I am glad to see Members again so soon after our discussions on the recently enacted Transport (Córas Iompair Éireann and Subsidiary Companies Borrowings) Act 2012, and I thank the House for its co-operation on that. I must hold some sort of record as this is the second Bill I have introduced as a Minister of State that has begun in this House in the space of about two months. On this occasion, I am introducing the Taxi Regulation Bill 2012, which deals with the requirement to strengthen enforcement of the taxi regulations and, in order to ensure a robust legislative framework for these new enforcement provisions, to replace the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. We are coming from an era in which there was a laissez-faire approach to taxi regulation, which must be ended. This Bill, along with other measures, will make 2013 a defining year for the taxi sector, which has finally been placed at the top of the political agenda. As well as the measures I will outline, a series of radical changes will take place in the taxi sector. There will be an online register of drivers so the State knows what driver is in each car, and consumers will be able to verify this. The rental sector will be cleaned up and we will have new vehicle standards and increased enforcement. This Bill is part of a package of measures designed to improve the taxi sector for consumers and drivers alike.
The programme for Government sets out a commitment to review and update the regulation of taxis to ensure that taxi services are recognised as a key component of the public transport system and to provide for a forum for discussion between the regulatory authorities and taxi providers. The publication of the Bill is a key step in honouring that commitment. The genesis of the Bill lies in the recommendations of the taxi regulation review report from 2011, which was endorsed by the Government in January 2012. The taxi regulation review group, which I chaired, was established following a Government decision in June 2011. The aim of the review was to allow consumers to have confidence in the taxi system while also ensuring that legitimate and competent operators and drivers can be rewarded fairly by operating under a regulatory framework that is adequately enforced.
The review group brought together representatives of all of the key stakeholders - dispatch operators, taxi drivers and consumer representative groups, as well as relevant Departments and regulatory and enforcement agencies. It carried out a wide-ranging review of the sector which included a public consultation process involving an opportunity for written submissions on the review and for oral presentations from key stakeholder groups. A parallel public consultation was carried out by the National Transport Authority, NTA, on vehicle standards.
In drawing up its recommended measures, the review group was also assisted by an independent economic analysis carried out by Indecon economic consultants. The Indecon analysis concluded that there is an oversupply of small public service vehicles, in the range of 13% to 22% of the current fleet. In Indecon's view, the level of oversupply is influenced by the impact of non-compliant operators in the sector and by the low level of exit from the industry. The review report indicated that a number of legislative changes would be required to strengthen enforcement and ensure compliance with the taxi regulations.
I am satisfied that the measures set out in the Bill strike an appropriate balance between consumer interests and those of the operators in the industry and the need for regulatory bodies to be able to undertake proportionate and effective oversight. I am confident that the new enforcement provisions of this Bill will be broadly welcomed by the industry and consumers alike. The Bill represents the most comprehensive review of taxi regulation ever carried out in this State and one that I am proud to champion as Minister of State. Drivers are suffering from unfair competition from unscrupulous operators while consumers have not felt safe or had confidence in the standards of professionalism in the taxi sector. This Bill will help to bring about change.
The new legislation will provide for a much more sophisticated enforcement toolkit.
The enforcement regime to be adopted in future will be based on a graduated approach to tackling non-compliance, depending on the gravity of the criminal offence or compliance failure. It will also be designed to speed up the prosecution of offenders and the administration of justice. The Bill ensures that enforcement and compliance start at the point of entry to the industry. Under Part 4 the mandatory disqualification of drivers from holding an SPSV licence will ensure that those with convictions or indictment for the most serious violent crimes will be excluded from the industry. A key recommendation arising from the taxi regulation review was the commencement of the legislative provision for mandatory disqualification. The provision has been on the Statute Book since 2003, in the Taxi Regulation Act, but has not yet been commenced due to concerns over its proportionality and administration.
The underlying policy principles for the mandatory disqualification provisions are, first, to ensure the welfare and the safety of passengers of small public service vehicle, SPSV, transport services, particularly in situations where a passenger is travelling alone in a taxi and, second, the proportionate application of the mandatory disqualification provision, to avoid any risk of legal challenge, on the basis of the constitutional right to earn a living, with regard to excluding persons from operating in the taxi industry.
The proportionality issue is addressed in the Bill through specifying the most serious of offences in the Schedule, for which conviction on indictment constitutes a demonstration, through their previous criminal actions, of the propensity of the person to harm another person; allowing for a tiered system of disqualification. This is based on consideration of the seriousness of the offences in the Schedule. The most serious offences are shown in Part 1 of the Schedule, namely, those which result in disqualification for life from the date of conviction. With regard to disqualification in the case of the offences listed in Part 2 of the Schedule, there is a tiered system of disqualification periods in the Bill based on the severity of the length of the sentence imposed upon conviction, to which additional years of disqualification are applied. In less grave cases where a fine only or a suspended prison sentence is imposed, there is a 12 month disqualification period. In the more serious cases the disqualification period can range from an additional two years where the term of imprisonment imposed is between three and five years, up to the top end of the scale where an additional five years disqualification period applies where the term of imprisonment imposed is more than seven years.
There is an appeal provision under the mandatory disqualification provision which is open to all, allowing the courts to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the suitability of individuals to hold a licence. In order to be proportionate, the mandatory disqualification provision is applied retrospectively. A 12 month stay is provided for with regard to licenceholders who have convictions prior to enactment of the Bill to allow for those persons to appeal their disqualification to the courts. In the case of these licenceholders, if the appeal is not made within the 12 month period, or if such an appeal fails, the person is disqualified and their licence stands revoked.
Section 27 of the Bill makes it an obligation for licenceholders and applicants to notify the licensing authority of their conviction of any offence that falls under the mandatory disqualification provision. A licence applicant must supply this notification at the time of application. In the case of a licenceholder the notification must be supplied no later than one month from the date of conviction, or in the case of convictions prior to enactment, within one month of enactment of the Bill. I believe that the provision for mandatory disqualification in the Bill will be a vast improvement in strengthening the existing vetting system carried out by An Garda Síochána in its administration of SPSV driver licensing system.
The licensing authority for SPSV licences is the National Transport Authority, NTA, in the case of vehicle licences and An Garda Síochána in the case of driver licences. The Bill provides for the possibility that the administration role now undertaken by the Garda will pass to the NTA at some point in the future. However it is envisaged that vetting of applicants and licenceholders will remain a Garda function.
More robust licensing and assessment provisions found in Part 2 on SPSV licensing, will give powers to the licensing authority, both the NTA and the Garda, to refuse to grant a licence application or to revoke or suspend a licence, based on an assessment of the suitability of the person to hold a licence, as found in section 10 in the Bill. This includes consideration of convictions for any offence, in addition to the offences in the Schedule, that have relevance to the assessment of suitability with regard to providing a service to passengers and use of SPSV vehicles.
The licensing authority may also, under section 11 which concerns the revocation or suspension of a licence, decide to revoke or suspend a licence where it is satisfied that the person is no longer a suitable person to hold a licence based on its consideration of whether the person has contravened the taxi regulations or code of practice established or adopted by the NTA under section 18.
Section 13 provides for a system of appeals and representations with regard to decisions of the licensing authority to refuse to grant a licence application or to suspend or revoke a licence, with a final appeal made available through the District Court.
For licenceholders, the new demerit scheme under Part 5 of the Bill will deal with recurrent breaches of the taxi regulations. This scheme is based on the penalty points system for driving licences but there will be no overlap between the operation of the two systems. Under the SPSV demerit scheme, demerit offences, which constitute breaches of the taxi regulations, are specified in section 30. The table in section 31, which shows endorsement of demerits, sets out the number of demerits applicable upon payment of a fixed charge or upon conviction for each demerit offence. The period of endorsement of demerits on an SPSV licence is three years. Disqualification by reason of demerits is automatic upon obtaining a total number of demerits equal to or exceeding eight, and the disqualification is for a period of three months. The appropriate date for commencement of a period of disqualification arising under the demerit scheme will be 28 days after notice is given for disqualification, or some further date to be determined in the courts in the case of an appeal against a conviction for a demerit offence that is relevant to the disqualification.
Section 44 provides for fixed payment offences for contravention of the regulations on a range of regulatory matters that can be enforced by the NTA enforcement officers and, in the case of specified offences, also by members of An Garda Síochána. The level of fee payable for a fixed payment offence will be established by regulations made by the NTA. In addition, the fixed payment offences are also demerit offences under Part 5 of the Bill. Therefore, upon a fixed payment or conviction for a fixed payment offence, the specified number of demerits will be endorsed on an SPSV licence.
The on-street enforcement resources of the NTA will in the future be supported by resources obtained under service agreements as provided for under section 46. Changes made to the provision for authorised persons under the Bill in section 36 will allow for persons under service agreements to carry out all or any of the functions of authorized officers as specified under warrant of appointment from the NTA.
Conduct and compliance at taxi ranks is also dealt with in the Bill. Section 22 provides for specific offences relating to a breach of the parameters for use of taxi stands that are specified in by-laws made by the local authorities. For example, there is the offence of standing with a taxi on a part of a public road adjoining a taxi stand when the taxi rank is full. Section 40, on closed circuit television at taxi ranks, will allow the NTA to use cameras, CCTV or other apparatus to build its evidence base with regard to breaches of the regulations and offences involving SPSVs at taxi stands.
The Bill represents a balance between concern for the quality of service and safety for the passengers in SPSVs, while also setting out the obligations on passengers with regard to SPSV services, under section 25, on the regulation of passengers in SPSVs. Furthermore, the coherence of the overall regulatory and enforcement framework which is contained in the Bill is simplified and streamlined into three core areas where the NTA has powers to make regulations, SPSV licensing, assessment of licence applications and SPSV operations and standards. This represents a refinement and streamlining of the previous regulatory powers under sections 34 and 39 of the Taxi Regulation Act 2003, and provides greater clarity for all those involved in the taxi industry.
The Taxi Regulation Bill is a major improvement on the existing legislative framework. It is a more precise statement of the powers of the regulator, the principles and process for licensing and assessment, and the operational standards required by licenceholders. This will give clarity to potential new market entrants and to licenceholders in the industry, as well as to SPSV passengers in regard to the quality and standard of service they should expect. The Bill sets out clearly the consequences for applicants and licenceholders who fail to meet suitability standards or for contravention of the regulations. The provisions of the Bill facilitate the development of a greater physical enforcement presence and capability to effectively enforce the taxi regulations. It will improve the speed of dealing with regulatory breaches through fixed payment offences and the new demerit scheme even before these issues reach the courts. The new enforcement measures and refinement of the regulatory framework contained in the provisions of this Bill are essential to support the future regulatory regime where only suitable and compliant drivers and operators can benefit within the SPSV industry and in order that passengers can be confident that SPSV services are of a high quality and are safe for travel.
Following the publication of the Bill and in the light of representations made and further analysis undertaken by my Department in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General and the Garda, I expect to bring forward a small number of amendments on Committee Stage. These mainly relate to technical and drafting matters. However, I am considering the possible need to provide for business continuity in the event of the death of a licenceholder given that licences will no longer be transferable. I am also considering an amendment to the Bill to give the necessary powers to the gardaí under the Road Traffic Acts to enforce 11 fixed payment offences which were specified by the Taxi Review Group under Action 21 of the Taxi Regulation Review Report. This will greatly ameliorate the effective on-street enforcement of the regulations, following on from enactment of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.