Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Adjournment Matters

Driving Licence Issues

4:25 pm

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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Like everybody else, I am keen to ensure that national documents such as driving licences and passports are fraud-proof, and I am aware that Interpol has often discussed this, particularly with regard to passport fraud. The 34 national driver licence services centres have, at least in theory, been put there in order to counter fraud with regard to driving licences. I could not find the figures for fraud relating to driving licences but that does not mean they do not exist. Perhaps the Minister of State could highlight those, as we often use the term in a broad sense but when we try to find specifics, it proves to be a wee bit more difficult.

Despite great effort, including ringing the national driving licence service centres and the Department, I could not find out the cost of this new network of centres. I appreciate that bringing together a network of centres is not an easy task and this was done in order to streamline the issuing of driving licences. In the immediate aftermath of the opening of the centres, there has been an enormous backlog, which was not anybody's intent. I am not here to criticise in that regard and I assume it will be sorted.

There are issues about which to be worried. Why are we bothered to have people have photographs and signatures taken when we still use the post offices to issue passports? Is it the intent of the Government to change the system for passports, given there is much more fraud relating to passports? They are both documents of identity and if there is a new system for one, perhaps there will be a new system for the other. The other matter about which I am concerned relates to the idea that we have a network of post offices across the country. The Minister of State is from a rural constituency so he knows the value of those offices, which is not to be undermined or cheapened in any way, shape or form. They are very useful places to pay for bills and television or dog licences. Various banks use them for banking facilities, and one can get a passport through the post office. I had a very good experience in that regard, taking the hassle away from the Passport Office when it was very busy. I appreciate that it may be possible that post offices put in for the tender but did not get it.

Are we properly proofing those tender applications for the rural communities, which in this case are assured there is only a 50 km drive if people want to get a driving licence? A young person seeking a driving licence may have to ask somebody for a lift, and people are short of money and it is a bit of a schlep to get to various places. There is only one centre where I live in Sligo, and Donegal only has two centres in Letterkenny and Donegal; many areas in the two counties are quite a distance from these centres. There is only one centre in Mayo, along with half a centre in Belturbet. It seems the network is incomplete and I wonder if the Government's intention is to extend it, or perhaps post offices may come to the rescue in this matter, given that they form a network in their own right. They serve a valuable purpose in more ways than we imagine.

Will the Minister of State provide the cost of the centres and the level of fraud that is recorded? Is it the Government's intention to change the system for passports and has the proofing for rural communities been taken into account in this case? If it has not, could that process be incorporated in future? I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of the good work of Irish Rural Link, particularly Mr. Seamus Boland. Those people are always to the fore in asking us to proof issues for the rural community, and I cannot see how that could have been missed in this case.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Susan O'Keeffe for raising this important issue. The new national driver licensing service is a matter of widespread public interest and I am happy to have a chance to discuss it. We should first be clear about the facts of what has changed in the area of driver licensing during the past year. Before January 2013, driver licences were issued by the motor taxation offices of the local authorities. This involved over 30 different motor tax offices, all providing staff and resources to the processing of driver licence applications and the issuing of licences. Effectively, there were over 30 different licensing authorities.

The EU requirement to introduce a plastic card driving licence from January 2013 meant that there would be significant changes in the way licences were produced, and this provided an opportunity to review the entire system for driver licensing. Following from a study which examined the alternative ways driver licensing might be organised, the Government decided in May 2011 to move to a centralised national driver licensing service. At the same time, the Government decided that the Road Safety Authority would be given charge of this service. Centralising the service offers a number of benefits over the old system, and it ensures greater consistency of practice and service across the country and will be more efficient and cost-effective. The creation of a single service also provides for greater security and, under the RSA, offers a one-stop-shop to the public, from theory test to driving test to licence issue.

The new system, designed by the RSA, involves three outsourced elements, overseen by a specialist unit based in the RSA headquarters in Ballina. The three outsourced elements are a card production facility, a front office for engaging with customers and a back office to process applications. Contracts were awarded by the RSA for all three services following competitive procurement processes. The contract process was a matter for the RSA and neither the Minister nor the Department had any role in it. As an open competitive process, any interested party was entitled to submit a tender for consideration.

Last January, the RSA formally became the national driver licensing authority. Between 19 January and 25 October of this year, there was a transitional arrangement under which the local authorities continued to provide customer services relating to driver licences on behalf of the RSA. On 29 October, the RSA assumed full responsibility for the service. Under the front office contract, provided by SGS Ireland Limited, customer services are offered at 34 full-time centres and two part-time centres around the country. They are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. They also remain open through lunchtimes. These opening hours are more flexible than those previously available and will make it easier for customers to visit at a time convenient to them.

Furthermore, people will be able to use any of the offices to apply for a renewal of their licence rather than, as under the previous system, only the centre in their own local authority. The new network provides a service within a 50 km distance of 95% of the population. There were some teething issues with the launch of the new service on Tuesday 29 October, which the RSA has advised me have now been substantially resolved. The main difficulties were delays for customers in some NDLS centres, the customer helpline being out of service for part of the first day, and an IT problem at 12 of the 34 centres on the morning of the first day. These problems were in part caused by a high level of demand. A number of solutions have been put in place by the RSA to address the earlier difficulties experienced. These include the assignment of additional staff, the roll-out of a further information campaign and the deployment of a manual booking system of which applicants can avail. In the course of the past few days, the NDLS has operated a manual booking system to manage queues on the ground and that has helped to reduce queues across the network. Additional staff have been and will continue to be assigned on the ground to ensure that customers do not have unduly long waits.

Furthermore, the RSA has indicated to me that it is working with the front office contractor to develop an online booking system to be deployed within a month. I understand that, in light of the volume of demand at various front office locations, it has been proposed that the booking system will be deployed across all of its offices. I also understand that provision will be made for emergency situations by reserving some capacity for customers who need a licence at short notice.

The reason people are required to attend in person to have their photograph taken is that the new system is designed to be compliant with level 2 of the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE 2, developed by the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Social Protection. SAFE 2 is a protocol for ID verification designed to improve security for ID, and is also used for the Department of Social Protection's public service card. Among other safeguards, it requires people to attend in person so that their image is captured as part of the verification of their identity. That is an important measure to prevent fraud. It is important to also state that the requirement to attend in person occurs only once, when the person receives his or her first credit-card-style driver's licence under the new system. After attending once in person, people can renew their licences through the post and are not required to attend the centres in person again when their licence needs to be renewed or updated.

The move to a centralised driver licensing service is the right one in the long term and will provide a better service to the public as well as greater security and better value for money. While there have been teething troubles with the new system, they are being dealt with quickly and effectively by the RSA.

4:35 pm

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I appreciate some of the clarification provided. Perhaps it was unfair of me to ask about the cost of the service when it was not in the original question. Should I redirect my queries to the RSA? In terms of the fraud concerning driving licences, I imagine that is something on which the Department has figures. I appreciate entirely that the RSA was the contracting authority and therefore set out the tender. The Minister of State should forgive me for not understanding whose role it is. It is not clear whether it is the Department’s role or the role of the RSA to proof such tenders for rural travellers. The Minister of State knows how far it is from Kinlough to Carrick-on-Shannon or even to Sligo. It is quite a distance. If one lives in Glenties in Donegal one would also have to travel quite a distance. Such people are not catered for in the current system. I wonder what we can say to those people.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I again thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Problems have arisen with it and people are concerned. I am aware of the case of a young man aged 17 who had all his documentation, had completed his theory test and was entitled to his licence but was sent home because he did not have proof of address, such as an ESB bill, and neither did he have proof of his PPS number. I was outraged by that but it was in keeping with the rules and regulations.

Senator O'Keeffe inquired about the cost. I will ask the Department to respond to her on the three issues she raised, including, in the next few days, the one relating to the cost. The Senator is correct that fraud was a serious issue. I am unaware of whether the system will be adopted in the Passport Office. We have had serious incidents with passports.

Senator O'Keeffe also asked another important question. I agree with her point about local post offices. An Post made an application but in the case of a tender process neither the Minister nor the Department can have any hand, act or part, and rightly so. Local authorities could have made an application but they did not. It was open to any body to make an application for the service. It is necessary to comply with EU regulations on safety and security. We are aware of social welfare fraud and the savings that have been made due to tackling the issue. I welcome anything that prevents fraud in this country. The benefit is that one photograph will be sufficient for a lifetime. One could ask whether we will all still look the same as we do today in 20 years' time or 30 years' time, but they are the rules and regulations and we must adhere to them. The photograph will be secure and nobody else will be able to use it, which is good. I hope it works. I will ask the Department to answer as many of Senator O'Keeffe's queries as possible.