Tuesday, 18 May 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and thank him for taking this very important debate. It is important to recognise that the last year has been incredibly difficult for many people who have been out of work for the last number of months. I wish everyone who went back to work on Monday well. There have been an awful lot of challenges in so many sectors, from health to employment, and in every facet of society.As we reopen the country, get people back to work and restore some normality to society, we face a number of challenges, one of which relates to driving tests and theory tests. A major backlog has built up through no one's fault and it is important that be stated. It is simply a matter of fact. We are where we are on this, but it needs to be rectified. I know the Minister of State is making a great effort to speed up the clearing of the backlog even with respect to online theory tests. I would be interested to hear his contribution on that.
We are in a difficult position in that many people want to return to work but they do not have the capacity to drive because they have done their driving test or their theory test. With the backlog, the waiting time for a driving test is approximately 25 weeks. I have spoken to several people who have contacted my constituency office who were either offered jobs or are seeking to take up jobs. They are young people, in particular, who are either in college or starting apprenticeships who want to start working but cannot because they do not have a driving test. I spoke to a lady whose son had his first driving lesson last Saturday and will have to wait three weeks for his next lesson due to the demand. He had planned to start a job this summer as an essential worker but will not be able to do so as the lessons are too spaced out and it will be a number of months before he will have completed all 12 lessons. He was also due to sit his test recently but the test centre cancelled it.
Some 38% of people on the waiting lists are aged between 21 and 30, which is further impacting on their employment opportunities. It is particularly impacting in rural areas. I think of my own area especially at this time of the year when agriculture is the beating heart of the economy in rural Tipperary. Many people would be involved in harvesting and driving tractors carrying grain all over the rural countryside, but they cannot do that if they do not have their driving test. When I spoke to the lady I mentioned, it was suggested that an interim measure might be put in place for learner drivers on a provisional licence, perhaps some leeway by the Garda for those who have had their provisional licence for a certain period and have good driving experience. If those people have been offered a job and are trying to work it is not feasible for their parents to transport them to and from work. We need to give some leeway for the next number of months to provide for those people.
The key issue is to attack the backlog as quickly as possible. There are different challenges in different areas but in rural Ireland, and the Minister of State will know this, the majority of people need to drive to get to work. We do not have the flexibility of having a fantastic public transport system. The quicker this can be done, the better. I know the Minister of State is taking the issue very seriously. Addressing it would have a major impact on reopening the country and getting people back to work. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.
I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the backlog of driving tests in Tipperary, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of Sate with responsibility for transport, Deputy Naughton.
Under the Road Safety Act and as provided by the Oireachtas, the driver testing service is an operational matter for the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Specific details about locations and the backlog in Tipperary are matters for the RSA. If the Senator contacts the RSA and has any difficulty he can come back to me and my office will assist him. However, I can tell him that currently in Tipperary across Clonmel, Nenagh, Thurles and Tipperary Town a total of 1,992 people are waiting for an invite for a test. Some 220 people have been scheduled for a test, having booked their test date, and 102 people are in category B - those are applicants who have advised us they are an essential worker and are awaiting an invite for their test. I have more detailed information on that which I can provide to the Deputy afterwards and through my office.
Due to the suspension of driver testing services in the initial pandemic response, along with the health protocols required since the resumption of services, a significant backlog has developed. Driving tests for essential workers continue to be the priority for the driver testing service. However, in line with the gradual reopening of services, driving tests for all those who are eligible to take the test and have been waiting longest will recommence in a limited fashion from late May. The further opening of the driver testing service will be the subject of discussions between Department of Transport officials and the RSA in the coming weeks.
RSA driver testers are undertaking driving tests in extraordinarily difficult conditions, in an enclosed space, where physical distancing is not possible. Testers are also moving between vehicles provided by test candidates, which are not controllable work environments.
The Department of Transport is liaising with the RSA on an ongoing basis on how to meet the growing demand for tests. An additional 40 driver testers have been authorised, along with 36 approved for retention or rehire in 2020. The RSA is making good progress in recruiting these additional testers and they are expected to conduct tests by the end of June 2021. The Department and the RSA will monitor what impact the new testers are having as they come onstream and as the Covid restriction level reduces. Further recruitment, if necessary, is currently being discussed.
The RSA is also looking at a number of other measures, including whether the number of tests a driver tester can perform each day can be increased within current health constraints. Due to the additional hygiene and sanitation procedures that are required, each testing slot now takes a much longer time to complete. 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 restrictions, this was increased to six in mid-September. This may be raised to seven, depending on health assurances, but not until June 2021 at the earliest.
Currently, the RSA, in prioritising driver testing for essential workers, has set up a dedicated webform on its website . This webform allows customers toassess whether they qualify for an urgent test appointment and, if so, to submit an application for a driving test.
The Department is in discussions with the RSA on how to return to the normal target for the maximum waiting time, which is around ten weeks. It is clear it will not be possible to arrive at this quickly, given restraints which must be in place due to the pandemic. The safety of staff and test candidates is of paramount importance.
The Department of Transport notes that the health protocols for the service since resumption in the summer 2020 were developed by the RSA with expert medical advice. Despite the inherent risks in a service which inevitably involves testers and test candidates in close proximity in a confined space, there has been no case of Covid transmission during the driving test.
I acknowledge counties like Tipperary are in a different position from, for example, Dublin both because of the distances that have to be travelled and alternative sustainable means of transport is not always available. Public transport services often do not exist and there are specific requirements for agricultural transport licences to carry out the work of agriculture, which mean it is essential that people can have these tests.
I thank the Minister of State for the detailed response. As he said, counties like Tipperary have different challenges but they are not ones that cannot be overcome. We need a little bit of time to address them but we are in a critical stage now. As the Minister of State said, in agriculture with the cutting of silage and harvesting season coming upon us, it is a critical time. The number he cited of 1,992 people waiting to be called for a test is high. I thank him for providing those detailed numbers. It would be helpful if the Department could provide a county breakdown of the number awaiting tests to provide clarity on the position nationally. Some 102 applicants are classed as essential workers, which seems quite low. Perhaps we should examine who is characterised as being an essential and non-essential worker for the purposes of the driving test. I would think those involved in agriculture, people who have jobs in line or the possibility of taking up a job on foot of having passed a driving test should be classed as essential workers. I receive calls on this issue every day. A father whose daughter had her theory test cancelled contacted me yesterday. She will now not be able to get her test until August, which will be near the end of summer. It is very frustrating for people. It is no one’s fault. I thank the Minister of State for his response.
If the Senator has any specific proposals or recommendations he would like to submit to me I am happy to take them on board. In terms of driver theory testing, at the start of June we are starting a new online driver theory service. It should always have been like that but the need has been underlined by the pandemic. This will mean 3,000 people will be able to do their driver theory test online, which will help us to move forward. We have also had a problem with training and with people getting driving lessons, because one cannot isolate within a vehicle.The RSA is setting up new test centres. Due to the fact that it cannot fit that many testers into the existing centres on foot of the need for social distancing, we need to establish new centres. We have 40 new testers and will hire another 40 once the new test centres are set up, so there is a commitment to not ending up with long waiting lists for driving tests.