Friday, 27 June 2003
Taxi Regulation Bill 2003: Second Stage.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and Members for taking this debate today at fairly short notice. I appreciate this. The Bill has already been considered by the Dáil and, arising from that debate, there have been a number of amendments to the original Bill. As a result, the Bill is now much better than it was.
What was useful about the debate in the other House was how unanimous the views were in terms of welcoming the Bill, particularly the concept behind it. The debate has afforded Deputies and Senators an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution made to society by drivers of taxis, hackneys and limousines. While we like on occasion to have a go at the taxi industry, taxi drivers and so on, they are an important and central part of the transport infrastructure of the country and play an important part in transport policy.
I consider that taxis, hackneys and limousines play a pivotal role in the delivery of transport services. They are uniquely placed to meet the transport needs of many of our citizens, particularly those with mobility disabilities. This is an important area in which we must make progress. One area of transport demand that taxis and hackneys address is the provision of late night services which provide safe and convenient options for those who wish to drink and not drive. This contribution to road safety merits my acknowledgment here today.
To support and improve the delivery of services given by taxis, hackneys and limousines, it is understandable and necessary that legislation that forms the legal basis for these operations should present a modern and focused code of law. Legislation relating to the licensing and operation of mechanically propelled small public service vehicles can be traced back 70 years to the Road Traffic Act 1933. The most recent legislative code, the Road Traffic Act 1961, is some 42 years old. That code forms part of general traffic legislation and has been the genesis of a complex set of regulatory provisions that create and apply the specific legal parameters within which small public service vehicles operate. These operations have as their immediate focus the provision of a personally based transport service, which in overall terms engages the employment of at least 15,000 people. It is both timely and necessary that the services provided through taxis, limousines and hackneys should be the subject of a singularly focused legislative code. One of the primary aims of the Bill before the Seanad today is to provide that code.
In pursuing the preparation of the Bill my aim was not just to address the operational parameters to be applied to small public service vehicles and their drivers. Central to the Bill are the themes of passenger needs and the delivery of a quality service. The Bill centres on three main issues. It will see the establishment of both the commission for taxi regulation and the advisory council to that commission. The third main issue it addresses is the creation of a new framework for the promotion of qualitative based entry and operational parameters for small public service vehicles and their drivers.
Part 2 of the Bill sets out the provisions relating to the establishment and operation of the commission. Sections 13 and 14 provide specifically that the commission can consist of up to three members or commissioners. A commissioner can serve for a five year period but can be reappointed for a further five years. No member of the commission can be appointed for more than ten years.
I draw the attention of Senators to two specific provisions in this Part of the Bill. Section 8 provides for the independence of the commission. I consider it vital that there is a clear understanding among both those who provide hire services and the public that the decisions of the commission will be made independently of any outside influence. As the Minister responsible to the Oireachtas for the legislation relating to the licensing and operation of small public service vehicles and their drivers, the Minister for Transport is empowered under section 10 to give policy directions to the commission. However, that will not restrict the decision-making process of the commission which will deal with operations.
Senators will note that section 25 of the Bill establishes quite specific requirements on the commission in terms of its accountability to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is required to give evidence to the Committee of Public Accounts and any other committee of the House. This is an important provision in the legislation. The overall policy promoted by the Bill remains a matter for the Minister for Transport who continues to be answerable directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. However, Senators will appreciate that in seeking to ensure the independence of the commission, it would not be appropriate for the Minister to intervene in relation to the making of any specific decisions taken by the commission. Notwithstanding this, through section 25, the commission is more directly answerable to the Oireachtas than many other public bodies. It is worth saying that an issue which has come up time and again as we appoint regulators is their accountability to the Houses. I specifically included in the legislation this method of accountability through the committee system, insisting that the Minister retains responsibility for general policy. It is important to include this requirement in the Bill establishing the regulator.
The central core of the Bill is provided initially on a general basis through section 9 and, more specifically, through Part 3. The establishment of the commission and advisory council are matters of significant importance, both to service providers and users. However, establishing such bodies will represent a wasted opportunity unless their role and functions are clearly directed at the establishment and maintenance of the delivery of services that meet the needs and demands of the public.
Section 9 sets out the principal functions and objectives of the commission. Its focus will centre exclusively on the promotion of quality standards. The House might note that this section now contains an explicit reference to the objective of the promotion of the needs of people with disabilities. The premium on quality, as exemplified in section 9, permeates Part 3 of the Bill. In establishing a new licensing regime and providing for its application and enforcement, Part 3 presents a focused structure that forms the basis for the operations of the commission, particularly in the context of the regulatory systems it will promote.
Part 3 contains a number of pivotal sections that underpin the particular focus of the Bill. Section 34 provides for the establishment by the commission of a new regulatory code for the licensing and operation of small public service vehicles and their drivers. This comprehensive section empowers the commission to regulate in respect of every issue that can contribute to the quality of services to be delivered by these vehicles and their drivers. The standards that the Commission will promote within this regulatory structure will apply to all small public service vehicles and their drivers.
There has been a significant debate in recent months on what has been perceived as the deterioration of standards, especially in respect of vehicle standards. This is an issue that has been highlighted by, among others, the various taxi representative groups. Even a cursory perusal of section 34 will signal the depth of the Government's commitment to promote high quality standards for these services.
Senators will judge the specific provisions of this section for themselves, however, there is one issue with regard to vehicle and driver standards that I would like to highlight. That is the question of the degree to which taxis will be tasked to meet the needs of people with disabilities, particularly those who are confined to wheelchairs. In the context of that provision, I refer the House to a consultation paper issued by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in February 2002. That paper, and the responses to it, informed the preparation and focus of the Bill.
The paper made specific reference to the limitations of the current specification relating to the licensing of wheelchair accessible taxis. The questions raised in it in respect of the specification for wheelchair accessible taxis are of fundamental importance to the consideration of the future policy relating to the type of services that can be delivered to people with disabilities. I share the concerns that have been expressed on this issue, not only in the debate in the Lower House but also in the Seanad in the past and by organisations that represent the interests of those who use wheelchairs.
Section 34 of the Bill places a specific onus on the commission to pursue the development of vehicle standards in the context of the entry and accommodation needs of people with disabilities. In the absence of any EU-wide modal specification, the commission will be required to determine its approach on this issue, having regard to the best practice in individual states in Europe. This area should be prioritised by the commission and the advisory council at an early stage. Section 34 also places a clear premium on the development by the commission of training standards for licence holders, including training in how to provide assistance to those with disabilities.
The emphasis on the development of quality standards for the drivers of small public service vehicles provided for in section 34, will be further enhanced by reference to the provisions of section 39, which empowers the commission to regulate for the general behaviour of drivers. Furthermore, section 37 contains a clear requirement that the grant and renewal of all licences relating to small public service vehicles will be conditional on the applicant being in a position to produce a tax clearance certificate.
The creation of a set of legal structures to provide for the promotion of qualitative based entry criteria for the grant of licences and the operation and driving of small public service vehicles must be supported by the development of complementary enforcement structures and penalties. Section 49 provides that the commission will be empowered to engage authorised persons for the purpose of the enforcement of the provisions to be made under this Bill. This will be in addition to the enforcement operations of the Garda.
Section 44 establishes a structure for the application of relevant penalties that, in general, are set at €1,500 and €3,000 for the majority of offences. Section 46 provides the basis for an alternative system to the pursuit of cases through the courts. The deployment of this fixed charge system, which will be dedicated to offences that may be committed under the Bill, will offer an accused person the opportunity to pay such a charge in lieu of a potential conviction.
The provision in the Bill that will probably have most impact on the long-term promotion of standards in the delivery of services by all small public service vehicles and their drivers can be found in section 36. We have seen a number of recent commentaries referring to the involvement of certain people with criminal records in the provision of services, particularly taxi services. It has been alleged that this situation has lessened the attraction of using taxis, in particular, at night, especially by lone women. A certain amount of the comments made have presented an image of taxi drivers that is distorted and I do not accept that the position at present is in any way out of hand. However, there is a clear need to send a distinct and strong message to the travelling public on this issue.
The Government, through the Bill and the ongoing operations of the commission and the Garda, is determined to ensure that the potential for any person who would be a danger to the public to obtain a licence will be addressed. Section 36 provides for the application of a series of automatic disqualifications from obtaining a licence or operating in this service industry. Thus, current and prospective small public service vehicle drivers and operators will be in no doubt that in the future the provision of taxi, hackney and limousine services will be reserved for only those who can generate the appropriate level of trust from the travelling public.
I wish to refer Senators to a new section that has been added to the Bill at my request. The new section 51 provides for the establishment by the commission of a complaints procedure, which will specifically address complaints relating to standards, the conduct of drivers, overcharging and matters relating to hires. This further emphasises that the key focus of this proposed legislation is on the needs of passengers.
In addition to the development of a new licensing code for small public service vehicles and their drivers, the Bill will give to the commission powers to declare new taximeter areas and to determine fares for the operation of taxis in all taximeter areas throughout the country. In addition, the commission will be empowered to issue guidelines to local authorities on the provision of taxi ranks.
The Bill, therefore, grants the pivotal role to the commission in terms of making independent decisions in the licensing of small public service vehicles and their drivers, as well as its engagement in decisions in a variety of issues that support the provision of services by those vehicles. However, as such decisions directly impact on the operations of so many service providers, on the safety, security and comfort of the users of those services and on the efficient delivery of transport services generally, the Bill promotes the establishment of an advisory council to the commission. The council will, as its name clearly implies, be tasked with the role of giving advice to the commission. Specifically, its advice must be sought in respect of decisions in the areas of the requirements to be applied to the grant of licences, declarations in relation to taximeter areas and taxi fares. However, it will be tasked with the grant of advice generally on the delivery of service and the overall policy direction of the commission that will be established through its statement of strategy. The council will also be in a position to give advice to the Minister for Transport on the overall policy and legislative provisions applying to this service.
I am conscious of the time constraints on this debate and I am grateful to the House for agreeing to the arrangements, at short notice, that have been established for the passage of the Bill. I have, therefore, limited my comments to a general overview of the Bill, while trying to highlight the major issues that arise.
The Bill marks a new beginning for the control of taxi, hackney and limousine services. It provides the basis for the realisation of an industry that will come to be known for its quality, in terms of the drivers and vehicles and also in the context of its capacity to deliver services to meet the various needs of the public. It must be recalled that the essential policy perspective that underpins the need for legislation to oversee the operations of these services is to ensure the delivery of a service that meets those needs.
In commending the Bill to the House, I underline that this is historic legislation. It is the first time a taxi regulation Bill has been brought to the Oireachtas. It seeks to tidy up and advance professionalism in an industry that is an essential part of the transport infrastructure of the country. There is an urgent need to bring some order to the situation on the streets. Taxis are an essential part of the transport infrastructure and it is critical that we build a professional industry, in which people can make a living, in which – I see no conflict – the public can have total confidence and in which there is absolute ready availability.
It is worth noting that since deregulation, the numbers have increased from approximately 3,000 to in the region of 11,000 in Dublin city and from approximately 4,000 to between 11,000 or 12,000 throughout the country. We should take a positive view of our taxi, limousine and hackney services. In time, they will be seen as one of the best services in the world, provided that we rigorously implement this legislation and stand by it in years to come.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am also happy to welcome this legislation which will put an end to the previous system of regulation by the Garda Síochána and the Carriage Office. The establishment of a new statutory agency, the Commission for Taxi Regulation, is both welcome and long overdue, given the way deregulation took place, and will benefit both the taxi industry and the public. The taxi industry's unsuitable system evolved over many years. It meant that regulation by the Government and local authorities prevented the extension of the industry in line with demand. This was confirmed by an investigation carried out by the EU Parliament's Commission on Petitions. However, the attempt of this Government to rectify the situation has been shown to be disastrous for some families.
The aforementioned EU committee deemed that the appointment of an interim commission for taxi regulation with no statutory powers proved that the Government had had second thoughts due to the negative effects of the badly planned overnight deregulation three years ago. It is my hope and that of Fine Gael that the legislation will go some way to provide redress for those who have suffered as a result of deregulation and also address the concerns of the taxi industry and the wider public.
The House will be aware that deregulation took place in an instant, without the necessary consultation and consideration. No impact study was carried out on the likely effect the Government's action would have on the many individuals who had invested huge sums to enter the regulated market. It is also obvious that the negative repercussions for the public were not foreseen or investigated. That is why we are here today. The ill-judged actions of the then Government have been compounded by continued neglect of the taxi industry since deregulation. A previously regulated market was left unmonitored, while no action was taken to address the widely reported anxiety of both the industry and public.
As the Minister is aware, the taxi hardship panel has made a recommendation to him. I would urge him to make a decision on that issue and either accept the recommendation by the panel or increase the amounts, as recommended by every member of the Joint Committee on Transport, which felt that both the criteria for compensation and the amounts were questionable.
The number of taxi licence holders in the Dublin area alone increased from 2,700 to over 6,500 in the period from November 2000 to July 2001. The Department of Transport has repeatedly been made aware by groups such as Families Advocate Immediate Redress, FAIR, that entrants to the market had paid huge sums, €107,000 on average, for taxi licences. Let us consider the families of such entrants, who now have to bear the burden of 17 years of a 20-year term loan. As a result of the Government's action these same licences are today worth in the region of €6,500 or less. It is also worth remembering that this is a nationwide problem and is not confined merely to the capital.
I welcome the Minister's intention to make specific arrangements to implement the recommendations of the taxi hardship panel and to tackle the issues precipitated by deregulation. I would, however, add the caveat that there are those in the industry, including FAIR, who believe the hardship panel did not adequately address the concerns. Criticisms of the panel include allegations of conflict of interest, vague terms of reference and the use of simplistic categorisation. These critics believe the panel's recommendations do not provide adequate redress for those who have lost out as a result of the Government's policy.
The EU Parliament's Committee on Petitions stated clearly in its report that the Government has "a moral and political responsibilty" to provide proper redress to families, which bears some clear relation to the amount of their financial loss. As the Minister continues to meet groups such as FAIR, I implore him to be conscious of these issues when implementing the recommendations of the taxi hardship panel.
Given the protests by members of the taxi industry in the streets of Dublin in recent weeks, it is obvious that this legislation is long overdue. I am glad, therefore, that the Minister has responded by finally bringing this Bill forward to address the protestors' concerns. Fundamental to this issue is section 6 of the Bill, which sets out the appointment of a national taxi regulator as chairperson of the independent commission for taxi regulation. This appointment is welcome given the deterioration of many elements of the industry, which up to now has been overseen by a regulator who has lacked statutory powers.
Any relief, however, that the industry and public receive from this development will be short-lived, in the light of the Minister's statement that we will have to wait until the autumn or later for the new statutory regulator to be established. Delays such as this merely add to the frustration of all who have suffered as a result of the Government's action three years ago. This delay does not indicate that the correct priorities about public concern and safety are being considered. This country and Dublin in particular have had to suffer a hugely inefficent, expensive and infrequent taxi service over many years.
While everyone welcomes the reduced waiting times that are a consequence in the increase in the number of licence holders – from 3,000 to more than 10,000 in less than three years – I am concerned at the staggering increase in the number of complaints about the industry, over 200 already this year. When it is considered that the phone lines in the complaints office are often not working one wonders what the real figure is. These complaints often relate to the condition of vehicles and one in five relates to the behaviour of abusive and inconsiderate drivers. Another worrying element is the widespread suspicion of over-charging. It constitutes around 40% of all complaints. This is an issue I hope the new regulator will examine closely.
More serious are the incidents of assault in taxis. The media have reported the revocation of 11 licences by the Carriage Office last year. Section 9 of the legislation, which sets out the functions and objectives of the new independent commission, must provide the necessary powers to enforce regulation, and if necessary withdraw licences.
As Fine Gael has pointed out before, certain measures are desirable at least, if not necessary. These include a minimum level of training and a basic knowledge of the geography of the relevant town or city, as well as effective background and character checks of licence applicants. I am aware there is the issue, too, relating to people released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday agreement and whether their background will be used against them. That is an issue I will be raising next week, when the Bill is being further debated.
I am certain everyone shares the sense of dismay at claims by the National Taxidrivers' Union that one in seven of the people granted licences since deregulation has a criminal record. It would be useful if the Minister could clarify this statistic because it has given rise to some confusion. If it is incorrect it is a grave insult to the taxi drivers concerned. If it is correct it is cause for concern.
As with all legislation, this Bill will be judged on its ability to tackle the concerns of citizens. The same will apply to the new commision. I echo proposals made in the Dáil for the implementation of practical measures such as the provision of a 24-hour free-phone service to report complaints – and phones that will be answered – the numbers of which should be clearly visible and advertised inside taxis. The compulsory display of taxi identity numbers inside a taxi should also be mandatory, both front and rear, as well as the introduction of a central taxi monitoring and booking system and a practical pick-up or taxi-sharing system.
It is also necessary that under section 9(2) of the Bill an acceptable standard for small public service vehicles is maintained. We hear reports of cars such as the Nissan Micra and the Toyota Yaris being used. With all due respect, I do not believe that cars of that size are suitable for public usage. I would therefore ask the Minister to ensure that these proposals and others which will boost confidence in the taxi service are adopted.
In section 18 the staffing of the commission is linked to the Department of Finance, which instantly creates doubts as to whether it will be correctly resourced and staffed. In the light of the Minister for Finance's decision to reduce the number of public servants by 5,000 in the next three years, I would urge that definite commitments on the commision's resourcing should be made in advance.
Of the many provisions in the legislation it may well be section 36 that proves the key as the public will rely on this if they are to have confidence in the taxi service. In this regard that section is flawed and needs amendment. In its current form it would allow for existing taxi drivers with criminal convictions, including assault, car theft or causing death by dangerous driving, to continue to be licence holders. It is worth repeating the concerns expressed in the Dáil regarding section 36(1)(c)(ii) (II) which implies that a taxidriver who has committed an assault on a passenger will be disqualified from holding a licence. If, however, the same individual commits the same offence in any place outside his or her vehicle, he or she is eligible to hold a licence. Such a provision in its current form is nonsense.
Overall, if it is intended to rectify what the Minister has himself called a "jungle-type operation" in the taxi industry, then proper power and resources must be provided to the commission. The Minister must take on board the genuine concerns of groups such as FAIR, and most of all the public, who have had their confidence shaken by bad experience and reports in the media. Although long overdue and in need of amendment in some fundamental aspects, I welcome the Bill.
The Minister's speech refers to the overall policy promoted by the Bill remaining a matter for the Minister for Transport, who continues to be answerable directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. I have been frustrated at times as a transport spokesperson, when addressing questions about transport to the Minister, at being fobbed off, not directly by the Minister but often by his civil servants, who tell me that it is a matter for different agencies, such as the Rail Procurement Agency. I wonder if we are creating another layer of bureaucracy here. I welcome the Minister's commitment that he will answer directly on this issue, because there is such a jungle of agencies in the transport sector that it is nearly impossible to find exactly who is answerable on various issues.
The recognition of the needs of people with disabilities in the area of taxi regulation is to be welcomed and we should see more of this. We have to be realistic as well. I have spoken to taxi drivers who have gone to huge expense in converting their taxis but have not received a return for doing so. We heard at the Joint Committee on Transport of governments in various countries who give contracts to taxi drivers to drive children with special needs to and from school. Those states guarantee that they will provide enough business for taxi drivers. This means that if the taxi driver goes to the expense of converting his taxi to be more user friendly he will receive some guarantee of income. This is an excellent idea which the Minister could examine in the future, especially in the context of school and hospital runs.
I join Senator Browne in welcoming the Minister to the House and welcoming this Bill.
We are all aware of the reasons for this Bill. It is primarily a response to the deregulation that took place in the public service vehicle sector some time ago. Deregulation was not, as Senator Browne indicates, the chosen response of the Government at the time. It was based on the outcome of a High Court case and was clearly introduced with a degree of haste, over which the Government had no control. I am delighted that the Bill has now reached the stage where it is about to be implemented and that many of the provisions have been well thought out and recognised as being what is required by the industry.
The difficulty that existed with the old taxi system was that it was effectively a closed shop. That was adequate on a qualitative basis, as there was an element of self regulation. In the deregulated environment, a greater number of participants are coming into the business, leading to greater difficulties in regulating the sector and demonstrating a necessity for this Bill.
We all see the huge benefits that deregulation has brought. There is an influx of drivers who, from their own perspective, are able to carve out a living for themselves. More importantly, from the travelling public's perspective, there is a greater number of taxis at all times in the day, and at night in particular. We all remember the difficulties getting a taxi a few years ago, not just at peak periods or special occasions but almost every night of the week, particularly in the large cities. It also presented difficulties for young people travelling in the evening. Parents were concerned when children were out at night, wondering how they would get home. This Bill brings about a necessary control which the entire sector, including the travelling public, needs.
My experience of the deregulated environment has been positive. Perhaps there is a vested interest here, as some of the people who have been discomfited by deregulation are seeking to brand the new entrants into the market negatively. That is unfair and needs to be addressed.
There needs to be greater control in ensuring that there is a level of service for people with disabilities and ensuring the quality of cars is maintained. Statistics are being bandied about to suggest that standards have slipped. That is not the case. Greater competition in other areas of the market has led to a better level of service and quality. That is also happening in the taxi business.
I have sympathy with those who were disenfranchised as a result of deregulation, but the Government's taxi hardship panel has dealt with this adequately. The Minister is working on it and the conclusions will emerge very shortly. We have had many debates on that matter in the Joint Committee on Transport and have thrashed it out thoroughly in that forum. Money should be disbursed quickly to assist the widows and others who have been disenfranchised.
It is not just cities and large towns that have benefited from the deregulation of taxis. Villages and townlands are now interconnected by the use of taxis, especially in the areas of County Clare I am familiar with. They are also integrated with the other public transport networks, like buses and trains. It is required in the legislation that taxis should form part of an overall network. This is very helpful, particularly in rural Ireland, where large tracts of the country are isolated and public transport networks are not viable. The provision of taxi services caters for this.
The primary element is the issuance of licences. There has been a great deal of public debate, and Senator Browne has raised this as well, about the type of people who should or should not get licences. Some comments have in my view been orchestrated, perhaps by vested interests, regarding the so-called criminal element that has infiltrated the taxi business in the aftermath of deregulation. I do not think it is higher now than it ever was. We have heard recently that one in five taxi drivers has a criminal record. That might be disturbing to some people, but we have to be careful. If we are to be fair, somebody who has had a conviction in the past has more than likely served their sentence, and people who are making an honest attempt to get their lives back on track should not be regulated against.
People who have had convictions will find it hard to get employment in other sectors. If a conviction is on their CV it does not help them in getting a regular job. A licence helps people who are trying to become self-employed and carve out a life for themselves and their families without having to resort to crime again. We should be very careful about how we view people with criminal records.
I am delighted with the provision in the Bill that refers to people who commit crime while they have a licence. I am not soft in my approach to criminal conduct, but I want people who have paid their debt to society to be given a fair chance. I am impressed by the element of the regulation which ensures that anybody who commits any one of a list of crimes is potentially liable to be deprived of their licence immediately and be banned for up to ten years. That is certainly welcome and necessary to give confidence to the travelling public.
Women and minors in particular need to be confident that their safety and security is assured when travelling by taxi at night. The Bill will regulate the conduct of drivers and passengers. We must ensure that passengers behave properly in public service vehicles to ensure drivers' safety. There has been a series of attacks recently on taxi drivers, which is a retrograde step.
By fixing maximum fares the legislation is catering for provisions that were set by other bodies in the past. The idea of creating a national register of hackneys, taxis and limousines is certainly useful. In the past, we have discussed a provision for suspending licences and it is advisable to have an array of sanctions, including cancellation of a licence, for people who do not abide by the licensing conditions.
The Bill contains an interesting element concerning the role of the Garda Síochána and county councils. The Minister is suggesting that over time the commission will be able to take on those roles itself. The Bill certainly seems to allow for that possibility, which would be a good thing in that the commission would have overall responsibility for carrying out all the roles currently fulfilled by councils and the Garda Síochána.
The taxi advisory council will ensure continued growth in the industry, which will be responsive to the community's needs. The council's composition should reflect not only taxi and other business interests, but those who use taxi services, in addition to potential customers. The difficulty facing any public transport network is the fact that it will not appeal to certain people, so it is important to ascertain the transport needs of those who are not currently using the service, as well as those who are.
Section 51 provides for a complaints procedure, which is very welcome. Some people may have vague complaints to make about taxi services but they never make them formally. It is important to record such complaints, however, in order to ensure compliance with the licensing codes as set out in the legislation.
The Bill is a welcome measure and marks a new beginning for the control of our taxi, hackney and limousine services. Thanks to the actions of the previous Government, and in particular those of the former Minister of State, Bobby Molloy, in pursuing this issue to ensure that more taxis are operating, the industry has grown considerably. Over 11,000 taxis are now plying their trade in Dublin, compared to 3,000 or 4,000 before deregulation. The industry has continued to attract people to work in it, despite the negative publicity generated by the taxi sector itself and the fact that it has not tailored its services to consumer needs.
The Minister said that this is not a time to have a go at the taxi industry but when one considers the need for public transport services in Dublin, the sector certainly has a huge market. I have never heard taxi industry representatives outlining how they would go about servicing consumer needs or increasing market share. Prior to deregulation, the taxi market was controlled by limiting the number of new entrants as well as the value of the market, not to the consumer but to the service providers. The Bill will ensure that consumers will be in control through a proper complaints procedure, regulation of behaviour, dress code, training and type of cars. All those aspects will be examined by the commission.
Under the old legislation, Fingal County Council, of which I was a member, was unable to regulate the taxi market. I hope the taxi industry will realise that as a result of the enactment of this Bill, it will be better regulated and examined than heretofore and that consumers will have some measure of redress.
I hope we will now see an end to taxi protests from Phoenix Park along the quays to Leinster House. The taxi industry should market itself properly and take pride in the service it provides. There are now more people entering the industry than ever before, the great majority of whom are new, first-time entrants who are proud of establishing their own small businesses. Such self-employed business people do not want anything to do with the small numbers of taxi drivers who are currently agitating against change.
Senator Browne seemed to speak about the past.
The Bill, however, is looking to the future in trying to marry taxi services with the general public transport sector. There is a huge market for such services. The Bill updates previous legislation and provides for a commission for taxi regulation as well as an advisory council. The Minister will still have the authority to examine what is happening in the taxi sector, and the Oireachtas will have a reviewing role.
When the commission is established it will have to examine a number of matters. I have sympathy with full-time taxi drivers in that a number of part-timers, who are already gainfully employed elsewhere, are working in the business. Such people put a taxi sign on their cars in the evening and tout for business on their way home. The number of people working in the taxi sector is probably phoney because it does not reflect the number of drivers who are providing a public service full-time. Consequently, the commission will have to examine the possibility of introducing a minimum number of hours during which taxis should provide a service. It is not good enough that a person who is already employed outside the taxi sector can invest €5,000 or €6,000 and then provide a limited service picking up taxi fares after work. I would be happy to see such a system being introduced.
There are concerns about the level of taxi fares to Dublin's outer suburbs, some of which are outside the city's designated taxi meter limits. For example, while Clonee is in County Meath, technically part of it is in the Fingal area. If a taxi has to travel over the county boundary in order to enter a housing estate in Clonee, the driver can charge above the maximum fare. It is off putting for people to use taxis in such situations but there is no Nitelink bus service and people are at the mercy of what a taxi driver might charge. The new commission should examine the whole area of taxi meters and setting maximum fares.
I hope the Bill will put an end to strikes by taxi drivers. It is quite unusual to see such action being taken by the self-employed. I hope the taxi business will grow following the enactment of the Bill but it is surprising that even with thousands of new entrants, taxi fares have increased. If the fares were moderate many more people would use taxis. Certain regulations are required for the type of car, the training of the driver and the behaviour of the passenger. There also has to be an element of compulsion on the passengers as to how they behave in a taxi.
I have just a few points to make on the Bill, which I welcome. It is important that we establish a regulator for taxis. I welcome the commission for taxi regulation and the advisory council. I like the fact that the commission is supposed to concentrate on quality standards and the establishment of a new licensing regime. The Minister certainly has my support in this area.
However, I do not agree with his assertion that the level of employment of people with criminal records is distorted and out of hand. The situation is extremely serious. I have only had one bad experience in a long life of using taxis. By and large, taxi drivers are pretty decent people in my experience. It is not fair on them that people with criminal records have recently come into the business. I know that the Minister will agree with me in this regard. He probably wants to reduce the temperature of this debate somewhat by his moderating comments.
It was certainly out of hand and out of control that the man involved in the X case got a taxi licence and subsequently assaulted a passenger. A well-known Dublin criminal was shot while driving a taxi. What about the potential passengers? Some other gangland person could have come along and blasted off at that individual when there were passengers in the taxi. That is a cause for concern. It is important that we continue to focus on this and weed out the people to whom I refer. While there is always a possibility for redemption, the proportion is quite out of hand. Am I correct that approximately 1,500 people with criminal records are employed driving taxis? The number is certainly very high. The Minister knows the figures. That is out of hand and unacceptable from the point of view of protecting the reputations of decent taxi drivers and, more importantly, the people who use taxis.
I am now of sufficient age to be able to say that in the old days, if I had in my house an elderly guest or somebody who was not terribly mobile, I summoned a taxi, put them in and believed them to be safe. While I am not sure that is true any more, it could be the case if the commission works in the way the Minister and I hope it will.
The complaints procedure is also very good. It is important that the licence number and photograph be displayed and not just on a small card at which one has to squint. One does not like to look over the taxi driver's back, because he knows damn well that one is going to make a complaint and he might clock the passenger one, particularly if he is one of the crooks. The licence number and photograph should be prominently displayed in both the front and the back so that a passenger in the rear of the vehicle can also see it.
I hope that the Acting Chairman will allow me a little levity when speaking about complaints. I listened to a radio programme about this. Some of the complaints were very serious and referred to things like smoking, which is offensive. However, one woman complained – I ask Members to excuse me for saying this – that the taxi driver farted and she wanted the police to charge him. I hope the case comes before the courts so that I can attend. It would be a most wonderful case, in which the possibilities for the legal mind are simply endless.
As the Minister will know, at a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, taxi representatives made the point that a recent international survey of some 13 European cities showed that deregulation in Dublin was the worst of the lot because it was done so precipitately and without adequate care and forethought about the consequences. We are now dealing with the result of uncontrolled and precipitate deregulation. However, we now have it and the Bill will go a certain way to alleviate the situation.
I echo what Senator Morrissey said about those who buy taxi plates are a reasonably cheap price and use them to supplement their incomes. That is somewhat unfair. At the meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, one of the taxi representatives spoke about factory car parks with many taxis parked outside while the owners work in the factory. On leaving the factory, they do a few jobs on the way home.
I welcome the requirement in the training section for taxi drivers to deal with people with disabilities. I tentatively put the following figures on the record, as I do not recall them exactly. I believe we were told that, prior to deregulation, something in the region of 1,500 to 2,000 wheelchair accessible taxis were used in that way. This has reduced to 13 according to the submission made to us. The Minister will be in a position to check those figures. That is a very drastic cut in wheelchair accessibility. The taxi representatives made the point that this occurred in direct response to precipitate deregulation.
It is a good idea to have regular inspections. I do not mind an old taxi. Some of the old Mercedes cars with leather seats, if they are well kept, are very comfortable. However, they should be tested for cleanliness, etc. It can be a pleasure to drive in an old car and I ought to know. I have driven nothing apart from old second-hand cars and am very happy with them. It is possible to get good quality models cheaply, but they need to be inspected.
We have heard some heart-rending stories. Senator Morrissey may well say, as he did in response to Senator Browne, this is going backwards and the Bill looks forwards. I presume that was because Senator Browne went back over some of the previous history. There is a case for looking at the continuing problems of some of the people who had taxi plates under the former regime and have been severely financially disadvantaged as a result of deregulation. This is particularly true of people such as widows. The amounts involved in ex gratia payments have been pathetic and piddling. We should reconsider this matter. While I do not want to look back too much, to close off that issue in a decent and fair way would be a good beginning. It would be a mistake to turn our backs on an unfairness that exists.
I welcome the Bill and the Minister's intervention. It will result in a better taxi service. I am glad of the regulation. We need to monitor the involvement of criminals, which is serious and worthy of more emphasis than the Minister placed on it. I understand why, for reasonable political reasons, he would want to take a moderate view and keep panic down. However, in light of the number of people with criminal backgrounds that are involved, the matter requires consideration. This involvement is certainly well known in the area of the city in which I live.
It is less likely that they might be subject to impulses to whack somebody on the head. Paradoxically, they would probably be rather inclined to behave themselves in a fairly prim way to avoid being caught. However, as well as exposing passengers to potential danger, not just from the actions of the driver but also from attacks by other gangs, it provides an apparently legitimate cover for criminals, which is not acceptable. While I welcome the Bill, I suggest that the question of the level of involvement of former criminals be examined. It is unfair to decent taxi drivers and passengers.
I wish to share time with Senator White, if that is acceptable.
I welcome the Minister and his officials. Those of us who use taxis or hackneys on a regular basis know exactly the reason this is essential legislation. The Minister and other speakers have highlighted the fundamentals of the legislation and the role of the advisory council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation. When enacted, the Taxi Regulation Bill 2003 will, as the Minister stated in Dáil Éireann, create the framework for the application of the highest standards to the vehicles being used as public service vehicles, their drivers and operators. These changes are essential if the services provided by taxis and hackneys are to develop to a point where we can state the service can be compared to the best anywhere in the world.
If we stand back and look at the situation here in Ireland, each of us can agree there are great similarities between the taxi industry and the Fine Gael Party. I must first qualify that statement by saying both Fine Gael and the taxi industry have many fine, honourable and hard working members, which cannot be disputed, but like the taxi industry, Fine Gael suffers through of lack of leadership, lack of cohesion and lack of structure.
Deputy Enda Kenny boasted on radio about an increase in membership of Fine Gael. Fair play to him. Fine Gael has 8,000 new members but there is still no structure, no leadership and no policy. There are 8,000 new taxi licences but still no structures, no policies and no leadership. Joining Fine Gael is a little like joining the taxi industry – new recruits to both Fine Gael and the taxi industry can dream at night of former glory days when, under great leadership, they were a force to be reckoned with. They can dream once again of enjoying a closed shop, or cartel—
—in the case of taxis, a monopoly on the number of taxi plates in the country, or, in the case of Fine Gael, a monopoly on morality and wisdom.
The taxi industry needs a taxi regulator as proposed by the Minister. I support his stance on the matter. The changes highlighted in this legislation will put in place the important structures to prevent the decline in standards that all of us have experienced as taxi users. The Bill will not cure all of the ills of the industry, nor will it remove all of the concerns that people of all ages have regarding the industry but it is an important start. The office of taxi regulator as proposed in the legislation was promised by the Fianna Fáil Party in the run-up to the general election. Once again, Fianna Fáil in government with its partners, the Progressive Democrats, is delivering the promises we outlined before the last general election.
The Minister, on taking office, promised his colleagues on this side of the House and the public that he would bring forward the necessary changes and appoint a regulator, He has now done this. I am always baffled to hear the likes of Senator Brian Hayes, the Fine Gael leader in this House, criticise the Government for attempting to enact legislation quickly. This week he bemoaned the fact that legislation was being rushed through the Houses of the Oireachtas, yet out of the other side of his mouth he criticised the hard-working Minister for Transport for not bringing forward legislation more quickly to deal with the establishment of a taxi regulator.
I am pleased to see that Senator Browne and his colleagues have come down from the clouds to welcome the Bill. I said the taxi industry needed structure, policies and procedures. I congratulate the Minister for providing these measures in the Bill. If I hail a taxi in London, I am safe in the knowledge that my driver has undergone a rigorous test and that his or her knowledge of routes, distances and journey times will be impeccable. I am also safe in the knowledge that the taxi will carry me to my destination, no matter how long or short the distance of the journey. Current practice at Dublin Airport and other places throughout the city of selecting which passengers to carry based on their final destination is a disgrace and unacceptable. The office of taxi regulator, when established, with a proper complaints procedure, will help to eradicate aspects of bad practice in the industry.
I welcome the measures proposed in the Bill, particularly those in section 34, which place a specific onus on the commission to pursue the development of vehicle standards in the context of entry and the accommodation needs of people with disabilities. I agree with my colleague, Senator Morrissey's point regarding the times of the day taxi drivers are available for work. There should be time limits imposed, if possible.
I am sure that both he and members of the Opposition are envious of this visionary legislation proposed by the Fianna Fáil-led Government. There has been an improvement in the taxi service because of the public debate and the demand that taxi drivers be more personable and treat passengers as customers. I noticed a difference when I used a taxi to travel from Dublin Airport to my home last week. I had an impeccable service in an impeccable vehicle, even though it was an old Mercedes.
Three weeks ago I travelled to attend a conference in Duhallow, County Cork. The only way of getting from Mallow railway station to Duhallow Park Hotel was by taxi. A taxi was booked to meet me at the station. The trip to the hotel only took about 12 minutes and there was no traffic on the road. To my horror, I was charged €22.50 for the journey. I can honestly say that for the first time in my life I had encountered extortion. It was totally unjust and the ultimate in extortion. People at the conference were also appalled at the charge. While there has been an improvement, there is a long way to go. The key will be monitoring implementation of the provisions of the Bill.
We are all aware of the research and surveys conducted of delivery of service to the customer. The needs of those who are handicapped have been highlighted this week. I commend and compliment the Minister for Transport and his Department on the fact that the needs of the handicapped will be looked after and that taxi drivers will be trained to be aware of their needs. He said he would like to see the delivery of the best taxi service in the world. If he keeps going in the same manner as to date, he will succeed.
I support the Bill in general and the need for regulation. This should have been done when moves were made to deregulate the taxi business. I agree with Senator Wilson on the need for structure and regulations. It should be pointed out that the initial Progressive Democrats-driven action, which was supported by Fianna Fáil, was designed to take these away. That was wrong. There was nothing amiss with opening up the taxi business; it was a good development. However, the way in which it was done was wrong. This Bill is a recognition of that fact, in effect, and of the need for structures and regulations. Having said that, I welcome that it is finally being brought forward.
I will mention a couple of issues that were raised by my Labour Party colleagues in the Dáil yesterday. Deputy Shortall put down a number of amendments which highlighted issues such as hardship. She proposed that one of the commission's functions should be to recommend to the Minister certain steps that could be taken in respect of those who are experiencing hardship as a result of deregulation. She argued that the payment structures of the taxi hardship panels should be reviewed. I support these proposals. Taxi deregulation caused great hardship for many taxi drivers and their families, particularly widows. Drivers who suffered from illness and had to employ other people to drive their taxis suffered a sudden loss of livelihood. The value of their investments, which were made in good faith in a regulated environment, was wiped out.
My colleagues did not propose that hardship payments should be put back in any sense, but rather that interim payments should be made. They said that provision should be made in the legislation to facilitate a review of the issue. That would be good. There is no doubt that the extent of the payments that are to be made is inadequate. It is important that payments are made as quickly as possible, but the levels suggested are not satisfactory in the context of the losses incurred by some taxi drivers and their families. I hope that the Seanad will examine the proposals made by my colleagues in the Dáil. There should be an ongoing review of the hardship suffered by some taxi drivers.
The Minister accepted some amendments which followed the interventions of Deputies, including some of my colleagues. One such amendment related to promoting the accessibility of taxi vehicles. I welcome the fact that the Minister took the suggestions on board. However, more needs to be done in respect of accessibility. My colleague suggested that tax breaks be awarded to those who have accessible vehicles, which is a good idea.
I was hoping to make a general point in the presence of the Minister. There was a big fanfare when the taxi industry was deregulated. It was flagged as part of the solution to public transport problems, but I said at the time that it was a smokescreen. I realise that there was value in opening up the taxi industry, but much more important traffic and public transport issues have a knock-on effect for taxi drivers in terms of congestion.
It is important that there is proper investment in public transport. Dublin Bus, for example, should be given the type of subsidies that are provided in other European countries. During a debate on a Progressive Democrats transport motion some weeks ago, I mentioned that Dublin Bus introduced a number of initiatives, such as the extension of the Nitelink service, around the time of taxi deregulation and the protests that followed. Many of the things that can be done by Dublin Bus and other public transport providers are being blocked by the Government. Barriers are often put up by the Minister and the Government when Dublin Bus seeks to extend its routes. This is the wrong approach, as investment is needed if one is to make progress in the area of public transport. I do not deny that steps need to be taken by public transport providers and their unions, but responsibility ultimately rests with the Government.
I welcome the Minister of State and I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have a personal interest in the Bill, as my late father spent almost 30 years, which was a large proportion of his working life, in the taxi industry.
The vast majority of taxi drivers are decent, hard-working and well-mannered people. The taxi profession has provided a good and efficient service over the years. It propped up a failing public transport system until the late 1970s and early 1980s. The service became inadequate, however, as a consequence of a number of factors, many of which were unforeseen. This decline was not the fault of the industry, for the most part, and many people would attribute it to the regulation of the industry in 1978. Some of the many factors that need to be considered include huge increases in the population and the number of cars on the road.
Stories of waiting times of two or three hours, particularly at peak times such as Christmas, were heard for many years. There were difficulties in getting a cab at night and at weekends. Although studies were conducted and recommendations were made, there was no improvement in the service. At a time when there were less than 2,000 taxis in Dublin city, it was recommended that the optimum number of taxis required for the city was 4,500. After much discussion and a great deal of agitation, there was a famous High Court case which, in the Minister's words, blew the industry apart. The taxi industry has been blown apart since deregulation. The number of plates on the road has exploded from 4,000 to almost 12,000 and standards have dropped dramatically. A number of issues must be tackled as a matter of urgency. The Bill is the first step towards creating a taxi service of which the industry and consumers can be proud.
I do not doubt that the deregulation of the taxi industry caused huge difficulties for some taxi drivers and their families. It must be accepted, however, that the inflated prices being paid for plates before deregulation represented a false economy. Those in the industry must admit that it was inevitable that people would be hurt financially when changes took place because of the restricted access to the business and the way in which plates were changing hands. The Minister has recognised that the State has a responsibility to try to relieve the hardship in the genuine cases of those who have a special status as licence holders. We await the outcome of the hardship panel's deliberations, which, as the Minister said, will conclude shortly. The Families Advocate Immediate Redress group brought its case to the European Parliament committee on petitions, which pointed out a number of the problems and consequences of deregulation.
Taxis form a critical part of the transport system, not only in Dublin but throughout the country. The Bill will improve the service by ensuring that we have the highest standard of vehicles and drivers and that those in the industry are protected when it comes to issues of safety and security. The establishment of the independent regulation commission will guarantee appropriate and evenly applied standards of vehicles, drivers, service, security, licensing and training. The changes are not only in the interests of consumers, but also of the professional, full-time drivers who provide the service.
We have seen recently that quality standards have slipped dramatically because of a lack of controls. The fact that people are concerned about safety and security when they hire a taxi is in nobody's interest, least of all those working in the industry. The incidence of attacks on drivers and passengers has increased, although we tend to hear from the media mostly about attacks on passengers. Drivers have always been at risk of attack. The new regulations will help to change people's attitudes when hiring a cab. It will put an onus on them to treat taxi drivers and their cars, which are the drivers' livelihoods, with proper respect. My father once had to spend six hours walking around the Dublin mountains after his taxi had been hijacked at gunpoint by paramilitaries. It is an extreme example, but any taxi driver will tell one that they are subject to such incidents.
Much of the Bill relates to the establishment of the commission and its ongoing functions and responsibilities, but I would like to concentrate on what the changes will mean for the users and drivers of taxis. The setting up of the advisory council is a crucial element of the proposed legislation. Those involved in the sector view it as being of intrinsic importance in terms of the future shape of the industry. It is essential that sufficient thought is put into its make-up and membership. Five years is, perhaps, too long to have to wait for a statement of strategy. As we all know, much can happen in five years. I suggest that this proposal be re-examined.
While the commission is charged with implementing the new regulations, the council will be the direct link which will provide the conduit through which consumers and service providers will have their say on a day-to-day basis on the running of the industry, both now and in the future. It can ensure there is a clear focus on quality of service and a secure, efficient and user-friendly product.
The establishment of a quality service certification scheme is also to be welcomed and will benefit both driver and customer in the medium to long term. Such elements as the training and dress requirements within the Bill will improve matters for everyone. Last year I had the pleasure of visiting one of the largest taxi companies in Dublin. It had a voluntary dress code which had been in place for at least three years, which bodes well for the willingness of industry members to adapt to the proposed changes.
The conditions attached to the issuing of licences and the tax compliance requirements will all contribute to the provision of a service which will be among the best in Europe, if not the world. Passengers will feel safe and be assured of value, while drivers will also feel secure and be assured of a decent standard of living guaranteeing a future for them and their families. I warmly welcome the publishing of the Bill and wish the Minister well in its passage through the Houses.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche. I also welcome the Bill.
I was one of those who was not very critical of the way in which the then Minister of State, Mr. Molloy, introduced taxi deregulation. As I live within a mile and a half of the city centre, I tend to walk or take public transport. If the need arises, I take a taxi when I go in or out of the city. Before deregulation it was almost impossible to get a taxi. The difficulty was so great at the time that this was probably the only option open to the then Minister of State in the circumstances. At least nowadays it is possible to get a taxi, and do so fairly easily.
I agree with many of the concerns expressed by other speakers, particularly in respect to the careful assessment required for taxi drivers. Checks need to be made in regard to criminal records held by individuals wishing to become taxi drivers. I was involved in the X case and was horrified when I discovered that the man involved was a taxi driver—
—and that he was subsequently convicted of a further offence. It needs to be made clear that the assessment of those who intend to drive taxis will be thorough and that reference will be made to the sex offenders register. When I was working, I often put my young children into a taxi to send them somewhere. In such circumstances one must be totally assured as to the moral quality of a person driving a taxi. This is extremely important.
I do, however, have sympathy with taxi drivers also. Some of them appear to be subject to the most terrible abuse, particularly at night. Senators who said we had a good taxi service were correct. It is depressing to find that in some other countries there is a grille between the driver and passenger. I assume its purpose is not to keep the passenger safe from the driver but vice versa. That is an ugly situation and I would not like to see it develop here.
I had an amusing incident with a taxi driver some years ago. I had an old dog who had a very fine spirit but a bad heart. The dog liked to walk into town with me but sometimes it got too much for him on the way home. Once, a bus driver made me carry him upstairs and he was quite a weight. On one occasion coming home when I could see his heart was beginning to give up, I asked a taxi driver outside Adams to take my dog and me. He agreed and said: "Compared to the animal I had in my taxi last night, he looks pretty civilised." They do have problems in dealing with the general public, which must be taken into account.
All speakers – there is also reference to this in the Bill – referred to the problems experienced by people with wheelchairs. I do not understand the reason there is such a problem as there seem to be so many huge vans around that are suitable for taking wheelchairs and much less comfortable than cars for able-bodied people. It is incredible that wheelchair users cannot book a taxi. Something has to be done about this. I am sure the Minister will accept this point.
Ireland is still an expensive place in which to take a taxi. I was in Lisbon recently where taxis were about one third of the price they are here. This is particularly noticeable at the airport where one has to pay an additional charge for the fact that the taxi has been waiting at the airport. Those who print Cara magazine should point out that, as well as taxi and Dublin Bus services to the city, there is also the Aircoach service, which is extremely good value at €10 for a return ticket. I was amazed to note this omission recently because it is a very good service at a reasonable cost. It does not do the tourist industry any good not to refer to this.
While taxis are expensive, deregulation does not necessarily mean that things will become cheaper. I had a dreadful experience some years ago in Stockholm Airport in Sweden where there are both legitimate taxis and those that strangers do not know about. Unfortunately, I got into the wrong one and it cost me nearly £60 to get from the airport into the city when the fare should have been in the region of £20. These are the kind of things we need to guard against when trying to introduce competition. We need to ensure we keep an eye on how the changes are working out in practice.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill, particularly as there is a group in the Visitors Gallery from Chartrettes in France which is twinned with Roscommon town, led by Mary Gleeson. I take this opportunity to welcome them to Ireland.
I compliment the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan, who was in the House earlier on the way he is running his Ministry. He has been most dynamic since he assumed that responsibility. His experience of being Government Chief Whip for a minority Government for five years made him anxious to get into a position in which he could make a change, and he has made a difference. If that can be said of any Minister after his or her term in office, it would certainly be true in regard to the Minister who has made a big difference.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Roche, who is a man with great legislative experience. He also knows a lot about taxis as he has travelled the length and breadth of Europe in them.
The Bill is both excellent and timely. I do not understand the reason taxi drivers took to the streets a few weeks ago knowing that this Bill was at such an advanced stage of preparation, and in view of the Minister's willingness to bring it forward. As far as I am aware, it will be passed before the end of this term. It will allow for the establishment of the Commission for Taxi Regulation and the office of a taxi regulator, all of which is required. This is not before time, bearing in mind that the number of taxis has increased to 12,000. He related his father's story concerning a very difficult time for the family in that regard.
I wish to refer an aspect on which I know the Minister is working and which may not be a matter for detailed provision in the Bill. There is a need for consistency in respect of vehicles used in the taxi industry in Dublin and other cities. Each city should have its own distinctive taxi colour and style, with one consistent type of car for taxi service. We should get rid of the current cheap, shoddy roof racks, displaying the word "Taxi" and the licence number, which are like what one would expect to see in a Third World country. By contrast, the quality of London taxis or New York yellow cabs is a clear reflection of the use of a distinctive type of car. From now on, the Irish regulations should specify a consistent quality of car, including its colour, the signage to be used and indicating whether it is licensed to pick up passengers en route.
Senators Brady and Henry mentioned the issue of security for drivers of taxis and hackneys. I recall a tragic situation in Galway, where a woman taxi driver was brutally murdered. Nobody has yet been charged for that savage crime, which was a frightening experience for everybody in the industry.
Taxi drivers are generally most informative. The "Gabby Cabby" from New York can be heard frequently on the RTE radio programme, "Today with Pat Kenny". There is no better way to keep abreast of what is happening in the country than to take a Dublin taxi. Taxi drivers are very informative as to what is wrong, or right, with the Government. Any Government Minister who wishes to find out what is happening on the ground would be well advised to take a taxi. The taxi driver will have no hesitation in setting out the situation.
I compliment former Minister of State, Bobby Molloy. He took on vested interests, which responded by launching a savage attack on him in his constituency and throughout the country. I wish the former Deputy well. He took a courageous stand. The action he took was in response to a High Court ruling at that time. I welcome this opportunity to compliment Bobby Molloy for the difficult decisions he took in his capacity as Minister of State at the then Department of the Environment and Local Government. They were thankless decisions as far as he was concerned. He was targeted in his own constituency. As it happened, that was not his reason for standing down at the last general election. If he had gone before the electorate, he would have succeeded because the people of Galway appreciated the quality of service which Bobby Molloy provided.
With regard to categories of people that are not qualified to hold a licence, it is frightening that a convicted criminal can get a taxi licence. The explanatory memorandum to the Bill includes a list of ineligible categories, such as those engaged in drug trafficking, money laundering and so on. It states that "In the case the case of being convicted summarily, where a fine only is imposed by the court, the person is disqualified for a period of 12 months." A person convicted of any of those crimes should not be entitled to hold a licence for such a very responsible position, which involves dealing with young people, women, men and tourists. This section should be tightened up on Committee Stage or subsequently. There is no case to be made for a convicted criminal to have a licence to drive a taxi or hackney.
In general, there has been a marked improvement and availability with regard to taxis and hackneys throughout the country. In my county, Roscommon, the quality of the hackney service is excellent. As far as I know, there is no taxi service, certainly not in Roscommon town. There should be a rationalisation process with regard to hackneys and taxis; the distinction between the two categories of vehicle is nonsensical. Perhaps, when the commission is up and running, it will establish one consistent type of car for the carriage of people.
With regard to facilities for wheelchair users, taxi men and women are generally very helpful. I am aware of a hackney driver in Roscommon who wishes to convert his vehicle to make it wheelchair friendly but who is having great difficulty in getting any support from any of the relevant institutions, Leader programmes or partnership groups. Support should be available to facilitate conversion of vehicles to allow for the carriage of wheelchair users.
I wish to refer to a provision in the Bill which is also common to other recent legislation. It states:
In my view, local authority members would be excellent members of the commission, if so appointed. A member of the commission who becomes a member of a local authority should be allowed to complete his or her term on the commission. This emphasis on getting rid of local authority members from various bodies has been appearing quite frequently in legislation. It was always the case that Members of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament and, of course, Ministers would be deemed ineligible to serve on State boards. There is now a tendency to exclude all elected public representatives from holding such positions. That approach should be reviewed. In the context of the Bill, members of local authorities should not be excluded from serving as commissioners, positions for which they are well qualified. The fact that they stood for election to public office should not result in their being deemed ineligible to serve as commissioners. In my opinion, it would enhance their role in that regard.
I commend the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan, on the preparation of the Bill in such a speedy manner. It contains very detailed provisions and the Minister has obviously put an enormous effort into it. It is approximately 40 years since the previous legislation was enacted in relation to taxis and hackneys. The Bill is very timely and I commend it for enactment as quickly as possible.
On behalf of the Minister for Transport, I thank all Senators who contributed to a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate. The Bill will have a direct impact on those who operate small public service vehicles and those who use such services. The services provided by taxis, hackneys and limousines are a vital element in the overall public transport options available to the public. These services are uniquely placed to meet the transport demands of those whose needs cannot be addressed by the more general public transport services. Small public service vehicles have an important role in providing mobility for people in areas where there are no other public transport services.
Small public service vehicles are particularly important in addressing the needs of people with disabilities. They form a flexible element of the public transport mix. While there have been problems and criticisms in respect of these services, we should bear in mind the positive role played by taxi and hackney drivers and the industry. I particularly appreciated Senator Brady's comments in this regard. I knew his father, a very colourful and engaging man who operated in this area of public service. Some years ago, when taxi drivers were being almost universally attacked in the media, I recall my children describing them as good people who look after one in a difficult situation. The good work of taxi and hackney services should not be simply dismissed.
There is general agreement about the proposal to establish the Commission on Taxi Regulation, which will provide a central focus for the future policy direction needed to support the services provided by taxis, hackneys and limousines. There is particular support for the fact that the function and objectives of the commission are clearly targeted at the delivery of good quality services to customers. The customer is central to the policy established by the Bill and should also be central to all services, public and private.
In the debate in this House and in the Dáil, many speakers referred to the impact of liberalisation of access to taxi licences, especially with regard to the standards applicable to taxis and their drivers and the financial effect the explosion in the number of taxi licences has had on the holders of such licences. This is a very difficult area and the Minister has dealt with it well in the Bill. Nobody has suggested, however, that change was not necessary or that the pre-existing arrangements were satisfactory.
In response to a number of contributions, particularly that of Senator Tuffy, I must point out that the Minister said when the Bill was introduced that the decision to remove quantitative controls on access to taxi licences stemmed directly from a series of High Court decisions. Not to have enacted the legislation immediately in compliance with the High Court decision would have left the Government of the day and the local authorities open to further legal challenge which would have prompted immediate liberalisation. In fact, had there been further legal challenges there would have been even greater chaos.
In a separate and subsequent case brought before the High Court by taxi industry representatives the court ruled that there was no onus on the State to compensate taxi licence holders for any loss in respect of their licences. It was a harsh judgment but in accordance with the law of the time. Notwithstanding this, the Government did recognise that the decision to liberalise gave rise to difficulties for certain taxi licence holders. A number of schemes to mitigate such difficulties were put in place, the most important flowing from the establishment of the taxi hardship panel. I will not repeat the details given already by the Minister in relation to the panel's report, save to confirm that it has been accepted by the Government. This is important because, as Senators have recognised in their contributions, people have suffered considerable hardship as a result of the changes. The arrangements to begin consideration of specific payment requests resulting from the recommendations of the report are being advanced as quickly as possible in parallel with processing of the Bill. It is important that the human side of the story is addressed, too.
From the outset of the debate there has been comment on the declining standards of taxis since liberalisation was introduced. That theme ran through the debate here. It is important to remind the House that in association with liberalisation, annual inspection by the national car testing service was introduced in place of the biennial inspection. In more recent times the taxi meter printer requirement to facilitate automatic receipts for taxi fares has been put in place. This deals with the type of scalping mentioned by Senators White and Henry.
The need to examine standards was clearly signalled in the consultation paper by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in February last year. That paper and the responses to it informed the preparation of the Bill and resulted in its focus on standards. It made specific reference to the limitations of the current specification relating to licensing, for example, of wheelchair accessible taxis. The questions raised in the paper in relation to wheelchair accessible taxis are of fundamental importance in the consideration of future policy relating to such vehicles. The commission being established by the legislation will determine the manner of and time frame for implementation of a policy on accessible services.
Senator Leyden spoke interestingly about the extraordinary range of vehicles used in the taxi service. I have seen a Fiat Punto being used as a taxi at one extreme and very elaborate cars at the other. The range is striking. The Senator mentioned the New York yellow cabs and how they had iconic status – everybody knows what a yellow cab is. He might have a look at the old prints hanging in various places in this House. The original colour of the Dublin hackneys and cabs was yellow. In fact, the yellow cab idea emanated from Ireland. It would not be a bad idea to have a single recognisable livery across the service.
In the matter of standards section 38 of the Bill is of particular interest. It places an onus on the commission to pursue the development of vehicle standards in the context of the needs of people with disabilities but also generally. The commission has within its powers under this legislation a remit to consider the design and appropriateness of vehicles used. The Bill puts an onus on it to determine its policy in view of best practice in other European states, as there is no common European model.
Section 36 is also very important because it sends a clear message to current and prospective taxi operators that in future the provision of taxi, hackney and limousine services will be reserved for those who can generate the appropriate level of trust from customers. Senators made reference to criminals becoming involved in the industry, which is a worrying development. In addition, the Bill properly empowers the commission to revoke licences. This provision will address some of the concerns expressed. Section 36(1) applies to all licences granted in respect of small public service vehicles, that is, the licence of both vehicle and driver. This is also important because not only will the licence of the vehicle be covered but also the driver's licence.
The issue of a central booking system for taxis was mentioned by Senator Henry. It was mentioned several times during the debate on the Bill. Suggestions have been made that a central booking service is very important in the provision of an enhanced service to the public. While it is a good idea, it should be developed not by the commission but by the industry. There is far too much nanny state-ism as it is. I would not like to see the establishment of a new quango which people would have to ring to order their taxis. The idea does not commend itself. The appropriate body to introduce such a booking service is clearly the industry.
There have been several references today, for example, in Senator White's contribution, to complaints from customers. Section 34(2)(f)(xi) gives the commission power to regulate the display of information necessary for the assistance of passengers. Such information could and will include, in addition to information on fares and vehicle driving licences, details of appropriate contact points for making complaints. It is important that such details are available. It is also important that Irish people learn to complain. There is no point whatsoever in moaning about events after they happen.
I disagree with that attitude. Making complaints is a vital element in creating a good customer service because it is only a small number in the industry who are guilty of scalping customers. A similarly small number are abusive to their customers. It is wrong that the whole industry should suffer because of them. It is right that those responsible should be made to face the consequences of their actions. The first responsibility, however, is on customers to complain.
The Minister indicated, correctly, that he would resist calls for the removal of section 40 of the Bill which refers not only to the responsibilities of taxi drivers but also those of customers. We all accept that the primary reason for the Bill is to address the issue of the delivery of services but the Bill is not blind to the fact that there could be problems with clients, too. To exclude a provision such as section 40, which deals with the duties of customers – already provided for in other public service regulations – would be inappropriate, given the fact that the Bill establishes a legislative basis for the deployment of high standards for drivers and licence holders alike. It is appropriate that there should be a way of dealing with recalcitrant or difficult customers. In the Dáil debate, for example, concerns about drunken customers were raised. Senator Brady touched on the same issue. The drivers of such vehicles have and will continue to have the right to refuse access in certain circumstances. Like some Senators, I would not like to see a bullet-proof screen between driver and customer. That would be unsatisfactory on both sides.
The role of local authorities in the new Bill should be mentioned. The Minister for Transport, in his opening address in the other House, said that local authorities would continue, in the immediate term, to act as licensing authorities and to exercise their other roles under the public service vehicle regulations. When the relevant sections are commenced local authorities will continue to be consulted on the provision or amendment of taxi meter areas or maximum fare structures for taxis. There is still an involvement for local government, which I welcome.
Taxi ranks have been the subject of very negative comment by taxi licence holders and by the public in a number of taxi meter areas for some years. The position has been exacerbated as a result of the significant increase in taxi licence numbers in all areas. It seems that local authorities have not lived up to their responsibilities in this matter. Taxi ranks are still non-existent in many towns. In other places they are thoughtlessly sited. Local authorities considering establishing taxi ranks or upgrading existing ranks would do well to have a look at the very fine example recently put in place in Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin. A taxi rank should be easily identifiable, like a bus stop. It should not be an eyesore, as ranks in many parts of the country are.
To streamline the arrangements for taxi ranks the Road Traffic Act 2002 provided that responsibility for the determination and location of ranks should be vested in local authorities. That will remain the case. It is a matter for local authorities to address. The income generated for local authorities from licence fee receipts should allow them to ensure that an adequate number of ranks is available at appropriate locations. There should be consultation with the industry in this regard.
Issues regarding the establishment of an advisory council have been raised. The Minister has explained that arrangements for the appointment of the council were proceeded with in advance of the publication of the Bill. In line with the provisions of the Bill, nominations were sought from various interest groupings. I can assure the House, therefore, that the appointments to the council will generally result from nominations sought from the various groups mentioned in section 35. The council will be appointed every three years.
The accountability of the commission has been raised. This issue is of personal interest to me. I am not a fan of unanswerable quangos, of which we have a few. We should not create any more of them. The Bill establishes, in section 25, that the commission is required to report to the Committee of Public Accounts and, whenever so requested, to a committee of one or both Houses of the Oireachtas. Having been a chairman of a committee to which representatives of various State and para-State enterprises had to be dragged kicking and screaming, I welcome this measure.
Section 25 brings in the issue of answerability. The overall policy promoted by the Bill remains a matter for the Minister for Transport, who will continue to be answerable to the House. That provides for democratic answerability. In seeking to ensure the independence of the commission, it would not be appropriate for the Minister to intervene in specific decisions by it. Section 25 is well crafted and well balanced. It achieves answerability while allowing a degree of flexibility and autonomy.
In the debate in the other House reference was made to the policy pursued in the Dublin taxi meter area prior to liberalisation. There is, by implication, a reference in the contributions of Senators Tuffy and Brady to the same issue. Dublin City Council and its sister councils were involved in commendable actions in the late 1990s on the issue of new taxi licences. The rate of annual issue of new licences was reduced as a direct result of a recommendation from the local authorities in the report of the Dublin taxi forum. That resulted in the issue of taxi licences over a four year period, to give a total of 3,500 taxi licences by the end of 2002. By the end of 1999 the Government considered that the growth in demand for taxi services would not be met by the pace at which licences were being granted within the Dublin taxi meter area. This was, as Senator Brady outlined, because of the exponential growth of traffic within the city area and the growth of population. It was against that background that the Government promoted a scheme which had the potential to give an increase of over 3,100 taxi licences in one year. That initiative, which was introduced by a previous Minister, was the subject of the High Court challenge which led to the judgment that the retention of quantative restrictions on taxi numbers could not be sustained. We might all have our views on the appropriateness of the judgment but that is the law as handed down by the courts. This legislation and the measures it contains flow directly from the court judgment. It was not simply a ministerial whim which led us into the current situation. It was a combination of events.
I thank Members for their extremely positive contributions to the debate on the Bill. The Government and Members on all sides of both Houses recognise the need to provide a new, focused and quality oriented structure to support the future development of services given by taxis, hackneys, limousines and their drivers. They are a very important part of the public transport mix and they give, in the large majority of cases, a good service. While it has been right and proper to criticise those who give bad service it is also important to recognise that which is good.