Education Minister Norma Foley says she is “hopeful” of getting money in next week’s Budget to provide a school bus place for about 6,000 pupils who have not yet received a ticket.
Ms Foley was addressing the Oireachtas Education Committee where she came under repeated criticism over the way pupils who had an expectation of a seat on the school bus this year still don’t have one.
It is a clear indication of the pressure on Ms Foley on the issue that she is revealing the nature of Budget negotiations.
More than 20,000 extra pupils are being carried on the service so far this year, but some children and young people who had a seat for up to four years and more have not received one for 2022/23.
Thousands have lost out because of the record demand for tickets this year on foot of the Government decision in July to waive fees for 2022/23 as part of its response to the cost-of-living crisis.
The new term is now in its fourth week and TDs and senators told how children were being “left on the side of the road” and how some parents have been forced to change their daily patterns to drive lengthy journeys to get their children to and from school.
There was a terse exchange at the meeting between the minister and committee chair, TD Paul Kehoe, while he pressed Ms Foley for a response on whether a child who was carried on the bus without a ticket was covered by insurance.
Mr Kehoe said he knew of a route in Co Wexford where the driver was “letting everyone on”, including children with no tickets.
At one point, while Ms Foley suggested Mr Kehoe had not heard a previous response, he interjected: “I will ask the questions.”
In the course of the exchange, Ms Foley said it was the driver’s responsibility to ensure every child had a ticket and Mr Kehoe accused the minister of not “knowing the answer”.
The minister said Mr Kehoe had raised a “very significant issue” and he had a duty in relation to the matter, to which Mr Kehoe replied that Ms Foley “had a duty to answer questions” about insurance.
While committee members generally acknowledged the gesture in waiving school transport fees, Mr Kehoe said it was a “huge mistake” not to retain some form of nominal charge.
He is aware of family with four children who have received tickets for the first time but “have no intention of using them".
He said they applied because they were free and “might need it someday”, but in the process they had blocked off four concessionary passengers on the route.
“If you are giving something for free, you are going to have everyone looking for it,” said Mr Kehoe, suggesting that there should have been a charge of €100 or €150.
Ms Foley said €150 would be a “substantial burden”, to which Mr Kehoe replied that the change landed a “substantial burden” on parents who were now driving children to school.
Unprecedented demand for the service followed the announcement in July that there would be no charge for tickets for 2022/23.
It saves families up to €500.
It triggered a record 130,000 applications for mainstream pupils and Bus Éireann, which operates the service, mainly through private contractors, has struggled to source enough buses and drivers to meet demand.
Tickets are awarded to children who meet eligibility criteria and, if there is capacity on buses after that, spare seats are allocated to other pupils who are not eligible but are known as “concessionary” passengers.
School attendance patterns in some areas have created a legacy of “concessionary” passengers, particularly at second-level.
About 124,000 mainstream pupils, both eligible and concessionary, have been accommodated for 2022/23, an increase of 20,400 on this time last year.
Ms Foley said the figure included an increase of about one-third in concessionary ticket holders.
Ms Foley said about 600 eligible pupils still without a seat would get one and that Bus Éireann was working through those cases.
Bus Éireann is not seeking additional capacity for concessionary passengers, although some may benefit through the provision of additional capacity for eligible pupils.
However, Ms Foley is in negotiations about Budget funding to accommodate this group, of up to 6,000, and said today that she was “hopeful”.
The service cost €289 last year and so far this year, costs are up by about €40m, the minister said
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly told the minister “we got a ticket and didn’t apply for it”.
Sinn Féin Education spokesperson Donnchadh O’Laoghaire said families who had built their life around the school bus had been using the service for years felt let down.
Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the issue had been “grossly mishandled” and asked the minister to apologise to families. He said the homework on the impact of waiving charges should have been done before the announcement was made.