Seanad Éireann - Volume 194 - 11 March, 2009

Taxi Regulation.

  Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue. It concerns the need for the Minister for Transport to review the ability of rural hackney men to convert to taxi licences where infrastructure is absent and they compete with illegal operators. It is obviously a gripping subject for the Members leaving the Chamber.

I appreciate the attendance of the Minister of State who has a role in the Department of Transport. I also appreciate that he knows far more about the taxi industry given that it is more pertinent to urban centres. I did not need to take much interest or notice of the deregulation of the industry or the issues related to it at the time because for generations taxi drivers in areas [620]of Donegal had their own way of operating. There were no taxi drivers in many places. The legislation in place has changed that dynamic.

In raising this issue I am not trying to oust any motorist who has a taxi licence nor do I intend to challenge his or her right to make a living. What I challenge is the fact it does not pay people to buy a taxi licence in some rural areas. Yet if they operate as hackneys in the way they used to operate as taxis, which was the tradition where they would drive along the street and pick up people who hailed them on leaving the pub or some other premises, they would be breaking the law. For generations standing outside in the rain beside the car was no different from sitting inside in the car. However, I am not here to advocate breaking the law. I am here to say there is an issue that needs to be addressed.

I believe it costs €5,500 to buy a licence and the meter costs another couple of thousand euro. I am told it costs approximately €7,000 to €7,500 to get set up legitimately as a taxi operator. The difficulty is that hackney drivers in my area cannot be guaranteed they will have the infrastructure from which to operate. I am told that one taxi operator in Monaghan who despite having paid for a taxi licence needs to operate as a hackney because there is no taxi rank to pull into. That person needs to roam the streets and has gained no advantage in buying a taxi licence. Senator O’Sullivan said Listowel is no different with incursions from other counties.

In my area there are problems with both illegal operators and operators illegally coming from the North. The busy nights for the legitimate hackney operators are being raided by taxis that might or might not be licensed in the North coming to operate without a licence in the South. They are taking the bread out of the mouths of the people legitimately operating as hackneys in, for example, Buncrana and Moville. These people are providing a service and we would be encouraging them to get taxi plates. We cannot give them infrastructure because it is not being provided. They are saying they cannot make ends meet. They are not able to make their living because the taxi regulator is more interested in dealing with claims against them than claims against the completely illegal operators coming in from the North.

I am told that the people cannot be dealt with if they are from outside the jurisdiction. I therefore ask the Minister of State to talk to the taxi regulator to ascertain what strengthening of regulations might be needed to deal with this situation. We need a level playing field. I would say that the same applies in all Border areas. I know that in Letterkenny, which has a number of licensed taxis, there is a serious issue with people crossing from the other side of the Border without having Republic of Ireland taxi licences. I suppose that is why the taxi regulator’s staff are spending so much time in Donegal — they are trying to deal with the big problem there.

My issue is that we want to have a service. We want people to be able to get to wherever they need to get to. In many cases there is no bus service so people rely on what we all call taxis but which in my area in reality are hackneys. Is there an argument for considering having in rural areas a reduced licence fee with conditions of use requiring operators to stay within, for example, eight or ten miles of the location for which the licence is issued? In other words if people were trying to get home from the pub in Moville, Clonmany, Carndonagh, or Buncrana the operators would work within a restricted zone so they could not tip over to the bigger urban centres and challenge the people paying the full licence and yet be able to make a living themselves. I am asking for a review of how this is operating around the country. I am told by many colleagues throughout the country that there is a problem with getting people to buy the licences because there is no infrastructure. We want people to be legitimate and able to earn a living. At the moment we seem to be caught between two stools. A review of the situation is very much warranted at this point.

[621]  Deputy Noel Ahern: I thank the Senator for raising the matter. As the House will be aware, the Commission for Taxi Regulation published a comprehensive review of the small public service vehicle sector on Monday. The review covers a wide range of issues affecting the industry and makes a number of important recommendations for the regulation of the industry in the future. The commission is now following up the report with a consultation with all stakeholders in the industry, including taxi drivers, hackney drivers, cosies and other people who are interested. Therefore, I suggest that hackney drivers who have concerns about the way the industry is developing, particularly those in the rural communities, make their views known to the commission and the advisory council to the Commission for Taxi Regulation. I also want Senator Keaveney to know I will forward her concerns to the commission for its consideration in the course of that consultation. While I can do that, perhaps the Senator might top it up by documenting her own views on it also.

The level of fee for acquiring taxi and hackney licences is determined by the commission and the current rates stand at €6,300 for a taxi licence — it was previously £5,000 — and €500 for a hackney licence. I am informed by the commission that, since liberalisation of the market, the difference between the fees for taxi licences, as opposed to hackney licences, has not been a barrier to entry to the taxi industry. It is not so long since people had to pay approximately £80,000, certainly in Dublin, to buy taxi licences on the grey market. That is now €6,300 which is why there has been a proliferation of applicants in recent years.

I understand the number of taxi licences in the Senator’s county of Donegal is currently 205 and the number of hackney licences is 316. I also make the observation that, in the case of suspected illegal operations, those matters should be reported to the Garda Síochána at local level.

Some years ago I used to be a member of Dublin City Council dealing with the taxi situation. I do not know whether the infrastructure is that relevant anymore. The scene has changed. Taxis can pick up passengers anywhere whereas a hackney is supposed to stay at a fixed location — be it an office or home — and wait for a call. However, life has changed and the mobile phone is the infrastructure nowadays. There is nothing to stop a hackney operator delivering business cards and everybody has a supply of them. He does not need to be ten miles away at home. He can be across the street waiting for a phone call. I am sure people would be more likely to know the hackney number in a rural community than would people elsewhere. Major infrastructure is not required. That is a load of cod. All that is needed are a few bits of paper to hand out to people. Everybody has a mobile phone so a hackney operator can be there in five seconds if he is well placed in the village without plying for hire and doing what the taxi driver does.

I understand what the Senator says about taxi drivers coming from Northern Ireland, which is illegal. They cannot ply for hire unless they are properly geared up to do so and have a licence. There are all sorts of peculiar practices around the Border with people going north to shop and people coming south to sign on. Now the Senator is claiming taxis are coming south. I do not know what we can do about what happens at the Border. Generally speaking in the urban context, with which I am more in tune, the hackney man, while he cannot tout around the streets, can and does still operate. I do not know whether it is necessary to tweak the costs because there are 205 people who have paid €6,300.

I will certainly submit it to the commission and I recommend that the Senator also does so because she might be able to give it a perspective it might not have considered. Much of the industry is dominated by the more urban settings. With some flexibility on the part of the hackney man he could be very relevant if he saw a friendly printer and got a few cards printed. He can be in his home or in some location nearby. I cannot be telling him how to break the [622]law either. I am sure he could be quite conveniently located and yet within the law and able to respond to calls as he gets them. I will send the Senator’s views to the commission.

  Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I thank the Minister of State for his response. I understand I will probably find the answers within the commission’s review. The Minister of State should not take too lightly the situation in Border areas. It is undermining people’s ability to earn money. Therefore, it is undermining their ability to spend €6,300 to buy the licence in the first place, as well the meter on top of that.