EU breach bus firms back on the road
THREE southern bus operators who breached EU law by providing long-term Western Education and Library Board (WELB) school bus services have had their contracts re-instated and are currently ferrying up to 880 pupils to schools in Londonderry, Fermanagh and Tyrone.
Education Minister John O’Dowd denied the contracts had been breached by the firms’ non-compliance with EU ‘cabotage’ legislation, which prohibits bus companies providing permanent services in a member state without having a premises in that state.
Mr O’Dowd said there was no requirement to re-tender the home to school contracts and that they were merely suspended over the summer to allow the Republic of Ireland (ROI) firms to get in line with the Department of the Environment’s (DoE) revised interpretation of the law.
In June the Sentinel reported how Bready busman William Leonard had forced the DoE into a major U-turn over the uninhibited influx of Donegal firms into Londonderry with Minister Alex Attwood eventually admitting that the free-for-all did not comply with European Law.
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.
Last week Environment Minister Alex Attwood categorically denied fast-tracking Northern Ireland licences for Donegal bus companies to allow them to legally operate home to school bus contracts in the North West this September.
Now Mr O’Dowd has revealed the contracts were merely suspended for a couple of months to allow the three ROI firms to comply.
DUP MLA Mervyn Storey put it to the Minister that “non-compliance was a breach of contract, which results in the contract being void.”
But Mr O’Dowd replied: “Following legal advice the DoE informed the WELB that from June 14, 2012, it was revising its interpretation of EU Regulation governing ‘cabotage.’
“This covers transport services provided wholly in one Member State by operators from another. This change affected WELB contracts with three southern bus contractors operating home to school transport services on 16 routes affecting approximately 880 pupils.”
Mr O’Dowd said that to have immediately pulled the plug on these contracts would have resulted in chaos for pupils facing into end of year exams.
“To withdraw these services with immediate effect would have resulted in serious disruption at a time when many pupils were facing important end-of-year examinations, including GCSEs and A-levels, as the WELB was unable to provide alternative services arrangements for many pupils at such short notice.
“Following legal advice, and discussions with DoE, the WELB considered there was no intentional breach of contract per se by the southern operators, as the contracts had been signed in 2011 under the extant DoE interpretation of the cabotage Regulation,” he explained.
Strangely, Mr O’Dowd argued that whilst “non-compliance may be a breach of contract” it is “not necessarily so.”
“In this instance, the situation facing the operators was a revised interpretation of the rules and therefore outside of their control,” he stated.
Thus it was decided to allow the illegal contracts to continue until the end of the academic year and then to temporarily suspend the contracts in order for the companies to put themselves right.
“In the circumstances, WELB decided to temporarily extend the affected services for the remaining two weeks of the school year, to June 30.
“To ensure the safety of pupils was not compromised, the WELB sought and received assurances from the southern operator’s insurance companies that their insurance cover would be unaffected during this period.
“The southern operator contracts were temporarily suspended from June 30 and they were giving until September 1 to bring their operations into line with the revised DoE interpretation of the EU Regulations, or the contracts would be cancelled and reallocated to other operators under the existing contract arrangements,” he said.
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Weather for Londonderry
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: South