Seanad debates

Monday, 31 May 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Road Traffic Offences

10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for his initiative in relation to the National Day of Sweden. I know he has been marking these occasions in recent months. It is a nice gesture to recognise significant national days, particular those of other countries in Europe. I think his initiative will go down well with them.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, to the House. In raising this Commencement matter, I am seeking to have tougher penalties introduced for people who park in disabled bays and spaces. The Minister for Transport should consider the introduction of penalty points, rather than additional fines, for this offence.

Yesterday, I took the time to travel to Dublin following an outcry about the state of the city after events of the previous night. I also took the opportunity to look at disabled parking bays. All over Dublin, people illegally park in disabled parking bays and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. It was a Sunday, so maybe people were taking their chances. The fixed charge for misuse of disabled parking bays is currently a €150 fine, to be paid within 28 days. People with disabilities are suffering. It is essential to facilitate people with disabled parking bays because they are bigger and allow accessibility. It is about people having the right to engage in their communities and being able to come into their cities and towns and access schools and places of worship and work. Disabled parking bays are there for a purpose.

There has been a considerable increase in the number of disabled parking bays around the country. However, people are parking in them and preventing disabled people from parking. There are not that many such bays in each street. If the Minister of State looks around her area of Stillorgan and Mount Merrion, she will see that they are spread out. They are not just planted in places for the sake of it. Their locations have been thought through and chosen for a reason.

Are we really committed to supporting people with disabilities, including moderate disabilities? Are we really encouraging them, by putting policies in place that will permit them to come into the villages, towns and shops, to meaningfully engage with their communities? They have the same rights as everybody else. This is also an equality issue. It is about good management of the issues around parking but, more importantly, it is about supporting people with critical disabilities.

From speaking to representatives of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, with which I am involved, and the National Council for the Blind, NCBI, with which Senator Martin Conway has been involved, I know that tactile paving and bigger parking spaces have improved access for people with disabilities.What I am proposing is that the Minister consider introducing penalty points. It is tough and hard. Most people who get two or three penalty points want to get them off their licence so they are conscious of their behaviour.

The Oireachtas issued its standard press release this morning on Commencement matters. I had circulated the standard notice giving my name and the time at which the Commencement matter would be taken and the press office here issued its statement. Within minutes, I had been contacted by members of Galway, Louth, Laois, Kildare and Wicklow county councils expressing an interest in the issue. They told me this was a serious problem in their parts of the country and they had been trying to do something about it but the issue was one of enforcement with limited resources.

It is important that we put in place a mechanism such as this and I am interested in hearing the views of the Department on the matter.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. We can both agree that the abuse of disabled parking spaces by other motorists is selfish, anti-social and, as the Senator mentioned, anti-equality. It can cause grave disruption for those for whom the spaces were installed in the first instance.

As the Senator will be aware, the disabled parking permit is available to people living in Ireland with a permanent condition or disability that severely restricts their ability to walk. The intention of this permit and the disabled parking scheme more generally is to provide access to parking bays of sufficient size in close proximity to important services, such as post offices, banks, pharmacies and shops for people for whom access to such services would be denied if they could not park and disembark either because of the size of a parking bay or because they could not park within a short distance of a service due to their limited mobility.

Disabled parking bays on public roads and in local authority car parks are a limited resource that must be managed in such a way as to ensure they are available for those for whom they are, in the simplest and most practical terms, absolutely essential. A motorist who chooses to park in one of these specially designated spaces without holding a valid permit is, therefore, not only guilty of breaking a parking regulation but is actively choosing to take a space away from someone who genuinely needs it and depriving that person of access to essential services.

This brings us to the question of what might constitute an appropriate penalty for this kind of behaviour. The Senator has proposed that unauthorised parking in a disabled space be made a penalty point offence. While I share the Senator's abhorrence of this infringement, the Department of Transport considers it neither necessary nor appropriate that it be made a penalty point offence. I will outline for the Senator the reasons and the rationale that have been given to me.

It is a general principle that penalty points are applied only for driving offences. Only one parking offence, dangerous parking, is included as a penalty point offence and that is because it directly affects moving traffic. Motorists who park illegally in a designated disabled bay meanwhile currently face a fixed-charge penalty, as the Senator said, of €150 rising to €225 if not paid within 28 days. By way of context, I note that most other parking offences incur a €40 fine. A decision was taken in 2018 by the previous Minister for Transport and former constituency colleague of mine, Mr. Shane Ross, to substantially increase the penalty for parking in a disabled space to reflect the gravity and anti-social nature of the offence. The penalty incurred for this offence is now the highest of all fixed-charge penalties for driving and parking offences.

I welcome Senator Boyhan's contribution and share his determination that disabled parking spaces be safeguarded for those who need them. However, the Department of Transport does not consider it appropriate that this offence, the fixed charge for which is nearly four times that of most other fixed-charge parking offences, be included in the penalty points system.

I have heard the points the Senator made on enforcement, equality and accessibility. He asked whether we are committed to supporting those with disabilities. All Departments must consistently reflect on that question and make sure we improve services for people with disabilities in whatever form that might take.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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While I recognise that the words in the reply are not those of the Minister of State and that she is responding on behalf of the Minister for Transport, the response is very disappointing. The Minister for Transport is telling us that while it is very nice of me to raise this very important matter, he is not prepared to change the status quo. What does his stance say to disabled groups, the 31 disability officers in the 31 local authorities and the people with disabilities who cannot get a parking space on Wicklow Street, for example? Paying fines is a revenue generating exercise. It does not give the person with a disability the option to park somewhere. It does not give a parking space to a person who wants to park outside a GP's surgery and finds all the parking spaces full. That is exceptionally disappointing.

I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Transport to consider Operation Enable, an initiative by Louth County Council involving multiple agencies and An Garda Síochána. I will photograph five disabled bays today and send the images to the Minister for Transport, along with a proposal to either amend current legislation or introduce new legislation. We can no longer speak about disabled access and disability issues in these Houses if we cannot stand in solidarity with disabled people who have told us, through the Irish Wheelchair Association and Disability Federation of Ireland, that they experience difficulty finding parking spaces and participating in their communities.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I will convey the Senator's disappointment and remarks to the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton. The Department of Transport is of the view that the penalty is fair, proportionate and sufficiently high enough to deter drivers from engaging in this kind of behaviour.

Senator Boyhan talked about Operation Enable, which is a multi-agency initiative. I understand there is a significant incidence of permit fraud with counterfeit and stolen permits being used and permits being borrowed or shared among friends and family members. Having consulted An Garda Síochána and other relevant stakeholders, the Department of Transport is now in the process of examining what appropriate legislative tools might be deployed to best tackle permit fraud. It intends to include provisions to this end in the forthcoming road traffic Bill.