Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I raise the waiting times for driving test. While it is an issue nationally, the number is particularly bad in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. Of the two counties, County Carlow is unfortunately faring worse with 1,119 currently waiting on a driving test. In a county like Carlow, where access to public transport is extremely limited where it is available at all, there is a huge amount of people who are unable to access employment or are unable to get to their jobs. This is really being exacerbated by the Covid situation because we do not really have access to public transport in our constituency, which is very limited. Where public transport exists it is down to 25% capacity. People are also being encouraged not to take public transport due to Covid but what should a person do if he or she is in rural town or village in County Carlow and cannot get to a job or cannot apply for certain jobs? Many jobs now require a person to have a full licence. I often get contacted by people who have maybe been offered a job on the condition that they have their full licence, are getting it or where the expectation of a job is there if they can fulfil that requirement. It is extremely difficult if there are 1,119 people waiting for a test. The waiting list in County Kilkenny is quite bad as well at 888 people but it is particularly acute in County Carlow.
What solutions are being looked at and what exactly is being done to address this problem? Unfortunately, rural Ireland has, to a large extent, been forgotten about. Since this Government has come into office we have heard a lot about electric cars, cycle lanes, walking and cycling. That is all great and fantastic but is not any good if a person is 20 to 25 miles away from his or her employment. It is not realistic if a person does not have access to a bus or a train, so we need to be realistic about that sort of stuff as well. What exactly is being done to clear the waiting list so people can actually get to work and apply for jobs? I imagine a huge amount of young people fall into this category as well; it is another situation where they are being disadvantaged.
I thank Deputy Funchion for raising this really important matter. The driver test service and the driver theory test are the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. The Department has been in constant contact with the RSA since the start of the pandemic regarding all of its services, the impact of Covid-19 on those services and how they can best be maintained in the current circumstances. As the Deputy is aware car driving tests were temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 in March 2020. Since the resumption of operations in mid July there has inevitably been an increased level of demand due to the consequent backlog. Unfortunately, due to social distancing and other public health and hygiene requirements, service capacity has had to be considerably reduced. This means that customers are experiencing longer waiting times than was the case before the service was suspended. Level 5 restrictions, which took effect for six weeks on 22 October, mean that driving tests are now only available to those who are involved in essential services, including essential retail work. While I regret the inconvenience caused, public safety must remain of paramount importance. The Road Safety Authority is currently examining ways of increasing the number of tests, within health constraints, when driver testing resumes after level 5 and is working in close consultation with the Department on this matter. This includes increasing the number of testing staff to help reduce, and over time to eliminate, the backlog. The Department has recently approved the retention by the RSA of 18 temporary driving testers whose contracts were due to expire in October and November. The RSA has also re-hired a further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. This will help to increase testing capacity when services resume. In the longer term, the Department is considering proposals by the RSA for further measures to address the backlog.
The driver theory test had not been deemed as an essential service under level 5. As a consequence the services closed effective from midnight on Wednesday, 21 October for the duration of level 5 restrictions. All appointments during that time have been rescheduled to the next available appointment date. As I am sure the Deputy is aware that theory test service was temporarily suspended in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 emergency. When the service resumed in June there was an increased level of demand and a significant backlog developed. This was coupled with the need to reduce significantly normal daily capacity to comply with occupational and public health requirements.
When the driver theory test service closed on 21 October due to the latest restrictions, the majority of testing centres had almost full bookings up to the end of December, and some into January, as they worked their way through the initial backlog. The decision was taken by the service provider that those whose appointments were cancelled due to the latest restrictions would be rescheduled to the next available appointment date. The Road Safety Authority has advised my office it is engaging with the service provider to examine ways of increasing the number of tests within the current health constraints for when services are resumed. This will help reduce and, over time, eliminate the backlog. The Department has requested that the Road Safety Authority, as the body legally responsible for the driver theory test, examine whether theory tests can be taken online remotely and what is required to do so. I understand the authority is developing proposals in this regard but this planning is at a very early stage and it is not expected to come on stream in the immediate future.
I thank the Minister of State. As a point of clarification, and if the Minister of State does not have the information to hand perhaps she will forward it to me, if there are 18 temporary driver testers and a further 18 will be hired, does this mean there will be 36 in total? Will they all be kept on in a full-time capacity?
I was going to mention the theory test. There is an issue with the backlog of driver tests, and we will probably see this issue continue for a long time, and there is also a backlog with the theory test. The only way to tackle all of this is to have testers in a full-time capacity. There should be consultation with the testers, the driving instructors and their representative groups because I am sure they all have ideas on how to deal with this. Everybody wants to see this matter resolved.
The Minister of State is from a rural constituency and she understands that a car is not a luxury in rural communities. People have to have one. It is a basic requirement for getting children to school and for people getting to their jobs. It is particularly disappointing to see young people not being able to apply for certain jobs or not being able to take up jobs because they cannot get a driver licence. There are also other issues with regard to the cost of car insurance for young people, which is a major problem. I appreciate what the Minister of State has said about doing the theory tests online and it seems like something that surely could be done.
I thank the Deputy. My understanding is that the 36 figure refers to the number of extra driver testers who will be in place. I know how concerned many constituents are about this and while the service is limited during level 5 restrictions, the Road Safety Authority is examining ways of increasing the number of tests within the health constraints, with an eye on resuming the wider testing level after level 5. It is working in close consultation with the Department on the matter. This includes increasing the number of testing staff to help reduce the backlog over time.
To clarify, the Department has given approval to the Road Safety Authority to retain the 18 driver testers on temporary contracts due to expire in October and November and to rehire the further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. They will be additional. This will help to increase the testing capacity. However, it is important to stress there are many issues impacting on the delivery of the service, which relate to throughput in the centres in light of the restrictions rather than the availability of staff alone. There are a number of health protocols that need to be adhered to with regard to the testing system.
The Road Safety Authority is also looking at a number of other measures, including whether the number of tests a driver tester can perform each day can be increased within the current health constraints. Due to the additional hygiene and sanitation procedures that are now absolutely necessary, each testing slot takes a lot longer to complete. As a result, the number of tests a tester can safely conduct per day was reduced from eight to five when the service reopened. Following its experience of managing the tests under Covid restrictions, this was increased to six in mid-September. At present, the Road Safety Authority is prioritising driver testing for essential workers and has set up a dedicated email which may be of assistance. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and applicants can request to be given priority and supply supporting documentation. These requests are prioritised during the scheduling process, with cancellation slots being offered where possible.