Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis an Aire. I want to bring to the attention of the Minister and the House the concerns of many taxi drivers who have over the past 12 months, like many sectors of society, dealt with the fall-out of the pandemic. I acknowledge that throughout that process at different times, the Government has sought to intervene and to alleviate the hardship that many taxi drivers are experiencing. There is no doubt that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is the single biggest contribution in ensuring that taxi drivers in their own personal finances have been able to stay afloat. What we have not done but which we have done in other industries, is support them in their business costs.
I should acknowledge that following a meeting with the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced a package of over €6.5 million aimed at the taxi industry. That focused mainly on statutory costs amounting to about €290 per driver and dealt with regulatory issues such as licences and so on. What it did not deal with was the other non-statutory costs which drivers have, with insurance being the primary one. The restart grant which I am aware has benefited many businesses, is unfortunately still only available if one comes off one's pandemic unemployment payment. Many drivers are reluctant to do that because they are not certain about the level of business. The Delta variant has knocked that confidence even further as has the pushing out of the resumption of indoor dining.
The Government has made progress on the statutory costs but on non-statutory costs such as insurance and other such issues, we still have not come to the table. Much of this is because we are we are relying on the Department of Social Protection to administer a support scheme for taxi drivers. The principal concern to drivers is the issue of the age of the vehicle. I am fully committed to the decarbonisation of the fleet, not just of the taxi fleet but of the entire vehicle fleet in Ireland and I understand that there are significant grants for electric vehicles. At this time, the idea of making a once-in-a-decade investment in one's business in order to renew one's vehicle because it is at the end of its life is very difficult to justify. While there have been extensions in the previous year, my principal question to the Minister is will he extend the age limit on vehicle life for the nine-year rule to the end of 2022?
My second follow-up question is the very strongly given commitment by the Minister to ensure that those on the PUP could continue to have that entitlement and work up to a limit of €960 until February of next year.
I understand that the Department of Social Protection is interpreting that differently and that those people on the €203 payment will have to return to work in September at a cut-off point. I will expand on that in my later contribution. The Minister might concentrate on the vehicle life in his initial response.
I thank Deputy McAuliffe for raising this matter and for giving me this opportunity to set out how the Government has allocated over €24 million to targeted measures to support this sector since the start of the pandemic. The Government is acutely aware of the very difficult situation facing the taxi and small public service vehicle, SPSV, industry as a result of the impact of the pandemic. I recognise that low passenger demand has meant that many SPSV operators have been simply unable to work and have relied on the PUP. I understand that many operators have had to temporarily suspend their licences in order to reduce major costs such as insurance and dispatch operator fees. In response to this, the Government has sought to ensure that a range of sector-specific and more general supports are available to SPSV operators to provide tangible assistance in the face of these impacts.
As for targeted, sector-specific supports, over €24 million has been allocated to the sector since the start of the pandemic. Part of this includes the package of measures I recently announced, worth €6.5 million, which will mean that SPSV standard vehicle licence renewal fees, usually €150, will be waived in 2022 at an estimated cost of €3 million. These fees were also waived in 2021 at a further estimated cost of €2.6 million. The National Transport Authority is being provided with €3.5 million in funding to enable the establishment of a scheme to refund NCT fees, which cost €55, and motor tax for SPSV operators, which costs €95, for a 12-month period. The commencement date of this scheme has yet to be determined. Further details of the schemes, including how to apply, should be available during the third quarter of this year from the National Transport Authority.
A significant proportion of the allocated €24 million relates to support for the transition of the taxi fleet towards zero-emission or low-emission vehicles, an objective to which I am wholeheartedly committed. The replacement of a vehicle is the largest single cost faced by any SPSV operator, and the funding available through this eSPSV grant scheme directly supports the purchase of electric vehicles. The overall funding for the scheme was increased from €1 million to €15 million for 2021. Furthermore, a scrappage component for older vehicles was introduced, doubling the amount payable under the scheme to €20,000. Additional amounts are available for those switching to vehicles which are both electric and wheelchair-accessible. Interest in the scheme has been very strong, with over 700 applications received since it opened in February. Some 65 new vehicles have already been licensed under the scheme at a cost of €1.2 million.
These sector-specific measures augment and enhance the range of Covid-19 support measures with broad eligibility criteria that the Government has put in place. Taxi operators can avail and have availed of these critical supports, which include the PUP, liquidity and investment measures and tax relief measures. There is also the enterprise support grant, worth up to €1,000 towards business reopening costs such as personal protective equipment, vehicle costs and cleaning supplies.
The Government is committed to supporting drivers to return to work as society starts reopening. That is why self-employed individuals, including taxi drivers, can earn up to €960 in a given eight-week period, net of expenses, while keeping their PUP entitlement. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, would have to answer any further specific questions about this measure's operation into next year. My understanding, however, is that it will be extended along the lines announced when we announced the measures for taxi drivers.
The NTA has also extended age limits for taxis and hackneys three times since the start of the pandemic. The most recent extension, made last month, ensures that no vehicle will be forced to exit the fleet due to age limits alone in 2021. Furthermore, and to answer Deputy McAuliffe's question, I have asked officials in my Department to engage with the NTA to make sure we will bring about an extension of that measure until the end of 2022, which I hope will help add to the other measures and provide some support to those taxi drivers who have been in real difficulty throughout this period.
The news that the Government will extend that until the end of 2022 is very welcome. I know there are many who would wish it would go further, but at this time the Minister's commitment in the House to that will be very welcome news to those people who are facing that cliff edge. I understand this may have to go through public consultation with the NTA and, obviously, I would encourage us to accelerate that process as much as possible. I thank the Minister for the engagement he has had with me and with the representative bodies. While the NTA is the regulatory body and the Taxi Advisory Committee represents both taxi passengers and the taxi industry, the representative bodies are agents of change for us to deliver projects such as the decarbonisation of the fleet. We do that by building up credibility with them, engaging with them and ensuring they know there is a body on their side to protect them as a key part of the public transport network.
I accept what the Minister says about the Minister for Social Protection answering my questions. I have raised this directly with her and I will follow that up. I welcome that he says there will be change in this area, but at present it is proposed that those drivers who were on the €350 PUP rate will continue to work on a taxi rank and receive their PUP until February next year, while those taxi drivers on €203 will not. We will therefore have two different taxi drivers on the same rank, one receiving the PUP and the other not receiving it. That is an anomaly. I think the Minister recognises it is an anomaly. I imagine the Taoiseach recognises it is an anomaly. We should iron it out and again get back to the industry, communicate what we want to do and build up a relationship with them, both at the NTA and at Government level. I promise the Minister that these are ordinary, decent taxi drivers who want to deliver this public service, and they want Government support for it.
I agree with the Deputy. Our taxi drivers provide a really important service right across the country in various circumstances. In my city, Dublin, they are part of our public transport system. They are an essential service for many people who perhaps cannot drive. They often provide a more economic way to travel. The problem we have had in the past year is that the business has disappeared. Tourism business and airport business have not been there. Social, nightlife and corporate business - everything has gone. It is starting to come back now, and with that we will start to see fares come back. That is the key to helping drivers get back on their feet.
As for the measures we have introduced, perhaps individual taxi drivers would say they deal with only a part of the cost, but we have looked at every single way possible to reduce some of those costs. I must give credit to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. Mechanisms were devised whereby that income disregard was possible because it encouraged people to keep on the road, even where volumes were very low and it did not make economic sense to try to make it work. How far the Minister can stretch the PUP system in having different rules for different sectors is something on which she, rightly, has to make the call. We are in the closing phases now, it is to be hoped, of managing this pandemic. Yes, it is important we keep some of the social supports in place into early next year. However, I expect, as we get fully vaccinated, that we will see the key thing we want, which is business back. In those circumstances, when people start to look at maybe getting a new car, I think they will then turn to this incredibly popular scheme. It will fundamentally change the whole taxi business and make it much cheaper to run a taxi because the lower fuel costs and the lower maintenance costs are the key. That, I hope, will kick in with the grants we are giving to help out the taxi industry.