More than 200 people gathered at the Island Civic Centre in Lisburn on Tuesday to protest against proposals by the Department for Infrastructure that could threaten community transport services.
Concerns have been raised that proposed licensing changes for volunteers who drive minibuses could decimate many after-school and youth activities, as well as church and community work initiatives.
Community transport providers and service users fear the controversial changes could be signed off by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) permanent secretary in the absence of a Stormont minister.
It is understood that for eight years officials in the department have been keen to change the way that driver licensing and operator licensing works for minibuses, but that this has consistently been resisted by ministers.
A public consultation is ongoing, and last week a DfI spokesman said the implications of a legal challenge against the current arrangements – which allow a volunteer with a car driving licence to drive a minibus – should be known by the end of the month.
However, some transport providers believe a lack of public awareness means new regulations could be imposed before volunteer-reliant organisations have had time to put drivers through the appropriate test - something some local groups claim could cost in excess of £1,000 per driver, effectively forcing some to scrap services.
Politicians, passengers, community groups and charities gathered to give their voice to the campaign.
Tina McMillan, Manager of Lagan Valley Rural Transport, said: “Vital transport services are being placed under threat by the actions of the Department for Infrastructure. Changes to driver licensing and the permit under which community transport operates threatens to stop the service completely on November 1. There is just over one week left to keep the buses on the road.”
“The message was clear in the Civic Centre, civil servants need to stop what they are doing and listen to the stories of the users of our service. Several people shared their stories with the politicians present. Many explained how they would be housebound, taken permanently into hospital or nursing homes and would have diminished quality of life without community transport.”
“All political parties were represented and all politicians had the same message: save our community transport.”
She continued: “Department for Infrastructure consultations will change the way people are allowed to drive minibuses, under the Department’s proposals those people driving minibuses will require a full PCV licence from November 1. This affects not only community transport charities but also schools, churches, sports clubs and community groups. This will affect thousands of bus trips per year and will affect vital transport services for the most vulnerable members of our society. Almost 60% of those relying on the service are older people, with almost 50% of service users having some form of disability. Any change to this service will clearly affect the most vulnerable and isolated in our society. Such guidance (if implemented) will have devastating consequences for our community transport services and those voluntary organisations operating vehicles.”
Voicing his opposition to plans by the Department for Infrastructure to amend the licensing arrangements for minibuses, in the face of public and political opposition, Lagan Valley MLA Robbie Butler said: “I am extremely concerned at reports that the Department for Infrastructure is planning to introduce new licensing proposals which would have a devastating impact on a range of groups who rely on volunteers with car licences to drive minibuses.
“I understand that departmental officials have been pressing for this idea for eight years, but that successive Ministers – including the Ulster Unionist Party’s Danny Kennedy – resisted the idea.
“There are now genuine concerns that the department will take advantage of the current political impasse whereby there is no minister, to impose new regulations and require volunteer-reliant organisations to put drivers through what is an unnecessary test.
“This is a classic example of telling people what they need rather than asking them what they want. It is exactly why we need a fully functioning Stormont, where local ministers take decisions, scrutinised by locally elected MLAs, and not unelected bureaucrats.”
The UUP man continued: “At the meeting which I attended in Lisburn, it was made clear that this decision would have a very serious impact on a range of voluntary groups and organisations, including schools and mental health charities.
“I am a member of an all-party group of MLAs which has requested a meeting next Monday with Peter May, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Infrastructure, to highlight our concerns and to ensure the department is put on notice that any attempt to act in such a manner will not be accepted.”
Responding, a DfI spokesperson said: “In recent months, it became clear to the department that interpretation of existing legislation regarding minibus driving licence requirements was causing some confusion. The department sought to address this by developing clear guidance and consulting with those impacted.
“The draft guidance was issued for public consultation on 22 September. It confirmed that under the existing legislation paid drivers should not be able to drive a minibus on their D1 (not for hire or reward) driving licence and that some volunteer drivers, undertaking commercial passenger transport activities, may also require a full D or D1 driving licence. For example, teachers in paid employment who have a D1 category on their licence can no longer drive a school minibus without a Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (Driver CPC) qualification.
“It is clear that this is a highly complex and controversial area which has been subject to significant public and political interest. Since the consultation exercise issued on 22 September the department has been working with those likely to be impacted to ensure they meet the requirements of the current legislation and allow an orderly transition. However, the department has since received a legal challenge against the current arrangements as a result of which it is required to clarify the legal position at the end of the month.”
He added: “The department is very mindful of the impacts on the community and schools and has been engaging widely with those affected and with other interested organisations including the Equality Commission, about the delivery of key services. This will continue in the coming days and weeks.”
• Find out more about the ‘Save Our Community Transport’ campaign by logging on to www.saveourcommunitytransport.com