Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Wednesday, 17 Dec 2008

Taxi Regulations: Discussion.

I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege but this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the parliamentary practice that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or of any official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The next item is a discussion with the taxi regulator, Ms Kathleen Doyle, and the Assistant Commissioner of the Garda Síochána, Mr. Eddie Rock. You are both very welcome. I also welcome chief superintendent Donall Ó Cuailain, superintendent Francis Clerkin and Ms Jill Barry, director of operations and policy, Commission for Taxi Regulation.

I have a meeting at 5.50 p.m. with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform so I will have to leave at that time if this meeting is not concluded.

We will try to conclude by 6 p.m. We will view a short DVD presented to us by the taxi association, followed by a presentation from Ms Doyle and Assistant Commissioner Rock. The taxi regulator and the gardaí will then retire and the taxi representatives will make their presentation. The committee will have an opportunity to question the regulator and the Assistant Commissioner and the taxi drivers' representatives.

We will view the DVD and then ask the regulator to make her presentation.

The joint committee viewed a DVD presentation.

The situation is much the same in the other main cities and we are not only concentrating on Dublin. I refer to the draft proposals the committee has put to the regulator. First, additional taxi rank spaces should be provided in each city in 2009 and I would like the taxi regulator to outline the detail on this. Second, the Garda authorities should be given responsibility for enforcement in association with the taxi regulator. Third, insurance certificates should be checked in real time to rule out the presentation of fraudulent certificates. Fourth, a licence numbering system should be introduced to identify taxis operating in different cities and countries. Fifth, a single company should supply taxi-hackney plates with security codes to ensure they cannot be copied and they should only be supplied through NCT centres. Sixth, new applicants with foreign driving licences should be required to undergo the normal tests necessary to acquire an Irish driving licence. Seventh, new criteria should be implemented to raise the standards of examination for taxi licences. Eighth, taxi drivers who wish to relinquish their plates should be obliged to give them back to the taxi regulator who can then issue them again through proper channels to help to eliminate the practice of selling them through newspapers and so on. In addition, it is proposed that a moratorium be introduced on the issue of taxi licences but this has not been agreed by the committee.

I welcome Ms Doyle and I look forward to her presentation.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I have circulated my presentation to the committee. It is quite detailed and, therefore, I will give an overview and also address the issues raised by the Chairman.

Page 2 contains the commission's mission statement. I would like to highlight page 3, which outlines the key objectives for the Commission for Taxi Regulation that we must meet under the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. I have tried to outline the position in the market before liberalisation in 2000 and the changes put in place by the commission since that date in page 4. We have introduced a number of changes, all of which followed extensive public consultation, meetings with stakeholders and advice from the advisory council to the commission. Significant work has been done in a short time by a small and dedicated team of committed commission staff. I will be happy to revisit the changes during the question and answer session.

Page 5 outlines the vehicle licence statistics since liberalisation. There was a significant increase in the number of licences issued prior to the Commission for Taxi Regulation taking over licensing in late 2006. The final change of colour in the graph refers to the period since the commission took over. Interest in entry to the market continued. Page 6 highlights the significant percentage reduction in real time active licences since March. These figures include new applications, renewals and expired licences taken at a point in time from a real time database. There are two graphs on page 7. Earlier this year when I appeared before the committee, I said the market would determine numbers at some point in time. Since May, there has been a 48% reduction in applications for new licences.

Page 8 breaks down the categories of small public service vehicles, SPSVs. This research shows the difference between what was happening in the market in 2001 and 2007. The number of hackney services has decreased while taxi services have increased. This has been beneficial to consumers as there are now taxi services where there were never taxis previously. Page 9 addresses wheelchair accessible services. There is a steady, though slow, increase in the number of wheelchair accessible services, although people with disabilities are still having considerable problems accessing services. I introduced regulations for all wheelchair accessible licence holders on 1 July 2008. They must register their details with the commission so that we can provide the contact details to disability groups to ensure they can book vehicles. Priority must be given to people with disabilities. Records of the bookings must be held by people providing wheelchair accessible services so that we can ensure people with disabilities receive a service.

Page 10 deals with transferability of taxi licences. The commission was aware of the practice of selling, leasing and renting taxi licences for many years prior to its establishment and prior to liberalisation. This practice was highlighted in the commission's initial action plan in 2006-07 and I commenced a consultation process with the industry regarding it in mid-2008, inviting submissions on whether it should continue or be restricted or prohibited. The majority requested no change and the commission followed with new responsibilities for licence holders who arrange a third party to operate the licence. The licence holder must ensure the driver is insured and holds a small PSV licence and he or she must keep records for inspection by the commission.

Page 11 gives an overview of the response from the industry following transferability and the selling and leasing of licences. This demonstrates the various reasons licence holders requested that the status quo remain. It was also apparent that some licence holders made significant investments for the purchase of licences prior to liberalisation. Therefore, they wanted it taken into account that many people in the industry would have paid in excess of the €6,300 prior to liberalisation. The slide on transferability shows transfer of licences is extremely low at less than 1%. While there was a significant increase in entry into the market, the churning of licences is very low.

Page 13 deals with taxi ranks. The Commission for Taxi Regulation has been in correspondence with all the local authorities about their short and long-term plans for the provision of taxi ranks. We are also in a tendering process for consultants to develop guidelines for best practice in the provision of taxi ranks nationally incorporating accessibility. Local authorities have been requested to work with the consultants engaged. We have also requested that measures be put in place in the interim. We have suggested, for example, the use of parking bays and bus stops, especially in the evenings. The response we have received to date from local authorities is very good. Many authorities already have these measures under consideration and some already use loading bays at night time.

The slide on page 14 indicates the response we received from the local authorities. The chart shows the information we have received so far. The blue chart shows pre-2008 and the red bar shows plans. Some ranks look reduced, but that is because they are an amalgamation with some ranks planned for the future. There has not been a reduction in spaces. There is an increase in spaces and a simultaneous amalgamation of ranks. As the committee is aware, the commission does not have a statutory role in the decision-making process but can provide guidelines to local authorities.

Page 15 revisits working hours, which I discussed with the committee earlier this year. The working time directive does not apply to self-employed small public service vehicle, SPSV, drivers. Currently, drivers are required to undertake not to drive any more than eleven hours in any three consecutive days. The previous requirement of availability for 40 hours, which prevented people from providing a part-time service, was removed by the Department of Transport in 1998 as it restricted people from working part-time. There may also be equality issues in this regard as there are a number of female drivers who offer a part-time service who may work full-time at home during the day.

Health and safety legislation requires drivers to carry out a risk assessment to assess levels of risk associated with work activities such as driver fatigue. Following the transfer of the administration of SPSV driver licensing from the Garda to the commission, no change in licensing conditions can arise until full consultation has taken place with the Garda and the advisory council, which was provided under the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. As the majority of operators are self-employed, they choose their own hours to provide the service. There is no statutory basis to refuse a person the opportunity to apply for an SPSV driving licence upon availability to work part-time.

Page 16 revisits the new vehicle standards published and the new vehicle standards to be put in place from January 2009. On the left-hand side of the page can be seen the new vehicle standards that will apply to new licences from January 2009. The right-hand side of the page shows the new requirements for all licence holders for safety equipment from January 2009.

Page 17 revisits the skills development programme that will take over testing from the Garda Síochána, in consultation with the force, during 2009. This will replace the current test gardaí conduct for entrants for the SPSV driver licence. Details of the modules we will cover in the programme are listed. The test will replace that conducted by the Garda and it will be rolled out on a pilot basis as planned with the Garda Síochána.

Page 18 provides statistical information on complaints we received during 2007. We took over the complaints area from the Garda Síochána in September 2006. Page 18 shows county by county the statistical information on complaints and the percentages for each county.

Is that complaints about all sections?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

It is complaints about taxis. We have four categories of complaints, as can be seen on page 20. The four categories are outlined under the Taxi Regulation Act and are: condition and cleanliness; conduct and behaviour; overcharging; and matters relating to hiring. Pages 18 and 19 provide the breakdown of the various counties and the percentages of complaints we received in those counties. Page 20 shows the total number of complaints over the two years. There were 763 complaints in 2007 and to the end of November 2008, we have received 551 complaints.

Page 21 deals with the commission enforcement operations by county for 2007. By mid-2007, our enforcement team of nine, plus the head of enforcement, were fully trained and operational. This page shows the enforcement activity nationally in 2007. This is the first time this country has had a dedicated team of enforcement officers for the SPSV industry. Gardaí are also authorised officers under the Taxi Regulation Act. We work closely with the Garda and with PSV inspectors in the Garda divisional areas to ensure active enforcement in the industry.

Page 22 shows commission enforcement operations by county for 2008. Some of these, as can be seen, were joint operations with gardaí. Those indicated in red are ones where we had joint operations with gardaí and those in black were conducted by our enforcement team alone. Ongoing operations continue weekly in Dublin.

Pages 23 to 25 outline the fixed charge offences under our legislation and a number of fixed charge penalties issued for offences detected in 2007 and 2008. These pages show the offences and provide the geographical spread. The record of these fixed charge offences commenced in 2007 and continued throughout 2008.

Page 26 outlines details of prosecutions that were undertaken during the second half of 2007 following the recruitment of our enforcement team and the detection of offences. The result of the prosecution and the costs awarded are shown there. As can be seen, there were more charges than prosecutions. This was because some of the summonses issued had more than one charge.

Page 28 shows there was a large number of commission prosecutions in 2008. A total of 113 prosecutions were taken, with a success rate of 92%. This highlights the 105 prosecutions outlined. The majority of the prosecutions were concerned with vehicle and driver licensing. I stress, however, that these were primarily licence holders who allowed their licences to expire but continued to operate while they were expired. A small handful of prosecutions were taken where people had either no vehicle or no driver licence.

Pages 28 and 29 outline the number of calls the commission receives. We have a consumer line and an information line for the industry. We received in excess of 82,000 calls in 2007 and up to the end of November 2008, we received in excess of 59,000 calls. The majority of those came from the industry and the topics raised are outlined on the two slides.

Page 30 shows the result of some consumer research we carried out in August. We had undertaken some consumer research in April, the feedback of which showed the service was very good and there were plenty of taxis available when people wanted them. We did some further research in August and November and the same pattern continued. The key findings are listed on the right hand side of this page. As there are a number of industry bodies represented at this meeting, we carried out some further research in Galway, Dublin and Cork last week. The research carried out in these cities last week showed a good availability of taxis and short waiting times in both Dublin and Galway. However, in Cork there were a number of times when no taxis were available.

Page 31 shows information on international taxi use. A French researcher conducted research of taxi users and non-taxi users in the cities shown on the slide. In Paris, he found it very difficult to meet his quota of taxi users, while in Dublin he found it very difficult to meet his quota of non-taxi users. The message is not just related to the number of cabs per head of population but also to consumer demand for services. While the number of licences has increased, supply cannot be assumed to have increased in direct line with the number of licences, as not all operators operate a full-time service. It is a 24-hour service, 365 days a year.

I refer to page 32 of the submission on which we describe some research we undertook with dispatch operators since I was last here. A high percentage of business organisations use dispatch operators in booking small public service vehicle services. On page 33 we set out the information which the commission supplies to both the consumer and the industry. The page contains a list which outlines both sides.

My role as commissioner is to ensure high quality standards and service are provided by the industry. On a point of clarification, I do not have the power to introduce quantitative restrictions in what has been a liberalised market since 2000. Any change in policy is a matter for the Minister for Transport and the Government. The commission will continue to raise the quality standards and services provided by the industry and consult the industry in advance of any proposed changes to standards. Improved quality and increased professionalism in the industry, together with adequate enforcement of regulations, are necessary to bring about a high, consistent standard. We will also be putting in place a quality assurance scheme mark for high quality vehicles, drivers and booking provisions.

A key message delivered by a number of countries at the international taxi forum in Cologne in Germany which I attended in November was that while increasing numbers of taxis was the main problem following deregulation in a number of countries, the way forward was to ensure high quality standards and services and training for drivers.

I thank committee members for their attention. I will be happy to take questions. The first issue raised by the committee had to do with taxi ranks. The commission is engaged in a tendering process for consultants to develop guidelines for local authorities on best practice in the provision of taxi ranks incorporating accessibility on a nationwide basis. The commission is aware that a number of local authorities are considering the dual use of loading bays and bus stops as temporary taxi ranks. In principle, these would retain their loading bay or bus stop functions during the day and early evening and would then be designated as night-time stands when they would otherwise be unused. The commission supports this proposal and will continue discussions with local authorities on this initiative. Initially it appears to be an attractive compromise, as it would create additional rank space at popular times at many locations, albeit not all, without the traditional loss of on-street parking revenue associated with 24-hour taxi rank provision. We have so far received a very positive response from local authorities and will continue to work closely with them to try to ensure the possible use of loading bays and bus stops.

The second point raised is probably one on which the committee may wish to ask the Garda Síochána to comment but I will certainly do so. It relates to enforcement officers to be assigned to each Garda division. All members of the Garda Síochána are authorised officers under the Taxi Regulation Act. The commission works closely with the Garda in joint operations and each Garda division has PSV inspectors who are very active in enforcement in the SPSV industry and also co-operate with the commission's enforcement officers. The Garda Síochána has a complement of officers in the Carriage Office in Dublin. There are two PSV inspectors in Galway and three in Cork.

The third point raised is related to insurance certificates. A valid insurance certificate covering the risk associated with small public service vehicles is required for a vehicle licence. The application form for a small public service vehicle licence also requires a declaration to be signed by the applicant confirming that the insurance will remain valid for the duration of the licence. I have written to the Irish Insurance Federation and the insurance companies to follow up on any anecdotal evidence on policies being cancelled. We have requested that any details of any cancellation of policies for small public service vehicles be forwarded to the commission. However, this may have data protection issues which we will be following up with the Irish Insurance Federation. It is an offence to drive any vehicle without the relevant insurance certificate.

The next matter on my list is the licensing numbering system. The commission introduced a new national vehicle licensing numbering system in 2006 following public consultation and advice from the advisory council on which the taxi representatives are also represented. It replaces the old numbering system under which there was a replication of numbers across local authorities. All numbers have been replaced by a five-digit number. The old identification number identified the local authority area in which the vehicle was licensed to ply or stand for hire. There is now a national taxi meter area with one licensing authority and vehicles can travel anywhere in the country.

In addition to the taxi roof sign, the system also introduced for the first time a requirement to display a disc on the front and rear windows of the vehicle licensed indicating the licence number, the registration number of the vehicle, the number of passengers it is licensed to carry and also the expiry date. This ensures consumers can be confident they are travelling in a licensed taxi. However, the driver can only ply or stand for hire in the area where his or her driver licence is issued by the Garda Síochána. The new driver identification system introduced by the commission identifies the driver and where he or she is licensed to ply or stand for hire. This is the first time there has been a consistent national driver ID which is displayed on the dashboard of every vehicle with a picture of the driver, his or her number and also the expiry date. The area in which the driver is licensed to stand or ply for hire is clearly displayed facing towards the windscreen. This should promote consumer safety and confidence which, in turn, will increase the use of small public service vehicles. The commission has highlighted these new consumer-friendly features in advertising campaigns to promote the use of small public service vehicles.

I will show the committee a taxi disc. There is a different colour for hackneys and limousines. This is placed on the front and rear windows of all vehicles. It shows the licence number, the registration number, the licensed number of passengers permitted and the expiry date. It is visible to the passenger on the inside both on the front windscreen and the rear window. These are the security features which include a new driver ID. When the driver licence is granted by the Garda Síochána, the details are passed to the commission. We enter the details in our database and then issue the driver licence identification to the driver concerned. Inside facing the passenger is a picture of the driver, the license number and the expiry date. Facing towards the windscreen is information on where the driver is licensed to ply or stand for hire. It is important to note that it indicates where the driver is licensed to ply or stand for hire rather than the vehicle because the vehicle can travel anywhere in the country. They are also issued with a smart card similar to a credit card which has security features. This can be requested by our enforcement officers at particular ranks to be checked with hand-held devices. For the first time since the introduction of the new licensing system in-vehicle information in all vehicles must be displayed such as the rights and responsibilities of drivers and consumers and the national maximum taxi fare. This is displayed in the front and rear of the vehicle. In April this year new colour coded discs for hackneys and limousines were introduced in order that from an enforcement perspective the difference between the three vehicles can be easily identified. By April 2009, all hackneys and limousines will have the coloured discs.

The next issue concerns whether new applicants with foreign driver licences should be required to undergo the normal test to acquire an Irish driving licence. By regulation this country is obliged to recognise a driving licence from EU, EEA or other recognised states on foot of reciprocal arrangements. The regulation which permits recognition of driving licences outside the jurisdiction is Regulation 37 of Statutory Instrument 352 of 1999 as being the equivalent of our national driving licence. Under the regulation, the Minister has to declare that persons from certain countries are recognised to drive in this country under the driving licence issued in his or her own country. The holder of a driver licence issued by the competent authority of another member state of the European Union or the EEA may drive in Ireland for the duration of the validity of that licence. However, he or she may exchange it for an Irish equivalent licence if he or she so chooses. The recognised states are Australia, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland and Guernsey which have been designated for the purposes of driving licence exchange, with the member states of the European Union and the EEA. Therefore, the commission or the Garda Síochána cannot put regulations in place to require foreign drivers to undergo the normal test to acquire an Irish driving licence.

On the matter of the new criteria for examination for a new taxi licence, we will be replacing the Garda test in consultation with the Garda Síochána. The new skills development programme will replace it. The skills development programme is in development at the moment. It will be ready early in the new year and we will roll it out early in the summer. We will pilot test it with the Garda at that stage.

A small public service vehicle licence holder can relinquish his or her vehicle licence to the commission. However, as a taxi licence is transferable — in my earlier presentation I discussed the consultation process regarding transferability and the reasons the industry requested no change — licence holders, therefore, can advertise them. This has long been the practice prior to liberalisation and has continued since then.

On the introduction of a moratorium on issuing taxi licences, as outlined in the presentation there has been a decrease in the applications for new licences. Any change in policy to introduce restrictions on the number of licences is a matter for the Minister. The commission will continue to raise the quality and standards of services provided by the industry, which will ensure that all vehicles and drivers reach consistently high quality standards. Demand, as well as supply, must be considered. The result of the economic review that has been undertaken by the commission will address supply, demand, industry earnings and the shaping of the industry since liberalisation. It would, therefore, be premature for me to comment at this stage on a moratorium.

When will that review be finalised?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The review is ongoing. We expect the work to be finalised by the end of December. There will be some collation of data early in January. I hope to be in a position to publish it by 1 February.

I ask Assistant Garda Commissioner, Mr. Rock, to make a short presentation.

Mr. Eddie Rock

I appeared before the committee on 4 June. There were suggestions that there were extensive activities by unlicensed people in the industry. We organised two national operations with emphasis on detecting persons operating illegally. Over two particular weekends, 2,158 were inspected and there were five detections of persons found to be driving unlicensed taxis. In this regard, there is no evidence forthcoming to suggest that they type of incident is prevalent. However, there were five detected at the time. In total over those two weekends, 110 taxi-related offences were detected with the most frequent offences being taxi meter not printing; rate of fare not displayed; driver identification not displayed; and driver not clean in personal apparel.

For 2009, we will be in consultation with the regulator as we have already. There will be some joint operations for 2009 also. I mentioned multi-agent checkpoints which the Commission for Taxi Regulation enforces. They are being carried out and fines and spot tickets are issued by the commission. We are working and will continue to work closely with it on all matters arising. It is acknowledged that there are ongoing problems with overcrowding at taxi ranks not only in Dublin, but also in many cities and towns around the country. These are the subject of ongoing consultation on joint policing committees with our officers and local city and county managers where appropriate.

Under the Safe City initiative, Galway City Council is considering the use of loading bays and bus stops as temporary taxi ranks. I understand that is happening in many areas. I hope it is a temporary solution, which requires considerable understanding by stakeholders. To attend to the increased demand for taxis and to increase the capacity of ranks to hold taxis in Cork, a number of temporary taxi ranks have been created, where bus stops, loading bays and clear ways are used. While there is no legal basis for their enforcement or to prevent other road users from using these sites outside the permission hours, local gardaí are working with general road users and taxi drivers to make the temporary taxi rank a workable solution.

My colleagues would be happy to respond to any questions members of the committee might have. For any questions that we cannot answer today, we will revert to the committee later.

I thank the delegates for their presentations. When Ms Doyle was here in April she said:

There is an adequate supply of taxis in some areas but they are not promoting themselves and availing of the business opportunities available to them during non-peak hours. There are taxis sitting at ranks while taxi companies are receiving bookings and cannot deliver a service.

Notwithstanding the presentation Ms Doyle has made, is she happy with the state of the taxi industry at present? She did not mention the people involved in the industry. Does she have any concern about them? While we accept that it is not in her power to introduce any kind of moratorium or cap, it is her responsibility to implement proper standards. Her very colourful presentation made no mention of anything that would improve the standards of the taxi service in the immediate future.

Ms Doyle referred to a 48% decrease in the applications for taxi licences in 2007. Does she really believe that it will be possible to continue at the rate we are going? This week, I got statistics from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform indicating that in Cork 700 extra taxi licences have been granted in 2008, with a further 92 pending. In Galway this year, 401 additional licences were granted with a further 45 pending. In Limerick in 2007, some 218 licences were granted and in 2008, some 103 were granted with a further 69 pending. While I do not have the figures for Dublin, in view of what we have seen in Dublin, would Ms Doyle not accept that the number of taxis now operating on the streets of our cities is far and away above what it should be?

The quality of service from taxi operators around the country has deteriorated considerably. There is quite an amount of illegal activity going on. Ms Doyle mentioned that there were 21 offences and 16 prosecutions. Under the existing system, a taxi driver can rent out or sell on his or her plate to somebody else. The taxi driver is the only person responsible for ensuring that the person who rents the licence plate will keep up the standards, will produce a tax certificate, is not in receipt of unemployment benefit, etc. Since Ms Doyle last appeared before the committee I have come across evidence of considerable abuse of this system and that it should be stopped. Would she be prepared to reconsider allowing people to sell and rent licence plates? On the last occasion Ms Doyle was here, we showed her a copy of the Evening Herald which contained columns of taxi licences for sale and rent. However, the Commission for Taxi Regulation does not have any control over the people who purchase or rent those licences. Is that not wrong?

The very glossy report Ms Doyle has produced is completely at variance with what we see on the screen today and with what we hear from people in the taxi industry. Ms Doyle must be aware of the significant dissatisfaction that exists. However, she seems to be of the belief that everything is rosy in the garden.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I will answer the Chairman's last question first. The figures and statistical information before the committee are drawn from a live database. We are the national vehicle licensing authority and the Garda passes over the details of the driver-licensing database. Under section 38 of the Taxi Regulation Act we are required to establish vehicle and driver licensing databases. We have real-time information. What the committee members see before them is exactly what it is. There is a decrease in the number of applicants for licences and the churning of licences is small. That is exact real-time information.

I realise that. However, is it right that 700 extra licences have been awarded in Cork in 2008 given the number of licences in that city already and with another 92 to be given out before the end of the year?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I addressed that issue earlier in my presentation. The Chairman is aware that I cannot restrict——

I know.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

——the numbers of people coming into the market.

As the person responsible for regulating the industry, does the commissioner feel, as she did in April, that there is room for more taxis? Does she still believe the taxi industry is not going after the business that is out there?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The Chairman spoke earlier about dispatch operators. When we met dispatch operators throughout the country earlier in the year, they told us they were still looking for drivers. Advertisements looking for drivers have been published since that date. We have conducted research with dispatch operators. We have visited a number of such businesses. The feedback we have received from most dispatch operators suggests that they have enough drivers. They may replace drivers, but they are not looking for additional drivers. Having said that, there is ongoing advertising. I do not doubt that licence holders are facing difficulties. I have met representative bodies throughout the country. They are all working in difficult times. They are facing competition and having to work longer hours to make money. There is no doubt about that. Having said that, some consumers continue to express concern about the peaks and troughs that are a feature of the good service that is available. I have mentioned some research that we undertook in Cork last week. We found long queues and no taxis at a particular rank in Cork on 12 different occasions over a two-day period last week. It is a question of peaks and troughs. Many taxis are available at certain times, but not at others.

The Chairman spoke about the new standards to be introduced in January 2009. He is aware that a process of public consultation had to be undertaken before new standards could be introduced. Details of the new standards for vehicles — standard taxis and hackneys — are set out in the document I have furnished to the committee. The standards will be rolled out in full across the industry by January 2012. We have given current licence holders in the industry a little more time. That decision was made following the consultation process for new vehicle standards when it became apparent that drivers with financial packages needed to be facilitated. Some drivers take a three-year package and others take a five-year package. It is difficult for them to get loans. They need to pay off one loan before they take out another. Current licence holders will have to meet the standards, on a phased basis, over the period to 1 January 2012. New entrants into the industry must meet the new standards next year. They will also have to undertake the driver skills development programme when we pass it over to the Garda early next year. All current licence holders will have to undertake the programme by 1 January 2012. We will increase the standards over a phased period.

I will revisit the standards when everybody is under the new umbrella in January 2012. In the meantime, we will encourage as many current drivers as possible to undertake the driver skills development programme. We are already giving advice to people who are changing their cars. Over the past year, on foot of the vehicle standards, we have had to prepare model reports on the sorts of cars that will meet the new specifications. Our technical department has prepared more than 200 model reports. It is obvious that people will telephone the commission to check whether certain cars meet the basic specifications. We have done a great deal of preparatory work in that regard over the past year. We are in close contact with the Road Safety Authority, which manages the national car test contract. It is obvious that testing and suitability arrangements have to be put in place for the new standards.

I mentioned two things that will come into play from January 2009. When I was in Cologne earlier this year, the big message that was transmitted was that these two key areas need to be introduced in any deregulated market. Some of the people to whom I spoke after the International Taxi Forum are keeping a close eye on developments in Ireland. They are examining the vehicle standards and driver skills programmes we are introducing. A number of countries are under severe pressure to deregulate their taxi industries. They are considering the possibility of introducing vehicle standards and driver training programmes before they provide for deregulation.

How many new taxi rank spaces will be provided in each of Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Galway and Waterford in 2009? If Ms Doyle cannot answer that specific question today, perhaps she will furnish that information to the committee at a later stage. Is the commission prepared to bring an end to the renting and selling of taxi licences? Will it change the system so that people who want to get out of the industry can return their licences to the commission and get their €6,300 back? The commission should then be in a position to give that licence to somebody who meets the proper standards, which have just been outlined by Ms Doyle.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Under the Taxi Regulation Act 2003, all the commission can do is provide guidelines to local authorities in respect of taxi rank spaces. We will certainly do that. The commission cannot decide how many taxi rank spaces are provided.

I am not saying the commission can do that. Surely it can co-operate with the local authority to establish how many spaces should be provided, and where, in 2009. Many aspirations have been expressed in respect of the provision of additional taxi rank spaces. We have not seen anything more than that, however. We have not heard it from the commissioner today.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I mentioned that the commission is engaging consultants to prepare guidelines.

With due respect, it is not good enough to tell the committee at this point in time that consultants are to be engaged.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I told the Chairman that on my last visit to the joint committee. With all due respect——

That is my point. There is no reason there cannot be an immediate improvement in the number of taxi rank spaces in this country's five cities in the immediate future.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I need to explain the system to the Chairman. The work to be undertaken by the consultancy firm being engaged is a substantial undertaking. It is not simply a question of identifying taxi rank spaces. It is a question of integrating the entire taxi system into this country's transport infrastructure. The consultants will not just look at cities — they will look at the whole picture. We have a national brief. We need to look at the requirements of all parts of the country. The consultants might start by looking at the cities, in conjunction with the relevant local authorities.

I would like to make one more point before I hand over to Deputy O'Dowd.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I have not answered the Chairman's second question, which related to the renting and selling of taxi licences. I mentioned that we engaged in a process of public consultation with the industry in that regard. The slides I showed the committee set out the industry's response, which was that there should be no change in the status quo. The Chairman suggested that plates could be sold to the commission, but that is not provided for under the relevant primary legislation.

We feel it should be. In view of what Ms Doyle has indicated to the committee today, it is clear that something needs to be done about the key locations — our cities — as a matter of urgency. We accept that taxi rank spaces cannot be provided for everybody. Surely some improvement can be made to ensure that the problems indicated in the commission's presentation can be alleviated to some extent in the immediate future. I ask the commission to consider putting that in place.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I outlined to the Chairman that we are working very closely with the local authorities. One of the slides I showed the committee set out the response we have received from the local authorities. They are working to provide interim solutions in advance of the completion of the guidelines.

Ms Doyle might give the committee details of the number of spaces each local authority will provide.

I welcome the taxi regulator, the assistant commissioner, the chief superintendent and the staff of the regulator's office. I have done some research since the committee's last meeting with the regulator. I had a good and frank meeting with representatives of the taxi industry at 8 a.m. one morning. I have been in contact with the regulator's office. I have been trying to identify some of the issues that could be resolved.

It is clear that there has been a decrease this year in the number of people using public transport. Having spoken to taxi drivers, it is clear that fewer people are travelling by taxi. The economic downturn is affecting livelihoods. CIE, which provides bus and train services, will lose a significant amount of money this year. The decrease in taxi incomes is compounded by the fact that people who are becoming redundant are entering the taxi business. That was outlined in the DVD presentation we viewed earlier. The market is contracting at a time when there is too much supply. People can enter the market in different ways. I would like to suggest how it could be regulated better.

I would like to mention an issue that does not concern those before the committee today. I received information from a taxi association to the effect that new entrants to the taxi business can be assisted under the job initiative scheme. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to try to ascertain whether that is the case. It is clear from the reply that it is. If I am a longstanding taxi driver, I have to pay for my meter, but if my next door neighbour enters the business, his meter will be paid for by the taxpayer. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of such a system at the best of times, I do not think it is equitable or fair in a contracting market. People's livelihoods are being damaged in a challenging economic environment. The Department of Social and Family Affairs indicated to me yesterday that it cannot provide the number of people who are being assisted. I have seen the stubs of cheques that the Department has issued to various garages. This is a serious issue. While the job initiative scheme is a good thing, I am not sure that it should be used in difficult economic circumstances to assist people to enter a contracting market.

I would like to ask the taxi regulator about the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Deputy Coveney, who is from Cork and is very interested in this issue, has suggested to me that there is a good argument to be made for a significant increase in the number of new entrants to the market that offer wheelchair-accessible services. I agree with the regulator that we need to raise the bar for entry. We need to change the environment into which people enter the profession. I understand that there are 16 different PSV areas where one applies for a licence. Different criteria can apply in each area. For example, one may have to do a written multiple choice test in Dublin, but that is not needed in other areas. The Garda authorities might decide that a person is entitled to a taxi licence, perhaps by interview or whatever. There is a need to tighten this up considerably, and the same standards should apply universally. There should be a written test for knowledge of the area and an interview. I am told that some people do not know their areas. Is a SatNav acceptable or not? People ought to know their designated areas like the back of their hands. If there are higher standards for entry, people will have to be better qualified to go into the profession. I believe that a trial test is being brought in, and I accept the integrity of what the commission is doing, but I would like to see higher universally applied standards of communication, ability and knowledge. People need to able to communicate verbally, as this may be a problem in some cases, as it is in other professions.

Taxi drivers have raised the issue of part-time drivers with me. If I am working a full-time job and I supplement my income at the weekend peak times, there might be an issue with that. I know that the working time directive does not apply, but the area should be better regulated. We need to make sure that nobody is out there driving who is physically very tired because he has done 40 hours in another job. We need to ensure that it is a safe operation for those who are driving and for their passengers.

What kind of analysis will be included in the commission's economic review? Will it be seeking statistics from transport operators in the public sector? That is very important. According to the commission's current statistics, there are fewer people applying for the licence, but the market is contracting. There seems to be a significant problem, and we must address it somehow.

I welcome the regulator and the Assistant Garda Commissioner. What is the breakdown of the 27,300 licences for Dublin, Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick? My information is that approximately half of them are Dublin-based licences. This effectively means that Dublin has more taxis than Sweden, with a population of 9 million——

Ms Doyle has the numbers, so she can provide them now and the Deputy can continue after that.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Up until the end of November 2008, there are 11,808 taxis and 736 wheelchair accessible taxis in Dublin. There are also 257 hackneys and 422 limousines in Dublin. The total number in Dublin is 13,223. In Cork, there are 1,363 taxis, 86 wheelchair accessible taxis, 742 hackneys and 168 limousines, which gives a total number of 2,359. In Galway, there are 691 taxis, 103 wheelchair accessible taxis, 382 hackneys and 48 limousines, which gives a total number of 1,224. In Limerick, there are 612 taxis, 41 wheelchair accessible taxis, 218 hackneys and 52 limousines, which gives a total number of 923. In Waterford, there are 226 taxis, 31 wheelchair accessible taxis, 82 hackneys and 53 limousines, which gives a total number of 392.

These are remarkable figures per head of population. In 2006, all of Sweden had 14,251 taxis, the Netherlands had 19,000, Finland — with a slightly bigger population than this State — had 10,000, New York city had about 12,500 for a population of 8.5 million, while the greater London area had 22,000 taxis. Do those figures not show that there is a prima facie case of a massive oversupply? There has been an increase of 2,000 taxis over the last two years, as we begin to stagger into a recession. When compared with other jurisdictions, it seems that we have a massive number of taxis and the supply and demand issue must be addressed.

Will the study being carried out by the commission show us figures like the average income per taxi driver? How much can those 27,000 men and women expect to earn? Will the review include a thorough examination of the wages and the working conditions across the industry? Will we have any supply side figures that can help us in this area? The regulator also mentioned the 2006 decision on the number of licences. What information have we got? For example, how many individuals would have multiple plates? What is the smallest and the largest number of multiple plates held by an individual? Should we review this area? Denmark deregulated the taxi industry, but then brought in a settlement which involved a co-operative system. There was massive deregulation followed by a free-for-all in New Zealand. The New Zealand Government had to bring in new legislation and regulate the system based on a demand for taxis and high standards.

The situation regarding the taxi ranks is appalling. We saw the film presentation today, which dealt with an area close to me on the north side of Dublin. There is a massive queue of taxis stretching half a mile back from a hostelry at Clontarf DART station. When I go home through Dublin North-East and Dublin North-Central, for example on Wednesday nights, I see lines of up to 15 taxis at every hostelry along the way, through Clontarf, Killester, Raheny out through Kilbarrack and all the way to Howth. None of those ranks are official or were sanctioned. It is obvious that taxi drivers are desperate to get a fare. They are doing something significant and important because they are carrying home people who were drinking and therefore enabling them to get home in a safe way. However, the ranks are effectively illegal. I have received e-mails from drivers complaining bitterly. Some people say it is destroying the hailing system and that it shows the system is in chaos.

When one compares the number of taxi drivers to the number of taxi ranks in the city, there is a tiny proportion of ranks for the people scrabbling for a living. In Galway there are 65 places for 1,150 taxi drivers. The Cathaoirleach is probably aware of that. In Waterford there are 30 places for 370 taxi drivers. I am not sure of the figures for Dublin but it is clear that the system has broken down. From what I can see, it appears that regulation has more or less collapsed in significant areas. There is a free-for-all and we need to re-examine the matter.

I do not intend to hog the meeting but I will zero in on one specific issue, namely, the health and safety of drivers. I noticed, for example, a report by a young journalist from my constituency for the Evening Herald on the taxi driver of the year in 2007. Regrettably, he said he saw no future in the industry, as he did not see how he could make a living in the current circumstances.

Ms Doyle said it is not possible to enforce the European regulations on working time conditions. She referred to 11 hours for the three days. One cannot enforce the working time regulations because people are self-employed or contractors. Does that not show the situation has become farcical? There could very well be a health and safety risk, first and foremost, to the workers themselves but, second, to their passengers. In that area it is obvious we have a serious problem with regulation, which must be urgently addressed.

I invite the regulator to respond and then I will take questions from Deputies Kennedy and Connaughton.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The first matter raised by Deputy O'Dowd related to social welfare, and the possibility of people getting grants to enter the industry. Grant schemes are available from the Department of Social and Family Affairs for those who wish to return to work who may have been on long-term unemployment benefit. If people wish to become self-employed, for example in the taxi industry, grant schemes are available. However, they must meet certain criteria. I do not have any statistical information on who may have availed of the grants but we supply our register of licences to the Department of Social and Family Affairs so it can cross-reference the details to ensure there is no abuse of applications either for grant schemes or for unemployment benefit.

Will the Department of Social and Family Affairs be able to answer my question?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Certainly. On request, we give access to the Department of Social and Family Affairs to the public register. We have two databases; one for drivers and one for vehicles and we make those available. We are often asked for those locally. For instance, we might get a request from a county council to list how many taxis are licensed in a particular area at a given point. We hand over the register and it cross-checks the details with its own registers and takes whatever enforcement is necessary in the circumstances.

Deputy O'Dowd's next question was about the increase in the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis. We issued a new vehicle standards publication for wheelchair-accessible taxis and for the introduction of a new wheelchair-accessible hackney to ensure people with disabilities get adequate services. New EU standards will issue in April 2009 and our new standards comply with them. Currently, one can convert a goods vehicle by stripping it out and replacing it with the appropriate equipment to turn it into a wheelchair-accessible taxi. The new regulations coming down the track specify that only a passenger vehicle can now be converted, which will increase the price of wheelchair-accessible vehicles considerably

We made a submission some time ago to the Minister for Transport to provide the industry with a subsidy for the purchase of those vehicles to give an incentive to put extra wheelchair-accessible vehicles into the marketplace. Currently, we have only approximately 1,500 wheelchair-accessible vehicles nationally. I meet wheelchair-accessible vehicle users on a regular basis and they say the service is inadequate. The vehicles are extremely expensive. They cost between €50,000 and €70,000. We would need a substantial investment from Government and some sort of subsidy to incentivise the increase.

If the commissioner were to insist on a higher proportion of wheelchair-accessible taxis it would provide a better service to people requiring them. Could one specify that people going into the taxi business would have to ensure their vehicles are wheelchair accessible?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Unfortunately, under the legislation, we cannot restrict one category as opposed to another, but we can certainly incentivise one. That is what we are hoping to do if a subsidy is provided. If that is the case people interested in providing the service to people with disabilities can do so and they will be able to provide the service to able-bodied people as well, which would allow them to extend their business. That said, we have not received a reply from the Minister as to whether a subsidy will be forthcoming and in the current climate we are not sure what will happen. The matter lies with the Minister and we await a decision from him. The proposal was that we would try to increase the wheelchair-accessible fleet to 10% at the very least in the coming years, thus increasing those vehicles by a minimum of 1,000. If people are coming into the industry we would encourage them to opt for those vehicles rather than a standard vehicle.

Will it be a single test——

Ms Kathleen Doyle

It will be a single test——

——for "the Knowledge"? Will there be an oral test? The London taxi test has approximately nine elements to it.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I refer Deputy Broughan to the skills development programme outlined on page 17 of the presentation. A number of areas will be covered, including route selection. The various modules include relevant legislation, route selection, customer care, fares and charges, health and safety, safety and security, manual handling and lifting, equality and diversity, disability awareness, knowledge of equipment and good business practice. Anybody coming into the industry will have to undertake a test that will include all of those modules. They will have to pass that test. Questions relating to all areas will be included in the test. That said, there will be a high proportion of questions related to the testing of area knowledge. That will be provided by a company that has international experience, which is currently looking after testing for the Road Safety Authority for driver theory testing.

There is an incentive for as many people as possible to get in before the test is introduced.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I have no idea of the number of applicants registered with the Garda Síochána currently. However, from the statistics we receive on a weekly basis from the Garda Síochána relative to new numbers coming in, there has not been a huge increase.

That is not correct. Ms Doyle seems to be——

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I have the statistics.

I received them in reply to a question tabled to the Minister this week. Ms Doyle gave us a total of 691 taxis in Galway. In 2008, some 401 licences were issued and 45 are still pending. In 2007, some 378 licences were issued. In Cork this year 700 licences were issued.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The licence numbers the Chairman is referring to are vehicle licences, whereas the question is relative to driver licences, which are separate.

I realise that but one has to have a vehicle if one is going to have a driver licence.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The driver training programme is for drivers coming into the industry.

I accept that but the more vehicles that come into the industry, the more drivers who shall be employed.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I can give the Chairman statistical information relative to the drivers who have come into the industry.

I do not want to get tied up on this. However, until such time as the regulator implements those standards, is the whole argument for putting a stop to the issuing of licences?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The standards I spoke about will be introduced in 2009. The vehicle standards will be introduced in January 2009 and the drivers' skills development programme should be ready by the early summer. It will be piloted with the Garda Síochána.

Will there be an oral examination?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

It will be a written test.

One issue raised with the committee concerns taxi drivers' communication abilities, such as being able to take directions or explain where they are going. It has been suggested the questions in the test may be repeated. I am not suggesting anything untoward might go on, but as a former teacher I know what can happen with repeat questions.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I will not go into detail about what will be in the questions.

There will be different questions.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Absolutely. There could be several people in the one room at any particular time but no one will get the same test, even if it is for the same area. A large bank of questions is being prepared.

Given the nature of the business, would it not be better to have an individual oral test?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

With all due respect, that is practically impossible. With the numbers involved, we have had to tender out the process.

There is an oral aspect to the State examinations every year.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We have to provide the service nationally.

That means it cannot be done on cost grounds rather than on an efficiency basis.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

On a one-to-one basis, it would be impossible for us to have an oral examination.

The regulator already interviews candidates.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The interview is a separate issue from the test. For the test, people must write the answers to questions. We will have multiple questions available for all the various areas we have covered. It will be like the driver theory test with multiple choice questions. For those who do not wish to operate the commutative system, a one-to-one arrangement may be made in advance.

Does the London knowledge test involve an interview? If it does, the Dublin knowledge test should also involve an interview.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The Garda can answer that question. The Dublin test is a written one and we have consulted the Garda Commissioner on it. Any changes to the driver licensing conditions, which I referred to in my presentation, would require consultation with the Garda Commissioner and the advisory council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation, as provided for under the Taxi Regulation Act.

We have not taken this programme over from the Garda. Our programme was prepared in anticipation of taking it over from the Garda in the future.

Can the candidate take the test paper out of the room and then sell it on the Internet?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

No, they will only take out their result.

Would the Assistant Commissioner like to comment on this?

Mr. Eddie Rock

The application the Garda deals with is not an oral test in the strict tense. However, an applicant must go to a Garda station to fill out the application form and there would be some conversation. The Garda is represented on the taxi advisory council. I am sure the committee's suggestions will be considered at it.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The working time directive does not apply to small public service vehicle drivers who are self-employed. It works for those who are employed by a firm.

There are concerns about driver fatigue. We have written to the Garda Síochána, the Health and Safety Authority and the Road Safety Authority for their views on people in full-time employment working extra hours as a taxi driver. The Road Safety Authority's view is that a driver must be fully alert, active and well able to concentrate on driving. The Health and Safety Authority has asked us to highlight that it is the responsibility of the driver to undertake a risk assessment of any hazards that may be associated with their work.

A person who has other full-time employment and does some taxi driving in the evening should inform his or her employer. A self-employed taxi driver also has an obligation under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act to have risk assessment as to any hazards to which passengers may be exposed.

The main concern is driver fatigue. People must take the responsibility to take adequate rest periods. However, from the point of view of people working part time, there was a regulation which was removed by the Department of Transport in 1998 relative to confirming 40 hours' service if one was to become a small public service vehicle driver. This was removed because it would restrict anyone offering a part-time service.

It also has been raised with us that there are a number of female taxi drivers who are working at home full time. There are also husband and wife teams. They would be restricted under equality legislation.

One needs special insurance to drive a taxi.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Yes. Regulations have been put in place that the risk must be for small public service vehicle insurance. We have introduced new regulations. In the past some of the insurance certificates could have been interpreted as to mean carriage of goods. We have ensured all insurance certificates, both fleet and individual, must have small public service vehicle insurance risk.

They must present this to the regulator.

Can we move on to Deputy Broughan's questions? We are running out of time and we still need to hear the taxi drivers' representatives.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Yes. From my presentation and some international research, it is not all about heads of population per licence issued, it is also about consumer demand. It is clear from the international research that consumer demand varies in cities throughout Europe.

The number of licences does not mean a 24-hour service is being offered by each licence. Some are offering a part-time service while others a full-time service.

In the economic review, we will examine the average income and working conditions as well as supply, demand, the impact of liberalisation and industry earnings.

Does the regulator have figures on this?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The consultants will examine these.

Regarding multiple licences, over 91% of vehicle licence holders only have one vehicle licence. There is a small percentage of entities — 12 — which have between ten and 20 licences as well as a small percentage — 15 — that have between 20 and 80 licences. We have one entity with over 100 licences. The larger entities are fleets which employ drivers.

Concerning Deputy Broughan's point about renting and leasing licences, a small number of individuals undertake that practice. The industry wants it to continue. One issue made by the representative associations is that a vehicle may break down on a Friday night and the driver may want to work on Saturday and Sunday but cannot get a vehicle replacement licence until Monday. Under the renting arrangement, they can go to an entity which may have a vehicle available and they can continue to work over the weekend.

This is where much illegal activity is taking place. Many people are renting licences, and with no control over them, they may be on unemployment assistance and they do not have to produce a tax certificate. They do not have to produce tax certificates and when the regulators come to Galway, half the taxi ranks clear out on that night.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We put regulations in place this year following that public consultation process. While the industry wanted to maintain the status quo, obviously the people who are leasing or renting licences need to take responsibility to ensure the driver in charge of the vehicle is properly licensed. They are required under our regulations to keep records which must be inspected.

Clearly, in the case where there is a breakdown or something genuine happens, there should be an opportunity, but I believe Ms Doyle should talk to the representatives of the industry and change that system because it is being abused.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

If the Chairman would let me finish, I mentioned that I have put regulations in place this year whereby anybody who has a third party operating a licence must have records and ensure the person is insured, holds a full small public service vehicle driving licence and he or she must produce those records to the commission within 21 days so that we can monitor the situation. Those regulations have been in place since 1 July. All licence holders have been informed of the regulations. We are giving them an opportunity to get their house in order and we shall be looking for those records.

What about fake IDs, which seem to be found in places such as Dublin and Cork?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We have had only a handful of complaints about fake IDs. That is all that have been discovered at this stage.

May I give Ms Doyle three examples of fake IDs that have been given to us? They look very authentic and we are being told that they may be acquired quite easily. If those types of licences are available, as we are being informed by the taxi associations, then there is a certain amount of illegal activity, and that needs to be stopped.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

We have asked the representative bodies around the country to inform us of any illegal activity. There have been claims such as these and we have picked up on some of them, less than a handful. Those referred to by the Chairman may very well be copies of the complaints we have already. If the representative bodies have any information regarding illegal activity or practices, we are asking them to give it to us immediately. We shall either investigate ourselves or pass it to the Garda, the Revenue or social welfare for investigation. We have asked all the representative bodies this year to produce that information for us, and to date nothing has been forthcoming. Other than a few cases we have picked up ourselves, nobody has come into us with anything. People will ring in and say that they have heard this or that. We ask them to give us the evidence and say that it will be investigated immediately. We have not received such evidence to date, however.

In Dublin we call those types of things "bogeys". These bogeys are very good and that is a fundamental problem, is it not?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Earlier I showed the committee the smartcard. These do not have the proper security features we have. They can be picked up very easily by our enforcement officers and also by the Garda Síochána. We have been in consultation with the Garda at all of the training courses for the road traffic corps this year. All members of the road traffic corps are aware of these and know what to look out for. We continue to watch out for them, and certainly we are not picking up any of those on the streets. As Assistant Garda Commissioner Eddie Rock mentioned earlier, much of the activity is related to people who allow their licences to lapse, while they continue to operate.

I welcome the Garda and Ms Doyle. I share the frustration in relation to the lack of taxi ranks, particularly in Dublin. It is disappointing that no increase is proposed for 2009. I suggest that Ms Doyle should put more pressure on the local authorities. It is not acceptable for them to say it is not their problem. Collectively, her organisation, the local authorities, the Garda and the Minister, have to come up with a solution. The situation is not satisfactory. Regarding the part-timers, as part of her regulations I suggest that she should build in a tachograph system. This 11 hours over three days for someone who has, perhaps, worked 40 or 50 hours in his or her daytime job is absurd. We must come up with some regulations that ensure passengers have a driver who is in a fit condition to carry them. Nobody should be put at risk because someone is trying to earn a few bob. We all understand why people might want extra income, but the reality is that we should not have incompetent drivers on the road.

Who came up with the nine-year period for vehicle standards? To me a nine-year old vehicle is not suitable for public service. It should be five years at most. I recognise that the commission has made good progress and that the new regulations will improve standards, but a nine year old vehicle is too old in my opinion, particularly with the price of new vehicles coming down.

Ms Doyle mentioned that there was no facility for the commission to be informed of policy cancellation by the insurance companies. As someone with some little knowledge of the insurance industry, I suggest that companies which finance the purchase of vehicles will be notified if a policy is cancelled. I see no reason why Ms Doyle, as the regulator, should not be accorded the same facility by the insurance companies.

I want to ask a question in the context of the limited number of drivers who have wheelchair accessible vehicles. Some of them actually refuse to take the fare. What regulation applies? Is there a sanction? I know one wheelchair user who avails of taxis all the time. When he rings for a taxi and specifies it needs to carry a wheelchair, he suddenly finds it is not available. That is totally unacceptable. Are there sanctions in that event?

I have a question for the regulator. Why does she think that there is such a remarkable gulf between her office and the ordinary taxi people? When I was researching this topic for this meeting and for others, I found there was an almighty gulf between what the taxi people expect the regulator should be doing and what she actually says she is doing. I have no doubt she is doing the best she can in the circumstances. Why is it that standards promised are never delivered? Some of the matters in this document are extremely useful and important, not only for the taxi people but for their customers. Why has it taken so long to deliver? That is a major issue. Had some of those been delivered at this point, we should not have this critical clash. It is very important for the regulator's office and also for the taxi fraternity around the country – since this is an important mode of transport – but as far as I can see they are moving away from each other. I do not know why or whether Ms Doyle knows, and I should like her comments on that.

The only ranks with which I am reasonably au fait are those in Galway. The situation is reminiscent of a car rally in Mondello Park. There is nowhere to park legally. I do not know how frequently the Garda have to move them on, but taxis tend to cause traffic jams in or around Eyre Square and adjoining streets and one cannot blame them because they must tout for business. They are parked all over the place, on footpaths and on pedestrian crossings. Ms Doyle has said that something will be done about that in conjunction with the local authority and the Garda and that it is a question of identifying and making use of whatever space is available. It will be quite a remarkable achievement if she can find any space around Eyre Square in Galway. In 2000 there were not enough taxis in the country. Some in the taxi organisations will disagree with me, but I will say what I think. Some 4,000 taxis was not enough and deregulation led to a better service as time passed. However, as with many things in life, there is now the opposite effect with 27,500 taxis which seems to be too many. The commissioner believes the laws of supply and demand will rectify the situation, but I believe the commission will have to do something else such as raising standards or having a pause. That is why everybody will wait for the results of the review next month.

Some get into the industry with a nine-year old car and might not know the location of an estate a quarter of a mile from the city centre. They can go out on a Friday or Saturday night and cherry-pick, something that does great damage to the entire industry. They entered the industry at a time when standards were not high enough and we have arrived at a situation where there are 27,500 taxi operators in the country. This is an opportune time for change. We should not remove competition from the industry but must have higher standards. There should be a reasonable expectation for those who commit to the job full time that a full-time business will be available for them. Most would agree with me.

I welcome the delegations. Many taxi drivers raised the issue of cloning. While I accept major investigations have been carried out, I would like to see more. When I look at forged driving licences from Cork, it is obvious that those who forged them know they will not be caught. There are two women included in the licences by the name of William. There are not too many women in my area by the name of William. It must be a Cork thing and shows that the people concerned are not afraid. I urge the taxi regulator and the Garda to have more check points because this is a big issue.

I would like to hear about average earnings of taxi drivers in the Commission for Taxi Regulation's review. Is there any research in that regard? We could use such information as a backdrop in investigating claims that there is no longer a livelihood in driving a taxi. How is the commission funded? Is it funded by the Department of Transport, or does the number of licences issued impact on the funding of the office?

If I want to take a taxi from Dublin Airport to anywhere on the south side of Dublin, it will cost about €27 during the day. However, if the port tunnel is used, it will cost about €12 or €15 and a charge of €12 is added. We have spoken to the Dublin Transport Office, the National Roads Authority and the Commission for Taxi Regulation about this, but still nothing has been done. This is anti-consumer. The sooner taxis are allowed to use the tunnel free of charge or at a relatively low cost, the better. We are sick and tired of raising the issue here. Have any discussions taken place about it? The tunnel cost €1 billion to build, but it is not being used enough.

Do the delegates think there should be a cap on the number of licences? As politicians, we listen to people on the ground and react to what they say. The customer has got a much better deal in the last seven or eight years, but at this stage we have to listen to taxi drivers and must act on what they say.

Yesterday I attended the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service. The banks and the business associations appeared before the committee and the gap between the two was bewildering. The gulf in this instance is also bewildering. I am talking about what we hear from taxi drivers every day and what is being presented today. It seems there is a rigid adherence to the principle of competition, irrespective of the social effects it has on ordinary people who are trying to make a living. We are putting the concept of competition above all else, which seems to be the primary concern of the Commission for Taxi Regulation and the Competition Authority. Regulation is not always bad. While need balanced and healthy competition, which is not the case. One night I was out beyond my bed time, at about 3 a.m., and noticed that it was practically impossible for public transport services to clear the streets of all the people who needed to get home. Therefore, there will be peaks and troughs, but what is important is to get the balance right between the two.

When deregulation occurred, there was a hope people with disabilities would be facilitated to a much greater extent. However, their needs are not being met. I cannot see a subsidy being allocated to people who want to buy wheelchair accessible taxis given the current economic downturn. The best way is to regulate the industry and allow taxi drivers to see for themselves that it would be worth their while. They are under such pressure that they will not invest in wheelchair accessible taxis, for which we cannot blame them because it is not their job but that of the State to look after people with disabilities.

We need strict entry criteria, as well as a moratorium. The proposals made are worthwhile. There must be strict universal standards governing entry into the business.

I welcome our guests. It is worth emphasising that the people who decide policy do not come from the Commission for Taxi Regulation or the Garda Síochána but the Government. The Government will make the decision on any moratorium to be introduced. It is the Government that made the decision in regard to deregulation in the first place and the Minister for Transport will be making the decision about the creation of policy in this area. To the best of my knowledge, the bodies represented here today either implement policy or advise on policy but the people who decide it are politicians and the Government. This is a point I wish to emphasise from the beginning.

I have four questions to put to our colleagues. The first is to the taxi regulator, whom I thank for participating in the meeting. Figures we received in preparing for our meeting indicated the regulator had a surplus last year of over €18 million. Across that period, the regulator received income of approximately €21 million. That is an extraordinary financial performance which even Ryanair would envy — I do not mean this flippantly. Based on my calculations, this indicates that 82% of all of the income the regulator received from the taxi industry was then returned as a surplus. Would that money not be better spent in dealing with the issues we have just spent the last three hours discussing?

My second question concerns enforcement. The presentation indicated there were 105 prosecutions in 2008 and I thank Ms Doyle for providing the figures. When Superintendent Clerkin attended the committee in June, I debated this point with him. Other information we received suggested there are approximately 2 million fares per week in the taxi business, which means that roughly 100 million journeys are taken per year. Of that 100 million journeys, the total number of offences this year was only approximately 100, and this is a huge increase on last year. Does this not provide strong evidence that the enforcement levels with regard to regulations in this industry are not as strong as they should be and are as weak as many people submit to us? I repeat the point that 100 offences out of 100 million journeys seems a staggeringly low figure.

Third, I have heard many of the witnesses, particularly the taxi regulator, make reference to engaging with representative bodies. How does the regulator engage with independent taxi drivers who might not be part of any of these organisations, for whatever reason?

Fourth, concerns about friendliness in vehicles are quite significant. In some cases in my own experience I believe they are merited. How does the regulator follow up on issues relating to cleanliness? How is it ensured that the driver or vehicle owner acts on the action the regulator takes once the driver has left the regulator's office?

I have observed the taxi business since I first entered public life on Dublin City Council in 1991. I am old enough to remember Frank Dunlop shouting down from the public gallery at councillors in regard to licences that should or should not be issued in the mid-1990s, at a time when there were very few taxis on the road. In a sense, we have gone to the opposite extreme in that while there were too few taxis then, many people tell me there are too many now. The trick is to get the numbers right.

It is a difficult market. I note that on page 15 of her presentation, the regulator lays down the law on the hours that should be worked. We are living in cloud cuckoo land if we are to believe the taxi men and women out there are not working more than 11 hours in any of three consecutive days. The reason they are working much more than those hours is that it is damn hard to make a living in the taxi business these days. There is an onus on the regulator and the Garda to ascertain whether these laws are being observed and, if they are not being observed, to do something about it. I was concerned about some of the cabs I have gotten into, where I felt the driver had been driving for seven days straight, 24 hours a day. The office of the regulator and the Garda need to address the issue of working hours and if changes in the law are needed, they should both be pressing for them to happen.

Page 26 of the presentation refers to the amount of fines imposed in 2007 being €6,000, which seems a paltry amount. Is the regulator concerned at the low level of fines issued? Does Ms Doyle have a view?

I will touch briefly on three minor matters. The first is the issue of visibility from the driver's seat. Increasingly, I see restrictions being placed in the field of view of the driver, in that the meter, the driver ID and, more recently, the GPS system seem to combine to significantly restrict the front visibility from the driver's seat. Does the regulator have a view on this or is it a matter either Ms Doyle or the Garda can keep an eye on? It may sound like a minor matter but it seems to have worsened in recent years. Ms Doyle's comments would be welcome.

Second, we have still not reached a satisfactory position on the issue of the roof light being turned off when the taxi is in use. I have certainly been in such a taxi driving down Camden Street late at night. The crowd of loolahs out in the middle of the road with their hands in the air trying to get the car to stop were there because they did not know whether the taxi had a fare or not. This happens because there is no automatic turning off of the roof sign when the taxi is engaged. I have been in any number of cities around the world where there is a clear system so that when the taxi is engaged, the roof sign light goes off. Could we put some measure in place to do the same here? It would make for a huge improvement in safety for those seeking taxis if we could do something simple, clear and quick on that issue.

Third, from my experience, Holland has a fantastic system known as the train taxi. If one books a train online or by telephone, one can also book a taxi at the far end. At many Dutch railway stations, there are two lines of taxis, one guaranteed to the people arriving by train who have booked it in advance, and the second for people who just walk out looking for a taxi. Will the regulator consider a similar system here? More people would take a taxi if they knew they could get one at the far end of a train journey, which is not always the case in Ireland. It is a simple practical step in which we could perhaps follow the Dutch experience.

I have a question for the Garda representatives on a delicate subject. Do the witnesses have any statistics with regard to offences committed by taxi drivers while on duty, particularly assaults? This relates to correspondence the regulator has received in recent days and the workings of the rumour machine. Do the Garda representatives have any firm data on offences involving assault by taxi drivers? Can we get firm data or put the rumours to rest on that issue?

I will ask Assistant Commissioner Rock to respond on that issue and enforcement.

Mr. Eddie Rock

The Chairman himself raised insurance cover and real-time reading of insurance, to which reference was made by many Deputies, as well as the issue of cloning. At present, we are in the process of fitting out more than 100 of our cars with an automated number plate reading system and only this morning I was in discussion with people from the Irish Insurance Federation with regard to putting a real-time database into our cars, which will give us a real-time reading in regard to insurance. I believe we will achieve this.

Although I am not sure yet whether we can implement it, we are also considering the idea of reading the roof sign through this automated system to ensure it is associated with the actual vehicle in use. I understand this also would make it possible to detect any cloning that might be going on. For instance, if a particular vehicle operates in Balbriggan at present, our automated systems would automatically detect the operation at the same time of a similar vehicle that may be 50 miles or even ten miles away. That constitutes a significant advance in this regard. Undoubtedly, there is an issue pertaining to parking bays and I acknowledge the difficulties and the conflicting interests in this respect. I also acknowledge the difficulties experienced by taxi operators and the community and that there are conflicting interests. For example, while taxis are being obliged to park on footpaths, at the same time people such as ladies with prams or the visually impaired are complaining about the same issue. This is a difficult issue for the Garda to police. We are engaging in ad hoc arrangements, which is not ideal. However, that is the position at present.

The final issue pertained to fixed charges. The Garda does not have a specific computer system that would identify fixed charges issued to practitioners in the taxi industry as opposed to individuals such as me or anyone else. While I have heard suggestions on the grapevine about activity, I am not aware of a significant rise in assaults by taxi drivers. If I can ascertain such information on our database, I will revert to the joint committee with it but I do not have it to hand.

On the enforcement issue, there is mention of 100,000 journeys and 100 prosecutions. Does Mr. Rock honestly believe the Garda and the regulator are up to speed in respect of the amount of illegal activity that is taking place?

Mr. Eddie Rock

I understand what is being reported on the grapevine. I also understand that when one puts in place a specific operation, those who are guilty will disappear into the ether. However, we engage in spot checks in addition to our other operations and huge numbers of people operating without a licence are not coming to our notice. I think we have detected 14 or 15 such cases, which probably pertained to people who would have had licences had they not overlooked renewing them. However, we will keep this in mind. People from the regulator's office have met our people in Blanchardstown to plan local issues and we certainly will bear this in mind. We have planned some operations in 2009 but when planned operations of a high visibility take place, the offenders or those who are guilty will disappear. This was seen to an extent at Dublin airport recently, where some confrontation arose between the Garda and the taxi industry, which we would rather not have.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I will revert to Deputy Kennedy's questions. He suggested putting more pressure on local authorities and we sent a questionnaire to all local authorities earlier this year. We followed up with letters asking them to consider interim measures regarding loading bays until the guidelines are prepared for provision to all local authorities. However, we will continue to put pressure on local authorities. We have received good responses from them and correspondence comes in from them on a daily basis nationwide. We will collate that information and will follow up with each local authority individually as some have indicated, for instance, they intend to put one space here or two spaces there. We will collate all such information in the new year, ascertain where no spaces are forthcoming and follow that up. We will keep the pressure on.

Deputy Kennedy mentioned the possible introduction of a tachograph system for part-timers. This also was mentioned the last time I appeared before the joint committee. The only problem that might arise with a tachograph system — that obviously has been put in place for large public service vehicles — is that part-timers would be compliant under such a system and those who worked long hours would be non-compliant. Consequently, full-time workers might be obliged to take more rest breaks than would be the case at present. This is a matter the Commission for Taxi Regulation will consider when changing the criteria for new entrants to the driver licensing process when we take it over from the Garda. We will consult both the Garda Commissioner and the advisory council to the commission in respect of any changes to the conditions for a driving licence.

Equally, if the commission intends to regulate the year and standard of a car, surely it will be able to impose the condition that all new entrant cars should posses a tachograph system, regardless of whether they are driven by full-time or part-time drivers.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

While it might be possible to put in place such a condition, the Deputy's point pertained to part-time drivers. Even were such a tachograph system in the vehicle, a part-time driver would be compliant, whereas a full-time driver may not be. I am unsure whether this would be welcomed by the industry and were we to put in place such a system, we certainly would be obliged to consult them in advance.

I was making the case of a person with a full-time job who operates a taxi.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I understand. The next question pertained to vehicle standards. The nine-year rule came about following a public consultation process and it is new. We examined the issue in the United Kingdom, Australia and other jurisdictions that have introduced seven, eight or nine-year rules. While we will begin with a nine-year rule, as I noted earlier, we will revisit it in 2012 when everyone is under the new vehicle standards umbrella. The insurance issue already has been covered. We have been in touch with the Irish Insurance Federation and we certainly hope it will provide us with information regarding the calculation of policies. Assistant Commissioner Eddie Rock also has covered this area.

Deputy Kennedy's last question pertained to wheelchair accessibility and drivers refusing to take fares in this regard. This year we put in place regulations whereby priority must be given by anyone with a wheelchair-accessible licence, who received such a licence on a significantly reduced licence fee, to those with bookings. We are working closely with disability groups to ensure the new database of wheelchair-accessible vehicles is available to them. They then can use the database and in turn can report to us if they do not get the priority bookings. If they do not, we will follow this up and if incidents continue in which a wheelchair-accessible licence holder refuses to provide services for people with disabilities, we will consider revoking the license at that point.

I ask Deputy Connaughton to take the Chair for a few moments.

Deputy Paul Connaughton took the Chair.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I will respond to Deputy Connaughton's questions. He mentioned the gulf between the industry and working with ordinary people, various areas where he believed promises had been made, as well as how long the delivery of some of the areas we have introduced would take. The first point, which I emphasised at the outset, is that people must be conscious of the objectives of the taxi regulations. There are nine key objectives and our functions are to meet those objectives. When I meet people, I always remind them of the particular objectives and parameters within which we must work under the Taxi Regulation Act. While it might be desirable to introduce various measures, my powers are limited by the Taxi Regulation Act and my role is to ensure the aforementioned objectives are met. We work closely with the taxi representative bodies nationwide — I met many of them this year for the first time — and we will continue to work and consult closely with them.

Did Ms Doyle find those meetings to be useful?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I found them to be highly productive. It was interesting to meet some of the smaller groups. We receive many telephone calls to say it is all about——

Were they critical of what was happening?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Some were critical and others were extremely helpful. Some also understood and acknowledged the new systems that are in place and found that they are working very well. We received a mixed bag of reactions. One issue Deputy Connaughton mentioned was the length of time it is taking to deliver these measures. The Deputy should be aware that under the Taxi Regulation Act, public consultation processes, which can be quite lengthy, are required before making changes and we must take into account all the submissions we receive. We then meet the stakeholders throughout the country after which we go to the advisory council to the commission, which is representative of a number of groups, including the representative bodies. This is done to get good feedback and to be able to strike a balance before a decision is made. That is the reason it will take some time. I refer the Deputy to the summary at the beginning of my presentation, which outlined a long list of changes that have been put in place in a short time.

May I interrupt briefly? A division has been called in the Seanad and I must go to vote. However, I would appreciate a reply to the points I raised.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I certainly will do so.

I will check the commissioner's replies in the Official Report. If the commissioner finishes her contribution in my absence, I suggest that members should consider dealing with the other organisations at a second meeting. I am conscious of the information that has been shared with members and their next meeting might be more productive if they have time to reflect on what they have learned today. That is just my suggestion.

We shall continue.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

The last item raised concerned part-timers and standards not being high enough. We will raise vehicle and driver standards in 2009, which will bring about change.

On forged IDs, Deputy Feighan mentioned cloning. As the Assistant Commissioner of the Garda Síochána, Mr. Eddie Rock, mentioned, we will continue with planned operations and checkpoints around the country in 2009. I hope that there will be more effective enforcement. Under our legislation, all gardaí are authorised officers. We will continue an awareness campaign throughout garda training sessions so that they can keep an eye out for cloning.

In the joint operations referred to earlier, the majority of unlicensed vehicles or drivers were those who were still operating but had let their licences lapse or expire.

Average earnings will be considered in the economic review, as will supply, demand, working hours and the impact of numbers since liberalisation.

Will the commissioner make those figures available to the committee?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

They will be in the results of the economic review, work on which will be completed by the end of December. We hope to have the report available for publication by the end of January.

Deputy Feighan asked about how the office is funded. It is funded by licence fees. We are the licensing authority in respect of vehicle licensing, the fees from which accrue to the Commission for Taxi Regulation. The small driver licence fee accrues to the Motor Taxation Office.

Is that a conflict of interest? The more licences issued, the more money there is for the office.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

That could be argued. For many years, the local authorities used to be the licensing authorities. We have only been the authority since September 2006. While it could look like a way to accumulate funding, the situation now is the same as it was for the local authorities. Licensing has transferred from them to us. The Taxi Regulation Act clearly provides that we must be self-financing from licence fees. Therefore, licence fees have transferred to us——

That is unacceptable. The commission is different from local authorities. There is a conflict of interest. Perhaps the committee should consider the matter. While I appreciate that the commission needs resources, the more licences issued, the greater the office's funding. There may be no conflict of interest, but this issue should be teased out.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Funding is for the provision of the office and its organisational functions. Any surplus, such as those mentioned earlier, cannot be discharged by the office without the consent of the Ministers for Transport and Finance. It is not as if we can take on extra resources or do anything extra with a surplus. As outlined in our annual report, we have corporate governance obligations.

We agree that using the port tunnel costs the taxi industry a great deal of money. Consumers are not encouraged to use it because they must pay the toll on top of the taxi fare as the toll is automatically passed to them. We have written to the National Roads Authority with a view to either having no fee for taxis or a significantly reduced fee, and we are awaiting a reply. I have addressed all Deputy Feighan's questions.

What about——

Ms Kathleen Doyle

I shall not give an opinion on the capping of licence numbers until such time as I have the full facts before me, which will be available in the results of the economic review, which should be available by the end of January.

I thank Ms Doyle.

Will Ms Doyle address Deputy Cuffe's questions as I want to move on the meeting?

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Deputy Chris Andrews's were next, but he has since left. As Senator Donohoe has already asked questions, I will address Deputy Cuffe's questions next.

While we want to ensure that Ms Doyle gets every opportunity to answer, we must bring in the taxi driver representatives as soon as possible.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Deputy Cuffe referred to part of my presentation, specifically working hours and safety. These issues were addressed earlier in the meeting. We wrote to the Health and Safety Authority. Self-employed drivers must take personal responsibility for having risk assessments conducted of hazards that may apply to them. If they are full-time employees, they have a similar obligation to their employers. If they work at night, they are obliged to inform their employers on the following day of any workplace hazards. Informing drivers of their obligations under health and safety legislation will form part of our skills development programme.

There was a low level of fines in 2007 because our enforcement team only became operational by mid-2007. We wanted to get out the message about the new regulations to operators and to give the former a chance before commencing on-the-spot penalties, which began in November 2007. As evident from my presentation, fines increased in 2008.

The next point raised concerned visibility in the driver seat, GPS and ID. GPS is a personal choice of drivers and is not mandated by the commission. Our only requirement on the dashboard is the ID. From a safety perspective, we consulted the Garda and a number of stakeholders on the advisory council before putting that requirement in place.

The meter is sometimes up there as well.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Yes. The rules and regulations announced in the vehicle standards documents, which will come into play next year, stipulate that the roof light must remain on when a taxi is for hire and remain off when the taxi has picked up the hire. We have launched a public awareness campaign so that people will not jump out in front of taxis that have their roof lights off.

From my memory of New York, it was an automatic turn-off.

Ms Kathleen Doyle

Some of them are connected to meters, a wide variety of which are available. Our feedback from taxi drivers was that they would prefer to switch the lights off manually. The rule will remain in place. Irrespective of whether the light is connected to a meter, it must stay off when a taxi has been hired and stay on when a taxi is available for hire.

The suggestion regarding on-line train and taxi bookings sounds like an excellent idea and could be considered. In terms of infrastructure, we want lengthy taxi ranks at train stations so that people can be picked up there. We must discuss with Iarnród Éireann the provision of other spaces for people who may have booked on-line. We must also discuss with the industry how to book its facilities on-line. Some 91% of taxis are operated by individual licence holders who may not have access to the Internet.

Those are comprehensive replies. On behalf of the committee, I thank Ms Doyle, the Assistant Commissioner of the Garda Síochána and everyone else for their attendance. We will suspend to ask the taxi driver representatives to take their places.

Sitting suspended at 6.28 p.m. and resumed at 6.31 p.m.

I welcome Mr. Tommy Gorman, president, National Taxi Drivers Union, NTDU; Mr. John Murray from Cork; Mr. Enda O'Rourke from Galway; Mr. Terry O'Connor from Dublin; and Mr. Edward Lynch also from Cork. I draw attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are also reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr. Gorman to make his presentation. I suggest he make it as short as possible in order that we have an opportunity to ask questions.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

When the taxi regulator was here, we spoke about security and in-car identification. She brought the back and front window stickers to the attention of the committee. They can be removed very easily and bought for €50 from any NCT centre without any paperwork. While it is said they are tamper-proof, they are not. I have an example of the perfect identification taken from a car. The taxi regulator stands over this form of security which indicates that the car is properly licensed but it is not. The only difference between one purchased and the one removed from a car is that there is a serial number on it. This is important.

Did Mr. Gorman say it could be bought in an NCT centre?

Mr. Tommy Gorman

Yes, all NCT centres sell them. That is their brief. It is portrayed that the minute the sticker is touched, it will disintegrate but that is not so. If the driver wants to pass it onto someone else, the excuse is that his or her windscreen was broken while working the night before. The sticker is then placed on another vehicle. The only difference between it and the one he or she will purchase is the small serial number. No garda or enforcer would ask to see it because he or she would not know what it meant. We talked about in-car identification, an important factor in of the operation of a taxi in the legal sense.

The serial number is on the back.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

It is on both sides.

May we look at the disc?

We have the presentation. In order that we can benefit as much as possible from his contribution, I ask Mr. Gorman to concentrate on issues we discussed with the regulator. Where should changes be made in the context of what the regulator said?

Mr. Tommy Gorman

I appreciate that most of what is contained in the presentation has been taken on board. Many points were raised. The NTDU DVD was made at enormous expense but we had to highlight the various problems in the business.

I thank the Chairman for inviting us to make this presentation. The taxi profession has always found it difficult to deal with the Commission for Taxi Regulation. We have not had one meeting with Ms Doyle since June. We would like to meet on a regular basis. We do not have a direct telephone line to her and I never have the possibility to speak to her by telephone, irrespective of the problem.

Any changes introduced by the commission have been at additional cost to the beleaguered taxi driver. The commission has not done anything positive for the service provider, the taxi driver. Anything that is aimed at the driver is at added expense, such as the measures to be introduced in January 2009 covering torches, triangles, first aid kits and fire extinguishers that will entail enormous cost.

I refer to the lack of enforcement. Today we heard about renting taxi plates, of which there are at least 1,000 in the Dublin area and more throughout the country.

How many?

Mr. Tommy Gorman

In other words, there are 1,000 licences in the hands of people who offer package deals including the rent of a plate, the car, the meter and block insurance. There is very little control over these. Deputy O'Dowd referred to the social welfare aspect. We accept that the people concerned are renting the licences rather than buying a roof sign. The reason is that one needs tax clearance every year to have the roof sign renewed. If one holds onto a public service vehicle licence, one has to produce a tax clearance certificate every five years. The people concerned are hiding and availing of some form of social welfare payment, unknown to the Revenue Commissioners.

The taxi regulator has said the industry wants to keep that system in place. Does Mr. Gorman agree with our recommendation that it be ended?

Mr. Tommy Gorman

Yes, we agree; not more than two plates should be held by a specific person. In this category one individual owns 135 licences which he is renting to various individuals. Our information is that there are at least two extra persons using these licences which is where the illegal element comes into it. The licences are used 24 hours a day, with no insurance.

The taxi regulator is listening. Can Mr. Gorman give us the details of these cases? The regulator and the assistant commissioner have made the valid point that they need evidence of this activity in order to deal with it.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

I have made it quite clear to Mr. Eddie Fullerton, the chief enforcer in the taxi regulator's office, that enforcers should be sitting at the doors of the people concerned. They must show up some time in order to have the car repaired or to pay the owner, which is probably done on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, this request has fallen on deaf ears.

Will Mr. Gorman give us the details of these cases? I make the same point to all taxi representatives present. If they give us the details, we will ask to have these matters investigated.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

We will do our utmost to collect the details of the various individuals who hold these licences.

The commissioner talked about a 46% drop in the number of licences. That may be so but this is due to the fact that people are getting out of the business because they cannot make a living from it, are retiring or as a result of ill-health. The licences are snapped up by those engaged in the type of business to which I referred. They can be bought for as little as €4,500 to €5,000. Recently we heard of a case where a taxi driver could not produce a tax clearance certificate to renew his plate licence roof sign. He sold the licence on to one of those individuals for €5,000 and then re-rented it back for €200 per month.

With a buy-back system we would know where these licences go irrespective of whether they are wheelchair accessible taxis and there has been a massive decrease in the number of such taxis. In a buy-back system, saloon or wheelchair licences would be available to potential buyers and we would know exactly where they would be. However, we do not know to whom they go. The person who holds 135 licences is required to produce one tax clearance certificate to renew all the licences because he is in a business. However, an individual must have a tax clearance certificate in his or her name at the address shown on the licence.

Is it agreed that all representatives want an end put to this?

Mr. Tommy Gorman


Will Mr. Gorman clarify his remarks on wheelchair accessible taxis? Did he state that the number of those on the road has reduced?

Mr. Tommy Gorman

The taxi commissioner stated there has been a 46% reduction in the take-up. Instead of issuing 300 licences a month we are releasing 170, which is still a large number. We must find 14 extra passengers per day to make a licence viable. In my submission I stated that we need 2.1 million passengers per week to satisfy the needs of the——

Perhaps I heard Mr. Gorman wrong. Did he state there were less wheelchair accessible taxis on the road?

Mr. Tommy Gorman

Yes, there are fewer of them on the road since deregulation. If Deputy Cuffe considers that we have released 17,000 licences, the increase in wheelchair accessible taxis is 300. Our information is that they are slowly but surely going because it is not a viable proposition to spend €45,000 on a vehicle to supply a service to people with disabilities. Therefore, nobody is entering the market.

I only ask because the regulator stated there has been a steady but small increase in the issue of wheelchair licences. It may well be that they are not being operated.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

In consideration of the 17,000 licences issued——

The proportion——

Mr. Tommy Gorman

Yes, it is way off and the simple reason is the cost of the vehicle.

In April 2009 an EU directive stated that it will not be permissible to transport passengers in any vehicle of a van nature. Unless we get a derogation on this we are in serious trouble with regard to wheelchair accessibility.

This is a matter of major concern which we must address. I would hate to think it was becoming more difficult for somebody with a disability to hail or call a taxi which would suit his or her needs. If this is an issue we need to get the regulator——

It is an issue.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

In most cases, people wait two to four hours for a wheelchair accessible taxi and this is unacceptable.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

Deputy O'Dowd raised the issue of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and this will be taken in hand. Last Friday night, I took the opportunity to see for myself the situation in Dublin city. At 10 p.m. I happened to be walking in the area of Exchequer Street and South Great George's Street and I could not believe the sea of taxis going from Dame Street to Camden Street and on to Rathmines. This was on what we consider to be the busiest night of the week. It is no different in Cork, Galway, Limerick or Waterford. It is the same all over. It amazes me that Dublin Bus complained that its service is held up behind taxis — God help us if an emergency arose in any of these areas. Action must be taken on this madness whereby we line the streets of every city and taxis cause traffic jams.

With regard to visas, the taxi grid has been advised by our representative on the Taxi Advisory Council, Ms Margaret Nugent, that some taxi drivers work outside the terms of their visas, but nothing is being done about this. People with Stamp 2, namely, those who come here on a student visa, operate in our profession and erode the incomes of full-time taxi drivers. Under Stamp 2 they are only allowed to work within the PAYE sector for 20 hours a week. It would be difficult to ascertain how many hours they work as taxi drivers. That should be addressed.

We know that rapes and serious assaults are now a common occurrence within the taxi profession. Since we were before the committee in April an in depth evaluation has been done on what is wrong in our business. Passenger safety is a priority for us. They are our clients, the people who pay our wages.

On the last occasion we were before the committee, Deputy Broughan extended an invitation to the taxi regulator to take a taxi and see for herself the difficulties experienced in earning a living in this business. We know of people who have fallen three or four months behind in their mortgages and whose incomes do not allow them to discharge their liabilities.

Ms Nugent informs me that misleading comments have been made with regard to taxi licences. It is not possible to ascertain the number of licences issued in Dublin city and it is the same in Cork, Limerick and Galway. The number of people living outside Dublin city, as far as Rochfordbridge, Virginia and Ballyjamesduff, cannot be taken into consideration. Our estimation is that Dublin city alone has approximately 14,000 taxis. I do not think the taxi regulator was correct to state the number is approximately 11,300. I am sure it is the same in Waterford with people with addresses in Kilkenny or Carrick-on-Suir operating there. This issue should be examined. I thank the committee for allowing us to make our presentation. Our plight is in the committee's hands and we hope something can be done for us.

I call Mr. John Murray, the taxi representative from Cork.

Mr. John Murray

I am secretary of the Allied Taxi Association. The state of the taxi industry has been explained many times in the past, most notably on 23 April 2008 to this committee. It was bad then and it has not improved one iota in the meantime. It has disimproved considerably as a result of a combination of factors, including the general crash of the economy, in Ireland and worldwide, and the serious rise in job losses leading to desperate searches for alternative employment. There is a mistaken belief that the only way to get into the taxi profession is through buying a taxi plate and driving people for hire and reward without either training or effective supervision at any stage of gaining experience. The bad habits developed in this time are never effectively dealt with or eliminated.

This scenario is a sure-fire recipe for plummeting standards, poor service, no real commitment to customer or industry care and general dissatisfaction towards the industry from people within and outside the industry. To reverse this situation and to prevent an even more catastrophic deterioration, it must be addressed. The industry as it now exists, which is not an expanding industry, is the only place to address this. That is the reason that an immediate and temporary moratorium on the issue of taxi plates is needed. There is a solid template for immediate and dramatic improvement. It is to be found on the website of the US based Taxi, Limousine and Paratransit Association, www.tlpa.org.

Although it is suggested that the standards are only suitable in large cities, it is my contention that they are a template for taxi, hackney, limousine and other small public service vehicle passenger transport businesses in all urban and rural areas. Details of New Zealand's template for organisation and operation of the small public service vehicle sector, which is similar, can be found at www.iru.org. Further information can also be found in the reports from last month’s Cologne conference, to which the regulator alluded.

The committee has Mr. Murray's document and, unfortunately, we will have to attend the Dáil at 7 p.m. for a vote. I ask him to respond to the regulator's comment that there were insufficient taxis in Cork on two occasions last week. Does a problem arise in regard to the number of taxis in Cork? I am aware that taxi drivers' representatives there have called for a moratorium.

Mr. John Murray

What the regulator did not mention was when and where these shortages occurred. The atmosphere in which the taxi industry operates in all towns and cities throughout the country, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, is largely a product of our Victorian licensing laws. We hope that the licensing regimes operating on the Continent will at some stage be introduced here so that the closing times of licensed premises are decided by their managers or owners.

Is there a problem in Cork in terms of long queues late at night?

Mr. John Murray

There are problems.

Do long queues of customers form?

Mr. John Murray


We may revert to Mr. Murray after hearing from Mr. Enda O'Rourke from Galway.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

We left Galway before 9 a.m. this morning and our vehicles are tied up for the day due to this meeting. Given that we are all active taxi drivers and this is a busier week than normal, we would not have come to Dublin if we had not considered this matter important. We represent an umbrella group which was formed of all the taxi drivers and call and dispatch centres in Galway. We represent 600 people, which is the size of a small industry.

The people of Ireland elected a Parliament which would act for our common good. The Joint Committee on Transport, the members of which come from all parties and none, must act now. I am joined by 22 people who represent the industry and we have been here since 3.45 p.m. We have been left to address a skeleton crew of public representatives and the number of journalists has also diminished. This is frustrating because we work at the coalface of the industry.

Dispatch centres are the backbone of the taxi sector and if we were operating a different industry, we would be demanding grants and subsidies from the State. However, far from making demands, we contribute directly and indirectly approximately €140 million to the Exchequer. If IDA Ireland found an industry which had the potential to contribute that much money to the State in the present economic climate, it would be dragging it through the door with grants. However, all we seek is a small amount of fair play.

I would like to converse with the regulator, who is no longer present, because representatives of the taxi industry did not receive a copy of the document she circulated to Members of the Houses and the press. I acknowledge the excellent work the Chairman has done to progress this issue in Galway but we elect Governments to look after citizens. We are not subjects in a latter day feudal system or a dead philosophy that was introduced in a collapsed free market economy. We in Galway are proud people and we will not have our streets turned into a mini-Calcutta.

A quango is an unelected authority which is hidden from view. The Minister for Transport has to make the decisions, however. The issues pertaining to non-nationals are peripheral. We are proud members of an industry which is contributing to the economy. We represent 100,000 families in this country, which gives us significant clout. As Deputy Connaughton will be aware, when the farmers started to march, their cattle were grazing or milked by their wives. The over 65s started to protest because nobody was listening. We came in good faith but we do not believe we received a proper hearing. This has nothing to do with the Chairman. Each of us is a businessman and a good person, so it is humiliating to be herded like this and it makes me angry.

With respect to Mr. O'Rourke, he is not correct. The regulator's document was circulated to members of the committee. Mr. O'Rourke and his colleagues will be given copies of that document but it was written for the benefit of the committee. I assure him that the members who are not in attendance are observing the proceedings. This committee has devoted an enormous amount of time and effort to this business.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

I have never claimed otherwise.

With all due respect, Mr. O'Rourke became involved one week ago. I have been meeting taxi representatives in Galway for the past 12 months but he was elected the other day. I ask him to concentrate on the substantive issue and leave peripheral issues alone. We are here to help him and we will stay for as long as it takes to hear from him but he should get on with his business rather than lecture us.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

May I get back to the issue of why we are here? Will I be allowed to finish what I want to say?

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

This issue has been farmed out to an unelected body which is outside the control of these Houses. That did not happen by accident. The Members of these Houses, who we elected, did this. Does the Chairman accept that? Is it correct to say that the taxi regulator is the result of the exercise of a policy by the Government?

That is correct.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

I have addressed that issue.

The taxi regulator's role was created under legislation. We are not happy with the way in which her functions are being implemented and that is why we are considering what recommendations we should make for change. We will be making a series of recommendations to the Minister about the need for change in respect of the regulator and her operations. That is the purpose of this exercise. I assure Mr. O'Rourke that I am not happy with the taxi regulator's response to the issues raised today. We will continue to address these issues with the regulator.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

I thank the Chairman. In addressing the main issue, I will make two recommendations. I agree that we need an emergency moratorium but these Houses will have to be in session for that to be achieved. However, the Dáil will not return until 27 January at the earliest. Like the Garda and the ambulance service, the industry I represent provides a 24 hour service 365 days per year. Even on Christmas day, dispatch centres are open in Galway.

It is a service. We should move on.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

If this is a service industry, how does it close down until 27 January?

I am speaking about taxi drivers. They provide a service, just as my newsagent provides a service. If Mr. O'Rourke works 24 hours per day, fair play to him. I acknowledge that he works extremely hard but we hear these stories. It is not a manufacturing industry, and we are not speaking about IDA Ireland. We are here to help the industry by helping to reduce the number of taxis. I think we are in agreement on the need for a moratorium.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

How soon can we achieve a moratorium? Legislation will not be introduced until after January.

We are here to try to help taxi drivers but their approach is not necessarily the correct one. We are all in this together.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

The difficulty we have is that the taxi regulator does not interact with us to a great degree. As an industry, we have no rights regarding her. We have no right of appeal to a rights commissioner or the Labour Court and Ms Doyle will not address these issues. The key issue Senator Donohoe has raised is that the industry is keeping her operation going because all the revenue we put her way goes to operate her business in Fitzwilliam Square. She has 22 staff. During her presentation she mentioned that one set of consultants was to report at the end of January and another on the space available for taxi ranks. The advisory council consists of all public bodies involved and consumer interests. It also includes the city manager who sits on the regulatory board with Ms Doyle. To interface with him and find out about the space available for taxi ranks she is hiring consultants at the expense of the industry, even though they sit together in one building.

We have said we disagree with that. I will allow Mr. O'Rourke to speak again but we must suspend the sitting, as there is a vote in the Dáil.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

I want to deal with one issue, the major consultants' report for which all members are waiting. We have a call centre in Galway and can get all our information back. The information is available. If Ms Doyle telephoned any of the call centre companies, they could tell her this. In the week 3 to 9 December 2007 I worked 50 or 51 hours. The following year I worked 58 hours in the same week. The normal union working day is eight hours. I worked an extra eight hours with a 9% reduction in my gross income. We do not need another set of consultancies paid for by those involved in the industry and into whose report we will have no input. The regulator has 22 staff. In our business in Galway we send people where the business is. If the regulator needs enforcers, she should send three to Cork, one to Galway who would also cater for Sligo and the centre of Ennis, one to Limerick and keep the rest here. That is how business is done in the commercial world. It does not seem to be responding to our needs.

I wish to bring in Mr. Terry O'Connor. We will come back after the vote to finish the discussion.

Mr. Terry O’Connor

I am speaking on behalf of the Concerned Taxi Drivers' Association. We welcome the opportunity to present to the committee on issues regarding taxi licensing, regulations and enforcement. The association was established to present a collective voice on the issues and difficulties facing full-time taxi drivers in the Dublin area. As a group, we are very concerned about the future of our industry and our ability as honest, hard-working individuals to earn a suitable weekly wage with which to support our families.

I have four issues. The majority of our members have had to work 20% more hours this year to bring home the same weekly wage they earned in 2007. Those who cannot work these extra hours have suffered a drop in their weekly wage.

I have to stop Mr. O'Connor. We will be back in approximately ten minutes.

Sitting suspended at 7.05 p.m. and resumed at 7.20 p.m.

Mr. Terry O’Connor

I was discussing the falling income of our members. The majority of our members have had to work 20% more hours in 2008 to bring home the same weekly wage they earned in 2007. Those who cannot work the extra hours have had to suffer a drop in their weekly wage. This is caused by the continued issuing of new licences at a time when the economy is in recession and people are not socialising as much. We also have a great fear that the oversupply will continue at a faster pace in 2009 as a result of people being made redundant from other industries taking out a licence to support their income. There is concern that when taxis have to be upgraded to meet the 2012 deadline by which no taxi can be over nine years old, drivers will be unable to afford the upgrade and, due to market conditions, banks and credit unions will be reluctant to give credit. We feel strongly that a cap must be imposed on the number of taxi licences to protect those already working in the industry.

We already mentioned the lack of space at the major taxi ranks. It is well documented that it is currently——

Mr. O'Connor may pass over that one. Maybe he could comment on any other issue he has heard today which is pertinent.

Mr. Terry O’Connor

There are currently nine inspectors policing the taxi industry. This is not enough. It is a regular occurrence that when an inspector approaches a rank he sees a number of taxis quickly pulling away from the rank. When our members brought this to the attention of inspectors, the response was that some people do not like authority. However, our members see every day individuals who have not got proper taxi licences picking up fares in the Dublin area. In our members' eyes this is theft of our fares and there should be an increase in the number of inspectors, with more enforcement powers. This is causing major resentment among full-time taxi drivers.

Our members feel that the Commission for Taxi Regulation, which is supposed to operate for the benefit of taxi operators and consumers, is more concerned with consumers than with operators. We are concerned that the taxi regulator's office is reluctant to talk to taxi drivers and its representatives only open communication when it suits them. We feel it lacks understanding of the real concerns of taxi drivers, which results in the media and general public having a very low opinion of taxi drivers. Our members feel the commission should be more active in defending the rights and ensuring the health and safety of taxi operators.

In conclusion, there is deep concern among our members for the future of the taxi industry under the current taxi licensing regime in Ireland. We feel the number of taxi licences should be capped as soon as possible and a review carried out of the sizes and locations of all major taxi ranks in Dublin. We would welcome more protection from the commission and an increase in the number of enforcement officers to help protect our income.

I ask Mr. Lynch to make a few key points as we have his submission.

Mr. Edward Lynch

I have a statement, and there is a request within the statement that I would like to make.

Give us the request, and then we will have a discussion. We will gain more from a discussion than from the reading of a presentation.

Mr. Edward Lynch

I am the secretary of the Cork taxi branch of the Independent Workers Union. We would like to see a deputy regulator initiating an actuarial study of the taxi industry in Cork, which would identify the demand for taxis at different times and issue an amount of licences which would fulfil the service requirements of the public while balancing this with the rights of taxi drivers to make a reasonable living without having to work more hours than specified in the working time legislation. The deputy regulator would also be in a better position with regard to enforcement. At this time, if one of our drivers makes a complaint concerning a breach of regulation — i.e., a non-licensed taxi plying for hire — he or she must make the complaint to the regulator's office. However, the regulator cannot act on our complaint for a number of days in the example given. This would be too late and therefore ineffective. In the past, such a complaint would go to the Garda Carriage Office, where it would be dealt with promptly and effectively. A deputy regulator's office in our region could carry out a similar function.

In summary, we are asking the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport to recognise the difficulties we have in making a living and to recognise that it is within the remit of the Minister to improve our living standards while at the same time providing a safe and effective taxi service for the citizens of the State in our region. We ask the committee to recognise that our aims would be best achieved through the establishment, on a pilot project basis, of a deputy taxi regulator for Cork city and county.

Before I invite members to ask questions I will make two comments. The first point made has already been recommended by the committee. It is clear that nine regulators based in Dublin cannot regulate the industry in the regions or enforce the regulations. We have asked the taxi regulator to put one person each in Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. We will be making a recommendation to this effect. We will also be recommending that the Garda take over responsibility for enforcement, in association with the regulator. As Mr. Lynch said, at least there will be somebody in Cork to whom they can go. That should happen immediately. We will be making that recommendation to the Minister and the regulator.

Mr. Edward Lynch

In addition, as per a motion that was put down before Cork City Council, taxi representatives in Cork have bimonthly meetings with the city council, the traffic division and the Garda Síochána.

That is the second point. Taxi operators have been given more time by this committee than any other sector in the transport area. This is because we recognise that things are extremely difficult for them. Deregulation was necessary, as has been said today, but it has now gone from one extreme to the other. Taxi operators now have a responsibility to get themselves together. They are a disparate group and they need to form a solid organisation that can represent their views. One of the things we will be saying to the regulator following today's meeting is that if we can have an umbrella group in Galway representing Galway people and the same in Cork and Dublin, there will then be a national group with whose members the regulator can meet once a month. We will ask her to do that. In fairness to her, she is a very efficient woman and she has the best interests of everyone at heart. I recognise there is a problem in that people cannot get through on the phone or whatever the case may be, but there is also a problem on the taxi side in that it is all over the place. I had to ask the taxi people in Galway to come together and form an umbrella group.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

That is what I am involved in. The Chairman told me I was only here a week, but the group only formed a week ago. The Chairman should be encouraging us, not picking on us.

We will not go back into the——

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

It is on the record so I have to respond.

We will not go back to that row. However, I do think there is a need for the taxi industry to have one voice. We have the main people here with that one voice, and it will certainly be more effective. The representatives will always be welcome at the committee to make their views known. We have a very good knowledge of the area, as the witnesses have heard from all the members today. They have represented well what taxi operators have to say. It is now our intention to make a series of recommendations to the Minister and the regulator. At the end of the day we want to see a high quality service and we want to see competition, but we also want to see people in the industry earn a decent living because there are great people in the industry.

I have a technical question. We cannot say for definite yet, but we can see that all this is moving towards a cap or pause on the issuing of taxi licences. Obviously, if this went on for a number of years and there were a number of people who wanted to enter the industry, the value of licences would increase. That is what happened the last time anyway. Can I take it that in order to ensure this is put through in a particular way, the value will not increase — in other words, that the value of the licences will not appreciate?

Mr. Tommy Gorman

We stated in our own document that the buy-back would obviously put a stop to that. I do not think anyone is in favour of inflated prices such as we had in the past, even though deregulation bankrupted many people who owed massive sums of money on their homes. If we have a buy-back scheme in which the licence is bought back by the regulator and then recycled into the industry by potential buyers——

Mr. Tommy Gorman

Yes. At the moment the regulator is selling licences for €6,300 that are being bought for €1,500 or €2,000 less, so the asset has been devalued.

I want to mention the numbering system. We talk about policing. This business was self-policed in many ways before deregulation because of the identification method, which was based on different areas, whether Dublin, Galway, Castlebar or Navan. If there were 50 plates in Navan they would be numbered 1 to 50. That was a form of policing by the people who were in the trade. We now have a national numbering system and, to make things even more difficult, the hackney and limousine licences are part of that. In other words, if there are 27,000 vehicles, No.16,553 could be a taxi and No.16,554 a hackney. That has been a disaster and must be changed. We must bring back the old numbering system whereby each county had its own identification. This business would then be self-policed. It is true that enforcement would be required from the Garda and from the regulator but, as the Chairman properly said, the laws will never be enforced within the taxi profession with only eight people, sometimes with three or four of them in court at the one time. They must sleep, eat and have time off. There is no way that 44,500 public service driver licences can be policed, or 27,000 vehicles, on a 24-7, 365-day, 26-county basis. It is an impossibility and it will not happen.

We have given out two ideas. Both came from taxi drivers, one of whom was here to discuss the registration and identification systems. Perhaps the representatives might get together and give us something along the lines of what Mr. Gorman suggested. We would then pass it on to the regulator.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

We all accept the facts. Everybody on this committee and in the country does so. Customers in Galway are in sympathy with the taxi drivers because they see the oversupply.

Two things will happen. The country is in recession and disposable income is down. We got an 8% increase which we requested. If there is to be a moratorium it must work right across the industry and include hackneys and limousines. The Chairman recommended a three-year moratorium. Working this out will take at least three years. If the Celtic tiger were to keep roaring, people would have disposable incomes, would make choices and would make more trips by taxi. However, there is a problem with congestion and another problem with disposable income. We do not have a large population here. In 2001 there were 3,500 active licences. Give or take, we now have almost 27,000. It will take at least three years to work that through the system and bring it back into balance. We must also take into consideration that our economy has gone into recession and that people's disposable income is less. I do not think this will be an issue for a three-year period. Does that answer the question?

The Chairman recommended that each county should form its own group. In the light of regulations coming in next month, I suggest that taxi drivers, in individual groups, should bring about self regulation on issues they believe set them apart from the cowboys in the business. In advance of laws coming in, other industries have introduced regulations on the grounds that they are the professionals, and that issues A, B, C and D apply to them. If there are issues that taxi drivers know set them apart from others, I make the following recommendation. Voluntarily, under the new umbrella body they are to institute, they should put signs on their taxis stating they are such and such, listing the relevant extras. These might include, for instance, wheelchair accessibility. They would draw a distinction between the professional operation that most taxi drivers carry out, comparing it to the part-timers who have banger cars and do not know where they are going. Is that something that could be done?

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

I represent all the call centres in Galway at present, a total of seven companies. We have our own management structure that keeps standards. We invest in our customers, otherwise we would not have them. We keep up standards and we are ahead of the standards the regulator seeks.

However, there are two distinct sectors. There is the professional call centre which is a 365-day business, the same as the Garda and there is the sole driver who comes on to the rank and does his own thing. He may be part-time or full-time. There is space in the industry for the full-time independent operator. However, when one goes outside the main companies that give a professional service and have regular customers, it is more difficult for any of us, in any county, to start policing individual drivers. That is why we have the regulator. The regulator is not operating properly because of the situations I mentioned before the adjournment.

I have two questions. We put this matter to the regulator. Obviously, there are difficulties between the taxi operators and the regulator. More dialogue should take place between both parties. I do not say which is right or wrong.

Mr. Gorman had issues with cloning. Whatever names or grievances exist should be handed directly to the regulator. As a committee, we will try to ensure that any such grievance will be dealt with by the Garda. That is absolute.

I asked the regulator if there were any CSO figures with regard to the earnings of taxi drivers. Every time one gets into a taxi one hears, anecdotally, that earnings are not the same as they were. I hear this in counties Roscommon and Galway, and in Dublin. Can Mr. O'Rourke explain what has happened over the past five years, and compare earnings of five years ago to those of today?

There is the matter of call outs. Do taxi drivers pay a fee to call centres or do they pay a percentage? Is that included? We might be able to put some meat on the bone today and find this out because it is all about money. If one does not earn and does not get a margin then the business will not survive. Does Mr. O'Rourke feel that capping the licences in the next three years will achieve a fair balance for everybody, customers and drivers?

I will bring in Ms Nugent and Mr. Rock. I say to Deputy Feighan that the report under way by the taxi regulator will be finished at the end of the year and should address this issue of income. That is what it is designed to do, to discover the impact of deregulation on taxi income.

Were the three representatives who have spoken so far consulted by the regulator and her officials in respect of current earnings and basic conditions? Have they been consulted at all?

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

Absolutely not.

I wonder what she will use for her information in that respect.

Ms. Margaret Nugent

I shall respond to Deputy Broughan's question about consultation. Two members from the consultation team were out with us. We were not able to discuss individual incomes but were able to discuss the taxi industry in general. They spoke to radio companies prior to talking to us and they said everyone said the same thing, namely that the taxi industry was a disaster. They also sent out individual letters to approximately 500 people and got a very big response to that. That is phenomenal because people do not normally respond to something like that. They were quite happy with the response they received. That is all I can say. We were consulted.

Deputy Feighan asked about radio rental. There is a base fee every week that varies from company to company. Some charge €65. There are radio companies down the country that charge €165. It depends on where one is. This fee does not guarantee a driver work and does not guarantee the earning of x amount of money every week. Radio companies are feeling pressure at the moment. Many of them do not have enough work to give their drivers sufficient income. We have heard from taxi drivers who must put money from their account work to pay their base.

With regard to having more dialogue with the taxi regulator, that is very difficult. If we ask for a meeting we must send in an agenda. The taxi regulator subsequently writes to us and answers the questions we put on the agenda. What is the point in having a meeting? That is how difficult we find it.

I shall return to the matter of people who work outside their visas. I have information that there are several hundred people driving taxis who are in this country on a Stamp 2 student visa. This declares they cannot be self-employed but they are working as self-employed people, contravening European and Irish law. This is a problem not only for the taxi regulator but for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and for Revenue. Revenue issues people who have Stamp 2 student visas with tax clearance certificates to buy licences and to get public service vehicle licences. This must be addressed by all Departments.

The committee will raise the social welfare issues, including the back-to-work scheme and the issue of unemployment, with the Department of Social and Family Affairs and it will certainly take up the issue of stamp two student visas.

Does a Stamp 4 visa, which gives residency but not necessarily immediate citizenship, entitle a person to drive legitimately?

Ms Margaret Nugent

Yes. A Stamp 2 student visa is purely for people entering the country to study, and entitlement to work is restricted to a 20 hour week during college term and a 40 hour week during holidays.

Mr. Edward Lynch

I make two points in response to Deputy Feighan's question. As regards income, my returns for 2007 amounted to almost €4,500 less than the average industrial wage, which should give the Deputy some idea. This year my returns will be a disgrace. I am now out of business as a result of an accident five weeks ago.

The other issue related to identification cards and as we have seen before they can be forged. There are private cars in operation and some have been noticed in Cork city with false cards on the dashboard. The public is misled into believing that these drivers hold a taxi or hackney licence, but in fact they are getting into private cars. We have heard serious reports of people being over-charged and there is one assault case under investigation at present. These areas must be examined also.

All I can say on that issue is that one must bring evidence of all these examples to the attention of the committee, the regulator and the Garda. I have repeatedly asked for evidence. There is no point in having hearsay or anecdotal evidence, we must have real evidence. I ask the delegation to bring forward any possible evidence and the committee will ensure it is acted upon.

Mr. Edward Lynch

I make one last point on the taxi industry and the way we are treated in this country. A colleague and good friend of mine is sitting in the Visitors Gallery. He is going blind as a result of type 1 diabetes and is now registered with the National Council for the Blind. We have taken him to every authority in the State and he cannot get help from anyone. We have made several requests for self-employed taxi drivers to be allowed to upgrade to a class P PRSI stamp. This would entitle a taxi driver, in the event of an illness, sickness or accident, to 13 weeks of job seekers allowance and to 52 weeks of health care. We believe that would be of benefit.

This is the first time we have heard of these requests. If the delegation puts that in writing to us, we will raise the matter with Revenue.

Mr. John Murray

My principal concern is that I have not seen what the taxi regulator has proposed for the skills development programme. I urge her to examine the situations relating to the Taxicab Limousine Paratransit Association, New Zealand, and the conference of the Ministers for transport report of the OECD on Quebec and Toronto. The regulator could then take the best from these and we could end up with a very good taxi industry. A solid template exists and it seems to be a good one.

I thank the delegation for the contributions. It seems the taxi regulator has too much income and that the industry does not have enough. I have never heard of a regulator with a surplus of €19 million.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

That is our money, it is taxi industry money.

Perhaps we should find out what the regulator is doing, ask every regulator to do the same and hand the surplus back to the State.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

Or hand it back to the people from whom it came, namely, the industry.

Absolutely, it is amazing.

Did the regulator respond to the question? I was out of the meeting at that stage.

She did. We felt there was a conflict of interest and I understand she is somewhat uneasy about the matter. It needs to be investigated, because it is clear that it is easy income.

Is the regulator entitled to hold all the income received from the licences?

It seems to be a matter for the Department of Finance. However, it is an incentive to issue more licences and the matter must be investigated.

Is Senator Donohoe finished? We must bring this to a conclusion.

I am aware of that and I will be brief. It seems one of two changes must be made. Either the money should be handed back to the industry or it should be used for what the industry seeks. I have one question for the delegation. I keep an open mind on the question of the moratorium. I have heard the points made regarding people's working conditions and health and I am convinced by the cases put. My point of view on these matters has changed by participating in this process. I seek answers to two questions from the delegation.

Several members of the delegation pointed out that they are working harder now than before but for less money. I am sincere and I am not trying to be glib, but I realise that the situation is the same in many other sectors of society, whether it is the builders, others working in the services industry, or people working in the banks. I am not referring to the chief executives, but those working in branches and call centres and so on. All these groups make the same point. My question is an open one and I do not have an answer to it. Why should the taxi industry receive a moratorium, given there are other sectors which would not ask for one, and if those sectors were to ask for a moratorium, they probably would not get it?

I have a second question and I am participating in this honestly and I stress that I have an open mind on the matter. A three year moratorium was mentioned. Let us suppose we are in year 2 and the recession, which we all acknowledge exists, is getting worse. Let us consider, for example, a person working in my local bank branch in Phibsboro who no longer has a job. That person may wish to supplement his or her income, which may not be enough to pay for the mortgage and cover family needs. If such a person wishes to earn money in the taxi business and there is a moratorium in place, what do I say to him or her? I have an open mind on the matter, but I want answers to those two questions so that I can do my job properly.

I watched the debate on the monitor in my office. I make two comments in support of my colleagues from Cork. It is imperative we understand that one size does not fit all. That case has been well made. Let us consider the situation in the city of Cork. The delegation made a good presentation. The regulator is living in a different world. Consideration should be given to the regionalisation of the business. I read the report and listened to the presentation of the regulator. There does not appear to be wholehearted, holistic consultation and dialogue with the industry, which is wrong. Let us consider the position of taxi services in Ireland ten years ago. Since then there has been a quantum leap of progress. If I take a taxi from the airport or the train station to the Houses of the Oireachtas, or if I take a taxi in Cork, the courtesy, efficiency and pleasantness is excellent. I put this on the record.

I have discussed the matter of taxis with wheelchair access with some of my friends who are taxi drivers in Cork. A significant improvement has taken place in that regard which has not been recognised by the regulator. I refer to the opposition of Cork taxi drivers to the increase in taxi fares introduced by the regulator. That opposition was a simple gesture which recognised that an issue needed to be resolved. They were prepared to sacrifice the extra income from the increase, promote their service and offer goodwill. This was met by resistance from the regulator, which makes no sense. We all accept there is competition in place and that is the world in which we live. However, they were prepared to take such measures. That was their patriotic call to the people of Cork and the regulator stopped them. Where has the surplus gone? Where does it go?

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

It goes back into the Department of Finance.

Does it go into a black hole? I do not want to use the phrase "taxi compensation scheme" but why can it not be used to help bring about improvements in social welfare benefit for tax drivers and improving vehicle emissions?

It cannot be used for those issues, but it should be used to employ more enforcement officers.

I welcome the delegation and apologise that it was not here first to set out the issues as it saw them, as happened in our previous meeting. Mr. O'Rourke spoke about his own, very tough, life as a taxi driver. It can be equally tough on this side of the table.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

The Deputies multitask very well.

Yes, we are trying to do so with different things.

The delegation has outlined a series of major anomalies. There has been a failure of regulation in this area. As the leader of the Labour Party on Dublin City Council I was involved in the history of it, as Mr. Gorman will remember. We fought many battles and many issues arose during that time. After 1997 no one expected we would have a free-for-all or deregulation as it has evolved, with no high standards or attempt to evaluate demand and supply. There has been no attempt to ensure, in a fair and honest way, that all taxi workers have a decent standard of living and a secure life for themselves and their families.

What has evolved has been retrograde. This issue must be addressed by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey and the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen. During this matter, Deputy Cowen, his predecessor, Deputy Bertie Ahern and previous Ministers for Transport——

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

He is the Iar-Taoiseach.

Yes, the Iar-Taoiseach. They made the decisions which have led to this deficient system. We need to meet demand, an issue which goes back to the early and mid-1990s. We must try and square that circle. There have been so many anomalies pointed out that it is critical the committee conduct an evaluation.

We must bring exacting standards into areas such as the health and safety of workers, the hours worked and the issue of part-time workers. Regarding multiple licences, the regulator said approximately 91% of drivers hold a single licence. If this is added together, what kind of numbers are we talking about? It was stated one individual had 135 plates. Other individuals were also mentioned.

An anomaly brought to my attention by a taxi driver is that when one receives an ordinary driving licence there is a two-year moratorium where one cannot drive with a driver on a provisional licence. One cannot be the invigilator for a provisional driver, but can apply for a public service vehicle licence and start driving people around immediately. It is the kind of anomaly with which the situation is riddled.

I welcome the standards the regulator referred to, but I am not hopeful given the track record of previous years. It would not make things very different over the coming months and years unless there is a fundamental reappraisal of the entire position of the taxi industry.

I will give the witnesses a chance to respond. I ask them to be brief as we have gone over time.

Mr. John Murray

A moratorium on the issue of plates is essential because to enter the industry one does not need to buy a taxi plate. One buys a licence to drive a taxi, is then employed by someone else to drive and operates via a call centre. It is a significant point of the taxi, limousine and paratransit organisation platform that a person entering the industry is supervised by the car owner and the call centre. After a period of two or three years, when they have proved themselves, they can then go and buy the licence if it is available.

The licence should go back to the taxi regulator, be re-issued——

Is Mr. Murray saying that if we agree to a moratorium and agree that any licence people wish to give up should be given back to the taxi regulator who will then give them out? Would that solve the problem, pending the introduction of proper standards?

Mr. John Murray

That is correct. It would raise standards.

Regarding income, we have taken a hit of approximately 30% to 40% compared to this time last year.

Mr. Edward Lynch

I shall reply to the questions posed by Senator Donohoe and Deputy Broughan. Self-employed taxi drivers are in a completely different position to that of any other sector in the economy. If I was a self-employed carpenter I would be allowed to quote a price for a job, have time to do the job and make a profit. It does not happen in the taxi industry.

The taxi industry is privately financed and not publicly funded. CIE wishes to compete with us over the Christmas period by running a night time service which will devastate our industry. It did the same during a jazz festival and took a significant amount of work from taxi drivers. The service operates from a marshal rank in St. Patrick's Street which works very effectively.

Mr. John Murray

It is a marshalled point where people assemble and a number of people with red coats——

Like at Dublin airport.

Who employs them?

Mr. John Murray

The corporation.

Mr. Edward Lynch

I contacted an official in Bus Éireann to ask if it had a route licence to operate and he said it did not need one, but I think it does.

Perhaps the delegation will give us some information on the marshall scheme. It would be useful to have information.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity for a hearing and the attentiveness of the committee. It has not been an easy evening because the meeting has dragged on.

The main issue is to get a moratorium for three years. The second thing we need is to move the role of the taxi regulator back into the Department of Transport. There is no need for an outside body which is self-financing. We are wondering where the money is. We have the Department of Finance, public servants and people of talent within the Government remit. The time of the quango operating at a distance and not answerable to anyone has long gone. That is why we are here.

The person concerned is not in the room. If she was a public servant we could interface with her. We must dismantle what was put in place because it is patently not working.

The office of the taxi regulator will become part of the Dublin Transport Authority.

Mr. Enda O’Rourke

I hope it will be controlled within the Department and answerable to the people in this House, whom we elect to give us a service.

Mr. Terry O’Connor

The taxi regulator needs to tighten up the industry. It needs more inspectors operating every weekend and during the week, and not just every second or third week. It is the least that can be expected. The Garda should be allowed to play a bigger part.

Mr. Tommy Gorman

I want to express our sincere gratitude to the Chairman and the committee on behalf of the taxi drivers of Ireland for the interest and effort in our plight to restore this business to what it should be and our vision for it.

Regarding Deputy Broughan's question on the owners of multiple plates, at least half a dozen people in north County Dublin have in excess of 800 plates between them. I do not know if they work hand in hand or far apart. Other individuals own 12, 15 or 20 plates. There is no problem where the number reaches approximately 1,000. They employ people on a weekly basis and money is lodged to their bank accounts by direct debit. They are not responsible for those who drive their cars. This is where we sense the illegal aspect of the business comes into play. The owners lease a plate to an individual without knowing who will drive their car from one end of the week to the other. According to our knowledge, these cars operate as taxis 24 hours a day. At least three people drive them, although that may not apply to every such car. I would say the owners who have ten or 12 plates are responsible while those who have 100 to 120 plates tend to be irresponsible.

To answer Senator Donohoe's question on why a moratorium on the issuing of licences is needed, people employed in any business or profession should serve their time. We are not talking about having a closed shop in this business but about a buy-back system under which, as the Chairman illustrated, plates would be given back by people who are retiring or by those suffering ill-health. Such plates are currently falling into the hands of those mentioned by Deputy Broughan, but if they were taken back by the regulator they could, in a proper business sense, go back into the system.

We had a successful business up to November 2000 when it was deregulated and 85% of cars were shared by two drivers. We have a totally single business operation now. Rather than investing €25,000 to €30,000 in this business, people can enter it as a cosy with a reputable owner. We all know how taxi drivers got the name "cosy". The cosy kept the car warm for the owner, in the same way as a cosy keeps the teapot warm. That is the origin of that term. It will take more than three years of a moratorium on the issuing of licences to return the system that applied previously.

Ms Nugent can have the last word.

Ms Margaret Nugent

Thank you. I am the only female here. Even when a moratorium on the issuing of licences is put in place, I would like a sub-committee to be set up to work with the regulator and hopefully the regulator will work with it. A number of issues we outlined here need to be examined and tackled. During the period of such examination, timeframes should be set and we will work hard to straighten out the industry. There are too many "ifs" and "buts" about it and nobody is taking responsibility for it. We need to ensure taxi drivers can regain pride in their work. We must also make sure that customers feel safe when they get into a taxi; they do not feel safe now. When a moratorium on the issuing of licences is put in place, we will work with the regulator and hopefully the regulator will work with us.

I will draw the meeting to a close. I suggest the representatives submit in writing to us the specific proposals they have put to us, and they should do that fairly quickly. We will make our recommendations, taking account of what they have said. We hope to talk to the regulator again when she has completed her report on the income in the industry.

We want to be of assistance and to have a taxi industry of which we are all proud. We are not satisfied with it at the moment. I have been critical of the regulator. My views have not changed on the basis of what I heard today. The reality of what is happening is much different from the view that was put across by the regulator today. We will continue to talk to her about that and we will also talk to the Minister. Hopefully, with the recommendations that will be made, we will see improvements. The door is open to the representatives to come to us again in the new year when we have moved on to the next step, that of making those recommendations.

I again thank the representatives for their patience and I thank the members for giving of their time.

The joint committee adjourned at 8.05 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 18 December 2008.