Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Topical Issue Debate

National Car Test

10:15 pm

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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At the outset, I am disappointed by the way Topical Issues has been put to the end of the day's business. The introduction of the Topical Issue Debate was about improving this House's communication with the public. Topical Issues was about identifying issues of real concern to people that would be tabled at a time of the day that would allow it fit in to the regular news cycle, and be used as a methodology of communicating with the people. I am disappointed with the way the business has been ordered today, but that is as an aside.

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, for being here. I appreciate his presence for what I believe to be an important issue.

The Minister is correctly dealing with the issues around death and injury on the road. He correctly decided, in conjunction with the Road Safety Authority, to introduce increased penalty points and the introduction of penalty points for the first time for a number of offences that heretofore were dealt with differently. It is part of a progressive and multilayered approach in this House to dealing with death and injury on the road.

There is some difficulty with the choreography. It is putting the cart before the horse. In my experience, across quite a number of NCT test centres, a delay exists in scheduling such tests. It can vary. In some instances, the delay can be up to four months. In others, it can be three months. Of course, there are areas where it is not quite so difficult to schedule a test.

The fact is, though, that there are drivers today who find themselves not having an NCT. They attempted to book a test a number of weeks ago and, because of the backlog of delays, now find themselves not only outside the law as they always would have been, but in a position where there is a potential to gain penalty points. That is particularly worrying and disturbing. I accept that discretion can be exercised by gardaí but the introduction of these penalty points offences should not have taken place until such time as there was a relatively quick turnaround in providing citizens with access to an appropriate test. That is the first point.

In addition, the Minister will be aware of an issue that has arisen in relation to penalty points. We read with concern about it today on the front page of the Irish Independent, where the journalist, Mr. Niall O'Connor, has a story which seems to emanate from within the Department. It is irrelevant where it emanated from. It seems to be a serious issue. The Minister indicated he has referred this issue to the Attorney General and that in due course he will have some information.

Before the Attorney General comes back to the Minister, can Deputy Donohoe tell the House tonight what is the genesis of the problem that has raised his concerns? What is the extent of the problem? What is the scale of it? How many penalty points are involved here? How many drivers potentially have issues, either positive or negative from their perspective?

How many drivers are affected? What is the Minister's perception of the impact of such a problem, if it exists? I accept and understand that the Minister is waiting for the advice of the Attorney General to establish whether there is an issue in the first instance, but pending that, could he answer some of the questions I have raised in that regard?

10:25 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Dooley for raising this matter. He is correct that the entire objective of the session is to raise topical issues. The original issue raised related to the national car test, NCT, but I will also respond to the questions he has asked regarding the events of today.

First, I wish to refer to changes to the penalty points regime which came into effect yesterday, and the particular change to which Deputy Dooley referred with regard to the NCT system and the need for a certificate. The Deputy referred accurately to the history of the matter, but I wish to highlight one point for the record. Deputy Dooley correctly stated that it has for some years been an offence to use a vehicle on public roads without a valid NCT certificate. The only point I would add is that in the past this offence always involved a direct summons to court and the assignment of five penalty points on conviction. What has now changed is the introduction of a fixed charge notice system. If someone is charged with an offence, he or she will now be issued with a fixed charge notice and, on payment of the €60 charge, will have three penalty points assigned to his or her licence. The driver will continue to have the option of going to court, where five points will still apply on conviction. The key change is the option of compliance with a fixed charge notice and the assignment of three penalty points instead of going directly to court.

In response to the Deputy's point about current waiting times for NCT tests, I have been in constant contact with the Road Safety Authority, RSA, on the matter, and it has informed me that the best way for people to get their appointment is to call the NCTS call centre directly on 01 4135992 rather than booking a test on the website. I am currently examining regional waiting times. I have been in contact with the RSA and it is already aware of the issue. It has put extra staff in place for the period during which most of the tests are likely to be carried out. An additional 50 staff will be in place across the centres. I will continue to monitor the issue to ensure that as many people as possible get the NCT test as required.

The most up-to-date statistics indicate that for the week commencing 24 November, a total of approximately 25,000 NCT tests were carried out. Of those, 9,000 were late or very late - meaning their due test date was in the past; a further 1,450 related to tests that should have been carried out in 2013; and 13,200 were early compliant requests - that is, taking advantage of the facility that was instituted in September to avail of early tests up to 90 days prior to the test due date. Additional staff are now in place. It is my information that 200,000 cars in the State currently do not have a valid NCT certificate. The change has been advertised since the start of September and additional staff are in place. I will continue to closely examine regional waiting times. I responded to the issue raised by the Deputy, but if he has further questions he wishes to raise with me on the other matter, I will respond to him.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the Minister's approach to dealing with the matter on a regional basis and I welcome his announcement of additional testing staff. I recognise that the Minister is not in a position to encourage the Garda to exercise discretion, but I hope that until such time as the backlog has been addressed, the penalty by way of fixed notice will not be enforced. I hope common sense will prevail, particularly in cases in which a test has already been scheduled. Perhaps some direction could be given to the Garda or a statutory instrument might be required to ensure that pending the alleviation of the backlog, having a test scheduled would ensure the certificate is valid until such time as a test has taken place and at such time the car would either pass or fail. I would prefer if the Minister would use the available time to address the other issue I raised.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I will continue to monitor the situation. The average waiting time for tests currently is 11 days nationally. I am looking at how it stacks up per centre to address the very point to which Deputy Dooley referred.

On the earlier point regarding the concerns aired today on the operation of the penalty points system - the Deputy also asked me questions on the matter at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications earlier today - I received notification from my Department that an issue had arisen with the implementation of some penalty points. Upon receipt of the information, I immediately contacted the Attorney General to find out the necessary course of action I would need to take to deal with the matter. I expect to receive formal advice on the matter tomorrow. Deputy Dooley inquired whether I could tell him what the specific offences are, but I cannot do that at the moment because if a potential issue needs to be dealt with, given that it relates directly to road safety and the integrity of our road safety system, I wish to be sure I know exactly what the issue is and how the matter could be addressed. In order to do that, I will require the advice of the Attorney General, which I expect to receive tomorrow morning. I absolutely understand how central the credibility of our penalty points system is and the need to deal openly with any points or concerns people have in that regard. When I have received the advice and it becomes apparent that I need to take a certain course of action, be it legislative or otherwise, I will organise a briefing on the matter for Deputy Dooley and also for Deputy Ellis so that people are aware of the issue. I will answer any questions on the matter before it comes to the Dáil, if that is the course of action required.