Fresh row over bus places days before pupils back in school
A row has broken out over the school transport scheme little more than a week before thousands of pupils return to their classrooms.
Independent Minister John Halligan has been accused by Fianna Fáil's Thomas Byrne of breaking a Dáil promise to parents that there won't be cuts to services, a claim he has denied.
Mr Byrne said public representatives across the country are being "inundated with queries from worried parents who say their children have lost their concessionary place on school buses."
Though the national scale of the issue is unknown, the Meath East TD said he was aware of many cases, including at least a dozen families in the Stamullen area, who have been told their children won't have a place on the bus. His colleague, Galway East's Anne Rabbitt, said 15 children in her constituency are in the same situation and parents are "tearing their hair out".
Bus Eireann provides the service. A spokeswoman said the availability of concessionary tickets may vary each year and cannot be guaranteed for the duration of a child's education. She said there has been "no change in the rules" this year.
In total 113,000 children avail of school transport in rural areas, with some 22,000 traveling on a concessionary basis at an overall cost of €175m.
Concessionary passengers are those who are accommodated on buses if there are spare seats once all "eligible" students get their place. They are allocated tickets at random and pay for their passage.
Mr Byrne accused Mr Halligan of breaking a pledge that such students will not lose their seats this term and of not establishing a cross-party committee to deal with the issue during July and August. Mr Halligan told the Dáil in June that he has been "inundated" with school transport requests from applicants. He told Mr Byrne at the time: "I give the Deputy a guarantee that no student will lose a seat on the school bus during this term."
Last night Mr Halligan denied he broke this pledge. He said there are marginal increases or decreases in available places every year due to route changes and that concessionary transport "cannot be guaranteed from one year to the next".
"Rather what I did commit to was that no child would lose a place as a result of a planned programme of rationalisation and I have held to this commitment." He also denied that he said the cross-party group would meet over the summer and that the plan is for it to meet at the start of September. Mr Halligan told the Irish Independent he sympathises with families where children have lost concessionary seats. He said guaranteeing every child seeking concessionary school transport a seat on a bus would require "substantially more money". He asked: "Where do we get that from? Do we take it out of another part of the education budget?"