Varadkar sets out priorities for the year ahead

Minister Varadkar at the Fine Gael National Conference in Limerick.

Speech by Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport Leo Varadkar on Statements on the Government’s Priorities in Dáil Éireann on Tuesday 4th March

Cathaoirleach, I very much welcome this initiative to allow time each year for a discussion of the Government’s priorities across each sector.

It forms part of the Government’s Dáil Reform Programme which has included: a more liberal and accepting attitude to opposition and backbench amendments; longer hours; more sitting days; Friday sessions to allow backbenchers to bring forward legislation, some of which has been accepted; a requirement that backbenchers and Opposition spokespeople turn up to ask their own questions; and that ministers turn up to take their own debates.

Much of this has gone unnoticed.

What has not gone unnoticed is the extra teeth given to Oireachtas Committees as the CRC, Garda Commissioner, Rehab and others can testify to. Some of this has not gone down too well in this House but I think the public like it and want to see more of it, and so do I.

While parliamentarians should never abuse privilege or power, it is their job to hold others to account and they should be supported in doing so. I look forward to the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry – not the first banking inquiry, but the first held in public – commencing in the next few months.

Of course, if you spent too much time listening to late night TV and radio, you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing had changed in the Dáil at all. But I shall not dwell on that.

Since becoming a Minister, I’ve adopted the practice of publishing my Department’s priorities at the start of each year and, more importantly, following up at the end of the year with a detailed report on the progress made for each one, which is also published.

I draw up the priorities in consultation with the Ministers of State, officials and advisers having regard to the Programme for Government, international obligations and the party manifestos. I think it is a good discipline. It sends a clear message to officials and agencies about the Government’s priorities for the year and we examine progress monthly at management board and adviser level meetings.

In politics, we are always under pressure for time and time management is often a battle between the urgent and the important. There are always fires to fight and crises to address, the urgent. But having a clear set of priorities every year enables you to deliver on a longer term programme, the important.

My Department’s responsibilities range across quite a number of major sectors including Sport, Tourism, Maritime Transport, Aviation, Roads and Public Transport. Priorities are therefore numerous and different.

For 2014, there are 24 priorities, all of which are set out on the Department’s website. In the time allotted to me today it would clearly be impossible to go into detail on each of them, so I will confine myself to a general overview.

The first priority on each year’s list is a general one recognising the need to contribute fully to the Government’s efforts to reduce the deficit, generate economic growth and increase employment.

The Department will do this by coming in on budget and ensuring that the policies it promotes and the money it spends, whether on capital investment or on current programmes, are focused on supporting economic development and on creating and protecting jobs.

Too often, Government Departments are silos and Ministers often get sucked into this and allow themselves to be transformed into lobbyists within Government for their particular sector.

Making this my first priority sends a clear message that I do not intend to be that kind of Minister and reminds me of that when, from time to time, I forget.

Ultimately, the creation of sustainable jobs will be one of the most important benchmarks against which this Government will and should be judged, and my Department is contributing both directly and indirectly. The direct contribution can already be seen, for example, in the dramatic turnaround in the tourism industry over the last three years, on which we will build further in 2014.

There are 60,000 more people at work than this time last year and 17,000 of those are in the hospitality sector.

The indirect contribution will come from our work on improving transport infrastructure and air and sea connectivity, thereby increasing the attractiveness of Ireland as a place to visit, trade, set up or expand a business.

Moving on to the specific priorities for the various sectors, each Minister of State in the Department is leading on a number of these.

Minister Ring will be taking the Sport Ireland Bill through the Oireachtas. The Heads of this Bill, which will merge the Irish Sports Council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority, have just been considered by the relevant Joint Oireachtas Committee. He will also oversee the preparation of a Sports Policy Statement and will decide on the allocations under a new round of the Sports Capital Programme.

Minister Ring is also working on the promotion of the Wild Atlantic Way, which we expect to make a huge contribution to building on the success of the Gathering and driving tourist numbers up once again this year.

We have set a target of increasing the number of overseas visits to Ireland by 4% and revenue by 8%.

Minister Ring and I are also working closely with the IRFU and other stakeholders to lay the foundations for a bid for the 2023 World Cup, which will deliver short-term and long-term tourism benefits for the island as a whole.

Minister Kelly is spearheading a number of important initiatives to improve public transport and to promote walking and cycling as a more sustainable alternative to transport by car. He will finalise the implementation of the new Rural Transport Programme and will also oversee the implementation of the new Taxi Regulation Act, which he took through the Oireachtas last year.

The LEAP Card will be extended to Cork and Galway, both of which will benefit from the introduction of City Bikes, as indeed will Limerick.

He will also complete a review of the National Cycle Policy Network and will provide support for a number of flagship Greenway projects.

He and I are working with the NTA, CIE, Luas and other transport operators to increase the number of people using public transport by 2% this year – which equates to 5 million extra passenger journeys. This will not be easy to achieve given the fall in numbers using public transport in recent years.

But we are committed to achieving this target in 2014. To quote a former president, we seek to do these things and the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

My Department is one of the busiest in bringing legislation before the Oireachtas. Already this year, the Oireachtas has enacted the latest legislation on Road Safety which includes provision for roadside testing for drug driving, changes to the penalty point system and the introduction of novice driver plates, among other changes.

As Deputies will know, as soon as one Bill on Road Safety is concluded, work starts on the preparation of the next, and that is again the case. This will form part of a concerted effort to ensure that the new Road Safety Strategy, which I published last year, is successful in securing further reductions in the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries on our roads.

Thankfully, following last year’s reversal of the downward trend in fatalities, the year to date is showing an improvement, but this is one area in which there is never any room for complacency.

The type of concerted approach which has been successful on our roads also needs to be taken on our seas as well, where the casualty rate remains unacceptable high. This year I bring forward a ‘Safety at Sea’ strategy to reduce the number of marine fatalities and injuries.

I read every Marine Casualty Investigation Board report from cover to cover and I am simply shocked at the cavalier attitude by many fisherman and recreational craft users to their own safety.

Some complain about the response of the emergency and rescue services, bit if truth be told, in most cases the incidents that required an emergency response should have not occurred in the first place.

Shortly, I will publish the State Airports Bill, which will give legal effect to the establishment of Shannon Group, and I intend to have this enacted by the summer.

In January, I published the Roads Bill, which deals with the merger of the National Roads Authority and the Railway Procurement Agency.

I will publish legislation to deal with the transfer of ports to local authority control and the regulation of vehicle clamping on private property.

I will also bring to the Oireachtas a Bill to update the regime for the registration of merchant vessels, which was published just before Christmas.

I am working on two Policy Statements which are each of great significance.

The first of these will set out a new integrated policy on aviation, which is a critical industry for Ireland because of the importance for our economy of competitive air access.

A very extensive consultation process was carried out last year, and a draft of the Policy statement is now being prepared. This will be published in the next couple of months, and allow time for comments from stakeholders before the Policy is finalised for publication in the summer.

Similarly, we have engaged in a very extensive consultation process on tourism policy and a detailed analysis of all the responses has commenced. We aim to finalise the review in the first half of 2014 and a new detailed tourism strategy and action plan will be finalised by the end of the year.

Traditionally, my Department has been responsible for a very large capital programme but our scope to invest has, of course, been greatly constrained since the financial crisis began – PPP markets were closed off to us and the Exchequer was clearly not in a position to plug the gap.

However, construction is now underway on the first new Transport PPP project in five years – the combined N11 Arklow-Rathnew and N7 Newlands Cross schemes – and I expect the N17/N18 Gort-Tuam PPP to commence construction this year.

While Exchequer funding remains tight, I have nonetheless secured just under €1 billion for capital investment this year. Within this, particular priority is being given to the restoration and maintenance of regional and local roads and public transport investment programme.

I am particularly pleased to see works commencing on the Luas Cross City. I am personally chairing a high-level Project Group, including a wide range of stakeholders, which is focused on ensuring that the work proceeds smoothly while causing the least possible disruption and congestion in the city.

Finally, I am especially pleased to have been able to provide funding for a very substantial investment in sports infrastructure, including the development of the indoor arena at the National Sports Campus in Blanchardstown.

The Government will soon begin work on developing its capital investment programme to succeed the current one, which runs to 2016.

A particularly important priority in my Department for this year is to complete the development of what we are calling the Strategic Framework for Investment in Land Transport.

The purpose is to ensure that, from now on, investment decisions in the transport sector will have a much more rigorous evidence base than was the case in the past, so that we will prioritise those projects which will give the greatest economic and social return for the resources we provide.

The Department is also giving priority to developing its Low Carbon Roadmap, which is a long-term programme to achieve significant reductions in emissions from the transport sector, as a contribution to our overall national climate change strategy.

When it comes to the haulage sector, we will allow road transport operators to get their licences online, saving time and money for them and the Department. We will also come to some decisions on the possibility of introducing road charging for trucks linked to a reduction in motor tax and possibly tolls. As motor tax is a matter for the Department of the Environment, we have established a joint working group to progress this.

The diversity of the Department’s agenda can be seen clearly from this brief overview.

I am happy with the contribution we’ve been able to make to economic recovery over the past three years, despite the very significant constraints which we have faced, and I look forward to delivering another positive progress report at the end of the year.