Tuesday, 8 December 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address the issue of delays on driver tests. There are delays in getting the theory test. I logged on this morning to see if I could get a theory test in Gorey before Christmas. It was quite difficult to get anything in the immediate vicinity but a lot of my concern is around the driver test itself. I am aware that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has set a target that if a person applies for a driver test he or she will get that within ten weeks, but at the moment those waiting to have the driver test are waiting for up to 30 weeks. If one logs on at the moment for a driver test, one could be waiting until July. A person would be quicker, and more likely, to get the Covid vaccine than a driver test. This impacts on all age groups but it especially impacts on younger people. The Minister of State will appreciate that it particularly impacts those who live in rural areas or where public transport is not an alternative.
There is a knock-on impact for this problem. Provisional drivers must rely on a parent or guardian to be able to drive with them. I spoke to a mother who lives just outside Gorey who every morning has to drive her daughter 45 minutes to work and then drive her back 45 minutes in the evening, while the mother is also trying to work. There are lots of other examples, as I am sure the Minister of State is aware. While those young and other drivers are on a provisional licence, their insurance premium is a lot higher also.
There is also the difficulty that impacts on younger people where the person gets a job offer, for example, and the job offer depends on having a full driving licence. The person, however, cannot get a full licence because she or he cannot get a test. With the challenge of youth unemployment we must prioritise this issue coming out of this crisis. We have got to ensure that those who require a driving licence can get it.
I am aware that the Government has been talking about this and the RSA has talked about additional staff to be able to meet this demand but we need to know when they are going to be in place. When will the RSA start to employ these staff? When will we get back down to the ten week target set by the RSA?Given this issue's particular impact on a large number of young people I ask the Minister of State to make this a priority.
I thank Senator Byrne for making a very pertinent point about young people. In the previous Commencement debate we discussed energy poverty. The phenomenon of transport poverty has a real impact on young people's ability to access training and the labour market. I absolutely appreciate that. I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who is unavailable as she is launching the 2020 Road Safety Authority Christmas and new year road safety campaign.
The driving test service is a statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Transport has been in constant contact with the RSA regarding all of its services, the impact of Covid-19 thereon and how they can be best maintained under the current circumstances. As the Senator is aware, driving tests were first temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 in March 2020. The service resumed on a gradual basis in mid-July. This was only possible because of detailed work done by the RSA in conjunction with expert medical advice to examine each aspect of the testing process and ensure that resumed tests would be safe for the public. Since resuming operations, there has inevitably been an increased level of demand due to the consequent backlog. Unfortunately service capacity has been considerably reduced due to social distancing and other public health and hygiene requirements. This means that customers experience longer waiting times than was the case before the service was suspended. Around 51% of those awaiting a test have been waiting for less than three months. Waiting times can vary from centre to centre, with others waiting for as long as 30 weeks, as the Senator pointed out.
In addition, level 5 restrictions, which took effect for the six weeks from 22 October to 1 December 2020, meant that driving tests were only available to those involved in essential services, including essential retail work. While the Minister of State regrets any inconvenience caused, public safety must remain paramount. The Road Safety Authority is currently examining ways to increase the number of tests while staying within health constraints, and is working in close consultation with the Department of Transport on this matter. Measures to this end include increasing the number of testing staff to help reduce and eventually eliminate the backlog. The Department of Transport has recently approved the retention by the RSA of 18 temporary driving testers whose contracts were due to expire in October and November. The RSA has also rehired a further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. This will help increase testing capacity.
However, it must be stressed that many of the factors impacting on the delivery of the service stem from the effect of restrictions on the throughput of centres themselves rather than the availability of staff. The RSA is also considering a number of other measures, including examining whether the number of tests a driving tester can perform each day can be increased within the current health constraints. Each testing slot now takes a much longer time to complete due to the additional hygiene and sanitary procedures that are now absolutely necessary. As a result, the number of tests a tester can safely conduct per day was reduced from eight to five when the service reopened. Following experience of managing the tests under Covid-19 restrictions, this number was increased to six in mid-September. It may rise to seven depending on health assurances, but not until January 2021 at the earliest.
The Department of Transport has been in discussions with the RSA on how to return to the normal target of a maximum waiting time of about ten weeks. It is clear that it will not be possible to reach this point quickly because of the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. The RSA has presented a plan to the Department of Transport which would see a return to a ten-week waiting time by early 2022. While this is not as soon as anyone would like, it is important to recognise that there are no quick fixes. The continuing build-up of applications as the pandemic goes on means it will take time to achieve a normal waiting time. It is also important to remember that this target could be impacted if a further lockdown proves to be necessary in the future.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I appreciate the difficulties but I understand that there are now more than 90,000 people on the waiting lists. As the Minister of State noted, this will seriously impact our efforts to get young people back into employment, education and training. The Government's strategy for recovery aims to target high rates of youth unemployment. It will be very difficult for a lot of young people to take up work if they do not have access to their own transport. I appreciate the challenges involved here but if the RSA sets a target of early 2022 this issue will have a knock-on impact throughout 2021.I ask that this aspect be communicated back, because it will impact on the Government's economic recovery strategy as much as anything else. As the Minister of State referred to, this concerns transport poverty especially, particularly in the case of young people.
I will certainly bring back and communicate those points. Senator Byrne can be assured that the Department of Transport is aware of the challenges facing the RSA as it works hard to manage further the backlog in the driver testing service. While the service was limited during level 5 restrictions, the RSA is examining ways of increasing the number of tests, within the health constraints, with the aim of resuming wider testing after level 5. It is working in close consultation with the Department on this matter. This includes increasing the number of testing staff to help to reduce and, over time, eliminate the backlog.
I reiterate that the Department of Transport has already given approval for the RSA to retain 18 driver testers on temporary contracts which were due to expire in October. The RSA has already rehired a further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. This will help to increase testing capacity. The RSA is now prioritising driver testing for essential workers and has set up a dedicated form on its website, . This form will allow customers to assess whether they qualify for an urgent test appointment, and, if so, to submit an application. If an application is accepted, the applicant will be placed on a short notice list.
It has been clear from the start that the priority must be public safety. We want to provide services, and we know people are seeking those services, including the driver test, but only limited possibilities will be available while preserving public health. The priority of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is to see that the RSA is able to deliver its services to the public as much as possible, while doing so safely. We are all in the grip of this pandemic. People are frustrated, but I ask that we try to work our way through this situation. As I said, however, I will take these comments back to the Minister of State.