Thursday, 28 June 2007
Question 6: To ask the Minister for Transport and the Marine his views on an outline proposal from the Commission for Taxi Regulation for a subsidy scheme to assist with the purchase of wheelchair accessible taxis and hackneys; and when he proposes to introduce such a scheme. [17909/07]
I understand the Commission for Taxi Regulation is currently completing an assessment of the submissions received on its recent consultation paper on vehicle standards for small public service vehicles. The paper incorporated a number of proposed changes in vehicle specifications and standards, including in the area of accessibility. I also understand the commission has commenced a regulatory impact assessment on these proposals and continues to liaise with key stakeholders and will publish vehicle specifications for small public service vehicles before the end of 2007.
While this process of public consultation is under way, my Department is in discussion with the commission about an outline proposal for a draft subsidy scheme to assist with the purchase of wheelchair accessible taxis and hackneys. The proposal is to provide assistance with the purchase of a fully accessible small public service vehicle, the design for which is being developed by the commission. It is proposed that this fully accessible vehicle will meet the needs of many people including those with a broad range of disabilities and those who need to travel in their wheelchairs.
Pending completion of the consultation process and the receipt of definite information regarding the revised accessible vehicle specification and associated costs, I am not in a position to make a final decision on the subsidy scheme proposal.
The review to which the Minister refers relates to technical specifications. The original question specifically inquires about his response to the proposal for a subsidy scheme. That is an entirely separate matter. The taxi regulator made a proposal to the Department of Finance last autumn and received a negative response. He then made the same proposal to the Minister's Department in January last and is awaiting a response.
The percentage of wheelchair accessible taxis is decreasing all the time. Even those that are in place are not necessarily available for people who are mobility impaired. An issue arises as regards cost for the provider and this was made quite clear by the taxi regulator, who is proposing a system under which there would be a reduction in VRT and VAT. The regulator continues to await a response from the Minister's Department in that regard.
The other aspect of this matter relates to affordability for those who wish to use wheelchair accessible taxis. Again, a proposal was made to the Department in this regard and a response is awaited.
This issue has been dragging on, ignored and sidelined for many years. At this stage, surely we are in position to make a clear statement regarding access for people who are mobility impaired. Leadership and direction in this regard must come from the Minister's Department and it will only come about by recognising the issues involved, the cost to suppliers and the matter of affordability for users. When will the Minister make a decision in respect of this issue?
I completely agree with the Deputy in respect of this matter. As soon as a very robust business case is made available to the Department, I will consider the matter. However, I am not going to spend taxpayers' money without first being in possession of a proper, fully costed proposal. Such a proposal has not yet been forthcoming. I would be very favourably disposed towards increasing accessibility but I will not do so willy-nilly.
Provision for public transport is made in Transport 21. There is also the public transport accessibility committee and €15 million has been provided for accessibility improvement projects. I could see that the outline proposal or the type of proposal put forward could be favourably considered under that once the case is properly made. I assure the Deputy that I will not delay responding to that and making the recommendation to the Department of Finance. However, I have not received a properly robust business case.
The total number of wheelchair-accessible taxis is just under 1,400, almost double the number in November 2000, so it is not true to say that there are fewer such taxis.
I said the percentage was decreasing. The overall number of taxis has gone up but the percentage that are wheelchair-accessible is decreasing. While the numbers in the Dublin area appear to be okay, it is extremely difficult for people outside Dublin to book a wheelchair-accessible taxi.
I welcome the Minister's proposals in respect of accessibility under Transport 21 but, again, there are many areas, particularly outside Dublin, where people simply do not have access to public transport. I know the Minister is very new in the job and his initial reply referred to the technical specifications, rather than the issue I raised. He may not be aware that a very robust proposal has been made to his Department. Last January, the Commission on Taxi Regulation sought a subsidy for bona fide wheelchair-accessible taxis. Under this scheme, a taxi driver would be provided with a subsidy of 40% of the open market selling price of a wheelchair-accessible taxi, subject to a maximum of €20,000. Based on a figure of 200, this would cost the Exchequer €3.84 million. However, the yield to the Exchequer from VRT and VAT from these vehicles would be €4.09 million.
In addition to the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis, there is a need for a dedicated taxi service. There are a number of such services, such as Vantastic and accompanied community taxi services, which get grants from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform under the equality heading. These services are very anxious to become mainstream and come under the transport brief. Will the Minister look at taking them under the wing of his Department? The people who use these services are severely handicapped and would probably never be able to use an ordinary taxi service but it is very important to them that this service continues. It is not even the extent of the subsidy so much as the fact that they become a mainstream transport service. I would be grateful if the Minister could look at that issue.
I will look at the issues raised by both Deputies. I am aware of the outline of the proposal put by the commission. We have responded to the commission in respect of the initial proposal and asked it to be more firm on matters like purchase prices and to give us a better business case in respect of that issue. It is the proposal discussed by the Deputy.
I will look at the issue raised by Deputy Mitchell concerning groups like Vantastic. I would not wish a very focused and dedicated service like this to suddenly become diluted and for the people using the service to be shoved to one side because another side of the business might be more lucrative. That is the balance we must keep.