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Wednesday, 4 Nov 2009

Taxi Industry Reforms: Discussion with Commission for Taxi Regulation.

The next item on the agenda is the discussion with the taxi regulator. I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege but this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before it. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official either by name or in such way as to make him or her identifiable.

I welcome Ms Kathleen Doyle, the Commissioner for Taxi Regulation, and Ms Jennifer Gilna, head of corporate affairs. I now propose to hear a short presentation from Ms Doyle, which will be followed by questions and answers.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I thank the Chairman for inviting me here today. We have distributed the presentation to the committee and I shall go through it as quickly as possible. Afterwards, I shall be happy to take questions.

The presentation is on further reforms for the small public service vehicle, SPSV, industry. I shall talk about the commission's missions, reforms to date, updates on the SPSV industry, new reforms and the next step. Statistical information is available for members of the committee, also.

For the benefit of members who might not have been here in the past, I shall go straight to pages 4 and 5, which recap the reforms introduced for the industry during 2006-07 and 2008-09. I have gone through those before here in the past, so I can revisit them later if anyone wants to go through the previous reforms. To give an update on the industry, we currently have 27,059 vehicle licence holders in the country, with just under 20,000 taxis, 1,570 wheelchair accessible taxis, 4,605 hackneys and 1,325 limousines.

Entry to the market since January 2008 has decreased. On page 7 is a graph which is indicative of the numbers entering the industry since January 2008. From then until October 2009 one can see that there has been a serious decline in entry into the market.

We have had a consultation process following an economic review of the industry and the result of the new reforms following this which involved inviting submissions from members of the industry and the public as well as interested parties, meetings with stakeholders around the country and advice sought from the advisory council to the commission. The reforms were finally announced on 15 October. The new reforms are relevant to wheelchair accessible vehicle provision and the commission will only issue new taxi and hackney licences that will meet its target of having 10% of the fleet wheelchair accessible, over a period of time. The commission will only issue new taxi and hackney licences and existing wheelchair accessible vehicle operators are aware that they will have to meet new standards in 2012. These are the vehicle standards published in 2007, and will now be rolled out from 2010. The rationale behind this reform is to ensure there is provision of accessible services for all consumers.

The next new reform is the transferability of taxi licences. Existing saloon taxi vehicle licences can only be transferred one more time — and these licences may only be transferred to saloon cars less than three years old. The transferability of wheelchair accessible taxi licences will no longer be permitted. The rationale behind the reform of the transferability of taxi licences is a change to the rules which will improve quality standards and access to SPSV services for people with disabilities as well as enhancing enforcement and compliance activities.

Data on page 11 are relevant to the regulations on changing vehicles and stipulate that existing licence holders must meet the nine year rule, announced previously, when transferring a licence from one vehicle to another, while retaining ownership of that licence. That is to ensure that the quality of the existing fleet does not deteriorate when a vehicle licence holder changes his or her vehicle.

There is a new vehicle licensing administration service, as a result of the impact of the RSA awarding a contract for testing vehicles, currently administered by the NCT. This had an impact on the licensing services provided by the commission. As a result, we have had to tender for a new administration licensing service, which has been awarded to SGS Ireland Ltd. This new vehicle administration service will have annual vehicle assessment, appointment-led service, a simplified application and renewal process as well as the mandatory registration of the wheelchair accessible licence registry. Again, the rationale is that the new system will be more customer orientated. It is designed to ensure that the vehicle licensing and renewal process is as time-efficient and cost-effective as possible.

One of the items in the economic review was to fast-track some of the standards we had announced. This included fast-tracking of the nine year rule for the vehicle age of taxis and hackneys, which will be implemented from 2011. This means all existing saloon taxi and hackney licences will be required to meet the nine year age limit, from 2011. This is being fast-tracked to increase standards, and to ensure a consistently high standard of vehicles is available to consumers at all times.

The next standard is fleet licensing. It was raised through the consultation process. Several people have multiple vehicle licences, and while regulations are in place which place obligations on them to keep records, we are investigating the possibility of a fleet licence to increase accountability for multiple licence holders. Fast-tracking of the skills development programme was another recommendation, following the economic review. Following this consultation process we have decided to fast-track the uptake of the driver skills development programme, with the aim of ensuring that SPSV driving licence holders will have undertaken the programme prior to 1 January 2012. The rationale is to ensure quality and compliance benefits as well as helping to promote a positive image of the industry while ensuring drivers are up to speed on regulatory changes, as well.

Page 16 deals with the provision of market data to potential new entrants. We will be developing data and business planning information which will be available to those who are coming into the industry, so that people will not come into the industry on a casual basis. There will be statistical information available on our website detailing the number of vehicles operating in various counties. We will also be publishing the taxi cost index, with details of the operating cost to run the business so that people will have an idea of what outlay is involved in running the business, prior to deciding on whether to enter the industry.

Page 17 contains more in-depth driver licence data collection. The commission will introduce new driver licence application and renewal forms capturing a greater degree of information relative to the application for a licence, such as the PPS number, the tax clearance certificate, employment status and insurance details. This will be fully implemented when the commission takes over driver licensing administration from the Garda Síochána. We have a working group in discussions with the Garda about how and when we can implement the take over of this process from the force. This will streamline driver licensing and will also enhance third party enforcement checks by other enforcement agencies such as the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

The next page deals with working hours. In line with the last reform, the commission will seek to collect employment status as part of the application and renewal process. This may be forwarded to relevant third parties such as the Revenue Commissioners to ensure there is compliance. This will give the commission more information and will highlight the obligations of drivers and employers in respect of working hours and health and safety legislation. The commission will complete and announce the results of a review of potential approaches, including the use of roof signs, to make it easier to identify where a driver is licensed to stand or ply for hire. The introduction of such a system will level the playing field for compliant drivers and give greater assurance to consumers that service providers have the required knowledge of the area in which they operate.

The commission will build upon information sharing programmes formally established between the commission and third party agencies. This will be enhanced by the more in-depth collection of data as part of the licence application and renewal process. The sharing of information will improve detection levels for non-compliance with rules and regulations across multiple agencies. We are working very closely with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social and Family Affairs in the sharing of information.

What do you mean by multiple agencies?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I mean the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, ourselves and the Garda. We have the national register of driver licence and vehicle licences which we can give to enforcement agencies, and they can cross check those out of their own records to ensure that their own regulations are being complied with.

The commission will introduce stronger penalties for wheelchair accessible vehicle operators who continually fail to provide a service to people with disabilities when requested to do so. Service provision will be monitored through complaints received and through mystery trips, which we are arranging through the disability groups. The rationale for this is that wheelchair accessible vehicle licence holders have received a discounted licence, which was subject to certain service provision conditions. We have a regulation in place where wheelchair accessible licence holders must give priority to people with disabilities.

The next step for the commission is to plan the new reforms, which means putting in place the administrative processes and IT systems to support all the new reforms which will be rolled out over the next few years. There will be advanced notification to industry and licence holders of all the changes that are going to happen. We will have continued industry representative body meetings, and these began last week. There will also be continued consultation between the advisory council and the commission. Following this, we will have the publication of the commission's five-year strategy statement for 2010 to 2014. The current strategy statement expires at the end of this year. The commission will then publish its next action plan for 2010 to 2011.

The last part of the presentation is an update on the statistical information. On page 24, we have provided details on complaints received in 2007, 2008 and 2009. We can see that the complaints coming into the commission are dropping year by year.

How many months in 2009 do these figures represent?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The information on 2009 is up until 31 October. There are four categories of complaints provided for under legislation, namely, condition and cleanliness of the vehicle, overcharging and other matters relating to fares, conduct and behaviour of the drivers, and matters relating to the hiring of an SPSV.

Under the heading of enforcement and compliance on the next page, there are details of prosecutions for 2008 and 2009. There were 106 prosecutions in 2008 and 59 prosecutions in 2009 up until 31 October. There were 117 offences in 2008 and 62 offences in 2009. Prosecutions have been taken by the Garda Síochána in addition to our own prosecutions. Approximately 145 prosecutions were taken by the Garda in 2008 and approximately 75 were taken in 2009. The results before committee members are relative to the prosecutions taken directly by the commission.

Fix charged penalties were issued by the commission's enforcement team. There is a list of the various fixed charge penalties which were issued in 2008 and 2009. There were 258 such penalties in 2008 and 316 up until 31 October 2009.

Chairman, you asked me to speak about the committee's recommendations to the Minister. Do you want me to go through them?

The recommendations were to the Minister and to the commission.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The first recommendation was for legislation to be introduced to provide for the introduction of a three-year moratorium on the issue of taxi licences, with the exception of the provision of wheelchair accessible taxis. The commission's view is that it is clear from the economic review that a moratorium would be anti-competitive in a liberalised market. In a highly competitive market, the appropriate level of cabs is left to the market. There was a sharp decline in the number of new entrants since the middle of 2008, with a further decline in 2009.

In the commission's recent announcement of new reforms, wheelchair accessible licences only will issue to meet the commission's objective to increase the wheelchair accessible fleet. However, this is not a moratorium, as we are introducing a new category of wheelchair accessible hackney licence, thereby increasing capacity and allowing equal access to services by all consumers. This will increase the wheelchair accessible fleet and will provide a new high quality vehicle to all consumers.

The second recommendation was that the Minister's proposal to subsume the Commission for Taxi Regulation into the Dublin Transportation Office be implemented immediately. The commission's view is that it is a matter for the Minister to commence this. The commission is of the view that the immediate incorporation into the new national transport authority will be at a considerable cost, bearing in mind the set up costs of the commission over the last number of years. Having said that, when the national transport authority is established, the commission will work with the authority to effect any incorporation at best value.

In view of the inadequacy of taxi ranks in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, the committee proposes that the taxi regulator establish a number of extra taxi ranks to be provided in each city in 2009 and 2010, and require those additional taxi ranks to be provided by the relevant local authorities. The commission is of the view that this responsibility continues to be with the local authorities. The commission can provide guidelines to local authorities and is currently in the process of a project for the development of guidelines to assist local authorities in the planning of taxi ranks in Irish towns, cities and counties, incorporating accessibility.

The guidelines do not dictate the number of taxi ranks that should be allocated per area. To assess taxi rank provision in light of the estimated number of SPSV licences operational in an area is too narrow an approach to taxi planning. However, if we are to deliver a fully integrated transport system, then taxi rank provision must form an integral part of the overall transport system which incorporates all transport modes operational in a particular area.

The project involves the following phases: consultation with town and county councils to gain an in-depth understanding of the current situation regarding taxi rank provision in their areas; the development of a taxi rank model and draft guidelines; and a review of an application of the model to case study locations. The current case studies are in Galway, Cork and Waterford. The consultation will continue with local authorities and other interested parties before we issue the draft guidelines and the final guidelines.

It is important to note that there is a methodology for assessing and forecasting the need for taxi ranks in any large regional city, after which we must develop a business case for additional ranks which includes a calculation of the cost-benefit analysis by stand location and guidance on best practice in regard to the construction of taxi ranks, with a particular emphasis on accessibility.

The fourth recommendation was that the Garda authorities be given responsibility for enforcement of taxi driver licensing in association with the taxi regulator and that a senior garda be assigned to this role in each Garda division. We have already indicated that with only nine enforcers, we do not have sufficient resources to monitor the situation properly. However, it is important to note that gardaí are already authorised officers under the Taxi Regulation Act and work closely with the commission in the enforcement of small public service vehicle regulations, including joint operations with the commission's enforcement team. There are also dedicated public service vehicle inspectors in each county.

The next recommendation was that insurance certificates be checked in real time to rule out the presentation of fraudulent certificates. Under small public service vehicle regulations, applicants must have a current insurance certificate when applying for or renewing a vehicle licence. As part of the current review, the commission will work with the Irish Insurance Federation to ensure no insurance policies can be cancelled following the granting of a licence. The commission is unaware of any fraudulent certificates being presented at the time of licensing. If an apparently fraudulent certificate were presented, the commission would immediately be notified and would initiate an investigation. All insurance certificates presented are scanned into the licensing system. It is not possible for us to validate each insurance certificate with an insurance company at the time of licensing. Rather, it is up to the licence holder to declare that the details he or she is presenting are correct. Incidentally, for the purposes of motor tax, for example, it is no longer required that an applicant provide an insurance certificate. He or she is simply required to declare that the details given are correct.

The sixth recommendation was that the new national licensing system introduced in 2006, which gives each licence holder a unique five-digit licence number, should include the city of issue. The entire country is now designated as a national taxi meter area, which means a taxi can travel anywhere in the country. However, taxi drivers can only stand or ply for hire within the boundaries of the licensing authority. The details of this criterion are clearly displayed on the dashboard of every taxi as part of the driver identification. The current review process will include an examination of taxi roof signs. In the last week we have indicated to the representative bodies how we propose to move forward on the issue of driver identification. Taxis could always travel anywhere in the country, even when the city of issue was displayed on the roof sign, but at that time, once the car travelled outside the taxi meter area, it became a private hire vehicle. We are looking at new ways of identifying drivers from the perspective of vehicles travelling beyond the remit of the licensing authority.

The seventh recommendation was that an authorised company should supply taxi and hackney plates and roof signs with a security code to ensure they cannot be copied and can be offered only by NCT centres. We have checked our legal position in this regard and have concluded that the commission is not in a position to regulate commercial sign writers. However, as I have said, we will investigate how to improve taxi roof signage as part of the current review and we have already put forward several proposals in this regard to the national representative bodies. The latter are considering those at present and will get back to us soon.

The eighth recommendation was that new applicants be required to undergo testing equal to or exceeding the standard required to acquire an Irish driving licence. New applicants must undergo the commission's skills development programme which was introduced in May 2009. Moreover, a full driving licence is part of the process to acquire a small public service vehicle driving licence from the Garda Síochána. All applicants are subject to the same licensing process and an applicant for a small public service vehicle driving licence must hold a full driving licence from either Ireland, the European Union, the European Economic Area or any other recognised state. The skills development programme covers such issues as the rules to operate in the industry, vehicle standards, area knowledge, customer service, good business practice, and health and safety. The test is administered by Prometric Ireland Limited, an expert in this field, which also carries out the driver theory test on behalf of the Road Safety Authority.

The ninth recommendation was to improve further the standard of service delivered by including a formal interview and a test of proficiency in Irish or English as part of the examination process. Realistically, we do not have the resources to include a formal interview as part of the examination process, but we have ensured the skills development programme test is in English and is also being developed in Irish. Therefore, a person must have a good command of either language to read the manual and pass the test. The test incorporates a large bank of questions and varies for each applicant.

The tenth recommendation was that taxi drivers who wish to relinquish their plates should be obliged to return them to the taxi regulator at the purchase price, thus eliminating the practice of reselling through newspapers and so on. The commission does not have the power to purchase taxi licences. However, as part of the reform process, we are changing the rules regarding transferability of licences such that new licences will be non-transferable and current licences will be transferable on only one further occasion. There is no precedent in the history of the State for the buying back of licences issued by a licensing authority on behalf of the State. It is not an inherent or ordinary entitlement of any such authority. Moreover, in the current climate, it is unlikely the Departments of Finance and Transport would have the appetite for such an initiative.

The 11th recommendation was that the practice of renting or leasing licences should be discontinued with the exception of car replacements. Multiple licence holders have reminded us, through the consultation process, that they have made a considerable investment in the industry through fleets of vehicles providing services to consumers and providing employment to drivers. Regulations are in place to ensure those who rent or lease licences or licensed vehicles require drivers to be adequately insured and licensed to drive those vehicles. Multiple licence holders are obliged to keep records and to provide those records to the commission on request. As part of the current review, the commission is considering further reforms, including the feasibility of a fleet licence. The feedback from the industry through the consultation process was that the renting or leasing of licences should continue for various reasons. For example, where a person is ill, it is important that he or she be able to employ another person to operate the vehicle and thus retain some earning capacity. Where a licence holder dies, his or her spouse can be assured of a continued income by arranging for another person to operate the vehicle. The ability to rent a licence allows prospective taxi drivers to test the market and it also creates employment. Therefore, there was no appetite to discontinue the renting and leasing of licences.

I will be pleased to take questions from members.

I thank Ms Doyle for her response. On the positive side, we welcome the fact that the regulator has ceased issuing licences, as we recommended, with the exception of licences for wheelchair accessible taxis. We recommended a three-year moratorium. Does the regulator have a specific timeframe in mind?

The skills development programme is a welcome development. Although it does not include the formal interview we recommended, we are generally satisfied that it is a good development. However, generally speaking, I am not satisfied with Ms Doyle's response to the recommendations made by this committee, notwithstanding the useful proposals outlined in her presentation. For instance, one of the most acute problems in the sector is the taxi rank problem in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. In this regard, we made the simple recommendation that the number of additional taxi rank spaces to be provided in each city in 2009 and 2010 be established and that the relevant local authorities be required to provide those spaces. Will Ms Doyle repeat her response to that recommendation?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Certainly. The responsibility for taxi ranks, their location and funding is with the local authorities. The commission can provide guidelines to local authorities, as set out in the Taxi Regulation Act 2003, and we are currently in the process of devising a project for the development of guidelines to local authorities to assist them in planning for taxi ranks in towns, cities and counties which incorporate accessibility. The guidelines do not dictate the number of rank spaces that should be allocated per area. The assessment of taxi rank provision in light only of the estimated number of small public service vehicle, SPSV, licences operational in a particular area is too narrow an approach to taxi rank planning. This has been advised to us by the consultants who have undertaken this project. If one is to deliver a fully integrated and accessible transport system, taxi rank provision must form an integral part of the overall transport system design which incorporates all transport modes operational in a particular area.

Therefore, the project involves consultation with county and town councils to gain an in-depth understanding of the current position regarding taxi rank provision in their areas. The development of a taxi rank model and draft guidelines, their review and the application of the model to case study locations are under way. As I mentioned, the case studies under way are in Galway, Cork and Waterford. The project also involves consultations with local authorities and other interested parties, that is, SPSV representative bodies, on the draft guidelines, the taxi rank models for the future and on final guidelines to issue. The methodology of the project is to assess and forecast the need for taxi ranks in any large regional city, to develop the business case for additional ranks, including calculation of the costs and benefit analysis by stand location and finally to provide guidance on best practice with regard to the construction of the taxi ranks with particular reference to accessibility.

However, the regulator prosecuted——

I will ask one question, after which I will hand over to Deputy O'Dowd——

Yes, but the regulator prosecuted 150 drivers for standing off a rank.

I will ask one question. This Oireachtas joint committee made a simple and straightforward recommendation which was to establish the number of additional taxi spaces to be provided in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford in 2009 and 2010 and to require that such additional taxi rank spaces be provided by the relevant local authorities. Ms Doyle's answer to that recommendation sums up all that is wrong with the taxi regulator's control and organisation of the taxi business in Ireland. She read out a load of gobbledygook in response to that recommendation. Without any disrespect to Ms Doyle, the primary problem with the taxi business in the aforementioned five cities is that total chaos reigns with regard to the lack of taxi rank spaces. Almost 12 months ago, this Oireachtas joint committee made a simple request to the taxi regulator to find out this information for it, given that the regulator has the overall authority in this regard. While the joint committee accepts the local authorities are responsible for putting in place additional taxi rank spaces, it asked the regulator to respond to its proposal. However, the response from Ms Doyle is all about guidelines, this line, that line and the other line. At the same time however, taxis are parked all over the place in each of the aforementioned five cities.

There is much frustration at present regarding the regulation of the taxi industry, about which I have taken up a single aspect. I will not raise other areas of frustration and will allow other members of the committee to do so. However, I again make an appeal to the taxi regulator to the effect that if a proper taxi service is to be provided in Ireland, one might at least have some of the basics done properly. I do not understand why Ms Doyle has been unable to provide members with a simple response to the recommendation to establish the exact number of spaces that will be provided by Dublin and Galway city councils, as well as in Waterford, Limerick and Cork.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

One must be clear about what is my role. My role is not to decide on the number of spaces.

Members did not ask Ms Doyle to decide. The joint committee's recommendation simply asked the taxi regulator to establish the number of taxi rank spaces to be provided in each of those cities and to require the provision of those additional rank spaces by the relevant local authorities.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The entire point behind developing the draft guidelines and thereafter the final guidelines in conjunction with the local authorities is to establish a practice whereby a local authority can be in a position to decide what number of taxi rank spaces are required in each area. This is the idea behind the guidelines.

However, in response to this issue 12 months ago, Ms Doyle told members that she was carrying out an audit of the requirements for taxi rank spaces.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

That is part of this project.

We are going nowhere with the response members received today.

I welcome both the taxi regulator and the changes that have been made. They certainly are meeting the requirements of those taxi operators and members of the public who have spoken to me. As the taxi regulator does not intend to issue any more ordinary taxi licences, I presume she anticipates that the number thereof, which presently stands at 27,000, will fall significantly over the next two or three years. Does the regulator have projections in this regard? In other words, I presume that the annual departures from the business will only be replaced by the new type of taxis. Does the regulator have predictions in this regard? Market forces are responsible for the significant number that obtained in the boom years and obviously they will dictate the reduction that is going to happen. I presume the taxi regulator will consider demand in the context of the economic cycle. How will such a change be measured? What criteria will be used in the future to reopen the possibility of increasing the number of ordinary taxi permits? I presume it is part of the economic cycle.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We are monitoring the numbers closely. As is evident from the graph on display pertaining to the number of people who have entered the industry in recent years, we monitor those numbers closely, as well as departures from the industry. The numbers in respect of departures from the industry have remained fairly standard at less than 1% per month and there has been no significant change in that regard in recent years. Were we to spot a change involving a significant increase in departures from the market, then we would be obliged to seek to ensure the market continues and that entry to the market takes place. I should note that while we intend to issue wheelchair-accessible licences only from 2010, we will monitor closely to ascertain the degree of entry to the market, because continual entry is needed in a liberalised market. We are not closing off the market as such and therefore we must monitor the situation. We will do so over time and we will watch it closely.

However, the number of taxis will fall. Obviously, there will be a significant fall because the cost of putting a wheelchair-accessible taxi on the road will be much greater than the equivalent cost for an ordinary taxi. The economic position dictates that too many taxis are plying for hire at present and the operators are not making the same living they would have enjoyed during the boom years. While this is not a moratorium, it has the same effect because the new taxis will cost so much that few people will be able to do so. In addition, the taxi regulator is imposing a further restriction in that an operator may only transfer his or her licence once more. I believe these measures are meeting many of the issues raised by the taxi owners.

I have two further questions. I welcome in particular the working time directive and the regulator's addressing of this issue by capturing the data at the point of entry into the business. Will these data also be captured at the point of renewal? Will every existing taxi operator be obliged to provide these data on whether they are working?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Yes. It will be captured at the application stage. This information will be recorded and we will make a decision on how and with whom we will share it. From a compliance perspective, we envisage sharing this information with the Revenue Commissioners.

Do data protection issues arise in this context?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We must ensure we take into account data protection issues. For instance, we are collecting information for the purpose of licensing. However, we can share information from our public register with other enforcement agencies.

Will the regulator seek the data both on where one is employed and on the average hours one has worked over a period of time to ensure people are not driving excessively? One point made to me by taxi drivers was that some people were working in excess of 60 hours per week if one included their working hours in a taxi. This was a significant issue.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

One of the main issues was that people might have been working in full-time employment and then driving a taxi later on. While we will have in place an awareness programme for people who work in two jobs, we also intend to make people aware of their obligations under health and safety legislation. In other words, they are obliged to tell their employer if they engage in another activity that may affect them in their employment. They also have health and safety obligations as taxi operators in respect of their personal safety and that of their passengers. For example, this includes taking adequate rest periods between two jobs.

One could look at the figures for prosecutions as meaning either less enforcement or greater compliance with the regulations. I assume it is the latter. I have not noticed any figures for the checks the regulator carries out as opposed to the prosecutions pursued. Perhaps I have missed the data.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We have a number of checks, but I was not going to go into the detail because we do not announce in advance where we will be going. Rather, we have national operations by our enforcement team and joint enforcement operations with the Garda. We have a planned strategy with the Garda.

There is greater checking and compliance.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Yes. We are also involved with those Garda training programmes that relate to our SPSV operations. For example, the Garda traffic corps is well aware of our regulations and enforces them.

I welcome the commissioner and her colleague. The Chairman asked about ranks, but we have information on this. The Labour Party carried out a report asking for a new taxi service that I forwarded to the commission six or seven months ago. In Galway, for example, I travelled in cabs with drivers who were upset. At that time, there were 65 ranks for 1,150 drivers. Late on a Friday night, the situation around Eyre Square was chaotic given the considerable volume of traffic that suddenly appeared, as the Chairman well knows.

Since we have information, I cannot understand why we cannot be more proactive and why the commission cannot ask the county and city managers, who the committee will be meeting next, to provide more resources. My colleague from Donaghmede in Dublin North-East was present earlier. A rank outside a shopping centre is split in two and taxi drivers must go around it into the middle of the road. We have asked repeatedly why a more proactive role is not taken in respect of ranks.

We receive much information from drivers, passengers and people who are interested in taxis as a form of transport. Last weekend, the Sunday Mirror dramatically highlighted the vetting procedure. It alleged that, in 1983, there was an horrific accident. One of the leaders of Mothers Against Drink Driving, MADD, Ms Gertie Shields, was a mother of one of those victims. Six people were killed by an allegedly drunken lorry driver who fled the scene. The question asked by the Sunday Mirror is how that person got a licence to carry people for hire. It seems strange. I know that people can do their time and so forth, but it was an horrendous and unbelievable crime. How can this happen? While other situations are not as horrific, we must still ask whether people who should not be allowed to become drivers are being considered. The vetting procedures should be stricter. The committee has information on people who are not licensed to drive in Dublin but who are plying their trade on Camden Street or wherever and depriving local drivers of an income. What is the commission doing about these matters? A tiny minority is impugning the name of taxi workers.

I will read a brief excerpt from a letter that I received. It asks for God to help us all because, come the December budget and without being overly dramatic, the taxi industry could come to a grinding halt. The driver asked what would happen if he or she is refused credit in 2011, but he or she already knew the answer. His or her licence would not be renewed, which would lead him or her to an assistance officer and the dole, etc. This is the type of comment I am getting from workers.

Part of this relates to the €250, an amazing 8,000% or whatever, increase in the licence fee. The commission prides itself on being a self-funded agency, a mode it is taking into the national transport authority, but the fee is seen as an unfair barrier to some people. I have information on a man's weekly wages which do not amount to much more than that. It seems to be an unfair impediment to earning money and putting bread on the family table.

The number of new licences seems to be running at approximately 60 or 70 per month while basically maintaining the overall number of 27,000. How much of this owes to the introduction of the skills programme? By e-mail, I asked whether it was true that significant numbers of new drivers were failing the skills programme, especially its knowledge elements. People were not able to waltz into an area, as it were, and become a driver. The question arises of why we did not have such a knowledge examination when the commission's office was established in 2003. However, it is in operation now and is a good, stiff test. If one succeeds, one would know one's county or city.

In terms of the skills programme, senior drivers pose an issue. People ask whether it is fair they should undergo this process given that many, some of whom are in our audience, have done the job excellently for ten, 15, 20 or 25 years. Why is it necessary to apply the process to them and why has the commission not done more to help them, given that many of the senior drivers left school when they were 12, 13 or 14 years of age, did not get a chance to attend second level and eventually entered the taxi industry? Some of them have dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

Regarding demand management, the commission will move into the transport regulator. I do not know how the commission sees itself operating. Will it be a separate division within the regulator? Will the committee go to Ms Doyle as the commissioner or will we deal with Mr. Gerry Murphy as the national transport regulator? In the Bill, which my Fine Gael colleagues and I invigilated yesterday with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, there is a range of provisions on managing the demand and supply of bus licences. The regulator will need to decide how many buses can be on the road, what routes should be used, what is fair competition and so on. Ms Doyle refers all the time to fair competition. Will this provision not apply to taxis? As I argued in the Labour Party's paper six months ago, will we not have a demand management system in respect of taxis? We must, since I cannot see how one part of a Bill, which will be passed in a few weeks' time after Committee Stage, can apply to buses but not to taxis.

I have many more questions but I will finish on enforcement. Is it still the case that the commission has only nine inspectors for the 47,000 drivers and 27,000 cars? It is incredible that so few people try to ensure the fleet and everything relating to it is of the highest standard. Should the commission have done more? Taxi workers always ask me about why the commission is employing a public relations company instead of carrying out central functions. The Irish Taxi Council, which has done a tremendous job in putting forward a coherent set of proposals to and negotiating with Ms Doyle, has made a proposal regarding the vehicle ID. Instead of a mere sticker, someone looking at it could know everything about the man or woman behind the wheel and the car. One could immediately see whether the driver was legitimate or a bogey operator.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I will answer the first question on the taxi ranks in Galway. We are being proactive in that regard as one of the case studies involves Galway, particularly Eyre Square. We are in constant discussions with the local authority regarding the problems and how to address them. This case study has not been finalised, but we can revert to the Deputy with the details when it is finalised.

Has the commission international——

Ms Doyle, without interruption.

I wish to raise a point about which the Chairman asked. Should 900 drivers have 300 or 200 ranks? Is there any international experience to determine how many slots to provide to allow drivers to do their jobs in a peaceful and civilised manner?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

This matter does not relate to the provision of SPSV licences only. There is also a demand for services and different people working different hours. This will be part of the case study and the methodology will be put together to see the best practice. Any local authority can provide taxi rank spaces on this basis. It is quite clear from the case study in Galway that there is no more room on Eyre Square. The feasibility study of where to provide extra rank spaces will be part of the study.

Deputy Broughan referred to improvements in the vetting process. Driver licensing is administered by the Garda Síochána. We will only take over the administrative process and the Garda Síochána will retain vetting. Part of the process involves vetting applicants to be a fit and proper person for the granting of a licence. Details of convictions are not shared with the Commission for Taxi Regulation but the Garda Síochána generally applies offences considered under section 36 of the Taxi Regulation Act when deciding if a person is fit and proper. These offences are murder, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, drugs and firearm offences.

Should the Commission for Taxi Regulation not have this information?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

When we take over driver licensing from the Garda Síochána, we will work directly with the vetting office in Thurles. We will receive confirmation that the person is or is not fit and proper. If the Garda Síochána decides the person is fit and proper we will grant the licence. If the Garda Síochána decides the person is not fit and proper we will not grant a licence. We will not necessarily have the details of the convictions behind a decision by the Garda Síochána. A court may decide that an individual should be granted a licence notwithstanding a conviction. There is little the Garda Síochána or any other agency can do in those circumstances. In certain circumstances the judge may take the view that a convicted person has paid his or her debt to society and may make an order that a licence be granted. In those circumstances a licence must be granted and this represents the rule of the law. Section 36 provides that a person with a previous conviction a considerable number of years ago may retrospectively apply to the courts to retain a public service vehicle driver licence.

We are aware that the taxi industry is having problems with financial assistance. We referred the taxi industry to the skills development programme manual. It gives good ideas from a business practice perspective, particularly with regard to having a good financial plan when dealing with the financial institutions they are used to dealing with.

Deputy Broughan referred to the increase in the driver licence fee to €250. There was no increase in that fee since 1977 and the fee did not represent the administrative costs that are fundamental to granting the licence. This includes the administrative processes of the Garda Síochána and the Commission for Taxi Regulation and the regulation of drivers. We undertook a cost benefit analysis before taking the decision to increase the fee. Deputy Broughan referred to drivers failing to pass the skills development programme. It was introduced in May 2009 and is in its early stages. People have failed the area knowledge test.

What is the percentage failure rate of that test?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I do not have the percentage because I do not have enough statistics at this point. The pass rate is 80% but a number of new entrants coming into the industry did not pass the area knowledge test. They can repeat the test and some people have repeated a second and third time before passing. We will look at statistical information once we have the test up and running for six months to a year. The current licence holders will be exempt from taking the area knowledge test because it is something they already did when they entered the industry. However, the other parts of the programme are new, particularly those regarding the rules of operation of the industry and our regulation of it. It is an upskilling programme for the current licence holders. Various options will be available to licence holders. They can come into the test centre or they can opt for a one to one test. A free manual is given to each of the current licence holders and the test is free. The test is very user-friendly and involves a touch screen, with a question and three possible answers. Users must put their finger on the correct answer. If that is not suitable people are asked when booking the test if they require further options or if they have a particular problem such as reading problems or dyslexia. We will accommodate people who have those problems.

The public exams help people who have a disability.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Deputy Broughan asked about my functions when incorporated into the national transport authority. My function will be the same in that I will be responsible for the functions of the Taxi Regulation Act 2003.

Could Ms Doyle be the last commissioner?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Yes. My role will be incorporated into the authority but I will remain responsible for the functions under the Taxi Regulation Act.

Another question concerned the enforcement team. We still have the same number, nine officers, in our enforcement team. Given the current embargo on recruitment in the public sector, we will not be granted authority to recruit more enforcement officers.

Ms Doyle has recruited PR people.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

No, we do not recruit these people. That is outsourced.

Could it not be the same with the enforcement officers?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Authorised officers must be recruited directly under the Taxi Regulation Act. We have worked very closely with the Garda Síochána to have increased Garda activity. There is no doubt that this is happening. We have also increased enforcement activity, working closely with Revenue and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We have had joint operations with Revenue and the Garda Síochána. One can see that the Garda Síochána is also prosecuting cases.

I addressed the question of identification in the presentation. We are examining new methods of identification for drivers. New proposals have been supplied to the representative bodies for consideration and we expect them to revert to us. We will consult further before any final decision is made.

I wish to clarify one point. Is it accurate to say that there are 47,000 drivers with PSV licences?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

There are approximately 47,000 drivers but not all are operating. There are approximately 47,000 active driver licences. These are five-year licences granted by the Garda Síochána. We will reduce that period to three years next year. It will become apparent at that stage how many people are actively involved in the industry.

How does Ms Doyle know if people are active?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We do not. Anyone can apply for a small public service vehicle driver licence. We do not have an idea of who is active. We will have a better idea by the number of vehicles out there, which amounts to 27,000. These people are renewing their vehicle licence on a yearly basis. If one goes to the expense of renewing the vehicle licence there must be a driver driving it.

I welcome the delegates. Ms Doyle referred to 27,000 vehicles. Is that enough?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

In the current climate there is a very strong supply of standard taxis and hackneys and a good supply of limousines for the limousine market. There is a weak supply on the wheelchair accessible side of the market. The idea behind the new reforms is to increase the number of people in the wheelchair accessible taxi market. The introduction of new vehicles will lead to new vehicles coming into the country and this, in turn, will create a secondhand market further down the road. We have published vehicle standards for wheelchair accessible vehicles that are already operating in the UK and Northern Ireland. This will create a second-hand market. Someone mentioned that it will be quite expensive to acquire these vehicles but second-hand vehicles will be available.

Does Ms Doyle see a flow of vehicles into this market?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

There will be a flow of vehicles into this market, particularly with the introduction of the new wheelchair accessible hackney, which should facilitate people in rural areas who need greater accessible services.

We could see more taxis on the road.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

That is correct.

Has there been any analysis based on population and whether we need more taxis? It is difficult to do but I suggest considering this body of work. For taxi drivers to be able to make an honest living and to prevent oversupply, we need enough taxis to meet the needs of the community. At the same time there should be an analysis of the number of taxis per head of population based on trends in other countries and trends towards allowing a driver to make an adequate living and maintain the standard required. Has any work or analysis been done in this area?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Goodbody Consultants undertook an economic review on our behalf and made a number of findings.

Is that not out of date?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The surveys were carried out at the end of last year and the results published earlier this year. The report indicates that 100 million cab trips were taken nationwide — this signified a huge increase between 2005 and 2008. We can see an increase in usage of the industry and, at the same time, an increase of supply to the industry. We are always awaiting an equilibrium, whereby cab numbers will be determined by the market, as we have seen since the middle of 2008.

The unanimous view among taxi drivers is that the Goodbody report gave a completely false impression of the income of taxi drivers and was a total waste of time and money. Does Ms Doyle accept this?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

There were two surveys, one of consumers and the other of drivers, which had differing conclusions. Therefore, it was very difficult to establish exactly what driver earnings were. The consumer survey produced results as to what people paid for taxis and that amounted to a figure which was totally different from the one reached in the survey of drivers.

I understand the report was designed to establish whether taxi drivers were earning a minimum wage from the industry. Its key finding was that income had reduced by a small percentage over a period of years. That is the one issue raised with us by all of the taxi organisations throughout the country. If Ms Doyle is still relying on the Goodbody report for accurate information, that is not what has come across to us from all taxi organisations.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

One issue raised during the consultation process was how we could accurately reflect taxi driver earnings. We are examining the capability of the taxi meter to record complete earnings.

With respect, this is a difficult issue. I represent County Clare, rural parts of which are well served by one or two people living in the community. They serve the needs of their community in the evening, at night and at weekends. Generally, this is adequate, coupled with other public transport services available, whether through the local rural transport network or Bus Éireann. My office is in Ennis, around the corner from the taxi rank. On a daily basis I am amazed at the volume of taxis and gentlemen and ladies sitting there all day. They are in desperation trying to make a living. The demand is not there for the quantity of licences issued. Not even if we get back to 2007 boom-time levels of economic growth and prosperity will there ever be the demand for the amount of taxis available. The people concerned are trying to raise families and provide for themselves.

With respect, there is a responsibility on the commissioner, regardless of what is set out in legislation, to set out a vision for the business that will succeed in marrying the needs of the public with the capacity of drivers to make a living and provide a service in the long term. I am not sure this is the case, or that the commissioner has done this. Ms Doyle responded to what the Chairman said earlier by stating it was not her role. I accept that, because her role is defined by legislation in terms of how she interacts with local authorities and whether she can set positions at taxi ranks. Has she communicated with the Department or the Minister to discuss additional powers that she might need to be able to regulate better the industry for which, fortunately or unfortunately, she takes responsibility? I recognise somewhat the position she is in but can she identify for us what additional powers she has sought to allow her to take a broader and more industry-wide position on regulating and managing the industry to the extent that it needs to be managed?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

My role is about raising quality standards in the industry. It is not to place quantitative restrictions on the number of vehicles operating in the industry.

With respect — I hate interjecting — the two are linked. No matter how one goes about it, the quality decreases. I recognise the measures Ms Doyle is trying to adopt by introducing newer vehicles and raising the issue of accessibility but the people trying to survive in the business who have been issued licences and have an expectation based on this will not be able to afford to replace their vehicles. This will lead to a certain reduction in numbers over time but it is unfair because we created a legitimate expectation in the minds of those who invested in a licence.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We are very conscious that people are working in a highly competitive market. They are operating in a liberalised market and that was not my decision. It was a Government decision to liberalise the market. We need to raise quality standards. People make a self-informed decision to enter the industry; our advice to those entering the industry is to examine the level of competition in the area and not make a casual decision to enter it. This is part of the business side of our skills development programme which I mentioned.

Some of them were already in.

With regard to technology, Ms Doyle spoke about the inability to establish whether insurance certificates were valid. Has she sought involvement from technology partners? There is much smart technology available. Many of us use an e-tag or eFlow as we cross toll bridges or use toll roads. Has Ms Doyle sought to expand the technology? It would give capacity to inspectors or the Garda to communicate with vehicles as they pass certain points to validate certain information or identify whether they are in breach of regulations.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

My enforcement team does not have the power to check insurance; under road traffic legislation, it is a matter for the Garda.

This goes back to what Deputy Fahey stated. I accept what Ms Doyle stated and we are trying to help. At any stage has she sought these powers? They are all part of the qualitative aspect of providing a better service, about which she spoke. The power to apprehend is one thing, the power to report is another.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

At the grant of a licence an original insurance certificate must be produced by the licence holder. We do not have any problems with fraudulent certificates. A certificate produced that is worn or looks suspicious is reported to us immediately and under no circumstances is a licence granted until it is checked with the insurance company. We are in talks with the Irish Insurance Federation on how we can work better as partners for the purposes of checking real-time information. There is a problem with data protection from the insurance companies' perspective as they have data on insurance records and we have data on licensing but we are working very closely with them to see what we can do.

I welcome Ms Doyle. I do not want to go over all of the ground covered but I wish to raise a number of issues. Progress has been made and I assume the industry sees that, as I do. Before I forget, it is good to see an industry with such a rate of decrease in the number of complaints made. In fairness to everybody involved in the taxi business, even in the worst of times, they seem to provide a very good service. I assume that is how Ms Doyle interprets the figures.

On the few occasions that Ms Doyle has been before the committee in the past, her understanding of stakeholders' views seemed to differ from ours. I find this difficult to understand given that every taxi driver I meet has a completely different opinion of what she is trying to do. I have no reason to doubt she is consulting people but why are we not hearing the same opinions? She has acted on only two of the 11 recommendations which took the committee the best part of a year to put together. How did we get it so wrong?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The first step we take in getting the input of our stakeholders is to issue a public consultation document to the entire industry. We seek written submissions from individuals in addition to meeting stakeholders and representative bodies because not all drivers are represented. We also consult business interests, people with disabilities, the Garda, local authorities, the Road Safety Authority, the Competition Authority and other interested parties. We have to reach a decision which balances everybody's interests. I am not sure the Deputy is hearing from the all people we meet. Our decision-making process takes all views into account and attempts to strike a balance between the needs of consumers and service providers.

There is a significant gulf between Ms Doyle's consultative process and ours. We should further investigate that issue.

We will do so.

Would Ms Doyle agree that taxi drivers have never had a worse year than 2009?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Certainly. Taxi drivers in every part of the country report that they are finding it tough. There is also a high level of competition.

The regulator acknowledges and understands that.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Of course we understand that. We have acknowledged it publicly.

If that is the case, it is difficult to understand an 800% increase in the licence fee during the worst financial year ever experienced. Would Ms Doyle agree that the timing was especially bad?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The timing may be difficult but we have to ensure we cover our administration costs.

Did the regulator show a profit last year?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We have built up surplus funding over the past several years which will be spent on the projects we plan to implement in the coming period.

How much is the surplus at this minute?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I could not tell the Deputy the amount at this minute but our annual accounts indicate we have a surplus of up to €23 million.

Irrespective of the plans for the future, that is a huge reservoir of money in view of the economic circumstances in which taxi drivers find themselves. Would Ms Doyle agree that the decision to increase the licence fee contained an element of unreality?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I do not accept that. We have in place an auditing process through which we must account for our funds. The cost of administering the licence has not been examined since 1977.

I do not agree with that.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The surplus funding is relative to vehicle licensing fees, which is a separate matter.

As we say in my part of the world, that is a laying hen. That income can always be relied upon.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

It cannot because the number of entrants has decreased.

Ms Doyle noted earlier that she will take cognisance of numbers and the circumstances of the industry in deciding whether to allow further entrants in a few years' time.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

That is monitored over time.

Would Ms Doyle agree that taxi ranks are potential flashpoints? A taxi driver may be forced to park behind a long line of cars stretching beyond a rank but the Garda has to ensure the free flow of traffic. Why should we expect taxi drivers to put up with this situation? I accept the problem can only be solved in conjunction with local authorities but the limited capacity at ranks is creating havoc throughout the country. We want somebody to state, for example, that a further 50 spaces are needed in Galway. The most appropriate person to lead that discussion is Ms Doyle.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

That discussion is ongoing as part of our project on developing guidelines and we will consult every local authority.

When will that happen?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

That project is ongoing and is due for completion in January 2010. The audit was originally conducted on the basis of information provided by local authorities on an ongoing basis. Many local authorities have added capacity at ranks over the past six to eight months. They keep us updated with this information which in turn is fed into our investigation of taxi rank provision throughout the country. The guidelines are intended to help local authorities in identifying the number of additional spaces required.

The regulator is receiving more flak than she deserves. We should pay attention to the legislation under which she operates and the fact that many of the issues raised today are the responsibility of the Minister for Transport and the relevant local authorities. A balance must be found between the taxi industry's desire for additional on-street parking and the complex demands put on such spaces for loading, cars and buses.

From my experience as an elected representative, the genie has been let out of the bottle. I recall huge anger among taxi drivers at a proposal made 20 years ago to increase the number of licences from 500 to 1,000. I attended a packed meeting in the Point Depot at which those of us who were brave enough to call for additional licences were roared at for having the temerity to suggest an increase to 1,000.

Now here we are, 15 years later, with tens of thousands of taxis and most of us feel there are too many licences out there. I feel a sense of anger that we went from dramatic over-regulation to a complete lack of regulation. The sweet spot was somewhere in the middle, but it is difficult to get things back there. It is tough for anyone who is trying to make a living from driving a taxi. There is no obvious solution.

I welcome many aspects of what the regulator is doing. From a consumer point of view, the service has never been better. I use taxis a lot. In fact, I used one last night and the service was good. I will mention a small point in this regard as I conclude.

The fixed costs for taxi drivers seem to have increased dramatically over recent years. Is this the case? Has the number of accessible taxis increased? I am looking at the figures provided by the witnesses. Is it likely that the number will increase significantly over the coming years? This is an issue that comes up time and again. People with disabilities want to see more accessible licences.

My third question concerns what in London is called "the knowledge". Can Ms Doyle say to the committee that the knowledge among Dublin taxi drivers will increase? Many members of the public are concerned that in some instances — not a majority, but a minority of cases — there is a lack of knowledge of the streets of Dublin within the industry. Can Ms Doyle give the committee a guarantee that this will improve? It seems she can, but perhaps she would elaborate on this.

I wish to raise the issue of roof signs. I stood out on the road yesterday evening and hailed a taxi with its roof sign lit, but it slowed down and the roof sign went off as it went past me. There was a customer in it. I then kept my hand out and a taxi with an unlit roof sign pulled in. As it happened, there was nobody in it, and the friendly taxi driver said that one could never control the roof sign. I know that 25 years ago on the streets of New York city, roof signs on taxis said one of three things: "For hire", "Off duty", or "Engaged". Can we not find the technology, in 2009, to connect the meter to the roof sign so one can know at a glance whether the taxi is engaged? The current situation is dangerous, not just in the dark at 7 p.m. but also at 3 a.m. when people come out of nightclubs and walk halfway across the street to make sure taxi drivers see them. Can we not make use of some technology that will ensure that if the taxi is free, the roof sign is lit and if it is engaged, the roof sign is off? It is as simple as that.

I welcome the changes that are being made which are in many respects in line with the recommendations of the committee. I am relatively new to the committee but I find it strange that in aspects in which the recommendations of the regulator almost coincide with those of the committee, she seems to go out of her way to assure the committee they are different. As a new member, I have not been here on previous occasions when the regulator appeared before the committee and I find the working relationship strange to understand. However, the changes are welcome although they are late. As has been said, the stable door has been left open far too long. The regulator's plans sound very good but, as a layman, I feel the number of licences issued in recent years has had an effect on standards. I agree with Deputy Cuffe that we have gone from one extreme to the other. We are talking about wheelchair-accessible cars and so on, but I felt that ten years ago we had a far better quality. We have let things get worse. There is no doubt that people who are trying to earn a living in this area are finding things difficult.

In many respects Ms Doyle would probably defend her record. Did she commission the Goodbody report or was it the Minister? Many would now feel she has walked away from it and that the recommendations have now gone in a different direction, for which I am thankful. What did the report cost to prepare? Ms Doyle said a while ago that it provided much good information, but other people have different feelings about it. Is she still standing by it? Does she feel it was helpful to the commission? Has the commission paid for it?

I am surprised at the comments of Deputy Cuffe regarding ranks. When taxis are driving around the block they are wasting fuel as well as everything else. It is a problem but I wish everybody involved could handle it better and try to work with the people who are providing a service. It is all about serving the customer. Terrible amounts of money are being wasted with people driving around the block and being forced to move on because they are blocking other people. The whole thing is a mess and some co-operation from the agencies would help.

It is always great to see the regulator appearing before the committee because she brings a certain edge to the proceedings. It is not often we have so many people in the Gallery. It shows that the issue of taxis is important to many people who are seeking a livelihood in the transport industry. I always feel the regulator has the most unenviable job in the country. It is difficult and she takes much criticism from people who should be directing their criticisms towards other areas. We had very few taxis before deregulation and extra taxis have been introduced over the years under a Fianna Fáil Administration. I find it hilarious that members of that party are now taking issue with the regulator over something they should take up with the Minister for Transport. The members of the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation should also take out their frustrations on the Minister rather than the Commission for Taxi Regulation. Ms Doyle is doing an excellent job and standards in taxis have certainly improved over the years.

This is not to take away from the fact that it is difficult to make a living. Every time I get into a taxi it is obvious the taxi driver is facing difficulties. However, a few times when I have asked a driver what business is like, they have said they are making a good living. We must try to strike a balance. I can only say what I hear but it seems to me that nine out of ten are finding things very difficult.

On my way into Dublin at 10.20 or 10.30 a.m. today, I saw a queue of taxis about half a mile long at Heuston Station. I felt they would be sitting there all day before they got a fare. Then I saw members of the Garda come along and move everyone away from the area outside the rank. We have been talking about this for far too long. It is obvious we need more ranks in Dublin. I have a card for the new dublinbikes scheme, which is effective and a great idea, but if we can have more bicycle ranks we should have more taxi ranks. More could be done in this regard.

One issue I have raised over the years is that of the Dublin port tunnel. Are taxis still obliged to pay when going through the tunnel?

That is a matter for the National Roads Authority.

We have raised this with the NRA and the Dublin Transport Authority for the past year and a half. I took a taxi from Dublin Airport to O'Connell Street and it cost €27 owing to the traffic coming from the airport. However, when I took a taxi from the airport and advised the driver to go through the port tunnel, the driver said it would cost €12, but the total fare was still only €25. It is a rip-off of consumers coming from Dublin Airport. The taxi drivers are not engaging in a rip-off but it is a rip-off that they are still being charged in the port tunnel.

The Deputy should take that up with the NRA.

This is a transport committee.

I know——

The port tunnel is a piece of infrastructure that has been built at a cost to the taxpayer of €1 billion.

It is not the responsibility of the Commission for Taxi Regulation.

I ask the regulator to bring it forward. We have been talking about it for the past year and a half and it has gone over the heads of all the agencies involved. We have talked to the Garda and the Dublin Transport Authority but nothing has been done. For once this committee can do something. It can recommend that taxis should not have to pay to go through the port tunnel. Most taxi drivers would agree with this, as it would take traffic away from clogged up arteries. What are the regulator's views on this proposal?

I apologise for being late. I was attending another committee. I hope my questions will not duplicate others already asked.

In a year in which cuts, savings and reductions are the norm, given that the regulator has a surplus of €23 million, does she think it appropriate to reduce the charge to taxi drivers?

I have raised the issue of ranks before and believe it is one of the most significant. Taxi drivers cannot just park anywhere; equally, members of the public never know where they will pick up a car. Deputy Cuffe was lucky that a few stopped for him in Kildare Street. The regulator is clearly saying ranks are the responsibility of city councils. In the context of next year's restricted budgets, always assuming sites might be identified in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and so on, it is highly unlikely there will be money available to do this. I put it to Ms Doyle that the surplus might be used to provide ranks, albeit on a pay-back basis. It would be ridiculous for her and city councils to identify sites and for them not to have been built ten years later because of the lack of money. Would she consider it appropriate to do the work and recoup the cost later, if that is what it would take to resolve the matter?

With regard to the Minister's new Transport Bill, there is the issue of signs. One of the recommendations made in this respect was that security numbers be used in order that legitimate taxis would be in use to combat illegal use. Has the regulator made suggestions to the Minister and the Department to the effect that a section dealing with this issue be included in the Bill?

On insurance, the Garda now has the technology to ensure real-time recognition of tax and insurance details. Is there a need to provide for an insertion in the Bill on tax and insurance? Is it not merely an issue of a person not having insurance and contributed to the insurance fund and thus engaging in the fraudulent use of a taxi? It is bad enough for the ordinary citizen not to have insurance, but the fraudulent use of a taxi is a bigger issue.

Concerning testing——

There is a vote in the Chamber.

With regard to our concerns about non-Irish persons not having insurance, is the regulator negotiating with the Minister on the new Bill to try to have this point included?

I put it to Ms Doyle that I am most unhappy with her response to our recommendations and with the way in which the taxi industry has been treated. I gather a group from the Irish Taxi Council arranged to meet her recently and because five people from around the country turned up instead of three, she refused to meet them. Is that correct?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

That is incorrect.

What happened?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We never refuse to meet any representative body. We have a policy of meeting three delegates to ensure effective dialogue at meetings. We treat all representative bodies in exactly the same way. Our protocol is to meet three delegates. Bodies are informed of this in advance. We have met a number of representative bodies in the past week.

Ms Doyle did not agree to meet a group with more than three delegates which arrived recently.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The people who arrived were again advised of our policy. We have not refused to meet anybody.

I have to advise that a motion will be put before the committee that the office of the regulator be disbanded. As far as I am concerned, since it came into being, it has not dealt with the issue of taxi regulation in the best way. It has been a waste of money and not addressed the key issues which the committee has raised with the commissioner who has failed to respond. As several members said, she seems to be going the other way all the time with regard to the creation of a quality taxi industry which would provide a quality service for customers and also a fair, just and proper living for those who provide the service. On the first occasion the regulator came before the committee, she told us——

I will not stand by that.

The Deputy can discuss the matter when the motion is put before the committee.

It should be discussed at Cabinet level, not at this meeting.

On the first occasion the commissioner came before the committee, she told us that there were plenty of opportunities, through despatch offices, for taxi drivers to secure employment. She came back with a Goodbody report which stated all was well in the industry. However, she failed to respond to many recommendations or create any relationship with the people who are of most importance in the business, namely, the taxi drivers. For these reasons, I believe her office is a costly bureaucracy which has not worked. I put it to her that the committee will recommend that it be disbanded. Although our recommendation may not be accepted, we shall certainly make it. I plead with the commissioner to listen to what is being said and, even at this stage, try to respond to the concerns we and the industry have tried to raise with her and to which, to date, she has not been prepared to listen.

I have not heard of this motion.

It will be put before the committee at a later date.

Sitting suspended at 5.35 p.m. and resumed at 5.55 p.m.

As intended, I will give a right of response to the regulator. It will be a matter for discussion and decision by the committee, but I will table a motion that the office of the regulator, constituted, be disbanded and that a new arrangement under new legislation be put in place. I call Ms Doyle.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I am very disappointed that the Chairman has not acknowledged the hard work done by the commission since its establishment. However, I have been before the committee on previous occasions and I am pleased to note that committee members have acknowledged the hard work done by the commission. I am disappointed, however, that this has not been acknowledged by the Chairman.

Change in any profession is difficult. While the industry continues to go through a period of reform, ultimately, a high quality fleet will increase consumer demand which, in turn, will benefit the industry. I will continue to regulate the industry as provided for in the 2003 Act.

I cannot stand by and watch the political assassination of an office which has provided an exceptionally good service to ensure the standard of taxis rises. There are many issues to be resolved and the purpose of this meeting is to discuss them.

The Deputy will have an opportunity to——

However, I believe that at the next parliamentary party meeting the Chairman should discuss the matter with the Minister for Transport who is ultimately responsible for the transport industry. The commissioner is in place to do a job and the terms of reference are decided upon by the Minister for Transport. The commissioner has carried out her job in a very efficient way. The Chairman should——

The Deputy is entitled to hold that position.

——discuss the matter with the Minister for Transport and refrain from a political assassination of the office at the Joint Committee on Transport. We have more important issues to discuss, but that is not to deflect from the Chairman's responsibility as a member of a Government party. The commissioner has been treated like a doormat for far too long; I will not stand by and see that happen.

I have no wish to get involved in a row between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Far be it from me to do so because the two parties have much in common. Under the legislation, the taxi commission will be subsumed into the office of the national transport regulator. Does the commissioner see herself remaining in place? Dublin representatives hold concerns about the Dublin Transport Authority which originally was to be the authority. Does the commissioner envisage that the commission will remain as a division of the office of the national transport regulator reporting, say, to Mr. John Fitzgerald and Mr. Gerry Murphy, or does she envisage something else? Yesterday we discussed the matter in the House and other Deputies will have the opportunity to discuss it next week. The legislation has been passed by the Seanad. Does the commissioner envisage that the commission will have a certain character within the office of the new regulator, or will the proposed national transport regulator gradually begin to respond to the industry and the Oireachtas?

Does the regulator have powers in respect of the first question asked under section 11 of the 2003 Act? I apologise for missing some of the debate but I was called out to attend the NAMA debate. Are there powers to provide funding for rank infrastructure to enable the roll-out to take place? What is the position on tax clearance and vetting people who are renting plates? It seems many can do what they like. I am not sure whether there was tax clearance for three or five years for those renting plates.

Now that the status of the taxi industry has changed in the regulated market, as the commission has acknowledged, and drivers are more often employees rather than self-employed, is there an issue with the immigration service about invigilating work visas to ensure compliance with the exact requirements for non-EU nationals working in the industry? Some have raised concerns about this aspect.

There are other issues but now the Irish Taxi Council is a strong voice. I hope the commission and the new major national transport regulator will consult.

The city manager and representatives of the chamber of commerce are coming in to speak to us.

Yes, but I want to make a final point. I accept that the commissioner has taken on board some of the issues raised by the Irish Taxi Council, although she did not speak at the last meeting. Is it her intention that there will be a strong consultation role through the advisory council?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I will speak to the chairperson and new chief executive officer of the National Transport Authority about its separate division when the time comes. My functions under the new Bill will remain the same. I will take responsibility for the functions under the 2003 Act, even at incorporation stage.

Will Ms Doyle or the national regulator or chief executive have the final say on taxis?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The authority will have the final say.

I would like to hear the commissioner's response to a couple of other small points.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Under section 11, we can use surplus funds for infrastructure. We will consider the matter when local authorities take into consideration the guidelines we provide for the establishment of ranks.

Will that start in Galway and Dublin?

Ms Kathleen Doyle


I thank the commissioner for taxi regulation and Ms Gilna for their presentation. We will suspend the meeting for a few moments before meeting representatives from Dublin City Council and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

For how long will we sit? Is this going to be another all night session?

We will try to get through the business to be conducted as quickly as we can. I would appreciate the Deputy's co-operation in that respect.

These late night sessions are becoming very difficult for us.

Sitting suspended at 6.04 p.m. and resumed at 6.05 p.m.