Check against delivery
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Committee today.
However, before I address the committee I would like to express my deep concern at the effect a proposed strike next Monday could have on the travelling public – particularly those in regional cities and rural Ireland who depend heavily on public transport.
At this very delicate time of a potentially serious industrial relations dispute, I believe we are all required to exercise great care so that all opportunities are taken by the company and its employees to resolve the issues that have led to this threatened strike.
However, I am happy to dispel some of the incorrect claims that have been made by some Committee members about the causes and origins of this dispute. In particular, I want to rebut suggestions that I am not doing enough to enable a settlement to be reached by the parties. I will also deal with the false claim that the dispute stems from policy failure by my Department.
Let me address the issues one-by-one.
Firstly, Deputies have criticised the level of PSO funding and called on me to increase the allocation.
But that's exactly what I have done.
This year the total PSO has increased by 11%, last year it increased by 13% overall and Bus Éireann itself actually benefitted from a 21% increase in its subvention in 2016.
But as Committee members are repeatedly informed - subvention is provided for PSO services only; under law it cannot be provided for commercial services.
Secondly, Deputies have raised the issue of funding of the Free Travel Scheme and called on me to examine whether it requires modification.
And again, that's exactly what I have done.
Both the Minister for Social Protection and I have instructed our Departments to examine the funding levels of that Scheme and report back to us shortly. That examination is a brief, focussed piece of work and is progressing well. I expect that Minister Varadkar and I will resolve the issue satisfactorily.
Thirdly, some Deputies have alleged this Government is "attacking" the public bus service in rural Ireland. That's nonsense. We're actually expanding the public bus service in rural Ireland through increasing the amount of PSO funding to Bus Éireann as I've already pointed out, and also providing a 24% increase in funding to the Rural Transport Programme.
And again, we need to stop confusing issues here.
The vast majority of people in rural Ireland who use a bus travel on a PSO service or a commercial operator other than Expressway. There are no threats to those services. In fact they're expanding, they are seeing increasing passenger numbers, and in the case of PSO services, increasing taxpayer funding.
In relation to rural Ireland, I have been consistently clear in assuring rural communities that the NTA will step in and assist in cases where connectivity is threatened.
And that's what's happened.
In response to Bus Éireann's announcement of a small number of route changes to some Expressway routes, the NTA has published its assessment of the impact and taken action as it deemed appropriate.
This includes extending PSO services in relation to Athlone/Westport and better timetabling for Rural Transport Services in Clonmel. The NTA has said it will keep the situation under review and would welcome feedback on its proposals.
But let's be clear, those actions by me, actions which this very Committee has called for, won't resolve the issue.
Expressway is a commercial business unit run by Bus Éireann and it is losing money. The Committee has heard the Company estimates around €9million worth of losses in 2016 with no improvement forecast.
Expressway services account for 10% of all Bus Éireann passenger journeys in a given year. The vast majority, 90% in fact, of Bus Éireann passenger journeys are made on a taxpayer funded service:
· Either a PSO service provided by the Company under contract with the NTA,
· Or else a school transport service provided by the Company under an agreement with the Minister for Education and Skills.
There are no funding issues with either PSO or school transport services. Bus Éireann is fully compensated for those services it provides.
The core issue that must be resolved is how to tackle the unsustainable losses on Expressway commercial services, which of course cannot be subsidised by the taxpayer.
Contradictory assertions have made about what should be done to deal these losses in Expressway.
Some Committee members seem to think that I should intervene directly in internal matters of the Company.
To do so would mean cutting across the role of not just the Company but also trade unions in terms of agreeing work practices and terms and conditions.
I believe that the Company and its employees are best placed to agree those types of issues and that external interference is unnecessary and unhelpful. Obviously I recognise that any such agreement will of course require flexibility and realism on both sides.
Such calls for Ministerial intervention overlook the established role and expertise of the WRC and the Labour Court in assisting Employers and Employees in settling often very contentious disputes.
Those bodies are best placed to assist the Company and trade unions in reaching an acceptable agreement. I believe we should be willing to learn the lessons of the past and recognise the benefits of allowing the industrial relations bodies act in accordance with their statutory mandate and best professional judgement. I make no apologies for holding to this view.
My view should never be mistaken for a lack of concern about the very serious financial problems that have beset Bus Éireann or an indifference to the genuine anxieties of employees about their future.
I want the company to return to a path of viability and I wish to see the company prosper in the interests of its employees and its customers. This can only be done by the company reversing the losses in its Expressway business and targeting those elements of its business model that are not competitive.
Surely the Committee would agree that it is a reasonable approach for any responsible company to take?
Negotiating with its Trade Unions is crucial to ensuring the company can compete effectively and return to profit in its Expressway services. I am as impatient as any member of the Committee to see a return to stability in the company’s industrial relations.
A willingness to engage constructively and a spirit of compromise on both sides is critical to achieving this.
I also reject any suggestion that I, as Minister, or my Government colleagues are seeking a very low cost employment model for Bus Éireann. This is not the case.
I welcome the Company's statement on Monday that they are committed to protecting basic pay rates and “enhancing these as circumstances permit”. In order to compete, I consider that Bus Éireann must continuously adapt and modernise and respond to customer demand.
Some Deputies seek to blame Bus Éireann's current problems on the reforming Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 which was brought forward by my predecessor, Noel Dempsey T.D.
I think that shows a lack of understanding about what that Act seeks to do: promote public transport and put the passenger at the heart of public transport policy.
I believe that the growth in the commercial bus market that we have witnessed shows that the customer is responding positively to these changes and that fundamentally more people using public transport is a good thing.
That is not to say that I am unwilling to review the effectiveness of existing legislation. I hope to have opportunities to engage with the Committee and other stakeholders on how the legislation can be strengthened to promote further the interest of passengers.
I know, and hope that the Committee knows also, that different stakeholders have different roles to play as we move forward with resolving this issue. I have taken actions which are proper to my position as Minister and which I believe will assist with the overall resolution but my actions cannot substitute for the actions of others.
Those others are the employer and employees and their brief now is to engage in serious discussions and reach an agreement that will restore Bus Éireann to a sustainable future.