Taxi Regulation Bill 2012- Second Stage Debate-16th May 2013

I acknowledge the great work done in this area by the Minister of State with responsibility for transport, Deputy Alan Kelly. The most satisfying aspect of his work has been his decision to engage the key stakeholders – namely, taxi drivers – throughout the consultation process and in the preparation of the Bill. It is important that the Government honour its commitment in the programme for Government to reform the taxi industry as part of its ongoing reform agenda.

I will cite a specific case that has arisen from my consultations with the industry and representations made to me, including by an elected county councillor in County Cavan who is involved in the taxi industry. I ask the Minister of State to comment at the conclusion of the debate. I refer to family-run taxi businesses in which one plate is used by a number of family members. The business I have in mind is run by a father and his two sons. Under the current regulations, non-owners of a small public service vehicle or taxi must register every time they wish to drive the vehicle. If the official owner of the vehicle is unable to drive the taxi when a fare becomes available, any other registered individuals who are non-owners must telephone a special telephone line to register before they can drive the car. I am informed that such calls can last between four and ten minutes, which often results in the loss of the fare, especially when someone needs to travel on urgent business. This is an unrealistic requirement for small family businesses such as that to which I referred. A fare who must travel urgently will not wait around while a non-owner makes a telephone call to register. I would appreciate if the Bill were amended on Committee Stage to resolve this difficulty. This could be done without affecting the important regulatory objectives of the legislation.

Since the deregulation of the taxi industry in 2000, there has been a marked and sharp increase in the number of taxis on the streets. As an RTE “Prime Time Investigates” programme reported, consumers cannot distinguish between taxi drivers who adhere to professional standards and those who fail to do so. This has created an unfair culture in the industry, as honest drivers are forced to compete with dishonest drivers who get away with cutting corners. Deputies should recognise that the vast majority of taxi drivers are decent, honest, hard-working self-employed individuals who provide an excellent service in which they take great pride. Until now, however, honest drivers have been as much the victims of rogue drivers as have members of the public. It is important that the sector is properly regulated. The Bill is necessary because the Taxi Regulation Act 2003 failed to adequately or comprehensively regulate the sector.

As I noted, the great majority of good taxi drivers are the victims of a minority of drivers who act wrongly. We should also condemn the unpleasant behaviour by clients which many taxi drivers experience. It would be wrong if we were to fail to acknowledge this problem. The Bill gives the National Transport Authority additional regulatory powers on licensing. It also strengthens the regime that excludes persons convicted of certain crimes from applying for or holding taxi licences, which is admirable. The Bill also contemplates crimes committed abroad.

I ask that the Minister of State consider a particular issue and, perhaps, deal with it on Committee Stage. I refer to people who were pardoned under the Good Friday Agreement but whose records prior to the coming into force of the Agreement would make them unsatisfactory in the context of holding taxi licences. This is a difficult matter to deal with, particularly in the context of ensuring the safety of passengers in taxis, encouraging good practice and seeing to it that the best of people – thankfully, this is the case in most instances – drive taxis. It is difficult to regulate in respect of those who were pardoned under the Good Friday Agreement. This matter has arisen at meetings of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, of which the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is a distinguished member. I ask that the Minister of State revisit this difficult issue and consider all possible ways of dealing with it.

I welcome the fact that crimes committed in any jurisdiction abroad are contemplated by the provisions of the legislation. If a person does something heinous or objectionable in France, Spain or wherever – something that would lead to their constituting a security risk in any circumstances – it is important that he or she be prohibited from holding a taxi licence in this country. This is an important development.
The taxi industry was more or less neglected in the past. It was only on the initiative of Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, and his Department that a review group was established. The key stakeholders within the industry were active members of that group, which was chaired by the Minister of State. As outlined in the programme for Government, this Administration is determined to tackle this issue once and for all.
The Bill is probably the most extensive item of legislation on the taxi industry that has ever been introduced in the history of the State. It is ambitious and it will go a long way towards restoring certainty, fairness and confidence to the industry. The Bill emanates from the report on the future of taxi regulation published last year and many of the 46 key recommendations contained in that report are contemplated within its provisions. At present, there are around 6,000 taxi drivers throughout the country who have committed offences of some kind or other.
Even though many of these are minor in nature, some are of such a level that it should not be possible for those who committed them to continue driving taxis. Part 2 of the Bill addresses this issue. Section 10 states that the licensing authority will have the power to refuse to grant a taxi licence to an individual if it is not satisfied that he or she is of good character, if he or she was convicted of certain criminal offences or if he or she is not physically capable of driving a taxi. This part of the Bill tightens the regulation relating to the industry and will ensure that only those who are genuinely permitted to drive taxis will be able to do so. This provision will go a long way towards ensuring that the safety of citizens who use taxis will be protected and will increase the level of consumer confidence in the industry. The latter is important for those who have a real stake in the industry. It is also important for the tourism industry and in the context of people’s general quality of life.
Part 3 of the Bill addresses the code of practice and conduct for taxi drivers in the context of fares, etc. We are all aware of anecdotal evidence of people being charged the wrong amount, of being taken on the wrong route and so on. Part 3 tightens matters up in this regard. This is important, particularly in the context of vulnerable elderly people who may need to travel to hospital by taxi. It is important that the regulations are extremely strict in order to secure the well-being of such individuals. The rules relating to agreed fares, etc., must be adhered to.
The demerit system – in effect, a penalty points system for taxi drivers – is a very good feature of the Bill. If a taxi driver does something wrong, he or she will receive a demerit. When he or she builds up a certain number of these, he or she will be suspended for three months.
As is the case with the general penalty points system, that is a sensible regulatory mechanism and it is important in the context of consumer confidence. The demerit system will be preventative in nature.

I agree with Deputy Corcoran Kennedy’s assertion regarding the allocation of specific quotas of taxi licences in rural areas. This is important because we need to strike a balance in respect of the number of taxis operating throughout the country. We must be able to rest assured that people in all areas will have access to a good taxi service.

The Bill achieves a number of objectives. It provides a code of practice, creates a demerit system, establishes regulation on a statutory basis and prevents the wrong people from holding licences. I look forward to the Minister of State’s comments in respect of the issues I raised with regard to the Good Friday Agreement and small family businesses. I welcome the Bill, which is a reforming item and which will serve ordinary consumers and the majority of taxi drivers who have an interest in running a good business very well. It will also remove unsuitable people from the taxi industry, which will enhance our tourism product and people’s general quality of life. The latter are very important for our cities and for the country in general.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website