Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
56. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he will report on plans in the taxi industry to introduce ride-sharing; his recommendations for regulating same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6721/19]
Before Christmas, a significant number of taxi drivers contacted me regarding their concerns at plans by parts of the taxi industry to introduce a taxi ride-sharing scheme. The taxi drivers believe the scheme could cause significant difficulty, particularly in terms of passenger and driver safety, and would massively disrupt the taxi business. What knowledge does the Minister have of this proposal and what does he intend to do about it in terms of regulations and so on?
In Ireland, the carrying of passengers in a car for a payment is regulated under the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. The Act provides for the regulation of the small public service vehicle, SPSV, sector, which includes taxis, hackneys and limousine services and is commonly referred to as the taxi industry. Under the legislation, the regulation of the SPSV business is carried out by the National Transport Authority, NTA.
Ireland's regulatory regime is governed by recent modern legislation, which provides for licensing arrangements and industry standards and applies to vehicles, drivers, operators and the services provided for the travelling public. The Act requires the licensing of vehicles and drivers involved in providing SPSV services. However, it places no quantitative restriction on the number of licences that may be issued. The objectives of the regulatory framework are to protect consumers and help ensure safety.
As Deputies are probably aware, the SPSV regulatory regime makes several requirements in the interests of passengers and the public generally. Drivers must be Garda vetted and must demonstrate knowledge of industry standards and the areas in which they will work. Vehicles must meet specific safety standards and appropriate insurance is required. Services must be operated to an appropriate standard for passengers and fares must be charged within the regulated pricing system.
As I mentioned, the focus of the regulatory regime is to protect the consumer and help ensure personal safety. These are vital objectives which must continue to be central to how the SPSV industry is operated and regulated. Within that context, there is a need to evolve and be open to new technologies and innovation. In that regard, there is now widespread use of technology in the SPSV industry, and such innovations are of benefit to consumers and operators.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Over the past few years, there have been calls to change the regulatory system to allow the operation of certain taxi-type services that are not currently permitted. As the Deputy mentioned, ride sharing has been suggested as an additional means of providing transport services in rural areas.
The taxi regulation review report published by the Government in January 2012 recommended the introduction of a local area hackney licence to address transport deficits that would not otherwise be addressed in certain rural areas. Regulations permitting the issue of such licences were introduced with effect from December 2013 to enable a part-time hackney service to be provided in rural areas likely to be too small to support a full-time taxi or hackney operation and too far from adjacent centres to be serviced by taxis or hackneys therefrom. The RSA continues to offer the local area hackney licence to address transport deficits in certain rural areas. However, the number of active licences remains very low. The NTA has advised my Department that the principal deterrent to the take-up of the licences seems to be the high cost of insurance for the carriage of passengers for reward. A review of the position on local area hackneys is currently being undertaken by the NTA as part of the development of a strategy framework for the SPSV industry. It is expected that the review will be completed in 2019.
As regards the specific issue of transport connectivity in rural Ireland, the Deputy will be aware that the NTA has responsibility for providing integrated local and rural transport. This includes responsibility for the rural transport programme which now operates under the Local Link brand. The number of services has been expanded in recent years and spending on the programme has increased substantially. In recent months, the NTA has been conducting a pilot scheme to test evening and night-time services as part of the rural transport programme. The pilot scheme was recently extended and future arrangements will be informed by an evaluation of its experience.
We must remain open to new possibilities. However, the regulation of any public passenger service should continue to be determined in the context of the important safety and consumer objectives that underpin our existing legislation.
I am all for proper regulation of the industry. We should keep Uber out because users of that service do not know who their driver will be or whether the vehicle will be safe or properly regulated. However, that is not the issue I wish to raise. My question regards a proposal by Mytaxi to bring in a ride-share scheme. If there is a big queue at a taxi rank late at night and one proposes sharing a taxi with another member of the queue, that is fine. However, if these taxi app companies set up a ride-share scheme whereby three or four people who had not met would get into a taxi at different locations, problems may arise, particularly late at night. Passengers would not know with whom they will be sharing the taxi nor how much alcohol their fellow passengers may have taken. It may lead to fights over the division of fares and so on, with taxi drivers being left to manage such situations.
Does the Minister welcome the proposal being put forward by some sections of the taxi industry? I do not. I share the concerns of taxi drivers. A ride-sharing scheme should not be introduced until it has been properly examined and all stakeholders consulted on the possible dangers.
On that throwaway remark, I am open to all constructive suggestions which would reduce social or rural isolation, such as the local hackney service referred to in a previous question. We will tackle that isolation. There are certain very important criteria in place for providers of such services. The potential scenario referred to by the Deputy was quite alarming. I am not prepared to entertain any enterprise which would prejudice people's safety in any way. We must have a safe, fully regulated, consumer-friendly and competitive taxi industry. The Deputy may rest assured that neither my Department nor any other body will look favourably on any proposal which threatens the safety of taxi passengers.
I am glad to hear that. I ask the Minister to look into the matter further and send out a clear message that what would be a very dramatic change with potentially very negative consequences will not be allowed and that any such proposal will be thoroughly investigated and weighed up and the subject of proper public consultation. Broadly speaking, we should not allow ride-sharing because it would devastate the livelihood of taxi drivers, very seriously prejudice the safety of passengers and could cause chaos.
I am very sympathetic to the need for additional public transport for those in rural areas. The provision of those services must be examined. However, that is a separate issue to services such as ride-sharing schemes, which could have very negative consequences and should not be allowed to go ahead. There have already been protests by taxi drivers against the possible introduction of the service. I ask the Minister to look into the matter and, bearing the regulations and passenger safety in mind, to ensure that no such scheme is introduced without permission.
I welcome the fact that the Minister is open to all suggestions to reduce rural isolation. I hope he will embrace the use of technology to improve services for the public. Services must be safe. Drivers must be vetted and people must feel safe while using public transport. The Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport is in the process of inviting all stakeholders in the area, including the taxi alliance and other groups representing taxi drivers, to appear before it. I understand the Minister has agreed to appear before the committee in that regard. When will there be a timeline for the introduction of adequate rural transport services? It is not good enough to say things will be done in 2019. When will he bring firm proposals regarding how we will address the deficiencies in rural transport to the House or the Oireachtas transport committee?
-----I am sorry but that is where it stays. The Deputy is not going to bamboozle me into changing it.
The issue of safety is paramount. Deputy Boyd Barrett may recollect that I made a pledge about the issue of rickshaws, which is not dissimilar. Rickshaws act as quasi-taxis from time to time. They must be regulated and abide by rules that make people safe, not only the passengers but also those whom they pass in the night. No operation of that sort that does not abide by rules of safety and consumer protection will be tolerated. That is something I reiterate here. This does not in any way prejudice my commitment to helping rural areas on the way to a more amenable, accessible and workable transport system that helps those in those areas to have a better and more active social life.