Tuesday, 28 July 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Will the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, outline the steps that have been taken to address the current oversight for driver licences that have expired but fall outside the four-month extension period from March to 30 June? Will she consider an extension for the cases of those whose licence expired in July but who cannot renew online or obtain a timely appointment at a National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, centre? Will she make a statement on the matter?
The issue that has arisen is that someone whose licence was due to be renewed on 30 June could get a four-month extension, whereas for people whose licence was due to be renewed on 1 July, their licences are out of date from 1 July. That is a major anomaly. I note that on 26 June an extension was given where learner permits were due to expire on 30 June, that is, where the expiry date falls from 1 July to 31 October. They have been given a further four-month extension. I am asking that the same be granted to people whose licences expired post 1 July. I have had such cases come to me in Limerick. People over 70 cannot apply online. They have to apply for an appointment online with the NDLS centre. One gentleman I heard from applied on 3 July looking to get an appointment at the Parkway Shopping Centre, in Limerick. His driving licence was due to expire on the same date. He has not been given an appointment until 25 August, so he is not able to drive legally in a car because he has no driving licence. That has to be amended. Even at that, he is required to go to Nenagh, which is some distance away. Furthermore, some people cannot apply online; I have made reference to those who are 70 years of age or older. The Minister of State could look to amend that.
What I am asking, and the desired outcome, is that the Minister of State extend the validity of licences expiring from 1 July onwards for a further three or four months. This would ensure that drivers could continue to use their vehicles while awaiting their appointments. Alternatively, the Minister of State should issue an instruction that proof of an appointment at a National Driver Licence Service centre is to be recognised as valid for driving by gardaí on discretionary grounds. I also ask that the Minister of State consider extending the online service to vulnerable people, such as people who are over 70, so they can avoid attending NDLS centres as a long-term measure to protect them from Covid-19. There is a need for a practical solution here. The key point is that the Minister of State should extend that period for a further four months in order that we do not have an anomaly whereby someone whose licence is up for renewal on 30 June gets a four-month extension and someone whose licence is up on 1 July does not. The person whose licence is up for renewal on 30 June can continue to drive, but a person whose licence is up for renewal the following day could be waiting up to eight weeks to get an appointment with the National Driver Licence Service while being unable to drive. There is a major anomaly. I hope to get news from the Minister of State that this will be changed tonight.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The National Driver Licence Service is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority and is provided under contract. The NDLS processes applications for learner permits and driver licences. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the provision of services, as the Deputy has outlined. As a result, a number of services ceased, including the national car testing service and driver testing, theory tests, and driver licence applications and renewals. The NDLS offices closed at the end of March 2020 due to the pandemic. Emergency regulations were brought in to provide for an extension of four months to the validity of driver licences and learner permits that expired between 1 March and 30 June 2020. This meant that a driver licence that expired on 20 March would not need to be renewed until 20 July. Similarly, a licence that expired on 15 July would not need to be renewed until 15 November.
In order to deal with the difficulties that arose due to the Covid-19 pandemic and to ensure consistency across EU member states, the European Commission eventually introduced a regulation in July 2020 to provide for an extension of seven months to the validity of driving licences that expired or would expire from 1 February to 31 August 2020. Member states could opt out of the regulation if they had already provided nationally for an extension. Ireland opted out under this provision as an extension of four months had already been granted in April up to the end of June and the RSA wanted to resume services as soon as possible. Learner permits, however, were further extended for an additional four months to the end of October. The reason for this extension was to ease the pressure on the NDLS to allow the prioritising of issuing of driver licences.
It should be noted that learner permits are provided under national law while driver licences come under EU law. There was no oversight in not extending driver licences at that time. The possibility of a further extension to the validity of driver licences along with that of learner permits was discussed with the RSA, but the authority believed, on the basis of its expectations at that point in time, that this would not be necessary. It is only fair to the authority to acknowledge that the Covid-19 crisis is an unprecedented and fluid set of circumstances in which it is difficult to be certain about future developments. While the reopened NDLS offices and the future expansion of online licence renewal options will eventually enable the RSA to clear the backlog, it is now clear that this will not happen quickly enough to facilitate the urgent needs of all applicants. The NDLS resumed services on a phased basis on Monday, 8 June 2020. All centres have reopened nationwide with the exception of part-time NDLS offices in Belmullet and Clifden, which are expected to reopen shortly. However, the NDLS is now operating at about 60% of its pre-Covid capacity. All appointments must be booked in advance and walk-in appointments are no longer available to ensure social distancing and compliance with occupational and public health requirements. It will naturally take some time for services to return to normal and, unfortunately, there are delays in acquiring appointments.
Since July the RSA has been working with its service providers to see how it can increase capacity while adhering to the return-to-work protocol. Options include extended opening hours, increasing the number of cases dealt with monthly, overtime and protective segregation barriers between booths. Having monitored the situation closely, it is now clear that the backlog cannot be dealt with in a timely manner while operating at 60% capacity and with an extended online system not yet in operation. Having considered the matter, I believe a further extension of driver licences in now appropriate.
An extension to driver licences is not possible without consent from the European Commission, in order to be compliant with EU law. My officials have now applied to the European Commission to seek agreement to a further extension for driver licences to ease the pressure on services.
I thank the Minister for that. I have three quick questions. First, when did the Department of Transport apply to the European Commission for this extension? Second, what is the length of the extension?
Third, how long does the Minister of State expect it will be before the European Commission will come back with a response regarding that extension period? It is unacceptable that we have elderly people and many others waiting for up to eight weeks to get their driver's licence renewed if it is up after 1 July. It is unacceptable on a number of levels, including mobility and the ability of people in business to function. At the same time, people whose licences were up between March and 30 June get a four-month extension.
Will the Minister of State clarify those points for me again? When did the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport apply for the extension period, and for how long? When does the Minister of State expect the European Commission to respond? When will it come into operation for people? I want the Minister of State to give absolute certainty in this area. There are people, like the person I referred to earlier, whose licence was up on 3 July, who are being told they will not get an appointment with a National Driver Licence Service on the renewal until 25 August. That is nearly eight weeks away. That is completely unacceptable. Will the Minister of State give me a response in those areas?
I thank the Deputy. I agree the number of people waiting for appointments is at an unacceptably high level. I believe a further extension of the licences is the correct approach to deal with the issue. The extension is subject to EU approval and my officials have contacted the EU in that regard. We will also be prioritising work on the legislation required to get the online system up and running, which will also help to alleviate the pressure. I do not know the length of the extension. We will have to wait for the European Commission's response on that. My officials have applied to the European Commission to seek agreement to a further extension and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, will give priority to urgent cases if contacted by individuals outlining the details.
The RSA contacted the Department today to state that pending the extension of the online system, it cannot make significant inroads into dealing with the backlog and it has asked that consideration be given to further extension of the driving licences to ease those pressures. The Deputy can be assured getting this extension is a priority for me and my Department.