Thursday, 19 January 2023
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
National Car Test
1. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the engagement that he has had to date with the operators of the National Car Test Service, NCTS, regarding long wait times for tests and proposed changes to work practices; when backlogs will be addressed; if he has met with trade unions in relation to the concerns of workers in the NCTS; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2408/23]
I want to ask about the delays for NCT tests and about the backlog. How are they being addressed in terms of staffing, recruitment hours, overtime and in the proposed changes to work practices, which have been overwhelmingly opposed by workers? I extend my best wishes to the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, in his new role and I ask him to outline how these backlogs will be addressed.
I appreciate the question. The operation, oversight and delivery of the NCTS is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and it is the RSA which is responsible for the management of the contract for the NCTS with its contractor, Applus Inspection Services Ireland Ltd. As Minister of State at the Department of Transport, I do not have a specific role in operational matters, including the appointment of personnel by the NCTS or the conditions of their employment in that capacity. Accordingly, I have not had any meetings with trade unions on this matter. However, both I and my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, are cognisant of the difficulties motorists are experiencing when trying to secure test appointments and that this is causing immense worry and frustration. My officials are continuing weekly meetings with the RSA to monitor the ongoing work to reduce test delays and ensure all possible actions are being taken to bring the waiting list to an acceptable level in 2023.
My Department has facilitated any appropriate requests made to it as regards improvements. For example, at the RSA’s request, the Department engaged with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to secure approval for the recruitment of inspectors from outside the European Economic Area, EEA. Strong progress is being made in addressing the long-term staffing issues behind this backlog. Over 60 inspectors were recruited locally in 2022 and a further 50 vehicle inspectors started during the last week of 2022, bringing the total number of vehicle inspectors to 595 by the end of 2022. Further recruitment is ongoing in 2023, with seven more inspectors in training and an additional 15 recruits waiting to be trained. A number of other measures to provide additional capacity at test centres are also in place, including increased staff overtime; the temporary transfer of 20 testers from the NCTS contractor’s Spanish operation for a period of three months, eight of whom will continue for a further 12 months; and the forthcoming pilot for additional inspection personnel to assist vehicle inspectors with automated elements of the test.
Testers are being assigned to the test centres with the most significant delays. The RSA and NCTS have set a target to return the average waiting list to 12 days, as per the service level agreement. That has been set out for May of this year. My Department will continue to monitor progress towards that goal in the coming months and I am confident that we will soon see the positive impacts of the recruitment that has been done and the changes that have been made. It is unacceptable when a contract-----
We have those figures of 595 inspectors and seven in training. The backlog is getting longer, as reported. For mid-January it is 26.5 days and for mid-September and October time it was 24.1 days. The backlog is getting longer and I can see that in the next available test in Greenhills being at the end of August. The next available test in Drogheda is on 18 September and in Kells it is 1 August. That is way off into the distance.
I want to ask about the efficient use of the available slots. This priority waiting list is like a black box; it is a great unknown. It strikes me that the NCTS can do more to make efficient use of the available slots and prioritise those who are due their tests in the shortest time.
I accept that point and I have had engagement with officials this week and in recent weeks, since I have entered the role, on making the system more efficient in terms of slots. The message is that anyone who is due a test shortly might see that a test date is set out for a number of months time but they should attempt to go on the priority waiting list. That is there as a means to give people a test much more quickly. A growing number of people are doing that and we need to ensure that those who are due a test shortly do that. I have reflected on this and some of the user interface can be strengthened from a technological perspective. I have seen examples myself where there might be a test in another location not too far from where an applicant wants his or her test that might take a shorter wait time but where the system forwards the test to August, as the Deputy has said. I encourage people who are due a test shortly to go onto the priority waiting list. People on that list are receiving tests much more quickly than those who are looking at the test dates months out.
On existing capacity, there are 595 inspectors and seven in training. Does the Department have a clear workforce plan for recruitment for this year, for example? The Minister of State mentioned overtime but NCT workers are contacting me and saying there is overtime available but that the NCTS is not paying overtime rates. It is not giving time-and-a-half so very few inspectors are taking up the overtime. Is that something the Minister of State is aware of? I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the outcome of the ballot. Is there a risk that we will have an industrial dispute at NCT centres between now and the next couple of months? These delays might get worse rather than better because of the intransigence of the company to take the right measures to address the backlog and instead in looking to cut corners, as it is intending to do.
There are 20 vehicle inspectors from the Spanish operation and 110 vehicle inspectors, including 44 testers, were recruited from the Philippines. There has also been a significant increase in staff overtime, allowing for 12 tests per tester per day. The RSA has agreed to the Applus proposal to recruit additional inspection personnel at Quality and Qualification Ireland, QQI, level 5 to assist vehicle inspectors with the automated machine-led element. This stems from a November 2022 Labour Court recommendation for a 12-month pilot for Dublin test centres, indicating that no more than 10% of the workforce should be made up of inspection support personnel. All vehicle inspectors are qualified mechanics who will retain responsibility for conducting the NCT tests and for signing off on the issuing of the certificate. The Department has received assurances from the RSA that the appointment of inspection support personnel will not result in the loss of any existing jobs and that there will be no reduction in the quality of tests being carried out at NCT centres.
Any new employees will supplement the existing staff to increase testing capacity with the objective to increase the overall number of testing staff to meet the high demand.