Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Questions (27)

Seán Crowe


112 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Transport if he will report on the progress made in implementing the taxi hardship payments scheme. [7077/04]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport)

Area Development Management Limited has been engaged to administer the taxi hardship payments scheme which is implementing the recommendations of the taxi hardship panel report in accordance with the relevant Government decision. The scheme was formally launched in November 2003 and application forms were issued to all persons who made submissions to the taxi hardship panel.

Newspaper advertisements were placed in the national newspapers on 6 November 2003 inviting applications under the scheme from those who held taxi licences at 21 November 2000; are able to demonstrate that they have suffered extreme personal financial hardship following loss of income arising from the liberalisation of the taxi licensing regime; fall into one of the six categories identified by the taxi hardship panel report; and are tax compliant. ADM is proceeding with the processing and assessment of applications as the application forms and associated required documentation are returned to them. Payments under the scheme commenced in December 2003.

I understand from ADM that it had received a total of 1,025 applications as of 25 February 2004. Hardship payments totalling €2,458,000 have been made to 204 qualifying persons to date and a further 163 applications are expected to come before the ADM board on 3 March for decision. Of the outstanding applications, 657 are awaiting processing. Additional information or clarification has been requested from applicants in approximately 80% of these cases.

The time taken to process applications and to make payments depends on the completeness of the information and supporting documentation in each case. Newspaper advertisements were again placed in the national newspapers on 27 February 2004 inviting applications under the scheme and advising of a closing date of 30 April 2004 for receipt of applications.

In light of our Presidency of the European Union and the possibility that this issue will be raised again soon in the European Parliament, will the Minister outline his reasons for his outright rejection of the report of the Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament, which described the payments made under the taxi hardship payments scheme as "derisory and inadequate" and called for a complete review of the matter? Will he outline what, if any, correspondence he has had with the committee's chairman, Mr. Vitaliano Gemelli, and the nature of any such correspondence?

Is the Minister aware of reports that hundreds of taxi drivers and their families are considering taking legal action against the State over the hardship caused by deregulation of the taxi industry and the manner in which it was handled by the State? Has he taken legal advice or consulted the Attorney General in this regard? Does he accept that the total value of taxi licences before deregulation was €400 million and that the suggestion that the Government's pay-out will amount to €15 million, or less than 4% of the value, proves the argument of groups such as FAIR that taxi drivers will continue to suffer extreme personal financial hardship?

On a personal note, has the Minister been approached by people who have suffered hardship, particular individuals who have had to remortgage their homes and, if so, what is his message to them? Does he not believe that he has a political and moral responsibility to them?

As the Deputy will be aware, when the taxi hardship panel was established its eminent members were asked to investigate how the State could help alleviate the genuine suffering experienced by many families and individuals arising from the liberalisation of the taxi industry. For legal reasons, the issue was never described as a compensation issue but one of hardship. On foot of its investigation, the panel recommended that any future payment scheme should not exceed an amount of €15 million. To date, almost €2.5 million has been paid out and I have provided details on the outstanding amount.

I met the Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament, which made a strong case for additional funding. Notwithstanding the conflicting views of the committee and the taxi hardship panel, the Government accepted the recommendations of the latter.

As regards the legal actions pending against the State, the manner in which these proceed is a matter for the taxi drivers concerned. I have been approached many times in my clinic and officially by many people who have suffered in this area. While the measures the Government has taken are not sufficient — we would like to do more — we established a sensible process in which three esteemed persons examined the matter and recommended the current approach as the best support the taxpayer could give to people in the taxi industry. I am proceeding on that basis.

Does the Minister accept that the Committee on Petitions, whose findings were the opposite of those of the panel established by the Minister, is also an eminent group of individuals, which is impartial? The reality is that people continue to suffer and the matter has not been adequately addressed. People have been forced to remortgage their houses, while others, who may be in poor health or widowed and had set aside licences as a nest egg, have been left with a "derisory and inadequate response", to use the words of the Committee on Petitions. It is not surprising that the Minister opted for the panel over the committee, given that the latter argued in favour of making more money available to the taxi industry. It is up to the Minister to devise other ways to raise money to try to address the issue.

I met the Committee on Petitions at the request of Proinsias De Rossa, MEP, who led the delegation. Although the committee made a strong case, as I pointed out, we followed a definite procedure in establishing a taxi hardship panel which examined the matter in detail and from an Irish perspective. I am not suggesting the EU petitions committee did not take an Irish view of this, it did but it also took a broader view of it. The Government opted for the taxi hardship panel conclusions and proceeded on that basis. That is no reflection on the evidence of the petitions committee.

That concludes Priority Questions. We now come to deal with Other Questions. I remind Members that supplementary questions and answers are confined to one minute.