Taxi Industry: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

"That Dáil Éireann:

notes:

— that 19,636 Small Public Service Vehicles are registered with the National Transport Authority in 2020;

— the 3,059 taxis and hackneys which are wheelchair accessible, with many people relying on these daily;

— the very important service taxi drivers provide as part of the public transport system across Ireland;

— the selfless contribution that taxi drivers have made during the pandemic, with many working throughout, despite the dangers, ferrying nurses and doctors to hospitals to ensure they could continue to care for patients;

— the huge challenges faced by the drivers in the taxi industry as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic;

— the evidence given by taxi representatives to the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response;

— that 23 per cent of drivers in the industry are aged over 66 years and are excluded from the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment scheme;

— that 15 per cent of drivers in the industry are aged over 70 years, and while the public health advice was for these people to limit the number of close contacts they had, many were forced back to work early, due to the lack of State support;

— the taxi protest scheduled, which highlights the frustration expressed by drivers at the lack of support and assistance from the Government and the National Transport Authority during the current pandemic;

— that the recent media reports, which suggest taxis could be banned from bus lanes, have caused offence and concern in the industry at an already very challenging time;

and

— the Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles (Taxi Advisory Committee) has lost the confidence of many drivers; and

calls on the Government to:

— hold constructive engagements with taxi drivers and their representative groups to discuss the challenges faced by the industry and to listen to the constructive proposals

brought forward;

— introduce a financial assistance package to help drivers to get back to work;

— introduce a temporary moratorium on the issuing of new taxi licences during the current pandemic;

— permit, for the length of the current pandemic, a two-year extension for vehicles which would normally have to be replaced as a result of the nine-year rule, provided such vehicles are safe and roadworthy;

— undertake a review of the current Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles (Taxi Advisory Committee); and

— establish a National Public Transport Forum and produce a long-term strategy for the future viability of the taxi industry here."

I am sharing time with Deputies Ó Broin, Ó Snodaigh, Paul Donnelly, Ó Laoghaire and Mitchell.

Yesterday, thousands of taxi drivers took to the streets in protest. Nose to tail, they filled four lanes around Merrion Square and every inch between there and Ballyfermot. It was an incredible display of solidarity and strength but it was also a last resort for them. I take the opportunity to commend the four taxi representative groups which organised the protest, namely, the Taxi Alliance of Ireland, the National Private Hire and Taxi Association, the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation and Tiománaí Tacsaí na hÉireann.

Yesterday's protest was an event of unprecedented scale and was borne out of the absolute frustration of taxi drivers at an unprecedented time. The four representative groups make five demands of Government. First, they want a financial package to help taxi drivers get back to work which recognises that the current one-size-fits-all approach by Government is wholly inadequate for those sectors worst affected by Covid. This is particularly the case for drivers who work for themselves. Second, they call for the retention of and continued access to bus lanes and quality bus corridors for taxi drivers. Third, they are seeking a moratorium on the issuing of taxi licences and the introduction of a buy-back scheme. Fourth is a request for a two-year extension to the nine-year rule. Their fifth demand is for the disbandment of the taxi advisory committee and the establishment of a national transport forum.

These five demands reflect the three core issues which are at the heart of the taxi drivers' protest and at the heart of the Sinn Féin motion, namely, the need for recognition, respect and support for a sector which provides an essential public service and has been devastated in a very particular way by Covid and the restrictions that come with it. Taxi drivers provide an essential service within our transport network. Many people with disabilities rely on taxis daily, whether for school transport, trips to and from scheduled services or simply to get them from A to B. The same applies to the transport of essential healthcare staff and goods. Taxi drivers work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. That is a statement of fact. They should be recognised by Government, and feel recognised by Government, for the essential role they play in our transport services.

The Government should ask itself why they feel no such recognition. Taxi drivers are regulated and licensed by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and display the Transport for Ireland sticker on their vehicles. Why do they not feel recognised or respected? The answer is that they can point to where they have been excluded, isolated and ignored. Their call for the disbandment of the taxi advisory committee is an example of that, as is the handling of the phantom proposal in regard to bus lanes. I am glad the Taoiseach clarified that particular issue yesterday in the Dáil when he said it was not on the agenda. He and the Minister will be held to account in that regard. It is an example of how taxi drivers have been excluded from decisions about their own industry and their own future.

That is completely unacceptable. They are at the end of their tether. Work has completely dried up. The industry is entirely dependent on the movement of people, a busy Croke Park, a busy airport, busy nightlife, gigs and festivals, and busy businesses. All of these are gone. Coupled with the wholly inadequate supports provided by the State, thousands of drivers are struggling to make ends meet. To put it bluntly, they cannot make ends meet. Fixed costs have remained in place. The NTA estimates that these are in the region of €15,000 per year. Many taxi drivers have been left with little or no income for six months. If they are lucky, they are on a reduced Covid payment and eligible for a €1,000 grant in support. One should bear in mind, however, that they might be expected to pay €40,000 for a new vehicle on 1 January 2021. They are watching more people enter the sector as licences are being given out, thereby diluting the available work.

I look forward to this important debate. It needs to mark a step change in Government engagement and support for the sector. I urge Members to support the motion, which reflects the drivers' concerns and calls on the Government to step up and recognise the important role taxi drivers play in our transport system.

The taxi industry is in a deep crisis. Yesterday's protest, which saw thousands upon thousands of taxi drivers participate, demonstrates the depth of the problem. The industry has been deeply affected by the closure of the entertainment, sport and tourism sectors - sectors that also need greater attention from this House and the Government.

From the outset, taxi drivers have been let down by this Government. It started with the taxi drivers over-66, many of whom were earning up to €500 per week, not receiving any pandemic unemployment payment despite the fact that they have mortgages or adult children in university. We saw the failure of the Government to properly regulate the insurance industry. Taxi drivers who availed themselves of the pandemic unemployment payment were trying to switch to personal policies but in some cases they were not getting the support they should have received. Then there was the reduction in the pandemic unemployment payment to €203 for taxi drivers based on their 2018 returns, even though they were earning significantly higher amounts in 2019 and 2020. There are upcoming suitability tests and vehicle tests, and the ten-year rule will require taxi drivers who are currently not in employment to replace their vehicles. They have no ability to meet the payments but could be penalised and lose their right to earn an income in the future unless some action is taken on these matters.

All the Government has offered taxi drivers is a grant of up to €1,000, which barely covers the cost of making a vehicle Covid-compliant. From my discussion with taxi drivers in my constituency - I am sure Government colleagues will have had the same experience – I have learned that many are actively considering leaving the industry because there is no prospect of a return to normal employment within the next year or so. As my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, clearly outlined, these are not just problems associated with Covid put deeper problems owing to the failure of the Government to fairly regulate the industry. The industry needs proper regulation, which we would support. The lack of proper regulation is why the Taxi Advisory Committee has lost the confidence of drivers and why the Taxi Regulator is often criticised by many of us, from all sides, in this House for not being responsive to political engagement. That is why the entire system needs an overhaul. I urge Government Deputies not only to support this motion but also to work with us to try to ensure the taxi industry is fit for purpose, properly regulated and working in the interest of drivers and passengers.

Early on in this crisis, I held a Zoom meeting with well over 70 taxi drivers. They were really upset and concerned about their industry. Like many Deputies, I have received hundreds of emails and calls from taxi drivers since the beginning of the pandemic. They feel the taxi industry has been overlooked by the Government. It is now imperative that the Government commit to a financial package to get drivers back to work. As we see from the statistics, many drivers are in the older age group. They may be over 70, and some are over 80, and have no income other than their taxi driver income and pension. A financial package should include a temporary weekly subsidy similar to the wage subsidy given to employees. Grants need to be made available for fixed costs and modifications to cars to protect the driver and passengers. Along with this, licence renewal should be free of charge.

We take a taxi, a public service vehicle, to get from A to B. I learned from talking to many taxi drivers yesterday that they are really concerned about the proposals they have heard regarding the quality bus corridors and the banning of taxis from using them. Many are puzzled, arguing that since a taxi is called a public service vehicle and taxi drivers have public service licences, they should be allowed to use the bus lanes, as they currently do.

Drivers are really concerned about the lack of engagement from representative bodies regarding consultation on traffic and the failure to plan access at major events. This needs to be addressed.

The small public service vehicle, SPSV, suitability test is in place to ensure all public vehicles are up to standard. It should be based on the mechanical performance and safety of the vehicle, not the age. An extension of one to two years would lift the financial burden on a driver imposed by his or her having to replace an end-of-life taxi that is in perfect working order. Many taxi drivers are saying the current period is not long enough and does not give an opportunity. Most drivers have lost a good six months of income. Even those who are back working now say they are really struggling to earn a wage every week.

A national transport forum allowing all bodies that use the public roads to have a positive input regarding the transport system of the State now needs to be established. I urge Members to support this motion.

For many years, taxi drivers have felt they have not been listened to, and that they have been the last to be listened to when it comes to transport. Yesterday, they came out to say they will not take that any more. There are 22,000 taxis on the road. There are between 1,000 and 1,500 in my county, County Cork, and the drivers' families rely on them. They face enormous uncertainty and potentially very significant hardship. It is a really worrying time to be in the industry. What the drivers are demanding is not unreasonable. First, they are demanding respect and recognition. They play a crucial role. Their work is often challenging. Taxi drivers have faced abuse and ill-treatment. They are a key link in their communities. They know regular customers and help those with mobility challenges to function. This is true in both urban and rural areas. We all know of taxi drivers who are doing runs for prescriptions and helping customers with messages. They know their customers.

Some have tried to suggest taxis are not public service vehicles. I totally reject that. A taxi is a small public service vehicle; that is what is stated on the licence. Indeed, taxis are very often key enablers of other forms of public transport. I often travel by train to Dublin, and sometimes by bus. How did I get to Kent Station early yesterday morning? I got a taxi. I have often got a taxi from Leinster House to Heuston Station. Taxis still make a significant difference in reducing the number of cars on the road between Cork and Dublin, and on all other such routes.

Taxis are public vehicles and should be treated as such. I am sure the Minister of State is limited in what he can say in his speech but I would appreciate it if he could make it very clear that he too views taxis as public transport vehicles.

There needs to be real engagement. The Taxi Advisory Committee is not fit for purpose. It needs to be reformed. That is clear. I raised this with the previous Minister but there was no progress. I hope that, under the current regime, there will be progress. There needs to be real engagement from now on. The process needs to be representative and give a voice to the owner of a single plate in addition to all others.

Owning a taxi has become more expensive. Fixed costs now add up to over €11,000. Financial assistance is needed.

I wish to raise the issue of insurance. Other Deputies have also raised it. I want to give two examples. In addition to there being high premiums, there is some sharp practice in the insurance firms. One taxi driver sent back a disk over 11 weeks ago but still received two bills for premiums from Liberty Insurance. Some taxi drivers were requested by their insurer to change the date of their direct debit payment but when they did so they ended up paying €20 more.

There is some sharp practice that needs to be tackled, as well as the overall need for the reform of the insurance industry. We are also calling for a temporary two-year extension to the rule that requires taxis to be less than ten years old. If ever there was a time for greater flexibility, it is now.

I have also raised the issue of the adverse situations which older drivers face. Up to 23% of the industry's drivers are over 66 but they are not entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment. There is also a proportion of drivers who are over 70. Some of them were forced back to work early due to the lack of State support. That is a situation in which they would rather not have been.

These issues need to be addressed. Taxi drivers need respect. I hope the Minister of State can address that. They also need support. I welcome the fact that yesterday the Taoiseach acknowledged that some of the schemes are not fit for purpose for taxi drivers. Now we need to see action on that as well as on the regulatory issues.

The Minister of State knows that taxi drivers have been some of the hardest hit workers by this pandemic. They received little support from the Government, despite us hearing that the industry is on its knees. There is no work for taxi drivers. This is down to the fact that we have no concerts or football matches, people are working from home, and few people are going out socialising.

Throughout the pandemic, taxi drivers have shown that they are essential workers. They dropped our nurses and doctors to work and took patients to hospital. They made sure that thousands of retail workers got to work in order that we could have food on our tables. All they are asking for is some fairness.

Yesterday, I got an email from a single mother who is a taxi driver but has not been working since March. She is struggling to make ends meet. In her email she told me how she is finding it impossible to manage and how she has to borrow from friends and family to pay her bills. Just last week, she was told by the Department that her pandemic unemployment payment was to be cut. How will this woman manage? This is just one example of families who are put to the pin of their collars. There are thousands of other examples of taxi drivers.

Those taxi drivers over 66 are excluded from the Covid payment. These drivers are at high risk and they have been locked out of pandemic supports. Why? What taxi drivers need from the Minister of State is a package of financial supports which will give them a break and to keep our taxis running.

Many drivers in my constituency will be watching this debate. They are waiting and hoping to see that the Government will act. They are worried how they will pay their mortgages and their car loans. What they need to hear today from the Minister of State is that he understands the financial stress they are under and that the Government will support them.

There would not be a public transport system if it were not for taxi drivers in the State. Many Members have spoken about the necessary work they did before and during this pandemic of taking front-line health and retail workers to work. We always knew taxi drivers did school, hospital and factory runs. They facilitated our economy. They, like others, have been listening to the claim that we are all in this together. We need to ensure there is a Government response which shows them we are all in this together.

Many issues relating to taxi drivers have been not been dealt with over many years. We have the whole issue of deregulation under Mary Harney's tenure many years ago. Several speakers mentioned the absolute necessity that we deal with regulation, as well as the fact that the taxi advisory committee and taxi regulator are not fit for purpose. We need to gear up to ensure we have a system which is absolutely fit for purpose.

I spoke this morning to Paul, a taxi driver in Dundalk. It is always useful to have a taxi driver on speed dial, particularly if one's car breaks down and one has something important to do. Paul told me that previously he would have started work at 6.30 a.m. doing factory runs to the likes of PayPal in Dundalk. Now people are working from home, which we understand given the circumstances, but this means many taxi drivers are not clocking on until 8.30 a.m. They are down a serious amount of money.

However, the one item that is not down for them is their expenses. It is straightforward. The taxi drivers have it down to five demands. I want to raise the spectacularly high rate of insurance they have to pay. Paul told me that he now pays €2,500 per year for insurance on his car. He has had no accident or claims. Seven years ago, he had two cars on the road with properly licensed drivers for less than that.

This is an industry which already had serious viability issues which needed to be dealt with. The industry is now absolutely hammered. Many Members mentioned the ten-year rule. Taxi drivers cannot even earn what they were earning previously. To be expected to sell what in many cases are good cars, cars which have been checked and regulated, because of the ten-year rule is not fair. For a taxi driver nearing retirement, it does not make sense for them to sell a ten-year old car and get a loan for tens of thousands of euro to replace it. The Government needs to step up and ensure supports are given to an industry which is under pressure but which we will need in the future.

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

"notes:

— that 19,638 Small Public Service Vehicles (SPSV) are registered with the National Transport Authority (NTA) in 2020;

— the 3,059 taxis and hackneys which are wheelchair accessible, with many people relying on these daily;

— the very important services taxi, hackney, local area hackney, and limousine drivers provide as part of the public transport system across Ireland;

— the important contribution that SPSV drivers have made during the pandemic, with many working throughout to provide important transport services, including transport services for the Health Service Executive (HSE);

— the huge challenges faced by the drivers in the SPSV industry as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic;

— the evidence given by taxi representatives to the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response;

— that 15 per cent of drivers in the industry are aged over 66 years and are not covered by the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) scheme and instead can avail of other social welfare payments such as the State Pension;

— that 9 per cent of drivers in the industry are aged 70 years and over, and that the fall in passenger demand for SPSV services occasioned by Covid-19 means that many drivers, in this cohort in particular, may decide not to return to work within the industry;

— the important role of the Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles (Taxi Advisory Committee), which has played a crucial role in advising the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the NTA with proposals to support the SPSV industry through this uncertain time, particularly since the Minister invited proposals from the Committee to support the recovery of the SPSV industry in June 2020;

— the measures taken by the NTA immediately after the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, to assist SPSV drivers, including an extension of licence validity for licences expiring between 13th March and 12th June, 2020 and the publication of information and guidelines to assist SPSV operators;

— the further measures taken by the NTA to reduce the costs faced by SPSV operators such as waiving late licence renewal fees through to March 2021, extending vehicle age limits for SPSV licences renewed between March and December 2020, and facilitating, in conjunction with the insurance industry, the suspension of insurance for those operators who stop working temporarily;

— the availability of the PUP, introduced in March, to self-employed SPSV operators, many of whom have availed of the payment when passenger demand for SPSV services fell significantly due to Covid-19; and

— the measures available to self-employed SPSV operators under the Government’s July Stimulus Plan, including the Covid-19 Enterprise Support Grant, the Covid-19 Business Loan Scheme, the Covid-19 Credit Guarantee Scheme, and income tax relief measures for self-employed individuals who were profitable in 2019 but loss-making in 2020 as a result of the present pandemic;and

acknowledges the Government’s commitment to:

— continue its constructive engagement and dialogue with the Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles (Taxi Advisory Committee) and SPSV representative groups to understand fully the issues facing the sector and, to the extent possible, identify measures to support SPSV operators returning to work and the future sustainability of the industry beyond the present pandemic;

— fill vacancies that have arisen on the Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles and, insofar as is practicable, ensure a balanced representation of taxi, hackney and limousine drivers from both urban and rural areas;

— continue to ensure that self-employed SPSV operators are able to avail of current and forthcoming financial support measures to the greatest extent possible;and

— keep the question of age limits for SPSVs under review, noting that they have been extended for SPSVs due for renewal for the remainder of 2020."

I welcome this opportunity to discuss how the pandemic has affected the small public service vehicle industry. The term "small public service vehicle" is a somewhat cumbersome one to use. However, Covid-19 has affected not just taxis but hackneys, local area hackneys serving rural communities, and limousines. Limousines and chauffeur-driven services are especially dependent on overseas tourism and major events for their trade and have been particularly devastated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the disruption that it has wrought to this country's vitally important tourism industry.

The small public service vehicle industry is a vital part of the country's public transport system. We all agree it has made an important contribution since the start of the pandemic. Small public service vehicle operators were correctly recognised as essential workers providing essential transport services throughout the pandemic, including to the HSE.

While there are few parts of the economy that have been untouched by Covid-19, it is fair to say that public transport has been one of the most badly affected sectors. The small public service vehicle industry primarily exists to bring people together for major events and social occasions. Accordingly, it has been especially hit by social distancing and the need actively to limit and avoid such major events and occasions. The Government recognises this and I will outline some of the measures taken by the National Transport Authority, NTA, the statutory regulator, and the Government to assist and support the industry through this difficult time.

Support for the small public service vehicle sector commenced at the very outset of this pandemic. As Covid-19 began to unfold in March, the NTA acted to support operators by extending by three months all vehicle licences due to expire between 13 March 2020 and 12 June 2020, inclusive. The NTA also published information and guidance on its website to address the concerns of operators and advise on how best they could operate to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19.

As operators stopped working and the pandemic continued, the NTA's response continued with additional measures. The aim of these measures was to ensure that, wherever possible, operators who decided to stop working temporarily did not face undue costs for doing so. The NTA, in conjunction with the insurance industry, facilitated the suspension of small public service vehicle insurance for those operators who temporarily stopped working and chose to suspend their licences.

The authority also waived the late renewal fees, effectively allowing operators to stop operating for up to one year without facing any undue costs for doing so.

As Deputies will be aware, a rule is in place that normally prevents most vehicles from being licensed as taxis and hackneys if they are more than ten years old. This rule is to ensure that equality of service is provided to passengers, recognising that newer vehicles are generally safer, more comfortable for passengers and more environmentally friendly. The adoption of this rule was an important recommendation of the taxi regulation review of 2011. Nevertheless, one of the biggest costs that SPSV operators face is the cost of the vehicle. In recognition of that, and to ensure that SPSV operators do not face undue costs, the NTA has temporarily extended for the remainder of this year the age limit for vehicles due to have their licences renewed. The NTA will continue to monitor this policy as the situation develops, and any decision on a further extension of vehicle age limits will be made closer to the end of the year. This is a sensible approach which recognises the current reality of Covid-19 and the uncertainty it generates. I do not accept the need for a wholesale extension of vehicle age limits by two years for all vehicles, as proposed by Sinn Féin. Frankly, I do not see any reason a new diesel vehicle, licensed last year, should have its age limit extended through to 2031 because of a public health emergency in 2020. I hope this pandemic will be long behind us by 2031, with the national SPSV fleet then composed mostly of low-emission vehicles.

I will also take this opportunity to discuss the supports available to SPSV operators via the Government's unprecedented suite of financial support measures to assist businesses to restart after Covid-19. Recognising the unprecedented nature of the challenge to the national economy, the Government has developed an ambitious series of national initiatives, with broad eligibility criteria. Officials from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport have worked with their counterparts across the Government to ensure that SPSV operators, many of whom are self-employed, can avail of these measures to the greatest extent possible. Self-employed operators who have closed their claims for PUP on or after 18 March 2020 can avail of the Covid-19 enterprise support grant from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This grant can be used towards the costs associated with reopening a business and can include the purchase of cleaning materials and personal protective equipment, PPE.

Licensed taxi dispatch operators, self-employed taxi drivers and other SPSV businesses can avail of liquidity and investment measures. These include the Covid-19 business loan scheme, which provides for loans of up to €25,000, free from interest for six months, with a Government rebate available for the interest payable for the following six months, and the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, which offers a partial Government guarantee of 80% to participating finance providers against losses on qualifying loans to eligible small businesses, a category including self-employed owner-operators of SPSVs. Relief is also available to self-employed SPSV operators through the tax system. Tax relief is available to those businesses which were profitable in 2019 but loss-making in 2020 due to the impact of Covid-19. This relief allows losses of up to €25,000 to be used against profits in 2019.

As I said, many operators, faced with a dramatic fall in demand for their services, have had no choice but to avail of the PUP. Taxis and hackneys are particularly dependent on pubs, clubs and major events for many of their passengers, while limousine operators are especially reliant on overseas tourism that has all but stopped as a result of the pandemic. Recognising that it may be some time before these traditional sources of passengers return, the Government has extended the PUP until April 2021. The NTA continues to monitor passenger demand for services, and this information is fed back to SPSV operators. It is vital that SPSV operators on the PUP are supported by the provision of this type of information so they can make an informed decision regarding when to return to work.

I also acknowledge the important role being played by the taxi advisory committee and its chairman, Con O'Donohoe. The committee was established under legislation to advise the Minister and the NTA, and it features a broad membership of SPSV drivers, dispatch operators, service users and other stakeholders. In June 2020, the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, former Deputy Shane Ross, met with the committee and invited it to submit proposals on how best to support the industry and ensure its future sustainability. Officials have since worked with the committee to explore how these proposals can best be implemented, and they continue to engage with the committee to determine how best to support the industry as Covid-19 continues to unfold. The committee is an important forum, and that is why the Government will commit to filling the vacancies on the committee with members who can represent a broad cross-section of interests in this vital industry.

I would especially like to see representatives from the limousine and chauffeur area of the industry in recognition of the particular challenges they face in preparing for next year's tourist season. Dialogue is important and that is why my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met with representatives of the taxi industry last week to discuss their concerns. The Minister assured representatives that he and his officials will continue to work with the NTA to identify the challenges faced by the industry, to ensure that the industry can continue to access the Government's range of financial supports to the greatest extent possible, and to ensure that operators are not unfairly penalised for taking a break from the industry during this difficult and challenging time.

I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion today and for providing me with an opportunity to discuss these important issues. There is much in this motion with which I agree wholeheartedly. I agree with its positive sentiments regarding the taxi industry and the vital work that sector has rendered throughout the pandemic, particularly to the HSE. I also agree that this is an industry that has faced especially grave challenges as a result of Covid-19. However, because of the measures I have just outlined, I cannot agree that the Government and the NTA have shown the industry a lack of support and assistance. I also cannot agree that there is a basis at this time for the wholesale extension of vehicle age limits as set out in this motion. I also believe that the taxi advisory committee should be able to continue its statutory mandate by representing the voices and opinions of a broad range of stakeholders, including passengers, to assist the Minister and the NTA in ensuring the provision of a reliable and high-quality public transport service from the SPSV sector. I reject this Sinn Féin motion and, on behalf of the Government, I call on the House to support my amendment.

I thank the Minister of State for his statement. It is disappointing that he cannot support this motion as it is. I think that shows a misunderstanding of the situation and I will outline why. I am speaking in respect of the 227 registered taxi drivers in Mayo in particular. They provide an essential service, especially for rural Ireland. These operators still have to worry about their car loans, tax and NCT costs. I spoke to taxi drivers from all over the country yesterday. Having heard their stories, I commend my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, on moving this motion to highlight the situation.

I will concentrate particularly on older taxi drivers because we know that almost one in five taxi drivers are aged 66 or older. They are not eligible for the PUP. On one hand, therefore, they are being told to cocoon, while on the other they are being forced back to work because they do not have any money and they are being pushed into poverty. One taxi driver told me yesterday that the most vulnerable people are out working to try to keep their heads above water, and that is exactly what they are doing.

We speak about the Government and the muddled nature of its messaging. Taxi drivers are receiving a very clear message, however, especially those taxi drivers and others aged over 66 years. The message they are receiving is that they do not matter. They tell me repeatedly that they are being discriminated against. Regarding the tax write-off, they are told that they should cocoon and not use their cars. At the same time, however, they cannot avail of the tax write-off for the three months. They feel a terrible sense of injustice, therefore, and that they do not matter.

I have heard reports of taxi drivers, and others, aged over 66 years turning to moneylenders just to keep going, and some of them are doing that to send their grandchildren to college. Those are the facts of the matter. These are people who were already in their 50s when they had to bear the costs of austerity, the bank bailout and reckless lending, and everything else, when this country was destroyed. They will not get a loan now. It is fine to state that there is a suite of measures, but I am fed up hearing about this suite of measures. Taxi drivers in that age range will not get a loan now when they go to a bank. They also know that the banks will be calling in existing loans in October. Why do we not support them with the PUP? We also have a school transport crisis. Why do we not explore, even as a short-term measure, the possibility of allowing taxi and hackney drivers fill that gap?

Yesterday, the feeling among the drivers of being discriminated against was palpable. We have to listen to the taxi drivers. They are human beings and they are struggling to survive. The suite of measures just does not do it for them. They need a payment. They need to be supported. We need taxi drivers as an essential service. We need them now and we will need them in future. We need to support them. I plead with the Government to listen to the taxi drivers throughout the country who provide this essential service.

We have heard stories of the invaluable contribution taxi drivers make in big cities and towns. There is no denying the importance of this aspect of this issue. I want to focus on another aspect of how taxi drivers are an essential part of the transport infrastructure in rural constituencies such as Wexford. Rural areas do not have the luxury of relying on public transport. For many older constituents in smaller villages such as Ballindaggin, Kiltealy, Ballymurn, Clonroche, Arthurstown and Rosslare, to name but a few, it is taxi drivers who provide the only link to sporting grounds, shops, the GP and the local pub.

Taxi men and women in rural areas are the bone and sinew of our community. They break the cycle of rural isolation for many lonely people. We know their names and we know their stories. We rely on them to take us to the shops or home safely down the dark roads that cannot be walked at night. The gestures, the flying of helicopters or all the clapping in the world will not put one loaf of bread on their tables. What they ask for now is a little bit of support in return. Now is the time to help them in their hour of need.

The motion calls for a financial assistance package to help ordinary hard-working taxi drivers to get back to work and to allow them to continue to provide the essential link in the mobility chain for their communities. It asks for respectful engagement with drivers and their representatives and for their constructive proposals be taken on board. It calls for a temporary moratorium on the issuing of new taxi licences during the pandemic. It asks that we permit for the length of the pandemic a two-year extension for vehicles that would normally have to be replaced as a result of the nine-year rule, providing such vehicles are safe and roadworthy. It asks for a new approach to be taken on engagement with and oversight of the industry and for a stringent review of the taxi advisory committee.

These are not insurmountable requests. They are moderate in nature asking only for what is needed to survive. I, for one, value the contribution made by taxi drivers keeping tight-knit local communities, villages and cities connected. We should act now to give them the support they deserve. It is my belief that every Deputy, particularly those from Wexford, should have no problem in supporting the motion.

I congratulate all of the drivers who took the time to take part in the protest yesterday. It highlighted the importance of unity of purpose and action. Like a lot of other Deputies, I have been asking questions of the Government about how we can help the taxi industry to remain viable in the midst of the Covid pandemic. I have to say I am not impressed and, more importantly, taxi drivers have not been impressed with the vague promises. They ask simple questions about safety measures for themselves and their passengers. They wanted a simple ABC to go back to work but that did not seem to register with whoever was answering the questions.

When I put questions to the former Minister with responsibility for transport, Shane Ross, on a possible stimulus package I was given a spiel about the work the Department has done for taxi drivers, such as temporary licence waivers, guidelines for cleaning and interaction with the insurance industry. I do not believe this is any more than the bare minimum of what the Government should have been doing when the industry was so heavily restricted by Covid. Quite frankly, I do not think much has changed since then.

The taxi regulator has been anonymous throughout and this is one of the reasons we need a permanent national public transport forum. A taxi driver told me that the regulator is great at telling taxi drivers what they cannot do but not great at telling them what they can do to continue to operate safely. This seems to be the general message we hear from taxi drivers. Taxis are left without an advocate and with a Government that imposes higher and higher costs of doing business without mutual benefit for drivers in terms of protection or subsidisation in times of extreme crisis such as Covid. It is clear the Government has to do things differently. We now have a living with Covid plan but we have to consider establishing a national public transport forum to produce a long-term strategy for the future and viability of the taxi industry.

The lockdown and restrictions put in place have affected many industries. The pandemic has hit the taxi industry particularly hard. Most taxi drivers have families to support and many have mortgages to pay and, of course, the usual household bills. As self-employed people they need an income to be able to do all of this. In addition, they still have to pay for their insurance, taxi licence fees, car loans and other ancillary costs. They cannot work from home. When they are not out driving their taxis they are not earning money. This forces many taxi drivers to have to go back to work to have an income.

Taxi organisations have said many older taxi drivers are forced to go back to work for financial reasons. The pandemic unemployment payment is paid only to those between the ages of 18 and 66. A total of 23% of taxi drivers are over 66 years of age and as such they do not qualify for the pandemic payment. I have had many calls from taxi drivers who are not eligible for the payment because they are over the age limit. They have detailed to me the hardships they face as a consequence. Such drivers are also a vulnerable group because of their age and many have underlying health conditions. They are putting themselves at potential risk by returning to work to try to earn a living wage. There needs to be some flexibility by the Government to correct this anomaly. The closing of hotels, restaurants, pubs and places of entertainment has meant a sharp decline in taxi use. There has also been a substantial decline in footfall through Dublin Airport. The loss of such large numbers of users has meant that over the course of the pandemic taxi drivers have had to work long hours for little reward.

It would not make any sense in this climate to issue new taxi plates. We should also look at the recommendations from the taxi advisory committee, in particular with regard to the nine-year rule. For a taxi to be deemed fit for purpose it has to go through two comprehensive tests. These are the NCT, which is basically a mechanical test for a vehicle, and a suitability test, which ensures a taxi operates to minimum standards of size, accessibility and comfort. If the taxi meets the requirements of both tests there should be no necessity to get rid of the vehicle once it is ten years old. I opposed this rule many years ago and argued vehemently against it. Does the Minister know that taxis in the United States can be 20 or 30 years old and black taxis in England can be more than 20 or 30 years old? This does not make sense. If there were a proper testing facility with proper means to test and confidence in the tests we should be able to extend these rules.

We have to comply with the time rules.

I know. Bhí an t-am an-chóngarach.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke of Sinn Féin for tabling the motion. I also thank the organisers and participants of the huge demonstration that took place in Dublin yesterday. In an ideal world, it would have matched up on the same day as this motion was taken but alas, for reasons that have been well discussed, it was not to be. It was a powerful demonstration and one that showed the unity of purpose and cohesion that has emerged in the taxi movement during what it has gone through and continues to go through in this pandemic.

It has been well discussed which sectors have been impacted and to what degree during the pandemic. Obviously the health sectors have been impacted in a particular way. On the economic side, we see the aviation and arts sectors on their knees, the domestic tourism sector struggling and taxi drivers absolutely on their knees. The extra complexity with taxi drivers is that they are dependent on those previous sectors. They are dependent on a thriving services industry, as was mentioned by the Deputy from Louth with regard to runs to the PayPal factory. It is similar in my constituency with the big employers and in constituencies throughout the country.

The early morning couple of hours is vital to get a few quid on the table and enables taxi drivers who are unable to work unsociable hours late into Friday and Saturday nights to make money. Those runs are vitally important and the fact that they, as well as everything else, are gone has been a further nail in the industry.

We have to face facts. The men and women who drive our taxis have never been truly respected by this House or many other sectors throughout the country for the service they provide. During this pandemic they did runs to pharmacies and hospitals and brought people for Covid tests. We all know one of the flaws in the Covid testing system was the requirement to have a car. That impacts in particular on older people and people who do not drive. They are just as vulnerable and, in the case of older people, more vulnerable, to the illness. Taxi drivers stepped up and got them to their tests. Many did so without taking payment. I know that for a fact. They felt it was their opportunity to assist in the all in this together movement of which we have all been a part. It was their public service, the two words in the middle of their four-letter acronym. They did so without too much fuss and for the good of those individuals and the country.

As Deputy Crowe said, they have been given the bare minimum in return. They have been given a few pointers. They have been told they can engage with the insurance industry and that something else will be paused. All we have to do is look back at the time when face masks became compulsory on public transport. There was a large photo op in Merrion Square with the then Taoiseach, Minister for Health, the NTA and Dublin Bus. It was fantastic. I know bus, train and Luas drivers were happy with that clarity and at least knew where they went. Taxi drivers were totally excluded from that, and they are in closer proximity to passengers. We have come a long way with our mask wearing, but we have to remember where we were in June when that decision was made. Taxi drivers were left outside of that and remain so. It is just not good enough.

There was a really powerful meeting of the Covid committee in July with representatives from the taxi industry to discuss what they were going through. Many of their asks are still as, if not more, relevant than they were in July. The taxi industry has been criticised over the years for having too many diverse voices and not being unified, but when it came to the Covid committee it sent a joint submission. Following on from yesterday, we are seeing a unity of purpose and the industry coming together.

The motion is very good and detailed, and I commend Deputy O'Rourke on it. This issue was mentioned in the Covid committee a couple of months ago, but no progress has been made. The Government should consider immediately stopping the issuing of new licences. That is common sense. The Government needs to examine the possibility of a grant system. It cannot be one size fits all. Rather, it would have to be something that has some flexibility. As has been mentioned, while income has hit the floor the costs have remained the same if not increased. They need something more tangible than pointers and guidelines.

Vehicle age limits are an issue and are included in the motion. If there is a way of finding some kind of consensus on extending vehicle age limits, the Government should consider agreeing to that.

Cashless payments, Government transport contracts and school runs have been mentioned. Taxi drivers are more than willing to do school runs. We know Bus Éireann is scrambling to try to find minibuses and coaches to do school runs. Taxi drivers are available and willing to do that work. It would cost money but it would get children to school and ease the burden on parents who are struggling with having to get to their place of work as well as getting children to school.

There needs to be a genuine promotion of the use of SPSV. It needs to be put forward as a genuine option and something that gets the full weight of support. We need taxi drivers. I live in an area that has no rail link and is only served by Dublin Bus. There is a large rural area in my constituency with a very irregular bus service and no rail link. Taxis are a vital public transport solution for people living in such areas. The Government needs to back that up by promoting them.

I mentioned face masks and visors. It almost seems too late to say so, but they are still important. A clear message needs to be given by the Minister to the industry with respect to face masks and visors. That would not only provide clarity, but would also tell those in the industry that the Government cares about them as much as they care about buses, trains and those who are delivering other transport services.

There is a need for a package for the industry and relief for insurance and other costs that have racked up as many have been unable to work. There is also a need to recognise the impact of this situation on the mental health of many taxi drivers at this time. They are, by definition, sole traders and many work on their own. Many are raising families. Many others are on their own. They have endured a particular sense of isolation during the pandemic due to having no work and being unable to discuss that with colleagues as one might be able to if one is part of the company.

It also comes from years and years of not being respected. If there are opportunities to come from this pandemic, one is the possibility of changing that narrative for this sector and others. The motion is a very good way of doing that and that is why we are supporting it.

I too want to thank Sinn Féin for bringing this motion forward. It is important. In many ways, we would have debated this earlier had we been properly functioning before now. I also want to acknowledge the effort that taxi drivers put in to showing the strength behind the need for a financial package to get drivers back to work.

Small public service vehicles are a vital part of the public transport system and we need to acknowledge that. Many taxi drivers ended up in this business following the last crash. Many made work for themselves and it was the tourism sector that was the first to show some green shoots following that crash. We will require them to be in a position to assist in that recovery when Covid is a thing of the past. We have to ensure that this sector, which is predominantly made up of taxi drivers as well as those who drive limousines and hackneys, comes out of this intact. How do we do that? We do it by supporting the industry.

Some people want to get out of the business, but they have loans and outlays that do not allow them to do that. We have all spoken to such people in recent months. They are in a catch-22 situation. Many are putting themselves at risk by virtue of the fact that they are in an age range that should not be mixing as closely as they are required to do at work. Many are not being paid an additional payment over the State pension. That is a difficult circle for them to square. They cannot square it on their own and requires support.

I know where the licence issue came from. I was on the taxi forum that was set up in the 1990s under the auspices of the Dublin transportation office. There were months of collaboration between various leaders in the taxi system and various agencies of the State. Some very good initiates came out of that. Taxi drivers did not expect the system to be deregulated before the ink was dry on the agreement. There were very valuable things done in the forum and much of that good work now requires us to take stock and examine how we can make sure the industry continues and is healthy and that people can make an income from it.

While there is resistance to introducing a moratorium on the issuing of taxi licences, such a moratorium could be introduced for a specified period. That could be done quickly. Another issue is that there is not enough work for the number of taxi drivers we have. One only has to look at the taxi apps, which is where people often hail taxis nowadays, to see that there is no work coming in. It is important that we recognise that there are too many people seeking to earn an income from an economy which is not functioning. People are working at home, there is no night-time entertainment and our tourism sector, as least as it applies to outside visitors, is pretty much shut down. These areas represent the work needed to keep the number of taxi drivers we have gainfully employed.

It is really important that we consider Christmas. This is the most significant stretch of time with regard to night-time entertainment and, at this time, the economy functions slightly differently. Now is the time to look at this. We need to get the numbers down right across the country and especially here in Dublin because, if we do not, this period will be very difficult to manage while allowing the economy to function. It is really important to think about this particular sector because there are sectors within sectors. Airport runs, Christmas parties and so on were staples but that work is no longer there. This is a large sector and people need the wherewithal to get out of it at a time when new people are entering it because they are scratching around trying to pay their bills and provide gainful employment for themselves.

This is not the time to take a hands-off approach; it is the time for a hands-on approach. That is why a forum would be particularly valuable, in addition to the other supports that should be introduced. While there has been a great decrease in drivers' income - as much as 40% or 50% - the costs of paying their car loans, insurance premiums and car maintenance have not stopped. A taxi vehicle's life is ten years but this year has been a write-off. That period could be immediately extended. Maintenance obligations with regard to roadworthiness and licence obligations need to be looked at.

I support the use of bus lanes for buses and taxis. We do need to have a discussion, however, as to how to safely share our road space. We can share this space in a way that works for everyone. It is nonsense to mix double-decker buses and bicycles in the same lane. It is not safe for anyone and is not productive. I should be clear that I am not saying that buses or taxis should be excluded from these lanes but we do need to design our roads differently. In places such as Berlin and Paris, there are segregated arrangements. These make these cities safe places for people to function. We need to free up some surface space in this city. This could be done by developing the interconnector, which would allow the rail system to take great amounts of traffic off the roads thereby providing us with the surface space to design a system that functions in the way it should in a city with the amount of movement Dublin has. I am not, however, speaking about Dublin exclusively. We need to design the roads in all our urban settings so they are safe for public transport vehicles and cyclists to use.

It is absolutely essential that action and a hands-on approach are taken immediately. Some initiatives must be taken to show that Government is listening with regard to these huge challenges. I have no doubt that Government Deputies are hearing exactly the same things that I and other Members are hearing when people contact us. There is a sense of disbelief that, for example, people over 66 who have many outlays are required to work even when there is no income coming in. They are in a catch-22 situation. There is also a sense of disbelief that taxi plates are still being issued. A timeline should be developed, which would include a sunset clause if necessary, during which licences would not be issued to avoid making a bad situation worse.

There are things that could be done quickly. I urge the Government to take a number of initiatives in this respect. It can be done. When Covid is a thing of the past, we will require an economy which includes a functioning public transport system and public service vehicles to allow the tourism sector and the economies of our towns and cities to function. The taxi system will be vital to that.

I will be moving my amendment to the motion. I will be sharing time with Deputy Barry.

I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward its motion. I agree with everything in it and I hope Sinn Féin agrees with the additions I propose to make to it. These include a very specific step-down subsidy for taxi drivers to allow them to return to work without losing their pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, if they earn more than that payment. My additions also include grants to cover the ongoing costs of insurance, car loan repayments, licence renewal and fuel, all of which drivers simply cannot cover, even as these debts and costs accumulate, given that the work now available to drivers has decreased by 60%, 70% or 80% and will remain sparse as a result of public health measures. Taxi drivers understand these measures and have supported them but they are the economic victims of them and need supports for their support for the public health measures.

I have also added that there should be a complete moratorium on the issuing of new licences during the pandemic and that there should be a scheme under which the NTA would buy back the licences of taxi drivers who may, for health or other reasons, wish to exit the industry so that they can cover the investment they made to get into the industry in the first place. These are in addition to the other demands included in the motion.

Yesterday's magnificent taxi protest was the biggest such protest that has ever taken place in this State. It dwarfed the expectations of the organisers. In every sense, it was a brilliant show of solidarity. Men and women, black, white and brown, were united as taxi drivers whose livelihoods have been devastated as a result of public health measures. They are now pleading with the Government but soon they will demanding that the Government reciprocate the solidarity they have shown with real supports.

I stress to the Minister of State that the taxi drivers' first impulse was not to protest. I know this because, months ago, I met the four groups that organised it to discuss what to do about their plight. They asked us to request that they be allowed appear before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response and that I bring their demands to that committee, as I had brought them to the current and past Taoiseach, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, and Minister for Finance. They hoped that, if they set out their plight, a reasonable Government would understand and respond.

They hoped they would not need to protest and debated long and hard about doing so at all. It finally became clear that, despite a lot of tea and sympathy from the Government and the Covid-19 committee, absolutely nothing was forthcoming for them in the July stimulus package and there were no clear commitments to give them income subsidies or provide access to the grants they need to cover their costs. The Government was not going to issue a moratorium on licences, extend the ten-year rule for the replacement of their vehicles or, critically, dissolve the Taxi Advisory Committee, which has failed as a representative organisation because it had barely any taxi representatives on it in the first place. It became clear that a genuinely representative national taxi transport forum where the voices of the taxi drivers themselves can be heard and where their representatives put forward their case was not going to be established. The Government has ignored all of this.

Is the Deputy sharing time?

I am taking seven minutes and my colleague is taking three. The Government has ignored all of these issues and the sword of Damocles now hangs over taxi drivers because of the plan to cut the pandemic unemployment payment tomorrow. That will also affect other workers. I have just come from a demonstration of events workers. Some 22,000 taxi drivers and their families and 35,000 events workers, musicians, crew and so on will feel the axe fall upon them. Their incomes are going to be slashed on top of their already devastated livelihoods. They are left between the devil and the deep blue sea. They must decide whether to stay on a reduced payment which will plunge them into poverty or return to work where only 20% or 30% of their usual work is available and be plunged into poverty in that way, while losing access to the payment. What part of "income subsidy" does the Government not understand?

The Government does understand the concept for big business. Billions of euro have been thrown, in double quick time, at big, often profitable corporations with much larger capacities to absorb the costs accumulated during the pandemic because they have big cash reserves. Those sorts of companies get billions of euro but the taxi drivers, events, arts and music people, who have no shock absorbers or buffers, so to speak, get nothing. It is not good enough and I know, because I have been working closely with them, that the taxi groups will be back. This Government must respond to their just and fair demands and show them some respect for what they do.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, must learn that taxi drivers are an integral part of the public transport system; he does not seem to understand that. Taxi drivers take us home to our doors late at night. They offer the only door-to-door transport service that exists. They take people from airports, kids to school and disabled and elderly people to places where buses cannot. They work unsociable hours for very little. All they are asking is for a helping hand and some measures that would not cost the Government anything in order to help them through this time and show them a bit of respect. That is what we are asking. We do not need more sympathy or this frankly insulting Government amendment which should be withdrawn because it does not address their concerns. They will be back outside Leinster House, surrounding these buildings, in the next short while if the Government does not show them some respect, give them some support and withdraw the threat of cutting their incomes tomorrow because it will plunge them further onto their knees.

The Deputy is, technically speaking, not allowed to move his amendment yet because the first amendment has already been moved by the Minister of State.

Was yesterday's taxi protest the largest in the history of the State? If it was not, it was certainly the largest taxi protest seen in this country this century. Why would it not be? Nearly one taxi driver in four is disqualified from the Covid payment on the grounds of age. The Government has refused to put together a proper package to assist drivers to go back to work.

How many people were at the protest? I am not sure if anyone can say with certainty. The taxi unions originally estimated that there would be 1,500 cars. We can say with certainty that the numbers at the protest were significantly greater than that. Could it have been as many as 5,000 cars? I think it might well have been. When the cars gathered in Conyngham Road, outside the Phoenix Park, the queue stretched back through Chapelizod and all the way to Ballyfermot.

Where did the taxi protest feature on the Nine News on RTÉ last night? It was not the first or second story, which were about the Government's Covid plan and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. It was not the third, fourth or fifth story. I do not think it featured on the news at all last night, which is incredible.

We have seen this before. In the aftermath of the banking crisis, in 2009 and 2010, workers' protests were downplayed on the RTÉ news and often not reported at all. That was shown most graphically in the biased coverage of protests against the water charges. Are we seeing the same thing again this time?

The struggle of the Debenhams workers is 160 days old but has not received nearly the level of coverage that it deserves from RTÉ. It is a struggle that is a litmus test for how workers are treated during this Covid crisis. The taxi drivers are now being given the same treatment by RTÉ. It is not good enough. Deputies from Solidarity-People Before Profit will be keeping a close eye on all the media coverage, including RTÉ's coverage, of workers' and taxi drivers' struggles over the next while. If there is not the fair, balanced and adequate coverage that it deserves, we will be raising the matter and calling it out on the floor of the Dáil.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta O'Rourke mar gheall ar an rún atá os comhair na Dála agus mar gheall ar an ábhar uafásach tábhachtach seo a chur faoi bhráid na Dála. The taxi driver sector has suffered chronic neglect and abandonment over the past number of years. It has been forgotten about, mistreated and failed by elected representatives. There is no justification or explanation for that Government failure of a sector that is important to society and the economy.

It is not just the taxi sector where the Government shows an aversion to helping. A number of sectors are affected, including the childcare sector, the pub trade, which has got much of the blame for Covid, and trainee nurses throughout the pandemic. It leads me to ask a number of questions. Are there sectors in Irish society that have great influence with the powers-that-be and the media? Are there other sectors in Irish society that because of income, class, or whatever, do not have the necessary influence, pull and ability to communicate and have their voices heard by the Government? It is dangerous if that is the case because if the Government ignores a sector of Irish society that is massively suffering and forgets about them, it is guaranteed that the issue will fester and become more difficult to deal with in the long run. Indeed, it is the Government's inaction that led to the massive strike and protest that was held yesterday.

Thousands of drivers took to the streets because a sector with 22,000 jobs is at stake. Each of those 22,000 jobs has a family, children and a household behind it. Those incomes have been so devastated that these individual taxi drivers were forced to take to the streets yesterday. There has been an incredible level of unity within that sector. The National Private Hire and Taxi Association, the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation, the Taxi Alliance of Ireland and Tiománaí Tacsaí na hÉireann were on the streets yesterday. That level of unity and sense of purpose among taxi drivers shows that they mean business.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, demand for taxi services in this State has collapsed, dropping almost 70%.

That is a devastating reduction within any market and a devastating reduction in incomes. Several taxi drivers I spoke to said they have barely been able to afford to keep their vehicle on the road never mind take in an income necessary to deal with their families. Is it possible that particular families could have their conversation outside of the Chamber?

Deputies, please. We are interrupting the speaker.

Almost one in four taxi drivers currently are over the age of 66 and they are being denied income support from the State. They are told it is because they are over the qualifying age. That is incredibly wrong. Anybody whose income has been reduced by such a level should have a situation where the State should be able to help them. There should not be discrimination between different sectors with regard to income falling. What were the thousands of taxi drivers protesting for? When I spoke to them directly, I was absolutely-----

I will have to ask Deputies to stop, please.

It is incredible. There is a door outside.

If you could speak through the Chair please, Deputy Tóibín. I am apologising. Can I have the other Deputies' co-operation, please? Continue on, Deputy Tóibín.

I have great respect for the Deputies who are making the noise at the moment but telephones are going off in this Chamber regularly. Conversations such as this cause difficulty when people are trying to focus on representing the taxi sector.

I was surprised by how reasonable the demands of the taxi sector were. The taxi drivers know the State is in chaos at the moment. They know that massive difficulties are being experienced by society in general. Their asks are not unreasonable whatsoever. The central demand of taxi drivers is that they receive a financial support package from the Government. That is a completely reasonable response to a sector that has lost massive income. Taxi drivers have seen that income depleted significantly. Drivers have had to fork out massively on hand sanitizer and Perspex and Plexiglas dividers to ensure they can work in a safe manner, that their passengers are kept safe, and that they meet Government guidelines. However, they have had no support from the Government on that. If the Government continues to ignore taxi drivers, then I believe it will be responsible not just for strikes but for the loss of thousands of jobs in this State.

There is a fundamental issue here with regard to representation. I always believe that it should be ensured that any sector, whatever it is, has a voice and is listened to. Quite simply, however, the taxi advisory committee is not fit for purpose. It is not a representative body of taxi drivers' needs. One taxi driver who sat on the committee for two years said to me that literally every time their needs and voices were made on that particular forum they were silenced or outvoted. When grassroots organisations are silence or disempowered, the Minister of State can bet his bottom dollar he will have a crisis on his hands.

There needs to be a fit-for-purpose transport forum representative of unions and workers throughout the transport sector. We have seen bus, Luas and train drivers having to take to the streets and now it is the turn of the taxi drivers. Any Government worth its salt should have a radar open to see which sectors are in trouble and must be listened to and fixed before it comes to the breaking point of people taking to the streets.

I wish to mention one other issue. Yesterday's crisis in the Dáil is a phenomenal comparator to what is happening in the taxi sector. The taxi sector is basically told to get on with it. Drivers are told to sort it out themselves or take to the street to get their voices heard. They are told to just keep driving even though they may themselves be in difficulty, yet the cosseted political class yesterday literally closed everything down knowing well their incomes will not be touched in any way. A decision was made to close the Chamber down with no discussion between the political parties. The first I heard about it was when RTÉ's correspondent, Deputy Alan Kelly, made a tweet on the television yesterday. It is just not a logical situation that the Dáil can be so cosseted while, at the same time, 22,000 jobs in the taxi sector are under such pressure.

I ask the Government to make sure it gets out of its tunnel vision. We must reduce Covid-19. We must make sure we take precautions and that we are careful and cautious. However, people have to live with this particular illness as well and we must make sure the health service and different sectors can function. The fact that the taxi service is being left to swing in the wind in this time shows amazing tunnel vision by this Government.

I wish to raise several key questions before I finish my contribution. Why did the Government not recognise the particular vulnerability of the taxi industry to the pandemic and Covid-19 guidelines at the start and do more? Why has the Government shown such an aversion to helping struggling sectors directly impacted by Covid-19, the lockdown and the continued Government regulations such as the pub trade, the childcare sector and the taxi industry? Why does the Government consistently let the suffering go on to such a level that people are forced to strike outside Leinster House?

Caithfimid i bhfad níos fearr a dhéanamh don earnáil sin atá timpeall na tíre agus atá ag fulaingt mar gheall ar an ngalar seo agus mar gheall ar easpa suime an Rialtais seo. Ag bun an chairn sa tír seo tá na hearnálacha ina dtuilltear na hioncaim is lú. Níl an tionchar ag na hearnálacha sin agus ba cheart go mbeadh. Níl a fhios agam an bhfuil discrimination ná class taobh thiar den easpa fócais orthu, ach muna bhfuil an Rialtas sásta cabhrú leis an earnáil tacsaí, beidh sé ag cruthú i bhfad níos mó fadhbanna, fadhbanna sóisialta agus fadhbanna do theaghlaigh thart timpeall na tíre san áireamh. Beidh fadhb ollmhór iompair ann freisin mar caithfidh go mbeidh an córas seo ann don tír sa todhchaí.

I compliment the proposer of the motion. I met the taxi drivers yesterday, who were on the streets in their thousands. They are dignified and decent people who just want to make a living, but they have been abandoned by this Government, like many other sectors, especially the people over 66. They have been totally thrown to the wolves. They have not got a shilling from anyone.

Years ago, a person could not get it taxi licence. There was huge lobbying then to loosen up the situation and the regulation was lifted. There are too many taxis now. They came out like confetti at a wedding and it has flooded the market. This Covid-19 crisis, however, has really threatened to undermine them. Remember, all of them have wives, families and parents as well and some are trying to support them despite the hours they have to work. At times, they are subject to disquieting treatment by occasional members of the public who abuse and threaten them and God knows what else. They have a high-risk job. They have now had to kit out their vehicles with Perspex shielding and disinfectant and do that a couple of times a day. It is a huge onus on them but the Government is not listening.

I should have said in at the first instance that I wish the Minister of State well in his new role. I know he is an understanding man and he will try to make some movement here. However, we cannot keep talking about it. These people cannot keep waiting. They are disappearing. They have loans and they must replace their cars every ten years, get them tested twice yearly and get the taxi test as well. It is an onerous and responsible job and insurance is also difficult. They need to be supported. They cannot wait for the crumbs from the table. They are not even getting the crumbs from the table now, especially those who are over 66.

It is amazing that number of people could turn up last night and not even get a mention on the news channel. It is reserved for the likes of Deputy Alan Kelly who did not tell us first about the adjournment of the Dáil. He told us about it coming back, that he had made a phone call to the Taoiseach, and he claimed he was responsible. That is what he told people in County Tipperary today. Bryan Dobson had better watch out because if Deputy Kelly does badly in the next election, he will be straight into the RTÉ studio for the "Six One News". That is what he will be doing. It is farcical of RTÉ, which has a duty to cover protests like this and, indeed, the protest last Saturday. People can complain about it but they are entitled to protest. We are threatening now to bring in legislation to stop it.

RTÉ, the channel for which we pay a licence, has a duty to cover this but it is not doing so and it is shameful. It has Deputy Alan Kelly for breakfast, dinner and supper. Gabhaim buíochas.

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Fleming, on his appointment and wish him well in his new role. It is very hard for ordinary people to grasp what is going on at present. First, it is Government policy to tell us to use public transport. Then it is advertising telling us to use only 50% of it or not to use it at all if we can do so. Taxis are needed and are not being supported. Many taxis in Killarney and Tralee are not working at all; they have no work. Nightclubs are closed and there are no tourists around. They just do not have work and are at their wits’ end as to how to continue. Bills are coming in for insurance, licences and different things. Hackneys in rural places like Kilgarvan and Kenmare are vital to people who do not have cars but they are struggling to hold on to their licences. Only for the fact that some of them have some other part-time work or are part-time farmers, they would not survive at all. I am appealing to the Government to do something for them.

The first and the easiest thing to do is to extend the ten-year rule to 15 years. Their cars are tested so much. Taxi and hackney drivers keep their cars well in any event. Can this ten-year rule be lifted and can taxis and hackneys be given another five years because this makes sense? Can some kind of financial support be given to them also? I know that the Government is under pressure. Every other sector is being looked after but hackneys and taxis are not. I am appealing to the Minister of State because they are a vital cog in our communities.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment as this is my first time speaking to him since his appointment.

The plight of taxi drivers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic has been very severe. It is impacting on taxi drivers across the entire country. Clearly, taxi drivers have been forgotten in the response to Covid-19. The Government must step in and establish a taxi Covid-19 response unit in conjunction with the National Transport Authority. These drivers depend on people moving around. They are being squeezed out of business with the closure of pubs, which are only reopening now. We debated this issue for four years in the context of the road traffic Bill, where every effort was made to ensure people used taxis. Now the doors of pubs are shut so people are not getting taxis to go to and from the local pub or wherever. The drivers depend on people moving around but now that people are not doing so in the normal way, business has been enormously affected.

Taxi drivers estimate that up to 20% of self-employed drivers will be out of business within a year. The sector must be supported by Government. This motion comes at a critical time. Additional Government support for the sector is now an urgent necessity. Taxi drivers estimate that their business has dropped by up to 90% overall compared to pre-Covid-19 levels. Mr. Jim Waldron, spokesman for the National Private Hire and Taxi Association, has called for an extension of the age limit of vehicles. This is very important and the Minister of State has to step in here. Some of these vehicles are in meticulous condition but are being taken off the road after ten years.

Unfortunately, many taxi operators across the country have already decided that driving taxis is no longer a viable business. It is important to remember that many taxi operators have substantial debts to service, including mortgages and other loans, together with the many costs associated with raising a family. That applies right across the board, to both hackney and taxi operators. I stood outside with them yesterday during the protest and heard comments from people from my constituency, including Denis Mangan from Kinsale, and from taxi operators who are working tirelessly but are finding it extremely difficult.

I mention also the many taxi drivers who are over 66 years of age who received no pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and had to stay at home. These are people who have paid their taxes for many years. All the fees for these people over 66 years of age should be abolished as it is very unfair to them at this time.

At the outset I thank the Sinn Féin Party and, in particular, Deputy Darren O'Rourke, for their excellent work in bringing this very important issue to the floor of the House. They deserve to be complimented. This is a very important matter and affects every constituency, town, village, by-road and section of society because our taxi and hackney drivers and bus operators have served us well over many decades. They are suffering and enduring a very difficult time because the supply of business to them has gone down enormously with the absence of night life in our towns and villages. They are still there and we want them to be there in the future.

Yesterday’s protest had a particular purpose. I compliment everybody who took part in that protest, including the taxi representatives from County Kerry, the county I represent. Taxi drivers from Cordal, Castleisland, Tralee, Killarney, Kenmare or Kilgarvan and the hackney drivers from all those areas have served us well, including in Dingle town where they have been doing excellent work over many decades. They all came here yesterday to make their voices heard in the Houses of the Oireachtas and they had a very clear message. They want to see a situation where their businesses will survive this crisis and that in the future we will have a taxi service that will be up and running and operating in all the areas I named in my county as well as throughout the country. If people are socialising or going to work, whether it is locals or tourists, we want the service to be there.

I dealt with a very large number of taxi drivers who were in real trouble during the height of the lockdown. Many were able to secure payments but many others for different reasons were not or were cut off the payment and now find themselves going off the edge of a cliff in the next couple of days. I want to ensure the Government realises that. I wish the Minister of State well in this role, and I really mean that. It is no good crying about this afterwards. We have to create a situation where the measures that need to be put in place to safeguard the future livelihoods of our hard-working taxi service are put in place. I thank the taxi drivers for coming here yesterday as I know this was not easy-----

We are going to run out of time and it is important that everybody has an opportunity to speak. I call the Independent Group and Deputies Harkin and Pringle, who are sharing time.

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, on his appointment and I wish him well.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this Sinn Féin motion which concerns the specific difficulties and challenges faced by the taxi industry due to Covid-19, and crucially, to agree with many of the proposals which will help the industry to survive in the short term, and importantly, to be sustainable in the longer term. We have already heard the statistics from many Deputies.

It is worth reiterating the fact there are approximately 20,000 small public service vehicles registered with the National Transport Authority, NTA, in 2020 and approximately 26,000 qualified drivers. In the constituency I represent there are 153 taxis and hackneys in Sligo, 52 in Leitrim, 307 in the whole county of Donegal and 105 in the entire county of Roscommon. I ask Deputy Pringle not to worry as I am not suggesting that I represent all of those taxis, just the ones in the south of his county. I quote those figures to emphasise the size of the industry, the number of people who work in it, the number of families who rely on it to pay the mortgage, its importance in providing public transport for all, especially accessible transport, and the contribution it makes to the State in paying taxes, VRT, road tax, licences, etc. A taxi is not just a man or woman with a car for hire, it is an essential service. It is a business to support families and a significant contributor to the economy of the country.

The taxi industry virtually collapsed in the period from March to June. It recovered, depending on the part of the country in question, 20% to 30% of its former revenue during the summer. Now, according to many taxi drivers I have spoken to, with summer over and staycations largely over, the business is diminishing again. While I am happy to see the safe reopening of wet pubs, this means people will be able to socialise locally and not have to travel to larger towns to go to a restaurant. This will impact on the taxi business. The chauffeur industry is virtually non-existent. It is down 98% in revenue since 2019 and it represents about 10% of the industry. It relies on corporate, leisure and tourism visitors to Ireland. There is no business. Taxis and cars are locked up and parked up.

The proposals in this motion, if implemented, would make a real difference to the taxi industry. Many Deputies have spoken about the moratorium on issuing new taxi licences during the pandemic. I do not think the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, agreed with this but it makes economic sense. I do not see any downside to this. It would give people in the industry a tiny bit of certainty about their future.

We also ask for a two-year extension for vehicles that would normally have to be replaced in ten years, where the vehicles are assessed as roadworthy. I listened to the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, earlier when he argued against this proposal and I understand there is some flexibility shown by the NTA. However, the losses being incurred by everybody in the taxi business are ongoing and mounting so when the effects of the pandemic are lessened, and we do not know when that will be, they will spend years trying to make up their losses. They are not starting with a clean sheet and, as the Minister of State mentioned, there are loan schemes and credit guarantee schemes and that is great for cash flow. However, surely he realises that those loans have to be repaid. The reality of business is that if one does not make a few pounds, one goes to the wall. A €6 taxi fare here and an €8 taxi fare a few hours later is the reality for many in the business. The Minister of State's idea that a six-month or nine-month extension to the ten-year rule will be sufficient ignores the reality of the crisis this industry faces.

The taxi sector needs sector-specific support. Rates breaks have been given, rightly, to other businesses. Maybe that could be mirrored by a vehicle registration tax rebate, depending on the age of the cars. This motion provides a reasonable and credible template for action and I am happy to support it.

I fully support the motion before the House today because it is reasonable. I also support the amendment proposed by People Before Profit because the motion and the amendment combined would make a huge difference to many working lives across the State and would make very little difference to public finances and to the State. Those should be the criteria used by the Government in deciding whether to go along with the measures.

There was the excuse at the start of the lockdown that this was a knee-jerk reaction and we had to act quickly. The State had to respond quickly and of course mistakes were made but we have done it now. We are now months into it and gearing up for a period of prolonged lockdown. The State should be able to respond now and it is not enough to say the State cannot do it. The State should be able to respond fully and only by that response will the State preserve enough of a functioning economy and business sector to have something to come back to in the future. That needs to happen.

The people left behind in the original changes during the lockdown, such as taxi drivers and arts workers, are the people who should be looked after now. It is by protecting them that the State ensures they carry on into the future. Measures such as the introduction of a moratorium on new taxi licences make perfect sense. For the next year or so, no more licences should be renewed. The work is not there, so why would the Government do it? The extension for vehicles is reasonable as well and makes perfect sense. With the NCT, if a vehicle is deemed roadworthy, it should be roadworthy to be used as a taxi as well. People Before Profit's amendment proposing a taxi buy-back scheme to allow taxi drivers to exit the industry is perfectly reasonable. Those things should be considered and done by the Government straight away to ensure the taxi industry survives and people survive.

It has been mentioned by other Members that we are talking about families and maintaining family incomes into the future. In rural Ireland, very often the people with the taxi or hackney licences also provide school buses and bus transport. They have been hit right across the board in relation to the changes made to transport and having to deal with the uncertainty of that alongside the uncertainty with this business. It is mounting uncertainty across the board for these people and the Government needs to respond in a positive way to ensure they can continue their business with some certainty. These proposals will do that.

It is pointless asking this but I will ask anyway. I ask the Government to take it on board and have a meaningful motion passed here today, rather than the Government amendment, which is designed just to make the Government look good and have that on the record of the Dáil. This motion has been put forward in a spirit of wanting to do the best for everybody and it is a chance for the Dáil to come together, adopt the measures and ensure this happens to benefit the people who need it. It will also send out a positive signal from the Government, which has had a few hectic days, weeks and months on an ongoing basis, due to bad decisions and not making decisions properly. This is a good decision that the Government can make to make a difference to people's lives.

I thank Deputy Pringle. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. Congratulations and the best of luck to him.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I wish her luck in her position as well. I acknowledge the kind remarks from Deputies on my appointment as Minister of State. I am standing in today for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

I thank the proposers of this motion and all those who have contributed to this important and timely debate on an important issue. I take the point that the protest yesterday was a large and reluctant protest. People have said that a lot of discussion went on over many months and it was the culmination of understandable frustration that brought people onto the streets yesterday. It has been said that these issues cannot get concluded and resolved in one debate here and will have to be watched closely and carefully from here on in as we progress through living with Covid-19. There are sectors of the economy which will be more impacted than others. When I met officials from IDA Ireland yesterday, I was told that some sectors of the economy, such as some of the multinationals, are doing quite well but the other three quarters of the Irish economy, including home-grown businesses, sole traders like taxi drivers and small businesses, are affected more gravely and deeply than some other areas. This is an issue that has to get special attention on an ongoing basis as we work through this crisis.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met the taxi representatives last week to discuss issues and concerns of their members and it was a constructive meeting. He undertook to raise the issues discussed at the meeting with the NTA. This pandemic has drawn into relief the important role of essential workers. Transport is one of those areas and taxi drivers are key workers in the front line who bring people to and from hospitals, schools, airports, businesses and other locations.

Many Members have been critical today of the levels of support available to the taxi and SPSV operators, but as my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, outlined earlier, from the very start of the pandemic the NTA has recognised the impact this crisis has had on those operators and has been providing support and assistance accordingly. At the very outset of the pandemic, the NTA extended licences to ensure no licences expired from 13 March until 12 June. It extended the vehicle age limits and waived the licence renewal fees. It worked with the insurance industry to ensure the operators who decided to stop working could suspend their insurance cover, thereby reducing a very large cost which taxi and SPSV operators face on an ongoing basis.

The NTA has been in ongoing contact with everybody in the industry. There have been tens of thousands of emails directly to the operator and there have been 150,000 text messages, so there are a lot of people in the NTA making sure there is good communication with the people directly involved in the sector, and more than 7,000 individual emails have been given to operators about individual queries. It is fine to issue a broad press release but the individual operator is the person who counts. The NTA handled in excess of 63,000 phone calls from the people concerned, so there is as reasonable a flow of information as could be expected in this pandemic when the restrictions on people being present in the office are considered.

The Government also ensured SPSV operators have been able to access the measures announced under the July stimulus to the fullest extent possible. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, for giving an excellent summary of these to the House earlier. I highlight that as part of the July stimulus, the income tax relief for self-employed individuals allows taxi drivers and other SPSV operators to reduce the income tax payable on last year's profits using losses incurred this year. This is an important measure and should benefit the cash flow of all self-employed individuals, especially taxi drivers. It is also more than that, as it actually allows a refund and a positive cash flow. As such, where a taxi driver, like many people, would have paid his or her preliminary tax last autumn, which would probably have been 90% or nearly 100% of his or her total tax due for this year, and now know that taxi driver is in a loss for this year, he or she can get a refund of some of the money paid last year. Thus it is a real, serious cash flow benefit this year. It also means they do not have to pay tax although they may make a profit this year, because they can use the loss this year against the profits they made and the income tax they paid last year and they can get a refund on that, which is a benefit here specifically.

The cost of PPE equipment, the kitting-out of taxis and whether screens are required has been raised. I again highlight the Covid-19 enterprise support grant. This is a payment from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection which is available to self-employed individuals, including many small service operators, who are not liable for commercial rates. Earlier in the year, most of the reliefs for small business required a person to be a ratepayer. This is a small grant but it is a cash flow grant and it does help people. It can be used against the cost of screens or PPE for taxis and is available through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and is for people who are not paying rates. We have seen it extended to the bed and breakfast sector in recent days as well. We are looking at individual sectors have not come into the area of grants to give some assistance, which I accept is small, but it is some assistance and will help people on a short-term basis.

The issue of the moratorium on SPSV licences has been raised by a number of Members. Everyone knows that the Government has not exercised quantitative controls on the number of taxi licences for over two decades. Many of us who are old enough to remember and were in Dublin at the time recall the difficulty of getting taxis at night because the numbers were restricted. It was not fair to the public or to the taxi drivers and it was a bad service at that time. Those controls were removed and I am a little bit surprised that people are saying that it would be a help to reintroduce them. I understand the point because the business is not there for those already in the taxi business and the idea of new people coming in may not seem right, but reintroducing controls is not something the Government would be supportive of. More important, however, and it goes without saying based on what has been said here, there are few or no new applicants for new public service licences in any event. It is an interesting point but a moot one because nobody is rushing to get into the industry, based on what people have said here and the truth of the situation. I understand the point to an extent but it is a moot one when one considers the reality of it.

The issues of taxis and bus lanes was also mentioned. There is absolutely no question of any change to that because they are part of providing public transport 24-7, unlike the trains, buses and the Luas, although some buses around the country operate on a 24-hour basis. There is no question of changing the rules on the bus lanes.

The issue of the age limits on vehicles was also mentioned. One measure taken by the NTA to reduce the burden on operators was to extend the age limits for vehicle renewals from March until the remainder of this year. As the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, outlined earlier, these limits are in place for sound, well-grounded reasons because everyone knows vehicles of a high standard are needed. That is important and nobody has disputed that here. Nevertheless, the NTA recognises that an operator would be placed in a difficult financial position if he or she was required to replace his or her vehicle right now in the middle of the present pandemic. For this reason, the authority has extended the age limit for vehicles due for renewal this year and it has pledged to continue to monitor the situation and consider the need for any future extension closer to the time. That is fair and practical. We cannot be extending it just like that for a two-year period. We have done it for this year and we will review it, and if necessary it will be looked at and considered next year, but it is not necessary to do so now. Nobody has an immediate issue or difficulty as we speak with that renewal, and when the time comes, it will be looked at again, and if need be I hope that the NTA will repeat the extension it has already done. That is a practical and sensible way to approach this rather than changing the rules for the long term because we will get back onto those issues as well.

I am conscious that it has been stated that 24% of taxi drives are over 66 years of age, and in that situation they would be on the State pension and would not have got the Covid payment. That is an issue that has been raised but we all know and understand from our daily work that, with the exception of the carer's allowance, a person cannot draw two social protection payments, in this case the State pension and another payment connected with unemployment. That has been the way we have operated and it is a bigger issue if people want to got down that particular route.

The Taoiseach said yesterday that the Government is also considering how the pandemic unemployment payment could be combined with other measures that would enable individuals working in sectors where the level of activity is much lower than it would have been prior to the onset of Covid-19 to earn additional income without losing the basic pandemic unemployment payment. In light of that particular remark, we are not in a position to accept the Sinn Féin motion on behalf of the Government and we call on the House to support the countermotion proposed by the Government.

I thank the Minister of State. We await now the commencement of Leaders' Questions.

(Interruptions).

It has to come back to us.

There are ten minutes left.

There are ten minutes left. Okay.

Or almost ten minutes.

May I continue, a Cheann Comhairle? For two and a half minutes.

Leaders' Questions was to be taken at 12 noon. I do not know where this is coming from.

I fell behind earlier on.

Okay. Deputy Buckley.

Go raibh maith agat. I will try to cut it down. I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. I commend my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, on bringing this motion forward. I am very disappointed the Government is still pushing forward with its countermotion. I have read it and there is very little of substance whereas the Sinn Féin motion deals with what the taxi drivers actually need to exist and to live. As many people have said, this is financial assistance. More than 20,000 families are affected by this. The taxi drivers have been out of work for seven months with no money but still have bank bills and mortgages and they do not know what is happening. I have been in constant discussion with local taxi and hackney drivers. This morning I found out that the taxi drivers are planning phase 2, so it is not going to go away.

The issue of those aged over 66 and 70 has been raised many times. The Minster of State correctly said they are probably getting the State pension and cannot get a second payment.

The reason many of these people work as hackney or taxi drivers is they cannot afford to live on a pension and it makes it very difficult. All these people want is a helping hand to survive. It is mentally affecting the families and drivers and obviously there is a knock-on effect from that.

This is a very straightforward motion that appeals to the Government - for crying out loud - to do the right thing and give these people a hand. Many people have been left behind. We are realists and acknowledge there is a pandemic, but this a vital service. In my constituency of Cork East, there is a rural area and an urban area, and in some parts, there is no rural transport. People, especially the elderly, rely on these taxi and hackney services, even to get to the post office, given that many post offices have left villages so people have to travel to towns. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Government to consider this, to withdraw its countermotion and to do the right thing for the taxi industry. Otherwise, taxi drivers will back here in a number of weeks. Families are being hurt badly.

I too wish the Minister of State well. If this crisis were to end tomorrow, chances are the Government would carry on as always, as the amendment to the motion shows. I represent a large rural constituency that lacks a proper transport system. Taxi services prove particularly important. Whether to make deliveries or provide transport to elderly people to get their pensions, taxi operators so often go above and beyond what is required of them to make up for the lack of rural bus and delivery services. Deputy O'Rourke's motion offers the opportunity to support this sector through the crisis, but it should also be seen as a package of measures that could pave the way for a more successful taxi model in both urban and rural Ireland.

Taxi drivers and operators have proven to be key operators in the fight against increasing rural isolation, a type of isolation that has only got worse for some people. They have transported our nurses and doctors to hospitals throughout this crisis. Now they are struggling in the face of the pandemic, and the motion outlines how this can be addressed. Many taxi drivers and operators have been excluded from the pandemic unemployment payment. They are the same people whose businesses have been decimated because of the lack of pubs and nightclubs, and have seen demand fall off. High insurance costs, the costs of upkeep and a range of other fixed costs, which have been said to run to approximately €11,000 per year, have not gone away. The various restart grants excluded so many, as I have pointed out here on several occasions, and our taxi sector is among those forgotten about. It is time to recognise it for the work it has undertaken in the course of this pandemic. Like our pub sector, we need a tailor-made set of supports that are specific to its needs.

It is also time to say we will introduce a temporary moratorium on the issuing of new licences, so that existing operators will not fall victim to opportunists. The financial challenges faced by taxi operators right now mean the acquisition of new or upgraded vehicles is impossible for many of them. We need, therefore, to use common sense and to extend the nine-year rule by two years, as long as the vehicle in question is safe and roadworthy. What also needs to happen, as is outlined in our motion, is for a meaningful dialogue to take place so that our taxi services will be heard properly and so that the challenges they face will be recognised and addressed. Our taxi sector needs to be listened to so that in the future it can make rural Ireland a more connected place, where rural isolation is no longer a problem and where it is easy to travel, do business or just enjoy the benefits of rural living.

The Government needs to take this opportunity to save the sector from the crisis it faces. The motion outlines how this would best be done, but the Government also needs to grab this opportunity to develop the sector so that it can increase its support for rural communities. We need public transport and we need our taxi drivers. I urge the House to support the motion.

I thank contributors to the debate, which was useful and important. The protest yesterday, along with a number of opportunities during debates in the House yesterday where the issue of taxi drivers was raised, and this debate have brought a focus on the sector. I again commend the four representative groups that organised yesterday's protest and the thousands of taxi drivers who attended. It provided the opportunity for discussion. I thank those speakers who have given voice to the sector, to individual drivers and to how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected it in a very particular way.

I acknowledge the contributions that reflected the impact this is having on mental health and on drivers' sense of themselves and of their contribution to society, the economy and communities more generally. Very valid points were raised and it was very important that we had the debate, but it does not end here. It is important to acknowledge the Government's recognition that taxi drivers are an essential part of the public transport system, the clarification on the matter of high-quality bus corridors and bus lanes, and the acknowledgement that there is a problem with the funding streams available for sectors that have been especially adversely affected by Covid-19, as well as the specific issues relating to taxi drivers.

I turn to the Government's countermotion, which is completely unsatisfactory. It outlines what has happened to date. There would not have been thousands of protestors on the streets yesterday if what had happened to date had been satisfactory or sufficient, and that needs to be recognised and acknowledged. On specific issues such as the nine-year rule, it was a "No" from the Minister of State, with the matter to remain under review.

On the issue of the taxi advisory committee, it is completely unsatisfactory to say the vacancies will be filled. That does not acknowledge that the taxi advisory committee does not have the confidence of ordinary taxi drivers. It is to miss the whole point of the argument. Taxi drivers are knocking on the door and saying, "Please listen to what we have to say and please acknowledge our concerns." The Government, however, is saying a committee will do that and that it will fill the couple of vacant places. It should ask itself why there are vacant places on the committee. It is because it does not have the confidence of ordinary taxi drivers.

On the issue of a licence moratorium, there was a "No" from the Government. That needs to be addressed and acknowledged as a potential solution and a reality for the sector. It is not good enough to say nobody is really applying for licences anyway. The Government needs to get ahead of that.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his role at the Department of Finance, but the primary issue is financial and relates to sector-specific supports. It is reflective of others, such as the arts and events industries, which other Deputies mentioned. The taxi industry is a case in point, and these sectors need full support from the Government.

This will be an ongoing issue. It will not go away until it is addressed. As a number of speakers noted, taxi drivers are ready to go again. Sinn Féin will keep the matter on the agenda.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke. That debate, unfortunately, ran a little over time, but we must now consider the amendment, in the name of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time next week.

I thank Deputies for their co-operation on that matter. We move now, a little later than usual, to Leaders' Questions. I appeal to Deputies to try to adhere to the allocated time.