Thursday, 24 September 2020

Questions (2)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Transport if the demands of representative groups of taxi drivers will be agreed to, namely, to dissolve the taxi advisory committee and instead establish a national transport forum with strong representation from these representative groups, to extend the ten-year rule for replacing taxis to 12 years, to instigate an immediate moratorium on the issues of licence and to establish a licence buy-back scheme for taxi drivers wishing to exit the industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25883/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

As I have repeatedly stated to the Minister and his predecessor in recent months, the clock is ticking on the dire situation faced by taxi drivers. They believe they have no choice but to organise another demonstration, to be held on 9 October, because of the failure of the Government to give commitments and assurances about supporting them through income subsidies, extending the ten-year replacement rule to 12 years, a moratorium on the issuing of licences, grants to cover ongoing costs, a buy-back scheme for those who wish to exit the industry and disbanding the taxi advisory committee. Will the Minister give those supports and commitments as requested?

I met delegates from four taxi representative groups the week before last. It was a useful and productive meeting at which I had an opportunity to hear about the impact of Covid-19 on the taxi industry and the representatives' proposals as to how the industry can best be supported through this difficult time. I undertook to meet representatives again in the near future once I had an opportunity to consider fully these issues with my Department and the NTA. I confirm that I intend following through on that commitment as soon as possible.

I have no plans to dissolve the advisory committee on small public service vehicles, sometimes known as the taxi advisory committee, at this time. This is because the committee has played an important role in advising my Department and the NTA on the issues facing the industry and on how to assist it through the pandemic and ensure its future sustainability. In July, following a request from my predecessor, the then Minister, Shane Ross, the committee submitted a report with several recommendations. Since then, my Department has worked with the committee to examine how these can be addressed. We have shared the report with other Departments and it has served as a useful basis for engagement to ensure that small public service vehicle, SPSV, operators, many of whom are self-employed, are able to access to the greatest extent possible the range of measures the Government has introduced to support businesses through these difficult circumstances.

The advisory committee, which was established under the Taxi Regulation Act 2013, enjoys a broad membership, with members representing driver interests, dispatch operators, passenger interests and official stakeholders such as local government and An Garda Síochána. This diversity of representation, combined with members' commitment to having a well-functioning and effective SPSV sector, is a real strength of the committee. My Department will continue to engage from time to time with stakeholder groups, including driver representative groups, but the advisory committee has been and will remain the central focus of engagement with the SPSV sector regarding issues affecting the sector. In addition, the NTA, as statutory regulator for the sector, will continue to engage with the industry and communicate regularly with individual SPSV operators regarding the impact of Covid.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I note that the issue of age limits for taxis is a matter for the industry regulator, that is, the NTA. I remind the House that the NTA has already extended age limits for vehicles that were due to reach the limit between March 2020 and the end of the year. This regulatory change by the NTA means that since the start of the pandemic no operator has needed to replace his or her vehicle due to vehicle age limits.

I understand the NTA will continue to monitor the situation and will consider the need for any further extension later this year. This is a proportionate and reasonable approach that allows for appropriate and timely decisions to be taken in response to the prevailing circumstances. Of course, these vehicle age limits exist in the first place because the regulator recognises that newer vehicles are generally safer, more comfortable for passengers and more environmentally friendly. Therefore, we can expect any further extension of vehicle age limits to be targeted and limited, balancing the interests of SPSV operators and the wider public and passenger interest. This Government has committed to continue supporting the greening of the taxi fleet and will continue to provide financial assistance to drivers to switch to battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. My Department has several specific initiatives to encourage the movement away from fossil fuels in the small public service vehicle sector. As such, I would not favour a blanket extension of age limits of the type sought by taxi representatives as it would conflict with these important priorities.

I know that some taxi representative groups have called for a moratorium on the issuance of new SPSV licences. Current demand for new taxi licences has collapsed to a small fraction of previous application levels and as such it is not clear how preventing new applications would assist the industry through its current difficulties. In any event, for the past two decades the Government has not exercised quantitative controls on the issuance of taxi licences. Prior to the abolition of those controls, the country, and Dublin in particular, suffered from a chronic undersupply of taxis. The abolition of the controls was necessary to address these supply issues. Over the past two decades, this policy has served passengers well. As I do not believe passenger interests would be served by the reintroduction of quantitative controls, I do not favour imposing a moratorium on the issuance of SPSV licences at this time. When I met taxi driver representatives, they outlined a type of buy-back scheme for taxi licences but, in view of the fact that there are no quantitative controls on entry into the SPSV industry, I do not see a basis for such a scheme.

In all that chatter, there was no clear commitment. The Government cut the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, of many taxi drivers who now have even less work available to them because of the new restrictions and there is no income subsidy for those who are able to return to work. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are in a dire situation but there has been no commitment by the Government. Will it commit not to cut their PUP if they must stay off work and that it will give them the income subsidy? Incredibly, licences continue to be issued while the industry is on its knees and there is 70% less work available for the fleet. Taxi drivers have, on average, €11,000 of costs which are clocking up all the time while there is no work available to them. They are not getting grant support in that regard. They have asked for the implementation of a buy-back scheme for drivers who wish to exit the industry but that has not been done. The last two actual taxi driver representatives on the taxi advisory committee left it because it is completely unfit for purpose, does not represent the interests of taxi drivers and does not put forward demands that would protect their livelihoods and industry.

I cannot give clear commitments on the matter now because we must sit down again with taxi representative groups in advance of so doing. As I stated to those groups, I wish to sit down with the Department and the NTA. I discussed the matter with the NTA this week. My Department had similar meetings with the NTA and will do so again next week before we have further discussions with the taxi representative groups. I wish to sit down with those groups. I listened to them identify the real and critical problems facing the industry, which is in real difficulty, as are many other industries, and I am committing to doing whatever we can to help it get through this difficult time. However, I wish to have a chance to talk to the representative associations and go through the possibilities rather than make commitments in the Dáil before my Department and the NTA have sat down to tease out the possible changes.

It is certain and clear that the Government is looking to support taxi drivers through this difficult time, not just in Dublin, but across the country. They are a vital part of our transport infrastructure and they must survive this pandemic period and come out the other side. I am convinced that they will do so and I hope that we will end up with a better service for taxi drivers and their customers.

It was not a good start for the Government to cut taxi drivers' PUP payments at the same time as it imposed restrictions that will even further reduce the amount of work available to the drivers. The Minister really needs to get a move on and give those assurances. The taxi drivers do not wish to hold another protest, but they believe they have no other choice because they are in desperate straits.

On the ten-year replacement rule, that could be changed now. The drivers do not have the money to replace their vehicles. It is not true to state that this issue will not arise until the end of the year because the drivers need to know 90 days in advance whether they are going to renew their licence for their existing car, buy a new car or leave the industry. They need to know these things now. It is clear they have no faith in the taxi advisory committee. They were part of it but their last two representatives left it because it simply is not representing their interests. I appeal to the Minister to get a move on because taxi drivers are in a dire situation. Words, tea and sympathy are not enough. They need concrete assurances and real supports to get them through this period.

We will act quickly on this issue but we need to get it right. I need to work with the Department and the NTA to make sure we go back to the industry representatives with clear measures that are doable. Not all of them will be doable, but wherever a measure is possible, we will act, such as by extending the PUP into next year. The Government has not ruled out further revising the PUP if that is needed because the pandemic lasts longer or is more severe than expected. There is no shortage of support available. The €3.5 billion payment so far under the PUP is just a part of what must be done. I commit to going back to speak to taxi representative groups again. Where it is possible to take practical measures that improve their lot and maintain a proper taxi service, we will so do. It will not be easy and not every measure will be achievable, but I certainly commit to look at each of them. I listened to the representative groups with real respect. I will meet them again. Where we can amend things, we will do so.