Thursday, 16 December 2021
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
11. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the specific policies he has to address the issues presented by the Covid-19 pandemic in the taxi industry in 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62295/21]
33. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the steps he will take to support taxi drivers whose work has been impacted by the recent changes to Covid-19 restrictions. [62309/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 33 and 48 together.
I recognise that the SPSV industry has been badly affected during the Covid-19 pandemic that, for an extended period, brought about an almost complete collapse in passenger demand for taxi and other SPSV services. While recent months saw a welcome return of demand, with the NTA reporting 86% of drivers back at work in October, the recent increase in infection rates has given rise to the necessary reintroduction of a number of restrictions. Conscious of the potential impact of such restrictions on affected sectors and society in general, particularly as we approach what is traditionally a busy period around Christmas, the Government has sought to ensure that any restrictions are targeted and appropriate. It is continuing to monitor the situation closely as it develops.
In the meantime, I confirm that the vast majority of measures that we have taken to support the taxi industry from the start of the pandemic remain in place. I understand that as many as 70% of SPSV drivers availed of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, at the height of the pandemic. As the Deputy may be aware, the PUP reopened for a limited period to support people who lose their employment as a result of Covid restrictions from Tuesday, 7 December. Self-employed SPSV operators can continue to claim the PUP and earn up to €960 in any given eight-week period, net of expenses.
Drivers coming off the PUP can avail of the Covid-19 enterprise support grant, worth €1,000, which will meet the costs associated with returning to work and that will remain in place for the rest of the year for self-employed people who close their PUP claim. Taxi drivers can use this grant for the purchase of personal protective equipment, protective screens and cleaning materials. The employment wage subsidy scheme, which provides a flat-rate subsidy to qualifying employers based on the numbers of eligible employees on the employer’s payroll and gross pay to employees, is now expected to continue until 30 April 2022.
In addition, support for SPSV operators continues to be available, both now and into 2022, through a series of specific measures designed to support the sector, with a view to addressing statutory costs faced by operators that cannot be deferred. Standard licence renewal fees for SPSVs were waived in 2021 and they are being waived again in 2022 at an estimated cost of €3 million. The NTA has put schemes in place to refund motor tax paid by SPSV operators in the period 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2022 and to waive national car test fees for the same period. Further details on these schemes are available on the NTA website. The NTA has also waived standard age limits for taxis and hackneys through to the end of 2022, thereby ensuring that no operator exits the industry simply because of the need to replace a vehicle. Many of the major costs faced by SPSV operators, such as insurance and dispatch operator fees, can be deferred or cancelled during a period of inactivity.
Recognising that the replacement of a vehicle is the single largest cost faced by any SPSV operator, and in view of my commitment to support the transition of the SPSV fleet towards zero- or low-emission vehicles, we have confirmed that there will be a further reiteration of the current eSPSV grant scheme in 2022, following the allocation of funding for next year as part of the budget 2022 process. There has been an exceptionally high uptake of this grant scheme in 2021. It received a total of 1,488 applications and, at the beginning of November, €8.5 million had been paid to applicants, with the remainder of funding allocated to applicants with current provisional grant offers.
In addition, Microfinance Ireland announced in September that loan finance, up to €25,000, is now available to support applicants to the scheme, as many SPSV owners were finding it difficult to secure finance from banks and other commercial lending providers. Further information on this facility is available from Microfinance Ireland.
The Minister of State listed an awful lot of supports and there is no doubt some effort is being made but taxi drivers constitute the only cohort which is having difficulty, as far as I can see, in reaccessing the PUP. Many are being refused it. I got a message while I was sitting here ten minutes ago from another taxi driver who has been refused access to the PUP.
Overnight when the restrictions came back in, all late night work disappeared. I was struck by a response that Deputy O'Rourke received from the Taoiseach last week to the effect that just because the late night work is gone, it has not entirely dried up. Anyone who knows or lives near a taxi driver or canvasses where a taxi is in the driveway looks up to see whether the blinds are down because everyone knows how important the night-time economy is for a viable income for a taxi driver. We need to stop treating taxi drivers like second-class citizens in our public transport network. They are vital and the job they have done during Covid has gone underappreciated in government.
Taxi drivers feel that when it comes to transport issues, they are last on the agenda and the last group to be listened to and heard. They felt like that again. I welcome that they can now apply for the PUP, though as Deputy Duncan Smith said, there seem to be difficulties in practice. I am not even sure the Government would have done that except for pressure from taxi drivers, and indeed the Opposition, to ensure they got the PUP.
More than that is needed. As has been said, the late night sector is crucial because bringing people home from night clubs and social events is a large portion of their business. The PUP on its own is not enough without being coupled with the regulatory reforms needed to help them weather this loss of business. Overhead costs have remained essentially the same and the assistance from the Government has been totally inadequate. If action is not taken, there will be fewer taxis on our roads. There does not seem to be a coherent plan to ensure taxi drivers can stay viable and on the road.
I agree with everything that has been said. We all accept our public transport system would not operate without taxi drivers. Taxi drivers feel they are the last to be considered in any way. Even when taxi drivers got back to work, elements of that work are no longer there to the same degree and that was before we were worried about Omicron and the current situation. The factory runs they would have done in the mornings as a considerable part of their work are not there due to the way people are remote working. We could not survive in relation to school runs and health and hospital runs. We can talk about all the necessary supports but taxi drivers are being refused the PUP. We are not putting those supports in. The idea of the supports was to keep those industries and families right through those periods so everybody could do the right thing from a health perspective. We need to ensure we have this service afterwards.
The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met as recently as 25 November with the advisory committee on SPSVs. It was a valuable opportunity for him to get first-hand information on the issues affecting the industry, as well as an initial assessment of the impact of the latest restrictions brought about by the recent public health advice. This committee brings a broad range of stakeholders, including taxi drivers and passengers, together to advise the Minister and the NTA on policy. In the past, taxi representatives have played a constructive role on the committee and many measures taken to date, including the extension of the taxi age limits and the waiver of licence fees, originated as recommendations from the committee.
That is an appropriate forum for dealing with issues in the sector but it is important to say a number of measures are still in place, including the refund of NCT and motor tax, the waiver of licence fees at a cost of €6 million, the PUP, where they can earn up to €960 over an eight-week period, and the €1,000 enterprise grant scheme. The Minister will continue to engage with the sector on supports as the pandemic continues, as we are doing across government.
I am glad the Minister of State mentioned the taxi advisory committee because the feedback I get from taxi drivers in my constituency is that it is a paper tiger which is not fit for purpose or representative. It is dominated by other interests, such as hospitality, hotels and the apps. It is not that they should not be taken into account but it is a taxi advisory committee and the taxi drivers feel they are a relatively marginal voice in it, that the committee has no real power or weight and is a fob-off, gesture and fig leaf. That area is in urgent need of reform. We need a representative body that has a serious influence on policies and is properly representative of taxi drivers, co-ops and so on around the country.
On the ten-year rule, many taxi drivers are still concerned about having to replace their vehicle. Further flexibility is needed there.
I will put two things to the Minister of State. She and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, have to deal with the issue because Deputies Duncan Smith, O'Rourke, Ó Laoghaire and I are all getting engagement from taxi drivers being refused the PUP. That needs to be dealt with. I believe the Minister and the Minister of State need to meet with the taxi representative associations. There are other issues but these are the issues they face at this point. We need to keep this vital part of the public transport infrastructure in place.
There are other issues to be dealt with. We need to look consistently at the ten-year rule. There have been short-term fixes. We need a long-term electric vehicle, EV, scheme that makes sense and is reviewed consistently. The sector has called for a look into and timeline on the new fares agreement. The big thing is the Minister of State needs to meet with them, see their needs, keep the show on the road and ensure they are able to avail of the PUP. The difficulties about people being refused, it is just not good enough.
The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has met with the taxi representatives. They have played a crucial role in the current supports, including the refund of NCT and motor tax and extending the vehicle age. At the start of the pandemic, the industry regulator the National Transport Authority immediately extended age limits for taxis and hackneys and has done so three times. The most recent extension is up to the end of 2022, thus ensuring no vehicle will be forced to exit the fleet due to age limits during the pandemic.
These are considerations that the Government is taking on board, noting that one of the huge costs for taxi drivers is the replacement of vehicles, as well as the other measures in place. The Minister will continue to engage and work constructively with the sector, as have the Taoiseach and other Ministers across government. There is a recognition that restrictions are having an impact on this sector and others.