DUP MP calls for rethink on minibus licence changes following Westminster committee report
A DUP MP has urged the Department for Infrastructure's permanent secretary to rethink changes to minibus licences following a report into legislation in England and Wales.
The Transport Select Committee said the Department for Transport in England and Wales should "avoid a narrow, legalistic focus on bringing UK guidance and legislation into line with relevant EU regulations".
Under current rules a permit scheme, which has been in operation in Northern Ireland for half a century but breaches EU law, allows drivers with regular car licences to operate minibuses on a 'not for profit' basis for charities and community transport associations.
A consultation on changes in Northern Ireland closed last Friday.
The consultation was launched after the department said it received "correspondence threatening legal action against the current arrangements".
The department has previously said that proposed changes would not affect the majority of community and voluntary organisations.
However, new guidance issued in November by the department to the Education Authority states that teachers must now have a full D1 minibus driving licence and driver certificate of professional competence.
The Controlled Schools' Support Council described the move as "devastating for schools".
Ahead of similar potential changes in England and Wales, the Transport Committee has called on the Department for Transport to "publish its consultation as soon as practicable" given the "current level of paralysis in the community transport sector".
"Protection of these services, the huge majority of which are uncontested, and by definition cannot be provided by commercial operators, is imperative," its report noted.
Paul Girvan, the South Antrim MP and member of the transport committee, said: "In the absence of ministers in Northern Ireland, it is incumbent on the permanent secretary to study this report and think again. Most people cannot understand why the department have taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Mr Girvan said "no rationale" had been offered for "stopping teachers from driving a school bus".
"Given the lack of political oversight, the Department for Infrastructure should take the opportunity of this report to assess whether or not the changes they propose are actually necessary."
A Department for Infrastructure spokeswoman said the Westminster committee report is "specific to the position in Britain and contains a number of specific recommendations in relation to the permit system there".
"Currently, the department is adopting a proportionate approach to enforcement rather than taking a narrow legalistic view of the situation," she said.
"Any decision in relation to a wide ranging review of community transport would be for ministers and would be premature in advance of a budget emerging."