THE Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland bus operators body believes the EU Commission has not been given the full picture on the influx of Donegal firms into the Londonderry market over the past 15 years.
Karen Magill of the Federation of Passenger Transport NI Ltd. said she has now written to the Commission once again on behalf of her members to seek clarification on the law regarding buses from outside Northern Ireland holding contracts here.
She made the statement after the Department of the Environment (DoE) said it was OK for Donegal bus companies to provide school bus runs without registering in NI after - it claimed - the European Commission stated the practice was legal in certain circumstances.
Vehicle Licensing Minister Alex Attwood said the European Commission had given its opinion that some cross-border home to school bus contracts - specifically one year contracts extendable for two further years - were in compliance with European Law, and that companies operating them did not have to register in NI.
But Ms Magill said she believed the information on which the EC based its opinion was supplied by the regulatory authorities in the south and did not give a full picture of what was really happening here.
She stated: “We believe that the information forwarded to the Commission, which they based their decision on, may not have detailed fully the actual situation on all the transport services being operated every day in this area of Northern Ireland (the North West).
“Having tried unsuccessfully for some time, to get clarification from the regulatory authority in Northern Ireland on this issue, we contacted the Commission early last year to make them aware of the situation here and also in an effort to try and get some clarity on the definition of ‘temporary’ in relation to cabotage services.”
‘Cabotage’ regulations deal with haulage and bus transport in the EU. Under EU law ‘cabotage operations’ are national road passenger services for hire and reward carried out on a temporary basis by a carrier in a host member state or the picking up and setting down of passengers within a host state.
Mrs Magill says Donegal firms have been holding down non-temporary contracts in Northern Ireland for the best part of 20 years and her members believe the idea of a one-year contract extendable for two years is a far cry from what has been happening here.
“As we understand it then, the regulatory authorities in the Republic of Ireland wrote to the Commission and this opinion is the result of that communication,” she stated.
“In their response, the EU Commission states that in the case where contracts are concluded for one year, extendable for two additional years, this limitation of a short nature and therefore the provision of special regular services is in line with the provisions of Regulation 1073/2009.
“However, no determination or opinion has been offered in the situation where there has been a sustained period where contracts have been held by the same companies continuously for periods of up to 12 or 15 years,” she added.
She said FTPNI had concerns on a number of fronts and has again written to the Commission providing more detailed information on the actual situation in the province.
“We continue to seek a more definitive definition of what is meant by ‘temporary’ in terms of the passenger transport sector,” she said. “For the road haulage industry, current legislation actually details the number of cabotage operations which can be carried out within a seven day period but this has not been matched in the legislation for the passenger transport industry.
“We also would like some clarification on other purely domestic and private hire transport services and feel that no consideration has been given to protection of the internal market or the viability of any transport operator,” she added.
Local bus operators - including Bready busman William Leonard - who has lobbied the Vice-President of the EU Commission, Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, over the monopolisation of local school transport contracts by Donegal firms - don’t believe the local regulatory authorities have taken their concerns seriously enough.
“Basically, our concerns were not taken seriously locally by our own regulatory authority as there was no representation made to the EU Commission on our behalf and because the new regulation did not contain the safeguard clause which offered protection to the local market , there was not going to be any action taken by the Commission,” said Mrs Magill.
“So the situation here remains unchanged with the result that a number of local operators have had to either close down or seriously reduced the size of their fleets,” she said.
“Despite much research we cannot find any other area in the EU where this kind of situation has arisen and this is most probably due to the fact that a number of Member States in practice prohibited all cabotage or limited the number of cabotage operations,” she added.
She stressed that FPTNI and its members fully agreed with the principles of freedom of movement but said this must be on a fair and equitable basis.
Last week Mr Attwood said: “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.”
The Sentinel emailed Mr Kallas’ Deputy head of cabinet Keir Fitch and asked for a copy of the EC opinion provided to the DoE suggesting it appeared to allow a workaround, that would allow firms get around the spirit of the law, by extending temporary contracts.
The paper asked if this type of mechanism - a one year contract extendable for up to two years - was widespread throughout the EU and if Spanish bus companies operated in France on this basis and vice-versa and if it would be happy for this to happen. There was no response at the time of going to press.