Tuesday, 28 June 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
It is the third time I have had to raise this issue in this House. I keep getting the same answers. I have also tabled parliamentary questions. The first thing we have to recognise is that transport costs take a disproportionate amount of islanders' incomes. In many cases, they need to keep two cars – one on the island and one on the mainland. Only two islands have roll-on roll-off, ro-ro, ferries. Every time they go to the mainland, they have to take public transport. The rest of us do not, but they do.
It was in recognition of this that back in 1997 I introduced subsidised ferry services over a very short number of years to virtually every island off the coast. Until then, there was a hodgepodge of subsidised services, but none of the non-Irish speaking, or non-Gaeltacht, islands had any subsidised service. The second thing I did later on was to introduce an islander rate. In other words, if the Minister of State or I takes the boat, we pay the ordinary commercial rate. However, on the subsidised services, there is an islander rate that is much lower. It was €8 for an adult but I think it is €10 now. However, it is still much lower than the commercial rate that a tourist or visitor would pay.
The Minister keeps telling me that she cannot do this because there are subsidised and non-subsidised services going to the islands. This is a mantra that is probably in the Minister of State’s script tonight as well. Two things arise from that. The non-subsidised services are not bound by this €10 fare. They do not have to give islanders a reduced rate and they do not. They have never complained that the subsidised services are subsidised to give this rate. The second thing is whether the Minister of State can tell me where all these islands are the Minister keeps telling me about, which I have not heard of, that have subsidised and non-subsidised services running in parallel. I do not want to hear that there is a service from Doolin to the Aran Islands in the summer and that the service from Ros an Mhíl is competing with it. The subsidised islander rate is only available in Ros an Mhíl.
This issue has dragged on. It is amazing that on the mainland you have subsidised and non-subsidised services. As the Minister of State knows, Expressway is not subsidised and is not subject to the reduction in fares and neither are many other private bus operators. This idea that there is some massive difference between the islands and the mainland is wrong. In fact, it is the other way around. The mainland has a mixture of services all over the place - some are subsidised and some are not, and all of them licensed by the National Transport Authority, NTA, as I understand.
In a reply to a parliamentary question last week, the Minister said that at last she had received the Attorney General’s advice that had been sought in March of this year. Remember, this scheme is only going to run from April to December. How this was such a massive legal issue that it took from March to the end of June to get an answer, I will never understand. If the Minister of State can tell me the matter has been considered and the Minister will drop the fare by 20%, we need not go any further and one sentence will do as a reply. We are all here late at night and it is unnecessary. I am told this is being considered by the officials. When will the Minister, not the officials, make a decision on this?
The Deputy outlined the various issues regarding contracts, transport costs, islander rates, the Attorney General giving legal advice and the ferries between Ros an Mhíl and Doolin. The sustainability of the communities on our offshore islands is a core objective of the Government, as the Deputy knows, and is set out in its Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, Our Rural Future. The policy acknowledges the importance for island communities of access to reliable, safe and affordable connectivity services to and from the mainland. I do not have to be telling the Deputy because he is very familiar due to the work he has done over the years.
Contracts for these services are procured by the Department of Rural and Community Development on the open market through the procurement process. This ensures that all potential providers are treated equally and the selection process is fair and transparent for all.
The fare reduction scheme recently introduced by the Department of Transport is managed by the NTA and only targets the PSO bus and train routes under its remit, as the Deputy outlined. The scheme covers public transport services operated by Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Luas, Go-Ahead Ireland and Transport for Ireland, TFI, Local Link. It does not, however, include other subsidised transport services managed by the Department of Transport, such as the PSO air service to Donegal and Kerry, nor does it include private commercially operated services licensed by the NTA. Furthermore, the scheme does not extend to transport services currently managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development.
In terms of supporting the island communities through reduced fares, the Deputy is aware that islanders already benefit from substantially reduced fare on the subsidised ferry and air services, representing a discount of up to 60% compared to the rate charged for visitors, which is where the €8 or €10 is. Many offshore islands have a mix of subsidised and non-subsidised transport services, and introducing a new fare reduction scheme for chosen suppliers could have the potential to undermine those procurement procedures and may also lead to reduced services to the islands, particularly with regard to non-subsidised services and other private operators who may be placed at a disadvantage.
The Department of Rural and Community Development has sought advice from the Attorney General on this matter, as the Deputy said. Officials have been engaging in this since March and I understand a response has been received and is currently being considered by officials in the Department of Rural and Community Development.
Ensuring that the island communities can continue to avail of reliable and affordable transport service remains a core objective for this Government. The Deputy can be assured that the Minister and her officials are aware of the impact that rising fuel costs is having on service operators and are examining ways to address the matter within the provisions of the existing contracts.
The next part of the Minister of State's reply will state that unlike the PSO route managed by the NTA, the Department of Rural and Community development does not subsidise all services on all routes. The NTA does not subsidise all services on all routes. Let us put that one to bed. Expressway and all sorts of private services are not subsidised.
They are not subject to the reduction in fares.
The second issue is that the Minister says many islands have subsidised and non-subsidised services. I would like him to outline the names of the islands that make up this “many”, given there are not that many islands around our coast.
The third issue is that the Minister of State has at last admitted - it is the only change in the reply I am getting ad nauseam- that there is a special islander rate but that it is confined to the subsidised services. That is how they can afford to give that rate. When someone wins the contract, they have advantages. Nobody is asking for the visitor fare to be reduced, just the islander fare, which is already 60% lower.
I will make a final point as I am running out of time. The Minister of State said they are not NTA services and they are not under the Department of Transport. I know that. However, these are Irish citizens who are availing of public transport. People do not take a bus from an island to the mainland and they certainly do not take a train. That part of the argument is totally false and is just throwing dust in the eyes, but not doing it very well. What we are saying to islanders is very simple, and it is that they should not benefit from the reduction in public transport costs that the rest of the people on the mainland are benefiting from. It is as simple as that. If that is the Government's attitude, I have to say I am ashamed to be in a party that is part of that Government.
I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. The Deputy certainly feels very strongly about this. I am aware of the many offshore islands but I do not have a list of what islands are involved, although I am sure the Deputy has a fair idea himself.
I have noted the Deputy’s comments and I will raise those points with the Minister and the Department. Careful consideration is being given to any change that could substantially alter the contracts and put private operators at a disadvantage. However, the Deputy has raised some pertinent points regarding the islands. There is also the fact of the logistical issues for people leaving the islands in that they often need to keep two cars and they also have to take public transport, which is a valid argument. Again, I have noted the Deputy’s comments and I will raise the points with the Minister and her Department.