Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2006/2007

Date: 28 June 2007

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Taxis Bill:

 28 June 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson) 
Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Billy Armstrong 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Daithí McKay 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Mrs Adele Watters (Department of the Environment) 
Mr Bill Laverty (Department of the Environment)

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):
Welcome, Mrs Adele Watters and Mr Bill Laverty, and thank you for attending today, for what, I think, is your fourth time.

Mrs Adele Watters (Department of the Environment):
Yes, indeed it is.

The Chairperson:
I also thank you for the concise way that the documentation has been presented to the Committee. It is very readable, which is useful when distilling the legislation into the pros and cons of what is to be achieved.

Mrs Watters:
I thank the Chairperson and members for the opportunity to address the Committee as it starts its detailed scrutiny of the Taxis Bill. I proposed that we brief the Committee on the main provisions of the legislation, so a summary of the provisions has been provided for members.

However, before I outline the provisions and answer questions that members may have, it would be useful to mention a few key points that the Department had in mind when drafting instructions to the Office of Legislative Counsel in preparation for the Bill. Some of those points will pick up on themes that were mentioned by Alan Rehfisch in his briefing earlier and will help members to understand why the legislation has been drafted in this way.

The first point concerns linkages in the licensing system and the licensing framework; the second concerns uniformity, but with flexibility; the third relates to the need for forward-looking legislation; the fourth relates to the range of sanctions that are available in the Bill, and the fifth and final point relates to fees. I will cover all of those quickly.

First, with regard to linkages in the licensing system, I will recap some of our previous briefings on the main problems in the taxi industry. One of those problems is the extent of illegal taxiing that is taking place — and a lot of it happens through taxi depots that engage unlicensed vehicles and drivers. Another problem is that there are too few accessible taxis, and there is also a lack of accountability for service standards, which, in practice, often results in poor customer service. The Department believes that the one key measure that will allow it to make substantial headway in addressing those problems is the introduction of operator licensing, and that is why powers to introduce operator licensing are a key aspect of the Bill.

Furthermore, the legislative framework recognises that to achieve the objectives of fewer instances of illegal taxiing, more accessible taxis and better customer standards, it is vital to establish taxi operators as legal entities and link them legally to the drivers that they engage and, separately, to the vehicles that they use.

It is also worth pointing out that the legislation contains no legal linkage, as such, between a taxi driver and the taxi vehicle that he or she drives. Although many taxis are owner-driven, that is not necessarily the case. The Department has no difficulty with the idea that someone — maybe a car dealer or taxi dealer — can own a taxi but allow it to be driven by someone else, or even by two people alternately. It is important to get those linkages in place, because the Bill does not comprise a series of completely unrelated parts. The provisions interlink like pieces of a jigsaw.

The Department is seeking to achieve uniformity across the licensing system. The Bill provides for a one-tier licensing system across Northern Ireland; the same basic requirements for operators, regardless of the size of their operations; the same basic rules for drivers, regardless of the types of taxis that they drive; and the same basic requirements for vehicles, at least for those providing normal, non-specialist accessible and non-accessible services.

It is also important that the legislation enables the Department to provide flexibility where needed — through measures that can be applied differently, according to circumstances and cases, or by way of exemptions. For example, clause 18 requires all taxis to have taximeters, but it also gives the Department the power to make regulations establishing exemptions to that rule.

Another example of the legislation’s flexibility is that it gives the Department the power to require all operators to provide a certain percentage of accessible vehicles. However, the conditions, and, therefore, the percentage of accessible vehicles required could differ depending on the size of a taxi operator’s fleet. For example, the figure could be 10% for a large fleet but 100% for an operator who has only one vehicle.

Clause 54 provides further flexibility. It permits the Department, where it deems it appropriate, to apply regulations made under the Bill to a specific area or areas rather than to Northern Ireland as a whole. The Bill has been developed on the premise of providing a one-tier system. However, it contains a great deal of flexibility to allow the Department to vary those basic rules. For example, clause 54 enables the Department to retain the two-tier system in Belfast, if it considers that to be appropriate.

The Bill must be forward looking. The Road Traffic ( Northern Ireland) Order 1981, under which taxis are currently regulated, is over 25 years old. The Taxis Bill may not have to last quite as long as that before, in due course, it is also replaced. However, we should anticipate that it will provide the licensing framework for the next 10 to 15 years. The Bill must be capable of anticipating developments that are on the horizon but whose impact is not fully known and for which the Department is not necessarily thinking actively about the development of policies.

The Department has included in the Bill matters on which it does not necessarily intend to act. They include: restrictions on age; the ability to regulate for taxi marshals; and provision for in-car security equipment, such as CCTV, which is not used in Northern Ireland but is installed in some taxis in GB. The Department at least wants the powers to regulate that. The increase in the number of applications for taxi-driver licences from people from the rest of the EU is also an issue, and the legislation must be flexible to enable the Department to deal with it.

A range of sanctions must be put in place. To an effective regulator, prosecution should be, if not quite the last resort, certainly not its first resort. Enormous importance should be attached to education, persuasion, warning letters, the potential for civil penalties and enforcement notices. Next should come criminal penalties, and the final stage should be the suspension and revocation of licences. That is why the Bill contains a broad range of sanctions. It is important that all those are available to the regulators, who must use them effectively to target the main areas of risk.

A fundamental tenet of licensing systems, such as taxi licensing, is that they should, as far as possible, be run on a full cost-recovery basis. The cost of the licensing service should be met through the income generated from fees. Typically, the powers to charge fees must appear in primary legislation and must be specific. Without a clear primary power to charge a fee, regulations on fees cannot be made. A prime example of that, which has caused difficulty for the Department, relates to the introduction of taxi plates in 2004.

Although the Department took the policy decision to introduce taxi licence plates, it does not have the power to charge a fee for issuing them. Therefore, the costs of producing and issuing the plates had to be rolled into that for the PSV test. Ideally, the Department should be able to charge for all items that need to be produced as part of the licensing system.

In addition, the Department needs to be able to charge for the services that it provides, including the work involved in processing applications that may end up being rejected. At the moment, if the Department processes a driver’s application, which, for some reason, is rejected, the fee has to be returned to the unsuccessful applicant. There is no opportunity for the Department to state that because it has completed its work, it will hold on to the fee.

The fees issue is not all one-way traffic. The Department is conscious that it does not have the powers to refund or remit fees in cases where, for example, a person has booked a PSV test — the fee for which includes the cost of the taxi licence plates — but finds that he or she cannot attend the appointment. The fee would be lost, and the applicant would have to pay a second fee for a subsequent test. In effect, drivers can pay twice for one set of plates, which means that quite a significant amount of money is involved.

Many people in the taxi industry say that the Department is mostly interested in fees. Therefore, the Department must ensure that every aspect of the fees issue is covered in the legislation.

The Committee will be glad to know that I will not be going through all the briefing material that has been provided. The Bill comprises six parts, with 58 clauses and three schedules. It is a significant piece of legislation.

Part 1 deals with the regulation of taxi operators. It introduces the requirement for a taxi operator to apply for, and obtain, a taxi operator’s licence, and imposes duties on licensed operators. It also introduces requirements and duties relating to the operation of taxi services at separate fares.

Part 2 of the Bill deals with the regulation of vehicles used to provide taxi services. It includes more flexible and extensive powers for the Department to set appropriate suitability requirements for vehicles, as regards their type, size and design. Part 2 also gives the Department powers to set the maximum rates and fares that can be charged for the hire of a taxi, and to require all taxis to have taximeters and receipt printers.

Part 3 of the Bill deals with the regulation of taxi drivers. In particular, it amends existing legislation by reducing the period of a taxi-driver licence from five years to three years, bringing it into line with taxi-driver repute checks, which are repeated every three years.

Part 4 of the Bill contains general provisions for the licences that can be applied for, and includes provisions relating to fees, applications, suspensions, revocations, curtailments and appeals.

Part 5 of the Bill makes provision for enforcement. It gives the police and the Department powers to stop, search and seize vehicles believed to be taxiing illegally, and to inspect premises, under warrant, where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person is operating an unlicensed taxi service.

Part 6 provides for a number of general issues relating to the operation of the Bill, including sharing information, payment of grants and the provision of training.

The Bill contains three schedules. Schedules 2 and 3 deal with minor and consequential amendments, and repeals. Schedule 1 will probably be of most interest, as it lists the offences and penalties that will be included under the Bill. The most serious licensing offences — all of which, on conviction, will attract a maximum fine of £5,000 — include: driving a taxi without a taxi-driver licence; operating a taxi service without an operator’s licence; a taxi operator’s using unlicensed vehicles or drivers; and using a taxi, or permitting a taxi to be used, without a taxi licence.

That completes a quick overview aimed at familiarising members with some of the detail of the Bill. I am happy to take questions.

The Chairperson:
Thank you. I am sure that many questions will emerge when the Committee’s consultation begins. Do members wish to ask any questions either on Adele Watters’s briefing or on the information that Alan Rehfisch from Research and Library Services provided earlier?

Mr Weir:
Alan Rehfisch mentioned the financial elements of the legislation. Although the Bill is enabling legislation, one of the aims of the taxi-licensing system is full cost recovery. How will the cost of enforcing the legislation — such as the checking of licences — be worked out? Are there costings for that, and how will those costs be met?

Mrs Watters:
Currently, £20 of the PSV licence fee goes towards funding enforcement. Further funding for enforcement comes directly from the Department.

Mr Bill Laverty (Department of the Environment):
The Driver and Vehicle Agency’s enforcement team comprises 21 officers. Of those 21, four officers deal with taxi-related matters. The full enforcement team deals with road freight, bus licensing and taxi licensing and, as Adele said, funding for its work comes mainly from the Department.

Mr Weir:
Presumably, the intention is to expand that team? A much stronger framework, with regulations and a fee structure, will require much greater enforcement.

Mrs Watters:
Yes, it will. However, some of that enforcement will be supported by the IT systems that are already in place. We will have much more and better information on who is licensed, whose licences have been renewed, and what is going on in general. Consequently, we will be able to make better use of that information.

Current taxi legislation is drafted in such a way that the Department has powers and sanctions to deal with those in the taxi industry who are regulated. Most legislative power is directed at the prosecution of offenders, which is very resource intensive. The intention is that the new legislation will provide a range of sanctions that could be used before the prosecution stage is reached, which would mean that enforcement officers would not necessarily need to be out on the roads.

Mr Weir:
It was mentioned that the more serious offences would, ultimately, attract a maximum fine of £5,000. Is there any provision for the revocation of licences in the event of prosecutions for serious offences? For example, if a taxi operator were to employ unlicensed cash-in-hand drivers, will the legislation provide for the ultimate sanction of revoking that operator’s licence? My thinking behind that is that in the bar trade, if a publican is responsible for a number of serious breaches, his or her liquor licence can be revoked. Will the Taxis Bill provide for similar sanctions for taxi operators?

Mr Laverty:
Yes. The legislation provides powers to suspend, revoke or curtail an operator’s licence. Curtailing an operator’s licence would reduce the number of vehicles that his or her company could operate. Repeated convictions could affect an operator’s reputation and fitness to hold a licence, and, therefore, could justify the revocation of his or her operator’s licence.

Mr Armstrong:
If a driver is unable to keep a PSV test appointment, he or she must still pay for a licence. How much does it cost the Department to supply a licence?

Mrs Watters:
Is the question whether the component costs of a PSV test can be separated out?

Mr Armstrong:
Yes. If a driver is unable to keep a PSV test appointment, he or she cannot claim the licence cost back. Is there a separate cost for the supply of a licence?

Mr Laverty:
The Driver and Vehicle Agency, which is responsible for the testing of vehicles, calculates the cost of the test.

Mr Armstrong:
Yes. There is a cost for the PSV test. However, the Department charges applicants for supplying licences, even if they were unable to attend their PSV test appointments. In other words, are there separate costs for PSV tests and for supplying licences?

Mr Laverty:
Is that a reference to the administrative cost of issuing licences?

Mrs Watters:
There is a separate administrative cost.

Mr Laverty:
The PSV test fee comprises several components: the cost of the taxi licence plates; the cost of administration; and the cost of the test.

Mr Armstrong:
Is it correct to say that the Driver and Vehicle Agency does not refund the licence part of the application fee if a driver is unable to keep a test appointment?

Mrs Watters:
The Department does not currently have the power to make such a refund.

Mr Armstrong:
Should that issue not be examined?

Mrs Watters:
In cases such as that, the Department wants the legislation to give the Driver and Vehicle Agency the power to refund the licence part of the fee. That is right and fair, and we should be able to do that.

Mr Armstrong:
Will the Department look into that matter?

Mrs Watters:
Absolutely.

Mr Boylan:
In the debate on the Second Stage of the Taxis Bill on 26 June 2007, my party broadly supported a one-tier system for taxi licensing. The Department’s position appears to be that a one-tier system should apply across the board, and the taxi industry has voiced some concerns about that. Will you clarify that situation?

Mrs Watters:
The Bill paves the way for a move to a one-tier system across Northern Ireland. However, when the Bill was sent out for consultation, we considered the impact that responses in favour of retaining the two-tier system in Belfast would have on the legislation. Consequently, clause 54 of the Taxis Bill gives the Department the flexibility to apply certain rules and regulations to different areas of Northern Ireland.

Although the Department’s clear intention is that there should be a one-tier system, the Bill does not close the door entirely on the idea of a two-tier system. It is not that we are in two minds about that — we support the idea of a one-tier system, but we are also saying that that is not the end of the matter.

Mr Boylan:
There are many taxi operators in rural areas where a one-tier system would not be suitable. It would be unfair, for example, to demand that all taxi firms should have disabled-accessible vehicles.

Mrs Watters:
That is not the intention of the legislation.

Mr Boylan:
There are other concerns about a one-tier system, but I wanted clarification on that specific point.

Mrs Watters:
No one wants a fully disabled-accessible taxi fleet — not even people with disabilities.

Mr McKay:
If a one-tier system is introduced in Belfast, where all taxis licensed as Belfast public hire are already wheelchair accessible, only those taxis will provide disabled access, with the rest not having to meet that requirement. Would that system be compatible with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Will an equality impact assessment be carried out?

Mrs Watters:
An equality impact assessment has been carried out. It concluded that if the number of accessible taxis could be increased, and the availability of accessible taxies improved throughout Northern Ireland, a one-tier system would be acceptable. If there were accessible taxis that, for example, did not work out of depots with dispatch facilities and, therefore, could not be booked by telephone, it would restrict disabled people’s ability to avail of them.

The Department believes that the Taxis Bill will have a positive impact on disabled people. It has worked closely with the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (Imtac) to establish whether the Bill conflicts with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Imtac is sponsored by the Department for Regional Development and is the main adviser to Government in Northern Ireland on accessibility and transport for people with disabilities. Certainly, it takes the view that there is no conflict between the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Taxis Bill’s ability to regulate for accessible taxis.

Mr Laverty:
I should point out that the spirit of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has been a major consideration throughout the taxi review. By virtue of existing regulations, taxis that are licensed for public hire in Belfast must be accessible. There is a shortcoming in the number of accessible taxis in rural areas. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 gives UK territorial Departments powers to prescribe accessibility for taxis that are available for immediate — in other words, public — hire. The Department has been conscious of that from the start.

Mr McKay:
Has consideration been given to an increase in the number of taxi ranks, particularly in Belfast?

Mrs Watters:
Practical responsibility for the provision of taxi ranks is a traffic-management issue, which is the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development. However, through its work with the taxi industry and colleagues in the Department for Regional Development, the Department of the Environment is aware that moves are already afoot to increase the number of taxi ranks in Belfast. The sub-regional transport plan has, I understand, been published. It refers to consideration of the provision of taxi ranks in towns and cities outside Belfast. That is a pressing issue. There are several towns of considerable size where ranks are not provided.

Mr I McCrea:
During the Committee’s earlier briefing, Mr Rehfisch mentioned the cost implications of taximeters. There is also the issue of taxi divers and operators who want to bring their vehicles up to disabled-accessible standards. That has major cost implications — perhaps thousands of pounds, rather than a few hundred.

Part 6 of the Bill refers to “Payment of grants”. Could any specific issues arise from that? Obviously, it is up to the Department of Finance and Personnel to produce any extra money that is required. Does the Department envisage that grants would be made available to improve accessibility or, indeed, for the introduction of taximeters, given that fitting them would lead drivers and operators to incur costs?

Mrs Watters:
The Department believes that to obtain completeness, and for the Bill to be forward-looking, it would have been remiss to exclude the provision of a grant-making power. Therefore, the legal provision is being included in the Taxis Bill. However, no money is available, and there are no proposals to introduce grants.

With the Taxis Bill, the Department has made it clear that it wants to raise the standard of provision for consumers. It is inevitable that that will involve some costs: there will be one-off costs relating to taximeters and receipt printers, and more significant costs from vehicle purchasing. The Department has not indicated what the vehicle specification for accessible taxis will be. It is a complex area, and we are conscious of not being overly prescriptive about accessible taxis. Much has been said about accessible taxis costing between £30,000 and £35,000, but those would be top-of-the-range purpose-built taxis. It is important that there is a range of accessible taxis and a range of prices.

The Chairperson:
I am conscious that the potential costs to the industry, compared to the incomes of taxi drivers and operators, have become a feature of the debate on the Bill. I would like to see a breakdown of the different tariffs that have been proposed and I would like to be able to compare them with existing tariffs.

Costs associated with taximeters and accessible vehicles have been mentioned, although no vehicle specifications have been recommended. I presume that the associated costs have been considered. The Committee would find such figures useful during its deliberations, as this issue will inevitably arise. Projected costs must have been calculated at some point.

Mrs Watters:
Some costs are easier to calculate than others, and I am referring to compliance costs. Figures for taximeters and receipt printers would be relatively easy to produce. However, the cost of accessible vehicles, or the potential cost of adapting vehicles to make them accessible, would be more complicated, and the Department would not have details on those items.

The Chairperson:
It seems to me that the Department is not laying down any specifications as regards accessible vehicles. Does the Department anticipate introducing specifications through, for example, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995?

Provision for specifications has been left very loose. There are two ways that that could be resolved. First, the Department could make it easier for taxi drivers to buy accessible vehicles that will meet the required specifications. Secondly, in the future, another agency could say that those specifications are not up to standard and could introduce new provisions for higher specifications.

Mr Laverty:
The Bill gives the Department the power to prescribe the accessibility requirements for taxis, as does the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The Department envisages that the Taxis Bill will enable it to prescribe accessibility requirements for Northern Ireland. We will take notice of any regulations that may be made in GB under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The Chairperson:
Are you satisfied that the Bill’s provisions for vehicle specifications are entirely compatible with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and any other regulatory requirements?

Mrs Watters:
If the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires that regulations be made, the Department for Transport is responsible for them for England and Wales and the Scottish Executive are responsible for them for Scotland.

Mr Laverty:
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 gives the UK territorial Governments powers to make regulations.

Mrs Watters:
The Department for Transport does not make UK-wide taxi-accessibility regulations.

The Chairperson:
I am trying to ascertain which regulations apply here, other than the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Are you sure that the flexibility that the Bill contains on vehicle specifications meets the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and any other statutory requirements?

Mrs Watters:
We are.

Mr Boylan:
I had a question about designated areas, but it was covered in the reply to Daithí McKay.

Mrs Watters:
Designated areas are a slightly different concept in the legislation. Taxi ranks or stands might be situated in designated areas, and disabled access to taxis in those areas might be required. The term “designated areas” is designed to bring together several matters. We have in mind key instances in which taxis should be accessible to disabled people who wish to make connections with other forms of transport, such as at airports, train stations or ferry terminals. A great deal of money has been spent to ensure that ferries, trains and other forms of public transport are accessible to people with disabilities; however, if those people cannot manage that final leg home, they may not set out on the big journey at all.

The Chairperson:
Can you provide the Committee with a list of any associated costs that may be incurred by the Department of the Environment or the taxi industry?

Mrs Watters:
When we become aware of costs, we will provide them to the Committee. Do you also require information about income that will be generated by fees? It will be for the Driver and Vehicle Agency to collate such information, but we will press for it.

The Chairperson:
Y es.

Mr McKay:
Taxi drivers have reported that, following a PSV test, it can take the Department up to 10 days to issue a taxi vehicle licence — in other words, the taxi licence plates. That results in the loss of work and money. Have you considered providing drivers with some form of disc to cover those 10 days and to prevent their being out of pocket during that period?

Mr Laverty:
The taxi review team is conscious that the time between the PSV test’s taking place and the issuing of taxi licence plates has been a major area of complaint from taxi drivers. We will aim to streamline those procedures when we review taxi vehicle regulations. There will probably be a resultant cost, but the solution to the problem is for taxi licence plates to be issued at the point of testing.

Previously, a disc was used to identify a licensed taxi. However, the disc was indiscernible to the travelling public. That was one of the reasons for the introduction of the taxi-plating system. I appreciate that the delay between the time of the test and the issuing of plates is a problem.

Mr McKay:
When will the review of taxi vehicle regulations take place?

Mr Laverty:
The Taxis Bill will give the Department enabling powers to make new taxi vehicle regulations. The current PSV requirements will be reviewed and enhanced. I would like to believe that the review will take place sooner rather than later, possibly within 18 months of the new Bill’s being enacted.

The Chairperson:
On a final note, could the Committee have sight of the early draft of the regulations flowing from the Bill?

Mrs Watters:
The Department does not have any early drafts of regulations.

The Chairperson:
Could they be made available to the Committee when the Department has them?

Mrs Watters:
Of course, but it will be some time before early drafts of regulations are available. The Department’s main focus is on the primary legislation, but, as the policy is being developed in those regulatory areas, we are happy to work with the Committee. The Department does not envisage that the Committee will first hear about those regulations when it sees the secondary legislation.

The Chairperson:
I thank the departmental representatives for their time; does any other Committee member want to add anything?

Mr Boylan:
After these discussions, taking a taxi has a whole new meaning for me. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your time today.

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