It is not before time that this Bill is presented. The issue of taxi regulation has been tinkered around with for a long time. Over the years people backed away from tackling this issue of taxi and hackney services. There have been many problems in the industry, particularly the row between taxi and hackney owners, and people were afraid to tackle them up until now. However, in fairness to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, he is pro-active on this issue. He has also been pro-active in other issues within his brief, whether trying to reduce the carnage on the roads or providing more efficient public transport. He is doing the work required – long may it continue – and I compliment him on his efforts.
Most contributors to the debate so far referred to their personal experience of the use of taxi services. I have not had much experience of using limousines, but with regard to the taxi and hackney services, I have found them satisfactory and to a high standard. That includes both the Dublin and Cork services. Once or twice, I felt I was being taken on a scenic route, but I would not be slow in pointing that out to the driver involved. My primary use of taxis is in the Cork area where people know me, so the drivers tend to be more careful. My wife and son – both non-drivers – are daily users of taxis and they constantly laud the taxi services. As public representatives, we all get feedback on services generally and public transport is no different to any other. Up until recently, 95% of complaints were about availability of taxis. This has changed dramatically over the past year, which is a welcome development.
All Deputies with a dual mandate must take some of the blame for the shortage of taxis. Deputy Deenihan painted a rosy picture of how taxi services operate in County Kerry. If there was a need for another licence plate, the council authorities simply handed it out. Our experience in Cork Corporation has not been the same, where there were problems in granting licences. The difficulty arose from the old regulation under which taxi plate licences were drawn from lots. It meant that one could not allocate plates as we felt would be appropriate in the industry, which would be to cosy drivers or others involved in the trade. It meant when licences became available the existing companies were able to get drivers and others to apply for licences. Invariably, this resulted in the council saying "no" and refusing to extend the number of plates.
As chairman of the road safety committee of Cork Corporation, I worked with others to come up with a new system. We looked at Edinburgh and other cities for a points system but, unfortunately, we were not successful. Things were changing in the industry. In the end, it lead to the situation where we had total deregulation. People can argue for and against that but it was the primary issue. There is a lesson there for us when we find that there is a difficulty with legislation. We should be more pro-active in changing it.
The Bill also deals with the issue of wheelchair access. One of the Opposition spokesmen in his comments sneered about this. Obviously, as it was pointed out to him, he had not read the Bill as wheelchair access is encompassed in the Bill. Another Opposition Deputy claimed that if it was in the Bill, the Minister for Transport would have splashed it across his opening speech. The Minister did not because it would have been playing to the gallery and exploiting the situation of vulnerable people. Wheelchair access is covered in the Bill. However, we need to look at that issue carefully because there is a need for State support for provision of this facility. It is much more expensive to provide a wheelchair accessible vehicle and it can be a slower service so this matter needs to be closely examined. I am not purporting to tell the commission what it should do, and neither is that the purpose of the Bill – the commission is being established to examine these issues. I appeal to the Minister to examine the matter because it is a different category of service, given the cost of the taxi and its usage.
The standard of cars was referred to in the debate and we have a large variety of vehicles, many of which are clapped out. At the other end of the scale, however, there are brand new cars. Internationally, a standard is maintained and while we do not maintain such a standard at the moment, I hope it will happen once the Bill is enacted.
While this is not paying lip service to them, the most important aspect of the service provided by taxis, hackneys, and to a lesser extent limousines, is that for much of the 24-hour period they are the only transport available after 11.30 p.m. In many rural areas where there is little or no public transport they provide the only service all day, thus fulfilling a huge need. Taxi and hackney drivers constitute a professional group which forms part of the transport service and they have to be dealt with as such.
Generally speaking, they are totally efficient and honest in their approach to work. Difficulties have arisen recently concerning what have been called cowboy operators, who will have to be dealt with. Under the provisions of the Bill, a person whose application for a licence is refused can appeal to the District Court but I am extremely concerned about the few judgments that have been made in that regard. The Garda Síochána has the difficult role of vetting drivers to ensure they are of good character but they seem to be overruled whenever an appeal is made to the courts. When such matters come to court, the judge is usually informed that a person has been rehabilitated and, lo and behold, the previously unsuitable driver becomes suitable within the space of half an hour. I am concerned that such things can happen and I would like to see publicity about such cases because the Garda Síochána has a difficult job to do. As previous speakers have said, it is crucially important that the integrity and character of taxi and hackney drivers are of the highest standard because very often they are dealing with vulnerable young people who may not be sober.
In my experience, I have found that taxi drivers generally provide a great public service as well as networking with the authorities, including the Garda Síochána. They are certainly not slow to point out misdemeanours they have witnessed or difficulties facing vulnerable people. The gardaí admit that taxi drivers are of great assistance to them, and long may that continue. They certainly provide information that can help to prevent crime.
The refusal of taxi licences for unsuitable persons is a matter of concern and I would like the Minister to discuss in his reply the matter of the Garda Síochána being overruled in that regard. We had a constitutional referendum to change the bail laws but it seems judges are unaware that they can refuse bail. This aspect of the legislation needs to be examined more closely.
Compensation should be paid quickly to those who have found themselves in difficulties as a result of deregulation. The compensation fund is there so decisions should be made quickly to help those who, in certain cases, are suffering hardship. In that way, the matter can be taken off the agenda. Other support can and should be provided also. In yesterday's debate, Deputy McGuinness referred to a few instances where extra costs are being charged to taxi owners. Most of them are just making a living from the business and will not become millionaires so they deserve a break. While there are multiple taxi-plate owners, the ordinary individual who is driving a taxi needs assistance.
Support is required to protect taxi drivers from bad customers, including drunks and thieves. Taxi customers who are very drunk will have to be dealt with because it should not be up to drivers to defend their vehicles against such customers who are drunk and incapable late at night. While we are placing demands on taxi drivers, the law will have to work with them in that regard. The Minister should examine the possibility of dealing severely with people who cause problems for taxi drivers, who deserve the same protection that bus drivers and conductors had to fight for and obtained.
Many improvements could be made to the taxi service, including the automatic provision of printed receipts to customers. It would be fairly simple to put a procedure in place whereby a receipt would feature all the details of a trip, including mileage, charge and any extras such as waiting and luggage charges. As well as being necessary, such receipts would help to establish customer confidence. The technology required for printed receipts is very simple and is used in many major cities, including Copenhagen and Paris. In many countries, taxis have a built-in computer so the driver inputs the address details and a map indicates the route. That can overcome difficulties such as were highlighted in yesterday's debate when a driver did not know where Kildare Street or the Dáil were. Drivers cannot be expected to know every side street, however, but that computerised mapping equipment is now available and it is not very expensive. If such equipment can be installed in taxis we should also be able to have a proper method of issuing printed receipts, which would suit everybody, including drivers.
A more transparent pricing system is needed because the current methods are very confusing. For example, prices vary according to the hour of the day or night, trips outside the taxi meter area and other factors which make it almost impossible to forecast what a taxi ride will cost. That is not good for anybody. There is no doubt that taxis and hackneys will be used more frequently in future, particularly as young people take them for granted. Their increased availability is most welcome, especially for people who may want to have a drink and avoid using their own cars for that reason. Drivers are now more conscious of the dangers of driving and drinking than was the older generation, and they take the matter more seriously.
The projected increase in the use of taxis and hackneys has to be factored into the situation, although there is currently a glitch in that there may be more vehicles available than are needed at certain times. Once the Bill is enacted, however, and people are aware of all the regulations, it will help to iron out the problem. The number of licences has increased dramatically and that needs to be analysed to see whether it is sufficient. I am quite sure that will be done.
On the question of tax clearance certificates, most people involved in the taxi business are honest, but there are cartels, groups and people with multiple taxis. This requirement is therefore welcome. It is a requirement for Members of this House, the Seanad and members of local authorities. It should be a requirement in every walk of life to have a tax clearance certificate as proof that one's affairs are in order. All these elements together will lead to greater use of and development of the service.
The first encounter visitors have with the people here is often with a taxi driver, whether they arrive through Dublin, Cork or somewhere else. It is therefore important that the service is good. I am not saying that every driver must be a counsellor or be able to chat away. If they wish to get on with their driving, so be it. None of us is perfect, but taxi drivers are generally knowledgeable and, in many cases, funny and good at telling yarns and that seems to go with the territory. They are nearly always willing to chat to people and they can certainly give a very good impression to tourists. I am aware that the reverse could also be true and that some overcharge customers. However, 99.9% of the time people's experience is positive and the service is very good.
On the question of the enforcement of regulations, I am concerned that, given the huge explosion in the number of licences, there might not be sufficient Garda personnel to enforce the new regulations. There is anecdotal evidence in that regard, but I would like detailed facts and figures that show whether there are sufficient people to police the taxi service.
There was much talk about deregulation and the difficulties it created, but nobody referred to the opportunity it gave to so many new people, who would otherwise be unemployed, to get involved and start up a business of their own. It created much opportunity and many jobs, and that is to be welcomed. They have not been mentioned in this debate, but I know many people who, since deregulation, are very pleased to be involved in the public service area providing a service and working for themselves.
The taxi service is a professional industry and proper structures are needed. I would argue that the service should be provided, as far as possible, by full-time professional drivers. I am aware that some people drive taxis part-time in addition to having another job and that there are cosies who drive full-time in somebody else's car. The taxi service is a professional industry and generally speaking, it should, be provided by full-time drivers.
The question of attacks on drivers is very serious and should be addressed very seriously. In the context of their being part of the public service, supplying a public service, being vulnerable themselves and needing protection, we are putting a huge requirement on them. It does not make good reading to learn of 129 attacks within two years. It is 129 attacks too many. The issue must be dealt with severely.
As to whether deregulation has worked, the obvious answer is "no". Up to now it has not worked fully. That is the reason this Bill is being implemented. I commend the Bill to the House. I compliment the Minister again on his work to date in many areas. Long may it continue.