I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The essential purpose and primary focus of this legislation can be summarised as follows: to provide a new and enhanced legislative basis for the control of the operation of taxis, hackneys, limousines and their drivers; to place the control of those services under the auspices of one new independent national authority, the Commission for Taxi Regulation and to establish the commission on a statutory basis; to create the framework for the application of the highest standards to the vehicles being used as small public service vehicles, their drivers and operators; and to establish, on a statutory basis, the Advisory Council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation. The Bill will establish the framework necessary to ensure that the services provided by taxis, hackneys and limousines can develop and improve to the extent that they can stand comparison with the best anywhere in the world.
The operation of the various services that are the subject of this Bill form part of the overall provision of transport services throughout the country. Taxis form a critical element of the public transport system in urban areas. They complement and enhance the services provided by buses and trains by providing door to door services, primarily targeted at single person hirings. Their services are especially necessary to meet the needs of disabled persons. Unlike the public hire, usually urban based services of taxis, hackneys operate throughout the State. They provide a particularly important role in the provision of private hire services in rural areas with dispersed populations. Limousine services enhance our tourist industry and provide quality transport services to business interests.
These services currently operate under a legislative code that dates back to 1961. The specific parameters that apply to those services are set out in 30 statutory instruments made intermittently over the past 40 years. The Bill will provide for the replacement of that code. It presents a legislative framework that, for the first time, will be focused exclusively on the services provided by all small public service vehicles. It will also provide for the creation of new structures that will apply dedicated control to the services given by the operators of those vehicles and will give an advisory role to service providers and user interests in relation to the future direction of those various services.
The Bill will facilitate the introduction of a regulatory framework to ensure a good quality, professional service by existing and prospective small public service vehicle service providers alike. It will provide for the introduction of appropriate and evenly applied standards for all categories of small public service vehicle to facilitate improved uniform standards of service for the public.
The Commission for Taxi Regulation will provide a national focus for the future operation of small public service vehicles. It will oversee the development and deployment of new standards to be applied to all vehicles, their drivers and operators. The commission will be a public body that will be independent of the Minister. This independence is specifically provided for in the legislation.
The Bill will also see the establishment of the advisory council on a statutory basis. I have taken the opportunity presented by this Bill to introduce minor amendments to two provisions in the Road Traffic Act 2002. These relate to the correction of a minor error relating to the levels of fines established in section 23 of that Act and to bring greater clarity to the introductory comments provided for in Part 1 of the First Schedule to the 2002 Act.
Before I deal with the main provisions contained in the Bill, I wish to refer to two issues that have been central to public debate in relation to taxis in recent months. The first relates to the fall-out of the decision taken by the last Government to liberalise access to taxi licences. The House will recall that the decision to remove the restrictions on access to taxi licences was taken to comply with a High Court decision that created the legal position by which the application or retention of such quantitative controls could not be maintained.
As a direct result of that decision the number of taxis operating nationally today is three times greater than was the case under the previous controlled system. Taxi licence numbers have increased from 3,934 in November 2000 to in excess of 11,600 at the end March 2003. I appreciate that this has created significant challenges for taxi operators and has given rise to certain negative comments in relation to taxi standards. It is, however, the case that between 1978, when quantitative controls were first introduced, and the adoption of liberalised entry in November 2000, debate on taxi services related almost exclusively to the question of licence numbers. The Bill that I present to the House today marks a watershed and an act of completion in relation to the issue of taxi numbers. It does not provide a mechanism to allow for the reintroduction of quantitative controls on taxi licence availability, rather it places a clear premium on the application of quality considerations to taxi services and to the services to be provided by hackneys and limousines.
The second issue to which I wish to refer is that of compensation for loss of value resulting from the removal of quantitative controls. The legal position in relation to compensation for loss of value of taxi licences was originally established in the High Court in 1992. That position was confirmed following the decision to liberalise access to taxi licences in 2000. There is no legal duty on the Government to pay compensation in relation to open market licence values that may have existed prior to liberalisation.
While there can be no question of compensation being paid, the Government recognises that the decision to liberalise access to taxi licences gave rise to hardship for certain people. To address that concern, an independent panel was established to examine in general terms the nature and extent of any such hardship. The Government has accepted the recommendations of the panel and has agreed to the implementation of those recommendations on a phased basis. Any payments to be made as a result will not represent compensation, but rather compassionate payments in respect of extreme personal financial hardship experienced by taxi licence holders arising from the liberalisation of the taxi market.
The report of the hardship panel recommends the establishment of a scheme to provide payments to individual taxi licence holders who fall into one of six categories that the panel assessed as having suffered extreme personal financial hardship.
The design and administration of a scheme to implement the recommendations of the taxi hardship panel and the arrangements to facilitate the making of payments to eligible persons is being progressed as quickly as possible to ensure that applications are dealt with on a confidential and objective basis. In this regard, I met the FAIR organisation in recent days to discuss this matter with it in detail. Every effort is being made to put in place a structure to facilitate the commencement of payments on the basis of the panel recommendations as soon as possible.
I wish to draw the attention of the House to the main policies and principles which the Bill promotes. The principal function of the Commission for Taxi Regulation, which I presume will be known as the Taxi Regulator, will be the development and maintenance of a regulatory framework for the control and operation of all small public service vehicles and their drivers. In exercising its functions the commission will seek to promote the provision and maintenance of quality services by all small public service vehicle operators, primarily through the promotion of a qualitative and customer orientated licensing system.
The commission will seek to encourage and promote competition in relation to services offered by small public service vehicles and will provide assistance, including financial aid, to local authorities to provide for the development or provision of infrastructure to support the operations of such vehicles.
The policy focus of the commission will be to provide for the grant, renewal and, where appropriate, refusal of a licence to operate a taxi, hackney or limousine or to drive such vehicles; to regulate the conduct of drivers and passengers in small public service vehicles; to declare and alter taximeter areas; to fix maximum fares; to create a comprehensive national register of all taxi, hackney and limousine licences and their drivers; to suspend or revoke licences where appropriate; to appoint authorised persons who will have a role in relation to ensuring compliance with the terms of the licences granted by the commission and to enforce the regulations the commission makes. At present, the Garda or local authorities carry out many of the roles envisaged for the commission. The Bill provides that these roles will continue to be provided by those authorities and allows them to be delivered directly by the commission by agreement at a later stage.
Part 2 of the Bill provides for the establishment of the Commission for Taxi Regulation. In recent years, the Government has established a number of commissions or regulatory boards for the purpose of carrying out specific functions or the delivery of specialist services. Deputies will note that many of the provisions in this Bill relating to the engagement and structure of the commission, replicate the approach adopted in respect of other commissions and boards. Accordingly, in discussing this Part, I will limit my comments to issues of particular note and importance.
It is my intention to proceed with arrangements for making a single appointment of the first commissioner for taxi regulation as soon as possible. This person will be vested with all of the powers and responsibility of the commission. The question of the appointment of further members of the commission will be considered if it is subsequently deemed necessary. It will be important from the outset that the independence of the commission is clearly established and accepted, especially by those who provide taxi, hackney and limousine services and the users of those services. This independence is clearly established through section 8.
Section 9 establishes the principal function and objectives of the commission. The emphasis of section 9 is on issues relating directly to quality of service. The key objectives provide for the development of efficient and professional services to ensure a safe operating environment for both service providers and users. While section 10 allows the Minister for Transport to issue policy directions to the commission, it is envisaged that such directions will be focused on the better delivery of the central role of the commission, which focuses on quality of service. Notice and details of any such ministerial directions must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and published inIris Oifigiúil.
I now turn to those provisions which form the key central elements to this Bill, as set out in Part 3. This Part establishes a completely new framework for the regulatory control of taxis, hackneys, limousines and their drivers. The main features of this framework are: the future regulation of the control and operation of all small public service vehicles and their drivers; the introduction of mandatory automatic disqualification for holding or applying for licences for those convicted of one of a range of serious offences; the engagement of new enforcement personnel who will augment the activities of the Garda; the introduction of tax clearance requirements for the grant and renewal of all licences; the adoption of a formidable system of penalties which may be imposed by the courts on conviction for offences under the Bill; the introduction of a system of fixed charges that may be paid in lieu of an offence going to court; and the application of a certification scheme for services that support the operation of small public service vehicles.
There are many varied services that currently support small public service vehicle operations. These include the provision of communication supports and the design or provision of signs or other equipment. Section 34 provides a new legislative basis for the regulation of the licensing, operation and ownership of small public service vehicles and the licensing of the drivers of such vehicles. The House will note that the focus on standards is highlighted at the very outset of this section. In an enabling provision of this nature, it is inevitable that many specific issues are referred to. For the sake of brevity, I will summarise the overall section as follows.
It vests very broad powers in the Commission for Taxi Regulation and places that office at the centre of the future development of the services provided by small public service vehicles. It provides for the future regulation of all small public service vehicles and their drivers. It emphasises quality standards as being the central focus for the future operation of small public service vehicles. It allows the commission to determine the bodies, including itself, which will have a role in the licensing of small public service vehicles and their drivers. There is a clear focus on quality. In addition, the section clearly establishes the framework through which the commission can develop separate licensing structures, standards and duties for each of the various categories of vehicles that provide the various hire services.
Similarly, separate licensing requirements and standards can be applied to the drivers of these vehicles. That focus is also highlighted by the fact that the section gives a strong message on the needs of passengers, especially in the context of the information that must be made available to them and the training of drivers to meet the needs of passengers. Given the significant growth in the industry in recent years, particularly through the increased supply of taxis, the need to promote and address customer awareness training and general quality service issues by the providers has come to the fore. Furthermore, in highlighting the issue of vehicle and operation standards, the section refers specifically to the possible introduction of provisions on matters such as the age of a vehicle to be licensed as a small public service vehicle and standards on entry to the vehicle and accommodation for people with a disability, including wheelchair users or persons with mobility and sensory difficulties.
The provisions in section 34 will be augmented by granting additional powers to the commission to regulate the conduct and duties of drivers under section 39. This section places a further premium on the quality of service and the need for drivers to address the reasonable needs of passengers. It is equally important that the behaviour of passengers in small public service vehicles should be subject to a degree of regulation in the interest of public safety. These are provided for in section 40, which establishes obligations and rules for both passengers and intending passengers relating to general behaviour and payment of fares. Section 34 also sets out a key role for the advisory council, which must be consulted in respect of any regulatory proposals the commission wishes to pursue in relation to the licensing of small public service vehicle drivers. This is in addition to the later provision in the Bill, through which the council can give advice on any regulatory proposal being pursued by the commission.
Section 35 provides for an appeals structure against a decision taken under section 34 to refuse a licence or to revoke or suspend an existing licence. In addition to an appeal to the District Court, a person who is the subject of such a decision will be afforded a period of 14 days to make representations to the licensing authority in question to review the matter before the initial decision is taken.
Section 36 marks a very significant advance in seeking to provide greater reassurance to the travelling public that those who are engaged in the provision of taxi, hackney and limousine services are persons that can be trusted and in whose care passengers feel safe. The section provides that where a person has been convicted of one of a range of serious offences across a broad spectrum of law, they will face automatic disqualification from holding any licence relating to such services. The offences include murder, manslaughter, assault, rape and offences involving drugs and firearms. Within very strict parameters, people disqualified as a result of convictions for those offences may make application to the courts to be allowed to apply for new licences. Such applications cannot be made until specified periods have passed following any conviction. In the case of the more serious offences, the period can be a minimum of ten years. No such application can be made where a person is serving a prison sentence.
In addition to those disqualifications which apply in respect of all licences, a person who has been convicted of one of a range of very serious traffic offences will be disqualified automatically from obtaining a licence to drive a small public service vehicle. Such disqualifications will last for five years where the conviction was for dangerous driving causing death or serious injury, or two years for offences of driving under the influence of drink or drugs. The House may note, in particular, that where a person who is the subject of a disqualification under this section attempts to engage in any activity relating to small public service vehicle services, they will be faced, on conviction on indictment of that offence, with a potential fine of up to £50,000 and a jail sentence of up to three years.
Section 37 introduces a requirement that licences may only be granted where an applicant presents a tax clearance certificate. This will ensure that all of those engaged in this industry are fully tax compliant. The Bill will also facilitate the transfer to the commission of a number of functions that are related to the licensing and operation of taxis in particular. These functions focus on the key issues of determination of taximeter areas and the fixing of maximum fares for taxis. Local authorities will retain the power to determine the location of appointed stands or taxi ranks and the making of relevant by-laws for this purpose, subject to any guidelines issued in this regard by the commission. This reflects the more general role of local authorities in the overall management of traffic in their areas.
The Bill involves the introduction of fundamental changes to the framework for penalising offences relating to the services provided by small public service vehicles and their drivers. Section 44 provides that the maximum fines for the commission of offences will generally range from between €1,500 to €3,000. In certain circumstances, prison terms may be imposed for repeat offences. Section 46 provides for a scheme of fixed charges for offences under the Bill. The commission is being empowered to apply such charges to whatever offences it deems appropriate. This will offer those accused of offences to which the fixed charge system is applied, the opportunity to pay a charge in lieu of having their case brought to court.
To complete creation of a comprehensive range of initiatives targeted at enforcement, section 49 provides for the appointment of authorised persons. That concept will automatically include members of the Garda Síochána. This section additionally empowers the Commission for Taxi Regulation to appoint others as authorised persons. These persons will be given broad enforcement powers so that the standards that the commission will apply to the operation of small public service vehicles will be enforced and maintained.
Part 4 presents the legislative framework for the establishment and membership of the Advisory Council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation. The role of the council and its relationship with the commission and the Minister for Transport are clearly defined.
Section 53 provides that the Minister for Transport will appoint the council, which will consist of up to 15 members in addition to a chairperson. Appointments will be for a period of not more than three years and will be made from persons from a broad range of areas, which have a relevance to the operation of small public service vehicles and to the delivery of their services. Against that background, membership of the council will include at least four members to represent the interests of those who provide small public service vehicles. Taxi, hackney and limousine operators provide services to communities throughout the country and it is important that they should have a voice and a role in a body which this Bill will place at the centre of the future of the services they provide. Other members will include representatives of consumer interests, representatives of persons with disabilities, business and tourism interests.
Section 54 gives the council a central role in examining proposals for statutory initiatives by the Commission for Taxi Regulation and providing advice and comment on those and other proposals that the commission may wish to pursue. The council may also provide advice to the Minister for Transport on overall policy on legislative matters affecting small public service vehicles. In keeping with the need to maintain and to provide confirmation of the independence of the commission, the council's role relates exclusively to that of giving advice and it cannot dictate policy to the commission.
This Bill marks the delivery by the Government on a key commitment set out in the programme for Government. Even the most cursory examination of the laws applying to taxis, hackneys and limousines would confirm its complexity. This Bill offers a new approach that will replace more than 40 years of regulations that have become unwieldy and difficult for those who work in this service and users to follow or understand.
Taxis, hackneys and limousines operate throughout the country and wherever they are encountered, the public have a right to expect that they can depend on those services for the delivery of an efficient and a safe response to their transport needs. Aspirants to obtain licences to operate and drive small public service vehicles as well as existing licence holders should expect that they must be required to achieve and maintain very high standards. In this way they can rightly feel they are part of a quality orientated service of which they, the public and the State can be proud.
This Bill presents the legislation necessary to deliver on the expectations of the public and the aspirations of the industry. I look forward to a positive and constructive debate on this historic legislation, and I commend it to the House.