Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport

Rural Taxis and Rural Transport Programme: Discussion

9:30 am

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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In the first session of today's meeting we will consider the issue of rural taxis. In this regard, I welcome Mr. Myles O’Reilly, general secretary of the Taxi Dispatch Operators Representative Association, TDORA; Mr. Vinny Kearns, chief executive of Xpert Taxis Limited, Dublin; Mr. Der Calnan, managing director of Satellite Taxis, Cork; Mr. Eric O’Brien, chief executive of Rapid Cabs, Waterford; Mr. Gerard Macken of Taxi Alliance Ireland; and Mr. Jim Waldron of the National Private Hire Taxi Association.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against either a person outside the Houses, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Myles O'Reilly, general secretary of TDORA, to make his opening presentation.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

I thank the committee for the opportunity to make this statement on behalf of TDORA, which represents taxi companies and has members in counties Carlow, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. We are aware of the complaints regarding a lack of public transport services in rural areas. We present proposals for a service that can be offered within the framework of the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. The Act and its regulations already provide for local area hackneys, but after five years there are only 13 of these nationally. The Act also provides for a community transport service operated by volunteers, which, understandably, has not provided a solution for rural areas.

The key features of our proposals are that the service would operate only from the area surrounding a village to the village and then back home, a maximum distance each way of, for example, 15 km. The area surrounding the village would be defined by regulation as being a maximum of, for example, 1,000 persons. Applicants to become village transport drivers would be examined only on the regulations related to that service, thus facilitating ease of driver entry. Return journeys from the village would be subsidised. Passengers would be required to share the journeys with others, as do bus passengers. Unlike hackneys, the vehicles would have a roof sign noting the name of the village followed by the word "transport". The vehicle would be capable of carrying seven or eight passengers. In common with other small public service vehicles such as hackneys and taxis, drivers would be vetted and licensed by the Garda and self-employed. The vehicles would be subject to NCTs and National Transport Authority rules on age and suitability. They would be wheelchair accessible.

The beneficiaries of the village transport service would be those who wish to visit or shop in their village, including elderly persons who may no longer be able to drive, persons with reduced mobility, persons with low incomes who do not own a car and those who wish to drink alcohol and comply with the drink driving laws and thus require transport to get from home to village and back again. Village services including small shops and pubs would also benefit from the service.

A subsidy will be required to make it attractive for drivers to offer the service and passengers to use it. Without a subsidy, there would be insufficient passengers to make the service viable. Almost all other passenger transport is subsidised. The level of subsidy needed per journey could be determined by a consultancy study. The service could use licensed publicans, for example, to supply subsidy vouchers to persons living outside the village to return to home. With the involvement of self-employed drivers and village publicans, the booking of journeys could be done informally. An app that could accept bookings could have a role to play but the nature of the service would not make an app essential as we are aware that some of those for whom the service is intended do not use smartphones. Of course, passengers would not be required to drink or eat in a pub or purchase other goods or services in the village to benefit from the service.

TDORA is an associate member of the International Road Transport Union, IRU, and participates in the work of the IRU taxi group. Through our membership of the IRU, we are aware of the EU HiReach programme to provide “innovative mobility solutions to cope with transport poverty” throughout Europe. Solutions are actively being explored in areas of Luxembourg, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Romania. There is a HiReach workshop in Brussels on 27 and 28 March to consider the results of the work that has been done so far. We believe that our proposals to the committee are innovative and can provide a solution to the transport poverty being experienced in Irish rural areas. They provide for a local informal and adaptable service that would serve the people throughout the country who wish to get to and from their local village.

We commend our proposals to the committee.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. O'Reilly. I now ask Mr. Jim Waldron to make his opening statement.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

I thank the Chairman for inviting me to attend the committee meeting. I represent the National Private Hire and Taxi Association, the biggest representative group in Ireland for tax drivers. We evolved from the Private Hire Association prior to the landmark case Humphrey v. Minister for Environment and Local Government, Dundalk Urban District Council and Dublin Corporation, when our president, Christopher Humphrey, took on the Government and won a case on behalf of our members. Virtually overnight the number of taxis grew by about 500%.

We agree that the rural communities of Ireland need support and imaginative ideas to help them, including broadband, health, crime prevention and, particularly, transport services. We suggest, however, that the answer is not an "Uber-style" transport service. This would be detrimental and dangerous to both rural communities and taxi drivers. What does Uber-style mean? It seems to us that it stands for no rules, no standards and no responsibility. At present we have standards for anyone who wishes to operate as a driver of a small public service vehicle, SPSV. First, one must have an SPSV licence. Second, one must have an SPSV-licensed vehicle. It is as simple as that. To meet these requirements, one must pass an area knowledge test, be deemed a fit and proper person to hold an SPSV licence by An Garda Síochána and have adequate insurance.

Now we have vested interest groups suggesting we dumb down the taxi industry and allow anyone to drive for hire to benefit his or her interests. If drivers are allowed to do so, what does the committee expect will happen? We predict people coming from the pub will be met with drivers deemed unsuitable by An Garda Síochána, cars that are not suitable or roadworthy and situations like, for example, a babysitter taking children out of bed and along for the ride to get an extra few euro. If the committee allows Uber-style service, it will invite drivers who are so desperate that they will break any rules for profit. This is already reported as happening worldwide. We read almost daily about confrontation, assaults, rapes and even murders by so-called Uber drivers, or what we would class as unregulated taxi services, and to think this is the answer to bringing people home from the pub.

Our understanding of rural Ireland is one of communities and neighbourly compassion. It is people helping one another, and it is to be hoped they will continue to do so. If Mr. or Mrs. Murphy wants to visit the local surgery or the health service, the HSE will not provide the transport service; neighbours will, and they do so at present. There will never be a taxi for everyone in the audience, nor an ambulance, a post office, a garda, a bus or a train, whether in rural life or city life. If one allows Uber-style services into any part of Ireland, they will grow and destroy the livelihoods of the 21,000 taxi families, both urban and rural, relying on the industry to make a living. We are the men and women who drive people to and from the shops, college, offices, hospitals, workplaces, concerts and sports events. We are the people who work unsociable hours to bring people home from the pub. We are the people on the front line facing anti-social behaviour and dealing with people who are drunk or on drugs. We are the people who provide a safe, professional public transport service. We are the families relying on our business to survive. The committee's decisions will affect us and we will remember the decisions and recommendations made by the committee. The committee could be responsible for destroying our livelihoods if it downgrades our standards. Please do not.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Waldron. I now ask Mr. Macken to read his opening statement. If Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Calnan wish, they may make opening statements as well.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

Good morning, Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Gerard Macken, chairperson of the Taxi Alliance of Ireland and member of the National Transport Authority's taxi advisory committee. In my position I represent urban and rural taxi drivers and small public service vehicle licenceholders from Twenty-six Counties of Ireland. We are all aware of the issues facing rural communities and the feeling of isolation. This topic is regularly discussed at the taxi advisory committee meetings. In fact, I recently arranged a meeting between several rural taxi licenceholders, the NTA and the rural links bus service on this issue. At the meeting we discussed a subsidy for rural taxi drivers and the possibility of incorporating rural taxis and hackneys into the rural links service. This alone would facilitate the smaller groups of isolated people in an area when there is no need for a 14 or 18-seater bus. It is currently a prerequisite for admission to the rural link service to have a 14-seater bus. This immediately limits the number of applicants joining the system and makes it unviable for journeys with fewer than 14 people. We have therefore recommended that this condition be changed such that hackneys and taxi drivers become eligible to join. The NTA and the rural links service are in agreement with us on this.

The application process for rural hackneys is somewhat cumbersome as there are numerous steps in the process which would deter applicants from considering applying. We have suggested to the NTA that this application process be reviewed, and it has agreed to look into the process. We would support these changes to the rural hackney process, especially if managed by the NTA as it is the expert in rolling out initiatives such as these. This would ensure public safety is paramount and enforce rules to eliminate illegal operators across the rural communities. I thank the committee for listening.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Macken. There are no further opening statements, so we will proceed as normal. To explain to everyone present, the normal process is that we deal with members of the committee first before moving to people who are not members of the committee, and the order is Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Independents and others. That is the rotation, so everyone knows where they are. There is no bar on anyone asking questions or making comments. I call Senator Feighan.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I had to be present elsewhere for a photograph. As I want to read what the witnesses have said, I will let other members start.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Of course. I call Deputy Troy.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome our guests and thank them for the time and effort they have put into making the submissions. The one positive thing that has emanated in recent months from the cut proposals and suggestions of new measures to be introduced is that for the first time in a long time we have rural transport fairly high on the political agenda. There is now an acknowledgement on the part of Government and indeed of most stakeholders that something needs to be done because this is not fit for purpose. Does any one of the six gentlemen before us hold one of these 13 hackney licences? No. The fact that there are only 13 clearly demonstrates that this is not fit for purpose. I would be interested to hear about the witnesses' experience. I imagine that their main overhead is the cost of their insurance. What is the average cost of the insurance they pay annually? How has the cost increased in recent years, or has it decreased? I imagine it has increased.

One thing that has repeatedly been said about Uber is that nearly every Uber driver, if one were to listen to some people, is a rogue driver. Uber has used technology to connect people who are willing to provide a service with people who need that service. What we are trying to do - I can only speak for myself - is look at the advancements in technology to provide or connect someone who is willing to provide a service with someone who is in need of that service. Some of the suggestions the witnesses have made this morning can do that. The bottom line, however, is that there are many parts of rural Ireland in particular that have no transport whatsoever.

The Local Link service established on a pilot basis in response to changes in the drink-driving legislation has provided a certain element of service but, given how rural Ireland is settled and populated, it is not able to provide the flexibility needed to go up side roads and byroads. We need to look at how we can establish a flexible public transport service for rural Ireland. I am conscious of what people have said. We cannot dumb down the service or sacrifice standards. We need to ensure any driver who provides the service is of good character and Garda vetted and that the vehicle being used meets the minimum required standards. How do we match all of this and ensure we get a service that is fit for purpose?

I am interested to hear the views of the witnesses on how the subsidy would work. Quite clearly, the reason taxis do not operate in these villages is there is no money is to be made in them. If there was I would imagine the witnesses or their members would be operating in them. I am interested to hear how they envisage the subsidy working.

None of the witnesses holds one of the elusive 13 hackney licences. Are any of the 13 people members of the witnesses' representative bodies? Have witnesses spoken to the 13 people? What is the witnesses' main overhead? How do they feel the subvention or subsidy could be paid?

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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To explain to the witnesses, what we normally do is all of the members make comments before we go back to the witnesses and then we will go over and back on all the issues.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will share my time with Senator Conway-Walsh. Similar to what other members have said, we all recognise that rural transport is on its knees. It has been neglected for decades. People are finding it increasingly difficult to get from A to B in their communities. The lack of investment in our public transport system, including in Bus Éireann services, has left it even more problematic.

The real worry pertains to sacrificing standards and this is being weighed against the real need to look at other mechanisms to provide transport for people who are basically stranded, it is fair to say, in parts of rural areas. With regard to Mr. O'Reilly's suggestion, was he speaking about one licence per town or village? Deputy Troy spoke about the fact that the very rural nature of villages means they are not financially viable for taxis. In a modestly sized town where people are coming from pubs and clubs, a taxi driver will do the local runs rather than going down byroads and boreens and losing their way. How would this be financially viable for taxi drivers given the witnesses are speaking about providing seven or eight-seater vehicles and wheelchair accessible vehicles? Will the drivers have to invest in new vehicles to provide this service?

What exactly is the subsidy? What are the costings? The witnesses accept the service is unlikely to be financially viable because if it was, then other taxi drivers would be providing it. What would be required in the grant or subsidy? The witnesses must have some idea in their heads. Will they elaborate on what the grant or subsidy should be to make it financially viable?

How do they propose to monitor the ring-fencing of an area? A certain number of kilometres between villages was mentioned. Who would regulate or oversee this? How would it work?

I accept that of course we must look at alternatives but when people get into a taxi they feel safe because they know there are regulations and standards. There is also the insurance cost. There is this security. How could the service being proposed by the witnesses offer people the same security?

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Members have every right to ask any question, including a question that has already been asked, but I ask for new questions also.

Photo of Rose Conway WalshRose Conway Walsh (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I come from Belmullet, which has no transport. We speak about transport as if it has become a recent problem but it has been a problem in rural Ireland for many years. I am glad to be having this discussion. A few issues are arising, including the issue of displacing existing taxi drivers in an area. We do not want to have a situation where other people, who have served communities for many years and sometimes over several generations, will be put out of business.

The witnesses are probably not familiar with the Belmullet peninsula but if someone wanted to go from Blacksod to Belmullet the journey would be far more than 15 km. How would the 15-km limit work in this instance?

This is operating in 13 areas. Has the effectiveness of the pilot been reviewed and analysed? While the service would address some of the problems it would not address problems such as trips to hospital. This is one of the main problems we have in rural Ireland, particularly for people living alone who do not have transport to hospital. There is also the lack of connectivity between buses and trains. These pose big problems. We are here to discuss solutions and I am glad to be having this debate from that point of view.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I have been very interested in this side of rural transport for quite some time, particularly given the road traffic Bill that came before the Dáil. Deputy Troy said it is very positive that we are now speaking about rural transport. The mistake was that we should have spoken about it before the Bill went before the Dáil so we would not be fire fighting all the time. However, the Minister never understood what we explained to him from day one on the floor of the Dáil, that the Bill would cause a crisis in rural Ireland where there were already serious problems. He did throw a little sprinkle of money at Local Link but it was a cod, unfortunately, and we unravelled it in the Dáil. Then he threw more money at it. Again, it was not enough to touch the issue, which was the crisis being created in rural communities. I know there are shops and a number of other places where people want to go but the issue that hit the headlines was rural people wanting to go for a drink and go home, which they had been doing all their lives, but all of sudden they became criminals.

I have serious issues with the Uber-style transport service being spoken about.

I give credit where credit is due but my colleague in west Cork, the Minister of State, came up with this idea. The same Minister was putting it around in the newspapers that I was scaremongering and that there was no problem. He is now running around frantically trying to come up with a solution to that problem. He was like the Minister, Deputy Ross, and the rest. They were all jumping to support the Minister, Deputy Ross's Bill but unfortunately that was a mistake. I talk to a lot of taxi operators and they have very serious concerns. I agree with those concerns. I am open to correction, but I believe they have to replace their vehicles every ten years, which is a very stringent rule. Most taxi operators want to take on staff but for such staff to obtain a licence they have to go through an extremely rigorous test. They are asked silly questions that are totally irrelevant to what they have to do. We need to look at giving taxi operators the freedom to take on more staff. Surely if somebody has a licence to drive a 16-seat bus that person should be able to drive a taxi automatically. That could resolve many problems. At the moment such a person is not allowed, but if he or she was it could resolve a lot of problems and could create openings for taxi operators to employ people. That is what the operators are telling me in west Cork. I have to listen to the people on the ground.

We should not create another system that could result in an explosion of other problems in the future. That is what we have been doing on this issue. We have not been resolving anything; we have been creating more problems. We are talking about bringing in a new system which will put taxi operators out of business. People can argue the point that there are not enough taxis, but the operators are saying that licences to drive 16-seat buses should be good enough to allow one to drive a taxi. That would put a whole load of new drivers on the road straight away who could drive the taxis that are already in existence. They have all the rules and regulations. They are bent over backwards with rules and regulations which are costing them an absolute fortune and a system which I cannot understand is being brought in.

If Johnny is sitting by the fireside at home and Paddy six or seven miles down the road wants a spin to the post office - we always mention the pub, it could be the pub - he will leave his fireplace, take Paddy to the town, go home and leave Paddy there for an hour or two and then come back and collect him again. I presume it will be a fiver a whip or something like that. How is Johnny going to do that? He will have to be Garda vetted and I presume he will have to have some special type of insurance. Will ordinary car insurance do? Will he get a once-off grant? That would sort the issue for this year but in three or four years' time we will find that Johnny will not get out of his chair any more because it does not pay him to do so. Uber might work in cities. It has worked in the States - I have spoken to people who use it - but these places are highly populated. We hear about apps and so on but 90% of the people about whom we are talking only have a house telephone or an ordinary small mobile phone. Apps do not come into play. It might work in a city. The drivers will have special seven-seat, wheelchair accessible vehicles. Am I right in that? It is not going to work in rural Ireland.

We have existing taxi and hackney operators. They are paying through the nose. Perhaps it is these people the NTA should be looking at and making a contribution towards in order to see how they can survive, take on new drivers, and open up their operations more than they are able at the moment. There might then be an opportunity to see a way forward. The Uber-style system being touted is a sop to cod the people of rural Ireland but the people of rural Ireland will not be codded because they are fairly cute. They know what will work and what will not. Unfortunately, this is not going to work.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I will just make a few comments and then we will move on to the answers to the questions. We will then go over and back between the members. The witnesses are very welcome. They have a vast collective wealth of experience from right across the country. They provide a very important public service; I acknowledge that. The absence of the critical mass required to provide services commercially in disparate rural areas means those services are not being provided to individuals. That is what we are addressing here today.

I would like to make two points. There is significant funding for rural transport. It has increased from €10 million in 2015 to €14.3 million in 2018. Notwithstanding criticism of them, rural transport services carry more than 1.9 million passengers, of whom almost 1 million have free travel passes and 200,000 require assistance or have some significant disability. The buses travel more than 11.8 million km. There are more than 900 drivers and 400 private operators. The core of what Mr. O'Reilly is saying is that we need to support persons who wish to provide this service and to meet a significant portion of their costs where the population base is less than 1,000 and the distances involved are not greater than 15 km, acknowledging the point about Mayo. I found the point Mr. Macken made about connectivity between the rural link and the taxis and hackneys very interesting. That is hugely important. If there is joined-up thinking at that end of delivery, access to taxis can be part of the service. Many constructive points have been made here. Senator Feighan has returned.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I apologise. When one is in a minority Government one has to cover many committees. In this room we have the solution to the problem facing rural Ireland. When I was growing up back in the 1980s there were two or three hackney drivers in the town. They were only used coming from the railway station. After that they were never used. People drank and drove. There were fewer cars. Coming into the 1990s we all got into using taxis and hackneys. Many people made a very good living. People did not mind paying. People from Boyle would get a bus back and forward to Carrick-on-Shannon. In the last few years it seems that one cannot get a taxi. Many of those guys who were making a good living have retired and nobody is taking over. I am referring to smaller towns of 1,500 to 2,500 people. The taxis are just not there. I went to a party in another town two weeks ago. I had a drink. I did not want to order a taxi because I knew I would be taking the taxi driver away for an hour on a Saturday night. He could make a lot more money around the town. I was conscious of that because there are not enough people covering the area. We have a problem for the few who are going to the pubs at night.

The Chairman summed it up well. The rural transport initiative is filling in the gaps, which is welcome. I know many people are using it to go shopping, to visit hospitals and so on. There are many towns in which there was never a bus and now there is this initiative. People are beginning to use it and to use it online. Deputy Troy mentioned Uber. I was in London and used an UberPool. I really think it could be the solution to that problem in rural areas. We can talk all we want and put whatever funding we want into the issue, but it is a problem. I understand that Mr. Waldron has interests and he is right to protect them. If I was in the same business I would do likewise, but it is an issue that one cannot get a taxi in rural towns. I was absolute fascinated by the UberPool I used in London. Somebody from Boyle could be going to Roscommon and I might be drinking in the Four Provinces. On that app I could get somebody to share a ride with me to Tulsk before he or she goes on to Roscommon. It is a no-brainer for rural Ireland but we have to ensure that the existing licensed taxis and hackneys are not inconvenienced too much. At the moment, however, there is an issue with taxi availability. I do not know what has happened in the last few years; perhaps there is easier money somewhere else. Being out driving at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. is a tough job. There are easier things to do.

I was contacted by two publicans who have seen the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin's rural transport initiative. They had a car which was bought with donations from the community. He believes it complements many of these issues. It is a pilot scheme. We need to look at all these initiatives outside the box. We need to look at something different. I have not asked any questions but this is a significant issue.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

I will ask my colleague, Mr. Kearns, to address the question of insurance shortly. Deputy Troy made the point that we cannot have a relaxation of standards. We completely agree with that. He also asked how the subsidy would work. That is an important point. We envisage that the subsidy would be per journey. One would not pay a lump sum to the driver for the vehicle or for insurance but would subsidise each journey. The incentive would be for the driver to complete the journey and be paid the subsidy for that journey. We envisage that it would be the journey home. The driver would get a voucher from a publican or somebody else in the village and would, at the end of a week or month, present those vouchers to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or the local authority and be paid for the journeys travelled. The level of subsidy would be whatever is required to make it worthwhile for the driver to offer that service. That will vary from one area to another but the passenger will only pay a certain amount to get in and out of the village. If there are not enough passengers, the service will not operate. Solving the problem of rural isolation and facilitating people getting into and out of the villages will take whatever subsidy is needed. We envisage that any user of the service would pay for the drive into the village but the return home would be largely met by a subsidy voucher.

Deputy Munster asked a number of questions about who would regulate this. This would be part of the National Transport Authority, NTA, regulations. For example, under the Taxi Regulation Act, as well as taxis there are local area hackneys and limousines. This would be an additional class of village transport service. We have pointed out that local area hackneys have not been successful because it is too restrictive in many ways and perhaps what we are proposing would replace that service but would be quite different from how local area hackneys operate.

We see this as complementary to the LocalLink service. The main purpose of LocalLink is to connect villages to other villages and to connect people living in villages to national transport links, trains, buses and so on. Our objective here is simply to get people from the areas surrounding the village into the village and back home.

These vehicles and drivers would be quite different from ordinary hackneys, which can travel anywhere in Ireland, and from taxis that can do many things that our proposal for village transport could not do. It was rightly pointed out that the regulations and examinations that apply to a driver becoming a taxi driver or hackney driver are very difficult to pass. Although there have been some changes in the last year or so, they are still very difficult to pass. If the driver's only role is within the village and surrounding areas, the type of examinations needed would be quite different. They do not need to know the area of the whole county or about taxis, just their own area. It would be much easier to recruit drivers than it is at present.

On the question of vehicles, there is undoubtedly an argument for a smaller vehicle than the eight or nine seat vehicle we have suggested. If it is to provide a proper transport service, especially getting people out of pubs and to their homes in the evening, capacity is needed. We believe that the proposal for an eight or a nine seat vehicle is the correct one but I can understand there would be arguments against that.

We are not seeking in any way to offer an Uber-type service. This would be regulated by the National Transport Authority. It would be enforceable by the NTA and the gardaí. It would not be a question of somebody unregulated driving his or her private car. However, it would have a restricted but very important role to get people from their homes in rural areas into and back out of the village. The people going from one village to another could be dealt with by LocalLink. We do not think this would displace taxi drivers. As has been pointed out, there is a shortage of taxi drivers throughout the country because, for a number of years, the examinations to become a driver were much too difficult and the cost of operating a taxi in a rural area is not economical. It is not economical for many hackneys to operate either. This is where a subsidy is required. I have outlined how the subsidy could work.

With regard to the 15 km, that is an example. I take the point made about Belmullet. The hinterland of the village or small town would be the area. On the question about 1,000 persons, that will vary depending on the area and is simply given as an example.

Trips to hospital could be accommodated by the village transport service taking a person to the village, who is then picked up by the LocalLink service and brought to the hospital.

The Uber-type service would not provide a solution for many reasons, not just lack of regulation. It operates successfully in urban areas. It would not be able to deal with the situation in rural areas.

I think I have answered most of the questions. I do not know if there are any others.

Mr. Vinny Kearns:

I will address a few matters. I live in rural Ireland, in a village called Ballinellard in County Wexford, 25 km from Wexford town. I am 3.3 km from my local village. We have a service there which is very limited and really only operates at weekends.

The route is serviced by 12, 14 and 16-seater buses. As mentioned by Mr. O'Reilly, this service will be viable on the basis of capacity. Getting people home from the local pubs on Friday and Saturday nights is not an issue because there is not a huge population in my local town. One of the main issues for new entrants is the cost of insurance. For example, for a person aged 50 who may have driven a private car for 30 years, who is accident free, who has a full no claims bonus and who passes the PSV test to become a taxi driver, the minimum charge among the main insurance companies is €6,600 per annum. If that driver was unfortunate enough to have an accident, he or she would have to produce three letters of refusal to force an underwriter to give a quote. In that regard, I have seen quotes of €16,000 and €17,000. In the case of a driver who has been driving a taxi in Dublin for 20 years and has a full no claims bonus, the cheapest insurance available is €1,800 or €1,900. Insurance is a substantial cost. It is a complex issue. We appear to be moving closer to a solution but I do not think our proposal will resolve all of the issues. A working group should be established to examine best practice in other European jurisdictions. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. There are solutions out there. For example, integrated transport services, public and private, could be used to facilitate this service.

The issues of viability and subsidies were mentioned. Mr. O'Reilly has already addressed the issue of subsidies. The service will not operate if it is not viable. In the current economy we have close to full employment and so people are exiting rather than entering the taxi business. The average age of a taxi driver is 55 plus, which is not good for any workforce. We would welcome new entrants in order that we might increase our fleet and provide higher service levels across all taxi, hackney and chauffeur operations. In my area, the average fare is €5. Locals will not pay any more than that. The cost of a taxi for the same journey would be approximately €15. Private local services need to be subsidised to make them attractive to the user otherwise they will not be viable.

On monitoring, the NTA has a good enforcement team and the Garda have specialist units that are very well versed on PSV regulation so I think there is adequate resources to deal with that issue. In the context of Belmullet, the radius could be expanded for areas that need greater service provision. Deputy Michael Collins referred to recruitment and the retention of existing drivers. It is a big challenge for us. We have to be careful of the level of displacement that could be created by this service. The type of service we are proposing is restrictive in that it is addresses a specific need, which is transport to local villages and back. Drivers will not transport people to hospital appointments and wait around for two hours to bring them home. If they did, this would deprive other people of a service. I hope I have covered all of the questions.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Do any of our other guests wish to respond?

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

On the safety of passengers, this service would be a regulated service under the NTA and all drivers would be vetted so passengers would be as safe in one of these vehicles as they would be in a taxi.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

The taxi industry is self-sustained. There has been no recent investment in the industry, other than for wheelchair-accessible vehicles to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Taxi drivers meet all the costs of running their vehicles and their businesses. What we are discussing here today is a proposal to subsidise people's travel costs. Why is no consideration given to subsidising taxi drivers for the provision of their services, including this service? The taxi industry is a professional business.

In the context of technology and Uber, taxi drivers use technology every day, including credit card machines, booking apps and so on. We have no problem doing that. What we do not want is people who are not licensed doing what we do. We want the same standards for everybody.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

It was stated that there has been a fall-off of business in the taxi industry. Last year, 669 people availed of the wheelchair-accessible vehicle grant and, thus, 669 new vehicles were introduced into the system. There has been an increase in the industry through the initiatives of the NTA and the taxi advisory committee.

The decline in the taxi industry in rural areas dates back to the smoking ban, which stopped people going to pubs. With the introduction of the new driving laws, there is renewed emphasis on transport to and from rural pubs. As stated earlier, there is an agreement with Local Link and the NTA to subsidise transport for people isolated in rural areas. The current system in terms of the rural hackney will not change but the number of steps in the licensing process will be simplified. These services will operate in rural areas but they will also cater for people in isolated areas. There is no need to invent a new service. There is already a system in place that works.

Smaller vehicles are far more accessible for those with disabilities and frail elderly people. All types of vehicles, and not only wheelchair-accessible vehicles which are expensive to operate, need to be taken into account in terms of service provision. At its most recent meeting with the taxi advisory council, the NTA committed to examine all of these issues. There is no point legislating for something new. As stated, there is already in place a service that can be modified in order bring the new service into existence.

In regard to the subsidy, currently Local Link is subsidised for journeys in respect of which services which have to wait for a person or persons in a particular area for a couple of hours. There is nothing to stop a taxi providing a similar service late at night to and from a pub. The system does not require too much tweaking in this regard. I come from a rural area. Owing to a lack of broadband, I cannot access an app. Similarly, many vulnerable people living in rural isolated areas will not have WiFi. In the context of the statement that we need to share, the taxi industry tried that at Christmas and, as my colleague will testify, when it came to the end of the journey and who was paying the fare, we were referees more of the time than we were taxi drivers.

It was quashed because of our safety. It is fine sailing through-----

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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On a point of clarification, Uber share works well and no money is exchanged.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I will come back to Senator Feighan after Mr. Macken has spoken.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

On Uber share, if I go into an isolated area, how will I get paid if apps do not work on my phone? If I do not get cash in a rural area, I will not get paid by an app. UberPool is all right in the middle of London and Dublin where everything works fine but the issue of providing services in rural areas where people cannot even get 1G, never mind 3G, has not been properly examined.

Photo of Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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It is a rural broadband issue.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Mr. Macken makes an important point.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

Uber is legislated for as a dispatch operator and works fine as a taxi dispatch operator. It will not work as a provider of rural taxi services. Rural taxis and hackneys are the only way to go. I cannot see any reason to extend Uber further when there is already an agreement for Irish Rural Link services. I suggest that every taxi and hackney driver should be linked into the National Transport Authority. There is a safety aspect which is not advertised enough, namely, the driver check app. Each taxi driver who provides services in these areas can be contacted through the National Transport Authority. If a tender needs to be issued, it can be issued to 26,000 drivers.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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This is to link in to the existing Irish Rural Link.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

Yes. If the National Transport Authority has an issue in a rural area in west Cork, it should inform all taxi drivers that a subsidy is available in the area and a taxi driver will come back offering services in the area. There is no problem contacting us all because we are required in legislation to be connected. It is a simple solution. That is my opinion on the matter.

Mr. Vinny Kearns:

On a point of clarification-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I must hear two members shortly.

Mr. Vinny Kearns:

-----the previous speaker stated that I misquoted the decline in the number of operators. I have the National Transport Authority statistics here. The number of active driver licences in 2012 was 34,678 and the number of active driver licences at the end of December 2018 was down to 26,405.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

I will provide further clarification. Those figures refer to driver licences, not cars.

Mr. Vinny Kearns:

I was referring to drivers. As I did with the age, I referred to drivers.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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In fairness, we know there is a problem.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

I would like to clarify that the service is provided by the vehicle, not the drivers who are licensed. There has been a major decline in the number of taxi driver licences. The cost of renewing a licence increased to €250. People who had a licence lying in a drawer decided to get rid of it because they were not using them. It is incorrect for the National Transport Authority to state there has been a decline in the number of drivers. There has been no decline in the service provided.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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We are trying to keep the discussion on an even keel. We are getting a great deal of good information from the witnesses. A number of members are offering, while others are awaiting answers. I am in the witnesses' hands. Before I bring in new members, do the witnesses wish to respond to any other questions?

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

I will make one or two points in response to Mr. Macken. He favours the retention of local area hackneys. After five years, there are only 13 of those nationally. That approach has not worked and needs to be replaced. What we propose would not require new legislation. It would require new regulation by the National Transport Authority, which was empowered to bring in new regulations to deal with this matter. An important point has been made about the lack of Wi-Fi and mobile phone connections in rural areas. To be practical, sharing of vehicles will be required in rural areas if we are to provide any kind of reasonable service.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Mr. O'Reilly's point is that his service kicks in when a taxi or hackney service is not available, in other words, where there is no service. Is that Mr. O'Reilly's point?

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

Yes. What we propose is a service that surrounds the village, goes into the village and back.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It would not compete with a existing taxi.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

No.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It is where there is no service.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

That is correct.

Mr. Eric O'Brien:

A survey of the area would have to be done to look at the population and size of the area and ensure there is no displacement.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Mr. O'Reilly's service would only operate where there are gaps.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

That is the position in the legislation governing the rural hackney service. The reason the rural hackney service needs to be re-examined is that we all know it is not working. One of the reasons for this is that there are many illegal operators providing a service in their own cars and do not have the insurance to do so.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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They are not legally covered.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

The Garda and the National Transport Authority's enforcement team act on this when notified but it is a difficult practice to stamp out.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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If somebody is injured in an accident, there is no insurance.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

The insurance for hire and reward is not in place.

Mr. Der Calnan:

There are two parts to the taxi industry. There is the well managed taxi industry. Many of us own taxi companies. It is our full-time profession and we manage it well. We have many contracts, including Government, Health Service Executive and corporate contracts, for example, with hotels. Imagine modern Ireland without a proper taxi service. People wonder what we do. We deliver packages. I am a Cork man working in Cork city. For those who know the South Mall, we do an amount of work up and down there, and we serve all the hotels, including the new hotels opening in Cork. The service is well managed.

We then have the rural side, which we are talking about today and which does not appear to be as well managed. If one goes down the app route, there will be no management whatever. The driver will be at home and may decide to work for an hour and will log on to see if any work is available. A managed company does not have that problem because it rosters drivers and organises. It knows what bookings are coming up and what flights are coming in and it picks up people. We need to make the licence for rural areas a valuable licence, which people want. We must not flood the place with licences because drivers will not make money and they need to make money to get him, as was stated, to leave the fireside on a wet night when "Coronation Street" is on television. The driver has a schedule. A cute, smart operator will develop a schedule and Mrs. Murphy at the end of the road will know that every Tuesday, between 7 p.m. and 7.30 p.m., Johnny will be working. She will then make the call and visits her sick sister a couple of miles down the road or go to the community centre for a game of cards. I will also mention that there is a pint involved. We will try not to start with that, but that is what one needs. If there is a schedule, the system will work but the driver needs to be rewarded.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I am not sure Mr. O'Reilly answered my question issue but if I did, I apologise. I asked if one licence per village or town would be issued.

Mr. O'Reilly also stated that the maximum distance each way would be, say, 15 km. Let us take the case of someone living just outside the boundary who wants to go into the local town to socialise or whatever.

In one of the responses, Mr. O'Reilly said the areas could be extended. It sounds messy. A set area is being proposed but then we are told it can be extended.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It can only be extended where there is no service. In other words, it would be between Belmullet and the other place where there is no taxi service.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

The 15 km is only an example. It will be up to the NTA to designate the area within which this service would operate.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It cannot compete with an existing taxi. That is the whole point.

Mr. Der Calnan:

I envisage that a driver will have to keep a log book containing all customers picked up with locations as well as a log of requests he or she had to refuse. The licence should be up for renewal every year to keep the driver keen. If a driver comes before us seeking a licence renewal, we will want to see the log book and may have complaints from the public to consider also. We might even find that the demand was such as to merit the awarding of a second licence for the same area. It has to be managed and the driver needs to be able to make a living.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

The existing rural hackney licence permits a driver to operate if he or she is called outside an area. However, he or she is designated to the area. If a person wants to be collected anywhere else, the driver can collect there but he or she must go back to his or her existing area. That is what the current legislation provides. The problem is solved by extending the existing rural hackney licence to make it more viable.

Photo of Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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We all know why we are here. It is just over two years since our good friend, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, commenced his legislative programme in the Department. Many of us here were aware of the damage he was going to impose on rural Ireland and even on the periphery of the bigger towns. We have evidence of that. Since Christmas, rural Ireland has been in lockdown. It is a fact and we have not even come into the Lenten period. One can imagine what pubs in rural Ireland will be like next week when no one will be out in the villages and towns. I welcome TDORA to the committee. I hope it is representative of all taxi bodies nationally. I ask the witnesses to clarify that whether they are from Kerry, Donegal or north Cork, every taxi body is represented. No one wants to see the taxi business undermined when livelihoods are at stake but there is an issue here. I am glad taxi drivers acknowledge that there is a problem in rural transport and access for people in rural communities to their nearest villages and towns. While I accept the proposals in principle and welcome them, it is a pity they did not emerge previously. The committee and some Members in the Dáil and Seanad have tried to impress on the Minister the need for alternative proposals. It is ironic today that the NTA has acknowledged through Ms Anne Graham that it is prepared to make subsidies available to individual drivers of minibuses, wheelchair accessible vehicles and cars. Why did it take over two years? The Department could have been in discussions with Transport for Ireland.

Taxi drivers in my area have approached me with their concerns on their existing costs of operation. TDORA's proposals, however, will limit their access to 15 km. I have no problem with that given that 15 km is the average distance from towns with public services. However, I ask about eligibility. Even now, taxi drivers ask me why drivers have to know the maps of Ireland. When they are living in Mitchelstown or Glanmire, why should they have to know about access to Bundoran or the Inishowen Peninsula? Something needs to be done about that. It is one of the reasons access is being restricted to applicants. I came across the case of a man with a decent business in north Cork. Having a number of vehicles means a phenomenal capital overhead. While his vehicles have passed the appropriate NCT or departmental test without a problem, the NTA might put a car off the road over a few scratches in respect of the suitability test. How will we make vehicles available in rural Ireland if the NTA puts such obstructions in the way? I ask the witnesses to cover that. Obviously, they will have to deliberate with the NTA.

The witnesses said, in fairness, that drivers preferred to cover the intensive areas where the short runs are and the quick buck is available as opposed to taking a person on a long run. Obviously, the latter takes a vehicle out of circulation for a long time. Would the witnesses be prepared to allow this service to operate on a 24-7 basis? The tender is restricted to the afternoon and closing time but there is a suggestion around night clubs. The inability of taxi operators to get people off the streets can lead to anti-social behaviour. That is one of the reasons there is anti-social behaviour outside some night clubs. Teenagers and adults cannot be got out of the way as quickly as possible. Could this service be incorporated to facilitate night clubs in Youghal or Mallow? It causes anti-social behaviour when there is a build-up of young people outside night clubs while waiting for transport home. There are only so many taxis. Would the witnesses' proposal cover this also?

While I have to welcome the proposals, I hope the horse has not bolted. The NTA is attending today and I will ask it why it took it a year and a half to wake up to the issue. The Minister still has not woken up to the fact that there is a problem and that mental health issues are arising behind the doors of houses in the countryside. People do not see other people as often as they used to. They used to go down to their local, have a few words and get home safely. While I welcome the proposals, I am concerned that too many restrictions may be put in place and that delivery may take too long.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Another member of the committee has arrived and two non-members from the Oireachtas have also arrived and wish to speak. There is no restriction here except that we have to be out of the room by 1.15 p.m. and have to meet the NTA also. However, I appreciate that this is a very important discussion. I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and then Deputy Ó Cuív unless Senator Daly wishes to come in first. He has a right of audience before anybody, but he was not in attendance until now.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I will be one second. I am sorry for being late. I was watching on the monitors but had to attend a meeting. I share Deputy O'Keeffe's concerns.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The Senator is very welcome. He is a member of the committee. We started at 9.30 a.m. Go ahead.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I share the concerns. I have read the submissions and my concerns are about roll-out and restrictions which may be prohibitive. I thank the witnesses for sharing their information. It is vital that we get this right.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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It is clear that this exercise, meeting and the antics proposed today are intended to counteract the bad publicity and reaction in rural Ireland following the introduction of the Minister's Bill which was supported by most Oireachtas Members. It is no wonder that there is outrage and uproar around rural Ireland. Local and European elections are coming and candidates are getting it in the neck. That is why Ministers are proposing something to deflect from the real issues and problems people in rural Ireland have faced since the introduction of the Minister's Bill, whether it is the young fellow who cannot drive on his own on a provisional licence or those facing the morning checkpoints initiated across all county boundaries and Garda divisions.

Whatever type of service is put in place, it will not deal with the issues that people are facing the following morning when they cannot go to work. The social fabric of rural Ireland has been blown to smithereens in one swipe. I do not know if it can be reversed but it should be reversed and that is the only way they will bring-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I draw the Deputy's attention to the fact that the legislation he is addressing has already been passed by the Oireachtas. Everybody is entitled to express himself or herself but the agenda today is to ask questions of our witnesses in respect of rural transport. That is the only issue we have been debating up to now and it is the only issue I am going to allow to be debated here. The other issues have been dealt with and there are other fora in which the Deputy's fine, melodious voice can be heard loud and clear. I would like the Deputy to address the issue on today's agenda, if he would.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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There is not much melody in rural Ireland at the present time. What is being proposed here is absolutely ridiculous. What is being proposed is some additional type of hackney service. There is some ridiculous idea that there will be boundaries and these new vehicles will only operate within a certain boundary. Who is going to be policing these boundaries? If someone wants to go to the doctor or somewhere else altogether, all he or she has to do is go into a pub, go to the toilet and maybe get a glass of water from the poor publican, and he or she can call on this magnificent service to pick him or her up and take him or her home. I have a hackney licence and my father before me had it for 60 years. There are awful strict conditions to it. We are told we can only have a car that is nine years old. I am being advised that there are cars 15 years old being used in this. Who are they going to affect only the poor fella who is regulated and has to jump through so many hoops? If he does not jump through them, the PSV inspector will nail him full stop and he will not be able to carry on. Ministers are suggesting this ridiculous idea to take the pressure off them because they are going around to the doors at present and they only got to know about it since Christmas.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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In fairness, Deputy-----

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Yes, and someone should answer me the question-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Deputy, please. I point out that we are debating a proposal that these gentlemen have very kindly put before us. It has nothing to do with anything else-----

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I can say to you, Chairman, without fear or favour-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I am trying to-----

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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-----they are brought in here by the Ministers and by this Government-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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No, they are not.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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-----to cover their backsides and that is what is going on. It is a charade to take the focus off the harm they are doing.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Okay, I think-----

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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They have rural Ireland paralysed and driven down into the ground and-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I am reluctant-----

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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All right but I have a number of questions about a car that is 14 years old. How will that be allowed and who is regulating the country now? Where are we?

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I am very happy to have the Deputy here and to listen to him but he is wrong in saying that these people are brought in here by anybody other than the members of the committee. They are here as-----

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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You are the Chairman of the committee and you are a Fine Gael Deputy from Louth and a respectable one-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I respect the Deputy, too. What I am trying to get across is that I did not invite any of these people personally. The committee invited them here and members of all parties and none are happy to have them here. Their proposal is their proposal. Notwithstanding what the Deputy is saying, I think it is important that they respond to his questions. It is not a political attack. They are not here representing anybody other than themselves and they are here-----

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Chairman, can I just ask one other question? If somebody wants to get a hackney or taxi licence in Kerry at the present time he will have to provide a wheelchair accessible taxi. How can this carry-on be allowed?

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I think it is unfair to call it carry-on.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

I want to come in here. The Deputy is slightly wrong. He can get the rural hackney-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry. I just want to get this right. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae is a good Kerryman and his accent is very clear and his point very straightforward. I would like us to get the answers to his questions, if we can, in a relaxed way. This is not a confrontation. It is a communication. Perhaps Mr. O'Reilly would like to respond.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

I do not know if the Deputy has any other questions apart from what he has said.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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We will see where we get once we have answered the ones he has posed.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

What we are proposing would be regulated as well as hackneys and taxis. The village transport would also be regulated by the NTA. The question of the wheelchair accessible vehicle, WAV, requirement is a requirement of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and a requirement of this committee. It is stated in a recent report on disability that all public transport vehicles should be wheelchair accessible. We made the proposal in order to comply with the present policy. We agree completely with Deputy O'Keeffe about some of the questions that are asked for those wishing to become drivers. The tests to become a hackney or taxi driver require far too much study and are completely unnecessary. With the village transport scheme, we are proposing a very easy test that would only require two or three days' preparation, to know the local area and to know the regulations related to that service only. On the questions of cars of 14 years, it would not seem unreasonable that the cars should comply with the same rules as taxis and others and be nine years old at a maximum.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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In that sense, the criteria are no different from those for a taxi or hackney driver. The key point of the case is that there is no service whatsoever in the areas we are talking about.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

That is right.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It is in the absence of any service.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

I want to clarify something. A very clear requirement is to lower the standard of the entry level. This cannot be allowed. Why should they lower the standard to allow anybody to come into the business? That is what is requested. That is what the gentleman said - that the entry level exam should be changed. The taxi drivers throughout Ireland should be commended-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I have to bring in Deputy Ó Cuív as well.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I want to ask one more question.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Okay.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Would it not make way more sense to give the extra work to the existing hackneys that are stuck?

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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There are no hackneys there, that is the whole point. It is in areas where there are none. The proposal they are making, which is purely for us to consider and debate, is in respect of areas where there is no service at all, just in case the Deputy missed that point. I will hear the Deputy in a second. The population will be under 1,000 and the distance proposed would not be greater than 15 km but, because of other questions, it is recognised that there would be longer journeys in some counties. It is not competing with anybody. There is no service at the moment and the people cannot get out.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

That is the proposal from TDORA. That is not the proposal from Taxi Alliance Ireland.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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We know that. I am trying to clarify everybody's point of view.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

In response to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, just before he came in, I read out my proposal.

I have already met the providers of Rural Link services plus the NTA and they are in favour of doing exactly what the Deputy asked, namely, providing a subsidy for existing drivers to be allocated within these areas in order to provide the service and to drive the extra distances where necessary. At present, there is a rural hackney service that the legislation is framed around. The criteria were far more difficult than deemed necessary. These lads have local knowledge. The test for them is not as extreme as the rest. This service exists but has not worked. What has been proposed is tweaks to this existing service in totally isolated areas where this service could be provided.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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To do anything else would throw these fellows out of existence altogether.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for his comments. I am trying to get everybody to express their views. We are not making any judgments; we are very happy to hear the different views.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I have been working on this issue for a considerable period and have given it thought. On the issue of standards, if it is safe for one, it is safe for the other and if it is unsafe for one, it is unsafe for the other. That is a basic rule.

Uber is a different matter. It is more an urban than a rural phenomenon. It is up to the enforcement authorities to deal with anybody who is operating illegally. I certainly have never made a case for any service that does not comply with standards. The characterisation of the issue does not reflect the rural area in which I live. Some people here would consider it to be a very rural area. We do not think it is isolated and the issue is not quite as simple as it is being made out to be. There are plenty of taxi or hackney licences all over rural Ireland, including in these so-called isolated areas. Like good fishermen, however, drivers frequent the pools with plenty of fish. I know taxi or hackney drivers who will drive 30 miles to Galway city or Castlebar and fish from those pools. Why would they not rather than hanging around their own localities?

One of the first things our guests need to get out of their heads is idea that if a taxi driver's home is in a particular area, this automatically means that there will be a service available in the area. That is not the case. I recall one night being at a meeting on the edge of Galway city, which is not big, and some the people were complaining that the location was too far out of town and that it was an awful long way to travel. We were nearly falling off our chairs laughing. I had travelled 35 miles to get there and would have to travel 35 miles to get home. In my area, we think that a location 10 miles away is next door.

I do not know if our guests check the mental condition of the people who get into their cars. This is about loneliness or whatever. I live in rural Ireland. I guarantee that I am not lonely. My neighbours are not any more lonely than the people in the cities but we need access to public service vehicles. I own a car. There are two cars in my home. There are only two of us in it. We have to have two cars but if we want to go out for a night and have a meal and have something to drink, very modestly, we have no way to get home. On the idea of the distance affecting older people exclusively, the big market is ordinary people doing ordinary things. Urban and rural living are not so different. We need to get away from bland characterisations.

I am familiar with Dublin. I am from here and I grew up here. If I want to get from A to B, I have three choices - the train, the bus and a hackney or a taxi. There are no bus or train services in my area at home. The problem arises when I want to use a taxi to go 5 or 10 miles. It might not be to the next village, I might go to the one beyond that but I think I should have that choice. I would have it in Dublin.

We have buried the Uber point and that relating to standards. My view was that Local Link would identify the areas that cannot be sure to have a service at given times. That would vary from time to time as the market went up or down. It could offer a contract to people who were qualified to provide a service on a contract basis, the person would have to be available within the hours in the area and if, through illness or whatever, he or she was not going to be available, he or she would ring in and Local Link would contact someone else. There would be a system whereby on a Friday night there would be two hackneys available from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. in area A. They would operate within a certain radius, depending on the area, for example, Belmullet is very different from the area in which I live. No two areas are the same. In return, the driver would get a fixed payment, the equivalent, for example, of paying the insurance. It would be like getting a contract for a private company but in this case it would tie the driver down at the fixed times but the rest of the time, when the driver was not on contract, the taxi could go anywhere because the driver has a licence. The rural hackney licence is a cod. There are 11 in the country so we can rub that off the slate.

Some parts of rural Ireland are quite well populated but do not have guaranteed services. The people want to know that they can pick up the phone and look for the hackney and that in ten or 15 minutes there will be somebody at the door, as is the case in Dublin. That is all we are looking for. It is mind-bogglingly simple. The market does that in the urban areas. To make sure that happens we need a contract to make sure the person is there and to get the contract it is necessary to give them a little bit of dosh.

Let us look at the figures. In that context, €60 million goes to Dublin Bus and €50 million to Bus Éireann. The taxis are not getting the subsidy in urban transport but the buses are.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

That is for sure.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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There is a huge weighting of public transport subsidies towards urban areas. That is amazing because €3 million gets about the same amount as €1 million in and around Dublin. My proposal is very simple and does not upset any of the questioned routes.

There were 15,000 ordinary taxis and 1,471 wheelchair-accessible vehicles in 2017. That is a ratio of approximately 10:1. Of course, there should be some wheelchair-accessible taxis but not every vehicle needs to be wheelchair-accessible any more than every vehicle in the city is wheelchair-accessible. At the taxi rank near here. some are vehicles are wheelchair-accessible and some are not.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It is a requirement that new ones have to be.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

I gather it is the NTA's policy for all of the vehicles in the taxi fleet to be wheelchair-accessible.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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We must have them.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

Existing saloon cars can continue to be saloon cars but new ones-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It is unacceptable that they would not be.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Until that happens, and because I am talking about using existing taxis, my view is that the service contractor would ensure that there are enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the short term to deal with the issue, no more than that is what they do with taxis at the moment. As stated, the ratio is 10:1.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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If it is helpful, over 200,000 of those who made trips with Rural Link needed assistance.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I agree.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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We are speaking about a lot of people and there can be no exclusion. I am not stating that Deputy Ó Cuív is suggesting this.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I am not.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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In any proposal, disability must be an absolute sine qua non.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

In fairness, for anyone applying for a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle, a grant of €7,000 is available.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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My point is that if I contract out tomorrow and existing taxi or hackney drivers can apply, nine out of ten of their vehicles are not wheelchair-accessible. It would be up to me, as the contracting authority, to ensure I have enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the area in the short term but not exclude the other big pool of drivers who already exist. That is all I am saying. This would provide the exact same balance as in city and urban areas. Under my plan, when the rest of the country gets to 100% so will rural areas. It would be the exact same except in this case the contracting authority would have to make sure every area had a more than adequate wheelchair-accessible service.

On the Chairman's point, it is fair to state that in most cases what Rural Link does is focused at a certain cohort in the community. It is not focused on people who want to go out for dinner or to the pub at night.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It is. There are quite a number of weekend services. I looked them all up.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Okay.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

It is focused on volume and filling buses.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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There are also weekend and night-time services. The problem outlined in the report, which we will deal with next, is that services do not run late enough at night. They cease at approximately 11 p.m.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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They are bus services.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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In County Kerry, there are 160 Rural Link services. The NTA will come before the committee shortly-----

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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They are not on-call services.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The NTA will come before the committee shortly. I am very interested in what Deputy Ó Cuív is saying and perhaps he would like to circulate the information. I have no problem with our guests replying to the points raised but it is a new debate for us today on the issue. If the Deputy wants to put it in writing, we can ensure that he can come before the committee and address it. We intend to have hearings on this matter and to listen to everybody.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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To be absolutely clear, of course wheelchair accessibility is important. However, what we are speaking about, and what is missing, are not new bus services but new on-call services from taxis and hackneys.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

Deputy Ó Cuív has given a prime example. Rural Link will not collect two people sitting at home who want to go out because it would not be a viable service.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Some Rural Links actually do.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

Not two people.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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They actually do a door-to-door collection.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Maybe they do.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

I had a meeting with the lady from Rural Link and she told me that it is not viable.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It is in the document.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

Paper never refused ink.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I want to make it absolutely clear-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It actually states that it does that.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I live the reality of this and we need to create the type of service that exists in cities and urban areas whereby when someone needs the service, he or she can avail of it. For a bus service, everyone will have to go to the pub at 7 p.m. and leave at 11 p.m. because that is when the bus will run. What happens if a couple wants an early dinner sitting and to be home at 10 p.m. because they are paying for a babysitter and do not want to be hanging around all night but somebody else wants a late sitting in a restaurant at 8.30 p.m. or 9 p.m. and stay until midnight? In the city, what people do is that within a quarter of an hour of leaving they phone a taxi. We need this type of reality and on-call service. My point is that it would be up to the contracting authority to ensure that wheelchair-accessible vehicles would be in adequate supply to meet all reasonable needs. In the meantime, we must recognise the fact that if we are to allow existing hackneys and taxis into the game, it would be inhibiting to require 100% wheelchair accessibility in every vehicle in rural Ireland with only 10% wheelchair accessibility in urban Ireland. This is the point I am making. All I want to do is replicate-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I will be happy for our guests to reply to Deputy Ó Cuív. The NTA representatives have been waiting since 9.30 a.m.. I will not curtail the replies of our guests but they understand what I am saying. This will not be the end of the discussion. Other people will also come before the committee, including community groups and voluntary groups, so we get a handle on all of the issues.

Mr. Myles O'Reilly:

Deputy Ó Cuív has outlined an approach to solving the problem. He is quite right that most of the existing vehicles are not wheelchair-accessible and on the basis of his approach we would start off by using existing vehicles and I see nothing wrong with that. What we have proposed is an additional service to the Local Link service that would be very much based in the village. It would be adaptable and the drivers would have every incentive to work whatever hours it took to get people in and out of the village. Rather than somebody in Dublin figuring out schedules or routes, this would be done by local drivers, perhaps in consultation with the publicans or others to come up with a plan to serve the local area.

If Deputy Ó Cuív had had an opportunity to read our proposal, he would have seen it is not exclusively based on helping out older people. It would certainly service people who want to go to a restaurant or a pub. We see Local Link as connecting to the service in the village, picking people up from the one village to go to other villages or for hospital appointments. The service we propose would simply operate to and from the surrounding area in and out of the village.

In so far as new vehicles would be involved, under the NTA's existing rules they would have to be wheelchair-accessible. There is an issue about wheelchair-accessible vehicles. We have asked for a full review of the requirement with a study by the ESRI. There is an argument to suggest that there should be specialised wheelchair-accessible services rather than requiring all vehicles to be wheelchair-accessible. As of now, the rules are that all new public transport vehicles must be wheelchair accessible, which is why it is in our proposal.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The point is that the rights of people with disabilities are sacrosanct and must always be met. We did a report on this, which we published last week. We addressed it in the Dáil. People with a disability have an absolute right to insist the taxi or public service vehicle that comes for them can carry them and meet their needs. I know Deputy Ó Cuív is not suggesting otherwise but a core part of our democratic transport system is that everybody gets a service.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

The people of rural Ireland want the same access as urban Ireland to transport services, particularly taxi drivers, which they do not have at present. The one thing that keeps taxi drivers away from rural areas is the money. People need to make a day's pay, they cannot work for nothing. If a subsidy is to be given out, the first people it should go to is taxi drivers. At present, we are restricted to charging a metered fare. We cannot charge any more than what is on the meter. Perhaps if Deputy Ó Cuív wanted to go out for a meal, he might want to pay €10 more than the normal taxi fare and he might think this would be worthwhile. However, a taxi driver cannot charge that amount at present.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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He could go home to Cornamona in peace.

Mr. Jim Waldron:

It is all about money.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I do not mind paying. My argument-----

Mr. Jim Waldron:

I would not want Deputy Ó Cuív to pay. The subsidy going to the other services should be redirected to us.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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My point is a large share-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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We have discussed it enough. That is it.

Mr. Gerard Macken:

On the licences required, wheelchair-accessible vehicles are not the only vehicles. There are also hackneys, taxis, limousines, Rural Link vehicles and rural hackneys. A rural hackney does not have to be a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.

It has to meet the standards set out by the NTA for such vehicles but there are different criteria-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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There is a very strong view - and the committee has expressed it - that all new public transport vehicles should and must be wheelchair-accessible. I will suspend the meeting until 12 noon when representatives of the NTA will come before the committee. We will be happy to talk to our guests afterwards if there are any issues they wish to raise.

Sitting suspended at 11.50 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.