Adjournment Debate. - PSV Licences.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for permitting me and my colleague, Deputy Penrose, to raise this important matter on the Adjournment.

Persons applying for a PSV licence must, under section 34 of the 1963 Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicles) Regulations, give a written undertaking that they will be available to work as a driver of a public service vehicle for 40 hours per week. Until recently, the Garda Síochána interpreted this provision in a manner whereby many people with full-time jobs were able to sign this undertaking, even though the gardaí knew they would only work for a few hours per week.

Recently, however, the gardaí, on instructions from the Garda Commissioner's office, have refused to issue PSV licences to persons who have full-time jobs. This is causing major problems for many taxi owners, particularly in provincial towns such as Athlone and Mullingar. However worthy the concept of only giving PSV licences to people who are unemployed or have only part-time employment, the nature of the taxi business, particularly in provincial towns, is that about 75 per cent of the week's business is carried out on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. This means that taxi drivers do not have the wherewithal to take on full-time drivers and, recently, have had great difficulty providing a service to the public. The provision of taxi services in provincial towns has made a dramatic difference to the service available to the public and is worthwhile. Any curtailment of that service is regrettable.

In the case of other licences issued, there is usually a maximum rather than a minimum working time involved. For example, with a licence to drive a lorry, a person may drive for only a certain number of hours per week. In the case of other licences, people may work for no more than a certain number of hours rather than setting a minimum time. It is ironic that a licence to drive a bus, which carries greater responsibility, carries no restriction in terms of minimum hours of work. The same criteria do not apply. I call on the Minister to amend the regulations and alleviate the difficulty, particularly for taxi drivers, in providing a service to the public.

I thank my colleague for giving me the opportunity to make a contribution on this important matter which is causing great anguish and concern among taxi owners and taxi operators in towns throughout provincial Ireland, particularly in Mullingar, County Westmeath. A small public service vehicle in layman's terms is a taxi, hackney or minibus. Each such vehicle intended for use as a small public service vehicle must be approved by the public service vehicle inspector for the area in which the business is based and must be included on the taxi or hackney licence under which the relevant business is operated.

The regulatory position underpinning application for and renewal of licences to drive a small public service vehicles is to be found in Regulation 34 of the Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicle) Regulations, 1963, as subsequently substituted by the Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicles) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, 1970 (S.I. 200 of 1970) which were subsequently amended by the 1977 regulations found in S.I. 111 of 1977.

It appears that the Garda authorities have commenced to interpret the regulations in a different manner from that which heretofore applied. Under the current interpretation of the foregoing regulations, such renewals will no longer be granted. What this in effect means is that any persons who wish to work as drivers of taxis, hackney cabs and minibuses are required to be available for work for a minimum of 40 hours per week. This will create a major crisis for drivers of such taxis and hackneys, and indeed for owners-operators of such vehicles, as there will not be sufficient full-time drivers available to compensate for the widespread loss of such licences. This will have serious adverse consequences for the livelihoods of the taxi owners-operators and for the general public who have relied upon an excellent and efficient service provided by taxis and hackneys.

We pride ourselves on inculcating in citizens a deep respect for our laws. Taxi owners-operators fulfil their role admirably in many facets, but especially in providing transport to people who wish to enjoy a drink in their local pubs and who, in obeying the drink-driving laws, require transport back to their homes. As somebody who comes from a rural area, I am deeply appreciative of the level of service afforded by these operators in such areas where there is virtually no public transport system. These operators also provide a means of conveying children to school and transporting people for hospital treatment. As I understand it, there is currently no power available under the current regulations to classify drivers as part-time drivers so as to permit their business to operate to maximum efficiency, which would in turn permit appropriate rest hours for the owners-operators where the business is capable of utilising another driver but is not of sufficient capacity to employ such a driver on a full-time basis.

The difficulty being encountered can be readily dealt with by simply amending the existing regulations. I will put forward a short amendment, although I am not paid for drafting, but I will try to help the Minister in any way I can. I respectfully suggest that the form of undertaking which is required to be completed in Appendix B of the regulations be amended to include therein that the form of undertaking to accompany the application would read "Application For Full-Time or Part-Time Licence to Drive Small Public Service Vehicles", and thereunder include the following as an addendum to the present undertaking, which incorporates a part-time licence as follows: "I hereby undertake that in the event of a part-time licence to drive small public service vehicles being granted to me pursuant to section 34 of the Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicle) Regulations, 1963-70, I will be available as a part-time driver of a small public service vehicle for not more than 24 hours in each calendar week (subject to statutory holiday entitlement) and that I will not so drive more than 8 hours per day in any three consecutive days and not more than 24 hours in any calendar week."

I would urge the Minister to accede to that reasonable request for a new category which can be designated as a part-time licence-holder. That would overcome the difficulties being experienced by those who provide this important service.

I thank Deputies McGrath and Penrose for raising this issue. Small public service vehicles provide an essential component of the overall transport options available in the State as a whole. Taxis operate generally in the urban areas and have quite a defined role. They are an integral part of the public transport service and provide an immediate on street door to door service which in many areas complements the mass transport services provided by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. Hackneys operate in all parts of the country and provide a range of different services. Certainly in rural areas they may be the only alternative to private transport, which of course may not be available to all.

The operation and licensing of both taxis and hackneys and their drivers is controlled through the Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicles) Regulations, 1963 to 1998. The Garda Commissioner is empowered under the regulations to grant licences to people for the purpose of driving taxis and hackneys. The regulations provide that the commissioner may determine the form and manner of applications for such licences. When applying for licences applicants must submit to the Garda a written undertaking that, if the licence is granted, their services will be available as a driver of a small public service vehicle for at least 40 hours in each week and that in any period of three consecutive days they will not so drive for more than 11 hours a day.

Within the parameters set out in the regulations, decisions in relation to the grant or refusal of small public service vehicle drivers' licences are a matter for the Garda Commissioner and I have no direct function in relation to such decisions. Where a person is aggrieved over a decision to refuse a licence, he or she may appeal that decision to the District Court.

Representations have been made to the Department in relation to the application by the Garda of the provisions of the regulations in so far as they relate to the availability to drive of potential applicants. While acknowledging that a decision in respect of each application is exclusively a matter for the Garda, the Department has asked the Commissioner for his observations in relation to the issue raised tonight. On receipt of these the Department will give careful and urgent consideration as to whether there is need for an amendment to the current regulatory provisions.