Guidelines drafted to end confusion over minibus driver licensing requirements in Northern Ireland have failed to resolve the main issues, some community transport groups have claimed.
The Age NI charity and a body representing school principals have also called for greater clarity around how services could be impacted by new directives from the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).
We would have to let go of the groups that really need that service, such as groups with disabilitiesTina McMillan - Lagan Valley Rural Transport
Under the current interpretation of the law, most volunteers working for educational, voluntary and religious groups can drive minibuses on a their standard driving licence, with a Section 10B exemption permit, on a ‘not for profit’ basis.
However, the DfI has launched a consultation process, and said: “The revised guidance confirms that anyone who is paid to drive must have a full D or D1 category licence and any transport operator who charges customers for services must hold a bus operator licence.”
Earlier this week a DfI spokeswoman said: “This is a complex area and while the legislation has not changed, the requirements the existing legislation places on drivers and operators has not always been clear.”
She added: “The department expects the majority of organisations in the community and voluntary sector will be unaffected with little impact on people using the services.”
The department’s clarification was contained in two documents totalling 13 pages – a five-page letter setting out its revised guidance, and an eight-page question and answer sheet further explaining the rules – earlier this week.
Responding to the new guidance, Tina McMillan of Lagan Valley Regional Transport (LVRT) said: “It says in the letter that the Section 10B permit cannot be used if you are collecting money on the bus, or any sort of payment, so all of our group hire trips are totally illegal because they are paying a fee to be carried. This impacts on the people who need the services the most.
“We would have to let go of the groups that really need that service, such as groups with disabilities, older peoples groups, Chest Heart and Stroke, Action Mental Health. We would have to let them all go.”
Ms McMillan said LVRT was seeking legal advice, and added: “Any organisation that has a minibus, and there is a paid member of staff driving that bus, that paid driver will have to have a full licence by test and also the vehicle will have to be fitted with a tachograph and someone in the organisation trained to follow the regulations surrounding that. Jobs are on the line and that is crazy.”
Age NI chief executive Linda Robinson said: “Age NI is calling on the Department for Infrastructure to provide clear information about the potential impact of its proposals on community transport used by older people and the steps it will take to ensure older people can get the transport they need to access services and be connected to each other and to their local community.
“For many older people, particularly older people who are unable to drive, have mobility difficulties or live in a rural area, community transport provides a vital link to services and activities available in their local area.”
Ms Robinson added: “Many older people and age sector organisations have been in touch with Age NI to highlight their fears about the impact of the department’s proposals on community transport and older people’s quality of life.”
A number of MLAs have voiced their support for those lobbying to have the current interpretation of the law maintained without interference.
The campaign is being opposed by the Federation of Passenger Transport NI (FPT) who have stated that the priority for all transport providers “should be the safety of their passengers” and “compliance with legislation”.
Chief executive Karen Magill has written to MLAs, stating that the current confusion has arisen because those who provide services under the 10B permit scheme have been “wrongly” exempted from the legal requirements.
“It is not new legislation and has not changed,” she said.
“The DOE/DRD and now DfI should not have allowed this exemption and are now trying to correct this situation.
“The guidance recently issued to the industry clearly sets out the legal position for minibus drivers and it clearly reflects the position set out in the legislation. DfI do not have any other choice than to comply and ensure others also do the same.”
Ms Magill added: “The fact that the correct advice was not issued in the past does not give any operator the right to abdicate their responsibilities to their passengers or employees and to not comply with the law.”