Tuesday, 26 September 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The Minister of State is more than welcome to the Chamber. I advocate on behalf of nearly 65 students living in my area who feel abandoned by the State regarding school transportation. They come from places such as Riverstick, Belgooly, Minane Bridge, Ballinhassig, Dunderrow, Ardfield, Peddler's Cross, Aghyohil, Castletown Kinneigh and Bandon. They are all at a crossroads waiting to know whether a school bus will turn up, which it will not. They feel very frustrated that they have been in this predicament year on year. Some have qualified for the bus one year but have then been taken off it and vice versa. It has been changed continuously.
We have heard about the 132,000 people who are getting school transportation. When people in my area hear that figure, it drives them daft altogether to think they are being left behind. We have managed to cater for 132,000 but we still have no places for these children. Their parents are hard-working people. They are looking for the opportunity to live their daily lives, educate their children and work to maintain their houses and what they are doing regarding their standard of living. It is deeply frustrating that the majority of these families believe they are entitled to school transport because of the initiative brought forward by the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, in September 2021, when she introduced the temporary alleviation measures. We need clarity on those measures. There are students who qualify under that. They are within the appropriate time and distance, they attend the second nearest school, they pay on time, and they have gone through the process. However, because they are on the temporary alleviation measures list, some will get transport and some will not. In Ballinhassig, nine students got it while the rest did not qualify. Five students in Ardfield qualified, but were told it was not a sufficient number.
I read the criteria inside out and outside in. Nowhere has it come up that a figure for the temporary alleviation measures is required. We have never come up with that figure yet Bus Éireann stated that five students is not good enough. Three students at Laragh National School are in the same situation. There are two students at Peddler's Cross and four at Minane Bridge, who all qualify and are perfect for that measure the Minister announced, but they will not get the bus. I have written to the Minister, the Department and everyone. Nobody will tell me the figure. Nobody will come back and tell me where the figure is in respect of this measure.
We need clarity for these families who feel totally abandoned. A little latitude has to be put in place. A family based in Kinsale, and you could not make this up, are 4.77 km away from the school. They need to be 4.8 km. If the bus parks where the bus park is located at the school they are over 4.8 km, but Bus Éireann will not allow it to park there. You could not make it up. The family has appealed it and will win it on appeal. I looked up the planning permission for the school; buses must park at the bus stop and not outside the entrance, but for some reason Bus Éireann has a different view from Cork County Council regarding the planning of the school. They are another family left by the State.This is a huge issue, and I am not getting political; it really is. Families are trying to live their lives and they cannot because we do not get clarity around issues regarding temporary alleviation measures and how Bus Éireann is conducting its patrols with regard to issues about the length of roads. It is not working at the moment.
I appreciate that the Minister is in Cabinet this morning and I really appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, coming to the House today but this is the biggest issue in my part of the world. Families feel abandoned and we need to get clarity on loads of issues regarding school transportation.
The Minister, Deputy Foley, is not able to attend but I am in the Department with her. I thank Senator Lombard for raising this issue, which I accept is an issue around the country. Before I address the specific issues raised, I wish to provide an outline on the extent of the transport scheme, notwithstanding what the Senator said. The school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. More than 149,000 children, including 18,000 with special needs, were transported on a daily basis last year. More than 5,400 children who arrived from Ukraine to Ireland were provided with services.
The cost of the scheme was €338.9 million last year. The school transport scheme is very important. We acknowledge that. The purpose of the scheme is to have regard to resources to support transport to and from schools for children who reside remote from the nearest school. There has been an increase in both applications and tickets issued this year in comparison to last year. We had a 12% increase on the number of tickets this year over last year. With regard to special education needs transport services, more than 5,000 new applications have been received and 1,400 of these have been received since July alone. This compares to 3,670 new applications this time last year.
As the Senator is aware, a review of the school transport scheme is nearing completion. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme and its broader effectiveness and sustainability and to ensure it services students and their families adequately. The final review will include recommendations. Once approved by the Government, it is planned that the review will be published.
Bus Éireann has confirmed that no services were cancelled this year. However, it has been reported that there are particular issues with the resource availability of drivers and contractors and that a number of contractors continue to hand back contracts or, in some cases, there have been zero bids for contracts. This is against a backdrop of significant shortages of drivers in the labour market overall and competing demands for drivers to deliver additional public transport initiatives such as Connecting Ireland, BusConnects and Local Links. Indeed, in my area we have had some similar issues with school transport and with public transport in terms of the shortage of drivers. Bus Éireann, though, is continuing to prioritise the sourcing of vehicles and drivers. However, it has confirmed that as of 22 September, a number of routes remain without a service, which is about 1.25% of pupils and less than 2% of vehicles - that is too many, but that is the figure - with services being provided for close to 99% of pupils on a daily basis. The number of children with special educational needs affected is estimated at approximately 0.75% of pupils. They are particularly difficult cases, however, because in many cases those children need to travel significant distances. I know that because, again, I have had similar issues in my own area so I can certainly empathise with much of what the Senator is saying.
Some services are expected to resume as soon as an escort has been sourced and we are working with schools to ensure these resources are put in place as a priority. Bus Éireann has apologised for any inconvenience caused by the disruption and is trying to rectify the situation at pace. Bus Éireann continues to engage directly with families affected with regular communications updating them on the position of the transport service. The Department has established an exceptional no-service interim grant to help with the cost of private transport arrangements families may have to put in place. The Department has contacted families directly about this.
I thank Senator Lombard for raising this issue and for the opportunity to update him on the school transport scheme. It is regrettable that a number of contractors have handed back contracts at short notice. Bus Éireann, though, is prioritising the establishment of new services for the families affected. Bus Éireann continues to engage with families directly affected and will and should update them again this week. I mentioned already the exceptional interim grant that is available. I will happily answer other questions.
I will be brief. With regard to the temporary alleviation measures, Bus Éireann is breaking the Department's rules or else the rules have not been made clear. We do not know where that figure is and when concessionary is then tied into it a complete confusion is made of the argument. The temporary alleviation measures granted to some students is not being granted to others because of the capacity issues on buses and Bus Éireann is walking away from the problem, as far as I can see. We need to find out the Minister's view about the measure that she brought forward. Is it one child who qualifies or are there five or are there 55? We do not know. Nine children qualify in Ballinhassig while five do not qualify in west Cork. Why is that? I am not trying to be argumentative but I do not have the answer. What I do know is that families feel they have been abandoned.
Regarding the lack of drivers, we know the issue. People over 70 years of age are banned from driving buses by Bus Éireann. However, in the case of a private operator taking a run from one pitch to another and then to the school, the driver can be 75 years old. That is nuts. Bus Éireann can solve this issue. We need to have a root and branch review of how Bus Éireann is running the service that has been put together by the Minister. I believe her measures are not being enacted. What the Minister proposed was helpful but I do not think it is being brought forward on the ground.
On the issue of the minimum number of pupils required for service, I will get the Department to contact the Senator directly with the exact answer. As I understand it, there was always a minimum number. I think it is seven but that applies to all services, as I understand it. I will get that confirmed in writing. That minimum has always been in place for school bus services. Even without temporary alleviation schemes, if there are only four kids in an area, that is definitely in the rules. Let me get the Department to clarify that in writing because I do not have the information here. I know the Senator is talking about the temporary alleviation measures, not just the general scheme. I will take up the specific issues the Senator has raised with the Minister. I am full of empathy for the families affected. I urge Bus Éireann to keep in touch with families and work at a fast pace to make sure these services are restored because they are essential for families and children around the country.