Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking this debate. Rural Ireland has much in common with large American cities where the car is king. Walking in American cities is a sure sign that one is a stranger or a tourist, and asking for information about the bus service is usually greeted with astonishment or laughter. The same could be said of rural Ireland, where walking is hardly an option for two very serious reasons. The increase in the number of cars has rendered roads less safe and the high speeds of many drivers has made walking unsafe on many local roads. Boy racers and agricultural machinery do not help, and some people try to speed on very narrow and poorly surfaced roads. They are a dangerous place for walkers.
The decline of many villages means that those who need to do business need to go further afield than their local village. We do not talk about walking as an option. Walking is now a form of exercise and not a mode of transport. The bicycle is the same for rural Ireland and is solely a form of exercise. Some people have even managed to bring bicycles indoors and watch television while cycling. Cars are the lifeline for rural communities and without doubt, the advent of cars brought much to rural Ireland. Like the roll-out of electricity to homes, cars meant that rural areas were connected easily to their local towns and to neighbouring cities, and people had an independence which they did not have previously. With the great tradition of community in rural Ireland, those who were first to get a car tended to become the local driver until more cars arrived and it became the norm for all households to have a car. There was a great sense of community built up around the car but, ironically, much of that has been lost.
In that great leap forward, some were left behind and inevitably those left behind were those with disabilities and the elderly. There are many different reports left on shelves in every Department but the transport and rural ageing report of 2010 published by the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland, CARDI, indicated that 37% of older people living in rural areas have a need for transport that is not being met by public or private means. That equates to thousands of older people. The report also indicated that 35% of households headed by a person over 65 have difficulty accessing public transport. That means more than three in every ten houses do not have access to transport, which is a significant figure. The research also showed that the average retired person spends as much as 57% of income on transport, which is an extraordinary figure. Is that because such people live in rural areas? The renowned Joseph Rowntree Trust in the UK carried out research confirming that transport is the major factor in the additional cost of living for pensioners living in rural communities.
We know two facts: that older people have less access to transport and end up spending more on transport than their urban counterparts. That is not surprising but it is worth stating in this debate. CARDI also showed that older people in rural Ireland with limited income are often persuaded to spend money on a taxi to complete a necessary trip to the hospital or doctor or to buy food or go to the post office. Those people find it very difficult to justify spending on a taxi for a social event. That is the heart of the argument about older people in rural Ireland.
We have seen too many pictures of how our older people are sometimes treated in hospitals, in care homes or in the home. We have all collectively argued, in this House and elsewhere, that such treatment cannot continue and that older people cannot and should not be treated so badly. What has forced us to this point is that we have seen the pictures on television. It is much more convenient to forget about older people isolated in rural communities, who are not seen very often. They may be able to look after themselves and be mobile but they face very long days and longer nights cut off from life, waiting for a lift or waiting for families and friends to take them somewhere. They are forced into being reliant and many people would rather not be a burden on others in asking for a lift. This is not simply because they do not want to be a nuisance but because they have pride and a memory that once they were mothers, fathers, workers, farmers and people who had a life and who were self-reliant.
To be reduced to asking for help — asking simply to be taken to the doctors, the shops or to collect a pension — hurts those people and reminds them of what they have lost. Those people do less, ask for less and seek the bare essentials such as going to the doctor or the hospital. This leaves people even more disconnected, and a disconnected quality of life has an impact on physical and mental health. Life is for living and it is essential that our older people live their lives to the fullest extent possible. Not being able to go anywhere, travel freely and have such choices has the most enormous impact on that quality of life.
We know about the cost of drugs, GP care, hospitals and the difficulties of finding appropriate care for older people. We know how stressful that is to pockets, people and to the HSE budget. Transport must be part of the care package for older people — keeping them mobile, engaged, connected with society and their communities where they were before the simple fact of age changed that, and most of all recognising that they are needed, that they are a valuable part of society and that we want older people to be part of society.
When the Minister with direct responsibility for rural transport was last in the House he talked about the importance of the rural transport programme and the need to integrate it. The rural transport programme was launched in 2006 following a pilot scheme. There are now 36 schemes operating across the country delivering services directly to the core base of older people and people with disabilities. These schemes use private transport and some have launched volunteer driving schemes. In my area the Leitrim Development Company uses some of its Pobal funding to run buses and to fund the voluntary rural lift scheme — where volunteer drivers take people to appointments and to the shops. In this case, the Leitrim Development Company provides training for volunteer drivers so that they understand how to manage and cope with older people getting in and out of cars and how to keep them safe. The work is basic and ordinary but is extraordinarily important. There is also the CLASP scheme in south-east Sligo and the County Sligo leader partnership project. We are well served with those schemes in the area. The importance of the schemes nationwide to older people must not be under-estimated. By and large they are run by people involved in the community and voluntary sector.
I accept that there is a need for greater efficiency. The schemes have only been up and running for five years. When one first sets up a scheme one might do it slightly less efficiently because that is not one’s primary motivation. The main aim is to get the scheme up and running. Afterwards one discovers there are cheaper ways of doing it. I understand that the local integrated programme is proceeding. Avoiding duplication and reducing costs cannot be the sole reason for doing anything. We must continue to ensure that older people are central to any reorganisation of rural transport. It is not simply about getting people to hospital or to the GP. It must be about their life.
We must explore whether there are more imaginative ways of encouraging voucher use, perhaps not all the time — we do not need to have an endless booklet of them. Would it be possible to subsidise petrol for taxis involved in rural transport, as is the case sometimes in the UK? The IFA and the ICA are involved in some community schemes. Could they be involved in a national scheme to see whether, through their members, they could provide voluntary services? Could they be part of a taskforce focused on addressing the rural transport needs of elderly people at a time when money is not plentiful? In Northern Ireland, the Rural Transport Fund has organised a scheme which will allow a voucher of £100 for a group of 17 or more people travelling in one direction. That is a limited scheme for which one cannot keep applying — one cannot go to the same pub every week — but the system recognises that sometimes people would like to go out collectively and those special occasions are encouraged. In Bracknell Forest in the UK there is an integrated card scheme people use on buses that also allows them to use the library and the leisure centre. It reminds older people that they have a right to use those services and to be integrated. It recognises their role in society and their need to have access to those services.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. I urge that in the context of rural transport we take seriously the needs of older people as people in the community. In particular, I thank those people across the country who have overcome many obstacles in terms of rural transport in the past five years and who continue to give great service, albeit on a limited basis. Without them, many people’s lives would be much more limited than they are. The Department must consider a more creative way of finding other means to offer vouchers in all their guises to keep supporting older people in their communities.
Senator James Heffernan: I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, to the House. It is always nice to have him present. I welcome the motion which largely reflects some of the commitments in the programme for Government. I welcome also the fact that the Government has maintained funding for the rural transport programme. A total of €9.7 million will be made available for the rural transport programme this year. While it is not as much as was allocated last year it is a somewhat similar amount. I broadly welcome the maintenance of the programme which is important. It is great that the money is being spent on the rural transport system. An audit is currently being carried out on the programme. Unfortunately, as is the case with many quasi-NGOs that were set up in the past, a great deal of the funding was spent on administration rather than the most effective delivery of services. I hope the Minister of State will examine the issue to ensure that the money is being spent in the best possible way.
On the previous occasion when we discussed rural transport in the House we spoke of the fact that even though many of those surveyed were not aware that they had access to public transport every parish and community in the country has access to public transport in one form or another but it was not being used properly. In some areas there was a great deal of duplication between the various service providers, be it the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills with school buses or the rural transport programme. We focused in particular on school transport. School buses ferry children from rural areas to urban centres for the purpose of education. The Minister of State is well aware of the situation from his own experience. School buses operate from Monday to Friday on the required routes but the service is only for students while grandparents and other elderly people are left at home without access to towns. They are required to find a different way to get to town. Would it be possible for the school bus service to be integrated with the rural transport and other programmes? An investigation has begun by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport into the issue. I wish it well in its work in that regard.
When the Minister with responsibility for rural transport was in the House we referred to problems with the rural transport programme. I accept the programme is in its infancy but there are teething problems with it. In the main a good service is provided. However, the rural transport service is not fit for purpose. On that occasion I referred to a woman I used to collect every Thursday morning on my way to Mitchelstown. I asked her why she did not get the bus. The market is held on Thursday mornings and many people go to the town on that day. She told me that she goes home on the bus and that she sometimes got the bus to the town also but that it left too late in the morning and came home too early which meant she did not have time to do her jobs. By the time she walked around to the various shops she did not have enough time to sit down for a cup of tea. In some cases where a service is provided it is more along the lines of lip service rather than the type of service that is required. Given the backgrounds and constituencies of the Ministers of State, Deputies Ring and Kelly, they would be mindful of the economic integrity of small towns and villages. I have frequently heard a complaint from business owners in small towns — perhaps some of my colleagues have heard it as well — to the effect that the routes being operated by rural transport programmes are taking their normal business to larger towns. This issue must be considered.
If the HSE and Government agencies could work together, school transport services could be provided. We all know on which day people travel to town to collect their pensions and it is widely known on which day a district nurse is in a town’s dispensary. While the school transport system need not be operated for people every day, it could be duplicated on particular days to pick people up from their homes in order that they could do their business.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I also welcome this timely motion tabled by my Labour Party colleagues, as it affords us an opportunity to focus on what is emerging as one of the real issues of our time, namely, the ever widening gap between city and rural life. I am not one to buy into the idea that everything is great in the cities and bad in the country. As a teacher, I lived in Dublin for many years and never bought into that idea. It is a part of the Irish legend that Myles na gCopaleen covered well in An Béal Bocht and I have always treated it with a pinch of salt.
I am not placing all of the blame on the Government but there is no doubt that, since entering office, the perception of an ever increasing bias against rural Ireland has taken hold. The recent budget added fuel to this notion. Every Senator present knows what I mean. Without going through the litany, rural Ireland has lost its post offices, is being threatened with the loss of its Garda stations — people in the cities do not appreciate our concerns in this respect — and the recent budget cut a wide range of agriculture grants, including farm assist, the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, the disadvantaged areas scheme and third level grants for children from agricultural families. The local improvement schemes for roads have been discontinued and many small rural schools, particularly in Gaeltacht areas, have been threatened with closure. Indeed, it is more than a threat. That school transport costs have doubled will affect rural Ireland significantly. There have been cutbacks in community employment, CE, schemes. Some new charges seem unique, in that they target rural communities, for example, the dreaded assault on septic tanks. These are just a potpourri of how the approach is perceived at rural level. The division and the focus on making rural Ireland pay for everything are becoming more real.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: I did not interrupt anyone. My party has always stood for equality between city and town, town and country, urban and rural. We will support no Government measures that erode quality of life and the viability of rural living.
This debate centres on rural transport. The rural transport initiative was introduced by the late Séamus Brennan a number of years ago. Although it was not perfect initially, it morphed into a successful programme. It is run under the aegis of Pobal on behalf of the State, but its strength is predicated on the support, involvement and commitment of rural transport groups at local level. Without such people, the programme would not work. Pobal has a national brief. Every organisation needs flexibility, but Pobal has a one-size-fits-all approach whereas it is the people on the ground who know how to top and tail their schemes to the greatest advantage of their local communities. I am glad to welcome to the Visitors’ Gallery the chairman of the national network of rural transport schemes, a former council colleague of mine, Mr. Jack Roche. He also sits on the board of LARIT, a new review group that the Government has set up to consider the future of schemes. I wish him and the group well in their deliberations.
It is great that an elderly person living at the end of a bad boreen in the heart of rural Ireland and miles away from the nearest public utility can have a bus drive up to his or her door, bring him or her to the local town to do a bit of business, be it a visit to a doctor, credit union, post office or grocery shop, and get a bite to eat and drop the person back home at a time or his or her choosing. This service has enhanced the lives of people living alone in rural communities. In fact, it has made their lives. I have an expert beside me in the form of Senator White. Without this service, there would be a greater incidence of depression and suicide. Recently, a rural coroner in the south stated that, if such schemes could be enhanced and made available at night so that people, particularly elderly men, might visit their pubs for a drink or two, there would be a reduction in the number of suicides in rural Ireland. In this context, the Government’s decision to cut the budget by 8% is difficult to understand. It is a mistake and will need to be reviewed. We have seen a few U-turns already and I would like to have this matter re-examined.
Regarding the discontinuation of the local improvement schemes, many of my colleagues present are former councillors and know that most of the roads in question are substandard and that those living on them do not have the wherewithal to repair and maintain them. There will be a greater sense of isolation because people’s neighbours will not be able to drive to them. Public service options such as taxis will be ruled out. This decision creates a greater dependence on rural transport schemes.
Bus Éireann is the backbone of rural transport. Where there is no airport or train, there will always be a bus. The cutback of €6.2 million in Bus Éireann’s subvention will impact on rural Ireland, given that the public service obligation, PSO, routes will be at most risk. The same can be said for Iarnród Éireann, which is suffering a €15 million cutback. It is as if the Government is determined to keep people in the Pale. I am amazed that my rural colleagues in both Houses are not kicking up more of a fuss about this issue. I often wonder whether there would have been a greater uproar about what was happening to rural Ireland had Deputy Higgins remained in Dingle.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: I apologise. I meant the 2011 budget. In response to it, the Minister stated that the introduction of a €50 school transport charge was crossing a line and that forcing families to pay such charges was limiting their children’s access to primary education. I am sure the Minister now knows that the maximum charge is as high as €220. Combined with this, the threatened closure of small schools adds to the burden on small families. The fewer the number of schools, the greater one’s reliance on public transport to bring people to them. Thanks to the attack on pupil-teacher ratios in Gaeltacht areas such as Corca Dhuibhne, for example, which runs the length of the Dingle Peninsula, there could be just one school for the entire population. The same is probably true of Connemara, Gweedore and elsewhere.
The Minister of State’s heart is in the right place, as he is a rural man like the Leas-Chathaoirleach and me. A fight must be fought. We need to get the balance right. The Government is top-heavy with the city attitude to life. This morning, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, stated that there would be no further tolls on our major roads. Many people in rural areas would be well prepared to pay additional tolls when travelling to Dublin or Cork if they could be sure that revenue would be invested properly and with the right balance between urban and rural. As it stands, only some 2% of the entire transport budget is spent on rural areas, with the rest going towards motorways and cities.
Senator Mary M. White: I second the Fianna Fáil Party amendment to the motion. Representatives of older people tell me of the fear, particularly in rural areas, in the aftermath of he cost-cutting budget for 2012. There is apprehension that cuts in the limited rural public transport service will be next. There are 36 rural transport companies in receipt of total funding of €10.6 million per year. Individually these companies do a good job, but there is no integrated structure of service delivery.
The Fianna Fáil Party in government delivered free travel for everybody over 66 years of age, but this is of little use if one lives in a rural area with no public transport. Urban residents over 66 years can avail of free public transport in the Twenty-six Counties and the Six Counties, but that facility is practically useless to people in rural areas. My colleague, Senator Ned O’Sullivan, has drawn attention to the various cuts in services imposed by the Government. We in the Seanad have been vociferous in our opposition to the cuts in education in particular, including the proposed reduction in the allocation to DEIS schools. We put great pressure on our Labour Party colleagues in this regard. When those colleagues were on this side of the House, they were very critical and left wing in their positions. Now that they are on the other side they are rolling over for their partners in government. That said, I welcome the new connectivity whereby one Labour Party Minister can tell another that a particular decision must be rescinded. As my colleague said in regard to the new inspection regime for septic tanks, we do not oppose efforts to improve the quality of public water supplies, but we must have a grant for those, particularly older people, who cannot afford to pay for upgrades.
Senator Mary M. White: There are generally severe time restrictions on rural transport services, with no service available at the weekend or at night. As such, older people are often dependent on taxis. Figures produced by the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland, CARDI, show that older people spend an average of €70 per week on transport costs. This amounts to an additional living cost for older people in rural areas for whom the free travel pass is of little use.
The first priority in terms of transport services for older people in rural areas must be to ensure their access to health services. The older people get, the greater their need to access such services. We are all living much longer, with the majority of us getting to 75 years without any serious health incapacity. At the same time, CARDI’s figures show that, on average, people attend their GP much more frequently as they get older. This is a major difficulty for elderly people in rural areas. There must be integration of services; that is simply common sense. I am sure that type of integration is in place in Germany and other European countries. It is vital that we integrate health service appointments with available public transport services. It is about connecting up the different arms of Government to enhance services.
Rural transport is vital in terms of social inclusion. As part of my research for the report I produced on suicide, self-harm and depression, I spoke to older people at meetings throughout the country. On all occasions, I urged those in attendance to continue coming to such meetings. It is of benefit to people to go out and engage with others. On the other hand, the lack of a public transport service can lead to loneliness, isolation and physical and mental illness. Yesterday one of my colleagues at the Senior Helpline in Summerhill, Ms Mary Nally, explained to me how older people feel a loss to their dignity in having to ask a neighbour for a lift. These are the customs and mores of older people.
The bottom line is that rural transport services must be enhanced throughout the country and there must be integration with the delivery of other services. In particular, there must be connectivity between the health service and rural transport to provide an efficient, synchronised service and to ensure people can access medical appointments.
Senator Pat O’Neill: As Fine Gael Party spokesman on transport in the Seanad, I am delighted to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, to the Chamber for this debate. He last discussed the issue of rural transport with us last September during an interesting and informative debate. Senator Ned O’Sullivan mentioned something the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, may have said in a previous life. I remind the Senator that everything that is said in this Chamber is included in the Official Report. The Senator’s party is the only organisation seeking to create a divide between urban and rural, precisely what he has accused the Government of doing.
Senator Pat O’Neill: Senator O’Sullivan spoke about the closure of rural post offices, but that did not happen on our watch. He referred to the closure of Garda stations, but the Government has not overseen any such closures.
Senator Pat O’Neill: He referred to the termination of agricultural grants such as REPS and so on. The reality is that the Government has defended agriculture. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, secured a commitment to an allocation of €195 million this year.
Senator Pat O’Neill: I am entitled to correct his claims. His party agreed with the troika to expenditure of €160 million on agriculture this year; we have increased that to €195 million. He also claimed that the legislation on septic tanks is creating an urban-rural divide. Of the seven paragraphs contained in the Fianna Fáil amendment, three begin with the words “condemns the Government”. That is opposition for the sake of opposition. By contrast, there is only one line in the Sinn Féin amendment with which I would not agree; the rest is very constructive.
Senator Pat O’Neill: I remind Fianna Fáil Members that the Oireachtas transport committee passed a motion in 1990 in regard to integrated ticketing. In November 2000 the Minister for Public Enterprise, Mrs. Mary O’Rourke, gave an undertaking that it would be introduced without delay. Nine years later, smart cards were introduced on Dublin Bus and the Luas, but there was no integration. Fianna Fáil did not bring the plan to fruition in 11 years, whereas this Government has made it operational after ten months in government.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, for his role in maintaining funding for the rural transport programme in 2012 at 92% of the 2011 allocation. It is hoped the 8% loss can be recouped through greater efficiencies. Given the scale of the economic challenge faced by Government, with €16 billion more going out of the Exchequer last year than taken in, maintaining the rural transport budget was a remarkable achievement. This was only achieved through the making of difficult decisions in relation to other projects.
Last September, I spoke about rural isolation. I acknowledge the comments of all speakers in regard to, in particular, elderly people living in rural Ireland. Unfortunately, not every older person is in a position to run a car. Those who have been widowed or who never married often live alone. For these people, a local bus service is a lifeline. For those with a partner, both of whom are elderly and not in a position to run a car, a rural transport service is the only means of their getting to the doctor, shops, pharmacy or to visit friends. I referred last September to a study published by the Society of the St. Vincent de Paul which reported that loneliness is the biggest problem experienced by older people. Sadly, in the world in which we live today, neighbours, as they might have done in times past, do not now assume a duty of care for one another.
The Government must do all it can to foster a spirit of community and volunteerism. It must also do all it can within limited resources to revive rural transport services. Fine Gael has long been committed to the concept of a reliable and sustainable transport service for rural communities. As a party with the largest cohort of rural-based Deputies and Senators, it is well aware of the vital importance of rural transport provision. The programme for Government reflects the Fine Gael policy and states that rural transport networks are vital for rural communities as a reliable and sustainable transport service and that it will seek to maintain and integrate the rural transport programme with other local transport services as much as is practicable.
Ring a Link provides a service to rural people in counties Kilkenny, Carlow and south Tipperary. Its buses collect people at their doors and bring them to their local town, villages or train stations. It is an important service and it is important it is retained. I recognise that in these difficult economic times, greater efficiencies need to be achieved.
The Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, stated that he intends to publish a pilot study on local integrated transport services. I look forward to hearing more detail from him in regard to this study which I understand took place in the north east and north west. On the last occasion this issue was discussed in the Seanad, I referred to the need for rural transport providers to publicise their services more and to the need for cultural change. I believe that rural transport services are of particular importance to the elderly. However, such a service should be open to all people. I am interested in hearing the statistics in regard to the profile of typical users of these services.
A recent CSO study states that 50% of people in rural areas believed there was no transport service in place to support them. We must ensure people of all ages are encouraged to avail of these services. The rural transport programme was examined as part of a series of value for money reports across all Departments and areas where efficiencies could be achieved were identified, in particular in the area of administration. The Minister previously told the Dáil that he will publish the report, together with his response to all recommendations. Perhaps the Minister of State will set out the timescale in that regard.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Ba mhaith liom nótáil go bhfuil leasú againn ar an Ord Pháipéar ach nach féidir é a phléós rud é nach féidir níos mó ná leasú amháin a phlé ag aon am amháin. Ba mhaith linn é a thairiscint níos déanaí. We note we have tabled an amendment which cannot be moved because only one amendment at a time can be discussed. However, Sinn Féin reserves the right to move its amendment later.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire agus an díospóireacht. This is an important debate. As one who served on the board of Bealach, a Connemara partnership, for a number of years, I realise its importance. Of all the projects in which I was involved, it was one of the most cost effective. The value for money audit referred to by Senator O’Neill highlighted the cost effectiveness of rural transport schemes and the importance of ensuring administration costs are kept to a minimum. It will be hard for individual projects to cut back in this area. It might be necessary to review the role of Pobal and the cost of the intermediary auditing system. In my experience, Pobal audits are cumbersome and take up a great deal of time. The cost involved in this regard should be re-examined.
Pobal undertook an audit of the extension of the rural transport service in Connemara, at which stage there was no service in north-east Galway. The suggestion being made at the time was that the Connemara Bealach partnership should also administer the scheme in north-east Galway, which was indicative of how little civil servants understand the nature of living in rural Ireland. The co-ordinator at the time invited the person concerned to Galway and drove her around the constituency of north Connemara. It took her one day to travel from Galway city to Clifden and back around Connemara into Galway again, at which stage the person concerned realised that because the head office was located in the middle of the Gaeltacht it would be impossible for it to administer a scheme in north-east Galway. This is indicative of the mentality of particular people in the Civil Service and semi-State organisations in regard to the complexity of rural transport.
Senator Heffernan made some good points in regard to school buses and the empty buses on our roads. This issue was discussed on numerous occasions by Bealach. A number of services provide disabled people, children and others with transport to their services. The issue that arises — I have raised this previously — is one of child safety and insurance in that it is not possible to have different cohorts of people travelling together on the same service because of insurance and child protection issues. I am not sure if that issue has been addressed in the interim. The suggestion made by Senator Heffernan, in terms of different service users availing of particular services from A to B, might be worthwhile looking into.
It is all well and good for Senators to speak in the House of the Government having done well in terms of maintaining 92% of last year’s budget allocation for rural transport services. However, the issue is that successive Governments have not invested enough in rural transport and that the rural communities have always played second fiddle to urban communities when it comes to accessibility. At a time when the Government is to sign a cheque for €1.2 billion in respect of a promissory note which the people never guaranteed, an 8% cut in rural transport services should never have been considered, either by Fine Gael or the Labour Party. I remind Fine Gael and Labour Party Senators that they voted for the budget and in doing so agreed to this cut, which states that those who gambled with our economy are worth more than people in rural areas.
Motoring costs have also increased as a result of the recent budget, which is a bias against people in rural communities. The price of petrol, diesel and motor tax has increased, as has the cost of running a car. I received an e-mail from an elderly man yesterday stating that as a result of this budget he will become a recluse because he cannot afford the extra €1,000 per annum to run his car. The cost of school transport for families has also doubled. This should never have been countenanced. The local school in my area is Scoil Phobail Mhic Dara in Carna. People in rural areas do not have the same choices as do people in other areas. The cuts to education, if pushed through, will have a massive impact on rural schools. A child from Carna wishing to study economics or accountancy must travel to Clifden or Galway to do so. This requires a 50 mile trip each way and there is no transport service in place to allow them do that. As such, there is no choice in terms of education. It is important that the proposed cuts in the education sector do not go ahead. In addition, there is no transport service in place.
Because of cuts introduced in the budget, elderly and disabled people are being charged more for services provided through the rural transport scheme, which is detrimental taken in the context of other cuts imposed on them in the budget, including increased heating costs and so on. This issue must also be considered in the context of connectivity. There are huge connectivity problems in Galway. One of the biggest problems is Bus Éireann, which has never played ball in linking its service with the rural transport programme. It would hardly attend meetings and would not countenance changing its schedules to link up with rural transport services and should be taken to task in that regard. In addition, the rail and airport connections must be considered, as must projects such as West on Track, on which the Government is pulling back. This is not good enough because the options for people from the west who wish to travel to Dublin or out of the country for holidays, work or whatever reason are being closed down in a piecemeal fashion. One repeatedly hears the arguments that we are in tight economic times, yet the Government will sign a cheque for €1.2 billion in promissory notes as well as a further €2 billion by the end of March. Is the Minister of State happy to stand over that? He certainly voted for the budget and had he not done so, this 8% cut would not have been necessary. In fact, the budget for rural transport should and could have been increased.
Senator Denis Landy: I welcome my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, to the House. Contrary to what has been stated in the Minister of State’s absence with regard to the divide being driven by the Labour Party between urban and rural Ireland, I am proud the Minister responsible for this issue is from my native county. He has an innate knowledge of the needs of rural Ireland and knows that places in his constituency such as Newport and Killenaule do not have mainstream transport systems and therefore require a rural transport system, as well as alternatives to what is available.
Were one to take note of people like Colm McCarthy, the rural transport system would have been closed last year, even while Fianna Fáil was in government. It would have been closed despite the probability that Senator O’Sullivan would not have countenanced such an eventuality and would have resigned. The reality is that people live in communities in rural Ireland and Members seek to address the needs of those communities. The astounding figure I have come across in respect of this issue is the cost of the school and HSE transport systems, which currently stands at €200 million per annum. Although those two systems cost €200 million, they run completely separately with no connectivity, joined-up thinking or cross-usage between the them. If my son travels on a school bus to a town and if I have an appointment in the local hospital located in the same town, there is no reason I should not be able to take that bus to meet my appointment and then return home on the bus with my son at 4 p.m., thereby saving the HSE the cost of sending a taxi ambulance to and from the same point of origin and destination. Joined-up thinking is required in this regard. While the Minister of State has done some work on this issue, it should be speeded up because this budget of €200 million can be cut down and reduced. In response to and in support of much of Senator Ó Clochartaigh’s contribution, were money to be freed up from that budget of €200 million, the role of rural transport could be boosted. At present, €10.6 million is being spent on rural transport. Were even 5% to be saved from the aforementioned €200 million budget for school and HSE transport, the budget for rural transport could be doubled.
There also is a role for local authorities in this regard. Although they have been kept out of the loop pretty much, I know as someone who served on a local authority for many years, like many other Members, that there is a large body of knowledge among the elected members within the local authority system that is not being tapped into in respect of where gaps exist in terms of services being needed but not being provided. There should be consultations with local government on this matter.
The Minister of State should also examine the role of existing private operators who provide a service in those parts of rural Ireland neglected by Bus Éireann. It has been noted that Bus Éireann has never considered the service needs of rural Ireland. Private operators have taken up that role but in the constituency in which I live, one operator has been obliged to withdraw one such service, namely, the Mullinahone to Clonmel route. Although JJ Kavanagh & Sons provided this service for years, it is completely uneconomic and those who rely on it will lose the service. Obviously, efforts are being made to substitute the scheduled service with the Ring a Link system about which Senator O’Neill spoke and which operates in County Kilkenny and south Tipperary. Were a mechanism in place to subsidise such private operators in the same way that Bus Éireann’s public service obligation routes are subsidised, that route and necessary service could be retained.
In addition, the provision of a taxi-type service should be considered for those rural communities that are too small to be viable for existing taxi operators. The Minister of State is familiar with the communities to which I refer, namely, small villages in which such a service could be community-based and could link into other services in the area. I hope the Minister of State will have something positive to say in this regard.
I compliment the Ring a Link system on the services it provides in my native region of south Tipperary as well as in County Kilkenny, where it provides an excellent service with a small and limited budget. I agree completely with Senator Ó Clochartaigh’s condemnation of the lack of buy-in on the part of Bus Éireann in respect of rural Ireland and I hope the Minister of State can address this issue in his deliberations in the coming months on this matter.
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend the Labour Party for tabling an important motion on an important issue. Incidentally, a Fine Gael Member mentioned that perhaps a different political party has a view to the effect that the Government is out to attack rural Ireland. I do not believe any Government has set out purposely to attack rural Ireland. One also must be fair, however, by stating that the consequences of decisions made, the responsibility for many of which I place on the previous Government, have undermined services in rural Ireland and the consequences therefrom are evident. I live in south County Kilkenny but come from Waterford. My grandparents came from the small County Waterford seaside village of Bunmahon. I grew up there for a number of years and went there every summer from the age of three until the age of 14 or 15. When I stayed there, it had a shop, a post office and a bus service, but most of those services now are gone. The sense of isolation felt by people in those villages that had services which have now gone is real. Senator Ó Clochartaigh mentioned earlier the consequences of, for example, increasing road tax, excise on petrol and diesel or the costs of transport in a car. These have a disproportionate impact on those who live in rural Ireland. While this may not have been the Government’s intention, it certainly is the consequence of the decision that was made in the budget.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh also mentioned the issue of school transport and, again, any cuts to school transport have a disproportionate impact on children who live in rural Ireland. The consequences of such cuts are that many people now are unable to access any kind of transport to get their children from their places of residence to school simply because the service is not in place. There is a recognition from all parties, regardless of what may be done in budgets, that there are issues in rural Ireland that are peculiar to it and that one must ensure the real sense of isolation people feel must be dealt with.
I wish to provide some context because the purpose of Sinn Féin’s amendment is to be helpful and it notes a number of points. For example, it notes that 40% of the people live in rural Ireland and that close to 40% of older people living in rural areas need transport. Moreover, Sinn Féin believes they should have access to free transport. Sinn Féin recognises the State has a responsibility in this regard and recognises any investment that goes into any form of transport, be it public or private, in rural areas. However, I must be honest and state that Sinn Féin neither accepts nor agrees with the cut in the budget to the funding for the rural transport scheme. The cut may only be 8%, which amounts to €800,000, which some people may perceive to be quite small. However, that is precisely the point. It is quite small and I cannot understand the reason the Government would opt for such a cut. I can point out to the Minister of State that, for example, 14 special advisers have had their pay increased over and beyond what was agreed.
Senator David Cullinane: While it may not be the Minister of State’s portfolio or brief, the point is a decision was made to pay them more than was agreed when the Government took office and yet the amount of money going into rural transport is being cut, which is wrong. There is a need to support whatever initiatives the Government can put in place to assist those who live in rural areas.
On Monday next a public meeting is due to be held in Kill, County Waterford, in respect of the need for a post office there. Since October last, there has been no post office in the town and, as a result, people have been obliged to travel to Kilmacthomas or other nearby towns which have post offices. If there is no public transport link available, how can elderly people travel to the nearest post office to obtain their pensions? There are elderly individuals in Kill who are relying on family members who live in Waterford city, Dungarvan or other urban centres to drive them the 14 miles to the post office in Kilmacthomas and then drive them back home again. This is placing pressure on the family members to whom I refer and it is happening because various services are not available in particular areas.
I am sure the Minister of State will agree that the issues to which I refer are real. Any cut in respect of the funding for transport in rural areas is wrong. I appeal to him to reverse the decision in this regard. The amount involved is €800,000, which is the equivalent of two of the golden handshakes given to certain individuals who have left the public service. It is small change in the context of overall expenditure. It is within the gift of the Government to reverse the cut. I am of the view that we should be increasing the level of investment in rural transport. When Labour and Fine Gael were in Opposition, they were very critical of what the previous Government did in respect of rural areas and of any of the cuts it made to funding. That Administration also reduced the funding available in respect of rural transport. I appeal to the Minister of State to honour the promises made by the Government parties when they were in Opposition, namely, to increase investment and support rural communities.
Senator Michael Comiskey: I welcome the Minister of State. The rural transport scheme is very good. I come from a rural area in County Leitrim which is served by one of the 36 rural transport services. There is a similar service in Sligo and there is also one which traverses the Border. I see the buses which provide this service two or three times each week on the roads in my area. They take local people to day centres and thereby provide a service to the HSE. Perhaps it might be possible to expand the rural transport service in this regard in order that the HSE might use it rather than taxis to transport patients.
Two and a half years ago, when I was a member of the Leitrim Development Company, discussions took place in respect of the establishment of a social car scheme. Such a scheme was rolled out in County Cavan and it has worked very well. I suggested that a similar scheme be launched in Leitrim and, at present, there is one in operation in the north of the county. I am aware that two or three further schemes will be established soon. Schemes of this nature are vital for elderly people who live alone and whose family members may live or work far away and, therefore, cannot drive them to the doctor, hairdresser or wherever. Social car schemes provide elderly people with a degree of freedom. Many older people have free travel passes but they cannot use them because there are no public transport services in their areas.
Perhaps it might be possible to have social car services available at night. A few years ago, before the drink driving laws were tightened up, people who live in rural areas were able to drive to their local pubs and perhaps have one or two pints. They cannot do that anymore and there is a great sense of isolation among them as a result. If a scheme were put in place or if the current scheme were extended in order that these individuals might travel to their local pubs one or two nights per week, it would be of great comfort to them.
The budget for rural transport is €10.6 million, which is quite a sum of money. It is important that it be maintained. I do not have much more to say on this matter, other than that I support the motion.
Senator Terry Leyden: I appreciate that and I hope I have not embarrassed the Leas-Chathaoirleach in any way. I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his appointment. He served in this House for some time before moving to greener fields to serve as an MEP and a Deputy. He has had a great career to date.
I am delighted this motion was tabled because all the Senators who fully support integrated rural transport, school transport, etc., can make their views known. The rural transport scheme was initially piloted by Mary O’Rourke, to whom I spoke a few moments ago. Mrs. O’Rourke informed me that serving as a Deputy for the Longford-Westmeath constituency made her aware of the need for transport services in rural areas. When she was serving as Minister for Public Enterprise in 2002, she requested the then Secretary General of her Department, Mr. Brendan Tuohy, to establish a pilot scheme. The Minister of State can check the position in this regard. I am not seeking to take any credit, I am merely highlighting what was a great initiative which has proved to be very successful. It is important, therefore, it be retained. In that context, I am delighted that colleagues in both Fine Gael and the Labour Party see the benefits it can have for those who live in rural areas.
A rural transport service is provided in the area where I live, which stretches from Castlecoote to Fuerty to Oran to Ballinaheglish to Ballyfornan and into Athleague. The drivers who operate the buses on the route to which I refer have been exemplary in the context of the attention and support they have given and the kindness they have shown to local people. The driver of the bus which goes through Castlecoote, a man called Oliver Connolly, provides an excellent service. I thank him publicly on behalf of those in the area who use the service.
On a particular Friday two years ago when there was a threat to the rural transport service, I availed of the local bus service and treated all the customers using it to some Jameson whiskey along the way. It was lovely because we could drive home and have a drink at the same time.
Senator Terry Leyden: No. The rural transport service is working very well. One of the greatest initiatives ever undertaken in Irish public life was the introduction of free travel by the late, great Charles J. Haughey and the then Fianna Fáil Government. Those who try to write Fianna Fáil out of history will discover that it introduced more innovative and better schemes than any other party. Fianna Fáil is more socialist than the Labour Party and is certainly to the left of Fine Gael.
Senator Terry Leyden: Charles J. Haughey was Minister for Finance when free travel was introduced and he informed me how it came about. He stated that he was driving to work one day when he saw a train heading into the city without any passengers on board. This led him to suggest that free travel should be given to elderly citizens during off-peak hours in order that there might be greater use of public transport services. The scheme was very much opposed by the then Secretary General of the Department of Finance. Mr. Haughey also introduced other free schemes, including those relating to telephones and electricity. In saying all of this, I merely wish to provide a backdrop.
The rural transport scheme should be placed on a statutory and permanent footing, especially as it provides very good services for those who live in rural areas. People from townlands such as Ballinaheglish, with which Senator John Kelly will be very familiar because he lives in the parish of Oran, can travel by bus to Roscommon to collect their pensions, attend the local mart, meet friends, buy groceries, have a few drinks and travel home safely. It is, therefore, a great driver of both integration and rural development. Some years ago, the then Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, brought forward a suggestion in respect of what some members of the media very unfairly referred to as “booze buses”. This was, however, a great initiative and some publicans now provide transport of this nature for their clients in order that the latter will not contravene the new drink driving laws.
Senator Terry Leyden: I accept that I am driving all round the countryside at the moment in this regard, but on a serious note, I fully support the scheme. We supported it when we were in Government. It was under threat about two years ago. We held it then and I ask all Members to support this scheme. It is a good scheme and it should be continued. It is a saviour of rural Ireland.
Since 2004, I have repeatedly gone with the one headline, either through the media or through the county council, which is that a free travel pass in rural Ireland is a useless piece of paper. I called on the Fianna Fáil Government of the day to introduce a voucher system, especially at a time when we were awash with money. All of my calls fell on deaf ears. I am delighted the Minister of State here tonight is the person with responsibility for transport, because I have no doubt that when he is finished with his post, we will see the difference, unlike in the time of the Fianna Fáil Minister for Transport. I would have been as well off writing to him and just throwing it in the bin, because I was probably getting the same response anyway.
I am a great supporter of rural transport schemes. In my town of Ballaghaderreen, I was involved years ago in a day care centre that had 40 to 45 elderly people attending on a two-day week basis. I was instrumental in bringing rural transport to the area, and from that point onwards, the day care centre no longer had to pay taxis to ship everybody in from a six and seven mile radius. The centre has saved a great deal of money. The Ardcarne rural transport scheme is an excellent scheme and I invite the Minister of State down some time to see how it operates. The head man of that scheme is an excellent worker. As another Senator pointed out, there are no savings and administration costs to be garnered here. These guys are working beyond the call of duty. The savings would be nil from an administrative point of view. I know the man in charge met today with representatives of the HSE to look at integrated HSE travel. Down through the years, the HSE used to deal with hospital appointments. As it suited the HSE to slash its budgets, it just stopped dealing with hospital appointments and progressed to just dealing with dialysis patients and cancer patients, and taking them for their appointments. A void developed and it was picked up by community welfare officers who organised travel for the people who could not afford it. It was still costing the taxpayer and it is still something that must be addressed. If an integrated system can be put in place to deal with that, it will be worthwhile because there will be savings down the road.
I agree with the Senator who spoke about Bus Éireann. Ballaghaderreen has one bus service. It leaves Dublin for Ballina, it passes through Ballaghaderreen and it goes back to Dublin again. That is the only daily service we have in the whole county. The Minister of State’s part of the country does not have the Luas, nor does mine. His part of the country does not have the DART, nor does mine. It probably does not have a train service, nor does mine. We have the basic bus service that I just outlined. We have a very limited taxi service, yet down through the years, the county councillors always ask what are we doing with our school buses, and point out that we could be putting them to better use, but that we have never done that.
I am one of those Senators who has always talked about rural isolation and connectivity for elderly and marginalised people. We cannot put a value on a rural transport scheme unless it is properly assessed for the savings that can be made by various other departments. This includes people no longer being isolated, being connected with others, being in a position to go for a hospital appointment or even go into town and have a couple of pints, rather than go to the off-licence and drink at home. Sadly, I have seen too many cases of that. It is like the community employment scheme; we cannot put a value on it. I know the Minister of State is the right man to put this right. I look forward to him coming down to see our own scheme in operation, and I know he will be impressed.
Senator Mark Daly: I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. The issue of rural transport is important, given the cuts that face the organisations which co-ordinate this throughout the country. The 8% cut in the 2012 budget will no doubt be felt very shortly. It is an imposition the organisations cannot afford at this time.
Rural transport plays an important role in combatting rural isolation. The Minister of State will be well aware of this in his own constituency. The next issue to be debated in this House is suicide and the ever-growing issue of isolated men in rural areas taking their own lives due to the fact that they had no social interaction. That social interaction is provided to some degree by rural transport, but the Government has hit out at rural Ireland on many occasions in the budget so that we need not be too worried about a rural transport system because, soon nobody will be living in rural Ireland to transport.
The Minister for Education and Skills spoke about two and three-teacher schools needing to consider their future, and the pupil-teacher ratio changes that were brought in as a result will be the death knell for some rural schools. If there is no rural school, people will not move to the area. We now have the issue of the septic tank charge, which is currently being debated at the environment committee. It would be harder to construct a more unjust attack, given the fact that people put in the tanks legally, with planning permission granted according to the regulations of the time, yet the Government will not now provide grant aid to those people to bring the septic tanks up to the required standards. It is a more fundamental issue than that, because now we have such standards and planning that there will be no new houses in rural areas that this rural transport system might facilitate. Ultimately, rural Ireland will close down.
We have had a series of unconnected legislation which has the foreseeable outcome of the end of rural Ireland as we know it. We have had drink driving regulations followed by planning regulations and small schools being shut down. If we add that all together, then in 20 years people will do studies on how rural Ireland ended up and why it disappeared. The last budget had an obvious anti-rural bias, with the closure of Garda stations, so people will not feel as safe in rural areas as they should and as they are entitled. I know the Minister of State has been fighting the school transport issue. It is very hard to take on these issues in this economic climate, but increased school transport fees, added to the fear that some schools will be closed down — some parents are making the decision not to send their children to a school they fear will be closed down — all adds to the slow, long process of virtually closing down rural Ireland. I do not think we will be worrying about a rural transport scheme in 20 years, because there will not be too many people to service in rural Ireland. This is what I would like the Minister of State to take from this. I know he is doing his best and he has come to the House on a previous occasion. He has fought hard at parliamentary party and Government level to maintain funding for rural transport. Ultimately, the policy of all Governments, not only this Government but previous ones, shows a lack of joined-up thinking for the obvious and foreseeable outcome of the numerous steps which have been taken and implemented over the past 20 years. This unintended outcome is that fewer people are able to live and raise families in rural Ireland.
The rural transport scheme deals with rural isolation to a degree but, as the Minister of State knows well, people cannot go to the pubs, which have all shut down, and the facilities people took for granted 20 years ago no longer are available. While I welcome the debate on the importance of the rural transport service it is part of a far wider debate on all the cuts, regulations and legislation introduced over the past 20 years which are having a very detrimental effect on rural Ireland. We have plans for spatial strategies and urban areas but we do not seem to have a plan that would allow people to live in rural Ireland and allow rural Ireland to thrive.
Senator Mary Moran: I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I am delighted to support the motion and I acknowledge the great work done by the rural transport service. I repeat what everybody else has stated about how vital a service it is for rural communities throughout the country. It is not only about transport; it is also about communication and the importance of transport in providing facilities and services for people in rural communities about which Senators have already spoken.
I wish to speak about my personal experience of the school transport service. My son was confined to a wheelchair and needed wheelchair transport to be taken to school. This was prior to the present Government coming to power. I wish to point out some of the problems that may exist in the system and how important it is to have communication in every area of the transport system. When we wanted him to return to school we were told we would have to apply for wheelchair transport as a bus was not on the route. He had already been on a wheelchair bus which we thought we could use again. Unfortunately we told we could not and we ended up having to hire a taxi.
When I contacted the Department of Education and Skills to make an application and have the matter looked into I could not find anyone to speak to who could understand when I told them there was a bus with a wheelchair facility but we were being made use a taxi. We received a Government subsidy of 33 cent per mile but the actual cost to send him to school for the 15 weeks he was wheelchair-bound was €170 a week. We were fortunate in that sense that my husband and I were working and could afford it but since then I have met many people who cannot afford this, and when such situations arise they are absolutely stuck and it results in children not being able to go to school. A simple matter like this could have been rectified easily. Not only had we to use a taxi but a wheelchair assistant was required to travel with my son and this was an additional cost. I wanted to raise the matter from this angle.
On a different note I wish to highlight the importance of rural transport by relating a story I heard at the funeral of a local businessman in Dundalk. This gentleman provided transport to neighbours in the area as no bus service existed. He was a very successful businessman in the town and was very kind as he would always stop for people on the road looking for a lift. One particular person had an unspoken understanding with him whereby she used to stand on the side of the road and if he drove past he would stop and give her a lift into town. One day he had a very important business meeting and after driving out his gate he spotted the lady standing at the bottom of the road. He opened the car door and said, “Come on, come on, I am late”. She got into the car and when they reached the town he asked where she wanted to be dropped. She answered, “Nowhere, I was just standing at the gate.”
Senator Denis O’Donovan: I support the amendment tabled by my colleague Senator Ned O’Sullivan. The rural transport scheme is wonderful but is only in its infancy. I regret that cutbacks have been made in the area. One of the first pilot schemes, the old Bantry rural transport scheme, was in my area, and there was also a scheme in Duhallow in north Cork. These worked very successfully.
We must face reality. The overall budget for transport — it is not the fault of the Minister of State who has inherited some of this — allocates less than 2% for rural transport and any cuts to rural transport will have devastating effects. In the area I represented for years as a councillor a bus used to go to Bere Island once a week. I have been told by the manager of the west Cork rural transport scheme, which has now widened, that cuts will take place which will affect very isolated areas. This is regrettable.
This morning I heard the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, giving assurances on “Morning Ireland” that while he was Minister there would be no increase in toll charges. The people living in these peninsular areas in west Cork never use a toll bridge. I suggest with respect to the Minister that if he put ten cent on every toll in Ireland, for those who can afford to travel and use toll roads including myself, and this was put aside to increase the budget for rural transport then people living in isolated areas would have recourse to the local bingo hall, perhaps the local pub or wherever. One must not dismiss the very important remark made recently by the coroner in Kerry who attributed some suicides in males over 50 to isolation, depression and the lack of a proper transport system.
The rural transport system is in its infancy. It has just got up and running. Buses, routes and drivers are in place. Instead of curtailing this I respectfully suggest that we should enhance the rural transport initiative in every way we can. A small increase in the budget for rural transport can achieve much. I occasionally call in to the office of the Bantry rural transport scheme to see how they are getting on and on this occasion I was made aware of an excellent initiative carried out in west Cork and, I am sure, replicated in other areas. It is a volunteer initiative which costs the State nothing whereby approximately 25 volunteer drivers throughout west Cork on a week on, week off basis drive people to CUH for chemotherapy or other cancer treatments. It is a wonderful initiative and this is volunteerism at its best. I hope it can be replicated. A few years ago a friend of mine suffered from cancer and one week I drove him to CUH for his treatment. We went there and back on the same day which was 70 miles each way.
We should give a little more encouragement to the rural transport initiative and a small amount of financial support. I know we are in difficult times but I argue the rural transport budget should not be 1.6% or 1.7% of the national transport budget, which it is at present, but should be a minimum of 3%. It should be doubled. I ask the Minister to examine this because in doing so he would be providing small bus services to remote areas such as the Borlin Valley, Bere Island, Allihies and the Mizen Peninsula where there are no other services available. The people living in these areas do not have access to the Luas. Most of them do not even know what the word “Luas” means.
While I condemn the Government, I also condemned the previous Government when I felt it had made mistakes. I have been vocal on the issue. We should not be clapping ourselves on the back for what we have achieved, as we have much more to achieve for rural Ireland. Rural transport services integration involves development. In my area the buses that come from the peninsulas and valleys around Bantry bring people to the post office, the day care centre, the very good Bantry Hospital and so on. The service is widely used and should be expanded. The buses used, as well as perhaps schools buses, could be used to allow people to socialise at weekends. If they want to come into town to have two or three pints on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening, the use of these buses should be facilitated in some way. We clap ourselves on the back for reducing the number of deaths on the roads to a record low level, of which we should be proud, but at the same time parts of rural Ireland have been disadvantaged. I cannot say, however, there should be one law on drink driving in rural Ireland. I am mature enough to know that would not work, but we should expand and develop existing services. The network is in place and a little would go a long way. I am not talking about the provision of millions of euro.
We should be very wary of making cutbacks in rural transport services. The loss of one bus or the curtailment of any service, whether it be in a remote area such as the Beara Peninsula or the Sheep’s Head Peninsula where I was born and reared, has a knock-on effect in the community. While we are living in difficult times, we should encourage the development of the existing resources. I, therefore, support my colleague’s amendment.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Alan Kelly): I am delighted that Seanad Éireann has once again taken such an interest in this topic. I compliment my Labour Party colleagues on tabling the motion. It is obvious to me that social exclusion is an issue all Members of the House seek to combat. I greatly welcome, therefore, the initiative of the Members concerned in tabling the motion, as it deals with an important topic.
Coming as I do from a small rural community, Portroe, which is better known for having produced the Rose of Tralee and Liam Sheedy, the manager who delivered the all-Ireland title back to Tipperary, I passionately believe public transport is not just an urban issue, even though there is a tendency to think in such terms when it comes to transport services. Rural Ireland is in my DNA. Therefore, public transport is an issue about which I am passionate. Rural people have as many, if not more, transport issues as those living in urban areas, to which a co-ordinated and cohesive response from the Government is needed. Many people living in rural areas have great difficulty in accessing transport schemes such as the rural transport scheme because they are isolated. They need a vital link to towns and villages. I have taken the opportunity to use the rural transport scheme in my home county to see the great benefits it has brought to so many in areas in which there was no other alternative transport service.
The rural transport programme is organised on the ground rather than from the top down. We must keep that local knowledge at the heart of the rural transport system as we integrate it even further. As a Government, it is vital that we maintain the service and enhance and integrate it with other State transport services, where possible. The importance of transport services to rural communities is acknowledged by the following commitment included in the programme for Government: to maintain and extend the rural transport programme with other local transport services as much as is practical.
Despite calls for the rural transport programme to be scrapped, funding has been maintained in 2012 at some 92% of the 2011 allocation. This funding is being provided in recognition of the important role played by the programme in combating rural isolation, particularly for the elderly. To put the programme in the context of older people, according to the 2010 figures, 56% of passenger journeys were made by persons over the age of 56 years, while 62% were made by free travel pass holders. Furthermore, 13% were made by passengers who required assistance to travel. RTP services are unique in this way and many services have passenger assistance staff on board to provide the necessary support. Drivers also assist passengers in various ways in carrying shopping, luggage, etc. That the majority of journeys tend to be door to door is an important and unique feature for many elderly people and funding of the programme facilitates the provision of such unique transport.
It is clear, however, that the system and funding model in place for the rural transport programme are not sustainable in the long term. A value for money review of the programme has been carried out and is with my Department with a view to being published shortly. Without going into the details, the report points to higher than usual costs in the administration of the programme and further demonstrates the need for efficiencies. The days of throwing money at what we believe are good ideas without having proper guidelines in place on how funding should be spent are gone. It is no longer good enough to spend money on good projects. We must spend money on the best projects and in the best way. It is vitally important that funding is concentrated on service provision over administration as we move towards integrated transport services across the country.
As I have mentioned in the House previously, there is a wider context to the question of access to rural transport services. Over 50% of rural people, when asked, felt there was no public transport service available in their area, yet in many cases there may be school transport or other State funded transport services nearby that they do not consider to be public transport services. This highlights for me the obvious need to change the way we think about rural transport services, explore new ideas and think outside the box. In essence, we must think about such services in a broader integrated transport context and, in so doing, ensure we continue to meet the transport needs of rural areas.
It is important also to ensure the community continues to remain at the heart of rural transport services. The last time I was in this House I spoke about the need to integrate State funded transport services. Taking 2010 as an example, €160 million was spent on the provision of school transport services; approximately €11 million was spent on the rural transport programme, while approximately €30 million was spent on Health Service Executive non-acute transport services. Until now these areas functioned independently of each other. If two of these groups were making the same journeys at or around the same time, nobody at any public service level would know about it or be motivated to think how we could integrate them. That is the way State transport services were managed under the previous Administration and the position must change. We must get a better bang for our buck when it comes to State transport services in rural and urban areas and this can only be done through providing for effective integration. There are some good examples, one of which is in Donegal where, through consultation and dialogue between the HSE and the local RTP providers, substantial savings in health transport services were made by integrating such services with the appointment times of the local health providers.
Since I last addressed Members, the plans for integration of transport services have been explored further with a memorandum circulated to relevant Departments. There remains significant scope for savings and avoiding duplication of services by bringing together aspects of HSE transport, school transport, the rural transport programme, other State and non-State transport services. There will have to be an enhanced procurement process but one that is driven fundamentally from the ground up and facilitated by Government bodies. The involvement of stakeholder organisations will be absolutely necessary, particularly at local level where it is envisaged local working groups will explore opportunities for transport services integration in partnership with stakeholders. This includes agencies, voluntary and other representative organisations. That process is at an early stage in regard to its strategic development.
Local communities know best their transport needs, but from now on we must provide services in an effective and co-ordinated way. That has not been happening to date, but this will have to change as part of plans to integrate services. To this end, an integrated approach to public transport provision in rural areas is being seriously examined by me and my Department. As part of this work the potential is being explored for efficiencies that can be made by bringing together aspects of HSE transport, school transport and the rural transport programme along with other services. The overall aim is to reduce duplication and costs while increasing efficiency and maintaining, developing and enhancing service provision.
The future for better integration of transport services in rural areas is not without challenges, some of which will be significant. However, we are committed to exploring the practical potential to maintain and extend the rural transport programme with other local transport services and to seeking support in exploring the possibilities of integration and in changing the way we think about rural transport services.
I have received the value for money report mentioned by many Senators earlier and I also have the LITS report. That, along with a memorandum for Government, has been circulated at Government level. It is a priority for the Government to have a strategy on this area at the very earliest opportunity this year. We are considering greater integration between all the areas I mentioned. I take on board what was said previously and reiterated today regarding the need to review how Bus Éireann carries out its activities and also to consider how we can integrate how private operators do their business in some areas. One size does not fit all, whether it is in Tipperary, Donegal, Offaly, Kerry or wherever. We need to consider how we can customise transport service in local areas. We need to provide greater connectivity and involve the National Transport Authority, which oversees all transport services in the country. I concur with Senator Landy that we also need to involve local authorities.
There is an issue with public transport awareness in rural areas. I agree with the Senators who said people are not aware of the rail, bus and rural transport scheme services in their areas. Many voluntary groups do work in this regard. I intend to deliver on that area because it needs to change significantly. We need to consider how to have not only greater integration but also public awareness and greater connectivity between all the services. We need transport hubs in rural areas and small towns. We need to be able to show people the alternatives to cars and that there is a public service that can meet some of their needs.
There is a slight overlap with the taxi review, which I am also conducting as Senators are aware. There is a degree of market failure when it comes to taxi and hackney services in rural areas. I come from a little village with no taxi service. That issue is being addressed as part of the review that is being conducted and is with Government at the moment. A number of Senators and Deputies have mentioned that to me.
I had to smirk somewhat when Senator O’Sullivan raised the issue of integrated ticketing. The ball might have been kicked off by Fianna Fáil but, by God, it was going around the pitch a long time. It was in a different century nearly. While I will acknowledge that it was kicked off there, it needed someone to ensure it was brought over the line. The Government is delighted that it has been brought over the line. We are very happy with the progress the Leap card is making and I encourage Members of this House to promote it as a great initiative that can help more people use more public transport in Dublin in particular. We hope this will expand across Ireland at some stage.
As it is mentioned in the motion, I wish to update Members on the Leap card. As Members know it was more than ten years in the offing but was made a priority when I came in to the Department. I am happy to report that the first phase has gone quite well with more than 34,000 cards issued to date and more than €780,000 in collective top-ups. More than 250,000 journeys have been taken to date and the daily rate for journeys is more than 20,000. People are voting with their feet with the card and I look forward to seeing additional products and functionalities being rolled out onto the card in coming months. There is a significant programme of work on the integrated ticketing Leap card. Each month during 2012 more products and services will be added to the card which will increase the volumes of users as they become aware of the greater integration.
I thank my Labour Party colleagues for the excellent motion they tabled. I thank all Members of the House for the spirit and the way in which they made rural transport and other rural issues a political priority by debating them here regularly. I thank everyone for their comments.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: I notice that rural areas are reasonably well represented in the Chamber during this debate, which is a good sign. We are the people at the coalface in this regard and are very well aware of the huge strides that have been made in rural areas. We can remember a time when we took our lot as if it was the grace of God and we had to put up with it. Many people then pointed out the importance and potential of rural areas. I think of people such as Canon Hayes, who founded Muintir na Tíre and did fantastic work at the time, Monsignor Horan, who set up Knock Airport, Canon McDyer and TJ Maher. They brought confidence back to the people. It was not long ago that people were referring to all the little homesteads that were closed, especially in the west, and saying that rural Ireland was dead. We then saw people coming back even from Britain and America and settling again.
Rural people did not take it easy. They worked hard and tried to establish, very often through their own efforts, a standard of living that cities might also have. However, we should recognise there was always a partnership with the State. The importance of rural transport is no different from the importance of the DART, Luas or Dublin Bus in this city. The Minister of State and I both come from a background to understand this. If ever there was a hiccup in public transport in Dublin, it would feature on the main television news that night and probably include a vox pop. We have not even reached the level whereby we could be in a position to say that it is not as good as it was. We are still trying to build it up.
If we do not provide an efficient transport system in rural areas, much of the good work will not continue and many young people will drift away from rural areas, reversing the more recent trend. I know of many young people who, when job opportunities arose, returned to rural areas because of the lifestyle, background and so on. We must always keep in touch and I applaud those people, some of whom were in the Gallery, who gave leadership on this issue. Without an organised approach to ensuring a continuation and an improvement on what we have, there is a possibility it will go down the list of priorities and might disappear from the radar altogether. We often talk about issues such as mental health. All of those matters are connected to isolation and there is isolation when we have no rural transport.
I know the Minister of State will appreciate this. Our appeal, alongside the appeal of the Government side, is first to engage with those who have focused the issue for us, and second to ensure it is not as simple as crossing off 10% or 15% of expenditure. There are considerable social issues here and there are issues of equality as well and any Government ought to be conscious of that.
Senator Paschal Mooney: I am grateful to my colleague, Senator Ó Murchú, for the time. I welcome the Minister of State, who does not have an easy job in the current economic circumstances we are experiencing. He would be the first to admit that public transport is an issue fraught with difficulties irrespective of where one lives in Europe, where most public transport services are publicly subsidised. These services seldom make money, are not always cost-efficient and, therefore, form part of the Government’s social agenda to ensure a basic infrastructure of public transport facilities is provided for citizens.
The point made by Senator Ó Murchú and others is relevant in the context of Ireland. The Minister of State will be aware, coming from a small village, as do I in Leitrim, that there is not a great deal of public transport in such place and traditionally there has not been much because of the wide dispersal of population. I admit that I am referring primarily to the north west, the west and along the western seaboard as distinct from the rest of the country which is better served because it has a higher density of population. The question appears to be how to address the issue or square the circle. It is part of the Minister of State’s job to try to do this with limited resources.
I suggest to the Minister of State that the reduction of €850,000 will have a far greater adverse impact on the rural transport scheme than on a national transport scheme. From this point of view, perhaps the Minister of State will elaborate, at some stage in the future or in the context of his presentation, on an integrated approach between Bus Éireann and the rural transport scheme, especially in the north west and the west, for example, to co-ordinate times to provide a rural transport link to the train in Sligo or Carrick-on-Shannon. My understanding is that in my county the rural transport system tends to be focused largely on arranging shopping trips at a particular time that suits people rather than having a more efficient operation. I agree with the Minister of State’s ambition to have a more efficient public service and a more efficient rural transport service, but there should be greater co-ordination between CIE, Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann and the rural transport scheme.
If one is living in County Leitrim, especially north Leitrim, and one is looking for a job or going for an interview in Sligo, there is no public transport at all and one must thumb a lift. I have often met people thumbing lifts on the roads of Leitrim and surrounding counties. When I pick them up, most of them are going either for a job interview or for some particular reason. As Senator Ó Murchú and others have said, this is why the rural transport scheme is so vital to rural Ireland. I am pleased to note that the Minister of State supports and will continue to support the concept.
Senator Paul Bradford: I support the motion. I listened with interest in the Chamber and outside to all the contributions and I concur with virtually everything that was said. I put it to my colleagues on the Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin sides of the House that, in a sense, our good words will come to naught if we end up having a silly political divide on these motions. We are all at one about the importance of rural transport and on the need to have it properly funded and to make further progress. I recognise the advances made during recent years. This is an ideal issue under which the Seanad can come together to support the concept rather than have a silly political divide. Two amendments are before us and I do not believe it would be in any way useful to divide the House on this important rural issue of transport. I call on my colleagues to consider that they have made their case and presented the arguments and that the Minister of State has listened. Traditionally the Seanad is at its best when we speak with one voice. The Seanad can be a place of genuine political consensus where we can raise these important issues, remove the party politics and try to make social and economic progress.
Senator Paul Bradford: Senator Cullinane has made his point and perhaps he will leave it at that. I listened to the Minister of State’s reply and I welcome his comments and his commitment. The concept of rural transport 20 years ago was quite different but it has transformed many lives in rural Ireland and it has given people an avenue to the outside world.
We will debate the issue of suicide prevention presently. Rural suicide is becoming an increasingly serious phenomenon. As Senator White said, under such schemes as the rural transport scheme, whereby one allows people to visit their neighbours, communities, local towns and villages, one is taking a major step forward in the advancement of mental health and the health care of the people. Rural transport plays an important role from a health perspective.
I wish the Minister of State well during the course of the coming years. I welcome the progress he has made to date but a good deal more should be done. I wish to put on record my appreciation of all the groups throughout the county, most of which have worked on a voluntary basis to ensure their communities have access to rural transport. Long may this continue. I support the motion presented by the Labour Party and hope we call all agree it as a step forward.
Senator John Whelan: I will not delay. I am heartened by the debate and discussion today. Hardly anyone could dispute the points made by Senator Ó Murchú and Mooney. Rural Ireland is fortunate to have many champions in the Seanad, all with the best interests of rural Ireland at heart. The motion has crystallised this. We are also fortunate to have in the Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, someone with an interest in and an insight into this issue and with the commitment and energy to fulfil the objectives we are setting out. I am heartened by the objectives and the targets the Minister of State has set himself. Although he is a Minister of State from our side of the House, we will keep at him to ensure he achieves them to the best of his abilities and within the resources.
Rural transport is not a luxury or an add-on. For years it has been seen as something that is reached at the last minute. I know of the impact Laois TRIP, the Laois rural transport company, has made in Laois and throughout the midlands since 2003. In many cases people would be unable to get into town to shop or even to make their medical appointments without the facility. It was formulated on an organic or ad hoc basis and this company and others realise we must now bring a stronger standardised formula, best practice and integration to this service in order that it can be developed. I am keen to see the Minister of State take the shackles off the rural transport companies in order that they can develop and prosper, increase their numbers and become more cost-effective. I am keen for him to address the issue of the disparity of costs from one region to another. I am conscious that my colleague, Senator Moloney, is keen to get in so I will curtain my comments at that.
Senator Marie Moloney: Others have covered the most important issues and I will not waste time and repeat everything that has been said. The Minister of State was not present last week when I spoke about suicide prevention. Rural isolation is one issue that relates to suicide, especially in older men in rural areas. The rural transport initiative study states:
I commend this and previous Governments for the work they have done on rural transport, especially since the Minster of State took over. I know the Minister of State’s heart is in the issue of rural transport because I have spoken to him about such issues in recent months since his election. I refer to some figures relating to Kerry South to give the Minister of State an idea of what has taken place in the area of community transport. Since 2003, Kerry community transport has experienced considerable growth, with passengers trips increasing from 34,000 in 2003 to in excess of 140,000 for 2011. These passenger numbers speak for themselves.
I wish to raise another issue of which the Minister of State is aware since he kindly met a deputation from the Kerry cancer support group. I emphasise how important community transport is to the people of Kerry. If one leaves areas such as Caherciveen — with which the Minister of State is au fait since his wife comes from that area — and Dingle, one cannot make public transport connections to Cork to have cancer treatment and be in time to make the connection back by bus. I am delighted, therefore, at the integrated approach being taken by the Minister of State. It indicates joined-up thinking, which is what we need. I know the Minister of State is working with people in County Kerry because they have told me. I commend him for his work to date.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: I thank the Minister of State for his genuine commitment to the next phase of the process which to date has been a good one. As I stated earlier, sometimes it takes time to decide whether money has been spent in the best way. We are now in the second phase of the process and the integration programme is coming into its own. This is when we will see growth and creativity. Other Senators have made it clear that this creative phase will not simply be about integrating GP, health and school services, that in the integration process in respect of those things which are seen as basic and fundamental in the lives of people, the necessary approaches will be taken to ensure social transport services. This means taking into account the needs of those people who need to travel at night and may need to travel to a train station to visit a loved one in another city or elsewhere else in Ireland. It should not be a case of looking at HSE and school bus services only.
Many speakers have paid tribute to various organisations. We have had a tour around Ireland tour and it is good to remember those who work hard for persons who have been excluded. I refer to an American programme, Independent Transportation Network. It comprises a group of individuals, volunteers and business people, who have come together on a national basis to find creative ways of thinking of new schemes. We know there are many people in rural areas who would like to assist. It is not simply a matter of people living in rural areas not knowing about bus services. There are prospective volunteers who do not know they can volunteer. I would like to see the Department organising an advertising programme aimed at such individuals. For instance, cancer services in various parts of the country are helped enormously by such volunteers. Community spirit is still very strong in rural Ireland and with a little extra energy and creativity while the integration programme is under way the Department could take advantage of this spirit to push for the involvement of volunteers. I suggest it take advantage of programmes such as the Independent Transportation Network which provides for synergy between business and volunteers.
|Byrne, Thomas.||Crown, John.|
|Cullinane, David.||Daly, Mark.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Mooney, Paschal.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Darragh.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||Reilly, Kathryn.|
|Walsh, Jim.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Comiskey, Michael.||Conway, Martin.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||D’Arcy, Jim.|
|D’Arcy, Michael.||Gilroy, John.|
|Harte, Jimmy.||Hayden, Aideen.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Heffernan, James.|
|Henry, Imelda.||Keane, Cáit.|
|Kelly, John.||Landy, Denis.|
|Moloney, Marie.||Moran, Mary.|
|Mulcahy, Tony.||Mullins, Michael.|
|Noone, Catherine.||O’Brien, Mary Ann.|
|O’Keeffe, Susan.||O’Neill, Pat.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||van Turnhout, Jillian.|
|Whelan, John.||Zappone, Katherine.|
|Byrne, Thomas.||Crown, John.|
|Cullinane, David.||Daly, Mark.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Mooney, Paschal.||Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Comiskey, Michael.||Conway, Martin.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||D’Arcy, Jim.|
|D’Arcy, Michael.||Gilroy, John.|
|Harte, Jimmy.||Hayden, Aideen.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Heffernan, James.|
|Henry, Imelda.||Keane, Cáit.|
|Kelly, John.||Landy, Denis.|
|Moloney, Marie.||Moran, Mary.|
|Mulcahy, Tony.||Mullins, Michael.|
|Noone, Catherine.||O’Brien, Mary Ann.|
|O’Keeffe, Susan.||O’Neill, Pat.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||van Turnhout, Jillian.|
|Whelan, John.||Zappone, Katherine.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Comiskey, Michael.||Conway, Martin.|
|Crown, John.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|D’Arcy, Jim.||D’Arcy, Michael.|
|Gilroy, John.||Harte, Jimmy.|
|Hayden, Aideen.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Heffernan, James.||Henry, Imelda.|
|Keane, Cáit.||Kelly, John.|
|Landy, Denis.||Moloney, Marie.|
|Moran, Mary.||Mulcahy, Tony.|
|Mullins, Michael.||Noone, Catherine.|
|O’Keeffe, Susan.||O’Neill, Pat.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||van Turnhout, Jillian.|
|Whelan, John.||Zappone, Katherine.|
|Byrne, Thomas.||Cullinane, David.|
|Daly, Mark.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O'Brien, Darragh.|
|O'Donovan, Denis.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
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