Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2006/2007

Date: 07 June 2007

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT
(Hansard)

Taxis Bill

Thursday 7 June 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson)
Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Trevor Clarke 
Mr David Ford
Mr Tommy Gallagher
Mr Samuel Gardiner
Mr Alex Maskey
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Daithí McKay
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:
Mr Bill Laverty (Department of the Environment)
Mr John McMullan (Department of the Environment)

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):
Mr Bill Laverty and Mr John McMullan, you are very welcome. You are going to provide the Committee with a briefing on the Taxis Bill, the 2006 consultation exercise, the equality impact assessment and the regulatory impact assessment.

The Bill will be introduced in the Assembly on 11 June 2007, and its Second Stage will be on 26 June 2007. The Bill will progress to Committee Stage if it passes its Second Stage.

Mr John McMullan (Department of the Environment):
I am head of the Department of the Environment’s (DOE) road traffic legislation branch. I was involved in drafting the legislation for the Taxis (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which, given the devolution of powers to the Assembly, has become the Taxis Bill. My colleague, Bill Laverty, has worked on policy development for the legislation. I hope that, between the two of us, we can answer the Committee’s questions. If not, we will contact the Committee in writing to clarify matters.

We welcome the opportunity to bring the Committee up to speed on the outcome of the consultation on the Order. Last week, the Committee was briefed on the policy consultation. The legislation was drafted once the policy had been settled. I will not go into the detail of the legislation today, because there will be opportunity for full scrutiny when the Bill moves to the Committee Stage, assuming it passes its First and Second Stages.

I will mention, briefly, some key points in the Taxis Bill that differ from current legislation governing the taxi system. First, there is the proposal to introduce operator licensing for taxi businesses. There are more than 800 taxi businesses in Northern Ireland; they are not regulated and there is no requirement for them to obtain operator licences. That situation causes anomalies in that taxi businesses can, without committing an offence, employ unlicensed vehicles and unlicensed drivers. The Department wishes to use the Taxis Bill to address those anomalies.

Secondly, the Department proposes to allow all taxis to pick up passengers in the street without the need for pre-booking. The proposal was welcomed widely in the responses to the policy consultation and will remove the current two-tier system, whereby only public-hire taxis may pick up passengers in the street. The general public does not understand the current restrictions on taxis picking up passengers in the street.

Thirdly, the Department wants to set a maximum fare level for all taxis in Northern Ireland and require all taxis to have taximeters. At present, the requirement to fit taximeters applies only to those vehicles licensed as Belfast public hire. However, many drivers and operators choose to fit taximeters in vehicles licensed as private hire. Taximeters work well, especially for consumers who can see the fares that they will be charged.

We propose to reintroduce a taxi-driving test. The previous taxi-driving test was removed in 1996 under deregulation legislation. During the consultation process, the reintroduction of a test was widely supported, and the Department’s Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) recently consulted on what form the taxi-driving test should take. As it is important that the taxi industry is seen to be professional, the Department also wants all taxi drivers to receive relevant training in how to deal with customers, particularly people with disabilities.

It is proposed that taxis be allowed to operate shared services. At the moment, when someone hires a taxi, he or she is the sole hirer of that taxi, and whether it is acceptable for a driver to admit another passenger is a bit of a grey area. We want to regulate that practice, and there are a number of ways to do so. For example, we could set up a taxi-sharing scheme from Belfast City Airport, with a flat-rate fare dependent on to which zone of the city the taxi is travelling. Alternatively, we could legislate that passengers, who agree in advance to share a taxi, pay a cheaper than normal fare. Also, we could allow operators to provide taxibus-type services similar to those offered by the west Belfast taxibuses.

We wish to provide more accessible taxis for elderly and disabled people by requiring that a percentage of each taxi operator’s fleet must be made up of accessible vehicles.

We want to address an existing loophole in the Department’s enforcement powers, which means that its enforcement officers do not have the power to stop private cars that are suspected of illegal taxiing. The Taxis Bill would give the Department’s enforcement officers the power to stop a private car, to seize it if necessary and to remove any relevant equipment. We also want the power to enter premises from which it is suspected an illegal taxi business is operating.

Once the Order was drafted, it was subjected to an extensive 12-week consultation period. The consultation document was sent to the 800 known taxi businesses. Each of the 17,000 licensed taxi drivers received notification of the consultation and the 10 public meetings that were held throughout the Province. We held 16 meetings with other representatives. In total, over 1,600 consultation documents were issued.

As a result, the draft legislation has been subject to intense scrutiny by the industry, and we have taken two general points from that exercise. The first is that the majority of the taxi industry is supportive of the proposals and wants the legislation to be in place sooner rather than later. The Department is pleased, therefore, that the Taxis Bill will be introduced prior to the summer recess. The second point is that there are no fundamental flaws in the legislation. It is one thing to draft legislation at your desk, but it must work on the street, and there have been no suggestions that any of the proposals will not work.

However, not everyone was happy with the proposals, and a number of their suggested changes were accepted and have been made to the legislation. Some of the points that were made were accepted but were not included in the Taxis Bill, as we felt that it contained sufficient powers already. Other points that were made were either deemed not to have merit or the issues were settled during the consultation process.

As I said, some of the points that were made during the consultation period were accepted and were drafted into the legislation. At all the meetings, a recurrent theme was the need for tough enforcement to cut down on illegal taxiing. The new powers contained in the Taxis Bill will increase the available fine for taxi-driving offences from level 4 to level 5, which is a maximum £5,000 fine for anyone who commits a serious breach of his or her licensing requirements. We have also extended the power to stop private cars suspected of taxiing illegally to the present taxi system, which means that when the Taxis Bill is introduced, enhanced enforcement powers will be available.

There was concern that the Department would be unable to enforce the regulation that states that only accessible vehicles can use taxi ranks. The Department has been able to amend the Traffic Management (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 — the legislation that brought in the new traffic attendants — to allow traffic attendants to patrol taxi ranks to ensure compliance with the law and to issue penalty charges for infringement.

The industry is always concerned with costs. The Taxis Bill includes a provision that, subject to the approval of the Department of Finance and Personnel, will allow DOE to provide grants to persons or bodies in the industry. We have not raised expectations by doing that: the industry has been told that there is no money to hand out at this time. However, if money were to become available, unless those powers are included in the Taxis Bill, the Department would have no legal mechanism whereby it could award grants to the industry.

A further point on costs is that, for the first time, road traffic legislation has been drafted to allow fees to be paid in instalments. Allowing operators and drivers to pay fees over a period of time should, in some ways, offset their costs.

Some of the larger taxi businesses were concerned by the proposal for taximeters to be connected to receipt printers. They argued that they had invested a lot of money in taximeters without printers and really wanted to see a return on that investment. Therefore, we adjusted the legislation slightly, thus allowing the phased introduction of receipt printers. Ultimately, all taximeters will have to have receipt printers, but we recognised that the taxi operators had a fair point.

Consultees expressed concern over the proposal stating that drivers could be affiliated to one operator only. If a driver is affiliated to an operator, he or she does not have to obtain an operator’s licence. The consultees’ point was that that could be restrictive, particularly in rural areas, where, for example, a driver might work as a taxi driver for one operator but drive wedding cars for another. The legislation, therefore, now allows for exceptions to the general rule.

Another point raised during the consultation process was that taxi plates should not have to be issued every year. It is an extensive exercise for the Department to re-issue 10,500 plastic plates every year, and it is not very environmentally friendly. We have changed the legislation so that an annual re-issue is no longer a legal requirement. The re-issuing of taxi plates will become an operational matter rather than a legislative one.

There was some confusion over what type of services an operator’s licence will allow a business to provide. The legislation now states that the Department will prescribe on the operator’s licence the sort of services that each business can provide.

Meeting with taxi industry representatives was very useful. It allowed us to improve the draft Order and to add further elements to what is now the Taxis Bill.

Other consultation responses and suggestions were accepted as being equally valid but the outworking of them required no further change to the Taxis Bill. For example, there was concern that people with disabilities, including those who rely on assistance dogs, should not have to pay extra for a taxi. Ensuring that that does not happen did not require an amendment to the Taxis Bill as, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it is unlawful to charge disabled persons higher fares or to charge for the carriage of a guide dog.

There were some concerns about the “good repute” requirements for operators and drivers. To be a taxi driver or operator, one must be a fit-and-proper person, which can involve the Department’s taking into account any previous convictions. In the Taxis Bill, we have stated that the Department must be satisfied on that point. We have deliberately kept it flexible. We want to be able to take into account the guidelines that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister issued on recruiting people with conflict–related convictions. We want to be able to consider all information when deciding whether someone is of “good repute”.

Some drivers felt that operators would simply pass on the high cost of compliance to them. Under existing legislation, the conditions on those costs that can be imposed on taxi operators can also apply to drivers.

Some consultees suggested that the non-display of driver identification should become an offence. However, under the draft legislation, it already is. It was also suggested that insurance requirements should be stricter, but the draft legislation states that all taxis must be appropriately insured, and it allows the Department to make further requirements. Therefore, the Department can make tougher requirements, if necessary, through regulations.

Other respondents stated that it should be an offence for taxis to carry signage that advertises services for which they are not licensed to provide. The Department has taken the power to regulate on that issue.

The Department did not take some of the other changes suggested during the consultation through to the Taxis Bill. It was argued that the number of taxi vehicle and taxi drivers’ licences should be capped, but the Department does not intend to introduce limits to the number of licences in circulation. Doing so would immediately prevent new owners or drivers from coming into the industry, and it would almost immediately create a trade in licence plates.

I want to raise standards, and anyone who comes into the industry will have to pass the new taxi-driving test and be properly trained. Some local authorities in England have set restrictions on the number of taxis permitted in their areas, but that measure is becoming less common. A report by the Office of Fair Trading stated that there should not be a cap on the number of taxis in an area, so we do not propose to introduce such a measure in Northern Ireland.

There is still some contention about removing the two-tier system, but, when the policy was being developed, the consensus was that it should be removed. However, although the Taxis Bill permits a one-tier system, it does not preclude a two-tier system. Therefore, a two-tier system may be introduced or retained in certain areas if that is considered necessary. However, the argument about the two-tier system is academic in any discussion of the Taxis Bill. It will, however, become more pertinent when the Department decides what the new regulations will do.

It was suggested that sole taxi operators should not need to conform to operator licensing. The Department seriously considered that suggestion during the consultation process, but officials felt that exempting sole operators from the operator-licensing regime could potentially undermine the whole system. A situation might arise in which an unscrupulous operator, with a collection of drivers, will state that his or her drivers are sole operators, thus meaning that he or she does not need an operator’s licence. Operators will have to conform to certain standards and duties. That should apply across the board. Sole operators will have to pay considerably less for their licences than an operator who runs 100 or 200 cars.

It was suggested that the Department should set a minimum rather than a maximum fare limit. However, the Department is proposing that it sets a maximum fare to ensure that users know that they are not being overcharged. That proposal would also allow operators to charge less than the maximum fare, thus introducing some competition to the industry. The maximum fare would not be a flat-rate charge; it would be a multi-tariff charge. For example, it could cost more to hire a taxi on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve than it would on any other day of the year. Part of the multi-tariff charge is likely to include an initial charge — which, to all intents and purposes, would be a minimum fare — that a customer would be liable for as soon as the taxi is hired. That should satisfy concerns on that issue.

One consultation response suggested that, for safety reasons, stretch limousines should not be licensed as taxis. However, last week, the Committee said that they should be licensed. The Department shares that opinion. There are 100 stretch limousines in Northern Ireland, and they have been operating here over the past 16 or 17 years. In that time, there has been only one serious collision involving a stretch limousine, and the accident was not attributable to the driver of the limousine. The Department would wish to be content with the construction and use of stretch limousines, and we know that they have a good road safety record. However, we want to ensure that they conform to certain safety standards.

Last year, we completed a consultation on stretch limousines, and we hope to introduce regulations that include stretch limousines in the licensing system. Provision for that could be included in the Taxis Bill, but it is more likely that separate regulations will be made, which will, in time, come before the Committee.

An equality impact assessment was carried out on the draft proposals, and it was determined that the proposals will have a positive impact on equality of opportunity, particularly for people with disabilities, the elderly and their carers. More vehicles will be available for those people, and for young people aged 16 to 24, who tend to use taxis more often. Those groups will all benefit from the provision of safer and higher quality taxi services. There is no evidence to suggest that there would be any adverse or negative impact on any of the nine equality groups listed under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Moreover, we carried out a regulatory impact assessment to identify the costs, benefits and risks associated with all the proposals, and more detailed regulatory impact assessments must be carried out on the regulations that will arise from the Bill. It is likely that operators and consumers will face increased costs, but they will be based on the cost of licensing and running taxis and what consumers can reasonably afford. An entire economic exercise will have to be carried out. The reduction in illegal taxiing will open up the market, allowing operators to get a better return on their investments and consumers to benefit from the increased standards and greater availability of various types of taxi.

A rural-proofing exercise was carried out. Such an exercise was important, as rural dwellers rely on taxis more than urban dwellers, and they tend to make longer journeys. Just as in urban areas, the disabled and elderly in rural areas need accessible taxis. The proposals to allow taxis to provide bus-type services and to set up taxi-sharing schemes in rural areas should help rural communities, and the increased provision of accessible taxis will be of benefit. None of the provisions was thought to have an adverse impact on rural communities.

That is where the legislation currently stands. The Taxis Bill that will be introduced in the Assembly on Monday is the same as the draft Taxis (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.

Mr I McCrea:
An issue that was raised with me in the past week, and which was also raised at the Cookstown consultation meeting, is the reduction of the period of the taxi licence from five years to three years. There are concerns that people who depend on taxiing for their income could fall into the category of those who might not be able to renew their licences. An extra couple of years on the licence would make a difference to, for example, 63-year-old drivers who are close to retirement age.

Last week, we discussed stretch limousines, and I am not sure whether the Committee agreed that they should be allowed to provide taxi services. However, issues were raised about MOTs and PSVs for limousines.

Mr McMullan:
The reduction in the term of the licence from five years to three years is in keeping with best practice throughout the rest of the UK. It also ties in with the system for criminal records checks, which are carried out on taxi drivers every three years. We are not considering the introduction of any age discrimination measures in that regard. If someone were retiring or approaching 65, they could still apply to renew their taxi licence.

Although stretch limousines cannot pass the current PSV test, we want them to be properly tested. No one envisaged the use of those hybrid vehicles, and appropriate legislation is required. We are drafting legislation to govern those limousines and to ensure that they are safe.

Mr Gardiner:
I found Mr McMullan’s presentation informative, and I thank him for it.

I am concerned about the positioning of taxi ranks. That is a problem in my constituency of Upper Bann, where there are no designated areas in the town centres where local people and visitors can get taxis. If people see a sign with a telephone number on it, that is fine — they can telephone for a taxi. Craigavon Borough Council is revamping the centres of Lurgan and Portadown, and I would like DOE to ensure that areas are reserved for taxi ranks, if that matter has not been brought to its attention already.

Mr Bill Laverty (Department of the Environment):
The taxi review team recognised that there is a need for more taxi rank provision, particularly in rural towns. The provision of taxi ranks is a traffic management matter and falls under the remit of the Department for Regional Development’s (DRD) Roads Service. The taxi review team has made strong representations to DRD about the provision of taxi ranks. The sub-regional transportation plan has recognised that planners of rural towns will have to look critically at the provision of taxi ranks, particularly since the taxi review team has recommended that there be a greater number of accessible taxis. Given that only eligible taxis — those that are accessible — would be allowed to stand at taxi ranks, provision of more taxi ranks would be an incentive to owner-drivers to supply accessible taxis.

Mr Gardiner:
DRD currently sponsors a door-to-door transport scheme. Does that programme cut across what DOE is trying to do with vehicles licensed for private hire? Passengers of a certain age, or who suffer from a disability, can avail of the door-to-door transport service free of charge. They are collected at their doors and brought to their destinations, whether that is to a hospital or to visit people — within a designated area, of course. Passengers can also telephone the drivers to say when they want picked up again. That is a good scheme, particularly for the elderly and those who suffer from a disability. Some of the buses that provide that service are new and are excellent, and I welcome that scheme.

Mr Laverty:
We believe that taxis — particularly accessible taxis — would be appropriate for the provision of those services. Some of the door-to-door transport services use accessible taxis, and our legislation envisaged that type of scheme.

Mr Gardiner:
So, you believe that such schemes would work.

Mr Laverty:
Yes.

Mr Ford:
I wish to tease out two points that Mr McMullan made in his presentation. First, he mentioned the reintroduction of the taxi-driving test, and I would like to hear more about those proposals. Secondly, he mentioned the percentage of accessible taxis that operators would be required to have. What percentage is envisaged, and would there be any variation, depending on the size of the operator’s fleet?

Mr McMullan:
The reintroduction of the taxi-driving test was supported widely at consultation stage. DVA consulted on the test because it wanted to know whether it should apply to new drivers entering the industry, new and existing drivers, or only new drivers and those existing drivers who did not pass the previous taxi-driving test. The test will comprise practical requirements and a theory test. Consultation finished on 27 April, and the responses are being considered in detail. I do not know what the outcome will be.

Mr Ford:
Do you know when your colleagues will come to the Committee to discuss that issue?

Mr McMullan:
The taxi-driving test cannot be introduced until the Taxis Bill becomes law. The nuts and bolts of the taxi-driving test should be in place when the Taxis Bill becomes law, and I expect that to happen later this year or early next year.

Mr Laverty:
The required percentage of accessible taxis has not been decided. For larger operators, the figure could be about 10%. Obviously, a proportionate level would be applied to operators of smaller fleets.

The Department envisages that vehicles run by sole operators should be accessible. By operating such a vehicle, sole operators could provide a range of services, including contract work, picking up at taxi ranks, and bus-type services. The Department is of the view that the bus-type services operating at present will remain accessible in the future.

Mr Armstrong:
Are there plans to make taxi bays more accessible to shoppers and visitors to towns? How will people who want to move from one part of a town to another find a taxi easily and how will they be able to identify that taxi?

Mr McMullan:
As mentioned earlier, taxi ranks and taxi bays are a traffic management issue, for which DRD has responsibility. It is an important matter, and we will be engaging with DRD to ensure that there is sufficient provision throughout the Province. The taxi-plating scheme identifies clearly the services that vehicles are licensed to provide and shows which taxis are accessible.

Mr Armstrong:
The current taxi-plating scheme is not that visible to passengers: are there any ideas to improve it?

Mr McMullan:
Roof signs are very visible. Therefore, it might be better if taxi plates were integrated into roof signs. Mr Armstrong is correct: at the moment, one needs to focus below eye level to be able to read a taxi plate. Integrating taxi plates into roof signs might make the information more easily identifiable.

Mr Armstrong:
Would it be possible to have a universal sign for all taxis, with integrated taxi plates?

Mr Laverty:
PSV regulations govern roof signs, which must be of certain dimensions, with particular signage, giving information such as the name of a taxi firm, its telephone number and the type of taxi being operated. Signs are colour-coded to distinguish the type of work the vehicle’s licence permits. The public may not appreciate that the taxi plate corresponds to the type of taxi being operated, and the Department would seriously consider incorporating taxi plates into roof signs. We have seen examples, and they appear to do the job quite well.

Mr Armstrong:
That could be an easier way of making the information more visible.

The Chairperson:
The Department’s summary of key issues on the consultation states:
“it should be an offence for a taxi to carry signage for services it is not licensed to provide.”
Will you please clarify what that means? Does it refer to advertising?

Mr Laverty:
No. At present, some taxis display advertising, and the Department intends to introduce guidelines to ensure that any advertising is appropriate and does not cause offence.

The Chairperson:
In that case, to what does that point refer?

Mr Laverty:
I can answer that with an example. Some of the accessible vehicles that are currently in operation have signage that describes them as taxibuses. Under the Taxis Bill, the term “taxibus” has a particular meaning: a taxi that is licensed to provide a bus-type service. Where an ordinary taxi operates in that way, but does not have a licence authorising it to do so, it clearly infringes the regulations. That operation would, therefore, be an offence.

The Chairperson:
I understand. Thank you.

Does any member wish to add anything? On behalf of the Committee, I thank Mr Laverty and Mr McMullan for giving up their time this morning.

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