Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
51. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if the taxi advisory group is considering proposals to improve the availability of taxi services in rural areas; if revisions to the rural hackney scheme are being considered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7060/19]
Could I ask the Minister when he last met the taxi advisory group? Does he know whether the group is considering proposals to improve the availability of the taxi service in rural areas? Does he know whether a review of the rural hackney service is under way? What are his views on the piloting of ride-sharing facilities?
Under the Taxi Regulation Act 2013, the National Transport Authority, NTA, is responsible for regulating the small public service vehicles, SPSV, sector. This sector encompasses taxis, hackneys and limousine services and the regulatory framework applies to the vehicles, the drivers and the services to the travelling public that they provide. The overall objective of the legislation and the regulatory framework is to protect the consumer interest and to uphold safety for passengers. The rules do not limit the number of operators; rather, they concentrate on ensuring standards of safety and service that will benefit the public.
The 2013 legislation and the NTA's subsequent implementation of it was informed by the Taxi Regulation Review Report that was published by the Government in January 2012. Among its recommendations, the review suggested the introduction of a local area hackney licence so as to address transport deficits that would not otherwise be addressed in certain rural areas.
The NTA made regulations permitting the issue of such licences with effect from December 2013. The aim was to enable a special part-time hackney service to be provided in rural areas which are likely to be too small to support a full-time taxi or hackney operation and which are also too far away from adjacent centres to be serviced by normal taxis or hackneys from those adjacent centres.
To address transport deficits in certain rural areas, the local area hackney licence continues to be offered by the NTA. However, take-up has been low. Despite the fact that the costs of a local area hackney licence are deliberately set low and some of the standards that must be met are lower than for a normal taxi or hackney operation, only a very small number of such licences are in use. The NTA has looked at this and identified that one of the main deterrents to the take-up seems to be the cost to an operator of the insurance needed to cover carrying passengers for reward compared to the restricted nature of the part-time service that can be provided under the licence.
The NTA is currently undertaking a review of key aspects of taxi, hackney and limousine operations with the intention of developing a five-year strategy for the entire small public service vehicle industry. The strategy will guide regulatory development for the sector over that timeframe. With the assistance and input of the advisory committee on small public service vehicles, the review is considering a variety of issues including vehicle licensing, vehicle standards, driver licensing, wheelchair accessible vehicles, fixed-payment offences and technological developments. As part of its work, the review is looking at the matter of local area hackneys and the scope for improving their effectiveness in addressing rural connectivity gaps.
The NTA plans to conduct a public consultation process in the first half of this year on the proposals emerging from the review process. This will give the public and public representatives the opportunity to provide their views and to inform the outcome of the work.
As of June 2018, only ten local area hackney licences were issued nationally. That clearly demonstrates that the approach is not working. Huge swathes of rural Ireland and villages and communities are being left without any public transport whatsoever. The Minister acknowledged that one of the prohibiting factors is the high level of insurance. I am inclined to agree with him on that. Has he spoken to the NTA in relation to this matter?
Has the Minister had meetings specifically about this? Has he met the taxi advisory group about the review of rural hackneys? He has stated that a five-year strategy will be published. When will it be published? Finally, the Minister and his Department have a responsibility to bring the cost of motor insurance down. What progress has he made towards delivering the specific requirements and recommendations for which his Department is responsible? I speak specifically about the introduction of a system whereby the Garda can detect whether cars on the road are insured.
I thank the Deputy for those questions. He is absolutely correct that 13 is a very disappointing number. The uptake is low for two reasons, not just one. The uptake is very low because of insurance. As the Deputy knows, insurance is a big problem not just for taxis but for hackneys as well, despite the fact that there are extraordinary reductions and incentives for local area hackneys. The vehicle licence fee is €50, as opposed to €170 for a new wheelchair-accessible hackney licence for one year; the driver licence fee is €20 for three years, as opposed the cost of a small public service vehicle, SPSV, licence, which is €250 for five years. Moreover, there is no requirement to pass the general SPSV driver entry tests. Nevertheless we do not seem to have cracked this problem and it persists. Other reasons have been given. A survey was done, as the Deputy will be aware, of those people who might work as hackney taxi drivers. Respondents stated that the radius in which they had to work was also extremely limited. In answer to the Deputy's question about the review of local hackneys, it is currently being undertaken as part of the strategic framework for the SPSV industry. I expect this review to be completed in 2019.
When in 2019? The rural hackney licence has been there since 2012. It has been in place for seven years. All Members of the House will agree it is simply not working. We need to address the deficiencies in rural transport now, not at the end of 2019 or in 2020, as the Minister seems to be suggesting. It is not just about bringing people to the rural pub. It is about maintaining and sustaining an element of sociability in communities that have no transport.
The Minister has cited insurance. He has a responsibility in this regard. Why has his Department not completed all the recommendations of the cost of insurance working group? I reiterate the question I asked at the outset, when did he last meet the taxi advisory group to seek its proposals for a review of the hackney licence? The Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, recently told the Dáil, "We are trying to liberalise that system and make them more available, particularly at night-time and on weekends." Would the Minister support considering the possibility of introducing ride-sharing facilities to provide a service that is clearly lacking right across the length and breadth of rural Ireland?
I thank the Deputy again for his questions. The date in 2019 is not settled but it will be as soon as possible. I understand the urgency to which the Deputy refers. He should not ignore the fact that there has been a large attempt to address the issue of rural isolation he mentioned through funding for new Local Link services. The National Transport Authority, NTA, manages that programme. Increased funding has been provided, with €14.9 million allocated in 2018 and again in 2019. In addition, public service obligation, PSO, funding has been provided for Local Link regular services, which amounts to €4.5 million in 2018, bringing the total funding for Local Link services last year to €19.5 million. Total funding in 2019 will be almost €20 million. These represent significant increases. There will be new Local Link services. This increased funding has enabled the introduction of 66 new consumer services to the Local Link networks, operating five, six or seven days a week. Key features of these new services include greater integration with existing public transport services and better linkage of services between and within towns and villages. Two new regularly scheduled Local Link services are to be introduced in Carlow, Kilkenny and Wicklow. They are due to launch in the first half of 2019.
In fairness to everybody, this continually happens. Rules have been set down for questions and answers. Six and a half minutes are allocated. They are important questions and it is important to get answers but the more we abuse the time, the fewer questions will be answered so I ask everybody to try to keep within the timeframe. I am moving on to-----
The Deputy was asking specific questions. It is very difficult to answer them all when he asks a lot. He asked me specifically when I last met the taxi advisory committee. I am not certain but I meet them regularly. From memory it was not that long ago. I have not met it specifically about the taxi hackneys but that certainly would be on the agenda if the committee put it down. It certainly can be on the agenda the next time I meet it.