Wednesday, 24 March 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
48. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the supports he plans to implement to aid taxi drivers in the coming period as a result of the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on the industry; if he plans to extend the ten-year rule for vehicles due to be replaced in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15580/21]
Over the last year I have repeatedly tried to get it into the heads of the Government just how crucified more than 20,000 taxi drivers have been by the impact of Covid-19. Thousands of them had to take to the streets in September to demand supports and assistance. Apart from a few changes they forced in the PUP, support for the thousands of taxi drivers has not been forthcoming from the Government. Many of them face the prospect of having to replace their cars this year. Where the hell are they supposed to get the money to do that, never mind for insurance, car repayments and so on?
I agree with the Deputy. I recognise that Covid-19 has had a profound impact on small businesses across the country, with the public transport sector being especially affected as public health restrictions have necessarily discouraged people from travelling generally. Taxi and other small public service vehicle operators, who are particularly dependent on the hospitality and tourism sectors, have faced a particularly pronounced drop in demand and real challenges and difficulties in the last year.
It is in recognition of these difficulties that the Government has introduced a wide-ranging programme of supports with broad eligibility criteria for individuals and businesses which have been adversely affected by Covid-19.
Many of these supports can be accessed by self-employed taxi drivers, including liquidity and investment measures, from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as well as the enterprise support grant and the pandemic unemployment payment from the Department of Social Protection. Self-employed recipients of the PUP, like small public service vehicle, SPSV, drivers, can also avail of the self-employment income scheme which provides for an income disregard for the first €960 earned in a given eight-week period.
I remain committed to supporting the transition of the SPSV sector towards zero-low-emission vehicles and I have increased the funding available to the electric SPSV grant scheme from €1 million in 2020 to €15 million this year. Furthermore, in view of the particular challenges faced by operators of older vehicles, I have doubled the amount payable under the scheme to €20,000 for operators who scrap older vehicles and make the switch to fully electric models. Additional amounts are available for those switching to vehicles which are both electric and wheelchair accessible. There has been a strong interest in the revised scheme since its launch earlier in the year, with over 200 applications received to date. I believe that for many drivers there is a strong financial as well as environmental case to switch to such electric vehicles. Operators of electric vehicles enjoy the benefits of lower running costs, lower tolls under the low emissions vehicle toll incentive and can use dedicated SPSV electric charging infrastructure at key transport hubs such as major airports and railway stations.
One of the key pillars of climate action, which the Minister talks about but which I do not think he really understands, is the just transition for workers affected by it. Regarding the €15 million the Minister spoke of, let us consider those taxi drivers whose incomes have either been reduced to zero, for the 40% who have remained on the PUP because there is no work out there, or those others who have experienced a reduction of 60% to 70%. Those drivers still have to make their car repayments and to pay their insurance. How on earth would those people afford the €25,000 in additional costs on top of the grant which would be needed to move to an electric vehicle? How could those drivers possibly do that? What is actually happening regarding that €15 million is that the only people who will be able to apply for these grants will be the big taxi companies that have the resources, and not the thousands of taxi drivers whose incomes have been crucified and who are excluded from the CRSS and the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS.
The €15 million in supports is designed for just those types of small individual taxi drivers and not for the big companies. It is a significant cash support, which increases further if drivers are using wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The uptake so far of 200 applications is a significant signal that this scheme is of real interest. It is a combination of that much-reduced cost of these vehicles and availing of other enterprise and liquidity supports, which will allow the financing of the purchase of vehicles. Taxi drivers are increasingly going to realise the savings that will arise from the fuel costs being a fifth of what they were previously and the maintenance costs being similarly a fraction of those previously. The maths of the return from the use of these vehicles means that I believe there will be a significant uptake by the end of the year by exactly those people of whom Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about. I refer to individual, self-employed taxi drivers who face real difficulty. While the PUP, the income disregard and the ability to earn in addition to the PUP will help those in that situation, I think that €15 million in grant payments, backed up with financing and liquidity, will be a way out of this crisis for those drivers.
I was just talking to one of the leaders of a taxi representative group just now. He spoke of a taxi driver who looked for a loan from the bank of €5,000 and was refused. Why was that? It was because when the banks look at the situation of the taxi industry as it is now, they know there is no work and no income. As a result, they think that those applying for even €5,000 loans must be joking and they are refusing to loan even those amounts. How then are the individual taxi drivers supposed to get €25,000, which is the amount needed to buy an electric, wheelchair-accessible vehicle costing about €50,000? The grants are only at about €20,000, so these drivers cannot manage to do this.
On top of everything else, they have clocked up debts for car repayments and similar costs. An extension has not been rolled over for those whose cars will no longer meet the ten-year rule this year. Therefore, the grants are not enough to sustain people and the vast majority will not be able to access the grants and make up that sort of difference. What those drivers are telling me is that it is the taxi companies that will be able to afford these costs and it is those companies that are applying for those grants. The taxi representative groups are also very dissatisfied with the taxi advisory committee and do not want to be part of it because they cannot get their message directly through to the Minister and his Department.
I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett on this issue. Taxi drivers in Cork are telling me how hard they and the industry are finding this situation. They cannot cope. They need more supports from the Government. On the replacement of cars after ten years, there was an extension to that rule for the year, but it must be extended again. How can taxi drivers replace cars which are ten years old right now? The Minister made the point that some 200 taxi drivers have availed of the grant. If there are 20,000 taxis and 200 grants have been taken up, that is 1% of the total. The Minister is here saying how great the Government's actions are for taxi drivers, but what I am hearing from taxi drivers in Cork is that they are struggling and are finding this situation hard. Hospitality and taxis were the first sectors to close and they will probably be the last to reopen.
Both Deputies are right that this is one of the industries which has suffered the worst. The ultimate way to get this industry restored is to see a return to normality in the coming months, with the roll-out of the vaccines and the lifting of restrictions, subject to the virus not taking off again, allowing business to come back. That is the first key thing that must happen. When I talk to taxi drivers, they recognise that no matter vehicle they might have or whatever arrangements there may be, there is no business or demand for these services. That is probably the most important aspect of this situation.
I am convinced that during the summer this situation will start to turn and we will start to see demand return. Such a development will then also give taxi drivers wondering what to do next the ability to switch vehicles. The scrappage scheme does not just apply to a vehicle of a certain age, it depends on the number of miles which a vehicle has done. It concerns vehicles at the end of their lives and a wide variety of taxi drivers will be able to avail of this taxi scheme. That is the best approach to dealing with a vehicle coming to the end of its life and also the best approach to supporting the wider industry.
Deputy Gould is correct about the figure of 200 applications. That is the number of applications, however, and they have not all drawn down the grants yet. If they were all to draw down €20,000, however, then that would be €4 million out of a €15 million fund. I am confident and hopeful that we will allocate the full €15 million. It is still only a small percentage but it starts to develop the supply chain of vehicles. We will then see costs further reducing because the requisite volume will exist.