Thursday, 19 January 2017
Topical Issue Debate
Bus Éireann Services
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for giving us time to raise this matter. I thank the Minister, Deputy Ross, for coming to the House to debate the extraordinary and completely disgraceful situation in Bus Éireann. Proposals regarding the terms and conditions of employees are being leaked to the media before they are released to the employees in question. The serious financial challenges in Bus Éireann have been the subject of a series of reports. Everybody accepts that those challenges exist and everybody wants to see them resolved in the best possible way.
On 30 November last, Grant Thornton consultants finalised a report on the options facing Bus Éireann. I have a copy of the report with me. The report has been extensively leaked in the national media in recent days. On 11 January last, the acting chief executive officer of Bus Éireann said publicly that the company is facing insolvency within 18 months. The Taoiseach told the House on 17 January last - 48 hours ago - that the Minister, Deputy Ross, has not received the report, even though it was completed in November, and therefore could not have read it, even though he apparently briefed the Cabinet on Bus Éireann on Tuesday morning. In an effort to help the Minister, my colleague, Deputy Troy, placed a copy of the report in the Minister's pigeonhole on Tuesday evening. Has the Minister read it? What are his views on the proposals and findings contained in it?
Bus Éireann is an extremely important company for Ireland. The Expressway service is an extremely important part of the company. It provides good employment. A State company should not be joining the race to the bottom in terms of employment contracts and terms so that it can compete with private operators that have fewer conditions on their methods of operation than Bus Éireann does. We need an honest and open discussion about the future of Bus Éireann and the options facing it. The employees of Bus Éireann need to be given the respect they deserve. Proposals to change their terms and conditions should not be bandied around the media for the sake of headlines. We are talking about thousands of people who deserve better than that.
Yes, I will give way to him in a moment. We need the Minister to step up to the mark, take account of what is going on in Bus Éireann and take ownership of the issue as the representative of the Government, which is the main shareholder.
The Minister knows about the financial challenges facing Bus Éireann. Its losses have been increasing incrementally over recent years. Has the Minister sought an explanation from Bus Éireann management for the situation that has developed? Why has it been allowed to get to this stage? Why is drastic action now having to be taken? Has the Minister read the report? What are his thoughts on it?
Approximately 2.7 million of the total of 7 million passengers who are carried on the Expressway service each year avail of the free travel scheme. Given that the average Expressway fare is €11, does the Minister think it is fair that Bus Éireann receives €4.50 in respect of each free travel passenger? Does he think it is fair that the money paid by the Department of Social Protection has not increased since 2009, even though the number of people availing of free travel has increased by 30%? Has the Minister spoken to the Minister for Social Protection to try to obtain an increase in this regard?
I would also like to ask the Minister about the number of licences that are issued. The National Transport Authority seems to get blamed for the issuing of these licences, but it is simply implementing Government policy.
Has the Minister received a report on the review of how the NTA had issued licences? I understand that he has received a report and that it is on his desk. When will he make its contents available?
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I agree with a great deal of what Deputy Calleary said. The need for respect on all sides, including among employers, employees and all other stakeholders, is absolutely imperative in this very delicate situation. It would be a pity if it were exploited for political advantage when so many people need protection in this threatening industrial relations dispute. I include in that group those rural communities in particular which are worried about what would happen if routes closed. In particular, I include the employees who feel, due to many alarmist statements, that their jobs are at risk. I also include the taxpayer who it is my duty to protect and members of the travelling public who will be inconvenienced if this particular dispute accelerates.
This Topical Issue is an opportunity for me to clarify a number of the misinformed comments which have been made in recent days. Last week, I met with the chair of Bus Éireann who briefed me on a Grant Thornton report which had been presented to the board by the consultants a few days previously. Following that meeting, I updated my Government colleagues at this week’s Cabinet. First, there may well be different drafts in circulation. However, and as I stated last week, the consultants presented their report to the board. I will clarify once and for all what that report is. Irrespective of what draft people are focusing on, the media and, unfortunately, some Deputies are convinced the Grant Thornton report is a plan. It is no such thing. The report is an analysis prepared as advice for the board which reviews some previously developed options, provides a critique of them and makes suggestions for further areas to consider. The report is not a plan in itself and it was not intended that it would be a plan. On foot of the report and the board's deliberations, the company is now engaged in preparing an actual plan for its future and will be developing and finalising this over the coming weeks.
Everyone in the House is aware of the circumstances in which Bus Éireann finds itself. It is losing approximately €6 million a year, which is simply unsustainable. These losses are not a result of the taxpayer's subvention. In fact, the company received €40 million last year, which was over 17% more than it received in taxpayer funding in 2015. The Deputy will know and, no doubt, welcome the fact that this year further increases will be made available for PSO services thanks to the fact that I secured an 11% increase in PSO funding generally in the budget. Bus Éireann's losses stem from its Expressway services. Expressway is a fully commercial network of routes which does not receive any Exchequer funding and competes with other operators in a highly competitive market. While some voices in recent days have spoken of a policy problem as a driving force behind all this-----
I cannot allow the Minister to continue because his time is up. However, he will have another two minutes to come back in. As I have been very strict with the other Members, I ask the Minister to stop.
The Minister met the chair of Bus Éireann last week who briefed him on the report. Surely, as the representative of the main shareholder, the Minister should have asked for a copy of the report so that he could study its analysis and ask his officials to brief him on it independently of the briefing from the chair of the company being reported on.
On the assertion of the Taoiseach and the Minister that rural routes will not be affected, I want the Minister to clarify what that means. Does it mean existing Expressway routes which serve rural areas will not be affected? How can the Minister give a guarantee that routes will not be affected when some of the proposals in the report include bans on overtime and the hiring in of buses to cover peak times such as weekend? How are we going to maintain services if the existing fleet cannot cope with demand and there is a ban on hiring additional fleet and on overtime?
The Minister spoke before about his vast volume of writing and the challenge of that vast volume in respect of his current portfolio. I took the Minister up on that challenge and looked today at an article in which he wrote about the then-Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey. It stated, "Its Minister and only shareholder, Noel Dempsey, has shown a reluctance to become involved in a full examination of the less transparent activities of this mysterious semi-State monster". That monster was CIE. The Minister who will not get involved and who is being reluctant now is Deputy Ross. I ask him to, please, stand up for Bus Éireann, its workers and the services they provide.
It is the Minister who chose to remain silent over the last number of weeks. As he was requested to do, he could have clearly articulated his position and that of the Government. The 11% increase on the PSO leaves funding at a point 20% less than in 2010. The Minister says the PSO has nothing to do with the Expressway service. He is right. Is he going to seek an increase from the free travel funding provided from the Department of Social Protection? Has the Minister received a review from the NTA of the way in which licences are issued? Is that report with him and is he going to share it with the House?
When the Minister talks about there being only eight additional licences, he does not acknowledge how many additional routes each of those licences covers and he does not acknowledge that commercial buses do not serve many provincial towns the length and breadth of this country.
I thank both Deputies for their responses. In answer to Deputy Calleary, I note that the protection of rural communities is a matter on which the NTA has made a statement which is clearly supported by all Members in the House. The NTA says that if rural communities are adversely affected, or indeed any community is affected, it will move in as it has done in the past and ensure and guarantee that connectivity continues. It is an issue for rural communities in particular. The Government supports the NTA fully in that regard and it will be done by way of PSO services. As such, let us not use this debate to scare people into thinking they are going to be abandoned. That is not the case. The NTA has offered to come to the House and brief individuals on this issue so that they can reassure themselves and their communities of this. I am sure I will see Deputy Troy there if he gets up that morning.
I am trying to answer the question Deputy Troy asked. The report he so kindly put in my pigeon hole is an interesting document. It has on the top of it a very significant word - "draft". It also has another thing in it, which is the date of 30 November. This report was seven weeks old.
This is why the Deputy should not exaggerate in respect of issues of this sort. It goes on to state, "This version of the report is a draft. Its contents and subject matter remain under review and its contents may change and be expanded as part of the finalisation of the report".