Ms Armstrong was speaking after it was revealed schools were facing new restrictions on which teachers can drive school minibuses due to changes in the rules by Department for Infrastructure (DfI). The Strangford MLA, a former Director for Northern Ireland of the Community Transport Association, said in her experience there had been a push to exclude community workers and teachers from being able to drive minibuses.
“During my time, licensing officials consistently and unfairly pursued community transport drivers, claiming by paying £960 for a commercial license this would improve driver safety, even though there has never been any prosecution of any regular permit holder for dangerous operations, failures in safety or any breach of permit terms.
“I directly challenge DfI to provide evidence of a prosecution of a teacher or organisation that operates a minibus under a S10b permit for unsafe or dangerous driving of a minibus. None exists, therefore claims this change is to do with safety is nonsense.
“The DfI should work with the not-for-profit transport sector rather than exclude and remove access opportunities from children. They have made no attempt to consult with the public on this new understanding of legislation. The DfI must complete consultation before proceeding any further, as this change is having a direct negative impact on children who will no longer be able to go to swimming classes, go to shared education classes, attend plays or go to sports matches.
“I believe officials are attempting to push forward changes to driving regulations for minibus transport in the absence of a Minister and therefore without political permission. That is not appropriate. No previous Minister gave any instruction for such a devastating change to proceed, knowing the negative impact it would have.
“The outcome of the DfI change in understanding of driver licensing legislation has far-reaching negative impacts. It has created a short-sighted attack on school budgets at a time when they are already at breaking point.
“I would like to see all proposed changes stopped immediately. I call on the DfI to publish all communications they have received from the UK’s Department of Transport on this change. I would like public clarification of how many community organisations and schools have been notified of changes, what notice period was given and why they have introduced a requirement for a commercial driving license for organisations and bodies that are non-commercial and in many cases, charitable.
“Officials are hiding behind legislation which is no longer relevant within the UK. We have the opportunity to create our own licensing regime to suit the needs of our community. Officials should be working with those who provide transport solutions, not taking away the very lifelines that enable people to get out and about and allow children, particularly from rural areas, to access opportunities.”