Tuesday, 8 December 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this very important workers' rights issue. The denial of basic shelter and hygiene facilities, and for the avoidance of any doubt that is access to a toilet, for these workers is nothing short of a disgrace. They are left waiting out in the freezing cold and the rain while their students take the test in the instructor's car. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, will not let them use these basic facilities in the course of their work. I will quote what some of the workers are saying in their own words. One worker called Laura, who works on the north side of Dublin, stated:
It is a daily stress and humiliation to have to revolve my work schedule around how often I can travel home to use a toilet - especially at certain times of the month. I find I’m constantly dehydrated too because I’m trying not to consume liquids in case, I can’t find a toilet in an emergency, depending where I am on any given day. As a result of all this, I have had to reduce the number of students I can teach per day, which in turn has had a very negative impact on my finances. It’s not fair to have this added stress in work during a pandemic, especially coming up to Christmas.
Another worker, Dominic, in Dublin, summed it up when he stated:
Why has the department of transport classified driving instructor's as essential workers and then made their profession, health and dignity nonessential. When is the Minister going to take the RSA in hand and insist that they find a solution to this easily fixed problem? Why is the RSA controlled service of NCT'S different to driving test centres? Can the Minister explain how test applicants without private cars should sit their tests, if the Minister insists that instructors are not required at test centres?
I have been writing to the senior Minister for months and every single time they kick it back to the RSA and every single time the RSA does nothing. It is absolutely Baltic outside at the moment but even if it was not, they would still need to use the toilet.
I have raised this issue with the Minister of State on a number of occasions at this stage and I raised it with the chair of the RSA directly at the committee last week. The response to date has been totally inadequate. Driving instructors have been treated with contempt. Simple, low-cost and no-cost solutions are available but they have not been availed of. When I put this matter to the chair of the RSA, Liz O'Donnell, last week, she said that driving instructors were not allowed access to test centres but neither were mammies and daddies. That reflects the type of contempt I am talking about. I pointed out to Ms O'Donnell that driving instructors are not mammies and daddies. It is not once or twice in a lifetime that they need to cross the threshold of a testing centre. It is every day, if they were allowed to do it.
Driving instructors are essential workers who have worked through the pandemic with considerably less social distancing than many other workers are afforded and they deserve dignity and respect. To be locked out of centres where they cannot access toilet or hygiene facilities is unacceptable and a ridiculously strict interpretation of the rules. I do not believe any of us would be happy to have to stand outside the door of Leinster House in the freezing wind and rain between debates here or knock on doors on Merrion Square asking people to let us in to use their toilets because they are banned from using the ones here. No one would put up with that. The Minister of State would not put up with it but she expects driving instructors to put up with it. That is unacceptable. I ask her to outline what has been done on this issue since the last time I raised it.
I thank the Deputies for raising the matter in regard to access to hygiene and health facilities for approved driving instructors at driver test centres.
Both the Department of Transport and the Road Safety Authority are aware that driving instructors disagree with the decision by the RSA to close washing facilities and waiting rooms in driver test centres to ensure compliance with public and occupational health requirements during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
I understand from the Road Safety Authority that prior to the current pandemic, some test centres across the country offered toilet facilities and, in some cases, indoor waiting rooms where instructors could choose to wait while their students were out undergoing their test. To be clear, some test centres around the country do not and have never had large waiting rooms or toilet facilities available for instructors.
As the Deputies are aware, driver testing is continuing under the current level 3 restrictions. The Road Safety Authority has been presented with the challenge of facilitating tests while at the same time safeguarding the safety of its staff and the public, minimising the risk of spreading the virus.
The safety of staff and test candidates is of paramount importance and this is highlighted by the range of steps taken to prevent virus transmission in the driver testing service. Some 60,000 tests have been conducted since tests resumed and no known case of virus transmission has been reported.
I understand that, at present, toilet facilities at test centres are only available to the learner driver who is undertaking his or her driving test. There are no waiting area facilities available in any of the test centres for either the learner or the instructor. The learner is contacted by phone while he or she is outside the centre and is then invited inside by the driver tester where the identity of the learner driver is established and preliminary test questions are concluded. Following this, the practical examination takes place. The test concludes back in the testing centre where the driver tester delivers the results and provides feedback to the candidate.
The case being made by the approved driving instructors is that they should have access to public areas of the test centre. This would have the effect of introducing third parties into the test centre without the robust controls in place for test candidates being undertaken. Twenty of the current 53 driving test centres are in shared premises over which the RSA does not control right of access. There are other instances where the RSA controls access, such as the Finglas test centre. This is one of the largest test centres, and up to 14 driver testers work there daily. There is no service officer on duty to control access to the centre so if access were to be granted to approved driving instructors and accompanying drivers, any member of the public would be able to walk in, thus breaching the public safety measures in place.
In this House on 12 November, I made a commitment that I would contact the RSA on this matter. I can now confirm that I have received a comprehensive reply from the authority, outlining the absolute necessity of retaining these safety measures. The decision to temporarily close public toilet and waiting facilities, where previously available, has been taken by the RSA in the interests of public safety and as part of its overall Covid-19 resumption of service protocols and in line with health and safety risk assessment procedures which had to be adopted as part of the RSA's resumption plans. It took account of guidance issued by the Health and Safety Authority and the return to work safely protocol agreed by the Labour and Employer Economic Forum, LEEF.
I assure the Deputies that this is not a decision that has been taken lightly. I am sure that they will agree that the health and safety of workers, such as those in driving test centres, should be our priority. The RSA is committed to ensuring that once the levels of risk are diminished to the extent that would allow ADIs and others to access test centres, this will be facilitated. The situation is continually monitored by the RSA and reviewed subject to any change to current Government guidance.
The Minister of State says that the health and safety of workers should be our priority and she is dead right, but it is not the case if a person cannot access a toilet in the course of his or her work. I like the bit where the Minister of State describes taking a driving test. I think we all know how that happens. The Minister of State talks about the need to protect the building and the health and safety of the workers. We are not seeking to put anyone's health and safety at risk. We are talking about the health and safety of the men and women who are assisted driving instructors.
If the Minister of State is not prepared to accept the word of the workers so that they can access and egress safely, will she consider the installation of welfare hubs as has been done in Britain to provide these facilities? That would protect the people inside the building and also provide a health and safety and welfare place for these people. If one contemplates what it would be like to have to stand outside in current temperatures for an hour, much less being unable to use the toilet, one would conclude that workers should be entitled to take access to a toilet for granted in the course of their work. It is a little embarrassing for the Minister of State and Government that this is not the only case where Opposition Deputies have had to come in to make a plea on behalf of workers who did not have access to a toilet.
Rita, a driving instructor from Sligo, told us:
I felt really embarrassed to have to ask my student could I use her toilet and wash my hands after dropping her home, we don't have public toilets, the only one was the other side of town at the bus station. I'm always in and around the test centre so I relied on the facilities
Darragh in Dublin stated: "From my experience I don't expect the RSA to care about me as a driving instructor." I echo the comments of my colleague, Deputy O'Reilly. I think the Minister of State has asked the RSA the wrong question. The RSA should have been asked to tell the Minister of State how it will deliver on the basic requirement of providing facilities for drivers, not if it has them within the existing constraints. There should be a mandate from the Government to deliver on those basic requirements, not for the RSA to tell the Government that it does not exist within what it has or to outline and detail the constraints that it has to live with. It should be obliged to provide these facilities. There are ways to deliver it which are low-cost. They are basic conditions. Every building site in Ireland, for example, would deliver the type of welfare facility that Deputy O'Reilly has mentioned. It is a basic facility and should be delivered.
I thank the Deputies and acknowledge that this is a difficult situation. Covid-19 has been disruptive to a number of settings. This is an operational matter for the RSA and driving instructors operate as independent businesses. They are not employed by either the Department of Transport or the Road Safety Authority. Driver testers are direct employees of the Road Safety Authority and, like any employer, the Road Safety Authority has a duty of care to those employees. That is why it has had to develop protocols to allow testers to carry out their job in as safe a manner as possible. The decision to close waiting rooms and restrict access to washing facilities has been taken by the RSA to safeguard staff and public alike in line with these protocols. It follows the approach taken by many organisations where access traditionally granted to members of the public to use staff facilities has been withdrawn for the protection of public health. While the authority recognises that this may be inconvenient for partners, family members and indeed driving instructors who accompany learner drivers to their tests, the fact is that if more people enter a building, there is a greater risk of Covid spreading. The safety of staff and the public in general must remain the Road Safety Authority's number one priority at this time.