Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Taxi Regulation Bill 2012: Second Stage
I am glad to see Members again so soon after our discussions on the recently enacted Transport (Córas Iompair Éireann and Subsidiary Companies Borrowings) Act 2012, and I thank the House for its co-operation on that. I must hold some sort of record as this is the second Bill I have introduced as a Minister of State that has begun in this House in the space of about two months. On this occasion, I am introducing the Taxi Regulation Bill 2012, which deals with the requirement to strengthen enforcement of the taxi regulations and, in order to ensure a robust legislative framework for these new enforcement provisions, to replace the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. We are coming from an era in which there was a laissez-faire approach to taxi regulation, which must be ended. This Bill, along with other measures, will make 2013 a defining year for the taxi sector, which has finally been placed at the top of the political agenda. As well as the measures I will outline, a series of radical changes will take place in the taxi sector. There will be an online register of drivers so the State knows what driver is in each car, and consumers will be able to verify this. The rental sector will be cleaned up and we will have new vehicle standards and increased enforcement. This Bill is part of a package of measures designed to improve the taxi sector for consumers and drivers alike.
The programme for Government sets out a commitment to review and update the regulation of taxis to ensure that taxi services are recognised as a key component of the public transport system and to provide for a forum for discussion between the regulatory authorities and taxi providers. The publication of the Bill is a key step in honouring that commitment. The genesis of the Bill lies in the recommendations of the taxi regulation review report from 2011, which was endorsed by the Government in January 2012. The taxi regulation review group, which I chaired, was established following a Government decision in June 2011. The aim of the review was to allow consumers to have confidence in the taxi system while also ensuring that legitimate and competent operators and drivers can be rewarded fairly by operating under a regulatory framework that is adequately enforced.
The review group brought together representatives of all of the key stakeholders - dispatch operators, taxi drivers and consumer representative groups, as well as relevant Departments and regulatory and enforcement agencies. It carried out a wide-ranging review of the sector which included a public consultation process involving an opportunity for written submissions on the review and for oral presentations from key stakeholder groups. A parallel public consultation was carried out by the National Transport Authority, NTA, on vehicle standards.
In drawing up its recommended measures, the review group was also assisted by an independent economic analysis carried out by Indecon economic consultants. The Indecon analysis concluded that there is an oversupply of small public service vehicles, in the range of 13% to 22% of the current fleet. In Indecon's view, the level of oversupply is influenced by the impact of non-compliant operators in the sector and by the low level of exit from the industry. The review report indicated that a number of legislative changes would be required to strengthen enforcement and ensure compliance with the taxi regulations.
I am satisfied that the measures set out in the Bill strike an appropriate balance between consumer interests and those of the operators in the industry and the need for regulatory bodies to be able to undertake proportionate and effective oversight. I am confident that the new enforcement provisions of this Bill will be broadly welcomed by the industry and consumers alike. The Bill represents the most comprehensive review of taxi regulation ever carried out in this State and one that I am proud to champion as Minister of State. Drivers are suffering from unfair competition from unscrupulous operators while consumers have not felt safe or had confidence in the standards of professionalism in the taxi sector. This Bill will help to bring about change.
The new legislation will provide for a much more sophisticated enforcement toolkit.
The enforcement regime to be adopted in future will be based on a graduated approach to tackling non-compliance, depending on the gravity of the criminal offence or compliance failure. It will also be designed to speed up the prosecution of offenders and the administration of justice. The Bill ensures that enforcement and compliance start at the point of entry to the industry. Under Part 4 the mandatory disqualification of drivers from holding an SPSV licence will ensure that those with convictions or indictment for the most serious violent crimes will be excluded from the industry. A key recommendation arising from the taxi regulation review was the commencement of the legislative provision for mandatory disqualification. The provision has been on the Statute Book since 2003, in the Taxi Regulation Act, but has not yet been commenced due to concerns over its proportionality and administration.
The underlying policy principles for the mandatory disqualification provisions are, first, to ensure the welfare and the safety of passengers of small public service vehicle, SPSV, transport services, particularly in situations where a passenger is travelling alone in a taxi and, second, the proportionate application of the mandatory disqualification provision, to avoid any risk of legal challenge, on the basis of the constitutional right to earn a living, with regard to excluding persons from operating in the taxi industry.
The proportionality issue is addressed in the Bill through specifying the most serious of offences in the Schedule, for which conviction on indictment constitutes a demonstration, through their previous criminal actions, of the propensity of the person to harm another person; allowing for a tiered system of disqualification. This is based on consideration of the seriousness of the offences in the Schedule. The most serious offences are shown in Part 1 of the Schedule, namely, those which result in disqualification for life from the date of conviction. With regard to disqualification in the case of the offences listed in Part 2 of the Schedule, there is a tiered system of disqualification periods in the Bill based on the severity of the length of the sentence imposed upon conviction, to which additional years of disqualification are applied. In less grave cases where a fine only or a suspended prison sentence is imposed, there is a 12 month disqualification period. In the more serious cases the disqualification period can range from an additional two years where the term of imprisonment imposed is between three and five years, up to the top end of the scale where an additional five years disqualification period applies where the term of imprisonment imposed is more than seven years.
There is an appeal provision under the mandatory disqualification provision which is open to all, allowing the courts to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the suitability of individuals to hold a licence. In order to be proportionate, the mandatory disqualification provision is applied retrospectively. A 12 month stay is provided for with regard to licence holders who have convictions prior to enactment of the Bill to allow for those persons to appeal their disqualification to the courts. In the case of these licence holders, if the appeal is not made within the 12 month period, or if such an appeal fails, the person is disqualified and their licence stands revoked.
Section 27 of the Bill makes it an obligation for licence holders and applicants to notify the licensing authority of their conviction of any offence that falls under the mandatory disqualification provision. A licence applicant must supply this notification at the time of application. In the case of a licence holder the notification must be supplied no later than one month from the date of conviction, or in the case of convictions prior to enactment, within one month of enactment of the Bill. I believe that the provision for mandatory disqualification in the Bill will be a vast improvement in strengthening the existing vetting system carried out by An Garda Síochána in its administration of SPSV driver licensing system.
The licensing authority for SPSV licences is the National Transport Authority, NTA, in the case of vehicle licences and An Garda Síochána in the case of driver licences. The Bill provides for the possibility that the administration role now undertaken by the Garda will pass to the NTA at some point in the future. However it is envisaged that vetting of applicants and licence holders will remain a Garda function.
More robust licensing and assessment provisions found in Part 2 on SPSV licensing, will give powers to the licensing authority, both the NTA and the Garda, to refuse to grant a licence application or to revoke or suspend a licence, based on an assessment of the suitability of the person to hold a licence, as found in section 10 in the Bill. This includes consideration of convictions for any offence, in addition to the offences in the Schedule, that have relevance to the assessment of suitability with regard to providing a service to passengers and use of SPSV vehicles.
The licensing authority may also, under section 11 which concerns the revocation or suspension of a licence, decide to revoke or suspend a licence where it is satisfied that the person is no longer a suitable person to hold a licence based on its consideration of whether the person has contravened the taxi regulations or code of practice established or adopted by the NTA under section 18.
Section 13 provides for a system of appeals and representations with regard to decisions of the licensing authority to refuse to grant a licence application or to suspend or revoke a licence, with a final appeal made available through the District Court.
For licence holders, the new demerit scheme under Part 5 of the Bill will deal with recurrent breaches of the taxi regulations. This scheme is based on the penalty points system for driving licences but there will be no overlap between the operation of the two systems. Under the SPSV demerit scheme, demerit offences, which constitute breaches of the taxi regulations, are specified in section 30. The table in section 31, which shows endorsement of demerits, sets out the number of demerits applicable upon payment of a fixed charge or upon conviction for each demerit offence. The period of endorsement of demerits on an SPSV licence is three years. Disqualification by reason of demerits is automatic upon obtaining a total number of demerits equal to or exceeding eight, and the disqualification is for a period of three months. The appropriate date for commencement of a period of disqualification arising under the demerit scheme will be 28 days after notice is given for disqualification, or some further date to be determined in the courts in the case of an appeal against a conviction for a demerit offence that is relevant to the disqualification.
Section 44 provides for fixed payment offences for contravention of the regulations on a range of regulatory matters that can be enforced by the NTA enforcement officers and, in the case of specified offences, also by members of An Garda Síochána. The level of fee payable for a fixed payment offence will be established by regulations made by the NTA. In addition, the fixed payment offences are also demerit offences under Part 5 of the Bill. Therefore, upon a fixed payment or conviction for a fixed payment offence, the specified number of demerits will be endorsed on an SPSV licence.
The on-street enforcement resources of the NTA will in the future be supported by resources obtained under service agreements as provided for under section 46. Changes made to the provision for authorised persons under the Bill in section 36 will allow for persons under service agreements to carry out all or any of the functions of authorized officers as specified under warrant of appointment from the NTA.
Conduct and compliance at taxi ranks is also dealt with in the Bill. Section 22 provides for specific offences relating to a breach of the parameters for use of taxi stands that are specified in by-laws made by the local authorities. For example, there is the offence of standing with a taxi on a part of a public road adjoining a taxi stand when the taxi rank is full. Section 40, on closed circuit television at taxi ranks, will allow the NTA to use cameras, CCTV or other apparatus to build its evidence base with regard to breaches of the regulations and offences involving SPSVs at taxi stands.
The Bill represents a balance between concern for the quality of service and safety for the passengers in SPSVs, while also setting out the obligations on passengers with regard to SPSV services, under section 25, on the regulation of passengers in SPSVs. Furthermore, the coherence of the overall regulatory and enforcement framework which is contained in the Bill is simplified and streamlined into three core areas where the NTA has powers to make regulations, SPSV licensing, assessment of licence applications and SPSV operations and standards. This represents a refinement and streamlining of the previous regulatory powers under sections 34 and 39 of the Taxi Regulation Act 2003, and provides greater clarity for all those involved in the taxi industry.
The Taxi Regulation Bill is a major improvement on the existing legislative framework. It is a more precise statement of the powers of the regulator, the principles and process for licensing and assessment, and the operational standards required by licence holders. This will give clarity to potential new market entrants and to licence holders in the industry, as well as to SPSV passengers in regard to the quality and standard of service they should expect. The Bill sets out clearly the consequences for applicants and licence holders who fail to meet suitability standards or for contravention of the regulations. The provisions of the Bill facilitate the development of a greater physical enforcement presence and capability to effectively enforce the taxi regulations. It will improve the speed of dealing with regulatory breaches through fixed payment offences and the new demerit scheme even before these issues reach the courts. The new enforcement measures and refinement of the regulatory framework contained in the provisions of this Bill are essential to support the future regulatory regime where only suitable and compliant drivers and operators can benefit within the SPSV industry and in order that passengers can be confident that SPSV services are of a high quality and are safe for travel.
Following the publication of the Bill and in the light of representations made and further analysis undertaken by my Department in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General and the Garda, I expect to bring forward a small number of amendments on Committee Stage. These mainly relate to technical and drafting matters. However, I am considering the possible need to provide for business continuity in the event of the death of a licence holder given that licences will no longer be transferable. I am also considering an amendment to the Bill to give the necessary powers to the gardaí under the Road Traffic Acts to enforce 11 fixed payment offences which were specified by the Taxi Review Group under Action 21 of the Taxi Regulation Review Report. This will greatly ameliorate the effective on-street enforcement of the regulations, following on from enactment of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State back to the House and commend him on being, as he said, the first Minister to initiate two items of legislation in the Seanad within as many months. That is a way of identifying the positive uses of the Seanad. We can be an important vehicle, if the Minister will pardon the pun, for legislation and if other Ministers took a leaf out of the Minister's book it would help us in a major way.
Fianna Fáil supports this Bill which is in line with our party policy. It is based to a great extent on the progress made under the two previous Fianna Fáil-led Administrations, with support from all sides of the House. We have the right to introduce amendments on Committee Stage which we may well do.
The Bill is quite detailed. Its purpose is to put into effect elements of the Taxi Regulation Act 2003 which were never commenced or put into operation. One has to wonder about the reason for the delay in putting those elements into the initial Bill which are only being acted upon now. I might be leaving myself open to a sucker punch in that regard as Fianna Fáil was in government for most of that time but the Minister might outline if there were any particular difficulties or legal problems or was it the case that the Government simply did not get around to doing it? It appears that the main elements of this Bill would be universally acceptable to the public and for that reason I would have thought their implementation would have been expedited but that did not happen.
I welcome the strengthening of the commitment to impose a regime that excludes persons convicted of certain categories of offences from being taxi drivers, as would every right-thinking person. The famous "Prime Time" programme, which accelerated activity on this front to a certain extent, highlighted that up to 6,000 taxi drivers, or one in every seven, had committed a criminal offence. Some of those offences were significant while others may have been minor but once again we are thankful to the media for a positive exposition of that situation which is very worrying.
The safety of the general public must be paramount in all our deliberations. It is very important that a person getting into the back of a taxi would feel they are in safe hands, especially elderly people and, without being sexist, women who are quite vulnerable to attack from rogue taxi drivers, and we have seen a good deal of evidence about that. I commend the Minister on every attempt he makes to ensure the public can have more confidence in taking taxis and that they would feel safer in them.
The regime of offences will have to be examined in more detail on Committee Stage.
I refer to two types of taxi drivers I have encountered and about which the public will be aware. Taxi driver A is a decent individual who is working hard to provide for his wife and family. Since the deregulation of taxis in 2000 he has found himself up against much more competition. He has to work harder and for longer, often unsocial hours in areas and conditions that he would not normally have wished to find himself in but because of the competition he no longer has a choice in the matter. As a result of those pressures he will be very vulnerable, especially late at night, in terms of people emerging from clubs and other areas under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both. Anybody who has been listening to Joe Duffy's radio programme in recent days will have heard harrowing experiences from taxi drivers who were being robbed of their fares, beaten up and virtually kidnapped and instructed to drive to out of the way locations where they are beaten again and left in terror of their lives. We heard from taxi drivers whose vehicles were urinated in or vandalised in many different ways. Those people are finding it very difficult to get through their shifts. That taxi driver has nothing to fear from this Bill. It is unfortunate that the Bill cannot legislate in some way for his protection to allow him ply his trade in safety.
I am aware the review group, under the Minister's chairmanship, did not agree to reintroduce capping. That is something that will have to be examined again, especially in the economic downturn, because there are so many taxis operating it is virtually a rat race and people are being forced to work in conditions that are not safe.
Taxi driver B is a different individual. He is the fellow who invariably has a dirty taxi with the radio playing at full blast who is impolite to and shows no respect for his customer. He often does not know his way around the city. One of the taxi drivers' own spokespersons stated that one third of the taxi drivers in Dublin do not have a clue where they are going, and every one of us has anecdotal evidence of that. I related a story in the previous Seanad that on a wet night I wanted to travel from the House to my apartment in Lower Liffey Street, which is just over the Ha'penny Bridge, but the taxi driver had never heard of it. I told him I would get off at Bachelor's Walk but he had never heard of that either. Finally, I told him to let me off at O'Connell Bridge and when I saw him going for his satellite navigation system I knew I was in trouble. He ended up driving up Grafton Street, which is one-way, and was apprehended by the gardaí. He then tried to charge me ¤15 for my troubles. That particular individual was a foreign national. There is not a racist bone in my body but there is a perception among the public that there are people driving taxis in Dublin who do not have a word of English and no clue about the city in which they are working. We all know that the taxi drivers in London must pass rigorous knowledge tests. Is there such a testing regime in this country? Is it being operated or is it a scam in that they are getting other people to do it for them?
There are taxi drivers in every city who take advantage of customers, especially foreigners. We all know the inventive ways they can find to bring one from the airport along circuitous routes and so on. That is very difficult to legislate for, and I note the Taxi Drivers Association has stated it would be 100% in favour of such individuals being outed and they would not get any support from that association.
The Bill refers to taxi ranks which have been a bugbear of mine for many years. Taxi stand regulation is long overdue. In this city alone the first one that comes to my mind is the taxi rank at Upper O'Connell Street opposite the Gresham Hotel. I have often witnessed potential customers being abused by taxi drivers for approaching what they thought was the head of a queue only to find that the head of the queue is virtually across the street and they have to cross O'Connell Street to get to it. We have all seen unseemly situations where taxi drivers are shouting at each other using colourful language, especially at that location. It occurs in Dame Street also which at night is virtually a sea of taxis. The taxi situation on Dawson Street is also very unsatisfactory. The Minister's idea of curtailing people joining the queue in an unauthorised fashion is something that I welcome to an extent. I can sympathise with a taxi driver who is trying to join that queue and where the traffic flow is reasonable one would excuse it but it must be tightened up in general. I welcome the use of CCTV cameras also.
I want to put an issue to the Minister which he might consider, namely, the introduction of some form of taxi marshal such as those used in airports, railway stations and so on in some of the major cities. It might help, and they could be funded partly by the taxi drivers themselves because it would be for their benefit and partly by the Taxi Regulator.
To my mind, a taxi marshal is required at Heuston Station. At Heuston there is an ideal sheltered waiting area for customers but the taxi drivers park 50 or 100 yards further down from it and expect the customer with suitcases to walk down to them in the rain. A taxi marshal could use his whistle to bring that to an abrupt end. I ask the Minister of State to consider that suggestion.
The Minister of State has probably examined the age rule for taxi vehicles which states no taxi should be over ten years old, but it is hard to legislate in respect of certain cars. I went to the airport in a state-of-the-art ten year old Jaguar. It was absolutely beautiful, with an all-leather interior. The driver's story was that he was being forced to trade that car in for a more up-to-date vehicle but as he could not afford to trade up financially, he will buy a five year old car, which will not be as customer friendly as the Jaguar. I wonder if more flexibility could be exercised in ruling on branded cars, as no matter how old they are, it is a pleasure to travel in them.
In the past the taxi service was confined to the city, whereas in country towns, a service was provided by the hackney driver, whom people would phone at his home and he would come and collect them. He could not hover around chip shops, pubs and the like. In most towns, taxi stands are being introduced and the town council in my own town recently introduced a stand in Listowel. It is probably one of the last towns to get a taxi stand. What impact will this have on hackney drivers? Is the hackney car on the way out? Is it possible to incorporate them in a different type of regime that would compensate them for their years of service and allow them to compete in a fair way? Traditionally in towns such as Listowel, the hackney driver got the business during the quiet times but during the Listowel Races, the taxis will travel from Tralee, Killarney and other places and take the business from them. Will the Minister of State comment on the future opportunities for hackney drivers?
Members of the Fianna Fail Party have a quibble on the transfer of the single plate licence within a family. We will table amendments on Committee Stage. The review body has not agreed to family transfers and this places the single plate owner at a disadvantage compared to the multiple, who operates on a company basis and the licence can become an asset of the company and therefore it has a transferable value in that respect. If a person who has a plate were to die suddenly - I welcome the reference to this problem at the tail end of the Minister of State's speech - his wife and family, sons and daughters cannot take over the licence and that is what provided their bread and butter. I would like the Minister of State to give that scenario some more consideration.
I wish the Minister of State well and we will return to these points on Committee Stage
On behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I welcome this Bill to the Seanad. This is the second Bill that the Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, has brought to the Seanad. As he stated, he learned about politics in this Chamber and he likes to introduce legislation in this House.
This Bill in entitled Taxi Regulation Bill 2012 and people might question the purpose of such a Bill. It is not concerned about regulating taxis driving around the streets of any major urban centre but there are too many taxis in Dublin at the weekend. The taxis are ignoring the taxi ranks and are a danger to the public. I welcome some parts of the Bill in relation to CCTV. The Bill will ensure the public will have confidence in the person driving their taxi. The need for reform is pressing and it has been obvious for some time that the decision by the former Government to deregulate the taxi industry put the industry into mayhem, as did so many of the other reforms it had introduced. It was a job half done. It failed to meet the needs of both taxi drivers and the public.
Senator O'Sullivan mentioned that he was taking a taxi but the driver did not know the location of O'Connell Bridge. I think that resulted from the deregulation of the taxi industry, because there was a two-year window in which people were granted a taxi licence without having done the knowledge test. I believe the knowledge test that is now in place is very severe and there is a 85% failure rate. That is a good thing.
Some years ago, a pub or a taxi licence commanded a good price on the market. It was a trend some years ago to borrow money to buy a taxi plate as a means of generating an income. In 2000, with the deregulation of the taxi industry, anybody could have a licence and many people who had invested in a taxi plate lost money. There was a compensation scheme but as Indecon indicated, there is a 13% to 22% over-supply of taxis in the country. That does not apply to rural Ireland.
In the course of his address, the Minister of State summed up what the Bill is about. He stated, "Drivers are suffering from unfair competition from unscrupulous operators while consumers have not felt safe or had confidence in the standards of professionalism in the taxi sector. This Bill will help to bring about change." I think that sums up the Bill.
I commend Deputy Kelly for dealing with this important area. Public safety must be the first priority. In this regard I welcome the Bill's provisions regarding mandatory disqualification from holding a licence on conviction for certain offences. The offences are listed in the Bill and I presume they will be debated on Committee Stage. There is a provision for the refusal of a licence, having regard to the suitability of a person to hold a licence following convictions for relevant offences or breaches of taxi regulations, and specifically the regulatory offences in the Bill that qualify as a demerit offences, and the specification of the conditions of demerit scheme leading to disqualification for holding a licence.
Will the Minister of State clarify when the demerits apply in relation to the taxi licence? A taxi driver may have a private vehicle. Do the penalty points awarded to a taxi driver in his or her private vehicle form part of the penalty points of the taxi?
I wish to elaborate on the point made by Senator O'Sullivan on the control of taxi ranks. The authorised officers will have the ability to inspect and examine the roadworthiness of SPV vehicles. That is a very welcome move. We all recall the "Prime Time" investigation into the taxi sector in Ireland which showed very disturbing evidence of inferior vehicles being used as taxis and the alleged abuse of the licensing system. I can give an example. I had a four year old car in the 1990s which was rear-ended and was written off by the insurance company. Within six months it was back on the road as a taxi in Kilkenny. It is very important that the regulations are implemented.
This is very necessary legislation. It has been necessary for some time and this area was sorely neglected by the previous Government. I believe that people are entitled to feel safe and secure in the knowledge that checks and balances are in place to protect their safety when they travel by taxi. This is crucial for the Government and I welcome the Minister of State's initiative in these areas.
The major stakeholders in the taxi review group would have been the taxi drivers. In general, taxi drivers have been positive on some of the proposed changes, especially in regard to tighter enforcement to deal with non-compliant operators. They have concerns regarding the new demerits systems and a worry that the enforcement procedures for non-compliant operators will be too lax.
Indecon found that in 2008 people took over 100 million trips in taxis. That has decreased to between 60 million to 70 million trips, in other words there is an over-supply. There will be a problem if people do not leave the industry because of the lack of employment prospects. Some people had acquired multiple licence plates and hired them out at the weekends to other operators. The regulation in relation to this is very hard to enforce.
Have these people a right to drive with this licence? I refer to Senator O'Sullivan's point about the authorised officers. The Garda Síochána has enough to do at the weekends in major urban centres in dealing with breaches of the peace. I do not mean they should not stop taxis. I suggest that extra powers be devolved to the NTA and its authorised officers to allow them to stop taxis to ensure the licence is in order and that those driving taxis have the correct documentation. I suggest the authorised officers be given the power to seize vehicles if the details are not correct. I question whether some of those driving taxis are tax-compliant and are in possession of a C2 certificate. For example, what is to stop me hiring a taxi from Senator Ned O'Sullivan by using another name?
A taxi plate which has not been used for one year will be rendered defunct. This proposal is welcome because the period of time was previously five years. The review group stated that the Garda Síochána increased its enforcement of the Taxi Regulator rules. However, the gardaí have enough work at the weekends, in my view.
One matter I wish to bring to the Minister of State's attention is taxi services in rural areas. Dublin and the major urban centres are a very different matter because they have plenty of taxis. However, the need for taxi services in rural areas was highlighted this week, albeit in a ludicrous suggestion. I am not making a Kerry joke or having a go at Senator O'Sullivan. We cannot condone the fact that the county council passed a motion to break the law. The Minister of State is well acquainted with the issue of rural transport, the provision of Ring a Link buses and services in country areas. I have highlighted this matter in the House on many occasions. I ask the Minister of State to consider a scheme for subsidising rural taxis or some form of tax incentive for the operation of such a service. Isolation is a significant problem in rural areas. I am not advising that people go out on drinking binges but for many people in rural Ireland the local pub is the only social outlet. The population may not be sufficient to support a full-time taxi service so I suggest a tax incentive for taxi operators in rural areas. This is a role for the Government. The local bus services such as Ring a Link can help rural dwellers to access the local town. This is particularly the case for older people. There is also scope for a night service. While abuse of alcohol is not to be condoned, many people in rural Ireland are moderate drinkers who use the pub as a social hub to meet their neighbours. There is nothing wrong with that. The Minister of State lives in a rural part of Ireland, as do I. I ask the Government to explore the capacity of a rural transport network operating in the evenings. I ask that such a scheme be begun on a pilot basis. I acknowledge the important work being done by the Minister of State in consolidating the various strands of transport funded by the Government. I ask him to consider this proposal in this context. I welcome this legislation and I wish the Minister of State well in steering the Bill through the Oireachtas.
I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. He is championing this legislation which we all support. It is good to see a significant injection of enthusiasm and energy into that work. The taxi industry review group, chaired by the Minister of State, should also be thanked for its hard work in this matter. It could be said that everybody is an expert on the taxi industry because we all use taxis. We all have both good experiences and some silly or bad experiences of journeys in taxis. Considering the millions of trips and the thousands of drivers and cars involved, it is a pretty safe industry. The number of accidents involving taxis is rare although there are cases where passengers have been in danger or have perceived themselves to be in danger.
I wish to pay tribute to the many taxi drivers who have helped me over the years. I refer to the decent drivers who have gone out of their way to help me. I remember a taxi driver in Antrim when I got lost in the middle of the night. He was sitting waiting for business. I drove up and said that I was completely lost. He went out of his way to drive for ten minutes to show me the road. This was quite late at night and I am sure he did not need the hassle of it but he helped me. That is the kind of attitude we would like this legislation to encourage, that those decent taxi drivers are recognised for the work they do and the often unpaid effort they make, particularly for elderly people in rural areas. They become more than taxi drivers in that they are of great assistance to elderly people and to young women who are travelling at night. My own daughter and her friends tell me that when young girls do not have enough money for the fare home they are often helped by taxi drivers. We do not hear those stories, hearing instead the stories about dangerous situations. I thank those taxi drivers because some of them have come to the rescue when it was not expected of them.
However, because of the nature of the job there are dangers to taxi drivers - as mentioned by Senator O'Sullivan - as well as to passengers. The provisions in this Bill ensure the safety of passengers, both personally and in terms of the vehicle's roadworthiness. Improving standards, administration and enforcement is always a good aim. This legislation will support and drive these changes. The mandatory disqualification of drivers with serious criminal offences is a welcome and necessary step. Retrospective legislation of this kind is not the norm, meaning that people with a serious criminal conviction will be disqualified from driving a taxi. The Bill will give them the opportunity to go to court to make their case. The result will be disqualification with licence revoked if the case is lost. This may reduce the number of taxis in operation. However the Indecon research indicates an over-supply of taxis. This Bill is designed to clear out those people who bring taxi drivers into disrepute. Tighter control of licences is welcome. I understand that it is proposed to introduce an on-line register of licence-holders complete with driver registration number. This is a necessary and logical part of tighter regulation. It means that a passenger in a taxi will be able to check the register on a smart phone. I ask the Minister of State to indicate when that register will be available. I ask him to explain whether the register will include the car and car registration number. This is the most efficient way to clock that something is wrong. A passenger may not be able to confront the driver but if the car does not match the register this information would be very helpful. Many local authorities in the UK have this on-line register. It gives customers direct input into the regulation.
The Bill empowers the National Transport Authority to improve the regulations for the standards and operation of taxis and to set up a code of practice which will give practical guidance and standards for the general behaviour appropriate for drivers and vehicles. I am particularly pleased to note the new demerit system which will encourage drivers to behave better in many different ways. Eight demerits will result in a three-month ban. A ban on driving will concentrate the mind more than will a fine. A driver cannot earn if he or she is banned. Three complaints from members of the public about a driver taking the long route home or, as Senator O'Sullivan said, the wrong route home, will result in the driver having to re-sit the knowledge test. As Senator O'Neill said, the failure rate is quite high. If members of the public are confident that they can complain about the service, hopefully on line, this will be a way of improving the service. We have all encountered taxi drivers who are taking a chance, who do not know where they are going. It can be very annoying when they will not take directions and it costs the customer money.
I am curious to know how rigorous is the knowledge test.
Clearly, that there are drivers who do not know where they are going indicates that the test may need to be tightened up. I am aware of the famous test of "the Knowledge" for London cab drivers. It sometimes takes 34 attempts to pass it. That demonstrates quite a high failure rate, bearing in mind that London is obviously an enormous city. I am not suggesting Clonmel, Sligo and Mullingar require a knowledge test that might take 34 attempts to pass but that our test may need to be a little more rigorous.
The level of competence for the skills development certificate should be kept under review at all times so that drivers will not be under-tested. There is a danger of putting a regime in place and then believing it will always be fit for purpose, but traffic trends change all the time and new roads are opened. Therefore, the competence requirements should be kept under scrutiny. I understand the MOT in the United Kingdom is ten times more strict for taxis than other vehicles. I do not know how much more rigorous our testing regime is for taxis. Perhaps we could consider this.
Perhaps the Minister of State will further our understanding of the service agreements that will be used by the National Transport Authority to make up for the lack of enforcement powers. I understand from the Bill that this will be allowed; I am just not clear as to what it might mean.
Are the assets that were transferred to the National Transport Authority with the commission available to improve enforcement work? Enforcement at the time legislation comes into being sends out a signal that we mean what we say. Legislation should not just be the fine effort of a Minister; it should mean something on the ground.
Like Senator O'Neill, I do not want to pass up the opportunity to mention rural taxis. We discussed this during Private Members' time last year. The Minister of State is concerned about this subject but I appreciate that it is difficult to find funding in these times. He should keep thinking about whether there is a way in which rural taxis could be used to the benefit of those who feel isolated, perhaps twice a week or at a lower cost.
I have a number of queries to which I would be grateful for a response. This is good legislation and much thought and effort have been put into it. Can this Bill achieve anything to protect drivers? Should taxi drivers be subject to a tachograph system of the kind that applies to lorry drivers? I am sure this was raised by the group. Would strong branding of taxis encourage or discourage counterfeit taxis? Could our branding be made stronger? Are there moves to encourage low-emission or electric taxis, since taxis contribute to pollution?
Is it mandatory for taxi drivers to accept without charge assist dogs accompanying the blind or deaf? Are there regulations pertaining to the advertising of taxi services? Under what category do rickshaws fall? We see them in Dublin, in particular. Do they need to be regulated given that they clearly use the road? Unlike bicycles used by couriers, rickshaws seat passengers. Do they fall under the regulation?
I welcome the Minister of State and our guests in the Gallery. I thank the Minister of State for the manner in which he always receives representations made in the Seanad. He sets the record, certainly in my time, in that he has commenced in this House two Bills in very rapid succession.
In the regulation of the sector, quantity licensing must be avoided at all costs. The Minister of State is trying to achieve quality licensing. The two must never overlap. The quantity licensing system led to a vast shortage of taxis, particularly in Dublin. At least four court judges said taxi licences should not command a scarcity value. The value of a taxi plate was over ¤100,000 in Dublin, and values were also very high in Ennis and Killarney. People were earning super-normal profits based on a piece of paper whose sole value was based on the fact that the Government would not issue any more pieces of paper.
There is a mixture of systems in the United Kingdom. Some do not ban new entrants as a point of principle while others do. The British Government is strongly encouraging all local authorities that still maintain quantity restrictions to remove them as soon as possible. Quantity restrictions represent the wrong way to run the industry and the courts overturned the decision thereon. The authors of the Goodbody report considered the system of restricting licences pertaining to quotas that were 20 years out of date and found that, in the country as a whole, the value of time savings, accounting for the value of time savings the Department of Transport uses to evaluate investments, was ¤780 million. Some ¤300 million of this pertained to Dublin.
Research was also conducted on the public. Some 96% believed the increase in numbers was good, while approximately 3% disagreed. Under 1% strongly disagreed. In a sense, I am echoing the words of Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, a fellow Tipperaryman, who said yesterday in the House that there should be more optimism. The review group is far too pessimistic and I will deal with some of the criticism. What occurred was a great success. An industry worth ¤1.5 billion was built up in a short time and it employed 36,000 people, three quarters of whom would not have been employed in the industry had the sector not been deregulated. If the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, had 25,000 extra jobs, his PR department would be in ecstasy and float off into the stratosphere. What occurred was a success and provided a service that consumers wanted and valued. An industry worth ¤1.5 billion is much more important than certain others. The receipts of Dublin Bus in 2008 amounted to ¤200 million and those from the railways amounted to ¤190 million. The receipts of Bus Éireann were worth ¤67 million. There was growth of 82% in Dublin when the taxi market was opened up.
I am not sure about the Minister of State's statement that we moved from a laissez-faire position. I heard a speech by Kathleen Doyle, the taxi regulator, at a transport conference in Lisbon in 2010. She was regulating the sector between 2003 and the present time, and she gave examples to illustrate her points. On the next Stage, I will bring forward some of the evidence.
It is too pessimistic to neglect the Goodbody report and all the success to which it pointed. Has the Department of Transport forgotten the report? It seems to have amnesia in regard to good news. I support Senator Ó Murchú in trying to get some good news into the House on this issue. Deregulation was a success in that 4,000 taxis became 21,000. This provided jobs and services, and ¤750 million in time savings.
There were faults, however. I looked up the Garda report but could not find any information on faults, as it has no special section on taxis. I looked up the documentation of the Department of Social Protection, which has investigated the sector. In its report on achieving compliance, the section on taxis states that one taxi vehicle out of 36,000 was impounded as it was driven by an individual with fake taxi driver documentation and two fake driving licences. This is according to the Department of Social Protection's fraud initiative. Let us not get carried away, however, with what the "Prime Time" programme indicated while ignoring the positive evidence in the Goodbody report and the findings of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. There are no other quantified statements of crimes or social welfare fraud committed by taxi drivers other than what I have indicated. The industry has an image that would suggest there is such fraud, but it is not evident in the reports.
Sometimes the incumbents in an industry that has traditionally been protected try to bad-mouth the new entrants. That is what has been happening in this State. They wanted to keep the industry shut so they could sell a licence for ¤130,000, or more. In New York, a medallion sells for $1 million. This indicates the amount of super-normal profits taxi drivers earn from keeping new entrants out. Thus, the incumbents will bad-mouth new entrants, although I do not know if there is any evidence as to what they do to the new entrants. What I have described is a tradition in heavily regulated industries and we must avoid it here.
There were 377 complaints in the year to December 2012. I looked up the Ombudsman's report and there were 3,700 complaints about public servants. Our constituents are ten times more likely to complain to the Ombudsman about abuse by a public servant than they are about a taxi person, so let us get that into perspective. There were 377 complaints for 75 million journeys. It is not that great. A good service is being provided which is appreciated and used by the public. I wonder if some of the decline in the business is as a result of uninformed comment that this business is unsatisfactory, merits a high level of consumer dissatisfaction, which is not shown in the figures of only 377 complaints, and is carried on by fraudsters, which was not shown up in the Minister for Social Protection's analysis of the industry.
The courts opened this up from the traditional licensing system for very good reasons but I worry about the attempts to shut it down again in SI 250 of 2010 in which new entrants are forbidden unless they operate wheelchair accessible vehicles. We have had a recession, and we all regret that. Taxi numbers are falling, and that is documented. We cannot say that Aldi and Lidl cannot open here or that we do not want any new industries to open up here because there has been a recession in the economy. People who are self-employed will experience recessions, and taxi drivers are self-employed. The assumption that the Parliament and the Minister of State have some duty to protect them unfairly against new entrants and against competition underpins some of this legislation, and I will table amendments to it on Committee Stage. The quantity aspects should not have been reintroduced by that statutory instrument. I note the Minister of State is repealing the 2003 Act, and I agree with him and will support the amendment in the Bill. I think he is having second thoughts on section 13, and I agree with him on that. However, we cannot have the wish of the House to improve quality become a backdoor method to reintroduce quantity licences which gave us an appalling industry in the past. It might be better for the regulator and for everybody connected to this to point out that the numbers illustrate a very small level of abuse, complaint and social welfare fraud.
Another point arises and it would be interesting if constitutional lawyers, like Senator Bacik, had a view. The Minister of State mentioned on radio this morning that there were 6,000 criminals in the industry.
I thank the Minister of State sincerely for that. There are 6,000 people with some form of criminal conviction. Suppose the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine said he did not want certain people in agriculture or the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said he did not want certain people in industry. Are we going to turn people into convicts? Are we going to give them all back to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter? It is double jeopardy to convict somebody of one offence and say he or she cannot run a taxi either. If every Minister said there were too many people convicted of criminal offences in an industry, it would result in a huge change to criminal justice in this country. People who have served their time and paid their fines have rights as well. I am not so sure where the number comes from but if every Minister carried on like that, we would have a permanent criminal underclass. That is a danger of some of the reporting of what goes on in this sector.
I thank the Minister of State for initiating the Bill in this House. I mention the review group which, despite the Minister of State being the chair and Pat Byrne being the deputy chair, was heavily bureaucratic and heavily representative of the incumbents. In this area of economics, the incumbents will always oppose new entrants. Aer Lingus did so for years and CIE does it to independent bus companies. It is well known. I fear the emphasis is not enough on the consumer and too much on protecting the interests of the incumbents.
It is not often that I find myself slightly disagreeing with my good friend and the most eminent transport economist in the country. In terms of wheelchair accessible taxis and the comparison with Lidl or Aldi, if Lidl or Aldi open a new store, it must be wheelchair accessible and disability-friendly. While I concur that new entrants into the taxi business should have accessible cars, it should not be cost punitive. There should be some sort of a tax rebate scheme for taxi drivers entering the taxi business where they are required to have accessible vehicles.
The taxi industry was deregulated in 2000 when one could not get a taxi for love or money on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. I was living in Donnybrook at the time and I remember if one went into the city centre at night and if there was rain or snow, one had to walk home because there were no taxis. The taxi industry was to blame for Bobby Molloy's decision to deregulate because no agreement proposed by the Government at the time was acceptable to the leaders of the taxi unions. At one stage, it proposed that it would give a free plate to everyone with a taxi plate in Dublin but that was not agreed to. The Government made the right decision to deregulate the taxi industry.
That said, deregulation has probably gone too far. Approximately, six months ago I was out in Dublin on a Saturday night and Dawson Street was littered with taxis at 1 a.m. We have the other extreme now where taxi drivers are finding it hard to make a living. What the Minister of State proposes in this legislation is what we assumed was already in existence in the taxi business. What is he is doing is effectively bringing in a set of common sense proposals to ensure that the business is tidied up. It is quite shocking that 6,000 PSV licence holders have some form of criminal conviction, granted many of those convictions are for minor offences, such as road traffic offences. However, a proportion of convictions are possibly for more serious offences.
When people get into taxis to go home at night, they must have confidence that the person driving them is fit to be behind the wheel of a public service vehicle. It is reasonable for the public to assume the Government has regulations in place to ensure, where possible, the person behind the wheel of a taxi driving somebody home, who is perhaps in a vulnerable state, is fit to be in that position and it is a disgrace if we cannot stand over that. However, this legislation will ensure we will be in a position to stand over the people driving taxis.
Probably more than anybody else in this House, I use taxis on a regular basis. I was in a taxi coming to Leinster House from Heuston Station on Monday evening and the taxi driver said the largest fine for somebody who produces false identification when inspected is ¤250. Thankfully, this legislation will deal comprehensively with that type of scenario.
The taxi business has a very bright future. We must ensure that the travelling public not only travels in safety but in comfort. I applaud the Minister of State's initiatives in terms of ensuring vehicles are up to standard and the penalty point-type system proposed in that after a number of offences, a person will lose his or her PSV licence.
That is a great incentive to ensure that PSV licence holders do the right thing. It will ensure that they provide the best possible service and in the best possible vehicle. In this day and age nobody expects to be driven around in new 131 or 132 registered cars all of the time. A person who is paying to be driven from A to B has a legitimate expectation that the vehicle is comfortable and safe.
The Minister of State does not have an easy job. I have no doubt that the taxi unions are not the easiest people in the world to deal with and they have an inflated sense of expectation. However, there are thousands of genuine and hardworking taxi drivers who want to do the right thing and go out every day with the best intention to provide a good service in a safe vehicle and earn an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. I want to see the industry protected for the sake of those people. I have no doubt that we will have to introduce further legislation for the sector. I will wait and see how the current legislation transcends into reality. Obviously its enforcement element is extremely important. I am delighted to note that the Minister of State has made provisions to ensure that the legislation is enforced because, as we all know, legislation is no use unless it is enforced. I wish him well and applaud the legislation.
My colleague, Senator O'Sullivan, has already outlined the Fianna Fáil position on the Bill. My party welcomes it in general and in principle apart from some aspects which he has pointed out regarding the transfer of licences, etc. I am sure that the Minister of State will deal with the matter.
I agree with the objective behind the new legislation and regulations. The excellent Bills Digest compiled by the Oireachtas Library & Research Service states:
The objective of the new legislation and regulations is to improve the quality of taxi services and the safety of passengers. Combined these will have a significant impact on the taxi industry. Standards should improve. Individuals with criminal convictions who should not have taxi licences will be prevented from receiving or holding one.I shall focus on something that Senator O'Sullivan also raised and perhaps the Minister of State has already responded. There is more than anecdotal evidence that people are driving taxis around the city who do not know one street from the other. I have experienced it myself. I am not being discriminatory when I say that it has nearly always been non-nationals who do this. It has got to the point, and I make no apologies for it, that I prefer to go to a local taxi driver rather than somebody who is obviously a non-national. My decision has nothing to do with the colour of his or her skin but is a response to my personal experience of taking taxis from Connolly Station only to discover that the taxi drivers did not know how to get to Merrion Square. I have been in a taxi where the driver had to use the satnav. I have asked long-serving taxi drivers about the matter and they told me that they wonder how the taxi licence authority can determine whether a driver has acquired sufficient knowledge. I know that Senator O'Sullivan referred to the London experience. I remember a famous television programme broadcast a few decades ago which was based on a test called "the knowledge" that all licensed London taxi drivers must pass. It was an extraordinary documentary on the hoops that aspiring taxi drivers in London must go through and I am not sure that such stringent testing is carried out here. The Bills Digest states:
The Garda Síochána issue SPSV Driver licences. To qualify for a SPSV Driver's licence a person must hold an Irish driving licence or a driving licence from another EU, EEA or other recognised state, produce a current tax clearance certificate, and pass the SPSV Entry Test to obtain the SPSV Skills Development Certificate. This test is in two parts: the Area Knowledge Test verifies that the driver has a good knowledge of the county in which they intend to operate; the Industry Knowledge Test verifies that they understand the taxi industry and the SPSV Regulations.I have a quibble with the first part and I would be grateful if the Minister of State could outline his thinking on the matter. Obviously there is something wrong with the system, and taxi drivers will say the same, when it comes to certain conditions. I understand that existing taxi drivers were not obliged to undergo the test but I am not sure if that is true. It is a real concern. There seems to be a higher proportion of non-nationals operating in the taxi industry than I see in any other industry. Perhaps that is just my perception and it may not be true.
I welcome the branding that has been introduced which went under the radar here. Many of us would love the establishment of a similar test to the London black cabs here. Other countries have introduced a designated colour or model of taxi. The taxi industry has resisted the introduction of a change of colour or model of taxi on the grounds of cost. The Minister of State was right to initiate the branding and I hope that he will go further. The capital city should have a distinctive taxi brand that visitors can relate to. There is no difficulty in recognising a taxi here but from an optics, tourism and image point of view, branding should not be left to one side. He should continue to push out the boat when it comes to branding. I am not sure that he will succeed in getting taxi drivers to agree on a particular type of car model. If he were, then it would have to be introduced over the long term. I am not sure whether discussions had taken place with stakeholders when he reached the conclusion that branding would be the minimum that would be accepted by the taxi industry. Overall my party welcomes the main thrust of the Bill and I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's comments.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I compliment him on the good work that he has done in the Department. I also thank him for listening to the contributions that were made here and he has made significant decisions since taking up office.
On behalf of the community that I represent in east Galway, I thank him for taking on board representations that were made to him on the Irish Rail service from Galway.
I also thank him for including, in the recently published timetable, additional rail services at Woodlawn station for which that community are extremely grateful and appreciative.
I welcome the legislation today. As the Minister of State has said, the legislation is an attempt to clean up some problems and difficulties that occurred in the taxi business.
I share Senator Barrett's concern that there might be a suggestion that we are attempting to exclude new entrants or new operators. A real concern for people who operate in the business at present is that there are many unregistered or illegal operators who make life very difficult and jeopardise the livelihood of legitimate and properly regulated licensed operators.
We all agree that the public is entitled to a safe, affordable and reliable transport system. It is vital - and the legislation will provide for it - that people who have not been convicted of serious crimes or people who have a reputable character are the holders of taxi licences. We have seen a limited number of incidents of people who were convicted of serious crimes here being in possession of a taxi licence and it is a concern. People must feel safe when they are at their most vulnerable and they expect to be safe at all times in a public transport vehicle.
There has been a lot of talk about the quality of vehicles and Senator O'Neill referred to it.
It is frightening to think that a vehicle that had been written off by an insurance company could end up being used as a taxi. We must tighten the regulation to ensure that does not happen.
I agree with many of my colleagues that the majority of taxi drivers are decent, honourable people who go about their business in a professional manner. In many instances they go above and beyond the call of duty to assist and facilitate people who might be in difficult circumstances late at night or those who find themselves short of resources. They are amenable and accommodating to such people.
Many Members spoke about the demerit system, and I welcome what is contained in this legislation regarding that. It goes without saying that driver knowledge should be a prerequisite for obtaining and possessing a taxi licence. If taxi drivers are not in possession of the knowledge of the area in which they are operating they are not suitable people to be providing a service. There is no way the shortest available route will be traversed if a taxi driver is not in possession of the local knowledge.
A key part to this legislation, and it is an area many people are concerned about, is enforcement of the regulation. I have anecdotal evidence that on a night when somebody from the regulator's office is present in the city of Galway, all the illegal operators leave town and the legitimate taxi operators have a decent night's takings. However, as soon as the regulator is out of the area the illegal operators are back in business again. Putting in place a regulation system that can control that properly, and I understand the Minister of State might outsource this particular facility, will be the key to the success of the legislation before the House.
I ask the Minister to take on board the appeal made by previous speakers that in the event of the death of the licence holder, particularly where it is a family business, there will be some facility to allow the transfer of a licence to another family member.
An issue was brought to my attention which the Minister might address. I refer to a public service vehicle person who is a sole operator with two vehicles and depending on the number of passengers he may have to switch that vehicle's use several times during the day. This person recently attempted to register the two vehicles but he was told he could register only one of them and that every time he used the second vehicle he must take the other vehicle off registration and register that vehicle. Is there any way a situation like that can be accommodated where the person would not have to switch registrations several times a day?
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to discuss the Bill which is important legislation. Many of the points I had hoped to make have been covered already, especially the positive aspects of the legislation, and therefore I will not labour on them too much.
We all know that for many people the taxi industry is in crisis and that across the State taxi drivers and their families increasingly are facing a bleak future. The over-supply of licences per application of existing regulations and the dramatic loss of trade have pushed hundreds of taxi drivers out of business and thousands more into real financial difficulty.
Senator O'Sullivan said that he did not want to leave himself open to a sucker punch but as mentioned earlier, we cannot deny that the previous Administration left the industry in bad shape and that many of the problems facing the taxi industry arose under those Administrations. This Government has not been quick enough to act but I welcome this legislation. The Minister has brought other legislation to the House and therefore I welcome that it is forthcoming.
While elements of the Bill are clearly positive - other Members have mentioned them and I will not labour them - the full extent of the crisis in the industry or the weaknesses in the existing regulatory regime have been adequately dealt with. That in part comes back to the lack of a real engagement with the industry as a whole, whether it be with the representative bodies or individual drivers. As Senators mentioned earlier, many individual drivers want to make a living. They may not be part of the representative groups but they have a good deal of input to make. There is greater scope for dialogue with them on this issue.
In terms of the feedback I have been getting from some of those representatives and taxi drivers, they expressed some dissatisfaction with the Bill we are debating today.
I welcome many aspects of the Bill but I want to deal with some specific aspects about which I am concerned. In that respect we will be looking at amendments which will be dealt with further in the Dáil.
The issue of additional fixed charges and taxi penalty points must be looked at again. Mandatory disqualification for criminal convictions needs further scrutiny, particularly in the absence of spent convictions legislation. We mentioned previously at other opportunities that there is a need to ensure that political prisoners released under the Good Friday Agreement are not disqualified from working in the industry. The Minister might want to comment on that.
The section of the Bill dealing with declaring other work is too weak. Not only is a requirement voluntary but, crucially, there is no restriction on people having full-time jobs while working as part-time drivers.
Other important issues are not covered by the Bill, the most significant of which is the over-supply of licences and the inadequacies of the vetting system. Since regulation the number of licences has increased seven fold and in many areas there are too many taxis on the roads, too many multi-licence holders and too many part-time drivers. That was compounded by the inadequate vetting system.
If we are to have a quality taxi industry that provides a quality service to people and a stable income for drivers and their families those key issues must be addressed. We have argued previously that the taxi regulation directorate must be held to account through the Dáil committee and biannual reviews. As I said, there is a need for improved vetting, a minimum hours requirement for drivers, and greater regulation of the rental market to ensure best service and safety for taxis as well as allowing full-time drivers to make a decent living.
We want the taxi industry to recover; nobody here would refute that. We want to make sure that the best quality service is provided to customers and that the industry provides well-paid, stable employment to drivers. The Bill goes a great way towards some of that but much more needs to be done. I thank the Minister of State for all the work he has done in the area and for bringing so much legislation before the Seanad recently.
I welcome this Bill. The Minister of State in his opening remarks described it as a defining year for the taxi industry. It may be; it is certainly about time. It has been a complete and absolute mess and a large part of that mess comes from the Government and regulators.
I remember speaking in this House on the question of the nine-year rule where taxi drivers were forced to get rid of their cars after nine years which made a farce of the national car test. The test applied to the interior and the condition of the vehicles. What is the point of having these things when one can certify the car is perfectly roadworthy and wonderfully maintained and yet simply because of the year one must get rid of it? It was a nonsense. Taxi drivers were badly caught and I know for a fact that some of them got rid of them, bought new cars at huge disadvantage and, due to pressure from this House among other sources, that was rescinded. That is very unfair and shows a lack of consultation.
To a very large extent I am on the side of taxi drivers, the vast majority of whom are decent, hardworking people who have been dealt with in an incoherent way.
I refer to the "scenic route" observation which, although it is a kind of urban myth, also occurs in every jurisdiction. I have experienced it in India and the United States but not, so far, in this country, rather the reverse, where I have taken the opportunity to advise the taxi driver about the shortest way. On a map I was right but the journey took twice as long because I had not taken into account the existence of taxi lanes. However, the driver did what I asked him. I am aware also of the very unreasonable attitude taken by a small proportion of the public towards taxi drivers whereby they take a taxi for a journey of less than half a mile and cause the driver to lose position in the rank. A number of us spoke about suicide this morning. I have had to draw the attention of the House to the very high proportion of suicides among taxi people. It is a crucifying situation at present in terms of costs and the downturn. We must keep this human aspect in our perspective.
I refer to the question of demerits and the removal of certain categories of person from the taxi service. Certainly this should apply in cases of convictions of a serious criminal nature and I applaud the Minister of State 100% on this measure. I consider it outrageous that people who are guilty of armed robbery, murder, serious drug offences and rape should be allowed to drive a taxi. I do not give a damn about double jeopardy or anything else. It is absolutely essential to protect people. There was a horrible rape case recently. If we are serious about it we must address this matter and hit the nail completely.
I hope there will be a universally applicable knowledge test. Like my colleagues I have had some experiences, and will end with one. I took a taxi from Leinster House, wishing to go to North Great Georges Street. The driver did not know where it was and began to drive me to South Great Georges Street, near Aungier Street. I told him the street was on the other side of the river. He said, "What river?" I said, "What planet? I am legging it out of this car", and did so. Many of these people, judging by their accent or skin tone, appear to be new Irish. I have also had very good experiences with people who fall into that category. It is a disservice to the new Irish not to have a universally applicable requirement. That would register with people, especially those who say they would not get into a taxi driven by an eastern European or a Nigerian. That is wrong but it is our responsibility to ensure drivers are qualified.
The Minister of State is welcome and so is this Bill. I would like to see some changes in it, particularly in regard to quantitative control, as referred to by Senator Barrett, as opposed to quality control. Twenty years ago I brought a group of some 1,500 visitors to Ireland for a big conference, everyone staying in five-star bedrooms. Those who came to plan it some months ahead of time could not get a taxi from their restaurant to where they were staying. They were told it would take three or four hours because the queues were so long. We nearly lost that conference that day. It is very important that whatever controls we implement concentrate on quality rather than quantity.
There is a necessity to have a knowledge test. The city of Hull has a population of 250,000. From April its taxi drivers must pass a six week course before they can get a taxi licence. The course will entail them knowing that city back to front. Dublin is much bigger but I am sure that a six-week course that insisted every taxi driver should know the city would solve of the problems Senator Norris has mentioned.
Can the Minister of State tell me what the rules are about having to have a first aid kit and fluorescent jackets in every taxi in order to ensure that if there is an accident passengers will be safe? If we do not have such rules we should have because these are the sort of measures that would be of benefit. This Bill is most welcome but let us see if we can improve it.
I thank Senators for their contributions and will endeavour to respond to points in as much detail as I can.
I really enjoy coming to this House where it is good form to tease out and debate issues. I have attended on the subject of taxis in general as some months ago there were statements on the issue. Much of the commentary has been on the regulatory side, as were many of the points today. I will not go into as much detail now as before but will hit on a few points. This debate is more about the legislation. Having been in this role for the past 22 months I know that if there is one industry we could stay talking about it is the taxi industry and its regulations. One could not put two taxi drivers into a room and expect them to agree about any form of regulation so when one widens the subject one will certainly not get agreement.
The Taxi Regulation Bill is the single most important piece of legislation in this regard and is a milestone for the industry. Let us remember this legislation was prepared in conjunction with a complete overhaul of all the regulations in the industry. A serious volume of regulations is being introduced this month. Senators will have seen all the new signage and changes in signage which is the first phase and intended to make the industry more professional. There are changes in regard to information provision, licensing and control of the rental industry - the latter of which is paramount to the success of the industry because it had gone far out of control. The legislation is in parallel with the new regulations.
There is a great amount of qualitative, rather than quantitative, changes that will clean up the industry in a positive way. Speaking as a former tourism executive I note that a course is being run by Fáilte Ireland for taxi drivers who operate from the airports, in regard to customer servicing and dealing with tourists coming into the country. It is a small thing but will make another contribution. Taxi drivers who do this course will get an acknowledgement for doing so. There are many changes taking place in an incremental way that have been needed for a long time.
This is a very open and transparent process. I have had many meetings with industry representatives. I have chaired the taxi review committee; there is also a taxi committee and a standards steering group. I have taken in both oral and written submissions and have met many of the groups. The NTA had a consultative phase in regard to standards. I ask Senators to trust me when I say we get ongoing representations to my office on a daily basis - there are hundreds of such representations. If I do not get to look at some of them I will hear them on Joe Duffy's "Liveline" from week to week. There is a great deal of commentary. I was left to digest all of this during the past year or so before introducing this legislation, which I believe is fair. I worked with the NTA to bring about the regulatory changes that will work in tandem with the legislation.
I will refer now to Senators' comments. Senator O'Sullivan asked why the legislation was not introduced before now. I could throw the question back at Members. The Bill should have been introduced before now. To be fair, some of the legislation was introduced, albeit in a different version, in the Bill of 2003 but there are questions as to why that Bill was not enacted. There were issues about the types of drivers and the mandatory disqualifications. Perhaps the previous Administration did not believe the legislation was rigorous enough. I have improved it making it much more vigorous in a court of law and have given the necessary powers to gardaí that they requested.
I have met on numerous occasions with the Commissioner and other gardaí, in particular the Garda representatives on the review committee. I am not personally in favour of capping the volume of licences. Such a policy is legally questionable and has never, as such, been on the agenda.
I wish to debunk an idea about the knowledge test and entry to the industry. We have a problem. The tests required to become a taxi driver are rigorous and I would be surprised if any Senator could pass such a test were I to impose one in relation to the area which he or she is from. He or she would have to know where each bank and sports centre was located in a county and how to get there within a prescribed period of time. The pass rate is low. The problem is that many drivers obtained licences in the period before the test was put in place. Those drivers have not been subject to the rigorous evaluation that is now required. It is very difficult as a matter of law to withdraw a licence from a person who obtained it under a pre-existing procedure. There are measures in place, however, to deal with circumstances in which licence holders are subject to demerits or convictions. It is an historical situation which I inherited. I wanted to ensure that the tests are rigorous, which they are, but there was a lacuna previously which it is not easy to address.
Taxi plates should not have a monetary value. A driving licence should not have a monetary value or be transferable. It was a mistake to allow a situation develop where there was a resale value for taxi plates. Where a plate has a monetary value it causes a range of difficulties. The issue is whether a person is a suitable, qualified person who meets the regulatory requirements to drive a taxi. It may be that an exceptional circumstance exists where a licence holder passes away whereby provision would be made to allow a once-off transfer to a family member.
I agree with the speaker who referred to taxi stands in respect of which there is scope for improvement. We are working with local authorities on off-peak loading bays and other measures. It is an issue, particularly in large urban areas. I agree with all Senators who referred to rural areas. As with all rural areas, there are too few taxi licence holders in Portroe where I am from. We are considering a rural hackney licence in respect of which the key issue of insurance falls to be resolved. I thank Senators O'Sullivan and Mooney for their support for the Bill, which is very much appreciated. I thank them for their encouragement on branding and other changes we have made in the industry recently.
To respond to Senator Pat O'Neill, there will not be any overlap between the penalty points applicable to a driving licence and a taxi licence. It would not be appropriate. He asked about the rental market. While the renting out of licences is one of the most significant regulatory issues which requires to be dealt with, the problem can be overstated. While I share some of Senator Barrett's sentiments in that regard and disagree fundamentally with others, it is a fact that the process under which licences could be rented out was too loose. Now we have to rent out the package. There is a need for a rental market where cars have been crashed or on foot of certain other reasons. Where a car is rented out, there is a responsibility not just for the vehicle but for the equipment, signage and insurance and for notifying the NTA that the person driving the car is qualified. It is a huge step in the right direction.
I thank my colleague, Senator Susan O'Keeffe, for her positive contributions. I am very supportive of full and part-time taxi drivers. I have a particular empathy for those trying to make a full-time living from taxi driving and they need to be supported. The Senator spoke about the information being provided by drivers and how that system will operate to allow us to ensure that a driver is who he or she says he or she is. The implementation of the system is imminent. I expect there to be mobile phone applications whereby a customer can check the number of a taxi online to ensure that the driver is the person authorised to drive the taxi. If the picture displayed by the application does not match the person behind the wheel, you will not stay in the car. It is for this reason that those working in the industry will have to update their information in real time so that we can ensure that those driving vehicles are the right people.
It is proposed that licence holders who are the subject of a number of complaints on their area knowledge shall resit the test. I have had the experience referred to by many Members of having to approach a number of taxis before a driver knew the destination I wished to travel to. Senator Barrett spoke about the low number of complaints and I have worked with the NTA to ensure that the procedure for making complaints is improved and made more accessible. Many people do not bother to complain because it is not easy. The complaints procedure should be moved online and made available,inter alia, by way of mobile technology. There will be substantial improvements in enforcement. The Bill will allow the NTA to deploy more enforcement officers to ensure that the legislative provisions and regulations are enforced to the required level.
Senator Susan O'Keeffe referred to drivers working long hours. We have considered everything in this area. While it is not practical to place tachometers on taxis, there is a provision whereby an SPSV licence applicant must notify his or her employers of such application. It is an important step. It is a difficult area to manage. The Organisation of Working Time Act applies where an employer knows a person who is working 39 hours a week is also working weekends as a taxi driver. This is a qualitative measure which will deal with some of those who should not be working in the industry given the nature of their other work.
Senator Barrett raised a number of regulatory issues. The Goodbody report has not been forgotten. I agree with the Senator on some of the comments on new entrants. We cannot paint everyone with the same brush. I disagree fundamentally with the Senator on the issue of double jeopardy and agree with Senator Norris. I do not know how many people would agree with a convicted rapist driving a taxi. I abhor the idea that a member of my family could get into a taxi with such a person. It is not acceptable and we must introduce legislation to ensure it does not happen. Such legislation must be rigorous enough to stand up in court. Fundamental to the Bill is the need to ensure that people convicted of very serious crimes of murder, manslaughter, rape, terrorism, torture, trafficking and various other sexual offences cannot drive taxis. Whether the effect is retrospective or prospective, they should not be allowed to drive taxis. Those who have committed serious burglary, firearms, assault, threat, coercion, harassment, violent disorder or criminal damage offences may have their licences suspended, refused or revoked depending on the length of any sentence imposed.
Those who have been sentenced to seven years in prison will lose their licences for five years; those who have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment of between five and seven years can lose their licences for up to three years; those whose sentences were two to three years in prison can lose their licences for two years, and where their sentence was two years in prison, they will lose their licences for 18 months. This measure has to be proportionate, as, legally, it must be rigorous. That is why it is being done in this manner.
Unfortunately, there have been cases in which the Garda declared it did not consider a person was a fit and proper person to a drive, yet that person received his or her licence back because he or she had to earn a living. If unsavoury characters pose a clear and present danger, the Garda will apply to ensure they will not get their licences back. Those with driving convictions, for example, persons caught for drink driving or dangerous driving offences, will be put off the road for an extra three to five years, which is appropriate, given that it is a motoring offence.
As regards proportionality, it is also important to ensure there is a 12 month period during which people can appeal. The powers of the Garda have been strengthened in order that in court it it will now be in a more powerful position to identify the individuals who should not be behind the wheel of a taxi and can be more confident that it will be on a sound legal footing to ensure the individuals concerned will not receive a licence.
Senator Sean D. Barrett has said there has not been much fraud activity. That was an initial outlay. I have spoken to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, and it will be done in a more rigorous way in the future. I have seen data to justify the argument that there is a much higher rate of fraud. I expect that through this qualitative process we will be able to deal with many of those who are behaving fraudulently. It is outrageous to ask where we are going to stop in preventing people from entering the industry. It is crazy to compare preventing somebody from working in agriculture with preventing a person from being behind the wheel of taxi driving members of the public. They are not similar and I ask the Senator to reflect on this. We are discussing people who will be prevented from receiving a licence to drive a taxi with individuals in the back who could my loved ones or those of the Senator or anyone else. If the people concerned have serious convictions, they should look for work in other industries. They should not be behind the wheel of a taxi offering a public service.
I applaud Senator Martin Conway's common-sense comments. I have addressed Senator Paschal Mooney's comments too.
On the question of branding, I know that Senator Mooney is very strong on the issue of tourism and there will be other issues I will consider to try to improve the connectivity between the industry and the tourism sector.
The issue raised by Senator Rónán Mullen in respect of an individual taxi driver relates to the updating of information. If he gives me the name of the individual, I will look into the matter. In the future a taxi owner will have to update the information available on who is behind the wheel of a car.
I disagree with Senator Kathryn Reilly that the Bill has not been introduced quickly enough. It has literally been a whirlwind trip to ensure the regulations have been changed and the legislation brought forward. We have worked very closely with the Attorney General in bringing it forward. Anybody who fits the definitions included in the Bill and has the criminal convictions I outlined will be dealt with in the same manner. It is not illegal to have two jobs. I respect the spirit of what has been said about somebody who is a public servant also working in the taxi industry. The enforcement of qualitative measures and regulatory changes to ensure people adhere to the regulations and the question of whether it will be worth people's while to do so if they have other jobs are important. It is not, nor should it be, illegal to have two jobs.
I thank Senators David Norris and Feargal Quinn for their contributions. I think I have dealt with the issues they raised. As far as I am aware, it is necessary to have a first aid kit in the vehicle. I have to admit, however, that I need to find out the exact specifics in that regard.
I again thank Senators for their contributions and look forward to taking the Bill on Committee Stage.