Seanad debates

Friday, 30 April 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

10:00 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to the Chamber.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank him for coming here to respond to my Commencement matter, which speaks to the need for the Government to provide financial and other supports to the taxi service industry.

I congratulate the Minister of State and the Government. Today is a hopeful day. The announcement yesterday was very welcome to all sectors of industry and community and we are all looking forward with much greater hope today than we have been for a long time. I commend the Minister of State and the Government. It has been a challenging year. I acknowledge the support the Government has put in place for businesses, community organisations and families to help us all through from a financial perspective and a services perspective.

As I said, my Commencement matter speaks to the Government's need to respond to the taxi sector. I am a city dweller and anybody living in any of our cities or rural towns will be aware of how vitally important taxis are to our public transportation services.There are more than 23,000 licensed taxis in the country. They are a very important mode of public transportation. Taxis are safe and economical and offer city and urban dwellers an alternative to owning a private car, so they are hugely important. They have continued to operate during the pandemic and have provided a vital public transport service on the front line throughout the pandemic.

I appreciate this is not the remit of the Minister of State but the National Transport Authority, NTA, conducted a survey on the impact of the pandemic on taxi drivers and its research shows that almost 100% of taxi drivers have suffered a massive decrease in income since the pandemic. At the same, almost 100% of the taxi drivers had introduced measures at their own cost to ensure their services could continue to operate in a Covid-19 safe way. They installed barriers, wore masks, introduced hand sanitisers and adopted cashless payments at their own expense.

Throughout the pandemic, the taxi drivers as business operators, have had no support. The only support they were provided with was the pandemic unemployment payment. I recognise they were given the opportunity to continue to earn up €480 per month, but they have fixed annual costs of €11,000 per year. Instead of using their pandemic unemployment payment to pay for their groceries and family expenses, they have been paying for their insurance and cost of maintenance.

On top of that, they have an obligation to renew their car every ten years. I accept that last October, the Minister introduced a delay on renewal fees and registrations until June of this year, but that expires at the end of this year. It is unrealistic to expect any business owner to make a once-in-a-decade capital investment in his or her business when he or she has been, more or less, without a livelihood for the past 12 months.

The taxi drivers have lost confidence in the taxi advisory group. As I said at the outset, taxis are a vital component in our public transportation infrastructure and services. I urge the Minister of State to respond to the lack of confidence in the taxi advisory group expressed by the taxi sector and advise the House on how the Minister, Deputy Ryan, intends to respond to that situation.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for raising this matter and will report her remarks directly back to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, if I do not get to cover them all in the short time available.

The Government is acutely aware of the difficult situation facing the taxi and small public service vehicle, SPSV, industry. Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, met with the advisory committee on SPSVs to hear first hand about the difficulties facing the sector and to discuss the challenges ahead. The sector is particularly dependant on the hospitality industry. The gradual reopening of society over the coming months should, it is hoped, see passenger demand for services begin to return.

Nevertheless, we are not there yet and people understand that. Covid-19 continues to have a profound effect on the working lives of individuals from all walks of life throughout the country. That is why the Government has put in place support measures with broad eligibility criteria. Self-employed individuals such as taxi operators can and have availed of these supports, including the pandemic unemployment payment and liquidity, investment, and tax relief measures.

I want to use my time to mainly talk about the supports available to taxi drivers but the Minister has asked me to deal with two issues specifically. I want to reiterate on behalf of the Minister that there are no plans to change the access arrangements to bus lanes. This has been made clear to taxi representatives in the Minister's meeting and his Department's correspondence with them. I sincerely hope this clarifies the matter once and for all. I reiterate there are no plans to change access arrangements to bus lanes.

It has been two decades since quantitative controls on the taxi industry were lifted. It is well known that the taxi industry has been badly affected by Covid-19 and, as experience over the past two years has shown, few people wish to enter the industry. A moratorium on licenses would not deliver any practical benefits to anyone and, accordingly, there are no plans to introduce one for the practical reason there are not a large number of people seeking to enter the industry in the first place. The Government is committed to providing practical supports to assist SPSV operators and to support drivers' return to work when circumstances allow. This is why self-employed individuals, including taxi drivers, can earn up to €960 in an eight-week period. That is €120 per week or almost €6,240, net of expenses, without jeopardising their pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, payments. Taxi drivers can actually continue in business, do a small amount of business and earn up to €120, net of expenses. That is profit on top of their PUP. I understand that is not enough in itself, because the level of business is not out there to justify taxi drivers all going back on the road. Normally, there could be well over 1,000 taxi drivers at Dublin Airport on any given day. It was mentioned to me that, at this stage, there are only approximately 40 there on any given day. The €120 is a good system in place for those who are in a position to take advantage of it but there is not enough business going around for many taxi drivers to avail of it.

Furthermore, taxi operators coming off the PUP and returning to work full-time can avail of the enterprise support grant, a €1,000 grant which can be used towards the costs associated with reopening a business. This can include personal protective equipment, vehicle costs and cleaning supplies.

The suite of Covid-19 measures is complemented by specific industry measures. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has introduced late fee waivers, facilitated temporary licence suspensions and insurance suspensions, and provided guidance to operators on reducing the risk of Covid. The Department of Transport has provided for the waiving of all standard taxi licence renewal fees for 2021 at a cost of €2.6 million to date.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome his clarification of the situation with regard to the bus lanes. That is an operational matter and it is important that there is clarity around that issue.

I also welcome the supports the Minister of State mentioned and the fact that taxi drivers can earn up to €120 a week. However, they cannot do so because there is no business. That is the truth of it. They have fixed costs of €11,000 a year. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Transport is willing to engage. I urge the Minister of State to ask him to meet taxi driver representatives, together with Oireachtas Members from the Government parties. It is really important that we carve out an agreed partnership for a sustained future for this vital public transportation service that will make it sustainable for the next five to ten years.

I also have a specific request, that is, that the Minister of State asks the Minister of Transport to extend the ten-year vehicle requirement to 2025. Taxi drivers have lost the best part of two years in the operation of those vehicles, which is two years of their livelihoods. They are not in a position to make a once-in-a-decade capital investment in their business. It would be gesture of sincere commitment to that sector, were the Government to extend that period up to 2025.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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In response to the Senator's two specific requests, I assure her that I will speak directly to the Minister about meeting taxi driver representatives. The Senator mentioned members of the Government parties as well. She also mentioned the issue of extending the rule that requires vehicles be replaced every ten years. I understand, and I am subject to correction, that it is in place for this year but was not in place last year. There is a bit of a lacuna and taxi drivers might be waiting for clarification on that. I am not in a position to say whether any of that will happen, except that I will take the Senator's concerns directly to the Minister.

As regards the supports to purchase electric vehicles, the amount available has been increased to €15 million. This will allow €20,000 per operator to scrap older vehicles and make the switch to full electric models. It is a very good scheme but with income being so tight, I acknowledge that taxi drivers might not have funding to finance the balance of the cost of the car. It is a very generous grant scheme but finding the balance of the funding is very difficult. It is an issue I will take directly back to the Minister.