Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Friday, 24 July 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Covid-19: Impact on Public Transport
I welcome the witnesses in committee room 2. We are examining the impact of Covid-19 on public transport provision and I welcome Mr. Dermot O'Leary, general secretary, and Mr. Thomas O'Connor, senior representative, from the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU; Mr. Jim Waldron from the National Private Hire and Taxi Association; and Mr. Gerry Macken from the Taxi Alliance of Ireland.
I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on 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 or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I ask Mr. O'Leary to introduce his delegation and make some comments outlining the key points of his submission to the committee, which has been circulated. I ask him to limit his introduction and comments to five minutes to allow time for questions and answers.
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
We have provided two comprehensive submissions which, hopefully, members have read. I have a brief statement, as the Chairman asked. The NBRU, as the foremost front-line trade union, welcomes the opportunity to speak here today. I extend my condolences to all those who have been affected by this virus and to the families of the people who have lost their lives. The coronavirus has completely changed our world, as has been said many times. The reality of what passed as a so-called normal life in February 2020 has disappeared. As a society, we are now transforming into a new normal across many facets of how we go about our daily schedules.
Public transport, similar to other sectors, has changed dramatically from what it was previously. It should be noted and acknowledged that front-line transport workers have operated throughout the crisis in a manner that deserves the gratitude of all. Similar to all our front-line public service workers, they have been at the coalface, providing an essential service when many others disappeared. The valuable contribution from State-owned companies has acted as a beacon throughout the crisis. It is fortunate that workers' representatives such as the NBRU and other representative colleagues have been highlighting the value of having State-owned companies for many years.
The praise being heaped upon those same companies today should not allow for those who seek to undermine the companies to be let off the hook. Bus Éireann has a so-called commercial service with the most inappropriate name, Expressway. Like a myriad of other operators, it has continued to operate throughout the crisis, ferrying essential workers to their places of work. Many work in vital health services, others in essential retailer services, pharmacies, doctors' surgeries and retail services. In large parts of Ireland, many towns, villages and far-flung communities would have been left isolated and cut off were it not for Bus Éireann.
The reality is that Bus Éireann, not least because of its public ownership, would have been left isolated and cut off if it had done as others did and decided to step away from operating services. Bus Éireann has a social contract with its citizens. That should not be assumed as a given. The development of the motorway network and the increase in travel on interurban corridors created by these motorways springing up around the country brought an influx of mainly multinational companies to the market. One might think that if demand increases, supply needs to be increased too. However, we contend that the market is not there. It was saturated as a result of oversupply and this was done to drive Bus Éireann away from the commercial service that it is supposed to operate.
There are many other issues that I wish to cover and I hope the questions will allow me to do so. I will make two points. The recent debacle with face masks demonstrated clearly that input from front-line representatives such as the NBRU and other colleagues was severely lacking in the decision-making process. I do not know how much correspondence we wrote to relevant authorities, mainly the National Transport Authority but also the operating companies, seeking a place at the decision-making table where the face mask issue could have been dealt with much better than how it was ultimately dealt with. We have been calling for that since 1 May.
Capacity on public transport has reached 50%, up from 20%, and while public health advice will dictate the future of that, we cannot go back to the crushed loads that we had on buses and trains before the Covid crisis. I am heartened by one element in the programme for Government, namely, the commitment to establishing a stakeholders' forum at long last. Those people who shun us and treat us with disdain have nothing to be afraid of when it comes to the NBRU sitting at a table. We do not want to own public transport. We just want to influence and bring our expertise to bear. After all, without front-line transport staff, the transport system does not operate.
I am trying to touch the bell so that people know when they have a minute left because there were some difficulties this morning. I ask Mr. Waldron to introduce his delegation and make some introductory comments outlining the key points of his submission, which has been circulated.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
We presented a joint submission on behalf of the National Private Hire and Taxi Association, the Irish Taxi Drivers' Federation, the Taxi Alliance of Ireland and Taxi Tománaí na hÉireann. While we are all independent groups and have previously had different priorities, we feel it is important that we unite today for drivers' welfare and present this submission. The small public service industry has been decimated and almost all who qualify for pandemic payments continue to need them. The groups' members are small public service vehicle licence-holders throughout Ireland, including in major cities and smaller towns and villages. The industry is made up of approximately 20,000 vehicles, 90% of them taxis, while the rest are hackneys and limousines. There are approximately 26,000 qualified drivers with small public service vehicle, SPSV, licences. We represent more than 13,000 of those drivers.
We welcome the opportunity to present directly to this committee as we believe the drivers operating in the industry are being overlooked and not sufficiently supported by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the National Transport Authority during this pandemic. The effects of the pandemic are unprecedented and the consequences for our industry are unknown. We will need ongoing direct support from the Government to ensure viability for 20,000 vehicles, licence-holders and their families, who depend on them driving a taxi to make a living while providing an integral part of the public transport service. Indirectly, many thousands depend on the SPSV industry. The industry is not only an integral part of the transport system, it is essential.
It is the only door-to-door public transport serving airports, hospitals, train stations, sports events, business communities, tourism and also those with special needs. We rely on each other for success. The SPSV fleet includes 2,700 wheelchair accessible vehicles. Our industry is facing many challenges, including financial and practical challenges. We have been a positive contributor to the overall economy and the only section of public transport to contribute financially to the NTA, with approximately €5 million per year on licences.
I will not go through the entire submission as there is not sufficient time and I will welcome questions, but I wish to outline some key headings. We believe the Government should immediately stop the issuing of new licences. Grants must be provided and we need step-down payments for drivers going back to work. The vehicle age limits of vehicles must be extended and a buy-back scheme must be introduced to allow transferability. The fare increase that was recommended in 2019 needs to be implemented and we need help to introduce cashless payments. We want to be considered for Government transport contracts. Grants to other business enterprises should include a section to be specifically designed for the SPSV industry. All future events should consider the appropriateness of how many taxis are required. Face masks and visors should be made mandatory for people getting into a taxi.
I will leave it at that. My colleagues and will answer any questions.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
The Taxi Alliance of Ireland represents 22 groups throughout the country. I am here with the team from the National Private Hire and Taxi Association and the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation. Some of our main concerns include the advantage taken by companies particularly with regard to Dublin Airport through the Covid-19 pandemic. They say they are not going to deal with representatives and they have cut all negotiations. In essence, they are taking us from the rule books in respect of Dublin Airport, which is very concerning.
The NTA has not looked for guidelines from taxi representative groups. We have had very little correspondence from the taxi advisory committee. There has been no implementation for taxi drivers going back to work with regard to screens or otherwise. We have not been made a part of the mandatory wearing of face masks in public transport. The statutory instrument does not cover taxis, which is very poor in that regard. We will look for the NTA to provide stimulus throughout the country through HSE work, school transport and the rural link. We had very positive meetings with Ms Anne Graham, Mr. Hugh Creegan and Ms Margaret Malone on rural transport. They came back to us with a stimulus to activate rural transport with rural hackneys but we said that taxis are needed in that area as well.
Now is the time to bring taxis under the remit of the NTA because it seems that during the entire crisis we have been cannon fodder. The authority says we are front-line workers but has given us no remit for any guidelines in that regard.
There was a very simple task that could have been done by the NTA if it had proper representation on the taxi advisory committee. The taxi advisory committee has not given us any indication as to what is happening. It has become like a secret society in respect of the taxi industry with one representative on it. There were poor actions by Mr. Shane Ross at the beginning of this pandemic relating to the industry. I think he only met taxi groups three or four times during his term. We ask the new Minister with responsibility for transport to take some time and listen to what the taxi representative groups have done and to start a new advisory group including those groups where they get proper information from proper individuals, not second-hand information coming from people outside the industry. No industry should have a majority of people from companies giving advice. Advice should be coming from people on the ground. We ask for the disbandment of the current taxi advisory committee and the appointment of a new committee where the majority of taxi drivers' voices throughout the country can be heard.
I refer to the decimation in rural areas and towns across Ireland. They need stimulus. They rely on tourism for growth. There will be no tourism with current growth. Individuals will drive from their houses to hotels and use their own cars to do that. The stimulus for taxi drivers in that scenario is non-existent. There has to be a grant or some sort of system to allow taxi drivers to go back to work.
I welcome questions.
I thank the witnesses for being with us today. All the workers who contributed to the response to Covid-19 have been thanked. We should do that today. As trade union officials, they have represented the people at the front line of the pandemic early on. I will turn to public transport shortly but, by virtue of their self-employment, taxi drivers have been forgotten in the response to this pandemic. The new Government needs to get to grips with this. It needs to listen, first, to how the pandemic has impacted taxi drivers and, second, how that industry can respond. I welcome the presence of the witnesses today.
I wish to talk about the correspondence their organisations have had with the Government on face masks. Have they received any assurances that the situation may change? Perhaps Mr. Macken can answer that.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
We have had no assurances. We read the guidelines on the statutory instrument. It seemed to be very hurried and it was drafted in the context of public transport providers. The statutory instrument does not cover SPSVs or taxis. There have been no guidelines. The only guidelines we have on our own safety is refusing people entry to taxis where it might cause altercations. We want to stay as far away from the public as we can for our safety and theirs.
The last thing we want is face-to-face altercations over the lack of a Government statutory instrument. Again, it is down to the advice that was given. If the proper people had been there, giving the proper advice, it would be a different matter. We could have gone into the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 to help create a statutory instrument and brought it forward from there. We would have had some legal standing on it. We have no legal standing in relation to mandatory wearing of face masks in taxis or any small public service vehicles, including limousines and hackneys, which is a total disgrace. The issue is a lack of correspondence with taxi representatives from the NTA and some Departments.
On the broader issue with the NTA, has it provided any of the representative bodies for taxis with sample return to work protocols or any industry guidelines that they could in turn distribute to their membership?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
No, it has not. On screens, for example, we have a ridiculous situation where drivers are installing screens in their cars, going up for the suitability test and having to remove the screens to get the car passed, then driving away and reinstalling them. We have no guidelines other than very vague ones. They are telling drivers that screens can only be installed by the manufacturers of the cars to the standard of the original installation of the car. It is not acceptable. Regarding masks, there has been no advice given. We have been advised that we can refuse people sitting in the front seat of the car and ask them to sit in the back, but that is the only advice we have. We feel let down by the NTA in this.
The NTA has long had a dysfunctional relationship with the taxi drivers, and Covid has exposed that further. Regarding the financial impact on taxi drivers, the joint submission has called for a step-down social welfare payment to encourage drivers back to work without being financially impacted. Do the witnesses have any indication of what level or percentage of pre-Covid activity taxi drivers are back to?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
The only statistics that are available are from Dublin Airport. Dublin Airport is operating at 10% of the business prior to Covid. I suggest the statistic for taxi drivers is similar or worse. There is no night-time business. The night clubs are not operational. A total of 82% of drivers worked on a Friday, and 62% of them worked late in the evening on a Friday. That work is gone, basically, so that is a major problem. The number of people now working from home means they do not require a taxi to get to work. There is a huge drop-off. I cannot estimate a financial figure but I know most of the drivers who went on to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, are still on it and they need it. The PUP is allowing them survive but it is not allowing them to pay the bills. The bills are backing up. The cars and the insurance still have to be paid for. Another problem with the NTA is it let us down on insurance. We still have to have full insurance in place. Drivers had a licence suspended for three months and now are told they have to have it back on the road in seven days and they have to replace their insurance. All of these bills are backing up. That is the effect it is having in terms of economics.
Mr. Waldron makes a valid point that, while for many PAYE workers, the €350 PUP might be enough to keep them ticking over, for someone in the taxi industry who is self-employed, that €350 should be going towards them being sustained but, in fact, they have to use it to cover some of the costs of their business.
I turn to the restart grant that is available for self-employed people. I understand that, as of yet, there is no process for taxi drivers to apply for the restart grant. There were some indications yesterday in the stimulus package that it would be done through the Intreo office. Has there been any engagement between the Tánaiste's Department and the witnesses' organisations as to how taxi drivers can apply for that grant?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
There has been no communication on restart grants. There is no doubt in my mind they will be needed. Every driver is facing an insurance bill of between €3,000 and €10,000. We have not worked now for four months so there is not much money left in the coffers to pay between €3,000 and €10,000 in insurance. We want to keep providing a very good service. Prior to Covid, 82% of people said they only had to wait less than ten minutes for a taxi. We want to keep that service. If we do not get the grants and supports we will be going back to the old days whereby people were waiting 40 minutes or an hour standing at a taxi rank. We do not want that; we want to continue to provide what is classed as one of the most professional taxi services in the world.
Mr. Waldron raised the issue of insurance, which I had hoped to address. I and many others with private insurance have received a rebate on our motor insurance policies. What has been the experience of how the insurance industry has dealt with taxi drivers?
Mr. Gerard Macken:
Some insurance companies are allowing taxi drivers to transfer their insurance to a private and domestic policy but they have to take the stickers off their cars and send them back. They have to go through a massive rigmarole to avail of the service. Some insurance companies want clearer indications, which in a sense, the National Transport Authority has not provided. There was a very simple way for the National Transport Authority to achieve that at the outset of Covid-19. Most insurance companies and the National Transport Authority recommend the use of the driver check app. The NTA could have taken every driver off the driver check app. There are several reasons why some taxi drivers have stayed working. They could have remained on their taxi policy but stayed out of work, which would have made for a simpler process for coming back to work. It is down to the advice that was given. If we were there, we would have given this advice and it would have been a simpler process. The insurance companies could simply have gone on to the driver check app to make sure a driver was off it. Many drivers had to stay out working because they were already on the back to work scheme for social welfare purposes. There is a step-down process in that regard. Many pensioners are still out working who need an extra few bob to keep going. The majority of those taxi drivers who stayed out working were people on the back to work scheme for social welfare whereby they got 75%.
It is very clear that the NTA needs to establish a Covid response unit for taxis. It needs to be done very quickly or else we will have a mass exodus of people whose cars are being repossessed and who will be forced to exit the industry.
I thank Mr. O'Leary, Mr. Waldron and Mr. Macken for their presentations. I also thank them for their work and that of the people they represent on the front line.
I have a question for Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Macken. In terms of the supports they believe are needed for the taxi industry, what is the scale of the subsidies that are needed? What form should they take? Should it be grants or loans? Reference was made to the continuation of the wage subsidy scheme.
What is the response of the witnesses to the July stimulus package that was announced yesterday? Does it adequately address the needs of the sector?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
We believe that there has to be a combination of all of these supports. Grants will definitely need to be provided. I do not see loans as the answer. Loans only put things on the long finger. It is very difficult for a driver to earn money at the moment. There is no opportunity to earn an income. We are already becoming liable for our car loans, as the three-month moratorium on the payment of loans is coming to an end and we do need support.
Drivers on the Covid payment are afraid to go to work, first, for health reasons but, second, because they feel they will immediately lose their income. Every driver sitting at home now wants to go to work and taxi drivers are thinking about how they can do so. If they go to work now, they must give up the Covid payment. That is a choice they must make. It is a choice no driver wants to make because taxi drivers do not know what is ahead of them. We suggest that if a driver goes back to work that over a period he or she would get a step-down payment. That way, drivers can work towards getting an income and they are not afraid to go out. If that were the case, we would not be relying on the full €350 and it could be reduced gradually.
Grants definitely have to be paid. Several issues arise in terms of payments drivers have to make. Mr. Macken mentioned the DAA earlier. It charges €440 a year for a permit to operate at Dublin Airport. Approximately 1,500 taxis work out of Dublin Airport and the drivers have to pay the €440 upfront. A grant is necessary.
Leaving our figure aside, the National Transport Authority's fare review, which was carried out last year, stated that Dublin taxi drivers have a fixed cost of €11,433. They are not the running costs. We have to come up with €11,000 this year to pay for those fixed costs and we need supports, so the grants are necessary.
Out of interest, does Mr. Waldron know how many taxi drivers are over the age of 66 and, thereby, not eligible for the Covid payment? They may be in a more difficult position in terms of weighing up whether they should be back at work.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
I am sorry, 23% of the members of the industry are over the age of 66. I believe that 15% of them are over the age of 70. The drivers who should be cocooning are the ones that are probably out working more. They are the drivers who should be getting support because they have running costs. Their fixed costs have to be paid so how do they pay them if they have no income coming in? It is not right if they have to pay them out of their old age pensions.
I wish to ask about the experience of the witnesses in dealing with the NTA and the Department. We have a new Minister in situ. In terms of engagement, reference was made to some of the weaknesses of the taxi advisory committee. I am aware that a range of other issues have become significantly magnified as challenges in the sector, such as NCT tests, suitability tests, the buy-back scheme and the ten-year rule.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
It is a nine-year rule, but because of Covid, we urge that licences would be extended to 15 years. A precedent has already been set for wheelchair-accessible vehicles. There are Citroën Berlingos, Peugeot Partner Teepees and other vehicles in that category but the saloon car, which is subject to the nine-year rule, has far superior safety and comfort. We appeal to the NTA to extend the nine-year rule to 15 years given that for the foreseeable future taxi drivers will not be able to get finance for a new vehicle. The buy-back scheme might be the best opportunity for individuals who have medical problems or other issues that might not be deemed safe to come back into the industry until a vaccine is found, if that ever happens.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
On the buy-back scheme, I might point out one major reason we are suggesting it be introduced. We have talked about older drivers. Some such drivers now want to leave the industry but they have liabilities. They will have paid €6,400 for a licence they cannot use at the moment. We are suggesting this as a support basis for people who want to exit the industry. If transferability is allowed on a licence, it is also a way that drivers who are renting in the industry and paying vast sums every week to rent a licence can buy their own licence and be properly self-employed, rather than relying on someone else to provide them with a car. It would give opportunities to exit the industry for those who want to leave and opportunities for people within the industry to have their own vehicle.
Mr. Macken and Mr. Waldron both mentioned challenges as they relate to the operation of taxis at Dublin Airport. Will they expand on that, outlining the current circumstances, how Covid has affected them, and what they believe needs to happen in that regard?
Mr. Gerard Macken:
The statistics came from Dublin Airport last June, where there were 3,600-odd taxi drivers for the full month. Given that the DAA has stated there are 1,350 taxis, if each driver had to get a job in a month, how many days would he or she be waiting on one? The current waiting time for a taxi from Dublin Airport, where there are 30 or 40 taxis, is up to three or four hours, to facilitate a service there. There are long waits at Dublin Airport and the taxis are waiting for whatever the reason might be.
Advantage is being taken by Dublin Airport in respect of Covid-19. I have emailed the leaders of each of the political parties - I might have missed one but I think I got them all - about the ongoing discussions with the CEO of the DAA, Mr. Dalton Philips, because we have been totally ignored at Dublin Airport as a representative group. Mr. Phillips does not want to deal with us any more and he has emailed back all the leaders about the matter. I hope we will get political representation to respond to the arrogant way we are being treated at the airport. We will meet the leaders soon and, hopefully, if political persuasion can take place, we can put the case as to how taxis should operate at Dublin Airport. There are no guidelines at Dublin Airport. The taxi holding area has no facilities or instructions relating to Covid-19. There are no hand-washing facilities or soap in any of the toilets. The taxi industry is not being maintained and the canteens have been closed, so there are no facilities. I could go on and on about how we have been treated.
I hope that because all the political parties have been copied on the email, at some stage the DAA might get up and start doing something for the taxi industry. I thank the people who have already contributed to Dublin Airport, in particular the Deputy who has pushed matters forward. While some of the political parties are working, we are falling foul in respect of the matter. The only other statistic we have on the degree to which taxis are working is the former Minister, Shane Ross's, famous last words, to say 98% of taxis are not working-----
I thank our guests for attending and for their submissions, in particular where they outlined the concerns about Dublin Airport. Earlier we heard concerns about the aviation industry in Dublin Airport, but it is really important that our guests in this session have set out the experience and difficulty they are having.
Coming away from the economics of the matter, I turn to the issue of protecting workers, whether bus workers or taxi drivers, through mask compliance. The taxi driver submission refers to compulsory mask-wearing in taxis as a form of public transport, like everywhere else. What has been the experience so far of mask compliance for drivers who are having to enforce it? We saw a difficult video on social media yesterday and that is just one video. What has been our guests' experience, as representative groups, so far?
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
I referred to face masks in my opening remarks. We have all been following the debate relating to Covid for quite a while, for obvious reasons. There was a bit of a debacle, as I said earlier. The wearing of face masks on public transport was made mandatory and there was a great deal of publicity in that regard the week before last. Compliance, by and large, has been pretty high, although legislation was not designed for the vast majority but for those people who still refuse to wear face coverings. I know that the Deputy did not mean to stir up any negative emotions from me, but it is not the role of a bus driver to enforce compliance with the law-----
What I mean is that it is not their job. It is their job to drive the bus and to comply with all the regulations relative to that. We talked separately in the committee about how various forms of public transport differ greatly. If someone gets on the DART, there may be nobody there and the person will be well separated from the driver, who is in a different capsule. I am very conscious of bus drivers, given that even with the shielding that is there, it is a much more connected interaction. I know it is not the driver's job to enforce that, but he or she will also be much more connected to the passengers than on other forms of public transport.
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
They are, and the Deputy's analysis is quite correct. There is a relationship between the bus driver and the passenger that would be found on other modes. We always go to great lengths to explain to people, when we are talking about the bus industry in particular, that there is a community or family between the passenger and the driver.
To respond to the root of the question, there is compliance as high as 90%, we believe. That is anecdotal, and I presume the companies will come back with empirical evidence about that. It took a while but we got there. There is satisfaction, despite a few caveats and incidents, some of which have been on social media, as the Deputy noted. She did not ask this question, but one aspect that has been demonstrated quite clearly today already is the disparate groups, including us and our colleagues in the taxi industry, that do not have a central forum to discuss all the issues that concern them. One startling statistic I might cover later in the meeting is that there were 290 million journeys on public transport last year. That was with a full taxi service operating in addition. If a full taxi service is not operating, we cannot cater for 290 million, even if demand returns to normal levels, and it will not do so as quickly as that. Without a fully operating taxi industry, we certainly cannot envisage operating at that level again.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
No personal protective equipment, PPE, has been issued by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and no clear guidelines have been issued on screens or face masks. Drivers themselves have started to issue face masks. The Chinese embassy donated 500 boxes of face masks to the taxi groups. Where is the NTA? How can it defend the fact that a body such as the Chinese embassy is stepping in to help us out?
I did not know that and I thank Mr. Waldron for telling me. On contactless payment, I have observed, as other members may have, that the Leap card makes it more straightforward when getting on a bus, DART or Luas. In taxis, in my experience, I have noticed a much higher availability of contactless payment in taxis. Is that something our guests have been working with drivers on? How has it been going?
Am I correct? Is that just anecdotal experience or something that has been observed more broadly?
Mr. Gerard Macken:
There was a large increase in the number of people requiring credit card machines and some people have come more to the fore in this regard, building packages around the taxi industry. We worked strongly with Dublin Airport on this as well but we are now being ignored altogether. The biggest concern from a taxi perspective is that the National Transport Authority wants us to pay for everything while we get nothing back, which would not work in any industry. It is working now because there are no charges for the likes of Visa and Mastercard and drivers can facilitate a small charge with corporate commercial business cards and cards outside of Europe. This is a legal entitlement arising from direction of the National Transport Authority but the authority wants to take that away and leave us with no way of recouping the money. Nobody I know has a major issue with recouping a couple of cent for providing a service. It should continue this way.
The Deputy has noticed a bigger uptake because taxi representative groups have been part of ensuring driver safety is paramount and that contactless payment can be facilitated as much as possible through working with credit card companies. More of them are coming on board and trying to facilitate the taxi industry.
With respect to costs, people have significantly reduced their use of cash in favour of contactless payment since the beginning of this pandemic out of concern about transmission. What is the cost of transitioning to contactless payments for a taxi driver? What is the cost of the unit and the ongoing cost or portion taken by the card companies?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
There are various costs associated with the machines. We have done some deals with companies providing the machines for free but the transactions cost between 2.7% and 4.8%. Every fare paid through a cash machine could mean a loss of approximately 4.8%. The point should have been included in last year's fare review that fares should be increased in order for us to go completely cashless. There is a set-up charge and transaction fee that drivers should not have to pay. The NTA must address this fairly quickly so all drivers can transfer. Drivers have transferred to a contactless system for their own health and welfare, as well as their customers' welfare, but they should not have to pay for it.
I respect Mr. Waldron's comments but there are many businesses that will have to transition to contactless payments that would not necessarily be reimbursed for it. I know people have been asking if taxis use contactless payments. It is a consumer-----
Mr. Jim Waldron:
Can the Deputy tell me another business that cannot change its prices or fares? We are a regulated industry and taxis can only charge what is on the meter. It is programmed by the National Transport Authority. A shopkeeper or somebody in retail or other businesses can increase or decrease prices but we cannot do anything like that. We have had the same fare for over three years.
I had a question for Mr. O'Leary but it has already been answered. I thank him for his contribution on face masks in general. He was doing it from a position of protecting his workers, which was fantastic. He was an early and ferocious public voice for the provision of face masks and that transcended his workers and public transport users in general. It helped move us forward as a society in using face masks. I thank him for his early work in this regard.
I have some questions for Mr. Waldron and Mr. Macken. Will they speak to their views on how the NTA engages with the taxi service in general? I specifically refer to structures like the taxi advisory committee. What are the advantages and disadvantages in the context of the Covid-19 crisis? When we put questions to the former Minister, Shane Ross, a few weeks ago, the NTA put forward a view that there is nothing wrong and it has great engagement with the taxi industry. It implied representatives met all the time, there was a back-and-forth discussion and there were many plans and irons in the fire. Speaking with taxi drivers in my constituency and beyond, that does not seem to be the case.
Will Mr. Macken expand on his point replying to an earlier contributor with regard to Dublin Airport, permits and the issues being faced in that regard? He ran out of time so if he wants to continue on the point, I am interested in the answer.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
Dublin Airport initially sought the €440 upfront and that would have needed to be paid in the coming month. It has now given us a bit of leeway by pushing out the payment to September. Before that we would have had quarterly payments and forum meetings once per month in which we could put across our concerns. The previous landside standards manager, Mr. Anthony McGarry, dealt with us reasonably well in the taxi industry and there was always somebody at the end of the phone for any major incidents at Dublin Airport. That was until we saw the impact of Covid-19, when all interaction with the taxi representative groups was taken away. As I stated, I contacted Mr. Dalton Philips and there is a string of emails back and forth. He states that he started a workshop and that taxi drivers indicated they wanted to be contacted individually, which is totally not the case. The person who ran this, Margaret Cox, emphasised there should be more engagement with the taxi industry.
With regard to the NTA and the taxi advisory committee, the former Minister, Shane Ross, told our colleagues that he was not responsible for picking the taxi representatives. The NTA has no input into the taxi advisory committee at all. There is one representative from Tiománaí Tacsaí na hÉireann on it for the taxi industry. The remaining members are from dispatch operator companies, including Free Now, Lynk and the Galway representative for dispatch operators. The representative groups have very little input into this. There is very little input coming back from the taxi industry.
It beggars belief that there is a new taxi regulator. We sent an email to who we thought was the regulator only to find out, by accident, that there is a new one. That is the way we are being treated by the NTA. We are being told nothing and kept in the dark. We are being used as cannon fodder. There should have been major discussions. Ms Anne Graham has said there is great interaction, but that is within a committee. The taxi advisory committee has started a subcommittee to advise the main committee on Covid-19, which beggars belief.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
That is the case 110%. There is one person. The National Private Hire and Taxi Association and the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation are getting no information back from the taxi advisory committee. It is worse than a secret society. When the majority of groups were on it previously, information came back to the taxi industry. This situation would be ludicrous at any time, but particularly in the context of Covid-19.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I also thank them for their good work during the pandemic, when bus, rail and taxi services have been operating. They have provided an essential service and people have put themselves at risk. What is the up-to-date infection rate among taxi and bus operators? Is that known? It could have a bearing on any increase in capacity, particularly in bus services. I am referring to the 1 m and 2 m rule.
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
I will not eat into Deputy Murphy's time too much, but I thank Deputy Duncan Smith for his kind remarks. To clarify, the NBRU's call for face coverings was mainly done to restore confidence in public transport. Deputy Murphy's question feeds into that. The infection rate is, thankfully, in single digits across bus and rail services. That is my understanding anyway, but I am sure someone else will say it is different.
As the Deputy knows, we covered capacity issues comprehensively in our submission. We are guided by public health advice by and large. I spoke to the Deputy some time ago. There are capacity issues across the greater Dublin area and large urban areas. We cannot go back to crush capacities. They are called "crush loadings" in the industry, where people are squeezed sardine-line onto trains and buses. There needs to be a debate about how we will manage people returning to public transport. There were 290 million passenger journeys in 2019. The infection rate is in the single digits, but we need to have a broader conversation about how we will manage public transport. That is the bus and train experience.
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
I was going to say there was a certain pleasure in that regard, but that is probably the wrong word. We have been strongly backing a stakeholders forum for a number of years. It has been resisted strenuously by the Department and the NTA. The programme for Government sets out clearly that the forum needs to be established. There have been no conversations to date with anyone about setting it up, but one suspects that the Department responsible - it is the Department of the Green Party's leader - will move quickly. I hope it will. This afternoon's engagement with both groups at this meeting has demonstrated the urgent need for a stakeholders forum where people who work in the industry - I have spoken to the Deputy and she knows about this - and are the experts need to feed their expertise into decision making. This relates to the question on contactless payments. Drivers in Bus Éireann are still handling cash in the middle of a crisis because there is no contactless system. I constantly criticise the NTA, but I do not want to do that. I want to sit around the table and work towards providing transport for all citizens. That is what we should be doing, not sitting in committee rooms knocking one another. I spend a lot of time doing that anyway. I would rather have a forum.
There has been no contact yet with the new Government, but let us hope. The programme for Government sets out clearly that the Government will move immediately to establish the forum.
Regarding taxis, useful points have been made during this debate drawing our attention to some of the measures that could be taken, for example, the nine-year rule and fixed charges.
I have some concerns about the 15% over-70s and the risk in which they are placing themselves. That is the age range that is particularly problematic. What feedback are the witnesses getting from that cohort? Is it different from the feedback from others providing the service?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
From my most recent contact with one driver in that situation, he would prefer to get out of the industry altogether. He has a commitment, though, in that he purchased a car in the belief that the next two or three years would be good. He cannot get out of the industry. One of the suggestions we make in our submission is that there would be a buy-back scheme so that a driver could get out. The driver in question will effectively be forced out onto the street to pay the bill for the car.
That is my first thought on the Deputy's question, but she also asked about deaths and how they had affected the taxi industry. Some taxi drivers have died from Covid. Obviously, we pass on our sympathies to their families. We would not like this to happen again. We call on the NTA to meet its responsibility and start providing us with PPE equipment and giving us guidelines. It might sound ridiculous, but is the car supposed to be washed in a particular way? We do not know. The NTA is the expert and is supposed to give us guidance on this type of issue.
I apologise in advance to Mr. O'Leary from the NBRU. My time is short and I specifically asked that the taxi drivers attend today, so I will fire most of my questions at them. They have been ignored. However, I will quickly put a question to Mr. O'Leary. The subsidies for public transport in Ireland were lower than almost anywhere else in Europe before Covid. For the public's benefit, will Mr. O'Leary say how low they were and how Covid has added dramatically to the case that we must have a substantial increase in them, given that public transport is now more essential than ever?
I will put the rest of my questions to the taxi drivers' representatives. It is obvious that taxi drivers have been ignored and are being treated with contempt by the NTA. Now, their industry has been decimated and there is no roadmap - pardon the pun - back for them in the current period. All of the associated elements - tourism, live entertainment and music, bars and so on - that would have given them the possibility of having some sort of sustainable income are on the floor as well. Will the witnesses state the case for why the income subsidy to allow people to return to work is so crucial? Do they agree that the failure to extend the pandemic payment to people aged over 66 years put the affected taxi drivers in a very dangerous position in terms of their health and that, even now, taxi drivers are caught in a terrible bind? If they return to work, they will lose their payments but they cannot earn a decent living in the current situation. If they remain on the pandemic payment, however, it will be cut and cut again. Indeed, it has already been cut. This puts them in a dilemma.
My next question is on the number of taxis. Before Covid, there were more taxis in Dublin than there were in New York. The idea that the NTA would continue to issue licences for new taxis when the industry is on the floor seems crazy. Perhaps the taxi drivers' representatives could elaborate on this. They might also comment on the appeal for the same large stimulus grants that are being given to some businesses to be given to taxi drivers as well to cover the €11,000 of annual fixed costs.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
All of the licences issued by the NTA related to wheelchair-accessible grants. Those individuals would have needed to have their vehicles on the road before getting a wheelchair-accessible grant. Unfortunately, they are now committed to an industry where there is nothing but they still have to go through with it.
The grant is for three years and they have to take on the obligations associated with it. The National Transport Authority, NTA, should have considered the pandemic and looked at some way of returning from it. It is not only the old age pensioners who have had to return to work who have been affected by Covid-19 but people on back-to-work schemes as well. A significant amount of these are on the second tranche of payments. The back-to-work scheme runs for three years. They have no option to get out of it either. They have to subsidise their income as well.
There should be an immediate moratorium on the issuing of plates. We will have a majorly oversupplied industry if there is no tourism across the country. The NTA needs to look at work for drivers in other areas such as school transport and the rural transport system. There should be two or three stimulus packages including packages for those returning to work and for those who wish to get out of the industry, similar to those provided for small farmers.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
It is our understanding that the National Transport Authority is on the verge of launching an advertising campaign to recruit taxi drivers. It is very worrying that the authority is trying to recruit people into an industry that is on its knees. The NTA must assure us that it will not do so.
With regard to supports for drivers, the Deputy mentioned the situation in which drivers have been put. He is right; drivers have been put in a very delicate situation. They have to make a choice between their health and their finances. There is no support for people with mental health issues. The has created stress for people throughout Ireland. It has not just affected taxi drivers but, because I am talking about taxi drivers, what has the Government put in place to support them? It has not contacted any of the representative groups to offer any supports or guidelines with regard to mental health. This is one of the things that has been forgotten about.
Step-down payments must be brought in. There is no way a driver will step off a cliff and have no money. We need a step-down system in place so that drivers can go out to work honestly. Some drivers may think they have to go out and work while getting the Covid payment because they do not know where their futures lie. We want to be honest, upfront and forthright. We are looking for step-down payments so that drivers can gradually work their way back into the industry and gradually pay off the bills that have been accumulating, including the €11,433 the NTA estimates as fixed costs. We believe these costs are vastly underestimated. If we were to sit in a room with NTA representatives, we could show them that our costs are double that.
I would like to let Mr. Waldron know that I have great sympathy for the taxi industry. I would agree with him that the industry has unfortunately, through regulation, been allowed to get too big to be fair to drivers. That is the real problem. We have a huge amount of capacity and now, during the downturn caused by Covid, many people are at risk. I support Mr. Waldron's call for step-down payments. One cannot ask people to give up a Government subsidy or support and go out to work. I took a taxi last night and the gentleman who drove me told me that he had three fares over the course of eight hours yesterday. That is the reality on the ground.
I will ask about modifications to cars. Is there a policy in this regard within the taxi industry? This man had quite a bit of perspex in his car and was fully shielded. Is that the policy for all taxis now?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
No. The problem is that there is no policy. A driver may take it upon himself to install a screen. The National Transport Authority does not consider any screen acceptable.
Drivers who are going for a suitability test have to remove the screen for the taxi to be approved. The interior of the car is usually checked and a screen is considered illegal and would have to be removed. There is no policy. We want to work with the National Transport Authority and develop a policy and a road forward, if the Deputy will excuse the pun. That is what we want to do but the National Transport Authority has not engaged with us. As my colleague, Mr. Macken, has already stated, there is one representative of taxi drivers on the taxi advisory committee. This is not good enough. We are the people to whom the NTA needs to talk.
I agree with Mr. Waldron. I dare say he will not be the last witness from the private sector to speak about difficulties in engaging with the higher-ups in the public service and Civil Service. We highlighted that in a recent report.
I commend Mr. O'Leary of the National Bus and Rail Union on the work he has done. As a member of the Regional Group, I was out in front of even the NBRU in calling for masks to be mandated where social distancing was not possible. That has not been fully mandated but I believe we will end up going there. I will ask about the tourist coach industry. I understand some buses are fitted with high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters. I am told that other companies have been told they will have to fit these filters if they want to get back into business in the future. Is that the case?
Has the NBRU looked at this issue or engaged with the Department with regard to using these as a solution in respect of any further public service obligation, PSO, services? The issue of transport for those returning to school has already been highlighted. There is a definite problem in respect of children with intellectual disabilities who may have to be brought to special schools in September. There are probably openings in that regard. Has anyone thought to sit down and cost this as a proposition for the Department to consider?
I suggest Mr. O'Connor's group might want to look at that. I am not saying the NBRU is not being proactive but it would be good to engage with the Department on some initiatives to see if it can get support for them.
I will return to the taxi industry before I finish. Have the taxi groups organised themselves into any co-operatives through which they might be able to get greater traction with regard to bargaining?
Mr. Gerard Macken:
In my opening statement I mentioned that I represent 22 groups from all over the country. All of the groups here have come together to make our voices heard. They represent other groups across the country as well. We have put our cases forward in solidarity. We had an awful lot more solidarity under the previous taxi advisory committee, on which four representative groups were represented. We now only have one representative among the 17 members of the committee. This is a very poor showing on the part of the previous Minister. I hope the new Minister will address this issue.
With regard to screens in vehicles, we have asked the National Transport Authority's engineers to go out to individuals who have fitted screens to take a look at them and see if they are suitable for the wider industry. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, has a different point of view with regard to how screens should be fitted from an engineering perspective. The NTA has done nothing with regard to screens apart from telling us that there are no safety screens available in Ireland or the UK which it deems suitable. One of the largest taxi fleets in Europe has been treated dismally in this regard.
We are not getting feedback from the NTA. While the various groups are working together, it is pointless doing so if we do not have anybody's ear on the issue. For this reason, I ask the new Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ryan, or someone in his Department or in the National Transport Authority to engage with the various groups in the industry to get realistic information.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their submissions. I will speak primarily to the NBRU submission. While I have an interest in taxis, I have a greater interest in public transport, specifically the rail and bus side of it.
I represent Kildare North, which is very much a commuter constituency. Pre-Covid, the bulk of the working population in north Kildare migrated into the greater Dublin area most mornings, returning again in the evening. I have been a commuter on public transport, primarily rail, for upwards of 20 years. I will make a couple of observations on that. The numbers using the system have started to increase again. The system was almost at breaking point pre-Covid. I discussed this in the past with Mr. O'Leary and others in the NBRU, as well as the NTA, Irish Rail and all the other stakeholders. We are dealing with the crisis as best we can around the table. It is important not to lose sight of the pressures on the system pre-Covid, for example, trains and buses running above capacity, a lack of park-and-ride facilities, parking and other supporting services needed to make the transition to public transport en masse. Unfortunately, this transition has been somewhat arrested but I hope we will be in a post-Covid era in the not too distant future, whether that is in six, 12 or 18 months. We cannot let this slide as we could find ourselves back to capacity again very quickly. It is important that we do not let the ball drop on some of the initiatives and projects that were up and running to address some of the issues in public transport.
Earlier this week, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, announced EU funding for the Kildare route project to bring the DART to Maynooth and Hazelhatch. Without being parochial, as someone who lives one station further, I believe this should extend much further to stations such as Sallins and Newbridge, as well as Kilcock on the Sligo line, and perhaps even Enfield. If we were being pedantic, we would describe the Kildare route project as the Dublin route project because it stops at Hazelhatch, which is in County Dublin. While the pressure and focus are elsewhere, it is important that we do not forget these issues. We need to keep them boiling away in the background as best we can.
I spoke about capacity in normal times and my hope that we return to some kind of normalcy soon. I have continued to travel on public transport on most days during the pandemic. Last Thursday, when we had a late session in the convention centre, I ran to get a later train home at 8 p.m. or 8.30 p.m. Even at that off-peak hour, social distancing was almost impossible to enforce because the seats were almost full. While there were signs and stickers on the seats, it was not possible to observe social distancing because the train was beginning to fill up. That is already an issue and we are only at the early stages of people returning to work. I do not know how that will be managed. I note there was some reduction on timetables. Perhaps it is time to start ramping up services again as people start taking the train again. This has probably gone under the radar but it will become an issue very soon.
The return of schools has been the subject of considerable concern, coverage, speculation and analysis in the media, the Government and these Houses. We have heard a lot about schools, but what about the school buses? I am not sure how the school bus system will cope when the schools return. There is always pressure to get places on school buses in August. Much depends on capacity on particular routes and whether the school bus seats 48 or 60, the number of discretionary places and so on. In a social distancing era, what kind of challenges will that pose?
It is something that has not been flagged or considered in the debate to date.
The next point I want to jump on to is one about which Mr. O'Leary had expressed concerns in the media a few weeks ago. I welcome the mandatory face coverings on public transport. That is important. It was a welcome decisive move made early in the new Government. It removed any awkwardness about it so that people, by and large, immediately began to don the face coverings. I saw not everyone on the Luas and train was doing it. There is voluntary compliance. I note Mr. O'Leary expressed concerns about drivers and inspectors being pressed into service, almost as policemen, trying to enforce that. How is that working out? I saw it on the Luas one day. Through no fault of the drivers, it was not working out well. They were doing their best. The Luas had to keep stopping and passengers were being ejected and maybe put in their place a little. The journey was slowed down and it became a little messy.
Jumping along to the details of Mr. O'Leary's submission, I might put all my points across and maybe they can respond in bulk. It might be the most efficient way. In the NBRU submission today, Mr. O'Leary talked about a 24-hour society as opposed to a 24-hour transport society, which many cities have. I often consider, especially when running for the last train home out of Heuston at 11.10 p.m., it would be great if there was another one an hour later but one would probably want one an hour later again and so on. Perhaps that kind of 24-hour public transport clock is what we need to aspire to. The NBRU touched on that in its submissions and statements in the past. Perhaps there is an angle there in terms of the recovery.
Mr. O'Leary mentioned spreading the peak as well. Irish Rail often talked of this. The NBRU and Irish Rail both talked about this idea whereby, rather than everybody trying to jump on a train at 7.30 a.m. or 8 a.m. and jumping back on the same train at 5.30 p.m. to get home in the evening, and similarly for bus and Luas, people could begin to examine how they might have staggered or different work patterns. Perhaps Covid can teach us something there. Perhaps there are learnings or changes in work practices to be drawn from that. In terms of the 24-hour economy, probably the NBRU has something that would be of interest to say about that.
Finally, I noted the stakeholder forum. Deputy Catherine Murphy and others might have touched on that. There is one question I would ask. Mr. O'Leary has already explained his vision of how that might work but I would ask, will there be a role for local commuter groups? The Sallins and Naas Rail User Group is the one I am happy to be involved with. There is a Drogheda user group as well. There is probably a Navan user group etc. They would play a useful role in stakeholder engagement as the users of the service. They already input in different, and perhaps inconsistent, ways to the system. Mr. O'Leary might talk about how that might operate.
I will leave it there. I have put a few questions and there is a few minutes left for the witnesses to respond.
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
I thank Deputy Lawless for his remarks and also for his contribution in terms of his observations. I will try to answer the questions, with the last one first.
The stakeholders forum, as far as we are concerned in the NBRU, should include all those groups that have a role to play. It should not be owned by any one group. The policy decisions today, as we see it, are made by a group in which we have no role. Commuter groups should be involved along with other stakeholders. For example, we are here with our colleagues from the taxi industry.
In relation to the 24-hour economy, we observed in our research before we put in our submission that there was a 24-hour commission established in London on the issue of having an economy running right through the night, not only on the entertainment and bar industry which we are all familiar with but where cultural venues could be open and, indeed, the economy itself and retail units could be open. Of course, there is much stakeholder involvement in that as well and it would need to be discussed. The programme for Government mentions that. From that perspective, it is encouraging.
In relation to the enforcement issue that Deputy Lawless raised, I made the remark to Deputy Carroll MacNeill earlier that by and large people are complying with the face coverings. There is a small minority who are not. There is that issue that is still hanging out there. I should remind the Deputies that we have been calling for a dedicated Garda public transport division for quite some time now. We have support from the Garda representative bodies on that and they could have had a role here, had they been resourced properly.
In terms of the Deputy's observations on Irish Rail in getting the trains, we wrote to Irish Rail as recently as last week indicating that we have a problem representing workers on the train services with the capacity issue. I am at pains to point to my own people as much as anybody else that we will take public health advice on the social distance being reduced, but we will not have a situation where we compromise the health and safety of our members and, indeed, the travelling public. There is an issue in enforcement of capacity issues. I suppose, anecdotally, we have a situation where people are travelling in numbers, they all want to travel together and they are inclined to sit in between the carriages, and that is a problem.
The issue relating to school buses will be very complex and will be predicated, we assume, on the decisions when they are made about the return to school. Bus Éireann carries approximately 117,000 children to school each day, which is 41 million journeys each year. Many of the operators that work for Bus Éireann are private indigenous interests, demonstrating clearly that while the unions might be described as anti-private, we do a lot of work with private coaches and they complement the publicly-owned companies.
Mr. Thomas O'Connor:
I would like to come in on Deputy Lawless’s point regarding schools. We are still awaiting public health advice on social distancing on school transport. It has not materialised yet. The issue with safety screens is a big one. Many of the school coaches may be smaller than normal public service vehicles and screens are needed to protect the drivers. That will require investment. If the social distancing rule stays at 1 m, 2 m or 50% capacity, it will present significant challenges to carry that number of children each day when the schools return in September.
I thank our guests. Taxi drivers are suffering. Many taxis operators in the constituency of Cork South-West and throughout the country have been in contact with me prior to this ten-minute packaging and other things that they feel are not steering their way. Taxi drivers are suffering extreme stress and anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic as they have seen their incomes wiped out. Nonetheless, they have to keep their cars taxed, insured and licensed. They are fearful of cancelling their insurance as they may find it difficult or impossible to get insurance again or a renewal could see their premiums inflate.
Many drivers are over 66 years of age, working full-time and paying income tax but, because of age discrimination, they were unable to avail of the Covid-19 payment. Significant numbers of drivers have been in the business for 40 years and having paid exorbitant fees for their taxi plates under the old system are still bearing this very significant financial burden.
Drivers have recurring costs. For example, a taxi licence costs €250 for five years plus €125 a year for the vehicle licensing. Should existing licences be given free to anyone over 66 in some compensation to these people who have paid into the system are being discriminated against at present? With their vehicles parked up, the licence fee is also very unfair.
Regarding the condition of a taxi, it has to be taken off the road in its tenth year. Drivers have to upgrade their cars in order to keep their licences active. In the current difficult business climate, cars are predominantly parked up. In these exceptional times, could the taxi age be increased from ten to 15 years to ease the financial burden?
Does the NTA have surplus moneys it collected from taxi drivers over the years? If so, could these funds be made available to support drivers making car upgrades? These grants are already available for wheelchair-accessible taxis. Taxi drivers need support now.
Is there anything in the stimulus package for taxi operators aged over 66 or for private bus operators?
Mr. Jim Waldron:
I am not aware of anything in the stimulus package directed towards the taxi industry. Regarding the costs the Deputy mentioned, such as licences, the NCT and the suitability test, a very practical thing could be done to help taxi drivers. We have been calling for this for years. The car test and the suitability test are carried out in the same premises on two different occasions. We do not understand why they cannot all be done at the same time. Why do we have to drive away and come back two days later to do the second part of a test? That is a cost to drivers. As well as the monetary cost of the tests, it is also a cost in time and effort.
GAA and League of Ireland venues throughout the country are starting to open up this weekend. There is never provision for a taxi rank at these places. These are the opportunities that taxi drivers are seeking at the moment. The Government should set in place positions were taxi drivers can pick up an income. It has been repeatedly missed. We need to be part of the planning process when events, including Bloom in Phoenix Park and events at Croke Park, are being organised. Taxis need to be provided for as part of the planning permission.
I am sorry. I missed the first part of the Deputy’s question because I got a bit distracted.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
Taxi ranks in Cork are facilitated by the Garda and the local authority much of the time. It is a good stepping stone for the taxi industry to acknowledge the good work by some communities in that regard. Throughout the rest of the country, nothing is done in that regard. Taxi drivers in Cork and elsewhere are affected by no tourists coming here for trips on cruise liners. That business has been decimated.
We were told that there was a contract for NCTs and suitability tests. With the two people, that could be facilitated.
Regarding subsidies and grants and facilitating older drivers to get out of the business, if a taxi driver is paying over €11,000 a year, it is very hard to get out after buying a new car or in the middle of it. The Deputy’s suggestion of a 15-year age limit for vehicles is good. We have suggested it all along. That would be at no cost whatsoever. There is nothing for us in the stimulus package. The NTA or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport should investigate it and make proposals for what can be given to taxi drivers. We need support. That is paramount at the moment.
I thank the gentlemen for coming in to talk to us today. I acknowledge that, at a crucial time, those who operate buses, trains and taxis were the essential workers ferrying other essential workers to and from their jobs. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I thank them for their public service. The State depended on them and they were there for us.
I have read the submissions. I am sure our guests are aware that many of their co-workers across Europe lost their lives as a result of Covid-19. What do they need from us politicians to keep them safe? I thank Mr. O’Leary for his perseverance regarding the wearing of masks on public transport. The latter was one of the things I mentioned in my maiden speech to the Dáil. I was tearing my hair out over how long it took to happen. I thank him again for his perseverance because it is very important for the safety of not just bus and train workers, but of all people on their way to work.
I am concerned about capacity on busy routes. The Bus Éireann 115 route in north Kildare was already running over capacity before the pandemic. I was talking to the group in Kilcock last night. With not so many people back at work, it is manageable at the moment. However, we will need further capacity on these routes. While every route suffers during rush hour, some routes need particular attention. Is enough being done in this regard, especially with more people on the move and with the numbers relating to Covid rising again?
In the context of train capacity, could Irish Rail limit the number of tickets being sold to customers so that it would be easier for those customers to adhere to social distancing requirements? In their submission, the witnesses suggest that they would like hand sanitiser to be used. It would be easy to enforce that on public transport with a hand sanitiser dispenser available when people are getting on and off a train.
I spoke to the Minister, Shane Ross, about it. I agree that he was quite dismissive of many of the suggestions. I want to tease out the issue of school transport, which is on page 15 of the submission.
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
I thank the Deputy for her remarks on face coverings. If her question is what the committee can do, other speakers touched on the stakeholders' forum. The committee's report can insist that it be established immediately. Rather than having to go to the media, seemingly demanding its use on public transport, I could be doing it while sitting at a table with other stakeholders. I am well able to make the arguments in the media but the stakeholders' forum is where the business should be done.
On capacity generally, the country is very good at planning in the middle of a boom and trying to implement during recessions and we fail all the time. This is an opportunity to do the opposite. Irish Rail is a case in point. It is only last autumn where "Prime Time" broadcast an exposé, as it were, where more than 40 train carriages known as 2700s were mothballed because the NTA paymasters said they were too expensive to refurbish. Had they been in service, they would have helped and would continue to help with capacity issues. There has been severe underinvestment in rail.
The 115 route in Kildare is also an issue of capacity. Two types of people know about this, day in, day out, namely, the bus drivers and the people who use the service, but it takes a long time for the information to get up to the decision makers. Forgive me for flogging a dead horse but the NTA looms large in every answer from the two bodies represented here today. I am at pains to point out that I would rather work with it than criticise it every time I open my mouth.
It has all been said about the necessity of the services. It is something that was very clear recently during the pandemic. We are talking about the future of public transport. I expect there is a fear that people have made a shift towards private cars. From a public transport perspective, including private bus service operators, of which there are many in my Louth constituency, will Mr. O'Leary outline what can be done to reassure the public of the safety of public transport while also dealing with capacity issues as a result of reduced services?
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
There are a lot of private coaches operating into Dublin from the Louth area. They compliment the State companies, by and large.
On restoring confidence in public transport, face coverings in one way. It is important that the new cleaning regime is kept going. Our submission notes the fear that people will move away from public transport to cars. Our submission referred to an Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service report commissioned by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in 2017 put the cost of congestion in the greater Dublin area alone at €358 million. We cannot go back. The Covid crisis demonstrated what is possible when there are empty streets. To be fair to Owen Keegan in Dublin City Council, whom I am not a fan of and he knows that, there was a move towards pedestrian and cycleways during the crisis. Investment will have to be at the fore to bring in extra capacity in buses.
Buses can be purchased much quicker than rail coaches. Capacity is what is required.
As I said to Deputy Lawless, we need to elongate the peak travel period. Some 46% of journeys are made at peak times, and that peak has to be elongated. We wrote to the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and other party leaders suggesting that school and college opening times and retail be staggered. We also made that point in our submission. That was partially done in the second phase when some retail units did not open until 10.30 a.m. That is the type of thinking that is needed. As I keep repeating, stakeholder involvement is vital. There is no point in dictating down the chain because that begets a reaction which is usually negative. What we hope to achieve today is the clear message that the stakeholder forum needs to be established immediately so that we can get down to restoring confidence in public transport and dealing with capacity issues, as well as elongating peak travel periods.
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
No one will be surprised to hear that the NBRU would embrace those projects, all of which are referred to in one way or another in the programme for Government. When I read in a newspaper or see on my phone that there is to be a feasibility study, it drives me nuts. Many of these projects may not be economically feasible, if we are honest. I mentioned Bus Éireann fulfilling a social contract earlier. That social contract needs to be factored into any debate here. I imagine the Navan rail line would be economically viable. Navan is a large town. The line has been closed since 1947 and reopening it is a no-brainer. On the western rail corridor, stimulus is needed in areas in the west. We cannot continue to be so Dublin-centric as that will not work. The crisis and working from home have demonstrated that we need to spread the focus from Dublin and achieve the regional balance that we are sick of talking about. Every crisis brings an opportunity. We have opportunities here and we need to grasp them. I keep talking about investment but rail projects are fundamental to getting the regional balance in place.
The Deputy's five minutes are up but he may come in again at the end.
I have a question on the introduction of the latest regulations. Regulations are often introduced before they are announced. They could take effect on Monday morning and are published on Monday afternoon at the earliest. Under the regulations on wearing a face mask on public transport, it was only an offence to refuse to co-operate if either an employee of a bus company or the NTA asked a person to wear a mask and he or she refused to do so. The Garda was not the first line of enforcement. Given the crucial role of employees of bus and other transport companies, what consultation was there with bus and rail workers in advance of the introduction of the regulations which made them primarily responsible?
Mr. Dermot O'Leary:
By and large, despite a few blips along the way, industrial relations interactions between the trade unions and the company have worked for generations. That is how we do our business and that approach has stood the test of time. There was no consultation with workers.
The legislation, which I know the Chairman has read, refers to "relevant persons". It does not mention bus drivers, inspectors or train drivers, whereas it mentions the National Transport Authority. The NTA has a central role to play, yet it is not on the pitch. It is very good at sending mystery shoppers out on buses to observe driver behaviour and see if buses are clean and so on but it has not been very good at being proactive on this issue. It is mentioned in the legislation.
I would like to make one other point. There was an attempt last week to drive a wedge between the Garda representatives bodies and the NBRU. That did not work because while consultation has been glaringly lacking in this area, there is no lack of consultation between the NBRU and the Garda representative bodies. We interact regularly, as proved last week when the Garda representatives issued a statement indicating that gardaí had no direct role in policing this legislation. That is also the position of the NBRU.
Legislation on fare collection was changed many years ago. Contrary to popular myth, it is not the responsibility of a bus driver to insist on a person paying a fare. That was done away when the two man operation became a one man operation. It was done to protect the safety of bus drivers and avoid conflict. Having fought long and hard on this issue for 30 years, we were not going to stand by and allow the reintroduction of confrontation with customers.
We have all read the horrific story of a bus driver in Bayonne in the south of France being beaten to death for asking somebody to wear a face covering. Returning to the original point, Mr. O'Leary is correct that the term "relevant persons" includes employees of the transport company, which would be NBRU members, and NTA personnel. Did the NTA send out personnel to monitor compliance with this instruction? Did it set up a group or cohort of NTA inspectors to monitor it on public transport?
Returning to the taxi drivers, the plight of the taxi industry seems to be very much shared by hackney drivers. I appreciate there is often rivalry between the two groups. In the west, the Western Chauffeur Drive Association has reported an 80% reduction in income for March and April. Does Mr. Waldron accept that a similar difficulty is being faced across the PSV sector? In other words, operators of public service vehicles in general face serious difficulties with regard to their income and maintaining their vehicles while they wait to get an income source back.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
As I mentioned in my opening statement, the groups we represent are from cities, towns and villages throughout the country. We are all faced with the same problem. We need to make a living and we cannot do so in the taxi industry at the moment. Taxi drivers and hackney drivers - the SPSV industry - want equal recognition with the other parts of the public transport service. I welcome the suggestion by my colleague of a transport forum to allow people in the industry to engage with those who make the decisions because people who are not in the industry, for example, representatives of the hotel industry, are having a say in what we do or do not do. That is laughable.
I agree that a forum is a good idea. Before other speakers contribute again, I will ask one more question. Mr. Waldron said that he received 500 boxes of face masks from the Chinese embassy. I do not expect him to be able to answer this question, but does he have any idea where they were made? I ask that question because in the People's Republic of China there is a phenomenon called a labour transfer programme. The Chinese Government describes it as a programme whereby local residents rise above poverty through employment and lead fulfilling lives. However, it has been reported in The New York Times, a relatively reputable newspaper, that penalties faced by those who refuse to co-operate often mean that their participation is in effect involuntary and that this could amount under international law to forced labour. There has been a certain focus on the Xinjiang province in the north west of China, an area that I visited in a very different capacity almost 20 years ago. There is a minority there called Uighurs, which is largely a Muslim ethnic minority. Under this labour transfer programme, Uighurs are often sent into factory and service jobs. According to the National Medical Products Administration of China, only four companies in Xinjiang produced medical grade protective equipment before the pandemic but, as of 20 June, that number had increased to 51.
From a review of state media reports and public records, The New York Timesfound that at least 17 of those companies participate in the labour transfer programme. While those companies produce equipment primarily for domestic use, The New York Times also identified other companies outside Xinjiang which were using Uighur labour and were exporting globally, including to the United States. There has been a huge jump in the number of face masks being worn, which is to be welcomed generally, but would it be of concern to the witnesses if some of those face masks were being produced using forced labour?
I take that point. Furthermore, neither the NTA nor anybody else in Ireland is checking the source of where this PPE comes from, which is sad. There was a time when Irish foreign policy was otherwise. In terms of China's internment of Uighurs and other Muslims in the north western Xinjiang province, there are almost 2 million people estimated to be incarcerated. These people are a Muslim minority. As I said, almost 2 million of them are incarcerated.
Any generosity is to be welcomed, particularly if it meets a shortfall from a State authority. Dealing with the latter is, I suppose, the primary purpose of this committee. I was just wondering if anybody knew where the masks were made, in what conditions they are being made or if there is any State authority here is looking at that, particularly in view of Ireland's enhanced role on the world stage as a member of the UN Security Council, etc.
Deputy Boyd Barrett wants to come in on issues that are more directly related.
I would like to comment on the Chairman's remarks. China is a brutal, totalitarian state that has a terrible history of oppression, including against the Uighur Muslims mentioned by the Chairman and dating back to Tiananmen Square. It is not a telling indictment of our State and the NTA that taxi drivers who need PPE cannot get it from the Government or the NTA such that they have to get it from China? The Chairman's question should be directed to the NTA, not taxi drivers.
Solidarity-People Before Profit pressed for this session. Would Deputy Boyd Barrett like to speak last or to proceed now? I am alerting the Deputy to the fact that there are two other speakers yet to come.
I will proceed now. My first question is to Mr. Macken and Mr. Waldron. Would it be a fair summary that the key things they are asking for are a step-down income subsidy to make it viable for taxi drivers to survive, grants to cover fixed costs because the loss of income means that members cannot cover them, the extension of the ten-year rule to 15 years, a moratorium on new licences and, critically, that the NTA, the Government and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport treat taxi drivers with respect and give them fair representation on a committee that is supposed to be representing them? Perhaps Mr. Macken and Mr. Waldron will comment on whether that is a fair summary or if there is anything else they would like to add. They might also give their views on why the NTA seems to be treating taxi drivers with such contempt, ignoring them and seeking to reduce their representation on committees rather than increase it.
Mr. Gerard Macken:
Dublin Airport should be added to that list. We need negotiations with the DAA and across the country. Those involved should not be taking advantage of Covid-19 to dismiss the organisations representing the taxi industry and other people in transport.
The NTA seems to be a law unto itself. It only comes and looks to solve problems, and, in fairness, we did solve an awful lot of problems regarding wheelchairs and the driver check app. All of this was brought in by representative groups at the time. The person in charge of the NTA at the time, Mr. Hugh Creegan, listened to and met massive numbers of taxi drivers. I brought 30 people into meet Mr. Creegan. I know that is not feasible now. However, it has gone from there to where we are now, that is, being totally ignored. It beggars belief.
The new Minister with responsibility for transport needs to talk to taxi drivers, form a new committee and bring people in. We were recommended for bus services within the city when capacity had been reached. We all need to talk to one another within the transport community and not be ignored. If we are not being ignored, we are being dictated to. We are not being given information on screens, masks or anything else regarding Covid-19. We are totally being ignored.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
While it is a good summary of our submission, the big thing is we need recognition and want to be equal partners. We want to be sitting around the table with the likes of our colleagues here and other people in order that we can discuss things. We are not looking for an equal chop of the cake. We are not looking for €5 million because they got €5 million. We want to sit down and work out how the transport system works. We all complement each other, and I said it in my opening statement. We all need one another to survive and to succeed.
One last thing I ask is whether anyone can remember when the use of taxis was last promoted, because I cannot. Promoting the use of small public service vehicles is something that needs to be done immediately by the National Transport Authority. As I said, the priority will be to stop the issuing of new licences at present. Letting guys come into an industry that is down on its knees is just wrong.
Mr. O'Leary should be given a chance to respond to the question I asked about school transport. While some people might say one should never let a good crisis go to waste, let us look at it from another point of view. Let us not let this crisis go to waste and try to improve the school transport system. Many parents are already being asked to pay for this service and we are still waiting to find out whether the schools are going back.
Mr. Thomas O'Connor:
The schools' contract is run on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills by Bus Éireann. In the main, almost 90% of the trips are covered by indigenous coach and bus operators but the contract has been in place since 1975. Massive investment is required in schools that will aid us in social distancing and the fight against climate change. There needs to be a place on a dedicated school bus for every child who requires it and that will require funding. People must come up with a plan and with the investment for the sake of our schoolchildren and for society.
This question is for Mr. Waldron and Mr. Macken who, in fairness, gave what one could only call an indictment of the NTA. I also accept their comments about the necessity of stimulus and grant aid and possibly even to facilitate some people leaving the industry. Insurance was, however, a big issue long before we started this. I have two quick questions. I could be using the wrong terminology but a taxi driver who lives close to me in Dundalk had a limousine-type policy. His insurance premium jumped from approximately €1,400 to more than €3,200.
He expected a slight jump, but this seems astronomical. He wondered whether this was happening across the industry, particularly, regarding those types of policies and whether that is an attempt by insurance companies to basically get rid of that type of policy.
Another taxi driver came to me who had difficulty with regard to changing his policy. He was not allowed to change his policy for the period but was only allowed to defer the payment, which he did for three months. His policy is up for renewal in August and he was told that unless he pays the three months straight up, the company would not quote him. This is a company he has been with for ten years. He was willing to offer a deal of paying that three-month figure over ten months which I think is fair enough. This industry is being put upon and, once again, the insurance companies are failing miserably. I want to know what the witnesses expect regarding the NTA and others, including the Government. What needs to be done about that? It is an issue I will be bringing directly to the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming.
Mr. Jim Waldron:
Obviously, insurance is the biggest cost most taxi drivers have. If they have a tip, they can expect their policy to double or sometimes treble. It is a concern but the NTA has shown no leadership here. It tells us it has been in touch with the insurance companies but only yesterday a driver contacted me whose car has been suspended by agreement with the NTA. He has seven days now to reinstate his licence. He said he does not want to go back to work at the moment and would rather stay off for another couple of months for health reasons. He has been told he cannot extend his suspension. What does that mean practically? It means he now must install or replace full taxi insurance which could probably cost him €200 per month, or more, on what he is already paying now because the NTA will not allow him to continue his suspension. The NTA has not negotiated prices on behalf of taxi drivers and has not negotiated at all with insurance companies to allow drivers to step down. The simplest thing for it to do is to say to all drivers that if they want to step their insurance down to a social and domestic policy for three months, we could all save money. However, it would not allow us because the regulation states if one has a taxi one must have full taxi insurance at all times. Why did the NTA not say that because of Covid-19, at this particular time it will allow a person to drop his or her insurance down to social and domestic, stick the roof sign in the boot and use it when he or she needs go to the hospitals or anywhere else?
I thank Mr. Waldron and all the witnesses in the committee room for all the questions they have answered. I now propose to suspend until 2.30 p.m. when we will meet representatives of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I will make the point that several colleagues who wished to speak at this session could not do so because there was a possibility of votes being called in the Convention Centre. That may also affect the next session but there is nothing we can do about it.