Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 01 February 2012

Committee for Education

School Transport Health and Safety Issues

The Deputy Chairperson:  We welcome the witnesses from the Federation of Passenger Transport (FPT):  Mrs Karen Magill, its chief executive, and Mr Martin Lundy and Ms Michelle Rafferty of Translink.  Mr Andrew Agnew is not with us.  All three of you are very welcome.  If you care to make a presentation, we will gladly receive it and then ask some questions. 

Mrs Karen Magill (Federation of Passenger Transport Northern Ireland):  Good morning.  I represent the Federation of Passenger Transport.  We are a not-for-profit organisation that was set up about 10 years ago to represent the industry and to try to lift standards.  We represent public and private transport operators.  On the private side, we represent about 60% of the entire fleet.  As you are all aware, we have been in correspondence with the Committee regarding the health and safety issues — the Department of Education (DE) wrote to you about that — and that is the reason we are here today. 

I hope that you will bear with me, as it may be prudent to start with an overview of school transport.  I have been in the industry for a number of years.  When I got into the industry, I thought that transport would be an easy area.  However, it is not easy, and there are a number of reasons for that.  The first reason is that, in the home-to-school transport sector, a number of different fleets make up the whole transport fleet.  On top of that, the Act that regulates the industry, the Transport Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, is fairly well outdated and very inadequate.  It treats operators differently and regulates the industry differently.  The inadequacy of the regulation has caused some of the problems and concerns that came out in the correspondence that we have had over the past number of months.  The Department of the Environment (DOE) is reviewing that legislation, but it could be a number of years before there is a new law and things change.  That is part of the reason that there are problems in the area of transport.  As well as that, we obviously have budget constraints, lowest price issues and the fact that we do not have one fleet.  That causes some of the problems that have manifested themselves.  That is just a wee overview of home-to-school transport from our point of view.

The Deputy Chairperson:  Thank you very much.  Michelle or Martin, do you want to add to that? 

Mr Martin Lundy (Federation of Passenger Transport Northern Ireland):  The current system is a bit disjointed.  At the moment, in the operation of home-to-school transport, you have Translink, the education and library boards (ELBs) — the yellow buses, if you like — the private sector and taxi operators.  There is a sense out there that the time has come to look at home-to-school transport.  We are very keen to play a part in that debate.  There must be a synergy, and, if we work together, there is an opportunity to provide a better system and look for economies.

Ms Michelle Rafferty (Federation of Passenger Transport Northern Ireland):  I support what Martin has said.

The Deputy Chairperson:  Karen, you said that you thought that working in the transport sector would be easy and then discovered that it was anything but.  That suggests that you came in with a vision and understanding of how it should work.  Will you share that vision? 

Mrs Magill:  It is like anything.  When you get onto a vehicle, you get onto a vehicle.  It looks good, the driver is there, and that is it; you get in, and you are driven from A to B.  However, there is so much legislation behind all that.  The operator, the vehicle and the driver are all regulated.  There is good practice regarding so many things, including in loco parentis, duty of care, and where you collect and leave children.  So much has to be considered; good weather and bad weather, for example.  Those are just the day-to-day operational problems. 

If I want to bring in an operator to do some work for me, I cannot just go out and say to someone, "I would like you to come and do the work for me."  There is transport regulation that you have to look at and criteria that must be satisfied.  You must have an operator's licence, you must have certain insurances, and the driver has to be licensed.  That is fine, and, in itself, it looks adequate.  It is when we go behind that and actually look at the operator's licence that we start to have concerns for the industry.  The 1967 Act allows operators very easy access to the industry because it does not look at anything other than a prosecution.  It does not look at mitigated penalties or anything else around your reputation to allow you to come into the industry.  For example, if I or an education and library board transport officer wanted to bring in somebody to do some work, someone would look at the paperwork and say, "OK.  There is an operator's licence".  However, possession of an operator's licence does not guarantee that the operator is good and reputable.  It guarantees only that he has an operator's licence.  It is because the screening process and access to the industry is not protective enough of passengers that we set up our own education and schools committee to work with the education and library boards and we lobbied the DOE for many years.  As I said, the area is too big and there is not enough screening at present under the Northern Ireland regulations to protect anybody who wants to bring in an operator.  The operator's licence is not in itself enough of a guarantee that an operator is reputable.

The Deputy Chairperson:  I am sure that members will come back to the issue of screening in a moment. 

Mrs Dobson:  I have a couple of points to raise.  First, what response have you had from the boards to your invitation to join your education and schools committee? 

Mrs Magill:  They were very receptive, and they have been on the committee for a number of years.  We meet quarterly, and we have one officer who represents all five board officers.  He comes to discuss agenda items and other matters with us.  He then goes back to the other transport officers before attending the next meeting. 

Mrs Dobson:  So it has been good? 

Mrs Magill:  Yes. 

Mrs Dobson:  Martin, you referred to disjointed home-to-school transport, so you are concerned about the boards approaching the issue from different angles.  Boards have differing views on random checks.  How do you think the boards should carry out random checks? 

Mr Lundy:  The boards carry out their own checks on some of the private operators they use.  That is a pretty onerous task for the boards, given the scale of some of the areas.  From my understanding of the checks that the boards carry out, I am quite comfortable with them.  Although the level of checks is not particularly high given the nature of the constraints on the boards, I think that the checks are quite good.  The board representative sits on the committee with Translink and FPT, and I am encouraged by their checks. 

Mrs Dobson:  You say that it is not enough to have only 18 checks a week. 

Mr Lundy:  That is not me speaking; that is in the correspondence. 

Mrs Magill:  That is our collective response.  If you take the number of services that the five boards run every day, you can see that 18 checks a week may not be adequate.  Funding is another side to this and another area of concern.  Apart from the fact that screening does not protect anybody as far as the operator is concerned, there is the value for money side or the lowest price side.  Some of the operators who come in with the lowest price may not be the most favourable operators to be providing school transport.  That is one of our concerns.  More checks may need to be done on the likes of those operators or on new operators coming in.  Given the thousands of journeys involved and our knowledge of the industry and the illegal activity in it, I do not think that providing 18 checks a week across five board areas is enough.  That is why we try to bring our knowledge and experience to the boards to inform them. 

Mrs Dobson:  It seems a very low figure, does it not? 

Mrs Magill:  Yes. 

Mrs Dobson:  Have you an idea of a figure that would be adequate? 

Mrs Magill:  I would not be sure, to be honest.  I would not to try to interfere with the boards.  Each board operates a different level of service.  Some have more home-to-school services and others have more services for special needs children.  Knowing the industry as I do, were I to take a look at the operators who provide school transport as a result of being successful in a tender process, I would have concerns that more needs to be done and that a more targeted approach is needed. 

Mrs Dobson:  Do you feel that the checks being carried out are rigorous enough? 

Mrs Magill:  To be honest, the fact that a check is done is a deterrent in itself.  For years, there were no checks per se.  That is something that has come out in recent years.  Any operator now will say that they need to be cautious because there are checks.  However, as the checks are so random, the deterrent effect is not big enough.  Some of the checks that we have done through our work with the education and library boards have unearthed quite frightening non-compliance by some operators in terms of the roadworthiness of their vehicles or the credentials of their drivers.  We would probably have more problems on the private-hire side, where the schools themselves bring in an operator to cover transport to swimming pools or cinemas.  We would also have grave concerns about that area. 

Mrs Dobson:  I would be concerned about what constitutes a random check, but I will keep my question for the departmental officials. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  I draw members' attention to some of the statistics in their information packs.  It may be useful to read this into the Hansard report: 

"WELB – does 3 checks per week with 7 officers carrying out inspections. It has 439 services per day which could potentially be 83410 services to be checked per 190 school days and only does 120 checks per year. In percentage terms, this is 0.00143% of the total services being checked."

 

For the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB), the figure is 0.00339%, and for the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB), the figure is 0.00229%. 

Miss M McIlveen:  Jo-Anne covered a number of my questions.  Thank you for your presentation.  You had discussions with the boards, and they were co-operative.  What discussions have you had with the Department? 

Mrs Magill:  We used to have a working group with the Department in which we tried to raise concerns that came out of the other schools meetings.  Those started about five years ago and ran for a couple of years but have stopped.  We have not had much to do in the past two years.  The only thing that we did was meet the Department last year because we were very concerned about the private hire side.  We thought that we should introduce guidelines to remind schools and inform boards of governors that, because the transport legislation is obviously inadequate, there is another set of criteria that they really should be looking at when bringing in transport services.  So we worked with the Department, Translink, the enforcement side of DOE and the Consumer Council to draw up a set of guidelines, and those guidelines were sent to the boards of governors of all schools to highlight the fact that it is not purely a procurement exercise; they also have to satisfy themselves that other transport criteria are being met. 

Miss M McIlveen:  Were those guidelines sent by your education and schools committee? 

Mrs Magill:  No, they were sent jointly by the Department of Education and ourselves. 

Miss M McIlveen:  The information that the Deputy Chair read into the Hansard report is quite revealing.  It is worrying that not even 1% of providers is being checked.  That in itself is a concern.  What are your priorities for this Committee? 

Mrs Magill:  The priority has to be transport regulation, which is covered in the 1967 Act.  In all fairness to the boards, ourselves and everybody, if the regulation were adequate and if there were proper checks and enforcement, we and the Education Committee would not have been put in the position that we are in today.  That said, we are working with the DOE, and it would be good if the Committee could put some pressure on the DOE to make sure that it continues with the operator licensing review and perhaps introduces helpful transitional arrangements.   

In the meantime, we need to look at a proper approach to a one-fleet mentality.  We are all working together to provide home-to-school transport services.  We work well together and share information, but there still seems to be a demarcation between fleets — it is a case of your fleet, our fleet, their fleet.  With regard to efficiency and value for money, we spent £75 million in 2009-2010 on transporting fewer than 90,000 children.  That was between all the fleets.  It would be helpful to have a one-fleet approach to look at efficiencies, redeployment and working together and if we all came at it in a true spirit of partnership.  We are not here to knock any Department.  It is not easy.  We are trying to work together.  We have no desire to make any complaints about any particular organisation or people within an organisation.  What we want to do for the good of schoolchildren and home-to-school transport is look at the issue differently and try to make sure that, where the law is inadequate, we do the screening ourselves.  If the law is not providing screening on the DOE side, we need to do our own screening.

Because we have had that experience, we suggested introducing different tendering conditions.  We are on the road all day, every day.  We see the operators, we know how they break the rules and we know how they get around the system, and sometimes it is quite frightening.  That is what we would see as being the issue for DOE.  We also want to look at how we can work together to try to bring the industry and the fleets together to do a better job.

Miss M McIlveen:  The collaboration approach is something that I buy into, as I sat on the Committee for Regional Development in the previous mandate.  Given that we are in difficult times financially, we need to look not just at education but at health and community transport, too.  We need a much more focused approach to transport delivery.  I agree with a certain amount of what you are saying. 

Mrs Magill:  I think that £75 million is a lot of money for transport.  Between us, there is great wisdom and experience, and if we can all come together, we can use that to do the job, do it efficiently and try to cut that £75 million budget. 

Miss M McIlveen:  And make sure that we do it safely. 

Mrs Magill:  Absolutely. 

Mrs Hale:  Thank you for coming today.  First, I notice that overseas nationals are not covered by Access NI checks.  Is the situation the same in the rest of the United Kingdom?  Secondly, the certificate of good conduct may be sought for foreign nationals.  What are the criteria for that?  Is that cross-referenced so that we can ensure our drivers are safe? 

Mrs Magill:  I am not sure exactly how the boards handle that.  We are really not sure.  That is one of the questions that we would like to have answered.  Access NI obviously deals with Northern Ireland, but there is liaison with Scotland, England and Wales.  I am not sure how the boards handle the situation when it comes to drivers from the Republic of Ireland.  I am not really at liberty to say how they do that, but we would like to understand that, too.  We would like to see whether the screening processes and checks that are used for Northern Ireland residents are used for others. 

Mrs Hale:  As the parent of a primary-school child, that is a matter of grave concern to me, because my child uses school transport a lot.  I would like to know that the relevant checks have been done for all drivers. 

Mrs Magill:  It is a concern for all parents.  It is a concern for us as individuals, but once you become a parent, it becomes much more poignant.  I have two children, and at the school that one of my children attends, my child cannot use the vehicles that are brought in for private hire because I do not allow her to, and that is because I know that the particular operator is not a good operator.  The fact that the DOE gave him an operator's licence allows him to do school transport work, but I know other things.  I know how his vehicles are and what might happen when he turns up with them, so she is not allowed on those vehicles. 

Mrs Hale:  That is an issue for concern indeed. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  You will not have to wait long to put that to the Department.  Its officials will be here next. 

Mr Lunn:  I was going to take the same tack as Brenda.  Thank you for coming.  Any of us who have been involved in Access NI checks will recognise how rigorous they are and how long they take — to the point of exasperation sometimes — but they are necessary in this day and age.  I have the same concern about the certificate of good conduct, whatever that is supposed to mean.  We are not just talking about drivers in the Republic of Ireland, where you could have some confidence in the system, but drivers from further afield, perhaps from Eastern Europe.  In my previous existence in insurance, we used to have enormous trouble establishing whether driving licences from, say, Baltic countries — I do not mean freezing; I mean Baltic — were valid or not, whether the licences were local or international and whether they applied in the UK.  It was a minefield, so I am particularly concerned that the proper checks are carried out not just for child protection purposes but to establish whether a person has a valid private hire licence to drive a vehicle of that type.  You do not have the answer to that, do you? 

Mrs Magill:  No, we do not.  We have to have our drivers checked by Access NI before they can do any work.  They have to be; that is that.  The education and library boards are very keen that applicants are checked — they have to have that check — but I do not know what happens on the other side if an operator has a driver who is not resident.  I do not know how the boards handle that at all.  Anybody we seek to employ has to have an Access NI certificate before we as an employer are allowed to take them on. 

Mr Lunn:  That is something that needs further clarification.  It is a grey area.  Thank you very much. 

Mr Craig:  You are welcome to the Committee meeting.  Karen, you said something about your experience with your children that made me raise my eyebrows.  You have hinted that you have major concerns about some parts of the transport sector.  If parts of the sector raise more concerns than others, will you highlight them to the Committee?  If there are sectors that raise more concerns, would it not be more appropriate for the boards to concentrate the few inspections they do on them? 

Mrs Magill:  Targeting their resources there would be beneficial, and I am sure that they do their best to do that with known operators or with people about whom they might have concerns.  The private sector is the biggest problem.  The 1967 Act provides no deterrent; it does not prevent them from getting up every day, taking a vehicle out on the road and basically doing what they want.  That is the unfortunate side of it, and that is happening in the private side of the industry.  We have a very good private sector, but that represents only a percentage of what is out on the road.  The operator might have an operator's licence or have had more advanced training, for instance.  It is difficult for schools, bursars and everybody else, because, if an individual comes along with what looks like a nice vehicle, an operator's licence and an insurance certificate, they will think it is adequate, as would, I am sure, anybody around this table.  However, that is not always adequate, because you do not know what he is doing behind that.  You do not know if he is complying; you do not know if his drivers are right; you do not know what he is doing outside of that.  A lot of them like their bread-and-butter work, and they will do a wee bit for the schools outside of that.  However, you have no idea about the maintenance of their vehicles, the colour of the diesel they are using or what is happening behind that. 

A number of years ago, we had a good private sector that was helping the boards and Translink to provide school transport.  Today, more and more, the good side of the industry is staying away from school transport because the prices that are being paid on a daily basis are so low.  In some areas, the pay is what they would have been paid 10 to 15 years ago.  It does not pay them enough to allow them to pay for their insurance, their fleet, their drivers and their diesel.  It is about paying for what you would get.  They avoid it because they feel that they would be forced to compromise safety standards. 

There are different business models, but there are other operators who run various things such as party buses and limo vehicles.  They cross-subsidise across their fleets, but they still like to get school transport work.  It is difficult for anybody who is looking at a tender because they do not know what is behind all of that.  That is why, in the meantime, we have tried to encourage the boards to talk to the DOE and look at how they can manage soft intelligence or pending prosecutions, for instance, to try to help them build up a picture.  Some operators who tender for work are becoming very sophisticated.  They can fill in the tender, but the procurement officers or whoever opens the tenders have no way of knowing who the individual is or what he is like.  They do not have any idea.  The operators can put in a public service vehicle (PSV) licence for a couple of vehicles and the right driver licences for a couple of drivers, but that is not to say that those are the vehicles he is going to use every day or the drivers he is going to use every day.  That is what is happening on the ground, and those are the people who are taking the shortcuts and putting all of us, especially the children, in a compromising position.

Ms Rafferty:  The area of enforcement and checks is one area that we hope will be addressed through the recently established Northern Ireland bus operators' forum.  The forum has tried to have representation from as wide a group of stakeholders as possible, including ELBs, health trusts, community transport, private operators and Translink.  This issue will be one of the hot topics for that group. 

Mrs Magill:  At this stage, it is very important to highlight that the enforcement side of the industry, the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA), has about 18 active enforcement officers.  They have to check 32,000 freight vehicles, about 10,000 taxis and 3,500 buses and coaches.  That is about 45,000 vehicles, which is about 2,500 vehicles a day.  They have no chance.  So, as well as the legislation being weak, there is also a problem on the enforcement side.  There are no deterrents, because there are not enough officers to do the job.  That is part of the reason why the education boards have had to bring in checks of their own — the other side of the industry is letting them down. 

Mr Craig:  It is very alarming to hear that.  As a parent, I share some of your concerns, especially when you say that you will not send your own child on a bus, Karen.  That frightens us all.  With whom does liability rest for the safety of vehicles?  My clear understanding is that it lies with the operator.  Is that the case?  Have there been situations in which operators have been prosecuted for, as you put it, using unsafe vehicles for school transport?

Mrs Magill:  There have been some prosecutions.  There was a very famous operator who did not even have an operator's licence, and we could not do an awful lot to bring about a prosecution.  He had 15 vehicles out on the roads all day, every day, and was used by a couple of schools.  He was apprehended several times, and it was found that he did not even have an operator's licence.  However, he was given such a small fine that it proved to be no deterrent.   

You asked about liability.  If a school bursar or an education and library board wants to bring in a vehicle, all that they can do is follow the best set of criteria that they have.  That is why we talk about ticking boxes.  If you ask an operator on a tender document whether he has public liability insurance and employers' liability insurance, and he ticks the boxes, that is no guarantee that he actually has those insurances.  Even if you ask for a copy of the paperwork for those insurances, that may not always constitute a proper check either, because it is still no guarantee that he is compliant, and that is why we try to look at other things.

Mr Craig:  Let me get this straight:  you are aware of a case in which an operator without an operator's licence was transporting children for education purposes. 

Mrs Magill:  Yes, it happened in a school in Belfast.  I am probably not allowed to mention the school by name, so I will not — 

Mr Craig:  Please do not. 

Mrs Magill:  — and I will not mention the board, but I had a call from an operator who was a member of the federation, and he said that he was at a school that morning and was concerned about a person whom he saw in a particular vehicle.  I phoned DVA enforcement and told it that there was a particular incident, and members of its team followed the vehicle to the place to which it was taking the children. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  I suspect that that matter may be subject to live legal proceedings. 

Mrs Magill:  No, I think that that is all done and dusted.  The boards are aware of it, and DVA enforcement is aware of it. 

Mr Craig:  I think that I will leave it at that.  I am astonished. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  You mentioned an operator who was apprehended several times.  Why several times? 

Mrs Magill:  He was covering two different schools that week and had no operator's licence. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  After he had been apprehended once, why — 

Mrs Magill:  When the operator is apprehended, we have no powers to stop him doing anything further.  The law does not allow anything to happen until he is prosecuted. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  That is absolutely extraordinary.  Therefore, he continues to drive our children around? 

Mrs Magill:  He continues to drive them around.  That is not the norm, but it still happens.  The fact is that even one incident is not enough to stop someone.  That is part of the reason that our group has come together to share our experiences with the Committee, the Department of Education and anybody else who will listen until the legislation in DOE changes.   

We had a consultation paper last year from DOE that was a bit generic, but we have had to continue with that, and it has now started up again.  As Michelle Rafferty mentioned, Minister Attwood started up a new bus forum at the end of last year because of the state that the industry is in.  I could get my laptop from the car and show you things that are happening in the industry that would frighten you.  Those things may not be happening in school transport, but you would be frightened by what operators are doing in the evening when older teenage children are going to nightclubs.

Mr Craig:  Given the seriousness of the issue, I recommend that we request evidence of it in writing so that we can pass those concerns on to the Department. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Some members may wish to buy Karen a coffee so that they can have a look at her laptop. 

Mrs Magill:  Hot water would be fine. 

Mr Flanagan:  You are very welcome to the Committee.  The goings-on on those party buses do not come as much of a surprise to me.  I experienced many such buses in my younger days, but that is a separate issue. 

Mr Craig:  From the back of the bus. 

Mr Flanagan:  All over the bus, so I probably would not be scared by what you might show me.  In fact, I would be concerned that there would be a lot of people whom I know. 

My question moves on from what you are talking about.  What Jonathan has raised are very worrying trends.  I would like to know what action is being taken to try to get students on to buses, whether that be an education bus, a Translink bus or a private hire bus.  No matter what shape or standard the bus is in, historically there have been many fewer road accidents involving buses.  Where I come from, and at the school I went to, a number of post-primary students tragically lost their life on the way to school.  Individual schools are working very hard to try to encourage students not to drive to school but to get a bus.  What is the industry doing to try to encourage people to get on to public transport?

Mrs Magill:  We have our own thoughts about trying to promote public transport.  We think that all schoolchildren should have the opportunity to go to school on such a vehicle.  Obviously, special needs children should be dedicated a particular fleet.  I do not understand the two- or three-mile limit.  All children should be allowed the opportunity, and the mainstream education service should be there for all children, using the combination of the fleets that exist in Northern Ireland.  That would mean that parents would not have to take their children to school every day.  Let us face it:  for a lot of the children who do not meet the two- or three-mile criteria, their parents have to take them to school.  If we did not have that criteria, that might be helpful in getting the younger generation on to the school bus every day.  That would then become a mindset for them, because, as they got older, they would be used to using public transport.   

To be honest with you, I came into the industry only 10 years ago, and my eldest daughter was so excited to get on a bus.  That is not the case now, but that was the way in which it was then.  She was so excited to get on a bus or a train, because we just did not use them.  Now it is very different, because we understand that we can benefit so much more from using public transport. 

We think that, for schools, we should perhaps be looking at other ways of encouraging pupils, and allowing those who do not meet the two- or three-mile criteria, to use school transport.

Mr Flanagan:  To redirect you, I am talking more about people who are 17, 18 or 19 with access to their own car but who fall well within the criteria for using public transport.  Is there anything that you can do to try to get those people on to buses?  They are the people who are in serious jeopardy in many areas. 

Mrs Magill:  That is a tough one, too.  It is what happens when pupils get to the school that I see as being the biggest point.  Pupils are allowed to have their vehicle at school, and there are parking facilities at schools.  The biggest deterrent would be if they could not take their car to school.  It is very difficult for us, as the public side of the industry, to try to come up with something that makes it attractive for pupils to leave their car at home, because they just cannot wait to get their car.  The deterrent would perhaps have to come from the other side, through the parents or the schools.  It is difficult for us. 

Mr Lunn:  To return to the question of insurance and liability, you seem to indicate that there is a possibility that people may produce adequate insurance along with the tender document but that that insurance might not remain in force.  For example, there is a possibility that they let it lapse or that it may not be adequate.  I would have thought that that would be quite an easy situation to redress.  Think about, say, property insurance with a mortgage on it.  The mortgage company asks for its interest to be noted in the policy.  That puts the onus on the insurer to notify immediately if the policy is allowed to lapse or is cancelled.  Why on earth the situation could not be the same for vehicle insurance, employers' liability insurance and, in particular, public liability insurance, I do not know.  As you know, no formal certificate is issued for display with public liability insurance.  As such, that might actually be the most important one. 

Mrs Magill:  There may be something that you have not thought about when it comes to insurance.  There are two areas in which you can pay to have a false certificate issued.  That is obviously something that we had not thought about here.  I know that we and the boards are very strict about the information that we hold.  If your operator's licence or insurance expires, boards ask for that. 

Mr Lunn: You could solve that problem by the same means.  If you are asking for insurance companies to register the interest of the Department in this, and if they were asked to note interest on a certificate that did not exist, they would soon tell you.

Mrs Magill:  That is a very good suggestion, Trevor.  That is something that would tie up another loophole in the system. 

Mr Lunn:  It involves pretty basic checking.  I have seen false certificates.  One was issued, believe it or not, from one of my cover-note books.  To this day, it is a mystery how it ever got out.  It had been completely changed and falsified, and it was so obvious.  The police came to me, and that was that.  A straightforward checking and notification system should cure the problem. 

Ms Boyle:  Listening to this is very alarming.  If any parents are listening, I am sure that it is very alarming for them also.  Tomorrow morning, before they put their child on a bus, I am sure that they will think about whether the vehicle and driver are compliant and robust.  That is particularly the case given what you said about the private sector.  How do you put a price on a child's life?  That is what we are talking about.  The tendering in some of the ELBs needs to be looked at, because private companies are undercutting one another to get tenders.  There is fallout in every council area as a result.  It is to the detriment of our children. 

Thanks for the presentation.  None of my children uses public transport, but, if they did, I would seriously reconsider how they get to and from school.  Thank you.

Mrs Magill:  You are welcome. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Karen, you are drawing some very negative inferences from the pricing policy.  I understand that you are not painting a whole sector black; rather, you are saying that one incident is one too many.  Do you have any idea what you would have to do to the pricing policy to fix that?  How far would you have to push it up?  It is very easy to say that more money is needed; we say that about every aspect of government.  It is still a finite pot. 

Mrs Magill:  The pricing policy is not the answer.  Making the combined collective management of the fleet more efficient and better value for money might be the bigger picture.  As regards operators, it stands to reason that, if you ask somebody to do a job properly for you, and he is paying all the things that he should be to be compliant, he cannot be cheap.  However, as I said, the other thing about the scale is that we try to work together to reduce the overall cost of the fleet to the public purse. 

Mr Nesbitt:  The percentages of 0·00143%, 0·00339% and 0·00229% are quite startling, but we do not have a baseline or comparator to work off.  Is there, for want of a better phrase, an industry norm?  Can you tell me what Translink's percentage would be in that area? 

Mr Lundy:  There is not an industry norm, but, to give you an indication, every Translink vehicle that is in operation gets taken off the road once a month as part of a complete fleet check.  Every bus that is sent out every morning gets a driver inspection before it is taken on the road.  Like with a car, things go wrong on occasion.  As soon as something goes wrong, a bus is taken off the road.  If the fault is serious, the only person who can put the bus back on the road is the engineer.  He will determine that something has been repaired and put the bus back on the road. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Therefore, if it is fair, what would that be in percentage terms?  Would it be 10%?  Would it be 100%? 

Mr Lundy:  I would need a calculator, because I do not know.  Ulsterbus operates just over 1,000 buses, so divide that by 12.  We are inspecting 100 buses a month across our fleet. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  It would be significantly better than — 

Mr Lundy:  Sorry, we are inspecting the whole fleet every month.  That is 1,000 buses a month. 

Ms Rafferty:  In addition to the formal inspections once a month, the driver checks are carried out daily. 

Mrs Magill:  That happens in the education and library board fleets and the good side of the private sector.  Daily walk-round checks have to be done, and vehicle defect books are filled out every day.  That is compliance; that is where the right thing is being done. 

Ms Rafferty:  The other safeguard for us is that we have a decentralised management structure.  All our local service delivery managers are professionally competent.  They have a certificate of professional competence.  They are responsible for the safety of the fleet as well. 

Mr Lundy:  The point about the Republic of Ireland operators and the excess forms is an interesting one.  On the inspection side, we are also subject to the DVA enforcement inspections.  That is a good thing, because it allows us to test our processes, take advice and spread the word around the company if there are issues.  However, we are a little bit concerned about Access NI for Republic of Ireland operators, and we are also unclear about the DVA site inspections.  That is where enforcement officers visit your office and want to see your inspection records and maintenance plans and your drivers' hours and rest-period compliance records.  They do a complete inspection.  The Omagh office was inspected last week.  The inspections are a very good thing, because they are very intense and rigorous.  We are slightly unclear about how that takes place over the border. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Martin, Michelle and Karen, thank you all very much indeed. 

I welcome Mrs Dorothy Angus, the Department of Education's director of access, inclusion and well-being; Mr Alan McMullan, the deputy head of the school access team, with responsibility for schools admissions and transport; and Mr Dale Hanna, the Southern Education and Library Board's chief transport officer.  I hope that you heard the evidence given by the previous witnesses.  I invite you to make a presentation and stay for questions.

Mrs Dorothy Angus (Department of Education):  Thank you for the invitation to engage with the Committee on this issue.  The Department and the education and library boards take very seriously their responsibilities for the health and safety of eligible pupils who are transported under the home-to-school transport scheme.  Therefore, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the various matters that are covered in the briefing paper that was provided to the Committee and in earlier correspondence.  I do not intend to go through all the issues again; I just want to highlight a few points for the Committee.

From that earlier briefing, members will understand that school transport involves a range of players, each of whom has a role to play in the responsibility for the safety of pupils.  As you have just been hearing, the Department of the Environment, in conjunction with its enforcement arm, is responsible for the legislation that governs the roadworthiness of commercial vehicles, including buses and taxis; the legal requirements that are imposed on each provider, such as the need to hold valid licences; and the wider enforcement role of testing and checking vehicles.  Service providers such as Translink, the education and library boards, and private bus and taxi operators are responsible for their own daily fleet operations — staff and vehicles — and for maintaining the roadworthiness of vehicles and the general safety of the passengers that they carry. 

Education and library boards, acting as the operational agents of the Department as contractors of bus and taxi services, have the additional responsibility that hiring providers brings.  They discharge that role through a tender procurement process as a centre of procurement excellence (CoPE)-approved body, as well as through a programme of routine checks, random and targeted, of vehicle providers.  Failure to meet the safety requirements of a contract can mean termination of that contract, particularly in cases in which a violation puts lives at risk.  Persistent violators who commit lesser infringements may also have their contracts terminated.

School principals and boards of governors also have responsibilities for the private hire of buses for various school activities, such as sports and swimming lessons.  Those arrangements fall outside the Department's home-to-school transport scheme, but the Department and the boards offer advice and guidance on health and safety issues.  As already indicated, the health and safety of pupils while travelling on school buses under board control is taken very seriously, and we believe that that is reflected in the accident statistics for their vehicles, which are provided in the briefing paper.  That does not in any way suggest complacency on the part of the boards.  They are always open to discussion on possible ways in which to further improve the service.  Indeed, they meet regularly — on a quarterly basis — with the Federation of Passenger Transport, and the Department has also met the federation, and that invitation to meet always remains open.

As well as ensuring the legislative requirements for health and safety through the tender and contract process, boards adhere to the recommendations that the Environment Committee made in 2001 by ensuring that no pupil stands or sits on the old three-for-two basis on board a private operator bus or designated school bus, except in an exceptional situation, and that every seat has a seatbelt fitted.  Boards also require background checks to be done on drivers through Access NI. 

Finally, we are happy to extend an offer to all members of the Committee to view board vehicles at their local educational and library board, and, if you wish, to give each of you a first-hand experience of how seriously the boards address their health and safety responsibilities in transport.

The Deputy Chairperson:  If you are happy to take questions, you will hear that there are a number of serious concerns. 

Mr Craig:  Dorothy, it is good to see you back at the Committee.  Based on the indications that were given to us earlier, I do not think that a big issue lies with Translink or your own board vehicles.  We got a clear indication that it is the private sector, including private bus companies and taxis, over which there are huge concerns about, quite frankly, health and safety issues with the transport of our children.  Given what we have heard, would it not be right to include private sector vehicles in the board's inspection regime?  I acknowledge that there are limited resources to do that, but could we not concentrate on those sectors in which there are difficulties, which in this case is the private sector? 

Mr Dale Hanna (Southern Education and Library Board):  For clarity, the inspections are targeted very much at the private sector, both in the case of taxis and bus operations.  Each board will have a range of inspectors in place or arrangements in place to inspect those vehicles.  The figures that were presented are for on-site inspections to do with compliance on the day, but, behind the scenes, there is ongoing checking to ensure that insurance documents, driving licences and Access NI documentation are all up to date and current.  The figures that were presented represent what happens on school grounds, but there is still ongoing checking back at the offices daily. 

Mr Craig:  We will all be reassured to hear that.  I accept that you have to target based on whatever information flows in about rogue operators.  However, given what was said to us, over your years of experience in carrying out those checks, have there been successful prosecutions or withdrawal of contracts over the years, and on what sort of scale has that been in the overall transport scenario? 

Mr Hanna:  From my board's perspective and from a contractual perspective, we can remove contracts and terminate runs if we have any doubt around the reputation or roadworthiness of operators' vehicles, and we have done and continue to do that.  We use a range of information to facilitate that, either through our on-site inspections, carried out by us, or through joint inspections with DVA enforcement branch.  If a member of the public or of school staff were to phone in to make a complaint, we would investigate it.  Make no doubt about it:  we will terminate contracts if there are any worries or concerns over transport. 

Mr Craig:  Have we any idea of the scale of that or of how many successful prosecutions there have been in the past year or two years? 

Mr Hanna:  DOE would be best placed to answer on the number of prosecutions that there have been. 

Mr Craig:  How many terminations have there been? 

Mr Hanna:  In the previous school contract, one termination of a contract, owing to roadworthiness issues, was made directly through SELB. 

Mrs Angus:  We can get those figures if you wish to have them.

Mr Craig:  They would be useful to the Committee, given the seriousness of what was being talked about earlier.  It might give some reassurance to us, and, more importantly, the general public, who are like me in being genuinely worried about their children. 

The other aspect of transport that you said that you have no real control over is schools' transporting of people to sporting events, and so on.  I have experience of that and have always had some concerns around it.  How much training do education and library boards give boards of governors on that issue?  I am not particularly aware of any specific training, but, given what we have heard and the fact that the private sector predominantly carries out that training because of scheduling issues, do you feel that enough training is given to boards of governors?  A lot of responsibility is dumped on their shoulders, and many of our governors may not understand their responsibilities.

Mr Hanna:  From a transport perspective, we provide guidance, and, as was referred to earlier, all schools have access to the guidance on how they procure vehicles and check insurance and other documents.  Anecdotally, schools contact us regularly to confirm the legitimacy of particular operators. 

I cannot answer the question about the training that boards of governors get directly.

Mr Craig:  We can perhaps ask the Department to investigate what level of training is given, because there are very serious issues in that area. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  The Committee would be very interested, Dale, to find out hard statistics about the number of terminations, prosecutions and successful prosecutions over, say, the past five years.  If members are content, we could then ask the Research and Information Service (RaISe) to look at trends elsewhere in the British and Irish isles so that we have something against which to benchmark those figures. 

Mrs Angus:  We can certainly provide the termination figures.  You may need to get the prosecution figures from DOE.

The Deputy Chairperson:  That is fine. 

Mrs Dobson:  The letter that the Committee got in December said that the Department would request that boards publish guidelines on the reporting of health and safety breaches on their website.  That would be very useful to parents.  Last night, I did a wee bit of research and visited the websites of all five boards.  I found the information easily on two of the sites, with one very good document added yesterday.  However, I did not see any information for parents on three of the board websites.  Did you request that the boards do that? 

Mrs Angus:  Yes, we did.

Mr Alan McMullan (Department of Education):  We did request that the boards do that.  Two boards have definitely done it.  The Southern Board is in the middle of revamping the transport section of its website, and the information will be included when that revamp is complete.  The other two are on the verge of putting the advice on their website. 

Mrs Dobson:  Is there a timescale for that happening? 

Mr A McMullan:  It will be very soon. 

Mrs Dobson:  In the light of the frank discussion that we had in the previous evidence session, I think that parents need clear information so that the boards can rigorously pursue reports of breaches. 

Mr A McMullan:  If parents have any concerns at all about the transport of their child, they should make a phone call to the relevant board.  The board will then look into the matter immediately, because all the boards are very concerned about the safety of children.  They will follow those reports up. 

Mrs Dobson:  It would be very handy to have the guidelines up on the websites. 

Mrs Angus:  We accept that point, which is why we followed through with the two boards that have not got the information on their website yet.

Mrs Dobson:  Another very important issue that I have spoken about a lot in Committee is random checks.  There is a grey area around how they are organised and carried out.  Who decides where the inspectors go?  Who decides when they go?  There are so many questions around those checks, and we do not have enough information on them. 

Mr Hanna:  Those checks are based on targeted inspections of operators that we have a level of knowledge of in our own transport sections and potential concerns.  Therefore, we would target checks at those particular operators. 

Mrs Dobson:  Can you tell us how they are targeted?  The information on these random checks is so scant.  How random is "random"?  We have very little detail. 

Mr Hanna:  In practical terms, an officer from the board will go out on site to do the random check.  What we want to check first is compliance with all the legal requirements.  For example, if it is a bus, the check will include whether it has a PSV and a tax disc, and we will want to know the name of the driver.  We then cross-reference that information to make sure that the name is on our list of approved drivers and that he or she has had the appropriate Access NI check.  Pure roadworthiness is not really a matter for the board; it is a DOE enforcement issue.

Mrs Dobson:  I am particularly concerned about taxis, and I am sure that the issue concerns other Committee members as it keeps cropping up.  Are taxis physically stopped and checked for overcrowding and seat belt use?  How is that check conducted? 

Mr Hanna:  When the boards allocate work to taxi operators, they allocate a job of transporting four pupils to a vehicle with four seats, so overcrowding should never happen.  Obviously, if we found on a random check that an operator's vehicle is overcrowded, we would deal with that under the terms and conditions of the contract. 

Mrs Dobson:  Are taxis physically stopped and checked? 

Mr Hanna:  Yes.  They are stopped at the school. 

Mrs Dobson:  This is such an important issue.  The Deputy Chair referred to statistics that show that, overall, checks are carried out on less than 0·1% of vehicles.  It is just so worrying.  So taxis are stopped at the school? 

Mr Hanna:  Yes. 

Mrs Dobson:  Is that all that happens?  How often does that happen? 

Mr Hanna:  By the nature of random, we do not have an exact number.  Each board has indicated how often it undertakes random checks. 

Mrs Dobson:  Once a month?  Once a week?  Once a day? 

Mr Hanna:  I have an inspector out every day of the week, inspecting at various locations.  Each of the boards has some staff out checking at schools at some stage every day. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Sorry, but you said that "by the nature of random" you would not know the number?  That does not make sense.  Surely they would have a target of X random tests over a period of Y? 

Mr Hanna:  We want to target each operator so that, at the very least, we have checked that operator once a year, but random checks would be based on whether we get information from the public, a parent or school principal has phoned in with a concern or the DVA contacts us and says it wants to go out and do — 

The Deputy Chairperson:  So you do not have a target for random tests, say X number in a period of Y? 

Mr Hanna:  Not specifically in that way.  No. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Karen Magill gave me the impression that you were missing an opportunity in the use of soft intelligence.  Can you give us further reassurance on that?  Is that the case, or is the opportunity being maximised? 

Mr Hanna:  Certainly, I know that if we get soft intelligence, we act on it. 

Mrs Dobson:  I have another wee point, if I may make it.  Other members will want to speak on the issue of taxis as well.  As more schools close and greater numbers of school pupils become eligible for school transport, health and safety will become even more important.  Are the Department and the boards prepared for that rise in pupil numbers and will that compromise the one-pupil-per-seat policy? 

Mr Hanna:  The recommendation is that it is one seat per pupil.  We would have to comply with that. 

Mrs Dobson:  I am aware of that, but the coming school closures will place greater demands on transport because children, particularly those living in rural areas, will have to travel further to school.  Are you prepared for that? 

Mr Hanna:  At a practical level, we will put in additional resources to deal with that.  If we need additional capacity, we will provide it. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Conall, I should have welcomed you.  You are very welcome. 

Mr McDevitt:  I apologise to you and my colleagues for being late.  Welcome to the Committee and congratulations on your appointment, Mr Deputy Chairman. 

Mr Hanna, you provided us with a briefing paper in advance of the meeting, and I am very grateful for it.  A table in it lists the number of accidents by category.  It describes the accidents involving boards' school buses.  Before I ask my substantive question, can I ask whether that term means school buses owned by the board or all school buses operating on behalf of boards?

Mr Hanna:  The table, as I recall, refers to education and library board vehicles. 

Mr McDevitt:  So it includes only education and library board vehicles.  OK.  Can you then tell us how many accidents there have been involving private hire vehicles contracted by the education and library boards in that same period? 

Mr Hanna:  I do not have that information with me. 

Mr McDevitt:  Can you supply it to us? 

Mr Hanna:  It can be sought from the boards. 

Mr McDevitt:  I will ask a question about the substantial figures in front of us.  How come, in a five-year period from 2006 to 2011, there was only one minor accident in the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) area but six in the NEELB area, five in the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) area, seven in the SELB area and nine in the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) area?  It seems that, statistically, Belfast is way out of kilter for the better.  Thankfully, there were no serious or fatal accidents in Belfast.  How come there are so many fewer accidents in Belfast? 

Mr A McMullan:  The Belfast Board has a far smaller board bus fleet than any of the other boards.  That fleet is primarily for special educational needs and is approximately a quarter of the size of the Western Board's fleet, for example.  There is a big difference in the numbers of buses in each area. 

Mr McDevitt:  It reflects the scale.  Does the Belfast Board use more private operators than other boards because it has such a small fleet? 

Mr A McMullan:  No, it uses a very small number of private operators.  As the transport service in Belfast and greater Belfast is very good, very few are eligible.  Pupils can come in by public transport. 

Mr McDevitt:  Do you guys know what proportion of buses working for boards on the road every day are private? 

Mr A McMullan:  We carry 7% of children on private buses. 

Mr McDevitt:  Is that spread evenly across all the boards that are not the Belfast Board, or are there boards that are more reliant on private hire vehicles than others? 

Mr A McMullan:  Generally, the more rural the board, the more likely it is to use more private operators.  However, again, it depends on the size of the board-owned bus fleet. 

Mr McDevitt:  Finally, given what we heard from the previous witnesses, can you say with a degree of certainty that you believe that school transport across Northern Ireland, in both private hire and board vehicles, is safe? 

Mrs Angus:  Yes, I think that the evidence on the number of accidents points to that.

Mr A McMullan:  If we did not feel that it was safe, we would be taking action in the areas that we consider unsafe to ensure that the situation is rectified. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  So you have no specific areas with a red flag? 

Mr A McMullan:  We are always concerned about safety.  We will take up any matters that are brought to us and ask the boards whether they are complying. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Is there nothing on your landscape with a red flag or the equivalent against it? 

Mr Hanna:  From the boards' perspective, to mirror what FPT said, we would all like more levels of official enforcement from the DVA, because therein lies the ability and catalyst to control poor operation where it exists. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Is that a red flag for you? 

Mr Hanna:  We are debating that with the DVA.  We talk to the DVA, and we understand that it is constrained by the legislation as well.  From our point of view, it is quite clear that more enforcement in whatever situation has to be a good thing. 

Mr Lunn:  Who is responsible for checking the insurance details of private operators? 

Mr Hanna:  The boards. 

Mr Lunn:  You probably heard the previous discussion.  Are you satisfied that the process is robust enough in not only checking insurance policies but trying to ensure that the policies stay in force and are valid to start with? 

Mr Hanna:  The initial task of the procurement exercise is that all operators must provide current insurance documents for their vehicles.  We put those documents into databases.  Each board has an information database that is maintained and updated regularly as insurance expires. 

Mr Lunn:  An operator may provide valid insurance details to start with, but do you have a procedure to notify you if those insurance policies became invalid during the year?  Let us say that somebody was supposed to be paying by direct debit but did not pay. 

Mr Hanna:  I heard your comments earlier, and the answer to that is, no, we do not have a system in place as you have described. 

Mr Lunn:  You have no system.  In the previous presentation, Karen referred to the possibility that, in some areas, people can pay for a certificate without really paying for insurance.  Do you have any way of knowing?  Is anybody in your organisation professional enough to be able to identify rogue certificates or do you refer them to anybody who is professional enough?  Rogue certificates do exist. 

Mr Hanna:  We ask for copies of the insurance certificates, and we check those.  If we have any queries, we make direct contact with brokers to clarify. 

Mr Lunn:  How would you know?  You are not insurance professionals.  I will give you an example, because, frankly, the police are no better at this than you would be. 

Mr McDevitt:  Or a Policing Board member. 

Mr Lunn:  Well, yes.  If somebody produces an insurance certificate that says "any driver", that is good enough for the police, even if a 17-year-old was driving the vehicle.  The police cannot seem to get it through their heads that a certificate has to say "any driver" if that is what it means.  However, the policy may well say "any driver over 25" but that cannot be put on a certificate.  That is the type of thing you are looking out for.  I am surprised that you do not employ an insurance professional to check the insurance details and then get that professional to make sure that the onus is on the insurance company to notify you immediately if there is a problem with the cover.  It is really not complicated.  I am amazed that you have not done that. 

Mr Hanna:  Sorry, can I just seek clarity?  You said about checking the details; we do have officers who check that it is the appropriate type of insurance and that it is for public hire or reward. 

 

Mr Lunn:  You do not know whether it is valid or not.  That is the thing.  You do not know whether the full premium has been paid or whether the proper information was given to the insurance company when the policy was taken out, and you do not know six months into a 12-month policy term whether the policy is still in force.  That is the problem.  However, if your department's interest is noted in the policy, that puts the onus on the insurer or perhaps the broker to notify you straight away when there is a problem with the cover. 

Mr Hanna:  I am sure that is something we could explore. 

Mr Lunn:  I think you should. 

Mr Craig:  Urgently. 

Mr Lunn:  Urgently; I agree.  It is a bit of a hobby horse of mine as you can probably tell, but it is pretty basic stuff. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  So, Trevor, you are simply saying that, if I were to come along looking to get a certificate, you would say to me, "Will you sign this?", and that gives you the right to contact not just my broker but my insurer to ask them whether the insurance is valid and to inform you if the position changes. 

Mr Lunn:  Yes, in writing.  It is all too easy to take out an insurance policy, a motor insurance policy in particular, obtain the certificate and stop paying the premium.  That means that once proper procedure has been carried through, the policy is invalid.  However, you cannot force a person to return a certificate.  You have been shown a certificate and, as far as you are concerned, it is valid, but it may well not be.  Sorry, I am giving you a lecture, but it is slightly different with employer's liability because an employer's liability policy cannot be so easily cancelled.  That remains valid for the year no matter, but that does not apply to public liability or motor insurance. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  I am going to stop you before you try to sell him a policy.  [Laughter.]

 

Ms Boyle:  I should perhaps know the answer to this question, but I am going to ask it anyway.  We are talking not just about taking a bus to school in the morning and a bus home in the afternoon but about a range of activities that take place during the school day when the school goes on outside visits using buses from the private sector or elsewhere.  If a school takes a group of children to visit an area, does it have a list of private providers to choose from?  If so, is that list provided by the ELBs or is the choice of provider entirely a matter for the school? 

Mr A McMullan:  That choice would be entirely a matter for the school.  However, should the school wish to ring the board to seek advice, the board will provide guidance on how to go about checking the names of particular providers whom the school may wish to hire. 

Ms Boyle:  The briefing states: 

"To enhance pupil safety further, ELBs have delivered a programme of training for drivers to help them deal with situations that may arise which could impact on pupils. This training includes bus evacuation procedures, route risk assessment, roles and responsibilities at the scene of an accident, child protection training, and incident reporting.  On buses that carry pupils with special needs, ELBs have also provided drivers and escorts with additional training in, for example, securing wheelchairs and using tail-lifts."

 

That specialist training is for drivers on education and library board buses only; is that correct? 

Mr Hanna:  Yes. 

Ms Boyle:  How do the boards determine that the private companies comply with the same risk assessments?  Where is that information?  Is that information provided to the boards by private providers? 

Mr Hanna:  The vehicles used by private providers of services for children with special transport needs will have undergone a risk assessment.  As the responsible board we hold the details of the needs of a child for a particular type of wheelchair or restraints, for example, and, where appropriate, we will train the private provider's drivers on how to restrain that wheelchair in a particular vehicle, because each vehicle is different.  We check each vehicle regularly and, obviously, make sure that wheelchairs are properly restrained. 

Ms Boyle:  The education and library boards' bus drivers are trained in bus evacuation procedures, route risk assessment and roles and responsibilities at the scene of an accident.  How do you ensure that private providers' drivers are trained in exactly the same procedures and methods of risk assessment? 

Mr Hanna:  Board drivers have a driver's manual.  We have adapted that to create a private operator's guidance manual, which we have issued to all the private operators asking that they distribute it among their drivers.  We provide guidance in that manual. 

Ms Boyle:  Just guidance, not training? 

Mr Hanna:  Yes. 

Ms Boyle:  So the board drivers have the training but the private drivers do not? 

Mr Hanna:  Yes. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  I have just a couple of points to finish with.  The 0·00 percentages that I read out earlier were, perhaps, not a complete picture.  We might want to finish with a bit of clarity on the inspections.  Is the Department satisfied with the number, the percentages and the overall regime of checks in this area? 

Mrs Angus: I suppose that you can never have enough checks, but we are satisfied that the boards are carrying out the checks that they can do.  Looking at the accident figures and so on, there is evidence that safety is at a good level.  If we were not satisfied of that, we would certainly be looking for methods to improve it, checks being one of those.

Mr McDevitt:  May I come back to Mrs Angus on that point?  You were not able to give us the figures for accidents in the private sector, so you do not know how many accidents have taken place involving private hire operators. 

Mr A McMullan:  We were not able to provide you with the figures today. 

Mr Hanna:  I can speak for my board and say that those figures are very, very low.  They are as low as those presented for education and library board vehicles. 

Mr McDevitt:  With the greatest respect, I am saying that it is a bit difficult for you to make an assertion that you have not been able to evidence to us today. 

Mrs Angus:  We do not have the figures with us, but we know that they are low.  We have no reason to believe otherwise.  If the figures were high, we would be hearing about it from schools and elsewhere even if we did not know about them ourselves.

Mr McDevitt:  Ms Boyle's question was very important.  You cannot guarantee that the professional standards being delivered by private operators are the same as those to which board employees are operating.  It seems to me that you have no way of being able to guarantee to us that whoever owns or drives the bus that a child gets on will have been trained to the same standard. 

Mr Hanna:  Drivers of taxis, for example, have to apply to get a taxi licence direct from DOE anyway, so they have had to go through a stringent test in that regard.  We are talking about hundreds of individuals.  I am not — 

Mr McDevitt:  No.  We are talking about your ELB programme for training drivers, and I commend you for it.  It appears to be a good programme that is about upping standards and improving professional standards.  It seems to me that you are not able to guarantee to us that every bus driver working for a board is trained to that standard. 

Mrs Angus:  No, but you provide the information to private operators, and there is an expectation on those operators to provide that kind of training to their —

Mr McDevitt:  But no compulsion. 

Ms Boyle:  Sorry, but an expectation is not good enough.  We are talking about the safety of children on our buses being paramount.  I am sorry, Dorothy, but that word is not enough. 

Mr Hanna:  The previous briefing started by saying that there were concerns in the private sector that there were operators who were non-compliant.  Yes, that is the case, but, equally, and even though I am from the public sector, I would say that the vast majority of private sector operators are very honest, hard-working people who provide a very good service.  At board level, we certainly have people who have had contractual relationships for many years, and they provide an excellent service.  Although I cannot guarantee to the member that they get exactly the same training as the board drivers, I want to reassure you that, at board level, officers work very hard on a daily basis to make sure that children are transported safely.  My children travel on school transport.  As far as I am concerned, I am in loco parentis for 28,000 children every day.  Therefore, it is important to add that we try hard on a daily basis and that the private sector is doing a very good job.  There are some rogue operators.  We accept that.  However, there are approximately 200 licensed operators in Northern Ireland.  I do not believe that we are talking about huge numbers of non-compliant operators.  I hope that that reassures you. 

Ms Boyle:  I think that is the Committee consensus, but the issue concerns those who are non-compliant.  More robust and rigorous procedures must be put in place.  You spoke about the talks that you have been having with the DVA.  They need to continue, and they need to be more robust to weed out non-compliant private companies. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  The final issue is tendering.  I am sorry to do this anecdotally, but it would no doubt be defamatory to mention specifics.  I think that we around the table are all aware that there are occasions when organisations become exceptionally good at the tendering process but, having won the tender, do not have the capacity to deliver.  Do you believe that that has happened and is happening in your sector? 

Mr Hanna:  From a tendering point of view, we try to check an operator's reputation.  We have local knowledge of operators in the area, and we certainly would not allocate work to companies that we did not think had the capacity to cope with the volume of work that they had tendered for. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  With respect, that does not answer my question.  Do you think that there is evidence that there are companies that are better at tendering than they are at delivery? 

Mr Hanna:  No.

The Deputy Chairperson:  No dispute?  OK.  Thank you very much.  I thank all three of you very much indeed.  You have helped us with issues on which we are glad to bring a focus and shine a spotlight, and we will, no doubt, maintain that in the coming weeks. 

Find Your MLA

tools-map.png

Locate your local MLA

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

tools-media.png

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

tools-social.png

Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more

Contact information

tools-newsletter.png

Contact us for further information about our work.

Contact us