Adjournment Matter. - Navan Taxi Rank.

I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy Browne, for taking the time to listen to what I have to say. I am aware that his senior colleague is busy filling cross-Border roads today in the Border counties.

I would like to bring to the Minister's attention a request, of which his Department is aware, made in 1987 for the provision of a taxi rank in Navan. Work, reports and letters were forthcoming from the different Ministers in the Department over the years and in 1990 some were concerned that the Garda might have a role to play in the issue. The Assistant Commissioner replied to representations by saying that:

Section 84 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, confers power on the Commissioner, with the consent and signature of the Minister for the Environment, to make bye-laws in relation to stands for street service vehicles. Draft bye-laws for the town of Navan were forwarded to the Department of the Environment on 15th of January 1990.

In early 1991 further representations were made to the Minister's Department. The following response was given by the then Minister, Pádraig Flynn.

I have recently announced the establishment of an Inter-Departmental Review Committee to consider the legal structure applying to the operation of small public service vehicles generally.

The Committee are affording an opportunity to people to make their views known and will accept written submissions up to 28 June, 1991.

The position of areas such as Navan, in so far as the availability of a taxi service is concerned, will be a matter of priority to the Committee.

It was a matter of priority to the committee in 1991 and people had until the end of June to make submissions. That letter from the Department was dated 25 June 1991. Six months later, on 8 January 1992, a letter from a new Minister for the Environment, Deputy O'Hanlon, stated:

As you are aware an Inter-Departmental Committee was established earlier this year [he should have said earlier the previous one because he was a year behind what was happening] to review the laws relating to the operation of small public service vehicles generally. The Committee submitted interim recommendations in September 1991 and Regulations were made on 24th October last to give effect to those interim recommendations. [Such ranks were for the original towns.]

Among other features these Regulations applied taximeter status to twelve cities and towns where public hire vehicles already operate.

I am aware of the position in Navan and in many other major urban areas where public hire services do not exist at present. I expect that this particular issue will be addressed in the Inter-Departmental Committee's final report which I expect to receive in March next.

This particular report was to be made available in March 1992. We now move on to April of that year. I refer to a letter from 22 April 1992 from the Minister's present boss, Deputy Smith, or the third Minister — I am getting confused with all the Ministers involved in this issue — which states:

You will be aware that a comprehensive review of the laws applying to the operation of small public service vehicles generally is being carried out at the present. [It should have been finished seven months previously] The examination of the respective roles of hackneys and taxis will be a key factor in this review. An interdepartmental committee has been established to carry out the review and it is expected that their final report will be submitted to me in the near future.

A year later further representations were made to the Minister. He replied:

The position is that I am at present finalising my consideration of the report of interdepartmental committee established to review the law applying to the operation of taxis and hackneys and reaction to that report from many interested parties and individuals. A central theme of the report is the acknowledgement that many of the decisions in relation to taxis and hackneys should be taken at local level as opposed to central level. The question of the introduction of taxi service to individual urban areas is one of the areas where local authorities could be more directly involved. I hope to be in a position in the near future to take decisions on a range of issues.

That letter was dated 28 June 1993. The words "in the near future" were used a lot in 1992 and again in 1993. In October 1993 a senior civil servant in the Department replies to a further query. That letter states: "At present the Minister is considering the report of the interdepartmental committee to which you made a submission requesting taximeters." Lo and behold, it is still considering the report. In May 1994, in reply to a Deputy looking for the same type of status for other areas, the Minister replied: "The preparation of regulations to implement a number of changes to the system governing the operation of small public service vehicles is at present at an advanced stage." After five years we have reached "an advanced stage", a prolonged pregnancy, without any real result. On 8 September 1994 a letter was sent by the office of the Minister. This letter states:

The introduction of a taxi service in areas such as Navan is one of a range of issues which I have targeted for a decision as soon as possible in the context of the adoption of new structures for the licensing and operation of small public service vehicles. The report of the interdepartmental group which reviewed the existing structures recommended that the function of declaring an area to be a taximeter area should be vested in local authorities.

Is it any wonder that people see us as being ineffective in dealing with problems as they should be dealt with? I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to announce the creation of these taximeter areas so that people who are in this business for the last number of years are given status and credibility and they can pull up in areas that are earmarked for them. They are providing a badly needed service. If Navan had a taxi rank the general public would know where to contact a taxi and we would not be leaving ourselves open to all the abuse that goes in politics today.

We have been asked to do a particular job and it is now seven years from the date the first letter was written in connection with this issue. I am raising this matter because I have an interest in the affairs of the town of Navan. However, there are many other towns that are looking for the same status. How long must we examine the report produced two years ago without making a decision on it? What is the delay? I ask the Minister to announce a positive result for those people who have been hounding his officials for the last seven years. This would reduce an enormous amount of the cost involved in producing these replies from public representatives who are contacted by various parties on a continuous basis in every town which is looking for this status.

Wexford): I thank Senator Farrelly for raising this issue and for giving me an opportunity to outline the measures which have been taken to secure changes to the system of licensing taxis and hackneys — including action being proposed to facilitate the smooth introduction of full taxi services to towns such as Navan. Before doing so, I would like to clarify one specific point. It has been suggested that the needs of towns such as Navan can be met by the provision of taxi ranks to be used by the existing private hire or hackney operators who work in the area. This, however, is not legally permissible under the Road Traffic Acts.

Taxi ranks can only be provided in taximeter areas in accordance with bylaws made by the Garda Commissioner. At present, there are 16 taximeter areas in the country. As Navan is not one of these, taxis are not licensed to operate there and taxi ranks cannot legally be provided. Before such ranks can be made available, it will be necessary to create a taximeter area for the town and to arrange for the grant of taxi licences in the area.

Comprehensive regulations under the Road Traffic Act, 1961, governing the licensing of taxis and hackneys have been in force since 1963 and significant changes to the licensing system were made in 1978. Towards the end of the 1980s, it became clear that further changes were required and in 1991 the then Minister set up an interdepartmental committee to carry out an in-depth examination governing the operation of taxis and hackneys.

Prior to the commencement of that review, there was widespread demand for new initiatives, including demands for full taxi services to be provided in towns such as Navan. It was decided at the time to defer such action pending completion of the review and the possible introduction of changes to the system.

The report of the committee which carried out the review was published in July 1992 and is available in the Oireachtas Library. It contains a total of 64 recommendations. One of these was that decisions to apply taximeter area status to particular urban areas should be devolved entirely to local authorities.

Because of the extent of the changes recommended and the high level of interest in the matter, it was decided at that time to allow a period for interested persons and bodies to consider the issues and to make submissions. The Minister said that the report's recommendations did not necessarily represent the only way forward and that he would be looking at all the options, taking account of any views which interested persons or bodies might wish to offer. As part of the consultation process, the Department received written submissions from many interested persons and bodies and the Minister personally held meetings with all the main interest groups.

The review and consultation process is now completed and regulations will be made in the very near future to introduce a number of fundamental changes to the system of licensing taxis and hackneys. These regulations will include a new and improved mechanism for the introduction of taxi services to towns like Navan.

There has been criticism that interim action has not been taken to introduce full taxi services into Navan. Such interim action was deliberately deferred because the mechanism in existing regulations for creating taximeter areas is unsatisfactory. It is not simply a matter of converting existing hackney licences into taxi licences. The existing legal mechanism would require the Garda Commissioner to grant a taxi licence to every applicant who meets the criteria. This could result in an over-supply of taxis in an area and would not be in the interests of the people of Navan or the existing operators who provide hackney services.

The Minister is aware of the demand for a full taxi service in Navan. Requests for action have been received from the hackney operators and correspondence has also been received from the urban council seeking the early introduction of a full taxi service.

I can assure the House and Senator Farrelly that the Minister expects to be in a position very shortly to reply positively to the council and to supply details of new measures being introduced to facilitate the smooth introduction of a full taxi service in the town.

Can the Minister explain the terms "near future" and "very shortly"? These terms are used in nine different letters from which I have read.

(Wexford): I hope we will not need to have this debate again.

Seanad adjourned at 7.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 3 November 1994.