Seanad Éireann - Volume 196 - 23 June, 2009

Night-time Rural Transport: Statements.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis——

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Is there a copy of the Minister’s speech?

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I do not have a script.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Are there cutbacks in the Department already?

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: No.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Minister, without interruption.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: We should have a copy of the speech.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: On what basis?

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: On the basis that this is statements on night-time rural transport and as a courtesy to the House.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: There is no obligation on the Minister to provide a script.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I had intended teacht isteach i dtosach báire agus éisteacht leis na Seanadóirí agus ansin, nuair a bheadh an méid a bhí le rá ráite acu, bhí sé i gceist agam míniú a thabhairt. Ach ó tharla gur iarradh orm labhairt i dtosach, labhróidh mé i dtosach agus míneoidh mé an scéal.

Several years ago when the changes to the drink driving laws were introduced, there was serious concern about the provision of night-time transport in rural Ireland, especially in areas which did not have a service. At the time, the rural transport initiative did not cover those areas and there was no provision within the scheme for night-time transport. As a result, I decided to set up a pilot scheme for night-time transport which was piloted over seven years. It always amazes me that when one sets up a pilot scheme, and everyone knows it is a tempor[222]ary pilot scheme, the minute one goes to mainstream it, everybody cries foul and claims one is withdrawing something. My understanding of a pilot scheme is that one tries something, works out how one will go forward and decides what the permanent long-term arrangements should be. Those arrangements should not be confined to a small number of areas.

When we set up the pilot scheme, we said we would fund it out of the rural development fund. The rural development fund was set up specifically for pilot actions of short duration and for research.

The scheme has operated well and has thrown up some very interesting results. For example, the cost per passenger ranges from €1.50 to €12. The first question one would have to ask is why is there such a huge imbalance. My other concern was that the initial case arose from people claiming they could not socialise and get home at night. In other words, the scheme should not be confined to pensioners but include, as it would on a city bus service, wage-earning young people faced with the same physical problem of getting home at night when there is no public transport in their area. It is amazing that when a service is provided in rural areas, some believe it is needed only by the old. I often ask those with this mind set if they have ever considered how hilarious it would be considered to extend such a condition to Dublin, demanding a means test for all those getting on a city bus or that only free travel pass holders could use bus services.

Many rural services are focused exclusively at the needs of the older age group. In any future consideration of rural transport schemes they should also be focused at the cohort who may want to socialise at night, irrespective of age or employment status. It should not just be about providing transport for those without a car. It should be about facilitating everyone, who in the past under more liberal laws could go to their local hostelry, have a few drinks and drive home, in leaving their cars at home and getting home safely later.

The seven pilot groups did their job well, each taking a different approach with good results. The review found it was a good and necessary scheme. It highlighted that if the scheme were to be run on a mainstream basis, then the free travel pass should be accounted for by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The review also found other areas which had successful schemes should have them extended if it were established on a full-time basis.

It must be kept in mind that the night-time scheme cost €500,000 a year. When it was established several years ago, total funding for the rural transport initiative, through the rural transport fund from the Department of Transport, was €5 million. This year it will be €9 million. The rural transport initiative is now better funded than it was four years ago. The Department of Transport has made it clear to the companies providing rural transport that evening services, if they are priority, are allowed out of that €9 million funding. Several rural transport initiatives are already providing separate night-time services under a new dispensation from the Department of Transport. Areas not part of the original pilot project have seen the benefit of the scheme and have changed their rules to accommodate night-time services. The claim that services will not be provided at night is nonsense.

Six of the seven groups attended a meeting — I admit short notice was given for it and I regret one group could not attend — with me and Pobal recently in which there was a long discussion on how the scheme may continue. It was felt the rational way would be through the general rural transport initiative. Pobal will be in contact with all the different groups individually. It will then meet them together to facilitate them in this year’s rural transport initiative and to prioritise which night-time services the groups believe should continue. With funding always finite, people will have to make choices.

[223]When the night-time transport initiative was introduced, I put a limit on administration for the scheme coming to 10% of overall funding. Pobal, however, has informed me the general rural transport initiative has overhead costs of between 25% and 40%. Taking an average of 30% would mean €2,700,000 is going on overheads. Being blunt about it, those extra moneys from my Department could be more than clawed back by examining the need for such large overheads and more efficient ways of administering the scheme. For example, my Department runs 20 island ferry services with overheads amounting to only 1% or 2% of the overall budget. My Department must go into detailed analysis of every service we provide, by entering into reasonably long contracts, using efficient systems of tendering and so on. Priority services in the night-time scheme needed by communities will continue.

4 o’clock

The rural transport initiative is due for re-organisation next year. The whole question of rural transport will have to be examined then. As the Minister responsible for rural development, I cannot go along with the idea that everything is being done the right or efficient way. The best way of providing good rural services is to have a mix of them. In the case of the night-time rural transport service, it should not only attract those with a free travel pass but those who could pay for it. The whole success of the island ferry services, for example, is that paying customers carry them considerably so that the subsidies imposed on the islanders are modest. If the services were designed not to have paying customers, the subsidy charge would be so great for the islanders that it would make it unsustainable. Unfortunately, when it comes to rural night-time transport services there is a fixation that only one group needs them and they should not be designed for other users. Applying that logic to the provision of urban transport services would mean not one bus in Dublin would be left because all the paying customers would be taken away. The whole basis of public transport would be undermined if one does not attract as a wide a group of users as possible, irrespective of income.

The pilot exercise was good and achieved its objective. The rules of the rural transport initiative have been changed. Within the initiative, there are enough funds to maintain those night-time services in the seven areas that have high demand and patronage. Due to the success of the pilot scheme, the Department of Transport changed the rules to accommodate other areas to begin their own night-time services.

However, while it was fine to have the pilot scheme in one Department, it would be irrational to have two Departments involved in the rural transport initiative. While it was justifiable to conduct the pilot scheme, as a long-term arrangement it always was intended to integrate this scheme under the remit of a single Department to cut down on overheads and have a co-ordinated approach and so that those who provide rural transport services can choose between day and night-time services, according to the needs in their own localities.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom cúpla focal a rá ar dtús. Tá súil agam go mbeidh díospóireacht bhríomhar faoin gcéist seo agus ag an deireadh, déanfaidh mé iarracht aon cheist a bheidh ann a fhreagairt.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: In welcoming the Minister, I stress the commonality, in that I agree with him that the pilot scheme has been successful. Good initiatives have been taken and I will not argue that point with the Minister. I will begin with a quotation from a study from July 2000 by Farrell Grant Sparks, Rural Transport: A National Study from a Community Perspective:

Inadequate transport has a particularly adverse impact on those who are disadvantaged in any way and on those in society who are most vulnerable. The impacts appear more marked in rural areas, where even basic services can prove difficult to access.

[224]While the structures of rural Ireland undoubtedly have changed, this still is a predominantly rural country. Many people have a quaint notion of living in Ireland that is associated with fresh air, accessibility to the coast, farming and a great lifestyle. However, this is linked to falls in the size of the average household, increases in the age profile and there has been a profound impact on many older residents. The Minister is correct to note the rural transport scheme is about both the old and the young and does not simply pertain to the elderly. The scheme that operated in west Cork was of benefit by bringing people to bingo, mass, youth clubs, social events and even to the pub. It is important to stress this scheme was not merely a conduit for bringing people out for a drink or anything similar and to pay tribute, as did the Minister, to those who organised the schemes. While this was a pilot scheme, such a scheme must have a replacement or follow-on, rather than face termination. Rural Ireland has suffered the elimination of many key services over the past ten years. Many post offices and banks have moved out of rural Ireland and these statements in the House today are taking place because many people on the Government benches raised this issue last week.

The seven schemes operated well, did the job properly and offered a lifeline for people. The cost factor may be offset by the economic benefits and one also can refer to the carbon footprint and so on. However, the role of the Government must be to promote and continue the policies that can bolster effectively life in rural Ireland, which requires rural transport initiatives by night. I lay stress on the night-time scheme because the day-time scheme is to continue.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: The night-time scheme also will continue.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Last year, the Minister stated:

I believe the concept is right. When one compares what is spent by the State on urban transport with rural transport, one finds that the money spent per capita on rural transport is minuscule.

This scheme should be continued with and the timetables arising from this transport scheme, which have provided benefits to many communities, should be examined.

Connectivity and accessibility for all citizens must form part of this plan. The figures for west Cork, with which I am familiar, demonstrate a huge increase in volume from the outset to the present position. In 2002, there were 102 passengers in the first month, which climbed to nearly 40,000 passengers in 2008 and the social impact was enormous. Members also should consider the scheme in County Meath, in which people look forward to weekly visits to their local town for whatever purpose they might have. This scheme has been of benefit and more importantly, it collects people at different points and does not preclude the narrow country boreens, with which many Members are familiar. If one considers the social impact of such interaction, that is, having company, meeting people, the chat, comhrá and banter, as well as fulfilling obligations such as banking, visiting the post office, going to mass or other social interactions, it is important to place rural development in the context of this road transport scheme.

I am concerned about the direction of the Government and its agencies in respect of basic infrastructure and services. I refer to Bus Éireann, the NRA, as well as to Pobal and the Leader programmes, which are under the remit of the Minister’s Department. The trend of centralised services must be examined and I revert to the point that we must create sustainable rural communities. Given the cuts in its routes, is Bus Éireann so doing? Is the NRA, which is culling vital road projects, so doing? What is the position regarding the roll-out of broadband? I spoke on the Order of Business regarding job creation for rural Ireland. Members should consider the manner in which agriculture is declining under the Government. Despite the Minister’s [225]protestations and eloquent self-defence, the fortunes of rural Ireland have been plummeting. In the renewal of the programme for Government, which probably will take place after the referendum on the Lisbon treaty referendum, the Minister should have a strong rural transport scheme that will take up the vital work that has been done for these seven communities. There should be accessibility and connectivity rather than what would happen were this scheme to be culled, namely, isolation and people being deprived of access to services.

  Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: I dtosach, fáiltím roimh an Aire agus an soiléiriú a thug sé dúinn ar an gcóras iompair tuaithe. Déarfainn gur chuir sé eolas ar fáil dúinn nach raibh b’fhéidir ann go poiblí go dtí seo agus b’fhiú an t-eolas sin a bheith againn chun bunchloch ceart a thabhairt don díospóireacht seo mar is díospóireacht an-tábhactach í.

I can recall the famous interview given by Monsignor Horan on “The Late Late Show”, when he was obliged to defend the idea of an airport at Knock. He started by stating he was only a humble parish priest and then suggested the cost of putting in place that airport would be no greater than adding and maintaining a single carriage on the DART in Dublin. The point he was making was that when one helps rural Ireland, people tend to question it although little questioning takes place when the same money is spent in urban areas. President Mary McAleese spoke some time ago about people who are isolated in rural Ireland and on the resulting depression that accompanies it. She appealed to all organisations to do something to ensure that such people would be helped. I can remember some of the jokes that were in circulation when the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, launched his scheme in 2007. Yet the Minister courageously defended an innovative scheme, which did not exist heretofore, to help the very people that Monsignor Horan and President McAleese had in mind. The press release at the time is quite clear that this was a pilot scheme.

If I believed this scheme had run into a cul-de-sac, I would address this House in outraged tones, but that is not the case. The pilot scheme has been so successful that the suggestion it now will enter the mainstream has created a major debate. I am glad of that, because Members do not often get to debate issues such as looking after isolated communities. While these issues may not always be huge vote-getters in their own right, Members must think along humanitarian lines. I agree with Senator Buttimer that one must ensure that services are available for people who find themselves in isolated areas. It is clear that the seven groups in question have done quite a good job. That means the pilot scheme, at a cost of half a million euro, was successful. However, in the context of the €9 million available to the rural transport initiative, it follows logically that having had a successful pilot scheme, it should now be integrated into the rural transport initiative.

I was surprised by one of the statistics the Minister provided. I assume it relates to elements of the rural transport initiative. The Minister said administrative costs account for between 25% and 40% of the overall cost. That is totally and utterly untenable at any time, but certainly untenable at a time when there are pressures on finances generally.

Everything said during this debate is based on goodwill. Senators are reflecting what they are hearing on the ground. The Minister shares the commitment of Monsignor Horan and President McAleese to the people of rural Ireland. If the House were to start focusing on the rural transport initiative, it would be giving a great sense of support to such people. We need to ask why administration costs are so high. Given that the pilot scheme has been so successful — there is huge demand for its retention — why can it not be brought into the mainstream? If we do not go down that road, there will be a reluctance to undertake any innovative pilot schemes in the future. I would like to praise the Minister in this regard. At a time when everybody else was moaning, the Minister took the bull by the horns and initiated a scheme that had not been contemplated by anyone else. He took a risk. There was a grave danger that [226]the scheme would not work. There were concerns that a white elephant would land back on his desk. We are dealing with a good news story, however. The scheme was successful. Those who are using it want to continue to do so.

The budget for the rural transport initiative has increased from €5 million to €9 million. If those who are responsible for the initiative share our concerns about the people of rural Ireland, particularly those who are isolated at night time from a social or sporting point of view, they should listen carefully to what is being said here. If they do not respond generously to our remarks, that will represent a return to the time when certain communities were not considered, regardless of how isolated they were. We have to look after people in such communities, some of whom may be suffering from depression. My focus, to that end, is on the rural transport initiative.

  Senator Rónán Mullen: Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Seanadóir Doherty.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Senator Rónán Mullen: Is mian liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Nuair a sheol sé an scéim phíolótach — an scéim oíche iompair tuaithe — bhí mé an-tógtha le cé chómh líofa agus paiseanta a labhair sé faoin rationale a bhí laistiar den scéim. Dúirt sé go raibh sé tábhachtach go mbeadh ceannaireacht ag teacht ón bpobal chun seirbhísí taistil a chur ar fáil chun cabhrú le daoine dul go dtí bingo, aifrinn agus clubanna óige, srl. He said the scheme would allow rural people to participate fully in the various community, sporting and social activities that take place in rural areas. He referred to the need to address the market failure that existed at that time. It was a most welcome statement because it clearly recognised that the welfare of the people should not be at the service of the markets, but rather vice versa. If that principle had been applied in the financial sector, we would all be better off.

I am disappointed that an annual cut of approximately €650,000 has been provided for. I question whether such a visionary and worthwhile service should be cut. I recognise that we are living in straitened economic times. I wonder whether the welfare of elderly rural people is being vindicated as it should be. I am not sure, having listened to the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and Senator Ó Murchú, whether the services that were made available through the rural transport initiative will continue to benefit such people. When people look back on what has happened, they will examine that question. While I appreciate what has been said about the rural transport initiative, I question whether services will be delivered to marginalised people in places where more commercially viable services are not inclined to run.

It has been suggested that local authorities could be given responsibility for providing rural transport services. Perhaps the sustainable travel officer model could be used. I understand that Bus Éireann is interested in taking over the scheme. The commitment of Bus Éireann to public transport in rural areas is highly questionable, given that it is currently implementing further route cuts. The company is proposing to withdraw totally or drastically reduce 99 routes across the country, which would leave large rural areas with no services. The first phase of route cuts, which will affect 52 routes, was announced last month. The second phase will affect 47 routes. Has the Government considered diverting a fraction of the €30 million subsidy that it is continuing to pay to Bus Éireann, which has abandoned its public service obligation, into the running of the pilot night-time rural transport scheme?

One part of government wants to reduce carbon emissions, address rural isolation and promote regional connectivity. I commend the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for his complete commitment and competence in this area. However, another part of government is allowing Bus Éireann to dismantle a public transport system that is already [227]inadequate at a time when the pilot night-time rural transport scheme is falling by the wayside. A national sustainable rural transport policy is urgently needed. Last year, the cost of school transport doubled in some instances. Some children might not have any bus to school when the new term begins. Third level students will also be affected by these changes, as will the tourism sector. There is a need for a rethink on this, especially as Irish Rural Link has called on the Government to give a public commitment to the future of wider rural transport.

  Senator Pearse Doherty: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Ghabh mé comhghairdeas leis nuair a chuir sé an scéim phíolótach ar bun. The Minister acted courageously when he saw an opening at that time. He understood that the Government needed to do something about public anger in this regard, so he stepped in and took it on. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs was given responsibility for it, even though the Department of Transport should have been responsible. While I commend him for the action he took at that time, he should also be commended for the spin he put on his decision to shut the programme down. Although there might be cutbacks at Government level, I do not think any spin doctors have been let go so far. The Government did an excellent job of trying to convince us it is a good thing that seven counties will not have this service after 10 July.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: We will continue——

  Senator Pearse Doherty: If the Minister can say that evening services will continue in counties like Donegal, Sligo and Cork——

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: It is up to themselves.

  Senator Pearse Doherty: ——and the rural transport initiative will continue to operate as it has done, we will all believe him. The reality is that the Minister cannot say that today. I hope that will be the eventual outcome, but it cannot be achieved today. I commend the Minister and his Department for making this scheme, which was needed, successful. I cannot understand why a successful scheme, 10% of the costs of which are administrative, is to be lumped in with a Department of Transport scheme, up to 40% of the costs of which are administrative. The Minister needs to hold his ground and tell the Taoiseach to get the Minister for Transport to set his own shop in order by sorting out the problems in the rural transport initiative. People in rural communities should be able to avail of the best possible services. I wish to comment on what has been provided over recent years. A 2002 survey found that 380,000 people in rural Ireland believe their transport needs are not being met. It was predicted that the figure would increase to 450,000 over the coming years. Other Senators have mentioned Bus Éireann’s 99 route cuts, which will put more pressure on communities in rural Ireland. One of the things I welcomed in the Awakening the West report was the evening service, which was a positive and courageous initiative. Just as I commended the Minister on that, I believe he needs to come up with a better response to the current difficulties. He needs to make it clear not only that the evening services and the rural transport initiative services will remain intact, but also that he will consider how they can be expanded.

  Senator Camillus Glynn: Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis as ucht an dea-obair atá déanta aige ar an scéim seo.

As one who hails from a rural area but now lives in a town, I appreciate, as do many if not all other Members, the great innovative measure the Minister took in introducing this scheme, albeit on a pilot basis. He has established that it has been a success. While some people might say the local public house is not the be all and end all of life, which it is not, nevertheless it plays a pivotal role in a rural area, not in terms of what people might drink but in providing [228]an outlet for people to meet and socialise. They do not have to consume alcohol to do that, they could have a mineral, be it an orange, a 7 Up or a Coke.

The pilot scheme has established one fact, namely that there is an established service need. This scheme can be developed. I remember when people in certain estates in Mullingar, which is a sizable provincial town, found it difficult to arrange for their children to be transported to and from school and a local businessman laid on a service. Unfortunately the service was not provided for long but the need existed for such a service. There is also a need for this service. I was disappointed to hear of the high administrative costs of operating the service. That is regrettable. If that can be addressed in some shape or form, the scheme could be successfully run again.

In the game of politics in which we are engaged, one is damned if one does something and one is damned if one does not do something. If the introduction of a measure is the right thing to do and the setting up of this pilot scheme was the right thing to do, then it is a case of hard cheese for those who do not agree with it. I commend the Minister on setting it up. We must encourage the service users to come centre stage to examine what they can do to encourage the further development of this scheme and, as Senator Ó Murchú said, to mainstream the provision of it.

The point was made that this service is required by not only the elderly. While the elderly need a transport service, many other groups also need such a service. They are not necessarily the people who want to go for a drink to their local pub in their rural area. They also have an established service need and that must be addressed in some way.

Many Members have taken an interest in this as is evidenced by the number of Members in the Chamber and the Members who have yet to contribute. Whatever can be done should be done to mainstream this scheme and put it on a solid footing. I and every other Member appreciates that administrative costs not only in this area but in many areas are way too high. If they are too high and are contributing to the restricting of a service, that has to be addressed. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours and commend him on setting up this pilot scheme.

  Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the Minister. I am disappointed the analysis and results of the pilot study do not appear to have not been made available. In effect, we are being asked to discuss a service that has been successful in a vacuum. It would have been helpful to have had figures in advance of this debate. It would have also been helpful to have had a copy of the Minister’s speech rather than simply listening to him read it. I am lucky that I have a copy of his previous speech on this issue dating back to 12 March 2007. I would like the Minister to clarify something he said today compared to what said then. I understand from what he said today that this service was set up largely for people who may have had cars but wanted to access local public services. In his 2007 speech he said, “A classic example of the lack of comprehension was the stream of articles and reports about the fact that I was going to set up a fleet of “ ‘booze buses’ ”. He went on say that regional newspapers "reported accurately what I actually said, which was that I was proposing a night-time rural transport system to tackle rural social isolation, which would be community-led and provide transport to social gatherings, bingo, mass, youth clubs etc". I would like him to clarify that the purpose of this proposal is to cater for people who want to go to youth clubs or to access night-time work and not purely for those who want to go to the local pub, as important a place of meeting as that is. Some clarity is needed on that.

The Minister is right to try to mainstream these pilot studies. It is not right to introduce a pilot study and then renew it. A pilot study proves whether something is worthwhile. If the provision of a service is not worthwhile, we need to stop wasting Government money on it, but [229]if it is worthwhile, we need to support it. I recognise the merit of that. In the absence of any detailed analysis on this pilot study, it is difficult to establish which of these services were worthwhile.

I accept many benefits are derived from the provision of rural transport services. I recently carried out a survey in the rural areas of County Meath to which 900 rural dwellers responded. In the survey I posed questions on rural isolation and on how social involvement depends on transport. It is evident that if public transport services are made available in the day time and at night time, people will use them and this will result in a greater sense of community. Has the analysis of the pilot study considered factors such as the social benefits of such a service and not only the fare box revenue collected by the driver of a vehicle every time he or she picks up a passenger? Does the analysis take account of factors such as the consequent lowering of accident rates on the roads, the social cohesion benefits that will flow from the ability of people to get around more and the better physical and mental health that will result from people being able to mix and mingle and get out more in their communities? We need also to consider the jobs saved by the ability of people to go to their local bingo hall or to their local pub. Have those benefits been taken into account? Have the benefits of the ability of people to access their local jobs markets in the evening, perhaps to go to work in the local town, been taken into account? I would like to have the details underpinning the results of the pilot study. I am willing to take what the Minister said at face value. If he tells me that any worthwhile schemes will be maintained and will be run under the rural transport initiative, I am happy to accept that, but we need to see that analysis and to have that commitment. Mr. Seamus Boland, the chief executive of Irish Rural Link, said that this is part of the salami slicing of rural transport which sees local communities lose vital services. I hope he is wrong. I hope the Minister does not believe that and that he will make money available for schemes that should be saved.

In his speech on this subject two years ago, the Minister said:

It’s up to every person living in a rural area to use their vote so that the voice of rural people can be clearly heard. Vote for whatever party you believe is doing the most for rural development...

If these pilot studies show that they are of benefit, that the services are being used and that the social benefits emanating from them exceed the cost provision, it is vital the Government makes the necessary funding available for them. I would like the Minister to clarify that such funding will be made available and that he will guarantee that funding will be made available for successful pilot schemes. I congratulate him on his initiative. He is correct in saying we cannot continue with pilot schemes; if they are successful, they must be funded and if they are not, they must be cut. We need to have the detailed analysis behind the Minister’s appraisal.

  Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister. I have taken a great interest in the concept of how we can revive rural community living. I welcomed the Minister when he introduced this pilot night-time transport scheme and thought it was an excellent idea. It has worked well. I knew it was being introduced on a test basis and it has been a success story. It helped to provide a link for people with their local communities. The service brought people to youth clubs, to night classes or to meet people to play a game of cards. It provided an opportunity to revive activity in local communities. When the drink driving law came into force, it changed the concept of living in rural areas. This was a shame. I though it was not good for society and was creating an imbalance between rural and urban communities. I did not want our society to be totally immersed in an urbanised setting.

[230]I welcome the opportunity to discuss how we can progress this new idea. It would be great if it was immersed in the rural transport initiative. The costs involved in running that programme are enormous. The night-time transport service should be community-led and cater for a community way of life and be underpinned by the meitheal thinking which I love. In my youth, we engaged in a way of life whereby advice would be given, problems would be shared and new friendships made. That is the way life should be and I want a return to what I experienced in my youth.

I hope the Minister will take the lead in respect of this matter and will encourage a joint effort on the part of both Departments. The late Seamus Brennan developed the idea of a rural transport initiative. I am glad the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, has taken on the mantel in that regard because the scheme, which was a pilot project, has worked. I hope we can find a way to merge the scheme with the rural transport initiative in order that we might revive the spirit of rural community. If we do not do so, there will be a complete breakdown in rural life. I would not like to see the latter occur and I will fight against it in every way possible.

We have reached a crossroads and the days of greediness and profit before people have gone. We are in a downturn and we must consider alternative ways of living. In that context, we have a golden opportunity to investigate how we might use the rural transport initiative to support the continuance of the night-time rural transport service. If the latter does not remain in place, it will be most unfair to those who live — and who want to live — in rural communities. Taxis and hackney cabs are available in urban areas and we should not, therefore, deprive those in rural areas of a transport service. This service could be paid for by everyone except those who are entitled to the free bus pass. It is paramount, however, that such a service be available at night for those who wish to use it.

There are many people who wish to meet their friends in the evening but who do not have the opportunity to do so, particularly during the winter months. The individuals to whom I refer may have some hope of meeting up in the summer but they cannot do so when winter comes.

I hope this scheme can move forward. I also hope that the groups with which the Minister met will use their experience etc. to ensure it will continue in whatever form possible. I am sure the costs to which the Minister referred can be reduced in order that we will not deprive those who reside in rural areas of a way of life to which they are used and which they want to continue. We must ensure these people will not be isolated or marginalised, as would be the case if the scheme were discontinued. The pilot project worked well and if we go about matters in the right way, a more extensive scheme will be successful.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: One runs a pilot scheme to discover whether something will work. That is what the Minister has done in this instance and I commend him on taking the initiative to put the pilot scheme in place. In view of the fact there have been so many bad schemes that have not worked, I fail to understand why it is not possible to continue with the scheme under discussion, which has been successful.

After reviewing the results of the pilot project, the Minister met representatives of the six companies involved last week. Following that meeting, he indicated that Pobal would meet these individuals on 25 June next. Pobal is responsible for administering funding but the Minister indicated that no money will be forthcoming from his Department or from the Department of Transport. In such circumstances, why is the meeting to which I refer taking place?

I listened to “Morning Ireland” last week and I heard Delia O’Sullivan, a woman from Bantry, speak very powerfully with regard to people’s social and other needs. Bantry is a rural area and some people are, for example, obliged to travel long distances to do their shopping. [231] Ms O’Sullivan stated she and ten of her friends would starve if they did not have access to the type of transport to which we are referring. This matter does not merely revolve around social interaction or being able to attend bingo or youth clubs; it relates to the necessities of ordinary, everyday living. With communities becoming so disconnected from each other and with families too busy to care for their elderly relatives, the night-time rural transport service is a necessity.

The Minister visited Glasson, County Westmeath, in my constituency, and launched the rural transport initiative for the area. He spoke very kindly about Mr. George Ledwith, who is still very much involved with the initiative, which means so much to the people of the area. This matter revolves around the individuals to whom I refer and to their ability to coexist in their communities with their friends.

The Minister must discover a way in which to reduce the level of inefficiency displayed by Pobal in the way it deals with administering this scheme. Pobal is responsible for incurring the 25% to 40% overhead costs relating to the rural transport initiative.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: That is not the case.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: According to my research, Pobal has complete responsibility for administering the scheme.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Yes, but those responsible for incurring the costs are——

  Senator Nicky McFadden: Perhaps the Minister will reply to my points when I have concluded. He might also indicate how the costs of administration might be reduced. The latter appears to be a management issue and the Minister is the ultimate manager. I am of the view that he is in a position to take control. He has the ability, initiative and wherewithal to ensure the good aspects of the pilot project are taken on board and incorporated into a new scheme.

Bus Éireann has announced that it intends to cut some 99 routes. The company receives a subsidy of €30 million but it appears to have abandoned its obligation to the State in the context of providing bus services to third level students, people with disabilities etc. I also downloaded a speech given by the Minister at the launch of the pilot scheme. The Minister spoke eloquently and indicated what I believe to be the right way to proceed and also the way in which we should represent our constituents. He stated the western rail corridor is a good idea and indicated that others are of the view that the metro is more urgent. However, he was strong and categoric in his response and said that it is equally important to cater for and prioritise the needs of people in rural areas. I urge him to continue in that vein.

We are all singing from the same hymn sheet. In that context, the Minister should find a way to ensure the scheme is continued.

  Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith linn. Go minic, nuair atá ceist faoi sheirbhís nó faoi airgead, ní bhíonn deis againn labhairt faoi sula ndéantar an cinneadh. Molaim an tAire as teacht anseo roimh an chinneadh agus deis a thabhairt dúinn pointí a ardú ar an ábhar.

I thank the Minister for coming before the House to discuss the night-time rural transport service. The current scheme is a pilot project, which has been in place since 2007 and which has been extremely successful in the seven areas to which it relates. The Minister’s Department has provided funding of approximately €950,000 for the scheme since its inception. The scheme has proved extremely beneficial to those who live in rural areas. I also wish to thank the Minister for establishing the scheme and for developing the methodology relating to it. The Minister worked with the Department of Transport to extend the services available under the rural transport initiative into the evening hours.

[232]From the press release issued by the Minister in 2007, it is abundantly clear that this is a pilot project. As a result of the success of that pilot project, we are seeking that it should be extended to other areas. This is a testament to the vision displayed in establishing the service. At the weekend I received numerous calls from people in south-west Donegal, where I reside and where Síob Teoranta is responsible for providing night-time transport in rural and Gaeltacht areas. They all stated that I should talk to the Minister about the matter and ensure that the scheme is retained. These individuals indicated they are delighted with the scheme and that it has been hugely successful. I was informed by certain people that they can go out on a Tuesday evening to play cards. They could go to bingo on a Monday night or the pub on a Saturday night and be collected and brought home safely. Obviously, there is a monetary issue in terms of the financial cost to the State in providing the service. We are living in difficult economic times. Regardless of whether a family is running a house or the Government is running the country, economies of scale will apply.

Over the last few years, particularly under the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, rural Ireland has been transformed through schemes such as the CLÁR programme, the rural social scheme, the community services programme as well as the funding programme for sports clubs and community organisations, new halls or facilities for young or old, and the national rural development programme, under which there is some €27 million available next year for rural Ireland. Rural Ireland is benefiting from the Government’s expenditure.

We are all united in the House in trying to extend the benefits of this particular programme into the future. It will not be easy to do this in the current economic climate, but I know the Minister met with the groups recently. Those groups I have spoken to have expressed satisfaction at that meeting and I hope the meeting with Pobal will prove to be beneficial. However, I stress that the service must be kept in place if at all possible. This service is crucial in preventing rural isolation. The scheme has many advantages, as we have seen. Rural people are benefiting from it. It is giving people who would have traditionally been isolated in terms of getting out and about the opportunity to meet people and I hope we can keep the scheme in place.

Some of those who spoke to me over the weekend have availed of the scheme and were able to play cards, attend bingo, go to community meetings and sporting events etc. It was bringing the community together. They were visiting the local pub, playing cards there, chatting to people and going home safely. The scheme is supporting local business as well.

I strongly support all my colleagues as regards the positive aspects of the scheme. We need to find a mechanism to keep this service in place. I also agree with the sentiments expressed about Bus Éireann, which has questions to answer. It may be losing €500,000 a week, and this will affect many routes in Donegal and in other counties. This is a matter for the Department of Transport and not for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. However, we are all behind the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív. If he can find a way, we will support him 100%.

  Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the Minister. If any man can put a proper scheme in place in this area it is Deputy Ó Cuív, because he has great experience of community work and projects that work in rural areas. I believe the Minister can go back to the drawing board based on what he has heard from the various Senators. It has been a very constructive debate, but ultimately this will all rest on the shoulders of the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív. He has vast experience of rural projects and I believe he can put it all together.

I was very disappointed to hear one of the speakers say the administrative costs were of the order of 25%, but I am not surprised. One of the things crippling Ireland at the moment is the [233]administrative cost of every aspect of activity in the country, whether it is at local authority level, the HSE or in other aspects involving communities. I believe the administrative costs can be cut in various ways, however, as was indicated by several Senators. The community rural transport initiative is a great scheme.

I was one of those who travelled to dances in the 1970s by thumbing lifts.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: In the 1980s.

  Senator Paddy Burke: It was not the middle ages, although I suppose it was not far off either.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Senator is showing his age.

  Senator Paddy Burke: It was the 1970s and the early 1980s and the only way we could get to places was to thumb. When I got my first car, I said I would never pass anybody who was thumbing at the side of the road, and I always picked up people. I was very grateful for all the lifts I got over many years. However, nowadays nobody gives lifts. For that very reason one never sees anyone thumbing because people know they will not get a lift, society has changed so much over the last 20 or 30 years. People have various reasons for not picking up hitch-hikers, mostly to do with not feeling safe. Then there are other aspects to do with what might happen in a car, whether it is a lady or a man who is driving. The whole aspect of life has changed and then, of course, there are the pub opening hours and drink driving. All of these reasons have led to the pilot scheme that the Minister has put forward, for which there is a great need. That is why I believe if there is any person in Government who can achieve this and pull all those strands together, it is the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív.

I urge him to take on board the very constructive proposals that have been put forward because this is an excellent scheme. The school transport scheme has worked enormously well since the mid-1960s, and perhaps the rural transport initiative is based on those routes. I do not mind whether it is a matter of taking people to the pub at night, since there is a great social aspect to be addressed in this regard for rural areas. The pub is rural life; let us face it and not be ashamed to say this. Were it not for rural pubs, there would be virtually total exclusion in rural area. I know the county councils have tried greatly in recent years to include everybody in rural communities, but it is not that easy for local authorities. At least, however, many go to the pub and perhaps meet people there on a weekly or monthly basis. This is a scheme that has worked well. I hope we can all work together and put these things back on track by putting a rural transport initiative in place which will save on carbon emissions and so forth.

  Senator Denis O’Donovan: I welcome the Minister. As someone who raised this issue last week on the Order of Business I am glad he is here to explain the situation.

Whenever the epitaph of the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, is written I hope the author will acknowledge his tremendous and unstinting support for rural Ireland, both Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas, remote peninsulas and severely disadvantaged regions in so many ways. Some Senators mentioned the CLÁR programme, which has been an enormous success, with boreens benefiting as well as peninsulas in west Cork, Kerry, Connemara or wherever, along with the tremendous support given to islands over the years, whether through roads or water services and sewerage works. I express my great appreciation for that and compliment the Minister as regards the whole area involving the rural transport initiative.

I believe there were two or three pilot schemes initially, but one was the Bantry rural transport area. Originally that carried fewer than 2,000 passengers and now it has expanded all over the west Cork area to cater for 40,000. One of the rural transport buses goes to Bear Island, which is a wonderful service for the islanders. As regards the night services, I recall one of the [234]local radio stations warning about “booze buses” and all that nonsense at the outset. That has turned out to be total rubbish. As many Senators have indicated, in rural Ireland it is a question of social and geographic inclusion.

Ms Delia O’Sullivan, who spoke so eloquently on “Morning Ireland” last week lives in Glengarriff, has used the bus, as have many others. It is a tremendous success. Whether it is used to go to mass, a game of bingo, the local GAA club or, as Senator Burke said, to come in five or six miles on the Sheep’s Head or Mizen peninsula and have a couple of pints on a Friday or Saturday night, so be it. There is nothing wrong about that and we should laud it.

I am greatly concerned at the administrative costs outlined. I was stunned when the Minister said that in some cases it was between 25% and 40%. That is not realistic. Maybe he can explain in his response where those costs lie. Maybe he does not want to point the finger, but surely if his initial belief was that they should be approximately 10% to 12%, and they are now in some areas touching 40%, he must wield the axe accordingly.

I urge the Minister to support these schemes. They are a wonderful benefit to rural Ireland. I do not want to be parochial but the one in west Cork has extended into the Gaeltacht areas in Ballingeary and gone on to helping in the islands. It is a wonderful scheme and has created jobs in the area. People forget that we are losing jobs and we have part-time bus drivers. There is a buzz in Firies and Bantry when four or five of these buses come into town with many elderly people who might come in to do shopping or visit community centres or hospital, or whatever. It is a wonderful idea and I laud the Minister. I hope by heralding the fact that any administrative overheads and difficulties should be trimmed down accordingly, the scheme can survive.

I am deviating slightly from rural transport but I cannot let this opportunity go to compliment something very close to my heart, Slí Mhuintir Bháire, my home parish for which I played football for junior level for 30 years, although I have not too many medals to show for it, the Sheep’s Head Way. It recently won an EDEN, European Destinations of Excellence award, and will go on to Europe to further that. The award is being presented next Monday in Bantry.

I am a director of the Sheep’s Head Way company, a non-profit-making company, for my sins, and have been since its foundation. The people are very uplifted but a little disappointed the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív is not coming. Apparently it comes under the remit of tourism and the Minister, Deputy Cullen, has decided the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Mansergh will come down there. It would be remiss of me on behalf of the committee and the Sheep’s Head Way not to mention that. The theme this year is tourism and protected areas, and it is a phenomenal award.

5 o’clock

I record my thanks and the thanks of the Sheep’s Head Way, the members of which asked me to do this, to the Minister for all his work in promoting such walkways. There were major issues about farmers’ rights and access rights. The Minister has walked some of these walkways and they are wonderful success story. It is great that in difficult times small farmers in severely disadvantaged areas can get a few bob, thanks to the Minister, for trimming the ways, ensuring the stiles are in place and keeping them viable. With that light note I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for being indulgent and letting me wander. This award was won by a remote, rural community. We take our hats off to the Minister for his support on this issue and others over the last decade. It was tremendous effort and support by all concerned.

  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Glacaim an-buíochas leis na Seanadóirí ar fad a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht, as díospóireacht thar a bheith dearfach a bheith ann.

[235]I thank all the Senators for their contributions to this very constructive debate. I would like to clarify a number of issues. This was a pilot scheme in seven areas. We must have services available in rural transport morning and evening according to need across all areas where there is no existing public transport service. The only way of doing that into the future is through one rural transport scheme. The idea that in the long term one Department be responsible after 6 p.m. and another before 6 p.m. leads to administrative inefficiencies.

I am out of money, because I am using the money I have in that fund, which is not as great, for other purposes. However, I am receiving great support from my colleague, the Minister for Transport, and Pobal. I pay tribute particularly to the chief executive of Pobal, Mr. Denis Leamy, for trying to ensure the continuation of the bus services needed. The Department of Transport has ensured flexibility so that areas that never had the rural evening transport and which were not in the original seven, can elect to have those services at night.

We did not put in €900 million per year, but less than €500 million per year, based on the figures I have here. The question is whether that €500 million is in the system and I believe it is. That is why I mentioned overhead costs. Because the night service was piggybacking on an existing service, the overhead cost was 10%. I capped it at 10% and told them to do it at no more than that.

I also laid down a minimum fee for those without free travel pass. I said I would not go into this “béal bocht” syndrome which often deprived rural people of services. If one got a taxi any distance in the city here one would pay €5 and not mind but be glad the service was there. Similarly in many cases in rural Ireland the issue is not the money but the lack of service. For many people who go out at night, to pay €10 — €5 there and €5 back — for public transport would be neither here nor there in a night. The challenge is that there is nothing to get one from here to there no matter what one would pay for it, apart from a taxi out from the town at enormous cost. The minimum €5 fare each way for those with no free travel pass caused no difficulty.

I see us being able to continue these services because the main rural transport scheme has the overhead costs to which I alluded. In the way it is organised I have no doubt there are ways of justifying it. One of the problems in Ireland is that if one highlights an issue people think it is a personal criticism. We have seen in Departments this year that when we had to cut the overheads, although we all felt they were fairly well managed up to now, there were ways to do so.

An obvious question is whether we really need Rural Transport Initiative offices and staff who are totally separate from the partnerships. As everybody in the Seanad knows I have been working on this for a long time. Would this fit in with the existing partnerships we have established around the country? They could all be hosted in one office and we could save on rent, overheads, management and financial control. People will come up with 100 reasons that will not happen, such as jobs, but are these services there to give employment or to provide services to people?

It reminds me of the railway line that runs trains at hours in which nobody is interested in travelling. There are plenty of station masters and porters but they see customers as an unnecessary inconvenience. We have had much of that syndrome in this country over the years. Are we driven by the concept that the whole idea of a service is to get the maximum usage for the maximum number of people who need the service? It is a valid question and one to which we must open our minds.

Over the total ball of wax there for rural transport, I have no doubt that if there is a will for these night time services there is a way. Pobal is committed to working with the groups involved and other groups around the country to ensure if they are willing to work with them, and I [236]have no doubt they will, the groups will be able to maintain these services. However, if people put their heads in the sand and claim they need to keep everything as it is, including overheads and everything else, and they need to get more money, it will not be possible to do it. It is not only a question of the Minister having the will. I believe it is possible to do it and Pobal knows it is possible. Rather than getting involved in this customary argument that we cannot consider flexibility and change — it did not happen in the House today — we need the rest of the people to find better ways of doing it to maintain the quality of service and expand it. I believe we can maintain the services.

I apologise to Senators for not making a copy of the report available to them. I will make sure each Senator is given a copy. It contains interesting statistics. The cheapest group per head was Síob-MFG which carried 5,590 passengers. Its fare income was tiny at €1,030. However, it managed to do it at a cost per passenger journey of €1.40, which is very relevant because Senator Ó Domhnaill said people were very happy with that service. However, it needed virtually no subsidy. Even though it was carrying very few passengers it was doing it in a very efficient way.

Avondhu carried 13,000 passengers with a fare income of €10,000. It cost it €2.63. Tumna is a bit like MFG. It carried 2,723 passengers and had €2,824 of fare income. However, the cost per passenger was €12.95. Comparing Tumna with Síob, it is hard to justify one costing €12.95 and the other €1.40. Senator Ó Domhnaill would claim that west Donegal is not so densely populated and that would explain the difference. Similarly West Cork Rural Transport carried 10,000 passengers — not radically different from Avondhu with 13,000. However, it cost €11 per journey to carry them. When Senators get the report they will see the figures. There may be reasons behind the figures. If we were running the scheme again or if it ever transferred to the Department of Transport or Pobal, I would place a limit on the cost per passenger. If people are told to allow for 10% overheads, they live with it. If they are told they are limited to a fixed amount per passenger they will live with it. To a certain extent we must always devise schemes in a way that encourages efficiency and good operation and does not encourage operators to run up enormous costs to justify an ever-increasing subsidy, which has been one of the mistakes in the past.

A number of bodies issued statements without ever contacting my Department to find out what was happening. Funnily enough, they are organisations funded by my Department. Rural Link issued a big statement without having checked with us as to what we were doing. Age Action Ireland issued a statement. While they may have contacted the Department, neither group contacted me to find out what arrangements we were being put in place to keep this going.

I assure Senators that I take on board the very good points made. We all need to get our heads around this, including the delivery groups and Pobal. It is very simple to say that more for less makes considerable sense because ultimately we have two choices. Given that money is tight, we could proportionately cut every service or decide there is a better way of providing the equivalent or almost equivalent service with less money by looking at ways of doing things more efficiently. Unfortunately the debate in the media is hyped up on cutting the money rather than what we are doing about the service.

I will not stray into the realms of the Department of Transport, except to say that a number of Senators mentioned the State bus company. Regarding rural services, people mentioned post offices and so on. Time and again as Minister with responsibility for rural development I have said that if our only focus is on something that does not have a demand because a service is not what the people now want rather than providing the services in rural areas where there is a demand and which people actually want, instead of doing a service we will do a disservice. [237] The service will disappear anyway and we will not have pushed for the replacement service. I will give a simple example. If people in rural areas were given the choice between telephone kiosks and broadband, I believe they would all go for broadband. Young and old people have mobile phones in their pockets. I am told there is more than one mobile phone per head of population and kiosks are not used every day. They might all sign a petition to prevent a kiosk being removed. When a kiosk was being removed from my parish, I rang Eircom and the person to whom I spoke was very nice about it. However, I was asked if I realised that three telephone calls were being made from that phone box each week. I admit I was somewhat chastened as I should have been — although it left the box there.

In fighting for rural areas it is important to realise that people living there are very modern and adaptable. The Peig Sayers view of rural areas is doing considerable damage. We are talking in rural areas about a modern get-up-and-go people who are organised. They are very quick to adapt to all of the new technology. Therefore we should focus on the things they really need and not on those things that might remain as a historical legacy like the 10 o’clock bus wandering across the countryside that would not take any commuter to work. In working with Pobal and my colleagues to review the scheme, with the money available for rural areas I will be focusing on ensuring we provide the services at the best cost we can with the least subsidy possible that service the needs of the maximum number of people.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis na Seanadóirí. Díospóireacht an-mhaith a bhí ann. Déanfaidh mé cinnte go bhfaighfidh chuile Sheanadóir cóip den tuarascáil le go mbeidh siad in ann breithiúnas a dhéanamh iad féin. Deimhním anseo go bhfuil sé i gceist agam gach ar féidir liom a dhéanamh le déanamh cinnte go leanfaidh seirbhísí oíche, ach gur faoin bpríomh scéim iompar tuaithe a bheidh siad seachas faoi scéim phíolótach.

Sitting suspended at 5.10 p.m. and resumed at 5.15 p.m.