Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Road Safety Authority Bill 2004: Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 6, between lines 46 and 47, to insert the following:
"(5) Without prejudice to any other subsection in this section, the Authority shall further have amongst its responsibilities, the following:
(a) the registration of vehicles and retention of data pertaining to the ownership of vehicles;
(b) driver testing;
(c) registration of qualified driving instructors;
(d) maintenance of the national driver file;
(e) education of drivers, and promotion of educational and information campaigns for safe and responsible driving;
(f) maintenance, management and revision, as appropriate, of the Rules of the Road;
(g) maintenance of road signage and markings;
(h) policy advice to the Minister and certain other bodies as prescribed by this Act; and
(i) such other matters as the Minister may prescribe from time to time.".
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, back to the House. We were here for three hours yesterday on Committee Stage of this Bill, and there was a good debate. Many interesting points were raised.
I have submitted this amendment again, and we gave it a good airing yesterday. It would give the road safety authority the power to look after maintenance, road signage, markings and a number of other issues. It would act to pull a number of agencies together with regard to areas of responsibility. These would include, for example, the Garda; the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; the Department of Transport; the Department of the Environment and Local Government; and local government. All these could be pulled together by one agency, the road safety authority. This amendment would ensure this would be done effectively and state the purpose in the legislation.
We have given the amendment a good airing and I hope the Minister of State would have considered the amendment again overnight.
As the Senator has mentioned, we discussed this in detail yesterday. As I indicated yesterday, section 4 already provides for the transfer of functions to the road safety authority. These functions include those relating to the driving test, registration of driving instructors. etc.
With regard to the various subsections, registration of vehicles lies with the Revenue Commissioners and we intend to leave it with them. Driver testing is covered and the registration of qualified driving instructors has also been covered. The national driver file is held by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government but both the Department of Transport and the road safety authority will have full access to it, to ensure its maintenance. If we were to change the situation it would create practical difficulties. It may take some time and would involve software changes. The Department and the road safety authority has adequate responsibility.
We are working on the rules of the road, which will be published very soon and will be available in Irish. Road signage and markings are matters for the National Roads Authority and the local authorities, which, under section 7, will be two of the State agencies with a direct link to the road safety authority. It is important for the authority to consult with them on the matter. Policy advice to the Minister and certain other bodies is also dealt with.
While most of what Senator Paddy Burke proposes is dealt with in the Bill, there are justifiable reasons for what is omitted. There is a lot of goodwill for what Senator Paddy Burke and Senator Brian Hayes propose but the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will have responsibility for the file and the Revenue Commissioners for the registration of vehicles.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 7, between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:
"5.â(1) The Authority shall, in the exercise of its functions as prescribed by section 4(1) of this Act, be responsible for setting training standards and ensuring quality control of driving instructors.
(2) Without prejudice to subsection (3) of this section, the Authority shall assume such functions in respect of driving instructors as are conferred on the Minister by, and in accordance with, the Road Traffic Acts 1961 to 2004.
(3) The Authority shall put in place such structures as it deems necessary to regulate driving instruction and driving schools, and shall maintain a register of those who are qualified to give certifiable driving lessons.
(4) Driving instructors shall be obliged to undergo regular quality control testing and retraining at such intervals as may be prescribed by the Authority.".
This amendment was debated thoroughly on Committee Stage. It proposes the regulation of driving instructors, because there is a lack of regulation at present. Any person can set up as a driving instructor and a person does not even have to own a car. They do not need to have passed any tests. No education is involved and something urgent needs to be done. Ongoing educational facilities need to be put in place.
I second the amendment. What Senator Paddy Burke has said is endorsed by the failure rates. There is a connection between test failure rates and the numbers who provide driving tuition. While people who are accredited and licensed have established themselves as reputable outfits, changes in testing procedures in the past five to ten years have made it an urgent necessity to impose higher standards on those seeking to establish themselves as instructors and collect fees for tuition.
I have no difficulty with the principle of what Senator Paddy Burke proposes. It is only right and proper that the Bill provides for functions relating to the registration of instructors, to be specified in regulations made under the Road Traffic Acts. The new authority will be designated as an approved body and can issue instruction certificates for the purpose of regulating driving instructors but there is no power in the Road Traffic Acts to regulate driving schools. Section 18 of the Road Traffic Act 1968, as amended by section 19 of the Road Traffic Act 2002, is intended to regulate individuals who provide driving instruction.
Driving instructors and driving schools are different entities. The former will require certificates and will have to maintain high standards, to which end they will be check tested at regular intervals. If found not to meet the required standards they will be removed from the register so the tests will be stringent. If we were to introduce the provision overnight, however, there would be a vacuum so there will be a moratorium for a period. It will all dovetail within a reasonable time.
There are no powers under this Bill or the other Road Traffic Acts to regulate driving schools but they are regulated under company law. The relevant section of the Bill will address the issues with which both Senators are concerned.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 17, to delete lines 33 to 42.
These amendments were discussed in detail on Committee Stage. They relate to the Minister's intention to exclude Members of the Oireachtas, MEPs and local authority councillors from membership of the road safety authority. Members were able to understand why MEPs and Members of the Oireachtas should be precluded from the board of the authority but there is no reason why local authority members should. They have vast experience of road safety, realigning roads, speed limits, etc. Members on all sides of the House â the Government, the Fine Gael benches and the Independent Senators â were all of the same opinion.
The Minister of State gave an assurance that he would review the matter overnight and come back with a positive response today. I hope he will accept the amendment because, as Senator O'Toole pointed out yesterday, there have been precedents where similar provisions in Bills put forward by parliamentary draftsmen were removed. There is no reason why this provision cannot be removed as well.
I implore the Minister of State, even at this late stage, to accept the amendments. I have discussed the matter with my colleague in the other House, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, and she will see to it that the Bill is allowed a quick passage through the other House if the Minister of State wants to re-amend it. I believe he is fully committed to this proposal, though there may be obstacles in his way. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Cullen, is not in favour of it. The Minister of State indicated he has no problem with the proposal and on Committee Stage he assured Senators that he hoped to return on Report Stage with a favourable response.
There are more than 1,000 local authority members, both town and county councillors. They have considerable expertise in the area of road safety having collectively acquired thousands of years experience of local government. Surely they would have much to offer the board of the road safety authority. It is an insult to members of local authorities that they should be precluded from membership of the road safety authority on the grounds that they have been elected to represent the public. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the provision and accept my amendment.
I second the amendment. I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to the amendment because I was in the Chair during discussion of a similar Committee Stage amendment, which prevented me from contributing to the debate. The Minister of State will recall that on Second Stage he handed a Senator a list featuring the names of members of the road safety authority. When they were read out Senators paid tribute to the individuals in question and noted their suitability for the positions to which they had been appointed. The chairman, Mr. Gay Byrne, for example, was described as an inspired choice, while the list also featured a rally driver and former county manager.
Having served with councillors such as Peter Feeney, Bridie Willers, Michael Mullins, Tom McHugh and Tiernan Walsh, I oppose the decision to prevent local authority members from contributing as members of the road safety authority which is committed to improving safety on our roads. The proposal appears to follow an agenda set some time ago and which has become apparent in all legislation providing for the making of public appointments. Exceptions should be made to this policy, including with regard to appointments to the road safety authority.
During an earlier debate on school transport many Government Senators identified the quality of roads as a major factor in accidents, including the recent tragedy involving a school bus in County Meath. I mean no disrespect to Members when I state that councillors are in a particularly good position to make a contribution to road safety. Having considered the matter overnight, I ask the Minister of State to accept the amendment.
As I indicated during the Committee Stage debate, I fully support the amendments which, as Senator Paddy Burke noted, secured cross-party support. It would be unfortunate if we were to continue with the recent trend of barring members of local authorities from sitting on particular State boards. It is lunacy to suggest that an individual considered good enough to sit on the board of the road safety authority would be deemed unsuitable for the position if he or she were elected to serve a community on a local authority. This is a ludicrous suggestion, with which I know the Minister of State disagrees.
As a former member of a local authority, the Minister of State will be aware of the work done by county councillors. They have vast experience, with a collective involvement in local government of hundreds of years in each county. They represent people, deal with road safety issues on a daily basis and lobby to secure improvements in their respective localities. Despite this, they are not considered good enough to sit on the board charged with overall responsibility for road safety for no other reason than their membership of a local authority. This proposal must not proceed and Members must take action to stop it.
If the Minister of State cannot see fit to accept the amendments and chooses instead to send out the message to local authority members that they have no role in the road safety authority, I and my colleagues who spoke against the provisions will be forced to vote in favour of the amendments. The Minister of State gave a commitment that he would do all in his power to change the provision and I accept he would have done so if it had been possible. Having known him for many years, he is a man of his word and a friend of local authority members, as he has proved time and again. I implore him to accept the amendments.
I support the comments of the three previous speakers. I am disappointed that a provision to preclude members of local authorities from membership of the road safety authority has come before the House. It shows a lack of consideration and respect for the democratic process as well as those who put themselves forward for election. A similar provision was proposed during the lifetime of the previous Seanad. From speaking to Ministers at that time, I am aware that many Ministers in different Departments were disposed towards removing the provision but had difficulty with their own officials in this regard. Nevertheless, a number of them took the courageous decision to remove similar provisions, which at one point featured in a great deal of new legislation. These provisions have now reappeared and it is incumbent on Senators to cry "Halt".
I also agree with the comments of Senator Wilson and Paddy Burke regarding the Minister of State. Given his experience of councillors and the democratic process, he will be disposed to listen to the arguments Senators make. I hope, therefore, that a way can be found to remove this provision as it is an insult to people across the county who put themselves forward for election and represent the public on State bodies. While I do not advocate appointing councillors to every public body, if a local authority member has the expertise needed to make a positive and constructive contribution to a State body, he or she should not be prevented from being appointed to one.
The changes being made to the Garda SÃochÃ¡na, including the formation of joint policing committees, will give councillors a much greater involvement in all policing activities, for instance, traffic control. Most, if not all, councillors receive regular statistics updates on road accidents and so forth and carry out their own assessments of areas in their locality which present a high risk of road accidents. Once established, the membership of any of these boards is open to a ministerial decision. I cannot understand, however, how legislation can be brought before the House which automatically excludes people simply because they are involved in the democratic process. It is unfair, unjust and probably would not stand up to any sort of scrutiny or assessment by due process.
I join with those who have argued that the subsection should be deleted. I ask the Minister of State not to put us in the embarrassing position whereby we, who feel so strongly about this, would have to go through the division lobby to support something to which we are fundamentally opposed. It is unfair, unjust and should not happen. I appeal to the Minister of State to run with the Opposition amendments which, as has been said, can be dealt with easily in the Lower House. That happens from time to time when Bills which are initiated in this House are amended in the Lower House and dealt with swiftly when they come back here. I urge that that be done in this case.
I support Senators from both sides of the House who have sought the acceptance of this amendment. Last week, on Second Stage we all sang from the same hymn sheet. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, for taking the approach he did last night and reflecting on the matter to see if there was anything he could do about it. I appeal to him now to examine the matter carefully and fairly. As local representatives, councillors know best what is going on in their own areas. They are responsible for roads and road safety but are being left out of this authority because they are public representatives. That is a terrible indictment of us as legislators.
During last week's debate on Second Stage, somebody said that when Bills come before the House to establish public bodies, a list of people are exempt from membership. It seems to be a uniform approach but perhaps now is the time to abandon it and examine each Bill separately. Some public bodies may not be able to accommodate local representatives but this particular one should do so.
On Second Stage, I also spoke of the importance of having a number of youth representatives on the authority. The Minister of State should re-examine that relevant point because many road fatalities involve young people. Middle-aged politicians, Gay Byrne and others who will be members of the authority may not be able to get through to such young people. Their peers might have more influence on them, however. Without labouring the point, I ask the Minister of State to use his influence. I know how persuasive he can be when it comes to something as vital as this. I call on him to use those powers.
Reflecting on the last few remarks of our friend and colleague, Senator Feeney, how could the Minister of State possibly ignore the flattery of such a distinguished Member of the House? She has put forward a passionate argument in favour of the amendment, to which I add my voice. Senator Jim Walsh's comments reminded me that I was present in this House when a previous Government withdrew a similar amendment in the face of similar passionate arguments from all sides. The fact that the then Government was a rainbow Government, and did not have all the numbers in the House, may certainly have focused its mind. Nonetheless, it could have made an issue of it subsequently, as we all know, but graciously accepted there was an overwhelming argument. Like Senator Jim Walsh, I thought this matter had been put to bed.
It reminds me of the computer term "default" with which we are all familiar. It is an automatic entry whenever one presses a particular button. It seems to me that, in the absence of a contrary viewpoint from the Minister of State, this is not a Government policy written in stone. It is a default operated by the parliamentary draftspeople who insert this section automatically in most Bills on the basis of precedent. In other words, we do it because we do it. There is no particular reason it is done but we do it anyway because it has been there from the year dot. In this day and age, however, that argument does not hold up any more.
Without labouring the point, there is an extra dimension to this issue. When one considers the amount of expertise available to a local authority, why will it be denied not just to this authority but to every other authority whose legislative establishment is debated in this House? Like Senators Wilson, Jim Walsh, Feeney and, I presume, Senator Dooley, I will be marching through the lobbies to vote against something with which I fundamentally agree. We do it because, in the main, we are all party politicians who sign up for the good and the bad. If the Minister of State refuses to accept this amendment, it will be a bad day.
In anticipation of what he may or may not say, I understand the Minister of State's position in that he must discharge his own responsibilities in this regard. While none of us would suggest that his heart does not lie where ours do, I hope he will have something positive to say about this matter. If the amendment falls, the plea that has been made on both sides of the House will hopefully ensure this type of section will not appear in future legislation.
In speaking about this issue on Committee Stage yesterday, I said that, whatever about Oireachtas Members and MEPs, the exclusion of local councillors from such bodies is disgraceful. It is an affront to democracy to debar local councillors from this authority and other State boards. Councillors have a vast amount of experience in road safety and other areas. They are responsible for setting speed limits and for roads in their areas. It is disgraceful to decide, with one stroke of the pen, that they are not qualified to serve on bodies such as the road safety authority.
I hope the Minister of State will agree to the amendment, which has been genuinely supported by Members on the Government side of the House. This is a matter of principle that affects each and every one of us. Why are local representatives, who are elected by the people, being debarred from these boards? That is the question that must be asked. If this policy is passed by the House this evening, will it apply in future to every other board? I ask the Minister of State to concede the point, since he said he had been a member of a local authority for many years. If it is decided that members of local authorities are not qualified, it is a poor day for democracy.
I join with colleagues in asking the Minister of State to give serious consideration to this amendment, which is put forward for all the right reasons. The Minister of State might think that, as Senators, we are just protecting our electorate. I have spoken in almost all recent debates on the establishment of authorities. While this issue did not arise in the past, I have always had the view that as a society we are moving too much responsibility into a bureaucratic environment. However, members of the public do not see it like that. They still demand of Government the kind of functions that are often passed to authorities. If there is a problem in an authority, as elected representatives, we get the blame, regardless of the authority's position. I understand why Members of the Houses would not be included as board members on this authority, namely, we have our say in terms of policy and the enactment of the legislation. However, councillors are a totally different category.
Road safety, as the Minister is aware, is one of the topics of great interest at present due to the carnage on our roads. It is widely accepted by those who have a view as to the resolution of this matter that a solution will require the buy-in of the public. To suggest that we can devolve responsibility to some authority or other bureaucracy without retaining a link to the community is a fallacy. Members of a local authority could bring to bear a connection between the functions of the local authority, particularly given the work they do in terms of setting speed limits, maintaining roads, dealing with signage and remaining in contact with the community. It is a concern that the road safety authority has the capacity to become another bureaucracy with some level of remove.
The NRA does not have this kind of bar. I am aware of at least one and possibly two members of local authorities who served with great distinction on the NRA. From talking to NRA members, I know they recognise that the input from a member of a local authority, Ms Connie NÃ FhÃ¡tharta, was of great benefit in terms of the deliberations of that authority. The same kind of sanity and understanding of the nuts and bolts on the ground could be applied in this case.
It can be argued that professionals from different backgrounds should be involved in safety regulations and standards, and so on. However, in practical terms, the councillor is closest to the man on the ground and closest to the knowledge base. I am sure the Minister of State has retained contact with the man on the ground. Even when he served in Europe, he still acted in a clear way to his constituents. The same kind of contact is needed in this regard. We know what happened with An Bord PleanÃ¡la when it was pushed to a remove away from those who had an interest or an involvement in the local community or local authority. It was a retrograde step. It would be sad if it were allowed to happen in this regard.
Apart from road safety, the section to some extent casts a slur on the work of members of local authorities and councillors. I realise this is not the Minister of State's intention. He has worked closely with councillors, with whom he has developed a strong link. However, I am concerned as to why this measure was included. It would be a bad day if it was introduced. I hope the Minister can help us in this regard.
I support my colleagues, none of whom spoke against the amendment, which they all support. Politics is about people and delivering services for people within their communities. The locally elected representative is the first person on whom the public calls to deliver services. Every day, we can see the services that were put in place due to the work of local public representatives. When we look out our windows, we see public lighting, footpaths, roads, signage and so on, which were put in place due to the work of elected public representatives. Over the years they have done a good job, although they often do not get the recognition they deserve.
At various times Ministers address conferences organised by the local authority representative associations such as LAMA, the General Council of County Councils and AMAI. These bodies have all referred to enhancing the role of the locally elected representative. This is a golden opportunity for the Minister to accept an amendment that gives additional powers and responsibilities which local councillors are well able to take on. I ask the Minister to accede to this request because it is important the amendment is accepted.
It is an opportunity for the Minister of State to make his mark. I heard him speak at LAMA conferences throughout the country when I was general secretary of that association. On every occasion, he spoke about what he would do to enhance the role of and give additional responsibilities to locally elected representatives. Local representatives are the voice of democracy at local level and it is important the Minister concedes this point.
I compliment the Fine Gael spokesperson on transport and road safety for proposing the amendment. I hope the Minister will accept it.
I support Senator Paddy Burke's amendment. The Senator has been labouring in the vineyard on this issue for the past 24 hours. The case is straightforward. There is a unanimous view on both sides of the House that we should not preclude councillors from being members of this authority â that is the net point. I suspect the Minister of State, in his deepest thoughts, agrees with us, so let us get on and accept the amendment.
It is often a question of a Minister standing up to the alleged official advice and to those who allegedly know better. One of the problems in this country is that we all stand back and watch the constant dumbing down of politics and politicians. We are the people who do this. We follow maniac advice from people who do not know a thing about politics and politicians. We are all responsible for this.
I have great respect for the Minister of State as a politician who is always close to his community and roots, and close to councillors. He know this business thoroughly, as one who represented the country in the European Parliament and serves as a Minister of State in this Government. I know he does not agree with this measure. I ask him to respond positively to the amendment.
One of the measures taken by the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, which I welcome, was the constitutional recognition of local government for the first time. A situation now arises whereby we will exclude a group of people who have been democratically elected by the people while we recognise their position and the position of local government in our Constitution. If ever a case was to be brought to the Supreme Court as an example of a direct form of discrimination, it is this.
Nobody is suggesting that there would be X number of places on the authority. There is no problem nowadays providing places on authorities for great celebrities. Some of these have done very well out of the State. However, when it comes to those elected by the plain people of Ireland, they are to be excluded.
I recently heard Gay Byrne speak on a television programme. Pat Kenny asked him when he would allow motorcycles to use quality bus corridors. He replied that he was considering the matter, that he hoped to get it done soon and that he would come back to Pat Kenny on it. It is a measure for which politicians have been calling for the past six years by way of Adjournment motions, parliamentary questions and all the rest of it, God help us.
We need to cop ourselves on. The Minister wants to accede to this request and I hope he does so. He should put to one side the great "I am's" of Irish politics, who know everything, and tell them he is not accepting their advice on this and that he will accept the amendment.
In the course of the debate on Committee Stage, I said sincerely that I wanted some time to think about this matter. We drew clear water between the position of members of the European Parliament, the Oireachtas and local authorities. I was a member of a local authority and served my time in what I would describe as the university of politics in the local authority. I was involved in LAMA at the early stage. I have respect for all public representatives, including those at the coalface who take the punches for us, given that we cannot be represented due to the legislation which stipulates that Members of the Oireachtas cannot be members of local authorities.
I want to repeat what I said last evening and I do not want to sound facetious. I fully appreciate the genuine case made by Senators Ulick Burke, Paddy Burke, Wilson, Walsh, Feeney, Mooney, Cummins, Dooley, Bannon and Brian Hayes. Last evening I said there were Senators who were not elected by councillors and they also made the case. Let us put that aside. There is no question of my insinuating in any way that Senators are looking after the interests of their electorates. I believe they are not and are making the case sincerely.
The proposed amendment by Senators Paddy Burke and Hayes has widespread appeal across the political divide in the House. I am sure every Senator holds the same view because those who have spoken are a microcosm of the entire Chamber. The amendments sought to include Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament and members of local authorities on the board. It is not a slur or a question of members not knowing anything about road safety, being unqualified, as was suggested, or not having expertise. I appreciate they all have expertise. Senator Feeney suggested there should be a prescribed body that would include young people. I remind Senator Feeney there are a number of young people on the board with expertise who will reflect the view of rally drivers or the younger generation.
If local authority members were to be included on the board there is no compulsion on this Minister or any Minister in the future to appoint them. However, it is the principle that concerns Senators. I draw Senators' attention to section 7 which provides that when preparing a programme the authority "shall", not "may", consult with each State agency responsible for implementation of measures contained in it. "State agency", which is defined in the Bill, includes the local authority. Section 7(6) reads, "In this section "State agency" means the Garda SÃochÃ¡na, a local authority, the National Roads Authority or such other person as the Minister considers appropriate."
Had it not been defined I would have had to flesh it out today so the Minister would consider it appropriate. The local authority is involved. The road safety authority shall consult with local authorities. That means the authority will have to establish advisory committees. If the authority is to consult with them, that is an opportunity for local authorities. That is a much stronger provision.
The fact is we can do that and not appoint them. It is more important to do it this way and that they can feed directly into the board. Section 7 does not preclude members of local authorities. Therefore, the experience of local authority members gained over many years is not lost. I concur with the contributions of Senators that they can and will make a major contribution. That section includes local authority members.
I am aware from the debate on Committee Stage that this may not necessarily be what Senators require. I genuinely thought about this matter, not just after I left the House, but in the early hours of the morning I was still trying to come to terms with it. From 7 a.m. I had calls from a number of people on this side of the House who are in the difficult position of having to vote for something in which they do not believe. I wish to make it clear to local authority members that they will be included. More members of local authorities can be included on advisory committees than if one were to be appointed to the board of such a committee.
We are living in the days when it is not appropriate to have Oireachtas Members on the board because there is a conflict of interest. We are legislators. Local authorities will also have an input. They are responsible for signage and other factors that could impinge in some way. The local authority will establish advisory committees which will include appropriate representation from local authorities where this is necessary.
While I am not accepting the amendments, there will be stronger local authority representation and a stronger feed into the National Roads Authority on those advisory committees. Senators will be aware that a procedure is in place where councillors from various parts of the country feed into the Health Service Executive. I genuinely regret I cannot accept the amendment. I had much consultation up until the last minute with councillors from both sides of the House. I refer Members to section 7. I do not suggest it is a compromise but that it is even stronger.
I have seen a case in the past where legislation was changed. This may be the thin end of the wedge. We are referring to local authority members elected by the people. Anybody who is elected by the people to serve should not be debarred from membership of a board. That is my personal opinion. When it comes to voting I have to listen to what the Minister of State has said. I had to immediately resign my position as a member of a board of Aer Rianta when I got a nomination to stand for the Seanad, not when I was elected to it. The secretary of the board was legally obliged to check the date I got the nomination to ascertain whether I had participated at any time at any board meeting. At the time I felt that was wrong. I could understand that when elected to the Oireachtas one would have to step down. I see similarities here. There are highly-qualified members of local authorities who should be allowed to serve on a board such as this. There are some other boards on which local authority members serve. The fear of some local authority members who contact us is that in future they will be debarred from serving on a board.