'Not for profit' minibus drivers could have licences rendered invalid if European Commission ruling is enforced
DRIVERS of minibuses for educational, religious and voluntary organisations could have their licences rendered invalid if the European Commission decides to enforce infringement proceedings against the UK.
The commission is investigating the UK over a failure to implement a standardised licensing and testing process for all minibus operators in breach of EU law, despite the issue first being raised more than two years ago.
Europe wants to bring an end to the exemption which has existed in Britain and the north allowing a permit scheme for certain organisations carrying out 'no profit' travel.
The exemption means organisations including charities, educational establishments and community transport networks are not required to obtain the more stringent bus operator licence demanded of private companies and Translink.
Infringement proceedings were initially issued against the UK in April 2015, with a grace period allowed to enable the change to be implemented.
However, as that has not happened, the commission is now considering what further action to take and is due to publish a 'reasoned opinion' in coming weeks.
One driving instructor said that the British government's inaction over the matter was "placing thousands of people at risk".
He said: "They are being driven by persons who do not have the required driving test and driver qualification card for that category and quite possibly are not covered by vehicle insurance."
It is understood that some local authorities in England have issued instructions stating that the European Commission ruling should be adhered to and that all tenders for bus contracts must have an operator licence.
However, Charlotte Hughes from the Community Transport Association said its members should "assume they can conduct business as usual".
She said: "The next move on this sits with the UK government, we trust that our case for the sector and continued support of Community Transport is with decision makers.
"Without any official information or consultation about a change in government policy or practice members should assume they can conduct business as usual unless they are informed otherwise by a credible authority or the CTA."
As the commission deals directly with member states and not regional parliaments, the infringement proceedings have been taken against the Department for Transport in London.
The department said that "as a rule" it was unable to comment on "any ongoing or possible legal proceedings".
However, the north's Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has said it is "currently drafting guidance which will be discussed with stakeholders".
A spokeswoman for the Department for Infrastructure said: "In relation to operator licensing the Transport Act (NI) 1967 provides for an exemption from operator licensing.
"The permit scheme was set up to make it simpler for certain organisations to carry passengers in buses where no profit is involved, and these organisations need permits rather than a bus operator licence."
The spokeswoman added: "Only organisations concerned with education, religion, social welfare or other activities of benefit to the community are entitled to a permit for a large bus. For small buses, recreation is added to the list."
The Education Authority did not respond to a request for comment from The Irish News on whether any guidance has been or will be given to minibus drivers or if any drivers had been prevented from fulfilling duties at schools and colleges due to the case.