, but the Harvest 2020 report on agriculture calls for milk production to be increased by 100% in County Cork. Most of the local roads in the county would not be capable of coping with the extra transport.
Road hauliers also face banking difficulties. They must buy diesel and operate overdrafts and be backed by the banks, the same as other small businesses. While we recognise the difficulties faced by road hauliers, we should promote and help them because they are a very important part of the economy.
Road transport in Ireland is governed by a number of Acts dating back to 1933, as well as by a wide array of national regulations and EU legislation. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is conducting a review of all this legislation with a view to bringing forward an updated and comprehensive road transport Bill to replace the existing Acts and set the direction for road transport policy in the coming years. It is hoped to do this in 2012.
The legislation before the House is largely technical, the reason being that it is required to be enacted by 3 December 2011 owing to the coming into force of new EU regulations for road transport operators on 4 December. These new regulations are replacing a previous EU directive and because of this some matters previously provided for in national secondary legislation must now be provided for in primary legislation; that is the reason the Bill needs to be in place when the new EU regulations come into force.
Licences are required for road transport operations providing road haulage and road passenger transport services for hire and reward. Vehicles operating as part of the fleet of a business, for example, a fleet of vans for a supermarket, do not require one of these licences. Road haulage licensing requirements apply to haulage operations in heavy goods vehicles, while road passenger transport licensing requirements apply to vehicles carrying more than eight passengers. Certain activities are exempt from the requirement to have a licence such as carrying mail, refuse and waste and also transport connected with funeral services.
Licences can be provided for national activity only, or for international activities which also include national activities. The key criteria are that one must be of good repute, good financial standing and have professional competence. From 4 December establishment in the State will be a formal requirement, although it already applies in practice.
Road transport is very important to the economy in terms of the movement of goods and people, as well as being a significant employer. High standards in the sector and the good reputation that goes with them are important for our economic competitiveness. It is important that the public have the assurance that the operators they engage are licensed, safe, reliable and amenable to the law. It is also very important for legitimate operators that they are not undermined by those operating either without licences or without complying with the licence standards, including in terms of safety on the roads.
I pay tribute to the Irish Road Haulage Association. In 2008 I was chairperson of Dublin City Council's transport policy committee when the Dublin Port tunnel was opened and the council's heavy goods vehicle strategy was implemented. The Irish Road Haulage Association was a member of the policy group. It co-operated fully with the city council in implementing the heavy goods vehicles strategy which excluded five-axle heavy goods vehicles from the city centre, or from within the canals. The strategy has contributed to better quality of life in the city in that more road space has been freed up for public transport, other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. This has been borne out by the considerable reduction in the number of fatal accidents and injuries since the opening of the port tunnel. Although the Irish Road Haulage Association had a difficulty with the strategy, it agreed with its implementation. This must be recognised.
Let me draw attention to a very important aspect of the Bill. The Bill reintroduces the existing provisions relating to the good repute of applicants and holders of licences, specifically in regard to taking into account serious and violent convictions such as convictions for murder, drug trafficking, etc. The safety of those who travel on buses is extremely important. I refer, in particular, to children on school buses. It is important to women and other vulnerable persons who travel on buses that the driver be of good repute. The enshrining of this provision in the legislation is to be welcomed.
The Bill extends the list of positions within a passenger transport operation to which the criterion in respect of the good repute of applicants applies to include directors, business partners and drivers. The fitness and suitability of operators is one of the key criteria to be met in obtaining and holding a licence. I welcome this provision and support the Bill.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this legislation. I can remember speaking on the original road transport legislation 25 years ago, as I am sure can the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I fear this is a sign of the times.
There are couple of points on which I want to comment. The introduction of regulation to the public transport sector is very important. We must all recognise this has regularised transport methodology right across Europe. There are still some glitches, however.
It is great that we have been able to make progress in the regulation of transport considering that we have failed to have adequate control and regulation in the fiscal and budgetary area. If we had such regulation, we would not have found ourselves in the current circumstances. There is a lesson to be learned from this.
This legislation is very important. The objective is to standardise the rules that apply right across the European Union and ensure customers across the Union can enjoy the same standards.
Several speakers referred to fitness to practice. In recent years, questions were raised about the fitness to practice of certain people involved in the transport of passengers. Perhaps the Minister will state in his reply the degree to which the proposal in this regard will ensure that, where the public relies on public transport, the regulations will be sufficiently and adequately enforced such there are no breaches.
The penalty for a breach in the original legislation was £5,000. It is now proposed that it be €500,000. There is a distinct difference, which is understandable given that the magnitude of today's operations is considerably greater than that of 25 years ago. We need to recognise this.
Two speakers referred to speculation in the oil market and the consequent effect on transport. We hear and are reminded from time to time about how oil prices will increase again. It is stated this is because the Chinese economy is surging, because somebody has coughed in the United States or because an oil well has been closed somewhere, thus leading to an increase in transport costs. We must all realise that not too many economies are surging at present. One can talk about this any way one wants but the reality is that the phenomenon is caused by clever guys, cool dudes, speculating on the oil market. They have been doing it for a long number of years and they are doing it very effectively at present, thus increasing the cost of transport for those who must rely on it.
People in this jurisdiction are quite concerned about people who operate from outside the jurisdiction, especially along the Border counties. Previous speakers have mentioned this. There are those in this jurisdiction who register in other European jurisdictions, including adjoining jurisdictions. This can have an excessive impact on those intent on operating here in terms of competition.
Are the records available to indicate the number of breaches of the existing regulations in this jurisdiction and in each other member state? In order that we might be assured that equality prevails, that there is competition and that like is equated with like, it is important to know the number of breaches recorded in each jurisdiction, the extent to which the rules and regulations were enforced, whether there was a prevailing trend, whether Ireland has been a good adherent to the regulations and how we compare with other jurisdictions. It is critical to know the statistics at a time when we rely so heavily on the road transport sector to ensure our economy receives an opportunity to survive and revive. It is critical that we have as much information as possible.
Consider the various offences that prevent one from obtaining a transport licence, apart from fitness to practice breaches. Other speakers have referred to management skills. Management skills are very important. Prior to the introduction of the existing legislation, well-meaning people with good intentions attempting to provide a required service found themselves lacking the required management skills to provide it. I am reminded of the management skills of those involved in fiscal and budgetary affairs. For whatever reason, these skills were inadequate, thereby leading half the globe into an economic morass. I am a great believer in regulations provided everybody recognises and adheres to them. If they do not, they are waste of time.
The legislation refers to convictions for murder, manslaughter, drug trafficking, certain non-fatal offences against the person, human trafficking, certain sexual offences, money-laundering, theft and fraud offences, firearms offences and aiding and abetting in respect of all these offences. There is a massive list and I hope all the offences have been covered and are recognised right across the European Union. I hope the regulations are enforced equally strictly and without exception in each member state.
Many people in this country and economy depend on transport, as do many of our operators. We will have to compete with those providing services from outside the jurisdiction to an ever-greater extent and we must realise the latter may have lower costs. In such circumstances, it is very important that the rules be applied right across the board and that they be equally effective in each jurisdiction.
Over recent years, the question could have been raised in quite a number of instances as to whether the people involved in accidents were fit to practice. I refer to the driving of very heavy vehicles. The requirement to comply with safety regulations and consider braking distances and the size, weight and power of one's vehicle is much greater when driving a heavy goods vehicle.
I note that licences can be refused, correctly so, and I would like to think the same applies in all jurisdictions in the European Union. In the world of finance, apparently, nothing was enforced. Regulations were in place in this and other jurisdictions, but they were ignored. In the interests of public safety and peace of mind of those who travel by road or public transport, I hope the Bill will be recognised and enforced across the board.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I agree entirely with Deputies Durkan and Barry regarding speculation on oil prices. The issue is relevant to the Bill but governments need to consider it. At the outset of the financial crisis governments decided it was appropriate to intervene in contracts for difference when speculators bet on share prices in financial institutions.
The Bill proposes to reform the regulation of freight and passenger transport in accordance with EU regulations due to come into effect next month. In doing so, it may provide an opportunity for haulage operators in Ireland to move more freely in our European neighbours' markets. As previous speakers noted, it involves little by way of legislative or policy change, but it transposes existing regulations into primary legislation in order to ensure uniformity with our European partners. The introduction of legislation to regulate or licence transport businesses will ultimately improve road safety and the Bill is to be welcomed in that regard. The Minister has already brought two Road Traffic Bills before the House during the short period he has been in office.
While the practical effects of the Bill may be minimal, the strengthening of regulations on road passenger transport is welcome. This is particularly important in the case of school transport. Many of us entrust our children's safety to bus operators on a daily basis and it is welcome that safeguards in this area will be brought into line with European guidelines. The transposition into primary legislation of the requirement for such operators to be licensed and the fact that operating without a licence will be an offence under the law are positive developments.
Significantly, the Bill strengthens the existing requirement that applicants for licences be of good repute and character. Any history of serious or violent offences will be taken into account when decisions are being made in the issuance of licences. The Bill also extends the number and nature of positions within a road haulage or passenger transport operation to which this provision will apply to include directors, business partners and drivers.
The Bill provides for a national register of licence operators to be published on the Minister's website or, rather, the website of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
The availability of such information will enhance transparency and assist the legislation in its aim of imposing effective regulation and accountability in the sector.
The Bill endeavours to strengthen regulation in the area of road haulage and passenger transport by increasing the penalties for non-compliance with the new provisions. Rogue operators will face stringent penalties for new offences under the legislation such as the use of unlicensed vehicles, forgery or alteration of licence documents and falsely purporting to be a licensed operator.
While this is a technical Bill which provides for legal parity with the vast road haulage and passenger transport network in Europe, its objectives for passenger safety should not be underestimated. The Minister has indicated that he intends to develop more comprehensive legislation on road transport in the near future. I look forward to debating such legislation when it comes before the House.
I thank all those who contributed to the debate. As speakers made a diverse range of comments, I shall confine my closing remarks to issues pertinent to the Bill.
Several Deputies pointed out that the Bill had been published late in the day and that late legislation was not good legislation. I accept some criticism in this regard and apologise to the House that the Bill has come so late in the day. It was initially believed the matter could be addressed by secondary legislation or regulations, but it became apparent to the Department only a few weeks ago that primary legislation would be required. This is good legislation and I have full confidence in the ability of the Dáil and the Seanad to scrutinise it for any errors that may have been made.
The regulations will apply directly from 4 December. The Bill is not required to give effect to the majority of the provisions, but I will shortly be introducing regulations to provide in the normal way for penalties for non-compliance with EU regulations. In finalising the national regulations we received legal advice that a small number of issues required primary legislation, hence the need for the Bill.
A number of Deputies raised the issue of cabotage, which is worthy of debate in its own right. My general view is that the current system of cabotage across the European Union is daft. I would prefer to see a single European market for haulage, as is the case in aviation with the open skies directive. Cabotage is specifically covered by EC Regulation 072/2009 and will be complemented by national regulations which will set out offences and clear penalties. While cabotage is not a matter for this Bill, cabotage offences will attract significant fines under the national regulations. The levels are being discussed with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure they are proportionate. The cabotage provisions cannot be changed because they are set out in EU legislation.
The application of regulations in any member state is a matter for the state concerned. I recognise the difficulty in enforcing cabotage offences on out-of-state hauliers if they breach their cabotage entitlements here, and I will revisit the matter in a road transport Bill next year. I am conscious of the desire of the industry for clarity about cabotage in the United Kingdom. My Department has engaged in bilateral discussions with the UK authorities with a view to determining whether guidelines can be drawn up for operators. Members may be interested to learn that the opening up of the entire EU market has been set out as European Commission policy in its transport White Paper No. 2011-22. I support this objective, but the key issue is enforcement of regulations. Enforcement is much stronger in the United Kingdom than it is in Ireland. The UK authorities have powers to impound a vehicle or turn it around but similar powers do not appear to be provided safely in Irish legislation. This is an issue we may need to address in other legislation next year.
A number of Deputies spoke about the difficult business environment, fuel costs and the carbon tax. As these are matters for the Minister for Finance, I will not comment on them in the context of this debate. The Bill will not involve additional administrative costs or burdens for operators.
The argument for licensing own-account operators is not the same. It is a very different issue when somebody is essentially carrying their own goods between their own distribution centres and their own retail outlets. It is very different from a haulier for hire or reward. However, as vehicle standards and driver and safety issues also apply to the own-account sector, the argument has been made for some kind of registration or permit system. The RSA has included this question in its recent consultation on commercial vehicle reform and I would be interested in the outcome of that consultation. As Northern Ireland authorities have recently decided to extend regulations to this sector, we will give consideration to the matter.
Deputy Dooley spoke about exemptions. The additional exemptions he mentioned are already provided for in existing Acts and do not need to be repeated in this legislation. They are and will continue to be exempted.
Sinn Féin Members raised the issue of political prisoners and take the view that offences covered by the Good Friday Agreement that were politically motivated and occurred before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement should be exempted from the Bill. My impression is that I do not agree with the amendment. The offences that are specifically mentioned in the Bill include murder, manslaughter, money laundering, smuggling and rape. I do not know how often murder, manslaughter, money laundering, smuggling and rape are politically motivated. The principles that follow the Good Friday Agreement are that people guilty of these offences may get early release but those convictions are not expunged. No amnesty has been provided for those offences. If something were to happen on those lines, it would need to be a broad Government policy decision to ignore, waive or expunge those offences rather than in this legislation ignore these serious offences just for road transport issues. Anyone applying for a licence can apply to the District Court and can make a case there as to why the politically motivated murder or rape should still allow him or her to have a licence. I would be interested to see how such cases might progress.
Deputy Ross spoke about Bus Éireann. Of course Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus each need a licence. They are licensed on the same basis as private operators and are enforced in the same way as private operators. The Deputy should not be surprised if Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus or any public bus company found itself prosecuted by the RSA in coming months. His comments on Irish Rail were not particularly relevant to this legislation which is road transport legislation and not rail transport legislation. I know the Deputy has a great interest in the Baker Tilly report. The offences and corruption uncovered by that report were detected by an internal investigation in Iarnród Éireann. The organisation is a very different organisation than it was then and now has a new management team, most of whom are not even from this country. We also have a new management structure with new chairs taking on that role. If any error occurred regarding the Baker Tilly report, it was that the Minister at the time was not informed about the issue or what was going on. I have certainly made it abundantly clear to the new chairwoman and chairman that I, as Minister, want to be informed of any such issues and they agreed that should be the case.
Deputy Ross also expressed some concerns about the powers being afforded to the Minister in this regard and I have some sympathy with his view. In most cases now the Minister is not the licensing authority and Ministers do not hand out licences in the way that I do in road transport. As part of the general review of legislation we might need to consider whether the licensing function should be given to another authority.
Several Deputies raised the issue of unlicensed operators and I strongly agree with what they said on the issue. There are two good things about this legislation. First, it increases the maximum fine from €6,000, which is not a lot, to €500,000, which is a lot. Second, for the first time the consignor or customer can be held liable for hiring an operator who is not licensed.
The issue of colour coding existing speed limit signs was raised. We would need to think about that. Speed limits change over time and it would be a considerable job to change all the road signs on a motorway or road if speed limits were changed. The solution might be to have more speed signs rather than incorporating a colour code on all the existing directional signs.
Deputy John Paul Phelan asked about ongoing investment in local and regional roads. Obviously the transport budget is very tight with virtually no money for new capital investment. The priority is maintenance and while we will struggle to do that, we should have enough money in coming years to have the roads maintained at least. There will also be some improvements in strategic local and regional roads and also national secondary roads in tourist areas, involving removing dangerous bends and so on. However, these will be very small projects of €500,000 or €1 million with very little above that. The problem I face is that a large number of interest groups, including local authorities, county managers, Deputies, Senators and councillors, all want me to continue to spend lots of money on planning for projects that we cannot afford to build for perhaps ten or 20 years. I could do that but if I did so, it would be at the expense of maintenance and removing dangerous bends and so on, which would be a mistake.
Responsibility for commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing is being transferred to the Road Safety Authority. At the moment it is done largely by private sector operators and that will need to be regulated more tightly in future.
Deputy Tom Hayes spoke about bypasses. No new bypasses will be built in the State during the period of the Government, with the exception of Ballaghaderreen, which has now gone to tender, and perhaps something along the A5 route at some point in 2015 or 2016, but that will be it. More than €1 billion worth of road works are already in the pipeline and we might get started on them in 2017 or 2018, so there is very little point in adding any new projects to that pipeline. The Deputy made the very good suggestion that in towns, such as Tipperary, which need a bypass, we should try to develop interim plans for traffic management through those towns. The local authorities who know those towns well should draw up those plans and submit them to my Department or the NRA and we can see what can be done so long as they are genuinely low cost solutions.
The issue of the driver certificate of professional competence was raised. The driver CPC is entirely different from the road transport operator CPC. The driver CPC from the RSA is required to show that the driver has undergone regular training on how to drive large vehicles. The road transport operator CPC relates to how to manage a road transport business. The examination for this is focused on compliance with commercial and transport law and is not connected to driving per se. A road transport operator CPC is issued following the passing of an examination and lasts for life.
May ask the Minister a question? When talking about not accepting our amendment, he mentioned the Cabinet. Is he indicating he might take the issue to the Cabinet to discuss whether exemptions could be made? I seek clarification on what he said.
We may discuss this in more detail tomorrow when we discuss the amendment. The Cabinet met today to talk about the budget and will meet tomorrow to talk about the jobs strategy. So I will not have an opportunity to speak to the Cabinet about this matter. The issue of expunging convictions for people who describe themselves as political prisoners is beyond the competence of this Bill. If that were to be made, it would have to be a Government decision rather than one that was particular to this legislation.