Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Taxi Licences

10:30 am

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for being here. The essence of this issue relates to the fact that at present holders of hackney or minibus licences cannot during their lifetimes pass on the business and licence to their children. On death, they can pass it to one of their children but in life they cannot so. It is a huge anomaly and makes no sense. Obviously the personnel to whom they would be passing it on would have to reach the relevant criteria - that is not an issue - but they cannot pass it on in any circumstances.

This is best illustrated, if the Minister of State and the Acting Chairman bear with me, by reading a letter from the child of one of these licenceholders. I will not name them on the record of the House. I think it might be best not to, although the person seems not to care. The letter reads as follows:

Dear Joe,

Mr. ... [X] has operated a minibus and hackney business in ... [X location] for almost 30 years, having gained a reputation for being reliable and caring, the majority of his passengers are patients travelling to Dublin for treatment or hospital appointments.

The Family Business has employed 2 of his sons up until the impact of COVID, which effectively closed his business as he didn't qualify for ... [the supports contingent on rateable properties]. [The gentleman] ... is heading for 70 years of age and would now like to retire and will also be unable to secure insurance on his vehicles when he turns 70. His sons would be proud to carry on the family business [In fact, very much so and they are qualified] but because of 2 issues they are unable to take over. Firstly, ... [the dad's] hackney licence can only be transferred to one of his sons after his death. Secondly, ... [his] sons have explored the option of putting their own hackney cars on the road independently, however in order to secure a new hackney licence, this vehicle must be wheelchair accessible.

The issue here is that the two sons cannot both acquire wheelchair-accessible vehicles at an extra cost of €30,000 in a place where the volume of business is very small. Of course, they have no objection in principle and would be aspiring to that but it would not be a starting point for two of them. It would not be on financially and no financial institution would back them. The letter goes on:

In a rural area with limited business available, most work is sporadic and services are part-time, it is an unviable proposition for a new entrant to have 100% of their fleet wheelchair accessible. They have pointed out that the existing larger operators with lucrative state contracts are being encouraged to reach 15% wheelchair accessibility. Most existing wheelchair operators do not work nights or weekends which the brothers have done and wish to continue doing. Due to this regulation and cost, most towns and villages now have people operating illegally without proper insurance and garda vetting.

Most businesses affected by Covid have been offered financial support ... [and that is not relevant here].

The real issue is that the sons cannot inherit their father's business and they cannot do it in his lifetime, yet when he reaches 70, he cannot continue either. It is, therefore, a total anomaly. I am delighted the Minister of State is here because he, above all, would have an appreciation of this issue because of where he comes from. In a small town like, for example, Castlepollard, a taxi driver could not have a couple of wheelchair-accessible cars at €30,000 extra. It just would not be viable. The banks would not support him or her in it. That is the issue in essence.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter I will bring the contents of his speech to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, because it is a very important issue.

At present the transfer of small public service vehicle, SPSV, licences is prohibited under section 14(1) of the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. All SPSV vehicle licences are unique to the person to whom the licence has been issued and cannot be transferred or sold to any other person. This took account of a review of the taxi industry conducted in 2011. Action 14 of the published report recommended the introduction of a general prohibition on the transferability of taxi licences. The rationale for this position is that the licence should determine a person's suitability to carry out a function and it should not have monetary value or be traded on the open market. There is also one exemption to this non-transferability restriction. As the Senator alluded to, section 15 of the same Act does provide for an SPSV licence to continue to be operated by a person who was nominated by the licenceholder in advance of his or her death. In the event of the death of the holder of a licence, his or her nominated representative may, within three months of the death of the holder, make an application to the National Transport Authority, NTA, to continue to operate the licence. The person nominated by the licenceholder can be any adult or company chosen by the licenceholder. The nomination process is free of charge and the person nominated can be changed at any time prior to the licenceholder's death.

Prior to the removal of the quantitative restrictions that had existed up to 2000, taxi licences were bought and sold for considerable sums of money. Thereafter, the value of vehicle licences plummeted as the size of the taxi fleet increased from under 3,000 to a total fleet size, including hackneys and limousines, of 21,315 as of 31 January 2020. Since 2010, it has been regulatory policy to issue new small public service vehicle licences for taxis and hackneys only in respect of a wheelchair accessible vehicle, WAV. However, for several years this policy was effectively undermined by the availability of standard taxi and hackney vehicle licences - for saloon type vehicles - by means of transfer.The purchase cost of these licences by transfer was much lower than the additional cost of purchasing a WAV. This meant that it was much more commercially attractive for a new operator to purchase a transferred licence rather than a new WAV licence. The introduction of the transferability restriction in 2014 has addressed this issue. The number of WAV taxis at the end of 2013 was 898 while the total number as of 31 December 2020 was 3,015.

There are no plans to amend this legislation at this time. As mentioned, the rationale for the measure was that a licence should indicate a person’s suitability to carry out a function and should not have, by association, a monetary value or be traded on the open market. As quantitative restrictions have been removed from the taxi market and there are no barriers to entry to this industry other than the obligation to use a wheelchair accessible vehicle, it is not clear how the transferring of licences would deliver benefits to the industry or members of the public who use these services, especially those who require access to WAVs. Under the current SPSV regulations, the holder of a taxi licence may rent or lease a licence to another person. Further information on rules for such arrangements can be obtained directly from the National Transport Authority, which is the statutory regulator for the sector.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State's response is disappointing and I would like him to convey that to the Minister for Transport. He did not address this anomaly, which could easily be legislated for without damaging the Department's overall objectives. There is no issue with the person's suitability to carry out the function. The Minister of State said that the rationale is that the person must be suitable. That is not a problem and no one is suggesting otherwise. The licence can only be transferred on the person's death but the issue in this case is that there are a couple of sons and the onus is on both of them to have two wheelchair accessible vehicles in a small community to qualify for licences. That is just not a viable option or an economic proposition. There is an anomaly and an injustice in the legislation, as in the case of the letter I read out, and it is also replicated elsewhere. All I am asking is for a modification of the legislation to cover that injustice and not to get rid of the spirit of the legislation.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter. He set out well the issue about which he is concerned and I will raise it with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, on foot of this debate. The Minister has pointed out that he wants to protect the integrity of those wheelchair accessible vehicles as regards the licence being traded on the open market. One can see where he is coming from but one can also see the merits of the case of the poor family the Senator has raised, who I am sure are going through a significant amount of stress at this time. I will bring what the Senator has said to the attention of the Minister and request that he revert back at the earliest possible opportunity.