DÁIL SPEECH ON REPORT ON ACCESSIBILITY OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the report. I commend the Chairperson, Deputy O’Dowd, and the rest of the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport on their work in holding hearings on accessibility to public transport and presenting us, as Deputy O’Dowd noted in his introduction, with the “experiences of disadvantage, exclusion and unequal treatment” endured by citizens with disabilities, which is a significant cohort of Irish society. When reading the report, I was struck by the comment of our colleague, Senator Dolan, who represents the Disability Federation of Ireland, in late 2017 that people with disabilities “do not have their basic right to free movement”. That is a profound statement on the level of public transport and all other types of transport in the country.

Other comments on public transport accessibility by witnesses to the committee also strongly challenged public transport operators and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to fulfil urgently the accessibility principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by the Oireachtas last year. The 16 recommendations of the report seem to be a comprehensive overview of the steps Ireland urgently needs to take to implement full equal access as defined in recommendation 1 of the report. The measurement of performance by transport operators and all the agencies, such as the National Transport Authority, NTA, and so on, in recommendation 8 and the role of the National Disability Authority in recommendation 14 are also important. The Minister needs to respond with whatever legislation is necessary to provide for that measurement and to hold people to account. If necessary, sanctions should be applied to ensure that the NTA will place its responsibility to citizens with disabilities at the core of its monitoring of public and private transport companies. As the report notes, we are speaking about a significant cohort of our society, given that in the 2016 census, 643,131 people indicated they had a disability. Worryingly, the unemployment rate among persons with disability was reported to be higher than 26%. As Deputy Pringle has outlined, the lack of disability is almost certainly a factor in that regard.

In preparing for the debate, I contacted Ms Joan Carthy, the outstanding advocacy officer of the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, whom I welcome along with her colleagues to the Public Gallery. Ms Carthy helpfully sent me a copy of the results of the IWA’s national transport survey of October 2018, for which it had well over 500 respondents from 28 counties. Some 66% of those respondents indicated they use public transport, although some of those who said they did not, said they used taxis. Trains and the DART were the commonest form of transport used, while people who used taxis usually had to book them in advance and were rarely able to book an accessible taxi. As the Minister noted at the committee, those seeking an accessible taxi must usually give at least 24 hours’ notice, which is a significant issue for citizens with disability and transport accessibility.

A large number of people, 32%, used Dublin Bus weekly, with 22% using it daily but if companions travelling together are both in wheelchairs, they are unable to get on the same bus because of the space for just one wheelchair. There is a long-standing complaint about buggies being placed in the wheelchair space. It is disappointing that 43% of respondents reported being refused access to the bus because of the ramp being broken in 24% of cases, a buggy in the wheelchair spot in 33% of cases, or another wheelchair user already on board in 24% of cases. The Luas seemed to get good ratings from people who responded to the survey.

Some 64% of respondents to the survey said that they had to give notice to their local station if they were to travel by train, including the DART. In my constituency, I have had to make many representations to the Minister in the past few years about when the lifts are malfunctioning in Howth Junction-Donaghmede and a key station on the northern part of the DART becomes totally inaccessible for a citizen with disability.

The availability of accessible taxis is low. Since 2010, new licences were only granted for wheelchair accessible vehicles but just 8% of the small public service vehicle, SPSV, fleet is wheelchair accessible. I was dismayed in 2017 that only €2 million was available under the public transport accessibility grants programme. The Minister said that that has now expanded to €7 million, if he was referring to that specifically.

Clongriffin DART station in my constituency was one of the first stations to become staffless earlier this month because of the new system of the 13 hubs, and will be one of the first stations not to be manned. It is said that the rationale behind these unmanned stations is that it will allow staff at the hubs to travel between stations. Citizens with disability who use public transport have grave concerns about how and whether that system will work.

I warmly welcome the report and acknowledge the input of stakeholders including the Disability Federation of Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, the Irish Deaf Society, the National Council for the Blind, the IWA and other disability activists. I am a member of the informal Oireachtas disability group, which was founded and is chaired by our colleague, Senator John Dolan, which has done remarkable work over the past couple of years. I am also a member of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and I have tried to ensure that the needs of citizens with disability are input into budget preparations at the earliest possible time. Making all public transport fully accessible should be a priority, as the Minister rightly says, for the entire Oireachtas and it is something that we can work together to achieve. Although we have not signed the optional protocol, we have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. We have grave responsibility in this regard and I hope that it will be discharged.

I read with great interest the contributions at the committee. It is somewhat disappointing to read what was said by the Minister and the CEOs, Mr. Ray Coyne of Dublin Bus, Mr. Jim Meade, the director of Irish Rail and Mr. Ray Hernan of Bus Éireann. Mr. Hernan said that the company are trying to get a balance between “the commerciality of the situation” and its overall transport obligations. That is a ridiculous comment because the point of good public transport is to empower and facilitate every user of transport, including all citizens with disability.

I welcome the news that the NDA is working with NTA and academics from DIT and Trinity on improved data analysis. It was disappointing to read some of Ms Anne Graham’s contributions, as CEO of the NTA, to the committee. The CEO should lead the organisation towards 100% accessibility and ask the committee for whatever legislation or resources she needs to make that possible, to monitor what is happening and to ensure that the widest accessibility is available. She would not give a timeframe for her target. Some €28 million in budget 2018 was mentioned but during the austerity years it was our most vulnerable citizens, including those with disability, who suffered most.

I asked the Minister a few years ago about the cost of updating bus stations, and he replied that it would cost €11.5 million, with €79 million for railway works. He put the figure for fully accessible public infrastructure that he was taking care of at between €100 million and €200 million. That seems a reasonable sum. Many of us in this House voted against putting €500 million in the rainy day fund at this juncture. One area that we were thinking about was the disability sector. That is achievable and the Minister should work for it.

In recent correspondence, the IWA highlighted a number of disturbing issues, for example, emerging problems with the new Go-Ahead buses which have taken over 10% of radial Dublin Bus routes, including a number of routes through my own constituency. It also mentioned problems with the new Waterford intercity fleet. I hope the representations that have been made about these issues will be dealt with. I commend the committee and its chair for the outstanding work in developing the report. I urge the Minister to accept and act on it.