Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 04 October 2007

Taxis Bill: Accessible Taxi Association and International Airport Taxi Co

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Taxis Bill

04 October 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson) 
Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr David Ford 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr Samuel Gardiner 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses: 
Mr Raymond Dempster ) Accessible Taxi Association NI
Mr Eamon Grogan )
Mr Terence Maguire
Mr William Black
Mr James McVeigh ) International Airport Taxi Co Ltd
Mr Brian Press

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone): 
Today we shall receive oral evidence from Mr William Black; the Accessible Taxi Association NI; Mr Terence Maguire; and the International Airport Taxi Co Ltd. Members will find all the submissions in their members’ pack.

One further evidence session is scheduled for next Thursday. The witness will be Monica Wilson of Disability Action, and, unless we receive any late requests, that will be the final oral evidence session. Departmental officials should be in attendance for that.

We will now begin to take formal evidence. Is Mr William Black here? He is not. We will move on. Are Mr Eamon Grogan and Mr Raymond Dempster here? They are.

You are both very welcome. We try to keep evidence sessions as informal and relaxed as possible. We have received your submission. We will allow 10 to 15 minutes for you to present to the Committee. Please try to keep within that time frame. You do not have to repeat everything that you have already said in your written submission, but if there are particular points that you wish to emphasise, please feel free to do so. After that, Committee members will indicate whether they have further questions to ask or points that they would like you to clarify. Please stay focused on the Taxis Bill. The floor is now yours, so I thank you very much for giving up your time to be with us today.

Mr Eamon Grogan (Accessible Taxi Association NI): 
I wish to thank the Committee for the Environment for its invitation and the Committee Clerk for the work that she has done on our behalf.

I want to talk about the Department’s proposal for an operator’s licence and how that will affect me as a driver.

Mr Raymond Dempster (Accessible Taxi Association NI): 
I will be helping Eamon. We have put together our notes, and obviously Eamon will need some help with what he is saying. Basically, that will be my role.

As Eamon has said, the association’s first problem with the Taxis Bill is operator licensing. The association feels strongly that that licence is not suitable for Belfast public-hire taxis. It is widely known that that type of licence is used to regulate the private-hire taxi industry. The operator’s licence requires drivers to take and maintain records. Eamon wants to explain exactly what that would mean for him.

Mr Grogan: 
The Department stated that Belfast public-hire taxis would always be exempt from having to hold operator’s licences. However, the Taxis Bill will require all taxi drivers to hold an operator’s licence. Therefore, someone such as myself, who cannot read or write, will be unable to keep the records required by the licence. As the driver of an accessible taxi, I will no longer be able to meet the required standards. Therefore, I feel that there is no legislation to help people such as myself.

On the health and safety issue, public-hire taxis are of the highest standard —M1 type approval standard vehicles — and they are wheelchair accessible. Public-hire taxis have always been exempt from holding an operator’s licence.

Mr Dempster: 
Association drivers are sole traders — self-employed people who do not work for companies. As sole traders, we feel that an extra burden will be placed on us. For example, we will have to pay for the operator’s licence — whatever the cost — and that cost will be set by the Department. However, taxi drivers who work for companies will have that cost paid by the company owner, who may then pass the cost on to the taxi driver. The association feels that drivers’ having to pay for the licence themselves is an extra burden, and that that has not been fully recognised by the Department.

As Eamon also said, before the Taxis Bill was drawn up, an early consultation included an exemption from holding an operator’s licence for our type of taxi. However, when the later consultation document on the Taxis Bill was issued, that exemption had been removed. We spoke to the Department about that, but were given no firm answers to our questions. We would like the Committee to amend the Taxis Bill to allow that exemption to remain in place. The Committee should remember that an operator’s licence has never before been used in respect of a public-hire taxi service.

Mr Grogan: 
The Department proposes to put in place a one-tier system that will allow all taxis, when hailed, to pick up passengers on the streets of Belfast. The public have always been able to recognise easily that public-hire taxis can be hailed in the street. However, the new legislation will make it easier for any taxi to pick up people on the streets — the public will not be able to recognise that they could be getting into anyone’s car and that that is not a safe situation. Therefore, the association wants the two-tier system to remain in place.

Mr Dempster: 
As an association, we are aware that there is a need for more taxis at peak times and, has already been discussed with the Committee, those times are between 1.00 am and 3.00 am at weekends.

There is no need for extra taxis in Belfast outside those hours. Taxi industries in every town and city have the same problems at the same times; the situation is not unique to Belfast or anywhere else in Northern Ireland. It is at that time of night that taxis are used most.

Drivers of Belfast public-hire taxis have serious concerns about the amount of work that will be taken away from them if the Assembly passes the Taxis Bill. The booking of private-hire taxis has grown beyond anyone’s expectations. In Belfast, the system works very well, and private-hire taxis provide a good service when the public want to phone and book a taxi.

However, the proposal to allow private-hire taxis to pick up people in the street without a prior booking goes against what has always been normal practice in Belfast and will put public-hire taxis at a distinct disadvantage. The rest of the industry can work in the public- and private-hire arenas whereas, by definition, our type of taxi can work only from taxi ranks. The Bill will, therefore, push our association into doing something that it does not want to do. Our taxi drivers do not want to work for private-hire companies through phone booking. They want to continue to work from taxi ranks and be hailed in the street. I am aware of the fact that to limit ourselves to that type of work could be detrimental to us, but we believe that there is no level playing field and that proposals in the Taxis Bill, at the risk of repetition, will allow saloon cars to work in the public- and private-hire arenas. The Taxis Bill will create a huge movement towards private-hire companies.

Another problem posed by the Bill and the one-tier system is the provision of designated areas, which are to be regulated by the Department of the Environment. That greatly concerns us because our association has never been told what distances those areas will cover or how they will be enforced. The Department will regulate that private-hire cars cannot pick up passengers in designated areas around a taxi rank, but passengers being picked up by private-hire taxis without a prior booking has been one of the main problems in Belfast to date.

The proposal in the Bill is for private-hire taxis to pick up people in designated areas. The association does not feel that that measure can be enforced effectively. The authorities have never been able to enforce it in Belfast city centre in the past, and we feel that they would be unable to do so in the future. We cannot expect to have complete enforcement in every designated area. As representatives of our industry, we believe that the more designated areas there are, the better; but a bigger problem is going to be created.

The association’s other concern is based on the requirements for accessible taxis under the one-tier system. Eamon will take up that point.

Mr Grogan: 
Drivers of accessible taxis have always been told that permission to pick up passengers on the street relies on our vehicles being wheelchair accessible. The Department is now saying that it will allow private-hire vehicles to pick up people on the street and is easing the current requirements about permission. Taxi drivers in the association have had to go to the expense of buying wheelchair-accessible public-hire taxis, and now the standard is being lowered; that is wrong.

Mr Dempster: 
As Eamon said, the association’s taxis have to meet the highest standards to gain M1 type approval. We want the specific standard of M1 type approval to remain as the classification for an accessible taxi, simply for the safety of passengers. It is the highest standard, and to go below it might be detrimental to the industry and, later, probably to the Department too. We ask the Committee to be mindful that the best taxi industries in the world use our type of taxi and that regulation for accessible taxis in Belfast is in its infancy. There should be a sustained period of stability and enforcement, so that the public can gain confidence in the public-hire, wheelchair-accessible taxi service.

Eamon will now explain what the training that all drivers must undergo means to him.

Mr Grogan: 
The training means that drivers of accessible taxis will have to meet certain requirements. The Department will train drivers on issues specific to taxis. I feel that if I do not meet the requirements, I will be out of a job.

Mr Dempster: 
When the association had a meeting with GoSkills, the company that will develop the training schedule, I raised a concern about the training. It is proposed that drivers be trained to BTEC level, but how can someone in Eamon’s position, or someone like him, comply with that? How will he be trained? That problem must be recognised now, and he must be given the same rights as other drivers to receive training, attain qualifications and better himself as a professional driver.

The association knows what those rights mean to Eamon. We asked the Department about the scenario of keeping records relating to operator’s licences and were told that Eamon may be able to use a Dictaphone. That simply does not seem right: to say the least, it is a poor suggestion. Eamon, do you want to say anything else about training?

Mr Grogan: 
No.

Mr Dempster: 
I remind the Committee that Eamon has been forced to go public, as at today’s meeting, on having trouble with reading and writing. That has never happened before and is happening now only because the Department has offered nothing to help drivers in Eamon’s position.

A dedicated taxi-enforcement team was created as a result of a previous presentation to the Committee by the association’s chairman and other members of the association. We warmly welcome the establishment of that dedicated team and praise its work. The level of compliance by taxi drivers in our industry in Belfast has never been higher. They are now starting to do their job as they are required to do, and that is positive.

Our concern is with the level of priority or commitment that the dedicated taxi-enforcement team has been given. Since the new plating system was introduced several years ago, the enforcement team has not grown at all. Provisions must be made to expand the team.

The association wants consideration to be given to the possibility of more localised enforcement throughout the Province. It believes that that would be of great benefit to the entire taxi industry. The team could respond much quicker if enforcement were more localised. The association agrees with the proposal that the DVA could use its own test-centre facilities. The Committee is aware that, at present, the dedicated enforcement team has only five officers. More officers are needed. Recently, the association was informed that one of the officers must leave the dedicated team tomorrow to work in enforcement elsewhere. That is absolutely wrong. I want to take the opportunity to mention that because the team should be getting bigger rather than smaller. That is what the taxi industry needs.

Mr Grogan: 
There are over 19,000 licensed taxis in Northern Ireland. There are 11,000 plated taxis. The five members of the dedicated enforcement team must enforce regulations for the entire plated-taxis industry. As Raymond has mentioned, the licence fee went from £61·50 to £120 when the new plating system was introduced in November 2004. The association was told that £20 from the cost of each licence would be used to take on more enforcement officers. However, there has not been an increase in the number of officers. How are only four enforcement officers expected to enforce the Bill, which regulates on operators, licences, training, ensuring that meters are on, and so on, for 11,000 taxis across Northern Ireland? That is impossible.

The Chairperson: 
Thank you for your evidence, particularly the information on enforcement, which brings the Committee right up to speed. It is a burning issue, on which, I am sure, members will pick up.

Mr Weir: 
I thank you for your evidence. How many drivers and taxis does the Accessible Taxi Association NI represent in Northern Ireland?

Mr Grogan: 
Around 150 drivers are represented by the association.

Mr Weir: 
The Committee receives different evidence from different parties. Therefore, it must ensure that the weight of evidence from each party is at the right level. Does the association believe that all taxi drivers should be regulated in the same way?

Mr Grogan: 
No, not unless they drive vehicles that are of the standard to provide passengers with a hail-and-ride service. The association does not believe that it is acceptable to let private-hire vehicles pick up passengers on the street.

Mr Weir: 
The association has said that drivers of the type that it represents are the principal providers of the service to disabled passengers in Belfast. The Committee has heard evidence from representatives from IMTAC, who said that disabled people are often ripped off by taxi drivers. Is that not a strong argument for proper regulation of all taxi drivers, which would ensure, for example, that all passengers get receipts and that all journeys are metered, and so forth?

Mr Dempster: 
I do not believe that drivers of the type that the association represents are involved in ripping off passengers. Drivers of that type of taxi cannot overcharge: the driver must use the taximeter when he or she picks up a disabled passenger, whether the taxi has been booked privately or hailed for immediate hire on the street. Drivers cannot charge any extra; they can charge only the metered fare for that passenger’s journey. Private-hire companies are charging extra fares.

Mr Weir: 
I do not suggest that disabled passengers are overcharged only by the type of drivers that the association represents. However, they are the drivers of the type of taxis that are most used by disabled people. The evidence from IMT AC has been that those people have suffered from having been ripped off by taxi drivers.

Mr Dempster: 
They have suffered at the hands of private-hire companies. When disabled people phone to book a taxi, they are told that because of —

Mr Weir: 
With respect, that was not necessarily the evidence that was given. The evidence that we heard mentioned taxi drivers in general. That clearly means that although such incidents may have involved drivers of private-hire taxis at times, they also involved drivers of public-hire taxis.

I want to raise a few issues about the one-tier system. Why should Belfast be different from Banbridge, Bangor or Enniskillen? Why should there be a special rule that allows a two-tier system in Belfast but not anywhere else in Northern Ireland?

Mr Dempster: 
Belfast should have enjoyed proper regulation for public-hire taxis, given that those taxis are the only ones in Northern Ireland with a regulated fare structure. This service should be given the utmost chance to succeed because it is the best taxi service. If you consider other major cities in which taxis of this type operate, you will agree that it is a very good service. People sometimes do not want to book a taxi; they want one straight away. That is the service that we provide.

Mr Weir: 
Why should Belfast be different from anywhere else in Northern Ireland?

Mr Dempster: 
Belfast should be seen as a capital city. If Belfast had been given the proper regulation that it deserved, it would be in a very different situation today.

Mr Weir: 
You said that a number of drivers in your association operate only out of taxi ranks, and that if private firms are allowed to pick fares up on the street, it would, in one sense, mean that there would not be a level playing field. I appreciate that point. However, everyone would have the opportunity to make some form of arrangement to receive phone bookings — public-hire taxis and private-hire taxis alike — and under no circumstances would private-hire taxis be allowed to operate out of a taxi rank. Do you therefore agree that a level playing field would not exist for self-imposed reasons? There would be the same opportunities for everyone.

Mr Dempster: 
My understanding of the Taxis Bill is that if drivers want to accept private-hire bookings — in other words, get work via telephone calls — they will need an operator’s licence. The association’s taxi drivers should be given a choice; if they want to accept such bookings, they must get an operator’s licence, and, if they do not, they will not need that licence. That is the way that it is everywhere else.

Mr Weir: 
My point is that, to the extent that there would be a non-level playing field, it might be described as a self-imposed non-level playing field, in that your drivers would have the option to avail of those arrangements under the Bill, but some of them would simply choose not to do so.

Mr Dempster: 
Yes, some of them would choose not to do so. The association’s taxis make up probably less than 5% of the total taxi population. When the Taxis Bill is passed, you can imagine that the other 95% will point their cars towards Belfast, because they will be allowed to lift passengers from the street there. That is where the Bill will be detrimental to us.

Mr I McCrea: 
I thank the witnesses for coming here today.

In every evidence session to date, witnesses have raised the issue of how enforcement will be administered. It was mentioned that, from tomorrow, there will be only four enforcement officers. Obviously, the Committee cannot answer for the Department, but I am sure that the Department could find someone else to replace the officer who is leaving — I cannot see why not, because it said that there should be five officers. You talked about the need for more enforcement officers, and I agree with you.

Mr Dempster: 
I think that everybody would agree with that.

Mr I McCrea: 
How would that work? Given that there is talk about the need for a number of extra ranks, how many officers do you realistically feel would be needed — and how many are needed even now?

Mr Dempster: 
Belfast certainly needs many more enforcement officers. I would like the Committee to consider the possibility of localised enforcement across the Province. As I said, DVA test centres could be used as bases for a localised enforcement team. That would mean that the enforcement teams would be much smaller and could respond more quickly. I am not in a position to state actual numbers, but I am certain that more than five officers are needed to look after Belfast. I have listened to the problems that others have experienced across the country, and it is clear that more officers are needed elsewhere, too.

In the event of localised enforcement, taxi drivers might choose not to go outside Belfast. For instance, if taxi-enforcement teams were active in Belfast, taxi drivers might choose to hunt for a job outside Belfast where they would be able to work more freely. However, if localised enforcement were introduced, those taxi drivers who go out of Belfast illegally might run into a taxi-enforcement team in a different town. That is another reason why I feel strongly about enforcement. I do not know how many officers would be required, but they should be spread across the Province.

Mr I McCrea: 
Do you accept that training is necessary?

Mr Dempster: 
Yes.

Mr I McCrea: 
I understand the circumstances that you are describing, and the Department must do something in respect of the drivers who are unable to read or write. How can we ensure that all drivers are trained to the same standard?

Mr Dempster: 
That is correct. Eamon deserves the same rights as me as regards training and the ability to receive a qualification in passenger transport.

Mr Ford: 
Thank you both for attending the Committee, and I especially thank Eamon for talking about his personal circumstances. With regard to the operator’s licence, Raymond, you said that there should be exemption for your type of taxi. Is that on the basis of vehicle type or because you are a sole operator?

Mr Dempster: 
We are entitled to exemption on both counts. It is unfair that sole operators will have to foot the bill for the operator’s licence whereas drivers working for private-hire companies will not. Furthermore, the licence is not suitable for our type of taxi. Some of our immediate hires are picked up late at night when the passengers are rowdy — you can imagine the scenario. Black taxis accommodate up to seven people, so I can only imagine what would happen when the passengers are rowdy and the driver starts taking their names, addresses and destinations. That exercise has not previously been tried in black taxis.

The operator’s licence is, by design, more suited to private-hire taxi operators. Belfast always had such a scheme, until its removal in the past few years. It was never enforced for private-hire operators and now, suddenly, it is being reintroduced under the guise of an operator’s licence. Belfast has always had a licence for private-hire operators, but it was never regulated or enforced properly.

Mr Ford: 
I have two views on record keeping. First, everyone should be required to maintain proper records so that customers are not ripped off. Eamon, you are working satisfactorily even though you have problems with reading and writing, and I have sympathy with your position. Are you suggesting that a method of record keeping should be introduced that would not depend on a driver’s ability to read and write, or are you suggesting that there should be an exemption for existing drivers who cannot meet those standards? How do you want the situation to be handled?

Mr Grogan: 
Amendments should be made to the operator’s licence requirements. We have always been exempt from holding an operator’s licence, and the Department said that we would continue to be exempt.

Mr Ford: 
Do you mean that the entire group of current public-hire drivers should be exempt?

Mr Grogan: 
Yes.

Mr Dempster: 
Especially sole operators, because that is where the disadvantages will happen.

Mr Ford: 
If I have sympathy with Eamon because he has difficulties with reading and writing and no sympathy with Raymond’s position, and do not buy the argument for complete exemption, can anything be done to make life easier for drivers who have particular disabilities?

Mr Grogan: 
I hope that the Department will put something in place for people in my circumstances.

Mr Ford: 
Do you have any specific proposals?

Mr Grogan: 
No.

Mr Ford: 
You are, therefore, looking for appropriate measures to be put in place.

Mr Grogan: 
Yes.

The Chairperson: 
No one else has indicated a wish to speak, so I thank Mr Grogan and Mr Dempster for giving of their time today.

I welcome Mr Terence Maguire to the meeting, which will be quite informal. The Committee has received submissions, which have been placed in front of members. Please feel free to add to those submissions. You will have 10 to 15 minutes in which to make a presentation. Members will ask questions for the purpose of clarity and will, perhaps, invite you to expand on the points that you have raised.

Mr Terence Maguire: 
Thank you, Mr Chairman. I represent around 15 public-hire taxi drivers. Belfast public-hire taxi drivers ply for hire within a five-mile radius of Castle Junction. Public-hire taxis are the only taxis that are allowed to be hailed or to sit in ranks.

Currently, a hard core of illegal taxis work within that five-mile radius, and that presents a big problem. The Department of the Environment is not addressing that matter. It is not that the Department cannot do anything about it — the taxi drivers are known to the Department — but it seems incapable of enforcing current legislation. I would like the Department to make a better effort to enforce the legislation.

The Department’s team of five enforcement officers has been reduced to four. It is impossible for a team of that size to enforce regulations in Belfast, never mind Northern Ireland, and I am worried about how it will enforce the proposed legislation. I suggest that the five-mile zone in which we operate be reduced to a two-mile zone if an adequate number of taxi ranks could be made available in Belfast city centre.

I suggest that there are plenty of public- and private-hire taxis in the whole of Northern Ireland except, perhaps, during the early hours of Sunday morning between the hours of 1.00 am and 3.00 am. At all other times, lots of public- and private-hire taxis are available. Mr Ford was driven around Belfast one night by a couple of public-hire taxi drivers, and he saw the number of taxis that were parked and waiting for work.

Permitting people to hail private-hire taxis in the street will create a problem for taxi depots. While private-hire cars are on the streets, lifting people willy-nilly, their depots will be receiving phone calls from other people who are trying to book taxis — and those taxis will not be available. By allowing that situation to happen, the number of taxis on the street will not be increased — there will still be the same number of taxis on the street. However, a different problem may be created whereby the depots will not have enough cars, at times, to cover work because their drivers will be out on the streets trying to pick up fares.

The one-tier system, which is under discussion today, is unfair to public-hire taxi drivers who work in Belfast. Private-hire taxi drivers will be working from the depots when the depots are busy, and they will be working on the streets when the streets are busy. By contrast, my colleagues and I will be sitting at taxi ranks whether they are busy or not. We do not take phone calls. Therefore, private-hire taxi drivers will have more opportunity to get work.

A taxi-rank system should be put in place around Belfast. At present, there are virtually no taxi ranks in Belfast. Last week, Barbara Fleming from IMTAC talked about access to public-hire taxis. There is virtually no access to public-hire taxis in Belfast for disabled people. Currently, there is taxi rank at the City Hall, and another outside Great Northern Mall, beside the Europa Hotel. The only way that a disabled person can get a public-hire taxi is if they go to one of those ranks. Otherwise they have to phone the private–hire depots, which is when the rip-off begins. When the major private-hire companies in Belfast carry disabled people in their cars, the minimum fare is £8 — that is before the engine is turned on. By comparison, the minimum fare for a public-hire taxi is £2·70. Private-hire companies are discriminating against disabled people.

Many private-hire depots do not want work from disabled people. We can talk until we are blue in the face about how many private-hire taxis should be wheelchair-accessible, but if disabled people ring depots for taxis, nine times out of 10 they will be told that there are none available — or that all the taxis with wheelchair access are fully booked or are off the road. Most of the depots do not want fares from disabled people. However, all public-hire taxis in Belfast are wheelchair-accessible, and if there were sufficient taxi ranks around the town, disabled people would have no problem getting wheelchair-accessible taxis.

That brings me on to another point: all taxis in Northern Ireland should be wheelchair-accessible. That could be achieved in a three-year period and would mean that disabled people could order taxis without mentioning their disabilities. Disabled people are being discriminated against, because if they phone for a taxi, they have to specify that they are disabled, which would not be the case if every taxi were wheelchair-accessible.

Finally, control and enforcement of the taxi industry should be transferred from the Department to local councils. Local councils would be able to take a more hands-on approach and enforce penalties for any misdemeanours, which would make taxi depots and taxi drivers more accountable. That transfer could be financed by revenue from the fees that all taxi drivers pay for PSV tests, and the fees for the proposed licence for operators. The councils could also charge private-hire depots for an operator’s licence. That would enable councils to be more hands-on in their approach. The Department has been in charge of the taxi industry for 30 years, which is why we are in the current mess. The Department does not seem to be capable of looking after the taxi industry.

The Chairperson: 
Thank you very much, Mr Maguire; you have raised major issues about enforcement. The Committee needs to hear from the Department about why there has been a downgrade in the number of enforcement officers available. The Committee needs to seek clarity from the Department on that immediate problem, irrespective of what may happen as regards the legisation.

Mr Gardiner: 
Thank you for your presentation, Mr Maguire. You stated that private-hire depots are discriminating against disabled people by telling them that no wheelchair-accessible taxis are available, or that they are booked or out of order. I wonder if, as a Committee, we could have that allegation investigated. If a taxi company is discriminating against disabled people, the Committee wants to know about it. Its licence should be withdrawn. People with disabilities should be treated equally. I would like that matter investigated, Chairman.

Mr Maguire: 
That is why I brought up the idea of all taxis being wheelchair-accessible, because that type of situation would not occur.

The Chairperson: 
Mr Gardiner, the Committee can return to that issue when it has heard all the other questions.

Mr Boylan: 
Thank you for the presentation. I was also concerned about the allegation of discrimination. You have said that all taxis should be wheelchair-accessible. In rural areas, many taxi drivers make a living by driving saloon cars. You say that private-hire depots are ignoring disabled people.

Mr Maguire: 
I am suggesting that disabled people who phone for taxis are being ignored. I know that that is the case from past experience of working in depots.

Mr Boylan: 
You are calling for more taxi ranks. However, if there were more ranks, and more taxi drivers moved in, would it not be fair to say that they would still be doing the same thing?

Mr Maguire: 
No.

Mr Boylan: 
It may not be a solution; I am only making a suggestion.

Mr Maguire: 
If we had more taxi ranks in Belfast, a disabled person could come along to one of those ranks. There are only two taxi ranks in Belfast at the moment.

Mr Boylan: 
Surely a disabled person should go to whatever rank is available.

Mr Maguire: 
Yes, if there were more of them. In that event, there would be greater choice.

Mr Boylan: 
Are they not entitled to go to the ranks that are already there?

Mr Maguire: 
Yes. However, if a disabled person is at the Wellington Park Hotel, the nearest taxi rank is at the Europa Hotel.

Mr Boylan: 
That is something that can be looked at later. However, I feel strongly that disabled people should be able to access taxi ranks.

You referred to taxi drivers being out doing other work and not being available from the depots. Would you clarify that please?

Mr Maguire: 
Private-hire taxi drivers who are permitted to lift fares in the street could get hailed once the city centre starts to get busy on a Saturday night. That would mean that their depot would be short of cars. The depot would not be able to take phone bookings because no drivers would be available; they would all be out on the street trying to get flagged down.

Mr Boylan: 
Having one regulation for an operator’s licence would curb that behaviour.

Mr Maguire: 
In what way?

Mr Boylan: 
There has talk of one-tier and two-tier systems? What is your view on that? Should there be a law that allows Belfast drivers to lift fares in the street but requires people in rural areas to phone for accessible taxis?

Mr Maguire: 
There are public-hire taxis and taxi ranks outside Belfast. Drivers do not have to be in Belfast to sit in a taxi rank.

Mr Boylan: 
Yes, but you are talking specifically about taxi ranks.

Mr Maguire: 
I am speaking as a public-hire taxi driver, and I am suggesting that we need more taxi ranks. However, you are asking me about drivers who work in depots.

Mr Boylan: 
You are saying that you want the taxi ranks; but people still want to use taxis outside taxi ranks. Is that correct?

Mr Maguire: 
We need taxi ranks, and we need —

Mr Boylan: 
I am only asking you the question. The reason that I am asking is so that the Committee can bring forward your suggestions at the overview. You specifically said that there may not be enough taxi drivers at the ranks —

Mr Maguire: 
In the depots.

Mr Boylan: 
Sorry; in the depots.

Mr Maguire: 
If I am working in a depot and my depot is quiet, and if Belfast city centre is busy, I will go into the city centre and try to earn some money. If people then phone my depot, I will not be there, and the depot will find it hard to get its work covered. This legislation will not put more taxis on the street; it will shift the problem from one area to another.

Mr Boylan: 
So with that in mind, are you saying that the number of taxi drivers should be restricted? What happens if new people come in?

Mr Maguire: 
I did not say that.

Mr Boylan: 
I am only asking the question.

Mr Maguire: 
That is not for me to say.

Mr Boylan: 
That would be a lead-on question.

Mr Maguire: 
I think that there are plenty of taxis. Personally, I would like to see a cap put on the number of taxis. As I said earlier, there are plenty of taxis for everybody except for about two hours on a Saturday night, and that is when private-hire taxis will flood the city centre, leaving their depots exposed.

Mr Weir: 
With regard to leaving depots exposed at peak times — especially on Saturday nights — when private-hire taxi drivers head in the direction of the city centre, and I appreciate that there is likely to be a lot of cars going in that direction, surely what is more likely to happen is that a depot would hire in more drivers for those peak periods.

Mr Maguire: 
The depots could not do that. They could not hire people to work for only two hours on a Saturday night.

Mr Weir: 
Why not? Surely they would earn money; they are providing a service.

Mr Maguire: 
If you were a taxi driver, would you work for two hours a week?

Mr Weir: 
Presumably, any business that experiences a massive increase in trade at a particular time will bring in more people to cover that period.

Mr Maguire: 
What would taxi companies do with those people for the rest of the time — tell them to go home without any wages?

Mr Weir: 
Presumably, not every driver works 40 hours a week. Some drivers must work flexibly or part-time.

Mr Maguire: 
There is no work for those people for the rest of the week.

Mr Weir: 
Surely, as in any profession, some people work part-time and do something else for the rest of the time.

Mr Maguire: 
With respect, Mr Weir, you are stretching the point by suggesting that people would work for just two hours at peak time on a Saturday night. Let us be realistic.

Mr Weir: 
I appreciate that, but the reality is —

The Chairperson: 
We are veering from the legislation into the management of private companies.

Mr Weir: 
To be fair, the witness raised that point to illustrate a repercussion of the proposed legislation. I am suggesting that the problem will not be as bad as he fears.

I have two further questions. On the subject of increased accessibility for disabled people, you mentioned concerns about the potential for disabled people to be ripped off by private-hire taxis. The Committee has heard evidence on that issue that suggests that disabled people have been ripped off by a minority of drivers in the system as a whole, not only by one section of it.

Mr Maguire: 
I agree. It is not just one section. The disabled girl, Barbara Fleming, who gave evidence to this Committee last week, said that the taxi driver from the depot that she normally uses charged her £35 for a journey from the city centre to upper Malone, which left her with no money to get home. She should be asked to name the company responsible for that. Her friend was charged £70 for a journey of a quarter of a mile. Those are people who —

Mr Weir: 
The problems appear to be across the board. May I ask you —

Mr Maguire: 
Can something not be done about that?

The Chairperson: 
Again, we are veering into investigations.

Mr Weir: 
You said that the taxi-rank system works fairly well in areas outside Belfast. Why do you believe that a two-mile radius —

Mr Maguire: 
If we had more ranks.

Mr Weir: 
OK, assuming that there were more ranks, why do you believe that a special system, which does not apply anywhere else in Northern Ireland, should operate within a two-mile radius of Belfast city centre? Why should it have a different system?

Mr Maguire: 
Do you mean that public-hire taxis in Belfast would be the only taxis allowed to —

Mr Weir: 
Why do you believe that there should be a two-tier system in the centre of Belfast, when such a system does not apply anywhere else in the Province?

Mr Maguire: 
In comparison with, say, Banbridge, on a Thursday night, Belfast is much busier than any of the outlying areas. In Belfast, there is a need to have 450 taxis waiting for people to jump into to go home. In Banbridge or Coleraine, there is not.

Mr Weir: 
If there is that volume of business in Belfast, and I agree that, on any Thursday night, there is —

Mr Maguire: 
That is the difference between Belfast and other areas.

Mr Weir: 
Hold on. Given that volume of business, would it not still be there if there were a one-tier system and anyone could pick up from the streets?

Mr Maguire: 
There would still be the same number of people; however, as has been said, the number of taxis would not increase. Currently, people are being picked up illegally, by illegal taxi drivers. The DOE is doing nothing about that. In order to turn its back and wash its hands of the problem, the DOE intends to legalise the illegal drivers. That is the Department’s solution.

The Chairperson: 
Thank you, Mr Maguire, for bringing your practical experience to the Committee, and for your time.

I welcome Mr William Black and thank you for giving the Committee your time. The Committee already has your written submission and, as you have probably gathered, the meeting is pretty informal and relaxed, so please be at ease. If you wish to highlight particular points of your submission to the Committee, please do so, and the members will ask for clarification or further details, as required.

Mr William Black: 
Thank you, Mr Chairman. My name is William Black, and I have been in the taxi industry for just over 25 years, during which time there have been many changes. Fifteen minutes is not long, and I do not want to waste time, so I will start with the matter of the operator’s licence.

The operator’s licence was introduced on the mainland so that there would be some sort of accountability for private-hire vehicles, which they call minicabs. As far as I am aware, hackney cabs did not need an operator’s licence.

The Department of the Environment was informed about a case on the mainland in which a council had decided that hackney cabs working for a private-hire company should require an operator’s licence. The case went to the High Court, which ruled that a hackney cab did not need an operator’s licence. Brentwood Borough Council took the case to the Court of Appeal, but the previous ruling was upheld.

I have been in touch with the Department, which has sent me some material stating that that case falls under a particular category. The bottom line is that the High Court and the Court of Appeal stated that a hackney cab does not need an operator’s licence — that sector is already regulated.

The Department intended to allow certain exclusions from the operator’s licence clause, which would include Belfast public-hire cabs. However, the proposed legislation was changed, because when all stakeholders and other interested parties were asked about the operator’s licence, the response was that all taxis should be covered by an operator’s licence. That goes back to consultations in 2005 and 2006.

There are 512 public-hire hackney cabs working in Belfast, according to information supplied by the DOE licensing office on 18 September 2007. There are 7,841 public-hire vehicles, 2,782 private-hire vehicles and 272 taxi buses outside Belfast. If we compare the 512 drivers in the Belfast public-hire sector with the 10,895 other drivers in various categories, who are, at present, unregulated, it is safe to assume that the Belfast public-hire cabs will not have any real opportunity to be exempted from the operator’s licence, because the other sectors that never had to pay before will now have to do so.

Hackney cabs are still regulated by the Department, but they will fall foul of the regulations through sheer numbers. The Belfast public-hire cab must conform to certain standards and can cost anything up to £35,000. That is a massive price difference in comparison with the average price of £10,000 to £14,000 for a private-hire vehicle.

The Department was a bit clever in changing the proposed legislation in July 2006 to state that the Belfast hackney cab and all other taxis, private or otherwise, would be classed as a taxi. I have that document with me. The minutes of evidence that were presented to the Committee on 31 May 2007 state:

“ Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where what we call a ‘private-hire taxi’ is allowed to be known as a taxi. Everywhere else in the UK, they are called private-hire vehicles”.

The evidence from DOE officials goes on to state:

“Under many licensing authorities in the rest of the UK, private-hire vehicles are prohibited from carrying roof signs because that makes them look like public-hire taxis.”

The Department decided to call every type of vehicle a taxi. That is a somewhat confusing decision. If that is the Department’s idea of progress, I find it totally amusing.

My next point concerns the proposal to allow taxis that are not accessible to wheelchairs to pick up passengers in Belfast. That proposal, in my opinion and those of many others, will destroy Belfast public-hire cabs. Some 512 hackney cabs operate in Belfast, but not all of them work at peak times, as the Department of the Environment told the Committee on 31 May 2007. However, I am disappointed that the minutes of evidence do not record the fact that the two largest companies working in Belfast have more than 500 drivers who are available for work, but they also do not have a full complement of taxis working during peak periods.

The Department went on to state that vehicles licensed for private hire, or public hire outside Belfast, pick up much of that demand illegally. That is true, but one of the main reasons for so much illegal “p-uing”, as we call it, is that drivers would rather work off the street so that they can choose whatever work they want. If they work for a depot, they have to take the job that is allocated to them, but if people phone a taxi depot during peak periods and are told that there is a two-hour waiting time, they will go out and try to hail a taxi illegally on the street. If those taxis worked for depots, it would cut down on the number of people trying to hail a taxi illegally on the street. That is a fact.

On Friday and Saturday nights between 1.00 am and 3.00 am, taxi demand reaches saturation point, not only in Belfast but all over the UK. That is six hours out of 160 hours a week — 3·57% — during which accessible taxis are still working. That seems to be an unjustified reason for the drastic changes that the Department has proposed. In evidence to the Committee, the Department said that people do not know or care about differences in taxi plating — they just want to get home. It appears that departmental officials are saying that if enough people are prepared to break the law, the law will be changed to suit them.

The Department carried out an impact assessment, which states that allowing other taxis to pick up on the street would have no detrimental effect, financially or otherwise, on any part of the industry. For those members who know central Belfast, take the scenario of someone walking out of Fountain Street onto Wellington Place, he or she can obtain a taxi by phoning for one, walking to the nearest taxi rank or hailing a hackney cab. If there is permission for private-hire taxis to pick up on the street, people will not need to walk to the taxi rank, and those taxis will sit in the ranks for longer.

We have been told that the Belfast public-hire cab is an integral part of the public transport system, but taking away part of my business and telling me that it will not affect me is ludicrous. Of course it will affect me, because this will happen all over Belfast. Public-hire taxis in Belfast need protection to maintain the current system and the facilities that they provide.

The Department says that it wants more accessible taxis operating throughout Northern Ireland. If Belfast does not keep the two-tier system, there will be fewer accessible taxis available for immediate hire. I have spoken to many drivers in my sector of the business, and they have stated that if they were to lose a percentage of their business in such a way, they would be better going into private hire, taking into consideration the cost of the cab, the extra charge of £25 for having a PSV-accessible vehicle just for the test, as well as the loss of business. The business would be unsustainable and drivers could not cope with it. There are not many taxi ranks around Belfast, but they are all full, considering that they are 24-hour ranks operating successfully during daylight hours. What with National Car Parks (NCP), the PSNI and the enforcement officers, drivers cannot get into the ranks. Are drivers supposed to drive round the city in the hope that they will eventually get in?

The enforcement team working in the taxi industry does a remarkable job, considering that there are only five officers who cover the whole of Northern Ireland. I understand that we are about to lose one of our enforcement officers. I say “our” enforcement officers, because I believe that they have done a great job.

Recently, I discovered which enforcement officer was being moved. I suggest that the Committee for the Environment approach the enforcement office and stop that transfer, if it has the power to do so. Losing enforcement personnel who know their job in order to bring in new personnel is a waste of money and manpower. We need those personnel.

The Committee has been informed that there are 21 officers who may be called on to carry out sting operations, if requested. Can the Department tell the Committee how many times since the taxi plates were introduced in 2004 more than five enforcement officers have been used in an operation? In November 2004, changes were made to legislation that were aimed at substantially reducing the number of illegal taxis in order to minimise the risk to the travelling public. Legislation is only as good as its enforcement.

When the plates were introduced, the fee was increased to up to £120 a cab; currently, the fee is £126·50. At the time of the increase, we were informed that the Department would take £20 from each application to use for enforcement. There were 9,000 taxis in 2004, and that number has increased to 11,470. A levy of £20 per person adds up to a lot of money, so why has there not been an increase in enforcement? That is more than £750,000. Where is that money going?

The money that has gone into enforcement seems like a large amount, although, after it is spread out, perhaps it is not. In either case, five officers is not enough. I would like the Department to explain where the money has gone, and whether the other 16 officers have been called on to become involved in sting operations at any time in the past three years. If they have, I do not think that that would have cost £750,000.

At present, a two-tier system protects the Belfast public-hire cab sector. To change to a one-tier system would devastate that part of the industry. I refer to the Committee’s minutes of evidence of 31 May 2007, when departmental officials stated:

“When we asked directly whether respondents would prefer a one-tier system or a two-tier system, the two-tier system was narrowly preferred if the alternative was that all taxis — public hire and private hire — must be accessible.”

The costs of making those taxis accessible would be astronomical. The vast majority did not want to make their vehicles accessible, and the simple reason was cost. I refer members to the same minutes of evidence:

“When the Department examined the outcome of the policy consultation, it set out to revise its key proposals. Respondents were asked: ‘Do you agree with the proposal to keep a revised two-tier system as described?’

Respondents came down narrowly on the side of a two-tier licensing system. However, they also stated that they wanted all taxis to be able to pick up fares, have roof signs, work to regulated fares and have taximeters.”

That sounded like a one-tier system to the Department, which decided to push for a one-tier system.

Any licensed taxi that has a meter must have it sealed by the Department, regardless of whether the taxi is private hire, public hire outside Belfast or Belfast public hire. Currently, the only vehicles that have had their meters tested and sealed are Belfast public-hire taxis. Private-hire and public-hire vehicles outside Belfast have never been tested or sealed. The Department’s explanation is that it does not have the manpower. That is not my problem.

The question is: a one-tier or a two-tier system? In my opinion, by virtue of the numbers involved, the Belfast public-hire cab is becoming a scapegoat. If the Belfast public-hire cab, as we know it, is to survive, the two-tier system within a five-mile radius of Belfast must be retained. That is paramount to its survival. If the Belfast public-hire cab is to be part of an integrated public transport system, the Department must keep the two-tier system for Belfast.

In any review, all parties involved should gain something, but if certain amendments are not made to these proposals, public-hire cabs in Belfast will lose substantially. There will be loss of revenue, because no one is going to pay an extra £25 for a cab simply because it is wheelchair accessible. In addition to that, the cultural identity of the hackney, or black, cab, will be lost. There will also be charges: approximately £242 for receipt printers; £400 to install meters in taxis that do not already have them; a separate fee for calibrating those meters; the cost of courses up to, possibly, NVQ level; the cost of an operator’s licence, which has not even been discussed; the paperwork that must be kept to comply with “due diligence”; and the cost of renewal of the licence. A separate fee for processing applications for licences is currently £75, and that includes a repute check. Under the new proposals, an extra £30 will be added for the repute check, which will bring the licence fee up to £105. For new applicants, a licence will cost £110, plus a £30 repute check.

There will also be a reduction in the number of years that a licence covers. A five-year licence now costs £75, and over a period of 15 years, taxi drivers would buy three licences, which would cost £225. However, if the period of the licence is going to be reduced to three years, the cost, over a period of 15 years, would be £375 — an increase of £150.

The PSV test costs £126·50, and a retest costs £19·50. There has been talk about splitting the categories of PSV testing; therefore, there could be a charge of £40 for documentation, £30 for the meter test and £40 for the mechanical test, and so forth. Currently, if a taxi fails in any, or all, of those categories, the cost of the retest is £19·50, but that would not be the case if the categories were split — it may be £30 for the meter test and £25 for the mechanical test. That is another increase that taxi drivers would have to pay. When a PSV test is booked, a date and a time are given, but if I am told that my test can only be undertaken on a Friday evening at 7.00 pm, I have to pay extra.

At present, when a taxi is being sold, the new owner receives a V36 on the vehicle, which means that the seller takes the taxi to the PSV centre for a quick check for which there is no charge. However, that practice will stop, because the Department is seeking powers to charge for processing the change of ownership, registration and the type of hire and plates.

The Chairperson: 
I am conscious of the time.

Mr Black: 
I have just one more matter to mention.

A one-tier system will result, in all probability, in a substantial reduction in the number of accessible taxis available for people with different types of disabilities. I was distressed to hear a number of respondents saying that people with disabilities have enough transport supplied for them and that there is no need for more accessible taxis. It is disgraceful that anyone in public or private hire would say that. People with disabilities have the same right to have transportation as any other person, and there is already legislation, which states that overcharging someone with a disability will result in the loss of a licence. I would like to see that legislation enforced.

The Chairperson: 
Thank you very much. You put your evidence very comprehensively.

Mr Weir: 
Thank you for your evidence, Mr Black. I apologise to the Chairperson — I will have to leave in a few minutes to attend a briefing.

I agree with the witness. What was said about enforcement is valid, and that point has been made by a number of witnesses. There is a need for greater levels of enforcement and for more resources. It is nonsense to suggest that the measures will not have any grave detrimental impact on the public-hire sector in Belfast. They will clearly have some effect in that some business will be shifted away from the public-hire sector into the private-hire sector.

I will play devil’s advocate. Mr Black, you mentioned that, already, many taxis are breaking the regulations and picking people up from the street when they should not. You also said that the public does not care who picks them up, as long as they get home. How do you respond to the suggestion that what the legislation proposes simply reflects the economic reality on the ground? That is how things are operating in practice, and the Department is trying to regulate what is happening.

Mr Black: 
Taxis are operating illegally in Belfast. Private-hire taxis are doing that outside Belfast too, so it is not just in Belfast that that happens.

The regulations exist. When people apply for a plate, they can choose what type of plate they want and in what type of business they want to work. The number of taxis that are picking up illegally is clear to anyone who travels around Belfast at peak periods. Those taxis should be working from their depots. However, when a customer telephones a depot, he or she may be told that there is a two-hour wait. If that were not so, taxi drivers would not have to go out and do something illegal. Drivers would prefer to be able to pick up on the streets and turn away business that does not suit them. When a customer wants to go to Bangor late at night, the driver might then charge him or her £40.

Mr Weir: 
I would have thought that taxi drivers would have considered such an opportunity a gold mine.

Mr Black: 
That is the point. When drivers choose a licence, they should abide by its rules. If drivers do not like it, they should get out of that business. I want to work in one type of business, and I buy a type of vehicle that complies with that. However, someone else with the same licence might decide that: the depot is not that busy; a customer will give him a job that will earn him £3; or he has to travel from the Holywood Road to Ballysillan to pick up his next fare. Those things happen regularly. Those are the reasons that taxi drivers in private-hire companies — and the public-hire sector — come in, pick up people from the street and refuse whatever work they do not want.

Mr Boylan: 
Thank you for your presentation. With respect to the point about taxis working from the depot, did you have an opportunity to submit anything during the consultation period?

Mr Black: 
I did.

Mr Boylan: 
I would like to hear your thoughts on enforcement.

Mr Black: 
Our enforcement team — I am sorry — I refer to it as “our enforcement team” because I believe that enforcement is necessary for the industry and for my benefit. That team has operated since 2004, when the plates were introduced, but, with five officers, it is not nearly adequate. However, they do an excellent job.

I was disgusted to hear this morning that we were losing an officer. When I found out which officer we were losing, I was even more upset. The person concerned is not merely good at the job, the person is excellent at it. In my opinion, that is why that person has been removed. If I can get enough people to phone up and complain about someone, it will not matter whether that person is innocent or guilty — rather than take the heat, that person will be swept under the carpet. It is as simple as that. That is what is happening. The enforcement officer has been moved —

The Chairperson: 
I am sorry. The Committee cannot get into that issue.

Mr Black: 
The Committee should get into it.

The Chairperson: 
I am sorry. That is a matter for the Department. We will raise the general question of enforcement with the Department. Specific issues about staffing are not the Committee’s responsibility. The Committee is here to examine the legislation.

Mr Black: 
Enforcement is not good enough. At £20 a driver going towards the costs of enforcement, over the past three years, where has the money been spent? I cannot get an answer to that question.

Mr Ford: 
In your written submission, you referred to the need to increase the number of accessible vehicles.

What would you see as an appropriate proportion of fully accessible vehicles for any operator to have, if we are moving in the direction that the legislation proposes?

Mr Black: 
The proposed legislation is for each depot to have a percentage of accessible vehicles.

Mr Ford: 
What would your percentage be in that context?

Mr Black: 
My percentage, for private-hire vehicles, would be around 10%. That begs the question of who has the right to give you a job or make you buy an accessible taxi. If the law were to be that 10% of taxis had to be accessible, for example, and another gentleman and I were to buy two Mercedes and both of us wanted to work for the same company, we could not both be employed if that left the company with less than 10% of its fleet being accessible taxis. Who gives an owner, or anyone else, the right to give someone a job on the condition that they have a wheelchair-accessible vehicle? The Department would call that a grey area.

The Chairperson: 
Thank you for your time, Mr Black; we covered a lot of ground today.

Mr Black: 
Thank you.

The Chairperson: 
Are all of the representatives from the International Airport Taxi Co here?

Mr James McVeigh (International Airport Taxi Co Ltd): 
I apologise for Mr Kennedy, who has been unable to make the meeting.

The Chairperson: 
So there are just the two of you? Thank you for being with us. As you can see, the format is informal, but within certain guidelines. Our focus is on the Taxis Bill that is in front of us, and we already have a submission from you. It is not necessary to go over the whole submission again, but if there are particular aspects of it that you wish to add to, please do so. Committee members will then seek clarity or ask for further detail.

Mr McVeigh: 
First of all, Chairman, I want to thank the Committee for the opportunity to come here. I have listened with great interest this morning. This has been much talked about in the taxi industry.

Can I say, as someone who moved to Randalstown 10 years ago, that there is life outside Belfast? I would like to point out that there is a three-tier system in operation, not a two-tier system. There are two tiers in Belfast, and we have no problem with that. Neither has any driver who works in a country town or village. The third tier is public and private. It provides people who live in a small village, whether in County Fermanagh, County Down, County Armagh, or even somewhere such as Bangor, with the opportunity to expand their business. They can work off a taxi rank, through a depot, or by mobile phone, as most people do. We work outside Belfast at the international airport, and we feel that there is a need to retain that third tier, which no one seems to have mentioned. It is private hire with limited public access, which is represented by white plates.

I will not go too deeply into my second point, as it has already been covered and I am conscious of the time — the overheads that will arise from the legislation. As the gentlemen before me said, no one has any idea how much the operator’s licence will cost. There is talk about different structures for sole traders, but any taxi drivers that I know in Belfast, Randalstown, Antrim or wherever are sole traders. They may, at certain times, work through a depot, they may work off a taxi rank; but they are sole traders.

If they work from a depot, they pay a fee. However, they are responsible for their own vehicle, their insurance, the running costs of the vehicle, and, if they are out of work — tough. The introduction of an operator’s licence will mean that all drivers will have to pay for it; depot owners will not necessarily pay for it because they can simply offload the costs.

An increase in test fees for the cars will be introduced. The fee is currently £126·50. I recently changed my vehicle, and I was fortunate that the bank did not own the one that I had been driving. I could not get a test date for my new car, which resulted in it having to sit in the car showroom for four weeks. When I eventually did get a test date, I had to torture the people in Corporation Street to get the plates ready.

Officially, I could not drive my new vehicle. Had I had an accident while driving my old car, or if the engine had blown, it would not have been worth while getting it fixed. Therefore, technically, I would have been out of work for approximately six to eight weeks. I would have had no earning power, which would have been bad for me as I have a mortgage, and so on. Why should I pay £126·50, when the cost for a coach that is capable of carrying 75 passengers is virtually half of that? I do not think that that is fair.

The fee for a taxi licence is increasing again. At present, after a five-year period, taxi drivers have to reapply for a licence. The Department, because of business and management problems, advises people to apply six weeks prior to the end of that five-year period. I, like most of the drivers, apply at least three months ahead. Those of us who are over the age of 45 have to complete a medical, and that too has to be paid for. Furthermore, we have to pay for a taxi test, on top of which will now be added the cost of the operator’s licence. We feel that that is unfair, because we get nothing in return.

There is also talk that all taxis that work off a rank system will have to be wheelchair accessible. As a small private company, we feel that that will put us at a distinct disadvantage. Working at Belfast International Airport, we offer an across-the-board taxi service. Foreign dignitaries or businessmen can book an executive car in advance of their arrival. If they arrive and have not booked one — maybe their secretary has made a mistake — we can still supply one.

We also supply wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and we do not charge any extra for those facilities. If people book those vehicles in advance, they pay the standard rate. I agree with the chaps who represented Belfast public-hire taxis that that should not be an issue.

We also run a general taxi service, which enables anyone to get a taxi at their convenience. All of our customers are supplied with written receipts, which are printed with our company logo, and our company is registered with Companies Registry. The driver’s number is at the top of the receipt, and the office address is included in case anyone wishes to make a complaint. We have set fares. We feel that we meet quite a lot of the Department’s criteria, and some of the legislation.

For two hours on a Friday night, and two hours on a Saturday night, Belfast taxi drivers are under pressure. We may be wrong, but we feel that it is unfair for taxi drivers who work in small country towns, such as Magherafelt, Banbridge, Bangor, Holywood — where my colleague comes from — and Randalstown, to be classed the same as those who work in Belfast. Given that there is a system that works in the country areas, why fix what is not broken?

Making all taxi drivers drive wheelchair-accessible vehicles would affect small country areas — the villages and towns. The information note that accompanied The Draft Taxis ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006 stated:

“Accessible taxis will, in due course, become the only taxis that will be allowed to stand for hire in taxi ranks”.

It goes on to clarify the locations at which they can do so:

“(airports, ferry terminals and railway stations and the like) but also areas such as shopping centres and entertainment complexes.”

Does that mean, for example, that if taxi drivers want to sit outside the Buttercrane shopping centre in Newry, they will need wheelchair-accessible vehicles? Does every person who comes out of the Buttercrane centre want a wheelchair-accessible vehicle? The answer is no.

In the past four years, we have had four — or possibly five — requests for wheelchair-accessible vehicles at the airport. I will give one example. One Saturday night when we were under severe pressure, a passenger on a diverted British Midland flight from London wanted a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, and one of our drivers was instructed to do the job. The flight was delayed, and the driver had to wait for 30 minutes for the lady to come out. He got the ramps out and pushed the wheelchair into the back of the vehicle, and the lady then got out of the wheelchair and walked to the front seat of the car. Those things happen.

I am not saying that disabled people are not entitled to a service: they are. However, as Dr McCrea said to Stephen Peover when they met in Clarence Court, the legislation must be examined on a broader scale, and we must examine what all our customers need. We agreed that that should happen. A blanket decision cannot be taken based on what is happening in Belfast. The problems in Belfast do not necessarily equate to those in country areas. I think that the country is a brilliant place to live; it is a bit more laid-back and, people are more easy-going Belfast is very fast and is becoming more like Dublin, suffering similar traffic problems. My daughter said that she has banged on the windows of taxis outside the Bot on more than one Friday night and asked to be taken up the road, but the drivers do not want to know.

Those are my views on the plating system. People in country areas should still have the choice of using the white plates.

Mr Brian Press (International Airport Taxi Co Ltd): 
To verify what Jim McVeigh said, we try to work to passenger needs at Belfast International Airport. We find that, as Mr Gardiner said, there is a demand for wheelchair-friendly vehicles. However, we have found that that percentage is not very high, as Jim said. As a company, we try our best to keep around 20% of our vehicles that are on the rank wheelchair-friendly to ensure that disabled people will be catered for. We have found that to work quite well, and we have not had any problems. Our franchise arrangement at the airport states that we cannot keep a wheelchair-bound person waiting for more than 20 minutes. We have never exceeded that time; in fact, we have never come close.

I sometimes wonder whether the people who use the industry —passengers — have been consulted about their needs. Has the Committee met with the Consumer Council or similar agencies? We find that a lot of business people use the back of the taxi as an office. They prefer to travel in saloon cars, and we also use those cars for tourists who have large amounts of luggage. We have Mercedes cars for executives and celebrities, and around 20% of our vehicles are wheelchair-friendly. Our company tries to cater for all needs.

From a business perspective, we are concerned that if people come out of the airport and cannot get the vehicle of their choice, they will phone the local private-hire companies. Consequently, our company and our drivers will suffer a loss of income. At that point, the question would be: are we needed? That scenario is occurring quite often at the George Best Belfast City Airport, which is now completely wheelchair-friendly. You will see private-hire taxis waiting outside in large numbers, but people will phone for a saloon car rather than travel in a wheelchair-friendly vehicle. Our business could be adversely affected while, at the same time, passenger interests are not being considered.

Ours is a country depot, and, therefore, the Belfast taxi drivers’ argument does not really affect us as such. However, we understand their concerns. The enforcement issue needs to be looked into. There should be a more robust complaints procedure as regards overcharging. We know that overcharging happens and, undoubtedly, there are still cowboys in the industry. We have a very strict disciplinary code. Any driver who overcharges a customer is dismissed — and there is no going back on that. Our disciplinary code works well and perhaps could be considered by the industry. By adopting a better complaints procedure and stricter disciplinary codes, the industry could be cleaned up.

Our main concern is that the one-tier system — which some companies are arguing for — would unfeasible in a country location such as Aldergrove. Why change something that has worked well over the years?

Mr McVeigh: 
Recently, our company went to the expense of developing a website. It will be activated in the next two or three months. Aer Lingus has now come to the airport, which has created a lot of problems down below.

The Chairperson: 
You will be the beneficiaries of that.

Mr McVeigh: 
We had similar problems here when British Airways and British Midland pulled out. We will be advertising an across-the-board service on our website, and undoubtedly, we will be expecting a lot of tourists to visit next year. We are a small company, and we are all shareholders. No one makes any money out of it. We are not like the big guys.

The Chairperson: 
Those of us from rural areas would regard Belfast International Airport as a cosmopolitan area — I have to point that out to you. However, on a serious note; while we may be more able to present our views, nonetheless the rights and entitlements that we expect as public representatives should be exactly the same as those of our cousins in urban areas such as Belfast. That is a point well worth making. In your submission you referred to exemptions for the airport area — is that a public area?

Mr McVeigh: 
I am not an expert on the legal aspects. The airport is on private ground, but there is public access, and there are certain criteria to be followed. For example, I cannot access the taxi park unless I have a gizmo in the car. We also have to be security-cleared by the Department and checked out by the airport police. Therefore, not just anyone can access the taxi park. Each taxi driver must display the airport badge and must have a transponder in his vehicle before he can access the taxi parking area.

Mr Ford: 
Following the eulogy for Randalstown and Aldergrove, I must declare an interest as MLA for South Antrim. Mr McVeigh raised interesting comments about the status of the international airport, given that it is privately owned, but semi-public — but the Chairperson has followed up on those comments. Have you had discussions with the Department about its attitude to the taxi rank at the airport?

Mr McVeigh: 
I met the MP for South Antrim, the Rev William McCrea, who was interested in that issue. He and I had a meeting with Mr Peover — the permanent secretary in the Department of the Environment — and I subsequently received a letter from Bill Laverty. That letter stated:

“As was advised in the course of the meeting, the Taxis Bill, subject to the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly, would give the Department enabling powers to introduce regulations which may require certain classes of taxi to meet accessibility standards. These regulations would be subject to public consultation and also the approval of the Assembly. It is expected that such regulations will take some time to draft and in doing so the Department would take fully into account the representations made by your Company about the way taxis are currently operated under the airport contract.

I can therefore assure you that the passing of the Taxi Bill into law of itself will not automatically mean that all airport taxis will have to become accessible nor will the way that taxis are presently operated be immediately affected.”

Mr Ford: 
This is another instance in which we will have to wait for regulations, rather than expect measures in the Bill.

Mr Boylan: 
Thank you for your presentation. I was glad to hear mention of the customers in rural areas. You mentioned the variety of services that you offer. Do you follow a code of practice that is governed by the airport?

Mr McVeigh: 
Taxi drivers who work at the airport are security vetted by the airport authorities. We have to supply a certain standard of vehicle, and it must not be more than six years old. Every driver is subject to checks by the police — if the authorities wish — and our insurance and PSV certificates must be 100% up to date. A complaints procedure is also in place. If a complaint is made against one of our drivers, it is immediately acted on. We have a training and employment agency in Ballymena to look after those affairs, and that keeps us completely right. If a complaint is made against an airport driver — through the international airport — a representative from the training agency gets in touch with one of the management team on the taxi rank, who will strictly monitor the service.

Mr Boylan: 
Customer care is very important in your line of work.

Mr Press: 
Complaints — when they are made — come through to us via the airport authorities. We know how important it is for our type of franchise to have a proper disciplinary procedure in place. However, that is something that is sadly lacking in other private companies and, perhaps, even in the public sector. Some organisations do not have effective complaints procedures, and proper disciplinary procedures might not be taken against those who fall foul of the legislation. People care so much about their jobs that they do not step out of line. In the past two years, only two drivers have left because they have overcharged passengers.

Mr Boylan: 
You deal with many different nationalities.

Mr Press: 
We look upon ourselves as ambassadors for our country, because there are lots of tourists. Last year, seven million visitors came through the airport, and we are the first people that they meet. There has been talk about training, but we are already there. We direct, advise and give people estimates of the cost of their journeys, for instance. I am not being big-headed, but we lead by example. We are further ahead than some private companies.

The Chairperson: 
Thank you both very much for coming here today. You are quite right; you are the ambassadors meeting people who have just arrived in the country.

Mr Gardiner: 
They work at the airport, but they seem to run a tight ship.

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