Wednesday, 3 November 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him well in his Ministry. I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this important motion. I hope there will be a good debate. Given that one in two cars fails the NCT test, I also hope the Minister of State will accept all or part of the motion. I am disappointed at the Government’s attitude in proposing an amendment because it is an issue which is discussed in every pub and church ground throughout the country.
The motion has at its core a motivation to improve the current national car testing system. The NCT system is a valuable and worthwhile service, which has done much to improve the condition of cars on our roads. From an environmental perspective, it plays a significant role in regulating car emissions and has contributed significantly in helping to reduce the level of toxic emissions. The mere existence of the test has encouraged the motoring industry to strive to manufacture emission-reducing cars.
However, whether one supports or rejects the need for the NCT, its existence is premised on the need to fulfil an EU directive which compels Ireland to have a national car testing system. Fine Gael totally supports the necessity for a car testing service but we are unhappy with the way the service currently operates. In this regard, the decision to table the motion does not come from a party political perspective but is an attempt to articulate the concerns held by the public in connection with the existing car testing system. We are attempting to come up with a worthwhile solution which will alleviate the public’s concerns.
Each week I and my colleagues in Fine Gael receive countless complaints from all corners of Ireland about the existing car testing service. I am sure Fine Gael is not alone in this regard and that Members from all parties, and non-party Members, can testify to being made aware of the significant public dissatisfaction through the numerous representations and correspondence they have received from constituents. The most obvious concern has been the failure rate. The latter appears too high and I make no bones about saying so. One in two cars fails the test. When this service first began in 2000, it was stipulated that pre-1992 cars should be tested. Given their age, when such cars were subject to testing it was likely and credible that the rate of failure would be high. In more recent years cars presenting for testing have been newer and are often only four years old, but instead of the failure rate reducing, the rate has crept higher. This makes no sense.
There is no doubt that the number of older cars on our roads has fallen dramatically. All one needs to do to confirm this is to look around and see that the majority of cars on our roads have a 00 to 04 registration. One reason for this is the growth in prosperity which has allowed people to upgrade their cars or purchase new ones more often. A further reason is the car test and the fear that older cars will fail it, which has made older second-hand cars less attractive to potential buyers. The scrappage package brought in some years ago by former Minister, Deputy Quinn, also assisted in the reduction in the number of older cars.
When all these factors are considered, the failure rate in the car test makes no sense. In 2001, 35% of cars failed the test. Up to 2004, 50% of all cars presented for the test failed. The figures do not add up. I have been told that 90% of cars pass on their second test. However, it is still worrying to know that one in ten of all cars nationally is subjected to third or subsequent tests. The most valid comparison we can make is with our counterparts in Northern Ireland where almost 80% of all cars tested pass first time. I see no reason we cannot achieve similar rates.
Our high failure rate needs to be explained. The big problem is the damage inflicted on public confidence in the system. Public suspicion and anger towards the service have festered. To be fair to the public, it initially embraced the idea of a car testing service in a fair and open-minded way. However, the public mood has waned. Now, most people have tales of dissatisfaction. We have all heard stories about the car that was fully pre-checked but still failed. We have heard about the car that failed in one test lane but passed in another in the same testing centre and the tale of the motorist who did everything bar seeking divine intervention, but still failed. The net effect of the high failure rate has been to cause many people to lose faith in the system while the worst result is the enormous financial burden placed on the motorist, a car test fee of just under €50 and a pre-test fee of €27. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Many people purchase a package from their local garage known as a pre-NCT check. This service can cost approximately €100 and is offered by a number of garages around the country. Mechanics check the same areas tested by the NCT testers to identify problems which could be used by testers to fail the motorist. The service is expensive, but if the garage mechanic spots problems, the motorist may end up paying more to have the faults repaired. Last week my Fine Gael colleague, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, received a complaint from a motorist who paid €100 for a pre-NCT test, €400 to have the problem discovered fixed and then failed the NCT test. The motorist then paid a further €100 to have the problem fixed and took another NCT test and failed again. He is now over €600 out of pocket and no further on.
The Fine Gael motion attempts to find a solution to some of these problems. It identifies and addresses a central difficulty, namely, the uneven distribution of testing centres nationally. This problem concerns the Dublin area in particular and also my area, County Mayo, a vast county where some people must travel 50 or 60 miles to a test centre. Dublin, despite having one third of the number of cars registered in the country, only has three test centres. The problem must be addressed in order to give Dublin residents greater access to and availability of test centres.
This motion proposes a radical change in the current structure of the car testing service. Fine Gael calls for a move away from the current system whereby the contract for the car testing service is awarded to one private operator who centralises the service in a number of privately operated test centres to a system that mirrors the UK model. In the United Kingdom garages receive, following on from a set of terms and conditions, licences to run, operate and provide national car testing services. Opting for this style of car testing would provide motorists with greater choice, flexibility and availability. Although the Department of Transport awards the contract, the current system is, by and large, far removed from the Department as all auditing of the operation and functioning of the contract are carried out externally and removed from the Department and its officials. This is not the route to take. It is time for a change.
In the United Kingdom over 18,000 garages offer the car testing service. They are monitored and instructed by the vehicle inspectorate. Arguably, this might not have been possible in Ireland before now. However, forthcoming legislative changes provide the Government with the ability to take more direct control over the functioning of the car testing service. The Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004, currently on Second Stage in the Dáil, proposes to establish a new agency to regulate the driving test system, driving instructors and vehicle registration. The latter aspect is important as it allows the Department of Transport to reclaim supervision of the car testing service through the new authority. With the new authority supervising the national car testing service, there is no reason we could not make the move to allowing licensed garages to provide such services.
The Department of Transport has promised a mid-term review of the NCT service which will take place in 2005. We welcome that review. The Minister has indicated that this process will include a public consultation phase. I hope this will not just involve an advertisement being placed in local newspapers, but that a proper consultative process will be put in place around the country. Valid reasons for change should be taken on board and current difficulties faced by people should be considered in the process. I welcome the process which is to be in place in January.
I do not have time to outline some issues, but I will use the time I have for summing up later to further the cause of this motion. I hope the Minister takes this motion on board. I see no reason for an amendment to it and hope we can agree on this tonight.
Mr. Finucane: I second the motion. As the Minister is aware, an active lobby has emanated from County Limerick as a result of frustration with regard to this issue. I participated in a parade to the local driving test centre in Abbeyfeale and I understand that several other marches have also taken place and have been successful in highlighting the issue.
The issue was taken up as a result of extreme frustration with regard to the NCT test, in particular the high failure rate. In many cases people were bitter and annoyed because of being failed on basic matters such as number plates. A number plate might be dirty or the name of the county in Irish might not appear on it. The number plate requirements are not NCT regulations. They have been laid down by the Revenue Commissioners. I often wonder if this has been made clear to motorists undergoing the test.
Motorists have been failed on petty issues. Everyone I know who goes for the national car test first takes his or her car for a full comprehensive service, which can cost between €300 and €600, or more if the car needs major repairs. Having expended that amount of money and gone through a preparatory NCT, it is extremely frustrating to be turned down. NCT preparatory work can cost as much as €60 in a garage. We all know motoring is very expensive.
The national car test was introduced in 2000 and the contract was granted for ten years. Many people perceive the NCT as a monopoly. The Minister of State will say there was competition, tenders were evaluated and the contract was granted to a single operator. That operator has had the contract for five years and it is due for review next year. The Minister will then hear various observations and he will discover the extreme frustration of motorists. Many people see the NCT as a money making racket.
Mr. Finucane: In its four years of operation, the NCT failure rate has risen every year. In 2001, 62% of cars passed the test first time. In 2002, 53% of cars passed first time. In 2003, 52% passed first time and in 2004 the figure was51%. As the objective of the NCT is to improve car safety, one would have anticipated a reduction in the failure rate over four years rather than an increase. Earlier tests result sheets contained a column headed “Fail Advisory”. In 2003 the “Fail Advisory” column disappeared and cars either passed or failed on the various aspects of the test. This is why the failure rate has risen.
Has the Minister of State ever heard a coroner state that a road fatality occurred because the Irish language did not appear on a car number plate? It is ridiculous to fail a car on that point. In only 1% of cases can a car accident be attributed to safety factors. We are all in favour of safety elements in cars but in this case pettiness has gone daft.
When the Minister reviews the NCT next year he should contrast our system with that in the United Kingdom. In Great Britain and Northern Ireland, designated garages are licensed to administer the equivalent test. Their success rate is higher than ours. In Northern Ireland, 78% of cars pass first time round and only 22% require a retest. In Ireland, in 2004, 49% of cars required a retest. In many cases in Northern Ireland and Great Britain a tester will give a motorist a chance to do a retest without an extra charge if it is done in a short period of time. Many such free retests involve aspects of the test which used be covered by the fail advisory which is now not available. In Northern Ireland there are approximately 30 aspects of the test where a car can pass even though minor adjustments are required.
Last June’s European and local elections showed that the electorate is fed up with the layers of petty regulations. They are told they must not do this, that or the other. Their cars must pass minor tests. The windscreen washer must be full of water and working correctly and there must be no deviation in the foot pedals. People are sick and tired of this.
Mr. Finucane: Motorists have the added burden of motoring costs. According to Automobile Association figures, it now costs €10,383 to run a small family car for a year. Road tax for a 1.8 litre car is just under €500. The same Revenue Commission which dictates that number plates must include Irish charges €500 in tax. Insurance for a 30 year old male driver is approximately €1,000 while in Britain the equivalent figure is approximately €650. When one considers these burdens and motoring charges, one can appreciate the level of frustration felt by motorists.
The Minister has a chance to look at this problem objectively when he reviews the contract next year. He must be fair to the motorist. He should analyse the British system. If the system is working in Northern Ireland and has a better success rate we should pick from their ideas and modify them in order to be fairer to the motorists who are doing the test.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to the House. This is his first visit to the House in his new role of Minister of State at the Department of Transport. If he brings the same level of enthusiasm and vigour to this job as to his previous Ministry we will expect great things of him.
It is important to reflect on some of the points raised by Opposition Members. The national car test was introduced in order to implement the requirements of an EU directive. That is why the NCT system was put in place. National Car Testing Service Limited was awarded a contract to test cars on behalf of the State for a period of ten years from January 2000.
The Private Members’ motion makes reference to the widespread public concern relating to the national car testing system. While issues have been raised with regard to the system, I am concerned that charges might be made against the company because I believe it is doing its job as set out in the contract agreed with the Government. I am surprised by some of the comments made by Members and by the text of the motion.
As Senator Finucane has said, there is concern regarding the move from fail advisory to fail. Much of this concern results from the way the system was established from the beginning. A series of issues surrounding the feasibility of car testing was identified and those which were critical were introduced immediately. A change in driving culture was encouraged and the need to assist people in accepting the move to the new testing procedure was recognised at the outset. It was decided that certain elements would be phased in over two or three years. People are aware of that and its success has been borne out in many cases.
Senator Finucane referred to the 50% failure rate. I know of many people who no longer take their cars for the pre-test. They are more likely to take the NCT and to let the NCT people identify the problems which need resolution. They find this a cheaper method of identifying their cars’ problems and they can then go to a garage and have the work completed in line with the findings of the NCT service.
It is clear that may be one of the reasons for the higher failure rate. I would raise question marks about the lack of consistency in some of the pre-NCT tests that are being undertaken by garages. It raises more questions about the garage that carries out the pre-NCT test than it does about the people operating the NCT centres.
The motion refers to allowing a series of garages to provide the NCT test. Given the concern about the lack of consistency, there is potential for a uniform approach to the test. Without such uniformity, the system will collapse. We have regularly debated the lack of consistency in the planning process because planners are allowed to make individual decisions. If we moved away from the current model and delegated responsibility to local garages in order to make it easier for people to do the NCT test, I would be concerned about a loss of consistency. There would be no benchmark against which to operate.
Road safety was a critical part of the NCT’s introduction. It was the primary driver behind the EU directive which set the car testing process in train. Many of us are regularly on our feet in the House talking about a weekend of carnage on the roads. We must concentrate on identifying better testing methods in garages which must have the necessary technology to ensure they are properly qualified to operate pre-NCT tests. We must focus our attention on the garages’ capabilities in this regard. During the week I had to deal with two car headlights which had blown. I called into a well recognised garage to get the bulbs replaced but the service was appalling.
Mr. Dooley: There is a difficulty with competition in terms of the benchmarking of a service. It took a young fellow about three quarters of an hour to change two bulbs. My concern is that garages are offering a service described as a pre-NCT that will solve all problems. A driver may pay a fixed fee of €100, €150 or €200 for an overall inspection and if there is anything seriously wrong he or she must pay extra. That is what is infuriating so many motorists who pay a garage but then fail the NCT test. It is a reflection on garages who are not offering a genuine service to customers. It is natural for drivers to become infuriated if they are going to and from a garage after failing the NCT. I am concerned about those who are supposed to be resolving the issues but are not doing so. Let us not shoot the messenger. As far as I am concerned, the messengers are those who are carrying out the NCT. The idea of competition in this regard is completely harebrained. If two people are to compete as a regulatory authority, will we establish competition in the Food Safety Authority? Will we set up different branches or competitive environments within the regulatory sector? That would be outrageous.
Mr. Dooley: Yes, command and control. Customer service and customer satisfaction are essential to the NCT service and that is required by the contract. The NCT has a customer service charter and operates an appeals procedure for dealing with customer complaints.
Mr. Dooley: The level of complaints is small relative to the volume of cars tested. Like other Senators, constituents have regularly brought complaints to my office or have contacted me by telephone. However, when one teases out the problem, they are not complaining about the service delivered by the NCT but about the fact that their cars failed when they thought everything was in order. That is a reflection on the person who told them everything was in order.
Senator Finucane raised some issues that were dealt with by the Minister in the past. One case concerned whether the colour of a bulb was orange or red. We need to examine such cases. I look forward to the Minister’s review which will tighten up such procedures. The Minister has indicated clearly that there will be public consultation on this matter. It would be useful for the Joint Committee on Transport, of which the Leas-Chathaoirleach and I are members, to carry out some hearings on the NCT system. We could invite people with specific ideas to appear before the committee, thus ensuring a proper debate on the matter.
Mr. Norris: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the introduction of the national car test system which is very important I can see its merits increasingly as I have another little house in Cyprus, which has just joined the European Union. The condition of vehicles there is appalling. They never seem to service them because black diesel smoke pours out, even from fairly modern vehicles. One would need a gas mask to survive some of the older vehicles, particularly those used during the wine harvest. One can see the effect of widespread pollution on the island. It is more or less the way we were 15 or 20 years ago. I used to see the same old battered vehicles belching out smoke. It is financially painful to deal with this matter because people must ensure their vehicles are up to scratch but it is a good thing.
I take it there is no parallel to the national car test for commercial vehicles, specifically buses. I would be interested to know if there is because, if so, I do not know how any bus manages to pass it. It is about time such a test was introduced. Bus Éireann’s vehicles are bad enough but the hackney buses that go around with tourists aboard, including tour buses and ghost bus, are old, cranked out CIE jobs that have been off-loaded by Dublin Bus. Many of them cause serious pollution. If we are serious about the impact of vehicles on the environment those buses should be taken in for testing, as should other commercial vehicles. Many commercial vehicles produce a great deal of dangerous and unpleasant emissions. I am not sure to what extent they are tested. If they are being tested, the system is most certainly not working. Any observant person going around the city of Dublin could testify to that fact.
Senator Dooley made a good, constructive speech but there was one point with which I did not agree. That was the idea that if people ask a garage to check their car before the NCT, it is a reflection on the garage if the car fails. That is not always the case, however. I have a very good fellow who looks after my car.
Mr. Norris: I can put the Senator in touch with him, however. He will sell the Senator a car first and will then service it for him. The last time I went for the NCT my car was not a total failure but it did not pass first time. The reason was there was a small rubber nipple less than a quarter of an inch in diameter missing from underneath the back seat of the car.
Mr. Norris: I do not believe I could blame my serviceman for not finding that problem. While it seemed niggling, perhaps NCTS was right. I have found the staff at the car test centres to be very courteous and helpful. I spoke to the tester and suggested it seemed to be pretty pettifogging. He told me that theoretically exhaust fumes could come into the car and gas me, which seems pretty unrealistic. I am merely making the point that it is not always the garage’s fault. Some of the criteria used are very petty.
Mr. Norris: On Joe Duffy’s radio programme I heard about somebody whose car had failed the test because the “L” learner’s notice on the back window was deemed to have been made of the wrong material — the driver had made it himself. I do not believe that is a threat to anybody’s safety. The test should be focused on issues of safety.
I put my cards on the table and I make no apologies in saying I have a vested interest in this matter as it happened to me. When I bought my lovely old Jaguar motorcar for €500, I discovered the previous owner had neglected to have it tested. When I had it tested it was passed as being mechanically competent for two years but I only got a certificate for six months, which punished me. This is not fair and bears no relationship to the safety issue or the responsibility of the owner of the car. As all owners are now registered, if the authorities want to go after anybody they should go after the previous owner of the car. It is not my fault that the fellow did not have it tested. Perhaps I should have checked; I do not know. However, this is not just and is stupid. It is a waste of everybody’s time to retest the car after six months when NCTS knows perfectly well that it is safe for two years.
Mr. Norris: My cynical friends on the same side of the House are making rubbing gestures with forefinger and thumb suggesting it is about money. I would hate to think that was the case. Some of the reasons for failure are just niggling and sometimes do not reflect the safety issue and the welfare of people on the road. If a car is tested and found to be roadworthy it should be deemed to be roadworthy for the two years. There is no point in punishing the person who buys a second-hand car; it is simply not fair or just. I have also made the point about buses and lorries. Car testing is a very welcome development. I notice that 51% of cars passed up to September. While this is not a very impressive figure, when they were retested 90% of them passed, which is good and shows the system is working.
Mr. Wilson: I welcome the new Minister of State at the Department of Transport to the House. As Senator Dooley said earlier, if he is half as good in this Department as he was in his previous role we are in for a treat. I take the opportunity to congratulate the two Senators opposite me, Senator Paddy Burke and Senator Finucane, on their promotion to being spokesmen on transport.
Mr. Wilson: It is because it is such an important area that Senator Dooley and I are spokespersons for our party. The national car test was introduced on 4 January 2000. Ireland was one of the last countries to comply with the EU directive, which made car testing compulsory in EU member states. The NCT is aimed primarily at improving road safety and enhancing environmental protection. National Car Testing Service is operating this service on behalf of the Government and is committed to providing the highest standards of customer service. The national car test is conducted at 43 purpose-built NCT centres nationwide. These are now open seven days a week in most areas.
Car testing was introduced in Ireland to improve road safety and environmental protection. Some people have asked why NCTS was selected as the company for the job. Like all State contracts a competitive tender process was undertaken by the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government and the contract for the development and operation of the new car testing service in Ireland was awarded to the NCTS, which submitted the lowest and best tender. Part of the contract between the Government and the company was for it to design and construct a fully integrated network of dedicated, purpose-built national car test centres around the country, which all have the same appearance regardless of location.
The testing system is computer-controlled and highly automated and provides maximum test security and accuracy. National car testing makes sense and despite what people say about it, it is working and is of benefit to the whole country. Road safety improves as it tests the roadworthiness of motor vehicles and identifies any defects, such as faulty brakes, unbalanced wheels, worn tyres, faulty lights etc. These defects must be repaired and the car must pass a retest before the car owner will be issued with an NCT certificate. Some people have experienced considerable delays in getting a retest. This issue needs to be addressed and I ask the Minister of State to investigate the matter.
All of us who use the roads on a daily basis are reassured to know that the cars, which share the road with us, are safe and not a danger to ourselves or fellow drivers. The NCT is good for the environment. We all know that properly run and reliable cars have lower emissions and use less diesel or petrol, which are a source of air pollution producing a negative effect on the environment and public health.
Over the past year or so I am thankful we have seen a significant reduction in the cost of car insurance and the NCT has played its part in this. The NCT is also playing an important role in improving safety on our roads and I hope this will continue. Better-run cars will reduce breakdowns and other problems.
Specifically on the amendment tabled by the Leader, I believe the contract signed between the Minister and National Car Testing Service is a solid one. Specific safeguards have been put in place so that the company meets the standards the Government wants. These safeguards range from the quality of premises right through to the quality of customer service and staff. It is worth noting that if these standards are not met to the satisfaction of the Government, then the company will find itself liable for financial penalties. Since the commencement of the service in January 2000 the company has not been fined. I am happy in the knowledge that if the company is not doing its job it will be sanctioned. In January a mid-term review of the NCT service will commence with a public consultation process in which we the users of the NCT service will be able to outline our concerns on all aspects of the service.
Mr. Wilson: Fine Gael’s call for competition in the car testing process is a bit like saying that we need competition in the area of speed cameras. It just does not make sense. The national car test is a vital part of the overall strategy to reduce accidents on our roads. Safer cars mean safer roads. We cannot have a variety of safety standards or it will descend into a farce. It is interesting to note that Fine Gael has done a spectacular U-turn on this subject. In 1996 the rainbow coalition decided that there should only be one contractor for the NCT.
The delay in re-testing is unacceptable and must be addressed. I was also surprised to learn that someone without an NCT certificate can tax his car. If a person without a certificate cannot tax his car, it will make it more obvious to the authorities that he has not passed the NCT. Gardaí at checkpoints check the tax disc but they should also check the NCT certificate.
Recently I was told of a case where a taxi driver took his car through the NCT test for public service vehicles. Three months later he changed his mind about working in the taxi service and wanted to change the car back to a private vehicle. To my astonishment, that person had to undergo another NCT test to change from a public service vehicle to a private vehicle.
The core of the issue is identified in the Government amendment to the motion that mentions the centres in Dublin. It takes some nerve to say that people in Dublin have, “ready access via a modern road network to high volume purpose-built facilities.” It takes neck to pretend that it is easy to get from anywhere to anywhere in Dublin in its present, permanent traffic jam. I sometimes leave Cork at 6 a.m. to drive here and I have a pleasant journey until near Dublin. This modern car network conveying the citizens of Dublin effortlessly to the three NCT test centres is a figment of the Fianna Fáil Government imagination and bears no relationship to reality. The Dublin road network is an incoherent mess and will remain so for at least another ten years. It is not normally part of my brief to act as an advocate for Dublin. Senator Brian Hayes is more than capable of doing that and he would be upset if I stole a headline about it.
Mr. Ryan: NCT testing is like speed cameras and clamping for parking offences — they are all good ideas to which no one could sensibly take exception. The truth is, however, that in each case there has been an accumulation of anecdotal evidence of individuals in NCT services or clamping acting in a manner calculated to provoke outrage among the public.
I am at a loss to understand why a brand new car, public service vehicle or not, should need an NCT test before it can be used. Apart from the ludicrous situation mentioned by Senator Wilson, there is an entitlement to presume that a new car is safe. I was told by a taxi driver that a brand new Mercedes failed the emissions test at an NCT centre, and, when it was investigated, it was discovered the analytical equipment had not been cleaned for three months and the car passed once it had been cleaned. Small garage owners tell me they use the same analytical equipment as the NCT centres to test the emissions from customers’ cars, which then go to those centres and fail the emissions test.
That leads me to believe that something is wrong, that the test centres need to generate volume and turnover to keep the revenue stream flowing. The NCT was introduced in the early days of the economic boom and there was an assumption about the future of car ownership that included provision for a larger proportion of older cars. The country then went on an orgy of car buying between 1997 and 2000, when huge numbers of cars were purchased. Was it then the case that the NCT was not getting enough business and had to introduce tighter standards? Minor precautionary issues suddenly became reasons for failure — a bulb that was unaligned would lead to another €30 charge to have someone check it had been adjusted.
When I have had cars tested, the quality of customer service in NCT centres is very good. They are well run, clean and hospitable places. They contrast with my recent experience in a driving test centre where the largest sign displayed stated that there were no public toilets. The greatest irony about these driving test centres is that whoever accompanies the person being tested cannot wait for him or her in the centre. Provisional licence holders who are legally obliged not to drive on their own are tested in a centre where the person who is supposed to be with them cannot wait. The person cannot get into the car with the tester either so he or she is supposed to go for a walk or not come at all. The contrast between customer service in NCT centres and in a driving test centre is painful. Someone lost the plot and forgot customers are at the receiving end of this service.
The NCT service is looking for reasons to justify itself but I am unconvinced that many accidents have occurred because three year old cars were unsafe. I unequivocally accept that until the NCT was introduced, this State was awash with cars that should not have been allowed to drive in a field not to mention a main road but we have totally changed the stock and quality of cars on the roads. We must ensure the NCT is not simply ratcheting up standards to keep the revenue stream flowing and is doing what it is supposed to — making sure cars are safe and environmentally clean. If they are insisting on standards in excess of that, they are not doing what they are supposed to do. Without too much enthusiasm, because the NCT centres do a reasonable job, I will support the motion.
Mr. B. Hayes: I am glad to speak on this motion and I welcome the Minister of State. I refer to the amendment to the motion, a Dead Sea scroll-type amendment, which came from the Department. The amendment notes, “that the contract between the Minister and the National Car Testing Service requires NCTS to meet specified performance standards.” It goes on to refer to a number of items. Who determines them? The Minister of State knows the last PricewaterhouseCoopers’ annual report published was for 2001. His Department has not published the 2002 and 2003 reports of independent auditors on the testing regime. Will the Minister of State give a commitment to publish them? What is the Department hiding? Why are these annual reports not in the public domain to allow him to make these fantastic assessments that the NCT’s performance is fascinating and customers are delighted with the service? Why has the Department not published the reports? The Minister of State should justify the nonsensical claims in the amendment by publishing the reports. He should give that commitment to the House as it would serve some useful purpose. The Minister of State’s predecessor published it in 2001 but it has not been published since. That is why the public is asking questions of us and of Members opposite concerning the operation of this licence.
Although he is not right about many things in life, Senator Wilson is right that we have changed our position on this issue. The rainbow Government took the wrong decision in respect of granting this licence to one operator. We made a mistake and if those on the other side of the House admitted mistakes on a continuous basis, politics would be in a much better state. I listened to Fianna Fáil’s Soviet-style spokesperson, Senator Dooley, who seems to think it is impossible to have competition in this area and to have other operators. The United Kingdom has had competition for years. Is anyone suggesting it is some type of basket case in terms of the cars that are on the road there, including Northern Ireland?
There is competition in many other types of public utilities. I think Senator O’Toole made that point on the Order of Business. We have given a licence to a public monopoly. That is bad public policy. We would not do it in other areas; we would not allow one operator to operate a service. Why is it the case in the performance of this important function, of which I am in favour? We need to revisit this issue and to adopt the type of approach in place in the United Kingdom. It leads one to the conclusion that we need to reform this area, and I hope our motion will achieve that aim.
The test criteria should be adopted purely on safety considerations. When the initial test was put in place, if one failed in one area, one was told one did not have to resubmit one’s car but that it would have to be resolved by the time the next national car test was done two years later. Cars involved in accidents are not three or four year old cars; they are super-duper, high-speed cars which can reach 120 mph because of the nonsensical drivers behind the wheel. By and large, it is not older cars that are involved in accidents. I have seen no evidence to date to point me in that direction.
I refer to the fail advisory system. That is a Government decision and has nothing to with the franchisee in fairness to it. The Government continues to put more pressure on the consumer by ensuring new categories of items on which one’s car can be failed. That is the Government’s fault and we must respond to the concerns of people.
Will the Minister of State, who is a new one in the Department, consider abolishing the charge for a second or subsequent test? If one gets one’s car serviced and fails on a particular aspect, there should be no charge to come back two weeks or ten days later to have that aspect assessed again. A further charge is unfair and creates the impression that it is a financial racket. By and large, those with older cars are not wealthy people.
I should have declared a vested interest at the start of my contribution. My car, which has a 1998 registration, failed three months ago. The reason it failed was that there was a slight problem with the way one of the back wheels was put on. I appealed the decision to the company and said it was most unfair that I had to bring the car back one week later to show the wheel had been put on correctly. In the letter sent to me, my name was in different type to the body of the letter which lead me to the conclusion that the company gets loads of these letters of complaint and that it simply inserts the name of the person on the letter and sends out a standardised reply. The reply I got did not deal with the complaint I made. One does not appeal to an independent third party but to the company — the only company, the Soviet-style monopoly Senator Dooley recommended to the House. We need to introduce some reform in this regard.
Mr. B. Hayes: There is a way forward. If there was some competition in the area, it would help greatly. We also need some transparency in the way this system works. There is little public confidence in it. I ask the Minister of State to give an assurance to publish the 2002 and 2003 reports rather than keeping them in the Department under lock and key.
Mr. O’Toole: I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well with his new responsibilities. He was quick off the mark in writing to all of us to outline his responsibilities and how he might help us.
Speaking very disinterestedly from a party political point of view, I think it was outrageous to amend the motion. I know Senator Dooley has a job to do and he does it very well but this is a most non-threatening motion. If there had not been an amendment to it, I would have said Fine Gael had gone soft in terms of the motion it tabled.
Mr. O’Toole: Anecdotally, everybody could bear witness to the points Senator Brian Hayes made. There is not one of us who has not received a formal complaint from a driver or who has not met or does not know somebody who has been through the system.
Everything about the car testing arrangement is quantifiable, measurable and recordable. Every day people get houses, boats and aeroplanes surveyed. People survey them and do an audit of the defects, the things that need correction or of the difficulties. They sign their name at the bottom of the audit and, like an auditor writing off on company accounts, their reputation is based on those facts and they are subject to checks themselves. There is no reason the car testing system should be organised in a monolithic way, as at present. There is nothing particularly wrong with it but there is no reason for it.
I pass the car testing area off the Ballymun exit most mornings. The amendment to the motion states that car owners have ready access via a modern road network. That is cynical. I am going to cut it out as it is the best quote I have seen in an amendment for a long time. Whoever wrote it must have been having a joke and said he or she would drop the Minister in it. It is like a piece of script from “Scrap Saturday”, that is, the modern road network which can take us up the M50 whistling away.
People who are properly qualified should be able to do these tests. I can go into hospital and undergo a CAT scan or get a stress test, which is ten times more complex than a car test, and get a complete read-out on everything that is being done. There is no reason motorists should have a choice of only three places in Dublin. They should be able to use their local garage.
It is not just a case of the local garage per se. It must involve somebody, such as a consulting engineer, who is qualified and is recognised as being able to survey a car and reach a conclusion. If a situation is reached, as in the case outlined by Senator Brian Hayes, where the tester says he or she cannot sign the test certificate because a wheel may be incorrectly sitting in its hub, the motorist may be asked to come back the next day with the mended part when the vehicle will then be approved. There is nothing wrong with that. It is as it should be.
Our objective as parliamentarians — I include the Minister of State in this — is to ensure that cars are safe on the road. I see no reason that this has to be done on any basis other than the House being assured that whoever signs off on a car is trustworthy, dependable and qualified. It is being said, in effect, that a garage is not going to sign off on its best customer. However, the test must be backed up with a paper printout of everything that is done. Every part of the process is recordable, such as emissions, where the lights are hitting off the wall and difficulties with tyres, for example, depth of thread. All this data is available and may be printed. It should be a requirement that the printout must accompany the certificate. There is no reason this could not be done. It would not have the effect or impact of people signing off incorrectly. Faulty items would have to be corrected before they were signed off, and this must be done, regardless of the relationship a customer might have with the garage.
The current situation may continue, but I do not see why it should be restricted to that. Take boats and aeroplanes as an example. Insurance companies will insist that there is a detailed surveyor’s report accompanying a boat or plane when it is being insured. This report must cover particular parts, as required. It is the same as undergoing a stress test, CAT scan or various examinations that have to do with parts of the body. All the findings are available, whether they are right or wrong and a printout is made available.
The car test is not a judgment call, it is a measure. It is not, for example, somebody expressing an opinion on whether a wall will last 30 years as there is a problem with the way the binding was done at the top. In this situation everything is measurable and therefore recordable. If it is recordable it cannot be falsified. That is the reality and it is what we should be looking at. We should seek to simplify, not eliminate. There are easier ways to do this so that people would not have to travel over half the county or city or down the M50 through that fantastic network of roads. I ask the Minister of State to consider that.
I want to place on the record one more time what I believe to be the funniest line we have heard here since the start of the new session a few weeks ago. I would like every driver in Dublin to listen to it. Somebody is having a go at the Minister of State and he should put the boot in when he returns to his office. According to the Government we are supposed to acknowledge, and I quote: “that Dublin test centres are strategically located so that car owners have ready access via a modern road network to high volume purpose-built facilities...”. That is great. I thank the Minister of State.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport (Mr. Callely): I thank the Members who have so far contributed to the debate and assure Members on both sides that I have heard what has been said. I will take the issues that have been raised on board and will now try to respond quickly to some of them.
Mr. Callely: I would like to respond to Senator O’Toole’s comments. If we are to look at what we are doing in the city of Dublin as regards the road network, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the work that has commenced over the last five years is amazing.
Mr. Callely: Those involved in the process are genuinely trying to resolve some of the difficult issues presented by a capital city, enjoying such an economic boom as has Dublin for a number of years, and accounting for people with disposable incomes who have second and third cars at a time when the infrastructure between the canals has not changed. This has given rise to a problem. While it should be acknowledged that roads can be built out of the city, we should not complicate the congestion problems by utilising the good road structures that are being put in place to deal with some of the other issues. Sometimes the issue of traffic congestion within an existing infrastructure gets complicated by some of the good work being done. I am pleased that Senator O’Toole is acknowledging what I am saying.
I should be interested to know the type of debate we would be having if we adopted self-regulation correction stations, that is, where one’s vehicle is corrected in the same station and one comes out with a certificate. None of us has a crystal ball, but there were good reasons for having independent NCT test centres that would not identify and repair the problem, take the money from the customer and issue the certificate. I see Senator O’Toole is acknowledging what I am saying.
On the question of the integrity of the garages, while there are people who would put their hands up, there are garages, such as SIMI members, which comply with standards. I have been in one recently and I have seen ordinary garages with the requisite testing equipment. Nevertheless, I understand that not everything appears on the printout and I do not believe——
Mr. Callely: Senator Brian Hayes raised a large number of issues associated with the NCT. He said the accident record — I would like him to let me have the statistics — bore no relationship to the age of the vehicle.
Mr. Callely: I apologise. I thought his point was that the accident record bore no relationship to the age of vehicles. That is not the information I have available. As regards the question of service and fail and the fact that the recheck should be free, I understand that less than 50% of all retests are charged. That means over 50% are free.
Mr. Callely: I am not going to respond to every individual point made, so I ask Senators to be mature and responsible about this debate and not cherrypick. People may decide to continue to return to a test centre to discover every problem their cars have, but there is a system in place. If no work involved, it is free and if there is work involved, a charge applies. The last report was published in 2001 but I have been in the Department for only three weeks. I understand reports were also published in 2002 and 2003 and I commit to the House that they will be published by the end of this month. If they can be published more quickly, they will.
Senator Ryan raised many issues and made particular reference to the age of vehicles. He queried whether three year old cars were unsafe. To my surprise, cars which are less than one year old may require remedial action. Cars with high mileage may require tyres, for example. I am not sure what Senator Ryan meant by his reference to three year old cars.
I thank Senator Wilson for his kind comments and constructive contribution. The car tax requirement initially in place was dropped due to the backlog which arose from an industrial action. We can apply restoration if desired. The level of tax compliance is approximately 94%, which is quite high, and we are not sure it is necessary to reintroduce the requirement. Should it prove necessary to do so, I will certainly take on board Senator Wilson’s point.
Senators Norris and Ryan mentioned public service and commercial vehicle testing for which criteria exist. I am not sure that if we were to embark on a discussion of six month certification and the purchase of a second-hand vehicle, we would wish to excuse a person who bought an old car and failed to ascertain whether it had an NCT certificate. It is unlikely we would decide that someone else should be responsible for the neglect of the purchaser. Is it not part of the NCT process to ensure that one is satisfied the vehicle one buys meets with safety requirements? If I bought a car, I would like to know it had an NCT certificate. If a car should have acquired an NCT certificate 18 months previously, is it reasonable that the person who presents it at a centre should receive a test for a full two years? Should we not put structures in place to which everyone should adhere? If asked, the House would concur with this suggestion. There is a structure in place.
While compulsory roadworthiness tests exist for commercial vehicles, like Senator Norris I have noticed black diesel smoke coming from some. Now that I am in this Department, it is an issue I might be able to follow up on.
I thank Senator Dooley for his kind comments on my commitment and his constructive input. Senator Finucane raised the issue of number plates which deserves mention. The Senator referred to a money making racket, a phrase which can be used about anything. It is not a fair reflection of the reality. If there were a number of serious accidents where cameras had failed to capture a registration plate and the excuse given was that certain criteria had not been met, there would be a different debate in the House. A demand would be made as to why a requirement was not included in the national car test or stipulations made by the Garda. The Revenue Commissioners and the Garda are anxious to ensure that the criteria which apply in the national car test are in place. The requirement is in place to meet the standards set by both organisations.
Senator Paddy Burke referred to the failure rate. Senator O’Toole expressed disappointment with the Government amendment and said one out of every two cars fails the national car test, which is a very high rate. While the failure rate has settled at approximately 50%, one must consider those whose cars do not pass the test. Not everyone gets his or her car serviced before taking it to a test centre. Some people openly admit that they take cars to test centres to find out what is required for them to pass the test at which point the car is taken to be repaired before being retested. If one puts matters in perspective, it is fair to comment that car owners use the national car test as a diagnostic mechanism to the same extent as they use it to acquire a certificate.
People call for more test centres and greater competition and cite the example of the United Kingdom. According to figures which have been brought to my attention, while the test costs €48 in Ireland, it costs €62 in Britain, which has been the subject of approving comment. Some people cherrypick and call for the British system at the Irish price. Comparisons are available. In Germany the test costs €90, in Holland €100, in the Czech Republic €63 and in Spain it is €60.
The national car test is the result of an EU directive which provides for mandatory testing. The scope of the test and the items to be examined are set out in EU law. Ireland was one of the last member states to introduce compulsory car testing. In 1996, a range of options for the introduction of car testing was considered by the rainbow coalition Government including the direct provision of the service by the State and the introduction of a test similar to that in place for commercial vehicles which is carried out at a number of approved garages. The introduction of the latter system would have required the appointment by local authorities of private garages to carry out testing. The rainbow Government decided the test should be carried out by a single contractor operating as a dedicated car testing organisation. Public private partnership involving a single organisation was considered to offer the most efficient and cost-effective way to provide motorists with a car testing centre of the highest quality. That is a fair assessment in hindsight. The party sponsoring tonight’s motion was in Government when the decision was made.
Following an internationally advertised public tender competition run in accordance with EU procurement procedures, National Car Testing Service Limited was awarded the contract to test cars on behalf of the State for a period of ten years from January 2000. Under the terms of the contract, the company is required to meet a range of specific performance standards in the areas of customer service, premises, test equipment, staff, test arrangements, facilities management, information technology and public information. These standards are designed to ensure test integrity and a high level of customer service. Senator Ryan commented kindly on customer service provision. The contract provides for the imposition of financial penalties on the company for failure to meet the specific performance standards and for the termination of the contract where the degree of non-performance is very serious. The question of penalties has not arisen to date as the performance of the company has been up to standard since testing commenced in January 2000. I am at a loss to understand the claim in the motion that there has been widespread concern about the car testing scheme since it was introduced. This is not so and flies in the face of the facts. The reality is that any of the independent surveys undertaken to assess customer satisfaction with the service show the ratings have been positive. They have consistently recorded results that have exceeded the performance levels required under the contract. From listening to radio chat shows and idle talk, whether at the street corner or in the pub, and I am aware of the comments made in the House, they all focus on individual incidents and-or issues.
The most recent NCT survey results show a customer satisfaction rating of 85%. I will publish those figures and place them in the Oireachtas Library as soon as possible. The idea that the number of test centres for a city or county should be such as to reflect the proportional strength of car ownership for that city or county does not stand up to scrutiny. I would be delighted to hear the debate should we have only one test centre in County Cork or wherever as people would complain they had to travel miles to a test centre.
We should look at the success of the 43 test centres, unless the mover of the motion wants to identify test centres in his constituency or in other regions he may wish to close, and deal with the scenario that would develop. From the point of view of convenience for the public and the commercial viability of the scheme what we have in place is adequate but it should be monitored and kept under review.
The one certainty from linking the number of test centres to the county spread of car ownership would be an increased cost base with test fees having to rise substantially to meet higher overheads required to run and manage the extended test centre network. It is clear the proposers of the motion, with their simplistic approach to the location of test centres, have little understanding of the car testing service from either the customer service, operation or commercial perspective as the statistics and the facts are clear.
Under the contract the NCTS is required to provide a network of test centres nationally, with each test centre being located within 30 miles of 90% of the car owners for whom it is the nearest centre. A test centre must be within or close to a large town and be served by a national road. In other words, the convenience to the customer is paramount. The company has met these requirements and operates 43 test centres. Test centres are generally purpose built facilities involving a range of test lane configurations. The test centres network comprises one test centre with nine test lanes, one with six, one with five, one with four, four with three, 14 with two and 21 with one. The test centres with the most test lanes serve the regions with the greatest demand. Given that the service is remunerated solely from the fees paid by customers, I am satisfied the network of test centres operated by the NCTS strikes a fair balance between customer convenience and the amount of the test fee.
The standard of testing in Dublin is comparable with the rest of the country. The Dublin test centres at Northpoint, Fonthill and Deansgrange with nine, six and five lanes, respectively, are the largest in the country, which is not surprising given it is the region with the highest number of cars registered in the State. These strategically located multi-lane test centres on the north side, south side and west side of the city are served by a modern road network which makes them easy to get to for car owners. There is no question that the service provided to Dublin motorists by the NCTS is anything less than what is required under the contract or is inferior to that available to car owners in other regions. There might have been some justification for the motion were it the case that car owners were experiencing delays in getting appointments for tests or retests. However, that claim, to which a number of speakers referred, is unfair. There is no unnecessary bureaucracy or lengthy delays for tests.
The National Car Testing Service is one of the least bureaucratic organisations one could encounter. It has been designed and developed with a commitment to high-quality customer service at its core, and one speaker acknowledged that fact. The facilities provided for the booking of tests are extensive and user friendly, covering the making of bookings in person, by post, telephone, fax, e-mail or on the Internet. The flexible opening hours operated by test centres make it possible for customers to arrange a test outside normal working hours and days.
On the day of the test all one must do is turn up with the vehicle on time for the appointment with the vehicle registration certificate and the test fee. In less than an hour after arrival, the customer is on his or her way again having had his or her car tested, having been briefed by the inspector on the outcome of the test and given the test report and an NCT certificate if the vehicle passed the test.
The procedures for handling complaints and appeals by customers dissatisfied with the outcome of a test or with some aspect of the service, are straightforward with a minimum of form filling. The existence of procedures for processing complaints and appeals is widely promoted by the company. They are mentioned in the communication sent by the company to customers and are outlined in detail in a notice displayed prominently in every test centre. In addition, NCT inspectors also inform customers of their right to process grievances under this machinery when advising them of the outcome of a test.
The company is contracted to meet rigorous performance standards for test appointments. They must ensure that the average waiting time for test appointments at any test centre is not greater than three weeks, subject to a maximum waiting time of four weeks for any individual booking. Besides leaving itself open to sanctions for failure to meet the service performance standards, the company is obliged to conduct tests free of charge where it cannot offer a test within four weeks of the booking. Last month the national average waiting time for a test was 4.1 days, in Dublin it was 2.5 days. For retests the national average waiting time was 2.6 days while in Dublin it was 1.8 days. These figures speak for themselves and clearly demonstrate——
Mr. Callely: My Department monitors all aspects of the operation of the NCTS to ensure it delivers a car testing service to the required standard. To assist the Department in the function, a supervision services contractor has been engaged. The supervision services contractor is a consortium involving the AA and PricewaterhouseCoopers who have all the available engineering, financial, legal, IT and operational expertise and it is working to an agreed programme with the Department. I will not dwell on the actual programme.
The model of service provision lends itself to tighter and more effective monitoring and supervision and gives my Department an opportunity to intervene at the first sign of a departure from any performance standard in the operation of the service. I invite any Member to draw to my attention, on any occasion, where they consider that should be applied.
The contracting out of the car testing service does not mean the State has removed itself from this important area and left it to the NCTS to provide the service as it sees fit. My Department remains in control and is responsible for overseeing the car testing service. In carrying out the service on behalf of the State the NCT does so in accordance with the contract it has with the Minister, for which I have responsibility, which requires that it is delivered in conformity with specific performance standards. In the short time I have been in the Department, my understanding is that the service is working well as borne out by the performance indicators and it enjoys an extremely high level of approval from users. I am not complacent about the need to ensure the car testing service is delivered to the highest standards. In this regard the contract provides for a review of the service by the Minister after the passing of the midpoint in the life of the contract. The purpose of the review is to appraise the performance of the NCTS to date and assess a range of strategic issues such as the location and number of test centres, the content of the test, the quality of the service provided to car owners and any other issues which may arise.
I am pleased to inform the House that the review will commence early in the new year and will be completed in 2005. It will have a public consultation dimension and the outcome will be published. The question of making any changes in the service will be considered in light of the outcome of that review. I do not rule anything in or out of the review. Rather, I will drive it and everything will be up for consideration. I have outlined to the House the reality that the car testing service is a professional, efficient and first rate service given that the NCTS is on its first review.
I am satisfied that the NCTS is delivering the service to the standards of test integrity and customer service. This view is not based on perception or on a hunch but is supported by hard facts such as the minuscule levels of complaints. For example, just 961 complaints were received in 2003 representing less than 0.1% of the 934,500 tests and retests conducted that year and there have been consistently high customer service rating scores in the independent surveys.
The systems and controls which were put in place in respect of the service as part of the contract ensures that I am aware of the state of the service at any given time and in a position to exercise my regulatory functions in whatever ways are necessary should the circumstances so arise. I will be happy to exercise these if any Member brings to my attention the need to do so. A newspaper report about a problem a customer had with an aspect of the NCT in Abbeyfeale has been brought to my attention about which, if it is true, I have serious and deep concerns and will request a full report.
Mr. Bannon: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him well with his new portfolio. I met him on many occasions when he was Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for older people.
Mr. Bannon: I commend him on the many hospitals and institutions for the elderly he visited during his term as well as the many promises he made which were not delivered upon because of the senior Minister’s cutbacks in that Department.
Mr. Bannon: I fully support this motion tabled by Fine Gael in light of public concern about the operation of National Car Testing Service Limited which is midway through its contract. Who will test the tester and assist it as a whole other than the controversial 1,000 car “spy” operation which is in place? It is imperative that the anomalies causing countrywide concern and public disquiet are eliminated quickly. I was surprised to hear the Minister of State say he was at a loss to know why the motion referred to such public concern.
Mr. Bannon: There is widespread concern, which is yet more evidence that the Government is not listening to the people; this has been proved decisively at the local and European elections when Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats were rebuffed.
Mr. Bannon: The Minister of State referred to independent surveys which were undertaken to assess customer satisfaction with the service, the ratings of which he described as overwhelmingly positive. These surveys must have been taken within the Fianna Fáil Party among the diehard supporters because the luke warm supporters are no longer with the party.
Mr. Bannon: The system has become overly bureaucratic and does not appear to be answerable to anyone, with decisions differing from station to station and causing great inconvenience to the public. Hardly a day goes by when SGS is not is the Labour Court due to breakdowns in employer-employee relations in various centres throughout the country. The Minister referred to Abbeyfeale and Limerick but similar situations have arisen in Tipperary, Dublin and Longford. This is because some of the Irish people who operate the systems are unhappy with what they have to go through at the centres. The Department has evidence of this because genuine, decent, honest people wrote to the Department informing it that they felt hard done by.
The inspection list for the NCT now contains minor items which could lead to test failure, including a scrape in the paint, in regard to which I have evidence. How can anyone contend that such a situation could be labelled a road safety issue?
Mr. Bannon: Fine Gael has proposed that the current structure involving designated NCT centres should be abolished. While almost one in three cars in the State is registered in Dublin, just three of the 43 centres are in the capital. Under our proposals, motor garages would be licensed to carry out the NCT procedure after satisfying clear quality control measures and would be subject to review at licence renewal time and at regular intervals during the period of the licence. Comparing the number of cars in the city and the designated centres to test them proves there is a strong need for real reform of the system which, while primarily penalising Dublin car owners, also affects motorists countrywide.
The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is negligent because it does not produce sufficient information regarding the operation of the national car test. I am delighted that the Minister of State has informed the House that he will publish reports before the end of this month. A requirement of the contract was that the operators of the NCT would produce an annual report to the Department of Transport. However, since the 2001 report relating to 2000, no report has been released, increasing public scepticism and disquiet.
It is strange that the numbers of cars failing the test increases annually. Perhaps the Minister of State could explain this disturbing progression which has major financial implications for motorists. Forking out €48.40 for a test which can be failed for a minor infringement such as having a coat or books in the car boot, a scrape on the paint work or a seat belt under a seat, is farcical. I have evidence that a woman who delivered her children to school, one of whom pushed the seat belt between the rear seats, was sent home as a result and required to do a retest. This is unacceptable in this day and age. Those complaints should be investigated by some sort of tribunal. The company should not investigate itself as is the case now.
Mr. Bannon: As has been proven, the condition of a car is totally insignificant in road accidents. The National Road Safety Council cites a statistic of less than 1% so it could be concluded that the NCT is not influencing the reduction of road fatalities.
National car testing became compulsory as a result of an EU directive and was introduced in Ireland in 2000 resulting in cars more than four years of age being subject to testing. The current contract was awarded to SGS and is subject to a review in 2005 which will include the public consultation period promised by the Minister of State. I hope that will come on stream. Under EU regulations, the test includes brakes, exhaust emissions, wheels and tyres, lights, steering and suspension, chassis and under-body, electrical systems, glass and mirrors, transmission, interior, fuel system and miscellaneous items.
In the term “miscellaneous items” we can see the nub of the motorists’ problem. It is open to interpretation, as I am sure the Minister of State will agree. What one centre regards as a small, unimportant paint scrape could result in failure in another. This has happened.
Dr. Mansergh: I welcome the Minister of State and particularly his vigorous defence of the NCT service. I only wish that the driver testing system was a fraction as efficient. I have some experience of the national car test having twice put my car through it. I find that if one makes an appointment the staff are ready to deal with one’s car when one arrives, if one arrives on time. The staff are polite and efficient. It is true that improvements may have to be made.
An example was given in the debate of a seat belt that was not functioning. That is quite a serious fault and there is much evidence that if one is not wearing a seat belt in the event of an accident, one is far more likely to suffer an injury. A malfunctioning seat belt results in a quite legitimate disqualification. To be frank, one might query whether one should have to change a number plate that is not bilingual, for example. On the other hand, what better way is there of ensuring that the State regulations on motor cars are enforced?
There is some expense associated with the system. As has been said, the NCT service was introduced under an EU directive. It probably should have been introduced 15 or 20 years previously. I suppose we were tolerant of people driving old bangers in a state of bad repair but the problem was that, in being soft on them, we were probably being very hard on those who suffered death and injury in road accidents as a result. That is not to mention the environmental pollution caused by such vehicles.
I heard it suggested that, as an alternative to the national car test, one’s local garage could do the testing. This is like saying the class teacher should mark a student’s leaving certificate examination. This seems to be a totally unworkable solution.
Dr. Mansergh: ——a body with whom one has no contractual or customer relationship. I do not know about the experience of my colleagues on this side of the House in this regard, but I do not receive mailbags full of complaints. People accept the system just as they accept many other measures to ensure better road safety. One should remember that the number of cars on the roads has grown exponentially while the number of accidents, while still far too high, has remained static or fallen slightly.
If we are interested in the environmental safety of this country, we should be supporting the national car test. Particular matters that come to light should be considered if necessary, but the basic system is good. If most of the public administration in this country worked as well as the national car test, we would all be doing very well indeed.
Women also have to get their cars tested but male members of the family frequently become involved. I might as well be looking into a bush as into the engine of a car. I totally support the car testing initiative, not just as a driver and a passenger but also as a doctor. It has been very important in reducing fatalities in accidents.
Many Senators have raised the issue of one’s having to go for a retest for very minor matters. It is not just a question of the money involved. I was interested to hear the Minister of State say that 50% of the retests are not charged for. Time is a considerable issue, especially if one has to get a male member of the family to take the car for its retest. As everyone knows, a man’s time is far more valuable than a woman’s.
Dr. Henry: That goes without saying. Considerable fines should be imposed if very minor faults are not fixed at the time of retesting. Will the Minster of State take this on board? It is a question of the time involved in retesting and not the small matter of what one has to get fixed.
Mr. P. Burke: I welcome the statements of the Minister of State but he should note that it is the inconsistencies that have really infuriated the public. All Senators, including those on the opposite side of the House, have had genuine representations made to them by angry people who have been let down by inconsistencies in the system. In most cases, they pertain to small matters. If the Minister of State were to accept the motion being put forward by this side of the House, it would help in this regard.
I have come across a few cases that I have not had time to outline in my proposal. The owner of a car whose number plate bulb is not working will be charged for a retest in one case and not in another. In the latter case, the staff at the centre will simply ascertain whether the bulb has been replaced. This is an inconsistency. If a car is failed for having a worn tyre, it is put up on a ramp in some retests, thus incurring a charge, and in other cases the mechanic simply makes sure the tyre has been changed and passes it without charging. This is also an inconsistency.
There are only two places to which people from Belmullet in my county can go to get their cars tested, namely, Westport, which is 60 miles away and Ballina, which is 45 miles away. If a motorist has his car tested at 9 a.m. and is told it will pass if he gets new wipers, he goes immediately to the nearest garage to get them only to discover that his car will not be re-examined until after 4 p.m., in spite of his being 60 miles from home. Such motorists are forced to sit around all day. Something could be done in such cases.
It has been brought to my attention that some testers comment unfavourably on work that has been carried out by garages. This is inappropriate. It has also been brought to my attention that some operators advise people of garages in which to have the repairs carried out; this too is inappropriate. I hope the Minister of State will examine these issues.
Mr. P. Burke: Senator Brian Hayes alluded to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which I am pleased the Minister of State gave an undertaking to publish at an early stage. It would have been much better if we had the report for this debate.
Mr. P. Burke: I appreciate that. Arising from the implementation of the final phase of the NCT which took place on 15 September 2003, failure on any test item became a reason for refusal of a test certificate. The Government decided at that stage to assess the operation and the new arrangements that were put in place. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, agreed to report on the matter, but it has not materialised. I hope the Minister of State will publish the report and that he will make available at the earliest possible date the further report which was to be compiled after September 2003. He must act on the inconsistencies in the NCT throughout the country.
Senator Brian Hayes alluded to the lack of testing centres in Dublin. While I am not au fait with the testing facilities in Dublin, I take his point that it needs more test centres. The proposal in the motion should be examined. Changing to a licensed garage testing system offers the best chance of securing a balance between fulfilling the requirements of a car testing service and ensuring public confidence in the service. I hope the Minister of State will take into account the two reports and the inconsistencies involved and that he will report to the House at the earliest possible date.
|Bohan, Eddie.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Daly, Brendan.||Dardis, John.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Fitzgerald, Liam.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kett, Tony.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Leyden, Terry.|
|Lydon, Donal J.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Mansergh, Martin.||Minihan, John.|
|Morrissey, Tom.||Moylan, Pat.|
|Norris, David.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Ross, Shane.||Walsh, Jim.|
|Walsh, Kate.||White, Mary M.|
|Bannon, James.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Browne, Fergal.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Coonan, Noel.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Finucane, Michael.|
|Hayes, Brian.||Henry, Mary.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McHugh, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Phelan, John.|
|Bohan, Eddie.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Daly, Brendan.||Dardis, John.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Fitzgerald, Liam.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kett, Tony.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Leyden, Terry.|
|Lydon, Donal J.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Mansergh, Martin.||Minihan, John.|
|Morrissey, Tom.||Moylan, Pat.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Rourke, Mary.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Ross, Shane.|
|Walsh, Jim.||Walsh, Kate.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bannon, James.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Browne, Fergal.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Coonan, Noel.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Finucane, Michael.|
|Hayes, Maurice.||Henry, Mary.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McHugh, Joe.|
|Norris, David.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Last Updated: 09/09/2010 06:03:01||Page of 11|