Downsizing of school buses kicked into Dáil committee
School buses will not be downsized in September, as plans to cut transport costs are to be kicked into an all-party committee.
Junior Minister John Halligan has become the latest minster to opt for an all-party approach to a politically difficult issue.
His department wants to reduce spending on school transport but the initiative, first revealed by the Irish Independent in June, could negatively impact as many as one in five schoolchildren.
The Programme for Government commits to reviewing what are known as 'concessionary' ticket-holders prior to Budget 2017 in October.
Concessionary passengers are those who are accommodated on buses if there are spare seats once all "eligible" students get their place.
These extra students pay for their passage but the School Transport Scheme is heavily subsidised by the State, which recovers less than €20m of its annual €175m cost from passengers.
On foot of the review, Mr Halligan's office has received "in the region of 60" queries on the issue directly from members of the public, as well as countless contacts from elected representatives.
Such was the level of correspondence from TDs that they were being redirected from the minister's office to a special email address handled by Bus Éireann, which operates school buses around the country.
It now appears unlikely that any real progress will be made on the issue in time for this year's budget, as the backlash has led the minister to establish a cross-party group which will be asked to "feed into" the review.
The minister is to contact all parties in the Dáil with the aim of getting a group to meet in early September.
The Budget is due to be announced in early October, meaning there would be only a very narrow time-frame for the committee to make any solid recommendations.
Fianna Fáil's Thomas Byrne told the Irish Independent that the minister had raised the idea of a committee with him and other party representatives several weeks ago but there had been no developments since.
"The uncertainty needs to end. The minister has promised a cross-party committee but that was some weeks ago and we've heard nothing. September is fast approaching, so there needs to be certainty around this issue," he said.
The threat to the places of around 22,000 students emerged from a briefing document, prepared by Department of Education officials for Richard Bruton when he took over as Education Minister in May.
They advised that given the ongoing growth in concessionary numbers, they were "working with Bus Éireann with a view to downsizing the buses required to transport eligible children which will commence on a phased basis in the coming school year 2016/17".
However, in a statement, the department now says that pending the overall review of the concessionary charges and other rules governing the School Transport Scheme, "there will be no planned programme of downsizing school buses in the coming school year".
Mr Halligan met with officials from Bus Éireann on June 14 to get an overview of the operation element of the School Transport Scheme.
The minister's office did note that there will be "route changes and variations" in September which may affect some students "in line with normal operational decisions that occur from year to year".
It added that "any impacts in terms of increases or decreases of available places will be marginal, in line with what occurs every year".