Thursday, 24 September 2020

Questions (3)

Darren O'Rourke


3. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the measures he is taking to protect and ensure the future viability of the taxi industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25995/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

It should not escape the attention of the Minister that 40% of the Priority Questions that have been tabled are on the issue of taxis. Rather than having a repeat of his exchange with Deputy Boyd Barrett, I ask the Minister to focus on the financial package for taxi drivers for which he is advocating as the Minister with responsibility for the sector.

Rather than reading out the full reply I have before me, I will focus on the financial aspect of this issue. The fundamental problem is that there is no way to replace the passenger demand for taxis that has been lost during the pandemic. It will only return as the pandemic is brought under control and economic activity across all sectors recovers. However, the Government measures should ensure that operators who wish to remain in the industry will be able to do so, enabling them to thrive again once the pandemic abates. Many taxi drivers have been able to avail of the pandemic unemployment payment and it will remain open to new applicants for the remainder of the year. It is an important lifeline for SPSV operators. Many of them may have gone back to work as the economy began to reopen only to find that subsequent necessary public health measures once again suppressed passenger demand for their services. The continued accessibility of the PUP will provide an important safety net to operators, recognising their dependency on other sectors of the economy.

SPSV operators who come off the pandemic unemployment payment can avail of the Covid-19 enterprise support grant. This one-off grant, worth up to €1,000, can be used towards the costs associated with reopening a business which can include the purchase of cleaning materials, approved dividing screens and personal protective equipment.

Self-employed SPSV operators, who were profitable in 2019 but not in 2020 due to Covid-19, may be able to avail of an income tax relief allowing for up to €20,000 of losses from this year to be offset against profits from 2019.

Many SPSV operators have car loans for their vehicles and, therefore, may be able to benefit from the Government's credit and liquidity measures. The Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme provides for loans at a discounted interest rate backed by the Government. The Covid-19 business loans scheme provides for loans of up to €25,000 interest free for six months, with a Government rebate available for the interest payable for the following six months.

I am glad the Minister mentioned the enterprise support grant. Taxi drivers are reporting that it can take up to 11 weeks for applications to be processed and in that time they are supposed to be back at work and earning. They do not have the reserves to get back to work. That delay needs to be addressed.

I will give an example of an application under the credit guarantee scheme in my constituency. One of my constituents who was refused a low interest loan on a Monday under the credit guarantee scheme was given a loan by the same bank on Wednesday of the same week to buy the same car at an interest rate of 9%. I want the Minister to look into that. It seems the scheme is not operating as intended and certainly not to the benefit of taxi drivers.

Is there a proposal to increase the pandemic unemployment payment to €350? What will be considered in the budget? What proposals is the Minister making? What is in the mix?

I would appreciate if the Deputy would provide me with details of the examples he gave. If there is an eight-week delay in processing the applications for the enterprise support grant, I would be keen to know that and I would check up with the relevant authorities as to why that happened. Similarly, if there are instances where an application under the credit guarantee scheme was refused only for the same bank to approve the loan under a separate scheme, I would appreciate if the Deputy would provide the details because I would get my Department to follow up.

With regard to the pandemic unemployment payment, that is obviously a matter for the budget and the Ministers for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance to decide. My understanding is this will not be exclusively a matter for the budget process and we may need an ongoing review process. We will have to establish a recovery fund later this year which will give us flexibility in how we manage the pandemic into next year. That may well include revisions, extensions and alterations, as appropriate, to either the pandemic unemployment payment or the employment wage subsidy scheme. However, that is not an issue for me to decide. It is for the Cabinet collectively to decide in the remaining months of this year.

I welcome the Minister's statement that he will engage with taxi drivers. They have clearly set out their asks and they want the Minister, who is their Minister at the Cabinet table, to articulate their position on expanding the Covid pandemic unemployment payment and also the step-down payment. The Minister needs to hear that loudly and clearly from this side of the House and from taxi drivers. Taxi drivers need to hear from the Minister, both in the House and at the Cabinet table. That is a clear and reasonable ask.

Another issue that taxi drivers have raised time and again is insurance costs. I would like to hear from the Minister a clear statement on his asks of the Government in the run-in to the budget and on his efforts to address the high cost of insurance.

Insurance is a critical issue, on which reports from the Central Bank and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission will have a material bearing. The Government will have to assess those reports and act on them to bring down the cost of insurance for everyone.

With regard to the meeting with the taxi drivers and the range of issues that they rightly raised, the critical issues are the industry specific ones, including the lifetime of vehicles, access for taxis to bus lanes and protective measures within the cab. Those and the industry specific restart, credit and other support mechanisms are the issues on which I will have to focus.

On the characteristics of the pandemic unemployment payment as a universal social welfare payment, it would be difficult and possibly incorrect to start moving away from the universality of the social welfare system because we would end up with whole categories of people falling behind or losing out. That is not an easy adjustment to make for a specific industry. However, where there are industry specific measures we can take for taxi drivers, I will focus on those. Looking at future licensing applications and the types of vehicles and supports for that are where there is real potential for us to help the industry through this difficult time.