Attwood denies fast-tracking Donegal firms
ENVIRONMENT Minister Alex Attwood has 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.
The Minister also refused to comment on the issue of compensation for local operators - some of whom have gone out of business - as recompense for missing out on potential earnings due to the illegal award of Western Education and Library board (WELB) Home to School contracts to ROI operators.
In June the Sentinel reported how Bready busman William Leonard had forced the Department of the Environment (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.
Last year the Sentinel was the only newspaper to cover Mr Leonard’s battle to protect his business from the encroachment of southern firms.
Now Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) MLA Jim Allister has asked the Minister “why it has taken the Department years to address the issue of unlawful school bus contracts with Republic of Ireland companies operating in the WELB area.”
Mr Attwood said that over the years the advice to the DoE on school bus contracts was that there was no legal issue
However, when the matter was brought to his attention the Department looked exhaustively at the legal advice on the matter.
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.
Mr Attwood said he discovered that “when it comes to the issue of cabotage, although there are EU regulations, there is no guidance on the interpretation of those regulations.”
“Consequently, as you will appreciate, Mr Allister, this is not a straightforward legal issue. Nonetheless, on the far side of my interrogation of all that information, it was my view that in order to create greater certainty around the issue of cabotage, there would be a requirement for bus operators in the Republic of Ireland, for example, who wish to tender for business in Northern Ireland to fulfil certain standards with regard to their performance, their financial standing and their operation generally.
“Whatever about the history of this, I assessed the matter when it was brought to my attention, made a judgement on it, and, consequently, there has been a new regime in place as of the beginning of the school term.”
The TUV leader commended Mr Attwood for addressing the issue but asked if “his Department, in fact, circumvented the issue by fast-tracking Northern Ireland licences for them, rather than ensuring that the matter went out to retender so that local companies could be eligible for the work?”
Mr Attwood replied: “I want to say categorically that there was no fast-tracking of any applications from Republic of Ireland operators when it came to the new licensing requirements - none whatsoever. They had to jump all the hurdles that any domestic operator has to jump when it comes to the appropriate licence requirements.”
Foyle MLA Mark H. Durkan also welcomed the Minister for correcting the situation which he pointed out had been “in existence for some 17 years.”
He asked if there was going to be compensation for operations “who believe that they should be compensated for potential earnings that they have lost due to erroneous contracts.”
“I am not going to comment on compensation,” replied the Minister. “The legalities and technicalities around cabotage are very complex. Therefore, any associated issue, such as compensation, is going to be very complex.”
He continued: “Therefore, I am not going to offer a view one way or the other in respect of that issue. If people are minded to say that they were disadvantaged because of the management of the contract over the past five, 10 or 15 years or whatever, they should take appropriate advice and act further to that advice.
“These are very difficult matters, given the legal complexities, technicalities and difficulties around all this, and I was trying to find a pathway through all that. Therefore, the sense that there might be compensation payable to someone or other seems to me to be somewhat problematic.”
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Weather for Londonderry
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 13 C
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