Taxi Regulation Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Acting Chairman

Deputy Cowley is in possession and is sharing his time with Deputies Eamon Ryan and Ó Snodaigh.

This is an extremely important Bill. There is great need for regulation of the taxi industry. There is not a person who is not concerned about travelling in the taxis that are available. There is concern about the general standard of taxis. Females travelling by themselves are concerned about the safety of travelling in taxis. There is a mistrust of taxi drivers, and that reflects badly on everybody in the industry. It reflects badly on the taxi men who provide a good service. This concern has arisen since deregulation, with all types of people becoming involved in the trade.

There have been problems as regards the number of people involved in the industry and the way in which they have been allowed to become taxi drivers. There is a fear that the taxi system will be unsafe and that people will lose confidence in it. That is why I greatly welcome this Bill. A taxi regulator is needed to lay down the entry requirement for entrance to the industry. It will take away from the local authority and the Minister responsibility for issuing these licences and for laying down the conditions under which they can be given out. There is so much regulation that it behoves us to ensure the mechanisms are there so the scheme is seen to be working effectively. This will require proper monitoring.

I missed the Minister's speech because I had to sit in on a committee, but I was able to read it afterwards. In the Select Committee on the Environment and Local Government some amendments to the Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 were being discussed. In that Bill, powers are being taken away from the local authorities and we did the same a number of years ago with regard to taxi deregulation. The local authorities in the Dublin area were starting to come to grips with the system when deregulation was introduced. I welcomed deregulation and thought it was appropriate to open up the market and bring in freedom of entry and exit. I particularly welcomed the commitment, associated with deregulation, to provide universal wheelchair access among taxis. This important commitment was clearly outlined in all the Government's statements. It was promised that procedures would be put in place to ensure that by the end of 2003, the Government would start a process of ensuring all taxis were wheelchair accessible. It was understood this would take a couple of years, but the commitment was made. It was a Progressive Democrats commitment, since it was made by a Progressive Democrats Minister, but it was backed by both Government parties. The promise was clear.

This is an example of how a promise from the Progressive Democrats or Fianna Fáil is not worth the paper the manifestos are printed on. It is disgraceful that although this taxi deregulation legislation is being introduced, that promise from two years ago has not been mentioned. There is no indication that the Government has any intention of living up to its commitment of ensuring that all taxis are wheelchair accessible. If I am wrong, I would like to hear that from the Minister. There is nothing in the Bill or in the speech the Minister gave today to indicate the Government intends to keep its promise. There is nothing in the answers I have received to questions to the Minister that indicates that it intends to meet this objective. It is a disgrace and a shame. I would like to hear the Government's excuse for this from the Ministers who blathered on last night, pointing the finger at other parties, when one simple promise, which would make a huge difference to the most disadvantaged in this community, cannot be carried through.

There would be no huge financial burden on the State involved in carrying out this promise. It would be of huge benefit to the general public transport system, but the Government cannot do it.

The Deputy should read section 34.

I have read it inside out. There is no commitment that by the end of this year the process of making taxis 100% accessible will have started.

The Deputy said there was no mention of this in the Bill. I suggest he read section 34.

There is no commitment such as the one I mentioned. I have read the Bill inside out and I have asked specific questions on this issue. All I get in response is that the Government is considering regulations to try to make taxi vehicles easier to enter for people of various mobilities. There is no mention, in the answers to the specific questions I have asked the Minister, of how the Government intends to carry out its promise.

There are various ways in which we can look after those of impaired mobility in terms of taxis. We had a system under which a certain number of wheelchair-accessible licences were allocated. We all know that it did not work in this city. While some people did heroic work in meeting the needs of disabled people, many of the other plates were not used for wheelchair-accessible vehicles. It was almost impossible – and still is to this day – for someone in a wheelchair to order a taxi in Dublin. This is incredible at a time when the country is rightly celebrating the Special Olympics and seeking to be as inclusive as possible in the area of disability. It would be next to impossible for many of the foreign athletes who are here in wheelchairs to order a taxi in this city. Every wheelchair user in the city knows it is almost impossible to order a taxi unless one knows one of the few taxi drivers who do Trojan work in this area by living up to the commitment that was given.

There are various ways of addressing this problem. The taxi unions feel that the Scandinavian model is the way to go. In Sweden there is a commitment to provide services for people with mobility difficulties, but the problem is that the system is hugely expensive and the service is totally inferior to that which any ordinary person could expect in terms of hailing a taxi. It is cheaper for wheelchair users, but it is incredibly expensive for the state. In Sweden and Finland trips for wheelchair users make up a massive proportion of the taxi business. In Sweden, they account for over half of all taxi trips. Those who are severely disabled in terms of mobility account for about a quarter of all trips. It is a major part of the market. I am not surprised that the taxi industry sees this as a good way to go, but the reality is that this system would not be suited to Irish conditions. I doubt the commitment of the Government to providing the finance that would be required to support such a system.

We know that the model of providing a small percentage of wheelchair-accessible taxis does not work because we have tried it. What are the other options? We could adopt the system used in Belfast, which is not so different to Dublin, or London or any other city in the UK, where there is a commitment to 100% wheelchair accessibility for taxis. We had the same commitment in terms of the bus service, but that has also been rowed back on. Taxis are public transport vehicles. We either have a policy of access for the whole public transport system or we do not. It is the one crucial test for the Government which it has failed. One can read things into the Bill that are not expressly set out, but they were not in the Minister's speech, nor were they in the answers to my questions on this issue.

That is because the issue is dealt with in the legislation.

There are costs involved in moving towards 100% wheelchair accessibility. There is no doubt that the vehicles are more expensive. The report of a recent European survey on mobility estimates that the increased capital costs of depreciation could add up to something like 69% of running costs on an overall basis. We need to support taxi drivers in this business. We could take away VRT on taxis if they were wheelchair accessible – after all a taxi is a public service vehicle, not a car. It is expensive, but not that expensive. If it can be done throughout the UK, there is no reason we cannot do it here. There is a wide range of manufacturers who produce vehicles specifically designed for wheelchair access, not just in the UK but also in other European countries, so we would not be in breach of European competition rules. These vehicles are far superior to the converted vehicles we call wheelchair accessible, which are not designed specifically for this purpose and have significant problems in terms of access. There are also concerns about safety and manufacturing standards.

What should we do? We should go for the best option which is designating a standard vehicle which is wheelchair accessible. Disgracefully, this was not mentioned in the Minister's speech as one of the policy objectives of the commission. The Government gave this commitment, but there was not a word about it in the Minister's speech. This system is better for drivers. There are almost 12,000 taxi plates in Dublin, four times the level of taxi ownership of the UK and an even higher ratio compared to other cities. Many of these drivers take out the family saloon on a Friday night, put up the sign and off they go as a taxi. Designating a standard vehicle which is wheelchair accessible would ensure a professional, full-time taxi fleet. A person could not throw a sign on top of their five-year-old family saloon and call themselves a taxi driver. There would be a proper vehicle which would be identifiable and easy to police in the bus lanes.

We cannot do that.

We can do that.

It is against the law.

It is against the law to designate a wheelchair-accessible vehicle?

No, it is against the law to have a standard vehicle.

I am not saying there should be just one vehicle – I am talking about a vehicle that is 100% compliant with European standards in terms of wheelchair accessibility. There are eight or nine manufacturers across Europe who make these. I am talking about standards of wheelchair accessibility, not using a particular manufacturer. Other countries, such as the UK, do this and there is no reason we should not. It applies in Belfast and it could easily apply in Dublin. It might not have to apply in certain rural areas as those taxis might not be appropriate for large mileage, but it is certainly appropriate for a city, particularly Dublin.

These vehicles have better safety standards. They protect the driver and the passenger. With the higher entry cost to the taxi fleet we could secure the incomes of those who are full-time, committed, professional taxi drivers. This is the right way to go – it is better than the present system under which anybody can get a plate and go out and earn money as a taxi without any real constraints in terms of the type of vehicle used, their knowledge of the city or the type of service they provide. There would be benefits for the disabled. People say the disabled make up a very small percentage of the market, which is true.

The European survey on mobility I mentioned earlier, however, showed this small percentage of the population depends on taxis four and a half or five times more than the average person. It is a very important form of transport for certain people who have the right to call a taxi and not have to explain their special arrangement or expect they would be treated completely differently from everyone else. This has happened in relation to the bus service and it makes a huge difference, not just for these people but for a whole range of people who have mobility difficulties. When I travel on buses with my three or four children, it is a massive advantage to travel on a low access, wheelchair friendly vehicle. I can get on with the buggy and find space for it. The same applies to the quality of taxis which are wheelchair accessible. They carry more people, are purposely designed and are safer and better vehicles. When reviewing the process, there is no reason not to set out the correct standards. It is shameful that the Government has balked on this commitment.

This facility is better for the general public because it is not just people with disabilities who prefer these vehicles. The general public prefer them because they provide a better service. If there is a demand for a saloon car service and so on that can be fulfilled by the hackney service, which will be quite extensive. People are not being told they cannot provide a service if they have a particular car, just not a taxi. They should not have the ability to pick up people on the street or travel in the bus lanes. Providing these facilities will guarantee someone a very good income as a taxi driver and guarantee the public a good service. The roll-out of the bus lanes will give a huge boost to the taxi industry in this city and, I hope, in Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Cork.

If there is a proper taxi service, using the bus lanes and being part of the public transport fleet, they will service all the people equally and will live up to the commitment the Government gave and, shamefully, despite what backbenchers might say, have now given up on. If I am wrong, I would like the Minister to say so and tell me how the Government intends by the end of this year to begin to provide 100% wheelchair accessibility. I hear a deafening silence. It is a disgrace this is happening at the time of the Special Olympics.

In 1975, the 1,200 strong Irish Taxi Federation asked the Government to establish a taxi board with regulatory powers. It is a pity it has taken 30 years and a failed Government experiment in deregulation to introduce legislation to establish such a body. It is also a pity that when the legislation comes before us we must deal with it in a hurry. Second Stage is being taken today and tomorrow and Committee and Report Stages will be taken next week. While I welcome the legislation, which should not be delayed, it is a pity it must be rushed through and that we do not have time to consult properly with the stake holders in the taxi industry, some of whom received copies of the Bill just last night.

I welcome the Government's U-turn and the new-found urgency and realisation that deregulation has been a failure. It is a pity it took so long for this to hit home. It is also a pity the experiment had such an effect on the families of many of those who held taxi plates prior to deregulation. It caused the taxi unions to take repeated industrial action to try to get the Government to address their concerns.

Deregulation has led to a massive increase in the supply of taxis, increasing by 377% between deregulation and the end of last year. The demand for taxis, however, has only increased by 5%. There is a significantly larger volume of taxis competing for only a slightly increased number of passengers. As a result, taxi drivers are being forced to work long hours, which has other implications for road safety. The cost of running a taxi has not decreased but has increased by 8%. The figures I am quoting do not do justice to the hardship suffered by taxi drivers and their families since deregulation. They have been pushed to the edge and forced to work long hours. A review carried out on behalf of the National Taxi Drivers' Union by Marketing and Strategic Management estimated that taxi fare revenue has fallen by 20% since deregulation. Many families have been driven to the wall by the Government's ill thought out deregulation policy.

An American analyst who looked at the whole area of regulation of the taxi industry said that while deregulation produces a significant increase in the number of new entrants, it appears to cause declining operational efficiency and productivity, an increase in highway congestion, energy consumption and environmental pollution, a decline in driver income, a deterioration in service, and, paradoxically, an increase in passenger rates. This has been borne out in recent years in this State.

Sinn Féin consistently opposed deregulation of the taxi industry and believes the Government made a big mistake in what we concede was a well-meaning effort to tackle the transport problems, particularly in Dublin. Better regulation was needed, not none at all, and the Bill before us is proof of that. The Government's deregulation of the industry destroyed overnight the investment of many families. It created the problem, in the first instance, by not ensuring there were sufficient taxi licences but it did not compensate those who invested huge money in taxi plates and lost it overnight. I urge the Government to tackle quickly the hardships endured by families and widows of taxi drivers who thought they had a pension fund in a taxi plate. I welcome the moves that are afoot to address this issue. I hope such action will not be taken by the Government in the future.

The major element of this Bill is the setting up of a commission to regulate the taxi industry, which is long overdue. The powers being given to the commission in the Bill to establish certain requirements for people to obtain a licence, including being familiar with the city or the area, routes and place names, is to be welcomed. Some people entering the business at the moment appear to have very little knowledge of some of the major landmarks. Just last week a member of staff got a taxi in Finglas to come to Leinster House and the driver did not know where Kildare Street was or what Leinster House was. I sometimes wonder what is Leinster House.

The Deputy knew how to get here.

I found it all right – I had a route map. It is a pity that taxi drivers are coming into the industry who do not know where certain landmarks are. I urge that a more extensive test be set to ensure we have taxi drivers of the highest quality. This country is renowned as a tourist destination and tourists should not have to get into taxis with drivers who do not know where they are going.

It is in the Bill.

I know it is included in the Bill, which is why I welcomed it. I am saying we must ensure there is a more extensive test than is currently the case. I am not criticising the Bill.

I am concerned about section 49. While I support the need for people authorised by the commission to carry out investigations on its behalf, their powers are too wide under this section. As it stands, a person authorised by the commission can enter the premises of a taxi company at a reasonable time and carry out a search for documents and licences. This might benefit from some alteration so that the person concerned would have at the very least some verifiable grounds for suspicion before entering the premises. As it stands, an investigator for the commission has wider powers of search and seizure than the Garda.

In relation to the advisory council set out in part 4 of the legislation the Minister should consider that with the list of other bodies and organisations which can nominate representatives and he might include people representing the interests of public transport in Ireland. This should include organisations like Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann whose activities directly impact on the taxi industry.

Does the Minister believe there is a case to limit the number of terms that people can serve on the council, as will be the case with the commission. As it stands there does not seem to be a limit to the number of terms a person can serve on the council and perhaps the Minister will address that in his response.

In section 53 of the legislation near the end of the Bill there is provision for a fine to be imposed on a person sitting on the council who violates the requirement of confidentiality. The person should not just be fined but also removed from the body for breach of confidentiality.

I hope this Bill will result in an identifiable, clean, efficient and affordable taxi service, not only for Dublin where I live but also for the rest of the country. As the previous speaker said, the taxi service needs to be wheelchair accessible. In particular the taxi industry and the regulations should allow drivers and their families enjoy a reasonable income without having to work long hours which are detrimental to their health and to the health of people on the streets.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Kelly.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill and look forward to working with members of the Select Committee on Transport on Committee Stage. There is common consensus that this legislation is long overdue. It reflects a growing importance of the taxi industry to public transport here. The infrastructure of the country has come under enormous strain in the past ten years due to the huge increase in economic activity. This is most evident in the area of transportation infrastructure.

Our airports, train service and especially our roads have been stretched beyond their originally intended capacities. The large increase in population and immigration as well as tourism means that every day more people want to go to more places more quickly. Every year more than 100,000 new cars come on the road, which has stretched the capacity of our roads beyond breaking point. For this reason every part of our public transport system must be modernised and stretched to maximum efficiency. The proper and orderly development of our taxi industry will play a major role in this.

For many years most modern European countries have had a highly developed sense of the importance of their own taxi industry as an integral part of their transportation system. In New York the public see the taxi industry as being as important if not more important than its other public transport systems such as airports and the subway. I was fortunate to have been in New York recently and I saw at first hand the enormous contribution that a properly and well-regulated taxi industry can make to a city's economy. Most taxi drivers in New York view their industry as a profession and they carry out their duties with diligence and pride. It is highly regulated, highly organised and completely consumer driven. I used taxis four or five times a day when in New York and am firmly convinced that the new wide availability of taxi and cab services has contributed enormously to people's confidence in the use of taxis and I would welcome this sort of culture in our country.

I make these preliminary remarks to illustrate the importance of the taxi industry worldwide and in this country. It is vital that the industry is properly regulated not only in the interest of the industry itself but also in the interest of the taxi using public.

The principal purposes of the Bill are to provide for the establishment of the Commission for Taxi Regulation; to provide for a new code for the regulation of taxis with particular emphasis on the establishment of a qualitative and consumer orientated licensing system; and to establish the advisory council. The principal functions of the taxi regulator involve the licensing, control and operation of the taxis; the oversight of the development of professional safe and efficient taxis; setting the standards to be applied to vehicles and their drivers; promoting the development of high quality and cost effective services that meet a wide range of customer needs, including those of passengers; and encouraging and promoting competition in the services offered with particular emphasis on the protection of passengers and drivers.

The whole thrust of these functions is to be consumer orientated. That is not to say that most taxi drivers are providing a bad service; the opposite is the case. I would like to put on the record of the House the high esteem in which Limerick taxi drivers are held. I do not underestimate the difficulties that have been caused by deregulation, but I firmly believe that, as with other types of deregulation, particularly in the areas of transportation, the new competitive environment will improve overall business significantly for the benefit of consumers, the taxi industry and drivers.

Having said that, safety is of paramount concern to everybody. Many of us have heard of difficulties, which women have experienced in taxis and know of the well-publicised convictions in criminal cases recently. For this reason I welcome the provision prohibiting the issuing of licences to people who have specified convictions, particularly of a sexual nature. We want to encourage women to avail of taxis late at night after leaving nightclubs. We do not want them to walk home. This is a particular personal concern of mine.

This concern has been addressed in the Bill which specifies that a conviction for any one of a range of serious crimes, including rape, murder, manslaughter, assault and drug trafficking, will disqualify a person from being granted a licence. A separate disqualification is included for drivers convicted of dangerous or drunken driving. These new measures are in addition to the facilities through which drivers' licences can be refused in cases where an applicant is not regarded as a fit and proper person, which is the system at the moment.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill which offer increased protection to drivers. Passengers are prohibited from defacing or altering equipment and from spitting and deliberately soiling any part of the vehicle. I am concerned that this part of the legislation does not specifically deal with drunkenness in taxis. From my experience of talking to taxi drivers, I recognise their major difficulty with very drunk people getting into their taxis late at night. The Minister should consider having specific reference to that.

The thrust of the legislation is consumer orientated. We need to have uniform standards of consumer satisfaction, particularly in the area of cleanliness of taxis. I emphasise that the vast majority of taxis in my constituency in Limerick are maintained to a very high standard. However as always it is the exception to the rule that damages the industry. The standards themselves are obviously very welcome in the new environment in which we all operate, but I call into question their enforceability. Clearly, the new regulations in relation to breaches of the criminal law are enforceable. I have doubts, however, as to whether the ability is there for the commission, the advisory council or the authorities to impose sanctions for drivers who are guilty of flagrant and continuous breaches of the new standards, as distinct from those relating to the criminal area.

Following from this, the best enforcement method is to impose on the taxi industry a proper and identifiable complaints system which is available to the public as a whole. There are other measures in the Bill which are very welcome in relation to tax clearance certificates and to the money provided for local authorities in relation to the licences. The local authorities should use that money to provide customer shelters for consumers.

Deputy Eamon Ryan made a lengthy contribution on the legislation dealing with wheelchair accessibility. I share his concern for the need for taxis to be wheelchair-friendly and wheelchair accessible. Last week, when a number of groups representing the disabled visited Leinster House to campaign on various issues, I saw outside the House a shameful disregard for the rights and sensitivities of wheelchair users. One of the campaigners leaving by Molesworth Street tried to get a taxi and was practically abused by a taxi driver – I hate to have to say this – for trying to get into the taxi.

It is nevertheless not true for Deputy Ryan to suggest that the legislation ignores this issue. It does not and it is totally disingenuous for the Deputy to suggest otherwise. He suggested that he had read the legislation from start to finish, but I have my doubts. The fact that the issue was not referred to in the Minister's speech last night does not mean it is not in the legislation. If the Deputy eventually gets around to reading the Bill, I draw his attention to section 34, which imposes on the new commission obligations to make regulations in this regard. Subsection 2(f)(i) makes provision for the vehicle standards to be complied with, "including standards in relation to the entry to and accommodation in the vehicle for people with a disability, including wheelchair users or persons with mobility and sensory difficulties." I encourage Deputy Ryan to read that.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill. The new commission and the new standards set out in the Bill will give rise to enhanced levels of service and consumer satisfaction. I look forward to discussing the Bill with my colleagues on the transport committee next week.

This week's announcement by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, of the Taxi Regulation Bill 2003 is the most progressive development in the taxi business since the foundation of the State. When the Minister came into office he said he was going to deal with the jungle of the taxi business. He has delivered with this Bill, which will shed a light on that murky world.

My personal experience of taxi, hackney and limousine drivers is good. The majority are decent, hardworking people. It is a pity that a few give a bad name to all.

The Bill allows for the appointment of a national taxi regulator as chairperson of the Independent Commission for Taxi Regulation. The new commission will be charged with introducing a range of new structures and specific provisions that are aimed at the establishment of high quality services on a national basis by taxis, hackneys and limousines. The overall role of the commission will be to provide for full effective control over the promotion of a professional, efficient, safe and customer-friendly service by small public service vehicles and their drivers.

The Bill also provides for the establishment of a national taxi council that will advise and make recommendations to the commission and the Minister in relation to regulations, standards and codes of practice for the taxi industry. Membership of the 16 member council will be drawn from the taxi, hackney and limousine industry, local authorities, the Garda and consumer, disability, tourism and business interests. There will also be arrangements to implement the findings of the Taxi Hardship Panel. Under the arrangements, which will be announced shortly, claims for hardship arising from the liberalising of the taxi industry in November 2002 will be assessed and payments will be made to those who qualify.

Under the Bill, the principal functions of the national taxi regulator will be the licensing, control and operation of small public service vehicles and their drivers; overseeing the development of a professional, safe, efficient and customer-friendly service; setting the standards to be applied both to vehicles and their drivers; establishing requirements in relation to the age, minimum size and capacity of vehicles; deployment of a range of qualitative standards which will have to be complied with by those seeking to be licensed as drivers, including a high standard of knowledge of the area in which they will operate; promoting the development of high quality cost effective services that meet a wide range of customer needs, including those of passengers with mobility or sensory impairments; the inspection of small public service vehicles; and setting out a dress code for drivers.

The Bill will lead to the development of a professional, safe, efficient and customer-friendly service. Many people are concerned about their safety when they get into a cab. Concerns over safety standards for taxis have escalated following a number of violent incidents, including the alleged rape of three women last February. The safety of customers and vehicle drivers has become an issue of increasing concern. This concern is addressed in the Bill, which specifies that a conviction for any one of a range of serious offences, including rape, murder, manslaughter, assault, drug trafficking and a sexual offence will lead to automatic disqualification from being granted or holding a licence. A separate disqualification is included for drivers convicted of dangerous driving and driving under the influence of drink or drugs.

The Bill also offers increased protection for the drivers of taxis, which is important. It is fair, right and proper that drivers are protected. Passengers are prohibited from defacing the vehicle, spitting or deliberately soiling any part of the vehicle, deliberately leaving a syringe or sharp instrument in the vehicle and refusing to pay the fare agreed in advance. I know taxi men and women who, unfortunately, have had people getting sick in their cars and abusive drunks threatening them.

This Bill will clear the jungle and make the taxi business safer and more professional. Without being patriotic, I would say that Longford taxi drivers are the finest. I commend the Bill to the House.

The introduction of this Bill is to be welcomed. Those who drafted it had many issues to take into consideration. The entire taxi deregulation saga has been bloodied. Since deregulation was introduced, I have seen severe hardship. I come from an area where we do not have many taxis, but I have a connection with the Galway City rank. I am appalled that the hardship money has not been paid out. There is a time and place for such payments, and people should receive them when they need them most. I am sure the Minister of State knows exactly what I am talking about because his office must be jammed by queries about this. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the matter, something had to happen in the taxi market. Whether or not it should have happened in the way it did is an entirely different matter because it was a very blunt instrument. While we cannot turn back the clock, I understood that before the last election when a promise was made to establish a hardship fund, the taxi drivers concerned would not be left for 12 months without any money.

We have 3,000 taxis and 3,000 applications.

The Minister of State should wait a minute and listen to me. He will get his chance to reply.

The Deputy is wrong.

No, I am not wrong.

The Minister of State should allow the Deputy to continue.

I am not worried about the Minister of State's intervention but I am telling him that it does not make one bit of difference whether there are 2,000 taxi drivers or 5,000. I am talking about the numbers of them who have been severely financially affected by what has happened. I want to discuss a few of them now.

I am talking about them too. We want to make sure that they get their money and that it will not be spread all over the place among the others.

Please allow Deputy Connaughton to continue. There will be an opportunity for the Minister of State to respond to his comments at the end of the debate.

Indeed. It goes without saying that the operation of the hardship fund is a big job but people have been robbed by what happened when deregulation was introduced. I am aware of the case of a young taxi driver who, two years ago when deregulation occurred, had just got married. He and his wife had just started living in their new home for which they had paid €175,000 with a full loan. He bought the plate for €75,000 and three weeks later it was useless. It is bad enough to have to pay so much for one's house, which everybody else must do also, but it is worse to have to pay for a taxi plate that is of no use. Three weeks later they found that every Tom, Dick and Harry was able to get a taxi licence for €5,000 and before they knew where they were, there were three times as many taxi drivers. If the Minister of State does not understand this, he should.

It was signalled well in advance and the Deputy and his colleagues were the ones who wanted it.

Deputy Connaughton without interruption. If you addressed your remarks through the Chair, Deputy Connaughton, there would be less interruptions.

The Minister of State is provoking me, although that is not his normal course but he has a bee in his bonnet on this issue. The case I have cited is only one of hundreds more. Not alone did the person have to work longer hours but they also had three times more competition. The result was that the man and his wife tried to provide a full 24-hour taxi service to try to earn sufficient money but, of course, the whole system broke down. That family has had to leave the taxi business. Given that they are not currently involved in the taxi sector but were totally robbed by the system, will they receive money from the new hardship fund? I understand that the overall compensation is relatively small so are we talking about just a couple of thousand euro? If so, it would not pay for the ink on the paper. I assume that the taxi drivers themselves understand what is happening so they will know what is coming, although I am not privy to that because I am not involved. I assume they know, however, that all they will get is a pittance compared to what they lost. It is bad enough to realise that there is almost nothing coming but it is worse to have to wait a year to get it.

As the Minister of State is so forthcoming, perhaps he will outline whether they have to wait until the statutory regulator is in place before any money is paid out.

No, not necessarily.

They do not have to wait? Well, at least, that is something we learned today. So there is nothing stopping the money from being paid out?

There is. That is not what I said.

The Minister of State is talking about the long period of time it takes to evaluate the whole thing.

Every Tom, Dick and Harry was in on it.

Will the Minister of State give an undertaking to the House that those people who have been severely harmed financially will be paid within the next month?

I cannot do that.

If the Minister of State cannot do that, we can take it that they certainly will not be paid within the next month.

This is not Question Time, Deputy. If you make your contribution, the Minister of State will have an opportunity to reply later in the debate.

Perhaps he will be able to comment on that in his reply. Irrespective of how wide-ranging the investigations were into who should or should not receive payments from the hardship fund, I cannot see how there could be such a hold-up in making them. I do not know who is involved in all this but I got the impression that once the election was over the Government thought the taxi drivers would go away. That is the impression the taxi drivers had also but it did not happen. I never saw such hasty statements in the press as those made by the Minister for Transport on the day the taxis drove along O'Connell Street a week or two ago. It appeared that everything was put into place in a few hours then, although nothing could be done for two months before that. The taxi associations had to take to the streets to make their case and it was only then that the Government took notice.

There is a lot of good sense in the Bill. I cannot say that I spend much time in taxis because I do not have access to them where I live. I have never seen anything wrong with the taxi service whenever I use it, either here in Dublin or in Galway. I always thought taxi drivers did the job they were being paid for but one reads in the press about terrible things happening, particularly late at night. That is something that the new commission will have to get a grip on. The taxi service forms an integral part of the country's transport infrastructure and never before have we had a more mobile population than now – whether for business or pleasure, including tourism. The taxi sector always did, and always will, form an important part of the transport business generally. If confidence-building measures can be built into the industry in future, nobody will feel there is any danger in taking a taxi at any time of the night or in any part of the country. I assume that is what the Minister of State is getting at.

It is important that irrespective of what hour of the morning it is, teenage girls in particular should feel safe in taking a taxi to get home. The commission has a major job to put in place procedures – in so far as it is possible to do so – to ensure that nobody slips through the net and that nobody is driving a taxi who should not be. I assume that only a small number of taxi drivers would be errant in their ways and would take advantage of the occasion for wrongful reasons. I hope the commission will weed those people out because the last thing the ordinary decent taxi owner and driver wants is to have a shadow over the organisation. In fairness to the spokespersons, they have gone a long way to ensure they are 100% behind this, and well they should.

There is another, more general question to which I wish to refer and which many of my colleagues on this side of the House have mentioned. Having been a Member of this House for a long time, my interest in the matter is personal. It relates to the link between what the commission does and what we in this House do on behalf of the people. Over the years I have noticed that when I put down a Dáil question concerning roads, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, or the Ceann Comhairle's office, inevitably reply to the effect that the Minister has no responsibility in the matter. It is the same in regard to waste management and so on. I do not like that, and I have a strange feeling that the people do not like it. It is the wrong approach to adopt. Because the Minister has a keen appreciation of what people think, I am sure he would agree there should be some sort of accountability to the House for the commission's actions, and that on matters relating to aspects of the taxi business that are causing problems I should be able to put down a question to the Minister for Transport and get an answer without having to put pressure on any section within this House. The same should apply to the Minister for Transport on more general transport questions. I do not know the Minister's personal views, but it would be a huge mistake to take accountability away from the House on those matters because, whether we like it or not, the taxi business, taxi journeys, taxi fares, the condition of taxis, timetables and so on feature in the run of everybody's life, particularly if they live in cities, and they would like to believe there is a mechanism for public accountability and that they will be able to ask questions through their public representatives in Dáil Éireann on matters relating to the workings of the commission. I strongly urge the Minister to look seriously at that on the various stages of this Bill.

I want to dwell on wheelchair accessibility for a moment. As Deputy Power drew to our attention, it is part of the remit of the commission. I am somewhat surprised, therefore, that in the Minister's presentation wheelchair accessibility is not mentioned. I would have thought that if this is considered to be a major matter it would be screaming at me from the page. It is a major matter now, and I am surprised that it is not here in bold print that, whatever else the commission does, it will ensure that taxis are wheelchair accessible. I fully appreciate there is a huge cost factor, but this is at the very kernel of what the Year of the Disabled is all about. The disabled either have rights or they do not. That applies irrespective of the disability, whether they have Down's syndrome or are in a wheelchair or whatever. If they are to go about their business in the same way as we so readily take for granted in our lives, it comes down to a rights-based approach. People who have a disability should have a right to the same level of accommodation in whatever area they are involved, in this case the taxi service, as the Minister or myself or the Ceann Comhairle.

When the Minister is replying to this or on Committee Stage, I would like to know whether he is giving a commitment that the commission will ensure that all taxis will be wheelchair accessible or whether there will be a different approach. Will a certain percentage of taxis have to be wheelchair accessible? Will that be left up to the taxi owners and drivers? I would like to hear the Minister's views on exactly what sort of direction the Government will be giving the commission. That is what most people want to find out today. If it is going to be left to the commission, in other words, if the Government washes its hands of it and leaves it to the commission to decide what level of wheelchair accessibility will be needed, I can see huge trouble coming down the tracks. I am not an expert, but I understand that wheelchair accessible taxis are quite expensive, certainly more so than those that are not, and we live in a commercial world. If taxi drivers are given access to the bus lanes and all the other facilities they need to get people from place to place, particularly in cities, there will have to be an onus on them to provide the sorts of facilities that will help people in wheelchairs.

The next question is who will pay for that. If the Government is no more flaithiúlach with its money than it was in its treatment of hardship cases, it is unlikely it will decide to put money into wheelchair accessible taxis. The question is whether this legislation means it will be mandatory for people who own taxis to make the changeover within a certain period of time and if they do not they will not get a licence. That is what I would like to hear the Minister comment on because that is the central issue. I do not doubt for one minute that any Government would want to see wheelchair accessible taxis on the streets of our cities and towns, but how we arrive at that is an entirely different matter and I would like to hear the answer.

I am sorry I do not have more time because I have only got going. I compliment the Minister on the C2 certificate. I sincerely hope that means only bona fide people will get into this business. That is a very important step forward. I sincerely hope the low morale among the taxi fraternity will change. It does not suit this country to have so important a body as taxi drivers feeling they have been cut off from society, that nobody cares about them or that they were let down. They are going through a bad time at the moment, but I hope they will return to profitability. It could be argued that what happened in Dublin City by way of deregulation had not the same impact in Galway, Sligo and other places, but I do not have time to go into that. They are two different worlds, two different problems.

I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy John McGuinness. What Deputy Connaughton just said worries me. If, despite his experience, it took him so much time to get going, I do not know how, with only a year's experience as a Member of this House, I can get going quickly when I have so little time.

Deputy O'Connor is not shy.

Funnily enough, I am. I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and I also welcome the Minister of State. I congratulate our colleague, the Minister for Transport, on his work in this regard. I share a constituency boundary with the Minister and I was happy when the boundaries were redrawn and many of his electors voted for me.

All of us are aware of the lobbying and the public pressure that many in the taxi sector have engaged in over the past six months. I welcome the Bill. It is possible to get a taxi most times whether it is day or night in every major city throughout the world. The cost of the service is reasonable in most cities and the standard of the vehicles is high. It would be inappropriate to revisit the period prior to deregulation, save to ask what has become of the compensation awarded to hardship cases when the new licences were issued.

My constituency embraces Tallaght, Firhouse, Templeogue and Greenhills and many of my constituents make their living from taxis. I am proud to be one of their Deputies and I will endeavour at all times to support and protect their livelihoods and that of their families. It should not be forgotten that taxi drivers are self-employed and take on all the costs and risks associated with that. They can only earn income when they work and they must invest in a vehicle that meets the needs of their business.

Many of my constituents have followed the dream of self-employment and invested significantly in small businesses and local retail outlets only to find, regrettably, that they failed not because of a lack of effort on their behalf, but because of the changes in the local business environment. These people were full of enterprise but they received no State support and had to get on with rebuilding their careers. This is the potential impact of a failed dream and taxi drivers take the same risk.

Taxis are an essential part of our city's public transport system and the need for standards and regulations is important and essential. All taxi operators agree with and support the need for such standards and, similar to all citizens, they accept such regulations will always be seen by a few as unfair. Over the past year I have been made aware of the many horror stories about safety in taxis. These incidents are to be deplored but they involve a two way process as the passenger on many occasions places the life of the driver at risk.

The regulations outlined in the legislation, which I strongly support, will ensure the public will be assured as to the character of the driver but the onus is on people to behave in a responsible manner. The regulator should draft a service charter between customers and the industry and promote it to highlight the responsibilities of both the customer and operator of the taxi service. The quality and comfort of the taxi fleet in Dublin City and county has been upgraded completely and this is the result of market needs and competition.

I recall being confused as a small child regarding the role of a taxi. Sometimes when my parents were able to afford it, we would take a taxi from the city centre to Crumlin, where I lived at the time. That was a Dublin of a different era but I always had an appreciation of the public service provided by taxi drivers. The rank in those days was also on St. Stephen's Green and it has changed little over the years.

When one travels abroad – I have not been abroad very often – one gains an understanding of the need for taxis. I appreciate the work done by the Minister for Transport and it is ironic, given my appreciation of the work of taxi drivers, that I am proud of the development of the Luas to Tallaght and Sandyford. Despite all the disruption that affects the public and taxi drivers, people are looking forward to the introduction of Luas.

I have the opportunity to work in the city and long may I stay in this job but I look forward to the day when I will not have to drive home to Tallaght. I will be able to walk into the city centre, cross the River Liffey and catch a train to Tallaght every day. I refer to this in the context of my comments on taxis and I strongly support the legislation.

A number of issues have been raised about the service provided by taxi drivers, the type of people who drive taxis, the standard of cars and so on. The uniform colour of cars is a marketing nicety that is not necessarily essential. If a uniform colour is introduced, a five year programme should be undertaken so that existing licence holders can convert their cars. Signage should be standardised and issued by the regulatory body at the lowest cost and as soon as possible. Advertising on vehicles should only be controlled in terms of location and scale. I often notice the advertising on taxis and it is appropriate. The use of advertising on taxis will develop and at election time slogans will be seen on taxis. I do not suggest that all political advertising is tasteful but such advertising is acceptable.

I have the opportunity to make representations on behalf of taxi operators in my constituency and I often highlighted the need to facilitate taxis when meeting the promoters and developers of amenities such as The Square, the civic centre, the library, the hospital and the basketball arena in Tallaght. Where taxi ranks can be facilitated, it is important to do so. It is also important to continue to support the taxi industry's view that the public should be able to access taxis easily. My constituents should be able to call on a taxi travelling to and from the city centre with ease. Deputy Connaughton pointed out that people should feel safe when they return home in taxis. There is a responsibility on all of us to promote that sense of safety.

I thank Deputy O'Connor for sharing his time with me. Before I came into this House I often heard of tension between what happened inside and outside the Pale. The new challenge for this Dáil will be to reconcile what is happening in Tallaght with what is happening in the rest of the country. Deputy O'Connor is certainly leaving his mark on the constituency he represents.

I compliment the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, and the Minister of State, Deputy McDaid, on the initiatives taken by their Department in various areas and particularly in this issue. It is refreshing to see how their policies and initiatives are presented and followed through with tangible commitments both in legislation and infrastructural development.

When I listened to Deputy Connaughton's remarks I could not help remembering that the only contribution of the Rainbow Government was to devolve the whole issue of taxi regulation to the local authorities.

It worked very well in Kerry.

Kerry must have been the odd one out because it did not work well in most other parts of the country. There is no uniformity of presentation or fees and no effort made to protect the rights of taxi drivers or their passengers. No criteria were laid down for the use of the funds raised by local authorities from taxi fees which were and are being collected under that scheme, which currently operates. I believe Deputy Howlin was the Minister responsible.

I welcome this wide ranging Bill dealing with almost every aspect of the industry in a detailed, comprehensive and constructive way. In looking at a Bill I always ask myself how this House can police its measures. How can Dáil Éireann hold the taxi industry responsible for what it does? I am glad to see that section 25 gives the Committee of Public Accounts or any other committee of the Oireachtas the right to bring the commission or the commissioner before it to deal with the issues of the day. That is to be welcomed.

I agree with Deputy Connaughton that there is an issue about parliamentary questions. I would like to see that matter dealt with so that parliamentary questions can be asked on issues relative to the implementation of the legislation.

I am glad section 11 includes an allowance for the use of fees by the commission for the development of taxi ranks within local authority areas. I hope that provision will not be watered down or put to one side. It is an integral part of the Bill. It is essential for local authorities to find the funding somewhere. If we give them a job to do they should be given the funding along with it. Until now that has not been the case in most aspects of local government. This Bill will create a need to provide taxi ranks. There is an absolute necessity for expenditure by local authorities, particularly in rural areas where the culture of using a taxi service is at the growing stage. It is essential that this part of the Bill be activated under the commission and that a true taxi service be developed in rural areas.

The regulations are enshrined in the legislation but they will be developed by the commission. They must be spelled out clearly so that taxi drivers will have a uniform approach to their rights and to the manner in which they conduct their business and so that the customers will know their rights and what is expected of a taxi driver in any urban area in the country.

It is also essential that the current costs of renewing a taxi licence or taking out a plate be laid down clearly. Apart from the cost of the plate itself several hidden costs are added on. These hidden costs are a feature of many industries. I have experience of the transport industry. Purchasing a licence, replying to surveys, doing tests and all sorts of bureaucracy which have been added on over a period of time have cost the transport industry a small fortune and are making it almost non-competitive in comparison with its international trading partners.

The cost of the suitability test for a taxi is €89 while the cost of the NCT for a private car is €48.40. There is very little difference between a taxi and a private citizen's car. The tests are, basically, the same with only one section added for taxis. How can that difference result in a doubling of the cost? Is this just another example of business being penalised in an over-regulated market? If a taxi driver wants to transfer a licence to a new car the transfer cost, which is another piece of bureaucracy, is €125. It was done free when the gardaí were registering these cars in the local Garda station. The cost of permission to pick up passengers in a particular location, such as Dunnes Stores car park in Kilkenny, is €100 per annum. A taxi driver must pay €100 before he even picks up a fare. That cost is controlled and can be increased every year.

The question of the quality of some of the licences issued to taxi operators is taken up in various sections in the Bill. This must be examined in depth, particularly given recent reports in the media. It will be part of the commission's work to ensure that licences are issued to suitable people. The provision of the C2 certificate is to be welcomed. It is required in the general haulage business and there is no reason it is not required in the taxi business.

I have seen it reported that one in five taxi businesses in Dublin fail. I do not know whether that is true or false but I know it is becoming more difficult to make a living from the use of a taxi plate. That is certainly the case down the country. In large urban centres the numbers of people using the system is sufficient for most drivers to make a reasonable living but in rural areas the culture of taxi use is still not sufficient to support the number of taxi plates being issued by local authorities. There is no ceiling on that number. The commission will have to take account of the number of taxi plates that have been issued. Continuing to issue plates will make it extremely difficult for people to carry on their businesses and for the trade to develop in a meaningful way.

My last concern is the transport of drugs by taxi. We must be particularly careful. I would urge the commission to take full account of the character of a person receiving a licence.

As a frequent user of the taxi service, I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute on this Bill. As Opposition spokesperson on tourism, this has particular relevance to tourism. The majority of tourists who would come to this city will at some stage use the taxi service and at times the first person with whom they will interface could be a taxi driver. For that reason, a proper well-regulated taxi service is critical for the tourism industry. As a former Minister for tourism, I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy McDaid, would fully appreciate this. A positive or negative impression can be given immediately to somebody leaving Dublin Airport or some other port of entry into this country through his or her first encounter with a taxi driver. That is why the taxi service is critical to the tourism sector.

Many tourists who would come to Ireland for the first time will obviously want directions to a hotel or guesthouse and it is important that the taxi drivers, under this Bill, will be required to have a deep geographical knowledge of this city. At times we have all encountered taxi drivers, to whom the passenger would be giving directions rather than seeking to be driven to a place. It is important that taxi drivers would be familiar with street names, B&Bs, hotels and other venues in the section of the city in which they operate which people would be likely to visit.

Taxi drivers also should have a broader knowledge of the city. It probably would be difficult for taxi drivers to know the whole city, but they should have a general knowledge of areas outside those in which they would be operate normally. Certainly if a taxi is collecting people at places like Dublin Airport or Heuston or Connolly Stations, the driver should have a good general knowledge of the city. There is nothing worse for somebody visiting Ireland, or indeed for any of us abroad, than to jump into a taxi and then need to explain in detail where one is going. When a taxi driver is not knowledgeable, it can be quite worrying and unsettling for passengers who have just arrived in the country. For those reasons, this is an important Bill from the perspective of the tourism industry.

Often tourists must trust strangers. As previous speakers outlined, there have been a number of incidents where the vulnerability of tourists, especially women, who would not be knowledgeable about the geography of Dublin, were exploited by taxi drivers. There have been a couple of high profile cases of this nature outlined in the media over the past year.

From a tourism perspective, taxi drivers are important. They give an impression of a country. They are the ones who often advise people where to go for entertainment. They take visitors to their destination when they arrive here and play a more important role in the tourism industry than people may realise or appreciate.

This debate began when deregulation took place. The problem arose when the Government introduced taxi deregulation overnight without bringing in strict entry criteria, without setting standards and without looking for qualifications from drivers entering the business. While I personally had no problem with deregulation at that time, as someone who would use taxis a great deal to get to the airport, the railway station or around the city, I often had to wait long periods for taxis. Nevertheless this Bill should have been introduced before the deregulation occurred.

At the time, the taxi unions forced the hand of the Government. The taxi unions were confident, since Members on the Government side of the House had given them so many commitments and they had campaigned for some of the Deputies, that it would not happen but it did. However, it was introduced in an unstructured manner and the problems which have arisen since, which I will outline shortly, arose from the fact that deregulation took place without adequate preparation. That was the problem.

No doubt the Government will say there are now 10,000 taxi plates on the streets of Dublin, whereas there were 2,900, and that has been a help. It is a great convenience that one can hail a taxi almost as easily as in Manhattan because there are so many taxis on the streets, but that is still not what happens late at night when often one must still wait a long time for one to arrive. The problems arose because there was no preparation and this was a major shock to the system. There was no structure in place to meet the numbers which applied overnight for taxi licences.

According to a large number of taxi drivers, another point people are overlooking is that a large number of them have been made redundant. They are people in their 40s and 50s who are leaving jobs in light engineering and other industry which are closing down or they are being made redundant. They are not qualified for any other job and as a result these people are entering into the taxi service, and they are delighted to be able to do so.

It is important that this large number of people taking on the job of taxi driver would have to go through certain procedures and these are outlined well in the Bill. The Bill refers to personal issues. I understand that the Bill will include provision that taxi drivers will have a dress code. We should also look at the question of smoking in taxis. Taxi drivers should realise that they have a major responsibility to their clients and they should be courteous at all times. These are all very important attributes of taxi drivers who are in an important, responsible position.

On the condition of taxi vehicles, last year there was an article inThe Irish Times where a reporter went around to examine the cars used as taxis. He wrote that taxis ranged from BMWs to bangers and some of these bangers were running 24 hours a day, and up to 65,000 miles a year in city traffic.

There are some taxis on the road which are kept clean and fresh, and I would always comment to a taxi driver if it was obvious he was looking after his car. However, one has also had other experiences, where taxis are not kept clean or fresh, and are not very comfortable. The important thing is that this Bill provides for a quality taxi service in Dublin, with well-qualified drivers and good cars. If this Bill can achieve that, it will be very welcome.

The question is how well deregulation has worked. In answer to Deputy McGuinness, the old system was working very well in Kerry. The devolution of that power to local authorities worked well in Kerry. I cannot speak for other counties. I am very familiar with Listowel Urban Council. Both the council and the taxi people worked closely together. If an extra taxi was needed, they agreed to allow a licence to be issued. It was well regulated. They were making a decent income. After deregulation some of the better taxi people went out of business because they were no longer earning a decent income. We lost some very good people. The same applied in Tralee. I hold a clinic in Tralee every Monday evening and I have real sympathy for the large number of taxi drivers. There are sometimes about 100 taxis queuing up and waiting for a fare. It is pathetic and only the fittest will survive in the business.

Deregulation worked in Dublin where it provided extra taxis. It did not work in areas of the country because there was no need in many places for extra taxis. It is a pity deregulation could not be ringfenced and restricted to the major urban areas. It may not have been possible but it would have worked better.

The experience in Kerry is that when the flood gates were opened, people came into the business. Many people had lost their factory jobs and had no qualification for anything else. In order to work and to be out of the house, they took out a taxi licence.

I foresee an important role for local authorities and this Bill provides for that role. I ask the Minister of State to outline further what role local authorities will play in future in the licensing and regulation of taxis. There will be a need for some form of regulation. This Bill is designed to make it more difficult for people to join the taxi business by the imposition of stricter standards.

Deregulation has worked during the daytime in Dublin. At the weekends and late at night I understand one may have to wait for up to two hours for a taxi. There is no compulsion on anyone to do night work. Many drivers are reluctant to work late at night because the city has become so dangerous. Taxi drivers have been attacked and often their fares are not paid. This anti-social behaviour in the city discourages drivers from working at night. Their wives are reluctant to see them work at night.

Deputy Naughten made the point that taxi drivers must work about 70 hours a week in order to make a living. I understand this is in breach of the health and safety regulations. Taxi drivers must drive at speed and in traffic and can become tired. This can be the cause of accidents. The physical fitness of taxi drivers should be considered. The normal working week is 40 hours and some taxi drivers are in the car a lot longer than that. This can lead to tiredness and lack of concentration which in turn can lead to accidents and injury to others or to the taxi drivers.

The complaints made against taxi drivers should be considered in terms of how these will be dealt with by the Bill. In 2001, 509 complaints were made against taxi drivers and in 2000, the number was 220. There are more people operating taxis as a result of deregulation. There is a lowering of standards and less scrutiny by the Garda. In 2002, the number of complaints rose to 540 and to date in 2003, the number is 217. According to statistics provided by the Garda traffic division one in seven cab owners – I suppose that also relate to drivers – has a criminal record; 17% of complaints relate to taxi drivers behaving in an abusive manner; 1% of complaints relate to sexual assault; 50% of all complaints against taxi drivers relate to over-charging; and less than 5% of all complaints reported to the Carriage Office in Dublin lead to prosecution. That is a low prosecution figure and I ask the Minister of State to comment on it. Some 42% of drivers who were reported received a formal caution. Since deregulation in 2001, six new taxi drivers have been implicated in major drugs deals. Three new taxi drivers have been found dead in their taxis from a drugs overdose. There have been ten allegations of rape made against taxi drivers. These facts were reported inThe Irish Times on 26 May 2003. Deregulation has resulted in more cars on the streets. There are now 10,000 new plates issued. The quality of service, the quality of cars and the quality of the personnel in some cases has deteriorated as has the overall standards of the taxi service both in Dublin and elsewhere.

The Minister for Transport is reported as stating that it was out of control and he likened it to the jungle. I hope this Bill will restore the control needed.The Irish Times reported that there have been 129 attacks in a two year period on members of the public travelling in taxis. The man at the centre of the X case was jailed for sexually assaulting and kidnapping a 15 year old girl. Those are the problems we are facing in Dublin. We should be aware of developments in the taxi industry. We can see the scenario that has resulted. I would like to mention some of the provisions of this Bill.

The Deputy's time has concluded.

That is fine. I will finish by saying that I welcome this Bill. It should have been published before deregulation took place, or very shortly afterwards, but I appreciate that may not have been possible as a consequence of time constraints. It is certain that there will be major problems in removing undesirable people from the taxi industry. Will this Bill be retrospective? Will the people to whom I have referred have to go through the various procedures outlined in this Bill? I ask the Minister to respond to these questions as it is obvious that there are some bad apples in the taxi industry. If one wants to achieve the level of standards desired in this Bill, one will have to remove such people from the taxi service. How does the Minister propose to do this?

I would like to share my time with Deputy Devins.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the bringing forward by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, of the Taxi Regulation Bill 2003, an important Bill that is required to protect passengers and taxi drivers. We all know that one of the Minister's priorities on coming to office was to attempt to solve the problems experienced in the taxi business. I congratulate the Minister who has offered in this Bill concrete solutions to problems experienced by almost every person in Ireland.

The Bill allows for the appointment of a national taxi regulator as chairperson of the independent Commission for Taxi Regulation. The new commission will introduce a range of new structures and detailed provisions that will provide for the establishment of high quality services by taxis, hackneys and limousines on a national basis. The commission's main aim will be to ensure that small public service vehicles and their drivers provide a professional, efficient, safe and customer-friendly service. A national taxi council will advise and make recommendations to the commission and the Minister about regulations, standards and codes of practice for the industry. Under the Bill, representatives of the taxi, hackney and limousine industries, local authorities, the Garda and consumer, disability, tourism and business interests will come together to form a 16-member council.

The Bill will provide for the implementation of the findings of the taxi hardship panel. Those who claim they have suffered hardship as a result of the liberalisation of the taxi industry in November 2000 will have a chance to make a complaint, which will then be assessed, and those who are successful will receive a payment.

Under the Bill, the principal functions of the national taxi regulator will be to licence and control the operations of small public service vehicles and their drivers, to oversee the development of a professional, safe, efficient and customer-friendly service, to set the standards to be applied to vehicles and their drivers and to establish requirements in relation to the age and minimum size and capacity of vehicles. The regulator will deploy a range of qualitative standards to be complied with by those seeking to be licensed as drivers, including a high standard of knowledge of the area in which they will operate. It will also promote the development of high-quality, cost-effective services that meet a wide range of customer needs, including those of passengers with mobility or sensory impairments. The regulator will also inspect small public service vehicles and set out a dress code for drivers. The Bill will lead to the development of a professional, safe, effective and pleasant service.

It is sad that most people who get into taxis are concerned for their safety. Many young women feel the need to make a telephone call as soon as they get into a taxi, to let somebody know where they are and how long they will be. It is regrettable that one cannot feel safe in a taxi alone. Concern about safety has grown since the alleged rapes of three women earlier this year. It is simply not good enough that taxi drivers are not vetted sufficiently. We have a responsibility to the Irish people to provide for public safety.

I welcome the fact that this Bill will ensure that an applicant for a taxi licence with a conviction for any one of a range of serious offences, including rape, murder, manslaughter, assault, drug trafficking and a sexual offence, will be automatically disqualified from being granted or holding a licence. A separate disqualification is provided for in the case of drivers convicted of dangerous driving and driving under the influence of drink or drugs.

It is also essential that drivers are protected under this Bill. Numerous drivers have told me that their cars have been defaced and vandalised in the past and I am aware that many drivers have been assaulted. It is not right that taxi drivers who are simply trying to make a living should have to tolerate such risks, which would not be tolerated in any other job. For the first time in the history of the State, it will become an offence to soil a cab or to assault a driver. It will be an offence to rob the driver, which is what many people do when they leave without paying their fare.

The high quality of the service provided by the taxi industry in County Mayo, especially in the towns at weekends, should be noted by the House. Taxi drivers help to bring young people safely home to rural areas late at night. This Bill is essential for the safety of Irish citizens and for the livelihood of taxi drivers. It will make the streets of Ireland safer for passengers to travel in and safer for drivers to work in. I commend it to the House.

I welcome the Taxi Regulation Bill 2003, the purposes of which are to provide for the establishment of the commission for taxi regulation, to draw up a code for the regulation of taxis, with a strong emphasis on the establishment of a quality taxi service with a consumer-orientated licensing system, and to establish an advisory council to the commission, which will advise on all matters relevant to taxis and taxi drivers. I congratulate the Minister for Transport for the speed and efficiency with which he has brought forward this Bill, which was published just a few days ago. The fact that we are discussing this Bill tonight demonstrates the determination of the Minister, Deputy Brennan, to deal with this important issue.

I would like to state that the provision of a taxi service is not just a Dublin issue. Despite the Dublin-based publicity that followed the decision of the previous Government to open up the taxi service, taxis operate in every town in the country. As a result of the numerous discussions I have had with passengers and drivers in Sligo, I do not doubt that the issues which arise in the frequent reports about the taxi service in Dublin are applicable to every town in the country.

It is important that the taxi service is safe and reliable for those who use it. Taxis of a recognised standard of safety and comfort should be made available. There should be regulations to protect those who travel in taxis. We should ensure that taxi drivers are also protected while they ply their trade. It is important that a good and easily accessible service is made available to the public. Taxi drivers and passengers should be able to operate in a safe and secure environment while they go about their business. This Bill deals with all these issues.

The main objectives of the commission are outlined in section 9 of the Bill. Section 9(2)(a), which states that the commission shall seek “to promote the provision and maintenance of quality services by small public service vehicles and their drivers, and section 9(2)(c), which states that the service should be “professional, safe, efficient and customer-friendly”, sum up adequately the aims of this Bill.

I welcome section 9(2)(g) of the Bill, which refers to “customer needs including those of passengers with mobility or sensory impairments”. It is essential that taxis that can accommodate people with a physical disability are provided. The cost of providing such taxis is considerably higher than the cost of providing a normal taxi, however. I ask the Minister for Transport to direct the commission to provide incentives to taxi owners who make available cars that are suitable for disabled persons. This is necessary to ensure that this important section of the population is catered for. Such incentives might include directing local health authorities to provide hospital runs to such taxis and special taxi ranks outside hospitals. Taxi licences could be made available at a much reduced rate for those who provide wheelchair-friendly taxis.

I note with interest section 11, which gives the commission the power to provide financial assistance to local authorities so that they may support the development and provision of infrastructure to facilitate the operation of taxis.

One area of concern which has been mentioned to me is the provision of taxi ranks. The location of taxi ranks is a source of much discussion in many areas. Narrow streets are a feature of many towns – and I include Sligo in this regard – and these compound the difficulties of coping with the ever-increasing volumes of traffic. There is no point in providing taxi ranks at locations that are inaccessible to members of the public. It is not simply a matter of designating a particular location as a taxi rank. Under the terms of the Bill local authorities now have access to funding which they can utilise to make the necessary infrastructural changes so that ranks are located where the public can use them. It should now be possible for local authorities, be they corporations or county councils, working in conjunction with the Garda, the public and the taxi drivers to provide safe well-located taxi ranks. I urge them to utilise the funding which the commission will have at its disposal.

Section 34 deals with the regulation of taxis and their drivers. In the recent past the press reported instances which caused a high degree of public unrest. Such cases included taxis that were not of the required standard and drivers who were unfit to be licensed to drive such vehicles. This section is comprehensive and covers many of the issues that have caused public concern. While the number of such incidences have been few, it is still of the utmost concern that any fears or worries that members of the public might have, are allayed. This section is most welcome and should ensure that the carriage of the public is done in a safe and secure way.

I also welcome section 35 which gives any applicant for a taxi licence, or the holder of such a licence, the right to appeal if his or her licence is refused or revoked. The fact that they have the further right of appeal to the District Court should ensure that the rights of taxi drivers are fully protected.

Section 36 deals with applicants for licences or licence holders who have been convicted of serious charges such as murder, sexual offences, drug trafficking offences, money laundering or firearm offences. Such safeguards are essential to reassure the public that the person driving the taxi is a fit and responsible person. While I have no doubt that the number of drivers, or potential drivers, who fall into these categories is incredibly small, yet it is essential that the driver of a taxi is a fit and responsible person. Females and younger people are often alone in taxis late at night. This section of the Bill should reassure all users of taxis that their journey will be safe and secure.

Sections 41 and 42 deal with the designation of taxi meter areas. It is important that fares for journeys are clearly known in advance by the user of the taxi service. There is a clear and comprehensive procedure to be followed before fares are fixed. This will ensure that these fares, be they for single or shared journeys, are well known.

I was unable to ascertain on reading the Bill if these maximum fares should be publicly displayed in the taxi. They should be available to the passenger on request. The rate of the fares should be in printed form and it should be a regulation that the driver should produce a copy of such fares on request from a passenger. This would remove any areas of disagreement between the driver and passenger at the end of a journey.

The proposal to have a uniform colour and/or design for taxis has caused some concern. If regulations are to be introduced concerning the above, it should be the policy of the commission to give ample time and notice of such to industry members. It is unfair to tell a taxi owner who may have just purchased a car that that car may have to be changed in order that it conforms to regulations. I expect the commission to engage with each local taxi owners' association so that compliance with the regulations concerning colour and make of car are well flagged in advance.

The issue of the colour of taxis is the cause of some debate. As we all know, the cabs in New York are yellow and London has black cabs. I suggest – somewhat tongue in cheek – that each county might have taxis in its own local colours. If this were adopted, the black and white of Sligo would be a constant reminder of our native county pride. I see Deputy Perry nodding in agreement across the Chamber.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I am delighted to speak on the Bill. I endorse the suggestion of Deputy Devins in regard to the colour code. As he said, the yellow cabs in New York are very distinctive.

The Bill will establish the regulatory framework for the control and operation of public service vehicles and their drivers. The legislation of this service-oriented growth industry is very much to be welcomed.

As Deputy Devins said in regard to Sligo, the deregulation of the industry brought in many much needed new operators. With so many new entrants there is a greater imperative on the Minister to regulate the service. It is important to pursue a high quality, customer-oriented licensing system and standards as well as to supervise the development of a professional, safe and efficient taxi service to promote competition. It is vital to promote the protection of service users and providers, as well as to promote the integration of taxis with other elements of public transport. The Minister is currently examining the monopoly of Iarnród Éireann. Competition is an important element of any industry. We are fortunate to have the rail service to Sligo. There is a demand for a high-quality service which meets the needs of customer.

I heard Deputy Connaughton speaking on the Bill. His concern was for the customer and the level of safeguards provided. It is also important that those providing the service abide by a code of conduct which is paramount in every service.

Section 10 allows the Minister to give policy directions to the commission and that is an area on which I would have some concern. The implications of what is meant by this are unclear.

Section 11 permits the commission to provide financial assistance to local authorities to develop taxi services. That is an important provision. We are all aware of the situation in Dublin city but as the Minister of State, Deputy McDaid, is aware, from Letterkenny to Sligo to Galway this is a growth industry. It is only right that controls are in place to regulate it. The Minister of State has been closely involved with the Minister in the introduction of the drink driving controls and the points system. It is important that this new and developing industry is properly regulated, and is perceived as such, as it develops in towns like Sligo, Donegal, Galway and other smaller towns.

Section 18 of the Bill deals with the staffing of the commission, which will be subject to the agreement of the Department of Finance. It is critically important that it should be responsible to the Minister of the day, as well as to this House and its committees. While there is reference to the autonomy of the controller, ministerial direction is also important.

Section 28 obliges the commission to produce a strategy statement every five years. That should be reconsidered with a view to having an initial retrospective assessment after the first two years, which might be regarded as a probationary period. With the increase in the number of taxis in Dublin from 3,000 to 11,000, proper regulation is obviously required. Against the background of unrest among taxi drivers in Dublin with regard to the situation to date, transparency in the work of the commission is essential.

Section 36, which deals with disqualification of drivers, has been the subject of comment by several speakers. Section 38 provides for the keeping of a register of licence holders. Provision should be made for corresponding county registers. An appropriate code of conduct is an essential element in regulating 11,000 taxi drivers in Dublin alone, apart from those in the rest of the country. That is a huge job and I know the Minister of State is conscious of that.

The current development involves bringing enterprise into the small public service vehicle licence system, which also includes hackney licences. The hackney sector has been regarded as a cheap way of getting into the taxi business. As the Minister of State will be aware, hackney facilities have always been a key service in small towns and villages, especially in areas such as Donegal and Sligo. There has been a degree of contention between hackney and taxi services which, no doubt, he is taking into account in the Bill.

Section 53 provides for the establishment of an advisory council, consisting of 15 people, to advise the Commission for Taxi Regulation. That body should be comprised of representatives from a range of interested parties such as the Garda, PSV operators, disability organisations, tourism and business. No doubt the Minister will secure a good mix of representation in that regard. It is very much in the interests of the Department to get this right, having regard to the concerns of disability groups and the business sector, including IBEC and the small firms association, in relation to the growth of that service. The advisory council should be representative of service users, big and small, on a country-wide basis.

On the matter of ministerial direction to the commission, perhaps the Minister of State, in his reply to the debate, will outline what he has in mind in that regard. At an earlier stage in the debate, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, placed considerable emphasis on the need for a competitive, fair and transparent market.

Section 19 enables the commission to engage consultants. This, once again, highlights the Government's heavy reliance on consultants. While I am not suggesting that consultants are not necessary, one must be careful about the ethos involved. In a sense, we are liable to be driven by consultants, who will not necessarily solve all problems. Yesterday, the Minister for Transport referred to the M50 motorway project as being driven by too many consultants, who still got it very wrong. We must be very careful with regard to consultants.

Section 34 deals with the duration of licences, which is not specified in the Bill. Instead, the intention is to allow the commission to decide the duration and to draw up regulations in that regard. I suggest the Minister should give further consideration to that issue. The present provision seems unsatisfactory. The duration of a licence is a matter of such fundamental importance that it should be expressly stated in the Bill, rather than being prescribed later by regulations, although I appreciate that regulations are necessary in some respects, such as in relation to current tax clearance certificates.

Section 36, which deals with disqualification of licence holders, should not set out to be exhaustive, in terms of setting out particular offences, as it currently does. The present approach in section 36 is deeply flawed and I ask the Minister to re-examine it.

Under section 13, the commission will consist of between one and three commissioners, to be appointed by the Minister under section 14. The controller will obviously be a key appointment. I assume the person appointed will already command substantial respect within the trade and be a well known authority in that regard.

In general, this Bill is very necessary in terms of bringing regulation into a largely unregulated market. The previous deregulation process greatly accelerated the level of participation in this business. I support the point made by Deputy Devins on the importance of recognising the interests of consumers. One sees a huge variety of cars involved in the provision of this service. Proper standards are essential, including the NCT testing system, accessibility for people with a disability and so on. This involves substantial investment by taxi owners, including the back-up technology required for this business.

In the context of Dublin, a proper level of service should be available at any given hour, rather than allowing people to cherry-pick in terms of the more favourable hours from the taxi operator's point of view. The ideal would be, as in New York, that one could hail a taxi almost instantly. It is not desirable to have too many part-time operators in the market, perhaps working at weekends on the basis of cash in the hand. We should ensure that we are not fuelling the black economy. The viability of the business for the more professional operators is liable to be put at risk by certain part-time operators who simply cherry-pick as a means of topping up their main income. Full-time taxi operators should be clearly distinguished from part-time operators. A commitment to a certain level of service should be required. The huge intake of new entrants within the last year is likely to include a considerable proportion of people with other full-time jobs who simply operate a taxi service on a part-time basis during evenings and weekends.

There is potential for development of the taxi service in County Sligo. Deputy Devins referred to the provision of taxi ranks. No doubt the Minister will work with local authorities in terms of defining areas for taxi parking. Prior to deregulation there were 17 taxis in Sligo. The number has now increased to 80, which has given rise to major parking problems. More taxi ranks are also needed in Dublin to improve accessibility of the service.

It is important that the commission be empowered to take effective control of the situation. I hope it will be given powers with immediate effect.

Debate adjourned.