Taxi Regulation Bill 2003: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The essential purpose and primary focus of this legislation can be summarised as follows: to provide a new and enhanced legislative basis for the control of the operation of taxis, hackneys, limousines and their drivers; to place the control of those services under the auspices of one new independent national authority, the Commission for Taxi Regulation and to establish the commission on a statutory basis; to create the framework for the application of the highest standards to the vehicles being used as small public service vehicles, their drivers and operators; and to establish, on a statutory basis, the Advisory Council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation. The Bill will establish the framework necessary to ensure that the services provided by taxis, hackneys and limousines can develop and improve to the extent that they can stand comparison with the best anywhere in the world.

The operation of the various services that are the subject of this Bill form part of the overall provision of transport services throughout the country. Taxis form a critical element of the public transport system in urban areas. They complement and enhance the services provided by buses and trains by providing door to door services, primarily targeted at single person hirings. Their services are especially necessary to meet the needs of disabled persons. Unlike the public hire, usually urban based services of taxis, hackneys operate throughout the State. They provide a particularly important role in the provision of private hire services in rural areas with dispersed populations. Limousine services enhance our tourist industry and provide quality transport services to business interests.

These services currently operate under a legislative code that dates back to 1961. The specific parameters that apply to those services are set out in 30 statutory instruments made intermittently over the past 40 years. The Bill will provide for the replacement of that code. It presents a legislative framework that, for the first time, will be focused exclusively on the services provided by all small public service vehicles. It will also provide for the creation of new structures that will apply dedicated control to the services given by the operators of those vehicles and will give an advisory role to service providers and user interests in relation to the future direction of those various services.

The Bill will facilitate the introduction of a regulatory framework to ensure a good quality, professional service by existing and prospective small public service vehicle service providers alike. It will provide for the introduction of appropriate and evenly applied standards for all categories of small public service vehicle to facilitate improved uniform standards of service for the public.

The Commission for Taxi Regulation will provide a national focus for the future operation of small public service vehicles. It will oversee the development and deployment of new standards to be applied to all vehicles, their drivers and operators. The commission will be a public body that will be independent of the Minister. This independence is specifically provided for in the legislation.

The Bill will also see the establishment of the advisory council on a statutory basis. I have taken the opportunity presented by this Bill to introduce minor amendments to two provisions in the Road Traffic Act 2002. These relate to the correction of a minor error relating to the levels of fines established in section 23 of that Act and to bring greater clarity to the introductory comments provided for in Part 1 of the First Schedule to the 2002 Act.

Before I deal with the main provisions contained in the Bill, I wish to refer to two issues that have been central to public debate in relation to taxis in recent months. The first relates to the fall-out of the decision taken by the last Government to liberalise access to taxi licences. The House will recall that the decision to remove the restrictions on access to taxi licences was taken to comply with a High Court decision that created the legal position by which the application or retention of such quantitative controls could not be maintained.

As a direct result of that decision the number of taxis operating nationally today is three times greater than was the case under the previous controlled system. Taxi licence numbers have increased from 3,934 in November 2000 to in excess of 11,600 at the end March 2003. I appreciate that this has created significant challenges for taxi operators and has given rise to certain negative comments in relation to taxi standards. It is, however, the case that between 1978, when quantitative controls were first introduced, and the adoption of liberalised entry in November 2000, debate on taxi services related almost exclusively to the question of licence numbers. The Bill that I present to the House today marks a watershed and an act of completion in relation to the issue of taxi numbers. It does not provide a mechanism to allow for the reintroduction of quantitative controls on taxi licence availability, rather it places a clear premium on the application of quality considerations to taxi services and to the services to be provided by hackneys and limousines.

The second issue to which I wish to refer is that of compensation for loss of value resulting from the removal of quantitative controls. The legal position in relation to compensation for loss of value of taxi licences was originally established in the High Court in 1992. That position was confirmed following the decision to liberalise access to taxi licences in 2000. There is no legal duty on the Government to pay compensation in relation to open market licence values that may have existed prior to liberalisation.

While there can be no question of compensation being paid, the Government recognises that the decision to liberalise access to taxi licences gave rise to hardship for certain people. To address that concern, an independent panel was established to examine in general terms the nature and extent of any such hardship. The Government has accepted the recommendations of the panel and has agreed to the implementation of those recommendations on a phased basis. Any payments to be made as a result will not represent compensation, but rather compassionate payments in respect of extreme personal financial hardship experienced by taxi licence holders arising from the liberalisation of the taxi market.

The report of the hardship panel recommends the establishment of a scheme to provide payments to individual taxi licence holders who fall into one of six categories that the panel assessed as having suffered extreme personal financial hardship.

The design and administration of a scheme to implement the recommendations of the taxi hardship panel and the arrangements to facilitate the making of payments to eligible persons is being progressed as quickly as possible to ensure that applications are dealt with on a confidential and objective basis. In this regard, I met the FAIR organisation in recent days to discuss this matter with it in detail. Every effort is being made to put in place a structure to facilitate the commencement of payments on the basis of the panel recommendations as soon as possible.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the main policies and principles which the Bill promotes. The principal function of the Commission for Taxi Regulation, which I presume will be known as the Taxi Regulator, will be the development and maintenance of a regulatory framework for the control and operation of all small public service vehicles and their drivers. In exercising its functions the commission will seek to promote the provision and maintenance of quality services by all small public service vehicle operators, primarily through the promotion of a qualitative and customer orientated licensing system.

The commission will seek to encourage and promote competition in relation to services offered by small public service vehicles and will provide assistance, including financial aid, to local authorities to provide for the development or provision of infrastructure to support the operations of such vehicles.

The policy focus of the commission will be to provide for the grant, renewal and, where appropriate, refusal of a licence to operate a taxi, hackney or limousine or to drive such vehicles; to regulate the conduct of drivers and passengers in small public service vehicles; to declare and alter taximeter areas; to fix maximum fares; to create a comprehensive national register of all taxi, hackney and limousine licences and their drivers; to suspend or revoke licences where appropriate; to appoint authorised persons who will have a role in relation to ensuring compliance with the terms of the licences granted by the commission and to enforce the regulations the commission makes. At present, the Garda or local authorities carry out many of the roles envisaged for the commission. The Bill provides that these roles will continue to be provided by those authorities and allows them to be delivered directly by the commission by agreement at a later stage.

Part 2 of the Bill provides for the establishment of the Commission for Taxi Regulation. In recent years, the Government has established a number of commissions or regulatory boards for the purpose of carrying out specific functions or the delivery of specialist services. Deputies will note that many of the provisions in this Bill relating to the engagement and structure of the commission, replicate the approach adopted in respect of other commissions and boards. Accordingly, in discussing this Part, I will limit my comments to issues of particular note and importance.

It is my intention to proceed with arrangements for making a single appointment of the first commissioner for taxi regulation as soon as possible. This person will be vested with all of the powers and responsibility of the commission. The question of the appointment of further members of the commission will be considered if it is subsequently deemed necessary. It will be important from the outset that the independence of the commission is clearly established and accepted, especially by those who provide taxi, hackney and limousine services and the users of those services. This independence is clearly established through section 8.

Section 9 establishes the principal function and objectives of the commission. The emphasis of section 9 is on issues relating directly to quality of service. The key objectives provide for the development of efficient and professional services to ensure a safe operating environment for both service providers and users. While section 10 allows the Minister for Transport to issue policy directions to the commission, it is envisaged that such directions will be focused on the better delivery of the central role of the commission, which focuses on quality of service. Notice and details of any such ministerial directions must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and published inIris Oifigiúil.

I now turn to those provisions which form the key central elements to this Bill, as set out in Part 3. This Part establishes a completely new framework for the regulatory control of taxis, hackneys, limousines and their drivers. The main features of this framework are: the future regulation of the control and operation of all small public service vehicles and their drivers; the introduction of mandatory automatic disqualification for holding or applying for licences for those convicted of one of a range of serious offences; the engagement of new enforcement personnel who will augment the activities of the Garda; the introduction of tax clearance requirements for the grant and renewal of all licences; the adoption of a formidable system of penalties which may be imposed by the courts on conviction for offences under the Bill; the introduction of a system of fixed charges that may be paid in lieu of an offence going to court; and the application of a certification scheme for services that support the operation of small public service vehicles.

There are many varied services that currently support small public service vehicle operations. These include the provision of communication supports and the design or provision of signs or other equipment. Section 34 provides a new legislative basis for the regulation of the licensing, operation and ownership of small public service vehicles and the licensing of the drivers of such vehicles. The House will note that the focus on standards is highlighted at the very outset of this section. In an enabling provision of this nature, it is inevitable that many specific issues are referred to. For the sake of brevity, I will summarise the overall section as follows.

It vests very broad powers in the Commission for Taxi Regulation and places that office at the centre of the future development of the services provided by small public service vehicles. It provides for the future regulation of all small public service vehicles and their drivers. It emphasises quality standards as being the central focus for the future operation of small public service vehicles. It allows the commission to determine the bodies, including itself, which will have a role in the licensing of small public service vehicles and their drivers. There is a clear focus on quality. In addition, the section clearly establishes the framework through which the commission can develop separate licensing structures, standards and duties for each of the various categories of vehicles that provide the various hire services.

Similarly, separate licensing requirements and standards can be applied to the drivers of these vehicles. That focus is also highlighted by the fact that the section gives a strong message on the needs of passengers, especially in the context of the information that must be made available to them and the training of drivers to meet the needs of passengers. Given the significant growth in the industry in recent years, particularly through the increased supply of taxis, the need to promote and address customer awareness training and general quality service issues by the providers has come to the fore. Furthermore, in highlighting the issue of vehicle and operation standards, the section refers specifically to the possible introduction of provisions on matters such as the age of a vehicle to be licensed as a small public service vehicle and standards on entry to the vehicle and accommodation for people with a disability, including wheelchair users or persons with mobility and sensory difficulties.

The provisions in section 34 will be augmented by granting additional powers to the commission to regulate the conduct and duties of drivers under section 39. This section places a further premium on the quality of service and the need for drivers to address the reasonable needs of passengers. It is equally important that the behaviour of passengers in small public service vehicles should be subject to a degree of regulation in the interest of public safety. These are provided for in section 40, which establishes obligations and rules for both passengers and intending passengers relating to general behaviour and payment of fares. Section 34 also sets out a key role for the advisory council, which must be consulted in respect of any regulatory proposals the commission wishes to pursue in relation to the licensing of small public service vehicle drivers. This is in addition to the later provision in the Bill, through which the council can give advice on any regulatory proposal being pursued by the commission.

Section 35 provides for an appeals structure against a decision taken under section 34 to refuse a licence or to revoke or suspend an existing licence. In addition to an appeal to the District Court, a person who is the subject of such a decision will be afforded a period of 14 days to make representations to the licensing authority in question to review the matter before the initial decision is taken.

Section 36 marks a very significant advance in seeking to provide greater reassurance to the travelling public that those who are engaged in the provision of taxi, hackney and limousine services are persons that can be trusted and in whose care passengers feel safe. The section provides that where a person has been convicted of one of a range of serious offences across a broad spectrum of law, they will face automatic disqualification from holding any licence relating to such services. The offences include murder, manslaughter, assault, rape and offences involving drugs and firearms. Within very strict parameters, people disqualified as a result of convictions for those offences may make application to the courts to be allowed to apply for new licences. Such applications cannot be made until specified periods have passed following any conviction. In the case of the more serious offences, the period can be a minimum of ten years. No such application can be made where a person is serving a prison sentence.

In addition to those disqualifications which apply in respect of all licences, a person who has been convicted of one of a range of very serious traffic offences will be disqualified automatically from obtaining a licence to drive a small public service vehicle. Such disqualifications will last for five years where the conviction was for dangerous driving causing death or serious injury, or two years for offences of driving under the influence of drink or drugs. The House may note, in particular, that where a person who is the subject of a disqualification under this section attempts to engage in any activity relating to small public service vehicle services, they will be faced, on conviction on indictment of that offence, with a potential fine of up to £50,000 and a jail sentence of up to three years.

Section 37 introduces a requirement that licences may only be granted where an applicant presents a tax clearance certificate. This will ensure that all of those engaged in this industry are fully tax compliant. The Bill will also facilitate the transfer to the commission of a number of functions that are related to the licensing and operation of taxis in particular. These functions focus on the key issues of determination of taximeter areas and the fixing of maximum fares for taxis. Local authorities will retain the power to determine the location of appointed stands or taxi ranks and the making of relevant by-laws for this purpose, subject to any guidelines issued in this regard by the commission. This reflects the more general role of local authorities in the overall management of traffic in their areas.

The Bill involves the introduction of fundamental changes to the framework for penalising offences relating to the services provided by small public service vehicles and their drivers. Section 44 provides that the maximum fines for the commission of offences will generally range from between €1,500 to €3,000. In certain circumstances, prison terms may be imposed for repeat offences. Section 46 provides for a scheme of fixed charges for offences under the Bill. The commission is being empowered to apply such charges to whatever offences it deems appropriate. This will offer those accused of offences to which the fixed charge system is applied, the opportunity to pay a charge in lieu of having their case brought to court.

To complete creation of a comprehensive range of initiatives targeted at enforcement, section 49 provides for the appointment of authorised persons. That concept will automatically include members of the Garda Síochána. This section additionally empowers the Commission for Taxi Regulation to appoint others as authorised persons. These persons will be given broad enforcement powers so that the standards that the commission will apply to the operation of small public service vehicles will be enforced and maintained.

Part 4 presents the legislative framework for the establishment and membership of the Advisory Council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation. The role of the council and its relationship with the commission and the Minister for Transport are clearly defined.

Section 53 provides that the Minister for Transport will appoint the council, which will consist of up to 15 members in addition to a chairperson. Appointments will be for a period of not more than three years and will be made from persons from a broad range of areas, which have a relevance to the operation of small public service vehicles and to the delivery of their services. Against that background, membership of the council will include at least four members to represent the interests of those who provide small public service vehicles. Taxi, hackney and limousine operators provide services to communities throughout the country and it is important that they should have a voice and a role in a body which this Bill will place at the centre of the future of the services they provide. Other members will include representatives of consumer interests, representatives of persons with disabilities, business and tourism interests.

Section 54 gives the council a central role in examining proposals for statutory initiatives by the Commission for Taxi Regulation and providing advice and comment on those and other proposals that the commission may wish to pursue. The council may also provide advice to the Minister for Transport on overall policy on legislative matters affecting small public service vehicles. In keeping with the need to maintain and to provide confirmation of the independence of the commission, the council's role relates exclusively to that of giving advice and it cannot dictate policy to the commission.

This Bill marks the delivery by the Government on a key commitment set out in the programme for Government. Even the most cursory examination of the laws applying to taxis, hackneys and limousines would confirm its complexity. This Bill offers a new approach that will replace more than 40 years of regulations that have become unwieldy and difficult for those who work in this service and users to follow or understand.

Taxis, hackneys and limousines operate throughout the country and wherever they are encountered, the public have a right to expect that they can depend on those services for the delivery of an efficient and a safe response to their transport needs. Aspirants to obtain licences to operate and drive small public service vehicles as well as existing licence holders should expect that they must be required to achieve and maintain very high standards. In this way they can rightly feel they are part of a quality orientated service of which they, the public and the State can be proud.

This Bill presents the legislation necessary to deliver on the expectations of the public and the aspirations of the industry. I look forward to a positive and constructive debate on this historic legislation, and I commend it to the House.

I would like to share my time with Deputy Naughten.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome this Bill, which will replace the old system of licensing and regulation involving the Garda Síochána and the carriage office with a new statutory agency called the Commission for Taxi Regulation. I welcome this long overdue legislation which, given the way deregulation took place, will benefit members of the industry and the public alike.

There is no doubt that over the decades the situation in the taxi industry had become anomalous. Regulation by the Government and local authorities prevented the smooth development of the service in line with demand, as the EU Parliament Committee on Petitions found. However, the Government's deregulation of the taxi industry has led to what can be only described as a devastating impact on the lives of some families. As the EU Parliament committee noted, the decision to appoint an interim chairman of the Commission for Taxi Regulation with no statutory powers was proof that the Government had second thoughts as a result of the effects of its poorly planned actions three years ago.

It is my hope and the hope of the Fine Gael Party that this Bill will address the concerns of those within the industry and of the public at large. As the House is no doubt aware, the Government engaged in November 2000 in an instant overnight deregulation of the industry minus – what would surely have been prudent and a necessary – an impact study to ascertain how such drastic action would affect those who had invested heavily to buy into the Government's regulated industry and minus consultation and with what appears to have been little consideration for the full implications of their actions on licence holders, their families and the wider public. Without doubt, deregulation should have been gradually phased in over a period.

Since the Government engaged in this ill-planned and poorly considered action it has failed the taxi industry in many regards. It has failed to monitor and oversee a market that was once regulated and failed to implement reasonable policy change when it was necessary. It failed also to act in a timely and appropriate manner in response to widespread anxiety at the negative effects of its policy on the industry.

As a result of deregulation, the number of licences increased from 2,722 in November 2000 to more than 6,500 in July 2001 in Dublin alone. As the group, FAIR, Families Advocate Immediate Redress, have repeatedly brought to the attention of the Department of Transport, entrants to the industry had paid an average of €107,000 for a taxi licence. These families still have 17 years of a 20-year term loan to repay this debt. Further, and as a result of the Government's action, those same licences are now worth less than €6,500 and, in some cases, a great deal less. I stress this is not only a problem that affects Dublin. Taxi drivers nationwide were also badly affected by the overnight deregulation.

I know of two cases in Ennis where prices in excess of €150,000 were paid for taxi licences, some of the highest amounts paid in the country, and following overnight deregulation, these individuals were caught unaware and are left holding what is now a comparatively worthless asset with huge long-term loan repayments. There are more than 90 taxi plates in Ennis and more than 100 hackneys. They provide a valuable service, particularly for young people who do not drink and drive and use the services of the hackneys and taxis on weekend nights to get home safely. This has reduced the number of deaths on our roads. Ennis still has no provision for additional parking spaces or pick up points, and I am sure a similar problem exists in most towns and cities.

With regard to the high prices paid for licences, I welcome the statement by the Minister that he is putting in place some specific arrangement to implement the findings of the Taxi Hardship Panel and to deal with claims arising from the deregulation of the industry. However, I draw the Minister's attention to the belief by FAIR and others that the Taxi Hardship Panel could not adequately address the issue it was set up to address. The panel has been accused of lacking clear terms of reference, suffering from conflict of interests and working on a simplistic categorisation system. FAIR believes the awards the panel recommends does not alleviate the hardship of families of entrants to the industry who have suffered as a result of Government policy. THE EU Parliament committee found that the Government has a moral and political responsibility to provide proper redress to families which bears some clear relation to the amount of their financial loss. I urge the Minister to bear this in mind when implementing the findings of the Taxi Hardship Panel via this legislation and to continue his discussions with FAIR. I am aware that he had discussions with its representatives last week.

There is no doubt this legislation is long overdue. Like the farmers before them who brought the tractorcade to the streets of Dublin, taxi drivers were forced to take to the streets on 11 June last. It was protest by taxi drivers in November last that prompted the Minister's promise to act urgently and introduce an interim national taxi regulator. In the context of further disruption on the streets of Dublin, I am happy the Minister has finally brought forward legislation that should address their demands.

Paramount in this regard is the appointment of national taxi regulator as chairperson of the independent Commission for Taxi Regulation under section 6. This is particularly welcome given the deterioration in many aspects of this industry which to date has been overseen by a regulator lacking statutory powers.

However, this welcome is muted due to the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Brennan, that the new statutory regulator will not be established on a permanent basis until the autumn or perhaps later in the year. This delay will no doubt further infuriate members of the industry and the public in light of the negative consequences of the Government's actions three years ago. The concerns of the public must be a priority. People must feel safe when hailing taxis at night.

For years this country, particularly its capital city, has been subjected to a hugely inefficient, expensive and infrequent taxi service. Although the waiting times for taxis have declined as the number of licence holders has risen from 3,000 to more than 10,000 in less than three years, the number of complaints about the taxi service seems to have increased to an even greater extent. There were 540 complaints in 2001 and 207 so far this year. Complaints have increased considerably in recent years. Consumers have complained about the condition of vehicles – dirty, run-down cars. Abusive and inconsiderate drivers are the subject of 17% of complaints. There is also a suspicion of widespread overcharging. I have experienced this myself – when travelling to Heuston Station or Dublin Airport in off-peak periods with few traffic delays, fares can vary considerably. About 40% of complaints are about overcharging and the new regulator must address this. There have even been a number of cases of assault. It was reported widely in the media last year that the carriage office revoked the licences of 11 drivers.

It has been obvious to most people for some time, and it is now finally obvious to the Government, that statutory regulation of the taxi industry is urgently required. I hope that under the functions and objectives of the new independent commission to be set up under section 9, the new regulator will have the power to enforce regulations and withdraw licences if necessary. It is of paramount importance that measures such as a minimum level of training and knowledge of one's town or city and effective background checks and character checks of applicants for licences are put in place. I am sure the Minister shares in the sense of shock that greeted the claim of the National Taxi Drivers Union that one in seven of the people granted licences since deregulation has a criminal record. I will deal with this later when I come to section 36.

The effectiveness of this new legislation and the commission for which it provides will rest on its ability to tackle the real and perceived worries of all who are employed in or employ this service. To this end, I would welcome, for example, the provision of a 24-hour freefone service to report complaints, the number of which should be clearly visible and advertised inside taxis; the compulsory displaying of taxi ID numbers inside a taxi, both front and rear; the introduction of a central taxi monitoring and booking system and the introduction of a practical multiple pick-up or taxi-sharing system. It is also desirable that under section 9(2) of the Bill, the acceptable standard for small public service vehicles is outlined and maintained. Overall, I urge the Minister to ensure that the provisions of this Bill are utilised in the most appropriate manner so that the actions I have outlined, which will inject confidence into the industry, are introduced as soon as possible.

Section 18 deals with the staffing of the commission, which is to be determined in agreement with the Department of Finance. I have some concerns about whether the commission will be fully resourced and staffed. The Minister may recall the 2003 budget last December, in which the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, agreed cuts in the public service sector and a reduction of 5,000 in the number of public servants over the next three years. Because of this, a definite commitment should be given regarding the level of resources to be allocated to the commission.

Section 36 is a key provision of the Bill. It is the section from which members of the public will draw confidence in the new system of regulation. I would go as far as to say that it is this section by which the success of the Bill will be judged. In this section, the Government proposes to allow convicted criminals to apply for a licence. Either it is acceptable for criminals to drive taxis or it is not. This section is flawed and must be amended. According to the present proposals, existing taxi drivers with criminal convictions – assault, car theft or causing death by dangerous driving – can still be holders of taxi licences. Section 36(1)(c)(ii)(II) is a good illustration of the nonsensical nature of aspects of this legalisation. The implication here is that a person who has committed an assault upon a passenger will be disqualified from holding a licence, but if the driver has committed the very same offence in any place outside his or her vehicle he or she is eligible to hold a licence. Section 40 deals with the regulation of passengers. Under this section, a passenger must comply with any reasonable request made to him by the licence holder. However, this is already covered under existing legislation, such as the Public Order Act 1994.

I remind the Minister of his own description of the current situation in the taxi industry as a "jungle-type operation". There is and has been for some time an urgent need to introduce order to this so-called jungle. As a means of doing so, I welcome this Bill. While there is no doubt that the situation in the taxi industry had become untenable, the Government's overnight deregulation of the taxi industry led to often devastating outcomes for the families of licence holders. On top of this, the faith of the public in the taxi service, based on their own experiences, information from the Garda Síochána and coverage in the media, has been lost. Most of all, the description of some taxis and drivers as presenting "a danger to the public" surely signifies that this legislation is long overdue. It is very welcome.

I welcome the opportunity of speaking on the Bill before us. The commission that will be appointed following the enactment of the Bill will be charged with the establishment of a high-quality taxi, hackney and limousine service on a national basis. It is warmly welcomed and must be commended, but it is not before its time. The Government's appointment of an interim taxi regulator was a small step in the right direction, but it was worthless without the necessary statutory regulations. A taxi regulator will only be effective if it has the powers to enforce the law and withdraw licences. That includes providing the resources to ensure that the commission can enforce the legislation we are to enact.

The current situation is intolerable. Taxi licences are granted to almost anyone who applies, regardless of his or her knowledge of the geography of the area. Having a criminal record does not present an obstacle to obtaining a licence. Many of the current rules governing insurance and tax clearance are being flouted, with few consequences. The issue of insurance has been ignored to date. The Minister is addressing this issue in the legislation in relation to tax clearance certificates and this is to be welcomed. To give an example, one person was driving a hackney for two years without adequate insurance to cover the work he was doing or the passengers in the vehicle. For two whole years he drove a seven-seat vehicle with no insurance. If there had been an accident, the State would have had to pick up the tab.

It is vital that applicants meet certain standards in relation to minimum training requirements, knowledge of routes and background checks before a licence is granted, if we are to have a service that people can trust. Prior to deregulation, the gardaí vetted new entrants in the industry, but since deregulation they have had to deal with a greater number of applicants. On at least one occasion the decision not to grant a licence has been overturned by the courts. The taxi service is now out of control and some taxi drivers represent a real danger to the travelling public.The Irish Times reported that there had been 129 attacks on members of the public travelling in taxis over a two-year period, including one involving the man at the centre of the X case, who was jailed for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 15 year old girl. There is an urgent need for greater control over the issuing of public service vehicle licences, in consultation with the Garda.

Garda records show that complaints about taxis have increased over recent years. In 2001 there were 509 complaints and in 2000 there was only half that number, 220. In 2002 the number rose to 540 and so far this year there have been 217 complaints. Some 17% of complaints relate to abusive manners by taxi drivers, 1% relate to sexual assault and 50% relate to overcharging. There have been a number of incidents involving taxi drivers and drugs. Since deregulation in 2001, six new taxi drivers have been implicated in major drugs deals. There have been incidents of taxi drivers having gangland connections. There is a huge problem within the system at the moment and I hope the Taxi Regulation Bill will ensure we can weed this aspect out of the system.

I am disappointed by the Government's response to date because it has dragged its heels in introducing this form of regulation. As late as 22 May this year, I questioned the Tánaiste on the Order of Business as to when the legislation would be introduced because the main thoroughfare in this country, O'Connell Street, has become a no-go area. People, particularly women on their own, are afraid to walk down the street in case they are assaulted and are afraid to get into taxis because of the lack of standards. The Chief Whip's response was to stop taking taxis. That was her response to solving the problem. I am pleased the Minister has expedited the legislation.

Criminal convictions are one element but knowledge of the city is another. This has probably partly to do with the overcharging which is taking place. I heard of an incident where a driver travelling from Ringsend to Ranelagh wanted to go through the city centre because it was the only way he knew. In another instance recently, a person got a taxi from the city centre and the taxi followed the bus to Rathmines because the taxi driver did not know how to get to Rathmines. The person in question would have been better off using the services of Bus Átha Cliath rather than getting a taxi. This is a crazy system which has broken down.

The big question is whether deregulation has worked. People must still wait for up to two hours for a taxi, particularly after midnight and at the weekends. The answer to the above question is a resounding "No" because we still have not got the level of service we need. There is no compulsion on anyone to work a night shift which many drivers view as both anti-social and extremely dangerous. This is tied inextricably to the existing fares structure where there is little enticement to work anti-social hours. There is not currently an effective enticement in place and we must address this issue. We must ensure there is a 24-hour service, through a dual tariff system, so that we will have taxis when we need them.

Some taxi drivers claim they work in excess of 70 hours per week, which is in blatant breach of health and safety legislation. No one wants to get into a taxi if the driver has already driven for 60 or 70 hours that week. Another problem which is becoming apparent as deregulation takes effect is that many taxis are now being driven by part-time drivers who are holding down a full-time job. Many of these taxis make an appearance only at the busy and lucrative weekend period. This is in direct breach of safe working practice and is actually illegal in many instances. There is no compulsion on anyone to work a full week but procedures must be put in place to ensure a driver can prove that he or she will not breach the regulations. Consideration should be given to ensuring that a plate holder works a minimum number of hours per week. In my own county, where we have hackney licences as opposed to taxi licences, prior to deregulation an applicant would have had to prove they could provide 40 hours service per week or they would not be issued with a hackney licence. This gave some type of assurance that the vehicle was available for hire throughout the week, not just at lucrative times. While this is an extremely difficult measure to police, it should be considered by the commission.

I will now turn to the various strands of the Bill. Section 9 sets out the principal functions of the commission. Will the Minister ensure that these powers will include, as Deputy Breen said, a 24-hour freephone line for complaints in order that they can be easily made? Complaints can only be made if identification is clearly visible both inside and outside the vehicle. This is not the case at the moment. I have travelled in taxis in recent weeks where many of the identification cards on the dashboard were virtually invisible. No identification was displayed on the back of the vehicle.

The commission should look at a centralised taxi monitoring and booking system. For example, if I pick up the telephone to call a taxi company, I do not know whether the company has nine or 90 vehicles. Naturally, based on the number of vehicles they have, the chances of their responding to the call would be completely different. A company may have vehicles lying idle around the corner, yet another company will have to bring in a vehicle from another part of the city. The system can only be co-ordinated on a centralised basis and the commission would have a role to play in this regard.

Section 11 permits the commission to provide financial assistance to local authorities to develop taxi services from the fees collected. Deputy Breen raised an important point on the parking and other facilities available since deregulation. I hope some of these resources will be used for that purpose. Will the Minister outline the value of the fees collected since deregulation and say what has happened to them? It is estimated that the value of such fees could be as much as €60 million. I would like the Minister to clarify where that money has gone.

Under section 25, the chairman of the commission must appear before the Dáil committees. I hope I will not allow the Minister to abdicate his responsibility to answer parliamentary questions in this House. Each week in this House legislation is introduced which enacts particular measures. However, the Minister backs away from answering parliamentary questions. It will get to the stage where this House will be a glorified talking shop and no one will be accountable. We will get a reply from the Ceann Comhairle's office that the Minister has no official responsibility to the House on a matter. I look forward to tabling an amendment on Committee Stage to clarify the position in order that we will have accountability to this House, and all organisations funded through it and the Department of Finance.

Sections 33 to 51, inclusive, in Part 3 and sections 52 to 54, inclusive, will only commence on ministerial order. When will these sections be enacted? It is imperative that they are enacted swiftly to ensure the regulator is appointed as soon as possible. Deputy Pat Breen asked if the regulator will be in place on a permanent basis by the autumn. At what stage in the autumn will the regulator be in place? Does autumn mean August or 31 October? It is a pretty broad definition.

Section 36 deals with the disqualification of drivers. What will happen if a current licence holder has a previous conviction? Will the licence be withdrawn? From now on, anyone who has a conviction will not be able to apply for a licence and, after one has served his or her sentence, he or she will not be able to apply for a licence for a number of years in some instances, depending on the offence. What will happen to people who are already in the system who do not know the difference between the north side and south side of Dublin, who do not know how to get from the city centre to Rathmines or have to go through the city centre to get from Ringsend to Ranelagh? Will these people be weeded out of the system or will they have to pass a test to prove they are capable and competent to meet the required standards? There is no point introducing legislation to deal with what happens from now on for new applicants coming into the system. We need to try to weed out the people who got through the system since deregulation. I would like the Minister to clarify that matter because it is the single biggest question mark over the legislation. It is an issue which must be clarified before the legislation is passed.

Section 53 provides for the establishment of an advisory council, to which 15 people will be appointed and I understand they will be appointed by the Minister. I want a categorical guarantee that these will not be sinecures on behalf of the Government and that those appointed will be capable, competent and prepared to do the job. The Minister for Public Enterprise in the previous Administration, Senator O'Rourke, set down specific details in the legislation as to the type of qualification required by each member appointed to a board. Regardless of the political persuasion, it is imperative they have a level of competency and it is not a sinecure for someone who failed to become chair of some county council. I would like clarification on that.

Deputy Pat Breen spoke about the meeting with FAIR on 16 June, on which the Minister also commented. I am sorry to hear that meeting ended in an impasse. I understand the Minister has decided to meet again in the next few days when both sides have considered their respective positions. Members of FAIR requested that the Minister meet the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport. After a certain amount of persistence the Minister has finally agreed to have a chat with that committee. This seems to be contrary to the commitment the Minister gave to the European Parliament petitions committee, which was over here.

The report of that committee requested that the Minister make a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport on his proposals. The petitions committee clearly stated the Government has a moral and political responsibility to provide redress. In his speech, the Minister spoke about cases of extreme financial hardship where individuals would be entitled to compensation of up to €15,000. However some of these people would have been paying the Revenue Commissioners considerably in excess of that in probate and capital gains tax.

Up to the time of deregulation the Department of Finance considered it an asset. However, subsequent to deregulation, it is not being considered as an asset by the Department of Transport. The Minister should consider this issue seriously and address it. We do not have to call it compensation, but he should introduce realistic payments. Some people are in severe financial difficulty and those cases must be addressed.

The legislation defines responsibilities on passengers in taxis as well as on those in the industry and it is important that this is given recognition.

I warmly welcome this comprehensive Bill. Given that it was only circulated yesterday, to the extent that I have had the opportunity to consider the Bill, it seems to deal with all the main areas of concern in respect of the taxi industry. My one complaint is that it is two and a half years late. During this time a jungle has been created that has largely been of the Government's making following its ill-judged and rash decision to deregulate overnight without giving consideration to the implications of that decision on quality control, safety and hardship. Given where the taxi industry is at present, this Bill represents an attempt to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. There is quite a mess that has to be sorted and it is unfortunate that these issues were not considered before the overnight deregulation carried out by the then Minister, Mr. Bobby Molloy.

It is also regrettable that it has taken a number of demonstrations by taxi drivers and efforts by Opposition spokespersons to get some action in this area. We had been promised this legislation much earlier and it is now being rushed through in the dying days of the current Dáil year. I will not hold it up in any way but it is important we have an adequate opportunity to scrutinise the legislation. It has been difficult for us to do that overnight, particularly as the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport met from 9.30 this morning and we are not particularly well read in the provisions of the Bill.

While we very much support the passage of this legislation as early as possible to allow the Minister to approve the appointment of the first commissioner during the summer so that the new office can be in place in the autumn, I am somewhat concerned to see the schedule proposed for next week whereby it is intended that the Committee, Report and Final Stages of the Bill be taken within a two-hour period in a committee of the whole House next Thursday. That is not very satisfactory if we are to give any kind of scrutiny to the Bill and allow even a minimum of time to consider the amendments that will be tabled. I ask the Minister to reconsider that. We have allowed two days for Second Stage this week and to only allow two hours next Thursday for Subsequent Stages does not facilitate Members in performing their duty in scrutinising legislation.

Very serious problems were created by the decision of the last Government to deregulate overnight. Those problems arose because the lid was lifted from the taxi licensing system completely. It was done without notice and was a complete departure from what was the established policy and procedure up to the point of deregulation. It is important to consider what had happened throughout the 1990s particularly in the Dublin area where there was an unanswerable case for the provision of additional taxi licences.

The economy was growing very rapidly in that decade and we are all very familiar with the problems people had getting a taxi particularly at night time when there were queues for up to three hours. The number of taxis available was completely inadequate. The number remained inadequate throughout the 1990s principally because of the actions of some of the Minister's colleagues, who led the campaign to restrict the number of licences in the Dublin area.

I am talking about people like the Ministers of State, Deputies Noel Ahern and Callely, and Deputy Martin Brady, who gave cast iron guarantees to some interests in the taxi industry that under no circumstances would there be any additional licences issued throughout most of the 1990s. They led those involved in the taxi industry up the garden path for many years by giving those promises. In return they received many favours from certain sectors of the taxi industry. During the 1997 general election campaign, we all recall umpteen taxis on the north side of Dublin with advertisements stating "Vote Ivor Callely". I note that the commission will take responsibility for advertising and I hope when the commission draws up its regulations it will ensure there will be no political advertising on the taxis.

That is how the system operated in the late 1990s. There was a clear understanding between certain sections of the taxi industry and several Fianna Fáil Deputies and councillors in the Dublin area who refused point blank to take any account of the economic reality in the country at the time. They refused point blank to take heed of the public demand for additional taxis, giving false promises and being complicit in bringing about a situation that was unsustainable. In the late 1990s, this all led to an explosion of public anger in attitudes to the taxi industry.

The Minister will recall the late 1990s when finally there was agreement reached to bring all the players together in the taxi forum. Agreement was reached on the number of plates that would be issued and what was the right way forward for the industry. There was clear agreement that an additional 500 plates were to be issued each year. That was the new taxi scenario at that stage. It is on the basis that people took decisions on buying and selling plates and deciding whether to enter the industry that people feel aggrieved.

An agreed way forward with a regulatory system provided for additional places and that an agreed process be followed. I spoke recently to a person who applied for a taxi licence under this arrangement – the points system – and failed as they did not have an adequate number of points. They received a letter from Dublin Corporation at the time saying that, unfortunately, the application was not successful this year, but that the corporation intended to issue another 500 licenses the following year and a further 500 the year after that. It was made clear by the licensing authority that this was how the industry would operate over the coming years.

On that basis, the person I spoke to went out and paid £80,000 for a licence, only to find a few months later that there was overnight deregulation. That person has a good legal case – such cases will be tested in the courts over the coming months – on the grounds of natural justice, that this was the system in operation, laid out clearly by the authorities concerned and was the basis for taking a commercial decision to buy a licence. The State has a responsibility to those persons when there is such an overnight reversal of policy and complete change in the commercial viability of licences.

My other concern with the implications of overnight deregulation is in respect of the service now available to the public. There is a complete absence of quality control. It is said that there were no clear controls before deregulation. However, there were controls that operated behind the scenes by virtue of the fact that in forking out £80,000 for a licence, a taxi driver had a certain standing. It was a huge investment and such investors were unlikely to take risks in terms of behaviour and crossing the line to criminal behaviour. To that extent, there were certain guarantees for passengers in respect of safety.

Now, the situation is different where there is open market, where virtually anyone can enter without the "entrance fee" and, therefore, there is not the same guarantee in respect to safety. For that reason, there has been a substantial increase in the number of attacks and incidents. Increasingly, members of the public, particularly those travelling on their own, are nervous about taking a taxi at night-time because there is no guarantee that a reputable person is driving it.

The other neglected area is the whole question of the quality of driver-customer standards or vehicles. There are no standards for the type of vehicles that can be used. I recently saw a Volkswagen Polo with taxi top lights. It is crazy that a car the size of a Polo can be used as a taxi because there is no limitation on size. There is no quality control, with many old, smelly, untidy cars, with drivers who do not care whether their customers are satisfied. There are many complaints about overcharging and thuggish behaviour on the drivers' part, with no attention given to customer care. The attitude is customers can take it or leave it. If one needs to travel from the city centre to the suburbs at 2 o'clock in the morning, one is at a serious disadvantage, with little or no choice. All these areas need to be urgently regulated. My hope is that this legislation will provide for that, but my regret is that it has taken two and a half years for it to be produced.

Much financial hardship has been caused by deregulation. The FAIR group met the Joint Committee on Transport and we have met other taxi interests in the past couple of weeks. There is no question but that genuine, severe, personal hardship is being experienced by a significant number of taxi drivers. I have met many of them and their wives at my clinics, as will have many other Deputies. There is no question that there are families under severe stress because of overnight deregulation. Taxi drivers' wives have spoken to me in detail about the difficulties they are experiencing due enormous pressure on family finances, personal relationships and their children.

These were the people who, on the basis of the way the Government agreed to proceed with the taxi industry prior to deregulation in October 2000, invested to a significant extent in buying a licence. These are the people who now find it difficult to make a living out of the business, working long hours. They find it impossible to make the repayments on loans on top of that. These are the people who bought at the height of the market in the months preceding deregulation, taking out mortgages of up to €100,000. They are now faced with payments in excess of €900 per month. I am sure the Minister for Transport will accept that it just does not add up in the current economic climate – making a living for a family and then making those repayments. Whatever about the legal responsibility, there is no question the Minister has a political and moral responsibility to deal with that issue. Taxi drivers, their businesses and their families are going to the wall, and action must be taken to urgently deal with this.

There is the other category of elderly people and widows who are dependent on income from a taxi plate, often their only one in many cases. Those people find themselves at a complete loss. An asset that would have generated an income of €200 to €250 per week is wiped out overnight. There is no proposal of any consequence from the hardship panel to deal with those real personal hardship cases. We were dissatisfied with the recent meeting we had with members of the taxi hardship panel. It was clear that its approach was not to identify and quantify the level of hardship suffered by taxi families, but rather to work out a system of divvying out a fixed amount of money. That was the approach they took but when questioned by members of the committee they were unable to stand up their recommendation, which is disappointing.

It is also disappointing that the Minister has completely ignored the report from the EU Petitions Committee, which took this matter very seriously. The committee's members came over here to examine the matter and went through the various cases put to them. Their report recommended that the Minister should meet the Committee on Transport to come up with a revised schedule of hardship payments. The Minister has indicated in committee and here in the House, however, that he has no intention of paying any heed to that report. At a time when we would expect the Government to be interested in the institutions of the European Parliament, it is a poor performance by the Minister to rubbish the report of the Petitions Committee. I understand when he met representatives of FAIR, the Minister rubbished them as he rubbished members of the Committee on Transport, saying that we were only playing politics. A reputable committee of the European Parliament has made clear and strong recommendations, yet the Minister is just walking away from them. That is not acceptable.

Much effort was put into the campaign by members of FAIR, who have handled the situation very well. They were responsible and did not take to the streets; they pursued the issue, made their case and were very pleased with the findings of the Petitions Committee. They may have been naive but they hoped the Minister would heed such a report. It turns out, however, that in spite of the commitments the Minister gave to members of the Petitions Committee when they met him in Dublin, he will just ignore the report.

Limited as the payments from the hardship panel are, I ask the Minister to ensure that they will be made as quickly as possible because people are in serious financial difficulties at the moment. They need immediate relief, so I would ask the Minister to make those payments on an interim basis. They are inadequate but initial payments should be made, after which the Minister should review any further payments. I do not see why it is necessary for a statutory commissioner to be appointed before that process starts. The Minister has been kicking to touch in recent months by saying he is waiting for the commissioner to be appointed, while at the same time delaying that appointment. Why can the payments not be made straight away? Why does the Minister have to wait until the person is in office?

The appointment of the commissioner or commissioners falls to the Minister on a recommendation from the Local Appointments Commission, and that is as it should be. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to read in the newspaper about a certain high profile public servant whose name was being floated in respect of this position. I certainly hope there is no basis to that report, on the grounds that it should be an open and transparent procedure with no question of people being identified at this stage, thereby bypassing the selection procedure. I trust that procedure will be open and that the rumours concerning a particular person did not emanate from the Department.

Having read the Bill, the complaints procedure is not clear to me. I have tried to establish the number of complaints made since deregulation but it is very hard to do so. I have received limited figures from the carriage office but it has been brought to my attention recently that the complaints procedure that is supposed to be in place does not operate. Two phone numbers are advertised for passengers to call to make complaints about drivers' behaviour. The other afternoon I tried both numbers at least ten times each but neither phone was answered. That was in mid-afternoon so I am sure the Minister will accept that is not a very satisfactory situation. When I questioned the gardaí responsible in the carriage office they said they had a number of lines there and received hundreds of calls every day dealing with all aspects, including PSV licences and so on. Clearly, there should be a dedicated line that is staffed 24 hours a day and if it is busy, calls should be diverted to an answering machine. At the moment neither phone number is connected to an answering machine. The statistics are not reliable if there is not a proper procedure in place for making complaints.

On the point raised by Deputy Naughten concerning the commission's accountability, I note that the commissioners will be obliged to come before Dáil committees, as is only right and proper, but I am concerned that they will not be answerable to the Dáil through the Minister who will not be required to answer questions on their behalf. I have already brought to the Minister's attention how unsatisfactory that is because he is keeping at arm's length various bodies that have been established under his Department's aegis. When we ask the Minister about critical issues of policy or operation he says he is not answerable to the Dáil for whatever organisation it might be. Some time ago, the Minister said he accepted our difficulties and he took on the responsibility for getting answers to questions concerning those bodies. That worked for a few weeks but I notice that recently when difficult questions have been asked about any bodies within the ambit of his Department, he has reverted to saying that he is not answerable to the Dáil for them. That is not very satisfactory, however, so perhaps the Minister could re-examine that matter in respect of his replies to parliamentary questions. I expect that the Minister should be answerable for the commissioners in the House.

What is the role of the carriage office in respect of issuing PSV licences because local authorities are responsible for granting taxi licences and there seems to be little connection between the two? As things currently operate, I can buy a taxi plate, although I do not have a PSV licence, and I could give it to a third party who may have a PSV licence. That situation is unsatisfactory. If we are tightening up on the licensing procedure, as we ought to, there should be a direct connection between granting a taxi licence and holding a PSV licence. I would like to see that loophole closed.

What records will be kept by the commissioners? I would like an assurance from the Minister that, while the commissioners are tasked with keeping records – and I welcome the introduction of that system – the proper computer back-up will be available at an early stage. Not only should all the players – including the carriage office, the commission, local authorities and the Garda Síochána – have access to the records but, given the experience with the penalty points system, the Minister needs to take steps at an early stage so that whatever kind of computer back-up is required it will be in place when it is needed, at the start. I hope the Minister will assure us that that kind of forward planning is taking place.

I welcome the provision in the Bill whereby applicants for taxi licences will be required to produce a tax clearance certificate, which is only right.

Wheelchair accessibility has been the greatest failing in respect of the taxi industry. At the time of deregulation, and prior to that, we were promised that people with physical disabilities would be catered for. Given the difficulties with public transport generally, it is critically important that taxis are wheelchair accessible. In the late 1990s, some progress was made in that regard but many of the people to whom additional plates were issued for wheelchair accessible taxis have left the business because of the high cost of running people-carrier vehicles. Those vehicles have been sold on for private use and the current number of wheelchair accessible taxis is lower than it was before deregulation.

Those cars that we talk about as being wheelchair accessible, principally people carriers, are not wheelchair accessible in the strict meaning of the word. There is space in the car, but there are huge difficulties with access in terms of ramps. There are very few ramps and many of those that are in existence do not cater for the more modern type of wheelchair. I hope the commissioners will give early attention to that area. We need to regulate clearly and set down very clear specifications in terms of the number of wheelchair accessible taxis and what constitutes being wheelchair accessible. I look forward to that being done.

The Bill provides for the transfer of funding from the commissioners to local authorities. In this regard, what has happened in Dublin in respect of facilities for taxis is a disgrace. There has been a very big increase in the number of taxis but there are now fewer places at taxi ranks than there were prior to deregulation. That needs to be stipulated very clearly by the commissioners. Funding will also be necessary because there are certain expenses involved in providing ranks. It is ludicrous that the rank previously provided on O'Connell Street opposite Clery's has been relocated due to ongoing works to Prince's Street, where cars are queued with no indication that there is a rank there. It is not a taxi rank but a waiting area. It is very unsatisfactory, and the same applies to many areas throughout the city centre and the suburbs.

The commissioners need to address as a matter of urgency the intolerable situation in respect of taxis at Dublin Airport in terms of the practices that are engaged in and the closed shop being operated there. I recently came across somebody from the Whitehall area who, having got off a flight at Dublin Airport, sat into a taxi. On being informed that he was going only to Whitehall, the taxi driver subjected him to a string of abuse and refused to take him, using a number of expletives in the process. That kind of attitude needs to stop. The predatory approach taken by a number of taxi drivers at Dublin Airport, where a complete and utter closed shop operates, needs to be tackled. That is not acceptable either for Irish citizens or for visitors.

I welcome the provisions in respect of the council that is to be established. I question the method of appointment of members. The Bill seems to suggest that it falls to the Minister to make those appointments. I ask that the recent practice that has come into play be adhered to whereby, while legally and technically the Minister will make the appointment, the person representing the different interests is selected from among those interests and nominees will be suggested to the Minister who, in turn, would appoint them.

I propose to share my time with Deputies Eamon Ryan and Ó Snodaigh. I am very glad to speak on this Bill, which I support. People in Dublin have been very aware over the years of the lack of taxis, particularly when it was raining. People also felt the taxi service was expensive. There were taxi plates available but at a very high cost, but people did not have a very good service.

The former Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Robert Molloy, was very proactive in this regard and deregulated the trade, for which he was much criticised. However, the people of Dublin felt he had done them a good turn. The number of licences has trebled since deregulation occurred. That has brought its own problems but, on the bright side, it has allowed taxis to be available for the people of Dublin and the public whom we are here to serve as best we can, including people with children and disabled people. I agree that we should strive to have all our taxis disabled-friendly. Any help the Government can give in this area should be given and I strongly promote it.

The former Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Robert Molloy, who is no longer a Minister or a Member of the Dáil, did the people of Dublin a favour. I am aware, through the Safe Home programme, that he was also proactive in supporting older people in England who wished to return. In that regard, I spoke to him in the past about extending the capital assistance scheme, which he did.

The increased number of taxis brought its own problems regarding the condition of the taxis and a drop in standards. There were also some very unfortunate incidents, including a rape case, as a result of which the person got a jail sentence.

There is a very great need for some sort of regulation. It is not before time and is very much to the point in including taxi quotas and so on. It shows recognition of the urgent need for this as perceived by the taxi drivers. I congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward and strongly support it. The provision of a taxi regulator is very important in laying down standards to ensure the public has a service that is professional and of a high standard.

The payment of compensation to taxi drivers is very necessary because they were discommoded, having paid a high price for plates before deregulation. There is a group of discommoded people in my area as well who are very much in need of some type of support or compensation. There are only 50 people in the group, 25 driftnet fishermen and 25 draftnet fishermen, who deserve support.

It is wonderful that so many taxis are available in Dublin. In my area there is not even a proper public transport system. The Minister has been proactive in this regard with rural transport initiatives and so on, which I hope will increase. In my area we do not have the traffic or population problems of the east coast. If the focus was on developing the west and on balanced regional development, which really has not happened despite the existence of a national spatial strategy, many of the problems in Dublin could be addressed. About 50% of graduates from the west have to go to Dublin to get their first job, and these are all people who will require services such as taxis. If the Government met its commitment to balanced regional development, those people could stay in their own area. There is a great need for this because the west, and north-west Mayo in particular, has been designated as the most deprived area in Ireland and the area most in need of attention. There was a Shannon free tax scheme for that area which was very useful, and we need something like that in the west.

What is happening is inequitable. Alarm bells are ringing because the population of the Dublin commuter area is increasing all the time. Traffic is already at ass and cart speed and will slow even further. There is therefore an urgent need to address the regional imbalance of increasing population in Dublin and decreasing population in the west. I urge the Government to address this issue. The establishment of the Commission for Taxi Regulation is necessary.

I ask the Deputy to move the adjournment of the debate. He has four minutes remaining.

Is it appropriate to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform a brief question on this legislation?

No, it is not. We are moving on to Question Time.

Debate adjourned.