Former transport minister, Leo Varadkar, warned the government in 2011 that the public could react negatively to legislation that would allow ministers to travel on bus lanes in their own cars while on official business.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that, despite such fears, the government approved the drafting of legislation to allow ministerial cars to be considered the equivalent of taxis for the use of bus lanes. It was approved at a cabinet meeting on May 3, 2011.
The proposed change was a result of a decision by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, two months earlier, to restrict the availability of state vehicles to ministers in order to achieve annual savings of €4m. It decided that, in future, all ministers, excluding the taoiseach, tánaiste, and minister for justice, would use their own vehicles under terms that applied to existing ministers of state.
Under longstanding arrangements, state cars had been available to all members of the government, as well as the government chief whip and any minister of state sitting at Cabinet, as well as the President, the Ceann Comhairle, the chief justice, the attorney general, the DPP, and former presidents and taoisigh.
The fleet of state cars, which was maintained and operated by An Garda Síochána, had cost €7.5m to run in 2010, at an annual average of €280,000 for each office-holder.
Since 1982, ministers of state use their own vehicles for official business and are paid for any official journey. They are also entitled to hire two civilian drivers, whose salaries are paid for by the State. The average cost of annual transport expenses for ministers of state in 2010 was €120,200.
Mr Varadkar alerted the government in May 2011 that the changes meant ministers using their own cars no longer had exemptions from parking and traffic regulations, including the use of bus lanes.
“Should the government decide that the continued use of bus lanes by ministers using non-Garda drivers or vehicles continues to be important in the exercise of their functions, it would be open to the minister to amend the road traffic regulations governing the use of bus lanes,” Mr Varadkar informed his ministerial colleagues.
“However, it should be noted that there may be adverse public comment in relation to what might be seen as the granting of explicit preferential treatment to ministers.”
He said other groups, including car clubs, and hackney and limousine companies, had been campaigning for some time to gain access to bus lanes. “This has been resisted consistently by the Department of Transport, on the basis that extending the exemption to cover vehicles other than emergency and public-service vehicles would be difficult to enforce, and would diminish the purpose of the bus lanes,” he said.
The authorities have resisted calls, during the current strikes by Dublin Bus staff, to open bus lanes to all vehicles, to ease traffic. Mr Varadkar, now the minister for social protection, said last week that it was easy to change the rules to widen the use of bus lanes.
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