THE Department of the Environment (DoE) says it is OK for Donegal bus companies to provide school bus runs without registering in NI after - it claims - the European Commission stated the practice was legal in certain circumstances.
Last June Bready busman William Leonard forced the DoE into a major U-turn over the uninhibited influx of Donegal firms into Londonderry and Minister Alex Atwood admitted that the free-for-all did not comply with European Law.
But now Mr Attwood says the European Commission has given its opinion that some cross-border home to school bus contracts - specifically one year contracts extendable for two further years - are in compliance with European Law, and that companies operating them don’t have to register in NI.
In 2011 the Sentinel was the only newspaper to cover Mr Leonard’s battle to protect his business from the encroachment of southern firms.
The DoE told the Sentinel then that the practice was legitimate but Mr Leonard insisted it breached ‘cabotage’ regulations that deal with haulage and bus transport in the EU.
His campaign culminated in a petition to José Manuel Barroso’s right-hand man, Vice-President of the EU Commission and Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, over the monopolisation of local school transport contracts by Donegal firms.
Mr Leonard argued that under EU directive EC 1073/2009 there may have been grounds for refusing Donegal firms if a service seriously affected the viability of a comparable service here operated under one or more public service contracts.
The DoE told him he was wrong but last June Mr Attwood - after taking extensive legal advice - admitted he was right and has moved to close the legal loop hole.
Today (Tuesday, January 29), however, Mr Attwood has issued a clarificaiton on the matter after taking even more extensive legal advice.
Last June Mr Attwood said ROI operators would have to register in NI and that if they did they would be able to work or continue to work in the NI. This happened.
But now Mr Attwood has decided to revise the guidance it issued in June 2012 and says not all southern firms have to register here.
Mr Attwood said: ”My primary concern today remains the same as it was in June 2012, that is to ensure that all bus journeys in Northern Ireland are safe and comply with all relevant laws.
“While the European law which governs this activity is complex I accept the Commission’s opinion that southern operators are able to undertake certain types of work in Northern Ireland without having to obtain Northern Irish operator licences.
“Given the Commission’s opinion my Department will now work closely with the bus industry to ensure that all operators working in Northern Ireland, and all hirers of buses, are clear as to the legal requirements.
“This will include continuing engagement with the Commission to clarify further points of law.
“I will continue to engage with the British and Irish Governments to make sure that the Commission’s principles are applied for Northern operators working in the South.”
Mr Leonard has claimed that up to 90 per cent of Western Education and Library Board (WELB) private hire Home to School transport tenders in Londonderry and its hinterland from Strabane to Claudy were held by ROI firms.
The Federation of Passenger Transport NI (FPTNI) has also estimated that at least 50 schools in the Londonderry area used firms from across the border and that this was threatening to put local operators out of business.
Back in September 2011 Mr Leonard told the Sentinel the local home to school market was sewn up by southern firms and argued this could be in breach of a European Commission (EC) ‘cabotage’ directive which governs the operation of the international market for bus and coach hire services in the EU.