Thursday, 15 November 2007
Local Government (Roads Functions) Bill 2007: Second Stage
I am pleased to have the opportunity to open the debate in this House on the Local Government (Roads Functions) Bill 2007 which passed all Stages in the Dáil yesterday. On the formation of the Government in June 2007, the Taoiseach announced that responsibility for non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file, commonly referred to as the NVDF, was to be transferred from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport. This Bill provides for minor legislative changes to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for these functions from my Department to the Department of Transport.
Following the Taoiseach's announcement, my Department engaged with the Department of Transport and the Office of the Attorney General to work out the legal and practical arrangements for the transfer. Normally, transfer of departmental functions can be proceeded with by way of the making of a transfer of functions order under the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1939. The advice received from the Office of the Attorney General was that the transfer of functions relating to non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file required the making of some minor amendments to the primary legislation and the enactment of a transfer of functions order. It is intended that the making of the order, the drafting of which is well advanced, will coincide with the commencement of the Bill.
The provisions of this legislation, which has been introduced to reorganise Government functions, are technical. The Bill provides for the amendment of the Local Government Act 1998 to allow payments from the local government fund to be made to the Minister for Transport in respect of non-national roads and the expenses associated with maintaining NVDF records, administering the motor vehicle tax system and issuing driver licences. Such expenses are being met from the local government fund at present. This legislation provides for the continuation of these arrangements following the transfer of functions. The Bill also provides a statutory basis on which the Minister for Transport can make regulations in respect of the NVDF functions that are being transferred to him. The legislation also provides that future ministerial consents in respect of railway orders are to be vested in the Minister for Transport as the responsible Minister where the works involved are likely to affect public roads.
I would like to explain the need for the Bill to be enacted within a short timescale. The Department of Finance has set out a deadline of mid to late November for the enactment of the Bill so it will have time to make the necessary adjustments to the 2007 and 2008 Votes of the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport prior to budget day. The enactment of this Bill and the making of the transfer of functions order will allow the spending provisions for non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file to be definitively transferred to the Vote of the Department of Transport. Therefore, statutory responsibility for these expenditure provisions will transfer to that Department. I thank Senators for their co-operation in facilitating early consideration of the Bill.
The Government made a number of changes in the structures and functions of Departments after the 2002 general election. As part of that reorganisation, most of the departmental administration and ministerial functions relating to roads, road traffic and road safety were transferred from the then Department of the Environment and Local Government to the then Department of Public Enterprise, which is now the Department of Transport. At that time, it was decided that functions relating to regional and local roads would remain with the then Department of the Environment and Local Government. The primary reason those functions were not transferred at the time was that State grants for non-national roads were mainly financed from the local government fund, which is administered by my Department. The origins of Ireland's extensive road network are clearly linked to the low density and dispersed nature of its population. While we have experienced increased urbanisation and a move from agriculture in recent times, the network of non-national roads is still necessary to provide mobility within and between local economies and to provide links to the strategic national road network and the ports and airports which are our links with the wider European economy.
The impact of the non-national road network on regional development takes on added importance as we make progress with the implementation of the national spatial strategy. The 20-year strategy, which was published in 2002, is designed to promote more balanced regional development and allow all regions of the country to achieve their full economic and social potential. The strategy designates 18 cities and towns as gateways and hubs — regional centres of growth in which development will give a lift to their hinterlands and the regions as a whole. Investment in strategic non-national roads is critical if we are to develop our gateways, hubs and other growth centres. Investment within and between these centres and their hinterlands plays a key role in improving connectivity and circulation and facilitating the development of strategically placed landbanks.
The programme of developing and maintaining the network is not confined to urban centres. It is vital for rural communities that improvements in transport infrastructure continue to be implemented. Regional and local roads are very important in this regard. The overall aim is to make the regions more attractive places in which to live, work and spend time as a visitor. It is intended to raise their level of development, support their economies and contribute to balanced regional development.
Under the current arrangements, overall responsibility for the planning and supervision of works and the construction and maintenance of national roads is vested in the National Roads Authority, which operates under the aegis of the Department of Transport. Responsibility for the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is vested in individual local authorities, with State grants being provided through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Government has decided that overall responsibility for the non-national road investment programme should be vested in the Minister for Transport, as the Department of Transport is responsible for road traffic, road safety and overall transport development and policy. There is no longer any rationale for giving two separate Ministers and Departments responsibility for different aspects of public road network policy.
One of the primary purposes of this Bill is to facilitate the transfer of the non-national roads function to the Minister for Transport. It will also facilitate the payment of associated State grants by that Minister. As a recognition of the importance of the non-national road network, the new national development plan provides that €4.3 billion will be invested by the local government fund and the Exchequer in the network over the period of the plan. The main emphasis of the investment programme will be on improving and maintaining the existing network and investing in strategic roads. While responsibility for non-national roads is transferring to the Department of Transport, the local government fund will continue to provide significant finance for such roads. A sum of €520 million is being provided from the local government fund this year. This will be the benchmark for future non-national road funding from the fund.
The national vehicle driver file, NVDF, is a database of national strategic importance which contains details of all 2.4 million registered vehicles and 2.5 million licensed drivers in the country. The NVDF is the product of a major computerisation project which was completed in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2002. The system allows all vehicle and driving licence transaction processing to be done by motor tax authorities in real time. The NVDF is a critical part of the management of the national motor tax and driving licence services, including the optimisation of the services to the motoring public. NVDF data play a key role in vehicle and driver regulation. They support the critical road safety agenda. In that context, the Government deemed it appropriate that the system and its support staff should transfer from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport.
I would like to outline some aspects of the wider context in which the NVDF now operates. The Garda Síochána receives NVDF data to assist it with road traffic and driver law enforcement as well as crime prevention and detection generally. There is interaction between the NVDF and the Office of the Revenue Commissioners which, in the context of its role as the national vehicle registration authority, provides details of recently registered new and imported used vehicles to the NVDF. Such details provide the basis for the core NVDF vehicle details. NVDF data are available to the Revenue Commissioners to assist them with their tax enforcement initiatives. NVDF data are also made available to national car test service providers to enable them to fulfil their vehicle testing obligations. Motor manufacturer and distributor companies receive NVDF data to help their vehicle recall initiatives if it is found that faults present potential danger to vehicle owners or road users in general. These are some examples of the manner in which vehicle data play a key role in regulatory enforcement and road safety implementation.
The NVDF also plays a critical role in the administration of penalty points. The driver records on the system are updated with penalty point data received from An Post, which act as an agent for the Garda Síochána, and the Courts Service when penalty points are applied upon conviction. Penalty point notices covering the allocation and withdrawal of penalty points, as well as disqualification notices issued when drivers reach the requisite number of points, are generated using the NVDF system. The NVDF also provides the basis for a number of customer-focused services. For example, a process of issuing reminders to drivers whose licences are about to expire has recently commenced as a pilot project and will become fully operational in early 2008.
The on-line motor tax service, which is one of the real success stories of e-Government, has captured the public imagination to the extent that it is now regarded as a flagship example of the provision of efficient and effective services to the public. The competent and efficient operation of the service was acknowledged when it won the "Government to Citizen" category at the 2004 Innovation Through Technology awards.
Regarding the specific provisions in the Bill, the primary purpose of section 1 is to amend the Local Government Act 1998 to allow for the payment of moneys from the local government fund to the Minister for Transport in respect of non-national roads and the Minister's expenses in maintaining NVDF records, administering motor vehicle tax and issuing driver licences. These expenses are being met from the fund and they will continue to be met from the fund following the transfer of functions. Section 1 also ensures moneys received by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Transport in the context of motor tax, driver licences and NVDF functions continue to be paid into the local government fund.
Senators will be aware of the significant role which the local government fund has played in the financing of local government since it was established in 1999. The fund is financed from a combination of an Exchequer contribution and the full proceeds of motor taxation. Total funding for 2007 amounts to some €1.5 billion, which represents approximately 30% of local authority current funding. The fund comprises an Exchequer contribution of €537 million and the proceeds of motor tax, which is projected at €944 million for 2007.
The ability of local government to respond to the ever-increasing demands for improved services made on it in recent years demonstrates the success of the local government fund. These demands have arisen owing to an expanding population, unprecedented economic growth and higher customer expectations. Not only has the fund been successful in delivering resources locally, it has succeeded in limiting the direct financial contribution required of local communities and businesses through rates and charges.
Local authority current expenditure amounted to €1.8 billion in 1997. Ten years on, current expenditure by local government will amount to in excess of €4.7 billion. The general purpose grant allocation from the fund to local authorities for 2007 amounts to €948 million. This represents an increase of 8% over the record amount provided in 2006 and is an increase of 180% over the 1997 allocation.
It is very important for the improvements that have been brought about in the financing of local authorities, both current and capital, to be built upon. In this context it is important that the local government fund, which has been pivotal in this success, is not compromised by the transfer of functions. I assure the House that the integrity of the fund is not compromised in any way by the transfer of functions as motor tax and the Exchequer will continue to provide resources to the fund. In this way, the fund will continue to provide a robust, buoyant and dedicated source of funding to local authorities by way of general purpose grants and grants for non-national roads.
With respect to section 2, amendments are required to the Roads Act 1920 to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for the NVDF function to the Minister for Transport. Under current legislation, the power to make regulations for the control and regulation of the motor tax system, which includes change of vehicle ownership, is vested in the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government under the 1920 Act. Arising from the transfer of functions with respect to non-national roads, I will no longer have any function in respect of public roads.
Section 3 provides for a minor amendment to the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001 to provide that ministerial consent to the granting of a railway order where the works in question would affect a non-national road is to be vested in the Minister for Transport as the responsible Minister.
This Bill is a technical measure to amend the legislative framework to facilitate the transfer of the non-national roads and the NVDF functions to the Minister for Transport. The actual transfer of functions will be effected by a transfer order to be made by the Government to coincide with the commencement of the Bill. While the responsibility for non-national roads and the NVDF is transferring to the Department of Transport, I can assure the House that I will continue to be statutorily responsible for the management of the local government fund.
I thank Senators for their co-operation in facilitating early consideration of the Bill which I commend to the House.
I welcome the Minister to the House. This Bill was debated at length in the other House this week and Senators now have an opportunity to consider it.
The Minister was at one time a member of a local authority and he would have in-depth knowledge of local government, as is the case with many Members of this House. I question whether he has considered all the implications of this legislation. There is a long tradition going back more than 100 years of local authorities working with central government and many informal lines of communication have proved valuable in the interaction between the bodies, county managers and public representatives. The Department of Transport will now be the lead Department.
Fine Gael welcomes any efficiencies which may be introduced into public administration but we are concerned with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government handing over what are considered significant funds to the order of €1.5 billion, to the Department of Transport. This comes at a time when the Minister for Transport has displayed incompetence in the management of his brief, and this is not a personal criticism of the Minister. Deputy Noel Dempsey was Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government at the time of the electronic voting debacle and it is clear he was not on top of his brief when dealing with the Aer Lingus fiasco. I also refer to the recent U-turn on provisional driving licences.
Fine Gael is concerned as to how this fund will be administered by the Department of Transport. Public representatives from all parties will have similar concerns. The Department of Transport does not inspire confidence and the Minister may be making a mistake in handing over such autonomy to another Department.
I note the Exchequer grants for non-national roads have decreased by 39% this year. The amount invested last year was €87.5 million and it is proposed to invest only €54 million this year. This sends out the wrong signal to local authorities that central government is not willing to invest in non-national roads or to keep investment at a high level. Many of these roads are still of a poor standard of surface, alignments, junctions, signage and cat's eyes. Standards will suffer because of the decrease in funding. It would be important for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to remain in charge of this funding because of the long-standing traditional links between local authorities and the Department.
It is important that public representatives have access to the Department of Transport. Public representatives of all parties find it difficult to deal with the National Roads Authority and to be given answers to their inquiries. It seems the authority does not take into account the views of public representatives and local authorities. It dictates the management of national roads in many cases. I would hate to see the day a similar system operated for non-national roads because localised management is important. The Minister has assured the House that will not be affected in any way and that the Bill is only a technicality. However, I hope localised management of our non-national roads will not be detrimentally affected by the legislation.
Public representatives will be concerned about the proposed changes because of their potential impact on access to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and accountability. I hoped a system would be put in place by the Minister on the enactment of the legislation rather than handing over the disbursement of this significant sum to the Department of Transport.
I acknowledge the national vehicle driver file is a good mechanism, which must be welcomed, and I agree with the change in this regard, although a number of anomalies in the penalty points system have resulted. One in four of those who receive penalty points are immune because they hold out-of-state driving licences. A significant minority of drivers cannot be issued with penalty points because they do not have Irish driving licences. How will that fit in with the new system? The Automobile Association made a submission to the Department on the introduction of a parallel system of licensing whereby if penalty points are issued on an out-of-state licence, another licence in the name of the individual should run concurrently in this State, which would be charged with the relevant points. This issue needs to be addressed.
I refer to local government funding in general, an issue we will revisit, as it is on the agenda of every political party. Local authorities are given an unfunded mandate. They have a wide remit but they are not given the necessary resources to properly carry out their obligations and every councillor and city and county manager will attest to that. The issue of funding must be debated properly and a system must be devised under which local authorities are given autonomy to raise funds through their own measures or funds are provided by cental government. While this is a technical Bill, the Minister could have included serious proposals for the reformation of local government funding. It is a little premature to hand over a power the Department has managed well for many decades. Fine Gael has a difficulty with the legislation but we will not divide the House on it.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The main feature of the Bill is to provide for necessary legislative amendments of a technical nature to facilitate the transfer to the Minister for Transport of non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file, NVDF. As the Minister stated, the Bill is required to give effect to the Taoiseach's announcement on the formation of the Government in June 2007 that responsibility for non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file was to be transferred from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport.
The Bill provides for amendment of the Local Government Act 1998 to allow for payments from the local government fund to the Minister for Transport in respect of non-national roads and the Minister's expenses in maintaining NVDF records and in administering motor vehicle tax and issuing driver licences. These expenses are met from the fund and the legislation provides for their administration following the transfer of functions. The legislation also provides a statutory basis for the Minister for Transport to make regulations in respect of the NVDF functions being transferred to him. It also vests in the Minister for Transport all ministerial consent provisions in respect of railway orders where the works involved are likely to affect public roads.
With regard to non-national roads, following the general election in 2002, most of the departmental administration and ministerial functions relating to roads, road traffic and road safety were transferred from the then Department of the Environment and Local Government to the then Department of Public Enterprise. I agree there is no longer a rationale for having two Ministers and Departments dealing with aspects of the public road network. The Government decided that overall responsibility for the non-national road investment programme should be vested in the Minister for Transport and the Department, which currently has responsibility for overall transport development generally. The Government will continue to provide significant finance for non-national roads in addition to the massive investment being made in the development of our national road network. This year alone a record €600 million is provided for non-national roads. I am happy the Minister has assured the House that the funding for the non-national road investment programme will not be affected as a result of the new arrangements.
As the Minister said, the NVDF is a database of national strategic importance, which contains details of all 2.4 million registered vehicles and 2.5 million licensed drivers in the country. The file is the product of a major computerisation project completed in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2002. The system enables all vehicle and driving licence transaction processing to be updated in real time. As such, the NVDF is critical to the management of the national motor tax and driving licence services, including the optimisation of these services to the motoring public. NVDF data play a key role in vehicle and driver regulation and in supporting the critical road safety agenda. In this context, the Government deemed it appropriate that the system and its support staff should transfer from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport. The Bill is necessary to give effect to the transfer of functions relating to non-national roads and the NVDF to the Department of Transport. The Government will make a transfer order to coincide with enactment of this Bill. I support the Bill's passage through the Houses.
Senator Coffey referred to the issue of road signage, which is deplorable in some parts of the country. It is confusing and I do not know how tourists get around. When I canvassed during the Seanad elections, I encountered signage obscured by trees and so on. Approaching Galway city, drivers must negotiate 11 or 12 roundabouts. The signage for one roundabout, in particular, is displayed only a few yards from it and I was informed by a local garda that accidents occur on almost a daily basis because people are confused as they approach the roundabout.
I would like the Minister to note this. An inspection should be carried out to update the signage and to make it more comprehensible for drivers. Significant works are being carried out on the M50 currently and it is a nightmare for drivers who would need a navigator to negotiate it. The signage is confusing and it is displayed only at approaches to roundabouts. Signage is not displayed far enough in advance of the roundabout to warn drivers about the lanes in which they should be. I support the Bill's passage.
Concern was voiced about the legislation in the Lower House yesterday by my party colleagues. Given the two options about who should manage these functions, I would prefer if the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government would do so. He has shown in his short time in Government that he is quite adept at managing issues, for instance, moving the proposed incinerator from his backyard to County Meath and the Minister for Transport.
I cannot say the same about the Minister, Deputy Dempsey. During his tenure as Minister we have seen too many problems. As referred to earlier, we have seen the disaster of the privatisation of Aer Lingus and the impact that has had on the Shannon region. There was the debacle a few weeks ago of the change in licensing regulations affecting those on provisional licences. Now we hear there are doubts whether the projects under Transport 21 will see the light of day on their scheduled completion date. The Minister's reward for his mismanagement in these areas is that he is about to be given even more work, that of responsibility for overseeing our non-national roads and the national vehicle driver file.
Non-national roads carry the majority of traffic and hence the accident rate on those roads is higher than on motorways. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, said in the Dáil that he would like to see a dramatic improvement in accident rates. The problem is that the proposed budget cuts for non-national roads means that for a start he will have to fight to improve road safety with a lower budget. Road surfacing is probably not an issue of concern for the Minister, Deputy Gormley. I am sure the road surfaces and the signage around Irishtown and Sandymount are fine, but if the Minister were to come to County Meath, he would note that the road surfaces around Mornington, with which he is familiar, and elsewhere throughout the county require additional funds to ensure they meet safety standards. However, the money to provide for such works is not available. County councils are not being allocated the necessary funds.
The lack of signage is also a problem at junctions. On approaching a junction a motorist does know whether to turn left or right or continue straight to reach his or her destination, which in some ways is like how the current Minister responsible is acting. It will be problematic for the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, to have to deal with the non-national roads given the budget cutbacks and his aim to try to improve road safety.
I also want to deal with the national vehicle driver file and the points made by some people that currently it is not fit for its purpose. It remains hard to track penalty points. The lifespan of cars on our roads is also an issue. A survey conducted recently by an insurer showed that of the 5,000 cars it has recorded on its books as written off, 1,350 of them do not appear on the national vehicle driver file. These cars could still be on the road. I am concerned whether the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, will have the ability to tackle such issues. We have seen in the past that when it comes to reviewing the way projects work, such as PPARS, his view of the €150 million wasted on that system was that it was just a drop in the ocean, a small amount of cash. I would be concerned about his ability to redesign the national vehicle driver file if that were required.
Switching responsibility for the reform and management of these areas to the Department of Transport may on the face of it be a technical issue designed to solve problems but I would be concerned that this would not be the case. It is important that the management of these two vital areas remain under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and his Department. I am concerned that the transfer of responsibility for them to Minister, Deputy Dempsey, and his Department will put more work on a Department and a Minister that are already stretched to the limit of their abilities.
It is an essential principle of green politics that the Green Party should seek to be in Government in so far as possible to give power away. I am glad that the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has decided to live up to that principle. I did not expect him to do it so soon or to distribute the power in this precise way. The function of the Bill before us is to do precisely that.
There is no doubt the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has many functions that require specific attention. One of those functions until the passage of this Bill has been responsibility for non-national roads. There is a logic that the Department of Transport should be involved in all aspects of transport planning and responsibility for the transport infrastructure. On those grounds, this is a necessary Bill that is technical in nature.
This debate allows us to ask questions about the nature of planning in general, the roles of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Transport. It is unfortunate that some Members have tried to personalise the nature of this Bill because it provides for the transfer of the functions to an office and a Department rather than an individual. This legislation will live beyond the lifespan of this Government and current holders of any offices of Government. On those grounds, Members should be more open to the detail of the Bill.
The technicalities involved are aptly described in the first three sections. Despite the tenor of the previous contributions it seems clear that the House will not divide on the issues involved. Following the transfer of these functions, there is a need to seek the introduction of wider legislation on this area. I will explain some of those areas that could be dealt with under future legislation. In terms of implementing the national spatial strategy and having an integrated approach, we still have separate road, traffic and transport authorities. If we believe in integrated planning, we must ensure authorities are in place that will allow that to happen in a more organised way. The roads authority is either a local council or the National Roads Authority, the traffic authority is the Garda Síochána and the transport authorities, in so far as they exist, are Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann.
The promised forthcoming legislation dealing with the Dublin Transportation Office might present an opportunity to put a new model in place. My party not only wants that legislation to come into being, we want such principles applied to transport planning and planning in general throughout the country. I hope the Minister will use his influence to help shape such promised legislation and to put it on the legislative programme.
Now that functions are being transferred to the Department of Transport under this Bill, another area that needs to be covered is that of local competence and decision-making on issues related to non-national roads. I am mindful of roads in built-up and urban areas. While there has been a diminution in recent years of the need for local authorities to transfer to the Department the decisions to be made, that practice still exists to too large an extent. A more comprehensive Bill would eradicate those anomalies and transfer the necessary powers, regardless of which is the overriding Department, to the local authorities and to the elected members of a local authority. As this is a technical Bill in nature and the changes provided in it must be made as soon as possible, it could not deal with what I propose. However, we need legislation of that type as soon as possible.
I wish to praise the success of thewww.motortax.ie service and the take-up of it. I hope the transfer of functions and powers from one Department to the other under this legislation will happen as smoothly as possible and that no technical problems will result from it. It would be in order for the link to www.motortax.ie to remain on the website of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as well as on the website of the Department of Transport to allow people, regardless of how they access the service if they do not do so directly, to have as many avenues open as possible to pay motor taxation on-line.
Regarding the payment of motor tax and the local government fund, it is especially welcome that the Bill does not transfer responsibility for the collection of motor tax receipts, the placing of those funds in the local government fund and their eventual distribution to local authorities from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government because this is an important function. The Department has shown itself to be very adept at this since 1999. If responsibility for it does not remain where it is, an avenue of funding for local authorities and the services provided by them would be disrupted as a result.
On those grounds, I am glad the House will not divide on this Bill. I welcome the transfer of powers in so far as they go and I look forward to the introduction of legislation that will deal with more detailed areas that need to be examined in terms of the anomalies that still exist which prevent us from having a smooth, integrated and co-ordinated system of planning, including transport planning.
I shall not need the time allocated. While having lunch I noticed the Minister was here, realised I had glanced through the Bill and wanted to make just two or three points. The Minister is aware of some of them.
I welcome the Bill as tidying-up legislation. There seems to be a good deal of that at the moment, a certain amount of revenue gathering and sharing and divvying out, so to speak. A large part of this Bill is a divvying out exercise as well, or part of it. Senator Boyle referred to his anticipation of further legislation giving details in this area. I welcome the fact that overall responsibility for non-national roads is being transferred from one Department to another and tightened.
I understand, however, there is no provision in the Bill for the creation of overall national supervision in terms of factors, for example, such as speed limits. This urgently needs to be addressed. I say it again, knowing it will look somewhat odd on the record of the House, if anyone in future generations bothers to read them. I have said this on a number of occasions before but it is the first time I have had the opportunity to put it to the Minister and the particular group of distinguished civil servants accompanying him.
In terms of road safety, for example, we need to gain the respect of citizens. We will not do that by having a chaotic, unco-ordinated and irrational system. I shall give one example, as I did yesterday in the road safety debate. The road to Tallaght goes past the Square, a three-lane highway with a very fine surface and a 60 km/h speed limit. One moves from that to a winding country road where the limit immediately goes up to 100 km/h. How can we possibly expect the ordinary citizen to respect the road network when we have this type of lunacy? Every time I raise this I am told it is not a function of central authority but is under the control of a large number of different local authorities. This is wrong and that chaos can be addressed legislatively by bringing the whole matter of the setting of speed limits into the national arena. There should be national standards, as well, in terms of road surface treatment. The situation is serious and we have had two major fatal accidents because of inappropriate road surface treatment. In other words, while I approve of the general direction of the legislation, it is not going far enough because significant bits are left out.
Another hobby horse to which I wish to give a brief and life-enhancing gallop this afternoon is the question of motor vehicle taxation. I note that this again is being transferred from one section to another, becoming centralised and all the rest. The Minister is on record in the media as advocating an increase in taxation for larger vehicles. I understand the rationale for that varies, the principal one being that it means more lolly for the Government to waste. I must put my cards on the table, however, and admit there is a personal element to my argument. I cannot afford to drive a Ford or a Volkswagen. I got my Jaguar for €4,000 or €5,000 because it was old and no longer a status symbol. I buy the cast-offs of the rich, as a great many people do, because they can afford big comfortable cars——
Many people buy old cars and then find the tax is very high. I pay about half what I paid for the car in tax and that is daft. To increase it further is not necessarily an environmentally friendly measure because, for example, I do not use the car all that much. I used to cycle to Leinster House until I was knocked off my bicycle in O'Connell Street, which is extremely dangerous, as we know. The improvements to the visual aspects of O'Connell Street have actually made it more dangerous, as witnessed by the bus crash the day before yesterday. Therefore I will not be cycling down O'Connell Street if I can possibly avoid it, especially because the compensation one gets for being knocked off is not all that great. The last time I got less than €1,000, and I am not risking my life for that.
A number of people have these large cars and not because they are antagonistic to green issues. In fact the green issues and the environment would be better served by putting a tax on petrol. The possession of a car of whatever size does not affect the environment. What does are the emissions. I am out of the country for four months of the year. For four months of the year that car is immobile and yet I pay this enormous amount of tax. I happen to love it and believe it will be a classic car if I can afford to keep it. We should look at the question of putting a tax on petrol rather than increasing motor tax on large cars because that is when the polluter pays. If one does a lazy accounting exercise and simply increases the tax on a car just because it is large, regardless of whether it is used, that is inefficient. If the tax is put on petrol every time a car is taken out of the garage, someone pays, but in proportion to the expulsion of fumes from the vehicle.
Indeed, the Minister is. I have learned something today. I thought we had recently introduced speed limits nationally. Part of the reason the madness which Senator Norris just spoke about exists is, I am surprised to learn, that speed limits are still at the discretion of the local authorities, depending on the type of road, be it national or whatever. The points made by Senator Norris were valid because we must have consistency if we are to expect people to comply with speed limits. I say this as someone who has a tendency to go somewhat fast. A particular bugbear I have is the road around Galway city, which is madness. It is a fine big road and one is required to stay at 60 km/h, which is unnecessary. However, those are the rules and that is what we should be doing.
I have little sympathy, however, for Senator Norris and his big Jaguar. It is his choice if he chooses to have an enormous car. One does not need to have a big car if one is buying one for a modest amount. I sympathise with him, however, regarding his proposal on the taxation of petrol. As the Minister is a clear advocate of the polluter pays principle, would he consider introducing taxation in line with fuel emissions? I believe it is something he may have advocated before.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the work he has done in his short term in office. As someone who has spent the past five years trying to get the building standards updated, I unreservedly pay tribute to him for having done that so quickly. This is a progressive gesture which concerns investment in the future. That is why I ask him to consider Senator Norris's proposal. Perhaps there is not enough time before this year's budget.
It would be a wonderful legacy for the Minister if we changed taxation as it relates to cars and emissions. The Minister knows how much transport adds to emissions in this country. It would make us all think. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources attended a debate on climate change in this House last week and as he pointed out, were it not for the weak dollar, we would be looking at prices of between €1.60 to €1.80 per litre at the petrol station.
I am not a great driver of my own car as I use the DART or my bicycle to come in to the city. However, I found myself changing my practices and thinking that if prices were reaching €1.60 for a litre of petrol, I could see myself changing my ways. I wonder how many other people would start thinking about it. I am travelling to Limerick this evening and would rather load up the car than go on my own. One thinks about the journeys one takes as one goes. Putting taxes directly on fuel so that the more one drives, the more one pays would be indicative of the Minister's approach to problem solving. It is also fair and in line with his political philosophy.
Having looked through the Bill, I wondered about the position regarding non-national roads. The Minister might not be that familiar with it because his constituency is in a city council area. Being a member of a county council, the reinstatement of footpaths was a topic that interested me. The reason I raise this issue is because of the removal of responsibility for non-national roads from the Minister's Department. We encountered many problems. Trucks would go up on pavements that were reinstated, which would then get destroyed, and people would trip over.
However, because we were a county council, we were not allowed into the city council's pool. I presume Cork, Limerick and Galway could avail of it. As a county council, we were up against the likes of Leitrim, although it is not a good example because it is a small county. We were up against bigger counties when we tried to get this money to reinstate the pavements. It was very unfair. The Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area has more in common with an urban area than County Monaghan. I would be grateful if the Minister should look at that and see how the outer municipal areas of the city — areas that are not city council areas — would be able to avail of this fund. We had serious trouble with our county manager about it.
In truth, the reinstatement of roads is possibly a local authority issue. On my way home in the evening, I often look at the Merrion Road in the Minister's constituency. This road was repaved recently, certainly within the past 18 months, but is being dug up again. The utilities that need to go in are allowed to do so. However, we accept an appalling standard in respect of the condition of roads they leave behind. More importantly, it is not to the credit of local authorities that they stand over such a standard. The way they are prepared to tar over some area when considerable expense has gone towards enhancing the environment is disgraceful. If one travels through cities in other countries, one sees a much higher standard. We must stop accepting very poor standards on reinstatements. I ask the Minister, in whatever meetings he has with county managers, to ensure this.
I pay tribute to the efficiency of the national vehicle and driver file, which I am sure is enormous. Public bodies are constantly criticised for their inefficiency so it is important to pay tribute to a database and computer-based system which works very efficiently. Now that responsibility is moving to the Department of Transport, it might be able to offer advice to its colleagues in the unit in the Department that is responsible for integrated ticketing. The money spent and the time wasted in this area is a farce when we have not gone any further in terms of integrated ticketing.
We will all start using public transport much more as it gets much better but we must make it easy for people to do so. One of the simplest and best ways of doing this is through integrated ticketing. I hope the officials with responsibility for this area who have devised and operated this database will pass on their expertise to those in the Department of Transport who are responsible for integrated ticketing. I thank the Minister and welcome him to the House.
I also thank the Minister for attending this debate and for having the courtesy to stay throughout it. It would be great if he could respond to some of the important points raised.
Before I comment on this legislation, I will return to comments made by other speakers about taxation options open to the Minister and Government in respect of how we change people's behaviour in respect of the car. I am about to make an obvious point but one which must be made in tandem with any discussion of taxation. We can only make structural changes in our tax system when we make structural changes in terms of the availability of public transport.
I will revisit a point made by Senator O'Malley when she said she had a choice between taking her car or the DART. We will only be fair to people using their cars if we make a large change in the tax system and improve the availability and quality of public transport. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a more inappropriate time to make this comment at a point when 60,000 people who might look to use a bus cannot make that switch due to the current strike.
Nothing could be more important in making that happen than ensuring that all the different projects under Transport 21 happen. Reference was made to handing over responsibility for some of these areas to bodies like the unit in the Department of Transport responsible for integrated ticketing. God help us if we are going to hand over projects currently sitting in the Minister's Department to a Department which has been responsible for introducing integrated ticketing since the early 1990s and which has been the subject of two reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General when we are still no further towards making this happen.
Probably the most pervasive feeling I have had in the six weeks I have been a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas is a sense of the number of people with far more experience than me who have stood up and asked where all the power has gone. They say that they used to be able to talk about health but that it is now the responsibility of the HSE, that they used to be able to talk about roads but that they are now the responsibility of the NRA and that they used to be able to talk about many other policy areas that have now been handed over to a different Department or, more frequently, a statutory organisation with responsibility for the implementation of policy and that it becomes very difficult to get an answer from them on important matters. As we look at issues, and the Minister has spoken about how we engage voters, particularly in local government, it ill behoves us to hand over large swathes of policy or Government revenue without a very clear idea of how we are going to deepen for the voters and citizens the accountability of expenditure and the delivery of policy decisions. As a former member of a local authority I have direct experience of this, as does the Minister. When discussing policy with officials one has more hope of receiving an answer from them if the matter is in the bailiwick of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government than if it is in that of the Department of Transport. There is a direct accountability link, no matter how weak, between local representatives and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and no link of the same strength exists between members of local government or Members of this House and the Department of Transport.
Why are we handing over €1.5 billion from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport when the Minister has stated he is committed to local government reform and deepening links between voters, communities and the Department? We know how these people care about the quality of non-national road infrastructure. Why is this happening now and why is there no serious local government reform to deepen links between the voter and the local road network?
The Minister comes to his job as a person of high integrity and many who were not in the House before admired his conviction. I genuinely wonder if the Minister knows what he is doing. He is giving €1.5 billion, a slush fund to be used in advance of the local elections, to his former political opponents. If that is what the Minister wants to do, God help him. We are not just transferring money but also roads and infrastructure projects from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The last paragraph of the Minister's speech states that he will be "responsible for the management of the local government fund". With one stroke of a pen, he has handed the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, control of the building and maintenance of roads. The Minister knows this will not happen.
Senator Norris referred to revenue sharing and divvying out, so to speak. We must have accountability from the National Roads Authority regarding the provision for non-national roads. Local councillors and local people, to whom Senator O'Malley referred, are deeply unhappy with the condition of and maintenance of non-national roads throughout the country at a time of major Exchequer expenditure. We are giving carte blanche to the NRA, which is unaccountable. This Bill presented an opportunity to reorganise Government functions and reform local government. I understand the bona fides of the Minister and do not blame him on one level because he is a nice guy. He is being caught. What will be the cost of the letterheads, forms, signs, staff training and information technology?
The Minister should not abdicate responsibility for the NRA. It has abdicated responsibility for providing the Sarsfield Road and Bishopstown roundabout flyover in Cork South-Central. There is no answer to it because the NRA says it is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which says it is a matter for the NRA. It is a complete flyover, no pun intended.
The delivery of infrastructure projects is best served by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government because the Minister is the political master of local government. I am disappointed the Bill is being debated and that the powers are being transferred to the Department of Transport.
I thank Senators for their contributions. The Bill is technical in nature, providing the legislative framework to facilitate the transfer of non-national roads and national vehicle driver file functions from my Department to the Department of Transport. I understand Senator Buttimer must leave the Chamber but I will answer his points. The transfer of functions will be effected by a transfer order made by the Government. Drafting of the order is well advanced and it will be made to coincide with the commencement of the Bill.
I assure Deputies that management of the local government fund will be the responsibility of my Department. The full proceeds of motor tax and driver licence fees will continue to be paid into that fund.
Some of the points raised by Senators were not related to the Bill but were interesting points nonetheless. Some of the Senators who raised these points are not in the House but I will address the points. The method by which we raise money is one that I inherited. We raise money for local government through motor taxation. Many reports have been produced on the funding of local government. Reform can only come about if local government financing is also addressed. I have set up a consultative committee that will report to my Department on the Green Paper, which will be published after Christmas.
The point was made that raising motor tax is not an environmental measure. It is a revenue raising issue in the first instance. We must reform vehicle registration tax and this must be based on emissions. I have not spoken publicly on this matter besides speaking to one journalist in Limerick but these matters are not new. The programme for Government states that vehicle registration tax will be aligned to emissions and we seek the same system for motor taxation. I realise it is a crude instrument. As ratings for cars are related to emissions we will have an emissions-based system. Most people realise that this is necessary, particularly when we speak about climate change and the need to reduce CO2 emissions.
Senator Donohoe referred to incentivising different modes of transport. We can only do so when these modes are in situ. His point is valid and we must invest in public transport and better services. We have seen the major success of the DART and the Luas so we know people have an appetite for good quality public transport.
Senator Norris referred to the safety of cyclists. I am well aware of that issue because I cycle to work each morning. I know the dangers involved and I am aware we need a much better cycleway network if we are to encourage more people, especially children, to use their bicycles. Cycling is not attractive to many people, especially those who have not been on a bicycle for some time. People will not take up cycling if they believe it is dangerous. A cycleway network is essential. My aspiration is to put in place a network similar to that which exists in Copenhagen where 33% of people use bikes to travel to and from work. That is the sort of network that is required.
It seems inevitable that the price of petrol will rise. If we had in place the alternatives suggested by Senators then I believe more people would move away from using their cars.
Senator O'Malley referred to the reinstatement of road surfaces. Her point in that regard is valid. There is an absolute lack of co-ordination among utilities. My predecessor had on hand the road openings Bill, which disappeared from the list of promised legislation. I have been searching the files to see if I can discover it because it would make sense to encourage co-ordination among utilities. It certainly makes sense to have in place good quality road surfaces. The latter should be properly reinstated subsequent to any works being carried out.
Senator Buttimer stated what is envisaged in the Bill would act as some sort of slush fund for the Minister for Transport and his Department. Those are not the words I would use. However, it is important that we should have systems in place and that there should be a real delineation among Departments. It makes absolute sense to have transport functions under one Department. Under the Bill we are ensuring that one Minister will have responsibility.
The points made about the National Roads Authority and the number of agencies that are in place are interesting, especially in the context of accountability. We need greater accountability in the Houses. The overall position regarding the role of agencies appears to be undergoing a reassessment. An increasing number of Departments are becoming aware of the position in this regard and it will be interesting to see how matters evolve.
I sincerely thank Senators for their contributions and I again commend the Bill to the House.