Taxi Regulation Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is not before time that this Bill is presented. The issue of taxi regulation has been tinkered around with for a long time. Over the years people backed away from tackling this issue of taxi and hackney services. There have been many problems in the industry, particularly the row between taxi and hackney owners, and people were afraid to tackle them up until now. However, in fairness to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, he is pro-active on this issue. He has also been pro-active in other issues within his brief, whether trying to reduce the carnage on the roads or providing more efficient public transport. He is doing the work required – long may it continue – and I compliment him on his efforts.

Most contributors to the debate so far referred to their personal experience of the use of taxi services. I have not had much experience of using limousines, but with regard to the taxi and hackney services, I have found them satisfactory and to a high standard. That includes both the Dublin and Cork services. Once or twice, I felt I was being taken on a scenic route, but I would not be slow in pointing that out to the driver involved. My primary use of taxis is in the Cork area where people know me, so the drivers tend to be more careful. My wife and son – both non-drivers – are daily users of taxis and they constantly laud the taxi services. As public representatives, we all get feedback on services generally and public transport is no different to any other. Up until recently, 95% of complaints were about availability of taxis. This has changed dramatically over the past year, which is a welcome development.

All Deputies with a dual mandate must take some of the blame for the shortage of taxis. Deputy Deenihan painted a rosy picture of how taxi services operate in County Kerry. If there was a need for another licence plate, the council authorities simply handed it out. Our experience in Cork Corporation has not been the same, where there were problems in granting licences. The difficulty arose from the old regulation under which taxi plate licences were drawn from lots. It meant that one could not allocate plates as we felt would be appropriate in the industry, which would be to cosy drivers or others involved in the trade. It meant when licences became available the existing companies were able to get drivers and others to apply for licences. Invariably, this resulted in the council saying "no" and refusing to extend the number of plates.

As chairman of the road safety committee of Cork Corporation, I worked with others to come up with a new system. We looked at Edinburgh and other cities for a points system but, unfortunately, we were not successful. Things were changing in the industry. In the end, it lead to the situation where we had total deregulation. People can argue for and against that but it was the primary issue. There is a lesson there for us when we find that there is a difficulty with legislation. We should be more pro-active in changing it.

The Bill also deals with the issue of wheelchair access. One of the Opposition spokesmen in his comments sneered about this. Obviously, as it was pointed out to him, he had not read the Bill as wheelchair access is encompassed in the Bill. Another Opposition Deputy claimed that if it was in the Bill, the Minister for Transport would have splashed it across his opening speech. The Minister did not because it would have been playing to the gallery and exploiting the situation of vulnerable people. Wheelchair access is covered in the Bill. However, we need to look at that issue carefully because there is a need for State support for provision of this facility. It is much more expensive to provide a wheelchair accessible vehicle and it can be a slower service so this matter needs to be closely examined. I am not purporting to tell the commission what it should do, and neither is that the purpose of the Bill – the commission is being established to examine these issues. I appeal to the Minister to examine the matter because it is a different category of service, given the cost of the taxi and its usage.

The standard of cars was referred to in the debate and we have a large variety of vehicles, many of which are clapped out. At the other end of the scale, however, there are brand new cars. Internationally, a standard is maintained and while we do not maintain such a standard at the moment, I hope it will happen once the Bill is enacted.

While this is not paying lip service to them, the most important aspect of the service provided by taxis, hackneys, and to a lesser extent limousines, is that for much of the 24-hour period they are the only transport available after 11.30 p.m. In many rural areas where there is little or no public transport they provide the only service all day, thus fulfilling a huge need. Taxi and hackney drivers constitute a professional group which forms part of the transport service and they have to be dealt with as such.

Generally speaking, they are totally efficient and honest in their approach to work. Difficulties have arisen recently concerning what have been called cowboy operators, who will have to be dealt with. Under the provisions of the Bill, a person whose application for a licence is refused can appeal to the District Court but I am extremely concerned about the few judgments that have been made in that regard. The Garda Síochána has the difficult role of vetting drivers to ensure they are of good character but they seem to be overruled whenever an appeal is made to the courts. When such matters come to court, the judge is usually informed that a person has been rehabilitated and, lo and behold, the previously unsuitable driver becomes suitable within the space of half an hour. I am concerned that such things can happen and I would like to see publicity about such cases because the Garda Síochána has a difficult job to do. As previous speakers have said, it is crucially important that the integrity and character of taxi and hackney drivers are of the highest standard because very often they are dealing with vulnerable young people who may not be sober.

In my experience, I have found that taxi drivers generally provide a great public service as well as networking with the authorities, including the Garda Síochána. They are certainly not slow to point out misdemeanours they have witnessed or difficulties facing vulnerable people. The gardaí admit that taxi drivers are of great assistance to them, and long may that continue. They certainly provide information that can help to prevent crime.

The refusal of taxi licences for unsuitable persons is a matter of concern and I would like the Minister to discuss in his reply the matter of the Garda Síochána being overruled in that regard. We had a constitutional referendum to change the bail laws but it seems judges are unaware that they can refuse bail. This aspect of the legislation needs to be examined more closely.

Compensation should be paid quickly to those who have found themselves in difficulties as a result of deregulation. The compensation fund is there so decisions should be made quickly to help those who, in certain cases, are suffering hardship. In that way, the matter can be taken off the agenda. Other support can and should be provided also. In yesterday's debate, Deputy McGuinness referred to a few instances where extra costs are being charged to taxi owners. Most of them are just making a living from the business and will not become millionaires so they deserve a break. While there are multiple taxi-plate owners, the ordinary individual who is driving a taxi needs assistance.

Support is required to protect taxi drivers from bad customers, including drunks and thieves. Taxi customers who are very drunk will have to be dealt with because it should not be up to drivers to defend their vehicles against such customers who are drunk and incapable late at night. While we are placing demands on taxi drivers, the law will have to work with them in that regard. The Minister should examine the possibility of dealing severely with people who cause problems for taxi drivers, who deserve the same protection that bus drivers and conductors had to fight for and obtained.

Many improvements could be made to the taxi service, including the automatic provision of printed receipts to customers. It would be fairly simple to put a procedure in place whereby a receipt would feature all the details of a trip, including mileage, charge and any extras such as waiting and luggage charges. As well as being necessary, such receipts would help to establish customer confidence. The technology required for printed receipts is very simple and is used in many major cities, including Copenhagen and Paris. In many countries, taxis have a built-in computer so the driver inputs the address details and a map indicates the route. That can overcome difficulties such as were highlighted in yesterday's debate when a driver did not know where Kildare Street or the Dáil were. Drivers cannot be expected to know every side street, however, but that computerised mapping equipment is now available and it is not very expensive. If such equipment can be installed in taxis we should also be able to have a proper method of issuing printed receipts, which would suit everybody, including drivers.

A more transparent pricing system is needed because the current methods are very confusing. For example, prices vary according to the hour of the day or night, trips outside the taxi meter area and other factors which make it almost impossible to forecast what a taxi ride will cost. That is not good for anybody. There is no doubt that taxis and hackneys will be used more frequently in future, particularly as young people take them for granted. Their increased availability is most welcome, especially for people who may want to have a drink and avoid using their own cars for that reason. Drivers are now more conscious of the dangers of driving and drinking than was the older generation, and they take the matter more seriously.

The projected increase in the use of taxis and hackneys has to be factored into the situation, although there is currently a glitch in that there may be more vehicles available than are needed at certain times. Once the Bill is enacted, however, and people are aware of all the regulations, it will help to iron out the problem. The number of licences has increased dramatically and that needs to be analysed to see whether it is sufficient. I am quite sure that will be done.

On the question of tax clearance certificates, most people involved in the taxi business are honest, but there are cartels, groups and people with multiple taxis. This requirement is therefore welcome. It is a requirement for Members of this House, the Seanad and members of local authorities. It should be a requirement in every walk of life to have a tax clearance certificate as proof that one's affairs are in order. All these elements together will lead to greater use of and development of the service.

The first encounter visitors have with the people here is often with a taxi driver, whether they arrive through Dublin, Cork or somewhere else. It is therefore important that the service is good. I am not saying that every driver must be a counsellor or be able to chat away. If they wish to get on with their driving, so be it. None of us is perfect, but taxi drivers are generally knowledgeable and, in many cases, funny and good at telling yarns and that seems to go with the territory. They are nearly always willing to chat to people and they can certainly give a very good impression to tourists. I am aware that the reverse could also be true and that some overcharge customers. However, 99.9% of the time people's experience is positive and the service is very good.

On the question of the enforcement of regulations, I am concerned that, given the huge explosion in the number of licences, there might not be sufficient Garda personnel to enforce the new regulations. There is anecdotal evidence in that regard, but I would like detailed facts and figures that show whether there are sufficient people to police the taxi service.

There was much talk about deregulation and the difficulties it created, but nobody referred to the opportunity it gave to so many new people, who would otherwise be unemployed, to get involved and start up a business of their own. It created much opportunity and many jobs, and that is to be welcomed. They have not been mentioned in this debate, but I know many people who, since deregulation, are very pleased to be involved in the public service area providing a service and working for themselves.

The taxi service is a professional industry and proper structures are needed. I would argue that the service should be provided, as far as possible, by full-time professional drivers. I am aware that some people drive taxis part-time in addition to having another job and that there are cosies who drive full-time in somebody else's car. The taxi service is a professional industry and generally speaking, it should, be provided by full-time drivers.

The question of attacks on drivers is very serious and should be addressed very seriously. In the context of their being part of the public service, supplying a public service, being vulnerable themselves and needing protection, we are putting a huge requirement on them. It does not make good reading to learn of 129 attacks within two years. It is 129 attacks too many. The issue must be dealt with severely.

As to whether deregulation has worked, the obvious answer is "no". Up to now it has not worked fully. That is the reason this Bill is being implemented. I commend the Bill to the House. I compliment the Minister again on his work to date in many areas. Long may it continue.

I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. This is a very important Bill. We must face up to the major problems that exist in the transport sector, both in Dublin and around the country. We have to clean up the industry, make it safe, ensure high standards and protect the livelihood of taxi drivers. It is also important to be aware of the dangers that taxi drivers face, particularly at night, in our cities. I refer specifically to attacks. Attacks and abuse are a regular occurrence and we should never be flippant in our view of the taxi service. Taxi drivers deserve our support and they also deserve our protection when it comes to the Garda and policing.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of the Commission for Taxi Regulation and for a new code for the regulation of small public vehicles and their drivers, with the emphasis on a consumer oriented licensing system, and to realise the establishment of the advisory council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation while, at the same time, respecting the rights of the taxi drivers. Safety and security, along with fair prices, are the priority issues for the customer, and anyone caught ripping off the consumer should be punished. If a taxi driver is found guilty of ripping people off on a regular basis, he or she should be drummed out of the service. I get too many complaints about a minority of taxi drivers ripping people off, particularly visitors to our country. I emphasise that it is a minority. The vast majority of taxi drivers are hardworking and honest. I also strongly welcome the influx of women into the industry. This can only improve the service.

Section 8 provides that the commission will be independent in the exercise of its functions. This is essential as we need a strong independent view on the whole taxi industry. We also need to be fair and impartial in the interests of the wider public, and section 8 of this legislation appears to ensure that that situation will evolve. However, we need to be vigilant to ensure that section 8 is implemented professionally and objectively.

Section 21, and particularly subsection (3), which provides that a person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €3,000, and subsection (5) which provides that the commission can prosecute such an offence, is a positive part of the legislation. It sends out a strong message to people involved in the taxi trade that they cannot mess with the public and, above all, that if they do, they will pay for it. This is another way to ensure that consumers' rights are safeguarded and that the public can feel safe using a public service vehicle. It also sets standards and that means everyone wins.

Section 34(4) deals with the competence of a licence applicant. We must have standards and, above all, quality people involved in the business. Courtesy must be part of our standards. That is something we as a nation have been losing, particularly in the past five or six years. We must win back the old characteristics of courtesy, good manners, and a warm welcome for all clients and tourists. This is an issue that comes up regularly, particularly in terms of people who work in tourism. We have been losing this over the past five or six years, whether in pubs or taxis. I would encourage the taxi drivers and their unions and organisations to take a very pro-active part in relation to examples of good practice, courtesy and good quality service because in the end this will be a strong economic side of any development of the industry in Ireland.

Section 53 provides for the establishment of the advisory council and for its membership under the direction of the Minister. It is essential that the Minister appoint the right people, people who have a vision of a top quality service. This should include representatives of trade unions, the community sector, consumer groups, and people who know the industry and have the interests of the consumer at heart. Professional and objective people should be on this council in order to improve efficiency and good practice. These people will then advise the commission or the Minister as laid out in section 54.

The bottom line of the debate is the importance of a quality service with public safety at the top of the agenda. Parents should always feel their young children can get home safely and have the opportunity of getting a reliable taxi at any time. I urge taxi drivers to keep this in mind as it is these people who pay their wages. There is a good living to be made in the taxi industry and good luck to the people who do well, but all the time they have to know the consumer is demanding certain standards and they have an obligation to maintain them.

I welcome many aspects of the Bill, which points the way forward for an industry that needs monitoring. A good quality taxi service with high standards is what the people deserve and, if run properly and efficiently, it will be a major asset to society as a whole and to our economy.

I refer to the taxi market since deregulation. Following the High Court decision of October 2000, entry into the taxi business was deregulated. The licensing authorities granted taxi licences to all applicants possessing a suitable vehicle and adequate insurance in the Dublin taximeter area. Licences cost £5,000 for a saloon and £100 for a wheelchair taxi. A fare increase was granted in Dublin from 1 January 2002, with the promise of fare reviews at regular intervals.

There has been a large increase in the supply of taxis in the two years since deregulation, which, coupled with a small increase in taxi demand, has resulted in a sharp fall in taxi productivity. In addition, taxi operating costs have risen. These factors have sharply reduced taxi drivers' incomes. The restoration of economic and social sustainability to taxi operations in Dublin will require a range of initiatives together with an improved fare structure.

Taxi supply has more than trebled in Dublin since deregulation, while the number of small public service vehicles has almost doubled. Within the taxi total, the share of wheelchair taxis has fallen from 29% in 2000 to less than 1% at present. Savings on a wheelchair licence compared to a saloon licence can only compensate for the extra operating cost of a wheelchair taxi for one year. The 84% gross increase in PSV numbers since deregulation overstates the increase in PSV supply, which may have been closer to 50%. The total number of taxis and hackneys in Dublin stands at more than 12,200. This amounts to ten PSVs per 1,000 people.

Taxi demand is quite slow to respond to a change in supply or price and this has been the case in Dublin since deregulation. A study by Goodbody Economic Consultants commissioned by Dublin City Council found that in 1997 56% of adults had taken a weighted average of 20.3 taxi trips during the previous six months. This was equivalent to 11.4 taxi trips for the entire adult population. In 2001, 50% of adults had taken an average of 23.9 taxi trips during the previous six months. This was equivalent to 12 taxi trips for the entire adult population. Thus, following deregulation there was an increase of more than 5% in the number of taxi trips undertaken and this must be taken into consideration.

With a 50% increase in PSV supply and a 5% increase in taxi demand, not surprisingly, taxi productivity has fallen. Even after allowing for the taxi fare increase, 50% more vehicles were plying for hire in a market that had risen in value by approximately 20%. The productivity of taxi services in other EU cities is sustained by setting aside sufficient road infrastructure to allow public service vehicles to travel faster than cars. This is still far from being the case in Dublin.

For example, bus and taxi priority in Dublin is by far the lowest of any European city, as measured by bus-taxi reserved length per 1,000 people and bus-taxi reserved length per urban hectare. This is one of the main reasons the speed of travel of PSVs in Dublin is the lowest in Europe and many people do not realise that. The best available indicator of PSV speeds is the networked speeds for buses. The following are the average day's speeds in European cities: Stockholm 28 kph; Brussels 22.5 kph; Rome 18.7 kph; Vienna 17.2 kph; London 16.2 kph; and Dublin 14 kph. It is arithmetically obvious that Stockholm, with an average travel speed twice that of Dublin, can achieve taxi productivity levels up to twice those of Dublin. Rome is a more interesting comparison because, in spite of ownership of twice as many carsper capita as Dublin, PSV travel speeds one third faster than Dublin are achieved, mainly by allocating much more road infrastructure to PSV travel. In Dublin, PSV average travel speeds in recent times have been falling by 1 kph per annum. Thus, in the years 2000 to 2002, traffic congestion has reduced the physical productivity of taxi operations by 12.5%. We can learn from other Europeans about these issues, particularly the Rome experience.

Taxi productivity can also be affected by the availability of sufficient taxi rank space and by the suitability of the available rank space. Since deregulation, virtually no new rank space has been added in Dublin. NTDU members have been summonsed for traffic violations when queuing to gain entry to ranks. Luas will remove 67 spaces at three city centre ranks, one of which is a key public transport mode whose productivity will be impaired without a feeder taxi service. Promises have been made to provide additional suitable rank capacity, but two years after deregulation, no such capacity has materialised.

From a taxi driver's perspective, these productivity constraints can only be overcome by working extremely long hours and, for highly-indebted drivers, this can extend to 90 hours over 6.5 days. However, there is a limit to extensive working. Unlike prior to 2000, virtually no taxi driver can afford the low productivity-earnings experience of working through a two peak hour period.

Taxi drivers' costs are broadly outside the control of taxi licence holders. The costs of operating a saloon taxi have risen by less than 8% in the two years since deregulation. Taxi drivers' incomes since deregulation have been squeezed between the rock of reduced trip volumes and the hard place of increased costs. Taxi drivers' incomes are now too far below what is necessary to sustain the economic and social viability of taxi operations in Dublin in the medium term. I welcome the Minister's proposals for providing compensation because we have a responsibility when dealing with genuine grievances of the average taxi driver who provides a good service and makes an effort.

We must learn from the lessons of deregulation abroad. Hackneys and horse drawn coaches for hire first appeared on the streets of London and Paris between 1600 and 1620. In 1635, Charles 1, of whom I am not a big fan, ordered that hackney carriages should be licensed so as to restrain the excessive and superfluous use of coaches. The British Parliament adopted a regulatory regime in 1654 that limited the number of hackneys. During the US depression of the early 1930s. there was a sharp increase in the number of taxi cabs. This led to what was described as "destructive competition" among taxi operators. A US department of transportation report summarised the position as follows:

The excess supply of taxis led to fare wars, extortion, and a lack of insurance and financial responsibility among operators and drivers. Public officials and the press in cities across the country cried out for public control over the taxi industry. The response was municipal control over fares, licences, insurance and other aspects of taxi services.

Taxi regulation was invoked to achieve six objectives, some of which were in conflict – for example, public safety, consumer protection, service availability, service quality, reasonable operator profitability and reduced traffic congestion and pollution. Taxi regulation continued until the 1970s when, following the success of airline deregulation, Chicago school economists argued that deregulation should be extended to taxis. We must look at the detail of the debate.

On ideological grounds, it was expected that the competitor free market would always provide better and more efficient services. This is also something we should examine. It was expected that taxi deregulation would ensure lower fares, a more customer-responsive service and reduced costs of Government oversight. Prior to 1983, 21 cities, mainly in the sunbelt, deregulated taxi services. By 1993, 17 of those cities, including all the major cities, had re-regulated taxi services. With the exception of an increase in new entries, none of the beneficial impacts expected from taxi deregulation occurred.

The International Road Transport Union has commissioned the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics to undertake a study of taxi regulation in Europe. Ten countries, including Ireland, are co-operating with this study. While the final results will not be available until next Spring, a consensus seems to be emerging as to what constitutes best regulatory practice for taxis in Europe, particularly on the four main key elements of access to market, fare regulation, taxi drivers' incomes and quality and service regulations. Access to market is deregulated in only four parts of Europe, that is Sweden, Netherlands, Ireland and London. Only in Ireland is entry deregulated. Elsewhere high regulatory hurdles are set for taxi licences and for companies operating taxis. Access to the taxi market in the Netherlands and Sweden, for example, is only free to applicants who are medically, morally, financially and professionally fit. I do not know what the definition of morally fit is but the Dutch and Swedes have a very progressive view of the other three areas of fitness.

The costs of deregulation in the case of Ireland is most obvious in relation to criminality. An estimated one in five new entrants have criminal connections. This is an amazing figure. Rapes by taxi drivers have occurred since deregulation and at least one criminal organisation uses the taxi service to distribute drugs and prostitutes. This is something against which we all must be on guard. I would encourage cross-party co-operation to deal with this criminal activity, particularly regarding the distribution of drugs. We cannot allow taxi services to be involved in criminal activity in the areas of the distribution of drugs and especially in the exploitation of vulnerable young women and teenagers from dysfunctional families and families in crisis. This is happening at the moment. Many fair, decent and honest taxi drivers constantly tell TDs about this situation. I encourage people to be on their guard in this. If we do not nip this in the bud it will get out of control, as it has in other countries.

Fare regulation in Europe is normally set via maximum fares or fixed fares. Two exceptions are Sweden and some major cities in Norway. However, in both these areas non-fare regulatory measures have kept prices steady and prevented price wars and overcharging. As in Ireland, local authorities normally set regulated fares in Europe. Taxi drivers' incomes must be set at a reasonable level and must be reasonably stable if a satisfactory taxi service is to be sustained in the medium term. One useful indicator of the financial health of taxi drivers' incomes is the proportion of drivers who are salaried employees. Only a well funded taxi service confident of its future will or can commit to its employees. It is important that taxi drivers are able to earn a decent income so there will be no threat from other forces, particularly from dark forces. With the exception of Sweden and the United Kingdom, the vast majority of taxi drivers in Europe are salaried employees. Since deregulation in Ireland taxi operation has not been capable of remunerating formal employees or semi-formal employees such as cosies. The annual net earnings from taxi operation fell by 36% following deregulation from a figure in the region of €24,940 in 2000 to €16,000 in 2002. Evidence shows that the downward pressure on taxi drivers' incomes is continuing through 2002 and 2003.

I encourage the Minister to consider some of the views I have presented today. I welcome the Bill. It is progressive. The industry needs monitoring. If we get a good quality taxi service with high standards the society and the economy will win.

I wish to share my time with Deputy John Curran.

I was interested to hear Deputy McGrath's historical reference to Charles l, of whom he said he was not a supporter. I am not sure if Deputy McGrath is opposed to his policy on taxis or more generally and whether or not he supported his replacement by Oliver Cromwell, or if he being a typical Independent and trying to have it every which way.

I am a democrat.

It was an interesting historical analysis.

I would not agree with Deputy McGrath's views on bus and taxi lanes. While we may not have the same level of infrastructure as the European cities referred to by Deputy McGrath, we certainly have a greater level of growth. As a member of the advisory committee to the Dublin Transportation Office, I know that the office's plans are of the first order and I am very encouraged by them. Deputy McGrath is right to say the statistics speak for themselves but a more generous analysis would show that a growing network of bus and taxi lanes is available within the city and that is for everybody's benefit.

Like every Member of the House who has spoken so far, I welcome the Bill. This consensus and unanimity is unusual and is to be welcomed. I have some concerns regarding the Bill. I am concerned at the number of agencies proliferating in Government. The Brennan report on health dealt with the question of the proliferation of agencies and advised that the Department of Health and Children pare back the multiplicity of agencies which have been created in recent years. Every time we had a problem we created an agency and very often those agencies were guilty of duplication of effort and a lack of efficiency and accountability. The Brennan report very clearly said we needed to rationalise. I hope rationalisation will be a product of the health report.

This Bill creates another agency. These agencies should not be created lightly but this is a right and proper one. I am very pleased to see, in section 25, that the agency is answerable to Oireachtas committees. That is crucial. Other councils and agencies which enjoy Government funding are not answerable as directly and clearly as that. Sometimes these councils are created by regulation with no requirement to answer to Oireachtas committees and that is unfortunate. Section 8 says the council will be independent. That is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, I have a general fear that such agencies are a law unto themselves. They are answerable only to themselves and have no answerability in terms of parliamentary questions. Some Deputies have expressed concern about that and I share that concern. They have great powers. They fix fares and determine standards and these need to be subjected to serious scrutiny by this House. This power should not be reduced or emasculated.

Section 11 refers to funding for local authorities. This is very important in relation to taxi ranks. I am a member of the DTO advisory committee, which is trying to achieve an integrated transport system in Dublin. Confining my comments to Dublin for a moment, the Dublin Transportation Office has flagged the fact that there is a lack of integration between bus services, DART services, the future Luas service, to which Deputy McGrath referred, and taxi ranks. I hope that, in committee, the Minister will consider consultation with the DTO so that taxi ranks can be financed through local authorities at particular transport hubs, which the DTO hopes to create throughout the Dublin region. That is not referred to directly in this Bill and I hope that on Committee State there can be a more clear commitment to creating an integrated system for taxi ranks with the other transport modes available in Dublin.

Another issue which has arisen in the debate emerges from section 34, an important section of the Bill, which devolves incredibly wide powers to the Commission for Taxi Regulation, including setting the period of validity of the licence. This is a serious issue. There should be direct reference in the Bill to the period of a licence. A private driving licence is for ten years and a provisional licence is for one year. The period of validity of a taxi licence should be set down clearly. The Bill gives the commission too wide a power.

Some Deputies have referred, on a lighter note, to the colour of the vehicles and Deputy Devins even suggested that the colours of the local county should be on the taxis. I do not know if that is a good idea, particularly as I am from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown where we do not even have a Gaelic football or hurling team. The Minister may require that the Galway colours would be put on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown taxis.

The Deputy's area can share with us.

We could share the Deputy's colours.

It is very blue out there.

It is a good idea to have particular colours for these vehicles. Whether one would break it down by area is the question, but in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown there is no Gaelic team, and there is no shared consciousness of even being from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. It might even be a good idea but, as I say, that is on a lighter note.

As a former law student, I used to tear my hair out studying Acts like this and giving out about parliamentary draftspersons. There is a provision in the Bill which I am delighted to have an opportunity to criticise. I am referring to section 34(3)(b), and the following is supposed to make sense:

In making regulations under this section, the Commission may establish requirements and conditions for the purpose of the assessment of applications for the grant of licences, including requirements and conditions in respect of–

(b) requirements . . .

Requirements is used here for the third time in one sentence. It continues: ". . . relating to the knowledge of the geography routes . . . for the grant of a licence,". That subparagraph should be tidied up. It is not a major point and it is not something which detracts from the Bill, but some of the drafting can be a little convoluted and complicated. I hope that this can be acknowledged in some way when we get to Committee Stage and that some of these provisions can be tidied up, if only for the sake of slower law students like myself.

The only criticism I have about the appeal procedure is that it is a slightly short time to appeal a decision. I realise it is a two-step procedure, whereby one can require clarification and then appeal to the District Court, but normally in appeals to courts there is a longer period than 14 days, and there may be an argument for lengthening the period of time for appeal. Perhaps the Minister will consider that also.

Section 36 deals with a prescriptive list of the offences which would disallow the holding of a licence. It suggests that all other offences are not a bar to holding a licence and that is probably not what is intended. It states that in the case of summary conviction, the disqualification is a 12 month period, and on conviction on indictment, it is disqualification. I do not understand whether that is a retrospective application so that anybody who carries an offence at this time will lose their licence immediately on application when the Bill becomes an Act, or will all those people who have been convicted on indictment for any of the offences listed in section 36 lose their licence immediately? That is one query to which the Minister might respond when he winds up on this debate.

As I stated, the DTO should play a key part in rolling out this Bill and in the integration of services. I would like the commission to address the issue of insurance for taxi drivers, which has been one of their greatest difficulties in recent times as a result of deregulation. With those comments, I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Taxi Regulation Bill. As most people in this House would agree, legislation in this area is required given that the taxi business over recent years has evolved substantially. Having listened to previous contributions, Deputies spoke about how the industry has evolved and the growth in the number of taxis and in their usage and so forth. I would not like it to be felt that this Bill primarily deals with the actual number of taxis on the road. It is quite the opposite, it is to do with the quality of service and the regulation of that service.

People have spoken, since November 2002, about liberalisation or deregulation of the industry, and certainly there have been changes, but applying physical caps is not necessarily the best way forward. Deputy Andrews spoke about having studied law. I came from a different school – I studied commerce at UCD. I suppose, having had a lecturer like Dr. John Teeling, the free market seems to mean a great deal. For anybody who knows his philosophies, coming from that type of background, I believe in it. For people who argue that a cap should be placed on the number of taxis, if the same analogy were to apply to a corner shop or a dry cleaners in a village or wherever, it would not be acceptable. The market determines what is viable and what is not, it does not determine, and it is not easy to determine, the standard and quality of the service provided.

Before I refer to a couple of key points in the Bill in which I am interested, I want to address one or two issues. I refer to pre-November 2000. Let us be honest about it, the number of taxis available, primarily in Dublin but also nationally at that time, was grossly inadequate. Anybody who was a user of taxis, which I was for a considerable number of years, found the service absolutely unacceptable.

It is amazing, with the passage of a relatively short number of years, how quickly people forget how bad the service was. It was usual to spend two or more hours queuing in St. Stephen's Green for a taxi on weekend nights. That was the reality. I lived just beyond Newlands Cross in Clondalkin and if I was in a fit state at that time, I often walked home, getting to Clondalkin at 5 o'clock or so in the morning – a two-hour walk from St. Stephen's Green was not unusual. I am glad that since liberalisation, there are far more taxis on the road and it is now possible to avail of the service with a degree of certainty.

I must admit that most of the taxi drivers I meet – I use the service regularly – offer a very good service. I have a general rule of sorts. If I am going out and I get a taxi to pick me up, the first question I ask is, "If I give you a ring later, can you get me home", and most of them say, "Give me half an hour's notice and if I can't be there myself, I'll organise somebody else." There is a degree of certainty which never existed before. I am not disputing the fact that taxi drivers work hard, with long and unsocial hours, but they offer a service, which makes up part of our overall transport service.

Outside the Dublin area, there has been an increase in the number of hackneys. That is necessary if there is to be a change in culture.

It was a way of life 20 years ago in London and New York. If we wish to promote the culture of no drink driving in rural Ireland, we must offer people an alternative method of transport. I was on holidays in Clifden last summer and it was not easy to get a taxi in Clifden to travel a couple of miles out the road home. This situation has a detrimental effect on tourism.

The liberalisation of the market has obviously caused hardship for people who entered the market in the years preceding liberalisation, particularly prior to November 2000. They would have spent substantial sums of money buying licences. The Minister in his contribution stated that there is not an obligation on the Government to provide compensation but recognising the hardship caused, a hardship fund has been established. He made a clear distinction in his presentation between hardship and compensation. I ask the Minister to deal with this issue as speedily as possible. Some people have waited a number of years and most people understand the distinction between hardship and compensation.

There are no standards of operation. Many types of cars operate as taxis – from Mercedes to quite small cars. One person can operate a 2002 or 2003 registered car or Mercedes and another is using a car that is ten or 12 years old. They are both applying the same level of fares but the standard of service offered by one over the other is significantly different. This legislation will address some of those issues.

Deputy Finian McGrath referred to the type of people who drive taxis. There was an instance where a known criminal was shot dead at the wheel of his taxi and such an event does the industry no good. It does not do any good for public confidence in the industry and neither does it do any good for those who work in the industry. This legislation is beneficial for the taxi drivers. It will give them some security and impose standards that are both recognised and adhered to.

Section 41 provides for taximeter areas. In the case of Dublin, an unusual situation has arisen by the expansion of the city. The local authorities in Dublin regulate their taxi fare prices but once outside the Dublin taxi fare area, that regulation of price does not hold. Most rural TDs are familiar with Heuston station; the journey from Heuston station to Balbriggan is a set fare agreed by the local authorities. To go half that distance, from Heuston station to Leixlip, the taxi drivers can charge as they like because it is another county. As Dublin city has expanded, some suburbs such as Leixlip, Celbridge, Maynooth and Bray need to be brought into an equation of taxi rates that are comparable. They are big population centres but at the moment they are excluded because they are outside the geographic boundary of Dublin. As there is no set rate, different taxi drivers charge different rates and some of the rates vary quite substantially. The ambiguity this causes does not do the industry any good. It is also an unfair service. If a taxi driver has to go from Heuston station to Balbriggan, he knows what to charge. He could charge the same amount or more for doing the relatively shorter journey to Leixlip. This situation should perhaps be addressed by the regulator rather than the Minister because it is an important aspect.

Section 34 deals with the inspection of vehicles for licensing purposes. Standards for vehicles need to be introduced. It is easy to present a vehicle of a particular standard and be given a licence. What is more important – if my understanding of the legislation is correct because, unlike Deputy Andrews, I am not a law student – is the ongoing evaluation and monitoring of those vehicles over their lifetime.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on the Taxi Regulation Bill 2003. The taxi industry is a very important element within a properly regulated public transport system, incorporating trains, buses, taxis and limousines. It is very important that these elements are linked together to provide a proper service. I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister on the thoroughness of the Bill. It will provide for the establishment of the commission for taxi regulation; provide for a new code for the regulation of small public service vehicles and their drivers; and realise the establishment of the advisory council to the commission for taxi regulation. There are certain amendments which I hope the Minister will consider. It is in all our interests to have a comprehensive Bill that will protect the taxis, hackneys and limousines. We all wish to have a super-duper system in this country and in the cities. Whether we like it or not, taxi drivers are very important; in some instances they are the first people that tourists meet. The conduct of taxi drivers and their interaction with tourists is vitally important.

It is a pity in many ways that the need for this Bill was not recognised two years ago. The issue at the time was the number of taxi plates rather than the provision of a better service. The debate in Government reflected solely on the number of licences rather than on the system.

I am pleased that many of the decisions taken over the years by local authorities and the Garda will be transferred to the commission. The interference of politics in the distribution of licences has been one of the problems in developing a proper service with an adequate number of licences. Many Fianna Fáil Deputies and Senators, including the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, misled taxi drivers. They gave the clear impression at meetings of the then Dublin Corporation that they would protect the taxi industry and avoid deregulation, and many drivers believed the Deputies' promises. Many families were caught by surprise and suffered extreme hardship when the Government decided to proceed with deregulation.

I recall vividly a meeting in a concert hall in the mid-1990s. As public representatives, we are all aware of the atmosphere at such meetings. I said to taxi drivers at the meeting that the system needed to change. I told them it was in their best interests to work together to find a way out of the situation. I made clear that change was inevitable, that the needs and demands of the public had to be considered and that drivers should concentrate on protecting their interests. All these things were not done, however, and the drivers tended to believe the promises that were made by Fianna Fáil councillors and Deputies at the time.

The Minister spoke about the hardship faced by taxi drivers since deregulation and I would like to discuss it. Hundreds of families have suffered considerable financial loss since November 2000 and many people are experiencing significant personal financial hardship. These are the facts of life for them today. They have lobbied to have their plight recognised and adequate compensation awarded to them, but they have been ignored, disregarded and treated with contempt by the Government. The decision to deregulate the industry was a politically motivated quick fix that failed to acknowledge the problems that would arise from such a short-sighted approach. The value of a taxi licence dropped from approximately €100,000 to about €6,300 overnight.

As I mentioned earlier, no system was put in place to provide for those who were obliged to mortgage their homes and the future of their families to secure employment. An unsuccessful applicant for a taxi licence in 1999 was told that he would be placed on a waiting list. It was claimed that a new regulated structure was to be put in place and that applicants would be in line for a licence within three or four years. The alternative was to purchase an existing licence, for which the going rate at the time was about £80,000 on the open market.

Despite the best efforts of many genuine and hard-working taxi drivers, the industry has deteriorated since deregulation. The Bill needs to address this important issue. We cannot accept the deterioration of aspects of the taxi service such as the quality of vehicles, the interaction between drivers and passengers and punctuality. It is important that service requirements are met. The fact that many new part-time taxi drivers venture out at weekends only is a problem. It is depressing that drivers who work 60 or 80 hours per week to earn a living are competing with those who work in other jobs during the week and supplement their income by taking the cream of the system at weekends. This issue needs to be examined.

FAIR, Families Advocate Immediate Redress, brought its case to the European Union. The recommendations of the hardship panel need to be re-examined. The levels of compensation that have been recommended are inadequate and need to be reviewed. Many Fianna Fáil councillors and backbench Deputies have stated clearly, for example at the Joint Committee on Transport, that this needs to be looked at.

What has the Minister done to date? He gave a commitment to an EU delegation that he would meet the Joint Committee on Transport to discuss the taxi hardship panel's proposals with a view to making new proposals to the Government on levels of compensation. He has failed to do so, however, which seems to indicate that he intends to renege on his promises. When can families that have suffered as a result of deregulation expect to receive adequate redress? I refer to families that borrowed large sums of money to buy into a Government-regulated industry in recent years, widows, drivers approaching retirement, the sick and the infirm.

The current situation is untenable. If the Minister is not prepared to meet the rightful demands acknowledged by the report of the EU petitions committee, further action may be taken by the membership of FAIR and many taxi drivers. I hope that will not be necessary, now that the Taxi Regulation Bill has been brought forward. During this debate, it is important that specific commitments are made to examine the shortcomings of the present system, pay compensation as quickly as possible and review the recommendations of the hardship panel. This Bill does not address many of the issues about which many taxi drivers are concerned. The vast majority of drivers want their problems to be acknowledged, to be able to work in a regulated industry, as proposed in this Bill, not to have to work excessive hours to earn a living and to have some quality of life. The terms of their employment should protect them in the future.

I wish to examine certain elements of this Bill. I am delighted it refers to the independence of the commission. It is important for everyone involved in the industry that the commission is seen to be independent. Those who will be appointed to the commission will not be on the telephone to the Minister and will not be seen as political appointees. Appointments should be made on merit. Reference has already been made to that. One cannot prevent journalists expressing their opinions or reports being made public. An individual has been referred to in this context but I hope that ultimately everything will be seen to be above board. We must ensure that we are providing a proper quality of service. It is important that we examine the training that is necessary to ensure that the highest standard of training can be provided in the taxi industry.

It has come to my attention that taxi drivers at the rank in Dublin Airport are unwilling to bring passengers on relatively short journeys to destinations such as Swords, for example. Not alone is there a reluctance to bring people on short journeys but there is often a refusal. This is not acceptable whether it is to Swords or anywhere else. Taxi drivers should accept that they will have both short and long journeys. This matter needs to be addressed. The Minister should direct the commission to investigate it.

It is already illegal.

It is illegal but it still occurs. In the context of staff superannuation, I am concerned that a commissioner can no longer hold office if he or she becomes a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas, the European Parliament or a local authority. He or she must step down on being nominated to any of these specified positions. That is only a small issue and is probably unlikely to arise but the possibility is there and it needs to be addressed.

How do we ensure that the public will get the best service? Competition will help to bring this about. I hope that the legislation we are discussing will ensure that taxis, hackneys and limousines will in future deliver the best quality of service.

I note that the Minister intends to appoint the first commissioner as soon as possible, which I welcome. This has also been welcomed by the taxi industry. I look forward to the Bill being passed before the summer recess.

It is unfortunate that on many occasions people who call for taxis are drunk and noisy. They destroy the cars and sometimes even refuse to pay their fares at the end of the journey. This is a disgraceful way to behave and is a bad experience for taxi drivers. A clear message should be sent to such people that the authorities will come down hard on them in respect of such anti-social behaviour.

It is in all our interests to get the Bill passed. Ultimately, we will all be able to take credit for legislation that will produce a more effective service. I hope the Minister will take cognisance of the many points made and accept some of our amendments in order that we will have the best possible legislation to provide a taxi industry of which we can all be proud.

I wish to share time with Deputy Moloney.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Taxi drivers, by and large, are ordinary, decent hard-working people who are doing their best to earn a living and rear their families. While the taxi industry may have some difficulties in regard to its public perception, this public relations problem does not negate in any way what I have just said.

I know the Dublin taxi driver, in particular, reasonably well. Like many others in this House I use the taxi service. Many taxi drivers live in my constituency. Dublin taxi drivers are certainly opinionated. This means that they are good conversationalists which is a good thing. In short, the Dublin taxi driver is in a class of his own.

I welcome the Bill in general terms. It aims 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 enactment of a new legislative basis for the taxi industry is important, particularly when one considers the history of this issue. Governments of all compositions in recent years have switched and changed policies with regard to the legislative basis for taxis. At one stage the power to issue new taxi plates rested with the Minister. At another time that power was devolved to the local authorities, which in Dublin meant it was split between four local authorities. It became almost impossible to do anything quickly in that regard because of the cumbersome process of reaching agreement from four separate authorities. This became a nightmare. That is the position we have now reached regarding other aspects of the taxi industry. At one stage the taxi forum produced a good report but, again, the view of Government changed bringing us to the state we are in today. The Bill will bring clarity to the situation once and for all.

Unfortunately, yet again, we are decreasing the powers of local authorities by enacting this legislation. While local authorities will retain the power to determine the location of appointed stands or taxi ranks and the making of the relevant by-laws for this purpose, they are subject to any guidelines issued in this regard by the commission. Local authorities are once again left out of the picture, being reduced to selecting sites for taxi ranks. However, we must accept the need for this legislation. Deputy Andrews raised the question of the Government setting up a plethora of agencies to deal with aspects of Government policy. Those agencies include the National Treasury Management Agency, the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Competition Authority, the Dublin Transportation Office, the National Roads Authority, Coillte Teoranta, the Irish Aviation Authority, the Irish Medicines Board and the Heritage Council, to name but a few. Since the 1990s, this House has been dealing with the setting up of new agencies, almost on a monthly basis. One wonders just how accountable they are. I understand there is a provision in this Bill to have some accountability to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and that is a good idea. While I accept the need for this particular commission, I hope we will not have to revisit this matter in ten or twenty years' time on the basis of abolishing many of these agencies. They will certainly take on a life of their own and I believe they need to be kept under constant review.

In this Bill, we are moving from issues of quantity to those of quality. Following deregulation in 2000, no thought whatsoever was given to quality issues although many taxi drivers raised the matter at that stage. However, better late than never, we now realise there are quality issues to be addressed as this Bill now does. There is public concern regarding a perception that criminals are driving taxis. This is a particular concern for women travelling alone. There have been reports of various incidents, albeit involving a minority of taxi drivers. Nevertheless, there is fear and apprehension among certain sectors of society that they feel safe with some taxi drivers and unsafe with others. I believe the Minister is going a long way to deal with that particular problem in this Bill. As the Minister stated in his opening remarks:

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.

Based on personal observation, the activities of a small minority of taxi drivers need to be examined in the context of quality issues. On Saturday nights in particular, some taxi drivers are breaking the law by speeding and driving recklessly. I stress that this involves a minority of taxi drivers, but it is happening. Accordingly, the behaviour of taxi drivers needs to be reviewed, as I am confident will be done in the context of this legislation.

Other speakers have referred to part-time taxi drivers, whose numbers have increased since deregulation. Those concerned have other jobs and only work in the taxi business at peak times, weekends and so forth. That is not good for the industry and must be addressed. Another development, which is definitely taking place on the ground, involves the purchase of taxi plates solely for the purpose of using the quality bus corridors and bus lanes. That was never envisaged and will have to be dealt with by the regulator.

There is also a quality issue regarding the cars used as taxis. What is the position regarding the gradual introduction of wheelchair-accessible taxis? Some press reports have suggested that this has been put on the long finger. The Minister has made suggestions about a distinctive colour for taxis, the use of certain makes of cars solely for taxis and so forth – all of this will have to be considered. However, I stress that this must be done in consultation with the industry. Will the Minister let us know what consultations have taken place in that regard?

My final point relates to deregulation and liberalisation. This arose following the High Court judgment of October 2000. The perception among taxi drivers is that the Government simply acted at the instigation of the Progressive Democrats'—

It was a Fianna Fáil decision.

—at the instigation of the Progressive Democrats'—

It was a Fianna Fáil-led Government.

Deputy Broughan should allow Deputy Haughey to speak without interruption.

—former Minister of State, Mr. Bobby Molloy, to whom I use this opportunity to send my best wishes. The case which led to the High Court judgment was taken by hackney drivers – that has to be remembered also. The report of the taxi hardship panel has been published, the petitions committee of the European Parliament has considered the matter and there are genuine hardship cases. Some people mortgaged their houses to obtain £80,000 to buy a taxi plate and are still paying back those loans today. There seems to be a delay in implementing the outcome of the taxi hardship panel. If no money is available, will the Minister just say so and indicate when the money will be provided? People who are suffering hardship need to be informed of the position. The report of the taxi hardship panel should be implemented as soon as possible.

I thank Deputy Haughey for allowing me to share time in this debate. I welcome the Bill before the House, not only in terms of rectifying difficulties in city areas but also regarding the involvement of local authorities operating outside of those areas. When I recently had occasion to take a taxi, my conversation with the driver concerned the taxi, hackney and general service industry. He outlined how he had got into the taxi business. He had tried, over a number of years, to buy a taxi plate while working at a number of different jobs, often two or three at a time, to get the wherewithal to do so, but to no avail. His experience was that whenever a plate became available, either the owner had already agreed a deal with a contact or the price was simply out of range – an issue I also encountered quite often in the course of my previous business involvement.

At a point when he had almost accepted that he would never succeed in securing a plate, the High Court decision and subsequent deregulation in 2000 brought about a change in the situation. He was one of the first to obtain a new plate and was now quite satisfied with the level of business he was conducting. However, he admitted that there are drawbacks involved in taxi work, the most obvious being the long and unsocial hours. In general, taxi drivers agree that there is good money to be made in the business and they do not contemplate giving it up.

Such stories convince me that deregulation was a good development. The problems regarding the previous limit on the number of taxi plates are well known. The only people who refused to budge, at the time, were the existing plate holders and their various unions and federations. With the benefit of hindsight, I am sure they now realise this was not the smartest position to take. The story I outlined only tells of one of the benefits that have come about since deregulation but there have been many more. Taxis are now visible and accessible throughout the country. According to latest Government figures, there were approximately 3,900 taxi plates in operation throughout the country in November 2000 compared to 11,600 at the end of March 2003. That goes to show that the policy has been proved right and it is to the advantage of the consumer, which is what this is all about.

I am prepared to accept that some of these statistics are misleading. Prior to deregulation a number of plates had been hired out to other taxi drivers who would have had the use of the plate for a set time every day. Since the introduction of deregulation, however, there is no point in subletting a plate as everyone who wanted one got one. Another misleading factor is that hackney drivers were among the greatest purchasers of the new plates. When these factors are taken into consideration there may not be as many additional taxis on the roads as would appear from a blind reading of the statistics. However, there has been an increase in the number of taxi plates issued which has made a noticeable difference, particularly at peak times on weekend nights and early in the morning when people are running late for work. Prior to deregulation one would have had to wait for an hour or longer to get a taxi at those times, but that rarely happens now.

From a local perspective, Laois has benefited enormously from deregulation. Prior to deregulation, Laois County Council had issued a total of 15 taxi plates. That was clearly not enough to serve all the area of County Laois as well as the substantial number of tourists and visitors to the county. There are now 48 taxi plates in operation under Laois County Council, which has led to a significant improvement in the level of service. No longer must people suffer long delays, which is encouraging more people to use the taxi service.

Among the other benefits of deregulation has been a significant fall in the number of road deaths. Some people used to socialise, have a few drinks and then drive home. While that is not acceptable, some people may have considered it was the only option open to them at the time. There were not enough taxis on the road to cope with the demand and these people took unnecessary risks because they could not wait all night for a cab. This aspect of the drink driving problem has been virtually eradicated since deregulation.

It is also worth noting that deregulation has allowed easy access to the taxi market for those who would like to pursue such a career. Prior to deregulation there were a number of barriers to gaining access to the industry, but, thankfully, this is no longer the case. Despite what Members may hear from taxi drivers and the various protests, there have undoubtedly been benefits from the introduction of deregulation of the taxi market.

Now that the quantity issue in terms of the number of taxi plates in operation has been sorted, we must turn our attention to the quality issue. This is what the Minister is doing in the Bill. Through the introduction of the Commission for Taxi Regulation, we can expect to see a number of improvements in the level of customer service provided by taxis, hackneys and limousine companies and their drivers. The suggestion that such drivers may be required to undertake mandatory training courses or programmes is one that should be implemented as soon as possible. We need to keep the standard of the service high and to continue to improve it.

Once the commission is in place we will be able to examine a number of issues. An issue of greatest concern is the need to bar certain individuals from being issued with a taxi plate, to which many speakers have also referred. It should be impossible for people with certain criminal convictions, those who have been convicted of sexual assaults or of causing grievous bodily harm, to become taxi drivers. Equally, those with poor driving records or with convictions for drink driving or dangerous driving should not be allowed to become taxi, hackney or limousine drivers. The public should not have to fear for their safety when they get into a taxi. Given some high profile stories in the media in recent times, it appears this is becoming increasingly the case. I know of a group of young ladies who will not get into a taxi for fear of what might happen to them. Such an impression should not exist in the minds of the public. We need to make sure that the public have confidence and feel safe when using all forms of public transport. This is particularly true in the cases of taxis, hackneys and limousines. Given their nature, it is not unusual for people to travel alone in such forms of transport.

The Minister has also hinted that once the commission is in place, the issue of a single colour for taxis could be examined. I hope that this will be given serious consideration. Making taxis more recognisable would make the service seem more professional and more standardised. It would also help tourists in availing of the taxi service. Equally, the issue of a dress code could improve the impression of the service created among the taxi using public. I hope that once the commission is in place it may be in a position to examine the level of taxi fares. I cannot think of one person who has said that he or she has got value for money when using a taxi. A relatively short trip from Dublin city to the suburbs can cost as much as €15, if not more. This is too much for such a short trip. We want to encourage people to use the service, but such prices serve only to act as a barrier to use of the service.

I commend the Bill to the House and I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak to it.

Before commenting on the Bill, I would like to extend my condolences, those of my party and of all the people in my constituency to the families of those involved in tragic traffic accident which occurred this morning on the Dublin Road in Sutton where three young men lost their lives and another two were critically injured. Two of those young men were from the Donaghmede parish in the centre of my constituency and I understand the other young man was from the Donabate parish. Such tragic events must strengthen the resolve of the Minister of State, the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to try to create conditions where terrible tragedies that occur on our roads will be far less prevalent. I extend my condolences to the families of those young men.

I generally welcome the Bill. Taxi drivers and passengers have long awaited some settled system of administration of small public service vehicles, their drivers and product. We have been waiting for this potential regime for the past 25 years. There are a number of areas where I would like the Bill to be strengthened and a number of issues, several of which have been raised by my colleague, our spokesperson, Deputy Shortall, that could be dealt with which would improve the Bill. I welcome the establishment of the commission, the regulation of vehicles and drivers and the advisory council.

Prior to examining the Bill, I must refer to the history of the management of taxis in this city and throughout the country during the past ten to 15 years. What happened to taxi drivers in this city and throughout the country was one of the most blatant acts of betrayal by Fianna Fáil in political history. It compares only to the betrayal of TEAM Aer Lingus workers in terms of the evolution of responses to the needs of the taxi industry in the mid-1990s.

I attended meeting after meeting of Dublin City Council in the mid-1990s, during which time we had the full power to increase the number of taxi licences. The Rainbow Civil Alliance, of which I was the leader, had decided to allow for a reasonable increase of 150 plates every couple of years – this was our target for the foreseeable future. We intended to engage in a study with the other three Dublin county areas to investigate the ultimate needs of the market. Night after night, however, our meetings were filibustered by Fianna Fáil members, particularly Deputy Callely, who is now a Minister of State, as well as Deputy Mulcahy and my constituency colleague Deputy Martin Brady. Meeting after meeting, at which we discussed major issues affecting the whole city, was wrecked by a vicious filibustering campaign against the plan of the local administration to increase gradually the number of taxi licences.

This situation continued into the 1997 general election campaign, in which the issue was an important one. The heart and soul of this manipulation of working-class taxi men and women was the Taoiseach himself. He was the leader of this campaign of vilification and attacks on the Labour Party, the Fine Gael Party and other members of the rainbow coalition. I remember going home from my information clinics on Saturday evenings and getting the thumbs down from a rank of taxi drivers. They said that when Fianna Fáil came back they would be looked after. For them, the issue was whether there would be 100 or 150 new plates every two years. It was very simple.

Then Fianna Fáil came back to power. During that campaign there were fleets of taxis in the livery of Fianna Fáil in support of its candidates. Deputy Haughey talked about a common livery for the city and county, and I agree with that. In Dublin we could have the blue colours of our currently not-so-successful football and hurling teams – it is to be hoped that in the future our county teams will be more successful. During that election campaign, up to 20 taxis on the north side were in the colours of the Fianna Fáil candidates, Deputies Callely and Brady. Promises were made to these hard-working people, the couple of thousand taxi drivers in the city. Within months, those promises were blatantly and cruelly broken. Instead of agreeing to an extra 150 plates, the Taoiseach set up a so-called commission to examine the taxi meter area in the greater Dublin region. After a number of months the commission came out with a report recommending not 100 or 150 new plates, but 800 new plates per year. This was a gross, vicious and blatant betrayal of a group of decent working men and women.

Even worse, we then had the famous four-county taxi working group, to which my party in our four different local areas submitted membership. We tried to come up with what we felt was a fair system for the future regulation of this industry. We were not considering deregulation. The argument of the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation, which was put to us very strongly, was that on the basis of what had happened in other countries, there would be very severe problems with total deregulation. They said that if there was control of the numbers of workers in the industry we could end up with a situation like that in New York city, in which taxi drivers working ordinary, reasonable hours could earn a living over a week or a year. We were trying to create conditions such as these. By the way, there is not enough in this Bill that deals with the working conditions of the drivers.

We then had the farce of the High Court action by the hackney drivers, which provided a fantastic excuse for Fianna Fáil, using the Progressive Democrats as fall guys, finally to betray and abandon completely these people whose hopes it had raised. Deputy Carey will remember all those nights on which our meetings were wrecked by the filibusters led by the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, and others.

They were the days in which the rainbow coalition—

Please allow the Deputy to continue without interruption.

They were the days in which you made promises and then broke them.

The Deputy should address his remarks through the Chair.

Flaubert wrote about a sentimental education. Two of the highlights of my political education have been the treatment of TEAM Aer Lingus and the airport workers by the Fianna Fáil Party and the treatment of the taxi workers by the Fianna Fáil Party. It was a gross betrayal.

The Labour Party visited the hangar and made promises to the TEAM Aer Lingus workers.

We kept our promises – we gave them money. I made a promise in the hangar, and it was delivered. Fianna Fáil made promises and then it privatised them. It let them go hang.

The Deputy did the same.

Fianna Fáil did the same with the taxi drivers. Deputy Carey will have his opportunity. Unfortunately, the House should know about this political education of the behaviour of the Fianna Fáil Party. I cannot understand how anybody in the taxi industry could trust this party with its administration in the future. That is the sad reality of what happened. We ended up with 12,000 taxis and an increase in service. The traffic administration in the four Dublin county areas has tried to facilitate this in every way. We also ended up with grave problems, however. I welcome the Bill to the extent that these problems are being addressed.

I have brought down only the last section of my file about the severe hardship suffered by many people working in this industry. Something which is not addressed in this Bill is that for the people in the taxi industry, the car and the plate represented their pension. They may have bought the plate for £6,000 or £7,000 20 years ago and they have worked hard since. On the morning of deregulation, when they all stood around me with their plates, feeling that they had been abandoned and they had to give up, I sent them to Deputy Brady and Deputy Woods, who had taken this action. These people were left without any pension. They had no PRSA, no private pension plan. I urge the officials to reconsider Parts 2 and 3 of this Bill to give the function to the new commissioners of offering financial advice for people in the industry. These are self-employed people. The key issue is that people were left without a pension by the ruthless, vicious betrayal of the Fianna Fáil Party. In view of this, there should be a section dealing with pension management in this Bill. I urge the Minister to consider an amendment or series of amendments to that effect.

In April 2002, the taxi hardship panel was announced in the newspapers and people were invited to give submissions. Many of these workers, who had worked hard for 20 or 25 years, were near invalids, with heart conditions and other physical illnesses which had developed over the long days and nights of their work in this industry. They were invited to apply to the panel. There were also widows, who rented out their plates in place of their husbands' pensions. Perhaps the most unfortunate group of people, however, were those who did not follow this debate or did not notice what was going on and very foolishly, a couple of years into Fianna Fáil's last Government, decided to buy taxi plates for £70,000 or £80,000. These people were then left high and dry with a huge mortgage.

The panel recommended a payment of €15,000 for widows and separated individuals who previously rented out the licence. It recommended that people aged over 65, licensees and people with poor pension provision, would be awarded a payment of approximately €13,000 and people aged 50 to 65, without pension provision, would also be awarded €13,000. Problems regarding wheelchair accessible taxis should be addressed more fully in the Bill. Given the experience both in the regulated and deregulated phase, the cost and lack of standardisation of wheelchair accessible taxis for people with disabilities should be given more thought before the Bill is finalised. My colleague, Deputy Shortall, raised that issue. A payment of €3,000 was recommended in this instance. Those unfortunate people with a minimum outstanding loan of €40,000 were recommended a payment of €6,000, people with an outstanding loan of €60,000 were recommended a payment of €8,000 and people with an outstanding loan of €80,000 to €100,000 were recommended a payment of €10,000 and €12,000.

The common factor in all of these awards is that they are absolutely derisory. I know of people who work very long hours week after week. We have heard about the part-time element and the fact that people may do this as a second job, as happened years ago in America and the UK in deregulated or semi-deregulated markets. People who work very hard and have no pension received derisory awards. As Deputy Haughey rightly said, we are not even sure what is happening in this territory. Many recommendations were made in recent times regarding taxi workers but, prior to the setting up of the taxi hardship panel, the only comfort the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and the former Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, offered these workers was in the form of mitigating measures in the Finance Act 2001, which included a capital allowance on the cost of a taxi licence acquired on or before 21 November 2000. This was a ludicrous response which had very little impact. I have a letter in my file in which the Minister promised no plans for mitigation measures beyond the Finance Act 2001. That was prior to the establishment of the taxi hardship panel.

This is an issue which needs to be revisited. I am sure all Deputies have received representations from people who are genuinely seriously disadvantaged as a result of what happened to them. The Minister said on many occasions that there would be no compensation for deregulation, etc. However, if he is prepared to make these types of awards on compassionate grounds, why not make a reasonably significant award which would give people an opportunity to purchase some sort of pension plan or provide some type of comfort for people approaching their mid to late sixties? There are instances of people who are struggling with very serious illnesses and pushing themselves into a taxi. I know of someone with a serious illness who bought a plate prior to deregulation. He is now desperately trying to support his family and is perhaps becoming more ill as he does so.

I ask the Minister of State to look again at the recommendations of the taxi hardship panel. We all recall when the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, changed the position in regard to the burning of coal and so on. People obviously welcome what she did as Minister of State at the Department of the Environment but there was no compensation for coal men and those selling briquettes, wood and so on. These people had to suffer in silence. That point is often made against decent awards under the taxi hardship panel. A fair case can be made to have the matter revisited.

Having made these preliminary points, I welcome the Bill. Section 37, which deals with tax clearance, appears to be the only section which refers to the financial requirements for entering the industry. I urge the Minister to look again at making some provision whereby people could be encouraged and prepared to make provision for their pensions.

I welcome also section 8 regarding the independence of the commission, given the grotesque political interference by the Fianna Fáil Party in this industry in the past, which has had such dire consequences for so many families. I note that where the Minister issues a directive, the commissioners must accept it. Therefore, the Minister will still have important powers in this area.

I welcome section 9 on the functions of the commission regarding customer safety. A number of colleagues referred to the fact that people with criminal records or people who had committed a serious crime were either pretending to be taxi drivers or were actual taxi drivers, and that customer safety should be absolutely paramount.

I also welcome the provision in section 9 which refers to integration into the public transport system. Dublin city is currently in a crisis situation. As Deputy Carey will be aware, we always knew this would happen. The work should have been started much earlier. We are in a particularly difficult phase in regard to the smooth running of traffic in O'Connell Street and surrounding streets given that work on the port tunnel, the M50 and particularly that being carried out on the Luas is not completed. It is crucial that taxis are utilised fully in that phase. I was pleased to play a role recently, together with other colleagues, when the taxi rank was eliminated from Abbey Street. We were able to advise the director of traffic that the main streets in other countries, such as Wenceslas Square in Prague, circulated taxis along the median of the main street. Fortunately, he took our advice. I welcome the provisions on policy direction.

On section 22, which deals with disclosure of interests, the commissioner should be required to disclose his or her interests to the Standards in Public Office Commission. I raised this matter recently with the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Browne, regarding the fishing industry.

The proposals in Part 3 are welcome. However, I would put it to the Minister of State that there should be a stronger system of car inspection. Under the legislation, it appears that one will need a garda to look into the car. I do not understand why there could not be a panel of inspectors working for the commissioner who would be able to hop into a taxi anywhere, for example, in the airport, travel into town and evaluate the service as an ordinary consumer. I do not know why we need a person in uniform. I urge the Minister of State to consider this matter.

I deplore the history of the industry, for which I blame the Fianna Fáil Party. It has been a tough political education for us but we have learned from it. I welcome the Bill and hope it will lead to a fully integrated and properly functioning taxi and hackney industry for our city and other cities throughout the country.

At the outset, I want to join with Deputy Broughan in extending our sympathies to the families of those who were killed this morning in the horrific accident on the north side of the city.

Deputy Broughan is a very good and esteemed member of Dublin City Council and this House but there are times when he could fulminate for Ireland. Today was one of these days when I believe he was probably at his peak. He is almost in the premiership at this stage. However, I will let his selectivity pass at the moment.

In his closing remarks the day before yesterday the Minister stated:

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.

This is a good Bill and I compliment the Minister for introducing it. Most Members have welcomed it. The Bill is being introduced in the context of trying to ensure that, at long last, small public service vehicles – taxis, hackneys and limousines – are integrated into the public transport service. The Government has spent a significant amount of money on public transport. For example, the purchase of several hundred new buses for Dublin Bus has ensured that we have a quality bus service. In areas where quality bus corridors are available, members of the public have voted with their feet by using them. There has been a significant investment in the Luas light rail project and it is now at the stage where the expected disruption is evident. It will provide a service of which we all can be proud. There is also significant investment in the road infrastructure. The port tunnel on the north side of the city will remove several thousand trucks from the city streets each day and the Dublin metro is being realistically assessed. It is in this context that we conduct this debate and it is an opportune moment to consider the role of small public service vehicles within the broader transport strategy.

To get more people to use taxis there must be a quality service. The Bill emphasises this aspect. Where the service is good people will use it. They have used the DART for years, which is a classic example of a good investment in public transport. Other examples are quality bus corridors and the Arrow service on the Dublin to Maynooth railway line.

The taxi service in Dublin has been unsatisfactory for a long time. There were long queues for taxis at Christmas, consumers and taxi owners were dissatisfied and there was pressure to liberalise the market. Deputy Broughan presented his version of how the issue was addressed. Dublin City Council was making progress and if the courts had not intervened at the behest of the hackney industry it would have been possible for the council and the surrounding local authorities to address the issue in a meaningful way in time. However, the courts ruled that quantitative controls were no longer legal. I was driving up O'Connell Street on the evening deregulation was announced. I did not consider it to be the brightest idea, but it was done and that is history. The Minister said on a number of occasions that the present situation is akin to a jungle. There are now three times the number of taxis that were on the streets in November 2000.

The deregulation, and its sudden implementation, has undoubtedly caused hardship. City Deputies, such as Deputies Broughan, Olivia Mitchell and I, have encountered at our advice centres those who have suffered genuine hardship. They include widows and widowers whose only source of income was a taxi plate. Older drivers were dependent on plates to provide them with a pension, while those with debilitating illnesses endured hardship. I am aware of two people with debilitating illnesses who bought taxi plates at a very expensive rate – £80,000 at the time – to provide them with an income. Deregulation removed it, causing them significant hardship. I compliment the FAIR group for the calm way it has articulated its case to us all, including the petitions committee of the European Parliament and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport.

I am one of those who find it difficult to understand why there is such a delay in implementing the findings of the hardship panel. The Minister said every effort is being made to put in place a structure to facilitate, as soon as possible, the commencement of payments on the basis of the panel recommendations. Last Saturday I met a married couple with two children whose house had to be put on the market because of their inability to continue to pay the mortgage. They have moved back to live with their respective families and they must live separately until they are in a position to buy a smaller house they can afford. I urge the Minister to consider how payments from the panel can be expedited. There is genuine hardship. While I do not believe everybody is suffering real hardship, a significant number – at least several hundred – have encountered serious hardship and their needs ought to be addressed as quickly as possible.

When debating this industry there is a tendency to focus on the taxi service. The industry provides a service to business, the public and the tourism industry and it is, therefore, important to give equal attention to hackney and limousine services. They all provide services to niche areas.

Being a taxi driver ought to provide good employment. That is the aim of the Bill and I compliment the Minister for it. It is preferable that taxi drivers work in the job full time. They should be able to earn a decent reward for their efforts and they should not have to work 70 to 80 hours per week, as some of them do at present. Casualisation of the job should be avoided for a number of reasons. It is fair that if an investment is made in an industry, such as this one, the investor should be allowed to try to secure a good income from it. It is unfair that part-time entrants should be allowed, although there may be a limited role for them in terms of allowing people to drive a reduced number of hours. The commission should consider a provision requiring taxi owners to drive for a minimum number of hours. Those of us who walk around our constituencies will see taxis parked in driveways for a large part of the week as they are confined to weekend use.

The needs of the limousine owners must be considered. They do not constitute a large number, but they provide a service to business and the tourism industry. Their rights in terms of using bus lanes must be addressed. If, for example, a limousine business transports clients from Dublin Airport to the financial services centre, they ought to be able to use the bus lane. They often operate to tight schedules and this would merit examination.

The commission needs to investigate the role played by hackneys in Dublin. While it may be clear to officials and the Garda, there is considerable public confusion about the function of hackneys as distinct from taxis. The role of small minibuses needs to be considered. They are slightly larger than people carriers but smaller than big minibuses.

I am pleased the issue of vehicle standards is being addressed. I do not agree with the Minister's view that their age is important. Their condition is important and they should be tested for suitability as public service vehicles. I know many taxi drivers who own relatively old cars which are in perfect condition. They take great pride in maintaining their cars and should not be compelled to change them every couple of years. The enforcement of a strict code of control using the NCT arrangement would address issues arising from the age of cars.

The majority of taxi drivers in Dublin and elsewhere are outstanding members of the community who could not be more helpful, friendly and polite. While entry into the service should not be too restrictive, it should not be made so easy as to allow anybody to enter it. I support the emphasis in the Bill on good character. It is also important that taxi drivers and operators know the local area. Unfortunately, drivers in Dublin tend to have less knowledge of the city than in previous years. With the expansion of the suburbs, one would need to be on top of one's job to know the names of every road and side street in the city. The legislation should provide for the introduction of a comprehensive knowledge test along the lines of that used by the London Transport Authority for drivers of black taxis.

The standards of operators also need to be examined. We must avoid the creation of cartels in the industry. A number of operators have a large number of taxis. While this can, in some cases, provide value for money in that such companies are able to buy large fleets of cars, a broadly based service requires that the system should, as far as possible, be one of owner-drivers. I agree with Deputy Broughan on the importance of owners of companies being made to comply with all the provisions of companies legislation.

The Minister stated that the Bill "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 role of the Commission for Taxi Regulation is comprehensive and merits examination and comment. The Minister's description of its role needs to be restated:

The policy focus of the commission will be to provide for the granting, 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.

I will return to one aspect of the role of the commission if time permits.

I welcome the decision of the Minister to appoint the first commissioner for taxi regulation as soon as possible. It is important that the commissioner is seen to be independent by providers and users, as provided for in section 8, to ensure confidence is maintained in the industry.

Section 9 provides for the quality of the service and the delivery of an efficient and professional service for the provider and user. Service providers and users require a safe operating environment. Unfortunately, there is evidence – largely anecdotal but frequently raised by taxi drivers – of increasing aggression directed against drivers by unruly and intoxicated passengers. We also receive complaints from passengers about aggressive and impolite taxi drivers. The commission needs to address this issue quickly and focus on quality.

With regard to the future regulation, control and operation of small public service vehicles, the needs of passengers must be borne in mind. They must be given maximum information, including, for example, on the cost of the journey. They should also know they are travelling reasonably directly to their destination and scenic routes should be avoided. There is an old joke about an American tourist who, on asking a taxi driver at Dublin Airport to take him to Killiney, is taken to Killarney. While this is, I hope, an exaggeration, passengers are unfortunately often taken on what could be described as the scenic route to their destination.

The provisions on the issuing of receipts are welcome and should be extended alongside the acceptance by taxi drivers of credit cards. Many business people arriving here expect to be able to use a credit card rather than cash.

I welcome the provision on the need for driver training, not in terms of mechanics but on the need to be polite and forthcoming without being domineering. Not every passenger wants to listen to an analysis of the state of world politics, English premiership football or the latest snooker tournament. Passengers' needs must be understood and respect should be shown to consumers. It is sad to see Dublin taxis with "no smoking" signs on the roof in which the driver is smoking like a chimney. One often sees drivers holding cigarettes out of windows and smoke being blown into the back where the customer is seated. People expect clean air and this should be understood by taxi drivers. Drivers should also be neatly turned out and the interior condition of the car should be acceptable.

I do not have a hang-up about the age of vehicles. As I stated, most taxi drivers take great pride in their cars. While I support the notion of a standard livery, I do not know how it could be implemented. I am not in favour of introducing such a measure overnight. Last night, Deputies suggested taxis should be in the county colours. In Deputy Finneran's constituency they would have the Roscommon colours, in Deputy Ferris's constituency they would be green and gold and Dublin taxis would be pale blue. I do not know how this can be organised, but taxis should be recognisable. There should also be a degree of standardisation of roof signs. Although reasonably standard now, I have noticed new forms of roof signs being used recently.

Local authorities or the commission should be in a position to provide communication supports, including, for example, satellite communication. I had intended to address the issue of wheelchair accessibility, but do not have the time to do so. On balance, every car should be wheelchair accessible. However, there is currently an over-emphasis on the type of car which would be wheelchair accessible. I hope to address this issue at a later stage.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. There were three occasions on which I felt hard done by in taxis. One was in New York, one in London and one in Zagreb. I am sure the taxi service in this country is not without its imperfections in terms of the "scenic route", as Deputy Carey described it. My experience abroad has been that there certainly are difficulties which I have not had in Ireland.

I welcome the general thrust of section 36 of the Bill in relation to disqualification from applying for, or holding, a taxi licence in certain circumstances. I hope that on Committee Stage the precise reasons for disqualification can be teased out more. We need to be careful not to deprive people of their rights.

I am very concerned about some of the decisions made in recent times to grant taxi licences to some people in Dublin. It seems that the courts have taken a certain attitude in this area, which is worrying. We should primarily be concerned about the safety of passengers. This is a concern shared by the 99.9% of taxi drivers who have never been involved in crime. They too are concerned about the people to whom some taxi licences have been given in recent times. We need to tease out in detail the section of the Bill regarding disqualification to ensure it does not go over the top.

I am concerned in particular about the safety of women in taxis, especially when one considers the way in which certain people have been granted licences recently, and the possibility of more people acquiring licences in this way. It is a very real concern. Up to very recent times, one did not have to worry when advising a woman, a son, a wife or daughter, or anyone else to take a taxi as an assurance of safety. Of late, however, one certainly has to worry. We have no worries regarding 99.9% of taxi drivers, as I said, but taxi drivers themselves are concerned. It is an issue which needs to be addressed. I hope that my reading of section 36 is correct and that it will address that issue.

I am also concerned about the safety of taxi drivers. From what they tell me, many of them are fearful of working at night. It is not that they do not want to work at night. In the past, many of them have done so, but because of some crazy change in atmosphere that has taken place in Dublin city, many taxi drivers are now afraid to work at night. I hope I am not stepping into the area of sexual discrimination, but taxi drivers have told me that women who get into their taxis at 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning are often incoherent and incapable of saying where they want to go. The taxi drivers are fearful of the potential consequences if they put such women back out on the street.

A taxi driver recently complained to me about a woman getting into his taxi while the man accompanying her stood urinating on the street and asked the driver to wait for him. This sort of thing is going on in the city. Taxi drivers regularly run the risk of picking up fares who threaten them with syringes, and they suffer yob behaviour by males, even in the company of their partners. Taxi drivers should not have to put up with such behaviour. They are now voting with their feet. Many decent taxi drivers who are dedicated to providing a public service are fearful, as are their wives, of being out late because of their chances of picking up fares who are out of their minds on drink or drugs and threaten them with syringes and violent or otherwise unacceptable behaviour. When the advisory council to the commission is established, it should accept that a taxi driver should in certain circumstances be allowed to refuse to take a client. Provision should be made to deal with the unacceptable circumstances I have outlined.

There is certainly a need for regulation. The way in which deregulation came about was crude and it caused hardship to certain people. Some people like to rewrite history and say that Fine Gael lost the last election because it promised to compensate taxi drivers, Eircom shareholders and others – for all the good it did the party – but that is nonsense. It is rubbish. There are reasons Fine Gael lost the election and I would like the opportunity to look at them, but this is not the occasion.

There is a case to be made for people who have suffered hardship to be compensated. There are people who, believing they were purchasing an opportunity to make a livelihood and to provide a public service at the same time, mortgaged their houses – there are one or two of these people in my constituency. These people are now in very difficult circumstances. There were others, however, who hoarded taxi licences and did not use them for vehicles. They held on to them in the belief that they would get a price for them, which was increasing all the time. That was a problem. I am not suggesting that such people with a number of licences should be compensated. Where a person held one licence and where there is now hardship, decent compensation should be made.

An issue not often referred to is the impact an attack can have on a taxi driver. I know two taxi drivers who have had very bad experiences. One of them was taken out of his taxi and beaten by a group of people. That happened a number of years ago, but the driver never got over the experience. Another driver became very nervous as a result of an attack. These are issues we should take into account. Anyone who beats up or violently threatens a person providing a public service, whether it be a civil servant behind the counter in Dublin City Council, a civil servant in a public department in the Oireachtas buildings or a taxi driver, that person should be dealt with severely. The law should be strengthened so that any person who violently treats someone providing a public service, such as a taxi driver or bus driver, is dealt with severely.

I suggest to the Minster for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that there should be a special provision in the law to deal with this problem. If taxi drivers, bus drivers or any others providing a public service late at night are subject to the behaviour I have described, a heavy penalty should apply. That would go some way towards providing a deterrent for that sort of behaviour.

I recall my first visit to Berlin in 1980. What struck me first was the standard of taxis waiting outside the airport. They were all the same cream colour and they were all Mercedes or BMWs. I understand that the taxi drivers there are given a generous tax treatment on the write-off value of the vehicles so they can afford to provide a good vehicle from the beginning. I ask the Minister to study how that works in other countries. In the long run it could mean that there would be no loss of revenue to the State. If these taxis are attractive and comfortable, more people might use them, and cars such as Mercedes, BMWs and other good quality vehicles, in which taxi drivers might invest, could last for ten or 15 years or more. All this might improve the vehicle standard and make the taxi service attractive for tourists to Ireland. I would like some study done of the incentives given, such as tax write-offs, in other European Union countries to provide a high standard of vehicle.

I understand from Dublin Bus that in my own constituency the 51B and 78B services have been upset because of the Luas construction work, which will clearly have implications for taxis also. At certain times of the day, for example, it can be difficult getting down Harcourt Street in a taxi. The objective is to finish the Luas construction work by the end of 2004 and if that happens the trams will be running three months later. According to European practice, however, it can take as long as ten months before all the safety provisions can be finalised and, therefore, the Luas may not be running until well into 2005.

The taxi commission and the advisory body should examine the implications of the Luas for taxi services, not only in terms of passengers lost but also whether or not taxis can use the Luas lines. Dublin Bus vehicles will not be allowed to use the Luas lines because Luas will take precedence over other public transport services. I do not know whether it is possible or desirable for taxis to use the Luas lines when a tram is not using them. We do have some time to study the question, however, so the commission should examine the possibility of taxis using empty Luas lines and how both services could be dovetailed to provide a better public service.

In the main, taxi drivers are good people. I use taxis quite a bit but one can get the odd taxi driver that will seek to bend one's ear. Some Members of this House take buses to the airport rather than taxis for fear of meeting up with some of these opinionated drivers. Some of them want to tell stories in an aggressive manner and while they may only constitute a fraction of drivers, they do a terrible disservice to their colleagues. Sometimes when one gets into a taxi, the radio may be blaring into one's ear, which is very upsetting. The taxi driver then proceeds to strike up a conservation but makes no effort to turn the radio down and would be put out if he or she was asked to do so. We need a charter of rights and responsibilities for taxi drivers and their customers, which might draw attention to some of the issues about which drivers should be careful. Customers should expect courtesy and decent behaviour from taxi drivers, andvice versa.

It is not clear that taxis are free for hire. One might put one's hand out to hail a taxi only to see the driver waving his hand to signal that he cannot take a fare because there may be a customer in the back of the car. If the aim of the Bill is to upgrade the sector, taxis should have clear signs saying "free for service" that would be highly visible, particularly on dark winter nights when people are standing out in the cold. It may be a small matter but it is irksome to see a taxi coming which does not stop when hailed. Everyone then feels a bit silly because there is no indication as to whether the taxi is free, so this matter needs to be addressed.

Why are hackneys not allowed to use bus lanes? I realise that taxi drivers do not want to see them using those lanes but this rule goes against efforts to encourage people to leave their cars at home. If one books a hackney to do an early morning interview in RTE, for example, that vehicle cannot use the bus lanes but why are those lanes confined to buses and taxis? It is time that bus lanes were opened up to hackneys, and the taxi commission and advisory council should consider that. I presume it has to do with the resistance from taxi drivers because I see no other reason for it. It is nonsense to encourage people to leave their cars at home if they then find themselves stuck in traffic because the hackney they have ordered cannot use the bus lanes, while taxis and buses whiz past them.

I welcome section 25 which provides that the commission will be required to give evidence before the Committee of Public Accounts and any other committee of one or both Houses of the Oireachtas. I note that provision is cropping up increasingly in new legislation. It is only right and proper that agencies, commissions and other statutory bodies established by the Oireachtas should be required to report to and appear before the relevant Oireachtas committees. The section represents a welcome development. Perhaps the legislation that established existing statutory bodies should be amended to include a similar provision to require their representatives to attend Oireachtas committees. That would avoid the situation whereby the chairman or chief executive of a public body can refuse to attend a committee. It may be difficult to alter all the legislation governing State bodies in order to insert this provision, but we could introduce a Bill to insert such a measure relating to a published list of State and semi-State bodies. While we are making such provisions in new legislation, the same principle does not apply to such bodies that have already been established.

The taxi commission will be required to come before the Committee of Public Accounts or the committee on transport but are CIE, Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann required to attend also? I know their representatives appear before Oireachtas committees but I am not sure if they are legally required to do so. If not, they should be. If taxi industry representatives are required to appear before an Oireachtas committee, I do not see why other public transport providers should not be similarly required by law to attend. The provision included in section 25 is a welcome one but I would like to see it extended.

This legislation is important so I hope it will not be rushed through the House. I hope there will be an opportunity on Committee Stage to examine the various provisions to ensure that we get it right. I do not want the Bill to take forever to get through the House but we should not pass it in one day. The Minister should take into account the various points that are being raised on Second Stage to see how many can be accommodated on Committee and Report Stages, and how many might be referred to the commission and the advisory council. Some interesting and important points have been made in the debate on the Bill which presents an opportunity for us to create a taxi service that will be attractive to the public at large, including tourists. It will also make it attractive for taxi drivers to pursue a life-long career in the sector and, in addition, their loved ones will not be unduly concerned about them when they are working at night to provide a transport service for the rest of us.

I compliment the Minister on introducing the Taxi Regulation Bill. It is both timely and appropriate that such legislation should come before the House now. It is over 40 years since similar legislation was last introduced concerning the taxi and hackney sector – that was in the Road Traffic Act 1961. The Minister is to be complimented on bringing forward this legislation against a backdrop of much public debate and controversy regarding the taxi service in recent times.

Before dealing with the Bill, I should mention the new situation in which we find ourselves as a result of the decision of the last Government to deregulate taxi licences. We are in a very strong and welcome position where taxi availability has jumped from approximately 4,000 to 11,500. People can get a taxi more easily than they did in the past and there is not the same level of complaint with regard to the unavailability of taxis.

Other speakers mentioned the need to compensate some people. The Government is not keen to label any such payment as compensation. However, there were hardship cases as a result of the deregulation of taxi licences and, while many taxi licences were in the hands of cartels, conglomerates and large groups which took full advantage of their position and were even involved in the hiring and firing of individual operators, some individuals invested redundancy packages from another job or some other payment they had received, and believed they had obtained a very valuable asset that would take them into the future and could be passed on to a member of their family. Some people in that category need and are entitled to some type of hardship payment to see them through the difficulties in which they find themselves.

To come back to the legislation before us, nobody would disagree that legislation is required to regulate taxis, hackneys and small public service vehicles. Perhaps as a result of media reports and the hyping of certain situations, a certain lack of confidence in the service provided by the taxi fraternity has crept in. The vast majority of people in the taxi business are people of the highest integrity who are there to provide a good public service as well as working commercially to make a living for themselves and their families. However, for one reason or another, members of the public are worried. I reiterate what the previous speaker said, that people travelling in towns and cities at night, particularly women, should be more cautious and more alert when getting a taxi or a hackney than they needed to be in the past. For that reason alone, it is important that this legislation is introduced and that the business is regulated properly.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a commission for taxi regulation which will be independent of the Minister. That is very important. If we are to have a commission, it should have the authority to operate inside the law, without interference, in the interests of providing a public service. A back-up and community approach is provided in the advisory council. I hope this will be broadly based and involve different strata of society, and that it will comprise people with a genuine interest in providing good public service in the taxi, hackney and small vehicle area.

The authority and functions of the commission are very important. It will have wide-ranging powers, which I welcome. It is important that it has sufficient power if we are to re-establish national confidence in the taxi, hackney and public service vehicle business. A national register is of vital importance, and it is vital that we are positioned to decide on taximeter areas and charges. The commission will have rights in regard to the granting, renewal or refusal of licences and also rights in regard to setting standards. Standards are of the utmost importance. The condition of some taxis leaves much be desired and, whether for people here or for visitors, standards should be high.

Other issues mentioned by previous speakers relate to the airing of wide-ranging opinions and the blasting out of radio music in taxis. These issues need to be addressed and if it is not done on a voluntary basis, it must be provided for by way of regulation. I hope the commission will have the authority to introduce further regulations if it believes those matters are not being dealt with properly.

The incidence of criminal offences is very unhealthy and has helped to create a lack of public confidence in the taxi and hackney system. Some newspaper stories about the involvement in the taxi business of certain people has also contributed to that lack of confidence. All of this must be dealt with and the way to do that is as the Minister has outlined in the Bill. Section 36 specifies offences and penalties which are important as a deterrent. If we are to build public confidence, the public must feel that the service being provided is regulated and that those who breach the regulations will no longer be entitled to a taxi licence and will be penalised.

There is no taxi system in rural towns which are serviced by hackneys and small public service vehicles. This creates problems in that hackneys have to pull in at the side of the street to pick up passengers, which I understand is illegal. In addition, hackneys have nowhere to wait until they are called. It should be mandatory for each local authority to provide such an area if there are no taxis, as many hackney drivers live some miles out of town and it is inappropriate that they should have to drive into town every time they get a call. It also means people have to wait a long time for a hackney. I would like a response from the Minister. He might focus in particular on the position of hackneys in towns and counties where there is no taxi licensing system.

Although I could not find the relevant provision in the Bill, I hope it provides that a receipt should be issued to customers at all times and that the meter includes a receipt system. Receipts should be issued to the customer at all times detailing the miles travelled. This would provide a ready-reckoner for the customer in that he or she would be able to compare receipts for similar trips and evaluate how good and economical is the service provided.

Wheelchair access for people with disabilities is of vital importance. I do not expect every taxi to be wheelchair accessible as that is not absolutely necessary, but the commission must ensure each region has a quota of public service vehicles.

Reference was made to violent behaviour. It is totally unacceptable that abuse is hurled at public servants, gardaí, bus drivers and so on. Taxi drivers must tolerate obnoxious behaviour from individuals at night. Where people providing a public service are attacked, an additional penalty should be imposed.

The culture of taxi use has changed. People from my home town, Roscommon, use hackneys to travel from one end of the town to the other. There were only two or three in the town ten years ago whereas nowadays a string of them services the town. It is great that people are availing of them. Young people, in particular, are to be complimented for moving away from the drink driving culture and using taxis and hackneys extensively. It is the exception that a young person will drive a car having consumed alcohol. That is an encouraging development. Given the extensive use of taxis, it is important that a good, clean and efficient service is provided.

I refer to EU involvement in the taxi industry. The European Commission has affected every area of life of the citizens it governs. It has been involved in deciding the size of eggs and whether bananas are straight or crooked. However, taxis and hackneys provide a public service, but are there European directives in this area?

There is none.

I am pleased with section 25. Accountability is vitally important and I am glad the section provides that the commission will be obliged to attend the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees to report on the implementation of the legislation and how the service is being delivered to the public. That is important. It is accepted that public services must be held accountable, and there is no better way of doing so than availing of the committee system. The committees provide a wonderful service in many areas that were hidden. Light has been shone on these issues by the committees.

I agree that the Freedom of Information Act 1997 has been a great help but it does not have the competence of a committee because there can be one-to-one discussions and supplementary questions can be asked at meetings. I compliment the Minister of State and the Government for introducing this important legislation. It will enhance the service provided to the public by taxis, hackneys and small public service vehicles. It can only be good if the standard of service is improved and equals or surpasses that provided in other parts of the world. I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to share time with Deputy Gormley.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deregulation has not delivered the efficient, safe taxi service we were told it would. The Government's actions on this issue have been a complete failure. However, I commend the Minister for Transport for having something that is rarely found on the Government benches. The Minister, who is unique among his Cabinet colleagues, has the ability to acknowledge when something has gone badly wrong and make an effort to remedy it.

The legislation is likely to deal with many problems resulting from deregulation. For example, the share of wheelchair accessible taxis fell from 29% in 2000 to less than 1% at the end of the 2002. This is an alarming consequence of deregulation and it needs to be rectified speedily. I refer to the number of taxis that are available in county towns. The number of taxis in Tralee, for example, has quadrupled over recent years. This contributes to the non-viability of the taxi business in these towns.

Many people mortgaged their homes and went into heavy debt to purchase taxi licences prior to deregulation but found themselves having to make enormous repayments on valueless licences. An increasing worry is that many people engaged in the taxi business in rural areas work part time. While I understand there are more pressures on people, given the material world in which we live, full-time taxi drivers are competing with part-time drivers, many of whom are retired public servants. That is also a worrying factor.

While Sinn Féin is, generally, supportive of the Bill we are not supportive of the manner in which it is being passed through the Oireachtas. The legislation was only available to Deputies on Wednesday of this week and Committee and Report Stages are to be taken in one three-hour block next week. This is not the correct way to approach things. To rush a measure of such importance does not help with our business. Perhaps the Minister has realised that for all the press statements and policy announcements, he has failed to pass a single Bill since he was appointed. This is regrettable.

In looking at the Bill I take the opportunity to do something I have rarely found a chance to do since I was elected, that is to congratulate a Minister on an element of a Bill. Section 14(2) of the Bill requires anyone who might be appointed as a commissioner to go through a competition organised by the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission. The point has been made by my comrades on other occasions that when the Government is setting up bodies like the one before us the appointments process needs to be made more open and transparent and the public better informed about it. The vacancies on the commission should be advertised in the national media, the criteria for them should be published and interviews held to ascertain who would be most suitable for the positions. The Minister is also to be congratulated on his approach to the matter, which is an improvement on the actions of other members of the Cabinet.

He might consider amending the Railway Safety Bill which, I note in passing, has vanished into limbo in similar fashion. This kind of change in the operating culture would ensure that people appointed to State posts would have the requisite knowledge and skills to do the job. It would also remove the attitude that exists among many people, regrettably not without cause, that many State appointments are political rewards or favours. I note, for example, that while membership of Fianna Fáil is not legally necessary for selection to serve on the refugee appeals tribunal it certainly seems to be a great help.

I welcome section 17(5), which states that a commissioner may not accept a job in the private sector for 12 months after ceasing employment with the commission. That is a welcome provision.

Section 31 deals with the thorny issue of people with criminal records applying for or holding taxi licences. There is some evidence to indicate that a great many people have entered the taxi trade since deregulation who might not be suitable for it or who might be involved in criminal activity. I conditionally welcome this part of the Bill. I especially welcome the fact that the Minister has accepted that once someone has served a sentence his or her debt to society is paid and it is possible for them to apply for a taxi licence after the passage of some time. What worries me is the inclusion of the phrase, "subject to the approval of the District Court". There are many people in this State who committed a crime in the past and have since had no brushes with the law who find themselves discriminated against on the basis of something done in the distant past. They are condemned to carry a black mark with them throughout life. This reminds me of Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's bookLes Miserables, who carries the legacy of his crime with him throughout his life.

I also note that, like myself, many people who were convicted of political offences in relation to the conflict in Ireland find themselves discriminated against despite recognition by the Good Friday Agreement that they were not criminals and were political prisoners. Their release over a period of time has proved what we had already maintained, that they were political prisoners. I am concerned that an applicant for a licence who has a conviction must apply to the District Court. Is this dependent on a recommendation from a local superintendent of the Garda? It is my experience that ex-republican prisoners have had their licence applications blocked by local superintendents. If we are to judge from our experience in north Kerry during the general election campaign, there will be no hope for any republican if he is dependent on the recommendation of a local superintendent.

Overall, this is good legislation and I am happy to see it. I would have been happier to see it a few years ago, even though I was not a Member of the House at that time. I have concerns about the District Court. I would like the Minister to clarify whether the granting of a licence is dependent on the recommendation or approval of a local superintendent or inspector of the Garda and if there is an appeals procedure in relation to that. That is a major concern, particularly for those of us who, because of our involvement in the struggle in this country, find ourselves discriminated against. I have evidence of this in relation to ex-republican prisoners for whom I have made applications for taxi licences through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

I thank the Deputy for sharing his time. The way this is being done is not satisfactory. I was speaking to members of the Irish Taxi Federation this morning who have not had time to read the legislation – the previous speaker referred to this. If we are going to pass legislation there should be an adequate run-in period when we discuss it with people who have a vested interest in the subject.

This is a subject with which I am somewhat familiar because of my role as a local councillor and because I went through those battles which Deputy Broughan referred to on Dublin City Council. It was not a pleasant experience. There was a lot of controversy at the time and we were under enormous pressure. I remember being lobbied extensively by Mr. Frank Dunlop on behalf of the taxi federation. I have nothing against Mr. Dunlop. I applaud him for the way he has made a clean breast of things to the tribunals and I hope good comes of that. However, mistakes were made in the strategy adopted at that time by the Irish Taxi Federation and, in hindsight, some taxi drivers would admit that. If that process had been allowed to continue and we had been able to give out those taxi plates deregulation, which has caused so much hardship for families, might not have been necessary.

Taxi drivers were led up the garden path by Fianna Fáil. At that time it was often said that Ivor would do the business for the taxi men. He was the hero of the taxi men and it was felt that there were people in Fianna Fáil who had a strong interest in the taxi business. I recall the photographs in the newspapers during the 1997 election campaign of Fianna Fáil Deputies surrounded by members of the Irish Taxi Federation. The message was clear. They were backing Fianna Fáil to the hilt. They did it in more than words, they did it by actions. They carried the Fianna Fáil logos as they went around the city and distributed leaflets.

The majority of voters backed us as well.

Absolutely. Fianna Fáil was helped by taxi drivers. They are a very powerful lobby. They speak to people and if one wants to put the word out one speaks to taxi people because they will talk to others. Fianna Fáil should acknowledge that taxi drivers assisted the party and did so in good faith because they felt Fianna Fáil were their friends. That is how they saw it. I feel extremely sorry for those families who put their trust in Fianna Fáil because they have been let down very badly indeed. The hardship panel does not compensate them for their losses. They were ditched in a most cynical way following a calculation of the position which prevailed at the time and where the most votes would come from – members of the public who were annoyed at the fact that they could not get a taxi or taxi drivers who comprise a strong lobby group. It was basically decided to get rid of the taxi drivers. I feel that some apology should issue and Fianna Fáil should admit that it went out and decided, in a calculated way, that taxi drivers were expendable.

My party welcomes this Bill, although we see it as a further example of centralisation. Under the circumstances it may be necessary centralisation, but we have seen this pattern emerge with this Government. When the history of this Administration is written, it will be seen as perhaps one of the most centralising Governments ever – in the areas of waste management, health, the abolition of the health boards and the establishment of a Government of quangos. The local authorities still have certain powers but only very minimal ones, in determining, for example, where the taxi ranks will be located, and of course section 10 allows the Minister to issue certain policy directions.

I welcome the fact that we will now have stricter vetting procedures and that section 36 means that people can only be employed in the taxi service if they can be trusted. There was an appalling case where the gentleman at the centre of the X case had been a cab driver. That is totally and utterly unacceptable and I hope this Bill will provide a solution to such possible outcomes in the future.

Section 37 requires taxi drivers to have a tax clearance certificate, another welcome provision. I take some of the points Deputy Ferris made, but I do not see any way out of it – it must be left up to the Garda Síochána.

Of course.

Frankly, I do not see any way around that.

Section 40 is very important from the point of view of taxi drivers who have said to me repeatedly that they are experiencing extremely bad behaviour from passengers. In some cases this is violent behaviour, not only from intoxicated men but, increasingly, from women. People often get into the cab absolutely drunk and then get out without paying their fare, and there is very little the taxi driver can do. It is an intolerable situation and I hope that section 40 will deal with that. As the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Hanafin, will be aware, the number of attacks on taxi drivers has also increased dramatically – I have raised this in parliamentary questions – and taxi driving is becoming quite a dangerous profession.

Section 44 provides for fines. Perhaps the fines are adequate but, as always, we need to keep an eye on that. In every profession one will get the bad eggs, people who con others, and we all know some taxi drivers take advantage of people. It is a question of getting the balance right between the rights of the customer and the rights of the taxi drivers.

My colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, referred to the question of wheelchair accessibility. This is quite a difficult issue for the taxi drivers who believe that we should look at the Scandinavian model – Deputy Ryan cited the position in Belfast. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy McDaid, interjected yesterday and said that this was against the law – I assume he means is it is contrary to competition law to have a standard vehicle, something that is supported by the taxi trade. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin, could elaborate a little more on this because I know of examples where there are standard vehicles, for example, the London cab, yet we are told that this is a transgression of EU competition law. We must allow various people to compete. We should support a move to a standard vehicle because there is a standard quality and, as Deputy Eamon Ryan stated yesterday, it would also enable those who are serious about the business to go into it full time. Those who are simply part-timers would not go out and purchase such a vehicle; it would be beyond their means.

I also feel that if the taxi trade is actually interested in the question of wheelchair accessibility – I know that some drivers are genuinely interested in this – its members should sit down with those advocates of disability groups and thrash out this issue, once and for all. It is a matter, particularly in this year of the Special Olympics, that must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. It is not good enough that at election time promises are made about the delivery of wheelchair accessible cabs and taxis which do not come to fruition. These promises are simply made at election time, and it makes people extremely cynical about politicians. This Government should apply itself to this question and examine how the taxi fleet can be made more accessible to those with a disability.

Acting Chairman

The Deputy should conclude.

Overall, the Green Party welcomes this Bill. A Swiss colleague of mine, to whom I spoke earlier, has noticed a vast improvement in the taxi service here as a result of the increased number of taxis on our streets. The number has increased threefold in a fairly short period and this has made a big difference. Deregulation is one thing, a free-for-all is another, however, and I hope that this legislation will deal with this aspect.

I am happy to join in this debate because the regulation of taxis is an important part of our transport policy, and is particularly important for the city and surrounding areas of Dublin. I would agree that it is never a good idea to rush legislation through quickly but there is a general welcome for this Bill from all interested parties. Having listened to the debate today, there is general support for the Bill from all sides of the House. We will get it through before the end of the session because it is worth pursuing.

It did not surprise me that the majority of taxi drivers supported Fianna Fáil and the previous Government. So, too, did the majority of train drivers, bus drivers, teachers, nurses and voters throughout the rest of the country.

They have all been conned.

How would they vote tomorrow?

Here we have another example, in discussing transport, of exactly how the Government is meeting its commitment. We specifically said that a first class transport infrastructure would be a priority. One need only look at the amount of money we are spending –€400 million of capital expenditure this year – and compare it to the €500,000 spent in 1996. The numbers are completely—

Is the national development plan on time?

Look at the figure. Expenditure of €500,000 only six or seven years ago—

Or is it ten years behind schedule?

—and €400 million now. Where there were bottlenecks and inefficiencies, they are now being broken down. As recently as—

Like the Red Cow roundabout.

—two days ago, I spoke about the metro, the quality bus corridors, the port tunnel and Luas coming on stream. It is very easy to sit there and laugh but the reality is that with the investment that has been made, the infrastructure is being developed,—

Nobody is laughing.

—which is all the more reason it is important to see the regulation of the taxi service in a wider context. Taxis are of course part of the city's transport infrastructure and this Bill represents an improvement in overhauling the legislative code, where there will now be a regulatory framework to support the capital infrastructure being put in place.

Taxis are an important part of city life.

A 2001 study of the Dublin taxi market by Goodbody Economic Consultants found that over 50% of the adult population of Dublin had used a taxi in the previous six months. The frequency of usage was remarkable, up from 40% in 1997, with more than half of taxi users taking trips at least once a week. A large section of our population is reliant on the taxi service to bring them home at weekends. Over 55% of taxi journeys take place on a Friday or Saturday, much of those journeys being made late at night. It is crucial to ensure that this vital public service is safe, efficient and delivers value for money. This Bill addresses public concerns about the safety, quality and availability of taxi, hackney and limousine services. Only a couple of years ago, people were complaining that there were no taxis to be got. It is a great improvement that at least the taxis are now available and we are discussing the next stage of development, which is concerned with the safety and quality of the service.

Liberalisation of the taxi market has brought benefits in terms of shorter waiting times, but it has become increasingly clear that liberalisation of entry must be accompanied by closer regulation of quality standards. I welcome the new independent and transparent regulatory framework introduced in this Bill. The establishment of a national taxi regulator is a fulfilment of one of the commitments of our programme for Government, all of which will be delivered during our five-year term.

May I quote the Minister of State on that?

It is an important contribution. I would like to concentrate my contribution on how this legislation should help to improve the safety, quality and availability of taxi and hackney services. It is frightening to read of drivers with criminal records who hold taxi licences. My response to Deputy Ferris quoting Victor Hugo is:plus ça change. We do not wish to see a repeat of what happened in one case where a taxi driver with a rape conviction assaulted and kidnapped a 15 year old girl. The fact that this could happen is something that has to be prevented in future, not just for the safety of the individual but also for the reputation of the taxi industry as a whole. While the proportion of complaints against taxi drivers that relate to sexual assault is extremely low at 1% of all complaints, even one assault is too many. People must be able to depend on the reputation and safety of cabs. Taxi drivers must be respectable people who are providing a friendly and important public service – and that is the case in the majority of instances – but we must have confidence in them.

This legislation definitively addresses the increased concern about the personal safety of taxi customers by stating clearly that a conviction for serious offences such as rape, murder, manslaughter, assault, or drug trafficking will automatically disqualify a person from being granted or holding a licence. This will come as a much-needed reassurance to the public about their personal safety as taxi customers.

Many of us have problems with the quality and standard of some vehicles. The absence of a single standard of car means they can be too small, too old or too dirty. That is not what the public deserve. The standards need to be enforced and the quality and standards of drivers need to apply also to the vehicle. I have a personal gripe with the amount of all-car advertising which exists. A standard colour to be used by all taxi vehicles would mean that the public could recognise them as is the case in London, New York and in far eastern places such as Bangkok. Irish taxis are covered in advertising and one does not know whether it is a pint, a tiger or a phone arriving. Political advertising on cars whether supporting us or not, should not be allowed. Deputy Gormley referred to taxi drivers who were supporting Fianna Fáil before the election. I do not think it is a good idea for public transport to do that. One car displayed a sticker critical of the Government in quite an insulting and not at all objective way. My husband who is a regular user of taxis refused to get into that car. We do not wish to have to adopt that attitude as users of taxis and this issue should be examined.

Central to achieving quality customer service is the need to improve the current complaints procedure but only a minority of problems are actually reported. It is difficult to see the driver identification and fare cards from the back seat of a taxi. If one has a problem with an aggressive driver one has to ask him for his licence number and he certainly will not give the information that easily. The details should be made more visible. All that is presently required is that they be easily visible. They should also be displayed on the back of the front seat as well as on the dashboard because most passengers sit in the back. It would give the passengers easy access to information. A 24-hour hotline for reporting poor service should be introduced as a priority. This line could also be used by taxi drivers. There was a recent case where three taxi drivers had bad experiences with a passenger they all picked up. A link to a central telephone line would protect them also.

Security and comfort at taxi ranks is another issue, not so much in the outer areas of the city but particularly in the city centre and late at night. There is a certain comfort when waiting for a bus in a rain shelter. The Nitelink bus service generally has a Dublin Bus employee on duty to provide reassurance to passengers and is in stark contrast to what happens at taxi ranks. Some form of stewarding should be used late at night and at peak times. This would help taxi users and those waiting in queues. There are often fears when an aggressive and drunk person starts arguing his or her way to the top of the queue.

There are now 10,000 taxis where before there were only 2,700. Waiting times remain long at peak times when demand still far outstrips supply. More people will use taxis if they can be guaranteed one. Some drivers who may have bought a cheap licence and may have another job are flexible in the time when they take out their taxis. There should be a requirement or incentive for them to drive at night and to provide a service at peak times.

Other Members have expressed concern about the availability and provision of taxis for those with disabilities. Research by Goodbody Economic Consultants found that 47% of people with disabilities found it "very hard" or "hard" to obtain taxi or hackney services. Only 22% found it "easy". Some 73% of people with disabilities found it extremely difficult to hail a taxi or to get a taxi at a rank. They said that when they try to hail a taxi with its light on, the taxi does not stop. Taxis need to be available and taxi drivers should be willing to provide such services. It is obvious that our ultimate goal should be to ensure that every taxi can be used by all citizens.

I suspect that drivers feel they do not have proper training in dealing with wheelchair users and forget that such people are very competent and capable and are well used to using wheelchairs. Perhaps there should be a requirement for taxi drivers to complete a simple training course in disability awareness to help them to overcome fears or anxieties about dealing with wheelchair users. This could be a condition of acquiring or renewing a licence. Nobody will employ a labourer on a building site if they have not completed a one-day safety course and there is no reason drivers should not have to participate in a similar course. In such circumstances, more people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users, may be willing to use taxi services. In Chicago, a voucher based scheme provides a subsidy to disabled users and a bonus payment for the person providing the service. Perhaps the Chicago scheme could be examined here to see if persons with disabilities can be encouraged to get out and about to a greater extent and to use the services and facilities that exist. This would complement the current phased introduction of wheelchair accessible bus and rail services.

The three key issues in relation to taxis – safety, quality and availability – are being prioritised in this legislation. Taxis are an important part of our overall transport policy, which has resulted in real improvements in recent years. The quality bus corridor programme has been remarkably successful. Passenger numbers on the Stillorgan QBC route, which cuts through my constituency, more than doubled in the first six months of its operation as people realised that bus journeys were shorter and more efficient than a journey in one's car. In a survey, 70% of bus passengers on the Stillorgan QBC route said they were "happy" or "very happy" with journey times, which is a welcome change in public opinion. It is obvious that the development of further QBCs will lead to more irate motorists, but it is vital if we are to provide a public transport alternative and to encourage people to use it. I am happy to note that €6 million was invested in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area up to the end of 2002 and that additional expenditure in excess of €3 million is anticipated this year. The new bus corridors through Blackrock and Monkstown will encourage many people to use public transport.

My constituents are fortunate to have the DART service, which has been in serious need of modernisation for some time, in addition to the bus corridors. The popularity of the service has meant that trains have become overcrowded and journeys have become an unpleasant experience for many people. The DART and suburban enhancement project, DASH, aims to increase peak passenger numbers and services throughout Dublin. The project will result in longer platforms, increased power supply, resignalling and improved access to stations, all of which is much needed. Developments such as the purchase of eight-car DART trains are greatly welcomed by everybody in my constituency. Some 16 trains, rather than the usual 12, will be able to travel along the DART routes per hour as a result of these initiatives, which are to be welcomed. I also welcome the fact that the new trains will have bigger seats than the old trains. Some of my constituents complained that they were cramped because the seats were too small – I do not know if that is a sign of the times and an indication that we are getting bigger and better. The DART service needs to make the necessary adjustments.

I recall that when a new Parliament was established in Germany after a war – it may have been during the Weimar Republic – all the seats in the Chamber were removed and wider seats were installed. I hope a similar situation does not develop in this Chamber.

The implementation of an integrated transport policy is a key objective of the Government, which has shown over the past six years that it is committed to the renewal of public transport. This is demonstrated by the strategic rail review and the development of DART services, QBCs and the taxi industry. The results of the investment that has been made in transport infrastructure can be seen throughout the country. I have mentioned some of the figures involved. This year's capital allocation for roads is €1.25 billion, which is more than three times the 1997 level. Many roads projects have been completed.

The Government accepts that this legislation has been rushed, but it is a welcome addition. I thank the Deputies who have contributed and the party Whips who have indicated that they will facilitate the speedy passage of the Bill. We all recognise that it is one thing to have cars and taxis, but having regulations is more important so that safety, quality and availability can be assured.

It is a shame that the Minister of State is rushing out as I intend to comment on some elements of her contribution. I agree with a great deal of what has been said by all speakers. It is positive that there is support for the general thrust of this Bill. It amuses me slightly to hear a Minister of State almost bragging about the record of the Government, in terms of infrastructure and transport policy, over the past two or three years. Any punter on the street who is asked for his or her opinion of transport in Dublin or the roll-out of the national development plan across the country will give their opinions in stark terms. I do not wish to debate the programme for Government or to point out the parts of it that have or have not been delivered. It is important to recognise a positive Bill when it is brought before the House and the Taxi Regulation Bill is such a Bill. It is unfortunate, however, that the Bill could not have been introduced when the taxi industry was deregulated.

A focus on Dublin, which is a dangerous trend in transport policy debates, has been evident in this discussion. Speakers often refer to problems in "the city", but two thirds of the population live outside Dublin and are affected in an equal way by this legislation. It is unfortunate that they were also affected by the Government's decision two years ago to pursue a policy which was aimed at increasing the number of taxis in Dublin and nothing else. I hope this Bill will address the problems of such people. As a Donegal man the Minister of State, Deputy McDaid is aware of the problems in the regions as well as those in the capital.

The Bill has three main purposes, to provide for the establishment of a commission for taxi regulation, to set up an advisory council to the commission to advise the Minister and to provide for a new code of regulation for taxis, hackneys and limousines. There will be an emphasis on quality of service for the consumer in the licensing system. One would need to be negative to disagree with the Bill's three aims. I welcome the legislation. Most people accept that the taxi business was deregulated two years ago in a rush and that mistakes were made. It was not sensible to allow such a massive new entry into the market in an uncontrolled and unregulated manner. The increase in the number of taxis, by 4,000, to over 11,000, shows that there was a massive need for additional taxis. There has been a positive response to that increase. Unfortunately, the by-product of that policy has been that standards have not been enforced during the process of deregulation. We are now introducing legislation at a relatively late stage to try to implement controls on an industry that has grown three-fold in numbers of vehicles over an 18-month period.

Deregulation was a blunt instrument designed only to increase the numbers of taxis because there were simply not enough. It needs to be recognised that as a result there has been hardship and a lot of pain for the families of some taxi drivers. We are responsible for exposing the public to a potential safety risk because of a careless approach to the selection system for drivers. We could also be accused of failing to recognise the need for high standards in vehicles. When the numbers increase three-fold in less than two years, regulation and control must be in place, and it is now being introduced belatedly. The increase in taxi numbers is welcome and the Fine Gael Party has been supportive of it.

Fine Gael received much criticism in regard to offers of compensation. I find this frustrating. In our proposals for the taxi industry prior to the election, while we spoke about compensation and hardship we also spoke about the need to introduce an independent body that would regulate the industry. Unfortunately, that policy got spun into being an allegedly populist proposal to compensate every taxi driver for the consequences of deregulation, but that was not what we intended. I know, because I was involved at the time in meeting members of the taxi industry and discussing its response with my party leader. It was, perhaps, a mistake on our part not to stick to our guns in regard to our plans for compensation for families who suffered genuine hardship as a result of taxi deregulation. That is history now, however, and the ultimate irony is that the Government is introducing legislation which is similar to what we proposed. It is praised by everybody for a scheme that is similar to one which was denigrated as populist when we proposed it. That is politics, but it is certainly frustrating from our point of view.

Section 9 sets out the principal function of the commission. The first three objectives can be grouped together. They are to promote quality of service; to pursue a customer orientated licensing system, regulatory code and standards; and to oversee the development of a professional, safe and efficient taxi service. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin's statement that the regulation and control of the taxi service needs to be looked at in the context of an overall transportation plan for the country. She is right, and that is what we are attempting to do here.

Today's taxi drivers have an increased level of responsibility. A taxi driver at the airport is often the first Irish person to whom a foreigner speaks. This provides a first taste and experience of Ireland. Taxi drivers are also involved in picking up children from school or taking senior citizens to mass or to the GP. In the case of an 18 year old, or sometimes a 15 year old, who is drunk and needs to get home, it is often a taxi driver who has to deal with that situation and act in a responsible and decent manner. A disabled person may need to call a taxi to get home from his or her place of work, or a child with a severe or profound learning disability may need to be taken to school. These are some of the circumstances with which taxi drivers have to cope on a daily basis. Of all the modes of public transport, the taxi driver has perhaps more responsibility than any other in terms of customer service and customer care. If one compares taxi drivers to train or bus drivers, for example, or an aeroplane pilot, the level of customer interaction in a taxi is far higher than in any other mode of transport. For that reason we need to take a strict approach towards the selection procedure for the drivers of the 11,000 or 12,000 taxis in the country.

Deputy Ferris is of the belief that when somebody has served his or her time for a crime he or she should be treated the same as every other citizen. I disagree with that. As legislators, we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of vulnerable people travelling in taxis. If there is a doubt about a person's capacity to offer the kind of service that is required in our public transport system, the decision-making process must come down in favour of the user. The only way we can ensure that happens is to include the Garda in the process, as well as the District Court. Deputy Ferris seems to have difficulty in accepting the involvement of a Garda superintendent or inspector in the decision-making process when assessing the suitability of candidates with a criminal record for holding a taxi licence. While I would be hesitant about taking the Garda out of that process, I am open to suggestions as to who might be more suitable than the Garda or a District Court judge to be involved in this difficult and sensitive vetting process. In the meantime, the Garda should continue to be involved in that process.

It is unacceptable that people who have been convicted of violent or sexual crimes, or drink driving offences would be allowed to operate taxis unless they can prove that they have changed their ways or recovered from whatever particular illness or problem they may have had. In regard to the taxi industry, without neglecting the safety of the driver, our primary responsibility must be the safety of the consumer, particularly the most vulnerable in society. We need an appeal procedure in situations where people feel they have been harshly treated. That appeal procedure is through the District Court, as provided for in the relevant section of the Bill.

With regard to selection of vehicles, the current position is that we do not have any common standard regarding taxis. That is not a fair and balanced way to regulate the industry. However, we must be mindful of the fact that, at the stroke of a pen, legislators can change policy, with consequent financial implications for operators. Any planned change regarding standardisation of vehicles must be considered in the context of affordability and the practical implications for taxi operators.

We should look at best practice in Europe and elsewhere, consult with the advisory board, the taxi industry and the public and come up with a sensible approach to vehicle choice for taxis. We should ensure there is not a continuation of the present variation regarding age of taxis, size, leg room, head space and so on. From personal experience, being over 6'2" in height, some cars are very comfortable but others leave one feeling cramped. That issue should be addressed. One should have the assurance that, whatever hackney or taxi one hails, there will be a reasonably common standard of car – the fare will be the same whether the car is a Mercedes or some other make. I will not name any other makes to avoid casting aspersions, but people will understand my point quite clearly.

This Second Stage debate provides an opportunity to discuss the taxi industry generally. I wish to refer briefly to some issues regarding taxi ranks, on which I have strong views. Taxi ranks in Dublin are now working in a reasonably organised way. The queues of people may be too long at peak hours, but taxi drivers would also say that the queues of taxis are too long during off-peak hours – there is a balance in that regard. Outside of Dublin, however, there is a real problem regarding taxi ranks. For example, in Cork, Limerick or Galway, the management of taxi ranks is not, in my view, of as high a standard as it should be.

We need to consider two different strategies – one for night-time transportation and one for day-time and peak-time transportation. It is ridiculous to have the same arrangements at night as during the day – there should be suitably-located night ranks. Although the taxi rank closest to a shopping centre is not necessarily closest to a night club, there is just the one rank. I will refer to the situation in Cork city, with which the Minister of State may be familiar, from his visits there on a number of occasions. If one happens to be on Washington Street, it is necessary to walk a quarter of a mile along Patrick Street to reach a taxi rank. There are issues in that context regarding social disorder and so on. It makes sense to work with local authorities with a view to having night-time taxi ranks located as near as possible to places from which people are emerging. People should have to travel only the minimum possible distance on foot before picking up a taxi. That would encourage them to go home as soon as possible. It is surprising how quickly 20 minutes passes on a Friday afternoon, when the situation is as relaxed as today in the House. I ask the Minister for Transport to look at the issue of taxi ranks in detail. I refer particularly to the situation outside Dublin. I believe considerable thought has been given to it within the confines of Dublin but it is a big problem in other areas.

I welcome the provision whereby the commission can help to finance taxi policy within local authority areas. I suggest the Minister should also examine, from a policy perspective, the zoning of certain urban areas. For example, in the London underground system, the various zones are clearly defined, indicating the cost of travelling from one zone to another, from the city centre outwards. A similar system should be put in place for taxi services, particularly at night, so that people will know the cost of going from zone one to zone three or five, as the case may be. That would be a positive move.

There should also be a facility to link up with other modes of transport. If this is a genuine part of overall transport policy, there is no reason a person cannot make a combined booking for a train and taxi to get from Kent Station in Cork to Leinster House, for example. It should be possible to integrate the systems to allow that facility, with some initiative and imagination on the part of the Department and the Minister.

In the context of taxi service in rural areas, members of Fine Gael have been making the point that a free travel pass is of no use to a senior citizen in a rural area if there is no bus service. A system of travel tokens should be introduced for rural taxi services throughout the country. With a little imagination, that can be made to happen and the necessary financial framework should be put in place to ensure that the industry responds. We also need to get our act together in terms of taxi services for people with disabilities. Promises which were made have not been kept – I do not need to go into the details in that regard.

My final point relates to hardship cases, on which the report of the taxi hardship panel is awaited. There are genuine hardship cases which need to be considered in a compassionate way. It is not a matter of compensating the whole industry but, rather, of dealing with the situation of families who may have remortgaged houses and giving them fair treatment. I look forward to the publication of the report.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue, which has been under discussion for a long time. There are various aspects of the debate, from the perspectives of taxi drivers, the public and politicians, in terms of the former shortage of taxis and, since deregulation, the changes which the industry has undergone. The vast majority of those who use taxis welcome the decision of the courts with regard to deregulation. Even those in the industry recognised there was a shortage of taxis. A mechanism was in place at the time, with a forum involving taxi drivers, to increase the number of cars available to the public. However, the High Court decision changed the situation and deregulation was forced upon us. The Government had to implement policies to take account of the court ruling in the matter.

We now have a Bill before the House to address that issue and to bring about a regulatory system to ensure the availability of a quality taxi service to the public and to visitors from abroad. The main purpose of the Bill can be summarised as follows. It includes provision for the establishment of a commission for taxi regulation and a new code for the regulation of small public service vehicles and their drivers. It is vital to have public confidence in taxi operators. As well as requiring cars to be licensed, drivers must also be licensed to operate public service vehicles.

Recently, there has been evidence, whether anecdotal or otherwise, to suggest that certain elements now operating in the taxi industry are not desirable as taxi drivers. The facts are well established in that regard. I expect that, when the regulator is established and the new system put in place, it will instil confidence in taxi operators. A previous speaker referred to issues of criminality. Parents need to have profound faith in the character of taxi drivers where their children are brought by taxi to hospital, to school or home from night clubs. The issue of criminality is important. It was stated earlier that once a person has served time for a crime that such an offence should no longer be taken into account.

However, I would be concerned if crimes such as a conviction for paedophilia, sex abuse or violent crime were overlooked in analysing the character of an operator. I hope they would be taken into account as there have been such cases in recent times. Taxi drivers who take pride in their business and in the way they work with the public are concerned because they are all tarred with the same brush. From that point of view, it is important that the regulator and those who would be involved in deciding whether a person is of reputable character and a suitable candidate to be awarded a licence to operate a taxi will be stringent in their consideration and will take into account some forms of crime. It may not be necessary to take other forms of crime into account, but I would have a major concern about allowing a person who had been convicted of paedophilia, sex abuse and violent physical assaults to interact with the public under a licensing system operated by the State.

There has been a sharp decline in the quality of taxis available to the public in recent times. I recently queued at a taxi rank where the first taxi in line was a Mercedes and the one behind it had just about passed the MOT. It was neither hygienic nor was it outwardly well maintained. The same fare is charged by taxi drivers, irrespective of whether a taxi driver makes a genuine commitment and investment in his or her business or makes no effort to even maintain the inward and outward appearance of the vehicle. I had to travel in that second taxi. This is an important issue not only for our indigenous population but also for our tourists. We must be conscious that a tourist's first port of call and interaction is often with a bus operator or a taxi driver. We must ensure that taxis are of a high standard. If we increase standards to ensure there is a better quality taxi service, we will have to take into account that such upgrading will cost people money. They may have to trade up and purchase a better type of car. That should be taken into account and the regulations should be introduced over a phased period. We should not be afraid to tackle this issue to ensure quality public service vehicles are available to provide a service for our people and tourists. Many tourists coming into the country through Dublin Airport, Cork Airport and elsewhere may not only request a taxi to bring them to a city centre but to bring them to the country and they may be in a taxi for a long time. As Deputy Coveney said, the quality of some of the taxis is nothing short of appalling. This issue must be addressed but in a manner that will allow taxi drivers to trade up their vehicles over a period.

On the issue of colour standardisation, I have travelled to a number of countries where taxis have been a mix of colours. I visited Chile recently where the taxis are brown and yellow. I would prefer if taxis were a standard colour rather than a mix of colours such as light and navy blue. We should opt for a standardised colour, whether it be white or blue. If taxis are a mix of colours, it is difficult for operators to trade them in. If one sells a taxi that is colour co-ordinated, it will stand out as a car that was a former taxi. Such colour-co-ordination devalues a car.

Therefore, it is less likely that taxi drivers and operators would be encouraged to trade up on a frequent basis. In Holland, Spain and elsewhere many taxis are white. I do not know whether that is due to standardisation or to a voluntary decision by the companies operating there. We should opt for that type of system. In that way, if a taxi operator wants to sell a taxi, he or she would not find it difficult. Once the signage is removed, such a car would blend in with other cars and would not stick out as having been a former taxi. The Minister referred to this issue previously. I am sure that following consultation with all involved in the industry, a standard single colour for taxis could be agreed. One sees the yellow cab in New York, the black taxi in London and I would not see anything wrong with taxis here being plain white. The standardisation of taxis is fundamental. It would enable the public to easily identify white taxis, for example, that display a taxi sign on top and, more important, people would be confident that when they hail a taxi, they would travel in a car that is safe and comfortable. Taxis are public service vehicles and members of the public are entitled to travel in comfort given that they pay to do so.

On the issue of hardship cases following deregulation, I welcome the establishment of the hardship panel to assess and address what is painfully obvious. Certain people who lost large sums of money are genuine hardship cases. If there is a change in Government policy or a change in policy decided by a court, that must be accepted as part of the cut and thrust of business life. However, some people such as widows of taxi drivers would have had an income under the cosying system that was in place at the time but that is no longer available. I am hopeful that the hardship panel will come forward with a mechanism to address genuine hardship cases. There are also people who had numerous plates and used them for speculative purposes without even operating them. They were cosying them out under what was basically a rental system. One cannot expect a Government to compensate everybody involved in the industry in such circumstances.

It was said earlier that a PR spin was put on the fact that Fine Gael put forward views similar to what is proposed in this Bill. That party also suggested that, if returned to office, it would compensate taxi drivers and it supported the idea of a hardship board, which would examine submissions from individuals irrespective of whether they had a genuine hardship case or had suffered a large financial loss due to deregulation following a court decision.

The issue of taxi ranks is an important one and local authorities will have to address the putting in place of a proper system. There are differences between the movement of people in the day time and at night time, foot flows and so on. For many years, people have said that one of the reasons there is public disorder in city centres at night is because there are not sufficient taxis to take people home. The taxi population has trebled to almost 12,000, yet we still have public order problems in the city centre. Therefore, there is not a direct corollary between the two. However, efforts should be made by local authorities to carry out a survey whereby they would know where people gather, particularly on leaving night-clubs and large late-night pubs, in order that a proper taxi rank system could be available. Without a proper system in place, people walk ahead of people queuing at a rank in an effort to hail the next taxi that comes along. That leads to aggravation and annoyance and can lead to some public order and assault offences. If a genuine ranking system were put in place, people would know that the next taxi would stop at the rank and not further up the road, which encourages a migratory path of people running ahead of each other trying to hail the next taxi coming down the road. It would also make it easier for the Garda Síochána to monitor large numbers of people in a confined area, which might assist in a small way in addressing some of the public order problems that are painfully evident in our cities and towns during weekend nights.

The principal function of the commission for taxi regulation will be the development and maintenance of a regulatory framework for the control and operation of all small public service vehicles and their drivers. The driver is the most important person at the end of the day. It may be necessary to institute a system in which a course must be taken before one is licensed or perhaps an interview would be sufficient. Some type of course or exam on presentation, mannerisms and so on would be a positive step towards ensuring that the people who are at the coalface, interacting with people on a regular basis, are of good character and can present a positive image of themselves and of Ireland, particularly when they are in contact with tourists. Since our airports are not yet connected to cities by major public infrastructural developments such as a metro or bus lanes, taking people to and from airports is a significant part of the taxi business.

I hope the issue of hardship cases is urgently addressed. The situation has been going on for some time and I have made representations to the appeals board on behalf of various people. There are certainly people in difficulties at present. Section 43 provides that a person shall not use a mechanically propelled vehicle in a public place for the carriage of persons for reward unless both the vehicle and its driver are licensed under this Bill. I did refer to that before but it is an important section. There is not much point in having a licensed vehicle if the person inside is unlicensed or in having standardisation in one area while those operating in the area are not standardised. This section is welcome.

I compliment the Minister and the Minister of State on the Bill. I am confident that it will make a significant impact on the quality of service available to the public. I am sure that the whole taxi regulation system will become very efficient and build up expertise so that it is able to change and move forward and address problems we have not foreseen in the Bill. The introduction of a tax clearance requirement for the granting or renewal of all licences is also a welcome development. It is important that we send out signals when setting up new licensing systems that people should not be working on the black market, in the taxi business or elsewhere. The tax clearance certificate sends out a signal that the regulator and, more importantly, the Government are genuinely committed to ensuring that the people we have driving taxis are of a character that is acceptable to the public.

I have only referred to taxis so far, but hackneys and limousines and their drivers are put in the same category in the Bill, which is welcome. In some parts of the country, hackneys are more in use due to the lack of a large population base. Particularly in rural Ireland, hackneys are a valuable part of the public transport system. Reference was already made by Deputy Coveney to people, particularly the elderly, who have free travel but may be miles from the nearest public transport system. This is unfair on elderly people, particularly those who may be living on their own in remote areas. The costs of getting from one's home to the nearest port of call for public transport can be prohibitive. I do not know how this can be addressed fully, but there should be a system involving, for example, payment of a token to the company, which would be reimbursed afterwards through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or some other billing system. With the technology that is there I am sure something like this could be done.

I urge as many people as possible within the taxi business to ensure that their cars are equipped to transport people with disabilities. Obviously, there will have to be a certain number of cars that are compatible with wheelchair access, but it is important that we do not just have that number of cars and no more. There should be more than are required so that people with disabilities are not waiting longer than necessary – if they book a taxi, it should turn up. That is another important point – if a taxi is booked but does not turn up, there should be some mechanism in place whereby that taxi is penalised. In the past it has been the case that one books a taxi to turn up at 4 p.m., but then it starts raining so there is a larger demand for taxis and one is still standing there at 4.15 p.m. If one rings the company one is told it will be along soon, but it never arrives. It should be the case that if I report that, the taxi driver will be called to account. It is a public service vehicle. If a CIE bus does not turn up an explanation must be supplied; it should be likewise for taxis.

I wish the Bill a speedy passage through Committee Stage, during which time there will be more debate. Over the next number of years I am confident that we will see a fine, standardised taxi system in place which is accessible to everybody.

Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Teachta Marian Harkin.

Tá áthas orm an seans a fháil labhairt sa díospóireacht seo ar Bhille um Rialáil Tacsaithe 2003. Tá an Bille seo thar a bheith déanach ach tá sé anseo i ndeireadh thiar thall agus, ar an ábhar sin, fáiltím roimhe. Tá rialachán ag teastáil le fada ó thionscail na dtacsaithe agus téann an Bille seo cuid mhaith den mbóthar chun an rialachán sin a chur in áit.

Quite a number of issues which need to be urgently addressed in the taxi industry were exacerbated by the sudden deregulation of that industry in 2000. The way in which it happened brings no credit upon the Government of the day, which is effectively the same Government we have now. A major problem which is still to be resolved is the question of compensation for those who have suffered serious hardships because of deregulation. My colleagues, Deputies Seán Ryan and Broughan, have already outlined in detail the kind of hardship involved. In my own constituency of Waterford, similar hardship has been suffered by people in the taxi business. Before deregulation taxi plates were being sold for £60,000 or £70,000; suddenly, a taxi plate could be obtained for £5,000. People who had borrowed to buy taxi plates in the period before deregulation were placed at a serious disadvantage and in serious economic difficulties. This issue needs to be brought to a fair and equitable conclusion. I call on the Minister to wind up the business of the hardship board and the compensation fund and give compensation where it is due, because things are not getting any easier for these people as time moves on.

Other issues have arisen against the background of sudden deregulation and the large increase in the number of taxis. There is the issue of location and access to taxi ranks. Residents and business people in an area will have one view while taxi operators will have a different one, and the local authority may have a different view again with regard to the location of a taxi rank. For example, local authorities will want a taxi rank placed so that taxis can enter and exit with the flow of traffic and not against it, because to have taxis moving against the flow of traffic will create problems. The obvious outcome of moving into the traffic against the flow is that other problems will be created for road users and the gridlock which exists in many areas may become worse.

Obviously business people and residents in an area will not want to have a taxi stand near them at night, particularly if the taxi stand services late night operations where alcohol is involved. While the taxi drivers will want to have a stand in a particular area, we must consider the rights of residents in these areas. There are a number of issues surrounding taxi stands, many of which have not been resolved as yet. There is a vexed area of by-laws relating to taxi stands introduced by local authorities. This is probably an area which should be standardised so that the same type of regime operates throughout the country.

Looking at the principal functions and objectives of the commission, one issue I consider to be of major importance is that of integrating the taxi services in the public transport system generally. There are obvious difficulties in this regard, not least that taxis will want to be in the busiest place at a given time where most of the business is. If there is such peak time demand in an area, it could well be that where there is a small flow of passengers from trains and buses, there may not be a proper taxi service available at a particular time because of this sort of clash. Therefore, there is a real need to co-ordinate this type of activity to dovetail with the other public transport modes in the interests of customers.

I was startled recently when listening to a discussion on the Joe Duffy programme on the taxi service at Dublin Airport. Some of the stories relayed were deeply disturbing. It appears that if people who look for a taxi at Dublin Airport live close to the airport they can have difficulty getting a taxi. In some instances these people can be subjected to unacceptable behaviour from taxi drivers. This is the sort of issue the commission will address and it is something the advisory council should address at an early stage. It is not good that people arriving at Dublin Airport may have difficulty getting a taxi depending on where they live. Regardless of whether one lives near or far from the airport, one will need a taxi to get to one's place of residence.

I would like to lend my voice to another matter which was raised earlier. It relates to the fact that we are not catering properly for people with disabilities. This issue should be a matter of priority for the commission and the advisory council. It should be addressed at the beginning to ensure that people with a disability are not excluded from a taxi service. It is much more difficult and stressful for people with disabilities if they cannot get a taxi and are left waiting on the street, at a taxi rank or wherever. This situation is not satisfactory and needs to be addressed.

I would like to make a few general points. There is a question of having one to three commissioners. What exactly is envisaged here? Does it mean there will be a commissioner for Dublin and a commissioner for the rest of the country? What purpose will the three commissioners serve?

I want to refer to the question of fuel efficiency and exhaust fumes. I recall some time ago reading research which indicated that there was an increase in the incidence of asthma among children in an area in Britain. The research seemed to suggest that part of the blame for the increase was that children were being exposed to exhaust fumes from inefficient diesel using vehicles. This is one of the issues we need to address because the taxi fleet throughout the country emits a lot of exhaust fumes on a given day. It is important that they are as fuel efficient as possible, particularly in terms of possible health hazards which may arise as a result of their activity.

The Bill does not state that the accounts and annual report will be produced in both Irish and English. The same applies to other reports and codes of practice which would emanate from the commission. There is a general need for the advisory council to address these important issues. The commission is being asked to focus on innovation.

First, I thank the Deputy for sharing his time with me. I appreciate it.

The Bill seeks to provide for the establishment of the Commission for Taxi Regulation. I, like many other Deputies in the House, give a broad welcome to the Bill. There is no doubt it is long overdue. The Bill addresses many of the important issues concerning regulation in the taxi business and, as such, it is to be welcomed.

Section 9 outlines the objectives of a high quality, professional, cost-effective, safe, efficient and customer-friendly service. It speaks of the development of a service that will meet a wide range of customer needs, including those of passengers with mobility or sensory impairments. This will also be widely welcomed and I am sure many people look forward eagerly to the implementation of this objective. The objective of a customer-friendly professional service cannot be over-estimated. Taxi drivers and their vehicles are sometimes the first contact with Ireland for many tourists and visiting business people. They can have a considerable influence and effect on their perception of this country and its services.

Section 34(8) states that the commission, in making regulations under this section, may set different requirements and conditions in relation to different circumstances and for different areas. Given that it is expensive to refurbish a vehicle in order that it is wheelchair accessible or suitable for a person with disability, the commission must find some mechanism to ensure the owners of such vehicles do not suffer financial loss by providing what is a very necessary public service. Equally, it may be necessary to look at different areas. To provide a modified vehicle in rural areas, such as Sligo, Leitrim or the Minister of State's constituency of Donegal, where the number of potential customers will be geographically dispersed, as opposed to Galway city, may incur extra cost to the taxi owner. Cognisance should be taken of this fact.

Section 34 outlines regulations in relation to the licensing, ownership, control and operation of small public service vehicles and the licensing of public service drivers, as well as the standards to be applied to such vehicles and their drivers. While I do not intend to go through the section again due to time constraints, I will comment on one provision, namely, the age of vehicles. The age of a vehicle should not be a determining factor. It is essential that all vehicles are mechanically sound and a specific form of national car test will be applied for public service vehicles. These should be maintained in good condition and the interior and exterior of vehicles should be of the highest order. This objective could be realised in four, five, six or seven year old cars. It is not essential that they be the latest model. For example, certain older or vintage cars may be used for weddings and similar events. Flexibility is, therefore, necessary in this instance.

Section 34 also deals with the colour of vehicles. Last night, two of my fellow constituency Deputies suggested we use county colours – black and white for Sligo and green and gold for Leitrim. Although the idea is interesting, it would cause problems. How would one distinguish taxis from counties Kerry, Leitrim and Offaly given that their county colours are the same? Presumably difficulties would also arise with regard to counties Cork and Louth. Despite the fact that number plates would allow us to distinguish between counties, the proposed system would be too complicated and would drive our foreign visitors to distraction. It is an interesting idea, but we should consider using just one colour. Many Deputies have noted that New York has yellow cabs and London has black taxis. Perhaps green, our national colour, would be suitable for taxis here. As I have no expertise in this field, I will not labour the point except to say that the possibility of having one colour merits consideration.

Section 36, which outlines the circumstances in which there will be mandatory disqualification from holding a licence, is very welcome and long overdue. Until now, few safeguards were in place to protect the public. In some cases where the Garda objected to the granting of a licence to certain persons, the licences were granted by the District Courts and it is widely acknowledged that in a few cases taxis and hackneys were used as a cover for criminal activity, ranging from drug distribution to money laundering. While such cases were small in number, one is one too many and every effort should be made to ensure it does not continue to happen.

The report of the taxi hardship panel outlines the nature of the extreme personal financial hardship that has resulted from the liberalisation of the taxi industry. I will focus on one or two of the recommendations made by the panel. In the case of a widow or separated individual, it recommends the payment of €15,000, or €10,000 where such an individual has no dependants. It appears from the document that a person who works for a few hours per week in Tesco, minding children or in a job which pays the minimum wage would not receive compensation. This is unfair and I call on the Minister to reconsider it.

If an individual has a large loan outstanding – let us assume €80,000, the going rate for a licence in Dublin before deregulation – the recommended payment is €10,000. Taking a loan repayment rate of €900 per month, this payment would not even cover one year's repayments. Many individuals find themselves having to continue to make repayments for a licence which has been worthless not only for months, but for years. Furthermore, such individuals must provide documentary evidence, such as loan agreements from lending institutions, to substantiate that difficulties are being experienced in the servicing of a loan secured against a family home. In other words, an individual must default on a loan or be a bad creditor to access compensation. This is unreasonable and will prejudice further financial transactions the person in question may wish to make and may even go against them when applying for a taxi licence.

The Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament found that the report of the taxi hardship panel contained very simple categorisation and payments were unrelated to circumstances, and that the taxi hardship panel had produced a wholly arbitrary sum for compensation. The committee made three recommendations, namely, that the taxi hardship panel be revisited in light of the report, that new proposals be brought to Government and, most importantly, that cases be considered on their own merit in a way that related to and took cognisance of the cost of acquiring a licence prior to November 2000. Irish citizens who were asked to vote "Yes" to the Nice treaty in the recent referendum will take the view that our membership of the European Union is notà la carte. The report from the committee should be implemented by the Government as a matter of urgency. This is an ideal opportunity to show good faith towards citizens by demonstrating that recommendations from the European Union can and do benefit the individual.

I wish to share time with Deputy English.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. My reasons for doing so are many and varied. Prominent among them is the importance of the legislation for taxi operators. However, the foremost reason is the Bill's importance for the travelling public in terms of improving service and ensuring people are taken from A to B in the shortest possible time.

We live in a time in which people expect better services in all aspects of life. Since my election to the House, I have made increasing use of taxis in this city. This morning, when I took a taxi from Heuston Station, there were long queues of people and taxis at the rank. I could not understand the way the system was organised. There is only one point outside the station where people can board taxis. To make the process more accessible and easy for the public, there should be seven, eight, nine or ten sections, and lights should be used to indicate whether taxis are available. This would be a simple method of organising taxi ranks to make them more accessible to users.

At around 11.30 p.m. last Sunday, while driving from the airport to Dublin via Malahide, I could not get over the number of people waiting at taxi ranks, mainly young people going home after the football match earlier that day. This is not the way to treat the travelling public.

The transport of people is an important aspect of life. Many people who use taxis are vulnerable. Tourists arriving at our airports use taxis to get into Dublin, Cork or Limerick and taxi drivers are probably the first people they meet. It is important that taxi drivers have a knowledge of the city and the country they operate in to give the right impression to tourists. Tourists are vulnerable so there is a need for proper regulation of the taxi industry. Business people depend on taxis, as people commute to Dublin from around the State on a regular basis. As the public are travelling more, they need a good taxi service. People have to be at meetings at certain times, therefore a good taxi service is necessary, particularly in Dublin where so much business is carried out. The service should be carried out in a more competitive business environment which these business people are used to.

Elderly people who come to Dublin to visit relations also need a good and reliable service, which they can feel comfortable in day or night. It is the same for sick people travelling from the country to various hospitals in Dublin. For example, this morning on the train to Dublin, I remarked on the number of people who were going to various hospitals throughout Dublin. These individuals need the security of a good taxi service in Dublin and other cities like Galway, Cork and Limerick. There are people who are vulnerable when it comes to taxi services. Young people when they arrive in Dublin with luggage to attend college, leading to a new life, also need good taxi services. There are many people affected by the taxi business and this is why I welcome the appointment of a taxi regulator. It will have enormous benefits for the travelling public.

There is no doubt that, in November 2002, the Government engaged in an overnight change of the whole industry. One would have expected a prudent and necessary impact study on how such a drastic action would affect those who invested heavily to buy into a Government-regulated industry. This was done without consultation and appeared to have little consideration for the full implications of the actions on licence holders, their families and the wider public. Deregulation should have been gradually phased in over a period of time. The swiftness of deregulation is what brought taxi drivers onto the streets. Anyone who talks to taxi drivers – even the more mild-mannered of them – will confirm that they were disturbed by the way the issue was handled. They were told one thing and overnight the opposite occurred. Deregulation had to be introduced but the way it was done left much to be desired, leaving a bad taste for many taxi drivers.

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. The Government has failed to implement reasonable policy changes when it was necessary. It has failed to act in a timely and appropriate manner in response to widespread anxiety at the negative effect of its policy on the industry. As a result of deregulation, the number of licences increased from 2,722 in November 2000 to over 6,500 in July 2001 in Dublin alone. The taxi driver family group, FAIR, advocates immediate redress. It has also repeatedly brought to the attention of the Department of Transport the fact that entrants to the pre-deregulation industry have paid an average of €107,000 for taxi licences. These families have 17 years of a 20 year loan to repay. As a result of Government actions, these same licences are worth less than €6,500 – sometimes even less. This is not only a problem that affects Dublin city. Taxi drivers nationwide were also widely affected by the overnight deregulation. I know of one case in Clonmel, County Tipperary, where €150,000 was paid for licences, some of the highest amounts paid in the State. Following overnight deregulation, these payees were caught unawares and are left holding a comparatively worthless asset with a significant long-term loan responsibility, and its burdens, to be met.

With regard to the high prices paid for licences, I welcome the statement by the Minister for Transport that he is putting in place some specific arrangements to implement the findings of the taxi hardship panel and the claims arising from deregulation of the industry. However, I draw the Minister's attention to the belief of FAIR and others that the taxi hardship panel cannot adequately address the issue it was set up to address.

This legislation is one of the more sensible Bills since the deregulation of the taxi industry which was a disaster. It was done as a headline-grabbing stunt because it was not thought out. That is nothing new, as we have come across that type of action over the last six years. It has led to more dangers and hardships. This Bill might help the situation and I agree with the sentiment of the Bill and hope it has a speedy introduction.

The Bill should help to vet many undesirables who obtained licences since deregulation. That was one of its bad effects with the perception of these dodgy characters getting licences. Allowing criminals and drug dealers to ply their trade under the guise of the taxi industry for such a length of time and the Government doing nothing, makes me wonder what kind of administration we have. What is in the Bill that is new and revolutionary that took until now to think of? It took three years to bring in the Bill?

It must be stated that not all taxi drivers are criminals. Honest taxi drivers are at the core of decent society. We have many taxi drivers in Navan where there are many examples of the implications of deregulation. Before deregulation, there were 40 taxi vehicles, with even more drivers, who were looked after by two gardaí in the Carriage Office in Drogheda. After deregulation, we have 120 to 130 taxi plates in Navan – more in Drogheda – and there are still only two gardaí in the Carriage Office. This Bill will sort out that situation with the new commission and controls and regulations. Why did this take three years? Why was this not thought out before we shoved through deregulation?

Most taxi drivers I have met are happy with the proposed new regulations and the commission. They are concerned with what it might end up doing. The Minister in his opening speech spoke of a uniform service and stated, "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." Will the Minister for Transport clarify what he sees as appropriate? There were comments about drivers with different coloured cars. Taxi drivers want this clarified. It does say that the new commission has a year to come up with a strategy. In the meantime, much can happen. Can the Minister give us some examples? Overall, taxi drivers are happy with the Bill and welcome its provisions but they would like clarification on some points.

Section 9(1) presents the commission's principal function as being the development and maintenance of a regulatory framework for the control and operation of small public service vehicles and their drivers. Quality of service is important but what extra costs will be imposed as a result? We do not want to blow the taxi service out of the water completely if it is going to cost too much. Common sense should be applied in drawing up this strategy in order that taxis will not be priced beyond people's reach because too many harsh conditions are imposed on drivers.

Section 11 allows the commission to use income generated by receipts from licence fees to provide financial assistance to local authorities to support developments that facilitate and support the operation of small public service vehicles. This will not be enough, however, and more money will be required for this purpose. In many areas, there is a shortage of taxi ranks. In Navan, for example, there is a maximum of 30 or 40 such places but there are between 120 and 130 taxis. At night time they pile up and it is really dangerous but the licence fees will not be sufficient to correct that situation. An injection of capital is needed now to help taxi drivers to provide a better service for their customers. It is not good enough for a council to claim that an adequate number of taxi rank spaces are being provided, if they are not in the right place. In some cases, taxi rank spaces have been provided but they are never used. What is the point in having them if they are not in the right place?

We should work together with taxi drivers to develop the sector properly, rather than adopting a "them and us" attitude. Taxi drivers are doing us a favour and we should not fight them. A driver who is taking me home at three or four o'clock in the morning could be doing some other job, so local authorities and the Government should do all they can to help them to provide a good service.

Section 28 requires the commission to draw up a statement of strategy within one year of its establishment and every five years thereafter. However, I would like to see the strategy being drawn up more quickly than that because I want to see what it contains. It is all very well to require the commission to draw it up in a year, but will it be implemented or will it sit on a shelf? While the section requires the commission to draw up a statement of strategy every five years, after the first one, I hope that will not rule out the production of a second strategy within that five year period. Perhaps the Minister of State could clarify that point because I presume the commission can produce an interim statement of strategy.

Section 28 also requires that the commission's statement of strategy must be subject to a public consultation process, be presented to any committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas as the Minister directs, and be made public. I hope that we will consult with the taxi drivers in this regard, not just with their union representatives. Commission staff should take a taxi home at four o'clock in the morning or talk to the drivers at a taxi rank at 3 a.m. That is what I call real consultation because then they will hear what is really happening. Perhaps we can receive a report on which we can have a say during the consultation period, not just at the end of it.

Section 34(1) empowers the commission to make regulations relating to the licensing, ownership, control and operation of small public service vehicles and the licensing and control of the drivers of such vehicles. I am satisfied that the vehicles are generally in a pretty good condition because, unless I am mistaken, they must pass an annual NCT test.

I welcome the fact that there will be regulations relating to the licensing and control of taxi drivers because there are some bad eggs among them; the Bill will provide a chance to root them out.

We should introduce improved training for taxi drivers. In fact, I believe we should all undertake advanced driving courses, but in particular those drivers who operate public service vehicles and engineers who design roads. In that way, we would become better drivers and the roads would be safer. The pursuit of such courses costs money so a tax break should be introduced to encourage people to do them.

Section 34(3) provides that the commission can establish requirements and conditions for licence applicants in respect of a number of areas focused on the delivery of good quality services to consumers. This should, however, be made possible through incentives, by adopting a carrot rather than a stick approach. In his speech, the Minister of State spoke about quality of service and said he wanted Ireland's taxi drivers to be the best in the world. Taxi services in Spain and other countries are top class. We are not far off that level but taxi drivers abroad do not have to pay such high VAT when purchasing their vehicles and, therefore, are able to buy better quality cars. Some taxi drivers feel that the establishment of the new commission will mean they will have to get new cars every few years. If that is so, we will have to help them to do that through tax incentives. We make money from the taxi sector because the drivers spend a great deal of money on petrol and taxes. As taxi drivers are doing a great job, we should see what we can do to help them improve their service. There is no point in seeking a brilliant service if the State is not prepared to provide a little assistance itself.

Section 39 empowers the commission to make regulations on the conduct and duties of drivers of small public service vehicles. While welcoming that, I also welcome section 40 which establishes obligations and rules that apply to any person who is either a passenger or an intending passenger, or a hirer of a small public service vehicle. The obligations include reference to general or criminal behaviour and the payment of fares. Previous speakers said there was no need for such provisions as they were already included in the Public Order Act but I do not agree. Taxi drivers have to take an awful lot of abuse and it is well nigh impossible to drive in such conditions. I find it hard to drive when someone is talking in the rear seats, not to mention if they were being disruptive. A code of conduct for passengers, as envisaged in the section, is required and should have legal sanction.

Taxi drivers are doing an amazing job, working at all hours, and we need to work with them as much as possible to assist them to provide this service. High motor insurance costs are a serious impediment for taxi drivers and can exceed €100 per week. The addition of a second named driver on a policy can add more than 50% extra to the insurance bill. As well as being unfair, that loading encourages a lone operator to drive for 70 or 80 hours a week just to survive. If it were not so costly to employ a second person, taxi drivers would not be so tired, which is an important road safety factor. The new commission should examine this matter, together with the others I have mentioned.

The taxi industry, the general public and we, as legislators, recognise that for some time there has been a need to regulate the sector's operation. While taxi licences are now more easily obtained, a number of points must be borne in mind. As other speakers have mentioned, deregulation came as a shock to those in the business who had pooled their savings to acquire a licence. Following deregulation they found that the expenditure they had made could not be recouped. I am in favour of deregulation but, given the circumstances I have outlined, it is clear that some consultation should have taken place with those directly involved. There should have been a suitable run-in period so that people would have understood the implications and would thus have avoided ending up over a barrel financially, as happened to a number of taxi drivers who invested in the latter stages of the old expensive taxi plate system. Members on the Government benches poured scorn on us when we raised the unfair aspects of deregulation. While nobody could countenance the restrictive, closed-shop taxi system that had operated previously, we are nonetheless entitled to give people adequate warning of deregulation in order that they can be fairly treated.

There are positive and negative aspects to all issues. The downside of regulation and of superimposing structures is that we regulate almost everything nowadays and have a commissioner or a regulator for almost everything. I am awaiting the time when on waking up in the morning we will have to look at a card on the bedside table to figure out which commissioner or regulator will govern our lives for that day. It is sad, but that is the way we are going. Even in this House we are governed by regulations and guidelines from the moment we set foot in the Chamber in the morning. I want to issue a quiet word of warning about this.

Like politicians, the Garda and others in public life, taxi drivers, particularly those in cities, have had a mixed press. However, a few weeks ago on a short trip in the city after a debate in Trinity College, I accidentally left my wallet in a taxi. I was grateful to the taxi driver but I did not intend to leave him my wallet, and my concern when I discovered it later that evening can only be imagined. An interesting sequence of events followed. I spent a couple of hours that evening cancelling credit cards and so on. On the following morning I received a telephone call to my office from the taxi driver's wife to indicate that her husband had brought home the wallet and had referred it to her for attention. After I left the taxi he had picked up a passenger, an honest and decent person who found the wallet on the seat and handed it up to the driver, also an honest and decent person, who in turn brought it home and contacted its owner. When we hear so many negative stories it is no harm to record a positive one now and again. This is a positive story involving two people, one a passenger and the other a taxi driver, and it would be very wrong of me not to mention it in the context of this debate. There are many decent, hardworking, honest people out there, taxi drivers and passengers. We might not hear about them all the time and I wanted to tell the House about these people.

Various people in the House have spoken about the need to regulate and the danger of violence towards taxi drivers and, in some cases, by taxi drivers. It is sad that our society is degenerating to that extent, but in those circumstances it is necessary to put measures in place to ensure that criminals are eliminated from the marketplace. We try to do that in the course of everyday life. The public service transport business is a vital and sensitive area. It is therefore absolutely necessary to eliminate from it any element of organised crime. The provisions in the Bill will deal with that and I compliment the Minister on bringing it before the House. However, it reflects sadly on our society that he has to do so. We are not the biggest country in the world and this is not the biggest city, and it saddens me and, I am sure, everybody else that we have to think in terms of ensuring that taxi drivers providing a public service are not attacked by dangerous passengers and, ironically, that passengers going about their business are not attacked by organised criminals.

There are two sides to the story and we need to reflect on the underlying factors behind it. It should be easy to eliminate criminals from the taxi or any other business, given that there are so many checks and balances nowadays, from PPS numbers, registration numbers, taxi plates and so on. These are in place to make it easy to identify a culprit or potential culprit. I see no reason that we should have to wait around worrying about the existence of criminals in the provision of public transport. It does not add up that it could be so easy for them to be involved. One bad apple does not mean the whole barrel is rotten. Particular instances readily come to mind and provisions are being made in legislation in that regard. This is a worrying factor and something we need to bear in mind in relation to other facets of our lives.

On a point of order, I do not intend to call a quorum this evening because I appreciate that Government Deputies might like to get away early and I would like to allow them that option.

I do not know whether that qualifies as a point of order, but the Deputy has made his concession clear.

I am sure it will come as a great relief.

I was thinking about doing the same. In view of events of the past week or so, it is only proper that we should not call a quorum this evening. The proceedings have been adequately attended so far today. I do not think the Minister will call a quorum either. It crossed my mind to do so, but it would not be fair.

To return to the Bill, taxi drivers should not be in a position to charge exorbitant fees to unsuspecting customers from time to time. It should be easy enough to regulate that because the registration numbers are available. It should not happen, yet people continue to tell about their experiences of being overcharged. Deputy Carey told the story of a customer heading for Killiney whose driver thought he was heading for Killarney and charged accordingly. That might be a simple mistake to make if the driver was hard of hearing. I am willing to believe most things but not that. The issue is the degree of overcharging that is occurring.

I am obliged to call the Minister.

I thought the Chair was going to call a quorum. To put the Minister and the House at ease, to facilitate everybody and not wishing to call a quorum, let me say that the Bill in general is acceptable. It is sad that it has been found necessary to intervene in this fashion but I hope the legislation will, when put into effect, resolve problems from the point of view of the taxi industry and the public who use taxis.

Rather than call a quorum I would point out to the Opposition Whip, after eight hours of debate and 36 speakers, that it might be appropriate to change the rules of the House to allow Ministers to respond for ten minutes every two hours or after every ten speakers because some very relevant points have been raised which are now more or less lost in a ten-minute summing up. I have taken note of what Deputies said and perhaps we can deal with much of it on Committee and Report Stages. Members referred to compensation and the reasons the price of a taxi plate increased to €80,000. A total of 2,000 taxi drivers claimed that amount, which equates to €400 million of taxpayers' money. The increase in prices was an unforeseen consequence of a regulation introduced in 1978. Under the 1961 Road Traffic Act, regulations were introduced in 1963. During the 1970s, taxi drivers formed a lobby and wanted restrictions imposed. Two reports were published in 1977 and 1978 and the Government of the day accepted both. As a consequence, a decision was made to introduce a regulation under which local authorities would determine the number of taxis.

In 1979, Cork Corporation decided it wanted to increase the number of taxis in the city because it felt there were not enough. Taxi driver representatives put pressure on the corporation, secured a High Court injunction and, as a result, no taxi licences were issued. Only four licences were issued in the State between 1979 and 1991 and they were granted by Sligo County Council. Local authorities were prohibited from doing so. In 1991, 100 extra licences were sought for Dublin with 50 set aside for wheelchair accessible vehicles. There were significant objections to that decision by the then Fianna Fáil Government.

As Deputy Broughan stated, local authorities awarded another 150 licences in 1998. Between 1978 and 1998, 304 licences were issued. Consequently, the cost of licences went through the roof. However, the courts decided in 1992 that there was no onus on the State to pay compensation because the State is not liable for the maintenance of the value of a licence. That principle has stood up in all court cases in this regard. The increase in the cost of taxi plate was an unforeseen consequence of a regulation introduced in 1978.

I thank all the Deputies who participated in the debate. The services provided by taxis, hackneys and limousines are a vital element of the overall transport options available to people and are uniquely placed to meet the transport demands of those whose needs cannot be addressed by buses or trains. Small public service vehicles have a specific and important role in addressing the mobility needs of people with disabilities. The local authorities in Dublin introduced a regulation in 1997 under which all new licences would only be issued for wheelchair accessible vehicles. As a result, the number of such vehicles increased and that was commendable. Unfortunately, that went out the window following deregulation due to the costs involved. This issue must be examined but it is up to the commission to do this. It will have the authority to deal with these issues, together with the advisory council, and set standards for wheelchair accessible vehicles. This is covered by section 34.

We examined the issue of compensation and established the taxi hardship panel which dealt with approximately 2,000 cases. All the taxi drivers applied for compensation and a figure was agreed. We entered discussions with the various people concerned and agreed criteria under which people could apply, such as the need to provide a current tax clearance certificate. This resulted in a reduction in the number of eligible people applying. The figure is to be reduced to 1,000 rather than 2,000 and the Minister has indicated that the figure will remain the same. If that happens, those who are eligible for compensation will benefit because those who are not will be weeded out.

Double jobbing was mentioned and must be examined. Deputies Breen, Naughten and Shortall referred to the declining standards of taxis since liberalisation. Numerical restrictions have never been placed on the licensing of small PSVs and their drivers. The driver's licence is different to the vehicle licence and there was never a restriction on driving licences. The standards that applied to the granting of a driver's licence were unaffected by liberalisation. With regard to the standards of vehicles, as part of liberalisation, annual inspections are carried out whereas previously inspections took place biannually. A taximeter printer requirement to facilitate automatic receipts for taxi fares has been implemented.

A number of suggestions were made regarding incentives for taxi drivers to make their vehicles wheelchair accessible, including changes to VRT and so on. We have checked this out with officials in the Department of Finance who said there is no way VRT will be abolished. That would be an incentive and we are examining other incentives but, unfortunately, we are running into these obstacles.

Deputy Devins stated that State bodies such as health boards should award contracts to those who have wheelchair accessible taxis and this could be examined as an incentive. Opposition Members pointed out that such taxis not alone provide a service for people with disabilities but provide a service to everyone due to their greater capacity.

The issue of questions to the Minister was raised. The commission is an independent body that will be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts and other joint committees. From what I can gather, the questions will be to the Minister, but Members can raise that matter on Committee Stage. The Minister must answer with regard to policy but it would be up to the Committee of Public Accounts or the select committee dealing with transport matters to bring the commission before them.

Many people said deregulation was a failure. Liberalisation came about as a result of the High Court action I have just described. Deregulation only applies to numbers. What we are doing is applying regulations. I cannot imagine the regulation in this Bill being accepted if the High Court action had not been taken. There would have been mayhem on the streets of Dublin if any Government had tried to introduce today's regulations if events had not happened in the natural way through the courts system. However, we will leave that for another time.

Question put and agreed to.